February 17, 2010

I Can Do That!

Technology's promise: any idiot could do that!! Technology's curse: every idiot will do that...

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December 22, 2009

The Wisdom Of The Mob

(Or Dense Pessimisms, Take 3…)

The internet's about immediacy; immediacy fosters instability (it implies no moderation). The net therefore discourages stable grand-scale narratives — like science or government — that are based on a sort of reasoned consensus, but encourages those based on True Belief and revelation (such as religious or political fundamentalisms). The net fragments, it destroys structure; or, rather, it destroys permanent structure. On the one hand it's the great leveler; on the other it encourages dynamic fundamentalisms in response to that lack of structure. Truths wash over the net in waves; it's Postmodernism without the twee irony, and with the power to spill over into real life (not that the net isn't a fundamental part of real life) with catastrophic effect for the sort of Postmodernist sensibility that probably applauds the lack of grand narrative.

The net privatises truth generation and reception; it's like the way the transistor radio and then the iPod privatised the experience of listening (or not listening). In some ways the internet's effect has been like the translation of the Bible from the Vulgate to the vulgar: the unmediated word for everyone, the Truth is in your own reading, not that handed down from the Church. But it also introduces writing for the masses, a universal platform to proclaim those little private Truths very publicly.

The net's the Wal-Mart of truths — you can get anything you want, but like shopping in Wal-Mart it's easier to trust a familiar brand when looking for a particular product. Brands structure the world — the Word, for that matter — and become essential in the world of a million choices. And fundamentalisms are brands; and surely successful brands flirt with a sort of fundamentalism…. We're headed for the Society Of The Brand, not that of the Spectacle.

The unmediated wisdom of the crowd? Just another way of saying the wisdom of the mob.

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September 18, 2009

Less Than Zero

"The electric car will account for 10% of the global market in 10 years," predicts Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of alliance partners Renault and Nissan in a BBC interview. "It is time for zero emission motoring."

Indeed. But electric cars don't typically have zero-emissions: the emissions just happen elsewhere, usually at the (massive) power plant that supplies the energy to power the car. That may be a reasonable tradeoff and a real improvement (in the absence of the more useful cutting back on personal mobility and energy consumption in general), but in the usual way of these things, sometime down the line we'll wake up to the fact that all these electric vehicles require more and larger power plants… with more and larger emissions and transmission lines. And more and larger protests at the building of such power plants and transmission lines. All together now: "Not In My Back Yard (or Garage)!".

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August 30, 2009


One of the joys of having my sort of background is receiving a steady stream of junk mail from the professional societies with sentences like these in the body:
"Design and synthesis of ICs considering factors such as: signal integrity, transmission line effects, POC, phase shifting, and sub-wavelength lithography [...] spare-cell strategies for ECO, decoupling capacitance and antenna rule fixing [...] Reliable clock tree generation and clock distribution methodologies for Gigaherz designs [...] EDA tools, design techniques, and methodologies, dealing with issues such as: timing closure, R,L,C extraction, ground/Vdd bounce, signal noise / crosstalk / substrate noise [...]"
Yes, all this from a flyer aimed at getting me to attend some international symposium or other last week. The really sad thing is I understand (or at least recognise) nearly all of what's written in these things. Getting a life's a low priority, I guess.

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July 25, 2009

Bucky Balls

"If man is to continue as a successful pattern-complex function in universal evolution, it will be because the next decades will have witnessed the artist-scientist's spontaneous seizure of the prime design responsibility and his successful conversion of the total capability of tool-augmented man from killingry to advanced livingry — adequate for all humanity" (Buckminster Fuller quoted in "New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller", ed. Chu and Trujillo, Stanford, a book I recently bought at Moe's).

It's hardly original, but it's difficult not to feel that the biggest attraction Buckminster Fuller had for the younger counterculturalists of the 60's and 70's (and their epigones) was that — like any good prophet — his real meaning lay in the general incomprehensibility of his words. They could mean any damn thing you wanted them to mean, since by almost any conventional measure, they meant nothing at all. He spoke his own unique language, but made them feel that he spoke their language, at least in mental translation (his work certainly loses something in the original). The woolliness of the words just helped mask the genially-ruthless technocratic utopianism at the heart of it all (and running through the muddled and often far less genial veins of some of the countercultural movements who used or revered him). A sort of foggy glossolalia born in a collision of Futurism and the Burned-Over District, perhaps. Much of it's not even wrong, as they say.

I think another big part of the reason Fuller was so popular with the US 60's and 70's counterculture is that with things like the breathtakingly hubristic World Game he offered the promise of technology replacing politics. Politics is difficult, it's messy (and often a real come-down for nice middle class countercultural kids), but technology just tends to happen, and usually with a logic that would have been deeply congenial to a lot of white middle-class American kids of the time. Technology provides objective answers without that awful to-and-fro that politics demands; but when the answer to every question seems to be "geodesic dome" or "tensegrity" or "technologists know best", you can't help feeling that the questions might have been a little restricted or that there are some questions you just can't ask.

