Back in January, we published an imaginary of an optimistic cyber-future. A couple months after it was syndicated by the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS), Joel Williamson (of Non Serviam Media renown) invited us to join him on an episode of the C4SS’s new podcast, The Enragés, to discuss the piece in more depth. The ensuing two-hour conversation was recorded and published as a two-part interview that we are excited to present here.
For a number of years, Non Serviam Media has been exploring the world of anarchist and anti-authoritarian ideas through conversations with political thinkers and activists. They’ve covered topics ranging from prison abolition, to immigrant labor and migrant rights, and, more recently, queer biohacking. The same crew’s new collaboration with the C4SS is sure to be equally edifying. In part 1 of our conversation on the show, we discuss Tech Learning Collective itself for those who aren’t familiar with what we do, and then tackle the key technology topics of the day, like unpacking how the Internet became what it is now, and what’s wrong with social media.
In this post, you’ll find a copy of the audio recording of our interview along with a (somewhat rushed) written transcript of the interview. In the next post, we’ll publish part 2 of our interview along with its transcript. Our thanks to Joel, along with everyone else at both Non Serviam Media and the C4SS for their interest in our work and for engaging with and amplifying our ideas.
Joel Williamson: This is The Enragés. A show where we take a deeper dive into written works published at the Center for Stateless Society. Join us as we give voice to the ideas challenging the vain phantoms that haunts our social reality and stand in the way of total liberation. For more information visit, c4ss.org. And to support this show or any of the other projects happening at the center, please visit patreon.com/c4ssdotorg. Thank you for listening.
Hello, and thank you for tuning in to the Enragés. I’m your host Joel Williamson. Today we’ll be joined by the Tech Learning Collective to discuss an article they wrote titled “Imagining an Optimistic Cyber Future.” Tech Learning Collective is an apprenticeship-based technology school for radical organizers founded in New York City that provides a security first IT infrastructure curriculum to otherwise underserved communities and organizations advancing social justice causes. TLC trains politically self-motivated individuals in the arts of hyper media, information technology, and radical political practice. The piece we’ll be discussing today is an imaginative exploration of radical strategies for a liberatory techno-future. Tech Learning Collective, welcome to the show.
Tech Learning Collective: Thank you so much for inviting us on the show, Joel, and thanks for having us here.
Joel: Of course, before we start breaking down your article, I wanted to ask you a few questions about the tech learning collective if you don’t mind.
Joel: How did you get involved in TLC? And what are your ultimate goals with the project?
TLC: And that’s, that’s a good question. It’s also sort of a different, you’ll get a different answer, depending on who you ask. Right? So I’ll give you an answer for me. And then I think I would also point people to the Tech Learning Collective website, right. So techlearningcollective.com/about, but personally, I got involved relatively early on in about 2015-2016-ish or so. At the time, there was a mutual self education group, sort of a semi private technical training group in New York City, mostly folks who were trying to just sort of like make some material headway in the situations that they found themselves in in their lives. We got a sort of a somewhat of a boost in the November 2016 elections, for reasons I think you can imagine.
So for me, personally, it was sort of like seeing a self motivated group of people who were like, these are the things that we find a priority as infrastructure for the other things that we want to accomplish, right. And some of us have more experienced than others in a technical sort of like computer IT background. But the goal was really basically just self education, it was basically a private study group, if you will, that sort of happened in a bunch of these anarchist occupied spaces in New York City around that time. So that’s kind of when I, when I got started, and how I got involved, I started, I’ve been a digital security, sort of like, I don’t want to say afficionado, because that sort of like, you know, makes it sound a little bit hobbyistic, but it’s been an important part of my activism personally. So that’s sort of where I started offering my own personal contributions. And so everyone sort of has their own their own sort of like intake story like that.
But the goal sort of was very much like, you know, we all recognize that these skills are skills that are a site of more possibility in certain respects, which is to say, you know, if you were trying to do a kind of organizing in, let’s say, 1970s New York City, right, like, the Lower East Side has a very rich history of radical activism. There were tactics that were more available to you than in other places in America, right, because of the way New York City was sort of, like, structured, I mean, it’s an urban center, it has different needs, and it has different opportunities than other places. So that’s also true in the digital realm. And today, you know, if you were to try to, for example, you know, distribute food from a grocery store, you know, you would, you would very quickly be approached by very militarized police resistance. That is, that’s not a tactic that’s then as accessible and feasible, right, as a direct action tactic for a lot of scenarios today. But those same constraints are lifted in cyberspace, at least for now, at least in some ways.
And so it became very obvious to a lot of people that a prerequisite of getting meaningful material, revolutionary possibility has begun to transition towards spaces that are not as heavily policed because bluntly the police are not as good at policing there. And that is the Internet right now. At least for the time being. So that was our sort of like initial motivation. Like, how can we use this sort of new space as almost, you know, not to overuse an analogy, but there’s almost a wild west space to actually push forward material impacts in community scale, affinity groups and efforts. And we have to get really good at that as quickly as possible. So that was a start. That was sort of the that was the that was the founding vision.
