When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2010

Things are getting real weird real fast. Did you hear about the Germans who insisted on the right to “opt out” of Google Street View and have their houses pixelated? Well, now they’re being targetted by pro-Google activism that consists of drive-by egg-raids and labels stuck to letterboxes proclaiming that “Google’s cool” [via TechDirt].

Double-U. Tee. Eff?

For the record, I think the folk opting out of Street View are misguided, and the egg-raiders are idiots; no advocacy in this post, I assure you. But think a moment on the high weirdness of this situation, about the mad wild flux of global culture that has made it possible. Just a decade ago, this would have been a gonzo near-future sf plot that any sane editor would have bounced for being charmingly implausible…

I’m sure this is the part where I’m supposed to wonder “how did we get here from there?”, but that’s the weirdest thing of all – I know exactly how we got here from there, because I’ve made a point of watching it unfold like a card-sharp’s prestidigitation, but I still can’t quite tell how the trick was done: it’s hopeful and baffling and wonderful and insane and terrifying all at once.

And things are likely to get weirder as the times get tougherI’m starting to think Brenda may have a point; the Singularity’s already started, it just doesn’t look anything like the shiny transcendent technotopia we thought it would be. Which shouldn’t be surprising, really… but it still is.

[ * And a posthumous hat-tip to the late Doctor Gonzo for the headline, who I resolutely believe would be taking a similar horrified joy – or perhaps a joyous horror, if there’s a difference – in the headlines of the moment. We’ve bought the ticket; now we’re taking the ride. ]


Bruce Sterling on the shallow erudition of Google

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

I’d be remiss in my relentless Bruce Sterling fanboyism if I didn’t link to this interview with the man himself at 40kbooks (which looks to be a digital-only publisher focussing on essays  about digital culture and short-form fiction from notable authors; the Chairman’s recent Interzone-published story “Black Swan” is available from them, for instance).

And I’d also be remiss in my blognautic self-aggrandisement if I didn’t point out that interviewer Rhys Hughes riffs off of an answer Sterling gave in my interview with him back in 2009

Rhys: I believe that you were once asked to state the major difference between the methods of research you employ as a writer now and the methods you employed when you began your writing career. You responded with the single word, “Google.” This might seem a perverse question, but do you think there are any perils for a new writer in the fact that research has now become so much easier?

Bruce: That’s not a perverse question.  It’s obvious.  It’s a simple matter to examine almost any contemporary text and see that Google was used to compose it. Contemporary writing is loaded with strange little details of erudition that used to be expensive and difficult to research. For instance, let’s consider an obscure, dusty figure like, say, Massimo d’Azeglio.  Or rather, Massimo Taparelli, Marquis d’Azeglio (October 24, 1798 – January 15, 1866), the author of the Italian historical novels, “Niccolò dei Lapi” and “Ettore Fieramosca.”  No American should properly know anything about this man. It took me 57 seconds to research that on Google, and that included cutting and pasting the text here.

The peril comes in thinking, as a modern writer, that you can truly understand something about Massimo Taparelli in just 57 seconds. No, you can’t. To access facts is not to understand them. The Marquis d’Azeglio was an intelligent, creative and cultivated 19th century aristocrat. He was deep and broad and subtle and human, and very alien to us moderns. Modern writers may fail to understand him in this sudden electronic blizzard of  bland facts about him.  We may  know less of him because we seem to know  more of him.

Lots more good stuff in Hughes’ interview, so go read.


No plans for a GoogleImplant, says Eric Schmidt

Paul Raven @ 04-10-2010

Eric Schmidt is becoming one of those guaranteed link-bait interviewees for big media venues; unlike a lot of corporate bigwigs, Google’s CEO isn’t afraid to speak his mind. This interview at The Atlantic [via SlashDot, FuturePundit and others] is packed full of pluckable gems, though nothing quite so controversial as his recent musings on unGooglable childhoods.

First up, your “no shit, Sherlock” quote of the day:

“The average American doesn’t realize how much of the laws are written by lobbyists” to protect incumbent interests, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Atlantic editor James Bennet at the Washington Ideas Forum. “It’s shocking how the system actually works.”

Naturally, Schmidt and company see that flaw as a business opportunity:

“Washington is an incumbent protection machine,” Schmidt said. “Technology is fundamentally disruptive.” Mobile phones and personal technology, for example, could be used to record the bills that members of Congress actually read and then determine what stimulus funds were successfully spent.