(And if there were ever a real example of the Canonical American Name it'd be "R. Buckminster Fuller". When I was a kid I just assumed the "Buckminster Fuller" part was a double-barreled last name (like maybe "Sebag-Montefiori"), and that our Bucky was so important no one ever used his first name).

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December 04, 2008


There's a lot of talk of intelligence failures after the Mumbai attacks, but what would it take to have an intelligence success in this sort of thing? Massive surveillance, either centralised (the whole Panopticon thing) or distributed (networks of informers), or both, unfortunately. Yet those of us who rail on about intelligence failures are also often enough those of us who deplore the encroachment of government (and industry) on the private domain; that protective Big Brother looking over everyone's shoulders is more than just a riposte to that chip on our shoulders.

You can't have individual privacy, democracy, and safety from other individuals all in the same society; one or more has to give, at least to some extent….

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April 11, 2008

Total Immersion

William Mitchell's "e-topia: 'Urban Life, Jim — But Not As We Know It'" (MIT, 1999, bought as the usual remainder at Moe's): a book as dated in its hip cultural references and words as the phrase "Mondo 2K" (a phrase he actually uses; I admit to once knowing someone briefly associated with all that) or the word "e-topia" (or the Matrix, which it tries to use as an exotifier with the same leaden academic effect it usually provokes in the non-academic), a book that breathlessly (and often perceptively) attempts to explore a wired utopia and its meanings (for architects and planners, mainly), while glossing a bunch of things like security (in any of its shaded meanings — apparatus vs. security from such an apparatus, for example), or crime, or terrorism, or even the huge energy budget of the revolution.

For example, Mitchell talks a fair bit about the future of immersive technologies, smart spaces, etc., but doesn't spend a lot of time discussing what it is you're most likely to be immersed in — advertising (think "Minority Report"; does anyone think totally immersive (and absolutely intrusive) smart advertising is not a part of our future?) — and what those smart spaces will be up to (clever ways to keep tabs on what you're doing and how to get you to do things you might otherwise not do). In something of a throw-away paragraph he envisages controlling all the smart appliances in your home with a simple palm-sized remote control, but misses the obvious flipside to this: the ability to remotely control the smart appliances in someone else's home, or even control a person in their smart immersive home with a similar little control. It's the human here who's most likely to be the smart appliance (does anyone really think that isn't part of our future?). Similarly, when Mitchell breathlessly describes his wired dwellings bringing choice and opportunity to the inhabitants, he honestly just doesn't seem to understand that being wired is to be tethered, something that can just as easily take away choice and opportunity from the masses. Something he might want to consider is that he's really describing the updating of Corb's "machine for living in" to "machine for selling in" or even a "machine for conforming in".

He barely seems to notice the flipside to even the basic network technologies he seems to see as liberating: by being immersed, you're also trivially trackable, absolutely awash in surveillance and coercion opportunities. Again, he simply doesn't discuss what it is you'd be so effectively immersed in, nor who makes and controls that immersive reality. He (weirdly) misses a couple of crucial dimensions to these network technologies: he has little or nothing on that creepy convergence of surveillance and marketing that's probably the biggest thing in Web 2.0, for example. Let's face it: from the implementers' point of view, the web's really just a way to sell browsers to product pushers; the government and other surveillance is just a happy by-product of the mechanism to do that.

It's not that the vision is chilling, it's that it's chilling that he can't see the downside, or just dismisses it with a wave of the hand. The question for an academic like Mitchell who's claiming to explore a wired (or, increasingly, wireless) future is whether he wants to be complicit in — or a booster for — the sort of immersive smart wired utopia he glosses. All I can say, based on this book alone, is that he's not exactly a reliable guide to the future — bring your own map and cross-check repeatedly.

(There's a less than subtle hint of where he's coming from academically in his use of the word "telematics", a word not usually encountered in the field itself, a word that's more usually found in the original French, or nestled translated in thickets of language more appropriate to a virtual reality and rhizomes (another such word he uses) than in the world of networks or systems engineering I've inhabited for a long while now).

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February 11, 2008


In the wired utopia only the privileged will be allowed face-to-face contact; only the privileged will have offices and be able to separate work from home; only the privileged will be able to unplug.

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February 09, 2008



I got to play with several One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptops a few weeks ago as the result of some colleagues being part of the funding program (or something. Actually, I'm not entirely sure where the laptops came from, or why we were invited to play with them. Never mind). The XO's are physically rather cute machines (they have ears for the wireless antennas, and they're brightly-coloured), and seem to be built strongly enough to last a fair bit of use and abuse. The Linux-based OS and bundled software seems to me to be easily usable without needing instructions or instructors (but then I'm a nerd), a reasonable platform for downloadable content and games or teaching apps, and somewhat useful as-is. The networking includes a nice mesh network setup for use to communicate between the XO's when there's not a reliable WiFi access point nearby to communicate with the rest of the world. Overall, not a bad little combination of hardware and software (well, a Hello Kitty version would be nice, and the keyboard's a real pain to use, but in general it's just fine).

