Shekhinah Power

ZapIs it possible that our ancestors harnessed the power of electricity?

It’s logically possible that electric motors pre-dated steam engines, and tantalizing writings combined with circumstantial evidence suggest that the ancients understood more than static electricity and simple batteries.

This question is yet another reformulation of the regard we hold for the wisdom of the ancients, and if their models and perspectives might offer anything meaningful to today’s scientists and philosophers. Even the alternative researchers who investigate these claims often feel the need to invoke atlanteans, martians, or time travelers as the deus ex machina to explain their origin.

A recent constellation of events and ideas (MiT6, Intentional Energy, Faith’s Transmission) in my life has brought me back to this question.  If the ancients had developed a theory of everything, how might they have encoded this message for transmission into the future? Would their theory of everything incorporate/integrate subjectivity and consciousness, unlike our generation’s leading contenders?

The following free association provides a glimpse at what a message like that could look like.

Religion is a process of turning your skull into a tabernacle, not of going up to Jerusalem once a year.[*]

I have been investigating spiritual mysteries for decades – I maintain my own personal X-Files, some of which are documented on this blog.  In June ’95 I even traveled to West Africa following up a lead on the descendants of Joseph and the Arc of the Covenant. (I found everything I was looking for, and more, but that’s a story for another post).

Crackpots and scholars alike have recognized the electrical potential of the Arc.  Most famously, Eric Von Daniken has popularized this interpretation of its intrinsic physical properties in Chariots of the Gods.

The blueprints of the Arc are described in intricate detail in Exodus – Gold box/wooden box/gold box.  Gold is one of the best conductors on the periodic table (think stereo cables), so the Arc was an electromagnetic sandwich — conductor/insulator/conductor — the very definition of a capacitor.  A physical device capable of storing electrical charge — a.k.a. a battery.

That the Arc might have held electrical charge is consistent with the stories told about it.  People who touched it died instantly, it was carried by the Levites into battle, and its divine fire even was known to kill the wicked.

Bracketing for a moment the source of this wisdom, if the Arc was used as a battery, the next logical questions are: How was it charged? What did it power?

They Kept Going and Going

The utility of electrical power in ancient times is simple. Even untamed electricity might have been quite valuable in an era when its sparks would have been regarded as miraculous.  Speculative research suggests the some kinds of applications that electricity could have powered – lighting up the high preist’s breastplate, or perhaps even a transmitter or a manna machine.

Charging is a bit more complicated. For years my imaginations has been conceptually trapped inside the holy of holies — struggling to imagine how on earth the high priest might have been able to transform spiritual energy (or information) into energy we could do work with on this planet (e.g. electrical energy).  Recently I realized that the Tabernacle was actually flowing with physical energy.  The priest’s entire system of sacraments and service could have been organized around collecting, transforming, storing, and harnessing electrical energy.

Not only were the priests playing with fire, pouring gallons of blood through intricate piping, and baking bread and cooling in on strange conductive structures (see the Mishkan or watch the movie), but I had an epiphany around the suggestive “potential” of the priest’s very strange uniforms.

The Israelite priests were actually commanded to wear uniforms which juxtaposed wool and linen — a combination of materials forbidden to the laypeople, and also quite capable of holding a static charge (especially with the help of balloons 😉 ). Additionally, they also wore the fringes whose craft has been preserved by Orthodox Jews to this day. Imagine if these fringes were wrapped in wire instead cotton — they could have stepped up/down the voltage of the charge flowing through them.  It is not necessary to demonstrate that these ritual artefacts were ever made to these specifications.  They testify to the fact that the Israelites had the knowledge and skill to braid electrically sound cabling.

Still Suits for Charge

Here is one possible scenario: The priest reports to duty, grounds themselves on the Temple Grid, work all day long, generating a bit of static charge, and then deposits that charge into the power bank of the Arc of the Covenant.

What if all of the activities conducted in the Tabernacle were oriented around collecting, transforming, and storing charge?  Would this scientific/rational explanation for the miracles in the desert denigrate or diminish their significance?  Or, would this kind of explanation elevate their status, and help remind people of how miraculous the world is on a continuous basis?


I am currently in discussions with legal council about the possibility of patenting ideas related to and inspired by my interpretation of the biblical accounts of the tabernacle artefacts and the corresponding priestly activities.  Regenerative living suits might have incredible potential to help raise energy awareness (and in turn, responsibility, and intentionality).  I doubt that I would be able to recapture very much electricity from my everyday motions, but perhaps enough to play a few songs on my mp3 player or talk for a few minutes on my cell phone.   I know if I were camping, this energy would be priceless.

