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The Ill-Equipped: Blending Out of the Background

megyn-kelly-google-glass

“Technology is at its best when it gets out of the way. Good technology blends in.” Most of the top technology firms take these ideas as their credo. This is the way Apple talked about the iPad, and the way Google now talks about their augmented reality appliance, Google Glass. The fact that the highest aim of technological devices is to get out of the way is a clue to how broken technological interfaces and devices have been.

Take Heidegger’s favorite example of the hammer. The hammer blends in, it gets out of the way when we are successfully hammering in a nail. The hammer itself, as a tool, blends into the background of the hammering activity. It’s only when the hammer breaks that it juts back into our world of hammering with its brute physicality as a “hammer.”

Another example used by Heidegger is wearing corrective lenses in the form of glasses. While they appear to be the closest thing, literally resting on your nose — while they are in use, they are the farthest thing from us. They exist in another world entirely.

Google Glass takes an interesting path to the background. The example of the hammer shows us that any tool, whether it contains onboard network-connected computer processing or not, can become a part of the background. Heidegger’s discussion of eyewear tells us something about what is near or far in the context of the person engaged in a project in the midst of the world. Google Glass moves to the background by attempting to move into, or behind, our eyes. Like the example of eyewear, the eye itself is part of the background when it is merely seeing. This technology gets out of the way by positioning itself outside our field of vision and then superimposing augmentation layers on it.

xray-specs

Google’s augmented reality appliance attempts to erase its material presence. Its only trace is the data it projects onto the world. In this sense, it is an metaphysical idealist par excellence. Its camera claims to record the world from a unique subjective perspective. From outside of the world, as it were. Do you see what I see? Well, now you can. Click here.

Of course, while the position of Google’s Glass gets it out of the user’s way, it puts itself directly in everyone else’s way. “Glass” breaks your face for me. It’s no longer operating as a face, now it’s a camera and potentially it’s projecting augmented reality data on or over me. This is the problem with misunderstanding how backgrounds work. Being physically “out of the way” is not the same thing as blending into a background.

Technology yearns to recede into the background just at the moment when the background itself is broken. Global warming and other forms of pollution have resulted in the geological era known as the anthropocene. The combined force of human activity is now part of what we used to call the background. Extreme weather and other strange events jut out of the background and disrupt the status quo of our everyday world. What they’re telling us is that our everyday world has ended. The background is permanently broken. The narrator no longer inscribes his story on the backdrop (augmented reality); it’s the backdrop that inscribes its narrative onto the narrator. These strange weather events are an augmentation of reality from reality’s point of view.

Rather than tools that attempt to blend with background, perhaps we need tools that are partially broken. Tools that are a little weird and occasionally provide unexpected results. Tools that remind us of where they came from and the labor conditions under which they were produced. Tools that start a conversation from the tool-side of the divide. In his letters from the 1940s and 50s, Samuel Beckett writes about his decision to write in French rather than English. He points to:

“le besoin d’être mal armé” (“the need to be ill-equipped”)

Writing in English was starting to “knot him up”, it was a language he knew too well. It was this ill-equipped writer that would one day write “Ill Seen, Ill Said“. In addition to the necessity of using broken tools, Beckett also points another writer with his phrase: Stephane Mallarme. Mallarme was one of the first poets to bring the background into the body of the poem. In his poem “A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” the white space, the background of the text becomes part of the work. When philosopher Tim Morton talks about “environmental or ecological philosophy” he’s trying to get at just this. It’s not a philosophy that takes the environment or ecology as its topic, but rather a thinking that’s ill-equipped, a little broken, a little twisted, where shards of the background come jutting through.

Google’s Glass is signalling to us about backgrounds and our place in them. It’s a message we can only hear in the moments before we raise the appliance and attach it to our face.

witkiewicz-poster

The Politics of the Message and the File

ikoni

If you strip away all of the surface distractions and zoom in on the computing environment using your microscopic vision, you see bits moving back and forth across a wire. If you zoom back out to the macro level, you can see Hewlett Packard and Google making radical changes in strategy and multi-billion dollar bets on how the preponderance of those bits will travel.

Now step into the time machine and move back a few years. The personal computer has just become the business computer. Most of the bits are written and retrieved from local hard drives in the form of files. Files are moved via sneaker-net. Move forward a few years and files are moved over local networks and individual computers are linked together within a single location. Shared files find their way to file servers and now allow multiple users to access and add work product to these common-use files.

Concurrently, the message finds an electronic home in email. Initially email messages can only be transmitted within specific platforms. You need to be on the same network as the people you want to communicate with. Fast forward a few years and email is sent with a common protocol and the networks become a network of networks. Now you only need to know the name of the endpoint to send a message to anyone.

