The supposedly definitive speech for hopepunk is given by Samwise Gamgee in The Two Towers: “That there’s some good in the world”, and so on.  It’s a fine speech, and it would be churlish indeed to pick on good-hearted Sam. But recently I read (or possibly re-read) Michael Moorcock’s old essay on Tolkien, as well; the one that pegs Lord of the Rings as an armour-clad Winnie the Pooh.

I was never quite the Tolkien-maniac so many teenagers are, though I won’t claim it was out of social competence or any foresightful discomfort with JRR’s racial scheme. It was probably because I’d read too much trash fantasy before I got hold of The Fellowship of the Ring, and was hoping for more of the same. Even though I knew it was unfair, it seemed like Tolkien was plagiarizing himself. 

Underneath, I think the structure of the world and the story might have also got up my nose. I always sympathized more with elves than hobbits. More fool me, perhaps. All of the hobbits have a bit too much Forrest Gump in them, a much worse work of art whose magic moron morality I will continue to hate until my dying day.

I was certainly up for Moorcock’s pulp literary experimenta. My taste was much more for Melniboné than Bag End. And he’s a pretty good critic. He gets the politics of Middle Earth and Middle Hopepunk bang on:

While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times.

Epic Pooh

It’s not that hopepunk is bad. Like Tolkien, it’s deeply anti-fascist, and pro-community, in a rural traditionalist way. But it’s as punk as a hobbit in a four button waistcoat. It’s comfortable to wear, but I remain skeptical it will change much.

Every Fucking Platform

Every Fucking Platform

We argued on the evening before lockdown
The lonely morning made it sweet again 
But by the time we needed food from Woolies
Everything I said was wrong and you cursed me in the rain
We split up for a while after a phone call
I pinged you six days later on WhatsApp
I was hoping that the break 
Would make things go a little better for us
And for a little while it almost did

Now I’m having drinks in front of YouTube
And I’m trying hard to forget your name
I’m staring at the label of a bottle of Corona
And every fucking platform feels the same

You said you had a question about Fleabag
But all of my replies were left on read
And when I checked on Facebook you were posting cats
And screenshots of your Duolingo French
Foolishly, I followed you to Twitter
Like a ghost I doomscrolled Trump and Kamala
And all the bright young things
Were throwing up their takes on Harry Potter
While I stared at your unfollowed avatar

Now I’m watching egirls dance on TikTok
And they’re singing that bloody sea shanty again
And I can’t believe I’m dancing to this but a cute girl liked my last one
And every fucking platform sounds the same

While waiting for a coffee with my mask on
An email from you brought me to Discord
But all the channels seemed to be for tankie poly rationalists
And anyway, it sounded like you weren’t alone
So I drifted till I ended up on OnlyFans
A horny platform for a troubled soul
And for a month I paid a woman far too much
To flash her tits and make me feel trolled

Now I’m sitting playing rounds of DOTA
And a Chinese guy wants me to know his name
And I can echo idioms
In seven different acronyms 
But every fucking platform looks the same
Cya l8r, 88, gg, ragequit, brb
Every fucking platform’s just the same

(With a debt to Paul Kelly’s original.)

Retooling the Social Media Contract

Why would Reddit spend developer time on cryptocoins?

I think to understand this, you have to see the current situation of a handful of highly centralized platforms, with centralized moderation, and enormous commercial and media power, as a kind of disaster. From that perspective, which I basically share, this is an attempt to make better technical infrastructure for communities of curation and moderation.

A recent symptom of this disaster: Novara Media, the independent leftwimg British media organization, had its entire Youtube channel deleted without notice or serious explanation. Novara is quite high profile, too: a number of its hosts, like Ash Sarkar, have regular columns and make appearances in more mainstream media. It was reinstated about a day later after various public figures across the UK political spectrum weighed in. Nothing but the most generic corporate response was offered. They had no previous strikes.

This is hardly the first example, and it is more related to bad platform design – technical and governance – than cancel culture or any primarily socially-driven phenomena. It wasn’t in response to any particular statement or social media outrage storm. The current platforms foster these problems the way giant monocropped fields invite plagues of locusts.

Facebook and YouTube are at one extreme because they are central platforms with few community or user controls for the bulk of the platform experience.

Take YouTube. How many interactions can you have with it? Like, dislike, watch, comment (requires semantic interpretation), report (requires human, eventually). You can search for specific videos or follow the feed. It is widely indexed and close-ish to the open web.

