Tag Archives: excessions

The Bit I Liked Most

As Ada took me back through the Lord of the Rings.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Such times as these. Transition times, when new things are trying to not be crushed by old. Times like those that Paine said try men’s souls. Times when you can finally understand how people can see the round ups coming, and choose to stand. Drought times of soul and spirit.

Ways in which I am old,

or, why I need to accept that The Awl can publish good articles.

A few weeks of ago I found myself telling a teenager “You’re officially old now. That was quick.” after he’d tweeted “I don’t even understand the Internet anymore”, merely because our tweet conversation had been picked up and redistributed by @sodomy_bot.

Srly, in this way I am younger than my temporally challenged friend– I totally get the internet doing that. It loves a potty mouth, often algorithmically. It has loved my potty mouth for well-nigh 20 years. Despite my advanced age and the fact that I’m not a “digital native” I’ve often had an intuitive feel for the net. I get the inversion of privacy, I see institutions being disrupted, I’ve had a great track record in both predicting and participating in this whole rise of the internet thang. It has felt like something of a home for me for most of my adult life. In the 90s I taught a five week course that was a fire hose of protocols, clients, and social conventions called “The Internet From The Ground Up.” We started with what a packet switching network was and why it might help in the event of nuclear war, and got through why you should never type in all caps and what ttfn stood for, and eventually we all even made a website in class. My students, who were the staff and faculty of my college, often looked as if I had beaten them with a bat made of pure information. But I believed the more context you had, the more the next thing the net did would make sense to you.

I still believe in that approach, and I think that’s what mostly kept me young in internet terms. Once you understand that there’s an architectural politics baked into technology design, it’s easy to look at the protocols and interfaces and say: I can see what will happen to the people that use this, and therefore the world they inhabit. It takes only a little understanding of human nature, largely unchanged in its dealings with sodomy since it began, to understand why humans would write a sodomy bot.
So it’s with some pause that I too must admit sometimes I don’t geddit, and that this is where I am internet old. Back in the day of the paleonet, publications as I knew them had a distinct personality. They had a voice you could count on, a topic area you could model in your head, and a tendency to respond to the world in predictable ways. They were like people, and some were even like friends. Wrapped up in the designation of some corporate entity was something I could treat like a distant human, a penpal I would never meet. This quality was, of course, deliberate, and the result of a careful set of professional techniques. Editorial meetings, house style books, longtime guardians worked hard to create the gestaltic imaginary friends that lived under publishing brands.

You can blame the speed of the net, the disintermediation of gatekeepers, but I think it’s at least as much the loss of the artifact of print that decohered things under the urls that should have been, damn it, my friends and enemies online. This brings me to my moment: a moment lost in transcendental reading, lifted off the page and into the world the author envisioned. I love it when that happens. The article was a beautiful, to the point of lyrical, piece on James Dempsey’s discovery of a lost work of E.E. Cummings, one of my favorite poets. I read through the whole thing off a link on twitter before looking at the URL and realizing it was The God Damned Awl.

I really don’t have a good impression of The Awl. I have read some truly turgid pieces of shit on its pages, and don’t get me started on Hairpin– Now Stupider for Girls! I even have good reasons, in my own mind, for not liking The Awl. It always felt like railing against the man when in this case the man had set up your trust fund. It was self indulgent, it was snarky for its own sake– and in a bad way. Every time I’d looked at it (which wasn’t often) or that one obnoxious friend had sent me a link to and Awl piece I’d been dissapointed. But here they had gone and betrayed me, by publishing one of the best articles I’ve read in ages. Did I have to love the Awl now? Did I have to visit it as a regular reader just to find out if they ever publish anything that wonderful again? I had no way of containing this new Awl in my head, or what I should do about it.

In the 90s I found myself explaining to companies that because of search engines there was no such thing as a reliable front door to their site, and that they would have to live with it. For them, everything was disjointed if they could not control the way their users would experience their site. Ad firms and old corporate entities balked at this lack of control. “Get used to it,” I told them, “this is the new world.” Well, to myself today I say, get used to it, Quinn, this is the new world. Publications are no longer gestalt monoliths. They’re messy, they are off message at the edges that butt up against search engines and timelines. They are more like poltergeists than old friends. Even in many cases, my old friends, moved online.

