Marginalia 1

15 July 2018

I've been between jobs for the last three weeks. It's a weird liminal space, and it's given me a bit of time to think about how I'm spending my time: both paid and unpaid. As I described in my last post, I'm attempting to wean myself off Twitter and use Mastodon for any remaining social media needs, but at the moment doesn't have a big population, and in any case I don't want to simply swap one bad habit for another.

One of the things I thought I would achieve in my nearly three weeks of unemployment was to read or otherwise deal with everything in my Pocket account. Turns out I'm not the only one with a bit of a problem, and I was completely wrong: I've still got about 260 unread articles and I think I probably want to read them all. One of the remaining joys of social media is sharing interesting things I've discovered, and having other people do the same: that's mostly why I have so much in Pocket, and in a kind of meta happening, Ed Summers recently introduced me via Mastodon to HuffDuffer - it's sort of the podcast equivalent of Pocket. Initially I thought this tool was a way to share interesting things you've already listened to, but I quickly realised I had it backwards: it's really for saving things you want to listen to. You then subscribe to your own podcast channel, but anyone else can also subscribe to it, or add your feed to their 'collective'. Neat!

Regular readers are probably aware I favour controlling our own destinies online. So, Mastodon, sure, but maybe you don't want to join that. And Huffduffer is cool, but maybe you're not that committed to podcasts. So I'm planning to regularly do a kind of dump of what you might have seen if I was posting links to interesting stuff on your favourite social media channel - but right here on I'm aiming for weekly, but I make no promises: some weeks I just want to space out in front of Netflix. It won't just be a list of links: I usually have something to say about what I'm sharing, and helpfully there's no arbitrary character limit on my blog, so I can even write it without torturing poor old written English to fit it in. I'm going to call it Marginalia, and if you don't care about other things I write but want to subscribe to this, you'll be able to do so via RSS.

So, what caught my eye this week?

If you said that my interests are information technology, democratic governance, and history, you wouldn't be far wrong, so Info Tech of Ancient Democracy was right down my alley. Bonus points: it's ostensibly a review of a museum. For a critique of information technology that's somewhat more uh, contemporary, you might like to check out Against an increasingly user-hostile web, which gives us an example of a 1500 word Le Monde article that is 3.1MB in size and makes 460 HTTP requests. This is typical for news articles, and also completely bonkers. Something (based on the title) I thought might be somewhat similar (but isn't), was Henrik Joreteg's article from 2017 about betting on the web and progressive web apps (PWAs) . This chimed with a conversation I'd been having with Liz Rea about library apps and how the one feature that might actually be useful in a phone app - push notifications - isn't available for any of them. Liz mused about a universal library notifier app and if Apple ever implement the Push and Background Sync APIs then it could soon be possible to build something fairly simply using the holy trinity (HTML, CSS, JavaScript). I also happened to see an interview with Jeremy Keith on HuffDuffer, about Service Workers: the first key technology for anyone wanting to build a PWA. He explains it pretty well, which isn't surprising, since he literally wrote the book on Service Workers.

Also on HuffDuffer I caught an extraordinary talk by Benjamin Bratton outlining the ideas in his then-forthcoming book The Stack. He actually delivered it in 2014 but it still feels fresh, and may slightly melt your brain. It's really impossible to summarise in a few sentences, but suffice to say Bratton seems to have developed a real theory of our time: "Once you start to see stacks, you see them everywhere". I'll be ordering the book once I've cleared some room on my To-Be-Read shelf (it's no just digital reading material I accumulate faster than I can read). If you don't like the idea of stacks, and like your websites where you can see them, why not store the entire website in the URL? 🤯

I saved How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that's already happened) to Pocket without realising that it was co-written by David Graeber. I don't like to fan-boy, in case Graeber has done something unsavoury in his past or future, but everything of his that I read is revelatory, fascinating, and pleasingly dismissive of the status quo. In this article, Graeber and David Wengrow take a deep dive into what we know about 'prehistoric' humanity and the 'neolithic revolution', compared to the common belief (hint: there's little evidence for what most people think happened) - and explore what this might mean for how we conceptualise what is possible regarding political and social organisation. If you want to be a little more hands-on with your archaeology, why not just go ahead and start experimenting with "Neanderthal min-brains" connected to robotic crab arms? I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Maybe you're not entirely convinced about the 'evolutionary tree' either, and wonder if all that inter-homonoid sex in Clan of the Cave Bear might really have happened. Well, turns out several scientists think it did - with interesting ramifications for the current-day homo sapiens gene pool. By now, nothing will shock you, and it's time to discover that we're not even really individual humans: in fact, "We are all lichens."

Something I think of as sitting somewhat in between Bratton and Graeber/Wengrow is Yuk Hui's On Automation and Free Time. I'm not going to pretend I understood everything: my grasp of Marxist theory is fairly basic and it's a pretty academic article; but I think it's worth reading even if you don't understand everything. Paul Mason's Postcapitalism: a guide to our future is a significantly longer read, and in some ways less complex discussion: but it may be an easier introduction if you haven't given much thought to the political and social ramifications of extreme automation.

If all of this leaves you feeling exhausted, never fear: Jenny Odell is here to explain How to do nothing.