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Category: desire

Liner Notes For The Gillmor Gang: Dynamic from Both Sides of the Glass


At the outset the frame of defacement is fitted for the conversation. Google’s SideWiki opens the door to an exploration of free speech, owned speech, unadulterated speech, graffiti, the Network as place and home, and what it is to write and read. Of course, the conversation isn’t really about SideWiki at all. Let’s start our exploration with writing.

A text is always already situated within a network of intertextuality. While we think we “have our say,” we assemble our sentences from an ocean of influences and predecessors. The connections stretch out back into history and as it tumbles out, our writing becomes fodder for the next person with something to say. Our writing and speech are never solely ours. The difference is that within the Network, the connections can be made visible. SideWiki, Disqus and Echo all aggregate and surface textual connections. Just as I might cut two related stories from two different newspapers and put them in a single manila folder.


The aggregated view exposes the edges of each piece—it’s that juxtaposition that activates the points of contention, the volatile elements of meaning, the interesting bits. To some extent, this is what we do when incorporate citations or quotations into our writing. We expose the fragmentary edges of a text to our commentary.

We like to talk about a two-way web, or a read/write web— but we still conceive of this as a half-duplex transmission. The revolution seems to be in the ever broader distribution of writing. We’ve yet to understand a full-duplex read/write— a writing that is also reading; and a reading that is also writing. The same pencil both writes and reads. McLuhan talked about this transition in terms of the old media becoming the content of the new media.


The act of reading is re-writing. The text is torn, ruptured and cut to make room for the commentary, associations, orthogonal meanderings, debate, and dialogue. Reading is always already all this. Writing itself could be called a form of close reading. Sometimes there’s ink in the pen, other times we let the thoughts fade away. We even employ Tmesis to insert our commentary into the middle of a word, for example: I abso-bloody-lutely have the right look at your website using Google’s SideWiki.

Roland Barthes describes how we read to create a more pleasurable engagement with the text in his short book: ‘The Pleasure of the Text:’

…we do not read everything with the same intensity of reading; a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text; our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or to skip certain passages (anticipated as “boring”) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote (which are always its articulations: whatever furthers the solution of the riddle, descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs onto the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening episodes of the ritual (like a priest gulping down his Mass). Tmesis, source or figure of pleasure, here confronts two prosaic edges with one another; it sets what is useful to a knowledge of the secret against what is useless to such knowledge; tmesis is a seam or flaw resulting from a simple principle of functionality; it does not occur at the level of the structure of languages but only a the moment of their consumption; the author cannot predict tmesis: he cannot choose to write what will not be read. And yet, it is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages.)

The question of reading as re-writing reaches its pinnacle with the transition from quotation to the practice of superimposition. For instance, imagine a program that alters the contents of a browser through adding new layers based on a personal context— I remix on the fly, in real time. Perhaps for every image of Robert Scoble that loads into my browser, a mustache layer is added to the appropriate spot in the image. If I found this to be a valuable or amusing way to consume the web— I have every right to do so. We saw something like this with the recent Kanye West site rewriting. A very amusing way to view the web. The Medium is the Remix:

The Network is becoming dynamic from both sides of the glass. Web servers connected to data stores created the possibility of dynamic pages at the server level. When combined with AJAX techniques, the dynamic set of pages becomes a viewport into which various dynamic data resources are called. A form of personalization can be created from the server’s data store based on the assignment of a unique identity to the user. But as far as this stack of techniques has come from the flat HTML page, it’s still a server-centric stack of technologies and techniques. It’s dynamic from the server’s side of the glass.

It’s here that the actual topic of discussion begins to emerge: the possibility of a dynamism from the user’s side of the glass. Perhaps we begin by painting mustaches on Robert Scoble, but we quickly move to the creation of a personal context that superimposes our purposes on to the web that passes through the browser viewport.

The technologies that make a dynamic web possible from the user’s side of the glass are already well under way. The Firefox greasemonkey plugin exposed the potential of reading/writing browser viewport content. The information card, the selector, KNS and the action card make up the foundational elements of a new ecosystem for the user’s side of the glass. Here’s Craig Burton:

Web augmentation is an incredible phenomenon that we are just beginning to understand and use. There is a spectrum of tools available to accomplish various levels of augmentation. I only talk about two of those here. Greasemonkey and Action Cards.

I stand by my position that Action Card web augmentation changes everything. And that greasemonkey—at its most lofty view—is a mere harbinger of the real thing. Greasemonkey lets you do basic web augmentation with lots of potential problems and drawbacks.

Action Cards—the combination of the selector-based information card, KNS, and cloud-based data is elegant, well thought out, and well architected capable of making long lasting significant changes to the Internet.

