May 032014
Improvement the order of the age, by Boston Public Library, on Flickr

Improvement the order of the age, by Boston Public Library, on Flickr

A strain of techno-pessimism, much of it invading the border of hysteria, is rampant in our culture. The Internet is Making us Stupid!  Gadgets Ruin Relationships and Corrupt Emotions!  Technology Is Taking Over English Departments with The false promise of the digital humanities!

At first glance, this kind of thing seems so very important and present-day, reflecting serious analysis about the impact of new tools on what we value about the past (or should value). Plus, it must also be said, some of these doomsters write compelling with sincerity and intelligence.

But there are two issues with such Cassandraic pronouncements, one conceptual and one historical. The conceptual issue boils down to basic human nature, which leaves us feeling a little uneasy about big changes in our lives. There’s a little nagging fear back in our heads even in the midst of what is generally thought of as progress, both personally and culturally. We may be swept along with innovation, but the more we see (and the more we age), the more nostalgic we tend to feel about tradition. Given how radically everyday life has changed in the West over the last several decades, heightened anxiety toward change leaves us particularly receptive to contrarian arguments about the benefits of technology. All those subjective pronouncements about how technology hurts us and erodes human values may just be the manifestation of our collective little nagging fears goosed by lots of change.

The historical perspective makes it clear that techno-pessimism is very old, most particularly in connection with communication itself. Plato, for example, decried writing because it diminished the power of learning through conversation. “If men learn [writing],” he wrote (!), “it will implant forgetfulness… calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

Denis Baron, in A Better Pencil, notes how critics railed against the printing press when it came on the scene because inked words on paper would last far less time than handwriting on parchment. Peter the Venerable, according to Baron, contrasted the pen as carving wisdom into parchment with the press, which merely brushed marks on top of paper.

The typewriter, favorite of literary nostalgists, was initially viewed with much fear and loathing. While Samuel Clemens claimed he “was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature” in 1874, he bore no love for the device.

That early machine was full of caprices, full of defects–devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells. He was reluctant, for he was suspicious of novelties and unfriendly toward them, and he remains so to this day. But I persuaded him. He had great confidence in me, and I got him to believe things about the machine that I did not believe myself. He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.

And so on until the recent past, where David Mamet declares his love for pad and pencil and abhors computers.  “The idea of taking everything and cramming it into this little electronic box designed by some nineteen-year-old in Silicon Valley… I can’t imagine it.”

The bottom line here is that yes, we are a little worried about how quickly things are changing with information technology. But we can take some comfort in knowing that our ancestors had the same fears over the past 2500 years and things seem to have turned out reasonably well.

Mar 152014

Edward Snowden did more than blow the lid off secret government surveillance. He has called into question a fundamental role of government itself: keeping records.

Snowden at SXSW, by Cory Doctrow, on Flickr

Snowden at SXSW, by Cory Doctrow, on Flickr

Governments have always kept records. Documentation is needed for protecting legal rights and financial obligations, as well as for establishing individual identities and relationships. While there were instances of public outrage in connection with certain overzealous documentation efforts (such as with the East German Stasi), government record keeping is something most people accept as a fact of life.

And when it comes to the idea of “archives”–records kept permanently for their historical or other value–it’s easy to stir the mystic chords of memory. In laying the cornerstone of the U.S. National Archives  in 1933, Herbert Hoover declared “This temple of our history will appropriately be one of the most beautiful buildings in America, an expression of the American soul.”

The concept of government archives as secular temples persists into the digital era. In 2001, Archivist of the U.S. John Carlin described the National Archives and Records Administration’s system for preserving email and other born digital records, the Electronic Records Archives, as follows: “An ERA will allow us at NARA to make a much greater amount of our holdings— these records of democracy, ‘the people’s records’— available to more citizens via the Internet. And that will make our country and our democracy stronger.”

But all this assumes the people are fine with government collecting and keeping digital records about them. The news has long been full of stories about data breaches and digital identity theft. Add to that the specter of government snooping, and it’s no surprise that public anxiety is higher than ever. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, “public opinion polls consistently find strong support among Americans for privacy rights in law to protect their personal information from government and commercial entities.” Polls also show that public trust in government is at historically low levels.

