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The Internet, Globalization, and You

Beau Gunderson’s $10 Patreon reward prompt was, “How does living in a cyberpunk world affect our self-determination?” So first let’s talk about regular ol’ self-determination. There are a couple ways to interpret this: sovereign or individual.

The poli-sci version of self-determination is that the citizens of a country get to choose their own mode of government and get to define their constitution. Wikipedia says, this “cardinal principle in modern international law […] states that nations, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no interference.”

The individual form of self-determination is a similar idea, but scaled down — the right and ability to direct your own life. If you examine this closely it’s an obvious illusion, but because free will doesn’t feel like an illusion, we pretend that it exists. I am the master of my fate! It’s a more practical attitude.

Sovereign Self-Determination

Europe and the United States are seeing a split in public sentiment between corporate elite globalism and protectionist plebeian nationalism. I frankly don’t know how this is playing out in South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, etc, etc — but whither goes the USA, the rest of the world tends to follow.

I’d bet on the elite winning over time, and thus the power of governments relative to giant transnational companies weakening and weakening. I mean, hey, at least Cthulhu swims left. But that might take a while, so perhaps global warming will force a sea change first? (Pun very intended.)

The internet is a globalizing force, and it’s so economically compelling that no country or group of people can resist it forever. The winner-take-all dynamics of internet businesses help create new hegemonies that transcend borders. I do want to note that there is significant upside! But upside is not my beat 😉

Personal Self-Determination

I said we pretend to have free will, so even though I don’t believe it exists in a philosophical sense, I’m just going to use conventional language.

Does a cyberpunk world erode the choices available to you? The internet substantially empowers huge companies (think Google, and Facebook) but it also substantially empowers individuals.

You can talk to (almost) anyone, broadcast whatever you want (unless it’s child porn, but I’m okay with that restriction), and sell just about anything anonymously (provided a certain level of opsec prowess — unfortunately this one does apply to child porn). Those caveats don’t negate that more opportunities are available than ever before.

I do worry that I’m over-indexing on my own reality. I have lots of cultural capital, a middle-class safety net, and live in the a place full of jobs. Elsewhere in my country and probably yours as well, there’s a demographic that is saturated with despair.

Opportunities are available. Being equipped to take the opportunities is another thing, yeah?

Header photo by Roel Hemkes.

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Relentlessly Growth-Oriented & Profit-Seeking

Developer Francis Tseng, who made Humans of Simulated New York, is currently crowdfunding a dystopian business simulator called The Founder. You play as the head of a startup and your goal is to grow the company however you can. Little obstacles like other people’s lives shouldn’t bother you!

Artwork from dystopian video game The Founder. Image via the Kickstarter campaign.

Image via the Kickstarter campaign.

Tseng writes in his crowdfunding pitch:

“How is the promise of technology corrupted when businesses’ relentlessly growth-oriented and profit-seeking logic plays out to its conclusion? What does progress look like in a world obsessed with growth, as measured only by sheer economic output?”

It looks a lot like San Francisco. That’s not a compliment.

“Winning in The Founder means shaping a world in which you are successful — at the expense of almost everyone else.”

Not so different from the real world of business, right?

Screenshot from The Founder's game website. "Change the world. Everything you do has a consequence. With your revolutionary new products, you have the power to shape a brave new world — one in which every facet serves your ceaseless expansion."

Screenshot from the game site.

I don’t believe that economics is a zero-sum game, especially when it comes to technology. “Innovation” may be an over-fetishized buzzword, but it really is able to move the needle on people’s quality of life.

Unfortunately, that aspect of industry is not prioritized in practice. The profit motive should be a proxy for ~making the world a better place~ but it often gets treated as an end in and of itself.

The Founder interrogates this trend and hopefully makes the player feel uneasy about their own incentives. If you’re interested in playing, contribute!

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” — Jeffrey Hammerbacher, data scientist and early Facebook employee

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Exclusion from the Mapped Physicality Database

some kind of space shuttle? not sure

“Put me back on the GOD. DAMN. MAP.” Alden was yelling into his laptop speaker. He was so angry that he brought his face close to the computer, voice distorted by the overloaded audio processors.

“My apologies, sir,” the tinny customer service chatterbot responded. “At this time we cannot reinstate your business on the Mapped Physicality Database.”

Alden made a noise of pure frustration, a growling sort of scream, and then banged his mouse to click on the hangup button.

Stacy sat in the corner of his office, feeling awkward. They had been removed five days ago, and she wasn’t sure how long Alden would keep her on. She wasn’t sure how long Alden could afford to keep her on. It wasn’t like Stacy was privy to the details of cash flow.

