The best minds of my generation have been destroyed by the madness of contriving ways to get people to click on ads, conforming to a conceptual framework of disruption in which ruptures take the form of optimizing commercial capitalism. As the hot air of “technology” and “social” fill up the bubble once more, food for Cacophony fills the streets, the airways and the wires of the Network. The time is ripe for more weird fun from The Cacophony Society.
The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. We are the punctuation at the end of hypothetical sentences, words in the prose of technological satire, grammarians of absurdist syntax and our numbers are prominent in the flat edge of a curve. You may already be a member!
Dress like you always do. Do what you normally do.
Object of the event: See if you can pick out the other participants. This was a really big event last year. Let’s see if we can do it again!
Sponsored by: The Bureau of Objective Reality
Last Gasp of San Francisco has published “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society.” This new instruction manual and historical document is cornucopia of cacophony and should prove to be an inspiration to a new generation about to be chained to the “promise” of Google Glass.
Saturday, Sept. 5 8:00 p.m.
Meet: At the N.E. corner of Judah and 7th Ave.
Bring: Recently or about-to-be deceased animal bodies or parts (please no “roadkill”)
Wear: Something you won’t mind getting indelible stains on
Dr. X and The Other One
For the scholars of Cacophony, and the future generation of pranksters, the holy historical documents (Rough Draft) and other ephemera are being housed in the virtual halls of the Cacophony Society Section of the Internet Archive. The youth of the world have an indispensable new resource in their pursuit of a renaissance of cacophony.
The objects that accumulate around us remain silent and so eventually sink into the background. Once part of the background they are present but completely disappeared. Like fish in water, we swim in this sea of objects. We maintain some kind of interactive relationship with a set of these consumer objects, but due to our physical finitude we can only keep a small number of balls in the air.
The Internet of things is coming upon us faster than anyone could have imagined. From the large scale “Brilliant Machines” industrial project of General Electric to the personal clouds of SquareTags imagined by Phil Windley and others. It was in Bruce Sterling’s book called “Shaping Things” that I was first introduced to the concept. The little book seemed to call out to me from the shelves of the bookstore at the Cooper-Hewitt.
Things call to us in different ways. The Triangle Shirtwaste Factory fire called out to a generation about the role of labor conditions in the very clothing on their backs. The stitching told a story about conditions under which the stitching itself occurred. Instead of fading into the background, the threads become Brechtian actors employing the verfremdungseffekt.
The term Verfremdungseffekt is rooted in the Russian Formalist notion of the device of making strange (Russian: прием остранения priyom ostraneniya), which literary critic Viktor Shklovsky claims is the essence of all art. Lemon and Reis’s 1965 English translation of Shklovsky’s 1917 coinage as “defamiliarization”, combined with John Willett’s 1964 translation of Brecht’s 1935 coinage as “alienation effect”—and the canonization of both translations in Anglophone literary theory in the decades since—has served to obscure the close connections between the two terms. Not only is the root of both terms “strange” (stran- in Russian, fremd in German), but both terms are unusual in their respective languages: ostranenie is a neologism in Russian, while Verfremdung is a resuscitation of a long-obsolete term in German. In addition, according to some accounts Shklovsky’s Russian friend playwright Sergei Tretyakov taught Brecht Shklovsky’s term during Brecht’s visit to Moscow in the spring of 1935. For this reason, many scholars have recently taken to using estrangement to translate both terms: “the estrangement device” in Shklovsky, “the estrangement effect” in Brecht.
For this generation, the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh has radically changed the clothing hanging in our closets and folded in our chest of drawers. The stitching and the labels in these clothes now call out, they make themselves strange and unfamiliar. A piece of the background pricks our attention and wants to have a conversation. “Let me tell you about myself. I was born in Bangladesh in a factory like the one you read about the other day on your iPad.”
