The Fetishization of Practical Constraints

The appeal to practical constraints is a variant of the commonly supposed urgency of matters of fact. Facts, although man-made (“fact”, from Latin factum, “that being made”), are seen as somehow objective and as part of a reality whose key feature is deemed as being able to persist without us. Like objectivity is more or less described as what can be without us, without our perception of and our entanglement with it.

That things can be objective in that sense seems to be a concept that arose in Antiquity when orality was surpassed by literacy. That which can be stated in a sentence and was part of other things stated in sentences, had still been of ephemeral character, as in the moment of its being uttered and heard, its existence had already past, and would remain only in the memories of those in attendance of its former presence.

When writing came into being, things changed profoundly. Not only became ideas more or less constrained in “size” to the “length” of their expressing sentences; the idea of a sentence (instead of a paragraph or other bulks of sentences) being able to “express” an idea or content at all and that their function primarily consists in conveying just that became predominant. And why not? In writing, one wrote down a sentence, and that sentence, via its material carrier like wax tablet, parchment, or paper, could be handed over to somebody else to be read at some other time. Not only did sentences become distinct from the content they conveyed; content became distinct from the person to which it had occurred in the first place. That content could be accessed independently from its “producer”, independently from the local space and time, could stand alone via its material carrier (the sentence and the medium on which it was written) and accessed by everyone who was able to read, constituted what later should become a whole ideology of objectivity (Plato’s ideas, e.g.). That “mental objects” (as they now could be called) could be handed back and forth and could remain throughout time via the existence of their material carriers without depending on their original “producers” not only created a specific sense of objectivity, but far more a specific sense of knowledge, belief, opinion, and error. As content became durable in time, and seemingly remained unchanged throughout time, it became receptible to characteristics that likewise persisted unchanged in time. Truth became an objective quality, very much distinct from sincerity and authenticity.

In oral times things existed throughout time as well, but in a different way. It wasn’t the literal words that would be conveyed, but the connections between the ideas, the topics, the happenings and characters. Remembered were stories, not facts, and with that the connection of the story told to those telling them. The access to story was communal, and it was the repetition of accessing the story together that was an important feature of a community not only staying in time, but being connected to the knowable items, be it ideas, fairies, gifts, intervention by the gods, as well. Truth was a matter of community, that is, balance. What brought together people, an environment, its ecology, and the unseen and invisible beings that contributed to the well-being of all. There still could be huge amounts of things to remember, even the attempt to remember them as literal as possible (genealogies, e.g., to explain and reconstruct territorial and ritualistic responsibilities). But truth was not what could be verified through all times by different people at different places; truth was what kept going a community, the land, the ancestors in one continuing story. Truth was guarded, and not because someone tried to create an advantage by restricting access, but because of responsibility due to the knowledge how fragile communities can be. Sustaining a balance between the people and the other beings was about creating a communal body with no clear boundaries between who was a member and who was not.

When truth became the a-temporal quality of an a-temporal content, which, via writing, could be accessed by everybody who was able to read, the laws of nature didn’t take long to appear as well. When the Scientific Revolution succeeded in creating the necessary mathematics to capture their essence in appropriate formulas, and were able to “verify” them by the success of appropriate predictions, the distinction between objective laws on the one hand and subjective persons on the other gave way to an renewed sense of what existed eternally and what existed only for a fleeting moment. Discovery was a gradual process of attaining “the” truth, and approximation became the rational stance of understanding one’s own position in this process across time.

The sense of matters of fact derives from this supposition that there are things “outside” us that are supervenient to us, independent of us, but able to influence and impact us. In fact. such matters of fact are seen as what cannot be argued about, what impacts us no matter what, and irrespective of our liking it or not. Reality, it seems, is when there is no place left to argue. But interestingly, what may have been true about features of nature that impact us no matter what, doesn’t have a counterpart in the human world, with the exception of man-made laws and regulations. Laws and regulations (like taxes, one might quip) do have an impact on us irrespective of who designs them, who the objects are onto whom they apply, and irrespective of the consequences their exertion may impose. And although there is no direct link between being and ought (so David Hume, contrary to whom Immanuel Kant later tried to connect both again), the “consent-enforcing” power of juridical laws and regulations has been mimicked proofs of mathematics (and the laws of nature) which exerted their powers regardless of estate and fame.

John Brunner once gave a remarkable definition of Evil: “If there is such a phenomenon as absolute evil, it consists in treating another human being as a thing.” (The Shockwave Rider (1975), p. 198) Not that there hadn’t been specific forms of evil throughout the times, but our modern form of evil in the sense John Brunner explicates, relies on the specific understanding of and the insistence on the dichotomy of animate self (here) and inanimate other (there).[1] It requires the understanding of some “higher”, “more real”, “less ensouled” complex of powers that can and should be imposed onto something other.

