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May 10, 2012

Awesome James Bridle

I am the lucky fellow who got to have dinner with James Bridle last night. I am a big fan of his brilliance and humor. And of James himself, of course.

I ran into him at the NEXT conference I was at in Berlin. His in fact was the only session I managed to get to. (My schedule got very busy all of a sudden.) And his talk was, well, brilliant. And funny. Two points stick out in particular. First, he talked about “code/spaces,” a notion from a book by Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin. A code/space is an architectural space that shapes itself around the information processing that happens within it. For example, an airport terminal is designed around the computing processes that happen within it; the physical space doesn’t work without the information processes. James is in general fascinated by the Cartesian pituitary glands where the physical and the digital meet. (I am too, but I haven’t pursued it with James’ vigor or anything close to his literary-aesthetic sense.)

Second, James compared software development to fan fiction: People generally base their new ideas on twists on existing applications. Then he urged us to take it to the next level by thinking about software in terms of slash fiction: bringing together two different applications so that they can have hot monkey love, or at least form an innovative hybrid.

Then, at dinner, James told me about one of his earliest projects. a matchbox computer that learns to play “noughts and crosses” (i.e., tic-tac-toe). He explains this in a talk dedicated to upping the game when we use the word “awesome.” I promise you: This is an awesome talk. It’s all written out and well illustrated. Trust me. Awesome.


March 23, 2012

VisiCalc: The first killer app’s unveiling

VisiCalc was the first killer app. It became the reason people bought a personal computer.

You can read a paper presented in 1979 by one of its creators, Bob Frankston, in which he explains what it does and why it’s better than learning BASIC. Yes, VisiCalc’s competitor was a programming language. (Here’s Bob reading part I of his paper.)

Bob of course acknowledges Dan Bricklin as VisiCalc’s original designer. (Here’s Dan re-reading the original announcement.) Bob and Dan founded the company Software Arts, which developed VisiCalc. Since then, both have spent their time in commercial and public-spirited efforts trying to make the Internet a better place for us all.

visicalc screenshot
from wikipedia


March 8, 2012

[2b2k] No, now that you mention it, we’re not overloaded with information

On a podcast today, Mitch Joel asked me something I don’t think anyone else has: Are we experiencing information overload? Everyone else assumes that we are. Including me. I found myself answering no, we are not. There is of course a reasonable and valid reason to say that we are. But I think there’s also an important way in which we are not. So, here goes:

There are more things to see in the world than any one human could ever see. Some of those sights are awe-inspiring. Some are life-changing. Some would bring you peace. Some would spark new ideas. But you are never going to see them all. You can’t. There are too many sights to see. So, are you suffering from Sight Overload?

There are more meals than you could ever eat. Some are sooo delicious, but you can’t live long enough to taste them all. Are you suffering from Taste Overload?

Or, you’re taking a dip in the ocean. The water extends to the horizon. Are you suffering from Water Overload? Or are you just having a nice swim?

That’s where I think we are with information overload. Of course there’s more than we could ever encounter or make sense of. Of course. But it’s not Information Overload any more than the atmosphere is Air Overload.

It only seems that way if you think you can master information, or if you think there is some defined set of information you can and must have, or if you find yourself repeating the mantra of delivering the right information to the right people at the right time, as if there were any such thing.

Information overload is so 1990s.


[The next day: See my follow-on post]


February 16, 2012

Information is the opposite of information

The ordinary language use of “information” in some ways is the opposite of the technical sense given the term by Claude Shannon — the sense that kicked off the Information Age.

Shannon’s information is a measure of surprise: the more unexpected is the next letter a user lays down in Scrabble, the more information it conveys.

The ordinary language use of the term (well, one of them) is to refer to something you are about to learn or have just learned: “I have some information for you, sir! The British have taken Trenton.” The more surprising the news is, the more important the information is. So, so far ordinary language “information” seems a lot like Shannon’s “information.”

But we use the term primarily to refer to news that’s not all that important to us personally. So, you probably wouldn’t say, “I got some information today: I’m dying.” If you did, you’d be taken as purposefully downplaying its significance, as in a French existentialist drama in which all of life is equally depressing. When we’re waiting to hear about something that really matters to us, we’re more likely to say we’re waiting for news.

