Archive for May, 2009

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The Bit Salesman’s Lament


He’d lugged his case back and forth, up and down that long dusty road. It’d become a lot lighter once some of the atoms were exchanged for bits. But for a long time various sequences of atoms were still used to encase the bits. Every few years, they’d come out with new model of the arrangement of atoms. Some better way to get at the bits and play them with greater fidelity. To a guy lugging a case around, that meant everytime a new model came out, the case got lighter.

It had pretty much been a transport and titling business. Bits encased in atoms moved from “here” to “there,” the title of ownership was transferred from the seller to the buyer for a monetary recompense.

When the real estate prices in the cloud got cheap enough, the bit warehouses were moved there. The old atom-based bit cases were dispensed with altogether. That’s when the business really changed. There were no more separate bit containers to lug around. The bits just flowed directly into the players and were stored there. There was still a “here” and a “there,” and the title still transferred– so the fundamentals remained the same.

These new cloud warehouses were able to store a lot more inventory– certainly much more than could be stored on a customer’s bit player. For a while, there was a pretty good business in selling players with larger and larger bit storage containers. But the same low prices that motivated the bit sellers to move their warehouses to the cloud began to attract their customers as well. Customers started renting container storage units in the cloud and storing excess bits there. In response to this the bit players stopped growing larger bit storage containers and started playing bits directly from the storage warehouse.

This was another change in direction for the bit business. The idea of “here” and “there” was disappearing from the equation. Even the idea of moving bits from the seller’s warehouse to the buyer’s warehouse didn’t quite make sense. To the customer’s bit player, all these warehouses were the same. The bit salesman’s business was now just keeping track of who had bought access to which bits in the warehouse. Shoe leather virtualized into a voice over the wire.

Of course some customers still wanted local delivery of bits. Usually they were interested in chopping up the bits, recombining them with other bits to make new sequences. These new bit sequences were then shipped off to the warehouse, ready for redistribution.

While there are plenty of things that can’t be turned into bits, anything that can be, will be. The image of the lonely bit salesman pounding the pavement, moving bits from “here” to “there” with shoe leather and a big sample case is now the stuff of memoir, museums and fiction.

Time Tunnel Interview: McLuhan on Real Time, Twitter and the Digital Body


The interface emerged in a SemioText(e) edition of Baudrillard’s Simulations, it was a reference to Marshall McLuhan. The pointer was unexpected and lead me to engage in more in-depth inquires. And so, of course, my first stop was YouTube. The Mechanics Institute Library yielded four printed texts, and Netflix responded with the documentary McLuhan’s Wake. A flood of provocative thinking invaded my playlist.

“But almost everyone agrees that no one can make sense out of more than 10% of what McLuhan says..”

It occured to me that the linear quality of time shouldn’t be an obstacle to a good interview. And there are some questions I needed to ask McLuhan. There’s a sense in which questions and answers can address each other across time. This connected up to Jeff Jonas’s thinking on Perpetual Analytics or what he describes as real-time situational analytics– the idea of changing the time context of a database from polling to data streams. In his blog post, Sequence Neutrality in Information Systems, Jonas asks the question: “What if the question being asked today is not a smart question until next Thursday?”

In reading McLuhan’s work from 1964, I got the sense that he was providing answers to questions that his contemporaries could not yet formulate. Jonas posits a data ground where data finds data, and relevance will find the user. McLuhan’s answers seemed to be seeking out my questions.

echovar: The transition from visual space to acoustic space seems to be a key to understanding– among other things in your work, the oft-quoted fragment “the medium is the message.” Can you discuss the idea of acoustic space and what makes it different?

McLuhan: The new environment of simultaneous and diversified information creates acoustic man. He is surrounded by sound– from behind, from the side, from above. His environment is made up of information in all kinds of simultaneous forms, and he puts on this electrical environment as we put on our clothes, or as the fish puts on water.