And that’s then of course evolved into a number of different community groups that had sort of spun out of tech learning collective projects in 2015, 2016, 2017, and so on that we now call alumni groups, we now have this sort of more formalized school, which is the tech learning collective at this point, right. And although, you know, people come now with a multitude of different motivations, we focus very, very intentionally on those with political ambitions.
Joel: Cool. So how often do you All right, cool articles like the one we’re going to be discussing today?
TLC: Well, so we try to write as much as we can, there’s a lot of work that goes into the day to day of what we’re doing. So we don’t always spend all of our effort on writing. We have recently tried to get more articles out more quickly, just because we’re in a position where we can, you know, we have an infrastructure now of our own, that we can, that we can sort of build on top of and grow and sort of our writing efforts with C4SS has been, first of all, very well received, which is nice to see. And mostly an effort to try to just like, make more people aware that there is an opportunity for those with political ambitions, right to to learn about sort of the the infrastructural digital technologies that are mediating so much of our lives now, in a way that doesn’t also overlap with for example, recruitment industry, you know, Silicon Valley bullshit. Sorry, like, I don’t know if I can I can use that word on the on the show?
Joel: Yes, absolutely. You get a golden coin every time you curse.
TLC: Oh, nice, well, then I might curse a lot more. But yeah, so. So that’s, that’s where the writing came from. We’re trying to have a cadence of about once a month, you’ll probably not see that many articles only because we’re not that huge a group. And we don’t always have quite as much to say. So if you do want to see additional writing, definitely, that’s the C4SS site is where we’re hoping to publish more things in the upcoming future, we actually have a piece in the works right now for next month. But other than that, of course, there’s also the tech learning collective comm blog itself.
Joel: Is TLC, an explicitly anarchist organization? Or is it just made up of people who identify or have some affinity toward anarchism?
TLC: Yeah, that’s also a really good question. Right. And so this is a conversation that that we had internally, and we sometimes continue to have internally. The short answer is, it’s kind of de facto an anarchist and autonomist organization. Just because, you know, everyone who’s involved has some far left leaning along those lines. But for reasons of mostly just public palatability, and also simply, it doesn’t really matter, right? If you are self identifying as an anarchist, or an autonomist or whatever, if you are excited by this team possibility that doing the same things that we’re excited about, you know, creating alternative networks to you know, the surveilled Internet, finding ways to increase your digital privacy or capabilities for the purpose of community and communal, you know, action, then it doesn’t matter to us, how you identify your politics. And so we’ve taken extremely intentionally sort of non politically neutral political identity neutral tack, without also trying to hide the fact that we have some obvious anarchist ideals. And that has served us well so far. So we’re probably going to keep doing that for a little while longer.
Joel: Right. And there’s all sorts of different types of anarchist organizing, and anarchism is right. Yeah. What drew you towards C4SS?
TLC: I mean, I hope this was okay to say on a C forces podcast, but like nothing in particular, right, like, so.
Joel: Tech positive stuff, maybe?
TLC: Pretty much yeah, I mean, like, you know, we don’t, again, we don’t really care, right, from a project perspective, about the strains of anarchy, per se, like it’s an interesting academic, you know, conversation. And that’s an important conversation, surely, because academics are actually rather important, right, we should be aware of the theory of the stuff that we are doing 100%. And at the same time, at the end of the day, like, you know, an academic textbook is not where the rubber meets the road in most people’s lives. So it doesn’t particularly matter.
So when we started the further outreach efforts to like, say, you know, hey, we’re a school, but we’re not like, because people were very quick to assume that we were very much like a code boot camp, like a flat iron school or a general assembly, returning school, you know, one of these sort of, like, what we call a school to Corporation pipeline, right? Who have a rush to employment style of teaching, and you have to sort of learn to the test and then get like a license and so on. We just aren’t anything like that. But a lot of people were assuming that we were so we said we got to up the politics a little bit, you know, what I mean? Like get people to understand that like, we don’t really care about cooperation with the job market, per se. We care about it in the sense of like, you know, individuals today still need to have some income in a fiat currency that is regulated by a state to survive, which is an abomination. Obviously. But it is the reality that we live in. So we care about it in that sense. But we’re not as a project trying to get people jobs. Like that’s not the goal, right. And it very much is the goal for other sorts of like boot camps and tech education initiatives and so on. And so that’s why we’re like, well, we gotta, we gotta do something to like, differentiate this a little bit more clearly.
And so we basically just started writing these pieces that were, you know, political in intent, not with an identity label associate, but just with, like, what is the action out of it? Like, what is the outcome of the thing that we’re trying to do? And we send some of these pieces to a number of publications, C4SS as being one of them. And, you know, two things appeal to us about C4SS, that’s number one is, as you mentioned, there was a text sort of positive or an appreciation of the capabilities, right, the technology offered. And that was also not just spoken about, but it was also evident to us in how you responded, right? Maybe not you, but like, you know, how people at C4SS, right, were able to communicate back with us. So it was, it was simply quicker, right? I mean, like, you know, C4SS answers faster, with more detail, and with more clear thought, and I mean, not a little bit faster, but like by weeks, write faster than most other publications that we’ve ever communicated with. And that speaks to the existence of internal processes that make use of the kinds of capabilities we’re talking about. Right? So it’s a little bit of a relationship of convenience, not to which I don’t mean to be insulting, I hope it’s not. But it’s also a well aligned organization in that respect.
