Archive for May, 2009

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The Edifice of the Bank: Connecting Streams of Capital

vintage_bank_antiques

On a recent road trip through the wine country of Northern California, I passed through Petaluma, Calistoga and Healdsburg. In the small downtown areas of these cities you’ll find large bank buildings. Sometimes more than one, but often just a single building anchoring the business district. The architecture of the bank is meant to convey stability, tradition, security and trustworthiness. The neo-classical design of these buildings is a strong gesture in favor of the rational and measured over the emotional and spontaneous. Their monumental scale signals that they were constructed with great effort and forethought– and that they will perdure through the vagaries of time.

The bank building in Petaluma is now occupied by an Antiques collective. By the looks of it, it’s been that way for a long time. Even the bank’s vault itself is just another room in which collectibles are displayed. The bank building in Calistoga is now a shoe store. Healdsburg’s bank building houses an art gallery. The symbolic nature of the architecture remains, but it is unconnected to the commercial enterprise now in residence.

There was a time when we brought our paper currency to a bank for safekeeping. The thick metal walls of the safe provided a fortress to protect the excess capital we’d created with our labors. The architecture of banks has changed, they seem to have morphed into a combination of a fast food restaurant and a self-service gas station. Banks no longer function as protectors of capital, their value now is as fast connectors, or routers, of capital through the Network. Capital streams are routed in from various sources; capital streams are routed out to selected payment endpoints. Banks also have a DVR function, time shifting capital streams through loans or investments.

As capital continues its migration to the Network, the need for a physical edifice containing customer facing bank operations begins to disappear. The bank only needs to be securely available in its full capacity wherever the Network is available. Just as you can now withdraw paper money from any commercial endpoint, you will be able to deposit money as well. The Network always tends to move toward a two-way interaction. The first screen of your iPhone is the new prime real estate, the new town square.

Lifestreaming data pours off of the routing transactions we make throughout the day– generally this has been a private gesture stream reserved for our eyes only. The shape and presence of that stream, its user interface if you will, will emerge as a new ecosystem. Rather than a flat record of alpha-numeric transaction routing codes, it will be an dynamic network of active commercial nodes– a stream of information/interaction points.

The thickness of the bank vault is replaced by the connectivity of the Network as a primary metaphor. Banks, telecom companies, internet providers, and credit card companies are all in the same business now. In this new landscape, in what must you trust to select a provider?

Marshall McLuhan: RSS is No Longer King

A small thought experiment: The video above was made on May 18, 1960 and features Marshall McLuhan. The subject is ‘literary man’ and ‘electronic man.’ It’s a description of the transition from the solitary world of the book to the tribal world of electronic media. Watch the video above and substitute the words “RSS” for “Book” and “Tw*tter” for “Electronic Media.” Think about the message in the characteristics of these two kinds of media.

Of course any reference to McLuhan’s work in public is a risk.

What are we doing when we use RSS? Are we solitary or social? Can we share using the electronic method– by hyperlink? Or do we share like we do with a book, by making a copy, or loaning the book itself. While the RSS feed has a location in the Network’s name space, the item we’d like to share must be xeroxed, put in an envelope and mailed.

When McLuhan talks about his idea that the ‘Medium is the Message‘ he immediately refers to the qualities of space as they relate to our senses. Think about how RSS and Tw*tter manifest in the space of the Network. If the value of a node in a Network is its capacity for connection to other nodes, then what is the value of RSS in light of the social web? In what sense can RSS be said to take advantage of a network effect?

It must have been a strange experience to be Marshall McLuhan in 1960. The world was compelled to listen, held rapt, but unable to grasp his meaning. They knew there was something there, but it seemed continually just over the horizon.

Identity and The Orders of Simulacra

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A few thoughts that need to be captured before they return from whence they came. I’ve been re-reading Baudrillard’s Simulations— thinking about it in light of the possibility of Internet Identity. Online identity is already a concept that’s overloaded; it’s become a blank slate on which entrepreneurs, privacy advocates and open source geeks project their hopes, dreams and ambitions. Binding code to the soul to create a hard link posits a kind strong symbolic order that we’ve seen before in the pre-industrial era.

The simulacrum is never that which conceals truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.

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Baudrillard looks at three orders of appearance and examines them with regard to mutations of the law of value:

  • Counterfeit is the dominant scheme of the “classical” period, from the Renaissance to the industrial revolution
  • Production is the dominant scheme of the industrial era
  • Simulation is the reigning scheme of the current phase that is controlled by code.

In the first period an individual (an identity) is assigned a place of rank, or caste, irrevocably– class mobility is non-existent. Baudrillard calls this strong ‘symbolic order’ a ferocious hierarchy. There is a strong binding between an individual and a set of signs. The binding of identity is assigned by the circumstances of birth; Identity and signs are not arbitrary in this schema.

