All posts made in Apr. 2012:

Belief and desire

On the sociology of Gabriel Tarde:

Tarde denies the existence of higher-level entities (like "society" according to Durkheim). This is an atomism not just of composition, but of organization. There is no such thing as social laws and regulations, social norms, social impositions. There are only power relations among individuals. Certain individuals impose on others; certain individuals are imitated by others. Social coherence is merely the result of imitation on a mass scale, together with raw power impositions.

However, Tarde is not advocating the sort of "individualism" one sees in traditional liberalism, from Adam Smith to the free-market fanatics of today. ... Individuals, no less than human societies, are composed of multiple elements that overpower and/or imitate one another. You can't call Newton the author of the laws of motion any more than you could call 17th Century British society, or King Charles as its representative, the author of those laws. The author is more properly one particular atomistic thought in Newton's brain, a thought that overpowered the other thoughts in his brain, compelled them to obey it, or seduced them to imitate it.

By a similar argument, it cannot possibly be the case that all hydrogen atoms are uniform and interchangeable. The only explanation for the apparent uniformity of nature is that one particular hydrogen atom dominated the others, forced them to obey it, or induced them to imitate it.


The ultimate motivating forces that move all of the world, whether human beings in society, thoughts in a single brain, or hydrogen atoms in a gas, are according to Tarde belief and desire. There's nothing else. Rocks and stars, indeed atoms themselves, believe and desire just as we do. At the other extreme, things like ideologies and customs and social classes and bureaucracies can be explained merely as statistical aggregations of particular beliefs and desires, amplified by mass imitation.

Belief and desire!

After I die

This is a bit morbid I suppose but I've been thinking about what I'd like done with me after I die (which won't be for a good long time, touch wood).

When I imagine the brain, I think that "me" is its structure, and its electrical and chemical signalling. "Me" is also my brain as embodied in my meat, and I can imagine the structure and the dynamics of that too. My structure - of my body and my brain - changes continuously, as I grow and change, and as I learn and have experiences.

When I imagine the dead me, I imagine a body with a brain which is thinking really, really slowly. As my body and my brain decompose, these are simply changes in the structure -- so decomposition would feel like learning and developing, in some sort of way. And as adjacent neurons break down and affect one-another, or as a worm burrows its way through my dead brain, maybe these would feel like occasional thoughts.

And so, during this time, the pattern which is my consciousness becomes absorbed into the pattern which is the world, and mingles with structures already there, new connections are made and others broken, just as thinking already is, and the changing me-pattern I experience as slow thoughts and slow developments of the self, and I become part of a wide, slow, thinking earth.

That's option one, to be buried and to decompose gently.

Option two:

I would like to be cremated, my ashes made into bread, and the bread shared out and eaten by all my friends. I think that would be wonderful.

Decision fatigue

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Instagram as an island economy

Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars.

If you don't know:

  • Facebook is a corporation with a database in which they would like to record every act that every person makes, annotated with the place and time, and another database that lists every social relationship each person has. They are persuading people to do this by being the world's second virtual society, the first being the internet itself, the difference with Facebook being that everything in the society is recorded in a form that makes cross-indexing simple.
  • Instagram is a corporation with a smartphone app that lots of people use to take and share photos. Instagram makes it easy to take pretty photos, and to see the pretty photos of your friends. The photos are used to (a) represent yourself to your friends, and (b) act as condensation seeds for social interactions of the type (i) grooming and (ii) conversation.
  • A billion dollars is a lot of money.

Not users but producers/consumers

The other day I picked some choice quotes from 'Marx at 193' (an article by John Lanchester). Here's one: This idea of labour being hidden in things, and the value of things arising from the labour congealed inside them, is an unexpectedly powerful explanatory tool in the digital world.

