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Engelbart’s Frozen Vision


The passing of Doug Engelbart brings to mind John Markoff’s book “What the Dormouse Said.” The subtitle of the book is “How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.” Engelbart was at the center of envisioning what networked personal computers could be. To some extent, we’ve just been coloring in the pictures that Engelbart drew toward the end of 1968.

The date of Engelbart’s death also marks the beginning of the end of the connection between LSD and the technology of personal computing. Engelbart was one of the early experimenters. And while you couldn’t say that his experimentation lead to his visions for technology, you can certainly say that nothing like that would happen today. Interest in our interior space may be at an all-time low. It simply lacks a decent return on investment.

The big demo set the boundaries of the vision, and the commercial technologists have spent the intervening years building it out. If the future wasn’t evenly distributed, it was the job of the personal computing industry to make sure that there was a networked personal computing device for every man woman and child in the country — and every other country too. That “future” is pretty evenly distributed now.

In the early days of the commercialized Network, we used to shake our heads at this company or that government agency and say: “they just don’t get the Internet.” At this point, I’d say that everyone “gets” the Internet and connected computing. Of course, no one gets the Internet in toto, but everyone gets enough of it. And despite the recent laments over the loss of the early spirit of the Network, like the man says: “the street finds its own uses for things.”


There hasn’t been much new vision since the days of ARC, PARC and PLATO. Philip K. Dick saw the dark side which shows up in our movies. Jaron Lanier’s ideas about virtual reality are migrating into the games we play in our living rooms. David Gelernter’s LifeStreams are turning in the various Tweet Streams, Facebook newsfeeds and photostreams. The techno-primativism of Burning Man somehow never really makes it out of the desert. What happens at Burning Man, stays at Burning Man. The engineers at Google admit to trying to make working versions of the computing technology simulated in the original Star Trek television show. And through the inflation of the series of tech bubbles, “technology” was transformed into what venture capitalists were willing to fund. By that definition, even Engelbart wasn’t able to secure funding to continue his work. The vision was frozen in time. What we have now are the Stacks — which is the total commercial exploitation of Engelbart’s original interrupted vision in the form of feudal central clouds.


Vision has an interesting relationship with technology. It’s vaporware if you don’t build it. Its success is marginal if it doesn’t work its way into the fabric of our lives. But vision is less about the technology we’re building, and more about how we might do things. For instance, when we think about Ted Nelson’s vision for the Network, we see the road not taken. Engelbart’s road was taken, and taken from him. The regret that Engelbart had was that his vision was never allowed to evolve and grow. He never saw the “mother of all demos” as the end of the road. The commercial demands around evenly distributing that particular future put an end to all alternate paths, even the ones Engelbart continued to imagine.


Once the vision becomes frozen, we are transformed from participants to consumers. Even the kind of “participation” that makes up the content of social media is largely a form of consumption. And “consumerism” as Timothy Morton likes to point out, is an invention of the romantic era. Recently, I was reading a collection of essays edited by Harold Bloom on Romanticism and Consciousness. I was struck by his description of a piece by Owen Barfield.

…A brief but profound chapter which I have excerpted from Owen Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances, a Study in Idolatry”. Barfield is a historian of human consciousness, who, in this remarkable book, traces and deplores our loss of “participation,” the awareness “of an extra-sensory link between the percipient and the representations.” The progressive loss of the sense of participation, over the centuries, results in an idolatry of memory images. In Barfield’s view, Romanticism arose as an iconoclastic movement, seeking to smash the idols and return men to an original participation in phenomena.

It seems that we’ve colored in all the pictures that Doug Engelbart left us. We’ve colored them in HD and 3D and in real-time streaming. It may be time to smash the idols and try to come up with a new set of pictures.

The Humanities and the Price of Gold


It’s by looking back that you can see the seriousness of the fever. At the time, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. Take that gold jewelry stashed away in the back of a drawer and turn it into money — big money. Inherited gold jewelry impossibly out of fashion could be sold for the value of its gold. No need to haggle about the artistic value, all that mattered was gold content. The trade value of the jewelry is simply the value of its gold.

On August 23, 2011 the price for an ounce of gold hit $1,913.50. That was an all-time high, and while the price has begun to decline, it remains at historically high levels. If you look at antique gold jewelry on eBay, you’ll see the prices have moved with the base price of gold. The collectibility of a work, its rareness, or even the acknowledged skill of the artist who created it — all these factors were overwhelmed by the spot value of gold as a commodity. During this period a lot of antique gold jewelry was melted down to create commodity gold bars or coins. Someone told me that in Hong Kong, the jewelry stores price their gold jewelry by adding up two figures, the first is the weight of the gold multiplied by the spot price, and the second represented the aesthetic value of the piece.

