Intermediation Blues

As commonly used in finance, “intermediation” refers to banks and other financial institutions borrowing from savers/investors and lending to companies that need funds for investment in operations and new projects. I will look at the idea more broadly here.

Intermediation occurs in countless ways in our industrial-consumer society. Most of the time, we do not even notice the indirectness of our mostly transactional lives. When did you last buy a product directly from the person who made it?

About the only way you can make a direct purchase from the producer of food is to buy those organic carrots or tomatoes from your local farmers market. What percentage of your food purchases are those? Most likely, very small. In most other cases, a direct transaction with no intermediation is impossible.

Dependency and Distance

The more distance between you and the other (if there is a singular other involved), the more dependent you are on a process beyond your reach. When did you last negotiate what characteristics your iPhone would have? To do that you would have to contact the maker, but like so many other products, smartphones result from thousands of makers producing countless components for assembly somewhere you have never heard of.

A team of people whose criteria result from complex sets of information from engineering and marketing studies designs the product. The design criteria and information intermediate between the revenue goals of the giant corporation controlling the process and estimates of how large a market their advertisers can influence to buy the product. Who decides what use-value an object may have for the end user? And who, exactly, is the end user? That is not always clear either.

Intermediation of Communication

When inventions like the telephone and telegraph became available for use by consumers and businesses, many praised their power to facilitate long-distance communication. Messages were sent directly from one party to another by telegraph; people talked directly to one another on the phone. The mail service provided delivery of direct written communications from one party to another. Today, people use their smartphones and computers to engage with social media or to send texts or email more than to communicate directly to anyone. Their calls to businesses are intermediated by complex, often dysfunctional telephone menu trees leading to recorded messages, not to humans.

Social media may be the most obvious technology of intermediated communication. How many Facebook friends do you have? How many have you actually met, face to face? People have “meetings” over Skype because it intermediates in a way that simulates face-to-face conversations. But face it, you are actually looking at an electronic image approximating the person you are talking with. The same process is involved when your geographically dispersed committee or board of directors meets via Zoom. You are replicating the experience of direct human communication.

Dangerous and Deadly Intermediation

People rightly complain that the use of drones such as the MQ99 Reaper in warfare feels in ways unseemly. A drone operator commands the aircraft from afar. He drops its bombs somewhere in Pakistan or Yemen by viewing images on a screen and receiving “intelligence” reports in his air-conditioned office near Las Vegas. He has no direct way of knowing whether the targeted group of people in a village or on a road consists of a terrorist group or a wedding party. Intelligence reports are often sketchy or based on false data. Combat drone operators experience PTSD at equivalent rates as troops on the ground.

Lion 737 Max_8

Lion Air ~ the First of two suspiious crashes.

Why was I not surprised when in a very short period two Boeing 737 Max-8 airliners crashed shortly after takeoff, one in Indonesia and the other in Ethiopia? Numerous pilots had complained of a tendency of the new autopilot software to force the aircraft into an abrupt nose down or nose up attitude. If any human technology epitomizes intermediation, it is the autopilot.

Software designed to control aircraft flight is extremely complex. Airborne situations are also extremely complex and diverse. I do not know what exactly went wrong and killed all those passengers and crew. But I do know that in automated control systems, the more complex the system, the more statistically susceptible to catastrophic collapse it is.

When I got my new small airplane in 2008, equipped with a basic autopilot, I was amazed at its ability to fly the aircraft in light to moderate turbulence better than I could. Its electronic responses were faster than my own in responding to change. But on a couple of occasions, the aircraft began to oscillate to the point where I had to hit the autopilot master switch and take manual control. Those 737 Max pilots didn’t have a chance since the defective software had been designed to override “pilot error” and drove the aircraft into the ground.

Disintermediation Rising

Intermediation has its advantages in complex systems, as long as it works. But there are limits to its benefits and there are dangers in its over-use. It appears that in several ways we have already reached the limits of utility and risk.

In the coming decades, deteriorating economic and ecological conditions will force industrial-consumer economies to contract for their societies to avoid suffering the most extreme consequences of climate chaos and the other converging catastrophic crises. Disintermediation must be part of the process of mitigating these crises.

We must examine many processes as to whether to disintermediate them. Many of the solutions to the converging crises at the end of the industrial-consumer era will involve returning to direct human interaction to accomplish tasks for which intermediation poses too many costs.

Aesthetics Abandoned

One of the many drawbacks of living in the intermediated world of industrial consumerism is that we have pretty much abandoned aesthetics. Form and function are mostly industrial products too. Marketing psychology drives them, like almost everything else.

Diverse commercial and political interests present a pre-formed world to us on the flat digital screens of our many “devices,” from smartphones to laptops. Most of the time some “middleman,” either an institution or a technology, mediates between the person and her/his perception of the world and action toward it. The various institutional purveyors of images and text mediate (shape and frame) these forms to fit their needs by selling us some product or promoting some idea, project, or political strategy.