There is a little detail in Brunner’s definition which might be overlooked. If it is evil to treat another human being as a thing, then it is likewise of evil to treat oneself as a thing. That is, treating oneself as if being a thing, is in the same way against one’s own humanity as treating other people as things. But how would that happen? Usually by trying to impose some regiment of rules onto oneself to enhance one’s own performance in society, work space, relationships, communities.

I want to point out that by this I do not just mean the internalization of standards of work related performance. The same goes – if the definition and its self-application are correct – with every kind of intended self-improvement that makes one the object of some self-applied “objective” standard, be it in sports, therapy, spirituality, meditation etc. To become a better person via treating oneself as an object becomes not only a contradiction but reveals how much of the goal of improving oneself via one’s performances is an inhumane endeavour.

In particular in the work space, practical constraints are not just an external parameter that influences how a company or work group functions; far more it is used internally as a means to streamline group efforts, suppress back talk, impose a shared understanding of what is real and what is not, what is important and what is not, and what is enduring and what is transient. Given enough pressure, most participants of groups that are impacted by practical constraints will eventually appeal to those same constraints to enforce a behaviour in solidarity. That is, practical constraints are most often used as justification (or rationalization) in the exertion of pressure, to force people to perform better. Not only will the practical constraint prevail against considerations of humaneness and leniency; it will be actively used as a means of repression.

Practical constraints are a convenient way of enforcing a straightforward behaviour. And the reason for this is twofold, lying in the one who exerts the pressure as well as in those who receive it.

The virtue of practical constraints is that everyone appealing to it can shift responsibility for their activities on the matter of fact. It’s not him, but the facts (i.e., the work goal, the sales figures etc.) that forces him to force you to perform better, complain less, suspend demands. That is, not the one forcing others to enhance performance is the culprit, but the practical constraint is, of which the one exerting the pressure is victim like everybody else. He doesn’t have the responsibility, it’s some strangely out-of-world-impact that forces him and thus everybody else to keep going. This is particularly true in bureaucracies of totalitarian states, in which the one exerting the pressure is always one who can’t be held responsible as it wasn’t his choice to pressure to begin with.

Another aspect comes into play when practical constraints are combined with violence. The appeal to practical constraints can cloak the point that the one exerting the pressure onto others is not only a victim himself; far more in being a victim he can no longer be held accountable for his violence, and what appears to be violence becomes self-defense in the light of a cruel situation. Whereas violence is usually morally reprehensible, self-defense is not. In fact, becoming a victim is the sole best move to entertain one’s violence without having to face consequences.[2]

There is, on the side of those who endure violence and pressure from (appeal to) practical constraints, a huge patience and willingness to endure hardship. Especially in work groups that face constant pressure (e.g. by shortage of staff), the practical constraint (that seems immovable) and the feeling of solidarity one shares with one’s co-workers will often prevent one from speaking out against the pressure, knowing that once one leaves such situations the co-workers will only suffer all the more. It’s this feeling of humanity, of being humane, that hinders one to let others suffer in a dire situation. (And every employer knows this and will act accordingly to cut wages.)[3]

Practical constraints are means to avoid responsibility in the face of knowing that one bears responsibility. Their pervasiveness as a means of rationalization and justification of what can only be called violence is astounding. In fact, it seems that the appeal to practical constraints is not only a cherished way accepted by society to exert violence, it is likewise an insidious way of making oneself embrace and cherish this violence – if only as necessary evil. That this necessary evil is an absolute evil, towards others as towards oneself, can only be ignored by declaring it either a response to something bigger, or as a sign of vitality and performance. Both let us lose sight of what is important: the humane aspect in human life.

 

[1] Cf. my “Information Culture” (2013), “Towards an Economy of the World-Ingrained Self” (2013), sec. 1 and 2, “The Karma of Places” (2010).
[2] Cf. my “Villains And Victims – Part 1” (2010).
[3] Cf. my “Food Banks” (2014).

 

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For Your Coffee-table

There are only a few articles on the web that had a lasting impact on me. Some of them I like to list here, perhaps they are of interest to you.

 

Paul Berman, “The Passion of Joschka Fischer”, The New Republic, August 27, 2001.

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/78957/the-passion-joschka-fischer

A long-winding portrayal of the student revolt or “New Left” in Continental Europe, Great Britain, the U.S., and Germany in particular — from the early 1960s with its ramifications to the period of 1998 – 2005, when Joschka Fischer served as Germany’s Foreign Minister in the coalition government of Greens and Social Democrats under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Paul Berman depicts the various ways the revolutionary students and radicalized workers entered the urban guerillas as well as traditional politics. Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Joschka Fischer are treated extensively, many people are mentioned, which is convenient for further research.

