June 21, 2024

I’ve got kind of a miscellaneous set of things to read for this month, without much of a theme, so I will just get right to it:

1) “The Rotting Internet is a Collective Hallucination”, by Jonathan Zittrain

Once a year, I teach a class on technology and democracy. One of the ideas that I try to get across in the class is that specific technologies cannot be divorced from the context(s) in which they developed; every technology emerges when it does, and in the way it does, because it meets or reflects specific social, cultural, political, and economic needs or assumptions. I’m not sure that it makes sense to talk about the internet as a technology, but if we do so for the sake of simplicity, then it clearly looks the way it does because of when and why the essential pieces were developed. First of all,

The internet’s distinct architecture arose from a distinct constraint and a distinct freedom: First, its academically minded designers didn’t have or expect to raise massive amounts of capital to build the network; and second, they didn’t want or expect to make money from their invention.

The internet’s framers thus had no money to simply roll out a uniform centralized network the way that, for example, FedEx metabolized a capital outlay of tens of millions of dollars to deploy liveried planes, trucks, people, and drop-off boxes, creating a single point-to-point delivery system. Instead, they settled on the equivalent of rules for how to bolt existing networks together.

Rather than a single centralized network modeled after the legacy telephone system, operated by a government or a few massive utilities, the internet was designed to allow any device anywhere to interoperate with any other device, allowing any provider able to bring whatever networking capacity it had to the growing party. And because the network’s creators did not mean to monetize, much less monopolize, any of it, the key was for desirable content to be provided naturally by the network’s users, some of whom would act as content producers or hosts, setting up watering holes for others to frequent.

And so— and I really think this is a great metaphor— “the internet was a recipe for mortar, with an invitation for anyone, and everyone, to bring their own bricks.”

The best thing about the internet is that no one has control of it; there’s no central authority to tell anyone what to do or decide how things have to be done. The worst thing about the internet is that no one has control of it; there’s no central authority to tell anyone what to do or decide how things have to be done. The openness of the internet has allowed for tremendous creativity and generosity and weirdness to blossom freely; it’s also made it nearly impossible to prevent the spread of bizarre conspiracy theories and misinformation, or control the simpleminded cruelty of trolls and misogynists and racists. Less discussed is another consequence of the lack of central control: there’s nobody in charge of maintenance— and, in fact, no way anyone could do the work of maintaining the internet, as a whole. At the risk of overextending the metaphor, leaving everyone free to bring their own bricks means that they’re also free to let them crumble, or take a few away, even if that means the building falls down. The result is that the internet (and now I am definitely overextending the metaphor) is like an old mansion, with some rooms clean and comfortable, others in which everything is more or less intact but coated with dust, and a few in which the roof has collapsed and birds have built nests in the rafters; meanwhile, a new wing is added every ten minutes. Fifty percent of the links in Supreme Court opinions published since 1996, 75% of the links in Harvard Law Review articles, and 25% of the links in New York Times articles since 1996 no longer work; studies of various internet sources have been finding for many years that “content drift” and “link rot” are endemic to the web.

…a key feature of the distributed web and internet [is that] Their designs naturally create gaps of responsibility for maintaining valuable content that others rely on. Links work seamlessly until they don’t. And as tangible counterparts to online work fade, these gaps represent actual holes in humanity’s knowledge.

Meanwhile we must rely more and more on digital sources, because it is less and less likely that anything— even scholarly journals or government documents— will ever exist in paper form.

2) “The Race to Put Silk in Nearly Everything”, by Max G. Levy

I’ve long been interested in the idea of biomimetics— copying of substances or systems found in nature— especially the use of materials created by biological processes. (For what it’s worth, I’m not sure of my terminology here; I was going to refer to these as “biomaterials,” but that seems to mean anything that can be safely used in the body, including metal and glass. At the same time, I don’t know if what’s being described in the article is an example of biomimicry so much as just an effort to produce a biological material with different characteristics in commercial or industrial quantities). I feel what is probably a naive kind of wonder at the idea that a substance stronger (in some cases) than steel can be assembled out of nothing but protein and water in the guts of an insect— and, moreover, that human beings can’t always replicate these materials, even when we have a reasonable understanding of what they are made of and why they have the characteristics they do. Silk is an example of a biological material that humans have been using, and even deliberately cultivating, for centuries. It has all kinds of properties that make it useful— strong, lightweight, insulating, water resistant, and “biocompatible”— meaning, more or less, that you can put it in a person’s body and their immune system won’t attack it. There’s been speculation for many years that it could be used in all kind of applications, from medicine to clothing to structural engineering, and while there have been some important successes, there’s also been a lot of frustration. Some recent advances suggest that may be starting to change, however.