In the Internet of things, the number of things that could be transmitting data to a central store is limited only by practicality. In other words, it’s practically unlimited. Although, as Lisa Gitelman reminds us “Raw Data is an Oxymoron.” Data is a form of rhetoric based on exclusion. Deciding what counts as data is always already a form of cooking. Drawing conclusions from big data is not making an assessment of big pile of raw, natural artifacts. Data is always pre-cooked and can benefit from an analysis of our counter-transference toward it. And while the Internet of things seems to be mostly on the side of objects helping to manufacture themselves more efficiently, there’s another side to the conversation aspect of the objects surrounding us.
Not too long ago it was our food that was calling out to us. “Ask me where I’m from. Let me tell you about how I was grown.” We’ve been through the whole cycle by now. At first we could hear the words “natural” and “organic” and know something about origins. Today highly-processed foods sport the labels natural and organic. A longer dialogue than can be printed on a container is called for. Now our clothes need to explain themselves. We need to be able to ask them about where they were stitched up, and they need to be able to tell us.
In Bruce Sterling’s “The Last Viridian Note” he makes the case for deaccessioning one’s collection. If we are all curators, defining ourselves by exhibiting our taste as consumers — what are we saying about ourselves? And in this era of the Internet of things, what will the things themselves be saying about us behind our backs?
In earlier, less technically advanced eras, this approach would have been far-fetched. Material goods were inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship. They were rare and precious. They were closely associated with social prestige. Without important material signifiers such as wedding china, family silver, portraits, a coach-house, a trousseau and so forth, you were advertising your lack of substance to your neighbors. If you failed to surround yourself with a thick material barrier, you were inviting social abuse and possible police suspicion. So it made pragmatic sense to cling to heirlooms, renew all major purchases promptly, and visibly keep up with the Joneses.
That era is dying. It’s not only dying, but the assumptions behind that form of material culture are very dangerous. These objects can no longer protect you from want, from humiliation – in fact they are causes of humiliation, as anyone with a McMansion crammed with Chinese-made goods and an unsellable SUV has now learned at great cost.
Furthermore, many of these objects can damage you personally. The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.
It’s not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.
In the sphere of social networks, we talk about the Dunbar number. While electronic computerized networks theoretically allow people to connect with tens of thousands of other people, stable social relationships, according to Robin Dunbar, are limited to a much smaller number.
Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.
The globalization of the manufacture of household objects has put us in a situation similar to that of online social networks. Theoretically we can own as many things as we can afford. And if we can’t afford them, we can wait until they make their way to the deep discount stores and outlets and then buy them for below the cost of production. These things, by making themselves strange strangers — they raise their hands and step out from the background a stranger in our midst. But once our food and clothing becomes inscribed into our social space and wants to have a conversation about origins and process, can we really keep consuming at our current pace? Will the slots available in the cognitive limit of our Dunbar number now have to include all the objects that are waking up around us in this Internet of things?
We are waking up inside a world that is waking up to find us waking up inside of it.
Non-Human High Fidelity: I Want to Take you Higher
Resolved: it’s an article of faith that higher resolutions are better. I want to take you higher. The way to get a higher resolution is to start with the density of pixels or the sampling rate. Sound and vision. The more information packed into each unit of measure, the higher the resolution of the image. Clarity and “realistic-ness” are the qualities we attribute to high resolution images. The image was so clear, it was just like the real thing. I couldn’t tell the difference. Was that live or a recording?
McLuhan talked about hot and cool media. Hot media is high definition in the sense that the viewer can’t get a word in edgewise. The media, and its content, is projected toward the senses filling up all the space, there is little or no room for the viewer to fill in the gaps. The interpretive faculties are overwhelmed and retreat. Cool media leaves spaces for the viewer to project herself into the stream. When the viewer fills in the gaps a different kind of richness, or density, is created. Each strategy absorbs the viewer in a different way.
“Big Data” is another form of high definition. More data points, bigger sample sizes bring more statistical clarity. Meta-figures emerge from Big Data that aren’t available from the perspective of the civilian on the ground. These meta-figures provide probabilities of future outcomes and are reliable to such an extent that corporate strategies are based on them. In the light of high def big data your future possibility space has become both visible and has had probabilities assigned to each vector.