Astonishingly, those developments are described with only bare mention of the European Counterculture of the 1960s to 1990s which ran parallel to the European student revolt and had huge cultural impacts (far more, one could argue, than any of the student revolt’s political achievements): Pacifism, No Nukes, alternative medicine, spirituality, humanistic psychology (Esalen), organic farming, music, festivals, the commune- and Back to the Land-movements, drugs, to name a few. But perhaps this omission is precisely a strength of this article.

 

Venkatesh Rao, “A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100”, ribbonfarm, June 8, 2011.

http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2011/06/08/a-brief-history-of-the-corporation-1600-to-2100/

One of the most fascinating pieces in a long time. Venkatesh Rao tells the history of “the” corporation, how this concept came into being, how it profoundly shaped geo-political reality, and how its demise might be at hand. Interesting how in Venkatesh Rao’s view the concept of corporation first centered around the scarcity of space, then around that of time, and today around that that of “attention”. The latter part is a matter of taste, but the two former parts are all the worth reading.

 

Tom Junod, “The Sore Winners: Will America’s Super Minority Sink Us All?”, Esquire, October 27, 2010.

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/news/a8800/sore-winners-102710/

Why is it that affluent people often feel unprivileged? Why is it that they feel marginalized and ridiculed so that they react by embracing a right-wing ideology like “taking back the country”? Tom Junod asked such questions in his short essay on the occasion of the rise of the Tea Party in the U.S. and it sheds beaming light on the “sore winners” in all affluent societies.

 

Dougald Hine, “What good is information?”, Aeon, March 06, 2014.

https://aeon.co/essays/how-can-we-be-bored-when-we-have-google

This is a story that needed to be told for many years, and Dougald Hine gave it a first try. His thesis is simple: In the early 1960s to the late 1970s, LSD was seen by many in the Counterculture to not only free the mind but to bring about a radical change in human attitude towards the planet, ushering in a co-viable and sustainable way of living. When in the late 1960s, early 1970s members of the Counterculture began to drive the development of the PC (“personal computer”), they effectively started “freeing” computer technology from the confines of big corporations (then primarily IBM and Hewlett Packard), from governments and the military, for the use of everybody, to enlighten and free the mind. “Information wants to be free”, Steward Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once said, and Dougald Hine ads that since the rise of the PC information itself has begun to take the cultural place LSD once occupied. Like in former times LSD was supposed to set people free, today it’s (still) believed information is able to achieve that goal. Thus the central place the concept of information has acquired in our lives. (Dougald Hine doesn’t distinguish between information and data, but that could be another strand to follow.)

 

David Arora, “The Way of the Wild Mushroom”, California Wild, Fall 1999, Vol. 52:4.

http://researcharchive.calacademy.org/calwild/1999fall/stories/mushroom.html

I didn’t encounter this essay on the web but first in print. But as I’m still fascinated by it, I wanted to include it here. I remember reading it in Whole Earth Review around 2000, perhaps as reprint from California Wild (or it was the other way around). Anyway, this marvelous essay describes the nomadic life of mushroom pickers in the U.S. as it seems to still have been practiced in the early 2000s. It is as much a reading about mushrooms as of a nomadic life that has been possible thereof until very recently.

 

Those are some articles that I found. Which one did you? Would you like to tell me?

 

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True Buddies

Hillary was pissed. The Lewinsky affair had killed it all. She was done. She couldn’t stand this fuck any longer. And Billy knew. He had seen it in her eyes, all those years. Somehow he needed to earn her forgiveness. He yearned for redemption. He had to come up with something big. And as always when a man faces problems with his significant other, he turned to his longtime buddy for advice and help. He turned to Donnie, Donald Trump.

The plan could have been concocted by Billy and Donnie sometimes in 2008, perhaps at the Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, New York. As they walked the rounds as usual, pitched a ball now and then, they discussed the serious matters of life. That is, Billy’s problems with Hillary. And somewhere after the 11th hole, after the ball went out of bounce again, both came up with a scheme so grand only two egomaniacs like them could have.

This was 2008, and when Donnie and Billy walked the course, it was in the midst of an acrimonious primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the latter to become the Democrats’ nominee for president at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, August 25 – 28. Gosh, how much Billy hated Barack.

At least since the year 2000, Donnie had played with the idea of becoming president of the United States himself, if only for the immense cash returns such a run would create.
«It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it,» he told Forbes back then, and it was in 2016 that he finally achieved this goal.

So the plan both men hatched up after the 11th hole may have been pretty much this:

After the Obama presidency, in 2016, there would be Hillary as the candidate on the side of the Democrats. That could be arranged by the Clintons themselves, no doubt. But what was needed was a Republican candidate who at the same time was so unappealing to the broader public that the presidency would fall more or less automatically into Hillary’s hands. And because of the nomination of new Supreme Court judges ahead, it would be prudent if the Democrats not only gained the presidency but the House and Senate as well. «No problem,» Donnie may have muttered, «I give you the bad-ass, I whip those yokels ’till they vote for me, make me their candidate, and come the GOP’s loss, my name, my brand, and the cash I get from this will make their hate all worthwhile.»

