Careless whispers

Paul Raven @ 20-01-2011

This just in: Chinese whispers happen on real-time social communications platforms just as they do in real life, only faster!

Here in the UK yesterday there was a brief Twitter panic about a non-existant shooting in London’s Oxford Circus, highlighting the problems inherent to the 24-hour global peer-to-peer news cycle: namely that when an erroneous signal gets out onto the network, it’ll probably propagate more quickly than the less senational truth of the matter. Cue lots of “bad Twitter!” punditry, which largely misses the point: this phenomenon isn’t new, it’s just a faster version of the good ol’ scuttlebutt. Some sensible thinking from GigaOM:

Traditional media have struggled with the issue as well, with newspapers often running corrections days or weeks after a mistake was made, with no real indication of what the actual error was. In a sense, Twitter is like a real-time, distributed version of a news-wire service such as Reuters or Associated Press; when those services post something that is wrong, they simply send out an update to their customers, and hope that no one has published it in the paper or online yet.

Twitter’s great strength is that it allows anyone to publish, and re-publish, information instantly, and distribute that information to thousands of people within minutes. But when a mistake gets distributed, there’s no single source that can send out a correction. That’s the double-edged sword such a network represents. Perhaps — since we all make up this real-time news network — it’s incumbent on all of us to do the correcting, even if it’s just by re-tweeting corrections and updates as eagerly as we re-tweeted the original.

Taking responsibility for our own contributions to the global conversation? What a controversial suggestion! Of course, the problem is that “nothing much happening in Oxford Circus after all” just isn’t as interesting a conversational nugget, and therefore doesn’t get passed on as quickly or frequently. (Compare and contrast with the old aphorism that good news doesn’t sell newspapers.)

Related to this is the rush-to-explain (and rush-to-blame) that follows a story, real or otherwise: see, for example, the instant dogpile of people pinning the blame for the Tucson tragedy on Sarah Palin*. Again, it’s an age-old process that’s been scaled up to global size and accelerated to the speed of electrons through wires, and I suspect that we’ll adjust to it eventually: like a teenager adjusting to his or her lengthening limbs, we’re bound to knock a few things over as we grow.

[ * In the name of pre-emptively deflecting my own dogpile, I think that the political rhetoric from all sides in the US has demonstrably contributed to escalating tensions, and I find Sarah Palin an utterly repugnant exploiter of ignorance, be it her own or other people’s. However, the rush to find her prints on the metaphorical pistolgrip was not only counterproductive (that sort of political fire thrives on the oxygen of martyrdom), but was also precisely the same sort of demonisation of ideological figureheads that the left accuses the right of relying on. The further apart ideologically the two polar positions appear to be, the more alike in character they seem to become… and while it might be possible to pin that problem on The New Media™, I don’t think it’ll stick. More depressing still were the countless articles decrying Palin’s “it’s all about me!” attitude to the tragedy, coming as they did in the wake of half the damned internet telling Palin it was all about her. C’mon, folks, work it out. ]


Digital effects: death and the internet

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2011

Lots of people have been linking this New York Times piece about the things we leave behind when we die, which increasingly include a swathe of online material archived on blogs, social media and the other ill-defined platforms of the intertubes. Poignantly, the article uses the late Mac Tonnies – who, among many other things, was a columnist for this very blog – as its main example, documenting the work of his friends to collate and archive his online presence after his untimely and unexpected death back in October 2009.

Even before my father passed away I had an uneasy relationship with the traditional methods of mourning, which tend to focus on elevating the geographical location of the physical remains to the status of an emotionally sacred space. To be clear, I feel there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just never made much sense to me. I’ve not visited my father’s grave since the day of his funeral. I won’t find him there.

To be honest, I find I’m brought closer to him by some of the more mundane possessions of his I kept, some for sentiment, some for practicality. The thing that reminds me of him most is probably the aging 60s-vintage handbook of engineering constants and equations that sits among my non-fiction books, though there’s another sense of closeness I get when I use one of his old tools, worn by his hands over many years – tools I can remember watching him use.

All of which is to say that I feel closer to my father by considering the things he did and thought about than I do by, say, looking at a headstone with his name on it. The NYT piece is interesting to me because it seems to show a similar connection among Mac’s friends and family with the digital detritus he left behind, like a map of his mind captured – albeit imperfectly – in four dimensions. By returning to his writings, or even just the juxtaposed sets of photos he’d post from time to time, they can partake once again in the sort of person he really was, as opposed to the idealised gloss of a professional eulogy.

