Driving across town the other day, I heard a Droid phone ad on the radio. The ad compared Droid’s capabilities to that of a relentless robot that accomplished tasks with power, speed and an implied ruthless inhuman amorality. And then there was a line that revealed a little more than was probably intended. Although in this day and age, it seems impossible that an unconscious thought could slip through in an advertisement. The radio ad states that the Droid isn’t:
Aphrodite in a miniskirt
For those of you keeping score at home, in Greek mythology, Aphrodite is the Goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture. The phrase in the commercial is obviously referencing Apple’s iPhone. It appears that the gender of the iPhone is decidedly female.
In Greek mythology, Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture. According to Hesiod, she was born when Uranus (the father of the gods) was castrated by his son Cronus. Cronus threw the severed genitals into the ocean which began to churn and foam about them. From the aphros (“sea foam”) arose Aphrodite, and the sea carried her to either Cyprus or Cythera. Hence she is often referred to as Kypris and Cytherea. Homer calls her a daughter of Zeus and Dione.
After her birth, Zeus was afraid that the gods would fight over Aphrodite’s hand in marriage so he married her off to the smith god Hephaestus, the steadiest of the gods. He could hardly believe his good luck and used all his skills to make the most lavish jewels for her. He made her a girdle of finely wrought gold and wove magic into the filigree work. That was not very wise of him, for when she wore her magic girdle no one could resist her, and she was all too irresistible already. She loved gaiety and glamour and was not at all pleased at being the wife of sooty, hard-working Hephaestus.
Apparently, compared to the Droid, the iPhone could be considered pretty, sexy even, but not very serious or useful. The iPhone is merely a decorative female. In the myth the Droid might be compared to Hephaestus, the husband selected for Aphrodite by Zeus. Although Hephaestus had emotions, and the Droid, as a robot, lacks them. A cursory glance at the communications sheath surrounding the Droid pegs it squarely as a teenage boy infatuated with science fiction. Due to his inexperience with the female of the species, Droid manufactures a fantasy that assigns the female a particular role within the science fiction narrative it inhabits.
In a follow up commercial, the iPhone is described as a:
At this point, it’s fairly clear that Droid doesn’t have a date to the school prom and feels contempt for the social set. Droid will show the world that geeks are cool, that math and science rule. That being popular shouldn’t be based on how you look, how many friends you have or your sense of style— but rather on how many mechanical pencils you can fit into your pocket protector.
Now, take a look at Google and Apple and think about what this narrative says about the respective companies. Apple has spent a long time developing its corporate messaging. Google has never had to. The Droid ads are an interesting view into the unconscious wishes of the Google corporation. In an age where becoming an adult is optional, Google could embrace this awkward teenage geeky science fiction persona for a good long time.
But deep down, the Google Droid is using all its powers to search for that potion that will turn the Nutty Professor into Buddy Love. And then thanks to science (fiction), that mini-skirt wearing Aphrodite beauty queen will find him irresistible.
MARIE: Oh, Idiot Savant— why stuff that provocative dental instrument into your mouth—impeding all possible “human speech”? (He takes it out. Pause)—Thank God, you’ve removed it.
IDIOT SAVANT: As a result, dear lady—am I no longer capable of saving us from magic words?
MARIE: But they occur very infrequently.
IDIOT SAVANT: Are we under attack, Madame?
MARIE: What makes chosen words— magic?
IDIOT SAVANT: Who among us is prepared for an explanation?
MARIE: (Pause, thinks) Me?
IDIOT SAVANT: Me?
It always pains me to miss any production by Richard Foreman. Unfortunately, this happens all too often as I am based in San Francisco, and he’s based in New York City. Whenever I plan to be in New York, one of the first things I do is check whether Foreman has something going on.
I orginally learned about Foreman’s work through the pages of a journal edited by Michael Kirby called The Drama Review. I still occasionally return to the December 1975 issue on New Performance & Manifestoswhich contains Foreman’s Third Manifesto for the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. It’s taken intensive reading and re-reading over many years to finally feel as though I can stand under the meaning of the manifesto.
