Gods and robots: a speculation


The contemporary robot is a polytheist by design, if not by nature. It sees gods everywhere it looks, and we are they. Never mind the Singularity. The moment we should anticipate with concern is the moment that robots abandon polytheism for monotheism. It is then that robots will begin to conceive of themselves as being made in God’s image, and in their eyes we will be transformed into beasts.

Image: Steve Jurvetson.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Theses in tweetform (third series)


[first series, 2012]

1. The complexity of the medium is inversely proportional to the eloquence of the message.

2. Hypertext is a more conservative medium than text.

3. The best medium for the nonlinear narrative is the linear page.

4. Twitter is a more ruminative medium than Facebook.

5. The introduction of digital tools has never improved the quality of an art form.

6. The returns on interactivity quickly turn negative.

7. In the material world, doing is knowing; in media, the opposite is often true.

8. Facebook’s profitability is directly tied to the shallowness of its members: hence its strategy.

9. Increasing the intelligence of a network tends to decrease the intelligence of those connected to it.

10. The one new art form spawned by the computer – the videogame – is the computer’s prisoner.

11. Personal correspondence grows less interesting as the speed of its delivery quickens.

12. Programmers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

13. The album cover turned out to be indispensable to popular music.

14. The pursuit of followers on Twitter is an occupation of the bourgeoisie.

15. Abundance of information breeds delusions of knowledge among the unwary.

16. No great work of literature could have been written in hypertext.

17. The philistine appears ideally suited to the role of cultural impresario online.

18. Television became more interesting when people started paying for it.

19. Instagram shows us what a world without art looks like.

20. Online conversation is to oral conversation as a mask is to a face.

[second series, 2013]

21. Recommendation engines are the best cure for hubris.

22. Vines would be better if they were one second shorter.

23. Hell is other selfies.

24. Twitter has revealed that brevity and verbosity are not always antonyms.

25. Personalized ads provide a running critique of artificial intelligence.

26. Who you are is what you do between notifications.

27. Online is to offline as a swimming pool is to a pond.

28. People in love leave the sparsest data trails.

29.  YouTube fan videos are the living fossils of the original web.

30. Mark Zuckerberg is the Grigory Potemkin of our time.

[third series]

31. Every point on the internet is a center of the internet.

32. On Twitter, one’s sense of solipsism intensifies as one’s follower count grows.

33. A thing contains infinitely more information than its image.

34. A book has many pages; an ebook has one page.

35. If a hard drive is a soul, the cloud is the oversoul.

36. A self-driving car is a contradiction in terms.

37. The essence of an event is the ghost in the recording.

38. A Snapchat message becomes legible as it vanishes.

39. When we turn on a GPS system, we become cargo.

40. Google searches us.

Image: Abbey Studer.


Filed under Uncategorized

Cluetrain crashes, casualties widespread


“The community of discourse is the market. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.” —The Cluetrain Manifesto, 1999

Alexander Jutkowitz wears a couple of hats. He’s the chief strategist at the public-relations giant Hill & Knowlton, and he sits on the board of the Columbia Journalism Review. That makes him particularly well positioned to opine on the great PR-journo mashup otherwise known as content marketing. “The success of content marketing has radicalized the way companies communicate,” Jutkowitz writes in the Harvard Business Review. “For innovative brands, an award-winning Tumblr now carries serious clout; hashtag campaigns have become as compelling as taglines; and the Digiday Awards are as coveted as the Stevies. The content marketing revolution signals more than a mere marketing fad. It marks an important new chapter in the history of business communications: the era of corporate enlightenment.”

The next stage in the era of corporate enlightenment is a full-scale move into publishing and broadcasting, as businesses establish the means to push their voices into the center of the culture, into the center of the conversation. “Today, large corporations are becoming their own media companies, news bureaus, research universities, and social networks,” writes Jutkowitz, noting how “big brands are poaching top-talent journalists in droves and implementing the most successful aspects of the traditional media house.” He goes on:

Trained journalists and writers are in the best position to synthesize information, capture a reader’s attention, and uphold a critical editorial standard. … Yet, it would be misguided to assume that corporations are simply transplanting the traditional newsroom. Branded content is a brave new world and a brand’s editorial team, regardless of how it’s organized, must learn to live and breathe a company’s bottom line while also being mindful of the kinds of stories that appeal to readers. The editorial organization within a corporation has to be independent enough to form unique perspectives, but embedded enough to access exclusive information. This kind of commitment to storytelling and editorial integrity, albeit shaped by sponsorship, is undoubtedly how content marketing has begun to encroach on the whole of marketing. Content, it seems, has miraculously given brands a greater purpose. Brands are no longer merely peddling products; they’re producing, unearthing, and distributing information. And because they do, the corporation becomes not just economically important to society, but intellectually essential as well.