It’s not something I’m proud of, but I actively wanted to punch the priest who buried my father in the face; he chuntered out a list of mealy-mouthed one-size-fits-all platitudes that did nothing except demonstrate he’d never met the guy. I realise in hindsight that the old cliche is true, and that funerals are for the benefit of the living and not the deceased, but there was no comfort for me in hearing my father reduced to a series of vaguely pious middle class attitudes and interests. Like all of us, he was a flawed man, but what made him who he was were his efforts to balance those flaws with the demands of the world around him. To pass over that struggle, to replace it with a checklist of cheap virtues, felt like an attempt to erase the man who left the name behind him; it was more of a death than his dying, or so it felt to me.

Compare and contrast with the memorialisation of Mac, which seems to me to be something far more authentic and true to the person he really was:

This outpouring of digital grief, memorial-making, documentation and self-expression is unusual, maybe unique, for now, because of the kind of person Tonnies was and the kinds of friends he made online. But maybe, his friend Rita King suggests, his story is also a kind of early signal of one way that digital afterlives might play out. And she doesn’t just mean this in an abstract, scholarly way. “I find solace,” she told me, “in going to Mac’s Twitter feed.”

Finding solace in a Twitter feed may sound odd, but the idea that Tonnies’s friends would revisit and preserve such digital artifacts isn’t so different from keeping postcards or other physical ephemera of a deceased friend or loved one. In both instances, the value doesn’t come from the material itself but rather from those who extract meaning from, and give meaning to, all we leave behind: our survivors.

The most remarkable set of connections to emerge from Tonnies’s digital afterlife isn’t among his online friends — it is between those friends and his parents, the previously computer-shunning Dana and Bob Tonnies. Dana, who told me that her husband now teases her about how much time she spends sending and answering e-mail (a good bit of it coming from her son’s online social circle), is presently going through Posthuman Blues, in order, from the beginning. “I still have a year to go,” she says. Reading it has been “amazing,” she continues — funny posts, personal posts, poetic posts, angry posts about the state of the world. I ask her if what she is reading seems like a different, or specifically narrow, version of her son. “Oh, no, it’s him,” she says. “I can hear him when I read it.”

My father was not given to introspection… or, if he was, he left no record of it. What would his Facebook page have looked like, I sometimes wonder; or his blog, had he written one? And what would people make of my own digital effects, were I to die suddenly like Mac did? Maudlin, certainly; narcissistic, quite possibly. But speaking as an atheist, I think the only immortality anyone can truly achieve is the impression we leave behind in the minds of those who knew us.

How social media will change the shape and depth of that impression remains to be seen: will it become easier or harder to idealise the dead when the digital ephemera of their true characters – flaws and bad days and irrational prejudices captured in real time, dropped with no thought to their permanence or lack thereof – can be collected and saved after they’ve died? And what responsibilities – if any – should social networks have for ensuring that these leavings are preserved or destroyed in accordance with their wishes, or those of their survivors?


Genevieve Valentine on the future shape of social media

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2011

Super-awesome science fiction webzine LightSpeed has a non-fiction piece from Futurismic veteran Genevieve Valentine (“Is This Your Day To Join The Revolution?”), who looks into the imminent future of even-more-ubiquitous social networking. I’m not sure I quite agree with her template for excellence, though:

But frankly, an ideal template for the future of software responsiveness is actually already here: Apple’s App Store. The Store itself is a social network of user-generated content that provides both marketing and moneymaking opportunities (a holy trinity of market appeal). Populated by techies for techies, the App Store contains single-click download options for other platforms (Twitter, Tumblr), market-friendly apps (entertainment-blog feeds, Yelp) and even reference guides (sky maps, bird-call encyclopedias).

[…]

In some ways, it’s a comfort to see the emergence of technology that supports a concept rather than a user; the App Store technology has spread to other smartphone platforms, and the idea of individual, crowd-sourced utilities is the sort of technology that, because of its immediacy and flexibility, could develop smoothly as the years go by, until the next thing you know it’s the future, and social networking is easier than ever before. Right?

