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Category: difference

Liner Notes For The Gillmor Gang: Dynamic from Both Sides of the Glass

robertscoble-moustache

At the outset the frame of defacement is fitted for the conversation. Google’s SideWiki opens the door to an exploration of free speech, owned speech, unadulterated speech, graffiti, the Network as place and home, and what it is to write and read. Of course, the conversation isn’t really about SideWiki at all. Let’s start our exploration with writing.

A text is always already situated within a network of intertextuality. While we think we “have our say,” we assemble our sentences from an ocean of influences and predecessors. The connections stretch out back into history and as it tumbles out, our writing becomes fodder for the next person with something to say. Our writing and speech are never solely ours. The difference is that within the Network, the connections can be made visible. SideWiki, Disqus and Echo all aggregate and surface textual connections. Just as I might cut two related stories from two different newspapers and put them in a single manila folder.

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The aggregated view exposes the edges of each piece—it’s that juxtaposition that activates the points of contention, the volatile elements of meaning, the interesting bits. To some extent, this is what we do when incorporate citations or quotations into our writing. We expose the fragmentary edges of a text to our commentary.

We like to talk about a two-way web, or a read/write web— but we still conceive of this as a half-duplex transmission. The revolution seems to be in the ever broader distribution of writing. We’ve yet to understand a full-duplex read/write— a writing that is also reading; and a reading that is also writing. The same pencil both writes and reads. McLuhan talked about this transition in terms of the old media becoming the content of the new media.

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The act of reading is re-writing. The text is torn, ruptured and cut to make room for the commentary, associations, orthogonal meanderings, debate, and dialogue. Reading is always already all this. Writing itself could be called a form of close reading. Sometimes there’s ink in the pen, other times we let the thoughts fade away. We even employ Tmesis to insert our commentary into the middle of a word, for example: I abso-bloody-lutely have the right look at your website using Google’s SideWiki.

Roland Barthes describes how we read to create a more pleasurable engagement with the text in his short book: ‘The Pleasure of the Text:’

…we do not read everything with the same intensity of reading; a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text; our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or to skip certain passages (anticipated as “boring”) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote (which are always its articulations: whatever furthers the solution of the riddle, descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs onto the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening episodes of the ritual (like a priest gulping down his Mass). Tmesis, source or figure of pleasure, here confronts two prosaic edges with one another; it sets what is useful to a knowledge of the secret against what is useless to such knowledge; tmesis is a seam or flaw resulting from a simple principle of functionality; it does not occur at the level of the structure of languages but only a the moment of their consumption; the author cannot predict tmesis: he cannot choose to write what will not be read. And yet, it is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages.)

The question of reading as re-writing reaches its pinnacle with the transition from quotation to the practice of superimposition. For instance, imagine a program that alters the contents of a browser through adding new layers based on a personal context— I remix on the fly, in real time. Perhaps for every image of Robert Scoble that loads into my browser, a mustache layer is added to the appropriate spot in the image. If I found this to be a valuable or amusing way to consume the web— I have every right to do so. We saw something like this with the recent Kanye West site rewriting. A very amusing way to view the web. The Medium is the Remix:

The Network is becoming dynamic from both sides of the glass. Web servers connected to data stores created the possibility of dynamic pages at the server level. When combined with AJAX techniques, the dynamic set of pages becomes a viewport into which various dynamic data resources are called. A form of personalization can be created from the server’s data store based on the assignment of a unique identity to the user. But as far as this stack of techniques has come from the flat HTML page, it’s still a server-centric stack of technologies and techniques. It’s dynamic from the server’s side of the glass.

It’s here that the actual topic of discussion begins to emerge: the possibility of a dynamism from the user’s side of the glass. Perhaps we begin by painting mustaches on Robert Scoble, but we quickly move to the creation of a personal context that superimposes our purposes on to the web that passes through the browser viewport.

The technologies that make a dynamic web possible from the user’s side of the glass are already well under way. The Firefox greasemonkey plugin exposed the potential of reading/writing browser viewport content. The information card, the selector, KNS and the action card make up the foundational elements of a new ecosystem for the user’s side of the glass. Here’s Craig Burton:

Web augmentation is an incredible phenomenon that we are just beginning to understand and use. There is a spectrum of tools available to accomplish various levels of augmentation. I only talk about two of those here. Greasemonkey and Action Cards.