The relationship between form and matter becomes strangely clear when the value of the material destroys the unity of an object and creates a new commodity object — ostensibly one without any formal features. Gold, the commodity, doesn’t need to look like anything in particular. Although its usually given the shape of a brick for easy stacking and marked with its weight for easy price calculations. The material seems to shed its visible aesthetic appearance in favor its pure commodity value.


Gold shows us something important here, something that has some truth beyond the buying and selling of gold. I thought about the price of gold when reading some recent essays on the decline and fall of the Humanities in universities around the country. Certain kinds of math and science have taken on the qualities of gold in the University. A university education has always required the declaration of a major area of interest. And now we can easily assign a value to a diploma based on the degree to which it can be traded for employment that at minimum has the potential of paying back the student loans incurred in the process of attaining it. What was a university education has been disrupted by the spot value of one of its component parts.

As with objects made from gold, the university education is no longer a university education. They keep up appearances, but in many cases they’ve been reduced to their commodity value. The decline in the humanities is the process of melting down the aesthetic externalities to get at the pure gold bricks of the spot value of an education.

The humanities have a value, but not in this new object that has been created in the place of the university. Gold jewelry has a value, but not in the context of historically high spot prices for gold. The price of gold is falling, so it’s entirely possible that the old object could re-emerge out of the new object. But, of course, once you’ve melted down your great grandmother’s gold jewelry the damage is done.

Architecture, Arena Rock and Big Box Stores

It was Aron Michalski who turned me on to David Byrne’s thoughts on the effect of architecture on music. The gist of the idea is that popular music is composed to be performed in certain kinds of venues. When rock music moved from clubs and theaters to arenas and stadiums the music had to change to accommodate the space.

My first real experience of this phenomenon was hearing The Who perform at one of Bill Graham’s Day on the Green concerts at the stadium in Oakland. Pete Townsend’s windmill electric guitar chords rang out filling and shaking the stadium. It was shock and awe, a form of the Burkean sublime. In my memory, the figures on the stage seemed like giants.

At the same time there was a withdrawal of music from physical space exemplified by The Beatles retreating to the studio to create music they would never perform in an arena, stadium or any where else for that matter. This direction was solidified by Brian Eno in his writings about the recording studio as compositional tool. Eno compares the advent of purely recorded music to the split between theater and film into separate art forms. Film, like constructed and recorded music, can create an experience in playback that can’t be produced in live performance. The medium shifts from the room to the playback of music in some domestic space or perhaps even in the mental space of headphones. The new medium for music becomes its transmission over wires and broadcast to an endpoint.

And just as with popular music’s adaptation to the vast open spaces of the sports stadium, music changes to accommodate the contours of the Network. A higher percentage of music becomes music for playback. The number of bands that can fill a stadium with both music and fans—always a small number, shrinks even further. And among the new acts climbing the charts, fewer set their sites on the stadium as the ultimate venue.

When I saw the headline about Best Buy slowing going out of business, I didn’t immediately make the connection to arena rock. But there’s a sense in which the progress of retail mirrors that of popular music; moving to larger and larger venues—packing in both the people and the product. And just as with music, there’s a virtual channel that has been able to treat the retail space as an endlessly plastic medium that can be mixed and remixed into a seemingly infinite variety of shopping experiences. Here also the medium changed from a physical space to bits coming over a wire and broadcast on to a screen. And just as with arena and stadium rock, the number of acts who can fill those big boxes is shrinking in number.

The movie “You’ve Got Mail” is a interesting artifact of the rise of the big box bookstore. The film lifts its love story from Ernst Lubitch’s “The Shop Around the Corner.” In the zeitgeist of the time, it was all too clear that the small independent bookstore was doomed and would be driven out of existence by the book superstore with its huge inventory, low prices, cozy chairs and access to legal stimulants in the form of hot beverages. It wasn’t something to get mad about, it was just the way of the world—not personal, just business. So Meg Ryan’s carefully curated children’s bookstore ‘The Shop Around The Corner (named in tribute to its predecessor) is put out of business by Tom Hanks’s giant Fox Books. Now if we look at the landscape of booksellers today, we see a much different picture. The arena rock bookstores can’t sell enough tickets and are shutting down—their role is being filled by the plastic virtual bookseller. We’re sort of in the era of the headphone retailer.

I’ve always loved browsing in used book stores. The combination of lower price and serendipity is wonderfully entertaining. I don’t expect to find a complete set of books in print, instead the experience is more like a performance in a small space. I take in and appreciate the set of books that are here in the space right now. I know that next week, or the week after, I’ll see a largely new set of books. The used book store is an incredibly efficient filter for discovering what might be worth reading and what people in general are reading. These books have already experienced ‘use.’ It’s an interesting example of how a small space can provide much more value than a large space.

