A backward glance at a digital future foretold — and in Silicon Valley’s north, an icon of ultra-Luddite resistance in the California legal system

Changing slowly or not at all: in law, unrivalled resistance to using computers and the internet as avenues to transparency and fairness

Above: ‘All that is electronic does not glitter,’ (pullout) survey article in The Economist, 1-7 March 1980

[ In this post spotlighting opposition to technological progress, one early comment about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February deserves mention for whom it was addressed to; by whom; and from where — flagging up an unlikely embrace of the digital juggernaut. This was the ‘Makes sense to me’ reaction of Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s MI6 or Secret Intelligence Service, to a report predicting that Russia would ultimately fail in its war of annexation. Unthinkably, for an agency whose motto is Semper Occultus — Always Secret — he said that to his 130,000 followers on Twitter. An earlier entry on this site pointed to the equally unexpected display by military leaders — of the U.S. Navy — of an ability to stay on their toes not just technologically, but through wildly futuristic organisational experiments. Meanwhile — in an ever-larger and more powerful legal system — an institution with no obstacles whatsoever to keeping up with the times supplies a curious example of white-collar (and black-robed) ultra-Luddites pushing back against the future as hard as they can. ]

Anniversaries — chances for reflection and taking stock — are most childishly satisfying when they fall in a year ending in a zero. This one, a forty-year marker in 2020, did not seem worth mentioning at all in that first week of March, as ordinary life was shutting down in lockdowns everywhere. 

After five and a half weeks of collecting impressions of the progress of the digital revolution in 1979, flitting across the U.S. and Western Europe on an Economist expense account, the young and lamentably underripe scribbler-journalist was lucky enough to detect a pattern in the notes that soon required a small suitcase of their own. (Lucky by comparison with, say, PhD aspirants who have to abandon hope when they can find no thread of significance in the mountains of research they have amassed.) The discovery had to do with obstacles that had somehow been missed in thousands of justifiably overheated column-inches about the prospect of a wholesale transformation of the way we live and work, owing to the arrival of the miniature computer brain — something called a microprocessor. 

The ingenuity and persistence of Federico Faggin, an Italian scientist working at Intel, in California, had been disproportionately responsible for that breakthrough in 1971. Silicon, his memoir published last year — a book unlike any autobiography of a technology star — contains a sparkling, proud yet affectingly unpretentious account of what it had taken him to become capable of shrinking computers the size of hefty filing cabinets into tiny microchips that could fit inside and direct the laptops, tablets and smartphones that had yet to be dreamt up — and of his herculean labour to get the job done.

Other nimble minds like his foresaw a myriad immediate uses for microprocessors but few discerned the pattern that I did, or mentioned it publicly if they had — because finding one was simply the task I had been set by my editors. Two words summed it up. Resistance and obstruction. Above all, the opposition to change of institutions and industries established from fifty to hundreds of years earlier. This was the opening of my report, a twelve-page survey article — the kind in which The Economist allows its writers ‘more freedom than usual to express a somewhat individual point of view’ ** — slashed to half its original length by the brilliant, workaholic science editor, Richard Casement, who had wrestled with its bulk for days.

The following are among the unrealistic clichés being embedded in the public imagination: thanks to the domestic picturephone/electronic mail/personal computer terminal, computing will become a distant memory; schoolchildren will learn their lessons electronically at home; housewives will do their shopping at home, pressing buttons on their computer terminals, but will switch on their ovens from their cars; and many millions of factory workers will be put out of work. And all because of the ubiquitous electronic chip. 

Technology buffs say there are no technical reasons why all this should not happen in the next 10 years and no economic barriers either, because of the declining costs (down 28% a year) of the basic electronic components. But what is technically feasible today will not necessarily be implemented tomorrow. For one thing, people will resist many of the proposed changes, both as consumers and as workers. For another, all sorts of barriers to change exist within the industries that are supposed to be implementing this second industrial revolution. 

[…]

Three years ago, most of Europe seemed in blissful ignorance of the significance of the silicon chip. The Economist played its part in trying to change that. Today the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

So, this survey seeks to highlight restraints on the rate of chip-induced change that are generally being overlooked.

