The eunuch’s children


1. Pulp Fact

Gutenberg we know. But what of the eunuch Cai Lun?

A well-educated, studious young man, a close aide to the Emperor Hedi in the Chinese imperial court of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Cai invented paper one fateful day in the year 105. At the time, writing and drawing were done primarily on silk, which was elegant but expensive, or on bamboo, which was sturdy but cumbersome. Seeking a more practical alternative, Cai came up with the idea of mashing bits of tree bark and hemp fiber together in a little water, pounding the resulting paste flat with a stone mortar, and then letting it dry into sheets in the sun. The experiment was a success. Allowing for a few industrial tweaks, Cai’s method is still pretty much the way paper gets made today.

Cai killed himself some years later, having become entangled in a palace scandal from which he saw no exit. But his invention took on a life of its own. The craft of papermaking spread quickly throughout China and then, following the Silk Road westward, made its way into Persia, Arabia, and Europe. Within a few centuries, paper had replaced animal skins, papyrus mats, and wooden tablets as the world’s preferred medium for writing and reading. The goldsmith Gutenberg would, with his creation of the printing press around 1450, mechanize the work of the scribe, replacing inky fingers with inky machines, but it was Cai Lun who gave us our reading material and, some would say, our world.

2. Peak Paper

Paper may be the single most versatile invention in history, its uses extending from the artistic to the bureaucratic to the hygienic. Rarely, though, do we give it its due. The ubiquity and disposability of the stuff — the average American goes through a quarter ton of it every year — lead us to take it for granted, or even to resent it. It’s hard to respect something that you’re forever throwing in the trash or flushing down the john or blowing your nose into. But modern life is inconceivable without paper. If paper were to disappear, writes Ian Sansom in his recent book Paper: An Elegy, “Everything would be lost.”

But wait. “An elegy”? Sansom’s subtitle is half joking, but it’s half serious, too. For while paper will be around as long as we’re around, with the digital computer we have at last come up with an invention to rival Cai Lun’s. Over the last decade, annual per-capita paper consumption in developed countries has fallen sharply. If the initial arrival of the personal computer and its companion printer had us tearing through more reams than ever, the rise of the internet as a universal communication system seems to be having the opposite effect. As more and more information comes to be stored and exchanged electronically, we’re writing fewer checks, sending fewer letters, circulating fewer reports, and in general committing fewer thoughts to paper. Even our love notes are passed between servers.

In 1894, Scribner’s Magazine published an essay by the French litterateur Octave Uzanne titled “The End of Books.” Thomas Edison had just invented the phonograph, and Uzanne thought it inevitable that books and periodicals would soon be replaced by “various devices for registering sound” that people would carry around with them. Flipping through printed sheets of paper demanded far too much effort from the modern “man of leisure,” he argued. “Reading, as we practice it today, soon brings on great weariness; for not only does it require of the brain a sustained attention which consumes a large proportion of the cerebral phosphates, but it also forces our bodies into various fatiguing attitudes.” The printing press and its quaint products were no match for modern technology.


You have to hand it to Uzanne. He anticipated the arrival of the audiobook, the iPod, and even the smartphone. About the obsolescence of the printed page, however, he was entirely wrong. Yet his prophesy would enjoy continuing popularity among the intelligentsia. It would come to be repeated over and over again during the twentieth century. Every time a new communication medium came along — radio, telephone, cinema, TV, CD-ROM — pundits would send out, usually in printed form, another death notice for the press. H. G. Wells wrote a book proclaiming that microfilm would replace the book.

In 2011, the Edinburgh International Book Festival featured a session titled — why mess with a winner? — “The End of Books.” One of the participants, the Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison, declared that “within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books.” Baby boomers, it seemed obvious to Morrison, would be the last generation to read words inked on pages. The future of the book and the magazine and the newspaper — the future of the word — lay in “e-publishing.” The argument seemed entirely reasonable at the time. Unlike Uzanne, who was merely speculating, Morrison could point to hard facts about trends in reading and publishing. People were flocking to the screen. Paper was toast.

