Archive for May, 2012

A Tincture of Mobility

Computing lifts anchor and sets sail. The tide of mobility is upon us: everything is battery powered, small enough to carry in a pocket and always already jacked into the Network. When we think about mobile computing, it’s the combination of the small device and the available cloud of networked services that make the experience. The nodes looking at their displays are now out walking around in the midst of their daily life. Startled, they mutter ‘sorry’ as the bump into other nodes face down, absorbed a in small display, while their feet carry them forward.

What was a tool meant to increase productivity has become a technical interface for enjoying various forms of entertainment. If we were to do a breakdown of time spent on the different categories of computing activities, we’d find the slice of the pie chart that represents ‘working’ is shrinking, while the ‘non-working’ slice is growing in every direction. If you enjoy handicapping the fortunes of the various technology platforms, you need look no further than this ratio. In its IPO filing Facebook noted that users spend 10.5 billion minutes per day on its platform—and that doesn’t even include mobile usage.

Spending time on social networks has become a replacement for watching television. And just like television, when that much time is devoted to something, we begin to discuss addiction. To what degree do we choose to spend our time this way? Is there a point where sparking dopamine transmitters and well-worn neural pathways limit our selection set to the point where jacking into the Network seems like the only choice there is?

Once everyone is doing it, we see the early adopters begin to look uncomfortable. As Yogi Berra once said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” When everyone is a consumer, the only move a hipster has is to consume not consuming. A high-profile blog post on why you’re quitting Facebook usually does the trick. Abstinence, boycotting and unplugging are the moves that appear to give you the distance to glare cynically at the crowd. But there is no outside anymore. You can’t remove yourself from Google. You’ve always already been hacked. That computer virus that infected your computer has wormed its way into your DNA. As computing goes mobile, we suddenly discover we’re living inside the Network. The small device we take outside only serves to show us that there is no outside anymore.

The feeling of “mobile” has nothing to do with small computing devices and networked cloud services. It’s taking the mental state of being jacked into the Network for a walk. We can say it’s about productivity and efficiency, that somehow this combination of technologies allows us to make better choices about our time. But it’s really about the buzz. Much like a pharmaceutical, this set of technologies reliably invokes a specific mental state. And once you can produce that state at will, why would you want to chain it to a desk?

Romanticism 19: Thomas De Quincey
Romanticism 19: Thomas De Quincey (Drugs)

(Kant on opium)

The seed of this series of thoughts occurred while listening to Tim Morton’s lecture on Thomas De Quincey, a writer during the romantic period of English literature. In particular, the phrase “portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle” struck me as an apt description of the current state of mobile computing. For De Quincey, opium dissolved in a tincture of alcohol (laudanum) was an inexpensive formula to invoke spiritual happiness and divine enjoyment. We prefer a technical formula, a tincture of simulacra in a small networked electronic device. It’s quite interesting to note the degree to which our attitudes with regard to mobile computing begin to mirror De Quincey’s entanglement with opium.

Here’s De Quincey, author of “Confessions of an Opium Eater“, as an early advocate of the mobile:

Arrived at my lodgings, it may be supposed that I lost not a moment in taking the quantity prescribed. I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium-taking, and what I took I took under every disadvantage. But I took it‚—in an hour—oh heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me‚—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea, a pharmakon for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle, and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach. But if I talk in this way the reader will think I am laughing, and I can assure him that nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium: its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion, and in his happiest state the opium-eater cannot present himself in the character of L’Allegro: even then he speaks and thinks as becomes Il Penseroso. Nevertheless, I have a very reprehensible way of jesting at times in the midst of my own misery; and unless when I am checked by some more powerful feelings, I am afraid I shall be guilty of this indecent practice even in these annals of suffering or enjoyment. The reader must allow a little to my infirm nature in this respect; and with a few indulgences of that sort I shall endeavour to be as grave, if not drowsy, as fits a theme like opium, so anti-mercurial as it really is, and so drowsy as it is falsely reputed.

Things, Not Strings: The Word Made Flesh

The headline reads: “Introducing the Knowledge Graph: things, not strings.” The implication being, “strings” are bad and limited and “things” are good and what you really wanted all along. After all people don’t want strings of arbitrary alpha-numeric characters in response to their queries, they want the things they’re looking for. And as the advertising message at the end of the introduction says, because you’re getting “things and not strings” on your search result pages, you can spend more time doing the things you love. Who wouldn’t want to do that? The end result of this technological improvement is that your life now contains “more time”— like a toothpaste tube that contains 20% more toothpaste; and that time is filled with love. One might even recast this new product as a machine for filling the world with love.

What Google seems to be introducing is a new user interface to a faceted search. Nothing more. Faceted search acknowledges that the “word” (a single string of characters) isn’t the atom of meaning. Instead it uses the “phrase” in the context of some domain of meaning—a word can be a valid token in multiple systems of meaning. These domains, or facets of meaning, are surfaced and prioritized in search results. So, in addition to Page-ranked links, we get a prioritized set of contexts in which a particular word or phrase is a valid operator. The advance is in creating an index of sub-domains of meaning through analyzing the structure of text as it’s used on the visible Network. There’s no question that faceted search is superior to classic Page-ranked search, however the language used to describe this new product innovation seems to suggest some kind of transcendent experience.

Here’s a description of the vision that drives innovation in the search product at Google:

We’ve always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want
– Amit Singhal, SVP, Engineering at Google

But when I hear this kind of talk from engineers, their words are drowned out by the characters from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass“:

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

We can propose the idea that Google has a search engine that “understands exactly what you mean.” And by this what we mean is that your query corresponds to a sub-domain in the index of facets Google has previously collected. The “meaning” doesn’t lie in the “you” that has the query, but rather in the sets of sub-domains contained in Google’s index. When a word does a lot of work in multiple sub-domains of meaning, they pay extra in compute time.

