Monthly Archives: January 2010

First class TV news satire



I’ll admit it.  I’m one of the dorks who longed to return to school over break.  It wasn’t the problem sets or the readings that I missed.  While the California sun certainly appealed to me as I sat shivering in the basement of my mother’s house (the sole place where I was able to connect to the Internet), the weather wasn’t it, either.  I missed the lectures.  I had long since known about iTunes U, an offshoot of the iTunes store granting users access to orations of Stanford profs and Oxford dons for far less than the cost of tuition,  but few of the courses available for viewing piqued my interest.

Luckily, I stumbled upon, an online collection of 600+ ‘talks’ given by thought leaders in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design at conferences all over the globe.  Not just any ‘talks’.  “Riveting talks,” as the website’s header describes, “by remarkable people, free to the world.”

I’m fairly certain I looked something like this for the next few hours as I clicked from video to video.

Since my discovery, I’ve watched hundreds of TED talks.  It’s a tough feat for a video recording to engage the viewer in the way live oratory does (especially that of Pomona professors—as most of us have heard, the Princeton Review states we have the #1 classroom experience in the country–whoop whoop!), but many TED speakers succeed.

Looking through my saved set of favorite talks, I noted that a few that pertain to things we’re studying in this course.


The New Open Source Economics

I was not in class when Professor Fitzpatrick talked about the New York Times charging readers for online content, but, from what I can garner from those who posted about it, this talk by Yochai Benkler relates.  Perhaps you’ll recognize the name, too, from our course syllabus.


How Brain Science Will Change Computing

Starting at 10:20, Hawkins describes how we define intelligence, touching on Turing and, and the difference between what he calls ‘computer memory’ and ‘pattern memory’ built up through observation and used for prediction.


How Technology Evolves

The Next 5,000 Days of the Web

The question Kelly asks in the first talk—“What does technology want?”—initially struck me as odd, but, by comparing technological evolution to biological evolution, he presents presents a strong argument for, as he describes, “technology as a cosmic force”.

I enjoy his Cool Tools blog, too.


I suspect that many of you, too, are familiar with TED.  What are some of your favorite talks?

Keyboard Kid

Cool, Alright! (It’s funny)



Digital Growth of Counterculture

In Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community, there is a lot of discussion of the countercultural movement which was behind the appeal of the WELL system. Because the system allowed users to communicate indirectly and from what would otherwise be absolute solitude, and that access required a high degree of technical capability, it is the comradeship of the geek which made the project a success.

While the internet has changed in its appeal to a much broader base of users, the fact remains that geeks still power what has become a massive engine, and that one reward for their efforts has been the growth of geek culture in a cyberspace which allowed what was otherwise hindered by awkwardness: nerdy fraternity.

It has become somewhat of a cycle with the growth of the culture and the growth of the internet propelling each other, we have seen massive growth in both sectors.

Ceci me fait sembler élitiste?

I have a newfound sympathy for wartime scientists.  As Vannevar Bush explains in the opening of “As We May Think”, American physicists of his day were “thrown violently off-stride” and forced to leave “academic pursuits for the making of strange, destructive gadgets.”  At the war’s end, they suffered a huge loss: the “great team” of fellow thinkers they’d worked with to cripple the Axis powers.

In answering Bush’s call to increase information’s accessibility, today’s scientists have regained the “great team”.  And the team is growing.  At least, that’s what my RSS feed leads me to believe.  My Google Reader continually delights me with news of inexpensive technologies, many rivaling the beauty of Bush’s visions and positively impacting humans across the globe.  The team, it seems, is shifting toward a no-cut policy.  Low-cost, low-power laptops—modern-day “memexes” of sorts—allow even the poorest of children the opportunity to play.  Thankfully, unlike the boys on my tiny high school’s football team (rumor has it that the coach personally visited the home of each male student and implored him to join the team, regardless of size or coordination), many of these new players have something to contribute.

JNakatomo linked to an interesting article.  Its author quotes a  2004 interview with Newsweek where Google cofounder Sergey Brin said, “Certainly, if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.”  Yes, if knowledge acquisition were a simple matter of plugging into an external cranium and periodically syncing, I would be better off.  If all humans were granted such an  external brain, so, too would everyone else.   Though I might miss out on a few laughs, the idea of a future where everyone is smart appeals to me.  But the idea of everyone knowing… everything?

That makes me a little uncomfortable.

Not that I fear we’re becoming too machine-like.  Nor that I dislike egalitarianism.  Really, my unease is rooted in all the hours I’ve spent memorizing French vocabulary.