And so, on some afternoon on some plushy golf course somewhere in the State of New York, the idea was born that Donald Trump would run for the presidency of the United States, be the Manchurian candidate of the Clintons, ruin the GOP and prevent the Supreme Court to become the base of right-wing activist judges. He would act as outrageously as possible, tap into conservatives’ anger and hate and desperation, all to make Hillary Clinton the 45th president.

It was a nice plan, but it had its flip-side. What if Donnie did actually win? Not just the presidential nomination of the GOP but, in fact, the presidential election as well? What if he indeed succeeded and became president? For him, not very much would change, as he would make even more money from merchandise and newly founded media outlets like Trump TV that could siphon off the ratings of other broadcasters. This was no fantasy, as Glenn Beck would prove a bit later by starting his own media outlet after having created a fiery brand on FOX News. It could make one rich and famous. So for Donnie this was a win-win, regardless of the outcome. But for Hillary, and for Billy in particular?

As the primary grew coarser and coarser, and Hillary was occupied to fight off Bernie Sanders while retaining (or rather: gaining) his support base, Donnie’s chances grew steadily. And when on November 8, 2016, the last ballot was cast and Donald Trump indeed turned out to be victorious, with the House and Senate firmly in the grip of the Republicans, there was a big smile on the real estate developer’s face. Not so on Billy’s, whose face turned alternately pale and red. Man, how dearly wished he back the times of the Monica Lewinsky affair. The cold and steely stare of his wife back then was gentle compared to the condescension and scorn he was up to as he walked to Hillary’s rooms. In fact, it was only comparable to Tony Blair’s face when confronted with the news that there hadn’t been any WMDs in Iraq.

 

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Why the Republicans Won Big in November 2016, Part 2

As if in the midst of a wild fire, the smoke and heat around the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November cloud and dull the spectator’s eyes. Can Trump really win? Will he? Why is it that Clinton can’t shake off Sanders in the primary? And when she finally does, will she be able to unite the Democratic party? (As if it were her task to do that.) Such are common questions that rather than in need of answer far more betray the intensity of the fire’s smoke impeding a clear sight, bordering on a reek of foul options.

Donald Trump and the GOP will not only win the U.S. presidency, but they will keep the House and the Senate. The Democrats, that is, have nearly no chance of winning either. And the reason is not just, as I wrote in Part 1, that most of the young supporters of Bernie Sanders will shun Hillary Clinton. There are, at least, three obvious reasons, why Donald Trump is in a far better position than Hillary Clinton:

  1. Young supporters of Bernie Sanders, eager to vote for something rather than against something, will not vote for Hillary Clinton, but either abstain from the election, vote their conscience and support Jill Stein of the Green Party, or will go for Donald Trump because of some overlaps in topics (esp. economic ones).
  2. Blue collar Democrats and union members seem to be very receptive to Donald Trump, as his economic and anti-free trade tirades run to the left of the Democrats. (See here and here for more.)
  3. Republicans and Conservatives show a far greater willingness to unite behind their (presumptive) nominee Donald Trump than Democrats and Progressives do vis-à-vis Hillary Clinton.

But there are two other reasons, related and intertwined, why Donald Trump and the Republicans now have a clear and pretty much unstoppable advantage over Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

What makes Donald Trump appealing to many is not just his misogynist view on women (and related ones on minorities, immigrants, disabled people), but that he deliberately created a space in which it is now permissible “again” to have and to voice such views. As many on the right felt an “oppressive” climate of “political correctness”, they often self-censored in public, kept their views to themselves and a certain amount of anger because of that. But Donald Trump didn’t mind to voice his dismissive attitudes, and thus gave many (not only on the right) the liberating feeling that all they had felt for so many years but haven’t been allowed to express because of “the liberals” and “the media” can now be said without retribution. An old, weird virility, dismissive and brutal, reminiscent of an old, weird America, long surviving only on the fringe (even the large fringe of Rush Limbaugh’s “femi-nazis”), has now again become a veritable, almost honourable, position in the midst of the mainstream, the run for the presidency of the U.S. Something neither Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, the Alternative Right, the Rolling Thunder bikers could have ever dreamt to resurrect that shortly after everyone thought the progressive and Democratic majority to stay for generations to come.

An old, weird America, lurking in an old, weird virility.

