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…
Among the world’s best bars, there’s Tosca Cafe; and across the street, stands one of the world’s best bookstores, City Lights. Earlier this week, they teamed up to present a reading by Ellen Ullman of her new novel “By Blood.” It’s difficult to explain the kind of perfection this event captured. The literary history of San Francisco welled up in the room and presented the kind of event, anyone will tell you, never happens any more.
On floor 3b of the Mechanic’s Institute Library, there’s a section tucked around a corner that shelves the books of Marshall McLuhan. I’d been reading a lot of McLuhan and was scanning the section for new candidates for my reading list. My eyes passed over a title of a small book, “Close To The Machine.” I’d come and gone from that section three or four times before I finally picked up the volume. The title alone read like a poem. It was already inside something I’d been giving a lot of thought: our intimacy with the Network. Ellen Ullman wrote the book in 1997, long before the Network reached critical mass. She writes about technology with a facility and intimacy that’s very rare. Ullman is a programmer, critic and novelist with a view of the long arc of the culture of technology and the technology of culture.
Ullman’s second book was a novel called “The Bug,” and it continued to explore the world of computer programming and technology. At the reading, I asked her about the new book, “By Blood.” How and why did she decide to leave writing about technology behind? She answered that if she continued to write within the boundaries of technology, her work might stray off into the world of science fiction. Ullman’s work isn’t about the machine, it’s about being close to the machine, deep inside it, the strange intimacy we have with our technology. She said that she would continue to write essays about technology, but that her fiction would no longer be bounded by it. I look forward to both.
Last night without any intention on my part, the 1938 Howard Hawks film Bringing Up Baby settled into the television set. It was meant to be a brief stop on the way from this signal to that one, but somehow it stuck. The rapid-fire non-stop dialogue never left a pause, not a single moment, for me to consider moving on. And then there was the song: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant wandering through the woods singing this song at the top of their voices, looking for a fox terrier, a leopard and a dinosaur bone. When the speed of change hits a certain velocity, nothing makes as much sense as a screwball comedy.
“There’s a pitch in baseball called a screwball, which was perfected by a pitcher named Carl Hubbell back in the 1930s. It’s a pitch with a particular spin that sort of flutters and drops, goes in different directions, and behaves in very unexpected ways… Screwball comedy was unconventional, went in different directions, and behaved in unexpected ways…”
Andrew Bergman We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films
The song was written in 1927 by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, and finally broke through in 1928. It’s been an enduring classic of American popular song. Looking back at the list of songs Fields provided lyrics for, you can hardly believe your eyes: The Way You Look Tonight, I’m In The Mood For Love, On The Sunny Side of the Street, A Fine Romance, Big Spender and more.
The stock market crash of 1929 occurred in October of that year, which means that I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby was written in the middle of a market bubble. In the midst of a surging material world, the song stakes a claim for love and romance. Fields tells the story of overhearing the conversation of a poor black couple gazing at the stylish and expensive jewelry on offer in Tiffany’s display window. Apparently the man said “Gee honey, I can’t give you anything but love.” What might have turned into Breakfast at Tiffany’s, instead became a standard in the American songbook. Love seems to need a medium to pass from one person to another. While it might pass through diamond jewelry, wall street millions, real estate or a family crest—McHugh and Fields make the case for the impossible thing that we’ve all got plenty of, baby.
Through the cultural history DVR provided by YouTube, we can get a sense of how this song has resonated with artists and audiences over the years.
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields
Gee, but it’s tough to be broke, kid.
It’s not a joke, kid–it’s a curse.
My luck is changing–it’s gotten
from simply rotten to something worse.
Who knows someday I will win too
I’ll begin to reach my prime.
Now that I see what our end is
All can spend is just my time.
I can’t give you anything but love, baby.
That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby.
Dream a while, scheme a while,
You’re sure to find
Happiness and, I guess,
All those things you’ve always pined for.
Gee, it’s great to see you looking swell, baby.
Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn’t sell, baby.
Till that lucky day you know darn well, baby,
I can’t give you anything but love.
This is a meander, rather than a construction. If it were a house, it would probably fall down. No foundation, no plumbing, no two-by-fours holding up the walls. Just a set of connections, some things that grouped themselves together around an image.
It started with Jon Udell’s essay, published on May 17, 2011, called “Awakened Grains of Sand.” I didn’t read the essay until much later. I’d marked it in an RSS reader, and then sent it to my Text DVR, Instapaper, to read at a later date. In the essay, Udell makes another attempt to explain what he calls “web thinking.” By coming back to this subject again and again, he teases out new threads, new aspects of the real shape of what we call the virtual. His work with calendars, analog and digital, pinpoints a space where a potential connection is missed. Generally speaking, different kinds calendars can’t seem to talk to each other.
