On May 5th, 2019, Venkatesh Rao tweeted:
This piece was written for Issue 4 of Sprout, exploring the theme of Resource. Find the full issue here.
If you put it together, you reach a megatrend conclusion: if you do not build a second brain or go offline, you will BECOME the second brain … there’s no way to actually handle the volume of information that all of us appear to be handling right now, which means we are getting augmented cognition resources from somewhere.
There is a data center in the east of Amsterdam. A neighborhood, if you can call it that, named Science Park — fittingly. I lived nearby for three years, completing a liberal arts degree. While I was learning to compare Twilight to Plato’s Symposium, in the corner of Science Park data was accumulating.
I begin most writing processes not with writing but with gathering. I feel overwhelmed and dizzied almost every day by the sheer volume of stuff — thoughts, material, language — already in existence. And like most writers I live in constant terror of the blank page. I fill up the blank page with already-existent text, so I can have parameters. So I can play second brain.
The resource is the conceptual mapping to an entity or set of entities, not necessarily the entity which corresponds to that mapping at any particular instance in time. Thus, a resource can remain constant even when its content — the entities to which it currently corresponds — changes over time, provided that the conceptual mapping is not changed in the process.
I don’t understand that either, don’t worry. Among my resources: an affinity for language, a social network, various skills, my mother’s money, hair and skin in a color that is common in my country of origin. Missing from my resources: confidence in technological matters, a grasp of a technical vocabulary. Whether something is a resource depends on whether you are able to access it as such; the ability to access certain things is a resource in itself.
August 1998: a resource can be anything that has identity. An electronic document, an image, a service, a collection. A collection of other resources. An accent, a grasp of social etiquette, an understanding of the Dutch public transport system, a college education, a slang word.
Not all resources are network “retrievable”; e.g., human beings, corporations, and bound books in a library can also be considered resources.
When the apocalypse comes, ambling over the horizon, slouched and drowsy — I saw a tumblr post once about prehistoric evidence of a disabled person who had lived until old age; evidence, they said, of empathy and compassion even in ancient humans, to let someone live on in the community despite not fulfilling a function. No, said someone else: evidence, maybe, that people can be resources in any number of ways.
A web resource, or simply resource, is any identifiable thing, whether digital, physical, or abstract. A web resource is implicitly defined as something which can be identified.
What about those who cannot be addressed? Who escapes identification? Who clumsily refuses to be handled, fitted into a functioning network, who passes over oceans or through fires and becomes unavailable? My clean hair and clothes, vocal fry voice — so second-gen of me, to have been born here, and taught well, here. Taught how to make myself intelligible — identifiable — to those around me. I’ve seen what happens when you don’t function successfully within the network — when you go dark, like the lights failing in a section of the skyline during a power outage.
We’ve always been resources, even long before the first department was named human resources. We’ve always lived or died by the grace of our ability to be and to use resources. And it’s always been unfair and cruel. The ways we optimize ourselves and our resource use determines whether we can earn an income, obtain housing, have our needs met — convince others of our usefulness, our right to live and be taken care of within the social contract.
A time of scarcity and abundance: while the natural resources around us rapidly deplete we are simultaneously overloaded with information, thinking, content. You might, although Latour would be mad at you, call that culture rather than the aforementioned nature. I have never seen as much culture as I have on the internet: the internet is like some overactive organ, a cancerous cell, doing a kind of sickly multiplying. Go forth and frazzle nerves and burn out brains. We’ll build more brains. We’ll build brains that can teach us how to use the original brains. We’ll optimize it all.
How we can tap into ourselves as human resources — our physical appearance, our sense of humor, our deft handling of an algorithmically-determined playing field — a whole new kind of arena. You can’t really call the internet a tool, and you can’t really call it a resource so much as a swarming multiplicity of resources, teeming with the useful and the useless and everything in between. And it maps us as resources just like the real world does: a whole new arena in which to live, succeed, achieve, have needs met. A place where we become resources even more clearly: data to be mined, brains to be chemically engaged, eyes to be sold to advertisers.
The concept of a web resource has evolved from static addressable documents or files to a more generic and abstract definition, now encompassing every “thing” or entity that can be identified, named, addressed or handled, in any way whatsoever, in the web at large, or in any networked information system.
Amsterdam is Europe’s most cloud-dense and highly connected city, offering low-latency connectivity to the rest of the world. I don’t know what low-latency is and I can’t really grasp what cloud-density means exactly, but that doesn’t matter. This abundance is overwhelming but it doesn’t have to be. It’s always been unfair, but it doesn’t have to be. If nature is unjust, the xenofeminists write, change nature. Or see what nature was all along, and what culture obscured: the prehistoric skeleton of the ‘useless’ person, and the ways we map and read that skeleton now. There are many ways to be of use and make use, to tinker and hack, to twist and turn. A cloud-dense city, isn’t that a beautiful image? I can understand and use the words as a poet rather than a computer scientist. I’m resourceful that way.