The industrial era puts an end to the problem of uniqueness, or the importance of the point of origin. Signs and objects are produced on a massive scale (two or n identical objects). The key phrase for me was: “In a series, objects become undefined simulacra one of the other. And so, along with the objects, do the men that produce them.” In the industrial schema, you are what you do. Identity is useful with regard to the role it plays in production– workers are interchangeable parts in the machinery of production.

“Leibniz, that mathematical spirit, saw in the mystic elegance of the binary system that counts only the zero and the one, the very image of creation. The unity of the supreme Being, operating by binary function in nothingness, would have sufficed to bring out of it all the beings.”

McLuhan

In the age of simulation, there is no labor involved in producing copies. In a sense, there is no original digital artifact– it is a copy at its origin. When we look to origin, we look to the code of DNA. Identity is linked to the curration of collections of simulations.

Identity is generally thought to be an inward quality of a person. Through this sketch, we can hold it up and look at it as an external binding of a system of signs, a kind of exoskeleton. And as we look at the mutations in the binding point of identity, we can see that it matches the mutations in the instantiations of value.

Forms of Life: Stream Culture, the Finite and the Infinite

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Thinking, for a moment, about a particularly difficult human-computer interface problem with a dynamic set of requirements… which I suppose is any problem of this kind. The problem itself points the limitations of representation; as the solution forms, life moves on. The problem can also be expressed in terms of data and databases– the only data that exists in a database is the data that’s entered; and it doesn’t change unless energy is expended to change it. It’s a snapshot of a moment. Certain problems like Search are amenable to employing robots for the gathering of data. But what we think we’re doing when we search for something continues to change.

There’s a little book by James P. Carse that I return to now and again. It’s called Finite and Infinite Games, I’ve reproduced the entire first chapter below:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

We play a series of finite and infinite games in the pursuit of the infinite game of continuing the play. The rather large portfolio carved out by interaction and human factors designers plays along this edge– the finitude of the designed object against the infinity of its use within a form of life. William Gibson expressed it simply as: “the street has its own use for things…” The street is a particularly rough game whose object is primarily to continue the play.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the book Philosophical Grammar describes how the fundamentals of an interaction (a finite game) relate to its expression in a system of representation. It’s a succinct story about how the front-end relates to the back-end of a certain kind of web application.

Let us imagine that chess had been invented not as a board game, but as a game to be played with numbers and letters on paper, so that no one had ever imagined a board with 64 squares in connection with it. And now suppose someone made the discovery that the game corresponded exactly to a game which could be played on a board in such and such a way. This discovery would have been a great simplification of the game (people who would earlier have found it too difficult could now play it). But it is clear that this new illustration of the rules of the game would be nothing more than a new, more easily surveyable symbolism, which in other respects would be on the same level as the written game. Compare with this the talk about physics nowadays not working with mechanical models but “only with symbols”.

Imagine what the Network would look like if it were only composed of finite games. Now imagine a Network in real time composed of both finite and infinite games. In building an application for this Network, would you use the same techniques with an infinite game as you would for a finite game? How would they differ?

Here’s another fragment from Carse:

Although the rules of an infinite game change by agreement at any point in the course of play, it does not follow that any rule will do. It is not in this sense that the game is infinite.

The rules are always designed to deal with specific threats to the continuation of play. Infinite players use the rules to regulate the way they will take the boundaries or limits being forced against their play into the game itself.

The rule-making capacity of infinite players is often challenged by the impingement of powerful boundaries against their play– such as physical exhaustion, or the loss of material resources, or the hostility of nonplayers, or death.

The task is to design rules that will allow the players to continue the game by taking these limits into play– even when death is one of the limits. It is in this sense that the game is infinite.

This is equivalent to saying that no limitations may be imposed against infinite play. Since limits are taken into play, the play itself cannot be limited.

Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.

There’s a sense in which the hyperlink allows the infinite to be contained within the finite. Or rather, it extends the finite into the infinite. In an open Network, hypertext links to hypertext, which links to hypertext. And by the word “text” we refer to all media types.  The “hyper” in “hypertext” means the referent is not present, but directions to its location are ready to hand. (The signs within a language work this way, although sometimes the directions can be ambiguous and aren’t always legible.)

The hyperlink embedded in a static document system originally opened this door. But the static document is giving way to the dynamic document and a series of hypertext fragments populating a stream of information and thought objects moving in real time. Described as a kind of stream culture, our tool set to engage with the possible set of streams is remarkably absent. Somewhere a stream is emitting the information we need to know, but can’t find with our standard set of queries. Instead we gather around to argue whether or not it’s actually a stream we’re standing in, and whether our feet are actually wet.

In thinking about building a tool for the stream culture, will the techniques developed for use in finite games be sufficient? — or will we need to crack open a bottle of new wine?

“Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

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