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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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August 6, 2010

The history of noise

I interview Kate Crawford for RadioBerkman about the history of noise and and its changed nature in the age of social media. (Noise 2.0?). (By the way, Kate co-wrote the music that intros ands outros the interview.)

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February 2, 2010

The Data-Info-Knowledge-Wisdom hierarchy

As part of my Be A Bigger A-Hole resolution, let me note that the Harvard Business Review blog has just run a post of mine that looks at the history of the DIKW pyramid and why it doesn’t make that much sense.

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January 26, 2010

[berkman] Julie Cohen on networked selves

Julie Cohen is giving a Berkman lunch on “configuring the networked self.” She’s working on a book that “explores the effects of expanding copyright, pervasive surveillance, and the increasingly opaque design of network architectures in the emerging networked information society.” She’s going to talk about a chapter that “argues that “access to knowledge” is a necessary but insufficient condition for human flourishing, and adds two additional conditions.” (Quotes are from the Berkman site.) [NOTE: Ethan Zuckerman's far superior livebloggage is here.]

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.

The book is motivated by two observations of the discourse around the Net, law, and policy in the U.S.

1. We make grandiose announcements about designing infrastructures that enable free speech and free markets, but at the end of the day, many of the results are antithetical to the interests of the individuals in that space by limiting what they can do with the materials they encounter.

2. There’s a disconnect between the copyright debate and the privacy debate. The free culture debate is about openness, but that can make it hard to reconcile privacy claims. We discuss these issues within a political framework with assumptions about autonomous choice made by disembodied individuals…a worldview that doesn’t have much to do with reality, she says. It would be better to focus on the information flows among embodied, real people who experience the network as mediated by devices and interfaces. The liberal theory framework doesn’t give us good tools. E.g., it treats individuals as separate from culture.

Julie says lots of people are asking these questions. They just happen not to be in legal studies. One purpose of her book is to unpack post modern literature to see how situated, embodied users of networks experience technology, and to see how that affects information law and policy. Her normative framework is informed by Martha Nussbaum‘s ideas about human flourishing: How can information law and policy help human flourishing by providing information to information and knowledge? Intellectual property laws should take this into account, she says. But, she says, this has been situated within the liberal tradition, which leads to indeterminate results. You lend it content by looking at the post modern literature that tells us important things about the relationship between self and culture, self and community, etc. By knowing how those relationships work, you can give content to human flourishing, which informs which laws and policies we need.

[I'm having trouble hearing her. She's given two "political reference points," but I couldn't hear either. :(]

[I think one of them is everyday practice.] Everyday practice is not linear, often not animated by overarching strategies.

The third political reference point is play. Play is an important concept, but the discussion of intentional play needs to be expanded to include “the play of circumstances.” Life puts random stuff in your way. That type of play is often the actual source of creativity. We should be seeking to foster play in our information policy; it is a structural condition of human flourishing.

Access to knowledge isn’t enough to supply a base for human flourishing because it doesn’t get you everything you need, e.g., right to re-use works. We also need operational transparency: We need to know how these digital architectures work. We need to know how the collected data will be used. And we also need semantic discontinuity: Formal incompleteness in legal and technical infrastructures. E.g., wrt copyright to reuse works you shouldn’t have to invoke a legal defense such as fair use; there should be space left over for play. E.g., in privacy, rigid arbitrary rules against transacting and aggregating personal data so that there is space left over for people to play with identity. E.g., in architecture, question the norm that seamless interoperability makes life better, because it means that data about you moves around without your having the ability to stop it. E.g., interoperability among social networks changes the nature of social networks. We need some discontinuity for flourishing.

Q: People need the freedom to have multiple personas. We need more open territory.
A: Yes. The common pushback is that if you restrict the flow of info in any way, we’ll slide down the slippery slope of censorship. But that’s not true and it gets in the way of the conversation we need to have.

