diego's weblog

there and back again

santa claus conquers the martians

Part 2 of a series (Part 1Part 3)

PRELUDE

I’ve had a busy week, and have been trying to sit down and put together a followup to my response to the NYT’s article on data centers.

I write the title, and I soon as I do, my mind goes blank. I read the title again. What the hell was I thinking? I am looking at the screen, white space extends below the blinking cursor, mirrored by something somehow stuck in my head, alternating on/off, rumbling lowly like an idling engine: I swear I had a point.

So naturally I start to think that this, perhaps, should be the new title. Which, in the expected recursion path that would follow naturally ends up in another meta-commentary paragraph (also with a simile close to its ending), which I decide not to write. Recursion upwards, probably to conform with an implicit image of happiness we may or may not feel (or is in this case is really quite unwarranted and even more, even worse: unnecessary) but we should generally imply anyway, because these days if you’re not explicitly happy something must be wrong, and therefore it must be fixed. Neutral has become a bad state to be in, apparently, long after being “with us or against us” became a common way to think about nearly everything. No, recursion has no direction except, perhaps, into itself, but it now occurs to me that years of looking at function call stacks have trained me (hopelessly comes to mind, but that’s also not happy) to think of recursion as up or down, rather than, say, horizontally from right to left.

Fascinating, I know.

– oOo –

I will eventually get to Santa Claus and the Martians, but for the moment, back to the article.

The series was titled “The Cloud Factories”, and right there it broadcast ever-so-subtly that it was to be something intended to get worked up about.

“Factory” can mean “the seat of some kind of production” but in this case the weight of the word is in the manufacturing angle. This doesn’t quite feel right, though. A factory is where things are built, sequentially, or at least mostly sequentially, and a cloud is anything but built, and the process is anything but sequential. A cloud emerges, and if we switch to the definite article and the proper noun with all its implications and uppercaseness, it’s also true that The Cloud is an emergent phenomenon. Metaphors are often misapplied, can be incorrect, but it’s not that often that a metaphor involving an overloaded term (“cloud”) is both misapplied and incorrect in the exact same way for nearly all the meanings of the term. This takes some skill.

So, yeah, the point of the title of the series was not to be accurate as an analogy, but to evoke. Specifically, an image. Much like the factory in which they make Itchy & Scratchy cartoons in The Simpsons has chimneys and dark dense smoke coming out of them, as does every factory in The Simpsons, regardless what it’s for. The “factories” in the “The Cloud Factories” seem to intentionally or not (but can this really be unintentional?) transmit the idea of dirt we associate at a reptilian level with “factory”. Dirt. Pollution. Guilt by association. Then — the title of the article, the first of two so far, drops the subtle imagery: “Power, Pollution and the Internet.” Strangely enough, beyond the title the word “pollution” appears exactly once in the entire article.

Pollution and the Internet. How could one not react to that? What I wrote a week ago was pure reaction, if nothing else to the reactionary tone of the article, but by now I have accumulated enough in my head to maybe add something else to this topic, which, perhaps predictably, has a bit less to do with the contents of the article itself (not that that topic is exhausted by any means) but on what is one possible way to look at its main thrust through the lens of discourse on technology nowadays, how we use metaphors and analogies to convey something that we haven’t yet internalized, and the factors at play in sustaining a reasonable and reasonably deep conversation in an environment that doesn’t lend itself to that. And if all of this in retrospect looks obvious, consider this the admittedly convoluted way in which I am creating a reminder, a mental note: something to pay more attention to.

On to it, then.

ACTION REACTION RETRACTION

Action — argument (paraphrasing, summarizing): “That which powers our online services and more generally the Internet is really a hidden pollution machine run by people fearful of reducing waste, even though the means to do so are readily available.”

Reaction — counterargument (now really summarizing): “Not true.”

