the computer as a metamedium

“The computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided” – Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, Personal Dynamic Media

The Gif Connoisseur #206

This statement does beg the question, should it be used for everything? I do not intend to argue for or against particular applications of the computer, but instead would like to present some related questions which are currently being explored and tested.

How important is the act of forgetting?

The computer is an instrument of augmentation which facilitates remembering. Nothing really every disappears from the internet. Our lives are increasingly are being streamed, tagged, and documented on the web. You have access to your twitter archives, Facebook data, Google history, and can see when and what you were doing at any particular moment. The Library of Congress is archiving twitter. There are apps to help you remember your appointments, Facebook tells you when your friend has a birthday (I think it is hilarious when people have their birthdays changed on Facebook and all the randos wish them happy birthday).

Is a skeuomorph appropriate?

Steve Jobs is famous for his love of the skeuomorph. He was fond of faux-leather textures and insisted on the inclusion of a reel-to-reel tape deck in the podcast app. These textures, however, live behind a screen, can often become an uncanny approximation of the analog version, and can be prohibitive in the design thinking process. Alternatively, use of a skeuomorph can act as a familiar element enabling a potential emotional connection to a neutral content delivery platform.

Are there tools and processes that should not be imitated?

Polaroid cameras, record players, musical instruments, handwritten font, are all tools and processes that can be mimicked in the computer but are distinctly different. They all have the an element of wabi-sabi (my favorite Japanese word) that is becoming very relevant in our metamodern world (a topic for another post). Is there anything wrong with a DJ laying a distortion track over a song to make it sound like it was recorded from a record player? I don’t know. If it sounds the same does it matter?

What is the value of imperfection?

Platforms such as Second Life allow the creation of avatars. The web is (in)famous for its facilitation of anonymity. This allows an individual to craft a perfect version of themselves to present to the world if they so choose. There is not a requirement to present your entire self online with all of your guilty pleasures and quirks. There could be something lost in this perfection of image in our image based culture. Many of the photos we see have been photoshopped.

I think these questions will (and are already) be debated as our culture evolves with its new favorite tool, the internet.

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For Administrative Purposes

Let me begin with a visual metaphor.

dead horse

What is this all about, you ask? It is about freedom, bureaucracy, education, progress (or lack thereof), copyright, intellectual property, patents, creativity, and the future. It is about the structure of our society for administrative purposes.

It is in human nature to order things, to systematize and structure the world around us, but have we gone too far? At what cost do we create systems which are optimized for use of the administrator rather than the user?

With the advent of the internet and computers I believe that administrators the world over have crawled inside their Luddite caves and refuse to come out. Whether this is due to fear or ignorance I cannot be sure; however, I can be sure that is to the detriment of all society that they are incapable of change. Perhaps they simply refuse to adapt to a world where the user is supreme; where the administrator in fact no longer even exists.

The potential is there for a complete reworking of the order of the largest and most administratively restrictive institutions in the world (education, finance, healthcare, and government). We have the technology! but we must be willing to operate into a world that is not measured in the same way it has been. There will be no more standardized testing, no more failed patent system, no more, well, a lot of things, but this is good! People must be allowed to explore, create, and innovate in modes completely inconceivable to the people that run the show now. I must admit that they are only partially to blame. They come from a long lineage of administrators and they achieved success within the system created by their predecessors. They have taken the example of their own success and generalized it, turning it into a checklist for those who also hope to achieve success.

Politicians apologize for the “political nature” of a situation as if that is somehow an excuse for the negation truth, honesty, and decency in their sworn mission to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense,  promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. In our political system, the administrative function of government now supersedes the will of the people. It negates the user in favor of the administrator.

Education, same thing. Standardized testing functions not to evaluate the student (see: user) but the performance of the school (see: administrator) in order to determine how to allocate funding! This is absolute insanity!

Healthcare is a mess of red tape and regulation as is the financial industry. I am not advocating for a laissez-faire economic policy or a particular flavor of healthcare reform, but something more radical all together. A complete re-imagination from the ground up of these establishments that is focused on, and inextricably tied to the user and their success.

The user is not necessarily even one person but a collective of citizens where individual identity is retained while collective good is managed effectively.

I know this is radical, some might even say insane, but it is coming and it has to happen. We need to stop beating the dead horse and simply get on with it. There is a lot of work to be done. We might as well start now.

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Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines and the origination of the word deschooling emerged within a year or two of one another. This, I find quite interesting. Nelson clearly promotes the concept of elimination of formal schooling in favor of education by “The Machines” (lulz). Though this sounds frightening and antithetical to our humanist approach to education, it is actually beginning to be used now with very successful outcomes.

