Archive for June, 2010

Next Entries »

Bloomsday, The Coffee House and The Network

June 16th is known as Bloomsday; it’s the single day, in 1904, on which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses occurs. The day is commemorated around with the world with readings of the book and the hoisting of a pint or two.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

— Come up Kinch. Come up , you fearful jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awakening mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking, gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.

Joyce’s book brought to popular notice the idea of stream of consciousness literature. The term “stream of consciousness” was coined by the philosopher William James in an attempt to describe the mind-world connection as it relates the concept of truth. As a literary technique, it involves writing as a kind of transcription of the inner thought process of a character. In Ulysses, we find that stream rife with puns, allusions and parodies. Joyce was trying to capture another aspect of truth.

What challenged the reader of the day as avant garde and daring has become a relatively normal part of our network-connected lives.

Twitter has become a part of my daystream
– Roger Ebert

The stream of tweets flowing out of Twitter could aptly be described as a stream of collective consciousness. And so today, we think a great deal about various real-time streams and how they wend their way through networks of social connection. The water metaphors we use to speak about these things have roots in our shared history; they describe another kind of network of connections.

Stephen B. Johnson, in his book The Invention of Air, makes the case for the London Coffee House as an early prototype for the internet:

With the university system languishing amid archaic traditions, and corporate R&D labs still on the distant horizon, the public space of the coffeehouse served as the central hub of innovation in British society. How much of the Enlightenment do we owe to coffee? Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history textbooks have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in their story. The restoration of Charles II, Newton’s theory of gravity, the South Sea Bubble— they all came about, in part, because England had developed a taste for coffee, and a fondness for the kind of informal networking and shoptalk that the coffeehouses enabled. Lloyd’s of London was once just Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, until the shipowners and merchants started clustering there, and collectively invented the modern insurance company. …coffeehouse culture was cross-disciplinary by nature, the conversations freely roaming from electricity, to the abuses of Parliament, to the fate of dissenting churches.

But the coffeehouse as a nexus of debate was only half of the picture. Cultural practice at the time was to drink beer and wine, and maybe a little gin, at every opportunity. Water was not safe to drink, and so alcoholic alternatives were fondly embraced. The introduction of coffee and tea as popular beverages had a significant impact on the flow of valuable ideas. Again here’s Johnson:

The rise of coffeehouse culture influenced more than just the information networks of the Enlightenment; it also transformed the neurochemical networks in the brains of all those newfound coffee-drinkers. Coffee is a stimulant that has been clinically proven to improve cognitive function— particularly for memory related tasks— during the first cup or two. Increase the amount of “smart” drugs flowing through individual brains, and the collective intelligence of the culture will become smarter, if enough people get hooked.

In our day, the coffee house connected to a wifi network has been an accelerant to the businesses populating the Network. When Starbucks announced that they would be introducing free 1-click wifi in their stores, it reminded me of Stephen Johnson’s descriptions of the London coffeehouses. The coffeehouse provided a physical meeting place and the caffeine in the coffee provided a force multiplier for the ideas flowing through the people. There was a noticeable change in the rhythm of the age. By layering a virtual real-time social medium over a physical meeting place that serves legal stimulants, Starbucks replays a classic formula. Oddly, there’s a kind of collaborative energy that exists in the coffeehouse that has been completely expunged from the corporate workplace. Starbucks ups the ante by running a broadcast web service network through the connection. Here we see wifi emerging as the new backbone for narrowcasted television.

As we try to weave value-laden real-time message streams through the collaborative groupware surgically attached to the corporate balance sheet, we may do well to look back toward Bloomsday and also ask for a stream of unconsciousness. It’s in those empty moments between the times when we focus our attention that daydreams and poetic thought creep into the mix. Those “empty moments” are under attack as a kind of system latency. However it’s in those day dreams, poetic thoughts and napkin scribbles that we find the source of the non-linear jump. Without those moments in our waking life, we’re limited to only those things deemed “possible.”

