Joho the Blog » architecture

January 28, 2016

Keep the Web unbroken, with Amber

When sites go down, they don’t take the links to them with them. So, your posts now point to 404s. That’s not just an inconvenience. It’s Web entropy and over time it will render the Web less and less useful and even less intelligible.

Amber fights Web entropy. It’s a plugin for WordPress or Drupal that automatically takes a snapshot of whatever you’re linking to. If the linked site goes down — or is taken down by a government that doesn’t like what it’s saying — your readers will still be able to read what was there when you linked to it.

For example, this is a page that I posted and then took down. It was here: It’s not there now. But if you hover over the link, Amber shows you what you’d otherwise be missing.

Amber’s pedigree literally could not be better. It’s a project from the Berkman Center, from an idea cooked up by Jonathan Zittrain and Tim Berners-Lee. It is a fully distributed system, thus helping to re-decentralize the Web, although you can opt to store the page images at sites like the Internet Archive,, and Amazon AWS.

What are you waiting for?



If you install Amber and it’s not working, make sure that you’ve created a folder called “amber” in your WordPress “uploads” directory: /wp-content/uploads/amber.


July 20, 2015

How far wrong has the Net gone? A podcast with Mitch Joel

My friend Mitch Joel and I talk for about an hour (sorry) about whether our hopes for the Net have proven to be forlorn. You can listen here.

The spur for this conversation was my recent article in The Atlantic, “The Net that Was (and Still Could Be).”

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October 20, 2013

[templelib] Craig Dykers: library architecture

At Temple University’s symposium in honor of the inauguration of the University’s new president, on Oct. 18, 2013.

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.

Craig Dyker‘s company — Snøhetta — is a transdisciplinary group of architects of various sorts. (Snohetta is where Valhalla is.) They have offices in NYC and Oslo.

He points out that half of the people who come to the charging bull statute in NYC (next to his office) pose at the front and half come to the back. We are irrational creatures, he says. And tactile things are very much a part o who we are. (He has us shake hands with our neighbors.)

“There seems to be a liberal attitude couples with professional angst” among librarians. He’s been told that librarians have the most tattoos and skin piercings. There are many sites for librarians with tattoos. “Librarians won’t go away because we have this deep rooted fetish for libraians. It’s a fetish.” [TMI, Craig, TMI.] He’s not sure where it comes from except librarians are interesting people and you have intimate conversations with them.

If you ask people to describe a library, you get different answers. “As soon as you design for the state of the art, the art changes.” As architects, Snøhetta designs for versatility versus flexibility.

Their first library job: designing the new library in Alexandria, Egypt. He shows the building, which looks beautiful. It’s completely accessible. There’s a 4 acre plaza open to the public. “Libraries don’t stop at the door.” The police and the military wanted a wall around the plaza with guard towers. “We fought for six years” to build it without one.

During the uprisings, the students at the university and other citizens formed a human chain around the library to protect it — people on both sides of the argument. The plaza became a place for prayer and open debate.

Books and computers are just lumps until people interact with them. Libraries have always been about these interactions. This affected the design of the Hunt Library at NCSU. The existing library was foreboding, scary. The inside looked like a bank. The librarian decided to replace the furniture, but through a screw up, there wer 6 months when it had no furniture. So they bought 300 $10 bean bags…and library attendance tripled.

Then they decided to build a new library, on the engineering campus. Snohetta wanted to tie it to its place, which has rivers, weaving. They wanted natural light and fresh air, for the sake of the users but also the people who work there. There’s a balcony at the top where people congregate for fresh air and the view. Gardens are fed by rainwater from the roof. The building looks like it’s looking somewhere.

Books are fetched by a “robot,” whih people enjoy watching.

They want people to take the stairs, so they painted them yellow and put an inviting “Ask Me” sevice at the top. They put the elevators in a dark, less convenient place.

There are lots of types of chairs, but the swivel ones are very popular; bodily movement is really important, Craig stresses.

[He gives a guided tour which I can’t capture. You need the photos.]

“Libraries are as much about making as about taking,” so there are 3D printers, etc.

Einstein said that our technology has exceeded our humanity. Craig loves tech, but if tech manages his life, he becomes inhuman. Nothing we’ve invented in the past 30 years isn’t an elaboration of something before there were computers.

Library furniture and equipment looks like it’s for dental offices, so they put glass on top of regular tables, etc. “If you write on something you feel like you own the place.”

The NCSU library is designed for walking. But, you need a place to walk to. So, they had an arresting mural created.

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June 10, 2011

[hyperpublic] Herbert Burkert

Herbert of Burkert of U ofSt. Gallen is giving a talk. He claims to be ill at ease because he’s a lawyer talking about art, but I’m betting his unease is misplaced :) [Note after the talk: Yup, it was totally misplaced. Delightful talk.]

