Literature Review

I could lead one to believe that what follows is a quick and jaunty overview of my research to date, but I’m not going to lie. The following is a 4,000 word blog post, that could have been much longer but I just had to stop at some point. If anyone actually reads through it, I owe that person a steak dinner. I will highlight what I think are the more quote-worthy bits in blue. And so it begins…

The fundamental reason any economical system is in place is to foster the ready exchange of goods and services, it is a social contract that keeps the societal machine humming and the general population engaged and productive. This literature review begins at the large scale in order to try to determine the overriding cultural factors that has created what I would argue is a diminished sense of intrinsic worth among the general population. The global financial system has shifted its attention toward the digital world as the generator of new growth, but this money-making machine has faltered through instances of systemic mismanagement and outsized expectations.

Aside from the issue of how to responsibly manage a digital economy is another aspect — how to successfully co-exist with it.

This new economy will likely continue to siphon away the human-occupied jobs that can become automated, and so presents a possible opportunity to reevaluate what intrinsic human worth actually is.

The Health of Systems

A common refrain exists today about the disproportionate control of corporations and financial institutions over the lives of individuals. But is this simply populist dogma? Three Systems Design researchers from ETH Zurich recently published a paper that describes the connective web formed from the world’s largest transnational corporations. They started from an initial pool of 43,000 corporations, and were able to determine a list of 1,318 corporations that they say represents the core of the economy. Of those 1,318, the researchers have further narrowed it to 147 corporations that forms a super-entity controlling 40% of the total wealth of the core network. In other words, less than 1% of companies controls 40% of the network. The top 50 spots of those 147 controlling interests are overwhelmingly occupied by financial institutions, making explicit the perceived notion of a tiny few interests that exerts disproportionate control over the entire global system.

The paper does not contend that this highly concentrated structure is any evidence of a global conspiracy, but does point out that this poses inherent instability and risk to the health of the network.

I cite this paper because it studies the transnational corporate structure as a natural system. It would be inaccurate and misguided to approach this project as if I were trying to root out some conscious entity that is at fault behind what I have expressed is a defining challenge in contemporary life. The existence of one natural system does not necessarily preclude the existence of other systems, in fact one could glean certain tactics from one element and apply it to a different objective, either because it has been shown to work, or because it speaks a vernacular that people already understand.

When the majority is flourishing it tends to point to a system that is functioning well. But people sometimes have trouble seeing the forest through the trees. An example I am reminded of comes from a UNICEF Education Manual called Child Friendly Schools. This framework is a comprehensive guide that describes an educational environment that adequately meets the educational needs of children in developing countries. It is a broad topic, and it took them three and a half years to develop. The researchers seemed to make their job even harder when in addition to describing optimal classroom environments, they also detail the importance of keeping children secure from violence, making sure they are well-fed, and other such factors. This would seem logically true, but the manual correctly recognizes that in order for a child to succeed in learning it is crucial to design a system that pays attention to all of the universal human needs. One part of a system that is functioning poorly will often have far-ranging implications.

The disproportional control exerted by corporate interests has led to a reactionary system in the Occupy Wall Street movement. This movement occurred not by accident but through a savvy and well-organized collective that was able to declare a call for protest, quickly set up a supply chain of food and money, and use social media to communicate and to capture the attention of the mainstream media. The main players involved in Occupy Wall Street do not all share the same ideology, they were originally made up of members from the hacker group Anonymous, the social activist magazine Adbusters, various far-left contingents, and a local labor activist organization called the New York City General Assembly. They do not seek appeasement from any central body, the goal is to fundamentally shift the balance of power from a top down economic supply chain to one more representative of the majority population.

Occupy is soft revolution in the face of the exertion of soft power.

Occupy is significant to me in that it has largely resisted a co-option of message from any one particular political interest. It thus challenges the idea that to gain any sort of traction one’s demands needs to be whittled into a soundbyte, and that they need an outrageous personality for the media to worship and vilify in one motion. Another of the common criticisms could be interpreted as an inherent strength, that the die-hard occupiers are made up of a fringe element with nothing better to do. Some of these protesters may indeed have nothing better to do; this movement is their sense of purpose. How well the movement is able to persist and effect change is an open question, but given that OWS has gained a lot of its inspiration and tactics from social revolutions in the Arab Spring suggests that it may be a part of a bigger philosophical shift that has begun to take root worldwide. This is pertinent to my thesis because it illustrates a counterculture element that is essentially confronting the modern-day crisis of purpose and challenging the perception of diminished worth among ‘ordinary people.’