It was Udell’s use of ‘grains of sand’ as a metaphor that caught my attention.
In a recent talk I failed (spectacularly) to convey the point I’m about to make, so I’ll try it again and more carefully here. We can make about as many 14-character tags as there are grains of sand on Earth. True, a lot of those won’t be nice mnemonic names like WestStDamKeene, instead they’ll look like good strong unguessable passwords. But there are still unimaginably many mnemonic names to be found in this vast namespace. Each of those can serve as a virtual bucket that we can use to make and share collections of arbitrarily many web resources.
The implications take a while to sink in. Grains of sand are inert physical objects. They just lie around; we can’t do much with them. But names can be activated. I can create a 14-character name today — actually I just did: WestStDamKeene — that won’t be found if you search for it today on Google or Bing. But soon you will be able to find at least one hit for the term. At first the essay I’m now typing will be the only hit from among the 30 billion indexed by Google and 11 billion indexed by Bing. But if others use the same term in documents they post to the web, then those documents will join this one to form a WestStDamKeene cluster.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fiber from the Brain does tear.
Blake starts with the tiny inert physical object and from it he conjures the whole universe. Udell’s grains of sand have the potential to combine into legible sequences and encode some specific meaning, or refer to an assembly of services. Blake uses parts to stand in for wholes, a rhetorical figure known as synecdoche. An augury is a sign or an omen.
The poet Robert W. Service, known as the Bard of the Yukon, also makes use of the ‘grain of sand.’ While he’s best remembered for “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” in a poem written in the 1950s, he travels the dangerous territory first marked out by Giordano Bruno. If Blake sees the world in a grain of sand, Service notices that the beach is filled with sand. Each grain might be a world, a constellation, a universe. A million grains of sand quickly makes the leap to infinity.
A Grain of Sand
Robert W. Service
If starry space no limit knows
And sun succeeds to sun,
There is no reason to suppose
Our earth the only one.
‘Mid countless constellations cast
A million worlds may be,
With each a God to bless or blast
And steer to destiny.
Just think! A million gods or so
To guide each vital stream,
With over all to boss the show
A Deity supreme.
Such magnitudes oppress my mind;
From cosmic space it swings;
So ultimately glad to find
Relief in little things.
For look! Within my hollow hand,
While round the earth careens,
I hold a single grain of sand
And wonder what it means.
Ah! If I had the eyes to see,
And brain to understand,
I think Life’s mystery might be
Solved in this grain of sand.
Today we speak easily about the possibility of multiple universes, for Giordano Bruno, those thoughts ended in imprisonment and eventually execution. On February 17, 1600, Bruno was burned at the stake for his explorations into the expanses of infinity:
Whatever is an element of the infinite must be infinite also; hence both Earths and Suns are infinite in number. But the infinity of the former, is not greater than of the latter; nor where all are inhabited, are the inhabitants in greater proportion to the infinite than the stars themselves.
Blake sees the world in a grain of sand, Bruno says that whatever is an element of the infinite must be infinite also. For Saussure, the arbitrary nature of the phoneme means that a signifier has no necessary link to the signified. Udell can chain together a sequence of grains of sand and point them at any object, or collection of objects, in the universe. The sleeping and withdrawn grains of sand are awakened when this link is made.
After finishing Udell’s essay, I was also taken with its resonances to my post: Going Orbital: Content and its Discontents. Where Udell tries to explain ‘web thinking,’ I try to examine the differences between the practice of the analog and the digital. It’s a strange land where a thing is a copy at its origin; and by moving it from here to there another copy is created. Even the act of reading it creates another copy. These things have no fixed position, and appear to exist simultaneously in multiple locations—a kind of every day non-locality.
In thinking about this leap from the analog to the digital, Udell considers the example of calendar entries. But another example of this figure pulled itself into this constellation of thoughts. In Ian Bogost’s book, Unit Operations, An Approach to Videogame Criticisim, he recounts some of the early history of computers and computation:
Among the first true high-speed electronic digital computers, ENIAC’s main disadvantage was a considerable one: it contained programmatic instructions in separate segments of the machine. These segments needed to be properly plugged together to route information flow for any given task. Since the connections had to be realigned for each new computation, programming ENIAC required considerable physical effort and maintenance. Noting its limitations, in 1945 ENIAC engineer and renowned mathematician John von Neumann suggested that computers should have a simply physical structure and yet be able to perform any kind of computation through programmable control alone rather than physical alteration of the computer itself. …Stored-programming makes units of each program reusable and executable based on programmatic need rather than physical arrangement. Von Neuman, Eckert, Mauchley, and Goldstine designed a control instruction called the conditional control transfer to achieve these goals. The conditional control transfer allowed programs to execute instructions in any order, not merely in the linear flow in which the program was written.
