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The End of Cyberspace

Søren Pold, «Interface Realisms: The Interface as Aesthetic Form:»

The interface is the basic aesthetic form of digital art. Just as literature has predominantly taken place in and around books, and painting has explored the canvas, the interface is now a central aesthetic form conveying digital information of all kinds. This circumstance is simultaneously trivial, provocative, and far-reaching—trivial because the production, reproduction, distribution and reception of digital art increasingly take place at an interface; provocative because it means that we should start seeing the interface as an aesthetic form in itself that offers a new way to understand digital art in its various guises, rather than as a functional tool for making art (and doing other things); and, finally, far-reaching in providing us with the possibility of discussing contemporary reality and culture as an interface culture.

Technorati Tags: culture, design, digital culture, end of cyberspace, interface

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The End of Cyberspace

To say that Anthony Grafton has a «brilliant essay» in the latest New Yorker is a bit like saying that John Woo has directed an «action-packed movie:» in both cases, the adjective is superfluous, because their work is always like that. Grafton, a professor at Princeton, is unquestionably one of the smartest historians practicing today, and writes mainly on Renaissance and early modern intellectual history.

His New Yorker piece is on digitization and the quest for the universal library, and it nicely shows how a deep knowledge of the history of books and ideas can be used to help understand the future of new media.

Google’s [book scanning and library] projects, together with rival initiatives by Microsoft and Amazon, have elicited millenarian prophecies about the possibilities of digitized knowledge and the end of the book as we know it. Last year, Kevin Kelly, the self-styled “senior maverick” of Wired, predicted, in a piece in the Times, that “all the books in the world” would “become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.” The user of the electronic library would be able to bring together “all texts—past and present, multilingual—on a particular subject,” and, by doing so, gain “a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don’t know.” Others have evoked even more utopian prospects, such as a universal archive that will contain not only all books and articles but all documents anywhere—the basis for a total history of the human race.

In fact, the Internet will not bring us a universal library, much less an encyclopedic record of human experience. None of the firms now engaged in digitization projects claim that it will create anything of the kind. The hype and rhetoric make it hard to grasp what Google and Microsoft and their partner libraries are actually doing. We have clearly reached a new point in the history of text production. On many fronts, traditional periodicals and books are making way for blogs and other electronic formats. But magazines and books still sell a lot of copies. The rush to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical moments in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up but in one in a long series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive.

Grafton argues that efforts to create universal libraries, and efforts to create personal tools for working with and making sense of ever-larger bodies of information, are as old as the written word itself. Further, as big as the projects that Google, Amazon and Microsoft have undertaken, they’re still not likely to create a «universal library» that includes all the kinds of physical media— from early books to letters to architectural models— that make up the world of knowledge. Finally, though, Grafton argues that the future isn’t one in which databases replace books and archives, but one in which they coexist:

these streams of [digital] data, rich as they are, will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books….

For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. No one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen. But if you want to know what one of Coleridge’s annotated books or an early “Spider-Man” comic really looks and feels like, or if you just want to read one of those millions of books which are being digitized, you still have to do it the old way, and you will have to for decades to come. At the New York Public Library, the staff loves electronic media. The library has made hundreds of thousands of images from its collections accessible on the Web, but it has done so in the knowledge that its collection comprises fifty-three million items.

In a way, this isn’t a new argument: the «books and electronic resources will complement, each other, not compete» vision isn’t unique to Grafton, though he does do an especially good job making it. (I suppose you might call the piece unoriginal, but it if is, it’s unoriginal the way a Gil Evans Orchestra cover of Jimi Hendrix’s «Little Wing» is unoriginal: Evans didn’t write it, but he definitely took it places Jimi never imagined.)

Technorati Tags: end of cyberspace, history

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The End of Cyberspace

Søren Pold, «Interface Realisms: The Interface as Aesthetic Form,» Postmodern Culture 15:2 (2005).

The graphical user interface (GUI) as we know it does not stem from an aesthetic tradition, but from an engineering tradition that has paradoxically tried to get rid of it. . . . If the computer and the interface really had become truly invisible and transparent, computers would mingle almost seamlessly with the world as we know it—perhaps making it a bit «smarter.» If this were true, digital technologies would probably not have any paradigmatic effect on culture and aesthetics since they would not make a marked difference, but of course reality has proven otherwise, and we can now begin to acknowledge the massive cultural and aesthetic impact of digital technologies. . . . What is an interface? The purpose of the interface is to represent the data, the dataflow, and data structures of the computer to the human senses, while simultaneously setting up a frame for human input and interaction and translating this input back into the machine. Interfaces have many different manifestations and the interface is generally a dynamic form, a dynamic representation of the changing states of the data or software and of the user’s interaction. Consequently, the interface is not a static, material object. Still it is materialized, visualized, and has the effect of a (dynamic) representational form. . . .