The Digital Economy

Another factor pertinent to the present global economic landscape is the emergence of the digital economy. This new economy brings with it a lot of complexity in terms of how it influences human behavior and how it affects the intrinsic worth of the individual.

A TED talk Kevin Slavin gave in July of 2011 described some incisive examples of how algorithms are performing a multitude of actions outside of any direct human influence. He also describes how these algorithmic outcomes are so embedded into everyday interactions that it has compelled us humans to unknowingly adapt our behavior and actions so that it accommodates the system. The point of his talk was that this increasingly impenetrable influence should be acknowledged, and the ability to control and understand what we are creating is critical to preventing what he calls a possible “flash crash of culture,” reminiscent of the mysterious algorithm-induced flash crash of Wall Street on May 6, 2010.

Slavin contributes to my thesis’ contention that the digital network is causing people to stand outside the mechanism and believe in it’s convictions implicitly. However, he does not state that the system should be torn down, aside from that being an unlikelihood, it is an overreaction. There is a human tendency to view anything that cannot be easily controlled or understood as something with abilities far beyond their own. I would argue something that cannot be controlled or understood signifies a fundamental and systemic design flaw. The digital economy is not a magical oracle, it is something that should be in service to the needs of society. The most exotically created financial derivatives take advantage of the unquestioned faith in the machine. They are designed to be deliberately incoherent, and this works to convince investors of it’s implied value.

Faith without understanding is an instance of self-imposed subservience.

Technologist Jaron Lanier offers a critique of the current state of the internet in his book “You Are Not a Gadget,” eschewing societies’ seeming implicit trust in crowdsourcing, a hive mentality, and the supposed wisdom produced by algorithms. The author also warns against what he sees as the specter of ‘lock-in,’ which is when every successive iteration is built on the technology or behavior wrought by the previous iteration. In this model, a deleterious mechanism becomes intractable and interpreted as self-evident, unquestioned. Lanier argues for a return to appreciating the creative and moralistic qualities generated by individuals. Otherwise, the internet precipitates the devaluation of everything other than advertising.

Lanier writes, “in the new order…the crowd works for free, and statistical algorithms supposedly take the risk out of making bets if you are a lord of the cloud. Without risk, there is no need for skill. But who is that lord who owns the cloud and connects the crowd? Not just anybody. A lucky few (for luck is all that can possibly be involved) will own it. Entitlement has achieved its singularity and become infinite.”

Lanier argues passionately against the cultural shift that has devalued individual contributions, which is directly in line with my thesis work. However, he places a large portion of the blame for the diminishment of individual character at the feet of web 2.0. His critique is heavily colored by his background as an independent musician, and so to him web 2.0 signifies an end to an internet that existed for the promotion of interest among creative enthusiasts; to him the internet became dumbed down to cater to the effortless access of the majority, and provided the dreadful notion of completely free creative media. I hesitate to assign blame to any one thing, but I do think crowdsourcing and social media has provided a conduit for expression and activism in some isolated instances. It makes sense to me to work with the existing digital infrastructure as a tool that can be repurposed, and adapt how it is used as a matter of the medium’s continuing evolution.

W. Brian Arthur, an economist and visiting researcher at PARC wrote an article in the October 2011 issue of McKinsey Quarterly about the existence of a second economy brought about by digitization. Digital businesses now converse with one another and make transactions outside of human interaction, and the author states that this highly efficient system will progress to represent the biggest economical impact since the Industrial Revolution. The obvious second-order effect of this the author also addresses: that physical jobs are being replaced by the digital economy. Arthur feels that the main challenge of this new economy will be to shift from producing prosperity to distributing prosperity. The tone of the article is optimistic, dictating that our societies at large can ultimately take advantage of this extraordinarily productive economic engine.