In this figure, the move from the analog to the digital takes the form of moving from a physical model of computing to a logical model. Here too, we need to take a leap in our understanding of location and how a thing occupies space. The world can be loaded into a grain of sand, and the grains of sand rearranged in arbitrary patterns.
“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!”
— Marshall McLuhan
While it’s bound to continue on, the latest stop in this chain of thought is with Apple’s iCloud and the end of the file system. The desktop and file folder metaphor breaks down once you find yourself trying to keep things in sync across multiple devices. Source and version control software isn’t a part of the common tool set. This is part of the ‘web thinking’ that Udell has had such difficulty in getting across. Part of the problem is the metaphors we have at our disposal. A metaphor is literally “to carry over.” A broken metaphor no longer carries over, the sense leaks out as it crosses the chasm.
It’ll be interesting to find out whether this transformation can take place without explanation, outside of language. If whatever you’re working on, or listening to, just shows up where ever you need it. That could be enough, understanding it may be beside the point. Does magic need an explanation? The work of synchronization and versions isn’t something you do, it’s just the way certain kinds of digital things behave. If it catches on, we’ll start wondering why all digital things don’t behave that way.
Even though there’s only a slight movement in this direction, it’s worth pulling on the threads to see what it’s made of. The release of “Readability“ was the latest event to bring this set of issues to mind. If you’re not familiar with Readability, it’s a program that takes long text documents on the web, strips them out of their context, and instantaneously formats them into a layout designed for easier reading. To some extent Flipboard, and the host of current text DVRs, are working in the same area. In fact, Readability has formed an alliance with InstaPaper to bring simple readable layouts to DVR-ed text.
These services beg two questions. The first: why is it necessary to strip and reformat pages in order to read them? The answer seems to be that contemporary design for commercial web sites has resulted in a painful reading experience. With the heavy emphasis on corporate branding and the high density of flashing and buzzing display advertisements competing for our attention, it has become difficult to focus on the text.
Eye-tracking studies show that the modern consumer of web-based text is expert at focusing on the text, creating a form of tunnel vision by blurring everything that doesn’t seem related. Surely there must be a cost to this kind of reading, a constant throbbing pain shunted to the background each time a text is attempted. And each time the user manages to blur out a particularly abrasive ad, a newer, more abrasive ad is designed to ‘cut through the clutter.’
In some ways the Readability model doesn’t interfere with the online publication’s business model. The publication is looking for unique page views, and these are largely accomplished by attracting clicks through provocative headlines broadcast through social media channels. Reading the text is besides the point. In another way it does interfere, the distraction that Readability removes is central to the publication’s business model, its advertising inventory.
The Text DVR model, if it can gain critical mass, will have an analytics model similar to link shorteners like Bit.ly. Data about saved texts becomes valuable in and of itself. Valuable to readers looking for other interesting texts, valuable to writers of texts looking for readers. Anonymous streams of what readers are saving now, and lists of the most saved and read items become content for the application itself. The central index of the Text DVR provides the possibility of discovery, the development of affinity groups, and a social channel for commentary on items deemed worthy of saving.
In the case of the HTML frame, the site is being presented as it is, without alteration. The “same origin policy“ ensures that no tampering can occur. With Readability, what the reader deems as the value of the page is extracted from its point of origin and poured into a new design. I’ve yet to hear any howls of outrage or charges of theft. Readability does, after all, directly compensate the author of the text. So who has the authority, and at what point is it okay, to take some ‘content’ from the web and remix it so that it works better for the user? And why has the burden of designing for readability been displaced onto the reader?
As a related phenomena, it’s interesting to note the number of writing tools designed to minimize distraction. Scrivener’s full screen mode, OmmWriter, WriteRoom and others offer authors the kind of pure writing space not seen since the typewriter, or the paper notebook.
What would you think of a service that could make television programs available about 20 or 30 minutes after the initial live broadcast started? Normally there wouldn’t be a benefit to a delay. However, this service automatically deletes all the advertising from a program and removes all the in-program promo bugs at the bottom of the screen. The service would provide a cleanly designed and easily readable revised television schedule of programs for your convenience, and all this for a small monthly fee plus the purchase of small device to attach to your television. The editing process would happen on a local device after the broadcast signal had been received in the home. It’s the kind of thing you could do yourself, if you wanted to spend the time. This new service just automates the process for a small fee. And while you wouldn’t be able to interact on social channels about the show in real time — you would be able to interact with all the other users of the service in slightly delayed time.
The issues raised return us to the questions asked after the launch of Google’s SideWiki product and Phil Windley’s declaration of a right to a purpose-driven web.
I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.
While the volume of the debate faded to barely audible levels, the issues seem unresolved. As with many things like this, you may have a personal non-commercial right to remix anything that crosses your screen. However, once you start sharing it with your Twitter and Facebook friends and it goes viral—is it still personal?
