Thursday, May 14, 2020
the world computer: a marginally coherent bathtub rant
I was pondering Amazon just now, as I sat in the bathtub sweating profusely and reading an installment of The Murderbot Diaries on an old e-ink Kindle in a sandwich baggy.
I started thinking about how I bought a DRM-free edition of the book somewhere besides Amazon and jumped through several hoops to get it in a readable format on the Kindle (a device given to me by a former employer so I could participate in a book club for reading the blend of self-help, technical propaganda, and management porn that the class of people who go through startup incubators pretty much swim in).
And then I thought: For fucksake, the sheer futility of this kind of exercise, when we as people who read books all more or less live inside the machinery constructed by Amazon. I mean, sure, I have a copy of a book that I can stash for later and read on some other gadget, which has some practical value. But if you think of it as some minor act of resistance to the bullshit status quo… I mean, it feels good, I indulge in this kind of theatrics all the time, but fundamentally Amazon still owns publishing and for fractally similar reasons total assholes still control most of the code on pretty much every device on the planet.
From one reasonable but doomed point of view, the Kindle is a special-purpose computer I own. But that elides a whole lot of its essential nature, doesn’t it? What the Kindle really is: A fragment of Amazon’s computer that happens to be physically located in my house, interfaced with both my credit card balance and my brain.
And then I thought: We’re over the threshold. It’s not so much that there are a lot of computers. 20 years ago there were a lot of computers. Now it’s more like there’s one massive computer and we’re all inside it. We’ve collapsed into the state where cyberspace isn’t just a meaningful concept; it’s very nearly coterminous with human existence.
This does look intriguing, but I can’t help but be disinterested in it because it doesn’t look like you can share and collaborate over the Internet.
And I thought: Right. This is where we are. Abstractions like “a kind of file that this software can read” have become implementation details for the technical class. Even for the technical class, what doesn’t open onto the network is essentially dead. And in an age and architecture when scale and corporate platform availability (Android, iOS, Facebook) are prerequisites for meaningful participation, “the network” means what’s wholly owned. The network’s the computer, the computer is the megacorporation.
But that understates the case. The meta-megacorporation is the network is the computer. Amazon doesn’t own the whole machine, or Microsoft, or Apple, or Facebook, or Google, or the governments of [the United States, China, Russia, …]. Vast territories are delineated within the network, but their boundaries are permeable and ill-defined. It’s impossible to cleanly disentangle client hardware from operating systems from databases from protocols from supply chains from datacenters. Just as it’s impossible to disentangle computation from the flow of money, the flow of goods, the flow of surveillance, the software-riddled cognitive state of populations. Scale permeates everything, even scale.
So: There’s a computer and most of us live there now.