Joel: Cool. Well, let’s go ahead and move in to your actual article now, I guess.
Joel: What is society, if not the aggregate of communication between individuals? That’s a quote in your article that somewhat captures the trajectory of where you’re going in the piece. Why did you choose cybernetics, among other things, as a major focus?
TLC: Yeah, so we really like this question. And we talked just a little bit before the show about that being a question that we sort of get also somewhat often, which is to say that a lot of people ask us about cybernetics generally, or an interest in cybernetics. And it kind of makes sense, right? Like, there’s the word cyber right isn’t there? And so it aligns with a lot of what people think of what we do.
And this is probably a good opportunity to sort of like mention that, yes. You know, cybernetics, right is basically right, that the formal study of inanimate feedback loops, that’s not the academic definition, but that’s how I would like to think of it basically means like, given the ability to send something about the world via like a thermometer or like a motion detector, or whatever, right? And then you have another ability to change something about the world, right? We have like a microcontroller or mechanical actuator, or again, some other tool whatever, your hand, right anything. Then cybernetics describes how to build systems that have some desired outcome from those two fundamental components.
That’s often what’s called like a closed loop system. And it’s probably what people have here have heard about, like, when they talk about feedback loops or closed loop systems to for example, like an air conditioner, right is a cybernetics system, because it has a thermometer and then it sort of self regulates the temperature in an area, right? And then as the change in the in the air temperature gets sensed by the sensor, then the air conditioner turns back on again, right. So that’s a cool idea, right?
But we’re not totally like it’s not it’s not that we’re interested in cybernetics per se, it’s not actually our focus. And or maybe they have a better way to say that right is that cybernetics is as much our focus as meditation or poetry or linguistics or history, right? Or philosophy. Cybernetics is best thought of as like just one way of thinking about certain elements of human experience, but no better than, for example, music is right, or anarchism, right?
So any hyper focus on a single topic, right will always sort of be somewhat myopic, and only a little bit boring. And worse than that, right? It makes these implementations that breed design flaws in ideals that are then easy to overlook, because you’ve hyper focused right on like, one particular way of thinking about something, and those tend to inevitably fail. So I’ve heard this described right by anarchists as blueprint-ism, a favorite book of mine is James C. Scott’s book “Seeing Like a State,” which is a wonderful exposition of exactly this kind of myopic hyper focus, right? And how it fails in the context of government.
So this is like super relevant to learning about technology, because in our opinion, right, the best software engineers are not actually computer science majors, right? We found that they are generally subpar systems thinkers more often than not, but philosophers are actually really great, like philosophers excel at the practice of reasoning about computer systems precisely because right, they study reasoning itself.
And this is perhaps no more famously expressed than in the Tor project, which is this sort of like privacy enhancing and identity concealing overlay network used by journalists and whistleblowers. It was made famous by Edward Snowden. We teach Tor at great length. In our curriculum. We have actually a number of workshops about it, specifically, and like, when, so talking about these sort of like hyper, you know, sort of computer security things a lot of people would assume that the creators of those things right would be these sort of like computer greybeards, right. Paul Syverson though the invention The Onion routing scheme in which Tor is based, actually holds three academic degrees in philosophy and only one in mathematics and none in computer science at all.
His story, getting to the Tor project and creating that at the NRL, the Naval Research Laboratory, back in the 90s is one that begins with picking up a jobs for philosophers magazine, literally a magazine called jobs for philosophers. And that’s all that within that magazine, just job postings for philosophy majors.
TLC: Yeah. And so, you know it was—
Joel: That must have been very popular among philosophers, but not popular among anyone else.
TLC: Pretty much, right. And I tell the story, like to sort of showcase just how important it is to think about computer systems without the hyper focus on what we think today of what computer systems are, or could be. Right. So in the same vein, right, like cybernetics is interesting, but it’s not more interesting than anything else. And because it’s just sort of like more familiar in terms of what people think that we do, we get asked about it a lot.
But our focus both in class times, for the project, generally and for, you know, personally for ourselves, right? Is the interweaving of all these these different concepts, we talk as much about philosophy and history and sort of like, you know, Gnosticism, for example, even comes up in our networking classes, right, as we do about computer technology, or cybernetics, or, you know, some sort of like what we would consider to be a hard tech concept, because those are just sort of detailed expressions of something that’s a far more foundational concept. And those are the things that politically self motivated people, I think both are, you know, more interested in, but also, because they’re more interested in them, right, have a much better opportunity to use that interest as a foundation or springboard to learn about the details that are expressed in some specific area of expertise, like computers, or permaculture or anything else. Right?