When you do this kind of remix and relay in a commercial and systematic way, you run smack into the hot news doctrine. And, as soon as this kind of systematic remixing was possible, it occurred. In the early days of the wire services, the Hearst corporation would hijack foreign wire copy from competing newspapers, change a word here or there and call it its own. Last year, a company called Fly-on-the-Wall was sued for doing a similar thing by passing along investment bank research in near real time. How do we judge a commercial tool that makes personal remixing possible for millions of people? Does that rise to the level of ‘systematic?’
At the bottom of all this is the malleability of text. In the days of ink on paper, a remix would require a pair of scissors and a pot of glue. In the digital era, text seems to have no form. The closest we get to pure text is with a code editor like Vi or eMacs, or when we view source on a web page to see the mark up and scripts that cause the page to render in a particular way. But if we think about it, whenever we see text it is always already formatted; it cannot be experienced in a formless state. And text, at least on the web, can be extracted, deformatted and reformatted in an instant.
One of the cause celebres of the Web Standards Movement was the separation of formal and semantic mark up in the HTML document. Through this kind of separation, the “sense”? of the document could be given expression through an infinite number of pure style sheets. The CSS Zen Garden is a wonderful example of this kind of approach. A single semantically segmented document is given radically different design treatments through the addition of varying sets of cascading style sheet instructions. This bright future filled with an infinite variety of compelling design has failed to materialize. Instead, the reader resorts to negating the local design in favor of something that’s more neutral and readable.
The design of the form of web-based text currently has a negative value that can be brought up to zero with some user-based tools. What is it about digital text that creates this strange relationship with its form? As digital text courses through the circulatory system of the Network, for the most part it leaves its form behind. It travels as ASCII, a minimal form/text fusion with high liquidity, a kind of hard currency of the Network. Text and form seem to travel on two separate tracks. It seems as though form can be added at the last minute with no loss of meaning. However, in order to maintain its meaning, the text must retain its sequence of letters, spaces, punctuation and paragraphs. A William Burroughs style cut up of the text produces a different text and a different meaning.
In the provinces of writing where text and form are fused in non-standard ways, the digital text has blind spots. Poetry, for instance, has many different ideas of the line; where it should begin on a page, and where it should end. Imagine a digital transmission of the poems of e.e. cummings or Michael McClure. In these instances can the form of the words really be discounted down to zero? Isn’t a significant amount of meaning lost in the transmission? From this perspective we see the modern digital transmission as the descendant of the telegraph and the wire service story. It’s built for a narrow range of textual expression.
While time and context shifting will continue their relentless optimization of our free time, we need to take notice when something important gets left behind. I try to imagine a text on the web that was so beautifully designed, that to read it outside its native form would be to lose something essential. Like listening to a symphony on a cheap transistor radio, the notes are there, but the quality and size of the sound is lost in translation. We’re looking for the vertical color of text, the timbre of the words, the palpable feel that a specific presentation brings to a reading experience. The business models of the big web publishing platforms tend to work against readability and the reader. They’re designed for the clicker—the fingertip, not the eye. If things keep going in this direction, the new era of user-centered design may happen on the user’s side of the glass.
Rooks and Becords: The Value of the Selection Set & The Amorality of Infinity
For book and record stores, there was a moment when the largest inventory and the lowest prices won out. Large physical stores with endless rows of inventory overwhelmed the small retailer. Eventually the inventory moved into a series of warehouses/databases with query-based web front ends attached to a product delivery system. Inventory expanded to match the number of sellable books in existence, and the customer experience was abstracted to a computer screen, a keyboard and a mouse. Touch, smell, sound, weight, the look of the spine, the creaking of the wooden floor— all of these modes of interaction were eliminated from the equation. Of course, no one is interested in all books, but if a vendor has all books in their inventory, it’s likely the subset you’re interested in can be carved out of the whole stack.
Two of my favorite bookstores don’t have an infinite inventory. I always enjoy browsing and rarely walk out without having purchased something. The trick is that if you don’t have everything, you need to have what’s good. And in order to have what’s good, you need to have a point of view on what’s good. In New York, the tiny Three Lives bookstore always manages to show me something I can’t live without. Last time I was there it was Tom Rachman’s sparkling first novel, The Imperfectionists. In San Francisco, one of my favorites is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’sCity Lights Bookstore. City Lights often makes the improbable connection. After a reading (in New York) by Richard Foreman from his book, No-Body, A Novel in Parts, I asked him what he was reading. Foreman said that he’d become very interested in an Austrian writer named Heimito Von Doderer. Subsequently, I looked for books by Von Doderer, but came up empty until a visit to City Lights. City Lights was the perfect connection between Foreman and Von Doderer.