I read a wonderful debunking of Second Life by friend and sort-of occasional boss at ITP Clay Shirky years ago, and while I told him I loved the piece itself, I spent 90% of my time berating him for publishing it with Vallywag, at the time the most despised rumor rag in my little world of techies. Valleywag was truly awful, so why had Clay given it this legitimacy? Didn’t he understand that now everything else on the site looked more respectable? What The Awl made me realize that he hadn’t made Valleywag more respectable, and that my image of The Awl and Valleywag had never been real in the first place. Clay hadn’t made Valleywag any more believable because he wasn’t there when Valleywag was being stupid. It existed independent of any particular post, and yet because of that, not at all. Not the way magazines and newspapers had existed before, not with that singular voice, that one relatable attitude. There was nothing substantial for me to pass judgement on.

So The Awl can produce literary nonfiction art. My granny walker cognitive approach to this realization is what has made me, finally after kicking back hard for years, old. Getting to the party late. On the Internet important political movements come from /b/tards, E.E. Cummings comes from the Awl, and moral values are codified by lolcats, who in their own turn take their language from IRC script kiddies. At some point or another the Internet makes us all old.

Age of Excessions Interlude: Biology, or the Drugs Win the Drug War.

Understanding what the Venter Institute really did today

The short answer is that they created a wholly synthetic genome and put it in a yeast cell. This goes towards creating a minimal cell; figuring out how little DNA you need to make a barebones organism. This leaves lots of extra possible genetic space to making that minimal cell do stuff we want, whether it be pee out biofuels or Prozac, eat Gulf of Mexico oil, or glow in the presence of melamine, cancer, or anger. With a minimal and reusable platform, doing any of these things just becomes a coding problem. And not even a novel coding problem, because we already have Nature to reverse engineer from. Nature uses the same platform, and at some point or another has already solved all these problems.

It’s techno-exciting, but fundamentally, it’s the next level of fine-grained resolution on the control of our environment, which has been our species’ trick from the beginning. Venter and his cohort are trying to replace petroleum, (and control the replacement, and pretty much rule the world as a result) and others are trying to create complex cancer fighting biologics. Some sweet, wonderful people from the nicer parts of biomed are even trying to figure out how to make a cheap suite of biologic drugs to treat the horrible helminthic NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases) that are destroying the lives of about 1.5 billion of the world’s poor. This task will be made vastly simpler with a platform like the minimal cell, at least in theory.

But there’s a paradox built into our tendency to seek more environmental control. The more control we have, the more unpredictable our world becomes. This is because all the other humans with their unpredictable and hidden desires can now also control our environment.

While biopunditry is talking about biofuel, cancer treatment, and growing extinct mammoths, I wanted to bring the implications of this work out of the towers of ivory and industry and down to earth.

Today, we lost the drug war. Oh, it will run around for a while, unaware that it is dead, but we have decisively lost.

You know what’s a lot easier than all the high minded business about environment, or life extension, or even the scary doomsday 12 Monkeys scenarios? Growing simpler molecule drugs. I don’t mean like aspirin, I mean like heroin and cocaine, THC and hallucinogens. They already grow in plants thoroughly studied, and people are motivated and not at all risk averse about getting those sequences somewhere they can use them. Cooking meth is hard and dangerous science compared to the ability to get a starter of a minimal cell that poops heroin and feeding it growth medium in your closet. We may have lost the drug war, but not as badly as the drug lords have.

It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it.

What synthbio is inventing right now is the true Bittorrent for things. It’s a platform for generating and sharing materials just this side of geology, since nearly everything but rocks is made by life. Right now you can think of it has having an interface so bad only a few people in the world can actually use it, and our hope for being in control is that the interface stays bad as long as possible. In the history of technology, that has rarely worked in the long term.

Craig Venter is not, despite his press, the smartest guy on the planet. He is not savant like, leaps and bounds in front of everyone and everything else. He isn’t the only one working on this. He’s maybe slightly in front, but probably not. If he is, it’s by inches. This is perhaps his Trinity, or the proof of concept right before it. It’s momentous, but it won’t stay contained.

This is on the scale of nukes, but not for long. Nukes are hard to build, requiring mind-boggling equipment and leave a kind of scent where ever they go. They can only really be used for magawatt power generation, and blowing shit up. Bio can be used for nearly anything you, me, or Charlie Stross can dream up. Imagine trying to stop proliferation if the atomic material centrifuges literally grew on trees and the fissile material floated freely through the air, and tended to show up in great amounts on bread you left out too long.

