File Formats Rule the World

File formats rule the world. They are the procedural means by which unintelligible blocks of code are rendered intelligible, actionable, and transmittable. Embedded in a file format are assumptions about how data can or should be used. Jpegs discard information assumed to be unimportant to human eyes, and replace it with best-fit estimates, so long as they can save some room on your hard drive. Mp3s assume, through psychoacoustic models, what counts as an acceptable rendition of a song. Other file formats are proprietary, such as .excel. Through their technical specifications, they require programs to be bought in order for files to be used. But the file formats experienced by the average user only comprise a small percentage of the the file formats that the economy and culture of modern society depend upon.

I have been playing a game recently, where I pick a file format at random from the Wikipedia list of file formats: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Listoffile_formats

Then I try to imagine what the would be like if the file format never existed. Though I have never heard of most of the file formats on the list, many are essential in their own banal way. For instance, the first file format I opened was OTA Bitmap — a file format created by Nokia for displaying those highly pixelated images exemplary of the mobile phone circa Y2K.

This file format enabled Nokia phones to display simple pictures and logos.

The website for the file format that undergirds banking information exchange is remarkably transparent:

“If you’re not participating in Standards Development, then you’re either re-inventing the wheel or playing by somebody else’s rules!”

The vast majority of us are not participating in Standard Development. But we all rely on file formats to turn what looks like random sequences of 1s and 0s into intelligible information. Whenever computers manage to pull off the task of representing value, they are likely doing so with one of a handful of file formats. We trust — through blind ignorance — that companies responsible for producing these file formats represent value faithfully, but as their website forewarns, companies create the rules by which everyone else has to play.

Documenting Financial Infrastructure

Automated Futures is a sensory ethnographic documentary film that illustrates two eras of American economic history by juxtaposing a specialty fiber-optic cable used for high-frequency trading against the decaying infrastructure of the once industrial Rust Belt, emphasizing an eerily parallel detachment from human lives in both of these planetary-scale built environments. The film documents 827 miles of Spread Networks’ flagship dark fiber line through the now post-industrial towns of La Porte, Elkhart, Toledo, Cleveland, Mesopotamia, and Manahoy City. Based on my’s thesis research on the materiality of financial infrastructure, the documentary addresses the operative tension between human agency and technological interdependence within the cultural context of American Independence Day celebrations. Video and audio recordings from the summer of 2013 serve to archive the paradigmatic disjunction between the interests of high finance and the decaying industrial economy, while the structure and soundtrack of the film conspire to question the role of history in the temporal scale of exchange.

Immortal Zugzwang

Billed by the media as a drama between man versus machine, Deep Blue’s victory over chess champion Garry Kasparav in 1997 was interpreted by many as evidence of a future world dominated by artificial intelligence. In hindsight, Deep Blue’s victory was not a sign of AI’s power over man; it emblematized a particular political-economic moment concerning how firms developed and monetized computing technology. How then should we interpret the political and economic consequences of Google’s victories in games such as Go, Shogi, and Chess? Just as IBM’s Deep Blue stunned the world when it first beat Kasparov, Google’s machine learning software stunned the communities of many competitive game players, first with AlphaGo’s defeat of human Go world-champion Lee Sedol, and subsequently with Alpha Zero’s defeat of the highest ranked open-source chess engine Stockfish—a chess algorithm orders of magnitude better than any human chess player. Like Deep Blue’s victory over Kasperov, Alpha Zero’s victories stand for more than one event in a narrative between man and machine, they signal important changes in the political-economic organization of information technology.

The most obvious difference between Alpha Zero and previous chess engines is apparent in their respective styles of play. Though Deep Blue is now obsolete, the highest ranked open-source chess algorithm named Stockfish incorporates the fundamental design choices built into Deep Blue. Owing to the combinatorial complexity of Chess pieces and chess positions, it is impossible to search through every possible path to a winning configuration. A chess-playing algorithm must be designed to weigh certain moves higher than others. Deep Blue’s and Stockfish’s evaluative system privileges arbitraging material compensation, piece for piece, over positional configurations. Whereas, Alpha Zero’s playing style privileges rapid development and positional advantage over the material value of pieces. Often, Alpha Zero will sacrifice material in the opening to create enough space for the rapid movement of its most dynamic pieces. More surprisingly, Alpha Zero will use its positional advantage to trap its opponents’ pieces in what chess analysts term a “zugzwang”. A zugzwang is a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one’s turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage. The most memorable zugzwang game in human chess—known as the Immortal Zugzwang— was played by Friedrich Sämisch and Aron Nimzowitsch in 1923. An immortal zugzwang is so named not because it lasts forever, but because it forecloses on every possibility such that movement becomes impossible without being accompanied by defeat. In one of Google Alpha Zero’s many victories against Stockfish the machine algorithm orchestrated a similar ‘immortal zugzwang’ against Stockfish, forcing the chess engine to resign