Hacks and the Hardware Problem

Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 6 last week, like every other product they unveil, highlights an easily neglected truth: The algorithms, bits, clouds, streams, and light beams—the elements of today’s most inspiring technological wonders—all run on hardware, though the inscrutability of those elements, and the metaphors by which we seek to know them better, conceal the underlying materiality that makes them possible, the tangled mess of wires behind the (proverbial) television set. Apple’s devices disappear seamlessly behind their glowing rectangular screens when used, but are nonetheless the exceptions that prove a widely-accepted rule: Information should take up as little space as possible in the physical world. What used to fill shelves and file cabinets and clutter our houses and offices should part from its physical body and ascend into the Cloud. In this narrative, if not in reality, hardware is becoming less important all the time, and Apple, by providing the lightest and sleekest portals to that alternate universe of information, light, and sound, has managed to make the most socially important hardware of all.

Devices like the iPhone and iPad, in fact, form a graphical user interface for the physical system that delivers a tweet from one person’s fingertips to another’s eyes. Contrary to the popular narrative, the “cloud” that enables such light traveling at the personal level is anything but light in the aggregate. A mass of true hardware, from routers to data centers to fiberoptic cables to cell towers, is the behind-the-scenes machinery that makes the internet tick. Andrew Blum describes this condition vividly in Tubes, his exploration of the Information Age’s hidden infrastructure, and I’ve addressed it previously here, here and here.

Kazys Varnelis recently reflected upon the data center’s status as the architectural symbol of network culture. Comparing data centers to factories, the buildings that most closely embodied the Industrial Revolution, he writes that “factories served as conspicuous symbols of power and modernity” while “data centers strive for invisibility.” The traditional factory gave some indication of its function and its role in society through its size, its outward appearance, and its location (usually near or within the city). Its presence, like that of the bridge or skyscraper, was often striking and dramatic. Data centers, Varnelis writes, are the opposite, housed in the “familiar, anonymous architecture of the big shed,” situated outside of urban centers and rarely even seen, much less noticed. Not only does the reality of Information Age technology differ greatly from its user-facing mythology; the design of its various layers reinforces the myth at the expense of the reality.

Frommer’s quip captures the essence of the “hardware problem” that reaches far beyond the smartphone, although Apple’s flagship device is a good starting point in the effort to understand the broader problem. In short, the issue is this: Hardware improves at a much slower pace than the exponential improvement of the information flow it makes possible. As a result, hardware is the main bottleneck that limits what our technology can accomplish, even when it’s all on an upward trajectory. In the iPhone, Apple solved a thousand problems that we didn’t yet know we had, but the constraints on its battery life and network connectivity still limit our access to its power in a way that harshly contrasts with the enormous impact of its software. That impact, so total in one domain, does not necessarily extend to the heavier and less pliable layers of reality: Recall the boss of Lena Dunham’s character in Girls, who jokes that she won’t sue him because there’s no app for doing so.

We’re trained to underrate hardware’s importance by a constant cultural emphasis on problems with fast, scalable solutions, like social networking, search optimization, or music streaming. The thornier problems, like the lawsuit example in Girls, are either treated as constants or ignored. The iPhone’s short battery life is obvious to its myriad users, but more subtle hardware problems, invisible as the data center in the woods, are the “unknown unknowns” (to quote Donald Rumsfeld) that we don’t even know we haven’t solved because we’ve focused our attention everywhere else.

Extending the metaphor beyond consumer devices, this hardware problem pervades the present-day urban landscape. Countless apps, open data portals, and smart city agendas promise to revolutionize or save cities, while the costly infrastructure upon which those solutions depend—bridges, roads, and power grids—steadily decays or requires increasing maintenance just to keep working. “Hacking” the city, or hacking anything, is a form of arbitrage that yields something for nothing by exploiting an asymmetry in information, but a massive substrate lies below those hacks that requires true work, in the mechanical sense of the word, to improve. Hannah in Girls can’t sue her employer using an app, nor can the Port Authority rebuild the functionally obsolete Goethals Bridge with anything we could call a hack. All the brilliant attention focused on such hacks and shortcuts at the expense of the underlying work ensures that we’ll keep running increasingly sophisticated apps on perpetually dying phones.


Ribbonfarm: Civilization and the War on Entropy

Ribbonfarm guest post #3 is up (and has been for a week). Please read it. I will probably spin off multiple future Kneeling Bus posts from what I wrote there. Let me know what you think.


Ribbonfarm: The Wave of Unknowing

My second guest post at Ribbonfarm went up last week. It’s rife with iPhone and surfing metaphors. Enjoy!


The iPhone Perspective

I got an iPhone two months ago, after years of pretending that I would never own one. Before the iPhone I had a Blackberry (from my employer) that I used infrequently, as well as a regular old cell phone that I took everywhere. I knew I’d eventually get an iPhone whether I wanted to or not because the world around me would eventually orient itself entirely toward smartphones, at which point not having one would qualify me as “that guy.”

