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The End of Cyberspace

I’m going to Oxford this summer for the workshop on imagining business. I’ll be talking about «paper spaces,» the large, often room-sized roadmaps, timelines, and other documents the Institute uses in its workshops.

I’ve put a PDF of the paper online; I may experiment with putting a copy on Google Docs, and using Zotero to manage the citations (though that seems iffy, given that I often write pretty long footnotes). Whatever environment I use, the piece is like to undergo substantial revision over the next couple months, as I know there are a couple parts of the argument I want to expand. Here’s the introduction:

This article is about paper spaces: room-sized maps, timelines, and charts used to develop, record and share ideas. When used in collaborative work, paper spaces support both focused, creative activity—the creation of a strategy roadmap, the outlines of a software development project, etc.—and informal social goals, like the development of a sense of community or common vision. These are essentially very large pieces of paper, but the term «paper spaces» (the term is borrowed from computer-aided design ) highlights several things. First, we’re used to thinking of things made of paper as physical objects whose qualities help shape the experience of reading, but it’s useful to pay attention to their spatial and architectural qualities as well. Large visuals aren’t just things: they’re spaces that possess some of the qualities of desks or offices. IFTF workshops exploit their scale and physicality to promote social activity between workshop participants. In this case, the spatiality of paper is fairly self-evident; but many of our interactions with paper, books, and writing have a spatial quality. Scholars could gain much by analyzing print media using conceptual tools from architecture, design, and human-computer interaction, as well as literary theory and book history.

Second, studying paper spaces help us understand the role that visualizations play in contemporary organizations. Historians have used studies of visual media and visual thinking to expand our understanding of science, technology, and other fields. The business world is supersaturated with visualizations—everything from advertisements, to PowerPoint presentations, to org charts, to brands, to workflows and flow charts—and studying those images could bring similar benefits. At the same time, it warns us against taking too passive or formal a view of visual tools in business, of treating them like paintings on a wall. In the way users interact with them— they’re annotated, extended, argued over, and played with— they’re more like Legos than landscapes. The process of creating maps, and the maps themselves, both reflect a set of attitudes about how to understand and prepare for the future, one that emphasizes user involvement, and the need for actors to develop and possess

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The End of Cyberspace

Legend has it that when ENIAC, the first digital computer, was switched on for the first time, it drew so much power from the Philadelphia electrical grid it caused a brownout. Since then, computers— and supercomputers in particular— have always been significant consumers of electrical power. For the next generation of supercomputers, operating at petaflop speeds and working on things like detailed climate models, power consumption could represent a significant limiting factor. As Electronics Design Strategy reports,

In an irony of this environmentally conscious era, the supercomputers used to study issues such as climate change themselves impose a significant carbon footprint—consuming megawatts of electricity both directly and for the elaborate cooling systems that are required to deal with the excessive heat they generate. Even so, scientists wishing to tackle leading-edge research need 100× to 1000× more computing throughput than today’s high-end systems can provide.

Scientists at UC-Berkeley and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center have proposed a new supercomputer design «using millions of low-power embedded microprocessors instead of conventional server processors,» which is projected to use a fraction of the power of previous supercomputers. As Berkeley Research News explains:

To develop a 1-km cloud model, scientists would need a supercomputer that is 1,000 times more powerful than what is available today, the researchers say. But building a supercomputer powerful enough to tackle this problem is a huge challenge. Historically, supercomputer makers build larger and more powerful systems by increasing the number of conventional microprocessors — usually the same kinds of microprocessors used to build personal computers…. [A] system capable of modeling clouds at a 1-km scale would cost about $1 billion. The system also would require 200 megawatts of electricity to operate, enough energy to power a small city of 100,000 residents.

The proposed Berkeley-Tensilica computer, in contrast, would «consume less than 4 megawatts of power and achieve a peak performance of 200 petaflops.» According to Electronics Design Strategy,

The joint effort will focus on massively parallel designs featuring large numbers of processor cores connected via optimized links…. Each core dissipates just a few hundred milliwatts while churning out billions of FLOPS, representing an order-of-magnitude improvement in FLOPS per watt over traditional desktop or server processor chips, according to Tensilica. A supercomputer harnessing millions of such cores, tightly integrated at the chip, board, and rack level, will achieve the exascale goal within a power budget of «a few megawatts.»