All this makes me wonder how supportive the public will be in the years ahead for government efforts to collect and manage any kind of digital information. Given that people tend to paint “the government” with a broad brush, skepticism can easily extend to national cultural heritage institutions. When the Library of Congress announced in 2010 that it would collect the Twitter archive, the agency immediately faced an uproar of privacy concerns that continue to this day. A 2013 article on the project is entitled Does the Government Monitor Your Twitter Account? As absurd as this seems, somebody was worried enough to establish a Twitter application, (now apparently inactive), to automatically delete tweets before they fell under the Library’s control.

There is a bit of inside irony about all this. The landmark 1996 report, Preserving Digital Information: Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information, declared that libraries and archives needed to prove they could excel in collecting and keeping digital content to gain and keep public trust. Trust has indeed proven to be a paramount issue, but it’s not about about demonstrating capability through building trustworthy systems as the report called for. Instead, the public worries that the government and other large institutions have too much technological capability–so much so that privacy is compromised. Trust instead is linked to degrading capability through some combination of personal data ownership, data collection restrictions and even calls to scale back cloud computing.

Are we at a point where the public wants government to do less in terms of collecting and keeping electronic records? If so, that’s a major concern, especially since many government archives already are struggling in this area. With regard to NARA, for example, see Record Chaos: The Deplorable State of Electronic Record Keeping in the Federal Government2008 and Report on Current Recordkeeping Practices within the Federal Government, 2001. (Sadly, whatever success the National Security Agency has had isn’t transferable).

One thing seems certain: government needs to establish itself as a trustworthy manager of electronic records before government archives become digital temples of history.

Dec 172012

Thinking about digital recreation of reality has an inevitable association with the “whoa, dude, are we in a video game?” line of reasoning. This is good in some ways because it puts the issue into a context that’s easier to ponder for most of us. It even turns out that at least one NASA scientist likes to compare reality to Grand Theft Auto (more on that in a minute).  Despite the fundamental inability to prove or disprove the hypothesis, there is something compelling about speculating just how close a computer simulation can ever get to fully depicting the reality that we perceive.

Call of Duty - Black Ops - RealTime Screenshots, by shyb, on Flickr

Call of Duty – Black Ops – RealTime Screenshots, by shyb, on Flickr

It’s clear that video games are getting increasingly life-like all the time. Video teasers for games like Black Ops—Call of Duty are, for example, getting hard to distinguish from live-action movie trailers. We’ve come a long way from crudely pixelated Doom fantasies  from the 1990s. Is it possible to image a video game that’s authentically real from a human perspective?

It may come down to whether the universe is digital or analog, which is the subject of debate and speculation among physicists. Is reality made up of discrete, if tiny, chunks or is it one big continuum that resists ultimate subdivision?

The rough outlines of quantum theory posit that action at atomic scale happens in discrete—digital, if you will—amounts. The theory had a direct impact on development of the transistor and microchip, and is closely associated with development of modern electronics. And even though certain features of quantum mechanics are undeniably weird—with cats half alive and half-dead at the same time—it seems plausible that a powerful-enough digital computer should be capable of faithfully converting a digital reality into an alternative digital reality.

That NASA scientist mentioned above, for example, says:

The natural world behaves exactly the same way as the environment of Grand Theft Auto IV…. You see exactly what you need to see of Liberty City when you need to see it, abbreviating the entire game universe into the console. The universe behaves in the exact same way. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they’re being observed. Many theorists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you explain this. One explanation is that we’re living within a simulation, seeing what we need to see when we need to see it.

digital/analog wisdom, by doctor paradox, on Flickr

digital/analog wisdom, by doctor paradox, on Flickr

But if the universe is analog, the best we can hope for is for a sampling of the real thing. Computers might create lossy MP3 versions of reality, and with enough processing power we might even get products that go beyond human ability to tell the difference. Even in such a situation we’re still dealing with a discrete representation of the real thing, which would elevate the debate between digital and analog media aficionados to the ultimate level.