Without the pandemic, it could have taken far more than four decades for parts of 1980’s conceptions of the future to become our present, and for ‘virtual’ to seem thoroughly unremarkable, understood by everyone to mean ‘created by computer technology and appearing to exist but not existing in the physical world.’

This entry on post-Gutenberg.com is only a brief — glancing — commemoration, not an exhaustive comparison of what my survey got right and wrong about the revolution. Just these questions demand consideration, now, because of their implications for the next phase of the transformations: what would it have taken to prevent it? What degree of resistance, and by what means? Of course the answers would vary from one segment of human life to another. The crucial determinant seems to be — unsurprisingly — self-interest incompatible with change, and in certain circumstances, selfishness unbound.

All that is easily discernible in official reporting in 2019 about a remarkable computer or IT system on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco, at Silicon Valley’s northern limit, in the office of California’s Commission on Judicial Performance.  The CJP is charged with investigating complaints about misbehaving — insulting, abusive, raving — and corrupt or incompetent judges by lawyers and members of the public for a state so rich that, on its own, it would rank as the world’s fifth-largest economy after Germany and above Britain. At the time, the minute fraction of allegations against judges that the CJP does not instantly dismiss but accepts for further investigation were processed through this IT system. A report on the CJP’s execution of its charter, published three years ago by the California State Auditor, Elaine Howle — following a meticulous examination of its operations — uncovered these facts about it:

Its computer system shielded the CJP from receiving complaints from the public by any electronic means, except for faxes. Printed forms or grievances that arrived at the CJP by mail or fax had to be typed into the organisation’s case management computer system by a clerical worker.

The IT system was a 25 year-old digital antique when the Auditor’s report was issued, and was still the only means of using computers to file information and process cases. It was essentially unchanged since it had been designed and put in place around 1994 — before most people had personal computers or email accounts, and more than a decade before the invention of social media. 

In early 2016, the head of the CJP claimed that an online complaints system was under development — but there was no still evidence of anything of the kind three years later.

The host of the CJP website — the California Department of Technology — had offered to adapt the site to meet the public’s need for an electronic avenue for submissions, but the CJP either spurned or ignored this offer.

No one at the CJP understood how the prehistoric computerised case management system worked, or had any idea of how to maintain or repair it. The ‘IT specialist’ who built it had retired four years before the Auditor’s investigation, and he left no manual or written instructions demystifying its operation. 

Soon after that solitary computer expert’s departure in 2014, the CJP told the Auditor, it ‘stopped attempting to recruit for the position’ in that summer, ‘because of a lack of qualified, interested candidates.’

Only in April 2021, two years after the Auditor pressed for digitisation of complaints submissions, did the CJP begin to accept online reports about California judges.

Excerpt from the report of the California State Auditor on the Commission for Judicial Performance, 25 April 2019

Why did California’s judges risk being ridiculed about that system by anyone, let alone the supreme management-and-performance watchdog for state agencies? For the same reason why, in October 2016, the CJP sued the Auditor to try — unsuccessfully — to derail the audit, in what became a two-year battle in court. To evade public scrutiny and accountability. To do all it could to obstruct the creation of records of judges acting against the interests of California taxpayers — in a tradition that can be traced back at least as far as the British Raj in 18th-century India.

Two final bits of context about the CJP’s jewel of ultra-Luddism, its icon of resistance to the information age in a profession that runs on information — which should be impounded and displayed in Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum in San Jose. Law is, after all, one of the wealthiest segments of the California economy — with a legal services market estimated at $54 billion, made up of 71,362 businesses in 2019, in a reckoning by IBIS World. ‘The expanding empire of law is one of the most significant phenomena of our time’ — as Jonathan Sumption, a former member of the U.K. Supreme Court, has pointed out in a special BBC Radio 4 series, the Reith Lectures. Reminding listeners of law’s ‘vast domain’ when he turned to the U.S., he added that ‘lawyers, as a body, form the most powerful, if not the only, counterpoint to the democratic element in the Constitution.’

Here is one conclusion about the digital revolution that could not have occurred to me in 1980. Power resists technological progress when new tools can expose its weaknesses; oblige it to account for lapses; and force it to accept punishment for them. Excessive power can take resistance to absurd, shameful extremes.

