Tag Archives: Machines


Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25

Richard Wilkinson limited edition cover CC BY-SA 2.0

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008) bears relevance on our discussions in many ways. The protagonist, 17-year-old hackitivist Marcus Yallow, takes on nothing less than the Department of Homeland Security in a not-so-distant, post-terrorist-attack San Francisco.

Doctorow is a fascinating example of the intersections of literature and the internet. A major proponent of Open Access to all information, he initially published the novel with a Creative Commons Sharealike license and it remains available for free. Just as he makes no mystery of his belief in transparency and privacy, so he openly includes educational passages concerning his causes. The novel includes a number of descriptions that feel akin to documentation of a computer program (of a literary sort). He writes about the excluded parties in order to include his readers in his subversive movement.

Even the introduction to Doctorow’s published version on craphound.com includes a pedagogical instruction in the impetus of his movement. (Forgive the block quote, I’ve cut a bit, but I wanted to show the Internet history that Doctorow traces and how it aligns with the history of his activism):

“When my dad was a young university student in the 1960s, he was one of the few “counterculture” people who thought computers were a good thing. For most young people, computers represented the de­humanization of society. University students were reduced to numbers on a punchcard… Computers were seen as a means to increase the ability of the authorities to regiment people and bend them to their will.

When I was 17, the world seemed like it was just going to get more free. The Berlin Wall was about to come down. Computers ­­ which had been geeky and weird a few years before ­­ were everywhere, and the modem I’d used to connect to local bulletin board systems was now connecting me to the entire world through the Internet and commercial online services like GEnie. My lifelong fascination with activist causes went into overdrive as I saw how the main difficulty in activism ­­ organizing ­­ was getting easier by leaps and bounds …

But 17 years later, things are very different. The computers I love are being co­opted, used to spy on us, control us, snitch on us. The National Security Agency has illegally wiretapped the entire USA and gotten away with it. Car rental companies and mass transit and traffic authorities are watching where we go, sending us automated tickets, finking us out to busybodies, cops and bad guys who gain illicit access to their databases. The Transport Security Administration maintains a “no­fly” list of people who’d never been convicted of any crime, but who are nevertheless considered too dangerous to fly. The list’s contents are secret. The rule that makes it enforceable is secret. The criteria for being added to the list are secret. It has four­year­olds on it. And US senators. And decorated veterans ­­ actual war heroes.

The 17 year olds I know understand to a nicety just how dangerous a computer can be.

(Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is distributed under a CC A-NC-SA 3.0 license)

It is not surprising that Doctorow wrote the novel in the early part of 2007 and that the novel (which came out in 2008) ends with a political campaign. Yet he does write to an audience not yet eligible to vote, those who seek work-arounds and networks to feel less disenfranchised. Doctorow illustrates the transmissions of information and power that happen in internet interactions in a way that is engaging and persuasive.

Doctorow uses the narration to involve the reader in the workings of the internet. As Marcus describes setting up a new internet, his Xnet, he illuminates some of the darker workings of the system. It almost feels like a how-to manual. He gives you the sense that you, too, could do this. At the end of chapter 7, he offers a call to code. “If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do…It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.” He gives inspiration and incentive. “Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work ­; if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.”

Doctorow’s mission is manifold and the book’s critical and popular reception speaks to his agility: he sheds light on the spirit of his movement and invites readers to get involved.

My primary provocation is one about age:

How do we take the novel’s activist mantra “Trust No One Over 25”? One concern with the revolution made possible by internet technologies is that they upset the balance of structures of  education. Doctorow seems to use his novel to instruct his readers on the historical imperatives they might otherwise ignore. But what does it do to the progress of ideas and education (that tried-and-true top-down hegemony) that younger and younger generations gain computer literacy that outpaces their forebears? How do power structures shift? And how does this impact structures of government?

I recommend finishing the book if you haven’t!