When you think of this, you can think of seeing a dodo someday, or Jurassic Park, or even taking a drug that a doctor grew just for you. But keep in mind the strangeness of the human imagination and the strength of human desires. A thousand weird Somas are coming, too.

Age of Excessions: Part Three, The brief, illegal life of the Scene.

“Everything that’s gone wrong in the news business went wrong first in the music business.” – Brooke Gladstone, On The Media

And before that, in the piracy business.

Create a new technology, and you invariably create a new culture with it. Every great invention of mankind is accompanied by fans, detractors, designers, bureaucrats, leaders, celebrities, and criminals. Computers alone weren’t enough to do this, but once they could talk to each other over phone lines, human roles began to coalesce around them. Computer criminals arose in the 80s, using PCs and modems to reach out and touch other computers.

Back in those paleointernet days, long before online piracy became something anyone could do, it was the exclusive realm of sophisticated users. Pirates, hackers, and phreakers were rarely solitary, stereotypes aside. They were vibrantly social among their own, creating a social system with all the normal features common to companies, governments, tribes, etc. Being an illegal underground, it went deliberately unnoticed as much as possible. It was the canary in the coal mine for what the internet could do to those institutions, but its death passed unnoticed and uninterpreted.

A very simple break down of the computer underground runs something like this: hackers, generally enabled by modems, got into computers they weren’t supposed to be in. Pirates made infringing copies of software, and often shared these around, again, by modem. The modems gave rise to a new form of criminal, focused on getting telephony resources without paying for them, called a phreaker. (Phreakers had an intrinsic fascination for Ma Bell that exceeded that purpose, but I’ll maintain most started phreaking after their first shocking phone bill.) Before long hackers and pirates often themselves became phreakers, to deal with both what could be huge phone bills and dangerous traceability. All of this intruding, copying, and messing with Ma Bell required a lot of social infrastructure. Within a few years the Scene was born, an underground community of people involved with illegal or unsanctioned computer or telephony activity.

Both “pirate” and “hacker” have changed meaning over time, and both of these terms have been reclaimed as points of pride. But the acts of pirates and hackers are, regardless of their inherent morality, generally illegal in some important jurisdiction. Hackers and pirates were not impressive additions to the criminal underworld. Most of them were people who had gotten interested in computers and just didn’t know or care that learning and doing more could slip quickly over the line of legality. Few of them saw themselves as criminals, they happened to break laws they saw as silly or insulting. Some of those laws were pretty silly, basic legislative misunderstandings of the technology that to this day prove incoherent when applied to sophisticated computer use.

I became involved with the piracy end of the Scene in 1995, after many of its key figures had been rounded up and jailed in the 1990 Operation Sundevil. My entré was down to dumb luck. I visited the house of a co-worker one evening. He and his friends were talking about something called God’s Realm, a successor to something called RIP. God’s Realm, it turned out, was the biggest piracy BBS in North America at the time. RIP was the board they’d run before, but when things got too hot with police they’d taken it down, waited a bit, and reinvented it. They were in piracy groups that competed to release mainly Windows software. The three groups I spent the bulk of my time over the next 18 months with were Razor 1911, PWA (Pirates with Attitudes), and DOD (Drink or Die). I met most of the people I would eventually interview on IRC.

Most of the pirates I met in that period were middle aged family men, with the exception of a couple younger guys that came up after Sundevil. I spent my time on IRC, lived with the pirates, and interviewed many of them. I openly took notes, so they taught me how to encrypt my notes. I found that the best way to learn about computer security and even lawbreaking was simply to ask and listen willingly. The Scene was mostly made up of people that didn’t see themselves as the bad guys, and were genuinely happy to have someone listen to their side of the story.