                                                     CHERYLL BARRON

7 March 2022

** The Pursuit of Reason, Ruth Dudley Edwards, 1993

¡Hola! Here comes the Micrashell pandemic futuresuit — a stage-designer’s computerised protective costume from Spain and L.A., … and cyber life’s next leap?

 

+++ Micrashell pandemic futuresuit ON DRAFTING TABLE postgutenberg@gmail.com

Miguel Risueño’s Micrashell half-suit — on the top half of the mannequin — is on virtual (software) drafting boards, somewhere between a concept and prototype-in-progress. This is a Production Club image interpreted by pG

There has been a blizzard of reminders lately that crises can jump-start social transformations — can, for instance, do what World War I did for the Suffragettes with whom the women’s movement began. Right or wrong, here is pG’s prediction for the biggest technology-mediated change in our everyday existence to emerge from this pandemic seemingly set to rage on and on, now that scientists interviewed by The Verge, CNN  and The Guardian are warning us that we may never get acceptably risky, or safe — or any — vaccines against Covid-19: Fighting this virus will bounce us to the long-expected next stage of the digital revolution — ‘body-borne’ or ‘wearable’ computing.

The Wikipedia credits the invention of computing attached to our bodies to a Canadian engineer, Steve Mann, in the late 1970s. We have already met some of its components, if we don’t own them, as smartwatches and fitness trackers. These could well be followed by a larger constituent, if not a whole garment — a ‘half-body’ suit called a Micrashell, now somewhere between a concept and a prototype dreamt up by a Spanish stage-designer in the entertainment business, Miguel Risueño. Search engines’ earliest record of its launch appears to be a post on 29 April on CDM.link ** — just four weeks after pG’s first post about a virus-shielding, one-piece, whole-body outfit tentatively named a flusuit.

Risueño is in charge of inventions at Production Club, which is a studio based in Los Angeles and Spain that specialises in creating ‘immersive experiences’ for the raver-clubber-gamer class in electronic music and dancing.  Explosive interest in the Micrashell among other specialists in imagining and aesthetics is clear in the excitement in posts on scores of websites everywhere, including one on Architectural Digest India noting that the pandemic ‘has inspired artists and designers all over the world to create avant-garde Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) not only for frontline workers, but also for the general population.’ 

Risueño and his team say that they will first be selling their idea to businesses, not consumers, because the Micrashell’s yet-to-be-decided price tag will be high —  like those of the first components of the internet and computer revolution, which were paid for by the U.S. military. The first buyers Production Club has in mind are concert organisers and promoters and other specialists in giant live events whose audiences have vanished in the lockdowns. Risueño envisages these companies renting his half-suits to concert-goers, and being responsible for sterilising them between rentals and events.

A childhood friend of pG who used to conduct experiments in telepathy with her younger brother, each stationed in a different room in their house, would end their tests hoping to create a record of segments of thoughts that they — on rare occasions — apparently succeeded in transmitting to each other. If telepathy had been scientifically confirmed as real, it might explain the following curious overlaps between the entries here about a pandemic-protective futuresuit and announcements by the Risueño dream factory:

GETTING PHYSICAL

Whereas most others speculating about how the pandemic will alter ordinary human life are focusing on virtual solutions — such as offices in the ether, and moving various branches of the performing arts online — the suit idea is about physical adaptation. Both pG and Production Club see it as a way to make social distancing more effective, but also of ending the suffering and harmful consequences of lockdowns, preserving familiar human connections and freedom of movement as far as possible.

ADDING COMPUTING TO CLOTHES

Both Production Club and pG — in the 1 April post here  — have in different ways described garments with smartphone capabilities and high-tech sensors to monitor the suit-wearer’s environment and safety.

INCLUDING A RESPIRATORY SHIELD

Both the pG and Production Club envisionings equip a futuresuit with an N-95-grade respiratory mask, although p-G’s is replaceable and Production Club’s includes a sophisticated system of air filtration.

USING AESTHETICS AND COLOUR FOR ALLURE

The startling resemblance between the photograph of the suit used to announce the Micrashell (above) and the image in pG’s second post about an anti-Covid-19 suit  — bright, vibrant colours against a black background — fit a shared recognition that aesthetic allure will make it more likely that young early adopters will want a futuresuit. Whereas pG pointed out that users would not necessarily have to look like astronauts and might be offered fitness-flaunting suits made of transparent materials, Risueño told NBC Los Angeles that his suit ‘is a little bit more of a fashion piece than something that looks like a medical device.’ 