It’s also one flat user social structure, feeding into a corporate policing structure. The model there is deep learning trained filters feeding a large team of corporate censors, mostly not in-house, but outsourced to censorship specialists in the Philippines and other middle income countries. It’s essentially a design based on a chemical factory toxic waste pipeline. The whole focus on improving it is just about making a better waste filter, essentially out of deep learning tech.

Facebook is similar but not even on the open web, it’s a non-indexable enclosure. In many ways Facebook is best understood as an anti-website. In addition the ML-determined feed is even more dominant, making for even less user agency.

Twitter is largely flat as well, but has always been on the open web, had a usable API, and is open to bots and experiments. By being pseudonym and multi-account friendly it also makes separate curation across different accounts easier.

All of these platforms still have the factory toxic waste pipeline design. The also have always had some form of non-exchangeable social media currency. I’ve said previously that this makes them accidental reserve banks of sincerity.

The two main exceptions to the toxic waste pipleline design are Reddit and Mastodon. Reddit is much bigger, and for-profit, but is not FAANG (MANGA) big. Reddit is built around the idea of specialized communities built around shared interests. These communities come with community moderation and curation built in. It also has a pooled reputational currency (karma) and exchange currency support.

YouTube and now Twitter have got into the superchat / exchange currency pledges, but on a socially flat technical foundation. Reddit has a technical structure that includes community moderation and curation at a far more local level. Then when the platform police – or the meatspace police, for that matter – get involved, it’s rarer, and after a previous locally semi-autonomous policing and socialization process has happened.

Federation also gives more scope for individual communities to match the most appropriate national laws, and concentrates criminals and abusers in identifiable communities around the topics of their obsession.

The main platform built on federation is Mastodon, though it is of course re-applying patterns behind the internet itself. Mastodon is a social media protocol where people run nodes and choose which other nodes are on the network. Though fascist nodes exist, the main communities just refuse to federate with them.

Where do Reddit’s new community points fit with this? The write-up highlights autonomy, and developers speaking elsewhere have talked about federation. That contains much of the mastodon model. Perhaps with such a solution, Reddit could radically federate, to avoid the thousands of censors processing toxic waste that other platforms have, and emphasize their role as a platform at arms-length from content. That means expanding community self-management and making clearer organizational separation. But Reddit also want to make money, and they already govern two currencies. This leads fairly quickly to some form of tokens, and maybe some reputational stake or sponsoring system when communities federate or certain privileges are achieved.

There has been so much crypto hype, mostly without understanding the necessary latency and complexity tradeoffs, that I would start from a position of skepticism for deploying it as a technical solution on an existing platform. There have been a lot of tenuously useful blockchain projects. For Reddit, however, if they want a federal architecture and localize content management, the contract mechanisms in Ethereum already have a similar shape, and reinventing the wheel would be a waste. This is a real use case that may actually requires the power and cost of Ethereum smart contracts, or some more user-accessible extension.

Sinister Normative Compulsions

Michael Eby’s piece in New Left Review on Agile software development is interesting, and a little frustrating. I think it’s generally quite useful to get a left-wing, Marx-y class analysis on the structural of the software workplace. Eby argues Agile is a renegotiation within capitalism that by itself doesn’t challenge, and may indeed clarify, the executive power of the capitalist or manager, in the form of the Product Owner. This certainly seems true – it’s right there in the name.

I like the piece a bit more in concept than execution, though. There’s a few too many mistakes in the detail, getting the timeline of methods wrong, treating Scrum as separate to Agile when it’s the most popular method, talking about story points, and not lining up the jargon quite right in various ways. If I had to guess, I’d venture its a generalization from discussion with a few developers rather than a more careful reading of the key books and the c2 wiki. The full pedantic catalogue I will leave to the hacker news comments, while noting that process is more complicated to analyze than it looks, because software processes in practice rarely strictly follow a book. This is a point driven home by Alistair Cockburn’s description of developers always wanting to add stuff they don’t do to their description of their process – in Agile Software Development, as it happens.

Despite mixing up some of the details, Eby still has some sharp moments where he spots things you would never see in the usual software literature. Agile absolutely does have mechanisms of management discipline for workers, for instance:

It is clear that Agile dissolves many of the more visible features of hierarchical managerial control. But it does so only to recontain them in subtle and nuanced ways. For one, the self-organizing strategies of teams allow for certain workplace disciplinary mechanisms to take the form of normative compulsions rather than explicit instructions. 