There are two uncanny moments when it comes to the experience of high def. The first is the well-known idea of the uncanny valley. That’s the creepy feeling we get when a simulation of a person is just a little off, just short of perfection. We are both attracted and repelled, the experience is close enough to the real that we’d could be easily sucked in. But we’re creeped out by the idea of being sucked into a simulation — in the sense that it isn’t alive and real, but an illusion of life created out of dead matter.
The second uncanny moment is more subtle. When Steve Jobs was standing on stage selling the benefits of high-definition retina screens, he made the argument that these new screens matched the capability of the human eye to perceive visual data. For humans, the retina screen is the finest viewing experience available. This also happens with audio recordings. When designing codecs and compression strategies, the science of the human ear and the process of hearing is taken into account. The idea behind MP3 compression is to remove the sound that is unhearable by humans resulting in a smaller file size. What you don’t hear, you won’t miss.
This means that as we move toward higher and higher resolutions we reach the end of the capabilities of our perceptual apparatus. Our senses begin to fail us. We keep adding visual information to the picture, but the picture doesn’t change. All the instruments agree that the resolution is getting better. The unaided eye and ear face the uncanny moment when invisible change begins to occur. The picture gets better and better, but for whom is it getting better?
It’s in the world of recorded audio that we see the most passion when it comes to the ability to hear beyond the capacity of humans to hear. Audiophiles purchase stereo equipment and special recordings that reproduce both hearable and unhearable sound. It’s an invisible material difference that’s measurable, yet imperceptible. This non-human form of high-fidelity recording technology no longer uses humans as a reference point. Audiophiles claim that humans can hear the difference and to settle for less is a moral failing in the commercial market for audio recordings.
On the road to higher definition visuals, the state of the art appears to be High Frame Rate 3-D. Peter Jackson released a version of his film of “The Hobbit” in the highest-definition visual recording technology yet created. The purpose of this technology is to get even closer to reality — to show how it really is with seeing. At 48 frames per second, HFR is well within the upper bound of 55 fps for human seeing. So at this point, there is no unseeable information in the image.
In comparisons between the HFR 3D and standard 2D versions of the film we get an object lesson in McLuhan’s hot and cool media. Many viewers coming to the film for the first time had trouble following the details of the story in HFR 3D. Peter Jackson, who knows the story on a frame-by-frame basis, prefers to watch the HFR 3D version. Jackson believes the HFR 3D version provides a more “immersive” experience. For an average audience member, the HFR 3D version leaves no gaps. For the director there are plenty of gaps between what’s on the screen and how he imagined the film.
As our technologies are able to provide higher and higher resolution reproductions to our senses our own finitude is exposed. Historically resolution has been limited by cost. Higher resolution cost more and therefore wasn’t widely used. As cost becomes less of an issue, aesthetic judgement moves to the foreground. If you make your home movies in HFR 3D will that preserve a record of how it really was? Is it live or is it Memorex?
Something must be missing. That’s the only possible explanation. Otherwise we humans would naturally live for ever and approach a much higher level of consciousness. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. And while each of us is different, the thing each of us is missing is always imagined as a single common ingredient. It’s a special commodity that once discovered can be sold or given to the entire human race in a transformational act that will fundamentally change the course of human history.
It might be water from a particular fountain or some kind of plant seed from deep in the darkest jungle. The first step is eternal life. Then with time and mortality taken out of the picture we can get down to the business of some kind of perfection. That moment will mark the beginning of the end of our quest.
In the age of networked cloud-based technical solutions, we see this missing piece as coming from computation. Wireless mobile computing puts vast amounts of information at our command or at least within reach. But this is an augmentation, not a filling in of a lack. In the religion of the singularity, it’s the body itself that functions as the flaw. Once the immaterial intelligence (our infinite internal space) is uploaded into an eternally existing industrial cloud computing complex, the fun gets started. The parts that wear out can now be replaced, and replaced with newer and better parts ad infinitum.
Between now and eternal life, there will no doubt be some interim steps. For instance before the body can be confidently discarded and replaced with electronic machinery, it’s likely that we’ll keep our bodies and use ever more sophisticated robots on the side. Even now the replacement of all types of workers with robotic processes is accelerating. We can easily imagine all types of work will soon be replaced with advanced robotics plus big data computation.
