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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Part 2


Two bits for your thoughts?

The science press tells us that human “mini-brains” are being produced for a cost of .25 cents each. They’re made from human stem cells and are about the size of a fly’s eye. Unnamed sources close the project say that these mini-brains “fire electrical impulses and communicate via their normal networks,” which means they “show the electro-chemical activity characteristic of thinking.”


Thomas Hartund, leader of the project assures us that these mini-brains are not sentient. This electro-chemical activity is a “primitive type of thinking,” but because there’s no “input or output” the buzzing is meaningless. The advance is meant to make certain kinds of animal testing obsolete.

Science often blunders forward with no explicit sense of its embedded metaphysical framework. On the one hand, there’s an acknowledgement of the cruelty of treating animals as instruments in a scientific experiment without regard for them as life forms. On the other, there’s no real thought about what they’ve done by creating mini-brains. For the effectiveness of a test to improve, the mini-brains must be as close as possible to human brains — and to further standardize the results, hundreds of identical mini-brains can be baked in a single batch. Before we’ve even thought about it, we’ve assured ourselves that the creation and use of a mini-brain is an allowable form of instrumentality.


No input or output. Do we really know what that means? Are we so sure that sentience requires input and output? Can we even be sure that no form of input or output is occurring? Are we even concerned with testing this assertion of “no input or output?”

It’s an interesting kind of creation, a mini-brain that is close enough, but not too close to the brain of its creator. Close is better, but too close borders on evil. Too close, and memories are produced.

All those moments will be lost in time. Like tears in the rain.

Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

There are many pursuits where it's wise not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But we've reached a point in technology, entertainment, apps and design where there are an abundance of “good” things. We've hit “peak good.”

Linda Holmes, writing for her NPR media blog reported that John Landgraf, CEO of the FX Network, has called a top in the TV business. We've reached peak television.

Landgraf predicted that 2015 or 2016 would represent what he called “peak television” in the United States in terms of sheer volume, followed by a period of contraction. And note well: He doesn't believe all the excess inventory comes from bad and mediocre shows. He says good shows are part of the problem, too: “There's just too much competition, so much so that I think the good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones.” (Do you hear that, people who make good shows? You're getting in the way of greatness.)

Entertainment networks now come in two flavors, realtime (old school), and random access catalog. Both have the same basic ingredients: one is a programmed stream of shows; the other is a set of options / suggestions to help you program your own stream. Both have a catalog of new and old material, while realtime networks include live sports and news.

Netflix, when it was the only game in town, seemed like a universal library of almost all the films and television shows you'd want to see. Once other players entered the space and began competing for “content,” the game changed. HBO, Netflix, Showtime, Starz, Hulu, Amazon, and Acorn are the new networks. And the realtime networks have adopted the catalog strategy as well by making their shows available via “on demand.” It's rumored that Apple will be joining the fray with its own original productions in the near future. (It'll be interesting to see how being a content producer changes a technology company that has traditionally been an intermediary with no skin in the game.)

With all the new and historical content now available through various contortions of cable, airplay, computer and app, it's still necessary to apply Sturgeon's Law. 90% of it is crap. In 2015 there will be around 400 scripted original English-language television series. Because we've grown the pie, the 10% that might be considered good is still too many. Most these new programs won't find an audience. Even the “good” ones. The audience has simply been over-served, which means the economics of production will work out for roughly the same number as in the past. The rest will be available to view on-demand from the back catalog.

In these so-called economies of abundance, it's important to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lots of entertainment, music, games, apps and social networks may be good, but that doesn't mean they're worth your time. Good isn't good enough anymore–it's the new baseline. It's the new “C” grade. As an audience member, these networks are competing for our attention (to sell memberships or sell to advertisers). When we deem something “good,” we need to acknowledge that the scale goes up from “good” to “very good” to “excellent.”

The bubble of “goodness” may be short lived as investors begin to experience losses, and the oversupply of new programs can't find audiences and advertisers to sustain them. This particular bubble has been inflated by the technology bubble. When there's a lot of money floating around, inevitably, rich guys are talked into investing in show business. It's a story as old as show business itself.


The Quality of Smallness

This isn't addressed to you. It's addressed to a group of people like you. Or rather, it's addressed to the unconscious style they are encased in, and chase.

On the morning cable financial news channel, the hosts go on endlessly about how there's a change in consumer tastes. The reason that fast-food hamburger chains and soda pop companies are feeling a pain in their share price is that consumers are thinking “natural and organic.” Consumers are also starting to think about the supply chain. Where does this food come from? Under what regime of regulation and inspection was it produced? Did you say the fish I'm eating was imported from China?