Finally this long suppressed virility found a way back into the public light. And with that the relief that one no longer needs to shut oneself off from the world, to be able to live one’s full “potential” — what a liberation, and what a release. Donald Trump opened this door, and its wicked promise of being whole again, free, so full of energy, so real, so exciting, so happy to kick arse …

And related to this resurrecting fascism is the tragedy (as one may call it with some good reasons) that Hillary Clinton’s feminism no longer touches the younger generation. Hers is the feminism of the grandmothers and mothers, not of the daughters (and sons) who simply no longer care if and when women will crack the “glass ceiling” or not. And with good reasons. If capitalism is exploitative by nature, if there cannot be a “compassionate capitalism” that honours the earth and all living beings, that can balance the needs and rights of all sentient beings, then what is the point of becoming a CEO of a big company? Why should you, as a woman in your twenties, even strive for that, when all that economy and capitalism can achieve is hurt the planet? Thus many young women (and men) will simply see no point in being able to become an equal racketeer. Capitalism, the economy, is not an option. It’s Life, stupid!

The feminism of Hillary Clinton, of Nancy Pelosi, of Elizabeth Warren, is the feminism of equal rights and equal opportunities that has been part of the goals of the feminists of the late 1960s, early 1970s. For several reasons this feminism is no longer a viable option nor even a topic for young women (and men). That’s why they support Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, not Hillary Clinton. And that’s why there is no feminist or, in a broader sense, progressive alternative available to counter Trump’s unleashed fascist virility. Quite the contrary: The more the leather boots stump to the drums of the Trump, the more the yearning for a revived eco-feminist alternative that cares not just for man but for the earth and all living beings will retreat, become reclusive, to survive the dark ages we are in. It is thus not at the Democrats’ disposal to counter Trump in the arena of politics and organized resistance.

So with these five points, the outlook for the Democrats and Hillary Clinton are worse than they might think. Something happened when this old, weird virility made its reappearance on the surface of the public’s psychê. It is this outlook that matters in November, not the superficial assurance that like Clinton finally supported Obama in 2008, so will Sanders support her in 2016. (Which is an erroneous comparison in itself.) This is part of the smoke of the wild fire, not what is burning on the ground.

 

More?   Part 1   Part 3   Part 4

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Why the Republicans Won Big in November 2016, Part 1

The U.S. American primary for the election of a new president in November 2016 has so far been a winding road of absurdities and utter failure to grasp reality, on both sides of the political spectre. True, the turmoil of Donald Trump’s campaign has been in sharp focus of the media, but it rather cloaked the view on the awkward dynamic on the Democratic side. Still, Hillary Clinton is favoured to become her party’s nominee, and the poll results still claim that she’ll be the next president-elect in November. Accordingly, many on the Democrats side urge Bernie Sanders to “shut down” his campaign as there seems no viable way for him to gain the nomination of his party in Philadelphia, July 25–28. Consistent with this line of thought is the urge by many Democrats to their party to “unite”, viz., that supporters of Mr. Sanders “unite” behind and support Mrs. Clinton.

What this reasoning blocks out is that there is already only a slight chance left for Mrs. Clinton to win the election in November at all. And this regardless of whether Donald Trump or somebody else will be the Republican nominee. The reason for this is that the Sanders supporters will not vote for Mrs. Clinton but will abstain from the election. Voter turnout will thus favour Republicans, so that not only will there be a Republican president-elect in November 2016, but also a Republican Congress. (In the Senate the Republicans will lose at most one or two seats, and the House will stay Republican.)

The reasons for this predicament of the Democrats are more or less twofold. On the one hand, there is the damage that the Sanders campaign has inflicted upon Mrs. Clinton. It is not that Mr. Sanders has pushed her to the left by insisting on the topics he holds dear. It is far more the harm done while pushing her to the left. If it were only a matter of topics, then Mrs. Clinton would have time enough to pull her party back to the political centre after catching the nomination. But Sanders’ impact is not on this level. Far more it consists in that by advocating his topics he (at the same time) branded Mrs. Clinton as a hardcore establishment representative, thus making her ineligible for his supporters. When it comes to the election, for most Sanders supporters there will simply be no difference between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump (or somebody else). Both will be seen as abhorrent establishment. So they have nobody to vote for and thus will not show up to vote for her.

Of course, on the Republican side many voters will also not show up should Mr. Trump (or somebody else) be the nominee. But there is an important difference. Voters of the Republican party are primarily older voters, voters who are capable and willing to vote either against something or vote for a second-best option while holding their nose. The Sanders supporters on the other hand are primarily younger voters, and those will not vote so much against something but want to vote in favour of something. Recall the debacle of Al Gore running against George W. Bush. Mr. Gore simply couldn’t get enough “decisive” votes — the “popular vote” isn’t sufficient, the structural votes are important — to beat Mr. Bush, and he couldn’t get them because a vast amount of young voters then voted for Ralph Nader and not for the second best-option Al Gore.

