Future #52: Everything is infrastructure

This week we spent time looking at places that are typically obscured, either through incorrect assumptions, through deliberate obfuscation, or through neglect and decay. In each case, looking where we aren’t supposed to yields interesting results. Read on for chickens as data sources, underground warehouses, and bizarre products you don’t need but really want anyway.

— Alexis & Matt

1: Blockchain chicken farm

Chickens wearing blockchain-connected trackers to prove to consumers that they’re free range. Taobao villages where entire towns manufacture cheap consumer goods for Alibaba. Rural pearl farmers who sell second-rate pearls to American live-streamers. “Digital towns” where workers spend all day categorizing photos of pigs so AI systems can try to increase pork yields. These are just a few of the scenarios described in Xiaowei Wang’s incredible book, Blockchain Chicken Farm, which was released last fall, and we’re finally getting around to reading. TL;DR — this is required reading for us all, go buy it.

The book explores the political and social entanglements of technology in rural China, examining the connections between technology, agriculture, class, commerce, and globalization. This is a book in some ways about ingenuity and the unexpected uses that people find for technology. It questions assumptions about the rural poor in China, showing how they engage with a wide range of modern technological and commercial systems. But it is also fundamentally a book about infrastructure and power that shows how convenience, luxury, and scale are dependent on labor that is often invisible to consumers and borne by communities with less money and power.

Review: The untold technological revolution sweeping through rural China | The New York Times

2: Data centers as climate bunkers

While the internet can feel placeless and intangible, it’s critical to reflect on the ways in which it relies on — and transforms — physical infrastructure. One of the more apparent manifestations of this physical infrastructure are the massive data centers that store and route the information that is key to our digital experiences. While many have discussed data centers in general, this essay by Jeffrey Moro specifically dives deep into the air conditioning of these warehouses. The internet cannot function without enormous expenditures of energy for cooling and humidity control, making climate control a crucial, yet increasingly precarious, foundation upon which so much is built. The precarity comes from two factors: on the one hand, increased demand requires more and more servers (and thus more energy). On the other hand, climate change is creating an increasingly challenging environment in which to keep things cool, to the point where Equinix (the data center that Moro profiles) calls out their two largest external threats as “climate change and data security”.

Equinix and its peers are searching for solutions, including “exploring ways to suborn the climate as a passive HVAC system, placing data centers in the Arctic or at the bottom of the ocean”. But short of radical change, we need to understand that the heat death of data is a very real threat, and that the internet — like so much else — relies on too much energy to be reliably sustained over the long term.

Air-conditioning the internet: data center securitization as atmospheric media | Media Fields Journal

3: Warehousing our desires

Next-day shipping is a relatively new outgrowth of internet commerce, one that brings long-promised convenience to shopping. Indeed, during the toughest parts of Covid-19 lockdowns, many households shifted to online shopping entirely, and it’s unlikely these habits will go away. Charlie Jarvis has written an excellent essay in Real Life Magazine that reveals the underlying costs of these conveniences.

Underpinning the apparent simplicity of online shopping are massive warehouses of goods and fulfillment centers that pack and ship those goods; these centers are taking more and more space from other purposes. Green and wild spaces are given over to huge buildings and roads that connect to nearby highways, supporting the convenience of one-click buying. To most shoppers, these increasingly-critical parts of our infrastructure are invisible by design. The illusion of convenience would be pierced if we were made to consider the impact on the landscape, so in some cases, these buildings are camouflaged to blend in with grass and sky, or as in one notable case in Kansas, are buried underground. Retailers are hoping that buyers don’t think much about what they don’t see, and instead perceive a seamless transaction between them and a store, not a massive suburban warehouse serviced night and day by delivery vehicles and staffed by workers in precarious roles. As Jarvis puts it, “convenience demands that we forget the material costs of our desires.”

A shopper’s heaven | Real Life

4: Surrealist impulse buying

We’ve been big fans of design fiction works like Corner Convenience and 99¢ Futures that go beyond the shiny, billion-dollar-space-futures we often consider to imagine how radical changes will affect more everyday interactions. We all had experiences like this in 2020, when suddenly every corner store was selling surgical masks, hand sanitizer, and latex gloves, depending on the latest health guidance.

If you’ve been on Instagram or Facebook at all in the last few months, it’s likely you have been advertised truly bizarre products, many of which were only newly possible to create. (One we got recently was an ear wax pick with a video camera embedded in the handle, presumably so one could better direct the gunk-clearing process.) Clive Thompson compares these bizarre offerings with the old SkyMall catalogs in the 90’s and late 2000’s. Like those old SkyMall examples, these new products are just plausible enough to be interesting, but as Thompson puts it, they start with an interesting idea “which is promptly taken, with exhilarating fervor, about fourteen miles past the point of reasonableness.”

