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What a Difference a Week Makes
The orange menace has finally been silenced. It is actually uncanny just how …normal… everything feels.
The orange menace has finally been silenced. It is actually uncanny just how normal everything feels. I mean, sure, I could and did ignore him, but I found it impossible to shut out what was seemingly the only topic of conversation happening in the anglosphere for the last four years. Even the Rational Security folks, who have been my crutch through this hellscape, remarked just how boring the last week has been. It’s glorious: I can finally start paying attention to Canada again.
Returning objects of cognitive significance
One item I stumbled across yesterday was a panel moderated by John Ralston Saul (I apologize for not being familiar with the panelists themselves) on repatriating Indigenous artifacts currently held in museums to their rightful communities. If you aren’t following this issue, I encourage you to; in addition to being important, the dynamics are terrifically fascinating.
We descendants of settlers tend not to understand the significance of these objects. These aren’t just knickknacks or curios, or even heirlooms in the sense that we would understand them. It isn’t even sufficient to call them art, or “religious” or “cultural” objects, per se. Rather, these are vital stores of representational state, and there are material consequences to where they are and who does—and who does not—have access to them.
By representational state I mean something like, consider how we put thoughts into things. Take something mundane, like a grocery list. You get to the store and you find you left the list at home, you can’t remember what it was you needed to buy. You’re disoriented, straining to remember, the whole process takes longer, you invariably miss stuff, and you suffer for it. The weird thing is, if the list is in your pocket, you might not even need to check it—just having it on your person is enough to help you remember. Now imagine something more consequential, like what if all the laws got deleted overnight. We would be straining to remember what was acceptable conduct, or even who was in charge. That’s the kind of significance that these artifacts have.
And I say artifacts in the sense that these objects are artificial, in the sense that somebody made them, for a purpose. A representational artifact is simply something, that somebody made, that means something: it organizes thought and coordinates action. We descendants of empires do this mainly with text; Indigenous people do this with everything.
Not everything in a museum is an artifact in this sense, like ancestral remains, though they obviously have an analogous significance. I wonder how the term “artifact” came to be identified with “relic” anyway. Probably because museums hoard them both.
My comment to this effect was read off from the YouTube chat, and one of the panelists got almost offended by the phrase “representational artifact”, stating that these aren’t artifacts, but objects that actually get used, and that they aren’t representations of anything, but real items with historical meaning. Even though the panelist precisely described a representational artifact in her repudiation that that’s what they were, I suppose the words that make up an esoteric technical term from cognitive science (that I’ve never especially loved) are too fraught to look past, and I decided I wasn’t going to try to dig out of that hole. Reminds me of a certain recent meditation that language is emotional triggers first, and symbols second.
Anyway, some representational artifacts (uh, books) about representational artifacts:
The Sciences of the Artificial discusses artifacts, artificiality, and design in general,
Things That Make Us Smart discusses the role of representational artifacts in cognition,
Cognition in the Wild discusses group cognition and coordination, and mediation of these processes by artifacts.
All this said, I arrived at this position from reading and watching Indigenous scholars, like this delightful lecture by Leroy Little Bear that crisply communicates the importance, and moreover, infungibility of places and objects in Indigenous cultures. To paraphrase: As long as it was December 25th you could have Christmas in Phoenix, Arizona, Durban, South Africa, or even on the moon, but a sundance could only ever happen in one specific place.
Indeed, I kind of feel like there’s something broken about my people that we don’t see the world this way.
My 2017 talk Intentionally Intensional Information Architecture, in which I consider historical changes in the econophysics of information systems, was partially inspired by my very strong hunch that Indigenous peoples are extremely well-positioned for a future when linear, hierarchical text documents (like religious books, legal codes, contracts, and even essays) play a less central role compared to an increasingly sophisticated fabric of electronic communication. To that end, diverse projects like Indigitization and Mukurtu are worth keeping an eye on.
I suppose I should say something about #gamestonk
The much-too-neat-and-tidy story about the internet’s assault on the the stock market this week is that a bunch of disgruntled out-of-work Americans are weaponizing their paltry $600 COVID stimulus cheques and coordinating online to bet against hedge funds they find holding extremely risky positions. They are doing this by finding big bets against certain stocks (of which GameStop is one), and buying those stocks in unison to bid up the price, forcing a chain reaction where their risk-laden adversaries have to buy back stock they borrowed in order to sell, and now have to pay back at a loss (through the magic of derivatives, by a manoeuvre known as a “short squeeze”). These vigilantes have already nearly bankrupted one hedge fund, which turned out to be betting against GameStop by about 40% more shares than there even exist to bet against.
If this wasn’t remarkable enough, consider what happened next: online stock trading platforms, most notably RobinHood, started blocking trades on the targeted stocks. Rather, you could sell the stock, but you couldn’t buy it: a pretty transparent move to let the big guys unwind their risky positions without losing any more money.
This kind of intervention only feeds my headcanon that capitalism died of natural causes sometime in the 70s, and something even dumber and tackier is wearing its skin.
Can we please accept that computers are just part of life now?
This event, I suspect, is what prompted law professor Kate Klonick to tweet (tongue in cheek, of course) “It’s almost like the internet is just more real life, not an alternative to real life”, which is a weird coincidence because I’m currently re-re-re-rewriting my “about” page, and this kind of thing is very much what I’m about. I even reviewed Alan Kay’s The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Started Yet the other night to help focus my thinking on the matter.
It has been my strong feeling for a while that computers should have sunken into the substrate of ordinary life some time ago, but they’ve been artificially suspended in this permanent state of “technology” (rather than, say, “media”), and the world then sorts itself into two categories: whizz-bangers and gee-shuckers. Then this awkward cultural script plays out with the gee-shuckers loudly proclaiming their ignorance while the whizz-bangers show off their prowess. This manifests at the organizational level with all but self-styled “tech companies” treating IT like a tax on their business to be mitigated, rather than critical infrastructure to be cultivated. The computer is boomer-age, only about a generation younger than television, but people stopped gee-shucking about TV in the 60s. So what’s going on with computers?
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot, is that the language of the so-called “tech” industry—and even the phrase “tech industry” itself—centres new capability, with an aggressively servile let-me-get-that-for-you attitude. That is, “information technology” is steadfastly focused on the technology, rather than the information. And in an ironic twist to their (often disingenuous) servility, products are constantly leaking out technical concepts—hello cookies?—that nobody should ever have to care about.
The language of information technology is rife with idioms like software that “lets you” do this or “makes it easy to” do that. I’d rather be a teacher than a butler, so I’m doubling down on my focus on information rather than technology, because information is something everybody has experience with, whether they think they do or not. It still operates by the same rules it did when we were swinging from trees. And like, hey, of course we manipulate information with computers, because we’d be crazy not to. Note: I am not very good at this yet, but I’m committed to getting better.
If I try to articulate what I’m about, it’s that people and the organizations they compose should be able to control their information environments, and set the terms of their information-sharing relationships with others. If I can help a few gain mastery in this area, then I will know I’ve served my purpose.
If you desperately crave epic nerdout content, you can read about how I boned myself over the last weekend changing my work setup. I’ll also probably be backing the newsletter frequency off to every two weeks after this one. As always, feel free to forward on to anybody you believe would benefit.