Imagine. At birth we’ll be given our first robot. The robot will be assigned to do whatever labor we might have had to do in the past. Credits will be deposited in our account as compensation for the robot’s labor. Everyone will receive a base model robot. Those with more means will be able to augment their robots to do more advanced and highly compensated tasks. And of course, this being the land of the free and the home of the brave, any robot has the potential to be augmented in such a way that it could do the job of President of the United States for somebody. In the eyes of God and law, all robots are created equal. The key political moment was when it was decided that every single person was to be given a robot as a basic right. Initially there was an objection based on the cost. But once robots were building robots from materials obtained and processed by robots, the cost of robots began to approach zero. There were plenty of robots to go around.
And then a day arrives, and we leave our robots behind. Our bodies stop functioning optimally and we agree that it’s time to upload ourselves into that big computer in the sky. At first people held out as long as possible, waiting until they were quite elderly before uploading. More recently, as soon as the bloom of youth is off, an upload may be considered. Our robots can then be reconditioned and assigned to the new people being born into the world. Recycling is so important.
Some people will resist this final exit from the material plane. They’ll spread nasty rumors that the reason robots have been able to replace every possible human job is that they’re actually powered by uploaded souls. The uploaded souls that we think were talking to are really just simulations based on a person’s historical tendencies as encoded in a big database. An actual soul is required to make a robot fully operational for any human capacity, whereas people living in the material world are easily fooled by a simulation of a human. Once the Turing Test was routinely cracked, it wasn’t hard to create satisfactory simulations for each of us. Even the simulations can’t tell simulations from the real thing.
The fantasy of immortality has found various forms over the years. The singularity is just the most recent concoction. But the replacement of labor by robots / machines is a definite reality. One can think of each of the major appliances in an American home as the equivalent of a servant. Labor continues to be displaced by machines, which is a good thing until a majority of people can’t afford to buy a machine of their own.
Of course television isn’t what it used to be. Nothing is, that’s how it goes with “time” and its “it was”. The number of channels has expanded from three to infinity. With weekly magazines Life, Look, Time, Newsweek no longer consolidate a view for the entire country. There were some very bad things about such a narrow window. A lot of voices couldn’t find a national platform or any platform. But when something strange happened, everyone knew about it.
There was a very interesting moment in the late 60s and early 70s when rock music started to break through on national television. It started showing up in our living rooms pretty much full strength. Not the pre-fabricated kind, the stuff that was constructed as a simulation of rock — music but without the rebellion, sex and drugs. The simulation had to be revolutionary and at the same time not threaten consumers. They needed to feel hip when they made their next purchase. But this was the real stuff coming through the tube; the stuff that seemed to actually threaten the status quo. It’s hard to imagine a popular music that could do that these days.
Rock music was a mode of communication among the youth culture. Coded messages, visions and entire ways of life were transmitted through short pop songs. The disruption was starting to take hold when the whole thing was shut down. Any number of events could serve as the signal of the backlash, the one that struck me was the firing of the Smother’s Brothers and the cancellation of their television show by CBS in 1969.
Some technologists like to think the torch was passed from the rock generation of the 60s to the computerists of recent days. They point to technology as a force for radical disruption. When we use the word ‘disruption’ to describe a new monopoly taking over for an old monopoly, we really miss the ‘rupture’ in disruption. In the technology business some like to talk about disrupting things and changing the world. But really they’re just talking about market share, revenue and stock price. It’s disruption that doesn’t overturn the apple cart. It just moves some apples from the bottom to the top. The world isn’t really changed at all.
In a television interview with Dick Cavett, Janis Joplin talks about getting to the bottom of the music. It’s the same shock that Elvis generated with his first television appearance. The bottom of the music was suddenly being broadcast directly into the living rooms of middle class families — and without filters into the minds and dreams of the children watching those shows.
These days those moments are rare. But I had a small shiver of recognition watching Brittany Howard play electric guitar on television the other night. Even if you were to turn the sound off, you could see that she was getting to the bottom of the music. In that image, worlds of possibility were transmitted.