More than just a place to purchase books, both of those bookstores communicate a way of life, a way of thinking, an idea about taste and a larger picture about what’s good and important in our culture. While their inventory of books isn’t infinite, one has a sense of infinite possibility browsing through the stacks.
While at first we luxuriated in the ocean of choice, now we find ourselves thwarted by the process of sorting and prioritizing an infinite set of possibilities. One way to gauge the number of choices to offer is to look at the relative amount of time a person spends evaluating possible choices versus the amount of time spent enjoying the choice. If the selection set is infinite, but only one item will eventually be chosen, the customer may find herself living out one of Zeno’s paradoxes.
There’s a sense in which an infinite inventory is amoral. It avoids the choices forced on a small bookstore with a limited amount of shelf space. And perhaps this gets at something central to human experience— something about time, mortality and the choices we make about what matters. Neil Postman relays a quote from Philip Roth about Writers From The Other Europe.
In commenting on the difference between being a novelist in the West and being a novelist behind the iron curtain (this was before the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe), Roth said that in Eastern Europe nothing is permitted but everything matters; with us, everything is permitted but nothing matters.
June 16th is known as Bloomsday; it’s the single day, in 1904, on which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses occurs. The day is commemorated around with the world with readings of the book and the hoisting of a pint or two.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
— Introibo ad altare Dei.
Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:
— Come up Kinch. Come up , you fearful jesuit.
Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awakening mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking, gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.
Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.
Joyce’s book brought to popular notice the idea of stream of consciousness literature. The term “stream of consciousness” was coined by the philosopher William James in an attempt to describe the mind-world connection as it relates the concept of truth. As a literary technique, it involves writing as a kind of transcription of the inner thought process of a character. In Ulysses, we find that stream rife with puns, allusions and parodies. Joyce was trying to capture another aspect of truth.
What challenged the reader of the day as avant garde and daring has become a relatively normal part of our network-connected lives.
Twitter has become a part of my daystream
- Roger Ebert
The stream of tweets flowing out of Twitter could aptly be described as a stream of collective consciousness. And so today, we think a great deal about various real-time streams and how they wend their way through networks of social connection. The water metaphors we use to speak about these things have roots in our shared history; they describe another kind of network of connections.
With the university system languishing amid archaic traditions, and corporate R&D labs still on the distant horizon, the public space of the coffeehouse served as the central hub of innovation in British society. How much of the Enlightenment do we owe to coffee? Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history textbooks have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in their story. The restoration of Charles II, Newton’s theory of gravity, the South Sea Bubble— they all came about, in part, because England had developed a taste for coffee, and a fondness for the kind of informal networking and shoptalk that the coffeehouses enabled. Lloyd’s of London was once just Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, until the shipowners and merchants started clustering there, and collectively invented the modern insurance company. …coffeehouse culture was cross-disciplinary by nature, the conversations freely roaming from electricity, to the abuses of Parliament, to the fate of dissenting churches.
But the coffeehouse as a nexus of debate was only half of the picture. Cultural practice at the time was to drink beer and wine, and maybe a little gin, at every opportunity. Water was not safe to drink, and so alcoholic alternatives were fondly embraced. The introduction of coffee and tea as popular beverages had a significant impact on the flow of valuable ideas. Again here’s Johnson:
The rise of coffeehouse culture influenced more than just the information networks of the Enlightenment; it also transformed the neurochemical networks in the brains of all those newfound coffee-drinkers. Coffee is a stimulant that has been clinically proven to improve cognitive function— particularly for memory related tasks— during the first cup or two. Increase the amount of “smart” drugs flowing through individual brains, and the collective intelligence of the culture will become smarter, if enough people get hooked.
In our day, the coffee house connected to a wifi network has been an accelerant to the businesses populating the Network. When Starbucks announced that they would be introducing free 1-click wifi in their stores, it reminded me of Stephen Johnson’s descriptions of the London coffeehouses. The coffeehouse provided a physical meeting place and the caffeine in the coffee provided a force multiplier for the ideas flowing through the people. There was a noticeable change in the rhythm of the age. By layering a virtual real-time social medium over a physical meeting place that serves legal stimulants, Starbucks replays a classic formula. Oddly, there’s a kind of collaborative energy that exists in the coffeehouse that has been completely expunged from the corporate workplace. Starbucks ups the ante by running a broadcast web service network through the connection. Here we see wifi emerging as the new backbone for narrowcasted television.
As we try to weave value-laden real-time message streams through the collaborative groupware surgically attached to the corporate balance sheet, we may do well to look back toward Bloomsday and also ask for a stream of unconsciousness. It’s in those empty moments between the times when we focus our attention that daydreams and poetic thought creep into the mix. Those “empty moments” are under attack as a kind of system latency. However it’s in those day dreams, poetic thoughts and napkin scribbles that we find the source of the non-linear jump. Without those moments in our waking life, we’re limited to only those things deemed “possible.”
