Bonum Cyberneticum

This post sums up thoughts and research leading to a current project of mine, titled Spimeio - a design ficition taking place in a world in which every object is tagged with an identification chip that links to a database holding a vast range of information about the object’s ‘life’, its owner(s), its market value, its geographical history, sentimental associations etc.

Shipping is the New Storing

On an unusually hot summer day in London I found myself climbing in between piles of plastic boxes, trying to pack and organise my belongings in the most economic manner. A heavy stack of books goes well together with some lighter bedlinen. The sleeping bag and a kettle still leave enough space for a few socks and an old scarf I’ve never worn. A couples of days later, I would be on the other side of the planet for a three-month long student exchange programme in Brisbane. Rather than hiring a van and renting warehouse space to store my clothes, books and everything else, I decided to go with a company promising a frictionless way of storing my household by sending and picking up a range of boxes. I would have to pack them, and everything else would be manageable on their website. Each box was labelled with my name, a barcode and a serial number. Having logged into my online account, I could individually name each box, list its containing items, attach a photo, insure those with especially valuable items and track its status. Anything too large for a box, just needed a barcode sticker on it and it would appear in my digital inventory. Having closed and sealed the last box, I went ahead and clicked on the pick-up-my-boxes-button. A day later, a driver picked them up and brought them to a warehouse, whose exact location I did not know. In the business of frictionless services this kind of information is regarded as an unnecessary burden for its users.

A van picks up the boxes with my belongings (note the barcode sticker with ID number on my chair).

Being able to send my items to any address from the other side of the planet, I became increasingly intrigued by the idea of my belongings having a digital counterpart in someone else’s database. Amazon e.g. already knows the majority of things I bought, and makes suggestions à la ‘users-who-bought-this-also-bought…’. Combined with my private and work addresses in three different countries, current and former ones, the company is not too far off from having a near real time inventory of mine.

Having returned to the Northern Hemisphere in autumn, I realised that it would have been cheaper to give the sleeping bag away and buy a new one, rather than storing it for four months. If my student exchange had fallen into October 2015, at the time when the Shanghai Containerized Freight Index collapsed, it would have been a legit thought experiment to calculate the costs of storing one’s entire household on a container ship somewhere in the Chinese sea. The perfection of cybernetic logistic and a periodically location changing student lifestyle lead to the rather bizarre situation in which owning could become a burden. As Jean Baudrillard describes in The System of Objects, organising one’s ever increasing possessions becomes a possession in itself:

“The organising of things, even when in the context of technical enterprise it has every appearance of being objective, always remains a powerful springboard for projection and cathexis. The best evidence of this is the obsessiveness that lies behind so many organisational projects and (of most relevance to our present discussion) behind the will to design. Everything has to intercommunicate, everything has to be functional — no more secrets, no more mysteries, everything is organised, therefore is clear. […] Here we have the basis for a character profile of technical civilization: if hypochondria is an obsession with the circulation of substances and functioning of the primary organs, we might well describe modern man, the cybernetician, as a mental hypochondriac, as someone obsessed with the perfect circulation of messages.”

Similarly, science fiction author Bruce Sterling speculates in his 2005 book on design titled Shaping Things about the physical manifestation of this perfect circulation:

“’Spimes’ are manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. Spimes begin and end as data. They are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means, and precisely tracked through space and time throughout their earthly sojourn. […] I would date the dawn of spimes to 2004, when the United States Department of Defense suddenly demanded that its thousands of suppliers attach Radio Frequency ID tags, or ‘arphids’, to military supplies. If this innovation turns out to be of genuine military advantage, and if it also spreads widely in commercial inventory systems, then a major transition will likely be at hand.” (Sterling, 2005)

A Very Brief History of Economic Cybernetics

The idea of a perfect trackable, predictable and therefore controllable economy of consumer goods reaches back to the Soviet Union of the late 1930s. Back then, mathematician and economist Leonid Vitaliyevich Kantorovich developed a linear programming system to optimise the allocation of resources. In the 1950s Soviet scientist and mathematicians speculated about building a computer network to optimize the national economy. Concretising their ideas, they proposed a complex three-tiered computer network in the 1960s monitoring all labour, production and retail activities. Facing harsh resistance from managers, bureaucrats and reformers, the project remained an unrealised proposal. With different state agencies and enterprises defending their authority and power, a range of individual management systems were built in the 1960s and 1970s. However, no two of them were connected.

Tobias Revell’s diagram of Gosplan’s estimation and production circle as explaind in Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty.

Among the most powerful government agencies was the Gosplan department. Positioned at the top of a highly bureaucratic system it compiled both, yearly and five-year plans, governing the economic growth by estimating production targets and consumer demands. Overseeing a group of regional managers called Sovnarkhovy, who managed the production of local factories, it would accumulate, analyse and cross-check their reports. As my tutor Tobias Revell points out in his blog post on Francis Spufford’s book Red Plenty, the reality of this supposedly simple system was far more complex and chaotic. Increased efficiency in some industries weakened others, so that they were seen as counter-productive. Conflicting interests of workers and managers led to deliberate over- and under-estimations, slowing the economy down.