If I pull this off, would the Israelites need to license my patents when they rebuild their temple?  I suppose they could always just relinquish their hold on Intellectual Property entirely… I would be happy either way 😉

I have to admit, I am amused just thinking about the testimony to invalidate my patent based on biblical prior-art. Intriguingly, this historical hypothesis is testable…

See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise skilful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all manner of workmanship. [*]

Faith’s Transmission

Message in a BottleWell, its been 2 months since I participated in MIT’s Media in Transition (MiT6), but the event is still vividly fresh in my mind.

The conference was really amazing. It attracted a really diverse mix of theorists and practitioners, academics and professionals, and folks from many walks of life. This conference I tried to go to talks where I “didn’t belong” – hoping to learn from disciplines I don’t regularly encounter. It was a great strategy, as I often gravitate towards talks that I know something about, wanting to hear the presenter’s take on it, but venturing beyond my usual horizons was much more fun.

Aram Sinnreich and I presented a paper on Strategic Agency in an Age of Limitless Information (abstract, slides), and I am really happy with how things turned out. Hopefully, we’ll work on polishing this paper up to submit to a journal soon, though I don’t really know where we should submit yet.

The videos for the main plenary events are now up and I am looking forward to clipping the little hand grenades I remember throwing during Q&A.

This panel on Archives and History (my question starts @ 1:35:15) wasn’t the only conversation about archiving, but it was fairly representative of the perspectives. It’s too bad MIT World does not provide me with a mechanism to address a point of time in their videos (like our recently liberated VITAL tool allows), so you’ll have to advance the playhead manually to hear me out. It’s basically a riff on – Why Archive? – The beauty of the Sand Mandala and the effort required to actually delete something….

The conversations were very similar to some that we had back in May ’07 at the Open Content conference, but not I think I can finally articulate what’s been bugging me about these conversations. With the help of Ben and John Durham Peters (we shared a bus ride to/from the conf), I realized that archiving can be thought about as a transmission, for anyone, into the future.

I also realized that ordinarily, when we look to the past, we use history to help us understand ourselves better. The presumption that future generations will actually care about us for our own sake, strikes me as narcissistic (narcissism and new media has surfaced on this blog before).  I imagine they will want to use the messages that we send them to help themselves, understand themselves better.  So, to archive purposefully the question becomes – how can we best help the future?

To the archivists who claim we don’t have any idea what questions the future will be asking, so we better save it all – I think I know what the future will be trying to understand about us.  They will likely be trying to figure out what on earth was distracting us while we let the planet die!  We were busy devoting our resources to saving every last copy of American Idol and Big Brother while Gia screamed in agony for help.

So, how can we increase the signal-to-noise ration of the messages we send into the future?  Without somehow reducing the message to the critically problematic golden record on the voyager spaceship, or its successors?  I guess the Long Now Foundation is thinking along these lines, and I have always envied David Vakoch’s job title (Director of Interstellar Message Composition)…  The conference helped me realize that Vakoch and the Long Now have a really similar task – but I don’t know how many archivists conceive of their task as Intergenerational Message Composition.

Perhaps we need to spend even more time curating?  Indicating in our archives why we think they were worth saving? And what’s the most important message we can send into the future? Not like it matters much longer, as I really do believe we are embarking on The End of Forgetting (see our conf paper for more details).

Shifting frames for a moment, what if the ancients had a really important message to send us? Their Theory of Everything, or the equivalent of E=MC^2.  How would they have attempted to transmit it?

When I discussed these ideas w/ my friend Rasmus he recommended I start up a consulting firm specializing in Future Relations. 😉

The year of the hybrid?

Economies, not cars.

Last night I saw Larry Lessig present “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy” as a part of Evan Korth’s amazing Computers and Society speaker series.  The talk was an improved iteration on the talk I saw him present at Wikimania ’06, but it was much tighter – concentrated, but not too dense. He included a few new examples and anecdotes, collapsed earlier presentations into compact sub-segments, and has incorporated Benkler’s hybrid economies (articulated in The Wealth of Networks) into the Read-Only->Read/Write->Hybrid progression.

It really is a pleasure listening to a world-class orator (he has argued cases in front of the supreme court) deliver an argument, and I was trying to pay attention to his rhetorical style, and the ways he has honed the structure of his argument over time.