It's a generational change, younger people weren't hooked by the “I'd like to buy the world a Coke” advertising blitz. They see fast food and soft drinks for what they are, and they have convenient alternatives. We should acknowledge that healthy alternatives have only recently achieved mass distribution. It's much easier to make this choice today. Or rather, it's easier to maintain the “fast-food mindset” and choose somewhat healthier foods.

The fast food companies are starting to abandon the use of antibiotics in the production of the chicken they serve. They're making other minor changes, as they chase the style that enchants the consumer these days. They're asking themselves how little the industrial food complex can change to take advantage of some of that “natural and organic” glow. What will take to get some of that appearance to rub off?

While there are a myriad of problems with the way the news media, companies and the regulators think about “natural and organic,” it's still a positive change of direction. More hopeful is that this change was initiated by consumers, not by companies. A change in consumer style is wrecking havoc on the business plans of the soft drink and casual/fast dining industries. It's a rare thing, so it's worth taking note.

I don't want to jinx it, but I'd like to make a request to that amorphous cloud of desire out there, that “style we chase.” I'd like you (I'm talking to you, amorphous cloud) to start associating “smaller” with better quality and more concentration. This would include things ranging from apples to onions, boneless skinless chicken breasts to movie theater popcorn sizes, McMansion houses to pizzas.

There's a natural large size that occurs rarely in the course of things. We should be surprised by this kind of largeness. Well, would you look at that. Look how big that thing is. Don't see that too often. Instead, large, extra-large and jumbo are the “normal” sizes. The way we produce this standard large size is by diluting and inflating whatever it is. While it appears to be more, it's actually less. It's vast quantities of weak tea.

So, here's the deal. Occasionally something changes in the way we perceive things. Suddenly we can plainly see that the product we're buying is pumped up with some diluting agent to make it look bigger. What was previously an attractive quality–bigger, no matter how it is achieved, is now a little repulsive.

The ultimate performance of taste is identifying the things you want to spit out. I want to make the case to your unconscious sense of style that “fake bigness” that attempts to appeal to your impulse toward gluttony, should be eschewed. Suddenly you have the sense that certain things are grotesquely big.

That is all.


Notes from the Underground: Not Disruptive, Not Revolutionary


It’s not disruptive and it isn’t revolutionary. That’s what’s happened to technology and the Network. The early days of the Internet were filled with promise. The possibilities were endless. People said similar things about television. A short time later TV was described as a vast wasteland. What seemed to make the World Wide Web different was the idea that anyone could publish to the system. Individuals were equal nodes on the Network and that difference would create a force of radical democratization.

Instead the Internet turned into another platform play. Some said the Network was a platform without a vender, and that’s sort of true. But once the World Wide Web became a mass medium, it necessarily became a platform with a small set of vendors. In 2012, Bruce Sterling said the Internet was over and we’d entered “the age of the Stacks.” Platforms are technology stacks, or as the vendors themselves like to position them “ecosystems.”


Real-time social networks radically simplified the publishing process. Type into a “textarea” and click a mouse button to publish. Streams of short messages are arranged in reverse chronological order via non-reciprocal social graphs (subscriptions). To enable instant publication to any other node on the graph, a central hub was required. Structurally this is similar to the way real-time stock quotes work. Transactions are submitted to the central exchange and then broadcast to subscribers.

Owning the hub means owning the platform. When an individual writes into a platform, it means that someone else (a public corporation) owns both the pen and the paper. No individual message has value, but the data generated by the firehose of messages has a high value to advertisers. Despite the millions or billions of users of social media, the possibility of generating revenue is reserved for the few thousand who own and/or work for the platform. It’s not even a pyramid scheme. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that services provided by platforms are “free.”

The central hub has visibility into all the messages flowing through the network. Individual subscribers only have visibility into their subscriptions set. It works the same way with search engines. Unless you know the address in advance, you can’t find anything on the World Wide Web. It’s not like entering a library and walking up and down the aisles looking at titles. You can only see what the search engine shows you. The search platform indexes the World Wide Web, the user can only access what’s in the index, the Web is never accessed directly. This is why Sterling talks about Stacks rather than the Internet.

These days to call something disruptive or revolutionary it must disrupt the hub / platform / cloud structure. Creating a new stack or displacing an old stack isn’t disruptive, it’s business as usual. Usenet, established in 1980, has a much more radical structure than any of the dominant Stacks. Even the old BBS systems are more interesting than the central hub model.

The Network has to go underground. It may even have to go offline, slow down and get much smaller. Most importantly it’ll have to learn how to earn a living outside of the Stacks.

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