How cool to have a gigabit Internet? Not so much.

Chattanooga, Tennessee Gigabit Internet Banner

Is it really cool to have gigabit network connectivity? Or is it more like it would’ve been to be one of the first thirty offices with a fax machine?

Google plans to launch its fiber to the home network in Kansas City on Thursday with the goal of seeing what people there can do with a gigabit connection. But as one city that already has a gigabit network can tell you, the answer so far may be, “Not much.”

For the last two years, Chattanooga, Tenn.’s public utility (EPB) has offered customers a gigabit fiber-to-the-home connection costing roughly $300 a month, so I touched base with a group of investors and entrepreneurs who have built a program to try to see what people can do with that fast a connection. So far, the limits of equipment, the lack of other gigabit networks (much of the Internet is reciprocal so it’s no fun if you have the speeds to send a holographic image of yourself but no one on the other end can receive it) and the small number of experiments on the network have left the founders of the Lamp Post Group underwhelmed.

More from Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOM.

Transformation of (or by) comic culture

Prince Robotiv

Mainstream superheroes with decades of history (Superman, Batman, SpiderMan, the various Avengers) are flying off comic book pages onto the big screen, in an increasing number of blockbuster comic-films enabled by advances in CGI. Interesting to consider how the concept of the superhero has seeped more deeply into our culture as a result of this and other manifestations of comic book culture – to the extent that we probably wouldn’t be surprised to see all manner of people wearing capes, bending steel, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. The line between fantasy and reality is blurry as hell these days.

As comic culture evolves, so does the entrepreneurial culture of superhero development. The New York Times has a piece about the a creative renaissance at Image Comics, a smaller comic publisher with 5% of market share vs Marvel’s 37%. Image is getting a lot of buzz, though, and has one major success, “The Walking Dead,” basis for AMC’s zombie series (no superheroes there, only frail humans vs ravenous zombies).

Also noting how big a deal Comic-Con’s become, no longer a comic book convention but an increasingly important convergence event. A swirl of comic geek and sci-fi geek subcultures mediated by new technologies is emerging. I’m not quite sure how to reconcile this accelerating fantasy culture with the very real dysfunctions and failures of puny humans – will a commitment to a culture of comic book heroes save us by inspiring a real sense of superhumanity? Or distract us from our state of collapse until it’s too late to go home?

“…the heroic myth helps counter feelings of powerlessness within the family structure. Which is why little boys can’t get enough of superheroes. It lets them imagine themselves as instruments of their own will — instead of subjugated weaklings, in tiny bodies, who lack all agency.” ~ “Meeting Our Cultural Overlords at Comic-Con”

Howard Rheingold on the state of the WELL

Howard Rheingold’s written a good short piece for the Atlantic explaining why the WELL is historically important, and how the WELL exemplified online community (and was probably the first). He also mentions the WELL’s importance in influencing the evolution of the World wide Web of today, something I suggested in an earlier post.

Here’s Howard talking about the WELL, also featuring John “Tex” Coate:

The WELL has been an important driver for evolving Internet culture

At bOING bOING, Cory Doctorow explains what’s happening with the WELL. I commented there, reposted here:

My view is that you can’t overstate the significance of the WELL and its parent, Point Foundation/Whole Earth. Early bloggers (like those at boing boing and yours truly) were influenced by the structure of reviews in the Whole Earth publications, and adopted a similar style. For many of us, our WELL accounts were our pathway onto the Internet. Much of the culture of the Internet post 1990, especially the concept and execution of virtual community and the way it evolved into contemporary social media, was inspired and driven by experiences on the WELL. In my own case, I built an Internet career starting with my volunteer work at the WELL, and made many of my connections there. I became an editor for boing boing and Factsheet Five through connections on the WELL, a writer for publications like Mondo 2000, cofounder of FringeWare publisher of FringeWare Review, all via connections and experiences on the WELL. I became an active member and supporter of EFF and cofounder of EFF-Austin because of the WELL. I’ve had a number of major author interviews on in the Inkwell conference on the WELL, as well as the annual state of the world conversation Bruce Sterling and I have had every January for 13 years – we doubtless wouldn’t have done that without the WELL. I first heard the word “weblog” when Bruce applied it to his posts in the Mirrorshades conference that we cohosted on the WELL. I also recall, when Katie Hafner was working on her book about the WELL and interviewed me at her office, which was then in Austin, that I saw a diagram on her wall that she’d been working on, that showed how communal movements in the 60s fed into the WELL, and the WELL fed into the evolution of community and social aggregation on the Internet. From my perspective, the WELL’s influence has been huge.

Are computers intelligent?