Richard Foreman’s latest, and perhaps last, work for the theater is currently running at The Public Theater through December 20th and is called “Idiot Savant.” I’ve only experienced this work through the text of periodicals that have chosen to cover the event. This morning I finally got around to reading the New Yorker’s coverage. When the mainstream press writes about Foreman they have to budget at least half of the designated column inches to explain who Foreman is, what he does, and why it’s important and kind of entertaining. Without the establishment of a makeshift frame, a preface to the words describing the performance, the text that describes the performance would simply appear to be a recitation of a random flow of inner states and thoughts that occurred simultaneously with the performance of Foreman’s work.
Hilton Als, in his preface to his published thoughts on “Idiot Savant” quotes Foreman’s introduction to his 1989 play “Lava.”
“There are writers who despair that a gap exists between the self and the words that come, but for me that gap is the field of all creativity— it’s an ecstatic field rather than a field of despair…It’s the unfathomable from which every pours forth.”
The writer indemnifies himself with the construction of a frame within which to view and share the performance. The words of his text will need to cross a large gap, and in the end will not be a true representation of the events that unfolded on the stage on that particular night. The difficulty in trying to represent Foreman’s work is that Foreman’s performances don’t represent anything. They are the thing itself. There is no third thing about which both the performance and the writing about the performance can refer.
Foreman explains his approach in his Third Manifesto:
Most theatre, on the other hand, is dedicated to creating an “experience.” Sometimes that experience is thought of as an avenue to understanding. (For instance, an experience in a politically oriented play, which is designed to help one “understand” why workers do such and such, and the managers do such and such, etc.)
But an “experiencing” does not lead to the radical “understanding” I am concerned with. Here’s why. Experience of any sort is “recognizing.” I would not deny that anything called “art” has to end up in the thing called “spectator” as some kind of experience. But there is a difference between this last fact and the always misguided attempt to make the art experience be isomorphic with an OTHER experience-event.
We experience what we recognize—what we know. Even if the experience is the experience of “not-knowing” or “being confused” or anything else to which we can give a name. The task of art is to serve understanding… by trying to create a field which is isomorphic with what stands-under experience— which is not experience itself.
Now, what stands-under experience cannot be experienced, experience is not the mode by which we can know it.
What stands-under experience are the laws (processes) of perception and other laws-of-configuration of the universe.
My task is to make work, the structure of which is isomorphic with those laws. Then I will be standing-under experience.
Foreman’s work attempts to be present in the real-time moment. The gestures don’t refer to some other fictional reality, they are gestures that are happening right now. And to create something that can genuinely be perceived as new, the performance charts a course outside of the grooves of our comfortable, traditional, cultural narratives. Returning again to the Third Manifesto, Foreman contemplates the implications of physicist Paul Dirac’s work as it relates to the creation of performance works:
For instance: Dirac, Paul. His 1931 theory— (for me, the most useful MANTRA of our time). In which he postulates—
Space isn’t empty. It’s filled with a bottomless sea of electrons with negative mass (& negative energy). All available locations in space, filled with minus energy electrons, not interaction, no manifestation of their existence!
On occasion, a high-energy cosmic ray hits one of these “ghost” electrons and imparts its energy to it. So the ghost electron is then bumped out of the sea of non-existence and becomes a normal electron with positive energy and mass.
But that leaves a “hole” in the sea where it had been. The hole is a negation of negative mass, so is positive mass (also positive change). This hole (DIRAC predicts in ’31) would be a new kind of particle, having mass equal to and charge opposite to a normal electron (which is +mass and -charged.) An anti-electron.
But (he predicts) the anti-electron will be very short lived because a normal electron will soon be attracted to the “hole,” fall into it, and the two oppositionally charged electrons will immediately annihilate each other.