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.

He will structure his comments around two people. 1. John Peter Willebrand (1719-1786). He wrote “the outline of a beautiful city,” rules for “enhancing social happiness in cities.” He tried to coerce people into beauty. Design talk and architecture talk are dangerous, says Herbert. E.g., Le Courbousier designed how people should live. Idealists and Totalitarians do this. Contemporary designers have a more benevolent tone. So, Herbert’s first criterion: Are you actually designing for people? For example, are you imposing your idea of privacy or theirs? And are yo sure that their privacy is everybody’s privacy? How much space opportunities for people to develop and live their own lives to you give to others.

The second person: Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992). She was an Italian architect once charged with turning a factory ground into a recreational area in Sao Paolo. What she built challenged ideas about the relation of work and recreation. The windows look like holes blown into a prison wall. From this Herbert infers that designers should be giving opportunities for social gathering, for cross-generational communication, cross-cultural communication, for variety, and for protected openness. The relation between private and public is a continuum. Is the low wall between seating areas a metaphor for scaled privacy, or should we just give up on the metaphors, at least not from architecture, because we fail to grasp the essence of electronic communication.

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[hyperpublic] Panel 2 :Experience and re-creation

Jeffrey Schnapp introduces the second panel.

Beatriz Colomina gives a brief talk called “Blurred Vision: Architectures of Surveillance.” [I continue to have difficult hearing due to the room’s poor acoustics and my own age-appropriate hearing loss. Also, Beatriz talks very fast.] She begins with a photo of a scene framed by windows. Comm is about bringing the outside in. So is glass; glass has taken over more of the building. She points to skyscrapers made of out of glass that have an x-ray aesthetic. It is no coincidence that glass houses and X-rays occur at the same time, she says. X-rays exposed the inside of the body to public eye, while architecture was disclosing the inside of the house to the public eye. X-rays acclimatized us to living in glass houses, including the glass house of blogging. Beatriz talks about architecture that looks further inward, through more and more layers, beyond transparency [I lack acoustic confidence that I’m getting this right. sorry.] With our surveillance equipment, x-ray vision is becoming pervasive, changing the definition of the private.

danah boyd gives a talk: “Teen privacy strategies in networked publics.” She begins by explaining she’s an ethnographer. How do young people think about privacy? The myth is that they don’t care about it, but they do. They care about it but they also participate in very public places. Just because they want to participate in a public doesn’t meant they want to be public. Being active in a public does not mean they want everything to be public to everyone.

Networked publics are publics that are enabled by network technologies, and that are simultaneously spaces constructed through tech and an imagined communities. We are becoming public by default, and private by default. danah quotes at 17yr-old who explains that rather than negotiating publics to make things available one by one, she posts in a public space so it’s available all of them.

New strategies are emerging. Privacy = ability to control a social situation, and to have agency to assert control over those situations. A 14yr old danah interviewed thinks that he’s signalling the social norms in his communications, but people comment inappropriately, so he’s started using some explicit social structures. Another young person deletes comments to her posts after she’s read them, and deletes her own comments on other people’s posts the next day. She’s trying to make the structure work for her.

A 17yr-old likes her mother but feels her mother over-reacts to FB posts. So, when the teen broke up with her boyfriend, she posted the lyrics from “Always look on the bright side of life.” This is social stenography, i.e., hiding in plain sight, for that song is from the crucifixion scene in The Life of Brian.

danah points to an online discussion of a social fight. The kids knew the details. The adults did not know if they were allowed to ask. The kids’ careful use of pronouns controlled access to meaning.

Sometimes we can use the tech, and sometimes we have to adopt social norms. In all of our discussion of privacy about the role of law, tech, and the market, we ought to pay careful attention to the social norms they’re trying to overrule. (She hat tips Lessig for these four.)

Ethan Zuckerman talks about the role of cute cats. Web 1.0 was about sharing info. Web 2.0 is about sharing photos of kittens. This has important implications for activists. The tools for kitten sharing are effective for activists. They’re easy to use, they’re pervasively viral, and there’s tremendous cost to a totalitarian regime trying to censor them because they have to throw out the cute cats with the revolutionary fervor. It raises the cost of censorship.

Ethan says that cute cats have a deep connection to activism. What happened in a dusty little town of 40,000 spread throughout Tunisia, spread because of cute-cat social media. Protests happen, they get filmed and posted on Facebook. FB is pervasive, but makes it extremely find to the content, make sense of it, and translate it. So, local people find it and make sense of it, and feed it to Al Jazeera. Now people can see the events and decide if they want to join in.

Why FB? Because Tunisia has blocked just about everything except FB. They tried to block it in 2008, which resulted in a 3x increase, because Tunisians inferred there was something good about FB. The day before stepping down, Tunisia’s leader offered three concessions: It won’t fire on crowds, it will lower the tax on bread, and it will allow Net freedom.