Joel: Awesome. Why is imagining an optimistic cyber future the first step towards improving our relationship with digital technology?
TLC: I don’t mean to be glib with a short answer. But the sort of start and end of it right is that if we can’t imagine something better than what currently exists today, then the best we can hope for is just stumbling through sheer luck into a better future, right? Like we will have no direction and no sort of like ability to define for ourselves what better means.
And so given the forces that are arrayed against, you know, those who would bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice, right, like sheer dumb luck, just, it’s just not good enough. If we want to be intentional about this, we have to first be imaginative about this, and you cannot have the intentionality without the imagination. So starting with a vision and actual like imaginary of what it is that you want to move towards, really does have to be like step zero, you know, it has to be the first step.
And that is also a step that takes time and effort and should take some focus. You know, TLC obviously has an idea of what we’d like to see a future look like. It’s not the only vision, it’s not necessarily the best one. But it is a guiding Northstar, if you will, right to get us towards that future. And we couldn’t do anything that we did without imagining what we want. So that’s why we started that way.
Joel: So how does cyberspace’s infancy explain its volatility?
TLC: The article that we’re talking about the “imagining an optimistic cyber future” is really kind of three articles in one, right? Like, it’s kind of three essays that were weaved together into a quilt that is this article, if you will. And we open it before we even start with one of the three sort of main topics of the essay with trying to set a baseline of understanding around how young which is to say how recent right how new cyberspace and the modern technical era, if you will, right, really is. And the reason for that is because a lot of people, especially younger people, for no fault of their own, really don’t seem to recognize just how new the internet and telecommunication generally really is.
And so we open our piece, right? by reminding readers that, for example, the web was invented, not commercialized, right, not popularized, but invented a mere 33 years ago. So it’s like younger than many of us, right? Like, and that’s important to keep in mind, because a lot of people, especially like, you know, so called tech people or people in the industry, right, are like professionals, right? They think they know what they’re doing. But they don’t. I mean, how could they right? Like, we have a capability that has never existed in all of human history before 33 years ago. So how could anyone reasonably claim to know what the fuck they’re going to do with that? Like they don’t, they can’t possibly know that that is obscenely absurdly. The hubris of that is, it should be shocking, right? Because it’s so new. And so, for what it’s worth, like, if things feel chaotic, right online right now, well, yeah, that’s exactly why nobody knows what the fuck is going on.
So nobody knows what’s gonna happen, which means there are more opportunities also right to determine the trajectory of the future than one might think precisely because, right things are so new.
And so one way to think about this is like, like a laser pointer, like if you point it at a wall, but if you point a laser pointer at a wall, 100 feet away, you only need to move your wrist a tiny fraction of an inch right to cause that dot on the wall to move many, many, many orders of magnitude more than the small distance your hand traveled, right. And so the the point is that the effect is wildly outsized relative to the cause of that. And so that’s basically what’s going on with the internet, right, and the socio cultural effects it’s having on the world right now. And that perspective, we think is super important to keep in mind, because it explains A) right, why we feel things are so volatile. But B) also it gives us sort of a window of historical perspective, right to remember that, like, hold the phone, you know, like, we just learned how to write online, you know what I mean? Like, people are still figuring out how links work, like, give it some time, nothing is settled, the dust is still very much in the air. And that should be both, you know, an opportunity for those who are willing to invest in taking the time to learn about how that works, and comfort for people who feel like everything is going haywire right now.
Joel: you described three great migrations of computing power. Can you briefly explain what those migrations are for the audience, please?
TLC: Sure, yeah. So this is also sort of like the intro to our article, as part of this sort of like, expectation setting. Because again, this is not a history, everyone knows. And so we don’t expect you to come to the article, knowing it. But the important thing to sort of recognize about the moment in cyberspace history, if you will, that we are right now is that is that there has sort of been what we see as these three, as you mentioned, these great migrations, right?
So the first one is simply this creation of mechanical computing in the first place. This was like, you know, the 1800s era, right? By this we mean like the ability to perform computations by a machine. So like a machine could actually be the one computing, right, rather than a human being. Because before such a machine existed, I think the earliest common example of this is the Babbage engine. Humans were the ones that were adding numbers or whatever in their heads or on paper, right to do calculations. And so the first great migration is really just this Genesis moment, or our metaphorical Big Bang, when modern computing or cyberspace was kind of like firstborn. Right?
That’s, that’s the era of the room size computer, these mainframes, these old like, you know, big, literal rooms, whose entire like job was to house right the computer. In fact, it was called a mainframe. Not because of the mainframe, one word is actually contraction of two words, main and frame. And the reason it was called the mainframe is simply because the main frame of the computer was in that room, which of course means that other parts of the computer, we’re not in that room, and like almost this gigantic octopus, if you imagine a mainframe, the room where the computer is, as being the head of the octopus, you can imagine its peripherals which were in this case, dumb terminals, like, you know, keyboards and printers and other sort of disk devices that we now understand as being part of a computer. They were not actually part of the so called mainframe, they were in other frames, literally boxes right outside the mainframe. So the mainframe was its own sort of special thing that was like the first, you know, era of this. The computing happened in the mainframe, in other words.
