Monday, August 24, 2015

Grexit "Plan B" And Our Dreams Of A Frictionless World

Like so many people I was fascinated by the whole "Plan B for Grexit" idea. Did you follow this? The former finance minister Varoufakis and some pals had this idea for what to do in case Greece suddenly became expunged from the Eurozone. As has been noted, it reads like something you'd cook up if you'd been sitting in your room bingewatching bad TV spy thrillers.

Basically, the group said they had hacked into government servers to get the financial information for citizens and companies, and they were going to assign PIN numbers and systems for moving money around. The example Varoufakis gives involves the state "paying" a pharmaceutical company on behalf of the national health service, but I from what I understand the idea was that if you were just an ordinary person hoping to buy a loaf of bread or something -- well, there'd be an app for that. Having set up a parallel banking system, the currency could be flipped to the drachma "at the drop of a hat."

I'm the last one to argue about the wisdom of having a "Plan B." Of course: how can you negotiate unless you actually have other options? What's wild to me is the idea that you can create a currency system in a kind of seamless, quick, off the cuff kind of way.

The difficulties seem obvious. Only about a third of Greeks have smartphones. The introduction of massive software requires coding, de-bugging, and beta-testing, and is not, as Bertie Wooster would say, the work of a moment. You need teams of coders and bureaucrats and communications people, not five guys sitting in a room thinking about things.

This post from Naked Capitalism has a round up of the whole thing, and I couldn't get over some of the comments. Someone says: what's the big deal? Can't they just use checks? As if the check processing industry were something you could "poof" into existence with a computer. I'm no expert, but I was under the impression that the check processing aspect of the Fed in the US used to be an enormous branch employing thousands of people who had to be educated and trained, with massive systems in place and actual buildings for the checks to go to for processing.

The whole thing reminded me of this post from a few months ago at the Archdruid Report. Setting aside the claims about the "death of the internet," the part that interested me was about the internet's costs. Like a lot of people, I had been seduced into thinking of the internet as a kind of seamless, non-material, non-friction space. Doesn't it seem that way? Like the "Plan B" team, we think that if we do something on the internet, it's somehow an instant, zero-cost thing. A space where things really do "poof!" into existence.

Of course, debacles like the IT problems of the Obamacare rollout show how delicate and difficult good website organization and coding really is. But at a deeper level, things really aren't seamless and zero cost at all. The Archdruid Report says,
Let’s start by looking at the costs. Every time I’ve mentioned the future of the internet on this blog, I’ve gotten comments and emails from readers who think that the price of their monthly internet service is a reasonable measure of the cost of the internet as a whole. For a useful corrective to this delusion, talk to people who work in data centers. You’ll hear about trucks pulling up to the loading dock every single day to offload pallet after pallet of brand new hard drives and other components, to replace those that will burn out that same day. You’ll hear about power bills that would easily cover the electricity costs of a small city. You’ll hear about many other costs as well. Data centers are not cheap to run, there are many thousands of them, and they’re only one part of the vast infrastructure we call the internet: by many measures, the most gargantuan technological project in the history of our species.
The Archdruid Report goes on to outline the Ponzi-ish scheme that keeps the whole thing moving along. Huge companies spend more and more, failing to make a profit but buttressed by venture capitalists who are looking for the next big thing. It's about the least seamless, frictionless thing you can imagine, but it's presented to use as seamless and frictionless because someone is making money when we see it that way.

When I think about these things, I wonder about the role that seamlessness and frictionlessness life play in people's dreams and fantasies. In this previous post I wrote about the dream of the "singularity": a post-human time, when people will transcend human bodies and materiality and live on in some completely seamless and frictionless way. And as I said there, I can't even understand what these people are dreaming of.

If popular culture is any guide, what we really love are things like food, sex, sports, and hanging out. None of these are seamless or frictionless activities, or things you could do if you were just a brain downloaded into a computer. In fact, the things computer brains do well -- like math and playing chess -- well, for most people they're not even registering on the fun scale.

So while there are obvious aspects of wishful thinking with Plan B type planning, in a deeper sense there's a question of where our dreams of a seamless world are coming from, and how those dreams lead us to the errors they do. And there I don't really know the answer.

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