Archive for July, 2012

Google Contra Mundum

Those who’ve never been humbled believe there’s a rational explanation for this fact. In the world of technology vendor sports, Google has had numerous product failures, but it’s never really been humbled. Apple was on the verge of closing its doors. It was only an investment by Bill Gates’s Microsoft that kept the company alive. Microsoft itself lost an anti-trust case and was shackled for years. Facebook’s IPO has proved a humbling experience to the most recent master of the universe.

It was Microsoft’s reaching for the stars, it’s total domination of computer operating systems and office automation software that provided the model of what could be done. Given the size and scope of the known computing universe, their domination seemed to be total and everlasting. Of course, we know now that the universe continued to expand. The distances connecting the various functions of computing were distributed across the network of networks. Text became hypertext and the glyphs themselves were used to encode any media type for transmission across the Network. Suddenly, it was a whole new ball game.

Google claims as its mission the task of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. To some extent, Google accomplished this with its search engine product. The product has entered the common parlance, and now we talk of ‘Googling’ something. Google means search, and search is its big driver of revenues and profits. The funding for all its other products rests on the back of search. This allows them to enter established markets without the burden of turning a profit. Microsoft used this tactic when it launched the Internet Explorer web browser as a free product. Suddenly there was no such thing as a ‘web browser’ business.

One of the interesting characteristics of Google is that it doesn’t partner well. In the end, as a corporate philosophy, it believes that anything you can do, it can do better. It buys companies rather than partner with them. Google’s commitment to the open web and open source computing is the one area where they do create partnerships. Although these partnerships can’t be said to exist on an equal basis. Even in these open partnerships Google dominates.

In Geoffrey B. West’s talk for the Long Now Foundation, called “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster” he addresses the issue of the lifespan of a corporation. As they become more regular in structure, they become more brittle. If we look at a listing of the current S&P 500, we find a startling fact:

The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University.

In the age of the ecological thought, we should ask whether the empire building dreams of the old Microsoft are a reasonable corporate mission. Is it still possible for any corporation really dominate the technical universe on its own? Apple, one the world’s biggest corporations, has arrived at its current position through carefully negotiated partnerships with the carriers, the music industry, the film industry and software application and game developers. Apple’s more humble approach to partnerships seemed to start when a partnership saved its life.

“Apple doesn’t have to lose for Microsoft to Win. Microsoft doesn’t have to lose for Apple to win”

– Steve Jobs

Even Microsoft doesn’t believe in the old Microsoft. For example, they now offer Linux on Windows Azure. They’ve been very friendly to the JQuery and Drupal open source projects. It appears they’ve learned something about coexistence. Interestingly, the one area where Microsoft always had partners was in hardware. With announcement of Surface, that dynamic is going to change.

Google’s Android is the direct analog to Microsoft’s Windows. The difference being that Google subsidizes Android; it’s generally provided for free to its partners. Although if you’ve read anything about gift economies, you know that something given for free creates an obligation of a different sort.

When you look at the scope of Google’s products, it becomes clear that organizing the world’s information actually requires them to mediate every human contact with the world. The world itself becomes an unbundled, chaotic swirl of qualities. It’s just color and light, textures and shapes, never resolving into objects. To get an understanding of how Google sees itself mediating and rendering the world, making it accessible and useful, take a look at their new television commercial for the Nexus 7. A father and son, camping in nature—what could possibly come between them?

It could be that Google is the harbinger of a new era of philosopher kings, or perhaps we should call them engineer kings. And perhaps a king who has never been humbled can rule with humanity and wisdom. On the other hand, Google’s harmartia may lie in its belief that there’s a rational explanation for why it’s never been humbled.

Olympians: Caliban and Blake

The New York Times called it ‘weird’ and ‘unabashedly British.’ Some other descriptors included ‘wild jumble, celebratory, eccentric, off-the-wall, noisy, busy, witty, dizzying, slightly insane, and zany.’ In the end, the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic games, created by director Danny Boyle, was boiled down to a tribute to the anarchic spirit of the British. After all, the winner of the motto contest for the Olympics was “No Motto Please, We’re British.” The spectacle was packed with much more than can be quickly unpacked in a short essay, but there were a couple of moments that really caught me eye.