Alden stood up and started pacing, hands in the pockets of his grey suit pants. He muttered expletives to himself. Stacy didn’t move, still watching him from the corner.

Alden stopped abruptly and turned to look at her. “Is this a glitch?”

That was when Stacy felt the alarm in her stomach. She had never heard Alden sound plaintive.

He was tough. He didn’t whine. He didn’t ask her questions. Not until now.

Five days ago, the store was suddenly dead. No one came in to buy new rigs or fancy up their old ones. This was very unusual; Stacy was used to furiously taking notes on her netpad while customers dictated what they wanted. The regular clientele was all bored upscale folks, since no one else would bother to come in person. Alden said they liked the attention.

But five days ago there was no one. Alden said it was a fluke.

Four days ago, there was still no one. Alden laughed it off to Stacy, but he went into the back room and didn’t emerge until after closing. Stacy left without seeing him again.

Three days ago, Stacy opened up the shop and Alden arrived an hour later. By noon he told her, “I’m looking into this.” No customers had come in.

At two o’clock he strode back into the showroom, where Stacy was sitting, and shouted, “We’re gone! It’s like we fucking disappeared!”

She looked at him quizzically. “We disappeared? But, aren’t we… here?”

“Yes, Stacy, we’re here. I KNOW WE’RE HERE. Jesus. We’re just not on the maps. Not any of the maps. Not the suggestion APIs or the service maps or the retail maps. Not any maps.”

Stacy hesitated to ask why. If he knew, wouldn’t he lead with that?

Two days ago, Alden told Stacy the name of what they were missing from. “It’s called the Mapped Physicality Database. I didn’t know about this goddam thing. Did you?”

It took Stacy a moment to realize that it wasn’t a rhetorical question. “No,” she responded. “I don’t… I don’t think so. The name doesn’t sound familiar…”

Alden blew a frustrated breath through his nose. “I’m gonna talk to them. You don’t have to come in tomorrow.”

Stacy didn’t ask if she would get paid anyway.

Today was a day and a half later.

Stacy had not been able to enjoy the time she had off. When she looked up the Mapped Physicality Database, results were disturbingly thin. But she kept her faith in Alden. He seemed to force obstacles out of his way through sheer rage.

But now he seemed desperate. The grey suit, so impressive one week ago, was suddenly crumpled. His eyes were fearful.

“Why did this happen?” Alden spread his hands like he was reaching for something. “Tell me what we did. Stacy. Tell me what the hell is happening.”

Stacy tendered her resignation. Alden didn’t say anything else. He turned and went into the back without acknowledging her.

Two days later, a week later, two weeks later, a month later. Stacy kept checking the suggestion service on her palm module. The shop didn’t reappear on the map.

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Corporate Ecology

Sci-fi author Charlie Stross wrote the following in 2010:

“Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.) […]

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.”

This is true to an extent, insofar as any way of regarding a system can be true. But it’s more complex than what Stross has laid out. Real life is always more complex than the aesthetically appealing description.

To grab the most recent counterexample, the results of the Brexit referendum were abhorrent to London’s financial sector. It remains to be seen whether and how the UK will withdraw from the EU, or if it will have to relinquish Scotland in the process, but it’s pretty clear that outcomes fiercely opposed by the corporatized elite can come to pass and gain tremendous public prominence.

This is also a simplification: “those who participate within [a corporation] subordinate their goals to that of the collective”. Not exactly. I might say “those who participate in a given system act according to the system’s incentive structure” instead.

You get ahead in a big company — companies of most sizes, actually — by making your boss look good. Raises and promotions are allocated to employees who boost their supervisors’ status. (Wisdom from my dad, who’s worked for the same giant enterprise tech company for thirty years.) Making your boss look good may or may not align with helping the company succeed as a whole.

In 2007, political humorist and journalist Jon Schwarz defined the Iron Law of Institutions:

“[T]he people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in powerwithin the institution than for the institution to ‘succeed’ if that requires them to lose power within the institution.” [Italics in original.]

This could be summarized as “people care about their status among members of their ingroup, not members of the outgroup(s)”. Almost all cultural entities — and corporations are encrusted with culture — can be examined as communities going through hipster hype cycles and jockeying for power among themselves.

But of course, reality is also more complex than this paradigm. People can and do raise a cause above their individual wellbeing.