The philosopher George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” seems to underlie many of the stories bubbling up around the leap from fixed computing to mobile computing. Especially with regard to Apple’s role in forming the ecosystem, the market and some of the decisions they’ve taken about what to leave behind. Santayana’s aphorism has been restated in a number of ways, another popular formulation is: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” At any rate, there’s an implication that history, the past, should never be repeated— doing so is the occupation of the doomed. There’s also a sense of coming upon a node, as we move through time, that contains the possibility of looping back to a previously experienced stretch of history. Although we don’t replay it note for note, the chord changes seem follow the same pattern.
There are two stories that run through the minds of observers:
1. The Apple and Microsoft story. An integrated computing system that pushed the boundaries of human-computer interaction into the realm of usefulness, and the lower-cost modular computing system (DOS paired with any manufacturer) that provided a ‘good enough’ experience and a solid return on investment. In the end, Microsoft’s Windows became the dominant personal and business computing platform.
2. The Monopoly and Anti-Trust story. From its position of market dominance, Microsoft used its position to maintain power. The law is fine with the use of soft power (you choose it because it’s best, whatever best means to you); but steps in when hard power is exercised (you choose it because it’s the only choice). A settlement was reached: Microsoft’s brand suffered damage, some APIs were opened up and market dominance was largely maintained. The second act of this story has developers starting to route around Microsoft by creating cloud-based applications of ever-increasing sophistication.
1. Apple and iPhone/iPad Touch/iPad as an integrated platform and device
2. Google and Android/Chrome across multiple manufacturers
3. Microsoft and Silverlight/Windows Phone across multiple manufacturers
Tech pundits expect an exact replay of The Apple and Microsoft story. Although, Google has been cast in the role of Microsoft this time. Steve Jobs, they say, has not learned from history. Apple will eventually be overtaken by a more “open” and commodified horizontal platform. On the other hand, both Google and Microsoft have learned from Apple and have bought in to integrated design practices while maintaining a multiple-manufacturer production model. And while Apple is thought to be repeating its mistakes on the one hand, on the other, they’ve been cast in the role of Microsoft based on their dominance and control of the new mobile market. On a recent Gillmor Gang, Blaine Cook suggested that Apple is courting an anti-trust action based on their recent behavior. The implication being that there is no choice but the iPhone/iPad, and that competition is hindered by Apple controlling their own device platform.
Google and Microsoft have understood that more control and tighter design integration will be required to compete with Apple. Google has started down that road with the Nexus One. Microsoft, with their Windows Phone 7 announcements, have shown that they’ll be moving in the same direction. They’re very fast followers, some might even say they’re tailgating Apple. As in any race, drafting into the slipstream of the leader provides many advantages.
The term “slipstreaming” describes an object traveling inside the slipstream of another object (most often objects moving through the air though not necessarily flying). If an object is inside the slipstream behind another object, moving at the same speed, the rear object will require less power to maintain its speed than if it were moving independently. In addition, the leading object will be able to move faster than it could independently because the rear object reduces the effect of the low-pressure region on the leading object.
A fast follower wants to put himself into the position to execute a slingshot pass. By drafting in behind the market leader, the follower can exert less energy while keeping pace. The slingshot allows the follower to generate passing speed by optimizing the aerodynamics of their relative positions. The leader wants to adjust position to block this kind of move. The analysis and play-by-play has been based entirely on the assumption the lessons of history have been locked in, and this new race will play out with exactly the same dynamics. The lesson Apple may have learned is that a post-PC approach and strong portfolio of patents could change the outcome of some key points of the narrative.
A subplot to the main story involves Adobe and its Flash runtime. Adobe’s Flash is playing the role of Netscape in the current transition. Although Hal Varian was referring to Netscape in his 1999 book Information Rules, the thought applies equally well to Adobe. They face a classic problem of interconnection. Their competitors control the operating environment in which they are but one component. Adobe owes its current level of success in the fixed computing environment to Microsoft’s dominance.
At a key point, Microsoft had no competitive product and agreed to distribute the Flash runtime along with its operating system and browser. This put Flash on a high percentage of the installed personal computing user base. This kind of market penetration probably could not have been achieved if users had been required to download and install the plugin on their own. Once the Flash player was in place, apps could be pushed over the wire, and there was a high likelihood that they would operate. The Flash runtime could even update itself once it was established on the local Windows machine. The Macintosh and Linux platforms were filled in by Adobe, but were given a much lower priority based on market share.
Adobe has two problems in this transitional environment. The first is that their competitors control both their operating environment— and the distribution channel. Secondly, where they once had a willing partner, Microsoft now has Silverlight which competes directly. Because Adobe has had a high penetration percentage, they claim as much a 99%, they feel entitled to ship with any new operating environment. It used to be that way, but things have changed. The problem that Adobe’s Flash solved now has other solutions in each of the mobile stacks.