Toward the end of the film Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character places a long-distance phone call to his estranged daughter.  As Hoffman utters an English greeting into his headset, it’s instantaneously translated into French.  His daughter’s French response, too, is relayed in English.  Their entire conversation is conducted in this manner, and neither stops to recognize the immense awesomeness of the technology they’re using.

Similar hand-held translators are now being refined.   Within a few years, might I be able to navigate a Francophone country just as well if I hadn’t devoted so much time to studying French?  How big of a smack in the face would it feel like to realize I wasted my time memorizing that the passé simple of ‘to drink’ in the ‘nous’ form is ‘bûmes’?

On a broader scale, as memorization becomes less important, how will those people whose careers depend on factual knowledge fare?  What changes will be made to the training required to become, say, a doctor of medicine?  Of philosophy?   If everyone’s allowed on the “team,” what must one do to maintain a position as a valued player?  A captain?  In his bestseller The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman argues that, in an age where many jobs have proven fungible, adaptability is key.  “You must continually acquire new skills, knowledge, and expertise that enable you to create value (237).”   This talk of adaptation and creativity recalls not only Lady Lovelace’s objection from Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” but one of Bush’s statements: “Creative thought and repetitive thought are very different things.”

Back to Sergey’s artificial brain concept.  Would the possession of such a device mean one understands the information held within?  Or, rather, would such a tool act more like an external harddrive, requiring conventional methods of retrieval and thereby rendering the most efficient searchers (holla self-proclaimed expert website-sifter shinybuddha69!) the most valued?  Friedman continues: “The more we push out the boundaries of knowledge and technology, the more complex tasks that machines can do, the more those with specialized education, or the ability to learn how to learn, will be in demand, and for better pay (237).”

I imagine my resistance isn’t all that different than that which numerous clergymen displayed at the advent of the printing press.  We look back and scoff.  Gutenberg’s brilliant machine spread despite their laments.  Their time would’ve been better spent adapting.

Likewise, it’s probably best that I stop complaining about the time I’ve potentially wasted.  I’ll try to be optimistic.  There is one thing I’m especially excited about: the faster technologies like the above-described translator are realized, the faster I’ll be able to communicate in all the critical languages I refused to study because their syntax was too funky.

Making Nelson's Vision Possible

The technological future that Nelson envisioned in the 1960s still seems distant almost 50 years later. But as I read, I wondered if it was not simply distant, but impossible. While Nelson has clearly thought out a very detailed program, I struggle to imagine a world in which this would be the new norm. It’s not so much that I think it’s impossible to program; I’m sure the technology will exist. But it is impractical and represents a complete ideological break that seems culturally unlikely in the immediate future.

The main problem, incidentally also Nelson’s main goal, is the non-linear nature of the program. If we struggle even to accept paper with the corners cut out (I seldom work on Microsoft Word while not in “Page View”) or keyboards that run A-Z, how can we make the sudden break from a millennia-enforced way of thinking? I think this is especially true considering that great technological strides are still being made in linear-styled technology.

There have been, of course, technical innovations, often vast.  But we talked in class about the way technology is creating a divide between those who use and those who create. I think that this new divide, this less accessible new technology, will drive companies to provide consumers with better products… in the same format as old ones. They want their products to sell, to be intuitive. When faced with a non-QWERTY keyboard people would balk. Meanwhile, those who might have found a way to experiment and make a non-linear format could find the technology out of their reach.

I think the answer lies in a very, very slow fusing of the two. While Nelson might not enjoy the idea of Wikipedia’s hypertext, I think it’s the first step towards his vision. It’s not going to be a sudden break, but I think the meld between linear and not has already begun. Wikipedia’s hypertext, much of Facebook, etc all represents a shift towards his vision.

Apple Shmapple

Considering how much hype was built up in online communities in the days leading to Apple’s unveiling of the iPad this past Wednesday, it’s really no surprise that many found their hopes less-than-fulfilled by the new gadget. Personally, I hadn’t even heard about the expected unveiling of an Apple tablet until our first class meeting last Wednesday (I don’t pretend to be very tech-savvy), but even I had some higher expectations. Sure, it’s a cool toy and looks really shiny and pretty, but I’m not really sure it’s as important as Apple seems to claim it is.   

Here’s one collection of responses to the iPad, courtesy of New York Magazine:

I don’t know nearly enough about Apple or the typical Apple product consumer to even try to predict whether or not the iPad will sell at all, but I do know that I’m not impressed enough to shell out $500+ on what seems to me like not much more than a big iPhone (without regular phoning capabilities).

