The Art of Surviving in Simcities

Here is a post from a chapter that I wrote for the Walled Garden publication released in 2009 by Virtueel Platform as a follow up of the 2008 Walled Garden conference in Amsterdam. The book was edited by Annet Dekker en Annette Wolfsberger. Reading my paper again today, I did not change my mind on the issues of “information exhibitionism” and “privacy as currency for gratis services”, but I would certainly mention the recent discussions that are happening in the GNU Social list, as well as several other efforts to develop social software as a distributed infrastructure.


Used and abused by many, the notion of “2.0, 3.0, x.0” is mostly jargon that inherited its vagueness from a desire to inflate technological value and its cultural impact. This is nothing but a commercial attempt to resuscitate the dotcom era by promising a future of connected services and communication. Unfortunately there is nothing new in terms of network infrastructure nor in terms of how people have used the Internet to date. At most, another layer of abstraction has been built on pre-existing technology, and some interoperability has been added in terms of data exchange. It doesn’t matter though, if all this vapour ends up either up in the clouds, or stuck in condensation on some forgotten server. All of us are experiencing how the use of the Internet and the growing dependence on computation has a serious impact on our everyday lives. There is no need to pretend this is a side effect of new web application trends and their social impact. On the contrary, the transition phase we are experiencing now is rather simple to understand: humanity has started its slow shift from total offline activity to complete online and digitally assisted life.

The outcome of this transition is not yet set in stone, and there are many conflicting visions on and different approaches to how we can project ourselves, and how communication can survive, in those “simcities”: utopian data and software network environments, nested in data centres’ towers.

MyLife 2.0, serving the megalithic black box

The 2.0 revolution never happened. Remembering how the whole concept has been “sold” to the late adapters, or to the dotcom crash victims, the main idea was to power companies of any size with augmented productivity tools focusing on collaboration and wrapped in a fresh and sexy design, with a more personal approach to communication. These tools would be used voluntarily and promoted by employees on blogs and social networks. In fact this was merely an attempt to port the “casual Friday” to the digital domain.

This obviously failed, just like all the other attempts to link personal life and working life, because most people make a clear distinction between the two. You cannot expect from someone who is already differentiating between private and professional mail accounts to force-blog about his job in the same tone he uses for his hobby web log. The direct consequence of this conflict made the use of so called “Web 2.0 tools” the exclusive domain of dedicated hired professionals and turned the whole promised revolution into the come back of old-fashioned marketing.

This failure failed to stop the process, however, and perverted it even more with a proliferation of “fake” blogs and “fake” profiles on various networks. These were made to look amateur on purpose and their content was carefully crafted in order to give a more human face to impersonal corporations or political groups or merely to try to initiate a buzz around a new product.

Masturbation camps

Of course, the ever-growing success of social network platforms proves that some elements of the face-lifted WWW are very successful. This is true until you take a closer look at what they have to offer. Without a doubt the strong point is to develop and extend social links on an idyllic playground that is either completely generic or themed around a certain topic or hobby.

But these networks are illusions, they are virtual constructs in a centralised black box. Not only do they not exist as a complex social mesh, they present very limited serial features. These places are like dictatorial micro societies that imply forced happiness and which ban any form of rebellion or non-conformism towards the stalinist software to ensure there are no traces of you left on the server database.

Some of these social networks are built around a service based on sorting, comparing, distributing and plotting the data you generate by for instance listening to digitally encoded music, by ordering books online, by rating films you’ve seen in a theatre (or downloaded on a torrent), or any other hack and hobby that can leave a digital trace. Aiming at providing a link between your friends’ data and your own, such tools are in fact specifically efficient for one thing: masturbation and exhibitionism. Very little use is made of the social element of a network. This does not stop people spending their time “pimping” their data and looking at themselves generating information and virtual links that describe their ability to feed a system with information, over and over again. The social aspect of a network is almost non-existent; friends and other links are just treated as another statistic to look at yourself.

Some will argue that there are forms of collective masturbation and exhibitionism that do add value and bring new ways of exploring digital information: folksonomies. This is true until a system reaches the point where too many communities and cultural context are mixed together, rendering any form of collective tagging incoherent. This cancer of metadata is called meta noise, and simply brings to light the fact that data tagging is only meaningful in the light of individual subjective interpretation. This might work well in small groups that share a common culture and lingo, but it becomes irrelevant when multiple communities work on the same platform.

I’m indexed in Google, therefore I exist

While new platforms are emerging all the time, pushing the limits of web applications for the masses, some of the very few dotcom crash survivors are managing to silently take over the world. A good example is the omnipresent Google, which managed in just a few years to become the invisible proxy to the WWW, and for many, literally became the Internet itself. Many of us are already solely using this search engine to pull information from the Internet, sometimes just typing chunks of URL in the search engine, instead of going to a site directly. This form of voluntary blindness 5 is moving us in to the dangerous situation whereby we outsource the accessibility of the Internet to a company that will take, again with the EULA implicitly accepted, any decision on the way everything is filtered, listed or sorted when the engine is queried. Here again we end up in a black box where the notion of distributed information is very much centralised and moderated.