What is the labour encoded in Instagram? It's easy to see. Every "user" of Instagram is a worker. There are some people who produce photos -- this is valuable, it means there is something for people to look it. There are some people who only produce comments or "likes," the virtual society equivalent of apes picking lice off other apes. This is valuable, because people like recognition and are more likely to produce photos. All workers are also marketers -- some highly effective and some not at all. And there's a general intellect which has been developed, a kind of community expertise and teaching of this expertise to produce photographs which are good at producing the valuable, attractive likes and comments (i.e., photographs which are especially pretty and provocative), and a somewhat competitive culture to become a better marketer.

There are also the workers who build the factory -- the behaviour-structuring instrument/forum which is Instagram itself, both its infrastructure and it's "interface:" the production lines on the factory floor, and the factory store. However these workers are only playing a role. Really they are owners.

All of those workers (the factory workers) receive a wage. They have not organised, so the wage is low, but it's there. It's invisible.

Like all good producers, the workers are also consumers. They immediately spend their entire wage, and their wages is only good in Instagram-town. What they buy is the likes and comments of the photos they produce (what? You think it's free? Of course it's not free, it feels good so you have to pay for it. And you did, by being a producer), and access to the public spaces of Instagram-town to communicate with other consumers (access to these spaces is so valuable to me that it keeps me using the iPhone, a model of smartphone which can run Instagram, rather than Windows Phone 7 which I have used and enjoyed, but cannot).

It's not the first time that factory workers have been housed in factory homes and spent their money in factory stores.


  • There is a way of identifying the various value exchanges, which means there should be a way to calculate the aggregate value.
  • However, Instagram is more-or-less a closed economy: producers are paid in Instagram-dollars and consumers pay with Instagram-dollars. The loop is so tight that the Instagram-dollars are invisible. So how is the aggregate value to be calculated? Instagram-town is barely connected to the US dollar so we don't know what the value is.

I will say that it's simple to make money out of Instagram. People are already producing and consuming, so it's a small step to introduce the dollar into this.

The question is: what will the exchange rate be?

Island economies and colonisation

The situation of Instagram is that of an isolated island economy, separate from the outside world, being linked to the global economy. How do we figure out what it's worth to the global economy? How do you value a closed system?

I can think of three examples: Japan's period as an autarky (self-sufficient economy) in the 1850s; China's transition from a closed to a linked economy over the past decade; a Pacific island such as Naura, in the middle of nowhere, being colonised.

The third makes me think that the business of these virtual society companies (there are lots) is to isolate some settlement on an island, allow it to develop for a small amount of time, and then colonise it. This is the story of empire, but it's also the story of expansion. Think of the Wild West: first the people, then the railways, the banks, the law, and government.

But the Wild West ended up okay, part of it we call California. Both Instagram and Facebook are based there.

Maybe Instagram is worth a billion dollars, there's certainly a lot of labour encoded in the objects of its production. More valuable, I think, for Facebook is the general intellect I have not mentioned: that developed by the factory owners. They're highly accomplished at paying their workers very little (i.e., since there is no money changing hands, we measure this by observing that the workers are highly productive) and, out of their workers, training good marketers. Facebook needs that in order to complete their database.

Money; users

More interesting to me is the question of what happens when the workers organise, and demand a wage that is transferrable between the island economies of the internet. I've absolutely no idea what that would even look like, a transferrable store of labour but one in which the act and value of labour is contextually variable according to its position in a social network. But I can't imagine money itself looked entirely obvious before it was invented either.

The second interesting point is that the word "user," as in a user of Instagram or Facebook, is dangerous, because it hides all of this.

A slow savings account

Pensions have a very particular schedule. You pay in to the same plan - at a rate of 10% or more over a large chunk of your career - and it starts paying out at a fixed point: at age 55, or 60, or whatever.

It seems to me that a pension's particular schedule should instead be one end of a spectrum, the other end of which is credit cards and savings accounts. And then we should fill in that spectrum.

See, savings accounts are a way of putting a little bit of money aside for a big future purchase or a "rainy day." Unemployment insurance does the same job, but it has a fixed pay-out trigger.