Interesting notes beyond the assigned chapters —

The two afterwords continue the mission to open and educate young people in the areas of Doctorow’s activism. The essay regarding security by Bruce Schneier almost seems like a sales pitch for a fun and exciting career in security, and Andrew “bunnie” Huang‘s essay about hacking the xbox while pursuing his PhD at MIT is an endorsement of creative destruction and reassembly. In the context of a Y.A. novel, a genre perhaps more steeped in the tradition of overt instruction, these articles bolster Doctorow’s mission to increase transparency and accessibility. He does not keep his tech philosophies secret, but makes them accessible in the most appealing ways possible. He appeals to the desire to abolish oppression that is often felt most keenly in teen years.

citation: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is distributed under a CC A-NC-SA 3.0 license

As We May Think

Quick note:
The tech terminology at first confused me, and if you are like me the following list might help you. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong:

  • Photocells are light sensors. Advanced versions of these are in your smartphone and digital cameras, behind the lens.
  • Thermionic tubes = vacuum tubes. Incandescent light bulbs are a type of these. Along with relays, these were among the essential components of an electric circuit until transistors became popular.
  • Cathode ray tubes = CRT (old fat screens)

The article was published in a time where the industrialization we discussed regarding last week’s readings is quite in its adult phase; “the humble typewriter, or the movie camera, or the automobile” are, rather than new innovations, things that “perform reliably.” In a war-winning United States, not without the help of mobilized scientists, Bush proposes a vision of using technology to deal with the problem of ever-increasing human knowledge that “extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” He is anticipating computers to be used in the information age, Thomas P. Hughes (2005) describes (p. 97). His picture of the “memex”, which is essentially a microfilm browser with editing and sharing functions, seems a bit different from what computers actually became- but it was 1945, and digital computing was not really a thing. What is impressive is his insights on how information should be dealt with.

Using the example of Mendel’s work not reaching potentially significant contemporary readers, Bush defines the problem faced by humans as the inability for the actual use of (scientific) knowledge to keep pace with the speed that its records expand. According to him, three aspects could use some improvement and will do so regarding scientific records: creation of new ones, storage and retrieval.

Instead of trying to guess what the next new technology will be, Bush describes in detail how the current technology could develop and be used for the above goals. Storage will be faster, easier, cheaper and smaller. Note that he emphasizes that “[c]ompression is important … when it comes to costs.” With a little stretch, his idea that smaller size will lead to massive reproduction is in a way analogous to the shrinking space of railway times leading to the access to a much larger geographical space.

Creating new records could also become easier, through such developments as speech recognition and automated input. The automation of repetitive processes that are currently limited to arithmetic equations would extend to higher-level symbolic logics and advanced data analysis. And the access to specific data, which Bush calls selection, also could be much faster if we applied the selection process of, say, the telephone switching system and improved it using electronics. So the storage, input and retrieval of knowledge would all become faster and allow for a much larger quantity.

Then Bush pictures a device, “memex”, that embodies the above improvements along with an additional crucial idea, association. Unlike the current indexing systems, which are mostly alphabetical or numerical categorization, a new system would enable the direct connection of two or more different pieces of information; allowing for the association between thoughts which is how the human mind works, hence the title of the article. His example of the Turkish bow researcher describes knowledge pieces that are interconnectible via a code space separate from the content and allow long-term storage, commenting/editing/creating from the user’s part, browsing, copying and sharing. This idea is viewed as the initial concept of hypertext– one of the main structures of internet (Landow, 2006, p.11)

His “new forms of encyclopedias” filled with “a mesh of associative trails” incredibly seem to be referring to Wikipedia. He expresses the hope that humankind would be able to stand on the shoulder of giants and go beyond its application of control over the environment and war against each other, in order to “grow in the wisdom of race experience.”

The article portrays several ideas that we can associate with current things: the hypertext and links, of course, but also here and there we find mentions of potential Google Glass, Siri and big data analysis. Just before the end of the article, we can also peep at Bush’s version of cyborg future, where information could be transmitted to and from the brain directly using electric signals rather than being translated to sensory phenomena; this sounds like his sci-fi imagination, which he has been suppressing throughout the article, finally going off… But in a sense this also has been realized: not exactly (well, not yet) by connecting wires to the nervous system, but by the vast network of computers and the digitization of all information.

  • It is worth noting his limited use of female words, only associated with certain jobs: stenotypist, typist, “simple key board punches” operators, and (not specified but probably) file clerk. This seems almost like a repeat of something that happened in Marx’s era: as machines enter the labor space, so do women- but not on equal terms. A further interesting point is that as Wendy Chun (2004) points out, computers in early 20C referred to human operators of the machines, mostly young women; “they were also considered to be better, more conscientious computers, presumably because they were better at repetitious, clerical tasks” (p. 33).
  • Bush was administrator for the wartime U.S. military R&D, which I can’t imagine had no influence on his ideas regarding the inefficiently increasing knowledge. The initial version of internet was funded by the U.S. department of defense. The steam engine came out of an industrial need, like a lot of innovations happening in the tech industry today. Although this might be a rough statement, I feel not too much off target by arguing that a lot of initiative regarding technological change comes from either the military or the industry. What are the implications here? How relevant are the sources of technological changes?
  • Are we better off with the internet? I mean, I love the internet. But more globally, what would be the implications? While there are claims that the hypertext as a system that allows for easier participation in creative activities and dissolves the boundaries between author and reader, it “has the potential … to be a democratic or multicentered system” (Landow, 2006, p. 343), last class we also talked about how some corporations are exploiting that type of collaborative and/or voluntary work that the medium enables us to do. Is the capital intercepting the ‘revolutionary potential’ and use it for profit?
  • Are we any wiser? To be more specific, has our ability to process information caught up with the ever-increasing rate of knowledge production? Or are we being disoriented by the influx of information? In the case of the latter, is it a transitional thing, just as the coach travelers were disoriented by the speed of the railway?