Tunisia confirms Ethan’s theory, but Egypt is counter-evidence. The Egypt government shut off the Internet. China is manufacturing its own cute cats: you can post all the kitten vids you want on Chinese sites. “This is a much more effective way of combating the cute cat theory.” But it’s expensive and requires a huge amount of human labor to review.

What worries Ethan most is that we’re moving our public discourse into private spaces, e.g. FB and Google. “We’re leaving it up to the owners of these spaces whether we’ll be allowed to use these spaces for political purposes.” It’s not that these spaces are evil. Rather, these digital spaces have been designed for other purposes. They have an incentive to shut down profiles in response to complaints, especially when it’s in a different language. Also, the terms of service are often violated by activist content. And real name identity is often dangerous for activists.

Organizations are slowly but surely figuring out how to deal with this. But it’s slow and very difficult. E.g., video of the army deliberately killing unarmed civilians. These videos violate YouTube’s terms of service ;. But YouTube made an exception, putting up a warning that it’s disturbing video. This is great, but it holds out some basic tensions. For example, it’s not good for advertisers and thus runs against YouTube’s business model.

The challenge is that we have invented these tools to have a certain set of behaviors. We wanted friends to be able to exchange info, and we create terms of service for that. Now we’ve allowed those privately held spaces to become our networked public spheres. But the lines between private and public are not well suited for political and activist discourse. Do we ask corporations to continue hosting these, or do we try to come up with alternatives. We didn’t drive people to YouTube because they were good for activists , but for the other cute cat reasons. Now we have to figure out the right tools.

Q: (zenep) Value of real name policies?
Ethan: It may be that we need public interest regulation of some of the policies of these corporations.
danah: Our tech will make real names no longer the best and only way to identify you. Systems of power will be able to identify people, and no amount of individual hiding within a collective will work. We need to rethink our relation to power as individuals and collectives.

Paul: We shouldn’t forget that it’s not just corporations. It’s American corporations. to shut down WikiLeaks you just need Visa and Mastercard.
Ethan: WikiLeaks is vulnerable to credit card platforms because DDoS attacks made it move off its own platform to Amazon’s, and Amazon is vulnerable to such pressure. The Amazons have special responsibilities. Also, we’re now advising activists to always make sure there’s an English-language description of your material when you put it up on YouTube, etc., so that the YouTube admins can evaluate the take-down claims that arise.

Jeff Jarvis: Regulation is the wrong way. The question what is the def of a public space for public speech. Other than lobbying private corps, what’s the right way?
Ethan: Rebecca MacKinnon’s upcoming book, Consent of the Networked, argues that we need to have a revolutionary moment in which the users of these spaces rise up these spaces and use the companies that are open to supporting them. Ultimately though, we don’t have a way to do a FB in a decentralized fashion. We can’t have a networked conversation without having some degree of centrality.
danah: Corporations have incentives that sometimes align with users’. There’s a lot of power when users think about alignment. Sometimes it’s about finding common interests, or social norms at a legal or social. It’s good to find those points of alignment.

Q: danah, have you seen designs that are more conducive to people following social norms?
danah: The design question can miss the way in which the tech is used in various contexts. E.g., you can design in tons of privacy, but nothing stops a parent from looking over the shoulder of a child. People will adjust if they understand the design. Design becomes essentially important when there are changes. It’s important for designers to figure out how to tango with users as the design evolves.

Q: [tim from facebook] Every design for any networked system has consequences. The choice that has always bedevilled me: the same system that finds fake accounts for activists also identifies fake accounts from secret police. How do we avoid building systems that create a pseudo sense of privacy?
ethan: People do things with social platforms that we never intended. Admirable or dangerous. How to figure out? It’s got to be an ongoing process. But, as danah says, changing those decisions can be dangerous and disruptive. We need to have some way of opening up that process. The activist community should be involved in evolving the terms of service so that it doesn’t recognize just the legitimate law enforcement, but also recognizes the needs of activists and citizens. It should not just be a process for lawyers but also for citizens.
danah: What is the moral environment in which we want to live. What outs activists can also out human traffickers. Some of the hardest questions are ahead of us.

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[hyperpublic] First panel: Delineating public and private

First panel at HyperPublic conf. Hurriedly typed and not re-read.

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.

Paul Dourish: Think of privacy not so much as something that people have, but something that people do. “What are people doing when they are doing public, or doing private?” Think of doing privacy as one of the ways of engaging with a group.

