Saturday, October 29, 2005

Materialism quote

"But just as idealism underwent a series of stages of development, so also did materialism. With each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science, it has to change its form." Frederich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Tools and consciousness

An article by Gautam Naik, "Arrowhead Case: Knapping Hits a Spot For Flint-Stone Fans" appeared in the 10/6/05 Wall Street Journal, on the modern-day hobby of "knapping" -- making Stone Age tools the Stone Age way. Naik quotes knapping superstar Jim Spears: "Every stone is different and every stone is a challenge... It helps me get into the minds of ancient people."

The means by which we interact with the world -- tools, processes, production, rituals -- structures and bounds our thinking. To understand a people, try out their tools. Okay it's more complicated than that, and it would be extremely difficult to forget everything we know and the way we know it -- the recreation of the past is always problematic -- but immersion into the tool culture of a people provides a peek into a different consciousness.


Monday, October 24, 2005

Goethean Science

The journal Janus Head's summer 2005 issue is devoted to "Goethean science". Craig Holdrege of The Nature Institute is one of the guest editors.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Policed state

First some links that came across a Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility mailing list today:

Secret tracking codes in Xerox printers cracked: Xerox and other printer manufacturers print tracking codes on each document the user prints, ostensibly to thwart counterfeiting

Adobe, others slip anticounterfeiting code into apps: Applications designed to not open certain images, again "to foil counterfeiting"

FBI to get veto power over PC software?: Declan McCullagh reports that according to a recently released FCC document, "to preserve the openness that characterizes today's Internet, 'consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.'" To which Declan cautions the reader: "Read the last seven words again."

Wiretap rules for VoIP, broadband coming in 2007: Rules to ease wiretapping.

The rest of this post is excerpted from a discussion that I contributed to on "the police state". The conference took place in 1995. The complete text is no longer available:

The "police state" is not just a state form, but a description of social relations. It includes not just the obvious relationship of the state to the citizen, but also the realms of neighborhood life, social services, production, the reproduction of labor power, and culture. The "police state" describes not just the "state" as the organ of enforcing class rule, but also a "state of existence", which can be roughly described as the absence of legal protection of the property-less classes; or the rule of the propertied class unfettered by a social contract or constitutional law.


The contemporary police state is the form which capitalist society assumes on a foundation of electronics technology. We frequently describe this as the form that capitalists must use to preserve their property from the property-less, and to protect their rule from the new class creating itself in the wake of the new technologies. But we can also look at this in other ways.

In order to maintain high tech production, and the circulation of commodities, and hence the realization of value and of profits, the capitalists must turn to more and more sophisticated techniques. In general, all of these techniques involve the spontaneous construction of a "surveillance society", where people are monitored as workers (if they still work), as consumers (to the extent they still consume) or, otherwise, as non-producing non-consumers. This surveillance society is both needed by capital, and is also only feasible because the technology is cheap enough to allow the collection and storage of new types of data. The once-unique purview of the state -- the collection and storage of personal data -- is now possible by private firms willing to pay the minimum wage to have someone key-in data from public records, or pay for tapes from state agencies, or match information from credit bureaus, census reports and on-line telephone directories . To the degree that information commons is enclosed and privatized, communication is subject to censorship -- not by the state, but by the "owner" of the system via which communication takes place (as has happened with the joint IBM-Sears project called Prodigy) .

Contemporary production relies on fewer workers who are expected to devote their attention, creativity and loyalty to the "knowledge-intensive" workplace. The proper "attitude" is a key job requirement. At the point of production, workers are screened before employment via private firms that handle background checks, or in the near future, perhaps, via a national "work eligibility" database, and during employment by keystroke monitoring, drug tests, "smart" badges, videotaping, and computer logs. So workers must submit to the surveillance regime or be blocked from participating in the high-tech capitalist economy.

