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November 21, 2014

APIs are magic

(This is cross-posted at Medium.)

Dave Winer recalls a post of his from 2007 about an API that he’s now revived:

“Because Twitter has a public API that allows anyone to add a feature, and because the NY Times offers its content as a set of feeds, I was able to whip up a connection between the two in a few hours. That’s the power of open APIs.”

Ah, the power of APIs! They’re a deep magic that draws upon five skills of the Web as Mage:

First, an API matters typically because some organization has decided to flip the default: it assumes data should be public unless there’s a reason to keep it private.

Second, an API works because it provides a standard, or at least well-documented, way for an application to request that data.

Third, open APIs tend to be “RESTful,” which means that they work using the normal Web way of proceeding (i.e., Web protocols). All you or your program have to do is go to the API’s site using a standard URL of the sort you enter in a browser. The site comes back not with a Web page but with data. For example, click on this URL (or paste it into your browser) and you’ll get data from Wikipedia’s API: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/api.php?action=query&titles=San_Francisco&prop=images&imlimit=20&format=jsonfm. (This is from the Wikipedia API tutorial.)

Fourth, you need people anywhere on the planet who have ideas about how that data can be made more useful or delightful. (cf. Dave Winer.)

Fifth, you need a worldwide access system that makes the results of that work available to everyone on the Internet.

In short, API’s show the power of a connective infrastructure populated by ingenuity and generosity.

In shorter shortnesss: API’s embody the very best of the Web.

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July 28, 2013

The shockingly short history of the history of technology

In 1960, the academic journal Technology and Culture devoted its entire Autumn edition [1] to essays about a single work, the fifth and final volume of which had come out in 1958: A History of Technology, edited by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and Trevor I. Williams. Essay after essay implies or outright states something I found quite remarkable: A History of Technology is the first history of technology.

You’d think the essays would have some clever twist explaining why all those other things that claimed to be histories were not, perhaps because they didn’t get the concept of “technology” right in some modern way. But, no, the statements are pretty untwisty. The journal’s editor matter-of-factly claims that the history of technology is a “new discipline.”[2] Robert Woodbury takes the work’s publication as the beginning of the discipline as well, although he thinks it pales next to the foundational work of the history of science [3], a field the journal’s essays generally take as the history of technology’s older sibling, if not its parent. Indeed, fourteen years later, in 1974, Robert Multhauf wrote an article for that same journal, called “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology,”[4] that suggested that the discipline was only then coming into its own. Why some universities have even recognized that there is such a thing as an historian of science!

The essay by Lewis Mumford, whom one might have mistaken for a prior historian of technology, marks the volumes as a first history of technology, pans them as a history of technology, and acknowledges prior attempts that border on being histories of technology. [5] His main objection to A History of Technology— and he is far from alone in this among the essays — is that the volumes don’t do the job of synthesizing the events recounted, failing to put them into the history of ideas, culture, and economics that explain both how technology took the turns that it did and what the meaning of those turns meant for human life. At least, Mumford says, these five volumes do a better job than the works of three British nineteenth century who wrote something like histories of technology: Andrew Ure, Samuel Smiles, and Charles Babbage. (Yes, that Charles Babbage.) (Multhauf points also to Louis Figuier in France, and Franz Reuleaux in Germany.[6])

Mumford comes across as a little miffed in the essay he wrote about A History of Technology, but, then, Mumford often comes across as at least a little miffed. In the 1963 introduction to his 1934 work, Technics and Civilization, Mumford seems to claim the crown for himself, saying that his work was “the first to summarize the technical history of the last thousand years of Western Civilization…” [7]. And, indeed, that book does what he claims is missing from A History of Technology, looking at the non-technical factors that made the technology socially feasible, and at the social effects the technology had. It is a remarkable work of synthesis, driven by a moral fervor that borders on the rhetoric of a prophet. (Mumford sometimes crossed that border; see his 1946 anti-nuke essay, “Gentlemen: You are Mad!” [8]) Still, in 1960 Mumford treated A History of Technology as a first history of technology not only in the academic journal Technology and Culture, but also in The New Yorker, claiming that until recently the history of technology had been “ignored,” and “…no matter what the oversights or lapses in this new “History of Technology, one must be grateful that it has come into existence at all.”[9]

So, there does seem to be a rough consensus that the first history of technology appeared in 1958. That the newness of this field is shocking, at least to me, is a sign of how dominant technology as a concept — as a frame — has become in the past couple of decades.


[1] Techology and Culture. Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4.

[2] Melvin Kranzberg. “Charles Singer and ‘A History of Technology'” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 299-302. p. 300.

[3] Robert S. Woodbury. “The Scholarly Future of the History of Technology” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 345-8. P. 345.

[4] Robert P. Multhauf, “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology.” Techology and Culture. Jan, 1974. Vol. 15, no. 1. pp. 1-12

[5] Lewis Mumford. “Tools and the Man.” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 320-334.

[6] Multhauf, p. 3.

[7] Lewis Mumford. Technics and Civilization. (Harcourt Brace, 1934. New edition 1963), p. xi.