If we keep in mind that younger voters tend to vote in favour of something or abstain from voting at all whereas older voters often vote for the second best or against something, then the damage done by the Sanders campaign to Mrs. Clinton’s prospects to become the next president of the United States is obvious. For Sanders supporters, Mrs. Clinton is not an option. So they will not show up to vote for her. In fact, it is pretty much irrelevant when Sanders will drop out of the race for the nomination. The damage is already done, enough for younger voters to see no incentive to turn out in November 2016.

 

More?   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4

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Fusion

Somewhere in the comment section to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” (“Song of the Youths”) (1955-56) I found the suggestion to listen to it in combination with Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” (1974-76) – simultaneously. The result is indeed remarkable.

(I suggest you start the Reich video first, then the Stockhausen video, and play the Reich video at half of the Stockhausen video’s volume.)

 

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Some reasons perhaps not to join GNU Social and the Fediverse

Note 1 : This post was published December 10, 2015, and is still often accessed. I’d like to inform readers that since then, with the exception of # 3.8. (inserted Juli 2016), I didn’t update the article. Neither have I been much around on GNU Social since its publication and therefore don’t know how many of the problems mentioned below have been fixed in the meantime. I’d label this article “outdated”, it’s kept for archival reasons. 

Note 2 : People in search of a readable user- and admin manual for GNU Social should have a look into the very good The Unofficial GNU Social documentation. It has the beginner in mind, contains a lot of screenshots, and is available in English and Spanish. (May 29, 2017)

 

If you ponder whether to leave Twitter and join GNU Social, you best should know in advance some of the problems and pitfalls that await you. For most newcomers to GNU Social, things are not easy, and I would rather warn people to leave or delete their Twitter accounts and move to a GNU Social instance. One needs to learn quite a lot to get the basics done here, and it is rather a matter of taste if that is worth the effort. Communicating on Twitter is much easier than on GNU Social; and if a newcomer isn’t interested in geek stuff, in tinkering, and learning, then GNU Social may not be the right choice. (On the other hand, the people on GNU Social are usually very gentle and helpful, so asking people is the right way to start and get used to the ways GNU Social works.)

In the past there have been several waves of people coming from Twitter to GNU Social (esp. Quitter), and most of them returned to Twitter after a short while. Why didn’t they stay, if GNU Social and its instances are that promising? I find technical constraints and usability to be two of the major reasons.

In order to point out (and explain) some of the usability issues, some info on the technicalities are necessary. I try to sketch them as succinctly as possible.

GNU Social is a free software allowing to set up microblogging instances that can interact with each other due to the same software (GNU Social) and transmission protocol (OStatus) (pretty much like independent email providers can interchange messages with each other). There are large instances and smaller ones, some are self-hosted and used only by their sole user/admin to connect to other instances. The total of all connected instances using the software and protocol is often called the “Fediverse”, a noun derived from the word “federation” which describes the way how the instances communicate with each other.

The problems using GNU Social are less obvious if a newcomer joins an instance with a large number of accounts (and followings to other instances, see below) but more so if s/he joins a smaller instance. The reason for that is how “federation” is constructed in the first place.

Roughly, federation is designed like this:

Instances communicate with each other via the relation of users following other users. Some user b from an instance B is “visible” to a user a in instance A only, if there is someone on instance A following user b from B – either user a herself or somebody else who has an account on the instance A. To be “visible” in A thus means: notes from b of B are copied into the database of instance A only if someone from A follows b on B.

On large instances, people may interact with many people who already have an account on this instance. As their posts are already in the database of that instance, they are available to all other folks on that instance. Those people can thus be followed easily, their posts easily replied to, favourited and repeated.

Another characteristic of large instances is that many people will happen to also follow people on other instances, so the amount of posts and people (or: accounts) of the fediverse that this particular instance can “see” is rather huge. But on a small instance with only  few accounts, chances are that this instance will not “see” much of the fediverse, as its few accounts will not follow enough accounts on other instances.

From this characteristic of the federation stem many of the problems and difficulties newcomers face, and for which only a few workarounds are available.

1. Following other accounts

This is pretty straightforward for accounts that reside on the same instance as yours, but a bit tricky for accounts that dwell on “distant” instances. One usually has to visit the instance where the other person has her account, ask there to follow that account and confirm that request on one’s own home instance again.

2. Reading posts

On large instances this is rather easy. As many accounts reside on this instance and many accounts of the fediverse are “seen” by this instance, the posts of many people, from this instance or other, are presented in the Public Timeline or that of the known network (i.e., the federation as seen by this instance). (Note that only Quitter provides the flow of all posts seen by Quitter as a distinct timeline, other instances either don’t show it at all or show it only indirectly). But that means that you read different notes (esp. notes from conversations, see below) on different instances. (Workaround: To see the Public Timeline of any instance, manually add “/main/public” to its address in the address bar of your browser, e.g., instance.com/main/public. To see what segment of the whole Fediverse this instance “sees”, add “/main/all” to its address, e.g., instance.com/main/all.)