2/1/10 Reading: Thoughts

First off, I wanted to tie this reading back to our past couple of readings by saying that I feel that this article (chapter?) is a perfect example of how to properly use hyperlinking in a body of text. Subjects of interest and topics the reader may not know about are linked to pages that explain about them, and yet the author managed to avoid hyperlinking every other word. I can respect and appreciate that, because as I said in my last post, nothing bothers me more than people who think hyperlinking each and every word from their blog entry or whatnot is cool and makes them look intelligent. it doesn’t.

Moving on, I also wanted to say that reading about this “WELL” community really gave me a warm-and-fuzzy feeling. I’ve been a member of a good handful of online communities — some longer than others, some more actively than others; but in the end message boards, BBSes, and forums have been a big part of my life since… what? Like, 6th grade at least!

I felt like a lot of the points the author made about online communities are still true today. The idea that the community is like your own personal think-tank, how every person has their own distinct online persona, how people are generous just because that’s what you do in a community — all these points still seem very true in online communities today, and I think that’s why they’re still so prevalent on the internet (albeit, the forums these days are far more technologically advanced and prettier than the WELL was, I imagine, but the sentiments and intentions re the same).

The way the WELL was run seemed really nice, too — a sort of complete democracy where the governing of the community was done by the community itself. Nowadays, there seems to be so much drama on forums and message boards regarding moderation and administration (in fact, I’m serving a 24-hour ban right now on one of the message boards I frequently visit). Picking moderators always seems to be a big, complex ordeal, moderator’s decisions always seem to be the subject of debates, and in the end the member base can never be completely satisfied with the moderation style.

And yet at the same time I don’t think that the style of governance that the WELL used would be very effective in more modern message board environments. The WELL’s member base, while diverse, seemed mature. Modern forums and message boards are more easy to access, and usually have far more open registration; anyone can join, regardless of maturity, intelligence, social skills, kindness, etc. So I can see where the need for moderation comes in, but at the same time, many of the message boards I’ve used have some serious problems and could probably do to adopt a more democratic system like the WELL used. I have to say, I was actually kind of jealous of how functional their community seemed to be.

Is internet drama just a new thing now? I wonder if it existed in such proliferation during the era discussed in this reading…? It doesn’t seem like it so much from this reading, but then again this author could just be glorifying his nostalgic past.

But then again, who doesn’t? I certainly do the same when I talk about my past online communities, and really, after serious thought, they weren’t that great either.

Anyways, I’d just like to maybe devote this entry to discussing people’s experiences with message boards/BBSes/forums/etc. Not so much Facebook and MySpace (though we can discuss that partly if you all want), but actual text-based BBSes — from both now and then. Does the rest of our class have a strong history with such things, or do just a few of you? And how did this reading affect your nostalgic feelings of that past?

Oh, and if you want, you can tell us exactly which forums you used to visit. Maybe some of us have met before and never knew it!

Merry Data Privacy Day!

Apparently we all missed an international holiday on Thursday: the third annual “Data Privacy Day” which essentially consisted of companies such as Google and Microsoft patting themselves on the back for their efforts to maintain the privacy of their users. Notably absent from the festivities was Facebook, which, as we are all aware, has taken some major steps backwards in that department through its recently revised approach to its privacy settings.
Aside from most people’s obvious objection to having their information made available to any random person with internet access, Facebook’s revised policy may have pushed back the existence of what could ultimately be some amazing new functions of the internet. In this article for which was published on the New York Times website, Marshall Kirkpatrick claims that increasing worries about how our information is being used may impede companies with a lot of data from creating innovative new ways to integrate and utilize this data.
This passage in particular really stuck out to me and I think is worth reading:

You say: “Dear iPad (or whatever), I’m considering inviting Jane to lunch at The Observatory on Thursday, what can you tell me about that? Give me the widest scope of information possible.”
Then your Web 3.0-enabled iPad (or whatever) says to you: “Jane has not eaten Sushi in the past 6 weeks but has 2 times in the year so far. [Location data] The average calorie count of a lunch meal at that location is 250 calories, which would put you below your daily goal. [Nutrition data online.] Please note that there is a landmark within 100 yards of The Observatory for which the Wikipedia page is tagged with 3 keywords that match your recent newspaper reading interest-list and 4 of Jane’s.
“People who like sushi and that landmark also tend to like the movie showing at a theatre down the street. Since you have race and class demographics turned on, though, I can also tell you that college-educated black people tend to give that director’s movies unusually bad reviews. Click here to learn more.”
That’s what the future of the internet could look like. That sounds great to me