First, a small bone – For a while, Lessig has been making a bold and provocative assertion that text has become the Latin of our time, and audio and video are the vulgar. Arguments over the correctness of tense aside, I sure wish he would start using the word ‘vernacular’ instead of ‘vulgar’.  ‘Vulgar’ makes the argument sound, well, a bit elitist to me, and when I repeat this claim, I remix it to ‘vernacular’.

More important than quibbling over this choice of words I was a little thrown off by the direction that Lessig wants to take IP reform. Last night he spent a bit of time outlining a scheme that hinges on the analytic distinction between professionals and amateurs. I think he may have been trying to appeal to an intuitive sense of fairness, or perhaps pragmatics, over how professional creators work might be protected by IP while amateurs should be free to create w/out regulation or restriction.

I thought it was downright odd that in one breath he was persuading us that we live in a hybrid world, and in the next trying to maintain the line between amateurs and professionals.  The line between professionals and amateurs is clearly blurring, as the difficulties in applying shield laws to journalists attests. Nowadays, who exactly is The Press, whose freedoms may never be abridged according to the First Amendment? I am really unclear about the definition of a creative professional in a hybrid economy. Would we need to introduce licenses to certify creative professionals? Even in the example of the baby video with Prince music playing in the background, would the situation change if the mother was making money off of google ad-words aside the video?

To me, if you take Benkler’s argument to heart, in a networked world many everyday interactions will be commodified, and favors will turn into transactions. We’ll all become some hybrid of amateur and professional. This doesn’t sound all good to me, as I am not sure I want to live in a world where everything has an exchange value… This paper by Nigel Thrift, Re-inventing invention: new tendencies in capitalist commodification, paints a grimmer picture than Benkler does about the sophisticated ways that knowledge workers are being exploited in the hybrid world we are hurtling towards.

Bruno vs. The Cavemen

This summer I was part of an amazing reading group where we slowed to a crawl and closely read Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature. When I say we read the book, I mean we literally went around the table and read the book out loud, stopping to discuss difficult passages until we were confident we understood them.

I haven’t taken to the time to read a book this closely in ages, and the experience reinforced the age old addage about finding the universe in a grain of sand. Reading a book that deals with such deep eternal themes, written by a brilliant theoretician who has himself synthesized and integrated an incredible amount of history, philosophy, and literature, was like glimpsing the entire cannon through Latour’s eyes, and well worth the effort.

In this work, Latour performs a root canal on a form of conceptual dualism that has haunted Western thought for millennium. The book revolves around a perplexing circumstance in world we have constructed for ourselves – How did we end up in a world where one set of propositions (usually known as facts) are authoritative, unassailable, and incontrovertible and another set of propositions (usually known as values) are the kinds things we are allowed to argue about?

Apart from the challenge of figuring out which of these flawed categories a particular proposition belongs to, the artificial separation between the tasks of constructing the common world and constructing the common good shuts down all possibility of discourse – before we even get a chance to try to arrive at consensus! The institutionalization of facts and values are so inextricably intertwined that it is folly to erect barriers between these two enterprises.

Latour illustrates his perspective with examples from controversies in the sciences (especially Environmentalism and Political Ecology), but it is trivial to transpose his argument to the great debates between objectivity and subjectivity in Journalism, and the ways that certain kinds of propositions (‘data’ in many conversations about technology, and ‘revelation’ in conversations about religion) are invoked as trump cards to shut down all debate. Medical “science”, especially psychiatry and brain science are horrendous perpetrators of these offenses right now, and the consequences are anything but theoretical. The Onion provides my favorite example illustrating the confusion between facts and values.

Latour’s proposed strategy for re-imagining the mexican standoff between nature/culture, science/democracy, facts/values, objectivity/subjectivity, necessity/freedom, etc is to re-tie a metaphysical Gordian knot as an epistemological one. He would like us to consider an dynamically expanding collective of players/concepts, composed of humans and non-humans (the non-humans have spokespeople, whose assertions are speech acts – qualified by the same kinds of language we use to indicate our confidence in any speech act).

Revisiting and reinterpreting Plato’s metaphor of Cave, Latour traces the West’s tendency to cleanly divide smooth facts from messy values to the flawed idea of aspiring to leave the Cave to grasp/glimpse/experience the Truth. Even if this were attainable, the sojourners would still need to return back into the cave, to mediate and relate their experience to those still trapped within. Instead of aspiring to leave the cave, we need to transcend the entire Cave system.