There the similarities more or less end. Production Club’s version lacks pG’s disposable stick-on-strip-off double-gloves and soles for shoes, and suggestion of biodegradability as a bonus — but in all other respects, is a far more intricate and elaborate conception. It includes, for example, battery-powered sound and messaging systems described in detail in the comprehensive Globetrender report about it. It has provisions for eating and drinking by a suit-wearer, and anticipates that what goes in must eventually come out — the notorious loo-break nuisance of jumpsuits — which explains why it ends at the waist.

But a top-only half-suit like the Micrashell must inevitably sacrifice anti-virus protection to some degree and will surely have to be reconsidered. As thrilling as it is for the futurists among us, the Production Club prototype is bound to lose a few — probably, a lot — of its features to be manufacturable in the near future.

Something about Risueño is reminiscent of the spirit and pan-directional imagining of Steve Jobs — in conversations with him around 1980 — who emerged seemingly from nowhere to reorient the computer business for ordinary people. He paid unprecedented attention to elegant usability and fashion, giving these as much importance as technical minutiae in an era in which giant established computer-makers bored outsiders with jargon-laden droning about megaflops and ‘OEM’-marketing strategies (no, you really don’t want to know about those). 

Miguel Risueño could be an imaginer too far ahead of his time, which is just as problematic as being a laggard (and in this respect too, would be a pG fellow-traveller). His name could be forgotten even six months from now. Or he — or someone very like him, from somewhere no one is expecting — could be the first of the new guard in the next transformation of computing.

..

** A fact-checking post-publication Google search on 29 May has turned up a Fast Company report on 27 April.

A parallel in contraception for the mass-produceable, anti-Covid-19 garment we need to end the lockdown — with or without help from Silicon Valley — while waiting for vaccines

(2) from a photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com (2)

The ingenuity and Aladdin’s Cave-like inventions of Silicon Valley belong, first, to the realm of the abstract and immaterial — far removed from the skills of builders and manufacturers

NO SURPRISE IN 2020: in all sorts of organisations, colleagues as far apart as polar bears and penguins at their separate poles are talking to each other in virtual meetings through services like Zoom that almost make them feel as if they are in the same room. Thanks to lockdowns, technology originally referred to as picturephones or videotelephony — waiting for take-off since a World Fair in New York in 1964  — has finally come into its own.

A VERY BIG SURPRISE IN 2020: almost everywhere, the people in charge have been shown up as incompetent by their inability to supply straightforward physical barriers  — clothing and equipment referred to as PPE — to protect doctors, nurses, and others falling ill and dying while trying to save lives on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic. This makes no sense. Human beings are estimated to have started wearing clothes somewhere between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago, and clothing made of highly adaptable synthetic materials dates back to the 1930s and ‘40s, when chemists invented nylon and polyester. 

As our days on earth are being reshaped by the all-pervading digital revolution, it has been natural to look to California’s equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave for ingenious technological solutions and magicians, since the pandemic began. But that has so far been pointless. The Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen has cast the blame for his country’s disastrous lack of physical virus-blockers and medical equipment elsewhere, on what he calls a collective failure to ‘build’ in America — in a recent post on the site of his venture capital firm. In that diagnosis being widely discussed, he says, ‘I think building is how we reboot the American dream.’ 

Andreessen has had nothing more specific to offer than evidence of his heart being in the right place. He certainly did not happen to mention or explain why we have no convenient, one-piece, coverall garment capable of blocking and slowing down the transmission of the virus — such as the tentatively-named flusuit sketched here on pG, a suggestion for a streamlined, not necessarily unattractive version of a biohazard suit with both immediately feasible and futuristic elements. That has turned out to have interesting precedents. A post-publication search on ‘flusuit’ produced links for, for instance, a flu-and-radiation suit modelled by a German family in a wintry Hamburg in a 1969 Reuters-British Pathé video clip.  