Q: [charlie nesson] How do you create this space of playfulness when it comes to copyright?
A: In part, look at the copyright law of 1909. It’s reviled by copyright holders, but there’s lots of good in it. It set up categories that determined if you could get the rights, and the rights were much more narrowly defined. We should define rights to reproduction and adaptation that gives certain significant rights to copyright holders, but that quite clearly and unambiguously reserves lots to users, with reference to the possible market effect that is used by courts to defend the owners’ rights.
Q: [charlie] But you run up against the pocketbooks of the copyright holders…
A: Yes, there’s a limit to what a scholar can do. Getting there is no mean feat, but it begins with a discourse about the value of play and that everyone benefits from it, not just crazy youtube posters, even the content creators.

JPalfrey asks CNesson what he thinks. Charlie says that having to assert fair use, to fend off lawsuits, is wrong. Fair uyse ought to be the presumption.

Q: [csandvig] Fascinating. The literature that lawyers denigrate as pomo makes me think of a book by an anthropologist and sociologist called “The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach.” It’s about embodied, local, enculturated understanding of the Net. Their book was about Trinidad, arguing that if you’re in Trinidad, the Net is one thing, and if you’re not, it’s another thing. And, they say, we need many of these cultural understandings. But it hasn’t happened. Can you say more about the lit you referred to?
A: Within mainstream US legal and policy scholarship, there’s no recognition of this. They’re focused on overcoming the digital divide. That’s fine, but it would be better not to have a broadband policy that thinks it’s the same in all cultures. [Note: I'm paraphrasing, as I am throughout this post. Just a reminder.]

A: [I missed salil's question; sorry] We could build a system of randomized incompatibilities, but there’s value in having them emerge otherwise than by design, and there’s value to not fixing some of the ones that exist in the world. The challenge is how to design gaps.
Q: The gaps you have in mind are not ones that can be designed the way a computer scientist might…
A: Yes. Open source forks, but that’s at war with the idea that everything should be able to speak to everything else. It’d

Q: [me] I used to be a technodeterminist; I recognize the profound importance of cultural understandings/experience. So, the Internet is different in Trinidad than in Beijing or Cambridge. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking that some experiences of the Net are important and cross cultural, e.g., that Ideas are linked, there’s lots to see, people disagree, people like me can publish, etc.
A: You can say general things about the Net if you go to a high enough level of abstraction. You’re only a technodeterminist if you think there’s only way to get there, only one set of rules that get you there. Is that what you mean?
Q: Not quite. I’m asking if there’s a residue of important characteristics of the experience of the Net that cuts across all cultures. “Ideas are linked” or “I can contribute” may be abstractions, but they’re also important and can be culturally transformative, so the lessons we learn from the Net aren’t unactionably general.
A: Liberalism creeps back in. It’s acrappy descriptional tool, but a good aspirational one. The free spread of a corpus of existing knowledge…imagine a universal digital library with open access. That would be a universal good. I’m not saying I have a neutral prescription upon which any vision of human flourishing would work. I’m looking for critical subjectivity.

A: Network space changes based on what networks can do. 200 yrs ago, you wouldn’t have said PAris is closer to NY than Williamsburg VA, but today you might because lots of people go NY – Paris.

Q: [doc] You use geographic metaphors. Much of the understanding of the Net is based on plumbing metaphors.
A: The privacy issues make it clear it’s a geography, not a plumbing system. [Except for leaks :) ]

[Missed a couple of questions]

A: Any good educator will have opinions about how certain things are best reserved for closed environments, e.g., in-class discussions, what sorts of drafts to share with which other people, etc. There’s a value to questioning the assumption that everything ought to be open and shared.

Q: [wseltzer] Why is it so clear that it the Net isn’t plumbing? We make bulges in the pipe as spaces where we can be more private…
A: I suppose it depends on your POV. If you run a data aggregation biz, it will look like that. But if you ask someone who owns such a biz how s/he feels about privacy in her/his own life, that person will have opinions at odds with his/her professional existence.