It isn’t completely fair to criticize a book for what it’s missing (no single book can be all things), but it would be great to expand this line of analysis in the future and elaborate on the role of mediation in the current and imagined collective. It seems pretty clear to me that for Latour, the ‘Sciences’ encompass the entire enterprise of Science, including the scientists, the funders, the corporations, the educators, and the scientific journalists. But, there is little in the book that unpacks these relations.

A broader criticism sets an argument that John Durham Peter’s advanced in Speaking into the Air, against Latour’s conception of the Collective. Peter’s argues that we often view communication as salvation, when in fact alot of discourse never leads to consensus, and there are perspectives that are mutually incommensurate and irreconcilable. I may be naive to think the Collective that Latour dreams of is a realistic aspiration, though I sure would love to live to participate in it.

I also want to explore the connections between this work and the Death of Environmentalism essay I encountered last year. I think Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ argument is a vivid and direct application of the theory Latour argues in The Politics of Nature.

Ulises Mejias’ work on Networked Proximity is another work which might be fascinating to juxtapose with the dynamically expanding collective (which, can be thought about as a network).  Ulises’ notions of the para-nodal might be crucial to consider when the collective invokes the power to take things into account.

Passing Virtual Cars

I’ve got a wonderful summer backlog of posts piling up, but I really want to try to keep these posts short(er) and sweet, so I’ll try to compose staccato.

My explorations into virtual worlds have taken a turn for the surreal lately, as I have made a few new close friends who have been graciously teaching me how they play. I feel like I might be coming ridiculously late to the conversation (I don’t often play video games), but my experiences have given me new pause about the raging debate over the potential influence of sex and violence in games/media on people (not just youth).

I have learned first-hand how Second Life encourages people to articulate their fantasies in intricate detail – trying on new fashions, tattoos, piercings, behaviours, and lifestyles. From a few conversations, I am also pretty sure that much of this identity-play sometimes sticks, and often crosses back over into real life.

The whole process is spookily reminiscent of the “manifesting principle,” described in magickal/mystical systems like Chaos Magick (e.g. Carol’s Liber Kaos) and even Kabballah (The Three Abrahamic Covenants and The Car Passing Trick):

  1. Know what you want. Clearly and precisely understand what you want by doing the intellectual work needed to really know what you want and how much it costs (or how impossible it is.)
  2. Sacrifice your(ego)self to the task. Put your heart and soul into your endeavour. Do real work in the physical world towards your goal. Care deeply about the work you are doing. Work (and pray) well beyond your normal point of giving up. Do the work and show your caring anyway, even if it seems that [God] is not listening.
  3. Return your personal will to [God]. Give up, be infinitely patient, and pay attention.

The manifesting principle only works when a person has made a real sacrifice and has continued to work even while they have let go of their expectations of the outcome they desire. When a person short-circuits the full process, nothing happens. When there has been no sacrifice, there is nothing for [God] to respond to. (Stan Tenen, The Purpose of Prayer).

So, while Halo or even Grand Theft Auto might not cross some yet unknown threshold, I am mildly concerned about the World of Warcraft players. Sure, many of them are just playing, but some might be inflicting real emotional harm on other real people. Something to ponder.

I haven’t really worked this out in detail yet, but I also wonder if Geertz’s notion of “deep play” (introduced in Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cock Fight) might be useful and relevant here. The deep play he describes shares many characteristics with these mystical formulas and the magical substrate that Second Life has clearly become for some people. Something the Stanford lab is trying to systematically measure and observe, though I don’t think they have floating this particular hypothesis yet 😉

In many ways my conversations and immersion in the wonderful Play as Being project and community have helped me think about these relationships (especially ‘letting go’, the final step in manifesting), but I will save some of the direct connections for a future post.

The Zen of Life^2

cgon370l.jpgI suppose it was only a matter of time before I experienced something within Second Life that caught my interest. Though I work on and study social software, I haven’t been particularly giddy about metaverses (multiplayer, persistent, 3D immersive environments) for a variety of reasons – perhaps tracing back to the fact that I haven’t really enjoyed playing too many computer games.

As a free software developer I have participated in quite a few post-geographic projects where communication is managed quite effictively in 2D. While I recognize the value of ‘presence’ and synchronous communications, I doubted that an avatar added much additional value to a communicative experience.