The second migration didn’t happen till the 1980s. So skip forward, like pretty much 40, 50 years, right past like World War One, World War Two, all of it until you get to the so called personal computer or PC revolution, in the 1980s. So before the 1980s, computing power only existed in these large mainframes. And if you wanted to perform some computation, right, you had to physically travel to the building or campus where that computer was located. Because that’s, again, that’s where the compute power actually existed: in the mainframe.
But in the 1980s, these PCs, these so called personal computers brought the ability to compete into residences, right into Homes and Gardens, by literally bringing the miniaturizing that whole sort of mainframe, and its peripherals, its hard disk drive, right? Its keyboard, so into a size that would fit on a single desk, or, you know, in the back of a garage or something. And that was the big change, for sure. But the compute power itself was still mostly isolated right to those single machines one at a time, because there wasn’t any good way of connecting those PCs together. So we went from this sort of like, Big Bang Genesis moment of like, we have these gigantic mainframes and these campuses that are dedicated just to that to a sort of like an explosion, right of compute power that dispersed the ability to compute into multiple locations. And so that’s the second major migration.
But that explosion, right, didn’t connect all those pieces. And so that’s where we’re living. That’s where we’re going toward today.
Most people you know, today, you and I were talking on two personal computers, but we’re connecting the two, right? So we’re living today in this in the so called third Great Migration, where now most compute power has actually sort of gone back to these gigantic data centers, whether they be government or corporate controlled, right, like Amazon AWS, or Facebook or Google, right.
So you and I still have the ability to perform compute operations on our own devices, right? Again, that’s why they’re called computers or laptops. But notice that the vast majority of the computing that we actually care about happens elsewhere. It’s no longer on our local computer, right? It’s in Google Docs, or Amazon AWS, or, you know, Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever. And those are so called these these, these so called Cloud services, right? They run these so called servers that claim to server whims and those servers and this is The important thing to understand today are not fundamentally different than your laptop, right, but the computer that runs Google Docs, or Twitter, right, that creates the web page that you look at. At its core, it’s just a personal computer moved into a data center. It’s just like your laptop, it’s, it’s running the same essential technology, as you have in front of you right now that we’re using to speak to each other, like on our own laptops, right.
But what’s different about it is that they hold or possess right the things that we care about. So rather than having your documents on your laptop, right, you keep them so called in the cloud. So we kind of really shouldn’t call them servers anymore, we should maybe call them possessors.
But that’s the, that’s the third Great Migration, if like, now we’ve got our own compute power locally. But we’re using that compute power with an over an interconnected network to then speak to other computers that possess the things we care about. Whereas in the second phase of that the PC revolution of 1980s, right, we were able to move the things we care about physically into our homes, because the compute power was there, and there was no network.
Joel: So the third migration is described as sort of a return in some ways to centralization.
TLC: Yeah, very much. It’s centralization. But it’s also this sort of a weird hybrid where, right like the first migration of truly centralized computing was the mainframe, right? You couldn’t do anything without being physically located near a mainframe. And part of that’s because as an individual, like you couldn’t have an electronic computer in your house, such a thing just didn’t exist. So you didn’t have any of your own local compute, right? You couldn’t have a machine calculate anything locally, you had to physically get on a bike and go to the campus and go to the machine room, right computer lab and ask the attendant, right for permission to use the computer. And then, and then you will be able to do some calculations. Cool.
And then when the PC revolution happened in the 1980s, right, you never, you didn’t have to do that anymore, you could just go to your garage or your you know, I mean, mostly assuming that you had the money to do this, which mostly meant that you were, you know, relatively well off white man. But the point is, it’s the same, right? Like, the point is that you have the ability to do the local compute in your house. And that was a big shift, and so that decentralized compute power in a meaningful way, because it meant now that everyone individually was doing their own compute, right? They were they were doing the calculations at home, they were running their own PCs.
The first stage of getting to the network, then, which is to say, when we had a medium to connect all those individual computers together, ie the internet. What happened? What and what is happening, right slowly, is over the course of say, from the 90s, to the mid 2000s, right to the 2010s was this move back this sort of pull this gravitational force that sort of pulls where the important compute happens back to these large companies, these data centers?
And what’s different about it this time, right, is that in this third migration is that we don’t lose local compute, you and I are actually still getting more and more local compute all the time. I mean, look at a smartphone, for example, right? One of these babies is like, way more powerful than any PC in the 1980s ever could hope to be.
And so what’s interesting is, what are we using local compute for? Well, we could use it for anything we could use compute for. But what we’re actually using it for in the model of say, Google Drive, right, is connecting to another computer somewhere else that actually has what we care about right over a network. And so the important compute is now happening in the data centers. Not that it has to, but that currently it is and so that’s sort of that like grab that that pendulum swing, if you can imagine from centralized to decentralized to centralized again, we’re sort of in that third shift backwards.