[8] Lewis Mumford. “Gentlemen: You Are Mad!” Saturday Review of Literature. March 2, 1946, pp. 5-6.

[9] Lewis Mumford. “From Erewhon to Nowhere.” The New Yorker. Oct. 8, 1960. pp. 180-197.

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March 24, 2009

Susan Crawford goes to the White House [REVISED]

[April 1, but no joke: I spoke with Susan a couple of days ago and de-confirmed this “news.” National Journal got it wrong, and I repeated it, perpetuating the error. Sorry. Susan is indeed part of the Obama team, but reporting to Larry Summers, advising on tech policy, which is indeed fantastic. And true.]

Fantastic news:

Internet law expert Susan Crawford has joined President Barack Obama’s
lineup of tech policy experts at the White House, according to several
sources. She will likely hold the title of special assistant to the
president for science, technology, and innovation policy, they said.
Crawford, who was most recently a visiting professor at the University
of Michigan and at Yale Law School, was tapped by Obama’s transition
team in November to co-chair its FCC review process with University of
Pennsylvania professor Kevin Werbach. Her official administration
appointment has not been formally announced. Crawford may be best
known for her work with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names
and Numbers, the California-based nonprofit group that manages the
Internet address system. She served on ICANN’s board for three years
beginning in December 2005. She also founded OneWebDay, a global Earth
Day for the Internet that takes place every Sept. 22. Crawford, a Yale
graduate, clerked for U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie before
joining Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering where she worked until the end of
2002.

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November 6, 2008

Obama’s tech policy. OMG.

Obama has posted his tech policy.

It’s like someone who understands and values technology and the Internet was elected president.

By the way, the Change.gov site welcomes our comments.

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June 10, 2008

Berkman lunch: Anne Balsamo on Designing Culture

Anne Balsamo from U of Southern California and the Annenberg School is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk, called “Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work.” [Live blogging, paraphrasing. And Anne is talking about deep themes. So, these notes will be especially inadequate, as well as getting things wrong, missing stuff, etc.]

Her book touches on technological imagination (how we engage the materiality of the world), technological innovation, and the reworking of culture. She’s particularly interested in the importance of training the technological imagination. Her book discusses designers who explicitly consider culture throughout the design process. The book speculates about what it would take to train imaginations to create new cultural possibilities as they are at designing new technologies. This is the responsibility of educators as well as of engineers, etc.

Chapter 1 does some framing. Chapter 2 is called “Gendering the technological imagination,” extending the topic of her previous book. “Technology was always gendered. We just didn’t recognize it as such.” It draws on feminist theories of reproduction as the basis of all technologies as reproductive. Chapter 3 (“The Performance of Innovation”) draws on her time at PARC designing a museum exhibit on the future of reading. It focused on how we perform innovations, rather than discover them. Chapter 4 (“Public interactives and technological literacies”) reflects on the literacy a designer must always take into consideration when designing interactive pieces, and how interactives draw upon existing literacies and require new ones for the future. It then looks to the ethics of designing public interactives. Chapter 5 (“Working the Paradigm Shift”) is on the labor of creating this shift. It draws on Henry Jenkins and calls on people to do the hard work of shifting the paradigm. People have to learn how to engage deeply under the hood, as well as the policy work. Chapter 6 is a coda (“The Work of the Book in a Digital Age”) about why she’s writing a book in the age of the digital. The book is transmedia and includes a multimedia documentary (“Women of the World Talk Back”) she co-authored about 15 yrs ago, a Web site, and some other pieces. She also is working on a new thesaurus that maps technology as a cultural ensemble.

She talks about working the paradigm shift. We have failed to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures. We need to do so through practices. New participants (esp. women) and new commitments. We need to learn to be learners, not to be the smartest person in the world. And we need more collaborative teams and new spaces where people can work together on technological things. We need places that aren’t owned territorially but are places where people can come together from multiple disciplines.

She is working on a new MacArthur project. Scholarship will be distributed and networked, Macarthur understands. Part of her new grant is understanding the technology to enable this to happen. Learning is happening in distributed fashion, not in any one place. She is looking at how museums and libraries will function as part of this distributed learning environment. She’s starting with the portfolio of reading devices developed at PARC for the museum exhibit. She is looking at digital learning objects, mixed reality learning environments (body-based, gesture-based), and thinking with objects (DIY … but, Ann asks, as the digital divide mainatins, will the poor get access only to the virtual while the affluent learn how to solder, weld, saw…).

Libraries and museusm are important for presreving culture and bring it into new understandings.

She leaves us with the question: What about the future of libraries and museums?

Discussion begins, but I’m not going to try to capture all of it. Here are some random points:

Ann says that we need to be smart about our metadata, recognizing that there is always a narrative there. If we don’t think about this, the semantic web will be stupid.

Ann thinks books will continue to be printed. But libraries may be about more than lending books and CDs/DVDs. They could lend tools, toys… [Great vision!] A library is also a stage where people can perform and participate in their culture. [Tags: ]

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