There’s a spiritual dimension involved here, too. Independent of any particular belief system, I agree with John Horgan, author of Rational Mysticism, when he says that “our minds have untapped depths that conventional science cannot comprehend.” If those depths are analog, is there ever any hope of fully replicating them? The notion of a sampled soul adds a whole new meta-layer to spiritually.

The Foundation Questions Institute sponsored an essay contest in 2011 that asked “is reality digital or analog?” As noted in Scientific American, the organizers expected entrants to come down on the side of digital, which is what I myself would guess, if forced to.  But—surprise—“many of the best essays held, however, that the world is analog.” The reasoning in the essays is erudite, but certain points jump out with clarity. David Tong wrote about the fundamental inability of scientists to simulate the Standard Model of physics on a computer, perhaps because reality is made up not of particles but of “ripples of continuous fields, moulded
into apparently discrete lumps of energy by the framework of quantum mechanics.” Numbers are, according to Tong, merely emergent from a fundamentally analog universe. His final sentence works to drive the point home: “We are not living inside a computer simulation.”

The winning essay, however, came down on the side of a digital reality. Why? Because Isaac Newton says so. Jarmo Makela, “a specialist in general relativity with an avid interest in the history of science,” purports to report on an interview he conducts with Newton in 1700. The great man confidently declares that reality (or, at least the odd alternative slice of reality hosting the conversation) is most definitely digital because he has calculated it as such, based in part of an analysis of black hole entropy and speculation about “a still unknown law of nature.” Newton presents Makela with the written details, but they prove to be sadly evasive.

In short, if we don’t know the fundamental basis of reality, it’s pretty hard to imagine faithfully recreating it in all it’s cryptic glory. It’s probably better to think about video games and other simulations as tools that do a good enough job of engaging awareness and aiding our learning and entertainment within an inescapable, enduring meatspace reality.


Jun 052011

Digital preservation used to be the affair of a few geeky keepers who recognized the value of lonely, obscure data.  But as information technology has spread across our culture, we are developing an intense, long-term relationship with digital content.

I Love Data" She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr

"I Love Data" She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr

Cyberspace When You’re Dead is a good example.  “Suppose that just after you finish reading this article,” begins The New York Times Magazine article, “you keel over, dead.  …what happens to [the] version of you that you’ve built with bits? Who will have access to which parts of it, and for how long?”

As ledes go, that’s sexy as hell.  It nimbly couples our mortality with our digital legacy.  Both are highly personal, endlessly fascinating and elude easy answers.

Digital legacy refers to things like your Facebook page and Twitter account, as well as the collective cultural mass on (and off) the internet.  It’s digital photographs, health records, government data and every other kind of documentation that you can think of.  The legacy keeps growing because it serves a host of compelling personal and community purposes. Yet as our digital commitment deepens, so do questions about the relationship.  Lots of average people now worry about things that used to only give archivists and librarians pangs: what pieces of the legacy should be kept?  How do we do it?  Who gets to look at it?

Angst is boiling up all over the place.  How Important Is It To Preserve Our Digital Heritage? recently asked Techdirt.  The story details the grassroots labor of love to preserve the content of Google Video, now that the Googleplex has decided to get out of that business, and similar efforts to rescue content from Friendster and GeoCities, two other defunct sites.

self-portrait: a house is not a home (2), by Marie-II, on Flickr

self-portrait: a house is not a home (2), by Marie-II, on Flickr

The people involved in these efforts are passionate amateurs–their collective nom de web is “the archive team”–who donate their time because they believe it’s the right thing to do.  But passion only takes one so far.  The article lists some of the many issues that remain in the relationship between the team and their rescued content, such as how to deploy the right technology and how to to deal with obsolete software and file formats.   Techdirt aslo asks a reasonable question: if the relationship is worth saving, why not seek professional help: “should we have, maybe even one on each continent or in each country, a modern Library of Alexandria?”

Like other issues associated with our digital preservation engagement, this question evades a simple answer.  And I’m not even talking about the fact that much of the current thought in library and archival circles is that digital preservation is best approached in a distributed manner based on collaboration among many institutions.  As the comments posted on Techdirt indicate, the big concern is trust.  Many people worry that government–the presumed benefactor of “a modern Library of Alexandria”–may not be an honest broker in terms of what is selected and how it is kept.