Indeed, if the information is too surprising, we don’t call it “information” in ordinary parlance. For example, if you asked someone for your doctor’s address, what you learned you might well refer to as “information.” But if you learned that your doctor’s office is in a dirigible constantly circling the earth, you probably wouldn’t refer to that as information. “I got some information today. My doctor’s office is in a dirigible,” sounds odd. More likely: “You’ll never guess what I found out today: My doctor’s office is in a dirigible! I mean, WTF, dude!” The term “information” is out of place if the information is too surprising.

And in that way the ordinary language use of the term is the opposite of its technical meaning.


September 11, 2011

With a little twist of Heidegger

I’m giving a talk in Berlin in a week. My hosts want me to talk about the evolution of media, but suggested that I might want to weave some Heidegger in, which is not a request you often get. It’s a brief talk, but what I’ve written talks about four pairs, all based on Shannon’s original drawing of signal moving through a channel. 1. The medium and bits as idealized abstractions. 2. The medium and messages: How McLuhan reacts against information theory’s idea of a medium, and the sense in which on the Internet we are the medium. 3. Medium and communication: Why we think of communication as something that occurs through a medium, rather than as a way in which we share the world. 4. Medium and noise: Why the world appears, in its most brutal facticity, in Shannon’s diagram as noise, and how the richness of the Web (which consists of connections intentionally made) is in fact signal that taken together can be noise. (I know I am not using these terms rigorously.)

At the end, I’ll summarize the four contrasts:

Bits without character vs. A world that always shows itself as something

The medium as a vacuum vs. We are the medium that moves messages because we care about them

Communication as the reproduction of a representation in the listener’s head vs. Turning to a shared world together

World as noise vs. Links as a context of connection

Not by coincidence, each of these is a major Heideggerian theme: Being-as or meaning, care, truth. and world.

And if it’s not obvious, I do not think that Heidegger’s writings on technology have anything much to do with the Internet. He was criticizing the technology of the 1950s that scared him: mainframes and broadcast. He probably would have hated the Net also, but he was a snobby little fascist prick.


February 13, 2011

The size of an update

I enjoyed this explanation of how Google updates Chrome faster than ever by cleverly only updating the elements that have changed. The problem is that software in executable form usually uses spots in memory that are hard-coded into it: Instead of saying “Take the number_of_miles_traveled and divide it by number_of_gallons_used…”, it says “Take the number stored at memory address #1876023…” (I’m obviously simplifying it.) If you insert or delete code from the program, the memory addresses will probably change, so that the program is now looking in the wrong spot for the numbers of miles traveled, and for instructions about what to do next. You can only hope that the crash will be fast and while in the presence of those who love you.

So, I enjoyed the Chrome article for a few reasons.

First, it was written clearly enough that even I could follow it, pretty much.

Second, the technique they use is not only clever, it bounces between levels of abstraction. The compiled code that runs on your computer generally is at a low level of abstraction: What the programmer thinks of as a symbol (a variable) such as number_of_miles_traveled gets turned into a memory address. The Chrome update system reintroduces a useful level of abstraction.

Third, I like what this says about the nature of information. I don’t think Courgette (the update system) counts as a compression algorithm, because it does not enable fewer bits to encode more information, but it does enable fewer bits to have more effect. Or maybe it does count as compression if we consider Chrome to be not a piece of software that runs on client computers but to be a system of clients connected to a central server that is spread out across both space and time. In either case, information is weird.

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January 31, 2011

We are the medium

I know many others have made this point, but I think it’s worth saying again: We are the medium.

I don’t mean this in the sense that we are the new news media, as when Dan Gillmor talks about “We the Media.” I cherish Dan’s work (read his latest: Mediactive), but I mean “We are the medium” more in McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” sense.

McLuhan was reacting against information science’s view of a medium as that through which a signal (or message) passes.

shannon's communication diagram

Information science purposefully abstracted itself from every and any particular medium, aiming at theories that held whether you were talking about tin can telephones or an inter-planetary Web. McLuhan’s pushback was: But the particularities of a medium do count. They affect the message. In fact, the medium is the message!

I mean by “We are the medium” something I think we all understand, although the old way of thinking keeps intruding. “We are the medium” means that, quite literally, we are the ones through whom information, messages, news, ideas, videos, and links of every sort move — and they move through this “channel” because we decide to move them. Someone sends me a link to a funny video. I tweet about it. You see it. You send a Facebook message to your friends. One of them (presumably an ancient) emails it to more friends. The video moves through us. Without us, the transport medium —” the Internet — is a hyperlinked collection of inert bits. We are the medium.