3. Interacting with posts

If you come from Twitter, chances are that you are well-versed in replying, favouring, retweeting, blocking, muting. And this is really very simple because Twitter is one self-contained instance that keeps all posts “inside”, not interacting with other instances. So every post is “visible” to everybody, as it is already in the same database. But on a GNU Social instance things get rough due to federation and the copying of sent posts into the databases of the individual instances.

3.1.
You can reply to, favour, and repeat all posts from accounts that are on the same instance as yours. If the account is on another instance and you follow that person, you can likewise reply to, favour, and repeat the post, because your following makes the other account “visible” in your home instance. Likewise, if you don’t follow a person from a different instance but her posts are already “visible” in your instance, you can reply to, favour, and repeat it.

3.2.
If you don’t follow a person from another instance and her account is also not known on your instance (i.e., nobody of your instance follows that person), then you won’t see her post on your instance but either on hers or, more probable, on a different instance where you happened to stumble upon it while reading around. But reading it on her instance or on the other instance doesn’t make that post available to your instance nor does it provide you with a permission to write on those instances; you will therefore not be able to reply to, favour, and repeat the other person’s post. (Usually rephrasing that other person’s post in your own post and publishing it on your instance serves as workaround.) This is a major confusing and annoying thing for newcomers: one finds an interesting post, tries to interact, and isn’t able to.

3.3.
Likewise just writing a post to someone on a different instance doesn’t work. You’ll need to use a special version of the other person’s account address, and that may be confusing too.

3.4.
Whereas Twitter is more like a broadcasting medium by which individuals send “announcements” to their followers, GNU Social is more a medium of conversations. That is: The interaction in the Fediverse is far more conversation-based than on Twitter. And with that the problems of federation play out. Usually, larger conversations happen between people from different instances. There are statements, replies, counter-replies, favourings, repeats, all in one thread of conversation. But if one participant b in that conversation is not known on the instance A from which another user a participates in that conversation, then the posts of the participant b (of B) will not show up in the conversation as presented in the timeline of the instance A. That is, person a will miss some posts (statements, replies, favourings, repeats) in the conversation. On a large instance this will mostly not be a big problem, as chances are that most people from other instances are already “visible” in that instance. But if an account is not “visible” on a smaller instance, then larger gaps in the conversation will be the result. A person from that instance will then have to look up the root post of the conversation on its original instance as well as the instances of all participants to make sure not to miss a contribution to that conversation. And if that missing post is on some distant tiny instance, chances are that the person interested in that conversation will not be able to reply or otherwise interact with that “missing” post. (I am leaving aside the glitch that sometimes posts of a conversation simply don’t get federated across several instances at all.) (Partial workaround #1: One can reduce the numbers of instances to visit in order to find possibly missing posts of the conversation by visiting the Home Timelines of some of its participants. In the address bar of your browser add “/all” to the address of any user on any instance, e.g., instance.com/username/all, and you’re shown the user’s Home Timeline with all the posts and replies. Partial workaround #2: @laemeur@gs.sdf.org has written a “GNU social Conversation Assembler“-tool that “assemble[s] complete GNU social conversation trees from the URL of a single notice in the conversation” so that one is “able to read the conversation without hopping from node to node”. Main issues right now are, first, that in the resulting tree one cannot reply to an individual post; and second, that for technical reasons (“cache requests”) a conversation cannot be updated once it is viewed. But to collect all posts of a conversation of the past, this should suffice. Thank you @laemeur for this labour of love.)

3.5.
On Twitter to block a person makes her disappear from your timeline and your subscription lists. On GNU Social things are more complicated due to the interplay of different independent instances. First of all, with the sole exception of Quitter.se, blocking someone does not make that person’s posts disappear from your timelines. The only thing it does is stopping that person to follow you and send you a post or a reply. But you will still see her posts on the Public Timeline or receive them in your Home Timeline if they are repeated or replied to by someone you happen to follow. Revoking the block is easy if you both are on the same instance, as the revoke-message is delivered to the same database. Blocking people on different instances though is problematic. For one, you will keep seeing their posts in the Public Timeline or when they are repeated or replied to by someone you happen to follow. But second, you cannot revoke such a “remote”-block by yourself. Although the block-message is sent to the database of the other instance, the revoke-message is not. (There are technical reasons for that.) You will have to ask the admin of that instance to manually revoke your block. So with regard to people on other instances, a block is a permanent matter. It only achieves that the person cannot contact you, but you will still be bothered by her posts about which you can do nothing. (This is obviously problematic in all cases of spam, harassment and stalking.)

3.6.
As federation consists of followings and the copying of messages from one instance’s database to another, one would expect favouring and repeating to be copied across instances as well. Unfortunately, this is only partially so. Given several instances, if a person b (on B) that I (on A) follow repeats or favours a post of person c (on B or C), then it shows in my Home Timeline as another favour or repeat but not in the Public Timeline of my instance. The post by c will gather numbers of favours and repeats on its home instance and “abroad”, but not “combined”.

