Archive for July, 2009

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The Politics Of The Color of Night


Darkness, night, unconsciousness– all these things dispelled by the candle, the lamp and then the light bulb. Day extended into night for both work and leisure. The sun displaced as the only source of light, fire quantized and tamed. The networks of electrical power–the grids– laid down across the earth to feed electric light and create a new social environment in the night.


There’s an emotional quality to the color of light. But in the age of grave ecological imbalances, we rush toward toward a transition to the cold flat light of the compact fluorescent bulb. The ‘eco’ aspects (both ecology and economics) seem to favor the transition. It’s as though the visibility granted through light was something without quality– digital in character, a bulb provides light or it doesn’t.


The decision to recolor the night is a political one, one that may even be given the force of law. The quality of light, it seems, must be sacrificed to the economics of energy. One can imagine a point in the future when all electrically-produced light will fill the night with its cold blue radiance. We wouldn’t think of these light sources as bringing day to night, but rather some other quality altogether.


Reading the paper the other day, I was pleased to see that a company had created an incandescent bulb that complied with new energy efficiency standards. The quality of light may only resurface as a deciding factor once the ecologics and economics are equalized. Of course anyone involved in designing light for human environments has been distraught over the stampede to the aesthetics of the meat locker. Some actually thinking of starting to hoard incandescent bulbs for the time when they will be outlawed.

Should this recoloring of the night proceed unimpeded and reach its goals of replacing the incandescent light space, I wonder at what point we would begin to notice the new emotional character of night?

The Real-Time Web and Information Arbitrage


As the ‘RSS-is-fast-enough-for-us’ crowd begins to resemble the Slowskys from the television commercial, an effort has begun in earnest to speed up the transport of RSS/Atom feeds in the face of real-time media. These efforts will answer the question about whether RSS is structurally capable of becoming a real-time media. If the answer is yes, then RSS will become functionally the same as Twitter. If the answer is no, then it will become the rallying point for the ‘slow-is-better’ movement.

There’s a strong contingent who will say that more speed is just a part of the sickness of our contemporary life. We need to ‘stop and smell the roses’ rather than ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’ And while there are many instances in which slow is a virtue, information transport isn’t one of them. Under electronic information conditions, getting your information ‘a day late’ is probably why you’re ‘a dollar short.’

When you begin thinking about the value resident in information, it’s instructive to look at the models of information discovery and use on Wall Street. Analysts generate information about companies in various investment sectors through quantitative and qualitative investigation. The high-value substance of the reports is harvested and acted upon before the information is released. High value information lowers transaction risk. Each stage of the release pattern traces the dissemination of the information. Within each of these waves of release, there’s an information arbitrage opportunity formed by the asymmetry of the dispersion. By the time the report reaches the individual investor—the man on the street, it is information stripped of opportunity and filled with risk.

In Friday’s NY Times, Charles DuHigg writes about the relatively new practice of high-frequency trading. Under electronic information conditions, the technology of trading moves to match the speed of the market.

In high-frequency trading, computers buy and sell stocks at lightning speeds. Some marketplaces, like Nasdaq, often offer such traders a peek at orders for 30 milliseconds—0.03 seconds—before they are shown to everyone else. This allows traders to profit by very quickly trading shares they know will soon be in high demand. Each trade earns pennies, sometimes millions of times a day.

If you were wondering how Goldman Sachs reported record earnings when the economy is still in recession, look no further than high-frequency trading. The algorithmic traders at Goldman have learned how to harvest the value of trading opportunities before anyone else even knows there’s an opportunity available. By understanding the direction a stock is likely to move 30 milliseconds before the rest of the market, an arbitrage opportunity is presented. High-frequency traders generated about $21 billion is profits last year.

Whether you think the real-time web is important depends on where you choose to be in the release pattern of information. If you don’t mind getting the message once it’s been stripped of its high-value opportunity, then there are a raft of existing technologies that are suitable for that purpose. But as we see with the Goldman example, under electronic information conditions, if you can successfully weight and surface the opportunities contained in real-time information, you can be in and out of a transaction while the downstream players are unaware that the game has already been played.

Creating an infrastructure that enables speed is only one aspect of the equation. The tools to surface and weight opportunities within that context is where the upstream players have focused their attention. And while you may choose not to play the real-time game, the game will be played nonetheless.

Attack Surfaces: The Body Reborn as Software


The brutality of the online commenter can sometimes be astonishing. The violence of the language is often out of all proportion to its surroundings. Certainly not every commenter resorts to personal attacks, but like spam, it’s something we seem to expect— and for some reason tolerate. What is it about the environment of the Network that allows this kind of behavior to flourish? Initially it was thought to be a function of anonymous comments, but more and more, we see attacks launched from identities based in social networks.

What are we, when we’re in the Network? Marshall McLuhan saw it by looking at the primitives of the new ‘electronic information conditions.’ Well before the internet and social media, he saw this new medium was fundamentally different and would change us utterly. When information moves at electronic speed– and it is information that serves as a trigger for all transactions, our relationship to the space surrounding us becomes transformed and devalued.

