Cornucopia
Abundance isn’t shipping containers full of stuff. (image by me, CC BY NC SA)

Last month I was at the Scifi Economics Lab, and Cory Doctorow
was one of the speakers. There was much to unpack in his talk, and he has a style of delivery that makes you want to quote a lot of things. I won’t give in to that urge, but will highlight one expression.

At some point he talked about abundance. It’s a term I’ve struggled with over the years because it’s so easy to interpret as having mountains of stuff, as per the image above. Or have everything free. A Dutch expression or rather admonition “we don’t live in the land where chickens fly into your mouth already fried” is probably an image our Calvinist culture associates with abundance: no work, but all the fruits of it. I have a sense of the meaning of abundance other than that, but never felt I had the right words to express that other perspective on abundance.

Doctorow’s metaphor for abundance was useful for me. He described back packers always having to carry a roll of toilet paper with them and that if not used it would desintegrate in your backpak, and therefore regularly needs replacement. Backpackers spent resources on replacing their toilet paper and spent mental energy on keeping an eye on still having it with them. A constant worry, and an inefficient use of resources (as you don’t use much of the toilet paper for its intended purpose, due to degradation).
Abundance then is being certain there is toilet paper when and where you need it. This is a qualitative metaphor that adds location, timing and actual need as dimensions of relevance. Abundance here is also more efficient, reduces worry, and is always there when needed. But it’s not limitless, free, or available anywhere for anything at any whim. It’s about qualitative abundance not quantitative abundance (‘heaps of free stuff’).

Hotel Room Toilet Paper Roll FoldMetaphorical Practical abundance, image by Tony Webster, license CC BY

This makes a vast number of things abundant in the society I live in, because it is there when I need it, without worry. Water, food, energy, clothing, transport, and everything else including toilet paper. (I once had a Central-Asian colleague who told me she thought, having visited, the Netherlands was totally boring because of that predictable abundance: no need to improvise anytime/anywhere.) Especially in the context of the six ways to die, abundance is an important notion, also because that abundance is often acquired by increasing the complexity of our systems. That complexity can break down.

Time, location and the context of an existing need are qualitative dimensions interesting to consider as design factors. What do you do when one or more of them are not to be counted on? Or can be counted upon, but at specific intervals? This is dealing with and designing for intermittence, as building block of both resilience and agency. That’s for another time.

A while ago Peter wrote about energy security and how having a less reliable grid may actually be useful to energy security.

This the difference between having tightly coupled systems and loosely coupled systems. Loosely coupled systems can show more robustness because having failing parts will not break the whole. It also allows for more resilience that way, you can locally fix things that fell apart.

It may clash however with our current expectations of having electricity 24/7. Because of that expectation we don’t spend much time about being clever in our timing and usage of energy. A long time ago I provided training to a group of some 20 Iraqi water provision managers, as part of the rebuilding efforts after the US invasion of Iraq. They had all kinds of issues obviously, and often issues arising in parallel. What I remember connected to Peter’s post is how they described Iraqi citizens had adapted to the intermittent availability of electricity and water. How they made things work, at some level, by incorporating the intermittent availability of things into their routines. When there was no electricity they used water for cooling, and vice versa for instance. A few years ago at a Border Sessions conference in The Hague, one speaker talked about resilience and intermittent energy sources too. He mentioned the example that historically Dutch millers had dispensation of visiting church on Sundays if it was windy enough to mill.

The past few days in Dutch newspapers a discussion is taking place that some local solar energy plans can’t be implemented because the grid maintainers can’t deal with the inputs. Now this isn’t necessarily true, but more the framing that comes with the current always on macro-grid. Tellingly any mention of micro grids, or local storage is absent from that framing.

In a different discussion with Peter Rukavina and with Peter Bihr, it was mentioned that resilience is, and needs to be, rising on the list of design principles. It’s also the reason why resilience is one of three elements of agency in my networked agency thinking.