In the post-PC mobile computing world all of the original assumptions and agreements are being reassessed. This new environment isn’t an extension or an evolution of the fixed desktop environment– the blackboard has been erased and the project has been built up from scratch. That means you don’t assume Adobe’s Flash runtime, you don’t even assume copy and paste, multi-tasking or a file system. The first couple of things you might put on the blackboard are 10 hour battery life and always-on wireless network connectivity— that’s what makes the device usable in a mobile context. From there we can add location and streaming services, real-time responsiveness and the rest. But it’s battery life that’s the limiting factor. It’s the invisible tether that eventually draws us back to the power source to recharge. Where silicon once ruled, we now look to lithium.
The assumption that history will repeat itself relieves us of the burden of figuring out what’s going on, of understanding out the differences that make a difference. No doubt some threads of history will repeat themselves, but they may not be the ones we expect. When we come upon a node, as we move through time, a moment that contains the possibility of looping back to a previously experienced stretch of history. We also have the opportunity to take a familiar melody and go off and explore unexpected directions.
Feeding on a Collection of Channels (57 Channels and Nothin’ On)
It’s slipping into time out of mind, that knob with 13 positions that lined up with the VHF broadcast television channels. The first time I really understood it, there was only signal available at four of the dial positions. The other channels broadcast a static pattern that was called ‘snow.’ One had the sense that there could be signal coming through these channels and through the extended set of numbers available through the UHF dial as well. The reality was the vast majority of the channels provided only snow. In Sweden, Denmark and Hungary snow is called ‘the war of the ants.’
The channel is a very powerful metaphor. When cable-based replaced over-the-air broadcast as a means of delivering video signal to a television the number of channels carrying signal exploded. The increase in the number of channels fundamentally changed the distribution of programming. Where in the past, three or four channels bore the responsibility for the whole range of human endeavor from news and public affairs to sports, to comedy and drama— now each of these domains could have their own channel. And so we see a sports channel, a news channel, a cooking channel, a movie channel, a comedy channel, etc.
One effect of this expansion mirrors that of professional sports leagues. When a league goes from 12 teams to 24 teams, the talent pool is diluted. Now imagine the quality of play if Major League Baseball were to expand to 500 teams. On the one hand, we might talk about the economics of abundance and how in this new democratized environment, anyone can have a professional baseball team. But there would be a fundamental shift in how we valued viewing baseball games and the importance of baseball in general.
Baseball has a method of dealing with this problem. The teams and players are assigned to leagues, and the leagues roughly approximate levels of talent. League size is collared by the relationship between the availability of talent and the quality of the on-field product. There’s the major leagues, triple A, double A and single A. And then there are the various international leagues. Talent rises within a league until it moves to the next level. Vaudeville worked in the same way, there are many interconnected networks that have this kind of relationship. Economies of talent form within these pools, when talent reaches a certain level it is pulled up to the next level.
The proliferation of cable television channels has changed the value of a channel. When there are 500 channels to choose from, the channel itself ceases to be important. Even with 500 channels, it’s often the case that there’s nothing on. In the early days of cable televsion, 57 channels seemed like a huge number— this may have been the first time that we noticed that even with 57 distinct channels, there was rarely anything worth watching. René Giesbertz takes inspiration from Bruce Springsteen’s song ’57 Channels and Nothin’ On’ to explore what the experience of layering the sound of 57 television channels one on top of the other.
As cable television begins to migrate into the Network, the channel begins to merge into the feed. We move from having too many cable channels to an infinite number of data feeds. The dial is expanded to an infinite number of positions and the cost of broadcasting on one of these channels is minimal. The breakdown into finer and finer categories of broadcasting continues. Bathroom scales broadcast weighing events by user, shoes collect and broadcast running data, Twitter captures and broadcasts a whole range of miscellany. When the cost goes low enough, there’s no reason that everything that can emit state and event data shouldn’t be equipped to broadcast via a unique feed.
Just as the channel is meaningless when there are 500 of them, feeds are meaningless when there’s an infinite number of them. Aggregating data at the feed level doesn’t amount to much in an abundant feed economy. It’s the equivalent of aggregating cable television at the channel level. We don’t watch channels or read feeds, we’re interested in specific items. We surf from item to item, looking for signals along the way to tell us what’s important, what’s valuable. The channel, or feed, encasing the item in a sequence is a low-value clue in a rich information environment. The dial is no longer an adequate navigation interface where we have instant, direct random access to each and every item/program.