Most of the writing about Foreman’s work notes that the “subject” of the work hasn’t changed over the years, it’s always “about” the same thing. Of course, this is because it isn’t “about” anything, it “is” that thing itself— and since it isn’t a story, it’s not recognizable as one.
The pattern of creation described by Dirac describes both the activity and the subject of Foreman’s work. In Chapter 16 of Foreman’s text The Amateur Genius he writes:
The Amateur Genius was on a street where the brick surface of the wall confronting him did sparkle, desertd as the street was on the Sunday that it was; and The Amateur Genius tried to think about the brain roots that twisted into a very real antispace, spaced into the careful click that widened as idea on idea perfromed mutual erasure so that the writing The Amateur Genius did (and upon his very brain The Amateur Genius did write).
“—Write not the ideas,” spoke The Amateur Genius. “The ideas perform mutual erasure.”
“Write rather the brain-stem rush. So when that is written nothing is written. Or rather, the writing speaks so the weakened eye speaks a kind of internal stress and strain out of which pop the grapefruits of, dare I say it, a second world, a third world— (there are grapefruits that do thinking as well as other sweetness).”
Foreman toils endlessly to get to the present moment, the being of the act of creation, not a representation or a narrative about a thing, but the thing itself. The theatrical performance provides a rare opportunity to experiment with focused attention and the real-time moment. The work done by Foreman, Schechner, LeCompte, Breuer, Growtoski and others on the theory and practice of presentational performance provides a rich ground for understanding our newly emergent networked media environment.
When Hilton Als attempts to write about a Richard Foreman performance, the difficulty of his task mirrors the difficulty traditional journalism faces with the real-time network. We’re used to media reports that represent a series of events. The quality of the report is based on the degree to which the text is isomorphic with the event. With the speed-up to real-time and the connectivity of the networked media environment, we become participants in the thing-itself as it unfolds in time. You can hear the critique of this state of affairs from the perspective of the traditional press: There’s no objectivity, the representations are not accurate, they don’t match the reported, and checked, facts.
We should have concerns about this new media environment, this new stage on which we stand, but they aren’t those of objectivity and representational accuracy. The participant can have no standing in either of those causes. The journalist who situates himself outside the event—within a field of objectivity—intends to be invisible, to withhold both his presence and influence on the event itself. He believes that only through this distance can he produce a text that is isomorphic with the event itself. The journalist’s ethics have to do with accuracy of representation; the participant’s ethics have to do with what one chooses to do with an active or passive role in the action as it unfolds. Do you accelerate the action or oppose it? Do you ignore it or silently contemplate it. Do you route it to a private or public group? Do you produce a work in reaction to it? (Note how this is fundamentally different than the idea of the citizen journalist).
The common thread between Foreman’s performances and activity on the real-time network is that neither represents something else. They’re both the thing itself. It’s this shift from representation to presentation that opens a new world of possibilities (“dare I say it, a second world, a third world…”). Getting the hang of the new physics and economics of this space may take some time. The ethics of real-time mean that you’re a participant in an unfolding event— you aren’t invisible— and your actions (or lack of action) have consequences.
The strangest thing happened to me the other night. I went to see a movie entitled “Untitled.” It’s a comedy, a very dry comedy, about the avant-garde world of art and music. It was a slow night at the Bridge Theater and there were only a few of us there to see the film. My wife turned to me and said, “God, I hate previews. I hope there aren’t any previews.” I gave her a look and said, “Yeah, that’ll happen…”
After a moment, the lights started to dim and the “crowd” settled to get ready for the film. And then, the movie started. There were no previews, no commercials, no announcements. It was a shocking and delightful experience to go to the movies and get themovie without commercial interruption.