That the argument isn’t true may be indeed true, and yet to not just agree with the counterargument because, for example, you respect whoever made it but to understand it requires a degree of experience and training and knowledge that is well beyond what most people could get to because, quite simply, they have their own jobs and lives. Indeed, if it’s not your job and it’s not your life (and for most of the people for whom this is a job, it’s also our life), you really shouldn’t bother. The modern world, and to some degree the very basis of our progress is that we use things that we can’t build, and in many cases can’t even understand. We travel by plane even though many people have no idea how it works, let alone are able to build one.

And that is just fine.

We trust the plane, though, don’t we? Well, now we do, but 150 years ago the thought that you could pack tons and tons of baggage and instruments and hundreds of people into a tin can and by pushing air at unimaginable speed through smaller tin cans attached to the larger tin can with bolts you would get the thing to fly was unpopular indeed.

Bear with me for a minute here. I’m getting somewhere. Promise.

As I was writing a week ago I was typing frantically and in the process of switching windows I entered “action reaction retraction” into Google, and the last result visible before I had to scroll said “Robert H. Goddard. The New York Times.” which seemed intriguing enough, and following there were notes on a retraction that seemed almost too appropriate. Really? was the thought, so I went to the Times archives and found the quote, but in the process lost the bizarre way in which I stumbled on to it. I spent almost an hour yesterday, I kid you not, going through the browser’s history to see what I’d done, and I still can’t remember why I was typing that except to think that I must have read this before, and further googling just for the quote shows that it’s been mentioned a few times in the last several years. Sarah Lacy included the quote in her followup, along with her own thoughts regarding an earlier Times story on Tesla motors which shows if not a pattern at least some concordance of mistakes all going in the same direction, or misdirection.

The quote was a retraction from the Times in which it acknowledges:

“Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”

This was triggered by Apollo 11’s flight, when, one presumes, a 50-year-old takedown of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard on the very pages of the Times might have come to their attention:

“That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

The Times regrets the error. This reminded me of what we could call the case of Catholic Church v. Galileo. At least the Vatican actually apologized to Galileo directly, although in fairness to the Times, it took the Vatican closer to 400 years to get to that point.

The reason I bring up the quote again is that there’s a certain tone of mischief detectable in it, since no one can possibly believe that they are seriously a) realizing just now that rockets actually work in a vacuum and b) that the way to correct for this is to say that “this confirms the findings of Isaac Newton.” Points for whoever wrote it: it was funny.

And just to be clear: this isn’t about giving a pass to the Times, but to try to figure out why this seems to be a recurring problem from which the Times seems far from exempt, even when we may be inclined to think they are exempt from it.

The question is, then, why would they, the nebulous they but that nevertheless is actually people, talented as they may be, would have originally thought that trashing Goddard, someone with enough credentials to presumably give him the benefit of the doubt at the very least, was a good idea?

Perhaps because in doing that they were reflecting, ahem, the times — the prevailing sense of what was or wasn’t possible in the age. The “truth” as they saw it, because truth and facts are two different things. To top it off, in this particular case a giant rocket traveling at some 11,000 meters per second was, as an undeniable fact, still very much in the future, but when the rocket was actually up there, actually carrying three people and countless gizmos and measuring devices and chemicals of all kinds, you didn’t have to know anything about physics to realize that there was something to this seemingly crazy idea of rockets in space after all.

Back to trusting airplanes at last: We trust the plane because we see it. We feel, down to our bones, the effort of the engines as it takes off and lands. If someone started to argue that the typical turbine was somewhat wasteful, I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking Well, while I’m inside the plane and on the air, I’d prefer a little waste to not being, you know, alive.

So is there something to the idea that, in the popular imagination, not seeing is disbelieving, to invert the well-known dictum?

More importantly, given the complexity and sheer scale of the systems involved in running the Internet, what would it take to “see” when what we’re talking about can’t, ever, actually be seen?