The claim that Google makes is that they’ve gone from “strings” to “things.” But the sub-domains of meaning that Google is collecting are made up of computable sets of strings, not things. The leap that Google is actually trying to make is from “strings” to “words, phrases and contexts.” But the use of the word “thing” is very revealing. Words are not things, they are indexes. They point at things, suggest things, or function in a play of difference within a system of meaning. When we say that we’ve gone from “strings” to “things” we’re actually making a kind of miraculous claim. We’ve gone from “word” to “thing.” The most prominent example of this algorithm can be found in the King James Bible, we see it in John 1.14:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

If we believe that Google’s knowledge graph provides “things” and not “strings,” we also believe something extraordinary about the power and capability of Google. Even if we take a step back and simply say that Google is merely indexing sub-domains—systems of meaning, we need to examine what this means. We could follow Wittgenstein and say that “meaning” can be described as a form of life. Therefore Google’s index produces a prioritized list of facets (forms of life) that connect to your form of life, given what they know about you. Popular forms of life that don’t currently connect to you serve as a method of discovery.

Of course, there’s also the popular trend of the flesh made word

There are registers of meaning that Google’s approach will never capture. Their index will be filled with gaps and pools of darkness. In particular, only a very limited range of metaphor (cliches) will be caught in the net. Metaphor produces meaning through an algorithmic process (per @the_eco_thought, Tim Morton). Take a noun, take another noun from a different domain and place the word “is” between them. The coffee cup is a blue angel. The metaphor machine makes meaning. Not every metaphor is a good one, but it has some modicum of meaning and it does function as a metaphor.

Like the theoretical one hundred monkeys typing in front of a hundred typewriters for a hundred years, the metaphor machines are constantly operating and feeding the Network with new meaning. Darius Kazemi (@tinysubversions) has created a machine called “Metaphor a Minute” that does just this. You can follow it on Twitter at @metaphorminute. Of course, because of Twitter’s rate limits, there’s actually a new metaphor published every two minutes.

“Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

After thinking through Google’s new service and the language they’ve used to describe it, we discover that they are using the word “things” metaphorically. At first, we may assume that when engineers are describing the function of their new software, they’re making literal statements about what the machine they’ve constructed is doing. Instead, they’ve taken a two nouns from different domains and inserted the word “is” between them. Ironically, their use of the word “things” is of the type that their new service could not understand it. The narrow band of search engine results that are produced by this system is also being metaphorically called “knowledge.” In order to see these new products clearly, we need to be able to differentiate the rhetoric of hyperbole from the literal functioning of the machine. It also helps to become acquainted how metaphors mean…

TNK: It Is Not Dying

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There’s a story that movie stars often tell about the trajectory of a popular actor’s career. It goes like this:

“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
“Get me Hugh O’Brian.”
“Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.”
“Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.”
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”

The “Mad Men” television episode was called “Lady Lazarusafter a poem by Sylvia Plath. In this episode the ongoing theme of the emergence of 60s rock and roll and its relationship with advertising is explored. In earlier episodes, the ad men had tried to sign the Rolling Stones to do music for a commercial. In this episode, a client wants the Beatles, or something that sounds like the Beatles. In the trajectory of the movie star’s career this is the “Get me a Beatles type” phase.

The client wants the Beatles-type sound for his ad because he feels that the Beatles are in touch with, and even driving, what’s going on in current culture. Those lovable mop-tops running from adoring fans in “A Hard Day’s Night” have really struck a chord. And if you can’t get the real thing, then a close copy will do. This is when the counter-culture was being sterilized and injected into the mainline culture. In the moment depicted, the two cultural streams are quite far apart. In fact that’s the conceit of the episode. The 60s, as a cultural phenomenon, is about to explode into the world of Mad Men. As viewers, we know something that Don Draper doesn’t know about what popular music will mean to this generation.

In the end, getting a Beatles-type sound turned out to be both possible and profitable. Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider were able to construct “The Monkees” with the help of Don Kirshner, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. Advertising no longer needed to appropriate popular culture, it produced popular culture.

With the advent of social media, we’re in a very similar place. The means of production are in everyone’s hands—including corporations. The paper towel you use to wipe a spill on the counter now wants to be your friend. Won’t you “like” it with a public gesture so that all your other friends will know about your new relationship? One thing was “like” another thing. Now the two things swim together in the same stream.

With this story, Mad Men had painted itself into a corner. The song the ad executives come up with, the one that’s supposed to sound like the Beatles, sounds nothing like the Beatles. Now the show itself had to deliver, not for the client, but for the audience. And not something that sounded like the Beatles, or some other artist doing a Beatles song. Here we become highly attuned to the difference between the original and the copy. The series creator, and writer of this episode, Matthew Weiner, working on multiple levels of signification, does a beautiful thing . The Beatles song he delivers is “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The song plays as Don Draper sits back in a chair in his perfectly-designed Manhattan apartment.

Instead of a song that perfectly captures that moment in the culture, we hear a song that is utterly alien. No client of an ad agency would want this song playing over an image of their product. This song explores the vast internal landscape inside every person. The material world of products and social status is dissolved, but don’t be afraid the song says, “it is not dying.” Even the title of the song tells us that things are changing and the future is uncertain. The overlay of the song on the image of a sitting Don Draper doesn’t create the feeling of harmony. Instead we feel a profound dissonance. This song isn’t just out of sync with the image, it wants to blow up the whole material world and release the listener into the infinite interior in all of us. Sometimes music can be dynamite.

In the spirit of things that are like other things, here’s my favorite version of the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a live rendition by a band called 801.