3) “At This Instagram Hot Spot, All the World’s a Stage (and the Buffalo’s a Prop”), by Vivian Wang with photos by Gilles Sabrié

If you live in the U.S., you’ve certainly heard a lot about the growing economic power of China— usually presented as some kind of threat, though it’s not always clear (to me) what the danger is. In any case, we don’t always hear as much about the effects that economic growth is having on Chinese society— massive urban migration and the disruption of communities, the growth of inequality, and so on. (These effects are the primary subject of director Jia Zhangke, all of whose work warrants attention). One of these effects is that (some) Chinese people have a lot more disposable income, including for travel and tourism, and they’re sharing photos of their adventures on social media. That’s led to a desire to have to “right” sorts of images, which are often less about accurately representing a place than about giving viewers what they expect to see from that place. This is precisely the kind of the thing that the free market is great and responding to, and in Xiapu County, in the southeast, that is what has happened. Local residents now make money staging scenes for tourists to photograph, including scenes of them working in ways they haven’t for decades (for instance, using water buffalo to plow a field). While my knee-jerk response to this is to roll my eyes, there’s part of me that feels heartened by the fact that Chinese people themselves are prone to exoticize and romanticize China’s past, in more or less the same ways that Western tourists might.

I wasn’t thinking of those two pieces as linked when I started writing, but one connection one might make is that they are both about the very porous and uncertain boundary between “real” and “fake,” or “authentic” and “inauthentic.” Silk produced in a lab— or spider silk made by genetically altered silkworms— might not be seen as “real” silk, but chemically and functionally, it is the same; the Xiapu villagers are deliberately creating scenes that aren’t reflective of the way they farm or fish today, but at the same time, the images are reflective of those people’s lives, in important ways. (Not to mention, as the piece points out, that the photographers do really have to get up very early, or possibly wait around for hours for just the right light to get the shots they’re looking for). I tend to see “authentic” as, at best, a fairly meaningless concept, and at worst a deeply problematic, even destructive one; I certainly can’t see who would benefit from an insistence on “authenticity” in either of these cases.

4) “The Tech Cold War’s ‘Most Complicated Machine’ That’s Out of China’s Reach”, by Don Clark

A single machine, used for extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography to manufacture computer chips and manufactured by the Dutch company ASML, has become essential in the manufacture of current (and near-future) generations of microprocessors. (I’m sure there are any number of problems with this analogy, but EUV light has a very small wavelength, which as I understand it makes it like having a finer-point pen to write with. It is similar to the difference between DVD and BluRay. A good, if technical, explanation of photolithography can be found here). The machine (which is never given any kind of name in the article, but referred to only as “the machine”) is made only by the one company, and the United States has successfully persuaded the Dutch to block its export to China, hobbling Chinese efforts to gain ground in manufacturing of these chips.

There are a couple of points that I find especially interesting here. The first is the way the machine embodies a tension between dispersed global trade and competition, on the one hand, and local monopolies, on the other. The machine itself is made with parts from many countries, including “mirrors from Germany and hardware developed in San Diego that generates light by blasting tin droplets with a laser. Key chemicals and components come from Japan.” Yet the machine itself is made by one company, in one country, and the government of that country can decide to deny another country access to the technology with a single regulation.

The second point, directly related to the first, is that the machine is very hard to make— otherwise China (as well as other companies) would simply make their own. Someone from IBM, quoted in the piece describes the machine as “definitely the most complicated machine humans have built.” I don’t know how definitive that statement can be, but an IBM executive seems like they’re in a position to know, if anyone is. Even if it isn’t unequivocally the most complicated, though, this thing is clearly extraordinarily complex, with many of its components themselves requiring sophisticated, complicated manufacturing processes— for instance, ordinary lenses and mirrors absorb EUV light, so the glass components used in the projection system all have to have special coatings.

So ASML turned to Zeiss Group, a 175-year-old German optics company and longtime partner. Its contributions included a two-ton projection system to handle extreme ultraviolet light, with six specially shaped mirrors that are ground, polished and coated over several months in an elaborate robotic process that uses ion beams to remove defects.

That’s one part of the machine. When you then think about the fact that the ASML machine (at least, as I understand it) is only doing one part of the process, and that the silicon would still need to be etched to become functional, and think about how many other components are found even the a smartphone, the complexity of the creation of these things becomes pretty literally incomprehensible.