Acoustic space is created by our ability to hear from all directions at once. Electric information arrives from all quarters at once. Thus, in effect, acoustic environments were created by the telegraph and began to show up in the press as mosaics of juxtaposed and discontinuous items all under one dateline. Acoustic space is all touch and interplay, all resonance and sympathy. Acoustic space is like the relationship of mother and child, which is audile-tactile, sound and touch. The cooing and handling and touching– this is the kind of world the electric media put around us. The electric media are a mom-and-child or rock-and-roll relationship.

The acoustic or simultaneous space in which we now live is like a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose margins are nowhere. Acoustic space cannot be cut up into pieces, as visual space can. It is both compressed and indivisible.

echovar: As your thinking matured, you migrated from the long form essay to the probe– the fragment and the aphorism. In the age of Twitter, we sometimes feel that depth is sacrificed to brevity. Can you address how depth is preserved in the compression of your thought?

McLuhan: In the work of Harold Innis, each sentence is a compressed monograph. He includes a small library on each page, and often incorporates a small library of references on the same page in addition. Most writers are occupied in providing accounts of the contents of philosophy, science, libraries, empires and religions. Innis invites us instead to consider the formalities of power exerted by these structures in their mutual interaction. He approaches each of these forms of organized power as exercising a particular kind of force upon each of the other components in the complex. By bouncing the unknown form against known forms, he discovered the nature of the new or little known form.

I call this method a probe. The probe is a means or method of perceiving. It resists any single point of view; it’s a better form than expository prose for examining our time because it works by gaps and interfaces. For instruction, use incomplete knowledge so people can fill things in– they can round it out and fill it in with their own experiences. There’s no participation in just telling: that’s simply for consumers– they sit there and swallow it, or not. These probes might easily be tweets:

“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

“The only cool PR is provided by one’s enemies. They toil incessantly and for free.”

“Language is metaphor in the sense that it not only stores but translates experience from one mode into another.”

“A frontier is not a neighborhood. It is a gap, a ferment, an interface.”

echovar: What is the shape of the digital body in the globally networked village?

McLuhan: During the mechanical ages we extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as the planet is concerned.

My main theme is the extension of the nervous system in the electric age, and thus, the complete break with five thousand years of mechanical technology. This I state over and over again. I do not say whether it is a good or bad thing. To do so would be meaningless and arrogant.

Any medium presents a figure whose ground is always hidden or subliminal. In the case of TV, as of the telephone or radio, the subliminal ground could be called the disincarnate or disembodied user. This is to say that when you are “on the telephone” or “on the air,” you do not have a physical body. In these media, the sender is sent and is instaneously present everywhere. The disembodied user extends to all those who are recipients of electric information. It is these people who constitute the mass audience, because mass is a factor of speed rather than quantity, although popular speech permits the term mass to be uses with large publics. Mass man is a phenomenon of electric speed, not physical quantity.

echovar: Talk about the role of time– clock time and real time in the new media landscape.

McLuhan: As a piece of technology, the clock is a machine that produces uniform seconds, minutes, and hours on an assembly-line pattern. Processed in this uniform way, time is separated from the rhythms of human experience. The mechanical clock, in short, helps create the image of a numerically quantified and mechanically powered universe. By coordinating and accelerating human meetings and goings-on, clocks increase the sheer quantity of human exchange.

The point of the matter of speed-up by wheel, road, and paper is the extension of power in an ever more homogeneous and uniform space. Thus, the real potential of the Roman technology was not realized until printing had given road and wheel a much greater speed than that of the Roman vortex. Yet the speed-up of the electronic age is as disrupting for literate, lineal, and Western man as the Roman paper routes were for tribal villagers. Our speed-up today is not a slow explosion outward from center to margins but an instant implosion and an interfusion of space and functions. Our specialist and fragmented civilization of center-margin structure is suddenly experiencing an instantaneous reassembling of all its mechanized bits into an organic whole. This is the new world of the global village.