And, you know, we don’t know how long necessary that will last but you can definitely picture that as like another third Great Migration because now so much is like SaaS based right, “Software as a Service,” or really service as a software substitute kind of computing.
Joel: So the swing back to centralization was sort of recaptured by industry and by the state. Whether or not you agree with left wing market anarchists, conclusions, one huge strength in my opinion of left wing market anarchists insight is its analysis of how capitalism happens, how it maintains itself, how it perpetuates itself, historically, and currently through direct and indirect subsidization, for example, or land theft, the enclosure of the commons, you know, blah, blah, blah. That might be another similarity that you sort of at least hinted at in your article with the merger of the state and corporations. But either way, what makes you confident that the pendulum will swing once again? And how do we bring about the next catalyzing event in order to move towards a free cyber future?
TLC: Well, yeah, further further along in the article, we talked about this sort of like convergence between state and Corporation, right. And I think that this is, I don’t think this is a particularly unique insight or anything, but it’s definitely the case that it is difficult to imagine the existence of the State without, without the corporations that are making it materially and technically possible to have such a thing.
And vice versa as well, it’s a little bit difficult to imagine the kinds of cooperation we have now, not to say that all corporations are all sort of methods of organizing economic activity, or relying on that. But the ones we have now in the in a capitalist model, absolutely rely on the State for the kinds of very obviously unbalanced advantages that some companies have over others, right, depending on their, on their position, and their history and their inheritances.
So the shift to the cloud, right is absolutely a shift that happened, in part, right, because of the inability for the general public at large to recognize the dangers of the conflation between State and Corporation. In our opinion.
However, right? If you look at the way that that migration happened, what you see is a pattern with the other previous sort of emergencies right at the so called great migrations. And so we’re confident that this is going to swing back right to another, another sort of different form of organizing our computing infrastructures, in part, because that pattern holds.
And so what I mean by that is that all these shifts, like the first one, the second migration, and the third one to the cloud, right? All what all these shifts have in common is that they each occurred when two factors, right converged at the same time. And first, we had a given capability like disperse compute power, for example, the PC revolution in the 1980s, right, or the network access sort of became more ubiquitous and available, ie internet access, right, which sort of precipitated the cloud, those things became tangible, meaning that people were actually able to experience it themselves, like have it right and use it make use of it themselves.
And second, that in each case, the emergence of that capability was the solution to a prior problem. So for example, a lack of individual compute, right, during the PC revolution in the 80s, the lack of inter computer connectivity for the cloud, right.
And so if we stopped to think about it for a moment, there are some pretty obvious disadvantages to the current cloud model, right? Some are very clearly political problems. Like for example, we can point out the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, right data collection, that kind of stuff. But many are also just purely technical problems, like take the politics takes economics out of it. And you can even just on a purely technical level, see that the current sort of client server architecture where everything is, is sort of on someone else’s computer, and you have to connect to it right? Does actually result in a less than optimal scenario for a lot of applications, right?
And the trite example of this, right, it’s like, how do you watch Netflix if your internet connectivity goes down for a second? Right?
So we can like we can just do the math. So like, in the mid 2000s, it was way more feasible in terms of physical space and dollar cost, right to store your own personal movie collection, say on physical disks, right? Like on DVDs, or VHS cassettes before that. And that’s why Netflix, when they started as a business, right, they started out by physically mailing DVDs to subscribers, because that was the fastest way to get the amount of data they needed to send to you, to you. Right. And so today, of course, it’s actually faster and cheaper to send that same amount of data, not on a DVD that’s printed, and then shipped by courier, right, but like, over the network itself, right, it’s easier to do that than it is to mail somebody, something. And it’s not just easier, it’s also actually faster for the same amount of data that at least they’re dealing with. So, Netflix became a streaming service, because of that makes sense, totally economically rational thing to do.
But now, if you look at it, 20 years later, so right, it’s become both possible and economical for a single person to soar something like say 1000 hi-res movies and TV shows on like a single tear several terabyte hard dk drive that they have in their home, their physical, like a physical device in their house. And that’s like a digital analog to the physical movie collections in most households a few decades ago. But of course, it’s larger and cheaper, and you know, easier to manage for all the reasons that digital things are easier to manage in the physical world. And so in other words, it became very possible to have the sizable personal movie collection in your own home that rivals anything that you might truly care about Netflix offering. And on top of that, right, with free software tools like Jellyfin and other sort of media center interfaces, it’s getting a lot easier and easier, even for folks who don’t have a ton of technical background to manage that library and add new shows to it and sort of download things on the fly and you know, rip things from streaming services, and so on and so forth. Right?
And so if the internet goes down, and you want to watch a TV show to buy the time, well, you know, in that scenario where you have everything local, no problem, right, because you’re using local compute and local network access, you can watch it on your iPad, you can watch it on your laptop, right? Because you’ve got this local network in your house that we also didn’t have in the 1980s, right, called Wi Fi routers.