I stand by my position that Action Card web augmentation changes everything. And that greasemonkey—at its most lofty view—is a mere harbinger of the real thing. Greasemonkey lets you do basic web augmentation with lots of potential problems and drawbacks.

Action Cards—the combination of the selector-based information card, KNS, and cloud-based data is elegant, well thought out, and well architected capable of making long lasting significant changes to the Internet.

Phil Windley provides the example of looking at Amazon.com search results with a superimposition of an indicator telling the user whether a particular book is available at a local library. The personal context might be: whatever I’m looking at, when a book is mentioned, let me know if it’s available at my local library. I might be entitled to discounts based on membership in an organization or club. That context could be made visible when I shop online. The potential for the mobile web is even greater.

The value of dynamism from both the client and server side on the image in the browser’s viewport has yet to be fully understood or imagined. We barely have the language to talk about it. The October 1st Gillmor Gang attempts to start a discussion about users writing to the browser from the client’s side of the glass.

We end, perhaps, where we began, with Windley’s Bill of Rights:

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.

Of course, rights are one thing and capability entirely another. That object floating in the glass between the server and the client is about to become an entirely new kind of collaboration.

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Ornamentation: The Beauty of Search

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It began with a discussion of ornamentation. As we look around us, the ornament seems to be disappearing. The things we use have been stripped of ornamentation in favor of pure functionality. Form, we are taught, must follow function. Decoration is an unnecessary expense, as it adds nothing to the function of a manufactured thing. Ornament has lost the battle of Return on Investment.

It wasn’t always so, there was a distinct turn. Alain De Botton, in his book “The Architecture of Happiness” explores the moment when engineering and aesthetics collided.

“The answer that eventually emerged was not really an answer; rather, it was an admonishment that it might be irrelevant and even indulgent to raise the question in the first place.

A prohibition against discussions of beauty in architecture was imposed by a new breed of men, engineers, who had achieved professional recognition only in the late eighteenth century, but had thereafter risen quickly to dominanace in the construction of the new buildings of the Industrial Revolution.”

These engineers were building the factories, bridges and railways that would provide the infrastructure for the industrial age. Style simply wasn’t a consideration.

“The philosophy of the engineers flew in the face of everything the architectural profession had ever stood for. ‘To turn something useful, practical, functional into something beautiful, that is architecture’s duty,’ insisted Karl Friedrich Schinkel. ‘Architecture, as distinguished from mere building, is the decoration of construction,’ echoed Sir George Gilbert Scott.

The essence of great architecture was understood to reside in what was functionally unnecessary.”

In 1923, Le Corbusier penned a book called ‘Toward a New Architecture‘ which outlined the principles of this new approach to the design of buildings. Again, from De Botton’s book:

For Le Corbusier, true, great architecture — meaning, architecture movtivated by the quest for efficiency — was more likely to be found in a 40,000-kilowatt electricity turbine or a low-pressure ventilating fan. It was to these machines that his books accorded the reverential photographs which previous architectural writers had reserved for cathedrals and opera houses.

And with that prelude, we arrive at the web search engine and the use and meaning of ornament. There’s an interesting experiment currently being conducted called Blind Search. The creators of this test wonder what happens to a user’s perception of search results when all branding is removed. Google initially established itself by producing noticeably better search results. Now, established as a verb meaning “to search,” does Google still provide results that are visibly superior? The results indicate that Google still leads, but not by as much as you’d think: Google: 41%, Bing: 31%, Yahoo: 28%. And putting the Google brand on any search results increases satisfaction.

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In looking at the design of the Google user interface, we see the influence of Le Corbusier. The typographic logo is the only design on the page, and occasionally it is playfully re-imagined to commemorate notable events. Here, form follows function.

In his book, De Botton tries to articulate how we find beauty— the mechanics of what attracts us:

“We can conclude from this that we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally are deficient. We respect style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues.”

While we may perceive the Network as vast, complex and opaque— with its simplicity Google’s design provides us with the antidote. Now look at this image of Microsoft’s Bing home page:

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Bing’s user interface is decorated with a background image that gives a sense of what it does. I’m fairly certain that the image has no effect on the quality of the search results. Bing is attempting to provide a usage model for the consumption of faceted search results. Queries return both potential facets along with the traditional list of links. Bing is designed with both facets and links in mind, while Google appends facets to the bottom of the link list.