Apple’s UX Strategy: I Want To Hold Your Hand

A few thoughts about the iPhone 4 and why technology does or doesn’t catch on. I’ve yet to hold one in my hand, but like everyone else I’ve got opinions. The typical gadget review takes the device’s feature list and compares using technical measures to other devices deemed competitive. Using this methodology, it would be fairly simple to dismiss the iPhone as introducing no new features. The other lines of attack involve dropped calls on the AT&T network and the App Store approval process. For some people these two items trump any feature or user experience.

Google talks about their mission as organizing the world’s information. When I think of Apple’s mission, at least their mission for the last five years or so, it revolves around getting closer to the user in real time. The technology they build flows from that principle.

I’d like to focus on just two new iPhone 4 features. The first is the new display, here’s John Gruber’s description:

It’s mentioned briefly in Apple’s promotional video about the design of the iPhone 4, but they’re using a new production process that effectively fuses the LCD and touchscreen — there is no longer any air between the two. One result of this is that the iPhone 4 should be impervious to this dust-under-the-glass issue. More importantly, though, is that it looks better. The effect is that the pixels appear to be painted on the surface of the phone; instead of looking at pixels under glass, it’s like looking at pixels on glass. Combined with the incredibly high pixel density, the overall effect is like “live print?.

The phrase that jumped out at me was “the pixels appear to be painted on the surface of the phone; instead of looking at pixels under glass.” While it seems like a small distance, a minor detail, it’s of the utmost importance. It’s the difference between touching something and touching the glass that stands in front of something. Putting the user physically in touch with the interaction surface is a major breakthrough in the emotional value of the user experience. Of course the engineering that made this kind of display is important, but it’s the design decision to get the device ever closer to the user that drove the creation of the technology. Touch creates an emotional relationship with the device, and that makes it more than just a telephone.

In a 2007 interview at the D5 conference, Steve Jobs said:

And, you know, I think of most things in life as either a Bob Dylan or a Beatles song, but there’s that one line in that one Beatles song, “you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.

You could say that Apple’s strategy is encapsulated in the Beatles song: I Want To Hold Your Hand.

The lines that describe the feeling Jobs wants the iPhone and iPad to create are:

And when I touch you i feel happy, inside
It´s such a feeling
That my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hide

The other new feature is FaceTime. Since the launch of the iPhone 3GS it’s been possible to shoot a video of something and then email it to someone, or post it to a network location that friends and family could access. Other phones had this same capability. That’s a real nice feature in an asynchronous sort of way. One of the problems with it is it has too many steps and it doesn’t work the way telephones work. Except when things are highly dysfunctional, we don’t send each other recorded audio messages to be retrieved later at a convenient time. We want to talk in real time. FaceTime allows talk + visuals in real time.

FaceTime uses phone numbers as the identity layer and works over WiFi with iPhone 4 devices only. That makes it perfectly clear under what circumstances these kind of video calls will work. Device model and kind of connectivity are only things a user needs to know. These constraints sound very limiting, but they dispel any ambiguity around the question of whether the user will be able to get video calls to work or not.

We often look to the network effect to explain the success of a product or a new platform. Has the product reached critical mass, where by virtue of its size and connectedness it continues to expand because new users gain immediate value from its scale. The network must absolutely be in place, but as we look at this window into our new virtual world, the question is: does the product put us in touch, in high definition, in real time? The more FaceTime calls that are made, the more FaceTime calls will be made. But the system will provide full value at the point when a few family members can talk to each other. Critical mass occurs at two.

Die Walküre: Once Upon A Time In America

Last Sunday I attended a performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre by the San Francisco Opera. In many respects, it’s a minor miracle that any grand opera is produced at all— given the high cost, the super-specialized talents required and the deep coordination of the music, singing, drama, light, costume and stagecraft. To complicate things further, Die Walküre is the second opera in a cycle of four operas called The Ring of the Nibelung. The Ring Cycle is one of the more ambitious projects an opera company can undertake. The Ring takes years of planning, signing the right talents, finding the right concept and assembling considerable financing. Given the difficulty, one would think it was a rare event. But instead we find ourselves with one Ring after another. This year the Los Angeles Opera presented its science fiction ring. In 2012, the Metropolitan Opera in New York will present a Ring that features integrated computer and video technology designed by Robert Lapage. San Francisco Opera’s offering of Die Walküre is a prelude to their presentation of the full ring cycle in 2011.