Phil Windley provides the example of looking at search results with a superimposition of an indicator telling the user whether a particular book is available at a local library. The personal context might be: whatever I’m looking at, when a book is mentioned, let me know if it’s available at my local library. I might be entitled to discounts based on membership in an organization or club. That context could be made visible when I shop online. The potential for the mobile web is even greater.

The value of dynamism from both the client and server side on the image in the browser’s viewport has yet to be fully understood or imagined. We barely have the language to talk about it. The October 1st Gillmor Gang attempts to start a discussion about users writing to the browser from the client’s side of the glass.

We end, perhaps, where we began, with Windley’s Bill of Rights:

I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.

Of course, rights are one thing and capability entirely another. That object floating in the glass between the server and the client is about to become an entirely new kind of collaboration.


Ornamentation: The Beauty of Search


It began with a discussion of ornamentation. As we look around us, the ornament seems to be disappearing. The things we use have been stripped of ornamentation in favor of pure functionality. Form, we are taught, must follow function. Decoration is an unnecessary expense, as it adds nothing to the function of a manufactured thing. Ornament has lost the battle of Return on Investment.

It wasn’t always so, there was a distinct turn. Alain De Botton, in his book “The Architecture of Happiness” explores the moment when engineering and aesthetics collided.

“The answer that eventually emerged was not really an answer; rather, it was an admonishment that it might be irrelevant and even indulgent to raise the question in the first place.

A prohibition against discussions of beauty in architecture was imposed by a new breed of men, engineers, who had achieved professional recognition only in the late eighteenth century, but had thereafter risen quickly to dominanace in the construction of the new buildings of the Industrial Revolution.”

These engineers were building the factories, bridges and railways that would provide the infrastructure for the industrial age. Style simply wasn’t a consideration.

“The philosophy of the engineers flew in the face of everything the architectural profession had ever stood for. ‘To turn something useful, practical, functional into something beautiful, that is architecture’s duty,’ insisted Karl Friedrich Schinkel. ‘Architecture, as distinguished from mere building, is the decoration of construction,’ echoed Sir George Gilbert Scott.

The essence of great architecture was understood to reside in what was functionally unnecessary.”

In 1923, Le Corbusier penned a book called ‘Toward a New Architecture‘ which outlined the principles of this new approach to the design of buildings. Again, from De Botton’s book:

For Le Corbusier, true, great architecture — meaning, architecture movtivated by the quest for efficiency — was more likely to be found in a 40,000-kilowatt electricity turbine or a low-pressure ventilating fan. It was to these machines that his books accorded the reverential photographs which previous architectural writers had reserved for cathedrals and opera houses.

And with that prelude, we arrive at the web search engine and the use and meaning of ornament. There’s an interesting experiment currently being conducted called Blind Search. The creators of this test wonder what happens to a user’s perception of search results when all branding is removed. Google initially established itself by producing noticeably better search results. Now, established as a verb meaning “to search,” does Google still provide results that are visibly superior? The results indicate that Google still leads, but not by as much as you’d think: Google: 41%, Bing: 31%, Yahoo: 28%. And putting the Google brand on any search results increases satisfaction.


In looking at the design of the Google user interface, we see the influence of Le Corbusier. The typographic logo is the only design on the page, and occasionally it is playfully re-imagined to commemorate notable events. Here, form follows function.

In his book, De Botton tries to articulate how we find beauty— the mechanics of what attracts us:

“We can conclude from this that we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally are deficient. We respect style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues.”

While we may perceive the Network as vast, complex and opaque— with its simplicity Google’s design provides us with the antidote. Now look at this image of Microsoft’s Bing home page:


Bing’s user interface is decorated with a background image that gives a sense of what it does. I’m fairly certain that the image has no effect on the quality of the search results. Bing is attempting to provide a usage model for the consumption of faceted search results. Queries return both potential facets along with the traditional list of links. Bing is designed with both facets and links in mind, while Google appends facets to the bottom of the link list.

As the facets and links that search engines return become more and more indistinguishable, what is the difference that will make a difference? One could assume that there will always be an engineering innovation right around the corner that will make a significant and visible difference. We like to believe that progress is always linear.

Corporate brand clearly makes a difference, users like a brand name search product. Microsoft’s brand has been held in the background and a new brand has been established. Images have also been used to distinguish Bing. Ornamentation has been exiled for so long, it’s hard to understand how to even value it.

Let’s return again to Alain De Botton:

The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worth wile — which refer, that is, whether through their materials, shapes or colours, to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of the good life are intertwined. We seek associations of peace in our bedrooms, metaphors for generosity and harmony in our chairs, and an air of honesty and forthrightness in our taps. We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn steps that hint at wisdom and by a Georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight window.

Le Corbusier’s aesthetic demanded design be “ascetic and clean, disciplined and frugal.” He had a hatred of any kind of decoration. Google’s engineering aesthetic is a terminal design. Any competitor employing a purely functional design will unintentionally be referencing Google. There’s no way to get radically simpler than Google, and therefore no way to create enough space to allow for differentiation. The only alternative is to move back into ornament, into the decorative, into beauty.


