June 17, 2024

First some music:

Saisei, by DJ Krush

DJ Krush’s Kakusei, which came out during my first year of college, is a record that I came to appreciate very gradually; only in retrospect have I realized how big an influence on my taste it has been. I haven’t kept close track of him since, but I like this new record a lot.

“Inside the Crime Rings Trafficking Sand”, by David A. Taylor

This is not the first thing I’ve read about sand mining and trafficking— I don’t think it’s even the first thing I’ve posted here about it— but I still find it weirdly fascinating. All the stories have the same hook, which is: “How can something as mundane and seemingly infinite as sand be valuable enough to steal?” The thing is, it doesn’t get less surprising— it really just doesn’t seem like something that would ever be worth the trouble. But sand is essential for making concrete, and concrete has become probably the most-used construction material in the world, fueling new building in China, in particular, over the last couple of decades. And not just any sand will do; wind-eroded sand grains are too round, so you need sand from rivers or coastlines (and rivers are preferable). So, one of the great ironies in all this is that countries like Dubai or Saudi Arabia, which are mostly sandy desert, have to import sand for all the building they have been doing. High demand and declining supply mean, of course, that prices go up, and that has spurred illegal sand mining all over the world— although one problem is also that laws are often quite unclear about who can gather sand where.

Luis Fernando Ramadon, a federal police specialist in Brazil who studies extractive industries, estimates that the global illegal sand trade ranges from $200 billion to $350 billion a year—more than illegal logging, gold mining and fishing combined. Buyers rarely check the provenance of sand; legal and black market sand look identical. Illegal mining rarely draws heat from law enforcement because it looks like legitimate mining—trucks, backhoes and shovels—there’s no property owner lodging complaints, and officials may be profiting. For crime syndicates, it’s easy money.

This has significant political and environmental impacts in the places where the sand is mined. In particular, dredging rivers for sand can dramatically change the way they behave, preventing them from refilling groundwater and making serious floods more likely. But the issue gets little attention— perhaps in part because, again, the idea of sand as a valuable resource and focus of crime just doesn’t register as a real possibility.

And if you need a place to wash all that sand off (how’s that for a segue?), you’re in luck: car washes are proliferating at an unprecedented rate in the U.S., where “More car washes were built in the last decade than all the preceding years combined.” Numbers have grown so fast that some towns have passed moratoria on new ones, noting that car washes do “not provide a lot of jobs for the community, and they take up a lot of space.” “Why Are There Suddenly So Many Car Washes?”, by Patrick Sisson, tries to explain the trend. The explanation is actually fairly straightforward: people have gotten less inclined to wash their cars (or do other kinds of maintenance) themselves, so there’s just more demand, and the growth of subscription models (where you pay a monthly fee rather than per wash) have made revenue streams more reliable. At the same time, automation has reduced labor costs, and consolidation in the sector has increased economies of scale. That’s led to lots of outside investment, including from private equity, which has driven the expansion. The piece also includes a nice brief history of the car wash, which has been around almost as long as cars themselves.

“Ireland Memory Machines”, by Jessica Traynor

I’ve had a vague idea for a while now for a research project of some kind about the various kinds of “centers” that have proliferated, mostly at the edges of urban areas, over the last 20 years of so: data centers, “fulfillment” centers, intermodal facilities— the components of what have been called the “logistics landscape”. Ireland has become one of the most prominent locations for data centers, in particular, in part because of its temperate climate and in part because of its very low corporate tax rates. This sounds like, and is often presented as, a significant benefit for Ireland, since it puts them at the center of major developments in technology and prompts investment by the companies in charge of those developments. Not surprisingly, though, things are more complicated in practice. This piece neatly sums up the relationship that the country has with the big technology companies that (mostly) build and manage these data centers:

Since the 1960s, IDA Ireland, Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency has had a policy of aiming to attract international investment through low corporate tax rates, starting with an initial rate of zero percent. Ireland has long been home to tech companies: IBM and Ericsson offices opened in the 1950s, and factories owned by Dell, Intel, HP and Microsoft followed in the 1970s and 1980s. The focus of these operations was hardware. The pivot to software development coincided with the boom years of the early 2000s, when Ireland became known as the “Celtic Tiger.” Google’s European headquarters opened in Dublin in 2004, and since then, the country has become home to 16 of the 20 largest global tech companies. In the nine years between the 1999 Eircom shares scandal and the 2008 Irish banking scandal that exposed the country’s citizens to massive debt, Ireland enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth. Even as it struggled to exit recession in the 2010s, Ireland’s continued policy of low corporate taxation encouraged the growth of big tech in the country. The result is that Ireland’s economy is heavily dependent on tech companies, with low corporate taxes meaning that these companies contribute little to the Irish exchequer — and, by extension, to the Irish citizen left heavily indebted by the recession.

Trainer also links these issues to the problems that stem from our dependence on these centers, and on digital technology, for the preservation of history and collective memory. “The cloud” is marketed as making data, and therefore the record of history, much more secure, safe, or permanent, but it also creates new vulnerabilities.