So this all was made possible right by the plummeting storage costs and improved software interfaces and you know, more ubiquitous networking technologies, all of which is becoming easier and easier to use and more accessible to more people. And so instead of using the cloud, which is really just someone else’s computer, you once again are able to see people actually beginning to personalize the experience by which I mean, not personalized in the way that like marketing companies talk about it. But personalized by which I mean using your own personal resources because all the devices you need to accomplish the task that we’re talking About are in your own home, they are your personal resources. They’re your personal things in your house, for example.
So the thing to highlight about this sort of like pattern, right, it’s not that there’s like some sort of clairvoyance, premonition about what the future is going to hold here. It’s that the writing was always on the wall already. This is just the 2020s version of what happened in the 1980s, personal computer revolution. Some people, in fact, call this the Personal Cloud revolution, right? Again, PC, but instead of personal computer, it’s the Personal Cloud, the term doesn’t particularly matter, right? What’s important here is that it’s following the same pattern, which is this new ubiquitous capability, right? massive personal storage, more ubiquitous, local networking, it’s converging at a time when that capability is solving an acknowledged pre-existing problem, right, which in this case, is relying on other people’s or company’s computers, that is somewhere far away from you. And that’s just one example. Right? But it illustrates the point, we think.
And so as far as bringing about, like the next catalyzing event, you know, we almost, you know, kind of don’t have to do anything to bring it about, it’s already coming, right? We’re already getting more local compute more powerful local networking, more powerful neighborhood scale networking, those devices, right are becoming more available, and in fact, have been available for quite some time. And so we just have to take advantage of it when it’s here, which is what TLC is preparing for by being a school that trains people on how to work with these new capabilities that have already existed for at least five or 10 years now.
Joel: Got it. later on. In the article, you expound a little bit on social media. Why is social media as we know it so awful? And what would social media look like if it were truly social?
TLC: Right? Yeah, this is, this was the first of the three interwoven essays that we turned into the article. It was about all about social media. It’s obviously a hot topic for folks today for many reasons. And what we’re trying to do with that sort of essay is sort of get people to think about social media, the words right, as distinct from social media, the thing that we associate with companies like Twitter and Facebook, right, I think we think about it.
And so what most people think of right, as social media today is awful. Because it isn’t actually a social media, like at all, it’s like not designed to be that it isn’t designed to be a pro-social technology, it never was. And there’s a lot of way, you know, we would think George Orwell would call doublespeak in a world today, this is a great example of that, right?
So social media, we have to understand it’s not designed to nurture social relations. It’s explicitly designed to trigger someone’s social needs. But then leave them mostly unfulfilled while offering the social platform, whatever it is that you’re using Twitter or Facebook, whatever, right as though it’s the solution to the problem that they’ve themselves triggered. So that’s what drives retention. That’s how these companies are explicitly built, not just in terms of business model, but in terms of technical implementation, right? recent documentaries, like The Social Dilemma, I think, do a really good job of showcasing just how explicit that effort is. But it is an explicit choice.
And so we really shouldn’t call it social media, right? We should call it lonely media, because the explicit design goal of sites like Facebook and Twitter is to make you feel lonely, and then offer themselves up as that short term solution to this feeling of loneliness that they’ve just inspired in you.
And that’s no different, for example, than how the US healthcare industry is set up to make more profit, right, when the population is generally sick, as opposed to healthy, right? It should be called sick care, but we call it for some reason, healthcare. And so that analogy is is the same, right? for social media, or holds, I should say, for social media as well, right?
When we say we want health care, what we’re obviously asking for, right as a as a general population, is that we want a generally healthy population, and then also have services to care for us right in the short periods of time, when we’re sick, not the inverse of that. And so when we say we want to use social media, for example, right, what it means is that we want to have a medium that generally serves pro-social ends, right to have a medium over which we can engage in social behaviors. And that also facilitates the kind of positive social connections that we all, you know, seem to want, right. But that also offers facilities to connect to others, right for when they are feeling, you know, lonely, or disconnected or isolated, if for some reason, right, like, you know, had a bad day, I really want to reach out to my friend right now, right? Like, that’s a good thing that social media can can do if it was actually social media. Instead, what it tends to do is induce FOMO by doing scrolling. Right.
And so importantly, the thing to notice by this definition, is that all communication technologies could be social media. It’s not just Twitter and Facebook, right? Back in the 90s, for example, some of the most radical and forceful mental health advocacy was happening on the sort of mental illness support group a web rings, right where someone would put up a website, and then connect it via a web ring, which is to say simply just a link to another site that then links to another site that led them link to another site. But in an intentional, sort of like, actually was an intentional community online, though, right? That was truly a social media, and Twitter wouldn’t be invented right for another 15 years.
And so when we think of social media as like a stand in for a company like Twitter or Facebook or whatever the new one is Instagram or Tiktok, or whatever, right? That’s a very different meaning of the term social media. And so first and foremost, I think we need to start saying what we mean and meaning what we say. It’s one thing to say the word social media, right? But it’s like quite another thing to do the thing that the words mean.