Savings accounts, unemployment insurance, and pensions are all ways to smooth out spikes in income over time.

A credit card provides for smoothness too, only it smooths out income spikes into the past whereas a savings account or a pension smooths out income spikes into the future. There are also fixed term investment vehicles with tax benefits.

I wonder whether there's another kind of income smoothness service, one possible only with modern computerised record-keeping?

I've been using Twitshift, which lets me follow myself from a year ago on Twitter. I get to see all the things I was doing and thinking from 365 days in the past. Timehop does a similar job, but across lots of social media. I like the continuous, day-by-day nature of it.

Also I think a little about Bob Shaw's concept of slow glass which is glass that is so opaque that light takes as long as ten years to pass through it. From a practical standpoint, then, if you looked through a window made of slow glass, you'd see events that took place outside that window ten years ago.

I would like a slow savings account.

A slow savings account would work exactly like a regular account -- I could pay money into it, and transfer money out. The difference would be: when I pay money in to a slow savings account, it appears in the available balance exactly one year later.

Additional slow savings models might include:

  • Continuous partial pension. A pension doesn't start at a fixed date, but is paid continuously over my entire life. I pay into it, and it pays me a very small amount every month (which, of course, I could use to pay back into my pension, deciding to feed the present to the future). This would give me a direct and visceral sense of the strength of my income as a 65 year old - having income of just 10 bucks a month from my continuous partial pension would certainly make me want to contribute more to it - and also gradually raise my safety line, the minimum level of income to which I am able to fall. A higher safety line lets me take more risks to find happiness and/or wealth, which is the advantage had by people from rich backgrounds.
  • Spike smoothing. Whenever my current account balance spikes above a certain threshold, the surplus is taken and distributed evening over the next year. This achieves one of the functions of a regular savings account, in an automatic fashion.

A slow savings account would be the exact opposite of a credit card: it distributes present income into the future, instead of borrowing from the future; it deals with assets instead of liabilities; it encourages smooth spending instead of enabling large spike purchases; it raises the level of the safety net instead of raising the level of indebtedness.

Peak Attention and the DuPont Equation

I keep coming back to this article A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100 (which I first read back in Week 315), in particular the section Schumpeterian Growth and the Industrial Economy (1800-2000) which is about (and I quote) THE COLONIZATION OF TIME which I have written in caps and underlined because it is meant to be said out loud like this:


Per capita productivity is about efficient use of human time. But time, unlike space, is not a collective and objective dimension of human experience. It is a private and subjective one. Two people cannot own the same piece of land, but they can own the same piece of time. To own space, you control it by force of arms. To own time is to own attention. To own attention, it must first be freed up, one individual stream of consciousness at a time.

The Schumpeterian corporation was about colonizing individual minds. Ideas powered by essentially limitless fossil-fuel energy allowed it to actually pull it off.


The equation was simple: energy and ideas turned into products and services could be used to buy time. Specifically, energy and ideas could be used to shrink autonomously-owned individual time and grow a space of corporate-owned time, to be divided between production and consumption. Two phrases were invented to name the phenomenon: productivity meant shrinking autonomously-owned time. Increased standard of living through time-saving devices became code for the fact that the "freed up" time through "labor saving" devices was actually the de facto property of corporations.

Gosh, feels like the internet doesn't it.

For the same two centuries it seemed like time/attention reserves could be endlessly mined. New pockets of attention could always be discovered, colonized and turned into wealth.

Then the Internet happened, and we discovered the ability to mine time as fast as it could be discovered in hidden pockets of attention. And we discovered limits.

And suddenly a new peak started to loom: Peak Attention.