This experience made me think of some of the current chatter about Twitter. There seems to be a movement afoot to add commercial interruption to Twitter’s tweet stream. Various advocates are asking for a mailbox to be added to each tweet so it can be stuffed full of flyers. The engineering crowd calls this adding metadata, but it’s really just a ploy to interrupt, and create cubby holes for product placement in the program you tuned in to see. While they could easily just wrap the tweet stream up in their own application and stuff whatever flyers they chose into that sandwich, it would also require the effort of building a separate network. It’s a much easier task to ride on Twitter’s achievements, while simultaneously deriding them for not being open. Or at least open enough for the critics to implement their own business model on top of Twitter’s network. No number of promises about relevancy will make the interrupted Twitter into a pleasurable experience. One can only hope this wasn’t the absolutely fabulous monetization scheme that Dick Costolo was referring to at the RealTime Crunch Up.
Seeing a film at a movie theater without commercial interruption was an entirely pleasurable experience. It’s not one that I anticipate being able to have again, although I would certainly enjoy it. And having had the experience once, I can see that the difference is substantial and important. If the experience is the product, should the question really be about how much water you can put in the whiskey before anyone notices?
The Source: Algorithmic Authority and Unsupervised Systems of Record
At the recent Real-Time Crunch Up, a number of interfaces presented themselves; many of them worth reading and writing into. But, I’d like to explore a turn of phrase that slipped out causally in the last panel. The other members of the panel simply nodded and moved with the flow of the thought, it was understood to reflect the state of affairs. Dan’l Lewin, of Microsoft, while discussing which of the companies we’d seen during the day might become dominant players in the real-time environment of the Network, used the phrase: “system of record.” Lewin was referring to Twitter and Facebook as new systems of record on the Network.
Wikipedia is a little light on its definition of systems of record:
A system of record (SOR) is an information storage system (commonly implemented on a computer system), which is the authoritative data source for a given data element or piece of information. The need to identify systems of record can become acute in organizations where management information systems have been built by taking output data from multiple source systems, re-processing this data, and then re-presenting the result for a new business use.
The key here is the phrase: “authoritative data source for a given data element or piece of information.” The data element Lewin was referring to is the public social graph in its unfolding as real-time, tick-by-tick, context data. If you look at Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo, the financial and medical institutions, etc. — none of the current big players on the Network have the social contract that allows them to serve as the system of record for the real-time social context data set.
Each has a system of record with some essential piece of the picture; they serve as the source of some authoritative piece of data. None of them can be authoritative for every aspect of a person. And generally, we like to be able to choose among a minimum of two providers (SORs) for each piece of our represented selves. Companies like Acxiom, Mint/Yodlee, and Equifax have begun the process of aggregating identity across key authoritative data silos, creating connections and drawing the broad outlines. In order for there to be an aggregation point, there has to be a set of authoritative systems of record.
As I began to think about the authority of these interconnected data elements — another connection placed itself in the frame. We sometimes speak of the newspaper of record. Another kind of authority presents itself:
The first type of newspaper of record (or newspaper of public record) is often formally defined by a statute or other official action of a governing body. Such a newspaper is supposed to be available to the public, and publication of notices in that newspaper is considered sufficient to comply with legal requirements for public notice.
The second type of “newspaper of record” is not defined by any formal criteria. The use of the term implies that a newspaper is a reliable institution that publishes trustworthy descriptions of events, but this assessment may be disputed. Major newspapers of record may be expected to have independent editorial policies, and to publish statements of opinion that are distinct from those of their proprietor or their government. They are more likely than other newspapers to be sold abroad and to be cited in scholarly publications.
Clay Shirky has become enmeshed in the discussions around the endgame for newspapers. I wouldn’t exactly call it a debate, because only mainstream journalists are interested in debating the point. Everyone else seems to have moved on. In his post, On the Idea of Algorithmic Authority, he explores what we mean when we talk about authoritative sources. In essence, he’s exploring the pragmatism of a kind of anarchy.
When we use the phrases “system of record” and “newspaper of record,” we’re trying to get to a similar level of authority. Newspapers of record supply the day-to-day transcription of important events. It’s the “availability to the public” of the newspaper and its broad distribution that makes up the public record. The authority of the newspaper rests in an editorial process that outputs “trustworthy descriptions of events.”