Joel: Yeah. For sure, yeah. Lonely media seems more than accurate to describe whatever the hell Twitter and Facebook is. You also explain, in detail, how a truly social media would likely emphasize a type of localism that would give rise to other benefits such as the blurring of lines between public and private property and a decreased need to depend on invasive security systems which rely on the police. What separates this type of localism from nativist micro-nationalism or patchwork?
TLC: Yeah, this is also a good question and one that we get a lot so thank you for asking it. I think probably the most succinct way of describing the difference is that it’s enabled by this ease of connectivity across geographic boundaries. Which is to say that it is important to remember and recognize that there are reasons to care about local geography, right? Not least of which is because humans exist in a physical world, with physical bodies, in a physical environment, so it makes sense why an awareness of and connection to a local geography and ecology and a regional culture, right, and other aspects of our lives that are necessarily grounded in the physical world would be super important to prioritize.
There’s a common tendency then, though, to mistake this kind of respect for the physicality of things as also and inherently, right, like a rejection of long-distance communication or economic exchange across distant bounds. And that’s kind of missing the point, right? Like, these should be thought of as additive factors, not mutually exclusive ones.
So, it is possible now—and, again, I don’t fault anyone for not necessarily thinking too closely about this or thinking through this because it is, as we’ve said earlier, a new capability that humans haven’t had before in the entire history of human experience, right? But we do actually have now this ability to have a strong, cohesive, relatively small-scale, neighborhood-scale region, right, that is also at the same time well-connected to other groups of people operating at various scales in various places without any care for geographical borders or boundaries. And that’s sort of a new mix of things that telecommunication, global telecommunication, global instant telecommunication, right, has made possible that we haven’t had before.
That level of speed and scale meaningfully changes what we can do, not just on a global level, but also on a local level. And so, right, that’s the whole point of telecommunication, it’s something newly possible, something most people still don’t know how to make sense of and that as a society writ large we kind of don’t know how to add to the way we’re thinking about what a just and humane social organization, a society, would be like. We don’t know what to do with it.
And so rather than thinking about these things in a, not to overuse the pun, but like in a binary way, right, like it has to be either globalist or micro-nationalist, maybe a better way to think about is like a series of overlays. Like, for example, you’re trying to draw a picture but you’re doing it with tracing paper. Right? So each layer of tracing paper that you put over the image adds more and more richness to the final picture, and that’s the thing that telecommunication makes possible that we didn’t really have before.
Some of these layers should absolutely be geographically bounded, right? Physical energy, food production, right, I mean again, human-to-human physical contact. Those are physical things. They are necessarily bounded in the physical world. But other elements of such a society does not need to be bound by the same laws of geographic regionality because telecommunication is now possible in a way it wasn’t before.
Joel: Is it necessary to convince others of the value of freedom in order for your vision to succeed?
TLC: Um, no. I don’t think it is. Obviously we think freedom is a good thing to value, and I think a lot of people already value it, which of course is good. But the, y’know, to use a somewhat capitalistic framing, the pitch here, like, our goals here are not abstract things like freedom or, in the American lingo “the pursuit of happiness.”
I mean, those are good. We want freedom. We want the pursuit of happiness. We would obviously support these things. But they are very, like, sort of highfalutin, y’know, vague notions. They mean different things to different people, there’s a lot of ways to interpret that, that kind of stuff.
Our goals are instead very material things, like which people have enough food? How coordinated is a given network of some neighborhood-scale affinity group? These are concretely measurable things. And, so one way to say this is that values like freedom are, again, like this North Star that we can sail towards, right, but we are in fact way more immediately concerned with the wind in our sail and the waves hitting the hull of our metaphorical ship. That’s what actually matters. And so those are measurable, concrete, material, immediate, personal, small scale things that, y’know, regardless of whether or not you have a political alignment in theory, you can immediately see the value in practicality of the sort of effort here in your personal life.
And that’s why, while it’s of course nice to work with people who think freedom is good as opposed to people like, y’know, fucking fascists who think freedom is obviously bad, right, like it’s better to work with the people who you can actually work with towards the same goal, it’s not actually a requirement to participate. And that’s really important because, again, it means that someone doesn’t have to self-identify or even recognize themselves as being part of so-called—I’m using air quotes here—part of “your group” to then participate in, provide value to, and gain value from the efforts that you’re putting forth.
Joel: So at one point in the article you describe how we’re making the machines who are buying our thoughts. If this is true it seems criminally underemphasized in popular discourse. Can you break down what that means and how we can know that it’s actually happening?
You’re probably wondering why you’re hearing the outro music when we clearly have not finished our chat with Tech Learning Collective. Well, time flies when you’re having fun. And talking to TLC was so great, that our conversation ended up being a bit longer than we originally anticipated. Long story short, we decided to break this conversation up into two parts. And if you would like to immediately gain access to the second half of this episode, as well as other exclusive C4SS content, head on over to Patreon.com/c4ssdotorg to support our efforts of spreading the message of vibrant social cooperation without aggression, oppression, or centralized authority. Otherwise, you can expect to hear the remainder of this conversation for free in one week.
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