Now, just three years later, the picture has grown blurrier. There are new facts, equally hard, which suggest that words will continue to appear on sheets of paper for a good long while. Ebook sales, which skyrocketed after the launch of Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007, have fallen back to earth in recent months, and sales of physical books have remained surprisingly resilient. Printed books still account for about three-quarters of overall book sales in the United States, and if sales of used books, which have been booming, are taken into account, that percentage probably rises even higher. A recent survey revealed that even the biggest fans of e-books continue to purchase a lot of printed volumes.

Periodicals have had a harder go of it, thanks to the profusion of free alternatives online and the steep declines in print advertising. But subscriptions to print magazines seem to be stabilizing. Although some publications are struggling to survive, others are holding on to their readers. Digital subscriptions, while growing smartly, still represent only a tiny slice of the market, and a lot of magazine readers don’t seem eager to switch to e-versions. A survey of owners of iPads and other tablet computers, conducted last year, found that three-quarters of them still prefer to read magazines on paper. There are even some glimmers in the beleaguered newspaper business. The spread of paywalls and the bundling of print and digital subscriptions appear to be tempering the long-term decline in print circulation. A few major papers have even gained some print readers of late.

What’s striking is that the prospects for print have improved even as the use of media-friendly mobile computers and apps has exploded. If physical publications were dying, you would think their condition should be deteriorating rapidly now, not stabilizing.

3. Embodied Words

Our eyes tell us that the words and pictures on a screen are pretty much identical to the words and pictures on a piece of paper. But our eyes lie. What we’re learning now is that reading is a bodily activity. We take in information the way we experience the world — as much with our sense of touch as with our sense of sight. Some scientists believe that our brain actually interprets written letters and words as physical objects, a reflection of the fact that our minds evolved to perceive things, not symbols of things.

The differences between page and screen go beyond the simple tactile pleasures of good paper stock. To the human mind, a sequence of pages bound together into a physical object is very different from a flat screen that displays only a single “page” of information at a time. The physical presence of the printed pages, and the ability to flip back and forth through them, turns out to be important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works, particularly lengthy and complicated ones. Even though we don’t realize it consciously, we quickly develop a mental map of the contents of a printed text, as if its argument or story were a voyage unfolding through space. If you’ve ever picked up a book you read long ago and discovered that your hands were able to locate a particular passage quickly, you’ve experienced this phenomenon. When we hold a physical publication in our hands, we also hold its contents in our mind.

The spatial memories seem to translate into more immersive reading and stronger comprehension. A recent experiment conducted with young readers in Norway found that, with both expository and narrative works, people who read from pages understood the text better than those who read the same material on a screen. The findings are consistent with a series of other recent reading studies. “We know from empirical and theoretical research that having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text supports reading comprehension,” wrote the Norwegian researchers. They suggested that the ability of print readers to “see as well as tactilely feel the spatial extension and physical dimensions” of an entire text likely played a role in their superior comprehension.

That may also explain why surveys in the United States and other countries show that college students continue to prefer printed textbooks over electronic ones by wide margins. Students say that traditional books are more flexible as study tools, encourage deeper and more attentive reading, and promote better understanding and retention of the material. It seems to be true, as Octave Uzanne suggested, that reading printed publications consumes a lot of “cerebral phosphates.” But maybe that’s something to be celebrated.

Electronic books and periodicals have advantages of their own, of course. They’re convenient. They often provide links to other relevant publications. Their contents can be searched and shared easily. They can include animations, audio and video snippets, and interactive features. They can be updated on the fly. When it comes to brief news reports or other simple stories, or works that we just want to glance at rather than read carefully, electronic versions may well be superior to printed ones.