The growth vector of the file’s environment is the size of the hard disk. Larger hard disks in the computing device and on the local network define capacity. As time passes and more files accumulate, they require even more disk space. As computing power increases, file sizes increase as well. As more and more things are digitized, more kinds of things are stored on hard drives in digital form.

The personal computer connects to a local area network, a wide area network and a global network to create a new entity called the Network. Both message traffic and file creation are initiated through the personal computer and start to be pointed at the Network. As the speed of the Network increases, the length of the wire that file bits can workably traverse becomes global in nature. It’s at this point that the message and the file begin to converge. The functionality of the personal computer as a file processing machine begins to be sucked down the wire and reconstituted into the virtual space of the Network. Both the file and computing processes are remote controlled through a set of messages sent back and forth across the wires.

The technology dynasties that were built up around these different ways of treating bits have large investments in both the technical infrastructure and mental models of either files or messages. The roots of these patterns go deep into the corporate structures of these organizations. With the recent moves by HP and Google, we can see the can see that the message and messaging network infrastructure has finally tipped the balance away from the file. The file has become another kind of message for a signaling device pointed at a cloud messaging network. Google attempts to reach across from the cloud to gain a foothold on the device side. HP recognizes that rather than going from personal computer to signaling device, the move from personal computer to custom central computing platforms is a better fit.

It’s worth noting that the message infrastructure has backed off of its most radical formulation and returned to the competing large network platform environment. In the email messaging environment there was an impetus and energy to connect the disparate systems and endpoints so that any two endpoints could connect. The connections between the new era large messaging platforms are purely one-way, instead of the more common “read-only” capability, this is a “write-only” hook up. One has a sense of retreating from a democratic network back to a feudal system of large kingdoms.

There’s a maxim in investing that you should buy at the moment of maximum pessimism. The file, it seems, is on the ropes. The message, messaging networks and signaling devices seem to be firmly in control of the corporate agenda. That’s why it’s interesting that Apple, with its iCloud initiative, is investing in redefining the user’s relationship with the file. The file becomes non-local, it doesn’t travel across the wire, it’s simply wherever it’s needed. Or, at least, it appears that way. All the mechanics of syncing, versioning, reading and writing have been removed from the workflow. The creation device, the file and the file network may be perfectly ripe for rejuvenation as our obsession with the message reaches its peak.

Sleepers Awake: Grains of Sand

This is a meander, rather than a construction. If it were a house, it would probably fall down. No foundation, no plumbing, no two-by-fours holding up the walls. Just a set of connections, some things that grouped themselves together around an image.

It started with Jon Udell’s essay, published on May 17, 2011, called “Awakened Grains of Sand.” I didn’t read the essay until much later. I’d marked it in an RSS reader, and then sent it to my Text DVR, Instapaper, to read at a later date. In the essay, Udell makes another attempt to explain what he calls “web thinking.” By coming back to this subject again and again, he teases out new threads, new aspects of the real shape of what we call the virtual. His work with calendars, analog and digital, pinpoints a space where a potential connection is missed. Generally speaking, different kinds calendars can’t seem to talk to each other.

It was Udell’s use of ‘grains of sand’ as a metaphor that caught my attention.

In a recent talk I failed (spectacularly) to convey the point I’m about to make, so I’ll try it again and more carefully here. We can make about as many 14-character tags as there are grains of sand on Earth. True, a lot of those won’t be nice mnemonic names like WestStDamKeene, instead they’ll look like good strong unguessable passwords. But there are still unimaginably many mnemonic names to be found in this vast namespace. Each of those can serve as a virtual bucket that we can use to make and share collections of arbitrarily many web resources.

The implications take a while to sink in. Grains of sand are inert physical objects. They just lie around; we can’t do much with them. But names can be activated. I can create a 14-character name today — actually I just did: WestStDamKeene — that won’t be found if you search for it today on Google or Bing. But soon you will be able to find at least one hit for the term. At first the essay I’m now typing will be the only hit from among the 30 billion indexed by Google and 11 billion indexed by Bing. But if others use the same term in documents they post to the web, then those documents will join this one to form a WestStDamKeene cluster.

This took me in two directions. The idea of a grain of sand as an inert physical object in relation to a system of meaning, or set of web services, first pulled in thoughts of Saussurean linguistics and the idea of the arbitrary nature of the signifier in relation to the signified. But a stronger pull was exerted by the opening stanza of William Blake’s poem from 1803, “Auguries of Innocence.”

Auguries of Innocence
William Blake

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fiber from the Brain does tear.

Blake starts with the tiny inert physical object and from it he conjures the whole universe. Udell’s grains of sand have the potential to combine into legible sequences and encode some specific meaning, or refer to an assembly of services. Blake uses parts to stand in for wholes, a rhetorical figure known as synecdoche. An augury is a sign or an omen.

