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January 6, 2009

Vague research question: Atoms vs. bits

How far back does the “atoms vs. bits” idea go? Did anyone talk about it before Nicholas Negroponte in “Being Digital“?

Some specifications of what I’m looking for:

– It has to be actual bits, i.e., binary units of information. So, no fair tracing it back to Plato’s Cave.

– I’m not asking about Negroponte’s particular idea in “Being Digital,” which contrasted economies built on atoms with ones built on bits. I’m actually interested in the sense that there are two semi-equivalent realities, one built of atoms and one built of bits.

– I’m not looking for “Its are bits” physicists who say the universe is made of information. I’m looking for the idea that bits are different from atoms, but deserve to be on a roughly equal footing…at least to the extent that the phrase “atoms vs. bits” makes sense the way “atoms vs. weekends” does not.

Any pointers, corrections, or exasperated sighs are gratefully accepted.

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December 27, 2008

Informationalized conversation

In his important 1996 book, Using Language, Herbert H. Clark opens Chapter 7 by analyzing two lines of conversation between ” a British academic” and “a prospective student”:

When Arthur says “u:h what modern poets have you been reading -” he doesn’t want Beth merely to understand what he means — that he wants to know what modern poets she has been reading. He wants her to take up his question, to answer it, to tell him what modern poets she has been reading. She could refuse even though she has understood. To mean something, you don’t have to achieve uptake, and to understand something, you don’t have to take it up. Still, Beth’s uptake is needed if she and Arthur are to achieve what Arthur has publicly set out for them to do at this point in their interview. p. 191

My first response, and probably yours, is: Well, duh But that’s the point. The fact that Clark has to explicitly state that we ask questions usually in order to get a response is evidence of just how deeply we’ve adopted the information-based paradigm that says that communication consists of the transfer of messages from one head to another. Language is a social tool used by embodied creatures to accomplish complex and emergent projects in a shared world. The transfer of messages is the least of it.

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December 5, 2008

Leadership and info: LeWeb pre-interview

I haven’t listend to this (I’m in an Amtrak station riding on some good soul’s free but flaky wifi), but here’s a podcast interview I did a couple of days ago as part of the LeWeb prep ‘n’ PR. I talk sort of about what I’m going to be talking about there, which (unless and until I rewrite it yet again) has something to do with leadership as the age of information ends. In the current draft of my overheads (Yes, I called them “overheads.” I’m old.), the connection seems to be that both the Information Age and leadership as we’ve generally known it assume/create scarcity. When the scarcity goes away, so does the primacy of information and the old idea of leadership.

I’ll try to say more about this as my overheads (Yes, overheads, dammit! And dittos that come from the mimeo machine!) go from draft to locked-in objects of fear and self-loathing. [Tags: ]

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November 22, 2008

Our strange new home

I’ve published a new issue of my free newsletter

Our strange new home: A talk to the people in the Chinese government designing ways to use the Net to deliver government services.

Has the Internet been saved?: Obama’s appointments to head the FCC transition team fill me with joy.

The main article is the text of a talk I gave a few weeks ago in Beijing at a one-day seminar/conference for the people in the Chinese government who are putting together sites — portals, usually — to provide government services. These were, I was told, the government people most excited about the opportunities brought by an open Internet. I gave the closing keynote. The previous speakers, from China, S. Korea and Denmark, had expanded the audience’s practical imaginations. I would’ve if I could’ve. Instead, I tried to resolve the seeming contradiction and doubtless cross-cultural meaninglessness that the Internet is weird and the Internet feels homey. It occurred to me afterward that that is the theme of Small Pieces Loosely Joined.

You can read it here.

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October 27, 2008

Emily Dickinson on the semantic brain

Chris Daly read my over-worked, under-thought article on bits and atoms, and sent me this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Part One: Life

CXXVI

THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

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October 21, 2008

New issue of my (free) newsletter: JOHO, Oct 18, 2008

Contents

Exiting info:
As we exit the Information Age, we can begin to see how our idea of information has shaped our view of who we are.

The future from
1978:
What a 1978 anthology predicts about the future of the computer tells us a lot about the remarkable turn matters have taken.

A software idea: Text from audio: Anyone care to write software that would make it much easier to edit spoken audio?

Bogus Contest: Name that software!

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Last Thursday, I had a discussion with Charlie Nesson and Aaron Shaw at the Berkman Center about the first article in this issue. You can see some clips of the conversation here:

1
2 [Note: In this I misspeak and say info is noise; I meant to say that noise is info. I just noticed my error. Oops.]
3
4
5

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September 24, 2008

Information breeds control

A stray and obvious thought?

If you look at the issue of privacy at social networking sites in terms of information, as outside observers such as parents and governments frequently do, you come up with proposals to enable users to control their information.

But sites like Facebook aren’t about information. They’re about self, others, and the connections among them. Likewise Flickr isn’t about info; it’s about sharing photos.

If the issue gets phrased in terms of info, then the field tilts towards assuming privacy as the good and publicness as the threat, with control over info as the bulwark. But, within the participant’s frame, publicness is taken as the good and privacy as fear-based or selfish.

This is a case where an information-based view misses the phenomenon and can lead to bad policy decisions.

Also, our kids will think we’re dorks.

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September 11, 2008

The opposite of noise

Silence is the opposite of noise.

Music is the opposite of noise.

Peace-and-quiet is the opposite of noise.

Signal is the opposite of noise.

Attention is the opposite of noise.

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August 17, 2008

Best. Explanation of sub-prime mortgage crisis. Ever

Jay Rosen calls the special This American Life episode on the mortgage/credit crisis “probably the best work of explanatory journalism I have ever heard.” After listening to the podcast yesterday, I’ve got to agree. Not only do I now understand what happened, I think I’m actually going to remember the explanation.

Furthermore, the show focuses on the question that really bothers most of us: What the hell were we thinking? Didn’t we know that offering huge loans to anyone who walked in was unlikely to end well? The show interviews people at different levels in the process, and asks them exactly that.

It is a great piece of journalism. And be sure to read Jay’s piece about it, which is both insightful and wise.

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August 5, 2008

We and information

David Reed has posted a reminder that communications is only understandable from the top of the stack down. It is about the we, not the individual acts, much less only about how messages get passed. Keep in mind that this is coming from someone involved from the beginning in the protocols of Internet message-passing .

From my little corner, what David says is a good example of why considering the Net only or primarily as an information medium is insufficient (although obviously information theory is crucial at various layers of the stack).

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