We were probably mistaken to think of electronic publications as substitutes for printed ones. They seem to be different things, suited to different kinds of reading and providing different sorts of aesthetic and intellectual experiences. Some readers may continue to prefer print, others may develop a particular taste for the digital, and still others may happily switch back and forth between the two forms. This year in the United States, some two billion books and 350 million magazines will roll off presses and into people’s hands. We are still Cai Lun’s children.

This essay appeared originally, in a slightly different form, in the journal NautilusImages: postage stamp commemorating Cai Lun, issued in China in 1962; illustration from 1894 article “The End of Books.”


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The cover of the cage

Here’s what The Glass Cage will be looking like when it drops on Sept 29.


Wear gloves.

Cover design by Pete Garceau.

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Programming the moral robot


The U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research is funding an effort, by scientists at Tufts, Brown, and RPI, to develop military robots capable of moral reasoning:

The ONR-funded project will first isolate essential elements of human moral competence through theoretical and empirical research. Based on the results, the team will develop formal frameworks for modeling human-level moral reasoning that can be verified. Next, it will implement corresponding mechanisms for moral competence in a computational architecture.

That sounds straightforward. But hidden in those three short sentences are, so far as I can make out, at least eight philosophical challenges of extraordinary complexity:

  • Defining “human moral competence”
  • Boiling that competence down to a set of isolated “essential elements”
  • Designing a program of “theoretical and empirical research” that would lead to the identification of those elements
  • Developing mathematical frameworks for explaining moral reasoning
  • Translating those frameworks into formal models of moral reasoning
  • “Verifying” the outputs of those models as truthful
  • Embedding moral reasoning into computer algorithms
  • Using those algorithms to control a robot operating autonomously in the world

Barring the negotiation of a worldwide ban, which seems unlikely for all sorts of reasons, military robots that make life-or-death decisions about human beings are coming (if they’re not already here). So efforts to program morality into robots are themselves now morally necessary. It’s highly unlikely, though, that the efforts will be successful — unless, that is, we choose to cheat on the definition of success.

Selmer Bringsjord, head of the Cognitive Science Department at RPI, and Naveen Govindarajulu, post-doctoral researcher working with him, are focused on how to engineer ethics into a robot so that moral logic is intrinsic to these artificial beings. Since the scientific community has yet to establish what constitutes morality in humans the challenge for Bringsjord and his team is severe.

We’re trying to reverse-engineer something that wasn’t engineered in the first place.


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Overload, situational and ambient


The following is a reposting of one of Rough Type’s greatest hits. It originally appeared in these pages on March 7, 2011.

“It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” That was the main theme of a thoughtful and influential talk that Clay Shirky gave at a technology conference back in 2008. It’s an idea that’s easy to like both because it feels intuitively correct and because it’s reassuring: better filters will help reduce information overload, and better filters are things we can actually build. Information overload isn’t an inevitable side effect of information abundance. It’s a problem that has a solution. So let’s roll up our sleeves and start coding.

There was one thing that bugged me, though, about Shirky’s idea, and it was this paradox: The quality and speed of our information filters have been improving steadily for a few centuries, and have been improving extraordinarily quickly for the last two decades, and yet our sense of being overloaded with information is stronger than ever. If, as Shirky argues, improved filters will reduce overload, then why haven’t they done so up until now? Why don’t we feel that information overload is subsiding as a problem rather than getting worse? The reason, I’ve come to believe, is that Shirky’s formulation gets it precisely backwards. Better filters don’t mitigate information overload; they intensify it. It would be more accurate to say: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter success.”

But let me back up a little, because it’s actually more complicated than that. One of the traps we fall into when we talk about information overload is that we’re usually talking about two very different things as if they were one thing. Information overload actually takes two forms, which I’ll call situational overload and ambient overload, and they need to be treated separately.