The interface aims to visualise invisible data. It is a new kind of image originating in an engineering tradition and can be understood as an extension of instruments like radar and scientific tools, which do not represent any analogue image of reality but rather sheer data.11 As formulated by Scott deLahunta, the interface is «more information than likeness; more measurement than representation.» Consequently, realism is the dominant representational mode of the interface, even though it is a complex, informational, and postmodern realism.12 In the following, I shall point out three rather different kinds of interface realism: illusionistic, media, and functional realism.

Technorati Tags: design, digital culture, interface

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The End of Cyberspace

  • The interface is the basic aesthetic form of digital art. Just as literature has predominantly taken place in and around books, and painting has explored the canvas, the interface is now a central aesthetic form conveying digital information of all kinds.
  • «Understanding the symbolic role they play in the cultural imaginary will help libraries to map a future that addresses public concerns about the preservation of the historical record.»
  • Discussion of what Library 2.0 is and isn’t. Is it a technology? Coffee access? A dessert topping, or a floor polish?
  • U. of Sheffield’s library/study space/IT center. «Our Information Commons is a brand new, futuristic building that was born out of completely fresh thinking about learning resources for the 21st century student.»
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The End of Cyberspace

  • MIT «has sued the architect Frank Gehry and a construction company, claiming that “design and construction failures” in the institute’s $300 million Stata Center resulted in pervasive leaks, cracks and drainage problems that have required costly rep
  • «The basic terminology that determines the cyberspace reality — the Internet, Web, domain, gateway, site, interface, online… is to a large extent the terminology of spatial geometry. It is reflecting the absence of time in the virtual network»
  • «Cyberspace Odyssey offers a surprising interpretation of what is happening right before our very eyes: from the furtive advent of transhumanism to the critical emancipatory potential of the computer game SimCity.»
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The End of Cyberspace

Sam Kinsley turned me on to Stephen Graham’s 1998 essay «The end of geography or the explosion of place? Conceptualizing space, place and information technology,» Progress in Human Geography 22:2 (1998) pp. 165-185:

Too often, then, the pervasive reliance on spatial and technological metaphors actually serves to obfuscate the complex relations between new communications and information technologies and space, place and society. In the simple, binary allegations that new technologies help us to access a new `electronic space’ or `place’, which somehow parallels the lived material spaces of human territoriality, little conscious thought is put to thinking conceptually about how new information technologies actually relate to the spaces and places bound up with human territorial life. Without a thorough and critical consideration of space and place, and how new information technologies relate to, and are embedded in them, reflections on cyberspace, and the economic, social and cultural dynamics of the shift to growing `telemediation’, seem likely to be reductionist, deterministic, oversimplistic and stale.

In this article I aim to explore some of the emerging conceptual treatments of the relationships between information technology systems and space and place. Building on my recent work with Simon Marvin on the relationships between telecommunications and contemporary cities (Graham and Marvin, 1996), and on conceptualizing telecommunications-based urban change (Graham, 1996; 1997a), I identify three broad, dominating perspectives and explore them in turn. First, there is the perspective of substitution and transcendence ± the idea that human territoriality, and the space and place-based dynamics of human life, can somehow be replaced using new technologies. Secondly, there is the co-evolution perspective which argues that both the electronic `spaces’ and territorial spaces are necessarily produced together, as part of the ongoing restructuring of the capitalist political-economic system. Finally, there is the recombination perspective, which draws on recent work in actor-network theory. Here the argument is that a fully relational view of the links between technology, time, space and social life is necessary. Such a perspective reveals how new technologies become enrolled into complex, contingent and subtle blendings of human actors and technical artifacts, to form actor-networks (which are sociotechnical `hybrids’). Through these, social and spatial life become subtly and continuously recombined in complex combinations of new sets of spaces and times, which are always contingent and impossible to generalize.