Flu Suit 1969 Reuters-Pathé postgutenberg@gmail.com

German family dressed in flu/radiation suits, Hamburg, 1969, British Pathé Collection

A month after pG’s flusuit post, finding some way of making a garment like that — a pandemic- or pando-onesie? —  a permanent part of our wardrobes is even more urgent. Hardly anyone appears to be discussing any remedy like it — which is odd for these reasons:

• The uncertainty about vaccines and cures Most experts do not expect a vaccine or vaccines (for different strains of the virus) to be ready and available in sufficient quantities before a year from now, even with clever genetic engineering, according to the latest information on the subject, from Scientific American. No old or new medicine or therapy has so far been confirmed as fully effective and available as a cure for the range of symptoms caused by the new coronavirus — as promising as this week’s news about remdesivir looks. 

• The contraception parallel For blocking the most commonly cherished form of new life — children — physical barriers, however crude and imperfect, have proved useful for centuries. There was a 400-year wait for sophisticated chemical forms of contraception, starting with the birth control pill (in 1951), after the first documented use of a condom in Europe (in 1564). 

Certain religions frown on birth control, but who is likely to object to physical protection from the virus as a first defence? We are already gaping at the range of improvisations being devised by desperate people. Last week The New York Times interviewed reluctant air travellers wearing anything ‘from plastic ponchos to laboratory goggles to biohazard suits,’ for insulation, and worrying about the possibility that the virus would attach itself to their hair. One woman in the report flew from New York to Beijing in a ‘a rain jacket, hairnet, a mask and goggles,’ accompanied by a mother carrying plastic shower curtains for possible use as shields from aeroplane seats. A man dressed in ‘a disposable protective suit and goggles’ twice changed the N-95 mask he was also wearing for his 13-hour flight from London to Hong Kong last month, and told the newspaper that he felt glad about going to such extremes when he was notified about five fellow-passengers testing positive for the virus two days after his journey.

Why talk about whole bodysuits when the world is struggling to make enough coverings for faces? Because no expert has any idea of when the pandemic will end — and the gap between having enough masks but still no vaccines could feel interminable. There are experts predicting second waves of infection, and evidence from Germany that their anxiety is warranted.  

The millions of people pushed by the unavoidable lockdowns into dire economic straits and unemployment deserve a range of innovations capable of letting them get back to work and feel secure, there.

So Marc Andreessen could do worse than concentrate on finding ways to ‘build’ — mass-produce — an anti-coronavirus suit that many of us must now want as permanent additions to our clothes cupboards, like rain gear, for possible use in the future, even in far less deadly epidemics. A protective garment with a replaceable respiratory mask that is, ideally, biodegradable. 

Will he or anyone else in Silicon Valley actually give us one? 

Although nothing is less welcome than pessimism about the pandemic, it has to be said that this seems unlikely. The clue is in the thought-capsule in the top left-hand corner of the Andreessen Horowitz web site, which reads: ‘Software Is Eating The World.’ In a text posted there in 2011, Andreessen explained the reasoning behind it: ‘More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services.’ His list of examples included this one: ‘Today’s largest direct marketing platform is a software company — Google … joined by Groupon, Living Social, Foursquare and others … using software to eat the retail marketing industry.’

For decades, software has stolen sharp minds from projects related strictly to people and physical objects. It has devoured investment capital disproportionately, and been a gateway into the super-rich club for many more hundreds of thousands than old-fashioned businesses have. The technology superstars — Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Netflix — are all actual or virtual software companies. Speculation about their future evolution has consistently centred on their plans for artificial intelligence — and what is that if not more complex software? 

None of these companies have so far shown any sign of replicating their success in that ethereal, immaterial realm on the physical plane — the domain of things. But how wonderful it would be if they could.

'I'm going to the store' starbiz.com

‘”Going to the store” coronavirus meme,’ starbiz.com 

Will Covid-19 add a new occasional garment to our wardrobes — the flusuit, an equivalent of swimsuits and raincoats for lethal flu season viruses threatening to turn pandemic?

 

'CAIRN' Celeste Roberge, postgutenberg@gmail.com

Celeste Roberge has been surprised to find that her sculpture series that is, to her, a reflection on geological time, has been interpreted as The Weight of Grief by the many who have found comfort and catharsis in studying it.  This one, photographed by pG at the Nevada Museum of Art, is ‘Cairn’ (1998)

Who could have imagined that World War III would have a virus on one side and all humanity on the other? 