But fine for what? And that's the question everyone I know who plays with them asks. The obvious criticism is that the laptops solve the wrong problems or that they divert resources from the real problems (like lack of clean water, lack of trained teachers, etc.) that their target users face. And these laptops are primarily both an artifact of, and a way to interact with, a connected technological society, and in the absence of that society (or at least some facsimile of it), it's not hard to imagine these descending like UFOs on some sub-Saharan desert village, unwanted, unusable, and basically just inert objects of derision or disdain (or of instant commerce). The whole thing has the air of a classic technological fix — a technologist's fix — looking for a suitable problem to solve.

And that's all probably true. And yet… the law of unintended consequences can work the other way too, and produce something interesting and useful in unforeseen ways — it's hard to guess what the creative instincts of kids might do with something like this. And in any case what seems most likely to sink the whole OLPC idea are commercial and political machinations here in the First World, not the lack of power or connectivity or trained teachers in the third. But I'm not too optimistic, at least for release 1.0; I'm guessing a lot of these (or their like) will end up as playthings in the hands of first and second world kindergartners. Or, maybe more likely, ironic accesories in the hands of hip City artwankers.

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September 08, 2007

No One Reads Newspapers Anymore…

I got a short letter to the public editor published (under my real name) in last Sunday's New York Times and no one noticed. Humph.

But that doesn't surprise me at all — who really reads newspapers anymore? Who even skims them? For years now my main sources of news have been online (I mostly use Google's news aggregator), and my subscription to the paper version of the NYT is mostly for reading in the Milano over weekend breakfasts, or late at night, long after the front page became yesterday's news (I've been subscribing pretty much as long as it's possible to have been a subscriber in Northern California; I read the analysis and longer background articles only, and maybe try to keep up with the local news from New York). Long before the web (from the early 1980's up until about 2000), my main source of science and technology news and gossip (and, oddly, classical music theory and criticism) had been Usenet, now just a backwater of spam and endless flamewars (I keep thinking of those mythical rivers that caught fire due to the amount of toxic waste dumped into them). So I don't really read coherently (or otherwise) edited newspapers (in print or on the net) so much as I read a melange of articles from disparate sources; the little pictures don't always quite cohere as a Big Picture.

Unlike a lot of people I know, I'm just not nostalgic for newspapers as such, though — I don't think I'd mourn the passing of the print edition of the NYT at all, as long as I had something a little less irritating than my laptop to read the online version with while on BART or sitting at a cramped table in Berkeley, or lounging around in my studio. It'll happen; and sooner rather than later, I hope. And then I'll be able to complain crankily that no one reads at all, any more.

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August 31, 2007


"Giselle watches the tiltrotor commuter shuttles carrying the air-networkers, while in the distance airships circle Airlander with London sightseers." (picture caption to "A Fly-By-Light Architecture", from Audacity.org's "Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age", again)

This is like shooting fish in a barrel, but here goes... the Fly-By-Light group propose a ginormous 400 metre high Futurist transport hub ("Airlander") looming irridescently over Charing Cross, complete with a swarm of V-22 Osprey tiltrotors flying low along the river to and from commuter hubs. But has our Giselle actually heard an Osprey, not perhaps the quietest of aircraft on earth? Or wondered about their per-passenger-mile energy budgets?

I'd accuse the authors of taking the piss if I didn't feel I was being pissed on in turn….

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July 15, 2007


In a recent Grauniad Johnathan Freedland mulls rather haplessly over what the web might do to politics and political communities, and concludes that it "risks shattering what was once a collective mass. That could undermine the power of people to act as a counterweight to governments and big corporations. If we are all broken into small units — 'parties of one', as a web guru puts it — we will lose that combined strength".

True enough, in its own way, but it misses the point that what the web does is more radical than that — we don't lose mass movements because of it, we in fact gain mass movements; but they're usually evanescent mass movements based on much less stable alliances and rather different ways of (mis)communicating shared grievances, identities, and ideologies than the old models… and there's several orders of magnitude more of them. Here today, gone tomorrow, flash mob mass politics: this might be unsettling to politics in the Modern mould, but (for good or for bad) thoroughly recognisable to that dated cliche, the Postmodern mind (the net is postmodernity without the twee irony; yes, I've said that before…).

The web doesn't destroy community, it creates the means to belong to an infinite variety of communities, based not so much on location or physical attributes as virtual, arbitrary, or even (quite literally) imaginary attributes; ditto for mass movements. Whether these are real or authentic communities or mass movements is an interesting question for someone, but not a question that's going to get in the way of anything much out there in the real virtual world.

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