I suspect my objection hinges on an aspect that Genevieve wasn’t considering, but even so: if Apple’s App Store is the shape of the future, then the future will be a walled garden full of things that Apple has deemed safe, suitable and sanitised for our consumption.

In the Apple future, you won’t be able to read material from Wikileaks, or stories with cuss-words, or graphic novels with gay themes (whether in an explicitly erotic context or otherwise). Apple’s App Store decides what’s best for you, and limits your choices accordingly; it’s the gated community of the post-geographical web. That’s comforting to many people, which is fair enough; personally, I think I’ll outsource my content curation over a wide range of unfettered independent channels. Maintaining your own filters is harder work, sure, but it means you know what’s coming through and what’s getting turned back at the borders.

And as for technologies that support concepts rather than users… well, give me the user support every time. 🙂

I suspect Genevieve’s praise is directed more at the basic concept of “the app store” (uncapitalized, non-proprietary): a marketplace where all manner of useful things can be found. On that basis, I agree: we already have the ability to search for content, and app store systems allow us to search for functionality in the same way.

But I expect it’ll surprise no one when I say I think the ideal social media of the future will be built spontaneously from multiple platforms and networks, created and reformed on an ad hoc basis according to the needs and interests of its users from moment to moment. It is to be hoped, then, that open alternatives to the corporate solutions will remain available; the best way to ensure that they do so is to find them, use them and support them.


Jaron Lanier on Wikileaks

Paul Raven @ 22-12-2010

The Wikileaks story just keeps on rolling, but in defiance of the cliché it’s picking up a fair bit of moss as it goes. At the risk of repeating arguments made, well, pretty much everywhere (and to reiterate a point I made before), it’s quite possible to be supportive or generally approving of Wikileaks as a principle and as an organisation at the same time as thinking Julian Assange to be a serious douchebag who’s responding to the limelight like weeds to the springtime sun… though the caveat there is that most of what we’re hearing of Assange’s public statements is being filtered through other news organisations whose fondness for Wikileaks is less than complete. The truth remains obscure, in other words.

That said, it’s been interesting – and heartening – to watch the results of genuine grassroots action as regards the #MooreAndMe rape apologism campaigns; it’s a horrible way for it to have happened (and a horrible that it should even be necessary), but I can’t help but feel that there’s a good side to the way that discussion and criticism of mainstream cultural attitudes to rape have been brought out from the marginalised sidelines of feminism into highly visible layers of public discourse. Granted, it’s been rather like overturning a rotten log in a gloomy forest, but that’s the price of progress, I suppose; a societal problem can’t be fixed until society becomes conscious of it. Sunlight, disinfectant, you know the drill.

So to the tireless folk behind the #MooreAndMe hashtag, my utmost respect. As hard as it might be to believe for a regular reader of this site, there are times when I realise that the most helpful thing I can do is shut up and let people who really know what they’re talking about do their thing. Perhaps stepping back from the fight isn’t as useful as pitching in, but personal experience dictates that the greatest of harm can result from the best of intentions, and that one learns much more from listening than flapping one’s own uninformed lips.

But there’s one commentary link-out that needs to be made, and it’s to Jaron Lanier’s Wikileaks piece at The Atlantic. I’m by no means in complete agreement with it on a number of points, and there’s a slightly patronising “yeah, I was once naive enough to believe all that stuff, too, but I done growed up” undertone to it that grates somewhat… but of all the negative responses to Wikileaks I’ve read so far, it’s by far the most cognisant of the playing field it discusses, and the first that has really made me think hard about my own stance on the matter. It’s a long one, and not easy to yank quotes from while maintaining context, so just go read the whole thing… whether you’re for or against.


Nominate Joshua Harris for Director of MIT!

Paul Raven @ 02-12-2010

Okay, here’s something of a guest-post. I got a message a few days ago from someone who I’m reasonably convinced is actually Joshua Harris – subject of the movie We Live In Public, which I mentioned a while ago. Why am I convinced that this out-of-the-blue contact is from the actual Josh Harris and not some imposter pulling my leg? Well, I don’t think an imposter could pull off the degree of chutzpah on display here; you see, Joshua Harris wants me – and all of the rest of you, too – to nominate him for the post of Director at MIT’s Media Lab.