3.7.
There is no direct way to repeat a post from a different (but “seen”) instance into the Public Timeline of one’s own instance. The easiest way around that obstacle is to reply to it. This “conversation” brings the post from your Home Timeline into the Public Timeline of your own instance.

3.8.
Deleting a message on Twitter makes it unattainable for authors, recipients, and Twitter’s public timeline. Even via search it can no longer be found. On GNU Social, due to federation, this is not so. Although it will vanish from the instance’s database in which it was originally published, due to federation it has already been copied to other instances’ databases. Thus the deletion of the message from user a in A will not remove it from instance B to which it was copied via b‘s subscription of a, and so it will stay in all the conversations on B in which it started to become a part. Here it can still be replied to, favoured, repeated. And when user aa from A replies to the message in B or to user b‘s reply to it, a‘s original message from A will return to A‘s database. First into A‘s “view” of the federation, that is, A/main/all. Then, when someone on A replies to it, into A‘s Public Timeline, that is, A/main/public. So even as one can delete one’s messages on one’s home instance, that makes it disappear only on that particular instance; it remains accessible throughout the whole Fediverse and can return to the instance of its original publication any time again. In short: There is no deletion of messages in the Fediverse; and everything survives somewhere.

3.9.
On GNU Social the Direct Messages are confined to members of the same instance. That is: One cannot send a Direct Messages across instances. (Private Groups, somewhat like DMs for/to several people, are restricted to members of the same instance as well.)

4. Centralization of a different kind

That posts of a conversation between accounts of different instances can be “missing” is a major annoyance. (But there are voices that see this as something very positive, e.g., here.) Another is that due to this problem larger instances are more attractive to sign up to than smaller ones. The result is a similar effect of centralization that the advocates of Open and Free Software usually condemn in “walled gardens” like Twitter or Facebook. Federation as it is designed right now favours instances that already dominate the Fediverse. Self-hosting or tiny instances have to grapple to be “seen” and to “see” by subscribing to many other accounts.

5. Unclear interplay of publishing licenses

Publishing a post occurs under the publishing license of your home instance. On Twitter, you keep your copyright but grant Twitter the “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license” to publish it in its original or derivative form. On the Fediverse things are more complicated. Many instances differ in their licenses with which posts and content are published. Quitter.se, e.g., uses Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0), whereas, e.g.,  Micro.Fragdev.com uses the slightly different license Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) and GNUsocial.de uses a Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0). The first forbids any commercial re-use of the content by a third party, the latter two apparently not. Now, which license applies when I publish a post on, say, Quitter, and it is re-published (“copied”) on, say, Micro.Fragdev, or on GNUsocial.de, due to people following me? The question of possibly conflicting licenses hasn’t yet been addressed by the people active in the Fediverse.

6. Who owns the data, and, really, who cares?

There is the opinion that people don’t “own their data” on “centralized” services like Twitter or Facebook, but would do so on the Free and Open instances of the Fediverse. I am not that sure about this claim. Of course, if we’re talking about mere usage data, not the created content and the copyright applying to it, then Twitter will indeed not hand over to you the data it collects about you. But how sure can you be that the admin of the GNU Social instance where you have your account would do so? He might point to the license under which all data (like the content) is “published”. What does it then even mean that you “own” your “own data” when they are all under an open license and you have no access to the instance’s server and database? In the end, the only way to “control your own data” in a meaningful sense in the Fediverse (ignoring the question of possible conflict between different licenses, see above) is to self-host an instance. But that requires a lot of technical expertise many people will surely not want to spend time to acquire to become proficient in. So even on GNU Social the “right to own your data” comes either as a vague promise or at the high price of much learning. Of course, if you like to learn programming languages and technical stuff, then this will be all fine and liberating. But for those who don’t, the claim that one “owns the data” comes as theoretical and detached as the intricacies of the Federation, with no real bearings on reality.

Conclusion

Given these points, the main question for any newcomer pretty quickly becomes: Is it worth to join GNU Social? One has to learn quite a lot before one can enjoy the advantages of GNU Social’s technological structure as well as of the community of people. The communication is more direct, more vivid, at times more boorish and often more gentle than on Twitter. But the number of participants / active accounts is limited, the range of topics small. Because of that a newcomer may find Twitter more interesting and way easier to use. Especially when the new user doesn’t share (or care about) the political stance of Free and Open Software, there doesn’t seem to be a point in joining GNU Social and the Fediverse. People have the freedom not to care about freedom; and if freedom is the only figurehead of the Fediverse, then only the already converted will join the choir. Which will be the main reason why the Fediverse is this sparsely populated pocket universe, and why geek stuff still is the main topic of its conversations.

 

 

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