Alienated Beauty

“Beauty” is presented to “the eye of the beholder” pre-defined by an intermediary, or it may be lost entirely in the forms of intermediated function. We see little that is directly in front of us in its natural form. More and more control is no longer direct. Beauty is subordinated to control.

I have recently become much more aware of the importance of the fact that we live in an intermediated world. The sense that so-called “self-driving” cars fit in some inevitable path of progress is an iconic cultural indicator of the dominance of intermediation and the subordination of aesthetics to system control. The implications are many and in some cases profound, sometimes even deadly. Here is one example.

Increasingly Intermediated Aviation

In aviation, pilots now benefit from a plethora of real-time digital information and images on “Primary Flight Displays” (flat-panel screens) in the cockpit, including navigational data and even moving maps with three-dimensional terrain depiction. Pilots enter flight plans into a GPS (Global Positioning System), which links them to map data and current weather data regularly updated and depicted on a screen during the flight. The screen displays the current position and actual track of the aircraft over land including any deviation from the flight plan, in real time. These displays do have a certain aesthetic appeal.

Airliner above clowdsThe GPS transmits both flight-plan and current position data to the autopilot, which signals servos that control ailerons, rudder, and elevators, thereby directing the aircraft along the designated route. The pilot is reduced to a technician who programs the automated systems that actually fly the aircraft on a flight path determined mostly by the airline and the FAA.

That is the epitome of intermediation. The airline pilot is left with little to do but manage and monitor the system that flies the airplane. He does make judgments and may request from Air Traffic Control a deviation in altitude or direction to avoid thunderstorms or turbulence. Both the system-generated situational data and the flight systems intermediate between data, the actor, and the action.

Such complex systems diminish human control and the beauty of flying. No wonder so many airline pilots own old-fashioned biplanes or small experimental aircraft they fly when off duty. They miss the direct experience of flying lost in their professional work.  stearman-640x300Flying a Stearman PT-17/N2S Biplane is a Direct Experience

The complexity and power of intricate automated systems really are quite amazing. However, the separation of human action from direct experience has its downside. In the case of flying, airline pilots who often have the latest complex automated systems in their airliners can get “rusty” in the hands-on skills of directly flying the aircraft.

The problem arises when some system falters, whether due to mechanical or electronic failure or due to extreme weather. Over-reliance on automated systems in some instances has caused pilots to misread direct signs of an emergency, causing fatal crashes. Similar downsides occur in countless other areas of modern life.

Aesthetics is Experience

What about aesthetics in all this? Well, it is all about direct perception. The image is not the thing itself. The map is not the land. Maps, of course, provide guides to navigating the land, but the distinction is important. We can appreciate the beauty of the product of a fine cartographer.

We can even build some beauty into maps generated by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) using “big data.” We can even revel in the beauty and technical prowess of an automotive moving map display depicting our travel on unfamiliar roads as it leads us on the quickest route to our destination in unknown territory.

I have not nearly as much fun with the GPS in my pickup truck as I do with the one in my little airplane. In aircraft, most GPS units are far more complex, powerful, and expensive than those assisting automotive navigation. But the primary aesthetic experience, to the extent that there is one, is in the actual travel itself. Driving through a redwood forest in Northern California or flying over Monument Valley in Utah provides a direct experience of natural beauty. So does flying among puffy white clouds after a storm. Most pilots fly because they love the aesthetic experience.

However, our overreliance on technologies and institutions that mediate the relations between us and our world can cause us to crash, either literally or figuratively. We do have a tendency to see the map as the terrain itself. It is, after all, a substitute for looking out the window.

Too many people too often rely on biased interpretations of life presented to them by powerful institutions through technologies of so-called smart devices. They uncritically accept the intermediation of their life experiences through imagery specifically designed to manipulate their behavior, either for marketing or for political purposes. Perception and aesthetic interpretation increasingly alienate us from direct experience of life itself.

Losing Aesthetic Experience

Navigational equipment is just one of many examples of the intermediation of human action by powerful technology. Many other examples reflect similar conditions and outcomes, at least as many driven by institutional dynamics as by technology itself. In most cases, the technology or institution provides some useful function while diminishing our control.

So, don’t get me wrong; I’m not giving up my GPS. Some complex actions are not possible without intermediation. Yet, intermediation is a game changer in the evolution of human action and in the ability of humanity to mitigate or adapt to the planetary changes that the growth of intermediation has caused. We live in a system of our own making that largely controls us and is fast destroying the world on which we depend.

The same processes increasingly occur within complex institutions, whether corporations to government agencies. In more and more areas of human interaction, goals and actions are increasingly intermediated by complex procedures, paperwork, “red tape,” technical requirements, and bureaucratic obstacles, than ever before. The resulting loss of human control over action and events suppresses aesthetics as it destroys the world on which it depends.