The Week: Luddites, Apple Maps, and the unbearable badness of Covid

Plus: a cow. And some links.

Hello folks.

I didn’t do a longer newsletter post on Sunday because I’ve been loaded up with work. But I’ll make it up to you, I promise.

As always, you can email me cool links, feedback, screeds, abuse, etc. If you’re not subscribed and you want to be, do so here:

The children of Ludd

I liked Jathan Sadowski’s piece in The Conversation attempting to reclaim the word ‘Luddite’ for a new generation.

Today, new technologies are being used to alter our lives, societies and working conditions no less profoundly than mechanical looms were used to transform those of the original Luddites. The excesses of big tech companies - Amazon’s inhumane exploitation of workers in warehouses driven by automation and machine vision, Uber’s gig-economy lobbying and disregard for labour law, Facebook’s unchecked extraction of unprecedented amounts of user data - are driving a public backlash that may contain the seeds of a neo-Luddite movement.

Generally the word ‘Luddite’ in the modern parlance refers to someone who is anti-tech due to ignorance or lack or technological ability. But, as Sadowski points out, the original Luddites, a cabal of workers who destroyed textile machines in the early days of English industrialisation, did so not out of some innate hatred of technological progress, but as a rational response to the devaluation of human labour led by these machines.

The author Thomas Pynchon wrote a bit for The New York Times back in 1984 along these same lines:

The knitting machines which provoked the first Luddite disturbances had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries. Everybody saw this happening - it became part of daily life. They also saw the machines coming more and more to be the property of men who did not work, only owned and hired. It took no German philosopher, then or later, to point out what this did, had been doing, to wages and jobs.

I like the simple definition of what a coherent neo-Luddism might look like beyond blowing up data farms: it would treat technology “as a political and economic phenomenon that deserves to be critically scrutinised and democratically governed, rather than a grab bag of neat apps and gadgets.”

The sunken land rises again

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Apple Maps is simply not as good as Google Maps, and the latter’s enormous head start on data (and vastly larger data operation) means the gulf will likely never be entirely closed.

Back in 2018, Apple dumped some kind of unvalidated database of Australian business addresses into Maps. This was not publicised, but Australian users who opened the app would see that city streets were now polluted with invisible businesses which nonetheless have addresses attached to their ABNs — self-managed superannuation funds, trusts, and the like. I tweeted about this the other week and people in the replies said they remembered this happening, confirming that I’m not nuts.

Anyway, I did a search and saw someone got a screenshot, further confirming my sanity:

I find this endlessly fascinating. Objectively it’s just an annoying artefact of bad data management, but it also captures a strange psychogeography; a ghostworld beneath the surface of our own. It’s like putting on the sunglasses from They Live and seeing invisible structures of Australian power and wealth unveiled.

How do we talk about Covid?

Someone shared this story in The Atlantic from February by Zeynep Tufekci, which is extremely clear-eyed on the public health messaging failures during the pandemic. There’s a lot good in there, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this argument:

One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.

The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet. It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines. There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe. We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead. 

Tufekci is drawing a comparison here to the absolute jubilation in the press and in broader society when the polio vaccine was unveiled.

I don’t think our 24/7 media and online infrastructure can sustain anything different than what we got. The incentives are just too warped, and the rhythms of the internet naturally drift to escalating alarmism. You see this in the media, but also among individuals and independent creators — aided and abetted by platforms which value engagement above all else.

I think a lot about the arguments around blood clot illnesses and the AstraZeneca vaccine. Many argue — with good reason — that the media failed to put rare blood clots in context, or systemically over-emphasised them in the coverage. This is undoubtedly true. But it’s also difficult to imagine it playing out any other way, and any effort to take a more measured approach would be called a coverup. Not sure how we resolve this.

He will be there…

This week’s links

  • I wrote a little feature on Afterpay for The Saturday Paper last weekend, which is more or less just an overview of the company, the Square sale, and what it all means. I also popped up on the 7am podcast for a short ep to discuss that story.

  • I also appeared on ’Rum & Rant’ from One Heat Minute to talk about this newsletter.

  • I have no insight into the world of luxury watches, but someone told me that John Mayer is basically the world’s most influential collector and is a genuine market mover, so I had to read about it.

  • A friend referred me to this newsletter about the economics of the construction industry. It’s relentlessly US-focused, but there are great general takeaways too if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

  • An interesting piece on data precipitating a new kind of globalisation.

  • I idly mused on Twitter the other day about why Bruce Willis is acting in so many dogshit-tier straight-to-VOD action movies these days. Luckily twenty people sent me the same article which answers this in precise detail! In short: some weirdo producer appears to have cracked the Hollywood low-budget code.

  • The Trumpist periodical American Affairs has a detailed writeup of the (still absurdly titled) Operation Warp Speed, which was the project to get safe and effective Covid vaccines made and in arms. Regardless of your views of the administration, it’s an interesting look at what the US industrial state can still accomplish under certain parameters.

  • Further to the Pynchon reference above, and in keeping with the cyberpunk digression in last week’s newsletter, here’s a review in Neon Dystopia of Gravity’s Rainbow, one of my favourite novels. It’s often said that GR is a precursor to cyberpunk lit, and I think this review articulates why quite well.

    There might not be transcendence in Pynchon’s writing, but this novel is nevertheless driven by the anxious search for one. In this regard, Gravity’s Rainbow acts as the missing link between hippie alternative mythology and cyberpunk disenchanted materialism. The A-bombs that put an end to WWII made the general public suspicious of science, but at the same time technology was making its way into households like never before. In this perspective Pynchon’s novel is the reflection of its time: fear for the loss of traditional identity and irrational reactions to the fast-changing state of the world.