Technologies Of Agency

Table of Contents

Context and an apology

If you don't want my self-serving preamble, skip to Modelling Agency for the beginning of the actual content.

Apology

I hope that a variant of this article will appear in an as-of-yet-unnamed zine at some point in the future, and that zine will be fantastic because it will carry the spirit of what I'm about to write about, but there's a strong chance that there's going to be a pretty strong rehash of this content. It will be quite a lot shorter than this because I'm still exploring my ideas and learning to write.

I'm kind of sorry, but in the spirit of Getting Shit Done(TM) I have to start somewhere, and in the spirit of punk I'm pretty sure you'll get over it.

Context

At the time of writing, my "blog" is a nearly-unordered collection of plain HTML files with no RSS feed, no aesthetic tuning and without so much as a <title> element. It's fuck ugly, could do with readability improvements and some editing, but it has content which is ultimately the goal of a blog. This will become relevant.

Modelling Agency

No I mean like a physicist…

No, not like the CIA or the NSA or whatever. I'm talking about the vital concept of dragging your tired corpse from the beginning to the end of your mortal coil and not feeling like you got a totally raw deal out of it.

Agency is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary but it doesn't quite make my point, so let's blithely ignore that and pretend it breaks down as:

agency
the sweet spot between power and scope that enables an individual or group to advance the status quo in pursuit of their goals.

Let me give you an example about me writing:

The inputs

goals
I want to increase the agency of individuals who are not already "people in power", especially those with very little.
power
I have the raw materials (something to type on and a way to distribute), ability (I know how to type, sit my ass down to write, publish on the internet) and influence (I won't get censored because I'm a middle class white man publishing raw HTML on my own VPS) to publish.
scope
I'm going to write a limited article about "Technologies of Agency" for the very small readership of my blog. It's going to be heavily structured text because reading my own prose makes me want to punch myself in the face almost as much as writing my own prose does.

The output

advance the status quo
I understand more about how to achieve my goals, a small readership understands why technology needs to advance the status quo of individuals and I might finally start to understand what the fuck I'm actually going to write in this goddamn zine (which I'm starting to want to call "The Albatross")

Do you see what I did there?

I got fucking sick of the control that people with real tangible power have over people who have none, and as someone with very limited power I'm going to try to move the needle proportionately to my power to do so. I've been honest with myself about what I can realistically achieve on a short timescale, and I hope that in the practice of doing so I'll further define my goals, incrementally increase my power through practice (honing tools and understanding), and I'll increase my scope next time.

What I'm not trying to do is lobby my local politician to do something about parliamentary democracy, the first-past-the-post electoral system, systematic racism, the government's monopoly on violence etc as is "the correct channel" because he's a cryptofascist Tory bootlicker and "the correct channels" in this country silence the minority (and in my constituency I am that political minority).

The latter action would be toward the same goal as the former, but in a scope where I have no real power and therefore am without agency.

Understanding agency

This is where the context section comes in

When I started writing this blog, I did it because my friend tj challenged a bunch of friends to write 4 blog posts in June 2020 (I mean what the fuck else were we going to do, count our tins of butter beans?), and I agreed because I know that when tj uses peer-pressure it's predominantly for the growth of the person he's pressuring and the diversification of human endeavour (albeit within the scope of weird shit that weird people do on the internet, but that's my favourite scope).

I have fallen out of love with lying to myself over the years, however, so on realisation that I would have to create a new blog I did not get to work choosing, setting up or writing a new blog engine, or automating any publishing infrastructure. I started writing ./00001-entry.html.

I mean fuck me, look, I didn't even bother naming the entry.

Because it's a truth universal that when a nerd starts a new blog, they spend 90% of the time fucking around with a blog engine, 10% of the time writing about the experience and the rest of their life never touching it again.