And pay attention to the multiple publics we deal with when encountering media objects. When we encounter a media object we think “this is aimed at people like me.” Publics = complicated sameness and difference. For example, for a couple of years, he looked at paroled sex offenders in California who are being tracked with GPS. How do you think about space if you have to first worry about coming with 2,000 feet of a school, library, etc.? That reconfigures the scale at which public space is encountered: since it’s impossible to navigate at a level of 2,000 feet, these people think about which towns are safe for them. Instead of privacy, it helps to think in terms of our accountability to others.

Jonathan Zittrain suggests an iphone app that shows up map routes that take account of the sex offenders’ rule of avoiding schools, etc. He also raises the relation of privacy and identity.

Laurent Stalder mentions work on what privacy meant within a house in the 1880s in England. Artifacts were introduced that affected privacy, from sliding doors to doorbells. Then he shows a 2008 floor plan that distinguishes much less between public and private, inside and outside — the rise of a differentiated set of threshold devices. What is the role of the architect when spaces are filled with an endless stream of people, information, fluids…? Laurent points to the continual renegotiation of borders and their consistency. [I had trouble hearing some of the talk; the room does not have good acoustics. Nor do my ears.] In converation with JZ, Larent contrasts two Harvard buildings, one of which has a clear inside and outside, and another that has a long transitional state.

John Palfrey says that lawyers are so engaged in the question of privacy because they too are designers, but of rule-sets. Lawyers have not done a great job in determining which rule-set about privacy will enable us to thrive. He makes three points: 1. The importance of human experience in these spaces. We are public by default, he says, crediting danah boyd. We’re learning that though we often trade convenience for control, we care about in particular contexts, a changing set of practices. 2. The old tools haven’t worked well for us with privacy. E.g., the 4th Amendment doesn’t fit the cyber world well. 3. The systems that tend to work best are highly interoperable wit one another; we don’t want to type in the same info into multple systems. Open, interoperable systems succeed. But that gives rise to privacy problems. We need places — breakwalls — where the data can be either slowed or stopped.

JZ points out that JP is, like Laurent, talking about having long thresholds.

JZ imagines a world in which many people “lifestream” their lives and we are able to do a query to see who was where at just about any time. That makes Google StreetView’s photo-ing of houses seem like nothing, he says.

In response to Jeff Jarvis’ question, Paul reminds us that the social takes up the architectural, so that the same threshold space (or any space) can take on different privacy norms for different cultures and sub-cultures.

JZ: Architectural spaces last for decades or centuries. Online spaces can be reconfigured easily. The “house” your moved into can be turned into something different by the site’s owners. E.g., Facebook tinkers with the space you use by changing

Q: What is the purpose of the threshold?
Laurent: Connection and separation
Q: Don’t we want some type of digital threshold that does the job of introducing, transitioning, informing, introducing, etc. “You keep some of where you were in where you are.” The lack of that affects identity and more.
JZ: You can imagine a web site that shows you where other people are visiting from. “Wow, a lot of folks are coming from AOL. This must not be a cool site.” :)
Paul: It’s important to historicize sites appropriately so we understand where they came from.

Me: It’s possible to misuse architectural spaces, because architecture is always intensely local. So, will privacy norms ever settle down in the global Web?
Invention of the chimney enabled privacy in homes, as opposed to central fire. [Having trouble hearing] Will the poor not have Internet privacy, while the affluent do?
As important as the Net spaces are the spaces in which people use the Net. E.g., Net cafes in the developing world. Access and capital change publicness and privacy.
Paul: In China, people go to public spaces to play online games. (He says that they consider World of Warcraft as a Chinese game in its values.) There certainly won’t be global agreements about privacy norms. Nor does there have to be, because your encounters wit hthem always occur in local settings.
JZ: And within these spaces can be communities their own norms.

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June 17, 2008

Berlin Holocaust Memorial

On the way to dinner last night, my friend Martin Oettinger offered to stop the car as we passed Berlin’s Holocaust memorial. I knew nothing about the memorial. I stepped into it fresh.

From the outside, it is unimpressive: a city block of plain slabs, laid out in a grid, a few feet high and slightly uneven. Oh, headstones, mortuary slabs, graves. Got it.

But, as you walk through it, you find that the paths deepen so that the slabs loom. They are uniform yet different. Endless yet quite finite. Banal yet overwhelming. Your poor little brain tries to make sense of it both perceptually and symbolically, struggling to find meaning in the sameness and the difference.

It’s quite moving.

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June 12, 2008

Alps ‘n’ Balcs

A couple of centuries ago, people traveling through the Alps used to pull the curtains on the windows on the carriages because the scene was just too terrible.

I wonder if the same sort of thinking explains why so few New York City hotels have balconies. Did the architects think the street scenes were ugly, scary, or uninteresting? Or was it because of something more mundane, such as weather or concerns about plummeting martini glasses?

Oh well. Too bad. I’d love to be sitting on a balcony now, watching the sun redden the Empire State Building.

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