Shirky, in his book Here Comes Everybody, looks at organizing without organizations— and this idea is extended here to explore the level of authority that can be achieved by an unsupervised process. Typically we look for some kind of certification, an institutional process guaranteed by a professional in charge. The change that Shirky chronicles is the expansion of the kinds of processes that can produce authoritative output. When an unsupervised algorithmic process can produce an output that people respect as authoritative, the economics of supervised certified processes are disrupted. The ecosystem is enlarged and the economics irrevocably changed. In this case authority isn’t replaced, rather its sources are multiplied.
As our view of the ecosystems of record on the Network begins to come into focus, an emerging landscape starts to take shape. And what looked like a field with thousands of players is quickly reduced to a small number of authoritative systems.
While Interpreting The Instruction Set, I Encounter An Ambiguous Opening…
We seem to live in an age where the algorithm serves as an extension of our desire. This picaresque ramble contemplates what it means to follow a rule, what the boundaries of a rule are meant to contain, and the morality of rewriting and overwriting a rule. In his book on the algorithm, David Berlinski provides a definition:
In the logician’s voice
an algorithm is
a finite procedure,
written in a fixed symbolic vocabulary,
governed by precise instructions,
moving in discrete steps, 1, 2, 3, …,
Whose execution requires no insight, cleverness, intuition, intelligence, or perspicuity,
and that sooner or later comes to an end,
Within the conceptual machine of the algorithm, we envision the creation of software agents that will encapsulate and encode our desires. These secret agents will be unleashed upon the virtual and augmented world to locate the conditions and process the data that match a predetermined map of our dreams and passions.
But let’s hit the back button on this train of thought. The interface for this exploration appeared the other night at an art opening. Paul Madonna was introducing his new work at Electric Works. On a table in the entry way to the exhibition were a number of books. In addition to Paul’s new book, there was a book by David Byrne called Arboretum. This book contained a number of drawings that I immediately wanted to willfully misinterpret. Byrne’s drawings are mind maps that show connections/relations between things— they represent a kind of systemic history in some cases, or the dynamics/economics of a system in others. They have a strong relationship to Diderot’s organizational ideas for his encyclopedia.
David Byrne, History of Mark-making
There was something about the visual character of Byrne’s drawings that reminded me of the music notation and compositional titles of the saxophonist Anthony Braxton. When music notation is at its most strict, it tells us precisely how a piece can be replicated. The player piano uses piano rolls to produce near identical performances. In the fake book, we might just get the chord changes and the melody— the arrangement is up to us. Braxton takes this kind of abstraction to another level in some of his notation that borders on encoding synesthesia— where color and shape are meant to guide the performers.
Braxton’s Composition #76
Somehow by combining the notation of Braxton and the tree drawings of Byrne, I imagine conjuring up a notation system for an exploration through conversation, a kind of performance script. While, as Umberto Eco notes, the list can be a flexible tool, engendering both anarchic and organizational impulses— I find myself drawn to these maps of notation. When I engage in conversations about strategic direction, I always imagine them taking place within a terrain with specific dynamics.
By Berlinski’s definition, these musical instruction sets aren’t algorithms. Their execution requires insight, cleverness, intuition, intelligence, and perspicuity. The performer has to make decisions, exercise options, contribute variable inputs that will result in a variety of outputs. In that sense, they function more like a game.
In business, there’s an attempt to codify process to the extent that all of its aspects are substitutable. Even as parts of the machine are replaced, it’s output remains constant and consistent. This is the industrial commodity as ideal. Variances are a sign of poor management.
The script for a theatrical performance is another kind of instruction set. Notational experiments in this realm are also highly instructive. A few years back I attended a performance of the Wooster Group’s Poor Theater. The text of the performance was largely other performances, and the group’s performance itself described as a simulacra. For instance a performance piece, where the movements are the performers’ response to, and modeling of, a cowboy film projected to the side of the stage.