Ironically, the interfaces designed for Project Cybersyn’s operations room did not allow for controlling any significant operations, but were designed to look like the future.

Being aware of the failures of Moscow’s big five-year plans, Fernando Flores, high-level engineer under the Chilean socialist government of Salvador Allende, reached out to British cybernetician Stafford Beer and his team in 1971, in order to build an economy-managing computer system. Beer saw the opportunity to turn his ambitious theories on effectively organising an entire state into reality. In contrast to the American cybernetics, strongly influenced by Norbert Weiner during the 1940s, Beer’s cybernetics drew connections between the human nervous system and “exceedingly“ complex systems of organisations. The technology available to build Cybersyn, however, was primitive. He approached the state-run enterprise with a neural network made out of 500 previously unused Telex machines. A small group of graphic designers had to draw and redraw the slides used in the futuristic operation room by hand. The interfaces in it did not trigger any state-wide economic decision as its name would suggest, but merely turned light bulbs on and off. The success of the socialist pre-internet is highly questionable. Beer managed to flee back to Europe after Allende’s presidency had been abruptly ended by a violent military coup. His work on cybernetic management continued to be highly influenceable and was just as much appreciated in the capitalistic system as it was in the socialistic.

The Value Problem

Today these ideas, with exponentially increasing computational power, have developed into a much more sophisticated set of algorithmical systems that global logistics and economies rely on heavily. At the dawn of the emerging Internet of Things, data-gathering urban developments making extensive use of ubiquitous computing and thought experiments about algorithmic regulated governance, applied cybernetic principles are a given reality; merely far away from Beer’s socialist utopia. In the words of theorist and Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, Benjamin Bratton:

“The price signalling in real-time is not a problem for the centralised planned economies of Walmart supply chains, or Amazon’s long-tail pricing algorithms or Google’s user attention options. So not only could such platforms — or potential future versions of them — solve the socialist pricing problem, it could also be used to solve the capitalist pricing problem.”
Competeting automatic prizing algorithms on Amazon lead to an uncontrollable domino effect which resulted in bizarelly high prices.

In April 2011 biologist Michael Eisen at UC Berkeley went on Amazon to buy a paperback copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly; an out of print standard book in developmental biology. There were fifteen used copies starting from $35.54, and two new ones priced at an insanely high amount of $1,730,054.91. After reloading the page on a daily basis, he observed the prices climbing up rapidly. Eisen came to the conclusion that both retailers, just as Amazon does, were using automatic pricing algorithms, but with opposing strategies. One retailer always made sure to have the cheapest offer out of all, whereas the other one’s laid always 27% above the competitors. Eisen speculated that the later, did not actually own the book, but would buy the one available and resell it with a margin covering the costs of purchasing and shipping it via there own depot. With the pricing ping-pong game going on for several days, the estimations reached a staggering peak of $23,698,655.93 on 18 April 2011, and then suddenly dropped to $106.23 on the following day.

Baudrillard defined four different types of value that objects embody for us: exchange value (its economic value, measurable in money), functional value (in Eisen’s case, the content of the book), symbolic value (a standard piece of work in developmental biology) and sign value. It can be argued, that the four of them are interdependent and partly overlap. In the case of Amazon’s automatic pricing algorithms, there seems to be no connection to any of the values whatsoever.

Another case of an unexpected clash between cooperate algorithm and human interest was caused by Target detecting a change in a teenager’s consuming habits and concluding that she was pregnant. After her unknowing father repeatedly found Target advertising for toddler clothes and accessories addressed to his daughter, he drove to the next Target store and complained about the inappropriate post. A week later he apologised at the store. Behavioural statistics replaced the pregnancy test. Target could even predict the delivery date. The retailer is among the most aggressive data collectors, attaching an ID to any customer, wheter they hold an official account or not. Similarly uncanny, Amazon patented a system for predictive shipping, in which items are send into the delivery chain before they were bought. Exaggerating cybernetic principles, cooperations and organisations begin to confuse intention with action.

Both cases show that the platforms described by Bratton are not free from biases, wheter they are intentionally implanted in the software or not. In the mundane activity of online shopping they usually stay hidden and untraceable; but in more extreme cases, at the 5th, 6th or 100th degree of a feedback loop, they become apparent. The devide between an algorithmically construct, that views our goods (past, present and future) as entities in a database, and us, who project emotions, memories and values of all sorts onto the objects surrounding us. As a designer my practise focusses less on the objects themselves, but rather on the system(s) between and behind them.

Bibliography & Further Readings

  • Baudrillard, J. (2006) The System of Objects (Radical Thinkers). London: Verso Books.
  • Medina, E. (2014) Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile. United States: MIT Press.
  • Spufford, F. (2011) Red Plenty. United Kingdom: Faber & Faber.
  • Sterling, B. (2005) Shaping Things. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.