post

Amazing Video: Felix Baumgartner’s Free Fall from Space

Via GoPro (this is the sort of thing GoPro was made for!). “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are.”

post

Christopher Alexander and “A Pattern Language”

Great post about Christopher Alexander’s work and influence via The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, originally published at the Metropolis website, which followed up with posts on “The Sustainable Technology of Christopher Alexander” and “The Living Technology of Chrisopher Alexander.” The authors emphasize Alexander’s emphasis on patterns, context and a whole-systems vision. He was writing as an architect, but his influence has been more widespread.

an earlier generation of computer programmers, organization theorists, design theorists and many others, were struggling then to figure out how to generate and manage the large new design structures of that era — computer software being one prominent example. Alexander gave them some very helpful conceptual tools to do that…. In essence, the tools were patterns: not things, but relations of things, which could be identified and re-combined and re-used, in a language-like way.

The article goes on to say that Anderson’s work has “…amounted to a kind of technological critique, revolving around the observation that we’re doing something wrong in the way we make things. We’re substituting an oversimplified model of structure-making — one more closely related to our peculiar hierarchically limited way of conceiving abstract relationships — in place of the kinds of transformations that actually occur regularly in the universe, and in biological systems especially.”

Ours is a much more limited, fragmentary form of this larger kind of transformation. The result of this problem is nothing less than a slow unfolding technological disaster. We know it as the sustainability crisis.

That’s where this discussion touches on what’s happening today — economically, ecologically, and culturally. Growing numbers of people do recognize that we have to get our houses in order. But whose house, to what extent, and in what way? That’s the big question of the day.

What Alexander argues is that we have to make some very fundamental reforms — not only in our specific technologies, but in our very way of thinking about technology. We have been isolating things, as mechanical sub-entities, and manipulating them. That works quite well, but only up to a point. As any systems theorist or ecologist will tell you, the context, not the thing, is the key.

So it seems that we have ignored an incredibly important aspect of natural systems — namely, the fact that every structure is embedded in a larger structural context, and ultimately, in the entire structure of the cosmos itself. What Alexander offered was not just the recognition of this truth, but the basis of a new technology that could incorporate it.

post

Google’s insanely great data kingdom

Photo of part of the physical infrastructure for Google's data system.

Photo: Google/Connie Zhou

Steven Levy wrote the book on Google (In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives); now Google’s let him into its formerly top secret data center in Lenoir, North Carolina. The massive data infrastructure is a wonder to behold. [Link]

This is what makes Google Google: its physical network, its thousands of fiber miles, and those many thousands of servers that, in aggregate, add up to the mother of all clouds. This multibillion-dollar infrastructure allows the company to index 20 billion web pages a day. To handle more than 3 billion daily search queries. To conduct millions of ad auctions in real time. To offer free email storage to 425 million Gmail users. To zip millions of YouTube videos to users every day. To deliver search results before the user has finished typing the query. In the near future, when Google releases the wearable computing platform called Glass, this infrastructure will power its visual search results.

post

Culturematic

Readers of this blog will be aware of my fascination with the concept and churn of culture. I’ve just run across mention of a new book called Culturematic by anthropologist Grant McCracken. McCracken will be the guest tomorrow on the Yi-Tan weekly call.

From Amazon’s book description:

A Culturematic is a little machine for making culture. It’s an ingenuity engine.

Once wound up and released, the Culturematic acts as a probe into the often-alien world of contemporary culture, to test the atmosphere, to see what life it can sustain, to see who responds and how. Culturematics start small but can scale up ferociously, bootstrapping themselves as they go.

Because they are so inexpensive, we can afford to fire off a multitude of Culturematics simultaneously. This is evolutionary strategy, iterative innovation, and rapid prototyping all at once. Culturematics are fast, cheap, and out of control. Perhaps as important, they fail early and often. They are the perfect antidote to a world where we cannot guess what’s coming next.

post

How to Build a Better Block

Fabulous talk by Jason Roberts of “The Better Block: A Living Charrette”, presented at TedX Austin. You should watch this… twice. These guys don’t wait around to make the world better.

(Incidentally, if you want to know more about the charette concept, the book below is a good reference.)

post

Adriana Lukas: how to avoid hierarchies

Adriana discusses her thinking about heterarchy, including initial thoughts about five laws of heterarchy.

“Hierarchies seem to be like oxygen: they’re all around us, pervasive, visible only to those who study them. Hierarchies are the most efficient system for management and distribution of scarce resources… given that the physical world is defined by scarcity of all sorts, it goes a long way toward explaining hierarchy as our default organizational structure….There is potential to come up with alternatives to our hierarchical organizational defaults, and I think that would be good news for all those trapped in stifling and disempowering organizations.”

post

RIP Insanely Great Steve Jobs

boingboing tribute to Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs left Apple recently, what seemed like premature obituaries started appearing, so he had the unusual opportunity to see the kind of appreciation usually published postmortem. It’s too bad he’s not around to see the best tribute, boingboing’s retro Apple interface redesign (above).

The phrase often associated with Apple and Jobs was “insanely great” (also the title of a book by Steve Levy). Gary Wolf interviewed Jobs for Wired about “The Next Insanely Great Thing”:

Having children really changes your view on these things. We’re born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It’s been happening for a long time. Technology is not changing it much – if at all.

These technologies can make life easier, can let us touch people we might not otherwise. You may have a child with a birth defect and be able to get in touch with other parents and support groups, get medical information, the latest experimental drugs. These things can profoundly influence life. I’m not downplaying that. But it’s a disservice to constantly put things in this radical new light – that it’s going to change everything. Things don’t have to change the world to be important.