Consider Kahn Acadademy; it is probably one of the most well established online education distribution points. There are lessons and lectures on a wide variety of topics ranging from the humanities to computer science. Its success has prompted institutions such as Stanford to begin posting free online courses which can be taken for credit(!). These programs are invaluable to students in the era of expensive education. Now now you say, we cannot simply get rid of classes and expect everybody to just start learning through the internet (which is unquestionably true). But there are some very interesting alternatives as well.

School of One (which I heard about in a Freakonomics podcast) is essentially an individualized learning program being tested by the New York City Department of Education. It operates sort of like Pandora which is a personalized online radio that crafts stations based on your likes and dislikes except it helps you learn more effectively. The program drastically shifts the dynamic of the entire education experience. In class time is devoted to working out problems on a computer. There are teachers present to assist the students as they go through their work, this is where the individualization comes in and it gets really interesting. The algorithms behind the software of School of One customize the way in which information is delivered based on performance.

Say a student is trying to learn algebra. There are multiple ways in which the concept could be taught. In a traditional classroom the teacher is only able to teach one way to the class but this way may not work for all of the students and the class is held up by the lowest common denominator (or that person is simply left behind to enter the death spiral of a flawed education system). In school of one the students are allowed to advance at their own pace and in ways best suited to their learning style. This means that they are constantly being challenged (thus not bored) and being taught in a way that makes sense (thus not frustrated and inclined to give up).

This explanation does not do the system full justice, so I would recommend listening to the podcast if you have time, but it does highlight the very real potential that the computer has to augment our learning in a very positive way (just as Nelson suggested, though he was perhaps too sensationalist and vague in his assertions).

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How many of you know what this symbol means?

Probably everyone. It looks like it has all the features of an average human, therefore I can probably conclude that is what it is representing. What about this one?

This one is less clear, but it is visually composed to indicate its meaning without context. It can be inferred that it indicates something happening to the right. How about this one?

This one is where symbols become richer. It looks sort of like an apple. If you see a lot of apples and then this symbol you could probably make the jump between the two. This symbol could be used to communicate the concept of an apple to another person, as long as they are familiar with real apples as well. Then you could combine some symbols like this:

Now these symbols are grouped and the potential is there to infer that you can eat apples somewhere. “But wait,” you say,  “That is no ordinary apple. That apple means something else. That is a logo that represents apple computers.” This is an entirely new cultural meaning laid over top of the mere representational meaning which is a very interesting function. Now we have symbols that can only be understood within the context of a larger cultural framework.

In the same way our alphanumeric  language is a collection of symbols that can only be understood within a larger cultural framework. Thus it follows that if there are no other people then you have no need for language or development of symbols. However, we do live in close proximity to each other and have built a very rich symbolic system to communicate with one another. This symbolic system not only includes words and other symbols which depict and describe tangible things but also words and symbols that describe intangible things such as emotions (: and ideas.

We can communicate through the use of symbols because we assume that individuals have developed shared symbol sets to represent abstract and fuzzy concepts. Notice, the man above looks like no human I have ever seen, but the idea is conveyed.

Now the system gets even more interesting. It is not static. Symbols acquire new meanings all the time and new technology creates a demand for new symbolic language. The invention of the computer required entirely new languages to be written in order to communicate with the technology. Social media has also prompted the invention of many new (or more widely used) symbols such as the # and @ symbols along with a wide array of emoticons. However, as Brooke pointed out in What About Those Words there are certain feelings, such as the desire to check a text message that you know is waiting to be read, or the feeling of happy-sad, that have not been assigned conceptual identifiers yet (at least that I am aware of).

This is the beautiful potential of symbols. The ability to communicate ideas and concepts has allowed humans to evolve into the most culturally vibrant species on the planet and our evolution is not over. Now we are developing new means of communication (twitter, vine, and gifs, just to name a few) and we will continue to develop new symbols of all varieties in order to share our ideas, experiences, concepts, feelings, art, songs, life, with each other.

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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

How do we form concepts? Where do babies come from? What is the meaning of life?

These are the questions that keep me up at night. Fortunately I know the answer to at least two of them. How we form concepts, however, is seemingly an different entirely story. Even the concept of something basic like the color blue is very complicated. Okay, so the sky is blue. That seems obvious, but what if you had no word for blue? Radiolab has a podcast on how the ancients had no word for the color blue. They had words for ocean and sky, but not blue. So then the concept of blue has changed or been invented in the last 2000 or so years. This really brings me no closer to understanding how I understand (recursion) how I form concepts.