After the workday, consumer profiles are created via purchases at the grocery store, credit card purchases, loans and mortgages, drivers license information, calls to the "National Psychic Network" -- that is, via any of the expanding list of activities that leave a data trail. Companies, because of increased competition, shrinking markets, the need to be more efficient in marketing, (or as entrepreneurs, creating new commodities in the form of various kinds of mailing lists) are compelled to collect and utilize this data to survive in the contemporary business climate. This "data shadow" can be accessed in turn by employers or the state. For the non-producing non-consumers, their data shadow is different -- it exists in the welfare and police data systems. People are categorized and classified, and some effectively filtered out of the high tech economy, by what Oscar Gandy, Jr. calls "the panoptic sort".[Oscar Gandy Jr., The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal Information, 1993; See also, "Consumer Profiles and Panopticism," proceedings of the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference, Chicago, 1994; Computer Underground Digest, available in the comp.soc.cud newsgroup on the Internet; "Computers and the Poor", CPSR Newsletter, 1993; and "Workplace and Consumer Privacy Under Siege," Macworld, Special Report, 1993.]

Capitalism in the age of electronics means both the end of privacy, and the extension of privatization, as further reaches of human activity are commodified in the search for profit. With the end of privacy, comes the end of legal protections like the right not to self-incriminate (the data shadow does not know how to keep its mouth shut, and laws illegalize such a broad range of human activity). With privatization comes the conflict of civil and human rights with property rights. Compelled by the demands of the high tech economy, capitalism can take no other form that the "police state."


Monday, October 17, 2005

Creative Commons

Here is a clear description of the Creative Commons license.

Although not confronting the logic of "intellectual property", the license does provide a convenient way for creators to flow around existing law. Perhaps in that way the Creative Commons concept serves to undermine IP.


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Predictive markets

Found this on Marty Kearns' fine Network-centric Advocacy blog, a reference to Yahoo's technology prediction market, Yahoo Tech Buzz. Prediction markets are based on the notion that crowd thinking in many cases is more accurate than "expert" thinking. James Surowiecki popularized this idea in his book The Wisdom of Crowds (see earlier posts on this blog). John Brunner also had something like this in his classic and remarkably prescient 1970s sci-fi novel Shockwave Rider.

The Yahoo market uses NewsFutures engine. See their "A Simple Example" page for how these markets work.

"Market" is accurate in the sense that people trade "shares" that have some either real money value (as in the case of the Iowa Electronic Markets political futures market) or play money value as is the case with the Yahoo Tech Buzz market. The notion is that the "market" only works if the participants have something at stake (presumably something scarce and desirable, like real money). In the case of play money markets, this might be reputation or desire to win or "to be right" or "not be wrong". I wonder if the structure of "market" is necessary for such a mechanism to work -- could there be a predictive commons? Surowiecki argues that for crowds to be "smart", they need to be diverse and the members independent, otherwise you get herd behavior. The market by definition assumes the separation between participants on the basis of conflicting (self) interest. But the positing of a "self" is a philosophical assertion, and "self-interest" a political position. Perhaps some sort of collective-interest expressed through the individual, the struggle of internal contradiction as opposed to "self-interest". Hmmm.

Research indicates that these markets can be more accurate predictors than a room of experts. Marty's blog calls for one for environmental issues. An open source version anyone.


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Richard Lewontin NYRB article

Richard Lewontin, co-author of The Dialectical Biologist, has a review of a couple recent books on evolution in the Oct 11, 2005 issue of the New York Review of Books. In "The Wars Over Evolution", he covers a lot of ground.

He unmasks creationism dressed up as "intelligent design" ("if the living world is too complex to have arisen without an intelligent designer, then where did the intelligent designer come from?").

He gets to the spring of creationism -- the social and psychological dislocation resulting from the technology revolution and globlization are driving a pummelled and bewildered people into a soothing story of love and redemption:

What is at issue here is whether the experience of one's family, social, and working life, with its share of angst, pain, fatigue, and failure, can provide meaning in the absence of a belief in an ordained higher purpose. The continued appeal of a story of a divine creation of human life is that it provides, for those for whom the ordinary experience of living does not, a seductive relief from what Eric Fromm called the Anxiety of Meaninglessness...