While we may think of computerized search of the internet as a purely functional affair of ONEs and ZEROs, the simple lists of links are being pulled into organic forms by their facets. Human forms of life are surfacing in and through our search queries. Search results will begin to bloom into something that looks much more like a natural form than points and lines in a frictionless space. This moment may mark another turning point…

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Aria: O mio babbino caro


Next week I’m going to see Puccini’s Il Trittico (The Triptych) at San Francisco Opera. It’s comprised of three short operas: Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Soprano, Patricia Racette will be performing the lead role in each story. It’s rare for a single performer to take on all three roles. Puccini started with the idea of three short operas about Dante’s Divine Comedy, but in the end only Gianni Schicchi maintained a connection.

Even if you don’t know opera, you may be familiar with an aria from Gianni Schicci, it’s called O mio babbino caro. Courtesy of YouTube, here are some renditions of that song.

Maria Callas

Renee Fleming

Anna Netrebko

And here’s a preview of the San Francisco Opera production of Il Trittico:

Il Trittico premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 14th, 1918.

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Ubik: Propensity and Anti-Propensity


Imagining the future in literature in some way creates a space for technology to advance. It’s not so much the mechanics of the technology, but a vision of what we desire the technology to accomplish. The production of desire precedes the will to create a technology. Pushing technology to the edges of its capability reveals the gap between what is possible and what is desired. From portable teleputers to rocket ships, we imagine our future states of desire. Bridging that gap is the business of new technology.

Books like ‘1984‘ and films like ‘2001‘ have been exceeded by the calendar, but the quality of their vision remains relevant. An interesting kind of disturbance happens when one of these literary visions begins to synchronize and emerge through contemporary society. The recent resurrection of Philip K. Dick is related to the ways in which his dystopian visions of the future are beginning to manifest in our daily life. The commercial, legal and political decisions that confront us as the Network becomes more developed stare at us from the pages of Dick’s novels. These decisions are akin to the moral issues created by the reorganization of society caused by the industrial revolution.


This train of thought was engendered by a recent reading of Dick’s novel ‘Ubik.’ In this novel, Dick lays out a world where ‘Pre-Cogs‘ can predict what will happen next. And to some extent, that knowledge creates the possibility of influencing what will happen next. We do this today with propensity modeling and choice architecture.

Our “search” engines tell us that if only they knew a little more about us, had access to a personal profile (identity), in addition to the complete record of our search history, they could use that context to provide more “relevant” results. In Dick’s world of “Ubik,” this process of propensity modeling is enhanced by the use of people with telepathic powers; a kind of joining of search technology and pre-cogs through a mechanical turk service.

Ubik also extends the concept of micropayments to its extreme. Every aspect of living has been “monetized” through the micropayments infrastructure. Opening the front door to your apartment requires the payment of five cents. Using the sink in the bathroom will cost you fifty cents. And the door and the sink know all about your payment history and if your credit is any good.

Things taken to their extreme create the desire for a balancing force, and in Ubik, this takes the form of the “prudence organization:”

“Ads over TV and in the homeopapes by the various anti-psi prudence establishments had shrilly squawked their harangues of late. Defend your privacy, the ads yammered on the hour, from all media. Is a stranger tuning in on you? Are you really alone? Are your actions being predicted by someone you never met? Terminate anxiety; contacting your nearest prudence organization will tell you if in fact you are the victim of unauthorized intrusions, and then, on your instructions, nullify these intrusions— at a moderate cost to you.”

– from Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

The inferential extension of a person’s trajectory and velocity allows for the sale of road signs on the path not yet traveled. (Except in Vermont where billboards aren’t allowed.) This power is currently held by a small number of corporate citizens of the Network. But as all new technology tends to travel the path from the leading edge to commodity, it will be dispersed to players of all shapes and sizes. One can easily imagine the regulations that will result from its abuse.

The business of removing the target from our backs started in a simple way with the national do not call list. However, the refinement of the targeting of an individual person’s desires based on harvesting real-time attention and gesture data on the Network continues at a ferocious pace. The anti-targeting forces are few and far between. The Attention Trust and the Gesture Bank imagined that we could take ownership of, and eventually barter, using that data. These ideas, and to some extent, the idea of vendor relationship management, attempt to turn the equation around. The individual captures their own value, or their micro-community’s value, and ultimately has the responsibility for determining what will happen with it. The option of complete invisibility or anonymity on the Network seems only to be practiced by black hat hackers.

There’s a set of data that can purchased about an individual today— tomorrow it will include your trajectory and velocity. Will there also be a service that makes you invisible to the tracking services? Is their a future in Prudence?

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