The formation of concepts is further complicated by the fact that concepts operate like wikipedia, linking from one to another, sometimes in a concept loop, a recursive sequence. They become self referential through a series of concept connections (I am starting to confuse myself).

An experiment could be to introduce or try to create an entirely new concept that does not originate from other concepts. Is this even possible? If it is not possible does this suggest that we are born with inherent concepts? If we are born with inherent concepts what are they? Could love be an inherent concept? Perhaps not the cheetos kind of love, but a basic desire (need?) to care for members of our species due to the proliferation of progeny and then subsequent care and nurturing of those progeny.

Man this is some deep stuff. I was a fan of the gifs Brooke posted so here is one to completely distract away from my post.


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augmenting human intellect


Engelbart really got the ball rolling with his idea of a computer as an aid to the intellect. A memory machine that can link ideas and create a conceptual framework you can refer to at a moment’s notice. It can also share that information with someone else who can add to and edit the framework if so desired. Thus the web was born (though this simplifies greatly).

Jump forward a few years and Google is working on a wearable form of technology that can give you a heads up display for the entire world. Recent news of Google’s Project Glass has got me all hot and bothered about the future of augmented intellect.  For example, you could see the relationship status of all the people in your bar to know who is fair game and who is taken. Restaurant ratings could show up floating in storefronts as you stroll down the street. It could also be used to stream your life onto the web so you could share the experience of climbing Everest in real time with those less able. This sort of technology has the potential to really augment more than just our intellect, but our very perception of the world itself.

Another man pioneering perception augmentation is Neil Harbisson. He was born colorblind but has augmented his perception with the use of a visual sensor that converts light waves to sound. He can hear colors. This obviously has a benefit for people who are colorblind and would like to experience the world the way a majority of humans can but the benefits extend other people. Imagine you could see the infrared or ultraviolet light picked up by such a sensor. How would that affect your life? 

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rapid reconstruction

In Augmenting Human Intellect, Douglas Engelbart discusses the advantages of a “computer-based augmentation system” in the context of the structure of an argument. His claim is that the system allows for more complex conceptual constructions which are non-linear, but still interconnected; “a conceptual network but not a conceptual chain” to which ole’ fashion paper and pencil are not well suited.

It suggests the possibility of open editing and rapid reconstruction of ideas within the environment of a computer framework. What I found doubly fascinating is his opening description of a computer program that an architect might someday use which allows for the manipulation of lines and 3D “objects” within the environment of a GUI and a computer screen. I use those tools that he envisioned almost every day and in a very similar way to his anticipated use.

I am very interested in his position on the positive use of the computer as a tool for assisted thinking. The architecture school at Virginia Tech is struggling with this very issue right now.

My professors fully understand that the digital age is upon them, but they grew up doing architecture in a very different, very analog way. I think it is difficult for them to shift their perspective to Englebart’s position (which I believe is proving itself to be valid). The computer as a tool for rapid construction and manipulation of architectural drawings and 3D models is something relatively foreign to they way they conceive of and practiced architecture. Perhaps this is a naive assumption on my behalf, but I get the sense that they are overwhelmed by the potential of the technology which provides everyone with the potential to create anything they dream up and are unclear on how to guide their students into this new, digital age. It may force them to entirely reconsider how one constructs an architectural concept.

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re: as we may think (a few observations)

How do we now use technology, not as a tool of war, but as a tool of pleasure and discovery?

 Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately.

Your wish is an engineer’s command Mr. Bush!

 It is strange that the inventors of universal languages have not seized upon the idea of producing one which better fitted the technique for transmitting and recording speech.

lol {case in point}

At the end of the month a machine can readily be made to read these and to print an ordinary bill.

Phenomenal foresight of the credit card! Throughout the article I have been shocked, over and over by the relative accuracy of predictions made of the technology (if not in actual execution, at least in theory). This may be a result of some curriculum selection and self fulfilling prophecy. This article is from 1945 and some of the technology (accurate voice transcription for example) is just recently entering the commercial market in a big way.

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. 

Ah, thus I discover the namesake of this course.

Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things. When one is in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex film, dry photography being employed.

There is something very poetic about this description of my phone…an analog imagining of a very digital device. It is steampunk in retrospect. The memex I carry in my pocket with me everywhere does everything described here. At the risk of sounding foolish by stating the obvious; we are living in the future. Describing to myself what my memex does is equal parts sci-fy and mundane. It is simply something I live with without questioning. Do I need to find a picture, oh, look it is in my pocket, phone number, I can look it up, directions, recipes, birthdays, facts, the list goes on.

Although they were merely predictions at the time, they are now becoming reality. We have gone from typist to twitter in a relatively short amount of time.

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