As the facets and links that search engines return become more and more indistinguishable, what is the difference that will make a difference? One could assume that there will always be an engineering innovation right around the corner that will make a significant and visible difference. We like to believe that progress is always linear.

Corporate brand clearly makes a difference, users like a brand name search product. Microsoft’s brand has been held in the background and a new brand has been established. Images have also been used to distinguish Bing. Ornamentation has been exiled for so long, it’s hard to understand how to even value it.

Let’s return again to Alain De Botton:

The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worth wile — which refer, that is, whether through their materials, shapes or colours, to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of the good life are intertwined. We seek associations of peace in our bedrooms, metaphors for generosity and harmony in our chairs, and an air of honesty and forthrightness in our taps. We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn steps that hint at wisdom and by a Georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight window.

Le Corbusier’s aesthetic demanded design be “ascetic and clean, disciplined and frugal.” He had a hatred of any kind of decoration. Google’s engineering aesthetic is a terminal design. Any competitor employing a purely functional design will unintentionally be referencing Google. There’s no way to get radically simpler than Google, and therefore no way to create enough space to allow for differentiation. The only alternative is to move back into ornament, into the decorative, into beauty.

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While we may think of computerized search of the internet as a purely functional affair of ONEs and ZEROs, the simple lists of links are being pulled into organic forms by their facets. Human forms of life are surfacing in and through our search queries. Search results will begin to bloom into something that looks much more like a natural form than points and lines in a frictionless space. This moment may mark another turning point…

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The Line: Boundary, Connection, Outline, Inquiry

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The boundary line separates this from that. National boundaries are called borders, they indicate the line of demarcation between this country and that. By crossing such a line, the set of laws, the cultural practices and often the spoken language will change. Of course, one imagines a flock of migrating birds crossing a border completely unaware of any significant change in the environment. We think of the line between countries as being stable, the power of a sovereign nation is used to defend its borders. But if we zoom out and select a larger increment of time, we would see that even national borders are fluid—they move with a specific viscosity, velocity and trajectory.

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The line also connects this and that. Wittgenstein discussed thinking as a process of seeing connections, discovering connections and making connections. Lines can converge, cross or run in parallel. (and if we admit the visions of the string, super-string and M (membrane) theorists – each line may exist in parallel universes where all their permutations are expressed.)

The line of inquiry, tends, in its character, to gravitate toward the one or the many. We can think of these methods as the “either/or” and the “both/and.” The line of inquiry that models the one seeks to purify and clarify itself, it cuts off connections to things that it sees as outside of its concept. A boundary line is enforced, an outline of a shape is drawn, an ideal template is generated through which the world can be sorted and filtered in a binary action (fits, doesn’t fit). The ideas of internal coherence, self-consistency, and conceptual integrity emerge from this approach to thinking as the elimination and reduction of the multiplicity of meaning. This is the process of clarification and the removal of the non-germane. The power of this kind of inquiry is measured by its ability to defend its borders. Its sovereignty and its identity depend of the continued existence of a bright line of demarcation.

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When this mode of the line of inquiry begins to unwind, its identity, the central image/concept begins to blur. The borders are breached, foreign connections are established and begin to gain purchase. The viscosity, trajectory and velocity of the line are now in play, the inquisitor has lost exclusivity of editorial control. Here we connect to another kind of line. As lines of inquiry unravel and are overcome, they disperse into a sedimentary layer making up part of the next line of inquiry.

If we take a step back, we can see that every line of inquiry is composed of layers of sediment. At the height of its power, it’s able to cover over these historical sources and present itself as a simple, coherent, consistent identity. Its origin is either proclaimed to be ex-nihilo or a new history of its birth is created.

In the opening section of Deleuze and Guattari’s essay “Rhizome,” it says:

We wrote ‘Anti-Oedipus’ together. As each of us was several, that already made quite a few people. Here we have used all that drew near to hand, both the closest and the furthest away.

Deleuze sees the starting point, not as identity, but as a set of lines. Although it should be noted that the boundaries of this set are fluid. A person, or a line of inquiry, is always already composed of many threads, at whatever moment we choose to call ‘the start.’ These threads are spun into a yarn, braided into rope, disassembled and remade over and over again. They are spread out like a spider’s web, or wound into a ball.

As individuals and groups we are made of lines, lines that are very diverse in nature. The first type of line (there are many of this type) that forms us is segmentary, or rigidly segmented: family/profession; work/vacation; family/then school/then army/then factory/then retirement.