While the new metaphor hasn’t come completely into focus yet, the real-time web begins to point the way. There are two primary modes of interaction with items: now and later. We either interact now in real-time, or we defer until a later real-time. The third mode is elimination of an item from the consideration set. Rather than endlessly switching channels, we need an environment rich with signals and pointers to tell us whether or not something is going on. And perhaps even more important, we need to be able to tell when there’s nothing happening. Whether there are 4 channels, 57 channels, 500 channels or an infinite number of channels— it’s still quite possible that, in this real-time moment, there’s nothin’ on.
This train of thought attempts to wrestle with how we arrive at precision with a mode of expression that is inherently imprecise. And what precision could possibly mean in this context.
When we work with coding languages, our view of human language and interaction can become skewed. We sometimes believe that the qualities of a constructed language can be transferred to, and enforced within, an organic language. At the point where social interaction and computing models touch, languages of different kinds meet and intermingle to form unexpected combinations. Can we use language in the manner of Lewis Carroll’sHumpty Dumpty? And when we try to use it in this way, what happens?
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.
“They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”
As we read and write into the Network, we often look at how this activity leads to the fulfillment of our needs, wants and desires. The gestures we make in this direction are scraped up, processed through our identity and fed back to us around the edges of our viewport. The person is defined by the role of the consumer, life is limited to the transactions that will cause the state of the world to be re-organized such that it quenches our desires.
We can imagine there might be an intention economy, some way for us to write a requirements document for whatever it is that we want. This document would then be published to the Network and vendors would surface at exactly the right moment with exactly the right product or service. The primary benefit seems to be that we wouldn’t get sales offers that are completely inappropriate. Theoretically, we would see a lot less advertising, and the ads we do see should be a good match for our intentions. However advertising is only minimally about making the offer, it’s primarily about the production of desire. In this prospective scenario of intentions, the roles of salesmanship (the power to close the sale) and marketing (the power to create desire in the consumer) only change slightly.
This idea of unequivocally expressing an intention assumes a great deal of exactitude. When do we exactly that we arrive at our true intention? Is it right away, or is there a journey to get there? When we express our intention the first time, how close are we to the mark? Do we trace the path of a spiral moving round and round toward the center of the target? Is there a static version of our intentions (our desires) that lives outside of time and is awaiting a perfect invocation through language? Or are both language and desire shifting and fluid within the dynamics of the flow of time? Perhaps it’s more like learning to dance to the music of time.
As I visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to see the Emerald Cities exhibition, it occurred to me that the Jakata Tales depicted in so much of the art of Siam and Burma got at the same question. These tales depict the previous lives of the Buddha—his lives prior to being born for the last time to become the Buddha.
The Buddha became the Buddha after iterating through hundreds of lives. Perfection doesn’t come with a single try, nor is it the meticulous re-enactment of a pre-existing template. Can we expect to easily toss off perfect expressions of our desire? Are there unequivocal formulas we can deploy to place a standing order to fill the holes we perceive in our lives?
From a commercial perspective, advertising exists to align our desires with the set of products and services that have already been manufactured and are ready for sale. Dreams and desires for the most part are pre-fabricated and ready for occupancy. Industrial modes of production flatten desire into the kinds of shapes that can roll off an assembly line. When we advocate changing the polarity from what the vendors want to what we want, we find ourselves in the position of customers for the 1909 Model T— we can have the car painted any color we like, as long as it’s black.
How is it that when I use a word, it doesn’t mean exactly what I intend it to— neither more nor less? Where does the extra meaning come from? It’s as though when I deploy words out into the world, they’re only outlines that are waiting to be colored in by the listener. Meaning emerges through the overlapping follow clouds of a series of directed social graphs, as the words travel from node to node, their context, the world of their context changes. The set of possible connections expands and contracts, new avenues flash into view and fade away as the words travel on. It’s like following the stories of the characters of a road movie instead of those of the towns they pass through.
Denise Levertov wrote a poem about the activity of writing contrasted with the activity of reading a poem. Imagine these two moments of a poem as it travels through the world, connecting with the poet from the inside out and the outside in:
When a poem has come to me,
almost complete as it makes its way
into daylight, out through arm, hand, pen
onto page; or needing
draft after draft, the increments
of change toward itself, what’s missing
brought to it, grafted
into it, trammels of excess
peeled away till it can breathe
and leave me—
then I feel awe at being
chosen for the task
again; and delight, and the strange and familiar
sense of destiny.
But when I read or hear
a perfect poem, brought into being
by someone else, someone perhaps
I’ve never heard of before—a poem
brings me pristine visions, music
beyond what I thought I could hear,
a stirring, a leaping
of new anguish, of new hope, a poem
trembling with its own
then I’m caught up beyond
that isolate awe, that narrow delight,
into what singers must feel in a great choir,
each with humility and zest partaking
of harmonies they combine to make,
waves and ripples of music’s ocean
who hush to listen when the aria
arches above them in halcyon stillness.