The poet Robert W. Service, known as the Bard of the Yukon, also makes use of the ‘grain of sand.’ While he’s best remembered for “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” in a poem written in the 1950s, he travels the dangerous territory first marked out by Giordano Bruno. If Blake sees the world in a grain of sand, Service notices that the beach is filled with sand. Each grain might be a world, a constellation, a universe. A million grains of sand quickly makes the leap to infinity.

A Grain of Sand
Robert W. Service

If starry space no limit knows
And sun succeeds to sun,
There is no reason to suppose
Our earth the only one.
‘Mid countless constellations cast
A million worlds may be,
With each a God to bless or blast
And steer to destiny.

Just think! A million gods or so
To guide each vital stream,
With over all to boss the show
A Deity supreme.
Such magnitudes oppress my mind;
From cosmic space it swings;
So ultimately glad to find
Relief in little things.

For look! Within my hollow hand,
While round the earth careens,
I hold a single grain of sand
And wonder what it means.
Ah! If I had the eyes to see,
And brain to understand,
I think Life’s mystery might be
Solved in this grain of sand.

Today we speak easily about the possibility of multiple universes, for Giordano Bruno, those thoughts ended in imprisonment and eventually execution. On February 17, 1600, Bruno was burned at the stake for his explorations into the expanses of infinity:

Whatever is an element of the infinite must be infinite also; hence both Earths and Suns are infinite in number. But the infinity of the former, is not greater than of the latter; nor where all are inhabited, are the inhabitants in greater proportion to the infinite than the stars themselves.

Blake sees the world in a grain of sand, Bruno says that whatever is an element of the infinite must be infinite also. For Saussure, the arbitrary nature of the phoneme means that a signifier has no necessary link to the signified. Udell can chain together a sequence of grains of sand and point them at any object, or collection of objects, in the universe. The sleeping and withdrawn grains of sand are awakened when this link is made.

After finishing Udell’s essay, I was also taken with its resonances to my post: Going Orbital: Content and its Discontents. Where Udell tries to explain ‘web thinking,’ I try to examine the differences between the practice of the analog and the digital. It’s a strange land where a thing is a copy at its origin; and by moving it from here to there another copy is created. Even the act of reading it creates another copy. These things have no fixed position, and appear to exist simultaneously in multiple locations—a kind of every day non-locality.

In thinking about this leap from the analog to the digital, Udell considers the example of calendar entries. But another example of this figure pulled itself into this constellation of thoughts. In Ian Bogost’s book, Unit Operations, An Approach to Videogame Criticisim, he recounts some of the early history of computers and computation:

Among the first true high-speed electronic digital computers, ENIAC’s main disadvantage was a considerable one: it contained programmatic instructions in separate segments of the machine. These segments needed to be properly plugged together to route information flow for any given task. Since the connections had to be realigned for each new computation, programming ENIAC required considerable physical effort and maintenance. Noting its limitations, in 1945 ENIAC engineer and renowned mathematician John von Neumann suggested that computers should have a simply physical structure and yet be able to perform any kind of computation through programmable control alone rather than physical alteration of the computer itself. …Stored-programming makes units of each program reusable and executable based on programmatic need rather than physical arrangement. Von Neuman, Eckert, Mauchley, and Goldstine designed a control instruction called the conditional control transfer to achieve these goals. The conditional control transfer allowed programs to execute instructions in any order, not merely in the linear flow in which the program was written.

In this figure, the move from the analog to the digital takes the form of moving from a physical model of computing to a logical model. Here too, we need to take a leap in our understanding of location and how a thing occupies space. The world can be loaded into a grain of sand, and the grains of sand rearranged in arbitrary patterns.

“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!”
— Marshall McLuhan

While it’s bound to continue on, the latest stop in this chain of thought is with Apple’s iCloud and the end of the file system. The desktop and file folder metaphor breaks down once you find yourself trying to keep things in sync across multiple devices. Source and version control software isn’t a part of the common tool set. This is part of the ‘web thinking’ that Udell has had such difficulty in getting across. Part of the problem is the metaphors we have at our disposal. A metaphor is literally “to carry over.” A broken metaphor no longer carries over, the sense leaks out as it crosses the chasm.

It’ll be interesting to find out whether this transformation can take place without explanation, outside of language. If whatever you’re working on, or listening to, just shows up where ever you need it. That could be enough, understanding it may be beside the point. Does magic need an explanation? The work of synchronization and versions isn’t something you do, it’s just the way certain kinds of digital things behave. If it catches on, we’ll start wondering why all digital things don’t behave that way.