The Internet is, after all, an Outernet. The “Inter” refers to the interconnection of external networks by way of a common protocol. But there’s also a sense in which we imagine it as an external expression of our vast interior mental space. Sometimes this is called cyberspace, and it used to be described as the mental space we enter when talking on the telephone. Like our internal space, the Internet is mostly invisible to us, waiting to be uncovered through the focus of our attention. We commonly make sense of the Internet as an internal, private place. It’s a social space we project our thoughts into while in total isolation. The external digital artifacts that we produce in the course of our online activity have begun to function as an emulation of our internal space.
Recently emulation has gone meta. Starting long ago with the steam engine and continuing with the computer we have a set of tools capable of emulating the functionality of a whole range of other tools. The meta-level of emulation is emulating an operating system within a different operating system—emulating a platform in which emulated tools run. Internally we also emulate when we have an ambition to equal or surpass another and attempt to do so through a form of imitation. We internalize a platform on which to run the programs we admire.
There are two figures recently in the news who are engaged in forms of emulation. Just two guys you might see on public transit on the way to work.
The first is Sergey Brin. With his Google Glass project he begins to emulate Robert Downey Jr. In the film Iron Man.
The second is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. By taking the name Francis, as Pope he begins to emulate Saint Francis.
Each man is attempting to change the world. Brin with a wearable network computing device to augment human capability. Pope Francis by creating a poor church that is for the poor. Brin’s activities are well known, if not very well understood. Pope Francis’s project is perhaps more obscure—but it is also a technical response to the state of the world. It’s a strategy that could be viewed as the opposite of augmentation.
One way into understanding this idea of a “poor church for the poor” is to take a trip back to the 1960s and the poor theater of Jerzy Grotowski. Faced with the competition of television, the movies and broadway shows of increasing levels of technical sophistication, Grotowski attempted to isolate what was uniquely powerful in the theater. By stripping away everything, he arrived at a Poor Theater that focused on the actor-spectator relationship. He was a Saint Francis of the avant-garde theater.
What is theater? What is unique about it? What can it do that film and television cannot? Two concrete conceptualization crystallized: the poor theater, and performance as an act of transgression.
By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theater can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the actor-spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, “live” communion. This is an ancient theoretical truth, of course, but when rigorously tested in practice it undermines most of our usual ideas about theatre. It challenges the notion of theatre as a synthesis of disparate creative disciplines — literature, sculpture, painting, architecture, lighting, acting (under the direction of a metteur-en-scene). This “synthetic theatre” is a contemporary theatre, which we readily call the “Rich Theater” — rich in flaws.
The Rich Theatre depends on artistic kleptomania, drawing from other disciplines, constructing hybrid-spectacles, conglomerates without backbone or integrity, yet presented as an organic artwork. By multiplying assimilated elements, the Rich Theatre tries to escape the impasse presented by movies and television. Since film and TV excel in the area of mechanical functions (montage, instantaneous change of place, etc.), the Rich Theatre countered with a blatantly compensatory call of “total theatre.” The integration of borrowed mechanism (movie screens onstage, for example) means a sophisticated technical plant, permitting great mobility and dynamism. And if the stage and/or auditorium were mobile, constantly changing perspective would be possible. This is all nonsense.
No matter how much theatre expands and exploits its mechanical resources, it will remain technologically inferior to film and television. Consequently, I propose poverty in theatre.
Pope Francis employs a similar strategy when he envisions a poor church that is for the poor. Ever escalating levels of finery, technology, capital and broadcast platforms don’t get him closer to his goal. It’s only through emulating the poverty of Saint Francis that he can reach the connection he’s after. Even in an era of streaming high-definition 3D video with 5.1 six channel surround sound to any screen anywhere, for the message he’s sending, the signal is stronger from a poor church.
For Brin, the Google Glasses he wears wirelessly connect to a network of industrial cloud computing installations around the world. These external data sources are able to feed information as multiple media types into the local context to provide a highest level of personal augmentation. For the moment, Brin is one of the few who can take advantage of this new technology. The connection he’s after requires strong wireless broadband coverage and connection to a series of algorithms that send him information based on his particular personal, social and location data.