One of the younger guys (we’ll call him S) lived with God’s Realm in the house in front of an guest house I eventually rented a room in. He had a huge bundle of phone lines coming in, but they paid for themselves. S switched long distance carriers every few months without actually ever having an outgoing call, and the instant rebates covered the basic line costs with a few dollars to spare. The board was 15 nodes*, each node representing a phone line and a computer, with those computers networked together. The board boasted 80 gb of data- in 1995. It was an unfathomable amount of data back then. The majority of that 80gb was kept in tape backup. Only the index of the tapes and the most popular and newest downloads were kept live on the board, the rest you had to request and wait a week while the archivist got around to uploading it, so you could dial back in and download it over your modem. Some things required special access, for instance “cookies,” lists of credit card numbers used for long distance dialing, and stolen proprietary source code. I first saw the game Descent and Microsoft’s NT 3.51 in source code form. NT 3.51, I was told, had a check for the Utah teapot. If it saw the teapot running, it would turn off error checking, to deceive benchmark tests. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, and frankly, never had anyway to verify it anyhow, but I was shown the code where it supposedly happened.

God’s Realm was part of an ecosystem. It started with Suppliers, generally people who worked at software and game companies that snuck their software out to the Scene. Suppliers were carefully guarded resources. They usually got all-you-could-eat leech privileges on the boards, and didn’t spend too much time with the plebs on IRC. Their identities were hidden, often from everyone but the very heads of the groups. From Suppliers software was courried to the the Crackers, who used decompiling software like SoftICE to hack out the copy protections within hours. Only once did I get to see the SoftICE team work, three youngish guys huddled over their computers muttering to one another in some primitive, addled, and illegal version of pair programming. They were ripping bits out of games and rebuilding them, at the time trying to get the soundtrack to work after taking out the serial check. Once they were satisfied they passed it to a packager, it was approved by the leadership (who often, but not always, doubled as the packagers) and handed to couriers to spread to the BBSes like God’s Realm. From there the privileged and the lucky had access to huge stores of software in addition to those zero day warez. The process was focused on speed, but quality mattered too. A group would “win” on a title if their version got to a board first, but they could lose quickly too, if that version was buggy or broken. That would cost them download credits.

Couriers were the lowest rung of the ladder, and the most at risk. They used phreaking and carding to pay the enormous phone bills of passing data around the system of boards, and most of them weren’t very good at phreaking and carding. Couriers were the youngest, most likely to get caught, least in the loop people in the Scene. But even they had their legends, like a pair of twins known as the Thrust Brothers. They had two computers and four modems. They’d download from one board, hand the disks between them, and start uploading to the next without ever disconnecting.

There were people who maintained the channels of communication and coordination, those that recruited suppliers, people that acted as advocates, negotiators, spies, more roles than I ever fully understood. The scene had lawyers, landlords, archivists, and even me, their new pet amateur anthropologist.

The center of this social space, the boards, were becoming harder to justify. Everyone met up on IRC, communicated over email, increasingly worked for ISPs, web companies, or did networking for their real jobs. Running an FTP server was much easier than running a board. But most people didn’t want to move online; they complained that the net was more dangerous and less exclusive. And for the most part, that was the prevailing thought in the Scene. You joined an underground to be separate, and the net was the least separate thing in the world.

But it was so damn easy.

S, whose house played host to God’s Realm, got a job at a game company that was once quite famous, but has since gone out of business. At the time it was doing well out of a game called Descent. The local group of Razor 1911, of which he was a member, sat S down to tell him not to fuck this up. This was a good job, and winning on his company’s titles wasn’t worth risking it. But he was too tempted by the chance to win and gain status on popular game titles. Soon enough he bounced a large pgp file mailed from his work address to his outside email right after an internal release of the Descent 2 beta. No one had any doubts what was in the mail.

He was fired and escorted from the building. The next day he was asked to come down to the local PD for questioning, and brought along a scene lawyer. Somewhere in the course of questioning he was arrested, and the lawyer left and called the guys who ran God’s Realm to tell them to take down the board. The police had a warrant to search S’s house for the pgp key. The crew of God’s Realm swung into action to take the board down before the police got there, and destroy S’s key if they could find it. (Coincidentally, the whole 80 gig mess of tapes was in my car trunk that day, along with the archivist’s server.) Four or five people descended on S’s house and ripped up masses of computer equipment, carrying all of it to another house down the street, hoping like hell they wouldn’t be caught. The police arrive hours later, after the board had been destroyed and mourned. The police were looking for computers or a disk, what they found was a huge trunk of telephone lines terminating nowhere, and 15 square clean spots on the carpet. They were absolutely pissed, but totally powerless. They’d screwed up the investigation, and the guys got away with it.

There was some talk in the next couple of weeks about reviving the board, but nothing ever happened. The search warrant had administered the fatal hit to an already terminal patient. Other boards were dying too, or migrating on to FTP and web sites.