“I really don’t care how much is preserved as long as it’s done by private organizations as opposed to government mandate,” proclaims one commentAnother commenter states that “A third party might have a mandate to preserve as much as possible, regardless of PoV or source, whereas a government entity might be tempted to archive predominantly artifacts showing them in a favourable or neutral light.”  As of this writing there are no comments about fears of government using preserved information to violate personal rights, but that concern ripples across the minds of many people as well.

I feel safe making two predictions about the pas de deux between us and our digital legacy.  First, public attraction and attention to digital preservation will continue to expand, along with number of gigabytes we keep–and are kept about us.

Second, successfully coping with the issues attendant to the relationship between people and data will turn on communication and trust: we need additional  authorities to help plot the way forward.  Personally, I would like to see a new high-profile effort, adequately supported with public and private funds, take this on.  It would be just the ticket to strengthen a bond of faith between us and our digital content.

Mar 282011

I came across a rather amazing interview with Will Self on the BBC Open Book radio program.  The subject was Self’s nominal opposition, along with a host of other well-known English writers, to the closing of public libraries in the UK for budgetary purposes.

Will Self at Humber Mouth 2007, by Maggie Hannan, on Flickr

Will Self at Humber Mouth 2007, by Maggie Hannan, on Flickr

Self is a well-known writer and television personality recognized, according to Wikipedia, “for his satirical, grotesque and fantastical novels and short stories.”  Among his great influences are listed William S. Burrows and Hunter S. Thompson.  All of this intersecting with commentary on the plight of the modern library is simply irresistible.

But anyone expecting a spirited defense of public libraries as we currently know them will be shocked by what he says.  While he has gone on record opposing the library closures, he seems to offer plenty of support for those on the other side.  This may be a put-on of some sort; he is a comedian and contrarian, after all.  Certainly the earnest interviewer, Mariella Frostrup, seems a bit boggled by his line of reasoning.

Most librarians, certainly most public librarians, find his comments enraging and dispiriting, especially coming as they do when public funding has cratered in the UK and looks to be headed in the same direction in the US.  It’s also possible that he is seriously ill-informed; he did later confess to one angry librarian that “perhaps I was referring to my own local libraries – not all of them.” But he does raise some cogent points about core issues: ebooks and the question of what role there should be for paper books; what current users expect; and the danger of relying on nostalgic ideas about libraries that may no longer apply.

In any event, I went to the bother to transcribe the interview.  I can’t vouch for 100 percent accuracy, but it captures the essence.

Transcript of Open Book, BBC Radio 4, 3/20/2011

Mariella Frostrup: Libraries: a subject that animates readers and writers like no other.  With hundreds of libraries across the country facing extinction and a veritable who’s who of British writing talent vocally opposing the closures from Phillip Pullman to Kate Moss to Joanna Trollop to Jacqueline Wilson, there’s no question that it’s a subject that arouses strong passions.  Yet, with books no longer a luxury item, and all of us increasingly umbilically attached to PCs ebooks and ipads we have to ask that the controversial question what exactly are libraries for.  Will self a novelist never short of an opinion is one of the names calling for a halt to the closures.  He joins me now.  Will welcome.  Will when did you last visit your local library and why?

Will Self: I haven’t been in for quite a while.  I occasionally go to photocopy stuff; I go in to accompany my 9-year old who does go in and borrow things, though mostly it has to be said talking books rather than actual written books.  The local library, to use it beyond photocopying, never.

Frostrup: You’ve lent your voice to a campaign for a library that as you say you rarely visit.  In the face of draconian cost cutting what’s your argument to local council that there are actually making a mistake?

Self:  Well, it’s not a good one because it doesn’t fit into the prevailing ethos of public services which is that they try to convert themselves into some kind of profit center.  In the case of libraries that means paying for things like internet and photocopying perhaps putting in a kind of coffee bar, introducing these kinds of revenue streams and also this idea of public services that they need to actually attract the public.  The truth of the matter is that the kind of library that I and the kinds of starry literary names mentioned want to preserve is the kind of library that existed about 30 or 40 years ago and not the contemporary library at all.