He also defends Darwinism from those who would make it into more than it is. He concisely summarizes the fundamental tenets:

Darwinism is a population-based theory consisting of three claims. First, there is variation in some characteristics among individuals in a population. Second, that variation is heritable. That is, offspring tend to resemble their biological parents more than they do unrelated individuals. ... Third, there are different survival and reproduction rates among individuals carrying different variants of a characteristic, depending on the environment inhabited by the carriers. That is the principle of natural selection. The consequence of differential reproduction of individuals with different inherited variants is that the population becomes richer over generations in some forms and poorer in others. The population evolves.

He challenges the notion of directionality or progress in evolution ("evolutionary biology is not, in fact, committed to progress"):

[T]he modern empirical science of evolutionary biology and the mathematical apparatus that has been developed to make a coherent account of changes that result from the underlying biological processes of inheritance and natural selection do not make use of a priori ideas of progress... So why does evolution not result in a general increase of the fitness of life to the external world? Wouldn't that be progress? The reason that there is no general progress is that the environments in which particular species live are themselves changing and, relative to the organisms, are usually getting worse. So most of natural selection is concerned with keeping up.

Lewontin swiftly dismisses sociobiology, memes, evolutionary psychology and other attempts to overlay Darwinism onto social processes:

"We would be much more likely to reach a correct theory of cultural change if the attempt to understand the history of human institutions on the cheap, by making analogies with organic evolution, were abandoned. What we need instead is the much more difficult effort to construct a theory of historical causation that flows directly from the phenomena to be explained."

Good stuff.


Friday, October 07, 2005

Random quotes

"The flood control equation is the sum of many parts, and to view only one or two of those parts without consideration of their relation to the whole is to invariably reach a badly flawed conclusion." Yazoo (Mississippi) Delta Levee Board

"There must always be room for coincidence, Win had maintained. When there's not, you're probably well into apophenia, each thing then perceived as part of an overarching pattern of conspiracy. And while comforting yourself with the symmetry of it all, he'd believed, you stood all too real a chance of missing the genuine threat, which was invariably less symmetrical, less perfect. But which he always, she knew, took for granted was there." William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

"The ability to recognize significant resemblances and analogies ... I shall call knowledge... The elements in poetic diction which must conduce to it are, as we shall see, metaphor and simile... A little reflection shows that all meaning -- even of the most primitive kind -- is dependent on the possession of some measure of this power. Where it was wholly absent, the entire phenomenal cosmos must be extinguished. All sounds would fuse into one meaningless roar, all sights into one chaotic panorama, amid which no individual objects -- not even colour itself -- would be distinguishable." Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction

"We have learned from Saussure that a human language is structured not so much as a collection of terms, each of which possesses a determinate meaning, but as a complexly ramified web, wherein the knots, or terms, hold their specific place or meaning only by virtue of their direct or indirect relations to all other terms within the language. If such were indeed the case, then even just a few terms or phrases borrowed directly from the vocal speech sounds of other animals would server to subtly influence all the ratios of the language, rooting the language, as it were, in a particular ecology, a particular terrain." David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous


Thursday, October 06, 2005

P2P and Human Evolution

Michel Bauwens has written an interesting piece "Peer to Peer and Human Evolution": "peer to peer as the intersubjective dynamic at work in distributed networks, and how it is creating a third mode of production, peer production, a third mode of governance, peer governance, and universal common property regimes."

There is quite a bit there -- p2p economics, p2p politics, even p2p spirituality. Hopefully after I have had a chance to look through it I can offer some substantive comments.

For a weekly newsletter that includes comments on Michel's manuscript, as well as lots of interesting links and bits, see