When you hear the word “progress,” you know you are dealing with a nineteenth-century mind. Progress literally stopped with electricity because you now have everything at once. You don’t move on from one thing at a time to the next thing. There is no more history; it’s all here. There isn’t any part of the past that isn’t with us, thanks to electricity. But it’s not thanks to print, it’s not thanks to photography, it’s thanks to electricity. Speed, huge speed-up, means there’s no more past. Now, there is no more history.

echovar: We seem to have a hard time coming to terms with our new media/social landscape. Why is it so difficult to perceive and talk about the environment we inhabit?

McLuhan: It is very hard to get a man in the print belt of culture to recognize that the form of print is itself cutural and deeply biased. The fish knows nothing of water.

Our typical response to disruptive new technology is to recreate the old environment instead of heeding the new opportunities of the new environment. Failure to notice the new opportunities is also failure to understand the new powers.

Nobody yet knows the language inherent in the new technological culture; we are all deaf-blind mutes in terms of the new situation. Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us by referring to the previously existent, not to the present.

The environment is always “invisibile” and its contents is always the old technology. The guy who is going to use a superhighway thinks he is the same man who used the dirt road it replaced… He doesn’t notice that the highway has changed his relation to his family and his fellows.

In television (and computers), images are projected at you. You are the screen. The images wrap around you. You are the vanishing point. (The fish knows nothing of water)

{McLuhan’s mosaic of answers culled from: Understanding Media, The Book of Probes and On McLuhan: Forward Through the Rearview Mirror.}

!Kung: Banking Social Relationships


As social networks emerge as the dominant framework for message traffic on the Network, the question of “monetization” is repeated again and again like a drum beat. There seems to be an expectation that someone will figure out how to bind the advertising subsidized broadcast/print model on to the message flow and/or the social graph itself. In order to persist, these social networks, at some point, will need to generate free cash flow (capital).

Money (capital) is the currency of the industrial age– in a sense, it is the equivalent of Democritus’s atom.

The atomists held that there are smallest indivisible bodies from which everything else is composed, and that these move about in an infinite void space.

In the age of mechanical reproduction, capital is the smallest indivisible body from which everything else can be composed. But as Marshall McLuhan notes in Understanding Media (1964), transitions between cultural structures can occur quickly:

A tribal and feudal hierarchy of the traditional kind collapses quickly when it meets any hot medium of the mechanical, uniform, and repetitive kind. The medium of money or wheel or writing, or any other form of specialist speed-up of exchange and information, will serve to fragment a tribal structure. Similarly, a very much greater speed-up, such as occurs with electricity, may serve to restore a tribal pattern of intense involvement such as took place with the introduction of radio in Europe, and is now tending to happen as a result of TV in America. Specialist technologies detribalize. The non-specialist electric technology retribalizes.

As we stand along the frontier of a new kind of retribalization, we look at the currency in our pockets and wonder what the exchange rate might be. Celebrities and the rich enter the social networks hoping the dollar capital they’ve accumulated can be exchanged for social capital. The metaphor of “capital” has replaced the metaphor the “atom.”

In today’s New York Times, Claudia Dreifus has a conversation with athropologist Pauline Wiessner about the !Kung people of the Kalahari desert. Dreifus’s first question about how the !Kung survive the harsh and volatile conditions of the the desert resurfaces a tribal form of currency. Here’s Wiessner’s answer:

They (the !Kung) have an intricate system of banking their social relationships and calling on them when times get rough. The system is maintained through gift giving, storytelling and visiting. It works like insurance does in our culture. …The Bushmen used storytelling to keep feelings for distant persons alive. The gifts are their way of telling the receiver, “I’ve held you in my heart.” Over the years, I saw this repeated many, many times. It would turn out that the !Kung spent as much as three months a year visiting “exchange partners,” and this was the key to their survival.

The social relationship was a reminder to the exchange partner that they had a kind of contract to call on each other in times of need. Wiessner believes that the invention of social networks– the storing of relationships for a time when you need them– is what facilitated the eventual migration of humans from Africa to the rest of the world.