The thing that caused a conservative member of Parliament to call the ceremony too “lefty and multicultural” was that it wasn’t an unequivocal, unqualified positive portrait of Great Britain. It’s interesting to contrast its project with the production four years ago in China. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony spectacular offered a vision of how we all really got here—to this spot–where these games will be played with competitors from all over the planet. By definition the Olympics are multicultural and to some extent ‘lefty.’ But to hold that mirror up to the world is still a dangerous proposition. Best to be thought of as ‘zany’ rather than serious.

I’m reminded of something I recently heard in Paris. Some citizens there were discussing the question as to whether France should be multicultural or not. One need only walk around the streets of Paris to know that the question is moot. Rather than start from a position of purity, Boyle starts with the words of Caliban, a moon calf, a freckled monster, recited by the actor Kenneth Branagh:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

The Tempest 3.2.148-156
William Shakespeare

Caliban’s dreams far outstrip his reality and so he cries to ‘dream again.’ In essence he seems to be dreaming of pastoral Great Britain, something well beyond his grasp.

While the floor of the stadium is portraying pastoral Great Britain we hear the anthem “Jerusalem” with music by Sir Hubert Parry, written in 1916. The words are by the visionary poet William Blake. Presaged in the poem are the dark Satanic Mills that transform the green and pleasant land to an industrial machine.

(The Preface to ‘Milton, a poem)
William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land

John Lienhard describes what Blake meant by the phrase ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight:’

Blake, the sensible observer of the human lot, outlines our responsibility. We can’t shrink from the mental fight of building a world fit for habitation. When he asks for his bow, arrows, spear, and chariot of fire, he’s reaching for tools with which to build that world. He’s arming for mental fight. He realized that, from now on, nature would shine through the fire and mills only if we had the wits to make it do so.

It’s difficult to imagine the courage, the mental fight that Boyle had to muster to show the world this stage picture of England during the industrial age:

The information age follows the industrial age in Boyle’s telling of the story. And here all our modern stories are woven together into the multicultural fabric that we inhabit. Of particular note in the transition section is the tribute to the National Health Service.

And finally the entrance of the athletes by country in alphabetical order. The exceptions are Greece which traditionally enters first, and the host country, Great Britain which enters last. The randomness of the sequence of the letters of the alphabet presents us with strange and beautiful juxtapositions of countries and cultures. While the Olympics are contests of physical skill, they also represent a shining example of ceaseless mental fight.

Bing And Time

Woody Allen once observed that “ninety percent of life is just showing up.” But in 1948, Bing Crosby convinced the ABC radio network that “showing up” wasn’t actually necessary. That was the year he launched the first pre-recorded weekly radio broadcast. The previous year he’d made the same request of NBC, but they’d refused. For NBC, by definition radio programming was live with the exception of a few commercials.

Radio and TV historian Steve Schoenherr decribes Crosby’s deal:

The new ABC network, formed out of the sale of the old NBC Blue network in 1943 to Edward Noble, the “Lifesaver King,” was willing to break the tradition. It would pay Crosby $30,000 per week to produce a recorded show every Wednesday sponsored by Philco. He would also get $40,000 from 400 independent stations for the rights to broadcast the 60-minute show that was sent to them every Monday on three 16-inch aluminum discs that played 10 minutes per side at 33-1/3 rpm.

Eventually Crosby buys the first two Ampex 200A tape recorders, serial #1 and #2, to record his show. This allows him to control microphone placement and do multiple takes to get the best performance possible. As a film actor, Crosby had been used to this kind of production process. After hearing the tape of Crosby’s demo, ABC ordered 12 of the Ampex recorders and that was the beginning of the end of the broadcast of live radio programming.

By not showing up and instead creating the first pre-recorded radio broadcast, Bing Crosby set the pattern for all modern “broadcast” media. (He also pioneered microphone technique for vocalists.) Perhaps it never occurred to anyone that the audience would one day assert the same privilege that Crosby did in 1948. We are all Bing Crosby now, and there’s very little that we need to actually show up for in the world of broadcast media.

Now there’s only sports and news programming enveloping the earth in a new real-time synchronization of time that knows neither day nor night. As Richard Nixon sings in John Adams’s opera Nixon in China: “News has a kind of mystery.”

The heads of programming at the Networks used to decide when a particular recording would be played over their syndicate of local stations. Now that power rests with the audience. What’s “new” is what’s new to you; and the quality of material in the vast library of pre-recorded media far outstrips whatever is being presented live in real time right now. Like Crosby, we the audience, don’t bother showing up for the broadcast. We’ll choose the time and place for the performance to occur.