Full body search before entrance

A probably equally important aspect of these black box network applications is the ability to pull from, and push information to databases. This feature is often presented as an argument for the openness and so called networking ability of these platforms. In fact, what is provided are digital customs for the data (the API) and a digital passport for its owner (an ID or key). This freedom of data is in fact very well controlled and authorises access on an individual basis. The same way a profile might be banned and erased from one of these simcities, access to the data can be completely denied or manipulated. Further more, the so called interoperability supposedly brought by various projects, in an attempt to bridge together several web platforms, will just limit the distributed nature of the network even further by promoting a unique database of profiles and identities as a main control.

Data mon amour

These black boxes did not arrive from nowhere. If they are successful today it can only mean that they serve a purpose for most users. It seems that, beyond the slick design and clever marketing of the online “panem et circenses” platforms, we are permanently high on digital data. It has such a prolific nature that we don’t need much to generate it and its mere existence calls for even more digital data creation, in the form of annotations, metadata, discussions and documentation. As a consequence any new gimmick that produces, interprets, filters or processes it is seen as a welcome new fix. For example, productivity fetishists fight to avoid declaring e-mail bankruptcy and, as methodology junkies, they will try the latest workflow trends just like anyone desperate to lose weight will try any new diet.

In fact it takes an incredible amount of energy to get things done, inform yourself, communicate with others and at the same time keep the ball rolling when most of your professional activity relies on permanent connectivity. The issue of coping with an overkill of data is an important factor when it comes to choosing between handling the data in your own way or agreeing to the terms of third party services.

Buffer overflow

The problem is that there is too much information to deal with and it is almost embarrassing to see that all of us tend to carry an increasing amount of backup, archives and other collections of primarily obsolete data that is impossible to sort.

Complete outsourcing is becoming more and more popular as it is increasingly difficult to manually handle these huge amounts of personal data. Storing it requires not only hardware and infrastructure but also maintenance and care that not all of us can afford or have time for.

From the computing and storage perspective, network applications become a service that is completely invisible in a similar way to how we receive gas and electricity. In the end we just need storage, and how we get it of little interest, just like we expect to get electricity from the wall socket without caring about its origin. Cloud storage and cloud computing relies on the fact that most people now consider computer services just like other mass distributed commercial commodities. This does not call for reflection on what is digital data today and how we should handle it, it is merely a lazy shortcut. Behind the buzzwords and hype there is no magic, just a combination of utility computing and platform-as-service, both powered by classic shared and virtual servers.

The expansion and popularity of cloud services is starting to shape and modify technology. Servers, which have so far been the main way of distributing and processing digital information over a network, are bound to disappear in favour of highly dense and compact computing hardware in data centres. This generates positive feedback that already has a major effect on mainstream computers that are most likely to end up as simple terminals for a remote operating system relying on various cloud services.

Such mainstream computers already surround us. Branded as netbooks, these machines rely on web applications. Alternative software specifications are more and more geared towards seamless integration of web services within a desktop, while enriching multimedia features at the same time, turning the browser into the new operating system.

Collapsing towers

While we are very much aware of social, ecological, and political issues relating to our everyday lives, it appears that we are totally ignorant of the risks of letting companies decide for us what the future of networks and digital data might be.

For example, the black box system leaves us completely dependant on a certain vendor product. The spreading of FLOSS [Free/Libre and Open Source Software] ideas and mindset has been particularly successful to demonstrate, amongst other things, that closed, proprietary systems not only enslave the user to a certain technology, but are also completely unreliable in the long term. This is illustrated particularly well by those platforms that can decide from one moment to the next to change features or just cease to exist. If your work and income rely on such a platform you might need to think twice about the implications.

Also, the Internet is not a fast-food service and has more to offer than a template culture. Creativity is an essential part of resistance. From the DIY autonomic or global automatisation perspective, network autonomy is always possible and increasingly easier, even when it comes to web applications or cloud services: if you own it, you can control it. These kinds of efforts, and access to technology are the living proof that there are many possibilities for small groups of people to form different types of collaboration from mutualistic and parasitic, to commensal forms of symbiosis with other network nodes, and to create an alternative cloud in order to provide a more horizontal access to the network and what it has to offer in terms of self organisation and distributivity.

We should always keep in mind that in these simcities, data is the fuel that powers the network. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and when you use “free” services, be it for private or professional reasons, the toll to pay is the data you feed the system, which is, for the majority of us, personal information. From that perspective, privacy is not a thing of the past, on the contrary, it is the new currency.

Finally, Internet architecture became a mirror of the way civilisation is evolving, building on top of previous technologies and knowledge. We constantly live at the surface of things. Although it could be argued that everything in software is a metaphor, we tend to interpret it as an objective reality, which in turn can only contribute to hiding the true nature of the Internet and computing. The risk here is to lose contact with the physical layer by building higher and higher towers of biased interconnections without understanding their foundations and origins. In doing so we fail to understand that transmitting information is different from communication, letting software be the only real inhabitant of this ever expanding territory.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply