Archive for September, 2010
P.S. The newest Civilization game was in fact released today, and has been silently downloading onto my computer at home. I fear the consequences of my return.
Bill Murray is 60 years old today, which is a little bit unbelievable. The Beatles, Dylan, and The Stones can be in their 60s, and Woody Allen sometimes seems like he was ALWAYS in his 70s, but Bill Murray? 60? My parents aren’t even 60 yet, but Bill Murray is?
Maybe between movies, he gets in a spaceship that approaches the speed of light– so 60 earth years have passed, but he’s still really (let’s say) 48. He understands aging, all too well, because he’s seen it happen to the people around him at lightning speed, but he himself is only slowly, gently moving through middle age.
HiLobrow has a short but very fine appreciation, which makes me miss their daily HiLo Heroes birthday posts all the more. The erstwhile site only does occasional pieces averaging about one per week now. I’m guessing it’s because the editorial load was too large to bear.
I know the editors, but I haven’t actually asked them why; I know that from my own occasional entry-writer’s perspective, it seemed like way too much work. But golly-gosh, these are still some of my favorite things to read on the web.
Here are some of my favorite Bill Murray clips. Watching them, you see that Murray’s real genius may be in his ability to react to those around him with sanity AND lunacy; like Woody Allen at his peak, he’s George and Gracie rolled into one. He’s such a generous comedic actor, he makes even ciphers like Andie McDowell in Groundhog Day or Scarlett Johanssen in Lost In Translation look great. And because your attention’s still on him, you don’t even notice he’s doing it.
On Twitter, I compared him to baseball closer Mariano Rivera. Murray — maybe especially has he’s gotten older — is the relief pitcher who finishes every game/scene. He makes everybody look better; you’re always talking about him, but somebody else usually gets the win. The starters set the table, and he just kills you a half-dozen different ways. Fastball = punchline, change-up = muted expression, curveball = unexpected character transformation, and a devastating fluttery cut fastball that’s a mixture of all three.
So I got a demo of Minecraft last night. Have you heard about this game? It’s the work of one man, a brilliant game designer from Sweden, and it’s completely blowing up in the indie-gaming world right now.
It is also unlike any game you’ve ever played.
Here’s a primer. It’s basically a giant planet-sized Lego set—with that same blocky aesthetic—but instead of choosing pieces from a collection, you have to make them all from natural resources. Chop down a tree and get wood. Dig in a cave and get coal. Put sand in your kiln and get glass. And so on.
It’s an open-world game with no score and no objective. Well: no explicit objective. It’s actually pretty obvious, once you get ten steps into this giant sandbox world, that your objective is to build an awesome house.
But it’s not just a big CAD program. There are some interesting dynamic (almost ecological) elements. Water flows freely, monsters come out to harass you, and fire… well. Fire burns:
In Twitter today — and I mean, like ten minutes ago — I got involved in a Twitter discussion with Matt Novak and Mat Honan about our memories of the Cold War. Matt was about six years old when it ended, Mat 17, I was 11, so we all had slightly different memories, but generally each recall the atmosphere of fear and dread we had then.
Mat Honan pointed out that 9/11/2001 hadn’t scared him the way it had many others because he’d grown up in the shadow of nuclear war. The spectacle of the destruction of whole cities, whole nations, is of a different order of magnitude than three-four unconventional attacks on American cities. It just is. Maybe the latter is actually more frightening, because it’s more concrete, in the same way that falling out of a roller coaster scares us more than dying of heart disease. The first one, you can see.
I remembered that I’d been thinking a lot about nuclear war in 2000–2001 — mostly how the threat had been gently fading for ten years, like a fingerprint on glass — and that I’d mentioned it in my very unusual commencement speech that I gave to Michigan State’s College of Arts & Letters in May 2001.
I’d already gotten my BA in Mathematics in the fall, and was finishing my second/dual degree in Philosophy, starting an MA program in Math that everyone knew I’d never finish. (Hey, they gave me a job teaching algebra that spring and that summer!)
I knew I wanted to be a professor, but didn’t know in what; I wrote some awful applications to philosophy programs in Berkeley, Princeton, and Chicago explaining that I was interested in Greek philosophy, Nietzsche, formal logic, and John Locke, which I’m sure pegged me as someone who had no idea what they wanted to do and no clear research program to pursue, and that was probably right. I was still waiting for the official rejection slip from Berkeley, trying to make up my mind whether I was going to split to Chicago for their consolation-prize Masters’ Program, stay in East Lansing and teach more math, or try to find real work.
Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
I was obsessed with T.S. Eliot and Gauguin, respectively; I wanted to go to Boston that summer to find out more about each of them, but blew out a tire on the way and never made it. I’d already written my commencement speech though. Here it is.
(And before you ask, yes—this is total Sloan-bait for him to post HIS speech that he gave the next year to the BIG room at MSU, assuming he can find it on his hard drive.)
So, I love Tim Maly’s kickoff post: What’s a cyborg? It’s fun, revelatory, provocative, and it uses design to tell its tale. (You know I love that.) Tim laces the post with striking images, and he labels them: This is a cyborg. This is not a cyborg.
But I think he misses one.
Because this is a cyborg, too.
I’m not saying that because of the sampler on the pedestal or the vocoder attached to the microphone (although somebody could do a great #50cyborgs post about the recent robotization of pop vocals). I’m talking about the frame itself. About the image of a star on stage in front of 11 million people. About the digital distribution of that image to screens and eyeballs around the planet. And, most importantly, about the fact that Kanye West has the media muscles to make that happen.
Isn’t there such a thing as a media cyborg?
After you read Tim’s post, you start to see cyborgs all around you. It’s not just people with, you know, gun-legs; it’s anybody who uses a cell phone or wears contact lenses. It’s anybody who brings a tool really close in order to augment some capability.
Aren’t there people who have brought media that close? Aren’t there people who manipulate it, in all its forms, as naturally as another person might make a phone call, or speak, or breathe?
When you think of someone like Kanye West or Lady Gaga, you can’t think only of their brains and bodies. Lady Gaga in a simple dress on a tiny stage in a no-name club in Des Moines is—simply put—not Lady Gaga. Kanye West in jeans at a Starbucks is not Kanye West.
To understand people like that—and, increasingly, to understand people like us (eep!)—you’ve got to look instead at the sum of their brains, their bodies, the media they create, and the media created by others about them. All together, it constitutes a sort of fuzzy cloud that’s much, much bigger than a person.
This hits close to home for me. In fact, it’s the reason I do a lot of the things that I do. At some point in your life, you meet a critical mass of smart, fun, interesting people, and a depressing realization hits: There are too many. You’ll never meet all the people that you ought to meet. You’ll never have all the conversations that you ought to have. There’s simply not enough time.
You know those movie scenes where two characters miss each other by just a fraction of a second, and how it’s so frustrating to watch? You want to reach into the screen and go: Hey, stop! Just slow down. He’s coming around the corner! Well, that’s life—except in life, it’s multiplied a million-fold in every dimension. You can miss somebody not just by a second, but by a century. You can miss somebody not just by a couple of steps, but by the span of a continent.
Media evens the odds.
Media lets you clone pieces of yourself and send them out into the world to have conversations on your behalf. Even while you’re sleeping, your media —your books, your blog posts, your tweets—it’s on the march. It’s out there trying to making connections. Mostly it’s failing, but that’s okay: these days, copies are cheap. We’re all Jamie Madrox now.
Okay, let’s keep things in perspective. For most of us, even the blogotronic twitternauts of the Snarkmatrix, this platoon of posts is a relatively small part of who we are. But I’d argue that for an exceptional set of folks—the Kanyes, the Gagas, the Obamas—it is a crucial, even central, component.
Maybe that sounds dehumanizing, but I don’t think it ought to be. We’re already pretty sure that the mind is not a single coherent will but rather a crazy committee whose deliberations get smoothed out into the thing we call consciousness or identity or whatever. Use your imagination: what if some of that committee operates remotely? If 99.99% of the world will only ever encounter Kanye West through the bright arc of media that he produces—isn’t that media, in some important way, Kanye?
Again: I don’t think it’s dehumanizing. I don’t think it’s dystopian. Any cyborg technology has a grotesque extreme; there are glasses and there are contacts and there are these. So it’s like that with media, too. We all do this; we all use media every day to extend our senses and our spheres of influence. At some scale, sure, things gets weird, and you lose track of you, and suddenly you’re being choked to death by your own robotic arm. But way before you get to that point, you get these amazing powers:
- The power to reach beyond yourself, outward in space and forward in time.
- The power to have conversations—really rich, meaningful conversations—with more people than you could ever break bread with.
- And, increasingly, the power to get reports back from your little platoon—to see how your media is performing.
We’re all media cyborgs now.
P.S. Don’t miss Kevin Kelly’s contribution to #50cyborgs!
Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions. Part One introduces the elemental character of the place. The Second Part comprises the modern replicas. Three will seek a language to make them vocal, and Four, the river below the falls, will be reminiscent of episodes — all that any one man may achieve in a lifetime.
– William Carlos Williams, “Author’s Note” to Paterson
[Note: This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.]
[Note 2: This is also very literary, and very weird.]
William Carlos Williams knew plenty about bodies. He was a pediatrician and general practitioner in Rutherford, NJ, and his great poem “To Elsie,” which begins “The pure products of America / go crazy —” moves seamfully from the flesh to aimless machines:
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us–
ungainly hips and flopping breasts
addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes
as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and adjust, no one to drive the car
And then there is the mighty fragment from Spring and All, “The rose is obsolete,” imagining a new, cubo-futurist symbol of beauty with the delicacy and strength of organic steel. We could go on.
But Paterson is the poem, the book to be reckoned with, which conceives of a body as a city and a city as a body and both as a flow of heteroclite information, the poem a machine containing them all.
To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
And this is what we see in Paterson. The italicized faux-definition on the first page in verso calls it “an identification and a plan for action to supplant a plan for action… a dispersal and a metamorphosis” but also “a gathering up; a celebration.” In other words, a book.
To make a start,
out of particulars,
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means–
Or as he would write (and repeat) a handful of pages later, “–Say it, no ideas but in things–” which is to say (he tries to refine) “no ideas but in facts” but also:
Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter–
Paterson, whose ideas are themselves cities criss-crossing his streets in machines made from the mind, is both the Passaic Falls (“the outline of his back”) and the bridge thrown across those falls, and the men who dare each other to jump from the bridge, the women who mysteriously disappear, and finally the fragments of texts from newspapers and letters Williams gathers (the gathering at the same time a dispersal, a release of the information confined in the archive) to make the outline of his poem.
So far everything had gone smoothly. The pulley and ropes were securely fastened on each side of the chasm, and everything made in readiness to pull the clumsy bridge into position. It was a wooden structure boarded up on both sides, and a roof. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon and a large crowd had fathered — a large crowd for that time, as the town only numbered about four thousand — to watch the bridge placed in position.
That day was a great day for old Paterson. It being Saturday, the mills were shut down, so to give the people a chance to celebrate. Among those who came in for a good part of the celebration was Sam Patch, then a resident in Paterson, who was a boss over cotton spinners in one of the mills. He was my boss, and many a time he gave me a cuff over the ears.
Such prose fragments are dropped into the text of Paterson like stones in the Passaic Falls, or like Sam Patch’s body when, after a career of daredevil jumps inaugurated in Paterson (“a national hero”), it’s found frozen downstream after a jump from Niagara.
Sometimes the language is reincorporated later (or before) in the narrative (such as it is) of the poem. Williams describes Paterson as a search for language, the river like the language itself, many languages, bearing many kinds of information:
A false language. A true. A false language pouring— a
language (misunderstood) pouring (misinterpreted) without
dignity, without minister, crashing upon a stone ear.
And with this we are on the terrain of Claude Shannon’s mathematical cryptography, elaborated in the 1940s with the help of John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and others, just miles away, the engineering and metaphorical aspects of which fascinated Williams. In information theory, the medium of information is immaterial (both in the sense that is abstract and not relevant to the calculus), only its degree of distortion, compression, storage, and loss. Signals with(out) the codes to decipher them.
Once we can abstract from the medium, information does not need to be a letter, a photograph, or a radio wave. It can be a body, or the movement of bodies across a city, or any system, whether synthetic, organic, or hybrid.
Williams is known for his work as a physician, for his friendship with avant-garde artists, writers, and photographers in New York (the Williams-Marcel Duchamp-Man Ray friendship was especially fertile), but his interest in science and engineering was equally profound. In 1945, the year he forged Book One of Paterson, he received an honorary degree from the University of Buffalo, where he struck up a long conversation and fast friendship with Vannevar Bush, who that year would write “As We May Think”:
Among the rest the man Bush, the head of the atomic bomb project, was the most interesting to me. I liked him at once. It is amazing what he and his associates have accomplished—looked at simply as work, as brains. He seemed curious about me and was astonished to know I was a physician. I told him that I was deeply impressed by the sheer accomplishments of the persons on the platform. He replied that it took a lot of energy also to write books
(see T. Hugh Crawford, “Paterson, Memex, and Hypertext”)
How could we retrieve disconnected fragments, to make their hidden connections manifest? This was Williams’s problem as a poet, Bush’s as a researcher, Shannon’s as an engineer. To create a network of things — to roll up the universal out of particulars, and make what’s long kept in storage MOVE, faster than microfilm:
Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed, in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass.… Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path
Or as Williams writes in Paterson:
Texts mount and complicate them–
selves, lead to further texts and those
to synopses, digests and emendations
A new line, for a new mind; a new mind, to be the mind of a city.
The library, the library is on fire by Book III of Paterson:
Hell’s fire. Fire. Sit your horny ass
down. What’s your game? Beat you
at your own game, Fire. Outlast you:
Poet Beats Fire at Its Own Game! The bottle!
the bottle! the bottle! the bottle! I
give you the bottle! What’s burning
Whirling flames, leaping
from house to house, building to building
carried by the wind
the Library is in their path
Beautiful thing! aflame .
a defiance of authority
— burnt Sappho’s poems, burned
by intention (or are they still hid
in the Vatican crypts?) :
a defiance of authority :
for they were
unwrapped, fragment by fragment, from
outer mummy cases of papier mâché, inside
Egyptian sarcophagi .
Knowledge cannot lie dead, buried in tombs, it must be transmitted, brought to action, by electrical means if necessary, by film if necessary, fire if necessary, every destruction a liberation, bearing with it the possibility of rebirth.
That is, at least — if one conceives of the body as something more than flesh — as network — as city. As a machine made of words.
A machine with a man inside.
Plenty of my posts at Wired.com’s Gadget Lab are pretty different from what I used to post, or even would want to post, here at Snarkmarket. (We don’t do a whole lot of product hands-on, industry news, or microprocessor specs, for example, here at Snarkmarket.)
Some of them, though, are totally SM-appropriate. Here’s a short list of posts that Snarkmarket readers might have missed in the past week that I think you’d love under any masthead:
- Tracing the Army Knife’s Swiss History
- E-Books Are Still Waiting for Their Avant-Garde
- How Google Instant Could Reinvent Channel Flipping
- Why You Should Get Excited About New Mobile Processors
- Games, Chat, ePub: Imagining the Future of Apps for Kindle
- Should You Give Up Gadgets for a Day? (NB: This one makes no sense, b/c editorial swapped out the photo of Mel Gibson that led it. It just reads like I’m weirdly obsessed with Mel Gibson,)
- The Hidden Link Between E-Readers and Sheep (It’s Not What You Think)
- Text-Free Computers Find Work for India’s Unlettered
Hope you enjoy! (And please, comment! We need an injection of Snarkmarket comment awesomeness at Wired badly. It’s a bad vibe over there.)
Zero History, pre-ordered, just popped into existence on my Kindle app. There’s a good, long interview with William Gibson over at Wired.com (and more to come this week, I’m sure). His Twitter account is even better than usual these days, as he revs up for his book tour and brings us along for the ride. It’s gonna be a good week for zeitgeist.
I’ve reading semi-extensively (i.e., as much as I can without breaking down and buying any more books) about the history of Islam. I’m partly motivated by a desire to better understand its philosophy and manuscript traditions, partly for a half-dozen other reasons too complicated to explain, but mostly just from long-standing interest. A few of my Kottke posts came out of this, as Robin pointed out.
So the best article I’ve come across in a while that touches on all of these things is “What is the Koran?” which appeared in The Atlantic back in 1999. It’s an examination of scholarly debates over the historicity of the Koran, and the propriety of Western scholars applying empirical/rationalist techniques to a holy text (especially when, historically-speaking, Orientalism of this kind hasn’t been motivated by knowledge for knowledge’s sake), plus clampdowns on Muslim writers who’ve brought the traditional history into question.
(Brief summary: Mohammed didn’t write, but received revelations from God, which he recited and others memorized and/or wrote down. A while later, just as with Christianity, a council produced an officially sanctioned text, knocking out variant copies and apocryphal texts, some of which were… extremely interesting. So, let’s imagine the Gnostic Gospels coming out in a country ruled by fundamentalists.)
Anyways, part of the problem these scholars are struggling with is just how FAST Islam grew from outsider rebels to ruling establishment:
Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion’s birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad’s world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam’s first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam’s stories about its own origins—particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries—to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth– or tenth-century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh-century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam.
If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries [Islamic calendar / Christian calendar] understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out “what really happened,” in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.
But one of the things that happened during this period is that Islam went from wild, oral, incomprehensible traditions to scholarly/poetic/cultural flowering to clamped-down authoritarian fundamentalism:
As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran—unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the “uncreated” and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813–833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu’tazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.
By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mu’tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of i’jaz, or the “inimitability” of the Koran. (As a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases.) The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.
Okay. Now let’s read The Economist, “The future of the internet: A virtual counter-revolution”:
THE first internet boom, a decade and a half ago, resembled a religious movement. Omnipresent cyber-gurus, often framed by colourful PowerPoint presentations reminiscent of stained glass, prophesied a digital paradise in which not only would commerce be frictionless and growth exponential, but democracy would be direct and the nation-state would no longer exist…
Fifteen years after its first manifestation as a global, unifying network, it has entered its second phase: it appears to be balkanising, torn apart by three separate, but related forces.… It is still too early to say that the internet has fragmented into “internets”, but there is a danger that it may splinter along geographical and commercial boundaries… To grasp why the internet might unravel, it is necessary to understand how, in the words of Mr Werbach, “it pulled itself together” in the first place. Even today, this seems like something of a miracle…
One reason may be that the rapid rise of the internet, originally an obscure academic network funded by America’s Department of Defence, took everyone by surprise. “The internet was able to develop quietly and organically for years before it became widely known,” writes Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard University, in his 2008 book, “The Future of the Internet—And How To Stop It”. In other words, had telecoms firms, for instance, suspected how big it would become, they might have tried earlier to change its rules.
Maybe this is a much more common pattern than we might realize; things start out radical and unpredictable, resolve into a productive, self-generating force, then stagnate and become fixed or die. Boil it down, and it sounds fairly typical. That how stars work, that’s how cities work, maybe that’s just how life works.
But in both articles, Islam and the Internet are presented as outliers. Judaism and Christianity didn’t grow as fast as Islam did, and their textual tradition produces similar problems, but don’t appear to be as sharp. Likewise, information networks like railroads, the telegraph, and telephone are presented as normally-developing; the internet is weird. Either this pattern is more common than we think it is, or it isn’t. Either way, it’s a meaningful congruence.
If that’s the case — if we can use the history of Islam to think about the internet, and vice versa, then what are the lessons? What are the porential consequences? What interventions, if necessary, are possible? (We have to confront the possibility in both cases that any intervention might be ruinous.)