Frostrup:  So in which case, it does beg the question why you are supporting the campaign at all, doesn’t it?

Self: I’m supporting it out of some kind of nostalgia, I suppose.  There is a something a bit weird going on here.  All the names you mentioned at the beginning of this item are people who are extensively subsidized by the public purse through the public lending right.  They are some of the top borrowed people in the country and they make a considerable income out of libraries.  It’s no wonder they are campaigning to keep them open.

Frostrup:  You’re not saying that’s the only reason, are you?

Self:  I’m sure they’re all hopping up and down if they’re listening as I speak and are gripped by a frenzy of public spiritedness.  But the fact of the matter is the people you mentioned are earning thousands every year out of libraries.

Frostrup:  What about you?  Do you make money from being borrowed?

Self:  Oh yes, I make money out of PLR as well, but not that much.  But more germane it seems to me is that just as you asked me when I last went to my local library, you know, to actually use it, and the answer was “I never have,” so I wonder if my fellow objectors to library closures are really themselves library users themselves or rather, the argument seems to be, we used them when we were young and look at us now,  it’s a sort of argument from previous effects to current situations rather we actually are users at this moment and I think there’s something strange about that.

Frostrup: Let’s forget about the writers.  Thousands of people across the country say that they do use libraries and say they don’t want the libraries to be shut down.  Do you think they also are trying to preserve some five-decade old institution?

Self:  I certainly think that problem for libraries needs to be encountered head on, which as you mentioned is the internet. We have to try and grasp the extent to which electronic paper is going to replace physical paper, and whether this is something that libraries want to go with or whether it’s something they want to programmatically resist.  I certainly believe those people are sincere, I certainly believe that they use libraries, but I think people need to be absolutely clear about what it is they wish to preserve.

Frostrup: There are initiatives to bring U.S.-style public-private ownership to libraries where there will be radical overhauling: murder mystery nights and open mike sessions.  Do you think that sounds like a positive proposal?

Self: Well, the truth of the matter is that this is something that  libraries themselves could have been doing a lot more of.  I’m sure there will be a howl of anger from people in the library sector but when I have actually sat down and talked to librarians I have to say the impression I’ve often gained of them is that they are quite narrow in their thinking and there’s even a slight jobsworth mentality to them.  It’s one of those private sector jobs that people kind of get stuck in.  In my own career over the years the number of actual public events I’ve done at libraries is really pretty small and I’m not asked that often by libraries.  I mean, where are these libraries that have reached out beforehand to try and alter the model of the service they provide with the resources that are available?

Frostrup: You say that librarians can be a pretty [inaudible] lot but the role of the librarian used to be a pretty serious profession.  I mean Phillip Larkin was one, for heaven’s sake, and now it seems to be to domain of big society volunteers.  Who are these people who can afford to work for free and doesn’t that negate the role of the expert who says “oh you should really look at that shelf”?

Self: I don’t think the big society people are in their quite yet, Mariella.  I’m mean they are getting in there, there’s no doubt about that.  I certainly think the job of librarian is a serious occupation and should be undertaken seriously, but remember Larkin was a university librarian, he wasn’t a branch librarian.  What’s the reality of this? Those people you mentioned at the top of the program—all very fine effectively middlebrow writers who are all highly borrowed from branch libraries and that’s no doubt a good thing.  But they are exactly the kinds of writers who are most under threat in their paper incarnation from the internet and from ebooks.  So is that why we are keeping branch libraries open? The truth of the matter is that the resale value of those writer’s books is vanishingly small.  You can pick them up in a cardboard box outside your local charity shop for a few pence.  So maybe we need a different kind of model for how those kind of books can be accessed.  I just sat on the jury for the British Design Awards and we gave the award to a free library in Magdeburg where the residents had got together and created a free open building where books could be taken away and returned and there was no need for a librarian, I hate to say, and it was a way for people to access these paper books.

Frostrup:  You say that paper books are cheap, but books for children aren’t, and they arguably are the generation that writers are fighting for because those kids are the age they were when they used libraries and ultimately turned them into the writers they are…

Self:  That’s such a ridiculous argument, now isn’t it?