Time present is the sequencing of the recordings of time past. Time future is what is yet to be recorded, an appointment for our DVRs. If all time is pre-recorded, all time is unredeemable. Nothing need be missed, there is no possibility of that. Everything is just a matter of priority in the great queue of items awaiting our future consumption.

When we mortals are presented with seemingly infinite banquets aimed at our appetites, the discussion quickly turns to the seven deadly sins; and in particular, gluttony. While we can now consume anything at anytime and practically any place— what is it that we should be consuming? What asserts control over our potentially infinite appetites? Is it the rational “I” who decides while basking in the luxury of its individual freedom? Does our access to the infinite buffet transform us into a mature adult who can keep, not only its ego, but its id in check? Or do we end up joining the rest of the gluttons in Dante’s third circle of the inferno?

And as we more fully become Bing Crosby, do we engage over our real-time social networks by playing pre-recorded snippets for the purpose of constructing an ideal projection of ourselves as the narrator of our lives? Walter Benjamin regrets our loss of the “aura” in a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Are these new networks we’ve constructed even capable of transmitting “aura” across their tangle of wires? And if they are, are we capable of telling the difference? Through the recording arts, Crosby was able to create a technically better performance. He accomplished this through deferring the moment of transmission. The message is worked and re-worked at a distance from the performance date. The medium itself has deferral and distance built into it. As an audience we now re-wire broadcasting to take advantage of these qualities.

What Crosby removes from the encounter is the element of chance, the possibility that something unexpected could happen. Crosby pre-rolls the dice and presents the best outcomes for your enjoyment. There’s a presupposition in this approach that enjoyment is increased when all error is absent and the moments of spontaneity are pre-auditioned and arrives with the appropriate imprimatur. What we miss is the moment when the wrong note suddenly becomes right. Herbie Hancock describes such a moment while playing with Miles Davis:

“And just as Miles was about to start his solo for ‘So What,’ at the peak of the concert, I hit a note that was so wrong I thought I had crumbled the show down like a falling tent,” he recalled.

“And Miles took a breath, and played some notes that made my note right. It took me years to understand that Miles didn’t judge what I played. He worked with it. That lesson wasn’t just about music. It was about life.”

Bing changed our relationship with time. And while it may seem like we’ll manage to avoid error and present a photoshopped version of ourselves to the world, we simply encode our errors at another level. The unexpected unexpected emerges despite the best laid plans.

Even a pre-recorded roll of the dice will never abolish chance

Privacy, Difference and Redemption: Somewhere on the Network

We usually think about privacy as the ability to restrict the circulation of personal information. Non-public information stays non-public. In the era of the Network, the personal exhaust we leave as traces on various systems, even if it’s meant to be anonymous, identifies us publicly. Given enough pieces of the puzzle, the full picture of a person can be put together.

Our identity and the identifiers are linked as indexical signs. The foot leaves a footprint in the sand. The last few footprints point to where the next few footsteps will land. Collect enough footprints and the future can be predicted with a high degree of certainty. Implied in this formula is something about both the character and durability of the link between the signifier and the signified.

This idea implies a particular relationship between the acts and the actor—the actor is nothing more than his acts in a positive and un-ironic sense. Past is prolog. And this is where we turn to the question of redemption. The first few lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” tell us something about the meaning of time present and time past.

Burnt Norton
By T.S. Eliot

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
read more…

“If time future is contained in time past, all time is eternally present, and therefore unredeemable.” As we try to come to terms with the Network, this becomes the crux of the privacy issue. One half of privacy is the ability to keep a set of facts about one’s self hidden. The other side of privacy is the ability to selectively reveal oneself, and that also means to not be, to not choose, to not do what one’s past has predicted. Not as “abstract speculation,” but as a non-linear act in the real world. In any given moment, the character of the facts could change through the exercise of free will.

The predictive and persuasive power of the big data platforms depends on the idea that the system generates the current and future actions of the individual based on recordings of previous actions. All time becomes unredeemable. The bad restaurant will always be a bad restaurant. The drunkard will aways be a drunkard. The successful businessman will always be a successful businessman. The sinner will always be a sinner. The cogs in the machine will always be cogs in a machine.

The moment of redemption, of radical change, is unpredictable, yet perfectly possible for each and every one of us at any time. For no reason. Somewhere.