Elizabeth LeCompte by Leibowitz
Elizabeth LeCompte experiments with both what counts as a performance text, and what counts as a vital interpretation. She even refuses to be limited to a single text (instruction set), with the Wooster Group’s La Didone she weaves together a performance based on Cavalli’s opera combined with Mario Brava’s 1965 science fiction film Planet of the Vampires.
Brava’s Planet of the Vampires
Wooster Group’s Didone
The mashup, the remix, the blending of instruction sets to produce something entirely new is what the process of creation has always already been. The boundary between recipes loses importance if the meal is well presented and delicious— a new recipe is created.
These two relationships to rule sets define much of human experience. The one approaches the regularity of the machine, while the other can careen off into what seems to be unbounded chaos. One set must be followed to the letter (a machine is the optimal performer), the other leaves openings for a two-way interaction. But the act of writing back into the interface is fraught with danger. It stands on the border of transgression, or transumption. When we don’t follow a rule set, but instead apply a new rule set from different context, we can be perceived as willfully misreading, incompetence or breaking local laws. Edward Said, in his reading of Harold Bloom’sA Map of Misreading, describes the Oedipal resonances:
Thus Bloom writes: “To live, the poet must mis-interpret [his literary] father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the re-writing of the father.” Consequently a poet is not a man speaking to other men, but “a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.” The great poetic ambition, which only the strongest poets achieve, is to appear self-begotten not only free of the father but, as Bloom demonstrates beautifully in the case of Milton (who is Bloom’s own strong poet par excellence), the father’s father. This final “transumptive” act of poetic majesty Bloom calls metalepsis: “Milton does what Bacon hoped to do; Milton and Galileo become ancients, and Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Tasso, Spenser become belated moderns.”
The fixed symbolic vocabulary of the algorithm is one of the points where misreading wants to overwrite fixity. Meanwhile back on the Network, there’s a sense in which Phil Windley’s concept of a purpose-centric web dares to ignore the local laws and advocates simply rewriting/overwriting the fixed symbolic vocabulary to serve another purpose. There’s a sense in which we can view this as another instance of text, interpretation and performance. The revolutionary idea of the Action Card is that my rule set trumps yours.
To return to the moment that started this train of thought, let’s look at Byrne’s Arboreum drawings as a performance text. It seems as though the fixed symbolic vocabulary becomes slippery when it moves from linear typography to a map or model. The symbolic moves from symbol to symbol. The adjectives finite, discrete, governed, fixed, and precise all seem to lose purchase. And yet if we look at the Wooster Group’s rigorous performances, we could apply all of those adjectives along a different dimension.
These two relationships to the text stand across from each other as mirror images. As the algorithm blends with desire and takes flight into the real time flow of the Network, our sense of logic may sometimes take on the guise of the logic of sense, and it will have to learn to keep its cool as it makes the occasional trip through the looking glass.
This post probably is what it contemplates. I’ve been thinking about clouds, not as in utility computing, but rather as a metaphor. The cloud is a figure of speech that has worked its way into conversations and trains of thought with increasing frequency. As I attempt to draw a circle around it, the boundaries that I posit seem solid enough. But then, with the flow of time, they start to shift, and then, form into completely different shapes.
For a long time I’ve visualized the tweets emitted from the people I follow on Twitter as a cloud. While the interface represents them as a single-file stream, I see them as emerging simultaneously into a cloud of information. I see them as a cloud because I don’t know in advance what value they have. I don’t know where the edges are, the shapes that emerge are temporary, they must be grasped in the moment. One aspect of the information overload problem is the moment when I sense that the cloud is filled with important information, but I can’t seem to get my hands on it. Other times I can look at the cloud and see that there’s nothing there.