Situational overload is the needle-in-the-haystack problem: You need a particular piece of information – in order to answer a question of one sort or another – and that piece of information is buried in a bunch of other pieces of information. The challenge is to pinpoint the required information, to extract the needle from the haystack, and to do it as quickly as possible. Filters have always been pretty effective at solving the problem of situational overload. The introduction of indexes and concordances – made possible by the earlier invention of alphabetization – helped solve the problem with books. Card catalogues and the Dewey decimal system helped solve the problem with libraries. Train and boat schedules helped solve the problem with transport. The Reader’s Guide to Periodicals helped solve the problem with magazines. And search engines and other computerized navigational and organizational tools have helped solve the problem with online databases.

Whenever a new information medium comes along, we tend to quickly develop good filtering tools that enable us to sort and search the contents of the medium. That’s as true today as it’s ever been. In general, I think you could make a strong case that, even though the amount of information available to us has exploded in recent years, the problem of situational overload has continued to abate. Yes, there are still frustrating moments when our filters give us the hay instead of the needle, but for most questions most of the time, search engines and other digital filters, or software-based, human-powered filters like email or Twitter, are able to serve up good answers in an eyeblink or two.

Situational overload is not the problem. When we complain about information overload, what we’re usually complaining about is ambient overload. This is an altogether different beast. Ambient overload doesn’t involve needles in haystacks. It involves haystack-sized piles of needles. We experience ambient overload when we’re surrounded by so much information that is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the neverending pressure of trying to keep up with it all. We keep clicking links, keep hitting the refresh key, keep opening new tabs, keep checking email in-boxes and RSS feeds and Facebook notifications, keep scanning Amazon and Netflix recommendations – and yet the pile of interesting information never shrinks.

The cause of situational overload is too much noise. The cause of ambient overload is too much signal.

The great power of modern digital filters lies in their ability to make information that is of inherent interest to us immediately visible to us. The information may take the form of personal messages or updates from friends or colleagues, broadcast messages from experts or celebrities whose opinions or observations we value, headlines and stories from writers or publications we like, alerts about the availability of various other sorts of content on favorite subjects, or suggestions from recommendation engines – but it all shares the quality of being tailored to our particular interests. It’s all needles. And modern filters don’t just organize that information for us; they push the information at us as alerts, updates, streams. We tend to point to spam as an example of information overload. But spam is just an annoyance. The real source of information overload, at least of the ambient sort, is the stuff we like, the stuff we want. And as filters get better, that’s exactly the stuff we get more of.

It’s a mistake, in short, to assume that as filters improve they have the effect of reducing the information we have to look at. As today’s filters improve, they expand the information we feel compelled to take notice of. Yes, they winnow out the uninteresting stuff (imperfectly), but they deliver a vastly greater supply of interesting stuff. And precisely because the information is of interest to us, we feel pressure to attend to it. As a result, our sense of overload increases. This is not an indictment of modern filters. They’re doing precisely what we want them to do: find interesting information and make it visible to us. But it does mean that if we believe that improving the workings of filters will save us from information overload, we’re going to be very disappointed. The technology that creates the problem is not going to make the problem go away. If you really want a respite from information overload, pray for filter failure.

Image: Randy Sears.


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From MOOCs to OCs


“When I called a MOOC a lousy product I wasn’t kidding,” says Sebastian Thrun, the prime mover of the modern MOOC movement and the vast hype that came to surround it, in a new interview at Pando Daily. The fatal flaw in the “classic MOOC,” Thrun now says, is that it was free. You can only have a decent MOOC if you get rid of the MO and just have the OC.

“It’s not a MOOC [anymore] because we end up charging for it,” Thrun says, in describing the new online courses offered by his company, Udacity, which require students to pay a fee to receive a “service layer” of mentorship. “I feel confident asking people for money because their money is better spent on this than doing a free course and dropping out after a week.”

But doesn’t charging tuition subvert the grand promise that free online courses would “democratize” higher education?

Replies Thrun: “All our material is still available for free. If you’re a student who can’t afford the service layer you can take the MOOC, on demand, at your own pace. If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.”

The poor get the “lousy.” The affluent get the “magic.”

As history professor Jonathan Rees delicately puts it, “Pardon me while I go vomit.”