Corporations are assemblages of different types of people arranged in various idiosyncratic feedback loops. For the corporation to be sufficiently successful and stick around, the system must be reasonably optimized for its own survival. But it doesn’t have to work well from any objective standpoint. It can lurch in one direction or another on both macro and micro levels (the infamous Nokia acquisition and employee rating system are beautiful examples).

Anyway, we should not forget that regarding a company as a united entity with clear goals is just a rhetorical device, not a 1:1 reflection of reality.

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Uncertainty + Risk + Trying to Make Money

“A thing I had long suspected — the world’s absurdity — became obvious to me. I suddenly felt unbelievably free, and the freedom itself was an indication of that absurdity. […] Cautiously, clumsily, I loaded the revolver, then turned off the light. The thought of death, which had once so frightened me, was now an intimate and simple affair.” — The Eye by Vladimir Nabokov

Uncertainty blazing at the end of a tunnel.

Photo by darkday.

The wide variety of possible futures poses a problem. It’s very simple: uncertainty. Uncertainty creates risk, and it’s stressful. By definition the true future is unknown, and therefore scary. You can attempt to prepare for the future, but you can’t really prepare for it — because you’ll prepare for the future you expect, which will differ significantly from the future that actually happens.

Technology analyst Ben Thompson likes to say that the worst-case scenario for a five-year plan is that you achieve your goals, but the ground has shifted under you in the meantime. The ground is constantly shifting underneath us. It’s easy to project consumer gadget trends, but it’s not so easy to call the election (Hillary will win) or what will happen in Syria (no guesses here). Will self-driving cars take over the roads in ten years or fifteen? You can’t cash out if you don’t buy and sell the stocks at the right time. Will universal basic income ever be applied beyond a few one-off experiments?

The way to deal with uncertainty is not to try to eliminate it — that’s a futile task. Uncertainty and risk are inherent features of reality. The way to deal with uncertainty is to absorb it. Make it part of your being and your reactions. Come to peace with the fact that life is cruelly unpredictable. Embrace the instability of your circumstances, and practice honing your reflexes. You’ll need to jump at some point.

I’ve also been wondering whether I can make money from Exolymph. I don’t want to charge for the newsletter directly, and advertising won’t be lucrative unless I can gain several multiples of the subscriber base I have now. Sorry, I know it’s crass to talk about #monetizing, but I would love to be able to support myself by writing quasi sci-fi thinkpieces and story snippets. However, in order to convince people to give you money, you need to satisfy a market need — in other words, to solve a problem.

What problem most torments the kind of person who subscribes to Exolymph? Based on the anxious discussions about Donald Trump in the chat group — as well as automation and surveillance and the everything-industrial complex — the core worry that captivates us is uncertainty. I can write blasé dismissals of the utility of obsessing over uncertainty, but of course I’m still preoccupied with it. It seems that I’m not alone.

Because I’m a writer, I immediately thought, “Okay, I’ll write a guide to embracing uncertainty.” But that’s a silly idea. I’m not an expert, and besides, such a guide already exists. Neither am I a researcher, nor a scientist, nor a successful investor, nor any of those people who have either studied or experienced uncertainty to the degree that they can talk about it with anything approaching, well, certainty.

All I’m equipped to do is explore. Find out how people dealt with economic upheaval in the past. Dive into the long Wikipedia list of cognitive biases. I’m throwing ideas at the wall, but I still don’t know if anyone would pay for this.

Would you pay $5 per month for a weekly offshoot newsletter that delivered meditations and investigations on functioning and thriving in a world of uncertainty? If no one can be bothered to respond to this email, I can safely assume that no one would bother to pay actual money.

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Frankenstein Robotics

Dwarf Gekko

Still from a YouTube video by Diamond Dogs.

The gadget (creature?) pictured above is a Dwarf Gekko from the Metal Gear Solid video game series. According to an MGS fan site:

“Beyond using its three manipulator arms to move about, these unmanned weapons possess the dexterity to enter homes and office buildings, operate computer keyboards and open drawers to collect intelligence, and operate a handgun. Small enough to function unhindered in any space designed for human use.”

Something is profoundly creepy about the human-shaped limbs mounted on a robotic ball. It’s like an evil BB-8 designed by HR Giger with input from Hans Bellmer.

drawing by Hans Bellmer

Drawing by Hans Bellmer. See more here (NSFW).

In real life, we make humanoid robots because they can navigate “any space designed for human use” — AKA the built environment as it currently exists. We can integrate them into manufacturing, warehouse stocking, and other types of repetitive manual labor. This will potentially have a huge economic impact within a couple of decades, and it’s much easier to get there if we don’t need to rebuild every facility that will be affected. We can slide into the automated future factory by factory instead of jumping in everywhere all at once.