Not as an April Fool’s Day joke but because it is a question as persistent as an earworm  in this pG  head, will we all be buying flusuits soon — stylish versions of Hazmat garments for winter respiratory viruses that turn deadly? Each one equipped with a replaceable, high-grade respiratory face mask, two layers of gloves, and stick-on/strip-off covering for feet — because Covid-19 is being spread on footwear, carried from the floors of supermarkets, and public transport and toilets?

If we all owned at least one of these, the way most of us do a swimsuit and raincoat, there would be no need for lockdowns. Everyone could keep doing their jobs and keep things running. Doctors and other professionals dedicated to keeping the rest of us alive would not be dying at a more tragic, alarming rate than — we suspect — in any war of certainly the last hundred years. There would be no chance of what we are witnessing: crash-and-fail grand slalom attempts to steer the world’s most powerful economies through near-total shutdowns of economic activity.

A flusuit could some day be the emergency variant of garments designed for the everyday ‘wearable computing’ or ‘body-borne computing’  that technologists have been anticipating for decades — clothing embedded with all the functions of smartphones and apps today, and a great deal more:

Body-borne computing is already a part of many people’s lives, in the form of a smartphone that helps them find their way if they get lost, or helps protect them from danger (e.g. for emergency notification). The next generation of smartphones will be borne by the body in a way that it is always attentive (e.g. that the camera can always “see” one’s environment), so that if a person gets lost, the device will help the user “remember” where they are. Additionally, it will function like the “black box” flight recorder on an aircraft, and, in the event of danger, will be able to automatically notify others of the user’s physiological state as well as what happened in the environment.

The array of sensors that they are expected to incorporate could perhaps include a few dedicated to detecting the presence of known or possible pathogens and set off alarms when these are found on the surface of a flusuit. 

We wouldn’t necessarily have to look like astronauts. Gym rats could show off their assiduously sculpted bodies in mostly transparent models.

Which of us living through the extreme social distancing and shut-in living that went global, this month, would not welcome the chance to climb into and zip up a flusuit to be freed to go anywhere, and from endless handwashing and disinfecting chores that could soon be blamed by mental health experts for mass outbreaks of obsessive-compulsive disorder?

The scientists have been warning us for years that global warming would make pandemics more common. A 2008 paper on the subject by the U.S.’s National Institutes of Health cited, among other evidence, the research findings of Nils Stenseth of the University of Oslo:

Using data collected twice annually between 1949 and 1995 in Kazakhstan, a focal region for plague where human cases are regularly reported, Stenseth and colleagues determined that Y. pestis prevalence increases dramatically in its primary host, the great gerbil (Rhombomys opimus), during warmer springs and wetter summers (Stenseth et al., 2006). Rodent populations also tend to increase under these conditions and, along with them, the possibility that plague will be transmitted to humans. Analyses of historical climate variation, as reflected in tree-ring patterns, suggest that similar warm, wet conditions existed in Central Asia during the onset of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, as well as in the years preceding a mid-nineteenth-century plague pandemic. As Earth’s climate warms, warmer springs and wetter summers are expected to become more common in Central Asia (as well as in North America) therefore raising the possibility that plague activity—and therefore the potential for epidemic disease—will increase.  

Each country would of course have to build its own flusuit fabrication factories to wean the world of its over-dependence on China’s low-cost manufacturing, whose risks — including the inability, elsewhere, to manufacture protective equipment for medical workers, testing kits and ventilators — have been redlined by Covid-19 as nothing else has or could. 

In the meanwhile, here is pG’s recommendation for a fragment of song to hum (three times, slowly and defiantly) for the essential 20-second soap-and-water routine for decontaminating hands. It’s from ‘The Future,’ Leonard’s Cohen’s uncanny 1992 classic:

… And now the wheels of heaven stop

You feel the devil’s riding crop

Get ready for the future 

It is murder

Things are going to slide

Slide in all directions

Won’t be nothing 

Nothing you can measure anymore

The blizzard, the blizzard of the world 

Has crossed the threshold

And it has overturned

The order of the soul …