My plan was thus:

  1. Write a blog post in org-mode under emacs (because I use it for all my notes anyway)
  2. Write a Makefile that uses org-html-export-to-html to render any .org files to html under the html/ sub-directory
  3. Write a make target that also generates an index.html of those files
  4. Commit it all to a git repo and sync to my VPS
  5. Add a path under my nginx.conf for it

It was vitally important that I wrote the first post first and then found the most expedient way to publish it in a reproducible way, because otherwise I'd lose myself in an act of identity - making my blog's technology say more about me than any of my actual words would. That's a trap that we all fall in to - letting our narrative ideas of ourselves define what we do rather than tangible milestones toward a stated goal.

Well, NOT TODAY SATAN.

An exercise in advancing the status quo

"I do what I like" is not the same as "I like what I do".

The former is a lie about believing we are in total control of ourselves and that our whims reflect our goals because it suits our narrative of not being oppressed by those who have more agency. It's also a great excuse to be lazy and not define goals - can't fail if you don't have criteria, right?

The latter is a statement of contentment with a set of actions taken, you can choose to believe it or not from day to day.

I like what I did, but I did not do what I liked, instead I moved the needle on a goal. It looks like shit but it was 1/4 of the way toward the stated goal and with a publishing pipeline established. I wrote all the blog posts within the timeframe to various degrees of quality and now I'm trying to up my game.

And in doing so I learned something. That first post ends with a glib comment about keeping posts short, because I wrote much longer posts about 3 times and deleted them. I learned that I have to be much briefer and more structured in my approach or I'll get lost in a mire of self-justification, regardless of how much I want to believe I'm a stylish master of flippant avant-garde prose.

Technologies of agency

The problem I'm trying to get at.

Okay I'm still working on the lengthiness here, but you don't learn without doing. So let's engage in brevity and sweeping statements. You know, the kind that "drive up engagement" (that'll be a nice thematic segue…), like one of those really dangerous and specious things: "A truth self evident".

It is a truth self evident that what empowers one person effectively does not empower another, and if we do not treat the empowerment of every individual equally, we create inequality.

Technology does this all the fucking time because it is built for the benefit of the producer rather than the consumer and the asymmetry of knowledge and skills is weighted in their favour.

Some examples

I get infuriated with my browser because it won't let me quickly and effortlessly manage separate identities via sandboxing. The closest any have come is Firefox's "Multi-Account Containers" which had the ergonomics of typing on a keyboard in "ABC" layout - you could achieve a simulacrum of a tenable workflow but it feels glaringly wrong and inefficient, and as with all browsers it's near impossible to script or customise without getting seriously invested in the behemoth that is browser development. And now the Firefox team at Mozilla has been gutted because privacy doesn't make money.

What about typical windowing systems? Windows are allowed to grab focus so that software can determine where your attention is. It does not inform you that your attention is needed, it takes your attention. The most excruciating thing in the world is sitting on your hands trying to guess when your work macbook's startup tasks are complete so you can log on to the VPN without Slack deciding it should steal focus and, invariably, the latter two thirds of your password, line feed and carriage return to a semi-public channel.

Want to be notified when someone replies to you on Twitter? Fuck you, first you have to wade through all the trash like "X posted Y after a while and these N people you don't actually care that much about liked it".

Want a phone with a full QWERTY keyboard any time after 2010ish? Statistically speaking people are only buying the "misery rectangle" design (ignoring for a second that there aren't actually alternatives on the market), so get rekt.

And the most egregious: "Google collects data on your searches to improve and personalise the results you're given and blah blah blah" so how come every time I search for something it seems completely unaware that I'm after information on programming like literally every other day of my life, proceeds to drop half of my search terms even when in the 2-clicks-deep "Verbatim" mode because other people within 2 standard deviations of the norm, upon typing one of the terms didn't also take the effort to explicitly type those fucking words on purpose, and then finally has the audacity to tell me "there aren't many results for that" instead of "we didn't retain the results for that in our index because the statistically average person doesn't care about it".

This is a case of a company actively trying to shape the world around a search solution rather than shape a search solution around the world.

These are technologies that masquerade as giving you agency when, in reality, they give you power within an artificial scope toward a vendor's goals. That they give you any agency toward any of your goals that happen to dovetail with the vendor's is simply the lure.