The internet was already destroying phreaking. It did this two ways. First via flat rate isp access that let you reach any node in the world. No more shocker phone bills, no more specific need to phreak. The second was how its inner workings were documented. The net was open and built by standards bodies amenable to question and comment. If you wanted to know how the whole magic system worked, you read the docs, maybe even mail the creators with question, to which most of them would respond cordially. If you found a way to break something, likewise, they might mail you and ask you to help fix it. What was phreaking Ma Bell internet architecture made not only socially acceptable, but a marketable job skill.

Way to ruin the party, net.

As for piracy, all the roles but cracking vanished. Supplying was no longer a zero day affair because download quotas made little sense on warez websites. Couriers, always the least safe, made no sense at all in an end to end network. Archivists, packagers, none were really needed anymore. The cost of disk was coming down, the bandwidth was going up. The need for massive groups and hierarchies dissolved. It now took one person to release, and he or she didn’t need to be part of the in-group. With the exclusivity gone, there was nothing to stop anyone from becoming a pirate.

The true death-stroke came with P2P, and what had been leeching became the central role in piracy. Intentionally anonymous, technically easy, socially vacuous, digital piracy could no longer support its little society. No one was part of the 415 or the 212 anymore, what would that mean online? Rootkits were even making hacking something any shlub could do, and the shlubs in old world organized crime were starting to take notice. With nothing to compete over the members of Razor, PWA, and DOD blew to the four winds, generally to computer jobs that paid well for skills gotten as part of life in the Scene.

And with its social structure destroyed, piracy itself was unstoppable.

The difference between piracy and the music business, or publishing, is that because the scene was never legit, no one saw or mourned its passing. It happened faster because no one could plead the Scene’s case as a social institution, and no one could praise the network for making piracy democratized to the point of social incoherence. But everything that happened to the music industry happened to the piracy scene first, and, importantly, as a prerequisite for disrupting the music business. The Scene was never going to scale to threaten music and software the way P2P has. Instead, the story of its passing is an example of the de-cohered future for whatever institutions the net touches. Because there was little institutional resistance to the effects of the net on the Scene, it gives us an accelerated view of how the net eventually comes to transform institutions. Also, a slightly inaccurate one, because conflict changes the outcome in some ways. But we see the fundamental post network effect. Today’s piracy represents the new stable state of a post-net institution, more etherial than corporal, more smoke than body. This is what all the other institutions the network disrupts will eventually look like, unless they succeed in destroying a network that is mathematically incapable of compromise.

It’s hard for most people to understand and identify with the experience of digital piracy, even though at this point, most people online do it. But what about librarians? Everyone loves librarians, including librarians.

Next: Part Four, Two non-profits you’ve never heard of, fighting over a catalog you didn’t know you were using.

* Possibly 11. My notes are unclear.

Age of Excessions, Part 2

The First Time You Ever Heard of the RIAA

The Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group of the music industry, has been around for 58 years, founded in part to create open standards for vinyl playback so that everyone’s records would play on everyone’s record player. In general, it has come to manage the part of the music industry where the industry needs to cooperate. Here’s it’s mission in a nutshell, from the website:

…the RIAA works to protect the intellectual property and First Amendment rights of artists and music labels; conduct consumer, industry and technical research; and monitor and review state and federal laws, regulations and policies.

Like many trade groups, you’d almost certainly never heard of it. Heard of the Metal Roofing Alliance, or the Professional Liability Underwriting Society? Probably not, and there’s so many more. To know all of these groups you’d either have to be a professional conference organizer or a lobbyist, and that knowledge isn’t the sort of thing you’d drop at cocktail parties to look impressive. No one knows about trade groups because no one cares about trade groups.

What turned the RIAA into a household name was an internet application named Napster. Napster was many people’s first exposure to file sharing, especially of the peer to peer variety. It was that peer to peer aspect that made the difference. Napster was the first great collection of music (on or off the net) that was completely uncurated and open to all. Music was free, easy, and didn’t require putting on clothes to get. Discovering new music was easier than anyone could have imagined. Type in a favorite- in my case, for instance, Ani Difranco, and browse through other Ani fans’ libraries. This led me to a decade long love of Utah Philips, and the strange pride of making the discovery myself. I hadn’t relied on anyone to tell me about new music, and I hadn’t had to go out and spend (much) time and money discovering a jewel in the rough. I never even had to leave the house to develop my musical taste. With Napster, I happily reported to friends, it wasn’t so much that I could get tons of popular music for free, it was that my musical taste itself improved.