“The electronic age…angelizes man, disembodies him. Turns him into software.”  — Marshall McLuhan

The annihilation of distance is the state of affairs where everything is ready-to-hand— technology creates a powerful extension of human reach. We can be present at a meeting anywhere around the globe without leaving our chair. We can buy/sell any kind of goods or services, research any topic and access any form of entertainment—as long as we have an access point to the Network. The information economy transforms the worker into pure information (inputs/outputs). The person becomes disembodied, omnipresent, but not omnipotent.

In McLuhan’s book on the Global Village, he talked about the satisfactions that would result from these radical transformations:

Robotism, or right-hemisphere thinking, is a capacity to be a conscious presence in many places at once. It is a right-hemisphere mode— the dominant brain mode of the extended mechanical abilities of our bodies, keyed to one time and one place. Communications media of the future will accentuate the extensions of our nervous systems, which can be disembodied and made totally collective. New population patterns will fuel the shift from smokestack industries to a marketing-information economy…

McLuhan also discussed the dissatisfactions of this new environment:

Robotism is also decentralizing. In an electrically configured society all the critical information necessary to manufacture and distribute, from automobiles to computers, would be available to everyone at the same time. Espionage becomes an art form. Culture becomes organized like an electric circuit: each point in the net is as central as the next.

Electronic man loses touch with the concept of the ruling center as well as the restraints of social rules based on interconnection. Hierarchies constantly devolve and reform.

When we are born into the digital Network, we are formless— our point of origin is obscured. Connections to family, work, organizations, and local community are absent, we enter the Network untethered. Because our identity is unknown, it presents no attack surfaces, no surfaces of any kind. Should we choose to, we can launch attacks into any opening in the Network without fear of reprisal. Disconnected from our earthly connections, we are drawn toward and begin to flock with our mirror images.

When we lose touch with social rules based on interconnection, there are no checks on our behavior— we tend to move toward the extremes. Cass Sunstein in his new book Going to Extremes makes the case that “closed groups of like-minded people, if left to their own devices, will move towards the extreme.” He notes that when people with similar views debate an issue, they end up with more extreme positions than any of them previously held.

As we take root in the Network, some would call it establishing a personal brand, we expose— put forward representations of ourselves. As we produce outputs, we also seek inputs. It’s here where we begin to expose attack surfaces. As with any relationship, it’s the moment that we start to be vulnerable that the possibility of something interesting begins. In most small personal networks the connections occur directly between known entities. When one accepts inputs from the Network in general— there are no limits on who might respond and what they might say. While this relationship opens the door to an unlimited kind of discovery, it also opens the door to an unlimited kind of abuse. Openness of this kind depends on an assumption of civility.

There’s an asymmetry to the configuration of Network inputs and outputs. While the outputs are visible and have a known location, those producing inputs have no location requirement. A comment can literally come from nowhere. And the invulnerable commenter, like the spammer, rarely contributes anything of value. The premise of civility is founded on the idea that a person has something at stake. A person who comments under a personal brand puts that brand value at stake with each comment and so an economic calculation is made concurrently with each comment.

We started with the concept of a two-way web, but began with a publication medium (read only). Writing surfaces have been tacked on to reading material to simulate a two-way interface. I wonder what a symmetrical interface event with two-way visibility and read/write capability would look like? (Twitter? FriendFeed?) It’s the visibility into social connections that begin to exert a civilizing influence. Social connections are perhaps the most valuable thing we have: family, work, marriage, children, friends. Returned to a social context, the disproportionate nature of the violent comment is exposed and its true price is finally visible.

ManhattanHenge And The Real-Time Moment

After spending a day at the Real-Time Stream CrunchUp and listening to the companies and people converging around this new sector, I thought it would make sense to invert the question. Investments will be made in the technology of encoding and relaying, filtering and finding, and reading and writing into streams. But what is it that the real-time web should be focusing its camera on? How does what we pay attention to change when we move from the corpus of stored data to what is happening right now.

There’s a sense in which real-time retrieves older patterns. Before time was flattened into a linear sequence by the clock, it was primarily present as rhythmic cycles. We lived within the cycles of our bodies, the seasons and the movements of celestial bodies. The recurrence of an event was an affirmation of our perdurance.

ManhattanHenge is a biannual solstice event that occurs each May 28 and July 12/13. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, brought it to the world’s attention.

The recurrence of ManhattanHenge is a kind of modern-primitive event. Its immediate appeal is the emotional satisfaction of the visual event– it’s like witnessing a hole in one. And while the traditional news media may treat it as an oddity, as a bit of fluff for the end of a broadcast— this event resonates at a much deeper level for those who take the time to unpack it.

In his later work, Wittgenstein turned to the construction of language games as a way to engage in the activity of philosophy. In his excellent book, How to Read Wittgenstein, Ray Monk describes it like this:

It seems the best way of understand the use Wittgenstein makes of language games is to see their role in the construction of Übersicht, and thereby their role in producing ‘the kind of understanding that consists in seeing connections.’

ManhattanHenge is a way of seeing a connection between the linear Euclidean thought that results in the architecture of the city of Manhattan and the circular activity of time expressed into the movements of heavenly bodies. And while Stone Henge was built to specifically capture that connection, ManhattanHenge emerged out of the unconscious elements of a Euclidean landscape to make the same connection. This fleeting image encapsulates so many strands of thought– nature/culture; web/real-time; language/forms of life; and linear/circular.

That point on the horizon, the blaze of light at the end of 42nd street— that is the real-time moment, the connection between our technology and the natural world unfolding around us.

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