The example that follows this quote isn’t great (again those details). I’d say instead that the most important disciplinary measure is frequent planning discussion and delivery – iterations and standups. It’s both a bug and a feature. Because they are the leverage points in this structure, iterations and standups are also where Dark Agile happens, if it happens.

But it’s still better. 

Agile work is more satisfying because a software worker has more control over the detail of what they produce. The owners and managers of the firm get more software delivery, through a change to internal communication and decision structures. To the degree society as a whole is helped by the software, it gets those helpful things sooner. It is too easy to forget how spectacularly wasteful waterfall development was. Enormous specification documents that were irrelevant by the time any code was cut. Months of kabuki theatre adversarial ping pong between development and testing teams. Years spent coding features and products never used. All of this was completely known and routine. Flows of waste and stupidity are hardly alien to software today, but at least in Agile a third of your projects aren’t thrown into the sea.

Agile techniques are more effective at delivering software, precisely by taking more technical decisions out of a bureaucratic org chart. Methodologies like Large Scale Scrum even emphasize that it is not a manager’s job to parcel out work, but to remove friction from the flow of money and production. This is surely fruit hanging low and ripe for a socialist critic to take.

Eby goes on to state:

[A] silent bargain between capital and wage-labour has occurred, with capital steadily shedding impediments to accumulation, and wage-earners forfeiting hard-won security in exchange for putative freedom.

This isn’t a terrible description of the new status quo, but again, the historical sequence seems off. The scythes of neoliberal deregulation had already been slicing into corporate and union bureaucracies alike all through the eighties and nineties. Downsizing, private equity buyouts and rightshoring were already well-rehearsed corporate practice before the Agile manifesto was signed in 2001. Agile has now shown itself so successful that it is propagated by management as corporate process. But you could also see it as skilled labour reacting to a disrupted expectation of long-term employment by taking control of low-level details of production, selling the change using increased labour productivity, and succeeding despite a lack of formal legal support. The lack of any explicit political theory (most of signatories of the manifesto are far from leftists) was probably helpful as well, in slipping under the radar, and avoiding the bureaucratic modes of 20th century unionism.

Various leftist thinkers, such as Phillips and Rozworski, have recently been pointing out that Amazon has so much size, computational power and control over its logistics that it is effectively a planned economy. This is true up to a point, but Jeff Bezos also popularized the “two pizza team” guidelines for agile team size. Internally Amazon has strong central control, platform planning, and for skilled software workers, devolved control of details to empowered teams that perform a high degree of horizontal co-ordination. And they build a lot of things. More Marx-inflected analysis of why that succeeds, while high modernist and Soviet central planning failed, would be welcome.


Cockburn – Agile Software Development

Phillips and Rozworski – The People’s Republic of Walmart

Does Anne of Green Gables Dream of Electric Sheep?

Caroline M Yoachim – A Rabbit Egg For Flora 

Adam Berman – Egg Tooth

Philip K Dick – The Preserving Machine

In an early Philip K Dick fairy-tale, an eccentric scientist invents a machine for turning musical pieces into animals. It works quite well, at least when the animals are kept inside, as pets. The animals can be easily converted back into recognizable entries of the classical canon. Yet the point of the project is preservation for the ages, across scores of generations, and when released into the nearby forest, the animals change. Some are eaten. Some turn wild. When the pipe-organ-like machine is used to convert them back, the result is strange, disturbing, sounds, barely classifiable as music at all.

A Rabbit Egg For Flora, by Caroline Yoachim, feels like it is set in one of these PKD worlds, while telling a story that the great man seemingly never could. In The Preserving Machine, for example, the vivid clunking fact of the machine breaks down for the characters, while reality of the world grows for the reader. Character reality frays and reader reality intensifies. Rabbit Egg is not about fraying, but repair. A single parent and her daughter play a game, discovering artificial eggs. It’s Pokémon, but for nanotechnological wonders which restore ecosystems.

“What do you think it will be?”


I laugh. “I don’t think our local ecosystem can support a predator that big.”



The dark-haired boy snorts. “The sea-life expansion got pushed back three months because ocean acidity is still too high.”