Some new bands and musicians began to see how this could help them from the other end. Get into a few libraries and get discovered, not by an A&R man but by a fanbase, one fan at a time. It wasn’t going to look like getting signed and turned into megastars, but it also didn’t look like having to win the lottery to do what you loved for a living. Most bands were still playing the label lottery, but it was only a matter of time before they figured out that music could have a middle class, and that a smaller fanbase with a more sincere love of their music was something they could live with.

Helping these musicians along was advances in software and plummeting hardware costs for music recording. Absolute top of the line music editing was still expensive, but a $1000-2000 amateur recording studio was getting better all the time. In fact, with the increasing role of sampling in music, by the late 90s or early 00s many fans couldn’t tell the difference between a professional studio produced track and a carefully and competently produced track from someone’s spare bedroom. It was amazingly fun, and people loved it. Whole genres were invented on a weekly basis. Name a segment of the society, and someone probably invented a -core for it. Nerdcore, Breakcore, Doomcore, Horrorcore, Jewcore, -core was like -gate, but for music. There was a growing sense that anyone who loved music could make music. Maybe it would suck, but it would suck because you sucked, not because your production values sucked. But even if you sucked, your friends could love you. A major label was never going to produce a song about your Everquest guild, and nothing could take the place of the pleasure of rocking out with 15 people to the soundtrack of your own tiny homophily.

And so it wasn’t the copies of Enter the Sandman that made Napster interesting. It was that Napster built the largest library of music in the history of the world, accidentally, over the course of 9 months. Everyone downloaded a few of the usual hits, but those tracks began suffering an attrition of time and interest to those parts of other people’s libraries that segmented the market by consumers’ extreme homophily. This wasn’t much, but it completed a list of threats to the way things had been.

Everything Right is Wrong Again

After about 1999, there was no function of the ‘industry’ part of the music industrial that was not under immediate existential threat. Whatever your opinion of the music industry, it had found itself in a dangerous position, through no particular action of its own, good or bad. The labels, whom the RIAA represented, had handled selecting, recording, distributing, and marketing nearly all the music anyone ever heard. It was good at it- the proverbial hit machine. As an institution the music industry studied and catered to nearly every market niche it could identify for a hundred years. Whether it was serving the greater purpose of music or music artists is immaterial. The music industry wasn’t so much the only game in town as the town itself. But the technology of the 90s took away, piece by piece, recording, distributing, marketing, and even selecting, and put it into the nebulous and ill-defined hands of ‘the people,’ who were eroding the need for ‘the industry’ altogether.

The music industry began to fight for its life. Napster was the obvious weak point- a company that could be attacked on legal grounds. Napster was destroyed in 2001, and it was in the course of its destruction that the RIAA became for the first time something people had heard of. We were aware of the blackbox in the middle of the institution of music only at the point where it became threatened with extinction. People don’t go down easy, and the RIAA was made of people, most of whom couldn’t see where they’d done anything wrong or different than they’d ever done. When shuttering Napster didn’t make the problems go away they started attacking anyone they could, and hitting them as hard as they could. One group of four college students was sued for roughly the GDP of Peru. What seemed insane made sense when you realized how entirely they were threatened.

But what were they fighting? From inside the offices of music executives this trend must have looked like the Borg, or the Blob, or even the zombie apocalypse. Everything the net touched turned against the way things had been. Artists and fans were bypassing the conduits that had been connecting them for the length of living memory. The only thing the industry could do was get between them and force them apart in an effort to remain relevant. The conduit had become the barrier, not because it had changed, but because everything around it had changed, quietly, quickly, and with no warning. The industry wanted to live.

But before the internet threatened to destroy the RIAA with digital piracy, it had already destroyed digital piracy.

Next: Part Three, The brief and illegal life of the Scene.

The Age of Excessions

Part One: The question and the answer.

While this essay represents bits of 18 years of thinking and observing human institutions responding to the various forces I’ve encountered (primary in technology and medicine) I was prompted to write it in response to a question a man asked me last summer at a conference on the future. His question, roughly put, was this: How do you tell what institutions are about to get disrupted? My answer, equally paraphrased was this: any part of an institution that was there to facilitate information is going to go away in favor of the internet. This answer was both too general in that I never really explained what facilitating information meant or how the internet would destroy it, and too specific, because I only talked about the internet, as if it were the only technological force looming over these institutions.