Cory Doctorow posited Whuffie as a replacement for capital. In trying to think and speak about the kind of exchange and storing of tribal relationship value, we rely heavily on the language of capital, currency, purchase and banking. These are the atomic elements of our industrial age framework for understanding. The Gesture Bank was the first effort to formalize this set of ideas in the nomenclature of the previous era. These tentative efforts at articulation should be thought of as what McLuhan called a probe. They are by design incomplete and present gaps and interfaces that invite participation. Gillmor moves the ball forward with his exploration of dynamic links. Arrington probes the purchase that retweet will attain. The probe continues its mission.

There’s a poetic enterprise that must be undertaken as well. New metaphors, stories and music must be forged to tell ourselves the story of what is happening to us. Not in the future, but right now. McLuhan was also eloquent on this:

Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.

Selectors: The Corpus of Identity


The 8th Internet Identity Workshop came to a close last Wednesday afternoon. Although, one could easily make the case the workshop is continuous with the semi-annual events simply marking a swarm of activity that enables the network of both people and technologies to become increasingly connected and interoperable. At any rate, the swarm has temporarily dispersed.

One of my tasks at the workshop was to think through what we mean when we say “identity.” When we talk about “internet identity“– we produce this floating signifier and hurl it in the general direction of a swarm of streams of activity. The signifier in question seems to have landed in a hall of mirrors. However, an infinite loop is not always an indicator of error or system deadlock. Douglas Hofstadter, for one, embraces this hall of mirrors and posits that identity in its essence is a strange loop:

Like Godel’s logical statements, the brain also exists on at least two levels: a deterministic level of atoms and neurons, and a higher level of large mental structures we call symbols. One of these symbols, perhaps the central one which relates to all others in our minds, is the strange loop we call “I”. By the time we reach adulthood, Hofstadter writes, “I” is an endless hall of mirrors, encompassing everything that has ever happened to us, vast numbers of counterfactual replays of important episodes in our lives, invented memories and expectations.

One of the tricks of language is that we can form anything into a proposition–“Identity is ______”.  Realism and Surrealism have the same underlying structure, any two things can be stuck together in the form used by a logical proposition. When we speak of internet identity, we’re talking about a family of related issues and technologies– and like any family tree, it has many branches, along with an odd cousin here or there. Yet, we seem to think we’re talking about something in particular.

The task of Internet identity seems to be an attempt to “solve the problem” of the fragmentation of identity as it manifests throughout the Network. We appear to live a fragmentary existence– pieces of you, pieces of me, lodge in various corners of the Network. And these scraps of data exist unconnected, they are potentially network nodes; but currently they don’t have the capacity for connection. The substance of their security model is their quarantine.


If we take a closer look at these fragmented selves scattered across the Network; we see a picture of actions, of gestures— made across that mesh of connections. A book was purchased here, a birthday present for a friend over there, a bank account ledger viewed on this date, and a social network stream sampled at that time. Each of these transactions have to be bound to you in some way– a username and a password on your side, a set of database entries on the server side, and a cookie to tie the two together. Imagine each of these fragments as an organ without a body, functioning with a specific purpose but unconnected to a general organizing principle.

There’s an old joke in the philosophy of identity, it goes like this:

To do is to be
— Socrates

To be is to do
— Sartre

Do be do be do
— Sinatra

We’d like to be able to abstract “identity” from any particular transaction to create a transcendental identity. An identity separate from action, an identity that can be attached to no action or any action. When we speak in this way, we think of the “I” as something that can exist apart from the world, apart from the rough and tumble of our everyday concerns. We posit an “I” that can choose when and if it connects to the world. ‘User-centered’ identity systems tend to operate with this idea of the “I.” This is identity as a technical problem that can be solved by a higher level of indirection.