Bruce Sterling with Alan Turing bot at the Turing Centenary Symposium

At Reality Augmented Blog, I recently posted a Storify of my live tweets from Bruce Sterling’s talk at the Turing Centenary Symposium at the University of Texas. Bruce talked about Turing’s investigation into “whether or not it is possible for machinery to show intelligent behaviour” and the Turing test, which is supposed to determine how well a computer at least seems to be intelligent by human standards. To consider this question, you might think you’d have to define thinking (cognition, consciousness, etc.), but instead of taking on that difficult task, Turing changes the question from “Do machines think?” to “Can machines do what we (as thinking entities) can do?” That’s really a different question, less metaphysical and more about comparing manifestations of thinking than comparing processes of thinking.

Bruce noted in his talk an aspect of the Turing test that doesn’t get much attention: it was originally about gender. In his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Turing described the game as “played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman.” He goes on to say

We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

So as Bruce notes, the actual Turing test is for a machine with a woman’s sensibility. The gist of his talk reminded me of conversations I’ve had with transgendered Sandy Stone, who spent years studying identity hacking online and off. I brought up the question of a man deciding to appear online as a woman, and how real that transformation can be. If you’re a man and decide to be a woman (or vice versa), you can’t quite make the authentic switch, because gender entails years of cultural and behavioral conditioning. If you’ve been contextualized as a male, you don’t become female by changing your name, your voice, your dress, even your body.

In the context of the conversations with Sandy, the subtext always seemed to be about liberation from the trappings of gender – you don’t have to be “a man” or “a woman,” you can just be you. But this has relevance, not just in terms of gender switching, but with any attempt at transformation. And it has implications for the discussion of machine intelligence. Machines can’t “become human” or be like humans, because they have no experience as humans, and you can’t program the embodied human experience.

In the context of the conversations with Sandy, the subtext always seemed to be about liberation from the trappings of gender – you don’t have to be “a man” or “a woman,” you can just be you. But this has relevance, not just in terms of gender switching, but with any attempt at transformation. And it has implications for the discussion of machine intelligence. Machines can’t “become human” or be like humans, because they have no experience as humans, and you can’t program the embodied human experience. You also can’t program “consciousness” – puny humans aren’t even clear what consciousness is, and we know that things like “consciousness” and “awareness” and “thinking” can be quite subjective and hard to quantify. So when we talk about “artificial intelligence” or “machine intelligence,” that word “intelligence” can be misleading. It’s not about making a machine like a human, it’s about seeing how well a machine can simulate the human. The Turing test is really about how clever we are at programming a bot that does heuristics well and can “learn” to hold its own in a human conversation. It’s interesting to bring gender into it – to simulate the human, a bot would be one or the other.

Scene from Metropolis: Rotwang and his robot in female form Rotwang and his lost-love simulation[/caption]Bruce: “Why not ask ‘can a computational system be a woman?'” This made me think of Rotwang’s remaking of Hel in Metropolis, and how she’s repurposed as a simulation of Maria… a robot designed to simulate the female form. Is she a mechano-electronic woman? Or just a bag o’ bytes? More compelling, I think, is the concept of the cyborg, originally described as a biological entity that’s manufactured and has some machine components. More recently, we’ve come to think of cyborgs as “ordinary” humans augmented by digital or other technology – e.g. anyone with a smart phone or a computer could be considered a cyborg. My colleague Amber Case writes about “cyborg anthropology,” acknowledging that synergies within human-machine interaction are transformative, and require new methods and fields in the study of humanity. I think cyborgization is more interesting and more real than the Kurzweil sense of “artificial intelligence” (machines “smarter” than humans that become self-aware – Hal 9000 is a mythical beast; computers may be capable of processes that seem intelligent, but back to Bruce’s point, computers are not anything like humans.)

Turing himself said “the idea behind digital computers may be explained by saying that these machines are intended to carry out any operations which could be done by a human computer.” On the other hand, Gurdjieff said “man such as we know him, is a machine.” A very complicated machine, he noted elsewhere.

My point in all this is that humans are not machines and machines won’t become human. We’re confused on that point, likely because of a larger metaphysical confusion, a confusion about who and what we are, our place in the universe, and the nature of the various human analogs, similar but different processes, that we see in the egosystem. (That’s not a misspelling…)

Bruce Sterling: “I fear posterity will condemn us for being too clever, for failing to speak about the obvious in an immediate lucid way. We need a new aesthetic with a strong metaphysics. How we get there, I don’t know.”