5) “Speed Freaks”, by Evan Malmgren

This is an older piece, but I just discovered it. Speedrunning is completing a video game (or some set of tasks in the game) as quickly as possible. For people who have thoroughly beaten a game in the more usual way, it’s an extra test of skill. Mamlgren attends a speed running convention in Orlando (this is an older piece, from January 2020), and notes the communality, supportiveness, and lack of competitiveness that characterizes the speed running community— especially compared to other corners of the world of gaming, some of which are infamously toxic. This is threatened, though, by the growing pressure on successful runners to monetize— to start, or scale up, a Twitch channel and get enough regular viewers to sell ads, win sponsors, and generally make a business out of themselves. It’s an old story, at this point: a community grows organically around a shared interest, eventually becoming large enough to draw the attention of outsiders who see an opportunity for profit; a few people make a lot of money, attracting others who want a piece of the pie; eventually, the growing number of people who aren’t invested in the community in the same way irrevocably alters it, while the money erodes existing relationships.

6) “The Woman Who Brought Us the World”, by Alice Dragoon.

This is a profile of Virginia Tower Norwood, a mathematician and engineer who invented, among other things, the first practical radar reflector for weather balloons, enabling long-term weather prediction, the microwave transmitter used on NASA’s Surveyor lander (which evaluated the moon’s surface to make sure it would support a manned craft), and the multispectral digital scanner used on LANDSAT satellites. In some ways, her career is a summary of the obstacles facing women in science and technology: after graduating from MIT with a degree in mathematics, her first job was selling clothes at a department store, and her second was teaching business arithmetic at a community college; once she had jobs that really made use of her abilities, she was refused a parking spot in the lot reserved for technical staff, and one man resigned because he refused to work for a woman. Sadly, none of that is particularly surprising, but it does make me think, again, about how many innovations and advances we’ve missed out on making— or made much later than we might have— through excluding smart people from these fields.

7) “Cauliflower and Chaos, Fractals in Every Floret”, by Sabrina Embler

Cauliflower, and in particular the Romanesco cauliflower, has a fractal structure— the same shape repeating at different scales. (A better explanation of fractals is available here). Researchers in France are trying to understand how this shape forms, and through this work have discovered that the “curd” of the cauliflower is

is a bud that was designed to become a flower but never makes it all the way there, and instead makes a shoot. But the researchers’ experiments in the meristem found that because this shoot has passed through a transient floral stage, it is exposed to a gene that triggers its growth.

This allows it to act as “a stem without inhibition,” which is a great phrase.

Weirdly, this is not the only thing I read recently about plants in the genus Brassica. Some recent research is also looking at how humans, through selective breeding, have turned a couple of species of plants from this genus— B. rapa and B. oleracea— into a bunch of different foods, including broccoli and cauliflower (from B. oleracea) but also bok choy and turnips (from B. rapa). These plants have a genome that is particularly prone to mutation (making them very adaptable), and humans began cultivating B. rapa around 6,000 years ago, probably in the Hindu Kush, so we’ve had plenty of time for selective breeding. Interestingly— and directly related to the research on cauliflower fractals— as cultivation of the plant spread around the world,

Different cultures selected for certain traits in different parts of the plant. For example, we’re familiar with tomatoes in all colors, sizes, and flavor profiles, but they’re all the fruit of the plant Solanum lycopersicum. For B. rapa, however, “with turnip, you’re looking at the root, the underground stem of the plant. Tatsoi is the leaves. Broccoli rabe is the flowers,” says McAlvay.

So, probably at least part of the reason that the Romanesco cauliflower looks the way it does is that humans bred it selectively to maximize the growth of that particular flowering part, and today’s French geneticists are now, in effect, trying to go back and figure out exactly what those ancient farmers did to get to this outcome.

8) “When Rembrandt Met an Elephant”, by Nina Seigal

Really kind of a review of an exhibition at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, this piece tells the story of Hansken, an Asian elephant brought from Sri Lanka to Europe in the early 17th century. Hansken toured all over Europe as a curiosity, and was taught to do tricks. Perhaps not surprisingly, she was not very well taken care of— as Siegal notes, Europeans at the time would have no idea how to care for an elephant— and she died of an infection at about 25 years of age. But while she was alive, Rembrandt certainly saw Hansken, possibly several times. The detail and accuracy of the elephant in a later drawing (“Adam and Eve in Paradise,” in which the elephant represents innocence) shows that Rembrandt must have actually seen an elephant; what’s most interesting to me about this story is that Hansken would almost certainly have been the only elephant he could possibly have seen in person.

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