If we assume that every moment of life can be optimized when we are fed the appropriate sets of contextual information on which to base our moment-to-moment decisions, then the Google Glass will deliver us to a life lead to its fullest. Confronted with a shelf in a supermarket aisle filled with hundreds of brands and formulations of shampoo, we will finally be able to select just the right brand given our hair type. At last we will be able to make the right decision when choosing between Coke, Pepsi and some fancy new gourmet cola-flavored soda. The fit between Sergey’s consumption of the world and what is available to be consumed will be perfectly optimized given the existing data set. In fact, were it to reach perfection, his participation would hardly be required at all–achieving frictionless consumption.
Both Sergey and Francis have taken steps to become jacked in to the present moment. Each set of steps has an ethical underpinning—much in the way Schumacher discusses the operation of “value” in his essay on Buddhist Economics. What we accept as valuable sets the terms of the economy we live within. The same thing is true of a path to the now.
It was a quote that rolled by on Twitter the other day:
“Don’t skate to where the puck is going to be, skate to where hockey is going to be invented.”
While the speaker probably intended this to be a sign of energy and a singular commitment to disrupt the status quo with a completely new technology, I took it as a signal of a bubble that was about to burst. In the previous dot com era, there was the joke:
“If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.”
The fiction was created that one’s work is one’s life and that the two never need be in balance because they are one and the same. The current saying about hockey implies that if you are smart enough and work hard enough you can create a paradigm shift in the way technology is used and the way people live. You can create a new kind of game.
“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”
In 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California unleashed the largest migration of people in the history of the United States. What no one told those would-be gold diggers was that by 1850 all of the surface gold was gone. Only the large mining companies using hydraulic water cannons were still able to extract gold from the hills.
Today’s version of the large mining company is what Bruce Sterling calls a Stack. These are the ecosystems that have staked out large sections of the Internet from which they can extract gold.
A Stack doesn’t have to “break the Internet” to do this; it just has to set up the digital equivalent of a comprehensive family farm, so that the free-range cowboys of the Electronic Frontier are left with crickets chirping and nothing much to do. A modern Stack will leverage stuff that has never been “Internet,” such as mobile devices, cell coverage and operating systems.
In order to become a “Stack,” or one of the “Big Five” — Amazon Facebook Google Apple Microsoft — you need an “ecosystem,” or rather a factory farm of comprehensive services that surround the “user” with fences he doesn’t see. Basically, you corral Stack livestock by luring them with free services, then watching them in ways they can’t become aware of, and won’t object to. So you can’t just baldly sell them a commodity service in a box; you have to inveigle them into an organized Stack that features most, if not all, of the following:
An operating system, a dedicated way to sell cultural material (music, movies, books, apps), tools for productivity, an advertising business, some popular post-Internet device that isn’t an old-school desktop computer (tablets, phones, phablets, Surfaces, whatever’s next), a search engine, a dedicated social network, a “payment solution” or private bank, and maybe a Cloud, a private high-speed backbone, or a voice-activated AI service if you are looking ahead. Stack cars, Stack goggles, Stack private rocketships optional.
The goal of a Stack is to eliminate the outside. Once inside the Stack, there should be no outside of the Stack. The horizon of possibility is defined by the Stack. With the twist that the horizon should appear unlimited. The Stack is a place where you should believe that you could skate to where hockey is going to be invented.
The digital, they say, has a cost that approaches zero. Once the digital copying mechanism becomes a sunk cost, the cost per copy asymptotically swoops toward zero. This does a strange thing to value and price. The ink-on-paper media has had to come to terms with the fact that the Network is a vastly less expensive surface on which to inscribe their messages. The digital, in its short history, has yet to find its own level. It’s largely been priced as a discount to its analog counterpart. The news media is starting to understand that its identity lies in the ink rather than the paper.
The digital media can only feed on the corpse of the analog media for so long. We seem to have finally arrived at the point where digital media is beginning to establish its value, and therefore its price. Paywalls are starting to work, some digital editions are starting generate significant advertising revenue, and independent blogs are able to survive by subscription. We pay, not for more, but for less. Fewer things, better quality.