Q: [jpalfrey] You’re saying that much of what we take as apple pie is in conflict, but that if we had the right toolset, we could make progress…
A: There isn’t a single unifying framework that can make it all make sense. You need the discontinuities to manage that. Dispute arise, but we have a way to muddle along. One of my favorite books: How We Became Post-Human. She writes about the Macy conferences out of which came out of cybernetics, including the idea that info is info no matter how it’s embodied. I think that’s wrong. We’re analog in important ways.

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December 28, 2009

[2b2k] Notes on the history of information overload

I spent most of today tracking down some information about the history of information overload, so I though I’d blog it in case someone else is looking into this. Also, I may well be getting it wrong, in which case please correct me. (The following is sketchy because it’s just notes ‘n’ pointers.)

I started with Alvin Toffler’s explanation of info overload in the 1970 edition of Future Shock. He introduces the concept carefully, expressing it as the next syndrome up from sensory overload.

So, I tried to find the origins of the phrase “sensory overload.” The earliest reference I could find (after getting some help from the Twitterverse – thanks, Ed Summers! – which pointed me to a citation in the OED) was in coverage of a June, 1958 talk at a conference held at Harvard Medical School. The article in Science (vol 129, p. 222) lists some of the papers, including:

2) “Are there common factors in sensory deprivation, sensory distortion and sensory overload?” by Donald B. Lindsley.

I have not gone through Lindsley’s work to find his first use of the term, and a quick Googling didn’t give me an easy answer to this question.

The concept of sensory overload, as opposed to the term, goes back a ways. Lots of people point to Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life , which he wrote in 1903, although it didn’t have its major effect until a translation was published in English in 1950. That article looks at (“speculates about” actually seems like a more apt phrase) how the sensory over-stimulation common in cities will affect the mental state of the inhabitants. Simmel claims that it makes urban dwellers more reserved, more blase, and more intellect-centered. The over-stimulation Simmel refers to, by the way, is not actually an increase in sensation but an increase in the changes in sensations: a constant roar does not over stimulate us as much as constant changes in noise. (Note that Charles Babbage in his dotage was driven close to insane by the sound of street musicians outside his London apartment.)

The term “sensory overload” seems to have started entering common parlance in the mid to late 1960s. An article in The Nation in 1966 introduces the phrase as if were unfamiliar to readers: “Recent experimentation, however, has confirmed the significance of the problem of sensory overload; that is, of an inability to absorb more than a certain amount of experience in a given time.” [Robert Theobald, "Should Men Compete with Machines", The Nation, Vol 202, No. 19, 4/19/1966] In 1968, in testimony to a Senate panel on drug experience, a witness used the term and again had to explain what it means [semi-link]. So, we can put the phrase’s rise into ordinary usage right at the beginning of the popular career of psychedelic drugs.

Toffler explains information overload as being just like sensory overload, except it results from too much information. Here he clearly seems to be thinking about information in its ordinary sense: facts, figures, ideas, etc. Yet he explains it by using terms from information science, which thinks about information not as facts and ideas but as strings of bits: info overload occurs when the info exceeds our “channel capacity,” Toffler says.

At this point, info overload was thought of as a type of psychological syndrome affecting our ability to make rational choices. Toffler even warns that our sanity hinges on avoiding it.

In 1974, papers emerged applying this to marketing. Suppose consumers were given too much information about products? Research showed they would be unable to decide among them, or might make irrational decisions. From today’s perspective, the amount of information that constituted overload seems ludicrously low. In one experiment, consumers were given 16 fields of information for products. (See Jacoby, Jacob. “Perspectives on Information Overload.” The Journal of Consumer Research, March 1984, p. 432-435. p. 432) And one suspects that marketers were happy to find a rationalization for keeping consumers less well informed.

But, what’s most interesting to me is how information overload has gone from a psychological syndrome to a mere description of our environment. Few of us worry that we’re going to become gibbering idiots because we’ve been overstimulated with information. When we worry about info overload these days, it’s because we’re afraid we won’t be able to get enough of it.

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