While we wouldn’t recommend spending much money on these products, their existence is solidly in the “interestingly weird” area, and reminds us to consider the bizarre and the quotidian sitting next to each other on the shelf at the store.

Instagram has become SkyMall | Clive Thompson

5: The future is relentless self-promotion

Imagine a future where your internet has no ads, no data privacy issues, no Outbrain clickbait. It’s only stuff you care about, that you want to see. Sounds utopian, right? This scenario is the jumping-off point for Jason Parham’s piece in WIRED. But to get to this future, he follows current creator economy trends to their logical conclusion — in order to enable such a world, everything becomes a paid subscription, right down to your friend’s Instagram feed. It’s the “age of the subscription ouroboros, a constantly renewing cycle of collective (and sometimes shameless) self-sponsorship.”

Frankly, we’re already halfway there. From established services like Patreon to more recent developments like personal crypto tokens and Twitter Blue, there has been an explosion in ways that individuals can monetize their content, their products, and their daily lives. We’re moving toward a world of “what economist Jeremy Rifkin calls ‘access relationships,’ where ‘virtually all of our time is commodified and communications, communion, and commerce are indistinguishable.’”

We came away from this read with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, advertising-driven business models for digital content have been incredibly damaging to user experience, personal privacy, and probably even democracy. We’re incredibly optimistic about alternatives to these systems. Subscription models allow for business and consumer incentives to be largely aligned — I am paying for a product, therefore the business is beholden to me, rather than in an ad model, where the business is beholden to ad dollars. And subscription tools have democratized and enhanced the ability of independent creators to sustain themselves via their work, leading to growth in great independent content, from podcasts to newsletters to books. The foundation is solid.

But what this piece foresees is how the drive to maximize profit can turn a perfectly good idea into something less desirable. So, perhaps it’s not enough to sell goods and services for money. Instead, more and more parts of our lives become framed as goods and services for consumption. If access relationships are the primary means of profit, then there will be an increasing tendency to frame everything as transactional, potentially eroding the space for genuine social, non-transactional interactions. In another quote from Rifkin in this piece: “every activity outside the confines of family relations is a paid-for experience, a world in which traditional reciprocal obligations and expectations — mediated by feelings of faith, empathy, and solidarity — are replaced by contractual relations in the form of paid memberships, subscriptions, admission charges, retainers, and fees.”

Everything is becoming paywalled content — even you | WIRED

6: Link rot and the erosion of history

More information is created in minutes today than was created in decades prior to the internet’s invention, owing to the continued lowering of barriers to creation. The web, in particular, was designed to make it as easy as possible for someone to publish an essay, a scholarly finding, or an unpopular opinion, with links between documents to bolster one’s arguments or to direct readers to referenced materials.

Studies have shown across industries — journalism, academia, law, and more — that these references are decaying at an alarming rate as sites update their content systems, as companies go out of business or are acquired, or as individuals stop paying to host their sites. The preservation challenges that arise because of link rot (the item referenced is no longer available) or content drift (the item referenced has been updated since the reference was published) are enormous. These challenges multiply when we consider mobile apps and other walled gardens that don’t use URLs and aren’t indexed by search engines.

While it’s true that art, history, scholarship, and other historical knowledge has been lost, the internet has made it both far simpler to publish information and far harder to preserve it. Our collective understanding of the world is fragmenting, as our source materials become harder to reference and shared history is lost, leaving oral history and social beliefs to fill those gaps. Without more concerted efforts to retain knowledge, the splintered factions of society are likely to become more and more entrenched.

The internet is rotting | The Atlantic

One fun tool: Wikipedia QL

Our most fun projects have often started with an interesting data set to explore, making queries that led to unexpected insights, ideas, or fun generative playgrounds. So we were very excited to see this Wikipedia QL (query language) GitHub project, and suspect some of you might be equally inspired to play with it. If you make cool stuff with it, please let us know! From the project description:

Wikipedia is the most important open knowledge project: basically, the “table of contents” of all the human data. While it might be incomplete or misleading in details, the amount of data is incredible, and its organization makes all the data accessible to humans.

OTOH, the data is semi-structured and quite hard to extract automatically. This project is an experiment in making this data accessible to machines — or, rather, to humans with programming languages. The main goal is to develop an easy to use and memorize, unambiguous and powerful query language and support it by the reference implementation

Wikipedia QL | GitHub

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Ethical design and weird machines. VP Product Design at Medium & co-founder Ethical Futures Lab. Previously @automattic , @axios , @nytimes R&D. She/her.