This semester I am personally participating in a digital studio, where we have held some meetings inside Adobe’s Connect, but have found the experience cumbersome, adding little value over irc (or, at least, VOIP + text, like in skype). I usually dread video conferenced meetings, though its sometimes worthwhile to share a browser. At work, we helped set up a Global Classroom for the Earth Institute, which has been receiving rave reviews, but is mostly just a shared video experience (with a few live events). Prior to this week, I have visited second life on a handful of occasions as a guest, but mostly just been reading about it, watching videos, and hovering over other people’s shoulders while they play.

All this changed this week, after a chance encounter with a professor, Piet Hut, whose work I encountered years ago as an undergrad. His dialogue with Bas Van Fraassen on The Elements of Reality really helped me crystallize my thinking on a range of philosophical questions, and the perspective explored in this conversation may serve as an effective bridge between ancient and modern metaphysics.

Prof. Hut is an astrophysicist at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (which now, more than ever, reminds me of the village) , and he takes phenomenology and mysticism pretty seriously. His interdisciplinary research is really all over the map and I dig his philosophies of science. His writing is usually clear and free of jargon.

I have not been keeping up with his work, but when I saw his name on the schedule at the CSSR Neuroscience and Free Will conference, I decided to crash his talk (and I figured there would be coffee and snacks).

In his talk he mentioned some of his latest work inside of virtual worlds, including new ways of conceptualizing (scientific) simulations and research. I was quite receptive to this topic, since I have been thinking a whole lot about how Technology is transforming Epistemology, which I have started writing about here, and hope to expand upon at the end of this semester (um… that’s in a few weeks!).

His latest project though is another trip entirely – (or, perhaps identical, from the inside-out ;-)). The project, Play As Being is described and tracked on that blog, and is a bit tough to explain in words – you sorta have to try it to understand/believe it.

So, I kinda had an enlightening experience inside of SL. I learned about the potentialities of virtual worlds as phenomenological laboratories. While I was there last night I was attentive to my minds restlessness (how weird is it that after 45 minutes I was compelled to stand my avatar up and stretch my “legs”?) and learned a few new RL practices. I brought the lessons back to meatspace today, and was much more mindful of my body and breathing. I’m not on the full 1% time-tax rhythm, but I am working on picking out mnemonic bells so I can introduce a bit more discipline into the flow of my experience.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been that surprised at the cognitive value of a 3D experience. I mean, I’ve read about The Loci Method in books like The Art of Memory. But the idea of using the environment as a Zen training studio really blew me away. I imagine you really need the right group for the experience to work, but I am quite impressed by this particular purposeful use of this instrument. It took a really good teacher(s), but I have a much better appreciation for effectively using SL as a space to practice mindfulness and contemplate Being.

Has anyone else heard of things like this happening w/in SL?

A round trip ticket, out of this world


Since I am total flosstitute I do lots of my work on the beautiful OS X desktop, though the servers I administer are all linux, and on my new thinkpad laptop I finally bit the bullet and wiped the windows partition (it came with vista, so there wasn’t much deliberation). My only encounters with windows nowadays are through virtualization, so I feel like I have that demon safely caged.

One of the things I love about the mac are the little easter eggs you can find if you hunt around long enough (or more likely accidentally stumble upon).

One of these black-ops is the music visualization software that comes with iTunes (at least on OS X). I seem to recall something about a Christian fundamentalist writing it originally, right before joining the navy and serving on a submarine crew. Thing is, he couldn’t get this piece of software out of his head, and winded up leaving the military to work on this software full time. I think Madonna used to use early prototypes at her private parties, and one way or another he started working at Apple, apparently on the iTunes team. (this is all from memory, and I couldn’t find a source, in case anyone has heard this story also).

In any case, I occasionally remember to check in on this tool, and it’s gotten better with ever release of OS X. I think last year I discovered that if you run it in full screen mode it seems to use a much improved rendering engine, and maybe even a different algorithm.

None of this prepared me for the experience that I had Tuesday night. A few months back I learned about a wicked cool piece of software on Alexander Limi (the Plone founder’s) blog. The software is called nocturne, and is pretty friggin cool on its own. It’s not much more than a simple set of macros that invert the hues of your display – to either black and white, inverted color hues, or even submarine red. It’s really nice if you want to use your computer at the end of the day, but don’t want to deal with all the energy of a full backlight.