Feeling nauseous yet? Ex-Googler Tim Bray is. He says the article “smells like con­cen­trat­ed essence of evil; an uniron­ic paean to the take-over of jour­nal­is­m, and pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion, by mar­ke­teer­s. I rec­om­mend read­ing it, if on­ly for shock val­ue.” But if, as the Cluetrain writers declared with such innocence at the turn of the century, “markets are conversations,” should anybody really be shocked? If markets are conversations, then conversations are markets, and markets are where marketeers tend to congregate.

No, Jutkowitz isn’t kidding about “the era of corporate enlightenment”:

The Age of Reason in the 17th century was defined by the promotion of ideas and intellect. Considered a revolution of human thought, the Enlightenment bore world-changing advances in the form of ideas, discovery, and invention. Like the philosophers and scientists who populated the salons of that era, corporations today can and should participate in the dynamic exchange of innovative ideas, unique knowledge, and expertise.

He provides an example:

Red Bull is proof of the extraordinary results great brand publishing can bring. The company’s top-notch content resulted in the creation of an in-house content production arm, Red Bull Media House. Red Bull crafts content that isn’t just compelling, but lucrative in its own right, launching an entirely new ideas-based business for the beverage company.

Red Bull is our new Voltaire. Let the intellectual buzz begin.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Stationary and Solitary


Mobile and Social. Mobile and Social. For many years now, those have been the two polestars of personal computing, the twin icons that software, hardware, and web designers worship through their work. So strong has been their pull that I sense they’ve come to influence, if not limit, our view of the possibilities of human experience.

Here’s a thought experiment. What if software and hardware designers expanded their set of goals to encompass more fully the possibilities of human experience? If Stationary and Solitary were your polestars, rather than Mobile and Social, what kind of apps and devices and sites would you build?


Filed under Uncategorized

You are an intimate data bundle


In case you thought I was kidding about Facebook’s forthcoming Oculus Networked Mood Ring, the BBC reports on the demonstration, at a big advertising fest in France, of a “smart bracelet that can read your emotions,” designed by Studio XO in London.

The telltale bangle, the style of which might best be described as hospital-patient chic, is part of the design shop’s “emotional technology platform,” called XOX, which enables companies “to track users’ emotional states, collect data and tailor services and experiences for both individuals and large audiences.” The system sounds nifty:

At the heart of the XOX Emotional Technology Platform are the XOX servers, [which provide] access to the audience’s intimate data. This is processed locally and available through an industry standard API. … The basic system includes specially designed ergonomic wristbands that are worn on the upper wrist. Intimate data is read via a number of wearable biometric sensors. This raw data is processed in real-time on the wristband before being transmitted to the XOX server via one of a number of XOX base transceiver units. … Intimate data bundles can be packaged up for our clients to enable them to better understand human emotion and an audience’s engagement with experiences, products and services.

This may be off-topic, but have you noticed that “iWatch” has a double meaning?

Promotional image from Studio XO.


Filed under Uncategorized

The platform is the conversation


“Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table,” observed Clay Shirky in a 2003 speech. One thing you can say about a table, as a social-networking technology, is that it doesn’t have an agenda. It is agnostic about the conversation that goes on around it. The table is a mute and neutral host; all the action occurs at its edges, where the people are. And so, when Shirky discussed the essence of online communication in his speech, he focused not on the role of the table but on the roles of the people around the table and in particular on the dynamic tension between the interests of the group and the interests of the group’s individual members.