Frostrup: I know, but that’s what you tell me they are arguing.  So do you think there is a role for the inspiration for libraries that they perhaps had?

Self: Absolutely but we have to be honest about what we are doing.  We have to accept that it’s a massive loss-leader.  I can image the kind of library I’d like to see–and my local library is right down the road here a couple of hundred yards away–and I’d like it o have the kind of books I’d like to borrow and refer to and use.  But I really have no requirement to use it so I’d like it to sit there empty with a very brilliant Phillip Larkin style librarian sitting behind the counter and just waiting for me to come in and inspire me or my younger avatar to become a writer, but let’s be honest: it’s going cost quite a lot of money and people are going to oppose it.  Now the reason libraries have this iconic status in the careers of writers such as Pullman and myself who now in our 50s and 60s is that there were relatively less media around at that time there simply weren’t televisions and iPods and computers to tinker with.

Frostrup: So should this crisis be viewed as an opportunity to do things differently?  What should we be doing?

Self: I think my answer will just baffle.  I think the internet should be excluded from the library to make it solely a paper resource.  If you want to have a community internet room put it somewhere else.  If you still believe the solo contemplation of the paper book is an intrinsic educational good—and I do believe that—I think that ereaders and computers have quite a sinister effect on the way people learn and kind of agglomerate knowledge—then kick the internet out.


Mar 142011

Yesterday’s New York Times had an Op-Ed article about a problem I’ll bet you never thought of: The Digital Pileup.

The essence of the article, with apologies to Jimmy McMillan, is that  the amount of digital information is too damn high.  Too much energy to run all those server farms.  Too much human cost “wading through digital detritus.”  Too much money going to all those damn lawyers demanding electronic discovery.

Day 66, by Marquette La, on Flickr
Day 66, by Marquette La, on Flickr

As someone who worries about digital preservation–that is, trying to keep some digital information accessible into the future, I read this article with conflicted feelings.  On the one hand, there can be no doubt that big chunks of important digital information have disappeared.  Most of us have personal experience with losing stuff from our own personal computers.

Even more significant is that a huge percentage of our cultural knowledge and experience now lives solely in digital form.  Unless care is taken to keep and actively manage this data, we risk loosing our collective memory as well as grist for future research and discovery.  So it is unsettling–to say the least–to see digital information painted uniformly as “digital detritus,” and users depicted as data “breeders” and “hoarders.”  This is silly and simplistic.

But deep in part of my mind I get the strange sense that the author has a point.  Sources of digital information–the web, organizational records, social media, scientific databases–are huge pipes, gushing with superabundant data.  The scale and complexity of this information is well beyond the ability of individuals, and even most individual organizations, to manage.  There is so much data that many librarians and archivists are left feeling overwhelmed and perhaps even disheartened in their efforts to get a handle on preserving what is important.

The traditional model of collecting and preserving books, papers, and just about everything else rests on an assumption of scarcity: humanity has a limited capacity for documenting itself, and the portion worth keeping is much smaller still.  Methods for choosing valuable information are based on well-understood ideas about what users will appreciate and what generally will enrich creativity and learning.

All this is turned on its head in the digital age.  Humanity now has a superabundant means to document itself, and it is, at this point, hard to say with certainty which of this information has ongoing value for research or some other use.   Data mining and the ability to link different kinds of data to learn new information leads one to see potential value in just about everything.  The choice frequently boils down to keeping lots and lots of data or keeping nothing.

It can all seem too much. So, when the article asks  “is there anything we can do?” my natural optimism instinctively perked–for a split second.

Sadly, there is no silver bullet.  The author doesn’t offer much: “we can demand that our companies… aggressively engage in data reduction strategies” (none of the data I’ve cranked out, thank you) and “we can clean up the stockpiles of dead data that live around us” (I’m not yet ready to trash my 50,000 Gmail messages).

Here is a dead obvious prediction: the amount of digital data will continue to grow at a fantastic rate as the pleasure, benefit and lure of technology deepens.  And, like Rosalind in As You Like It, we will continue to ask– rhetorically, only–“why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”

Feb 152011

A meeting I recently attended, Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future, featured three leading science fiction authors whose task was to help policy wonks image the impact of technology on society.