The Web is going to be very important. Is it going to be a life-changing event for millions of people? No. I mean, maybe. But it’s not an assured Yes at this point. And it’ll probably creep up on people.

It’s certainly not going to be like the first time somebody saw a television. It’s certainly not going to be as profound as when someone in Nebraska first heard a radio broadcast. It’s not going to be that profound.

post

Alex Steffen at SXSW Eco: Carbon Zero

post

Neal Stephenson on Innovation Starvation

“The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.” [Link]

post

Transitional Internet

I continue to be focused on the future of the Internet and aware of divergent paths. In the later 2000s, following a period of digital and media convergence and given broad adoption of evolving high speed (broadband) network connectivity, the Internet has become an environment for mixed media and marketing. The Internet is increasingly centralized as a platform that serves a global business engine. It’s a mashup of business to business services and business to consumer connections, a mashup of all the forms of audio, text, and video communication and media in a new, more social/participatory context: the faceless consumer now has an avatar, an email address, and a feedback loop.

The sense of the Internet as a decentralized free and open space has changed, but there are still many advocates and strong arguments for approaches that are bottom-up, network-centric, free as in freedom (and sometimes as in beer), open, collaborative, decentralized. It’s tempting to see top-down corporate approaches vs bottom-up “free culture” approaches as mutually exclusive, but I think they can and will coexist. Rather than make value judgements about the different approaches, I want to support education and thinking about ethics, something I should discuss later.

Right now I want to point to a collaboration forming around the work of Venessa Miemis, who’s been curating trends, models, and projects associated with the decentralized Internet model. Venessa and her colleagues (including myself) have been discussing how to build a decentralized network that is broadly and cheaply accessible and that is more of a cooperative, serving the public interest rather than a narrower set of economic interests.

I’ll be focusing on these sorts of projects here and in my talks on the future of the Internet. Meanwhile, here are pointers to a couple of Venessa’s posts that are good overviews for what I’m talking about. I appreciate her clarity and focus.

There’s also the work of Michel Bauwens and the P2P Foundation, which I’ve followed for several years. The P2P Wiki has relevant pages:

post

Chance favors the connected mind.

Steve Johnson in an animated conversation (literally) derived from the juices flowing through his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Ideas grow from slow hunches in collision with each other, and depend on great nurturing ground: coffee houses, salons, etc. I love his conclusion: “Chance favors the connected mind.”

post

Gary Chapman

Hearing via Twitter that my friend Gary Chapman of the LBJ School has died. News of his death was posted by Isadora Vail of the Austin American Statesman. No details yet. I had just emailed Gary today asking for his support in putting together an Austin Wikileaks Summit. [Update: Statesman article by Vail reporting that Gary died of an apparent heart attack.]

Gary was a visionary thinker, always exploring the edge of emerging technologies… and he was a fine guy and a good friend. I interviewed him for the Austin Chronicle in 1999. [Link]

I think that a lot of people in the technology policy community feel there’s a kind of vacuum with respect to crafting a vision for why the United States should invest in science and technology in the future. That’s seen as a liability in forming consensus about what we should be investing in, but also an opportunity for helping craft a new vision.

The last organizing principle of technology policy was the Cold War, and that lasted for 50 years. But that’s pretty much over, and now we need a new organizing principle. It’s not clear what that’s going to be. There’s been a de facto consensus around global economic competitiveness, but that doesn’t really seem to have the same kind of glue that the Cold War rationale had. So I think there’s still work to be done on crafting the vision, and I think there’s certain pieces that have to go into it:

(1) Sustainability, that is, its relationship to the natural environment and our ability to build an economic system that doesn’t deplete the earth’s resources.

(2) Global commerce that is not solely competitive, but cooperative in nature as well.

(3) Social justice and equity issues, so that we don’t end up with technology policy that just favors the wealthy. That would have to take into account vast disparities in education and literacy and access to economic resources.

(4) A technology policy that’s democratic, and that offers the opportunity for people who are not scientific and technological experts to help craft it.

post

Berners-Lee: Long Live the Web

I’ve found myself giving cautionary talks on the future of the Internet, or possible futures, plural – the real danger that the Internet and the World Wide Web that operates on it will become less open, perhaps become fragmented, balkanized into closed networks that no longer cooperate, filled with walled gardens with various filters and constraints, and no longer be a platform with low barriers to entry and assurance that if you connect something, anyone anywhere in the world will have access to it. The Internet would no longer be the powerful engine for innovation and communication it has been.

Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web, writes about this in Scientific American, saying that some of the web’s “successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.”

If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.

Read Berners-Lee’s important longer piece, “Long Live the Web.”

My next scheduled talk about the future of the Internet is January 5 at noon, at Link Coworking.

post

Advocating for the Open Internet

“Net neutrality” and “freedom to connect” might be loaded or vague terminologies; the label “Open Internet” is clearer, more effective, no way misleading. A group of Internet experts and pioneers submitted a paper to the FCC that defines the Open Internet and explains how it differs from networks that are dedicated to specialized services, and why that distinction is imortant. It’s a general purpose network for all, and can’t be appreciated (or properly regulated) unless this point and its implications are well understood. I signed on (late) to the paper, which is freely available at Scribd, and which is worth reading and disseminating even among people who don’t completely get it. I think the meaning and relevance of the distinction will sink in, even with those who don’t have deep knowledge of the Internet and, more generally, computer networking. The key point is that “the Internet should be delineated from specialized services specifically based on whether network providers treat the transmission of packets in special ways according to the applications those packets support. Transmitting packets without regard for application, in a best efforts manner, is at the very core of how the Internet provides a general purpose platform that is open and conducive to innovation by all end users.”