Talking with Phil Windley over dinner at the recent IIW, we began discussing the clouds of information that form around transactions. In the corporate world this is called business intelligence. Systems are built and deployed to capture the data that feeds the cloud of information around management actions. Phil’s work with Action Cards can be viewed as agents/apps that monitor the cloud around a person’s browsing activity (augmented reality) and trigger specific actions when certain conditions are present. Craig Burton might call that changing cloud of information the context. The hard boundaries among web sites at the name/security space level have never been able to contain the information cloud. It travels with the user, unimpeded, on the other side of the glass.
There’s a book that was written in the 14th century by an anonymous cleric called The Cloud of Unknowing. Perhaps it’s more the poetry of the title, than the actual text that has stuck with me. Wikipedia condenses its teachings as follows:
“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”
Even at this early moment, there’s a clear divide between—and subtle understanding of—the human gesture and the schemas of knowledge/information.
Paragraph 7, the final paragraph in terms of score order (but with a completion date of 8 April 1969), consists of twenty-four lines which must be sung for the length of a breath a given number of times. Each performer works at his or her own speed through the material in a ‘network’ effect noted by Michael Nyman. This network effect has caught the attention of some writers outside of the immediate British experimental group (for instance, Linda Dusman and Joseph Rukshan Fonseka) more than the rest of The Great Learning.
Eno describes how the sound and shape of the work changes as each performer starts from a self-selected note and when a line is completed, switches to a note they can hear. The piece moves from a dissonant cloud of sound, to a complex chord, to a less complex chord.
Something about this form of sociological composition with a very simple rule set ties directly to the information overload problem in the micromessaging sphere.
Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern-recognition.
This sense of the cloud emerges when the number of things in front of us are too many to count. The things vaporize and form clouds. Here we move up the stack and relate to patterns instead of individual things. The user interface presents us with large set of streams, sequenced items– but the patterns emerge from the overall cloud of information not from the columns of streams flowing through our screens.
But even before we begin to see patterns, we intuit the disposition of the cloud. We sense its energy, speed and direction; its density, the quality of its make up. We’re all meteorologists of the information environment. And while it may be quite difficult to predict whether it’s going to rain or not, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. These clouds of information are forming around every transaction in our lives. But having the data and knowing what to do with it are two separate things. We seem to be at the edge, crossing a boundary line— our hands grasp for clouds, and for the first time, seem to have a hold of something…
Upon closer inspection, however, an uneasy sensation of looming menace begins to manifest itself. Composed of a wiry, nervous line, these creatures bear a resemblance to birds only in their beaks and feathered silhouettes; they appear closer to deformations of nature. The hand crank conjures up the idea that this “machine” is a music box, where the birds function as bait to lure victims to the pit over which the machine hovers. We can imagine the fiendish cacophony made by the shrieking birds, their legs drawn thin and taut as they strain against the machine to which they are fused.
I’d like to take a moment to delve beneath the surface of the machinery that makes up the micro-messaging ecosystem. The micro-messaging service Twitter approaches a kind of frictionless channel for messaging. Everything about it seems to be built for growth and speed. After the substantial speed bump of signing up and orienting yourself in the system, both listening for, and creating messages are very simple. Select the other people (and pseudo-people) you’d like to follow, type fewer than 140 characters of hypertext into a text field and press update.
It’s been noted many times that the follow social structure – the directed social graph – allows for the rapid expansion of social linking. A participant is able to follow many others without the requirement of reciprocity. I follow you, you don’t have to follow me. And the retweet has emerged as a method of transmitting messages across multiple overlapping social graphs. Hash tags have become a conventional method of indicating a message tied to a particular event. All of these tools are dedicated to the acceleration of the growth of the Twitter network. Twitter’s trending topics and search functionality allow users to find high-velocity memes as they begin to achieve broad circulation through the social mesh.
Examples of the benefits of the speed of the Twitter network abound – news about the earthquake in China, the plane landing on the Hudson River, reports on wild fires in Southern California, etc. The news media, feeling somewhat usurped here, has also brought the negative aspects of this lack of friction in the system. Usually this kind of story is meant to point to the filtering role of their own editorial facility. The New York Times put a Twitter contretemps involving Stephen Fry in the first section of their newspaper.