As I noted earlier, one of those authors, Bruce Sterling. went on record as warning that rogue “cocaine submarines” pose a threat to undersea telecommunications cables.  Regardless of what you think about the likelihood of that particular threat, there is no doubt that such subs are getting increasingly sophisticated, as Xeni Jardin reports in Boing-Boing.

100-ft-long drug-smuggling, Narco-crafted submarine discovered in Colombia

100-ft-long drug-smuggling, Narco-crafted submarine discovered in Colombia

Feb 032011

I am looking forward to a conference here at Google DC over the next two days, Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future.

The dragon business is perhaps a little far-fetched.  It refers to “maps in the old days often included depictions of sea dragons or lions to connote unknown or dangerous terrain,” and further than “when it comes to a future that will be altered in unimaginable ways by emerging technologies, society and government cannot simply lay down a “Here Be Dragons” marker with a fanciful illustration to signal that most of us have no clue.”

Mankind has always had a technologically uncertain future and we seem DNA-wired to forge ahead anyway.  If we were truly worried about dragons, metaphorically or otherwise, we probably would be more cautious.  Fanciful creatures and a scary tech future may just be a ruse to promote support for people who want to explore the fringes of the known world.  After all, no one has yet been eaten by a dragon and technology has, by most accounts, provided far more benefit than harm.

I  actually expect optimism to prevail during the meeting, starting with the opening remarks on synthetic biology by Andrew Hessel, Co-Chair, Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, Singularity University and Founding Director, Pink Army Cooperative.  The other theme of the meeting, in addition to synthetic biology, is the internet.  The question: “How does a democratic society both nurture and regulate — and find the right balance between those two imperatives — fast-evolving technologies poised to radically alter life?”

Great question–even without monsters!

Jan 272011

Here is a tale from my personal experience that illustrates both the peril and promise of keeping digital information over time.

Lost & Found
Lost & Found, by Thomas Hawk, on Flickr

Starting in 1996 I put out a weekly e-mail newsletter called Culture in Cyberspace.  I used it to report on websites that I found interesting and also offered thoughts about the impact of information technology on society.  It was a small effort that had a mailing list of about 3,000 people when I shut it down in 1997.  I was starting a new day job, and wanted to fully invest myself there; in retrospect, I wish I had stuck with CinC, but that’s another story.

Anyway, this before the advent of blogs and there were comparatively few people using the internet to publish thoughts about the medium.  As a result, some of what I said got some modest attention.  I was interviewed for a story in Ms. Magazine about Cyber-Rape.  I made my way on to university class reading lists, including this one.   I was footnoted in a academic article, Scholarly Communication and Electronic Publication: Implications for Research, Advancement, and Promotion.  My observations apparently made it into the pricey journal Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies–at least Google claims I did; I’m not willing to pay $25 to the publisher to access the article for conformation.  Now, it may seem self-aggrandizing to draw attention to these small events from so long ago.  And while I confess to some lingering pride, my main point is that despite the obscurity and the age of my words, Google can still find many of them.

This is a good thing, because I lost about half of the original files.  I had them backed up on my laptop hard drive and on multiple sets of floppy disks, but must confess to falling short of proper personal archive management.  When I got a new laptop I neglected to copy the files before selling the old laptop on eBay.  I kept the backups with a large collection of floppy disks that I all but forgot about in the transition over to recordable CD-ROMs and flash drives.  When I eventually tried to access the disks 10 years later, they had errors and I could only retrieve some of the content.  I turned to Google as a last resort and was frankly amazed at how much still existed in the ether.

This is obviously not an ideal archival arrangement.  There is, for example, no assurance that the words purported to be mine are 100 percent authentic or are presented in what I would consider the right context.  The bigger issue is fragmentation: the Google CinC corpus is patchy in the extreme, presenting a range of information from brief mentions to, to excerpts, to complete issues.  It is a bit like trying to make sense of an ancient cuneiform library that has been smashed and scattered.  Still, for me in this case, it is far better to have the pieces than nothing.