And so all that material floating around in the cloud — which is in reality being bounced from server to server, degrading each time this happens — is not really being preserved in the way we might imagine. Its continued existence is dependent on a steady flow of electricity, the continued provision of which is contingent upon governments reaching renewables targets they can’t agree upon. And even then, these files will degrade, deteriorate and become obsolete. Rather than creating something permanent and inviolable, we’ve made our memories more contingent than ever upon a fantasy of technological stability that, given the constant churn of history, seems inevitably fleeting.

Moreover, the vast and growing energy demands of data centers mean there may be an unavoidable trade-off between the permanent retention of a society’s data and the survival of that society.

Other European countries, such as the Netherlands, are halting their development of data centers. Singapore imposed a three-year moratorium from 2019 to 2022, and is now seeking applications within new parameters to ensure sustainability. Unless Ireland figures out a way to surge forward with its slow development of renewables, these data centers seem impossible to sustain. One potential solution is to look more carefully at what data we retain, and why. We must weigh the short-term financial benefits of seemingly infinite data retention against the long-term threat of climate crisis.

And what are we doing with all of that data, anyway?

“The Tyranny of the Algorithm” and “Coming of Age at the Dawn of the Social Internet” are both excerpts from Kyle Chayka’s recent book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. The first piece is about the aesthetic convergence around the world of places like coffee shops, which have increasingly come to reflect not local tastes or norms but a kind of global standard driven by what is popular on social media— which of course is deeply shaped by the algorithms that determine what people actually see on social media.

The elements of style turned out to be less important than the fundamental homogeneity, which became more and more entrenched. The signs changed, evolving one step at a time over the years, but the sameness stayed the same. It was this sameness that was off-putting, rather than this or that element of the style itself. Homogeneity in a diverse world is uncanny. There could be a disappointment with finding the expected aesthetic in yet another place, as well as a sense of intrusion, that the influence of digital platforms was extending somewhere that it had not previously.

This culminates in the creation of features designed specifically for presentation on Instagram, etc., — which is to say, designed to appeal visually to people not at the coffee shop (or whatever), and to bring in customers with the promise of helping them make their own social media “content” more algorithm-friendly.

Instagram walls or experiences attracted visitors to a locale and kept them engaged by giving them an activity to perform with their phones, like a restaurant providing colouring books for kids.

Harsh, but not wrong.

At the same time, there is growing pressure on businesses to market themselves through the same channels. Chayka notes that “Simply existing as a coffee shop isn’t enough; the business has to cultivate a parallel existence on the internet, which is a separate skill set entirely.” Of course, advertising has always been distinct from the business being advertised, and being good at the one doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at the other. What’s different here, I think, is the constancy, the unrelenting need to generate a continuous stream of “content” simply to avoid getting buried by algorithms that dictate what people see and what they don’t. And the way to do that is to tailor yourself to what those algorithms reward and prioritize.

The second piece is about how the internet, and the experience of being online, has changed as algorithmic feeds have come to dominate what we see and how we see it.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for the way things were when you were a teenager. I grew up online, but time inevitably moved on, and younger generations have become the prime demographic for a new wave of technology. As the writer Max Read recently posited in the Times, perhaps millennials have simply aged out of the Internet. Still, I think something more fundamental has been lost for all of us as social media has evolved. It’s harder to find the spark of discovery, or the sense that the Web offers an alternate world of possibilities. Instead of each forging our own idiosyncratic paths online, we are caught in the grooves that a few giant companies have carved for us all.

I’ve definitely felt that, a sort of systemic resistance to the unexpected, or the difficult to categorize. The way certain things I watch on YouTube or listen to on Spotify trigger a wave of recommendations, but others seem to have no impact. Recommendation algorithms give weight to what has already been seen and engaged with, making it that much more likely that the undiscovered will stay that way.

On a related note, “Against Trendbait”, by Rebecca Jennings, describes how more and more people are deliberately trying to coin new terms on TikTok in the hopes of going viral and getting views. The internet has long been a source of new words, both names for new technology and new slang. This is one of the best things about it. But trying to force that, to simply plant a new word into the collective consciousness, is much more like the kind of crude cultural terraforming I associate with big corporations and their marketing departments than the ineffable organic processes that usually characterize linguistic change.

And now for an example of the good internet: A few weeks ago, I went to a program at the University of Chicago, screening a couple of Chinese comedies, one from the 1950s and another from the 1970s. I was quite surprised at how good both films actually were— a lot of writing about Chinese cinema tends to treat everything between the late 1930s and the mid-1980s as pure propaganda, of historical but not artistic interest. Anyway, in one of the films— The Young Generation, also known as Bus Number Three, I noticed a poster on the wall in one scene that I was curious about. I got home and started googling, certain I would never find the exact one but thinking I might find something interesting anyway. To my great surprise, I actually found the one I was looking for very quickly, but the search led me to chineseposters.net, which is an amazing site. There are hundreds of posters, categorized by theme, artist, or time period, with lots of accompanying text to explain what you’re looking at. An amazing resource, apparently built for no reason other than to make them available to people.

Finally, Teju Cole has a new book of photographs and (very) short stories, called Pharmakon, and it is gorgeous.

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