The banks of the river of news have overflowed, the medium has overheated and begun a McLuhanesque reversal. No one wants ‘all the news’. At a certain level of quantity the news can no longer be consumed and processed, it just flows through at the level of headlines. Marshal McLuhan noticed that information overload forces the information consumer into mode of pattern recognition. We now try to employ machines to process the torrent and pick out the patterns for us. But now even this pattern recognition mode has overheated. This happens the moment we aren’t satisfied by knowing something ‘like’ the news, but have no familiarity with the actual news itself. We’ve arrived at the uncanny valley of news.
In the era of so-called ‘Big Data’ even your Network identity is a pattern. You aren’t you, you’re someone ‘like’ you. The formula breaks when the pattern no longer predicts the future. The non-conformist breaks into the conversation and says just doing what the pattern predicts is behaving like a machine—and that’s boring. Take a look at this instead…
Those who’ve never been humbled believe there’s a rational explanation for this fact. In the world of technology vendor sports, Google has had numerous product failures, but it’s never really been humbled. Apple was on the verge of closing its doors. It was only an investment by Bill Gates’s Microsoft that kept the company alive. Microsoft itself lost an anti-trust case and was shackled for years. Facebook’s IPO has proved a humbling experience to the most recent master of the universe.
It was Microsoft’s reaching for the stars, it’s total domination of computer operating systems and office automation software that provided the model of what could be done. Given the size and scope of the known computing universe, their domination seemed to be total and everlasting. Of course, we know now that the universe continued to expand. The distances connecting the various functions of computing were distributed across the network of networks. Text became hypertext and the glyphs themselves were used to encode any media type for transmission across the Network. Suddenly, it was a whole new ball game.
Google claims as its mission the task of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. To some extent, Google accomplished this with its search engine product. The product has entered the common parlance, and now we talk of ‘Googling’ something. Google means search, and search is its big driver of revenues and profits. The funding for all its other products rests on the back of search. This allows them to enter established markets without the burden of turning a profit. Microsoft used this tactic when it launched the Internet Explorer web browser as a free product. Suddenly there was no such thing as a ‘web browser’ business.
One of the interesting characteristics of Google is that it doesn’t partner well. In the end, as a corporate philosophy, it believes that anything you can do, it can do better. It buys companies rather than partner with them. Google’s commitment to the open web and open source computing is the one area where they do create partnerships. Although these partnerships can’t be said to exist on an equal basis. Even in these open partnerships Google dominates.
In Geoffrey B. West’s talk for the Long Now Foundation, called “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster” he addresses the issue of the lifespan of a corporation. As they become more regular in structure, they become more brittle. If we look at a listing of the current S&P 500, we find a startling fact:
The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University.
In the age of the ecological thought, we should ask whether the empire building dreams of the old Microsoft are a reasonable corporate mission. Is it still possible for any corporation really dominate the technical universe on its own? Apple, one the world’s biggest corporations, has arrived at its current position through carefully negotiated partnerships with the carriers, the music industry, the film industry and software application and game developers. Apple’s more humble approach to partnerships seemed to start when a partnership saved its life.
“Apple doesn’t have to lose for Microsoft to Win. Microsoft doesn’t have to lose for Apple to win”
- Steve Jobs
Even Microsoft doesn’t believe in the old Microsoft. For example, they now offer Linux on Windows Azure. They’ve been very friendly to the JQuery and Drupal open source projects. It appears they’ve learned something about coexistence. Interestingly, the one area where Microsoft always had partners was in hardware. With announcement of Surface, that dynamic is going to change.
Google’s Android is the direct analog to Microsoft’s Windows. The difference being that Google subsidizes Android; it’s generally provided for free to its partners. Although if you’ve read anything about gift economies, you know that something given for free creates an obligation of a different sort.
When you look at the scope of Google’s products, it becomes clear that organizing the world’s information actually requires them to mediate every human contact with the world. The world itself becomes an unbundled, chaotic swirl of qualities. It’s just color and light, textures and shapes, never resolving into objects. To get an understanding of how Google sees itself mediating and rendering the world, making it accessible and useful, take a look at their new television commercial for the Nexus 7. A father and son, camping in nature—what could possibly come between them?