The Ring tells the story of the Twilight of the Gods and the beginning of the age of men. It’s been told in many ways over the years. The San Francisco Opera production (a co-production with the Washington National Opera) brings the story to America. The Gods are transformed into the titans of industry, inhabiting the skyscrapers of a giant metropolis; the Valkyries are women aviators parachuting on to the stage, the mythology of the opera is seamlessly fused to the mythology of America.

Director Francesca Zambello has created an American Ring full of raw power, deep psychology and strong resonances with our national story. In Die Walküre, it is the sense of touch that expresses these big themes in terms of personal moments. In the scenes between Hunding and Sieglinde in a rural shack, their entire relationship can be understood by watching their body language and how they touch each other. Zambello manages to infuse the entire dramatic level of the opera with this kind of specificity and emotion. Donald Runnicles, SF Opera’s former music director, is one of the foremost interpreters of Wagner’s music. He recently conducted two full Ring Cycles with the Deutsche Oper Berlin for their 2007/2008 season. His work on Die Walküre is detailed and passionate. The singers, Stemme, Delavan, Westbroek, Ventris, Baechle and Aceto are outstanding in both voice and their dramatic work. From the opening notes, all the way through the four and half hour opera, the audience is riveted. While I’ve seen the opera many times before, I was on the edge of my seat wondering what these characters would do next.

This may be one of the Rings that people talk about years from now. There’s something about the mythology of the Ring, the Twilight of the Gods, and this time in American history that creates very strong connections— where new meanings well up from leitmotifs of the music and the unstinting drama unfolding on the stage. This Ring sheds a great deal of light on the story of America, from the very personal to the highest levels of our politics. Even a God is bound by treaties, contracts and obligations— seemingly unlimited power is always limited by the power of the world. It’s a drama where the Gods are human, all too human.

Internet Identity: Speaking in the Third Person

It’s common to think of someone who refers to themselves in the third person as narcissistic. They’ve posited a third person outside of themselves, an entity who in some way is not fully identical with the one who is speaking. When we speak on a social network, we speak in the third person. We see our comment enter the stream not attributed to an “I”, but in the third person.

The name “narcissism” is derived from Greek mythologyNarcissus was a handsome Greek youth who had never seen his reflection, but because of a prediction by an Oracle, looked in a pool of water and saw his reflection for the first time. The nymph Echo–who had been punished by Hera for gossiping and cursed to forever have the last word–had seen Narcissus walking through the forest and wanted to talk to him, but, because of her curse, she wasn’t able to speak first. As Narcissus was walking along, he got thirsty and stopped to take a drink; it was then he saw his reflection for the first time, and, not knowing any better, started talking to it. Echo, who had been following him, then started repeating the last thing he said back. Not knowing about reflections, Narcissus thought his reflection was speaking to him. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus pined away at the pool and changed into the flower that bears his name, the narcissus.

The problem of internet identity might easily be solved by having all people and systems use the third person. A Google identity would be referred to within Google in the third person, as though it came from outside of Google. Google’s authentication and authorization systems would be decentralized into an external hub, and Google would use them in the same way as a third party. Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo, of course, would follow suit. In this environment a single internet identity process could be used across every web property. Everyone is a stranger, everyone is from somewhere else.

When we think of our electronic identity on the Network, we point over there and say, “that’s me.” But “I” can’t claim sole authorship of the “me” at which I gesture. If you were to gather up and value all the threads across all the transaction streams, you’d see that self-asserted identity doesn’t hold a lot of water. It’s what other people say about you when you’re out of the room that really matters.

What does it matter who is speaking, someone said, what does it matter who is speaking?
Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing

Speaking in the third person depersonalizes speech. Identity is no longer my identity, instead it’s the set of qualities that can be used to describe a third person. And if you think about the world of commercial transactions, a business doesn’t care about who you are, they care if the conditions for a successful transaction are present. Although they may care about collecting metadata that allows them to predict the probability that the conditions for a transaction might recur.

When avatars speak to each other, the conversation is in the third person. Even when the personal pronoun “I” is invoked, we see it from the outside. We view the conversation just as anyone might.

Next Entries »