Also, this video featuring Douglas Engelbart, who was inspired by Bush, might be interesting to watch alongside the article. It is perhaps most famous for the use of a computer mouse, but it also introduces important features of computers that now seem so natural, including the hypertext.



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Karl Marx–Capital

Robert Synopsis   (I apologize in advance if this oversimplifies Marx’s work; I really tried to condense this)

In the selected sections from Capital, Karl Marx asserts that machines, as the conduit of industrial capitalist expansion, reveal the evolutionary exploitation of men, women and children as they simultaneously nurture capitalistic greed. Marx employs a number of sub-claims to support his stance–among them are the following:

  • The machine does more in less time, which increases the capitalist’s greed and presses workers to meet greater demands in less time (work intensity).
  • Machines simplify tasks, which increases the use of child labor and women’s labor and lowers the overall cost of labor (I could smell the underlying patriarchy & rigid gender roles, but we can save that for another discussion).
  • Machines, though meant to serve humans, have come to determine human production (and replace workers), which incites rebellion against the machines first and lead capitalists second.
  • The capitalist metrics of time, value, labor, and intensity are further complicated with the advancement of technology
  • The machine’s evolution over time under the capitalist framework presents an interesting paradox: humans created the machines that would eventually replace their jobs.
  • Machines, like the capitalist, embody a system of self-preservation–just as the capitalist mitigates the use of time, labor, and value to optimize profit for his/her own preservation, the machines eventually create the machines that will preserve the factory model.

Professor David Harvey explains the underlying analytical framework that Marx employs throughout the entire text, Chapter 15 included. According to Harvey’s analysis, technology does not determine, but rather reveals humans’ complex interactions with nature, labor, reproduction of daily life, social relations, and mental conceptions. Even when we apply Harvey’s framework, we still see technology as an integrated, fetishized tool of the capitalist superstructure. Marx, sharing a similar trajectory with his good friend Darwin, essentially argues that technology is an extension of the very evolution of capitalism. The model goes as follows: handicrafts  stage to manufacturing stage, and manufacturing stage to factory stage. But Harvey cautions against a deterministic conceptualization of machines and capitalism; he contends that Marx’s purpose is to elucidate the ongoing dialectic between the capitalist and the laborer. Machines are merely an element in this ongoing dialectical struggle.


The recurring conversation of the growth and development of machines  and their connection with increased exploitation is a critical one, carrying implications of class, gender, age, & racial oppression. Even in the early factory stages, we see fights for reductions of work hours, followed by a subsequent increase in labor intensity that marked the need for more productivity in less time–the new machine’s efficiency as justificaiton for such. With this reduction in physically complex labor came the employment of women and children. Education yielded to the capitalist superstructure, and entire families were now factory employees who, in the eyes of the capitalist, represented one uniform payout.  Marx, more than once, references the U.S. and Transatlantic slave trades as powerful parallels to this factory power dynamic. While the face of both technology and western society have changed significantly since Marx, the thread of exploitation remains constant. With this in mind, I would like to ask the following:

1) To what extent does current exploitation–within the realm of technological production and use–mirror the conditions expressed in Marx’s work? Explain.

2) How has the face of this particular brand of exploitation changed?

3) Considering previous conversations in class regarding contemporary humans’ current relationships with technology and Marx’s key points, what are some predictions you have about the future relationship between humans and technology?

4) Am I the only one who thought about the Matrix trilogy while reading?


Harvey, D. (2011, January 16). Reading Marx’s Capital Vol 1 with David Harvey. Lecture presented at Class 08 in The Graduate Center, CUNY, New York.

Marx, K. (1968). XV. In Capital. New York: Dutton.

–Robert Robinson