What follows is a longer reply to the question about the fates of institutions, past, present, and future. I believe we are entering an age where these disruptions come at a speed we’ve never dealt with before. It’s bountiful in destruction and utopianism. It’s a stochastic time, with too much of everything. These changes so severe they break social institutions before new institutions can evolve. These changes are so many, it’s the defining characteristic of the age: an age of excessions.

An excession is something that exceeds the current frame of reference, and therefore wrecks it. I’ve stolen the word from the illimitable writer and thinker Iaim M. Banks, but it’s not my intention to attribute my definition to him. For my purposes an excession doesn’t have to just come from outside the frame of reference, like the WWII troops that landed on Micronesian islands bearing Cargo. They can also arise internally, like puberty. As a matter of fact, laying aside the occasional meteorite, hurricane, or well armed British explorer, almost all do arise from colliding forces inside humanity. But they all feel like the weather, an unpredictable thing outside our comprehension or control that tends to smack us around without warning. Many excessions arise from colliding forces of social power structures and technological progress. One of the reasons that so many excessions are so surprising is that politicians and technologists usually think they are where the really important stuff is, their worlds providing the invisible climate to each other. There are other spheres that provide more invisible climate, but even trying to talk about these two is confusing enough to start with. Technology and politics are incredibly compelling, and looking closely at either will convince anyone that they’ve found the cornerstone to history, stories of progress that really explain what’s going on, and what they can’t explain was random chance or the hidden variables- more weather. If a political thinker looks at the history of New York in the mid-century they uncover Robert Moses as an explanation of everything. A technologist looks at the same story and sees the inevitable result of advances in building materials and automobile engineering. Arguing who really has history figured out between the two is like arguing nature and nurture in children- turns out to be incoherent and not as interesting as you think. I will try very hard not to do that.

The greatest institutions meet one of history’s poltergeists

In the 1980s the nascent social force of the internet entered a world of unprecedented consolidations. Nation-states, corporations, and even religions were larger and more coherent than at any other time in history. Partly that was the first order effect of rising population levels, but it was came from the need for cohesion in scaled up societies. We were not merely millions of Americans together, we were part of the capitalist faction of humanity, employees of megacorporations, and citizens of a government so sprawling it couldn’t be held in the mind. One of the benefits of the project that both consolidated and segmented the world is that we could substitute categories for people, something the modern mind needed desperately.

The 19th and 20th centuries had done something disturbing to humanity; it had made us aware of there being so many more people than we could ever know or form opinions of. Even if you managed to spend your life in in the village of your birth and not know more than 150 people (and fewer of us could manage that) you now had more and more a sense of the oppressive other. There were millions of people out there, then billions, a crush of humanity that the social human mind couldn’t take in. Being able to make simple statements like ‘capitalists are like me, communists are evil’ was a way of managing the terrible weight of the unknowable other. Capitalism itself was an attempt to scale social institutions to keep up with populations, as was socialism. They were the organizational systems humans desperately latched onto to deal with the sudden logistical problems of there being so damn many of us.

We often think of this process of happening slowly, but if you were to extend the history of humanity back to the founding of civilization at 12,000 years, or reasonably even to the beginning of our speciation around 200,000 years ago, the last 200-300 years suddenly looks like what it is- the adaptation of human institutions at a breakneck pace. For the first time changes routinely lapped generations. The elders couldn’t even recognize the world they’d always been meant to comment on. Their roles of wisdom were stunted: the world they knew so much about was gone.

The internet (and here I include the greater telephony it’s part of) was about accelerate and rearrange everything it touched, creating and collapsing scaling problems in institutions like a mad poltergeist of history. Not necessarily via the usually discussed channels, like blogging, but by rendering obsolete the mass infrastructure of information wherever the net arrived. The middle layer of communication and cultural cohesion that had once been the largest, richest, most articulate part of the economy and culture was rendered obsolete without even the courtesy of being dismantled. Overnight, the conduits not only ceased to be conduits, they became barriers, without ever changing their behavior. Tt was as if the world had spun 180 degrees around them. People don’t handle this sort of thing well. In fact, they kind of go crazy.

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