Behind the children’s game, this is a world of catastrophic loss. It is perhaps decades or centuries in the future: probably billions of people died as supporting natural systems collapsed around them, before everything finally bottomed out. It is perhaps a few decades on from the dayglo dystopia of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where, unlike Blade Runner, Deckard had an obsessive hobby of trying to find pet animals, and where even dogs and cats are so rare they are fabulously expensive. Rabbit Egg, daringly, takes this place as the setting for a charming childhood romance. It’s in a solarpunk collection, and this is the solarpunk gambit, really: envisioning repair instead of doom. Eventually, in Androids, Deckard finds a frog, which he doesn’t recognize is actually a mechanical simulacra. He is always a childlike assassin. You can imagine him enjoying searching for eggs.

Egg Tooth, by Adam Berman, is an uneasy, meticulously crafted, story that doesn’t show its cards early. It could be set in a more orderly, Australian, corner of that same collapsing world, albeit without any androids. If the voice of Rabbit Egg is Anne of Green Gables, the voice of Egg Tooth is clearly Kafka. This is not the cartoon avatar of bureaucratic frustration found in popular culture. (Is it a red tape? Is it a show trial? No – it’s Kafkaman!) This is the baffled observer-protagonist of The Castle or the A Country Doctor, intensely moved, evicted from his own head.

Between the apartments were skyscrapers in varying styles and states of decay. Whereas the oldest buildings tended to be the most complete, more recent projects appeared unfinished, with large black tarps covering jagged upper floors. The older buildings paid their penance in other ways, being covered in higher concentrations of graffiti and torn nylon banner advertisements. 

I am cagey about sharing the details of Egg Tooth, lest I inadvertently pick apart its fine weave. There are plenty of stories about the future being horrible, and they generally don’t interest me. What makes Egg Tooth compelling, and a little sickening, is the implication that among the collapse, this society is a relative success: a place of orderly utilitarian kindness among more general chaos, with famine and death just off-screen.

Both of these stories appear in collections of solarpunk science fiction, though Egg Tooth is by far the glummest boat in the sunny tech nouveau solarpunk regatta. Despite the revolutionary names of solarpunk, or even Extinction Rebellion, green politics is often forced to be conservative, or even reactionary – stop doing this, stop killing that, restore what was good and beautiful and pure. Flora wants rabbits back; in Egg Tooth the platypus may just be saved. Indeed, we need to stop and restore! But this is also why, politically, it’s so easy to slip from green to ecoreactionary; to the idealization of past social and technical forms. (And from there, ecofash is but a short goosestep away.)

Solarpunk is a countermovement of repair. It does not idealize feudal peasant tech and social mores, but puts the technology of the sun in its name. If we need romanticism, well, this is a far better romance. I hope Flora gets her rabbit egg, given she lives in North America, where it is not a pest. But the clever nanites that build the rabbits are also little conservatives, rebuilding what once was. Though both of the stories I’ve talked about here are great, and take risks in their own ways, most solarpunk plays it safe. Solarpunk is usually solarcozy. Quite a lot of it is secretly Egg Tooth wearing sunglasses – the literature of the precautionary principle and managed decline.

Most solarpunk I’ve seen – and much of these two collections – is good at the local, the relational, and the romantic – the Mrs Brown stories of the Turkey City Lexicon. This is a strength where science fiction traditionally had a weakness. It is good to have stories like this. The two stories I’ve named don’t span all of the weird creatures of the subgenre. But I wonder, based on what we’ve seen so far, whether this cozy vision can encompass the radically changed, and the truly planetary.

There are two and a half stories I imagine could only be written if solarpunk writers stopped playing it safe. The half is Fully Automated Planetary Solarpunk, a setting with Green Stack crisis management and universal basic services, which writers like Kim Stanley Robinson have at least had a crack at. The second is a Neo-Edwardian High Tory Solarpunk, with Art Nouveau aesthetics, solar industrialists, plucky aristocratic Indian adventuresses, and imperial confidence in multi-generational stewardship. I have to admit I name this one partly for the joy of the cognitive-political dissonance it implies in a community which can be painfully earnest at times. But beyond that, stories which deal with the age of Dadabhai Naoroji and the first National Parks also ask what it means to wield and abuse power across global networks, to preserve ecosystems, and to valorize traditional and indigenous continuity. The third, often quite incompatibly with the other two, would be a xenofeminist solarpunk, a solarpunk of unprecedented scale, cunning, and vision, a tech-subverting, wilderness-unleashing liberatory force, that like punk, would celebrate the strange, wild things that hatch from future eggs.

A Rabbit Egg For Flora by Caroline M Yoachim is published in Multispecies Cities. Egg Tooth by Adam Berman is published in And Lately, The Sun.