Which makes McLuhan’s aphorism more true than ever. In tweeting about the video, I am also tweeting about myself: “This is the sort of thing I find funny. Don’t I have a great sense of humor? And I was clever enough to find it. And I care enough about you— and about my reputation — to send it out to you.” That’s 51 characters over the the Twitter limit, but it’s clearly embedded in my tweet.

Although there are a thousand ways “We are the medium” is wrong, I think what’s right about it matters:

  • Because we are the medium, one-way announcements, such as a tweet to thousands of followers, still has a conversational element. We may not be able to tweet back and expect an answer, but we we can pass it around, which is a conversational act.

  • Because we are the medium, news is no longer mere information. In forwarding the item about the Egyptian protestor or about the Navy dealing well with a gay widower, I am also saying something about myself. That’s why we are those that formerly were known as the audience: not just because we can engage in acts of journalism without a newspaper behind us, but because in becoming the medium through which news travels, some of us travels with every retweet.

  • Because we are the medium, fame on the Net is not simply being known by many because your image was transmitted many times. Rather, if you’re famous on the Internet, it’s because we put ourselves on the line by forwarding your image, your video, your idea, your remix. We are the medium that made you famous.

It is easy to slip back into the old paradigm in which there is a human sender, a message, a medium through which it travels, and a human recipient. It’s easy because that’s an accurate abstraction that is sometimes useful. It’s easy because the Internet is also used for traditional communication. But what is distinctive and revolutionary about the Internet is the failure of the old diagram to capture what so often is essential: We are not users of the medium, and we are not outside of the medium listening to its messages. Rather, we are the medium.


January 13, 2011

If we had called it the Age of Patterns instead of the Age of Information

Claude Shannon, a father of Information Science, had to call the differences that move through telephone wires something. He picked “information,” a term that had meant, roughly, something that you hadnt known, or the content of written tables. Had he called it “data,” or “patterns,” or “differences,” or “Arthur,” we would have skipped right past one of the false continuities: from information to knowledge. We would have had the Age of Patterns, characterized by an abundance of patterns of difference, and we wouldn’t have thought that that has anything much at all to do with knowledge. But, because traditional information had something to do with expanding what we know, we tricked ourselves into thinking that our modern technology is about making us smarter. With an abundance of information, it seems we must be gaining more knowledge. With an abundance of patterns, or differences, or of arthurs, it would not have seemed so.

The new age is one of connection. This is less misleading, for it has us looking for its effect on how we connect with one another, how we connect our ideas, and how we connect our connections. And these are, I believe, the right places to be looking.


November 18, 2010

[defrag] JP Rangaswami

JP Rangaswami begins by talking about watching Short Circuit in 1986. Robots only have information and energy as inputs. What if we thought about humans as having the same inputs, JP wonders.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Think about cooking as the predigesting of food — making it easier for food to be digested. Cooks prepare food in external stomachs. Our brains evolved because we discovered how to cook. Can we look at information that way?

We talk about info overload, but not food overload. Having too much food isn’t a problem so long as we make sure that people have access to the excess. As JP thought trhough the further analogies between info and food, he realized there were three schools of how to prepare food. 1. The extraction school divides and extracts food, and serves them separately. 2. Another ferments food. You put foods together, and something new occurs. 3. Raw food is like the Maker generation of information: I want to fiddle with it myself, and I need to know that it came without additives.

We can think about what we do with information using these three distinctions. Some of us will work with the raw data. Some of us will prefer that others do that for us. Information should learn from food that it needs a sell-by date. E.g., look at how the media use Twitter. Twitter is a different type of food — more like raw — than you get through the institutional delivery methods.

Should we have an information diet? Would watching a single news outlet be the intellectual equivalent of the Morgan Spurlock “Supersize Me” movie? Maybe information overload is a consumption problem. We need to learn what is good for us, what is poison, what will make us unhealthy…

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November 10, 2010

Jeremy Wagstaff on incomplete calls

Jeremy Wagstaffs weekly email send this time is a brilliant post about the use of incomplete calls as a signal where completed calls are a significant cost.

Heres a snippet:

…the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. Its a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. The interaction is the motivation, not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they voted to make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty

One bit of data. But, in its context — Jeremy points out that the message depends upon the time of day its sent, signaling perhaps that one is leaving work — so overflowing with human meaning.

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