Later in the same interview,  there’s something of a minor disappointment for bleeding-edge early-adopter Google enthusiasts: there are no plans on the table for a hardwired Google brain implant.

When Bennet asked about the possibility of a Google “implant,” Schmidt invoked what the company calls the “creepy line.”

“Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line.

The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson, doubtless with a keen eye for irony, follows that revelation with this panopticon-esque nugget:

… Schmidt envisions a future where we embrace a larger role for machines and technology. “With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches,” he said. “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

I’m not sure you see the “creepy line” as being in quite the same place as many of the general public, Mister Schmidt. 🙂

(PS – I’d totally beta test that implant idea for you.)


William Gibson: Google isn’t a panopticon

Paul Raven @ 01-09-2010

The New York Times turns the mic over to William Gibson, who ponders Google’s place in the world (or, perhaps more appropriately, our place in Google’s world):

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world. This is the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before. But empires and nation-states weren’t organs of global human perception. They had their many eyes, certainly, but they didn’t constitute a single multiplex eye for the entire human species.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design is a perennial metaphor in discussions of digital surveillance and data mining, but it doesn’t really suit an entity like Google. Bentham’s all-seeing eye looks down from a central viewpoint, the gaze of a Victorian warder. In Google, we are at once the surveilled and the individual retinal cells of the surveillant, however many millions of us, constantly if unconsciously participatory. We are part of a post-geographical, post-national super-state, one that handily says no to China. Or yes, depending on profit considerations and strategy. But we do not participate in Google on that level. We’re citizens, but without rights.

Note to self – I’m still enough of a vain little fanboy that I’m hugely gratified when my heroes think  similar things to myself, in this case regarding Eric Schmidt’s unGooglable childhood idea:

… I don’t find this a very realistic idea, however much the prospect of millions of people living out their lives in individual witness protection programs, prisoners of their own youthful folly, appeals to my novelistic Kafka glands. Nor do I take much comfort in the thought that Google itself would have to be trusted never to link one’s sober adulthood to one’s wild youth, which surely the search engine, wielding as yet unimagined tools of transparency, eventually could and would do.

I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

The genie won’t go back into the bottle, folks.


Cleaning up for Street View

Paul Raven @ 15-03-2010

Google Street View camera arrayThe city of Windsor in Ontario, Canada has apparently requested Google reshoot some of its Street View footage in order to remove a murder scene (complete with Do Not Cross police tape barriers and bloody bandages) from the public record, prompting Mike Masnick of TechDirt to wonder

[… whether] towns and cities are going to start to “prepare” for Google Street View cars coming through and make sure that everyone is on their best behavior

Seems pretty likely, doesn’t it? [image by sfmine79]

The threat of being seen without one’s “make-up” on has always been around. For instance, I can still remember the way every school I ever attended spent a week gussying the place up and drilling the students in advance of the government inspectors, which was probably one of my earliest cognitive dissonance awakenings – what was the point of inspections if they only occurred after a metaphorical wash’n’brush-up? Why not just, y’know, improve things generally rather than making a last-minute effort once a year*?

This feeds into the idealistic notion that ubiquitous transparency is a good thing, I suppose: if every city (or school, or whatever) knew it could be inspected (or Street View’d) at any time without warning, then perhaps they’d be more likely to fix problems at the root cause instead of sweeping the problems under the rug before the visitors arrive.

Of course, that’s a massive oversimplification of a very complex issue, but the Windsor story is a harbinger of institutional panics yet to come; much as technology could enable nation-states to turn themselves into panopticons, the spotlight can also be pointed in the other direction. The next few decades will be all about the struggle between individuals and corporate or geo-political entities to filter and control their realities as presented to the rest of the world… which is why I’m fairly convinced that augmented reality will be the multi-planar battlefield of manifold and fractal ideological struggles between citizens, states and corporations.

[ * The answer is very obvious now, of course, with the benefit of experience (and the cynicism toward institutions and bureaucracy that it engenders), but for a naive and nerdy seven year old, it was a baffling condundrum. Pity my poor parents attempting to explain these moral grey areas and fundamental societal flaws to a child with no better an instinctive or empathetic grasp of human nature than the Borg… ]


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