Line 'Em Up
Power lines in Canada, photo Ian Muttoo, license CC BY SA

Some links I thought worth reading the past few days

  • Peter Rukavina pointed me to this excellent posting on voting, in the context of violence as a state monopoly and how that vote contributes to violence. It’s this type of long form blogging that I often find so valuable as it shows you the detailed reasoning of the author. Where on FB or Twitter would you find such argumentation, and how would it ever surface in a algorithmic timeline? Added Edward Hasbrouck to my feedreader : The Practical Nomad blog: To vote, or not to vote?
  • This quote is very interesting. Earlier in the conversation Stephen Downes mentions “networks are grown, not constructed”. (true for communities too). Tanya Dorey adds how from a perspective of indigenous or other marginalised groups ‘facts’ my be different, and that arriving a truth therefore is a process: “For me, “truth growing” needs to involve systems, opportunities, communities, networks, etc. that cause critical engagement with ideas, beliefs and ways of thinking that are foreign, perhaps even contrary to our own. And not just on the content level, but embedded within the fabric of the system et al itself.“: A conversation during EL30.mooc.ca on truth, data, networks and graphs.
  • This article has a ‘but’ title, but actually is a ‘yes, and’. Saying ethics isn’t enough because we also need “A society-wide debate on values and on how we want to live in the digital age” is saying the same thing. The real money quote though is “political parties should be able to review technology through the lens of their specific world-views and formulate political positions accordingly. A party that has no position on how their values relate to digital technology or the environment cannot be expected to develop any useful agenda for the challenges we are facing in the 21st century.” : Gartner calls Digital Ethics a strategic trend for 2019 – but ethics are not enough
  • A Dutch essay on post-truth. Says it’s not the end of truth that’s at issue but rather that everyone claims it for themselves. Pits Foucault’s parrhesia, speaking truth to power against the populists : Waarheidsspreken in tijden van ‘post-truth’: Foucault, ‘parrèsia’ en populisme
  • When talking about networked agency and specifically resilience, increasingly addressing infrastructure dependencies gets important. When you run decentralised tools so that your instance is still useful when others are down, then all of a sudden your ISP and energy supplier are a potential risk too: disaster.radio | a disaster-resilient communications network powered by the sun
  • On the amplification of hate speech. It’s not about the speech to me, but about the amplification and the societal acceptability that signals, and illusion of being mainstream it creates: Opinion | I Thought the Web Would Stop Hate, Not Spread It
  • One of the essential elements of the EU GDPR is that it applies to anyone having data about EU citizens. As such it can set a de facto standard globally. As with environmental standards market players will tend to use one standard, not multiple for their products, and so the most stringent one is top of the list. It’s an element in how data is of geopolitical importance these days. This link is an example how GDPR is being adopted in South-Africa : Four essential pillars of GDPR compliance
  • A great story how open source tools played a key role in dealing with the Sierra Leone Ebola crisis a few years ago: How Open Source Software Helped End Ebola – iDT Labs – Medium
  • This seems like a platform of groups working towards their own networked agency, solving issues for their own context and then pushing them into the network: GIG – we are what we create together
  • An article on the limits on current AI, and the elusiveness of meaning: Opinion | Artificial Intelligence Hits the Barrier of Meaning

I came across this Guardian article describing how an American author and artist found his Google account deleted, including his 14 year old blog hosted with Google’s Blogger platform.

Screenshot of removed blog message

To me this incident is notable in a few ways.

  • The author concerned had his blog up for 14 years, and even used it to write and keep manuscripts, so clearly it was of key importance to him as an online asset.
  • For such a key asset, using a free service is a risk, as that doesn’t provide any certainty concerning uptime.
  • Blogger, as a free service, comes with a TOS, allowing Google to withdraw service at any moment. You don’t have a ‘right’ to this service.
  • After the account was closed, it was impossible to actually contact Google to ask about the why and how, or if it can be reinstated
  • The author concerned feels he’s being censored (which in a literal sense is impossible, as only governments can censor), although it is likely the account was closed because of a breach of the terms of service (which are notoriously unevenly enforced in every platform)
  • The author didn’t keep back-ups.

All of this once again highlights the importance of embracing the distributedness of the internet. You have to make sure that you are not just a passive and consuming part of it, but that for things that are important to you, you are also willing to make sure those things are under as much of your own control as possible. Your blog is only yours if you have control over the infrastructure it runs on. The same is true for e-mail, which in the case mentioned above was also lost: you have to make sure you have full control over at least one domain name, at which you can also receive and send e-mail (you@yourdomain.tld).

This in short means you need to make sure you have a claim to the service you actually need. Blogger offers free hosting but can take it away. If you want your blog to exist, make sure you pay for hosting, and make sure you run it on a domain you control. I used Blogger when I started blogging in November 2002 (around the same time in short, as the artist’s blog that was deleted), but once I realized I was likely to continue writing, after a few months, I moved it to a paid hosting package I could more fully control, and on a URL I acquired separately from the hosting, also under my full control. It doesn’t mean nothing can happen (my blog was hacked once), but it does mean I can recover from it.

The web was built in distributed fashion. If you use it in a centralized way, by making use of large centralized services, you expose yourself to vulnerabilities. That is true for centralized free blogging platforms, like Blogger.com or WordPress.com, and all those other services such as Facebook, Flickr and whatnot. Don’t make yourself dependant, don’t put yourself in a position that has a single point of failure.