“Shame” and transformation

Michael Fassbender

Just saw the grim but enlightening film “Shame,” wherein Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a bland, disarmingly handsome thirtysomething obsessed with pornography and vicarious sex. The film lit up a few insights inspired by Buddhist and 4th Way practices; I saw Brandon’s sex addiction as an extreme form of attachment in the Buddhist sense, or what 4th Way practitioners might call identification…sex addiction in the 21st century, well fed by prolific sources of pornographic media, being an extreme form. Brandon’s stuck inside his obsession, attached to completely subjective and interior experience. The sex act, for him, is always a form of masturbation, even when he’s with someone else. He’s managed to hide it and remain “shameless”; the film shows a transformation as his obsession is revealed to and challenged by external forces. Most powerful of these is the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who invades the privacy that is fundamental to the persistence of his cycle of craving and release. She challenges him to connect with a reality outside his own. She’s damaged, and she desparately needs him as a constant in her life. She needs his compassion to feel complete, but compassion is foreign to him. He explicitly denies any responsibility for her.

He has no sense of humor.

Drawn to a relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) that could be more intimate, not just masturbatory, he can’t take this potentially more authentic connection to any meaningful level – he snorts a line of coke and attempts sex, but for once, he can’t get it up. He rejects her and she leaves, but he quickly finds another girl and finds that he can “perform” in a context where there is no emotional connection or demand.

He makes this connection with Marianne after Sissy walks in while he’s masturbating, and triggering what might be his first instance of shame and a dawning sense of awareness. He plows through his flat digging out all his pornography and sex paraphernalia, and trashing it. Interesting that this is followed by a failed attempt to be real. This is followed by more rejection, self-destructive behavior, a desperate cry for help from Sissy, more wanton sex, and Sissy’s attempted suicide. As I said earlier, this is grim stuff.

Sissy’s suicide attempt shocks him in to reality – as John Shirley writes, in a piece about the Gurdjieff work, “it is only shocks that can lead a man out of the state in which he lives, that is, waken him.”

At the beginning of the film, there was a scene where he sees a beautiful girl on the subway, flirts with her, attempting seduction. We see that she’s wearing an wedding ring and an engagement ring. She flirts back, but quickly disappears, he’s unable to find her. At the end of the film, the last scene, he sees the same girl. Her makeup is less soft, and she’s not wearing her wedding ring. She flirts with him more overtly, but he doesn’t respond. The film ends here, and it seemed clear to me that we were seeing a person transformed, that he was choosing not to pursue his former obsession. Maybe we’ve seen at least a partial awakening?

SpaceX: a new era, a few years late?

SpaceX Dragon Launch

The launch of the SpaceX Dragon is a major step toward the privatization of space travel, which according to Messrs. Clarke and Kubrick should’ve been handled by 2001:

Too bad PanAm isn’t around for this. I wonder if this is really the beginning of a new era? Can we afford space travel in the 21st century? I’m part of the science-fiction generation, raised on an assumption that interplanetary travel would be a fact of everyday life by now. Turns out it’s been slow going for puny humans.

Mark Dery dances the apocalypso

Mark Dery

I’m leading a two-week asynchronous discussion with erudite author and culture critic Mark Dery, whose provocative essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts has been turning my head on its axle. At the moment, we’re discussing apocalypse:

I *do* think we live in times of chaos and complexity, when society is “far from equilibrium,” as
scientists who study dynamical systems like to say. Steven Pinker’s claim, in _The Better Angels of Our Nature_, that violence is on the decline notwithstanding, most peoples’ experience of the wider world—which is to say, as a funhouse-mirror reflection in the media—seems to be as a growingly out-of-control place. Ideological extremism and lockstep partisanship are monkeywrenching the American political system—an article by Ezra Klein in the March 19 _New Yorker_ notes that ideological “rigidity has made American democracy much more difficult to manage”; the culture wars are reaching a boiling point, ginned up by backroom dealmakers like the Koch brothers, whose real agenda is simply to create the most deregulated, tax-free landscape in which to Do the Lord’s Work; and Angry White Guys are stockpiling guns and training their crosshairs on scapegoats, post-traumatically stressed by a black man in the Oval Office, the demographic rise of the nonwhite population, the sea change in households where women earn more than men, and the econopocalypse.

But if you’re shopping for apocalypses, the rough beast right around the bend is Envirogeddon. Come of the middle of the 21st century, we—at least, those of us who can’t afford a climate-controlled biosphere lush with hydroponic greenery and an artesian well guarded by a private army—are going to be living in one of Ballard’s disaster novels. Global Weirding, as climate scientists call it, is *the* pressing issue of the near future, and I have every confidence my friends on the right will bury their heads in the sand, on that issue, until the sand superheats and turns to glass.

If you’re not a member of the WELL but want to submit a comment or question, just scroll to the bottom of the page and look for: Nonmember: Submit a comment or question. That links to a form that, when submitted, will send your comment or question to someone at the WELL who can add it to this discussion.


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.