So anyway, I had this kooky idea (no drugs involved!) to turn on the iTunes music visualizer with nocturne in night mode, and I simply could not believe my senses. I was witnessing the audioloom – an idea I had begun to think about a few years back that originated with the simple question – can synesthesia be learned? I became very interested in the natural relationships between color and sound, noticing that both seem to come in octaves (think of the color wheel – a venn diagram defining 3 singles, 3 doubles, 1 triple, and the background, making 7+1… just like the western musical scale!).

I even remember what sparked this question. I was playing with a new set of Christmas lights, the kind with a remote control that makes the lights dance in different patterns. The important part of this experiment was leaving the lights ordered neatly in the box, instead of making a tangled mess. With this arrangement, when I played music, I could swear that the photons were dancing to the beat 😉

In any case, I was intrigued by the possibility that there might be a fundamental ontological relationship between sound and color, but even with this foray into metaphysics, I thought there might be a natural mapping between these two types of sense data, one that might be empirically determinable.

I did some research on synesthesia, and read a great book called The Man Who Tasted Shapes. My idea began to take shape as a multi-phase project. Phase I was this screensaver on steroids, but Phase II is a musical instrument that plays light instead of sound. As with all fun ideas, there is nothing new under the sun, and many philosophers/inventors ranging from Aristotle to Newton to Benjamin Franklin have taken a crack at this problem (timeline), but the idea was ahead of its time… Until now.

So, back to Nocturne’s night mode. When I went full screen with non-monotone inverted hues, I swear to god it felt like I was entering a wormhole. Right out of that scene in Carl Sagan’s Contact, except without the extraneous seat that the stupid humans built.

I was transfixed, and will freely admit that on this first trip I spent a solid 2 hours staring at the screen and listening to my favorite tunes. Every time a song would end, I would wonder what another of my favorites would look like. I think the difference between day mode and night mode is that the visualizer outputs mostly dark. By inverting the hues, the screen explodes with backlit energy. Enough to keep your eyes working overtime. It was kinda like watching TV, except that instead of being hypnotizing, it was mesmerizing. I mean, I was grooving on my favorite music, but my eyes weren’t jealous of my ears – everyone had their work cut out for them.

Unlike TV, the audioloom experience requires active processing, as your brain frantically struggles to find patters in the sequences and segues. Since I don’t think the shapes and transitions are computed deterministically, there is an element of Art combined with the engineering mathematics displayed on the screen.

It made me wonder if this feeling would normally have required 10 years of devoted study in an ashram to replicate before this technology came along. One way or another, the experience was transcendental, and I just hope I haven’t stumbled upon the Videodrome, or the mysterious plot device in Infinite Jest

In any case, I plan to continue my experiments and keep you posted with updates. It is quite a relief that I might not actually need to implement this invention one day. Just goes to show, ideas kept secret, go stale.

Solstice Special

moonmars_071127_harms800.jpgI haven’t posted much here lately, but I have been writing. I just finished my first semester as a doctoral student in the Journalism school and completed a flurry of term papers.

These two are from my pro-seminar with Michael Schudson, a class meant to introduce us to the history of the field and the faculty in the program. Our final assignment was to identify gaps in the field, which is a tough one, as all non-existence proofs are — especially in an interdisciplinary field, there will always be a fringe element occupying the gap.

People in the class interpreted the assignment in two ways — some chose to identify gaps, while other actually went out and tried to fill some. I took the opportunity to begin to pre-emptively answer the question I am sure to be challenged with in the years ahead – the ever-daunting methodolgical quetsion — what on earth am I doing and how am I am doing it?

Out of Thin Air: Metaphor, Imagination, and Design in Communication Studies

(and this was the midterm paper which got me thinking in this direction Transcending Tradition: America and the Philosophers of Communication).

I also took a wonderful class this semester at the New School taught by Paolo Carpignano (The Political Economy of Media – here is the syllabus). The class was all about the shifting relations between fabrication and communication, or more colloquially, work and play. We opened with Marx and Arendt and closed with Benkler and boyd. I took the opportunity to capture some of my experiences working on the Plone project before they fade from memory.

Fabricating Freedom: Free Software Developers at Work and Play

I am really glad to be done with the semester and am looking forward to a few weeks of “just” working full time!

Crowded Wisdom

This week I saw a presentation given by a member of the Yahoo!/Berkeley research team.

At the talk, Dr. Naaman demoed this unassuming tool that his group has been working on:

TagMaps (live demo, description)

I am really glad I went to the talk, since the demo helped me understand how sophisticated this tool really is. I had a definite ah-ha moment learning about all the new flavors of semantic information soon to be mined from the massive amounts of memories we are collectively recording.