But Thrun deserves the last word: “I am a total friend of honesty.”

Image: “Wreck of School House,” from Library of Congress.


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The end of the beginning


“If we automate our judgment-making and execute it at web scale,” Google and other aggregators have long told us, “then we absolve ourselves of responsibility for our judgments.” To which the Court of Justice of the European Union today replied, “No, you don’t.”

 35. In this connection, it should be pointed out that the processing of personal data carried out in the context of the activity of a search engine can be distinguished from and is additional to that carried out by publishers of websites [...]

38. Inasmuch as the activity of a search engine is therefore liable to affect significantly, and additionally compared with that of the publishers of websites, the fundamental rights to privacy and to the protection of personal data, the operator of the search engine as the person determining the purposes and means of that activity must ensure, within the framework of its responsibilities, powers and capabilities, that the activity meets the requirements of Directive 95/46 in order that the guarantees laid down by the directive may have full effect and that effective and complete protection of data subjects, in particular of their right to privacy, may actually be achieved.

39. Finally, the fact that publishers of websites have the option of indicating to operators of search engines, by means in particular of exclusion protocols such as ‘robot.txt’ or codes such as ‘noindex’ or ‘noarchive’, that they wish specific information published on their site to be wholly or partially excluded from the search engines’ automatic indexes does not mean that, if publishers of websites do not so indicate, the operator of a search engine is released from its responsibility for the processing of personal data that it carries out in the context of the engine’s activity.

That feels kind of seismic.

Image: Daniel Oines.


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A complicated courtship


In early April, two articles appeared in leading European newspapers — “Fear of Google” in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and “Google, or the Road to Serfdom” in Le Monde — criticizing the consolidation of commercial and cultural power in the hands of Google and other large Internet companies. Shortly afterward, Eric Schmidt offered a rebuttal, in the form of an open letter to Europe published in FAZ. “On a continent in search of economic hope, the Internet represents the main motor of economic growth,” he wrote. On the cultural side of the equation, he went on, the Net was due equal praise: “Around the world, people admire Europe’s art, food, and lifestyle. The Internet makes these cultural treasures available to all.”

Rejecting any further regulation of his company, Schmidt argued that the online market should be allowed to develop unfettered. He pointed to Google’s recent advertising pact with Germany’s Axel Springer as a model for the kind of cooperative business approach that he believes will keep Europe from becoming an “innovation desert”:

It was a complicated courtship. For years, German publisher Axel Springer challenged us on issue after issue, from copyright to competition. I travelled to Germany numerous times to meet Springer executives to propose a different path – profitable partnership. I argued that through innovation we could build new business models and achieve mutual benefit from emerging mobile and social technologies. Late last year, we walked down the aisle and signed a multi-year partnership for automated advertising, covering both web and mobile. …

While many other European publishers including such marquee names as the Telegraph and the Guardian have signed similar partnerships, some publishers in Europe still seem to believe that the best way forward lies in calling for heavy-handed regulation, pushing for new copyright charges on links to their articles and calling for antitrust action against companies such as Facebook, Amazon and us. … If adopted, this approach creates serious economic dangers. Above all, it risks creating an innovation desert in Europe. Some companies will leave and, worse still, others will never get off the ground – blocked by rules designed to protect incumbents. I am convinced that a better, more prosperous model exists through cooperation and commercial agreements [such as] our path-breaking advertising deal with Axel Springer.

In a long, remarkable reply to Schmidt, also published in FAZ a week later, Axel Springer’s chief executive, Mathias Döpfner, offered a very different view of the “profitable partnership” between his company and Google:

We are afraid of Google. I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly. And as the biggest among the small, perhaps it is also up to us to be the first to speak out in this debate. You wrote it yourself in your book: “We believe that modern technology platforms, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, are even more powerful than most people realize (…), and what gives them power is their ability to grow – specifically, their speed to scale. Almost nothing, short of a biological virus, can scale as quickly, efficiently or aggressively as these technology platforms and this makes the people who build, control, and use them powerful too.” … In the long term I’m not so sure about the users. Power is soon followed by powerlessness. And this is precisely the reason why we now need to have this discussion in the interests of the long-term integrity of the digital economy’s ecosystem. This applies to competition, not only economic, but also political. It concerns our values, our understanding of the nature of humanity, our worldwide social order and, from our own perspective, the future of Europe. … It is we the people who have to decide whether or not we want what you are asking of us – and what price we are willing to pay for it.