While Kirkpatrick’s vision for the future of the internet is more than a little unnerving and not entirely desirable in my opinion, it is clear that there is the potential to do some truly extraordinary things with the data that websites like Facebook have gathered. We have already seen how Google has integrated their data into their search suggestions and I can only imagine the things they could come up with in the future. While I am not in favor of a program telling my friends what and where I’ve been eating for the past few months, the idea of receiving relevant information along with the information I specifically searched for is definitely intriguing. To this extent I agree with Kirkpatrick’s concern that people will start to mistrust companies in possession of their information before they can provide us with some really exciting and valuable tools. That said, we should continue to be vigilant in our efforts to protect our information from being used inappropriately.

Here is the article:

My Cyberspace Community

Whole Earth Catalog via Wiki

The link above is pretty self-explanatory.  I felt the need to do a little more research about the Whole Earth Catalog as I read the article, and since I do not have to cite sources or verify the validity and reliability of my research, I decided that a quick Wiki search would suffice.

“Chapter Two: Daily Life in Cyberspace” by Howard Rheingold

I enjoyed this article for several reasons, but I was mainly struck by the acknowledgment of the need for a structured community in cyberspace that WELL managers desired.  This computerized counterculture was not meant to serve as an information search tool alone, but instead, a place to connect with other users with questions and ideas that elicited conversation and response.  In Nelson’s article, the concept of “psychology” is brought up, but in a different sense, as the author is referring to the psychological impact of the computer on users based on the ease and simplicity of the technology.  In Rheingold’s article, I get the sense of psychology as focusing more on users as actual people, with emotions, struggles, and accomplishments that will be shared on the online community.  Thus, establishing a cyberspace society, with rules and dictates that govern propriety and allow for an environment enjoyable for everyone.  From its beginning, Rheingold’s involvement with cyberspace and WELL was close and personal.

It was to become a “vehicle for social change”.  It was a “cultural experiment”.

As the community was founded, its managers were hired for their communal skills rather than technical knowledge.  In contrast to workers hired today at IBM or Dell, they were valued for knowing how to reach collective decisions and create cultural traditions.  In fact, newcomers to the WELL community were welcomed by staff who assisted via telephone.  In contrast, today’s culture is growing more and more automated.  I received a phone call this morning from Dell, informing me that my order has been shipped.  My issue with that phone call (besides the fact that it was 7:34 AM) was that I have not ordered anything, and now I’m left completely clueless as to why I’ve been called.  However, unlike during the time frame in which WELL was cultivated, I can’t call a small, friendly staff to clear up this confusion.

This article’s sense of society and togetherness amazes me.  I rarely see the Web as a social networking place in which I connect to friends and relieve my anxieties of the week.  Even with the nifty presence of Face book and Twitter, I would feel more so deprived of privacy and silly for typing out my emotions and joys, rather than a comforting envelopment of human interaction.

“Nobody is anonymous”.  The article was especially revealing when the author detailed the lives of the people behind the WELL: the single mother, Tex, David Hawkins, and Maddog.  The single mom had two daughters, and Tex had a very “in your face” personality.  David Hawkins was training to be a Baptist Minister, and Maddog was an avid Deadhead with “verbal ferocity”.  While there are endless opportunities to create personality and physical descriptions online, there is also the sense that no one relates themselves as who they actually are.  Hence, “LittleSuzie2013” could be a 56 year-old man searching for teenage girls to befriend.  “Toned&Sexi” could be an obese woman with a thyroid problem.  You never know who is on the other end of the screen.  Even with accounts such as Face book, pictures can be stolen from the Internet, photo-shopped, or tampered with in various ways.  Our world wide web seems to be one of deception and making yourself into who you “want to be”, rather than who you are.  Once again, this differs sharply with the tone of the article and the original intent of the cyberspace community and WELL, in which the “system is the people” and the “intellectual diversity” draws people in.

After reading this article, I felt somewhat sad about the reality of cyberspace versus what it once was.  I may not be keying in to the right places, and perhaps there are magnificent chat rooms, filled with interesting people that would improve my perception of life and the universe…but I don’t think I’ll hold my breath until I find it.  On the upside, Rheingold presented a side of virtual community that I had not considered before, and while it still will not replace my love of real interactions with friends and people face-to-face…it did add insight to my beliefs about Google Wave and Yahoo Messenger.