No, seriously. Here’s his message to you, verbatim:

dear futurismic readers:

my name is josh harris and i build human chicken factories of the future (or what i call The Wired City).  the idea is to build the future out as far in advance as possible NOW so that we will gain perspective on the world that we are walking into 15 years from now.

i figure any loyalish futurismic reader can extrapolate where The Wired City is headed so i’ll leave that to your imagination and comments.  if elected as the new Director of the MIT Media Lab i promise to hear any and all futurismic reader ideas and suggestions.

read/view the links below, if it what i am saying makes sense to you then by all means please nominate me for Director of the MIT Media Lab.  and pass the word along.

sincerely,

josh harris candidate – Director, MIT Media Lab

Here’s some contextual content for you to browse through, as supplied by Harris himself:

(For my money, the TechCrunch link at the top is the one that’ll get you up to speed quickest.)

And here’s the blurb from a one-sheet run-down on the Wired City project:

THE WIRED CITY

(The Internet Television Network)

The Wired City (TWC) orchestrates millions of hours of audience “self surveillance” into a hierarchical system that generates compelling broadcast and netcast quality programming.

Key production elements of The Wired City include:

  • Real-time chat video switching (next generation social graph).
  • 24/7 netcasting studios that efficiently process mass data signals generated by the audience.
  • Massive multiplayer online gaming element (winning audience members get to live on set and get special powers and privileges).
  • Hollywood style production values produced by and for netcasting audiences.
  • Hearts and minds.  Audience members are letting each other into their homes and lives (the camera is turned on them).
  • Bonafication.  Audience members get their 15 minutes of fame every day.
  • 1 million hours of net generated programming is distilled into one hour of prime time broadcast programming, every day.

Key commerce elements of The Wired City include:

  • Micro aggregation of mass audiences returning broadcast quality CPM revenues.
  • A more direct relationship/bond between audience and sponsors.
  • Coordination of mass audiences as tastemakers and influencers generates traction with sponsors.

Relevant Professional Background – Josh Harris

  • CEO – Operator11 Exchange Corporation (2006 – 2007): Web 3.0 Internet television network.
  • We Live In Public, LLC (2000 -2001): Art project designed to dramatically produce home surveillance (subsequent film won Sundance Grand Jury Prize for documentary in 2009).
  • Quiet (1999): Art project as net studio prototype of The Wired City (compared to Truman Capote’s “Black and White Party” by MOMA NYC).
  • CEO and Founder Pseudo Programs, Inc. (1994 -1998): Internet television network.
  • CEO and Founder Jupiter Communications (1986 – 1994): Internet research and consulting (went public 1999).

And here’s the MIT action that Harris wants to combine with his Wired City idea: a computer system that can precisely identify mouse behaviour patterns from camera footage. In real-time.

If you have no idea who Joshua Harris is, then I’d suggest you should find out; his is a pretty fascinating story, whichever way you look at it. Those of you who do know who he is are either thinking “hell yeah, give the guy the job!” or “giving him that job would be madness of the highest order”… or possibly both at once, which is the camp in which I find myself. There’s no doubt at all that Harris is a loose cannon of prodigious proportions, but it’s also impossible to deny that he saw the rise of the soc-net participatory panopticon and the ultimate ethical outer limits of “reality” television programming long before either actually existed, and he made that vision an undiluted (and pretty terrifying) reality.

He’s a smart guy, possibly dangerously so, but it’s dangerous intelligence that has the best chance of thinking outside the cliches and seeing the futures that we don’t want to imagine; partner Harris with the MIT boffins to regulate the more extreme ethical weirdness, and The Wired City could be a crucial experimental window into our ubicomp-everyware-lifelogged near-future, a Stanford Prison Experiment for the twenty-teens… not to mention a form of reality television more deserving of the name.

I have no idea whether MIT would even honour a mass nomination of Harris to the directorship of the Media Lab or not… but I went and nominated the guy anyway, because I’m a sucker for visionary outliers, and because discovering the surprisingly unknown story of the Quiet project totally blew my mind. If you’re a sucker for mad genius too, or if you think we should be experimenting more boldly with the effects of complete mediation of the human experience, maybe you should nominate him too.

To nominate Joshua Harris for Director of MIT’s Media Lab, go to this webpage, enter your own information as nominator, and the following for Harris as nominee:

  • Name: Joshua Harris
  • Phone:  310 801-2294
  • Email: mjluvvy@gmail.com

[ Yes, I am taking this at face value; no, this is not a joke post. ]


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