Döpfner went on to question Google’s self-image as a cultural hero:

On the Internet, in the beautiful colorful Google world, so much seems to be free of charge: from search services up to journalistic offerings. In truth we are paying with our behavior –  with the predictability and commercial exploitation of our behavior. Anyone who has a car accident today, and mentions it in an e-mail, can receive an offer for a new car from a manufacturer on his mobile phone tomorrow. Terribly convenient. Today, someone surfing high-blood-pressure web sites, who automatically betrays his notorious sedentary lifestyle through his Jawbone fitness wristband, can expect a higher health insurance premium the day after tomorrow. Not at all convenient. Simply terrible. It is possible that it will not take much longer before more and more people realize that the currency of his or her own behavior exacts a high price: the freedom of self-determination. And that is why it is better and cheaper to pay with something very old fashioned – namely  money.

Google is the world’s most powerful bank – but dealing only in behavioral currency. Nobody capitalizes on their knowledge about us as effectively as Google. This is impressive and dangerous.

At the end of the month, Harvard business professor and Berkman Center associate Shoshana Zuboff provided another perspective on the exchange between Schmidt and Döpfner:

Six years ago I asked Eric Schmidt what corporate innovations Google was putting in place to ensure that its interests were aligned with its end users. Would it betray their trust? Back then his answer stunned me. He and Google’s founders control the super-voting class B stock. This allows them, he explained, to make decisions without regard to short-term pressure from Wall Street. Of course, it also insulates them from every other kind of influence. There was no wrestling with the creation of an inclusive, trustworthy, and transparent governance system.  There was no struggle to institutionalize scrutiny and feedback.  Instead Schmidt’s answer was the quintessence of absolutism: “trust me; I know best.” At that moment I knew I was in the presence of something new and dangerous whose effects reached beyond narrow economic contests and into the heart of everyday life.

Mr. Schmidt’s open letter to Europe shows evidence of such absolutism. Democratic oversight is characterized as “heavy-handed regulation.”  The “Internet”, “Web”,  and “Google” are referenced interchangeably, as if Goggle’s interests stand for the entire Web and Internet. That’s a magician’s sleight of hand intended to distract from the real issue. Google’s absolutist pursuit of its interests is now regarded by many as responsible for the Web’s fading prospects as an open information platform in which participants can agree on rules, rights, and choice.

“We are beyond the realm of economics here,” wrote Zuboff. “This is not merely a conversation about free  markets; it’s a conversation about free people”:

We often hear that our privacy rights have been eroded and secrecy has grown. But that way of framing things obscures what’s really at stake. Privacy hasn’t been eroded. It’s been expropriated. … Instead of many people having some privacy rights, nearly all the rights have been concentrated in the hands of a few.  On the one hand, we have lost the ability to choose what we keep secret, and what we share. On the other, Google, the NSA, and others in the new zone have accumulated privacy rights. How? Most of their rights have come from taking ours without asking. But they also manufactured new rights for themselves, the way a forger might print currency.  They assert a right to privacy with respect to their surveillance tactics and then exercise their choice to keep those tactics secret.

Finally – and this is key – the new concentration of privacy rights is institutionalized in the automatic undetectable functions of a global infrastructure that most of the world’s people also happen to think is essential for basic social participation. This turns ordinary life into the daily renewal of a 21st century Faustian pact.

A complicated courtship, indeed. Read the whole exchange. It’s fascinating.

Image: Roberto Baca.


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