Arthur provides a useful characterization of the value and the inevitability of the digital economy, what he calls the second economy. It makes sense that someone employed as a button pusher will probably have their job absorbed into the much more efficient digital economy. It gets stickier when it comes to the digital economy using algorithms to enact processes that outpaces what the human element would be able to monitor and control. Some of the solutions that Arthur briefly proposes for how to put people to work I think misses the mark, such as putting everyone on a 3-day workweek. As appealing as that sounds, it is worth considering that the presence of the digital economy presents an opportunity to re-evaluate worth in the workplace. People can feel less inclined to act as a stand-in for a machine, as a button pusher.

In the most ideal scenario the notion of the job could be redefined to that which an algorithm could never do: reason, puzzle over, be creative and expressive. These are things that equate to generating human satisfaction anyway, why not make that the standard driver for the new human-centered economy?

Monetary Criticism

Criticism for the way the central authority monetary system has been abused — and the alternatives proposed — has taken many different forms. I am citing two projects that propose alternatives rather than reforms to the existing system. One of them is a digital P2P currency system, and the other advocates the abolishment of a monetary system altogether.

An example of a functioning decentralized system of global currency can be found in Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer enabled technology that relies on the collective behavior of the network to manage transactions and the issuance of money. Every transaction is publicly displayed, as a preventive action against fraud and the abuse of the system. However, the relative value of a Bitcoin fluctuates more wildly than traditional forms of currency, and account holders may run the risk of being victimized by a computer virus. Despite it’s marked imperfections, the philosophical underpinnings for the creation of this system is rooted in a distrust against centralized banking systems, which the creator (going under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto) contends has repeatedly breached public trust by causing waves of credit bubbles without keeping enough currency in reserve.

Bitcoin uses the policing of its own participants in order maintain a stable system, which I think is an effective proof of concept in the validity of a network where the currency holders bear the responsibility themselves.

It also creates an interesting intangible/tangible dichotomy. For instance, there is no physical instance of a Bitcoin in metal or paper form, and the currency is used solely for online transactions. However, the Bitcoin proponents themselves champion the term “own your money,” pointing out that the everyone’s account key is stored on one’s own computer, and is legally protected as a piece of personal property — the same as cash.

A decidedly fringe element has advocated the abolishment of a monetary system altogether. One example is laid out in the movie Zeitgeist: Moving Forward. The film makes the case that global capitalism directly harms the physical and emotional health of individuals, and promotes a consumption-based system that is egregiously wasteful and unsustainable. The film goes into detail in its criticism of the current global monetary mechanism, pointing to the epidemic of global debt as a fallout from the financial system’s growth engine being driven by generating, processing, and resecuritizing nothing tangible. According to the movie. this is an indicator of the inherent untenability of a monetary and wage-earning system. In its stead, Zeitgeist promotes a resource-based economy. The film advocates a dispersal of resources in the most logical and efficient manner that ensures the continuing existence of human civilization. Along that vein, the movie presents a vision of humankind congregating into cities that produce all of their own vital services, like food and power generation. These systems are optimized for ultimate efficiency using automated and mechanized controls.

How to make the transition from the current system to this idealized technological utopia goes largely unenumerated in the film, however the narration communicates an urgency in making this seismic shift in order to avoid creating the extinction of our own species. I cite the movie here because in advocating the abolishment of an existing system it doesn’t invoke generalized anger against it, but adopts the tone that this is the most logical recourse. It is a film made by a worrier, not an anarchist, but regardless the central flaw is it’s lack of acknowledgment of a need for ordered transition in order for this to take place. Anyone with a concern for the course we are on could nod their head about the waste and ludicrous values being perpetuated. But the future society the film envisioned is actually quite boring, instead of a city representative of the spirit of it’s people, it instead explains how a city built around seven concentric circles would be the most optimal resource delivery system and still provide all the necessary public services. It asks that people give up concepts of individual ownership, which could probably never be possible unless they were forced to do so. In practice that doesn’t seem like any real vision of a utopia to me.

Interventions in Physical Space

The design projects that I favor do not always run towards traditional advocacy, in contrast to some of the publication examples. Many of the projects that I appreciate usually integrates an experiential element into helping the audience to understand an issue from a totally different perspective.

It is often less effective for a designer or artist to say, “think this!” Often it makes more sense to give people a conduit to act in the way they would like to, and come to their own conclusions.