If you disagree, I challenge you to justify theft of attention or subtly guiding a person away from what they're trying to find out whilst simultaneously defending a person's right to choice. Some of these are collateral effects, and some are intentional, but they all stem from vendors attempting to shape a need rather than addressing and validating pre-existing ones.

These practices exist on license from the lies we love to tell ourselves and believe: I am in control of my life, I know who I am, I do everything I do on purpose, you have to wake up pretty early to take me for a ride.

What is the solution?

Empowerment and subversion.

As a hacker, my power lies in understanding of technology, which I'm continually trying to build on. I continue to sink huge bodies of time into optimising my computing setup for ergonomics, control and the achievement of my goals. This is my wheelhouse, but it has cost time and dedication that I only have because of my comparatively strong socio-economic position through various dimensions of privilege.

I've begun to ask the question of how I can take that perspective on unique personal hacks to benefit more people than just myself.

What are technologies that empower individuals? Well I was going to list a bunch of examples that can be widely applied, but I suppose that's the point - why list a bunch of things that service everyone within 2 standard deviations of the bell curve consisting entirely of people who already know what "open source" means?

Because that's just attempting to have network effects on an enormous scope rather than taking advantage of the niche skill-sets and passions of individuals - the conceptually "easy way out" that doesn't actually provide helpful practical advice for motivating people.

"Contribute to a Linux distribution" isn't exactly a rallying cry for people who know a disturbing amount about packet radio, nor is it mobilising the unwashed hordes of DIY mechanical keyboard enthusiasts to point their skills to something more widely helpful than the visual and tactile aesthetics of feeling mega 1337 (which I say with love, appreciation and experience). Niche skillsets can address niche problems!

I want to empower people with knowledge to hack on what they know and understand, whilst bearing in mind how do I make this more accessible to people who have interest but fewer resources. This is how we populate our society with more free-thinking, empowered and diverse weirdos who will move the needle regardless of whether the powers that be or market forces want them to.

Prime targets are:

  • Hardware with tiny profit margins because they are good for on-ramping consumers to exploitative data harvesting practices, like Chromebooks and Android phones, or cheap Chinese smartwatches that you can get to the SWD pins on. They can be convinced to run code that subverts these low price points for the agency of the person who paid for it.
  • Software with artificial restrictions on cheaper or free versions. Can the functionality be unlocked or duplicated to more user-respecting equivalents?
  • Niche interest communities lacking hardware or software to aid their goals. Your dovetailing interests could make some people really happy if you can hack something together for them.
  • Sharing weird projects that inspires others to learn, grow and experiment. Nobody gives a shit about your entrepreneurial one-page React app that you hope to get VC for, because if someone's prepared to VC it the likelihood is there's money to be made at the expense of someone, and that is not exciting, new or cool. Make some tech for the sake of it or just to see if you can - this is more commonly known as "art" or "fucking about".

Finally, encourage and work with your friends who share your interests. I think the planet's pretty fucked, and that most people are fundamentally kinda terrible, but my friends who encourage me to do weird shit for the sheer joy of esotericism are the ones who remind me that people can and want to be better and happier and ready to make sacrifices when they feel their efforts will bear fruit.

So what's my next move?

To engage with a technology of agency, and actually write the RSS generator for my blog. In an age when opinions on the internet have been commodotised by the platforms they've been published on, I told myself for the longest time that I didn't want to put my opinions on the internet because it wouldn't serve anything good, because nobody cared and it would benefit the platform and nothing else.

Now I realise that there are literally dozens of people on the internet who like to exercise the option to care or not about feeds, and not sharing my thoughts and ideas was done from a bed of cosy nihilism and laziness. Instead, I could just publish my thoughts and ideas and respect their individual choices and pursuit of agency.

Also I'm going to put the time in to round out the visual styling because I'm something of a minimalist when it comes to web pages but it even makes my eyes bleed.

I don't think this "call to arms" is even vaguely complete. It requires thought, work, iteration and narrative that human beings can mentally really hook in to, but this is the first actual commitment toward the idea of producing something tangible that makes the world look a little more how it should: empowered and bizarre.

Validate