I bring any new technology into my life with caution. The more potent and life-changing the technology, the more caution I use. An iPhone, of course, is among the most powerful and invasive devices one could ever integrate into his sensory experience, something that can truly affect the way you think, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I was frightened by what owning an iPhone might do to me. Marshall McLuhan said that technological extensions are also amputations—which faculties was I about to lose?

800px-Perugino_Keys

   Perugino’s perspective, before we had iPhones

Whether it’s true or not—and it probably is—America’s narrative about itself is that the iPhone represents the greatest height we are capable of reaching as a society, like the moon landing for a different generation. So why not participate? I saw the purchase as an experiment. By using an iPhone, I’d find out exactly how it affects the human sensorium: what gets better, what gets worse, and how the device redirects perception. No matter how much discipline you have, a smartphone is going to have some nontrivial impact on your relationship to the world around you. I knew it was important to think about this early, before I adjusted to the iPhone and stopped noticing its effects.

The most interesting quality of smartphones, to me, is their redefinition of individual perspective. Again, Marshall McLuhan’s observation helps here: The iPhone is a kind of eye, although it doesn’t fully replace (“amputate”) the human eye. It augments or extends it. More than just visually, the iPhone is something we look into and through to see the world around us. Each app presents a different kinds of vision—a different Umwelt. Yelp, for example, lets the user “see” resturants, bars, and other places of business, but leaves everything else invisible.

Media in the previous technological era, during which McLuhan wrote and lived, revolved around the television, radio, novel, and newspaper. Each required a centralized infrastructure that delivered standardized content to mass audiences. Everyone read the same paper and watched the same shows and movies. The economics of publishing, printing, and producing all encouraged this. Every living room’s TV presented the same channels in the same static form, with slight regional variations and the ability to switch from channel to channel.

When I started using my own iPhone, I kept thinking about the Bat-Signal – the searchlight that projected Batman’s logo into the night sky as a distress call – and how such a signal makes no sense in the iPhone era. My broader question was this: How do you send a message when you want to be certain it’s received? Fifty years ago, everyone was looking in the same directions. If you needed Batman, you shined an image into the sky that everyone saw, so to speak. Similarly, important messages appeared in the newspapers that everyone read and on the TV channels that everyone watched.

The Bat-Signal is no longer how you communicate. The algorithmic personalization of the smartphone and internet, combined with the long tail of choices they make possible, ensure that no two people see the same version of the same thing. Facebook and Twitter are read more widely than the most circulated newspaper ever was, but the Facebook you see and the one I see are almost completely different because the content comes from our own lives, not a producer or publisher. Even the media of the last century—movies, TV, and recorded music, all still as popular as ever—are chopped up and repackaged via a multitude of digital channels, ensuring that everyone receives them somewhat differently.

An iPhone is simply hardware that reinforces this solipsistic mode. Your phone has different apps than mine, so you can see things that I can’t see, and vice versa. If Batman got a distress text message instead of a Bat-Signal, nobody else would know. Each smartphone is a unique repository of its owner’s memory, attention, and sensory capacity. We still have eyes and a sky to look up at, but important messages are no longer projected onto that sky because the bulk of attention is directed inward, and the smartphone is how we receive as well as transmit messages in that new interior space. These messages are like Bat-Signals projected in ultraviolet light, invisible to the human eye without special tools to help it see.


Ribbonfarm: Machine Cities and Ghost Cities

I already mentioned that I’m doing this all year for the great blog Ribbonfarm, and now I’m on the board with my first post. It’s about bridges, my old employer, why cities exist, and my favorite topic of all: airports. I’m excited about it. There’s more where that came from. Check it out.


Writing, Hibernation & Barbell Strategies

Hi! I’ve been away for a while, as you may have noticed. Not away from any place I normally am, but away from this blog, and away from other places on the internet where I like to show up. My last post to this blog was the day after Thanksgiving—November 23—and while I wish I could say my silence since then has been intentional, that’s only half true.

Thanksgiving and the holiday period that follows has always been a lazy and distracting time for me, but until this year I’ve never had a blog to show me the extent of that torpor. During that time this year, I also directed a huge portion of my mental and emotional energy toward getting a new gig, which I’m happy to say worked out: I left my previous job at the Port Authority just before Christmas and started a new one at Uber’s New York office after the New Year. Periods of stability and stasis, for me, are incredibly fertile, writing-wise, as I’ve learned from this stretch. Major transitional periods, it turns out, are not.

Throughout December, I couldn’t concentrate on writing in the way that I had in the fall. I attribute much of that to my interviewing for (and ultimately choosing to accept) a new job, which required a lot of the attention I normally dedicated to writing. I took a similar hiatus from Kneeling Bus last summer, which I believe led to better and more frequent posting during the moths that followed.