This rehabilitation of the small space is a trend that seems to working its way through music, retailing and even social networks. It may signal a return to intimacy. Kinda makes you wonder what it’d be like to shop at “The Shop Around the Corner’s” Matuschek and Company.

Year-End Processing: The Network as Growth Medium

A few year-end thoughts about the Network have been rattling around my skull. This is probably a continuation of the exploration of the ‘finite shapes of growth.’ The real-time social messaging space seems to have reached a saturation point, and therefore the upper end of the sigmoidal growth curve. The big single-index real-time systems have exerted their dominance and are largely engaged in enabling features that increase the density of connections within the territory they’ve already marked out. The second-tier systems will struggle and many will fall to the wayside. A few will stand waiting in the wings for the possible moment when a first-tier player stumbles.

After walking around the block several times, pulling on all the doors, trying to find a way into this exploration, I ended up with the word: “medium.” Medium, as in the physical channel through which messages are passed; and medium as in a culture medium used to grow micro-organisms or cells. Medium can also be understood as the time/space aspect of an object, its identity/variability. When we consider ‘big data’ on the Network, we seem to be talking about creating and maintaining a medium where higher-level statistical objects can be grown. These meta-patterns are made visible through feats of data collection and statistical computation. It’s analogous to cataloging weather events and other data to model climate change. “Climate” as a dynamic entity only becomes visible through the deployment of a large network of sensors hooked up to computers updating a model in real time. Weather is visible as the raindrops that keep falling on your head, climate is visible only through a complex computational sensing system to which only a few people have access.

The business model of harvesting these higher-level patterns has generally involved slicing up the data into the groups of people who create these patterns. Lists of these target audiences are rented to commercial interests, and recently so is the messaging apparatus and the communications medium. A well-targeted message should show increased effectiveness in confirmed delivery and lead to net positive transactions. If you think about it, all of these new real-time social media companies are in the television business. Television is transformed into a container that holds a message stream of condensed multiple media types on the Network. This medium is designed to grow various audiences (meta-patterns) to harvest and take to market. Once a certain scale is achieved this set up becomes a cash machine. The energy to grow the crop is largely supplied by the participants using the system. The users of the system gain access to a simple real-time content management system along with a flat view of a subscription stream. The valuable patterns are reserved for exploitation by the owners of the system.

When you look at the imposition of the real-time social media model on to the corporate enterprise, you’ll see the same model. The valuable patterns are reserved for management. The corporate enterprise will spend a lot of money attempting to absorb this new model of television in the coming year. It will allow each corporation to become its own media company. It should be noted that a person is not ‘social’ when using corporate social media behind a firewall. An employee is a human resource to be profitably deployed, not a person. The idea isn’t to empower people, it’s to provide data to management. The pattern data belongs to the central management structure and it will be used to create and refine the workings of a well-oiled machine–of which the employee will be a replaceable part. The entire benefit accrues to the survival, growth and sustainability of the corporation, not to the individual person. Can you imagine a social media revolution within a corporation that drives the current C-level executives from power? The power structure within the corporate enterprise will use the system to maintain and refine their power, all the while, selling the use of the system as a democratization. For instance, it’s unlikely that unions would be allowed to use a real-time corporate social media system to organize workers and collect violations of work rules.

If the single central-index model has reached a saturation point, does that mean the Network has reached maturity and an end to its growth phase? The Network can accommodate other models and I expect we’ll see some rapid experimentation over the next few years. The key to these new models will involve pushing valuable meta-data patterns to the endpoints of the Network. Simple examples include mobile applications that function as commuter traffic data collectives. Members contribute reports of their own traffic data to a pool and in exchange they received a general picture of traffic conditions. This is similar to the dynamic of reporting weather data and receiving compiled climate reports in return. The key difference is that when data is contributed, access to meta-data patterns is guaranteed.

Clay Shirky uncovered a vast resource when he wrote about cognitive surplus. We can easily ask what might be accomplished should all those hours of passive television viewing be turned into two-way networked interactions. In a sense, this is the rediscovery of the Network as a commons. Not as a common natural resource for each to exploit, but as a common resource built by all the participants. Another untapped resource was uncovered by John Thackara in his book “In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World.” In our consumer society it’s a point of honor to keep up with the Jones’s. We each buy our own industrially-produced copy of the latest prescribed set of consumer objects. We accumulate and store them as quickly as we can. But as Thackara notes, we purchase and store, accumulating social capital. We are known as the kind of person who can, and did, buy that particular thing. We rarely use what we buy, its use-value remains untapped—it sits passively in the garage or the hall closet. eBay and Craigslist have emerged as the markets where this passive value is converted back into capital. Here’s Thackara on the eco-economics of the power tool:

Power tools are another example. The average consumer power tool is used for ten minutes in its entire life—but it takes hundreds of times its own weight to manufacture such an object. Why own one, if I can get ahold of one when I need it? A ‘product-service system’ provides me with access to the products, tools, opportunities, and capabilities I need to get the job done—namely, power tools for to use, but not own.