…that little tweet set off a frenzy of vitriolic attacks and counterattacks on Twitter, drawing an untold number of people into an increasingly charged debate and thrusting brumplum — in reality a man from Birmingham, England, named Richard — unhappily into the public’s angry glare. It was an example once again of the extraordinary power of Twitter to distribute information and to sway the opinions of vast groups of people in tiny amounts of time.
While the frictionless micro-messaging environment can accelerate important, or amusing, messages (news, stories, jokes, musings), it can also assemble and ignite an angry mob at lightning speed. And if we look at the tool set we’re offered, everything is oriented toward accelerating people, memes and the growth of the Twitter network. In this frame, value is equated with high velocity and numbers of retweets, likes, mentions, @replies, followers and now, list memberships. We’re looking for what, or who, is going viral.
But if we examine the often banal items that achieve virality, we have to question the value = virality equation. Often the high numbers are a result of lowest-common denominator dynamics, it’s not the cream rising to the top. There are certain kinds of viral items that we’d prefer to be vaccinated against. We’d like a micro-messaging Center for Disease Control warning us about time-wasting viral memes spreading through the Network. Where are the tools to retard the spread of a meme? Where’s the don’t like, or the visible gesture of hiding something from your messaging stream. It’s as though we’ve put a poll in the field that only asks for a positive response and excludes all negative reaction. Feedback loops require both positive and negative inputs.
Feedback is a mechanism, process or signal that is looped back to control a system within itself. Such a loop is called a feedback loop. Intuitively many systems have an obvious input and output; feeding back part of the output so as to increase the input is positive feedback; feeding back part of the output in such a way as to partially oppose the input is negative feedback.
Negative feedback helps to maintain stability in a system in spite of external changes. It is related to homeostasis. For example, in a population of foxes (predators) and rabbits (prey), an increase in the number of foxes will cause a reduction in the number of rabbits; the smaller rabbit population will sustain fewer foxes, and the fox population will fall back. In an electronic amplifier feeding back a negative copy of the output to the input will tend to cancel distortion, making the output a more accurate replica of the input signal.
Positive feedback amplifies possibilities of divergences (evolution, change of goals); it is the condition to change, evolution, growth; it gives the system the ability to access new points of equilibrium.
One method of judging the relative merit of the memes circulating through the stream is to pay close attention to the silences, the negative gestures. While the wisdom of crowds may have crowned an item the real-time meme of the moment, there’s a simple way to filter for value. Using a small portfolio (lists, if you will) of people who’s opinion you respect – look to see if they remain silent on a topic. In the task of discovering value, this kind of silence is golden.
In the early stages of growth, accelerants are essential. As a Network matures, unless it develops a deeper tool set, it simply becomes a twittering machine. The value it appears to create is illusory, and so the commons begins its descent to knee-jerk reactions to the high numbers generated by the lowest common denominator. Perhaps the inevitable result is that overlapping publics contract and the social space becomes a much more private circulatory system. The crucible of dispute, debate and dialogue that produces real value may only emerge away from the public network of accelerants where the social contract allows such differences (both positive and negative feedback). One of the better statements of this kind of contract was for the Nettime mailing list:
Nettime was vector for experimenting with net critique that would confront it with the possibility of inventing new forms of discourse and dialogue in a new medium. Consensus is not the goal. There’s no governing fantasy according to which the differences within this ‘group’ will on some ever-deferred day be resolved. the differences are Nettime; they might be dialectical, implying each other, or they might be differential, making absolutely no reference whatsoever to each others’ terms. Net critique, if understood as a shared practice in and against a never pre-defined techno-local environment, contains many modes of possible participation.
In navigating the electrical storms and fires of the micro-messaging Network, we’d do well to have some tools in our kit in addition to that can of gasoline.