What of the line of inquiry that begins as many and seeks to connect to many? Is there a thinking that asks after multiplicity from the first moment? This mode, from the perspective of its polar opposite, can only be described as disruptive, anarchic, incoherent, gibberish, illogical, unrealistic, unfocused. What can one say about a line of inquiry that doesn’t defend its borders? A line that exposes its mixed origin of birth— from sources both ‘closest and furthest away.’ What kind of line doesn’t drive toward clarity and sharp, bright lines; but rather makes connections as they emerge. How are we to find meaning in such a swirl of chaotic crossed lines. Can meaning emerge from such a maelstrom?

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The task seems impossible if we remain ensnared in the logic of identity. If we believe that each intersection of lines must establish identity and dominance or be defeated and ground into a sedimentary layer of its betters. (The logic of identity is also tightly tied to the economics of value through scarcity.)

It’s inevitable that the whirl-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens… we can get through . (McLuhan 1995)

For a line of inquiry that consists of seeing, discovering and making connections, meaning and value emerge from the swarming and clustering of connections in the unfolding of real-time. Meaning and value have the potential to be very fluid. The sorts and filters aren’t permanent exclusions, they’re qualities of a view. What is important to us one day may seem unimportant the next. This is not to say that meaning a value must always move at a high velocity. These lines have different qualities of viscosity, some move very slowly, some quite quickly. Meaning emerges at the point at which we engage the interface.

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems… are immersing us in a whirlpool of information… the aloof and dislocated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new intense depth participation… decentralising – rather than enlarging – the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. (McLuhan 1995)

These lines, these borders, are surfacing with more visibility in our everyday lives. The borderline between work, family and friends used to be a physical line defined by the boundaries of a workplace. The telephone began the disruption of that space, and thus, the personal phone call was prohibited or limited. This same policy has transferred to a personal connection to the Network. Control of a corporate image means that employees must be silent. The brand must speak with a clear and pure voice— all signal, noise absent.

The iPhone expanded the disruption by overlaying a powerful personal Network connection over the limited connection of the workplace. An inversion of the relative power of technologies has amplified the rupture. If the Network is the computer, the personal connection has access to the computer; while the corporate connection wears blinders. Access to multiplicity provides more access to power, value and meaning, than the narrow scope of the corporate machine.

Women were the first to have to deal with the reality of multiple (social) networks overlaying the workplace. They have the potential to be simultaneously workers, mothers, daughters, wives and more. Men were only too happy to leave their role as ‘father’ at home— and exist solely as a worker in the workplace. The ability of a worker to be all the people she can be may ultimately surface as a civil rights issue.

The boundaries of the Network and the Nation State begin to cross and struggle for power when the US State department asks Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance because of real-time events in the Middle East. This is the beginning of a moment where the Nation state will inscribe its sovereignty within the outlines of the Network. The borders of a territory are surfacing as both physical and virtual.

Borders will continue to try to control lines of connection; the question that emerges is whether the locus of power, meaning and value is moving toward the line of connection, and away from the boundary line that excludes.

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Assemblage: Seeing Difference

Deleuze’s target in Difference and Repetition is the subordination of difference to identity. Normally, difference is conceived of as an empirical relation between two terms each of which have a prior identity of their own (“x is different from y?). In Deleuze, this primacy is inverted: identity persists, but it is now a secondary principle produced by a prior relation between differentials (dx rather than not-x). Difference is no longer an empirical relation but becomes a transcendental principle that constitutes the sufficient reason of empirical diversity as such (for example, it is the electric potential difference in a cloud that constitutes the sufficient reason of the phenomenon of lightning). In Deleuze’s ontology, the different is related to the different through difference itself, without any mediation by an identity.”

Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept “leaf” is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be “leaf”—some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be a correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form.”


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.


432.

Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life?—In use it is alive. Is life breathed into it there?—Or is the use its life?


Reverse is the movement
of Tao.
Yielding is the action of Tao.
Ten thousand things in the universe are created from being.
Being is created from non-being.

On a television program last night, one of the characters was looking at a painting by Constable. He was concentrating particularly on the clouds— as he wanted to learn to paint clouds in the manner of Constable. He turned to the police detective, who was there to question him, and said: “that’s what those clouds looked like on that day.”

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