It could be that Google is the harbinger of a new era of philosopher kings, or perhaps we should call them engineer kings. And perhaps a king who has never been humbled can rule with humanity and wisdom. On the other hand, Google’s harmartia may lie in its belief that there’s a rational explanation for why it’s never been humbled.
Computing lifts anchor and sets sail. The tide of mobility is upon us: everything is battery powered, small enough to carry in a pocket and always already jacked into the Network. When we think about mobile computing, it’s the combination of the small device and the available cloud of networked services that make the experience. The nodes looking at their displays are now out walking around in the midst of their daily life. Startled, they mutter ‘sorry’ as the bump into other nodes face down, absorbed a in small display, while their feet carry them forward.
What was a tool meant to increase productivity has become a technical interface for enjoying various forms of entertainment. If we were to do a breakdown of time spent on the different categories of computing activities, we’d find the slice of the pie chart that represents ‘working’ is shrinking, while the ‘non-working’ slice is growing in every direction. If you enjoy handicapping the fortunes of the various technology platforms, you need look no further than this ratio. In its IPO filing Facebook noted that users spend 10.5 billion minutes per day on its platform—and that doesn’t even include mobile usage.
Spending time on social networks has become a replacement for watching television. And just like television, when that much time is devoted to something, we begin to discuss addiction. To what degree do we choose to spend our time this way? Is there a point where sparking dopamine transmitters and well-worn neural pathways limit our selection set to the point where jacking into the Network seems like the only choice there is?
Once everyone is doing it, we see the early adopters begin to look uncomfortable. As Yogi Berra once said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” When everyone is a consumer, the only move a hipster has is to consume not consuming. A high-profile blog post on why you’re quitting Facebook usually does the trick. Abstinence, boycotting and unplugging are the moves that appear to give you the distance to glare cynically at the crowd. But there is no outside anymore. You can’t remove yourself from Google. You’ve always already been hacked. That computer virus that infected your computer has wormed its way into your DNA. As computing goes mobile, we suddenly discover we’re living inside the Network. The small device we take outside only serves to show us that there is no outside anymore.
The feeling of “mobile” has nothing to do with small computing devices and networked cloud services. It’s taking the mental state of being jacked into the Network for a walk. We can say it’s about productivity and efficiency, that somehow this combination of technologies allows us to make better choices about our time. But it’s really about the buzz. Much like a pharmaceutical, this set of technologies reliably invokes a specific mental state. And once you can produce that state at will, why would you want to chain it to a desk?
The seed of this series of thoughts occurred while listening to Tim Morton’s lecture on Thomas De Quincey, a writer during the romantic period of English literature. In particular, the phrase “portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle” struck me as an apt description of the current state of mobile computing. For De Quincey, opium dissolved in a tincture of alcohol (laudanum) was an inexpensive formula to invoke spiritual happiness and divine enjoyment. We prefer a technical formula, a tincture of simulacra in a small networked electronic device. It’s quite interesting to note the degree to which our attitudes with regard to mobile computing begin to mirror De Quincey’s entanglement with opium.
Arrived at my lodgings, it may be supposed that I lost not a moment in taking the quantity prescribed. I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium-taking, and what I took I took under every disadvantage. But I took it‚—in an hour—oh heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me‚—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea, a pharmakon for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle, and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach. But if I talk in this way the reader will think I am laughing, and I can assure him that nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium: its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion, and in his happiest state the opium-eater cannot present himself in the character of L’Allegro: even then he speaks and thinks as becomes Il Penseroso. Nevertheless, I have a very reprehensible way of jesting at times in the midst of my own misery; and unless when I am checked by some more powerful feelings, I am afraid I shall be guilty of this indecent practice even in these annals of suffering or enjoyment. The reader must allow a little to my infirm nature in this respect; and with a few indulgences of that sort I shall endeavour to be as grave, if not drowsy, as fits a theme like opium, so anti-mercurial as it really is, and so drowsy as it is falsely reputed.