Postmodern Philosophy Lulz #04 - Marshall McLuhan & A Cat With Cheese On Its Face
Postmodern Philosophy Lulz #04 – Marshall McLuhan & A Cat With Cheese On Its Face

Is this how future researchers will experience our world?  Perhaps.  We crank out gigantic quantities of digital documentation about every possible topic, often with no solid plan for how to preserve it.  The vastly distributed nature of the internet ensures that pieces of our collective output persist, and powerful search technology is adept at zeroing in on the tiniest fragments. This is like randomly grabbing chunks of information, throwing it in a digital Cuisinart and hitting “liquefy.”  At what point does the original structure and meaning of the information break down and combine into something different?

Maybe this is the wrong question, however.  One might ask instead: how much will anyone care in the future about hazy issues relating to authenticity, context and original intent?  One of the old rescued CinC articles recorded my thoughts on this very subject in connection with the then-recent book, Life on the Screen by Sherry Turkle.

Turkle is, to my mind, without peer in her ability to probe how computers are changing us.  In Life on the Screen, she lucidly explained how information technology is facilitating a shift from respect for rational, systematic thought  to an embrace of  personal experience by the ability people have via the web to explore, rearrange, and reinterpret information.  We are becoming much more willing to accept and endorse subjective experience than to filter perception through ideas about what is “right” or “wrong.”  Turkle’s new book, Alone Together, explores these ideas further, and I look forward to reviewing it in a future post.

My experience with losing data, and then finding some of it on the internet, gives rise to a host of thoughts.  If I wanted to be totally pretentious I could say that it revealed the boundary between the Modern and the Postmodern (even though I can’t say I precisely know what those terms mean).  But most of all, I am left wishing that I had just done a better job preserving my digital files.

Jan 222011

This is a reprint of an article I originally wrote in 1997 for my protoblog/e-mail newsletter, Culture in Cyberspace.  There is one Google-findable copy still on the net as of 1/22/2001; thank you for keeping the University of Virgina Spoon Collective avant-garde e-mail list archives available all these years later.  [Sad to report that link is dead as of 1/21/2014; so you just have to take my word for it at this point.] Life on the Screen was recently published at the time of the writing.

Life on the Screen, by Sherry Turkle

Among the many virtues of Sherry Turkle’s new book Life on the Screen is a most lucid explanation of postmodernism and how it differs from modernism, which has dominated Western culture since the Enlightenment.  The heart of modernism is rational, systematic thought.  Things consist of layers of depth that can be broken down, explored, understood, and explained.  Modernism is driven by rules, procedures, logic, boundaries, and by a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong.  Individuals are regarded as “unitary actors” — governed by a single set of ideas, motives, and desires.

As Turkle lays it out, postmodernism suggests the world is actually too complex and messy for us to understand.  Our attempts to establish rules based on truths are ultimately futile because people and their perceptions of reality resist reduction.  Life and its experiences are in the end opaque, mysterious, and open to endless interpretation.  Individuals are not unitary actors but are “decentered” and capable of many different combinations of feelings and motivations. The self is multiple, fluid, nonlinear, even fragmented.  How we present ourselves is merely an artificial social construct — a story subject to revision.  From this point of view, the best way to deal with the world is by interacting with surfaces, reacting to how things look or feel at a point in time to achieve something that is neither right or wrong but reflects a unique perception.

Computers, the product of logical, rule-driven thought, ironically have become tools for reaching beyond our rational notions of reality.  This reach is possible through interacting with text, icons, and other virtual “surfaces” offered by the computer, which for more and more users (this one included) works in opaque, mysterious ways.   Moreover, when communicating with others via the computer, one is much freer to present different aspects of the self than in real life.  As The New Yorker cartoon put it, on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.

Turkle observes that the computer has brought postmodernism down to Earth.  I cannot claim to have done all her arguments justice here, but it is clear she provides a compelling notion of how computers might change our interactions with the world and with one another.  On a more practical level, postmodern ideas also help explain the phenomenon of the web and how culture is depicted through it. Old ideas about “passive perfection” — books, paintings, sculpture, and other art forms — are challenged by the ability people have via the web to explore, rearrange, and reinterpret cultural representations. The extent to which this ability will move us away from rational modernism remains to be seen.