Sidebar: There's something I faintly remember reading in Lefebvre, Love & Struggle: Spatial Dialectics by Rob Shields. It's so faint I'm not sure I'm remembering it correctly. But I think it was something about Henri Lefebvre writing in post-war France about home automation - washing machines and the like - and seeing it as a turning inwards of the forces of colonisation: France was no longer colonising other countries and instead was eating itself in a colonisation of everyday life. Which gives me an image of a country-body made from rapacious corporations, starved after being cut off from their food of the various European empires, digesting its own body of workers and consumers, burning the healthy fat pockets of attention and boredom and creating the jittery, never at rest, meth-addled population we have today.

One final thing from A Brief History of the Corporation (READ IT), this line: I am not sure who first came up with the term Peak Attention, but the analogy to Peak Oil is surprisingly precise. It has its critics, but I think the model is basically correct. I think I might have said it first, here and here. But who knows, it probably wasn't me.

Return on Equity

And the thing for me is I like to trace the paths between abstraction and acts. For example, at work we've recently been doing some consultancy with a company on new product development, and part of the work (I encourage it to be part of the work) is to consider not just new concepts, but how to ensure new concepts are adopted. That means understanding the business, the audience, route to market, etc, but also the personality of the organisation: what will work well in the organisation, and what will the organisation resist?

The personality of an organisation is embodied in its structure (which encodes both who socialises with who, which is my best model for how understanding and influence is transmitted, and the values and worldview of its management), and also its myths: what is its origin (this will be held up as a triumph to mimic); what examples does it use as patterns to mimic or run away from?

So I like to be able to simultaneously speak about the personality of an organisation (the abstraction) and how that abstraction manifests in action -- that is, the behaviours of individuals and much smaller groups. This is my route to figuring out how to change an organisation... and honestly, getting an organisation to produce a new product or support a new concept is always going to involve change, because if the organisation didn't need to change then it would already be doing whatever we've been brought in to help with.

One of the things that has intrigued me is how the pursuit of profit by a corporation - the concept of which is bizarre, by the way, that "pursuit" is a something that can be done by a "corporation," a thing/idea partially comprising but also transcendent from the humans who can actually pursue - anyway, how the pursuit of profit by a corporation leads to the very many (but not all) frankly shitty organisations that exist in the world today, organisations which

  • neither make the people in them happy;
  • nor make the people who interact with them happy;
  • are none-the-less profitable!
  • but dealing with them feels a bit like dealing with a person whose memory is sub 3 seconds, and whose left hand and right hand are controlled by separate bodies who fell out once over a silly and probably avoidable situation and a decade later now won't even go to the same parties, the misunderstanding having calcified and cooled into a mutual avoidance which is no longer seething - it would show up as dark blue on one of those thermal imaging cameras - but is utterly fixed.

Intrigued that is until I read End the Religion of Return on Equity in the Harvard Business Review which puts the blame firmly at the feet of a human named Donaldson Brown, of the company DuPont, in 1917:

A hundred years ago, the focus on squeezing every drop of return out of equity capital made great sense. ...

The ability to do that rose to a new level in 1917, when General Motors was in financial difficulty and DuPont took a major position in the company. (GM represented an important channel for Dupont's lacquer, artificial leather, and other products, and Pierre du Pont was on GM's Board.) DuPont sent Donaldson Brown, a promising engineer-turned-finance staffer, to Detroit to sort things out, and sort them out he did.

Brown noted a simple fact: Return on equity can be broken down into a three-part equation. It is logically the product of return on sales times the ratio of sales to assets times the ratio of assets to equity. By parsing ROE into the DuPont Equation (very rapidly to become a business school mainstay), he provided the basis for organizations divided into functions with their own objectives. He reasoned that if marketers worked on maximizing return on sales, production managers were rewarded for the sales they squeezed out of their physical plant, and finance managers focused on minimizing the amount of equity capital they needed, ROE would take care of itself.

Thus Brown not only sowed the seeds of the today's hated silos, he also set three "runaways" in motion. That is to say, he created objectives with such strong feedback loops that they were pursued single-mindedly, even to unhealthy excess.