…AND YOU ALWAYS FEAR… WHAT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND…

That’s a line from Batman Begins uttered by Mafia mob boss Carmine Falcone while he is explaining to a young Bruce Wayne why he should just stop acting all flustered about crime and go home. It’s a critical line not only in the film but in the overall story arc of the trilogy, since within it we find Bruce Wayne’s drive to become Batman. Bruce agrees with Falcone’s thesis but not his solution, decides to understand, disappears into the underworld, then returns, seven years later, as Batman.

Understanding — not fearing — takes knowledge, and knowledge takes a long time and effort to develop.

Convincing people that flying rockets in space “only” required that we actually fly a rocket in space. What would be the equivalent for getting people to accept that how data centers work is not some perennial waste, where secret gerbils run mindlessly within wheels, most of the time doing nothing at all, wasting energy and in the process laying waste to the planet as well? Well, one way would surely be to getting everyone to spend the equivalent of Wayne’s “seven years in the underworld” which in this case would be not only getting a degree in computer science but spend a good amount of time down in the trenches, seeing firsthand how these things are actually run.

That this is an impractical solution, since we can’t have the whole planet get a CS degree or work in a data center, is obvious. It leaves us with the alternative of using analogies and metaphors to express what people still haven’t internalized, and probably will never be able to internalize, in the way that they have the concept of a rocket or an airplane. Before planes flew, the idea of them also had to be wrapped in analogies and metaphors, usually involving birds. The concept of a factory would have undoubtedly required some heavy analogies to be explained to people in, say, the 16th century. We grasp at something that is known to make the unknown intelligible.

The analogies we choose matter, however. A lot. Which is why I keep talking about planes not factories. A modern commercial jet is a much more apt analogy for the type of “waste” involved in running a modern data center.

There is waste and pollution involved in running a jet, as anyone can plainly see. Sometimes the waste is obvious (empty seats), sometimes it’s not (unnecessary circuitry), but generally people don’t doubt that the good people at Boeing et. al. are always doing their damnedest to make the plane as efficient, safe, and effective as possible. The same is true of Internet infrastructure.

WHERE WE FINALLY GET BACK TO SANTA CLAUS CONQUERING MARTIANS

You may or may not agree with the plane analogy, there may be better ones, there are more things to discuss and there certainly is a need for us in the industry to engage more broadly and try to explain what’s going on as long as everyone in the world doesn’t have a CS degree (a man can dream).

So for all the faults I could find with the article, I think it was good that it triggered the conversation, and herein lies our second conundrum.

This “conversation” — it will require effort to be carried out.

A brief detour: reading Days of Rage a commentary in the latest issue of The New Yorker, which references Santa Claus Conquers The Martians while talking about the “Muslim Rage” of recent days over a YouTube video no one had actually seen, certainly not before the protests. I agree with a lot of the article, except on one point:

“The uproar over “Innocence of Muslims” matters not because of the deep pathologies it has supposedly laid bare but because of the way the film went viral.”

Psy and Gangnam Style was viral. This video wasn’t. If anything, from what we know, it seems to be quite the oppositeof viral, since apparently it was simply an excuse used by people in power to rile up the unhappy (there’s that word again) masses so they could have something to do: “Angry? Unemployed? Bored? Feel you have no future? Here, go burn an embassy.” And how irrationally angry you have to be to somehow find that looting and burning and killing either solves a problem or makes up for anything or is even, just, a remotely justified way to react. How displaced you have to be from yourself and disconnected to what surrounds you. I can hypothesize, only. At points in my life I’ve had little or no money but never felt in a way that would ever lead me to react in that way. Not that this is about money, I know, it’s just one of the factors (probably), but one that I can try to relate through. But I digress.

SCCTM is indeed an actual movie and the reason I bring it up is that I had seen it years ago in an MST3K episode, and when remembering that it occurred to me that what happened in the Middle East was a more, perhaps the most, extreme version of a pervasive phenomenon, that of reacting to what our perception is of something rather than to the thing itself.