Batteries not included

Recently I’ve been using a very simple analytical technique to look at a variety of systems. I’d describe it as a blunt rather than a fine edged tool. The metaphor breaks down around the edges, but the yield is still quite good.

Systems require energy to remain organized, otherwise they fall prey to entropy—they start coming apart. The system must at least match the power of entropy to maintain the status quo. That level must be exceeded to refine the granularity of its organization. For the purposes of the analysis, I’m using electricity as a metaphor for power. The tool is employed like this:

– Does it runs on battery power?
– Must it be plugged into an outlet?

Let’s start with the characteristics of the plugged-in. For these systems, electricity is a utility, an assumption, a constant. Power is commoditized and on tap in the environment. Whatever the system requires is available through the outlet on the wall. Power is unlimited, steady and metered—but in order for the system to be operational, a power cord must be connected to the grid. Another way to think about this is through the economics of abundance.

A system that runs on batteries has a limited store of power. Concepts like standby power, active power use and sharing a limited resource start to come in to play. Batteries need to be recharged and eventually replaced. Active battery life must line up with human cycles of sleeping and waking; working and living; active and passive use. Tilt the battery to a slightly different angle and you can see the economics of scarcity.

The desktop computer was made to be plugged in. Not much has changed there. The hardware and the software assumes unlimited commodity electricity from the environment The first laptops were built for portability, they were easy to move from one outlet to another. The battery’s low capacity resulted in limited usefulness as a un-tethered device. Over time the hardware of the laptop began to change to accommodate the limitations of the battery, but the software was unchanged. It was crucial that the laptop run desktop software without any alterations.

Adobe’s Flash makes an interesting case study for this analytic technique. Flash was built to operate within the plugged-in system of the desktop computer. As such, it moved easily and naturally to the world of laptops and netbooks. In the world of battery-powered devices it shows its roots. It begs the question of whether something built to use power as an infinite commodity can be altered to operate in an environment of finite power. Faith in a Moore’s law-like increase in capacity holds out hope that these kinds of applications can be merely altered. As long as they can conserve just enough power, they should be able to operate successfully in a large finite energy environment. Another way to ask this question might be: is reform sufficient, or is revolution necessary?

It’s with mobile computing devices built from the the ground up like the iPhone and iPad that battery life has been extended to up to 10 hours. That’s a span of time that begins to be available for complex relationships with the rhythms of life. Software for these devices is also built from the ground up to operate within a restricted power environment. Among other things, mobile computing means a device unrestricted by a power cord.

The battery introduces an era of limits against the infinite constant of the electrical outlet. It’s worth taking a moment to consider how something like electricity, water or natural gas could be converted into an assumed resource of the environment. Imagine if any of the plugged-in appliances in your home had to be re-engineered to work on batteries. Would they need to change incrementally or radically?

In 1978, James Burke debuted a television program called ‘Connections.’ It was billed as an ‘alternate view of change.’ The first episode looked at how a vast technical network had become deeply entangled with every aspect of our lives. Burke thought one way to put that entanglement into relief would be to turn the network off, and then review the effects. To accomplish this Burke created a re-enactment of the 1965 blackout of New York City and the entire northeast of the United States.

Not surprisingly, New York needs to be plugged in, it wasn’t designed to run on batteries. This sent Burke on a quest to find out how we arrived at this point. While we can create artificial scarcity through economic incentives and punishments in the billing for electric power use, these efforts take place within a context of an infinite power supply. There’s always the option to pay more for more power. Contrast that with a battery, no matter how much money you have, your battery will drain at the same rate as the next person’s.

The move from desktop to laptop to tablet/handheld traces an evolution from the infinite to the finite. It also traces a line from the finite contents of a hard disk to the infinite contents of the Network. The cloud computing factories that supply the endpoints of the Network are in the process of being retooled. Heretofore they’d just been plugged into the grid like everything else. Now the grid is positioned as backup power and the Network factories are plugged directly into the the standing reserves of the earth. Natural gas is transformed into electricity through local power generation. This isn’t a transformation from outlet to battery, it’s the substitution of one form of outlet for another.

The photograph of the earth that Stewart Brand put on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog made plain the finitude of our planet. There is no infinite reserve of power behind the outlet on the wall. As we continue to build out the electronic Network environment, at some point, we’ll run up against this limit. Of course, we may have already hit the limit, or passed it long ago. But like the space battles in our science fiction films, we expected to hear a great crashing noise as the limit was reached. Surely there would be some sort of sign, some gesture from the earth letting us know that we’ve exceeded our allowance. But as the poet Milosz reminds us, worlds end, and sometimes no one notices.

A Song On the End of the World
by Czeslaw Milosz
translated by Anthony Milosz

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

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