The DuPont Equation.

Bang! Read that again. Each of the three components of the equation is a top-level division of the company, as separately run as it is possible to do, with different goals, requiring a different mentality from the people in the divisions.

Again: Each ratio in an equation written by a man named Donaldson Brown in 1917 has become separated into different divisions in org charts of corporations almost 100 years later.

No wonder some corporations can feel so schizophrenic.

The article makes it clear...

In their pursuit of margin, marketers sought market power even to the point of monopoly, requiring antitrust laws to cry stop at the last moment of the end game. Similarly, production engineers treated their factories royally and their labor as expendable, until unions and labor laws intervened. Financial managers, supported by their bankers, increased their debt-to-equity ratios until capital requirements were imposed-oops, we mean until there was a catastrophic financial crash and a depression.

...and then it continues into speculating about a new formation for the DuPont Equation. It's worth your time.

How these ideas of Peak Attention and the DuPont Equation are linked

Don't know, still thinking about that.

Marx at 193

Some choice quotes from Marx at 193 by John Lanchester.

Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from 'facts', as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.

On the origin of value, In Marx's judgment surplus value is the entire basis of capitalism: all value in capitalism is the surplus value created by labour. And so Marx creates a model which allows us to see deeply into the structure of the world, and see the labour hidden in the things all around us. He makes labour legible in objects and relationships.

Lanchester digs into Facebook and into airport check-in:

This idea of labour being hidden in things, and the value of things arising from the labour congealed inside them, is an unexpectedly powerful explanatory tool in the digital world. ... When you start looking for this mechanism at work in the contemporary world you see it everywhere, often in the form of surplus value being created by you, the customer or client of a company. Online check-in and bag drop at airports, for example. ... They're transferring their inefficiency to the customer, but what they're also doing is transferring the labour to you and accumulating the surplus value themselves. It happens over and over again. Every time you deal with a phone menu or interactive voicemail service, you're donating your surplus value to the people you're dealing with. Marx's model is constantly asking us to see the labour encoded in the things and transactions all around us.

Sidenote: I have an objection to the Dyson Airblade in that previous generations of hand-driers encouraged me to move and play with my hands, attempting to find for myself some kind of expertise or intelligence in drying, but the Airblade, in order to achieve its own efficiency forces all of its users to adopt identical movements, removing autonomy from millions to save money for the owners of the establishments in which it is installed. I have been roboticised.

Back to Lanchester: the rest of Marx at 193 covers the variety of capitalisms developed since his work, the limits of natural resources, China and Mass Group Incidents, basically anti-authority riots which occur regularly all over China and seem never to be reported in the Western mainstream media, and this nugget about life expectancy:

UK life expectancy is now over eighty and rising so sharply that buried in the statistics is a truly strange fact: a woman who is eighty today has a 9.2 per cent chance of living to be a hundred, whereas a woman of twenty has a 26.6 per cent chance. It may seem weird that the person sixty years younger has a three times better chance of making it to a century, but what it shows is just how fast progress is being made.

Read the whole thing.

Lanchester's article is in the current issue of the London Review of Books which is a total treat. Another joy is Thomas Jones' review of two biographies of David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, So Ordinary, So Glamorous, which is a must-read for the whole story but also for this simultaneous smack-down and correction: Trynka doesn't often go into details about the music, which is perhaps just as well. In his discussion of 'Starman' he talks about its 'opening minor chords' when they're nothing of the kind, and says that 'the key changes from minor to major' at the chorus. But there's no key change, and it's important that there isn't: the effect Trynka's hearing, the sense of 'release' and 'climax' he gets when the chorus kicks in, would be lost if there were. What happens is that for the first time, the melody hits the tonic; Bowie gets through 15 bars in F major without singing an F, and then on the word 'starman' he hits two of them, an octave apart. BANG!

Here's Starman, live in 1972, and listen out for that avoidance of the F and then suddenly when you hear it. Wow.