During the talk I was reminded of this recent essay on Evolution and the Wisdom of the Crowds which explains how counter-intuitive these emergent properties are to our everyday experience. But, this seemingly teleological construction of semantic knowledge naturally emerges from a rich enough system, as the flickr research demonstrates.

To clarify what you are looking at here, no humans tuned or trained the system to teach it which are the significant landmarks in these regions. The representation is computed using the aggregate processing of many, many tags. These tags are starting to provide enough information to disambiguate different senses of a word (based on the adjacent tags that are also present). Patterns are also discernible from the spatial-temporal information on these photos, and yearly events (e.g. BYOBW) have been detected and recognized by the system. Formerly unanswerable questions, like “What are the boundaries of the Lower East Side?”, now have a fuzzy answer of a sort, in the form of collective voting.

While the UI work here is neat, it pales in comparison to this Jaw-dropping Photosynth demo presented at TED this year (though it does beat the pants of the current UI of pink dots on a map which forces you to paginate over all the matching pictures in batches of 20). The widget is even available as web service which you can feed your own data into.

But, the real work here is going on behind the scenes. It’s being published and presented in CS contexts, just in case anyone thought this “social media” stuff was for just for kids.

How flickr helps us make sense of the world: context and content in community-contributed media collections

There is certainly lots to digest here. It’s one thing for an algorithm to decide on the most representative photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge essentially based on popularity (though its a shame that avat-garde art photos will be automatically marginalized through this technique), but its quite another to imagine other important areas of discourse being regressed to the mean – its an odd sort of leveling effect that is likely another manifestation of Jaron Laniers’ Digital Maoism.

The presenter did note that social media designers do need to anticipate feedback effects, as when they launch a new tool and users adjust to the new conditions and modify their behavior accordingly (or begin to “game” the system to take advantage of it).

We are a long way from 1960’s AI and its conviction that the world is best modeled and represented as a series of explicit propositions.

Emergent Intentionality

fractal.gifOr, My Fancy Rationale for Indulging in Conspiracy Theories.

New Scientist just ran a story on The Lure of Conspiracy Theory. They claim that:

Conspiracy theories can have a valuable role in society. We need people to think “outside the box”, even if there is usually more sense to be found inside the box. The close scrutiny of evidence and the dogged pursuit of alternative explanations are key features of investigative journalism and critical scientific thinking. Conspiracy theorists can sometimes be the little guys who bring the big guys to account – including multinational companies and governments.

I strongly agree with this position, and consider the natural tension between dogged skepticism and flagrant bootstrapping to be a good methodology for fostering creative scientific thought.

But I think the NS story misses an important angle of conspiracy theories that I have been wondering about lately.

The question I have been wondering about is to what extent can group behavior can be understood or characterized as conscious/willful/intentional. How much ideology do members of a group need to share before their behavior can be understood (and perhaps predicted) as an intentional agent? Is postulating intentionality a useful heuristic for understanding group behavior?

I am not going to follow this idea too far in this post, but this position provides an alternative perspective on theories like the idea that all Peace Corp volunteers are CIA agents, and why theories like this become so popular. Our cognitive capacities are poorly equipped to percieve complex emergent behaviors, and postulating intentionality may serve as a natural (and useful) strategy for capturing these patterns.

I personally trace the philosophical genealogy of this idea to Daniel Dennett’s Intensional Stance, but a friend of mine pointed out that this idea can also be found in Madison’s Federalist Paper #10. The main idea behind Dennett’s intensional stance is that we can bracket the deep, hard, ontological questions about the nature of consciousness and simply observe how useful taking the intensional stance is as a heuristic for understanding other people’s behavior. We posit intentionality which yields reliable predictions about agents (philosophical agents, not the ones working for letter agencies) in the world around us. And we don’t limit the intensional stance to other people either – we regularly adopt this stance with animals and machines, often to great utility.

For whatever its worth, labeling something a conspiracy theory sometimes seems like a pejorative, non-rational critique. Heck, Al-Queda is a conspiracy theory (and an open source project, according to Bruce Sterling’s SXSW ’07 Rant), but perversely, it’s the Power of Nightmare‘s attempt to dispel this fabrication that is labeled the conspiracy.

But, I really want to live in a universe in which we actually landed on the moon.

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