Archive for September, 2008

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Exoskeleton of the Microformat: Within You, Without you

Hand Exoskeleton

I often think of human-computer interaction (HCI) as the intersection of a language filled with ambiguity with a language purged of ambiguity. When we talk about the advance of the semantic web and microformats, I get this image of our language growing an exoskeleton. The code marking up our language attempts to disambiguate it, drain it of its natural state of overdetermination.


In his book, Muse in the Machine, Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought, David Gelernter talks about how we think at various levels of focus. At high levels of focus we think most like a machine, we are goal directed and push ambiguity to the margins. We are solving problems and making connections within a highly reduced set of possibilities. At low levels of focus we think poetically, with dream imagery, making impossible connections. Any truly creative process involves both modes of thinking. As our language grows an exoskeleton, will we push our humanity and our poetry to the margins? Will we lose our sense of touch?

Meaning is perhaps both the illusion of a perfectly clear language combined with the deep ambiguity of life and truth. Language is both within you and without you.

We were talking – about the space between us all
And the people – who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth – then it’s far too late – when they pass away
And the time will come when you see we’re all one,and life flows on within you and without you

The Trace, The Scent, and the Link: Tracking the Moment

LBJ watches TV

Consuming the multicast, looking for traces of import, and then switching and focusing. Lyndon Johnson was famous for watching all three television networks at once during news broadcasts. But he didn’t consume each stream in its entirety, he was looking for cues to dig out the segments that mattered. He assembled his own narrative from this highly engaged viewing activity.

Elvis watches tv

Politicians need to keep their finger on the pulse to be successful. Elvis Presley also watched all three networks at the same time. He was looking for cues to crack a different kind of code. He scanned the frequencies searching for the scent of cultural information, then quickly switched and focused.

Man who fell to Earth

This model was taken to the extreme in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth. David Bowie played a space alien who absorbed the local culture through a raw feed of all available broadcast channels.

The television remote control made switching simpler, but unless you could visually monitor each of the frequencies, you might miss the sign that signaled the necessity of a switch of focus. Cable television allowed the number of channels and networks to explode. Scanning the frequencies is no longer a job that can done by an individual. The Internet multiplied the possible number of channels into the millions.

Originally it was the VCR, and later the DVR and YouTube that made filtering and copying these valuable moments into a buffer for ready Network access a simple affair. Scanning the raw feed pouring off the network is now done through social media filters, perhaps most effectively by Twitter through communities of interest. A tweet containing a hyperlink is the most compact channel switcher, the most efficient pointer to items of interest.

These pointers we share through the Twitter feed point to locations in the cloud. We click and activate on-demand content that streams in to our computers. Today we think about the text, video and audio we access as a substitution for traditional broadcast and print media. But almost anything that can be expressed as software can be on the other side of that hyperlink. Here we are only limited by our imaginations.

Memory Obscured by a Flash of Light

Flash Bulb

Photography is about capturing light and its reflections. The digital camera, because of its ease of use, has become a repository for our memories. Because most users of digital cameras simply point and shoot, never changing the defaults, they deface their memories at the moment of capture. The subtle play of light across a scene is obliterated by a blinding flash. All light, all reflection is mechanically equalized. Our shadows are banished. When we view the past through the proxy of digital imagery, the scene, the real moment as it entered our eyes, is flooded with illumination– and then, we blink, spots dancing in front of our eyes, the world around us slowly returns to its normal shadowy state. It’s that microsecond, the one that didn’t exist, that is captured for eternity.

Fiat Lux: Science and the Dark Ages

Science has been under assault lately. Political actions have cut off the air supply. Media relay filters have put science and non-science on a level playing field and given equal access to each– all the while maintaining the appearance of “objectivity.”

Dinosaur: Academy of Sciences

I attended a member preview of a revolutionary act today. The California Academy of Sciences, located in Golden Gate Park, will officially open this coming Saturday. At the preview, thousands greeted a presentation of scientific learning.

Science has been underground, hiding from those who might do it harm. There were a couple of things that were important takeaways.

Zebras: Academy of Sciences

Children love science. The faces and voices of children filled the halls. A thousand scientists were created today.

Science is now about context and ecosystems. It’s about the connections within a network. The cheese doesn’t stand alone.

Coral Reef: Academy of Sciences

Everything is connected and everything evolves. Two of the primary shows feature: Evolution in Madagascar and the Galapagos Islands; and Climate Change and how animals will have to adapt. Science and simultaneously a form of political science.

Science comes out of the darkness and gloriously into the light. Let us each keep a candle lit to provide enough light for our children to experience the wonder of the scientific world.

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