As my life recovers a measure of equilibrium, I feel the ideas and urge to write creeping back to their normal levels. I’m currently reading Nassim Taleb’s new book, Antifragile, and I’m going to try to back into his “barbell strategy” as an explanation/excuse for why I don’t write for Kneeling Bus consistently on a year-round basis. The barbell strategy, in short, describes productive inconsistency: A mixture of two extremes instead of maintaining a consistent average. For my writing, this means seasons of productivity separated by hibernation periods (summer and December). I could post once a week for the entire year, but my internal rhythm dictates a more “lumpy” distribution. The barbell strategy. Again, I wish that had been my master plan entering December, but it’s really just an ex post realization about how I write and think.

That said, I’m back again, and I expect this to be a great year. I’ve accepted a generous offer from Venkatesh Rao at Ribbonfarm to become a resident blogger, with my first post up next week. I can’t give Ribbonfarm enough praise, and it’s a massive thrill to write for the blog that has inspired so much of what I write here. So, stay tuned for that, and start checking Kneeling Bus again if you’ve gotten out of the habit. Follow me on Twitter if you haven’t already. To paraphrase myself last August: The kid is back!


Escaping the Field

In Hurricane Sandy and all but the gravest disasters, there’s a halo of nervous excitement that surrounds the real damage and pain that occur. It’s uncomfortable to admit but those high enough on Maslow’s pyramid can experience an upheaval as a stimulating diversion, to the extent that their lives aren’t actually disrupted. For most New Yorkers, 2011‘s Hurricane Irene was an exercise in frivolous non-preparation. As for the much heavier Hurricane Sandy, New York Times columnist David Carr observed how Twitter’s tone shifted from snarky to frightened once the storm’s magnitude became evident, the former attitude being the default stance that later insight would correct.

Illegible Manhattan (Source: Getty Images via The Blaze)

A few days after Hurricane Sandy, I took a run at dusk from Brooklyn through Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where power had not yet returned. Crossing the crowded Williamsburg Bridge, which became dark at its exact halfway point, I noticed that a palpable nervous energy surrounded me. It wasn’t negative or positive, exactly, but there was a heightened emotional state in the throngs crossing the bridge that did not match up with the bad things everyone knew had happened. By Thursday of that week, Brooklyn neighborhoods that hadn’t lost power were packed with stir-crazy eaters and drinkers. As in the 2003 blackout, many city-dwellers sense that there’s something thrilling (if still a bit frightening) about electricity loss and disrupted routines.

During my run through lights-out Manhattan, it occurred to me that the anarchic shadowscape created by the power failure must inspire people on some subconscious level. Again, if you lost your home or lived near a more severely-damaged area, you wouldn’t have felt this way, but most Manhattanites didn’t. It’s the same mechanism that makes the educated middle classes so interested in zombie apocalypses and Mad Max scenarios. For a brief moment, it felt like there were no rules in America’s most densely-packed urban area, and if that realization was a bit alarming, it also indicated how controlled and overprogrammed our urban environments are under normal circumstances.

Even the best-behaved people (maybe those people especially) feel a lurid thrill at disruptions of all kinds. Lower Manhattan’s big story one year ago—Occupy Wall Street—perfectly distilled this sentiment, hence its widespread resonance: The movement aggressively carved out and defended a pocket of unprogrammed, illegible space in Zucotti Park, demonstrating how much resistance such an action faces even when it’s harmless (I’ve written a longer post exploring this idea). Hurricane Sandy was obviously something nobody wanted, but it certainly “switched off” the legible and programmed consumer city that normally fills downtown Manhattan, at least for a few days.

It’s harder than ever to find public places that are truly wild, especially in the cities where global capitalism is most dominant, like New York. Deleuze has described our passage from a disciplinary society to a society of control. The former was characterized by spaces of enclosure: the factory, the school, the prison, and other institutions. Individuals passed from one of these enclosures to the next, and were subject to the laws of each space when physically inside of it. The society of control, however, replaces enclosures with far-reaching fields that its subjects never really leave: markets, identities, information, and statuses. Deleuze writes, “In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again…while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.”

In the prior century, you became free by escaping from the enclosure. Think of the prison break in The Shawshank Redemption or Ferris Bueller avoiding school for a day. These narratives resonate less in the present because you no longer attain freedom just by getting out of the building. Escaping from the control society’s fields is a different matter altogether, and only when those fields are temporarily shut off do we glimpse a comparable degree of freedom. Disasters, for all of their horrors, are among the only situations where we witness such a shutoff: For a few days, Hurricane Sandy largely disabled phones, computers, credit cards, and other technologies that uphold our particular control society by creating the field that constantly surrounds us and captures our behavior. This gap in the field happened to coincide with a physical location in Manhattan. If there are few enclosures for us to break out of in the twenty-first century, this was a rare chance to “break in” to a pocket of illegible, free space and find out what it looks like.


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