Service design is about arranging things so that people who need things done are connected to other people and equipment that get things done—on an as- and when-needed basis. The technical term, which comes from the logistics industry, is “dynamic resource allocation in real time.” Agricultural cooperatives that purchase tractors and sell their use-time to associates are well-known examples, but once one starts looking, examples spring up everywhere: a home delivery service for detergents in Italy, a mobile laboratory for industrial users of lubricants in Germany, dozens of car-sharing schemes, an organic vegetable subscription system in Holland. Industrial ecologists Francois Jegou and Ezio Manzini found enough examples to fill a book, ‘Sustainable Everyday: A Catalogue of Promising Solutions’, which is filled with novel daily life services that they discovered around the world. These are ‘planning activities whose objective is a system,’ Manzini told me. Hundreds of services suitable for a resource-limited, complex, and fluid world are being developed by grassroots innovators: those that enable people to take care of other people, work, study, move around, find food, eat, and share equipment.

Local systems that enable dynamic resource allocation in real time of local resources, which includes both data patterns and physical resources, would allow a kind of optimization of value by ordinary people that has previously been reserved for the corporation. Some nascent examples of this include, Phil Windley’s Kynetx network scripting platform. Windley talks about a Kynetx script that runs on his browser while looking at the Amazon site. The script instantly tells him whether the book he’s looking at is available in his local library. One can easily imagine a similar scenario involving power tools or other kinds of durable resources. Mobile computing expands the purview of this kind of scripting from web pages on the Network to objects in the real world. This is sometimes called the internet of things. It’s not the point of connection, but rather the advent of scriptability that makes these things creatures of the Network.

Another example is Jon Udell’s Elm City Project — a project to create networked data hubs and librarians of announcements of local community events. Solving the problem of translating and integrating the various methods in which calendar data is recorded is transformed into the production of a meta-data object that provides a wide view of the public events occurring in a locality. We don’t yet know the effect increased visibility of public events will have on a citizenry, but providing a higher-level view of the event life of a community feels like an entirely democratic endeavor. In times of peace and prosperity, an effort like this is non-controversial. In times of political strife, it attains the status of a public square and its commitment to openness will be tested.

While the shared resource of a power tool seems like a simple thing, it implies some very complex social group dynamics. It’s only with the rise of the sociality of the Network along with the politics of the 99% that we may have the ground for learning how to share a larger set of resources with more diverse groups. David Graeber, in his book, “Debt“, describes what he calls baseline communism. By this he means the understanding that unless people consider themselves to be enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply. Here’s Graeber:

Baseline communism might be considered the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace. Still, in most circumstances, that minimal baseline is not enough. One always behaves in a spirit of solidarity more with some people than with others, and certain institutions are specifically based on principles of solidarity and mutual aid. First among these are those we love, with mothers being the paradigm of selfless love. Others include close relatives, wives and husbands, lovers, one’s closest friends. These are the people with whom we share everything, or at least to whom we know we can turn in need, which is the definition of a true friend everywhere. Such friendships may be formalized by a ritual as “bond-friends” or “blood brothers” who cannot refuse each other anything. As a result, any community could be seen as criss-crossed with relations of “individualistic communism,” one-to-one relations that operate, to varying intensities and degrees, on the basis of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

This same logic can be, and is, extended within groups: not only cooperative work groups, but almost any in-group will define itself by creating its own sort of baseline communism. There will be certain things shared or made freely available within the group, others that anyone will be expected to provide for other members on request, that one would never share with or provide to outsiders: help in repairing one’s nets in an association of fisherman, stationery supplies in an office, certain sorts of information among commodity traders, and so forth. Also, certain categories of people we can always call on in certain situations, such as harvesting or moving house. Once could go on from here to various forms of sharing, pooling, who gets to call on whom for help with certain tasks: moving, or harvesting, or even, if one is in trouble, providing an interest-free loan. Finally, there are the different sorts of “commons,” the collective administration of common resource.

The sociology of everyday communism is a potentially enormous field, but one which, owing to our peculiar ideological blinkers, we have been unable to write about because we have been largely unable to see it.

While networked computational tools can assist us in expanding the scope and breadth of the sharing we do with groups and individuals, it’s our ability to navigate the new social customs and ceremonies of the Network that will determine how far all this spreads. It’s a counter-cultural idea, instead of placing the highest value on independence and individuality, it takes us down the path of interdependence and coexistence. And this brings us back to this idea of a growth medium. As the old year ends, and the new one begins, I’m imagining an as yet unpublished Whole Earth Catalog filled with tools and perspectives on how we might grow this new crop in the fields of the Network. It’s a thing that “is” what it describes.

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
– Percy Bysshe Shelley

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