Before we get too far down that road to an identity abstraction layer, we might ask whether there can be meaningful identity outside of agency. Socrates, Sartre and Sinatra all associate being and doing. If we take a step back and look at the identity artifacts that we’ve collected, they all enable an action. My driver’s license enables me to legally drive a car. It also allows me to prove that I’m over 18 or 21. My credit card allows me to time shift capital from the future to the present. My passport enables international travel. My username and password at Amazon allows me to buy books and other sundry items.

If we continue to unpack this notion, we find that it’s a kind of practical identity we’re talking about. In these transactions and database records, we’re uninterested in who you are as a soul. We’re interested in current accountability and the risk characteristics of a transaction with a particular individual as it projects into future time. In this we stand with Locke’s understanding of identity: he thought the personal identity relation was, in effect, an accountability relation. Agency is accountable agency– meaning responsibility from this “now” moment to the next “now” moment for the collection of fragmentary organs without a body floating around the Network.

OpenID begins its life as a transcendental identity, potentially it exists as an unafiliated (user-centered) identity artifact within an identity meta-system. But as we begin to look at the uptake of OpenID and the usability of its workflow, we find something different. On the revised login screen, OpenID is covered over by the big commercial brands on the Network. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and Financial Institutions have provided us identity artifacts based on an action we’ve taken– each of these identity relations have enabled some capability. We have no interest in operating at a new identity abstraction layer, we prefer to use an existing relation as the pivot point for identity across multiple relying parties. OpenID disappears from the conversation and we’re interested in where we can use our Google ID or Twitter ID– we want to know which identity is the most powerful and will allow access to most of the services we generally access from the Network. Google’s identity has purchase in its cloud and the apps built within its cloud. Alliances (or conquests) between clouds will extend the authority of a particular identity. While we started with a “user-centered” system, with this model we seem to have reverted to a version of the feudal identity system we already inhabit.

Let’s return to the corpus of identity, the body that might contain these organs floating within the Network. Is there a possibility that a digital body can be instantiated outside the custody of the dominant clouds? Samuel Weber opened up this question about the constitution of the digital body by exploring the work of Brecht and Benjamin:

I will close by asserting simply that the digitality of the digital, which, as Negroponte as suggestively asserted, replaces atoms by bits, in an analogous manner points us towards the ever-present necessity of reconstituting those bits and pieces into some sort of body or reality, be it virtual. The power of the media today lies both in the technologies of dismemberment (of the analogical) and the possibilities of reconfiguration that ensue. No digitality however will ever fully relieve us of the task of reconfiguring the analogical, a task in which bodies, as the site of citable gestures, pointing elsewhere, will always have a singular role to play. Not the least of these bodies , nor simply metaphorical, is that political body known as the people. Only when the body of the demos is recognized as the analogical alibi of an irreducibly heterogeneous digitality, will the question of digital democracy will be approachable. And it is the history of theatrocracy that will have set the stage for this approach.

The connector that establishes identity (session or statefulness) in the traditional web application model is the cookie. It’s the little bit of text that binds you to the data. At the IIW, Craig Burton posited that the Selector will be the next historical marker in the evolution of the Network. His whitepaper detailing the transition from cookies to selectors is available as a PDF. In addition to a rich form of identity management, the selector and information card model enables something called action cards. And this is where we get back to the corpus of identity, an action card enables a capability on the Network. It’s not transcendental identity– the card, combined with a ruleset and datasource makes a concrete benefit available. In this model, the selector works with our cultural practices for analog identity rather than against them. Identity is a side effect of an enablement– to do and to be (in that order) are linked through the selector. (Sinatra sang ‘do be do be do’ not ‘be do be do be’).

Creating a digital identity without a digital body might have been a reasonable approach prior to the emergence of the Network. Just as we think of freedom as “freedom to” or “freedom from”– identity is identity for some purpose. The action card has opened a pathway, the capacity for a practical connection that will yield a networked identity with a superior security and privacy model. At the moment when the digital body acts, that’s when it requires an identity.

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