Mind you, this isn’t one of those “things were better in my time” type of arguments. While there was a time decades ago when in-depth roundtables in media were more common fare, this happened in an environment in which the amount of raw data to process was far, far less than it is now. We are overwhelmed by data but lacking in information. This isn’t a matter of access to technology, either. I’d bet a lot of the people doing the burning and killing in Benghazi had cellphones. We all do.

This, deep in the weeds of this post (essay?), is what triggered the topic in my head. The end of the chain of associations: that what we’re often doing these days to handle all the information that we’re exposed to would be tantamount to MST3K dispensing with the actual viewing of the movie and simply skipping to the part where we make fun of it. It wouldn’t be the same, would it? Context is critical, but we react in soundbites and generate storms of controversy over a few words which can’t possibly have context attached, because there’s simply no space for it, anywhere.

Twitter and to some degree Facebook are often blamed, unfairly I think, with a supposed devolution of our society into people trapping their thoughts into contextless cages 140-characters in size. I don’t think there’s any question, though, that we humans are and have always been lazy if we can get away with it, and that the deluge of information leave us with little time to reflect on it, so the mind recoils and defends itself with quips and short bursts, and Twitter (and Facebook) are a good mechanism for that. It just so happens that this constant jumping around topics superficially is both a) effective as a dopamine release mechanism –read: addictive– and b) the perfect way of thinking of yourself as informed and on top of everything and yet truly involved in nothing. Why isn’t Twitter or Facebook to blame, then. Let me give you a Twitterless example: sad advertisement on TV, people starving, a catastrophe somewhere. Text a number and give $3. Done. Back to watching Jersey Shore, or 60 minutes, or whatever.

Twitter, Facebook, all of them, are not the proximate cause. They are an effect. A reaction.

The environment we live in has fundamentally changed because there is readily available, quite simply, more data about everything, a large part of which is a barrage of trivia and gossip — which is to be expected since they are, ahem, trivial to generate. If Lindsay Lohan having a traffic accident is enough to generate massive news coverage and the cascade of reaction that follows, topics that are deeper and more complex and are more difficult to grasp will find it hard to compete.

It’s something new, or relatively new in historical terms, and I don’t think we know how to handle this deluge yet. We are drinking from a seemingly limitless flood of information but we haven’t yet figured out how to close the faucet every once in a while. We don’t necessarily drown in it but this flood that is constantly rushing around us leaves us with no time to reflect on any one point.

Information overload! Pfft. This isn’t a new idea! I bring it up not only because I think that we are increasingly using (creating) media that is suited to how we are trying to deal with it, and the edifice we construct with all of it is not well-optimized to transmit complex ideas (this, also, is not at all original), and so it seems critical that we have to work hard at finding the right metaphors and analogies, the right tools to talk about how the machinery of the Internet works. Tools and machinery, here, somewhat ironically encapsulating the point.

AND NOW FOR THE SURPRISINGLY SUCCINCT CONCLUSION

Analogies matter, metaphors matter, and we need to find better ones to talk about what the Internet is (for example, a “global village” it is not, and this term has luckily fallen by the wayside, but the many reasons why will have to wait for another time). We also have to contend with a shifting media environment in which a conversation like this can get all too easily lost in the noise, not because, as a cynical interpretation would have it, people only care about Snooki or the Kardashians or whatever, but because until we figure out how to live and engage with complexity when soaking in data there will only only surface and precious little depth.

And if there’s an additional meta-point to “Power, Pollution and the Internet,” something else that is important beyond the specifics in the article, it is that we as an industry have left a void that can be filled with anything, and if we don’t engage and try make what we do more comprehensible for everyone who, rightly, doesn’t have the time to understand it because they’re busy running the rest of the world, then we in the industry have no one to answer to for it but ourselves.

Part 2 of a series (Part 1Part 3)

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