Despite its potential to shape this trend, Boston Dynamics, originator of the infamous BigDog robot, has been put up for sale by Alphabet (Google’s parent company). Apparently the executives at BD haven’t tried hard enough to generate revenue in the near-term. Bloomberg Business also reported that Google’s internal PR apparatus was not keen on BD’s efforts to make androids:

“After [Boston Dynamics’] latest robot video was posted to YouTube, in February, Google’s public-relations team expressed discomfort that Alphabet would be associated with a push into humanoid robotics. […] ‘There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs,’ wrote Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X. […] ‘We’re not going to comment on this video because there’s really not a lot we can add, and we don’t want to answer most of the Qs it triggers,’ she wrote.”

The term “uncanny valley” usually refers to the point when an animated human is not quite perfect, but really close — it turns out that being slightly off is much more unsettling than an obvious caricature. We need a similar term for the visceral reaction to repurposed humanness, like the Dwarf Gekko’s three limbs.

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Amazon has a whim machine bolted onto their ecommerce system. The recommendation engine is a combination of practical — “Other people who bought X also bought Y” — and bemusingly enthusiastic: “You clicked on X before so I bet you’d really like ALSDJFLKSAJF too! Wow, look at all those letters! Notice how they’re in the same alphabet as X? Pretty impressive, huh?” It’s bad at nuance but it’s good at throwing out options. There are so many options for it to scan and suggest.

This stock photo amuses me. Image via Robbert Noordzij.

This stock photo amuses me. Image via Robbert Noordzij.

Businesses need to solve hard problems in order to be successful. Shopping on Amazon is cheap and convenient and they have a vast array of goods. Selling things cheaply without collapsing is a hard problem, and so is convenience, and so is being stocked with lots of products. Amazon conquered all three challenges. Now the benefits feed into each other. Customers love the cheapness and convenience, so sellers must stock their storefronts. Sellers are much easier to aggregate than customers, so once you figure out the customer bit, you’re golden.

Superstar internet businesses — and I guess most high-value companies in general — are all about positive feedback loops. Circular incentives that channel energy from initial success to intermediate success to dominance.

When you search for something on Google, you make Google better by feeding data into their algorithm, and your presence incentivizes both websites and advertisers to cater to this particular search engine. You come back because the algorithm is so good at presenting the information you want. Websites worry about SEO and advertisers drop $$$$$ because that excellent algorithm keeps pulling you back. The incentive structure is great for Google. That ingenious feedback loop made them dominant and it keeps them dominant.

Fast forward to 2037 when we’re surfing Amagooglezon (or whatever supplants them) with our heads swimming in VR buckets. We’ll bounce from product to product, purchasing and appraising and reviewing and returning and diving into on-demand experiences. I wonder how recommendation systems will work then — maybe they’ll have personalities. Maybe we’ll fall in love with them. Maybe we’ll hate them. Maybe our wallets will be managed by AI assistants and none of this will matter.

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Figuring Out What’s Predetermined

Image by Neil Cummings.

Image by Neil Cummings.

You can’t prepare for a future that you haven’t imagined. Of course, the future that you + me + various experts have conceived will not come true in the way that we expect it to. If future-prediction were easy, the stock market wouldn’t exist, and the economy that we’re familiar with might not function either. Lack of accurate or certain information is integral to the current system.

Consider the scarce resource. What’s hard to obtain? From the perspective of media suppliers (publishers), it’s attention. From the perspective of media consumers, especially in the business/tech sphere, the scarce resource is valuable information, the kind that can be used to make decisions or shape strategies.

Participants in abundance economies are forced to sort through a deluge of options to find what’s worthwhile. Thus media businesses like Stratechery and The Information are successful. They don’t rely on volume — they rely on significance per word (I swear that’s a genuine metric).

When we’re dealing with futurism, actionable information is difficult to identify. Most people aren’t even in a position to change their behavior based the likely trends of the next century. (Venture capitalists and other people with resources to deploy, but who else?) Near-future estimates, or insights regarding what powerful people want and expect, are more immediately useful to us commoners.

Of course, we shouldn’t let that stop us from speculating! There might be more advantage in it than I’m guessing. Besides, there’s always grinding:

“So i know that you can implant an RFID chip in your body but is there any form of security. RFID Identification information can be stolen remotely outside of the body, but does it being inside the body change its vulnerability. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and i know that the bio-hacking community has been growing for a while and that as it grows so do the dangers. Not too worried but i just wanted to know the security risks.”

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