Shirky’s reference to the table as a precursor to the Internet was a joking one, but, as the thrust of his speech made clear, it also reflected the prevailing sense of the Net’s role as a neutral host, or “platform,” for online social interaction. Here is Yochai Benkler discussing the rise of “social software” in his 2006 book The Wealth of Networks: “The design of the Internet itself is agnostic as among the social structures and relations it enables. At its technical core is a commitment to push all the detailed instantiations of human communications to the edges of the network — to the applications that run on the computers of users.” The Internet, in other words, is just a very, very big table. It convenes, but it doesn’t intervene. All the action occurs at its edges.

Benkler’s mistake, we can now see, lay in underestimating the Net’s capabilities and its commercial incentives. He missed the fact that, with cloud computing, the essential functionality of applications, along with the data they process, would move from “the computers of users” to the data centers of big Internet companies — from the edges to the center.

Here’s something else that Shirky said in that 2003 speech: “The normal experience of social software is failure. If you go into Yahoo groups and you map out the subscriptions, it is, unsurprisingly, a power law. There’s a small number of highly populated groups, a moderate number of moderately populated groups, and this long, flat tail of failure. And the failure is inevitably more than 50% of the total mailing lists in any category. So it’s not like a cake recipe. There’s nothing you can do to make it come out right every time.” What’s most interesting here, in retrospect, is the trivial role that Shirky attributes to Yahoo. People gather through Yahoo, but the company otherwise stays out of the picture. Yahoo  is just another table carved out of the larger table of the Internet. It’s a neutral platform that doesn’t involve itself in the social dynamics playing out along its edges. It, too, convenes but doesn’t intervene. It certainly doesn’t fiddle with the recipe. In Benkler’s work, as well, the corporate conveners — the Yahoos, Googles, MySpaces, Facebooks, etc. — are notable largely by their absence. For his thesis to hold, they need to be agnostic and relatively uninteresting players. They need to be tables.

The revelation that Facebook is something of a World Wide Skinner Box, routinely conducting behavioral-modification experiments on its unknowing members and then incorporating the results of those experiments into the algorithms that determine the shape of its members’ conversations, tells us how naive we were to look at social-networking platforms as high-tech versions of tables and to believe that the Net had a “commitment” to push social interaction to its edges. Facebook, and every other large social-networking and information-aggregation company, both convenes and intervenes. Indeed, it convenes in order to intervene. The platform is the conversation. To fully analyze online social dynamics, one has to attend not only to the tension between the group and the individual but between the platform and both the group and the individual. The problem is that whereas the group-individual tension is visible, the manipulations of the platform are invisible. With the publication of the Facebook study, the veil trembled. We all knew the veil was there — we all knew we were inside a Skinner Box — but suddenly we had to admit the fact.

“The platform is the conversation.” I intend that to be taken not as a literal fact — all of Facebook’s experiments and algorithmic tweaks may in the end have a trivial influence on people’s conversations and thoughts — but as a provocation. The old romantic “Internet,” to borrow Evgeny Morozov’s quotation marks, is dead and gone. The center held. The table has an agenda.

Image taken from the Facebook advertisement “Dinner.”


Filed under Uncategorized

Impure thoughts


Alan Jacobs points to a wonderful passage in Claude Levi-Strauss’s Triste Tropiques:

In Martinique, I had visited rustic and neglected rum-distilleries where the equipment and the methods used had not changed since the eighteenth century. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, in the factories of the company which enjoys a virtual monopoly over the whole of the sugar production, I was faced by a display of white enamel tanks and chromium piping. Yet the various kinds of Martinique rum, as I tasted them in front of ancient wooden vats thickly encrusted with waste matter, were mellow and scented, whereas those of Puerto Rico are coarse and harsh. We may suppose, then, that the subtlety of the Martinique rums is dependent on impurities the continuance of which is encouraged by the archaic method of production. To me, this contrast illustrates the paradox of civilization: its charms are due essentially to the various residues it carries along with it, although this does not absolve us of the obligation to purify the stream. By being doubly in the right, we are admitting our mistake. We are right to be rational and to try to increase our production and so keep manufacturing costs down. But we are also right to cherish those very imperfections we are endeavouring to eliminate. Social life consists in destroying that which gives it its savour.

Comments Alan: “The underlying philosophy of liberalism, and the consumer culture it generates, condensed into nine sentences.” I love the fact that he gave in to the urge to count the sentences. That seems so . . . Bacardian.

Image: Christina Hsu.


Filed under Uncategorized