Technorati Tags: city, cyberspace, end of cyberspace, place/space

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The End of Cyberspace

  • «One of the unintended effects of new information technology has been the obsolescence of the buildings housing the technology. information technology can be building-independent, but our buildings are not technology— independent.»
  • «This article reviews “information commons” concepts and describes administrative and functional integration in an academic library information commons.»
  • The author’s conceptualization of an Information Commons (IC) is revisited and elaborated…. The IC’s role as testbed for instructional support and knowledge discovery is explored, and progress on pertinent research is reviewed.»
  • «[T]he Chemistry Library at the University of Chicago and its librarians have responded to changes in the university and in society, including changes in the practice of librarianship, scientific publishing, chemical research, and higher education.»
  • UCSC converted its periodicals room into an «Information Center» designed to be the «‘destination of choice’ for students, faculty, staff, and members of our greater community even in this digital age.»
  • Brief report on visits to «such major libraries in Beijing as Tsinghua University Library, Beijing University Library, Beijing Capital Library, and the National Science and Technology Library (NSTL).»
  • «Actor-Network Theory (ANT) offers an interdisciplinary vocabulary and methodology that may have promising application to understanding… the complex state of flux in scholarly communications and publishing today… and its impact on libraries.»
  • «Digital and textual objects are coming under a new kind of scrutiny as scholars are becoming more interested in physical artifacts and their relation to their social and cultural environment…. [We] need to explore the nature of digital materiality.»
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The End of Cyberspace

A cool-looking conference at the Annenberg School this weekend….

The Hyperlinked Society Most internet users know hyperlinks as highlighted words on a web page that take them to certain other sites. But hyperlinks today are quite complex forms of instant connection—for example, tags, API mashups, and RSS feeds. Moreover, media convergence has led to increased instant linking among desktop computers, cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, digital video recorders, and even billboards. Through these activities and far more, “links” are becoming the basic forces that relate creative works to one another. Links nominate what ideas and actors have the right to be heard and with what priority. Various stakeholders in society recognize the political and economic value of these connections. Governments, corporations, non-profits and individual media users often work to digitally privilege certain ideas over others.

Do links encourage people to see beyond their personal situations and know the broad world in diverse ways? Or, instead, do links encourage people to drill into their own territories and not learn about social concerns that seem irrelevant to their personal interests? What roles do economic and political considerations play in creating links that nudge people in one or the other direction?

The notion of links «becoming the basic forces that relate creative works to one another,» and helping to define «what ideas and actors have the right to be heard and with what priority» strikes me as right on (it has strong echoes of actor-network theory, a branch of science studies that I’ve drawn on in my own work). Personally, I would make the case that you need to pay more attention to things that hyperlink between physical objects and digital information, like Semapedia. (David Weinberger recently declared that «Last year, it was Web 2.0 and tagging. This year, it’s going to be unique IDs (UIDs).») The rise of these links is going to have very serious implications for structuring connection, attention, and influence.

It also make me wonder, to what degree has the character of hyperlinks influenced the way we’ve thought about cyberspace? Way back when, hyperlinks were Really Cool: I still remember how much time I lavished on them when, as an instructor at UC Davis, I put together my first course Web site.

It also seems to me that there’s a growing serious interest in charting the cognitive impacts of new media: Susan Greenfield’s recent speech calling for more study of the relationship between new technology and our brains seems to have crystallized something.

Technorati Tags: conference, cyberspace, end of cyberspace, internet

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From his Wired column, republished on Collision Detection:

[T]he cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we’ve outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us. And frankly, I kind of like it. I feel much smarter when I’m using the Internet as a mental plug-in during my daily chitchat…. Machine memory even changes the way I communicate, because I continually stud my IMs with links, essentially impregnating my very words with extra intelligence. You could argue that by offloading data onto silicon, we free our own gray matter for more germanely «human» tasks like brainstorming and daydreaming. What’s more, the perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking. For example, I’ve been blogging for four years, which means I’ve poured out about a million words’ worth of my thoughts online. This regularly produces the surreal and delightful experience of Googling a topic only to unearth an old post that I don’t even remember writing. The machine helps me rediscover things I’d forgotten I knew — it’s what author Cory Doctorow refers to as an «outboard brain.»

Still, I have nagging worries. Sure, I’m a veritable genius when I’m on the grid, but am I mentally crippled when I’m not? Does an overreliance on machine memory shut down other important ways of understanding the world?

Technorati Tags: cyborg, end of cyberspace, memory, psychology

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At the conference. I walked in after the first session, and as all the tables seem to be full, and I’m not sure there’s power at the tables, I’m sitting on the floor near a plug. It’s probably more comfortable for me, anyway.

Incredibly, there seems to be no Wifi in the room. Can that be? Can we have hundreds of people here, and the ratio of wireless devices to people is probably over 2 to 1.

The conference has an interesting format: it’s alternating between traditional sessions and «fast pitch» sessions with entrepreneurs talking about their mobile products. So Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn gives a keynote, then several people from companies that are in stealth come up and give quick demos. Unfortunately, they can’t find the wifi either; as one of the moderators put it, it seems we need to make more sacrifices to the demo gods.

They’re raffling off Nokia N95 phones. I haven’t won one yet, alas, but it sounds like they’ve got a decent number.

Someone just walked off with my program. Sheesh.

Technorati Tags: conference, end of cyberspace, Mobile Mash-Up 2007, mobility