Eleven Heavy Things by Miranda July is a public exhibit made up of eleven sculptural pieces, but they could just as easily be perceived as functional tools — as toys actually. July says of the project that it “invites the picture — these are eleven photo opportunities, in a city where one is always clutching a camera. Though the work begins as sculpture, it becomes a performance that is only complete when these tourist photos are uploaded onto personal blogs and sent in emails — at which point the audience changes, and the subject clearly becomes the participants, revealing themselves through the work.” The work is formed as an open-ended intervention that nudges the participants’ behavior toward self-expressiveness, creating an act that encourages a liberation from the routine and the staid.

Flightpath Toronto by Natalie Jeremijenko and Usman Haque is a project that invited the participants to see their city anew through spectacle and performance. The project installed elevated ziplines in a public square and had citizen participants fly winged gliders from point to point. The website says, “by reclaiming airspace as public space, can we consider other forms of transit, rediscover the ‘sport’ in ‘transport,’ and excite imaginative possibilities for our urban infrastructure? Are we game to experience, through flight, a city that is fluid and three-dimensional?” This project has a two-pronged objective, helping to drive an interest in novel forms of emission-free transportation with a design intervention that is enjoyable to interact with.

A more functional type of application that helps to organize protest demonstrations in real time is called Sukey. Sukey integrates Twitter into a rapid-update messaging platform overlaid onto a map where the action is occurring. The app is useful both for accepting messages from on-the-ground protesters and dispensing the latest confirmed news to the protest contingent. This helps to coordinate movements, and keeps every protester informed of oncoming threats. A tool like this is interesting because it synchs a global network with a localized event in real-time and lowers the barrier to creating dynamically-organized groups.

Comedian John Oliver performed a segment on the Daily Show about a Florida couple that legally challenged Bank of America’s attempt to wrongly foreclose on a home that they actually owned outright. As a result of a court order that ruled on the side of the homeowners, Bank of America was ordered to pay their legal fees, which was never dispensed. So, the couple foreclosed on the bank branch that had tried to foreclose on them, showing up one day with the town sheriff and a couple of repo men. I reference the skit because it is a refreshing instance of true-life irony, and turns a circumstance directly on it’s head.

Physical Games

It is likely that one very important element to my thesis will incorporate social gaming as a motivator and training tool. I am referencing here three games that use money as an essential element in driving their own physical and social game.

One particular project that expresses a social gaming intervention that promotes investing into community is Macon Money by Area/Code. The project creates a new local currency in the form of $65,000 worth of bonds, however the bonds are split in half and distributed randomly amongst residents of Macon, Georgia. It is up the bond holders to put forth the effort into finding the person with the other half, so they can then spend their bond at local participating businesses. This process promotes making new social connections, while also encouraging the players to discover the value of local businesses that may have otherwise gone unrealized.

Another Area/Code project dealing with money is called Budgetball. Budgetball is an active physical game with an element of financial resource management built in. The games uses its own currency system called Budgetbucks, which can be used to purchase Powerups, or extra resources and advantages to help them win. Teams can go into debt by investing in Powerups now and opting to pay for them later, and so being able to successfully manage risk is integral to winning a game or progressing in a tournament.

Budgetball references a very large issue in the U.S. national debt, but it seeks to engender a spirit of collaborative problem-solving among individual players.

Another social gaming project developed by game designer Eric Zimmerman and architect Nathalie Pozzi is called Sixteen Tons. The game begins with four players, each with three dollar bills in hand. The object of the game is a matter of simple strategy, moving one’s own piece so that it is adjacent to it’s matching color. The nuanced complexity of the game comes from it’s social interactions. Each player offers to pay a player to move a piece in order to help accomplish their own particular objective. The fact the game uses real money has a significant impact on the behavior displayed in the game. Sixteen Tons does not dictate what to do with the money when the game is complete: for some the winner takes the money, others return all the bills back to the original owner, and others even choose to raise the monetary stakes.

By laying out the projects and sources that relate to my thinking, I am able to better envision the substrate on which I am working. I think there is some large diversity of focus located within this literature review, but hopefully I have been able to convey a holistic picture of my interest space and where some of the different concepts might overlap.