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The End of Cyberspace

One of the things I’ve come to realize in the course of this project is how rewarding it can be to look closely at humans’ interactions with computers, mobile devices, and other technologies. Cyberspace, I’m arguing, made sense in a world in which getting online was hard, and there were clearer behavioral divides between the everyday world that we inhabit naturally, and the online «world» that we visited via computer modem. Today, things like the cellphone, iPhone, and Intel’s new Mobile Information Devices, combined with the proliferation of wireless networks and always-on services, are all eroding that sense of the digital world as something separate from regular life.

Today I saw another example of how changes in the ways we engage with technologies can break down conceptual divisions— this time involving the divide between people and robots. New Scientist reports on a project by Georgia Tech researchers Ja-Young Sung and Rebecca Grinter that examines how people interact with the Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner. Apparently a lot of owners give their Roomba a name, dress it up, or even take it on vacations:

«Dressing up Roomba happens in many ways,» Sung says. People also often gave their robots a name and gender, according to the survey… which Sung presented at the Human-Robot Interaction conference earlier this month in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Kathy Morgan, an engineer based in Atlanta, said that her robot wore a sticker saying «Our Baby», indicating that she viewed it almost as part of the family. «We just love it. It frees up our lives from so much cleaning drudgery,» she says.

Sung believes that the notion of humans relating to their robots almost as if they were family members or frien

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The End of Cyberspace

I’m going to Oxford this summer for the workshop on imagining business. I’ll be talking about «paper spaces,» the large, often room-sized roadmaps, timelines, and other documents the Institute uses in its workshops.

I’ve put a PDF of the paper online; I may experiment with putting a copy on Google Docs, and using Zotero to manage the citations (though that seems iffy, given that I often write pretty long footnotes). Whatever environment I use, the piece is like to undergo substantial revision over the next couple months, as I know there are a couple parts of the argument I want to expand. Here’s the introduction:

This article is about paper spaces: room-sized maps, timelines, and charts used to develop, record and share ideas. When used in collaborative work, paper spaces support both focused, creative activity—the creation of a strategy roadmap, the outlines of a software development project, etc.—and informal social goals, like the development of a sense of community or common vision. These are essentially very large pieces of paper, but the term «paper spaces» (the term is borrowed from computer-aided design ) highlights several things. First, we’re used to thinking of things made of paper as physical objects whose qualities help shape the experience of reading, but it’s useful to pay attention to their spatial and architectural qualities as well. Large visuals aren’t just things: they’re spaces that possess some of the qualities of desks or offices. IFTF workshops exploit their scale and physicality to promote social activity between workshop participants. In this case, the spatiality of paper is fairly self-evident; but many of our interactions with paper, books, and writing have a spatial quality. Scholars could gain much by analyzing print media using conceptual tools from architecture, design, and human-computer interaction, as well as literary theory and book history.

Second, studying paper spaces help us understand the role that visualizations play in contemporary organizations. Historians have used studies of visual media and visual thinking to expand our understanding of science, technology, and other fields. The business world is supersaturated with visualizations—everything from advertisements, to PowerPoint presentations, to org charts, to brands, to workflows and flow charts—and studying those images could bring similar benefits. At the same time, it warns us against taking too passive or formal a view of visual tools in

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The End of Cyberspace

From National Defense Magazine, a short account of a meeting of SIGMA, «a loosely affiliated group of science fiction writers who are offering pro bono advice to anyone in government who want their thoughts on how to protect the nation:»

The 45-minute panel discussion quickly deteriorated as federal, local and state homeland security officials, and at least one congressional aid, attempted to ask questions, which were largely ignored.

Instead the writers used their time to pontificate on a variety of tangentially related topics, including their past roles advising the government, predictions in their stories that have come to pass, the demise of the paperback book market, and low-cost launch into space.

[To the tune of Perpetual Groove, «Naive Melody,» from the album «Live at the Georgia Theatre, 31 December 2005».]

Technorati Tags: science, science_fiction, security

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The End of Cyberspace

Nigel Thrift, «Movement-space: the changing domain of thinking resulting from the development of new kinds of spatial awareness,» Economy and Society 33:4 (November 2004): 582-604. [pdf]

In other recent articles Thirft has «looked at how, as a result of the intervention of software and new forms of address, these background time-spaces are changing their character, producing novel kinds of behaviours that would not have been possible before and new types of object which presage more active environments.» This paper argues that «the activity of calculation has become so ubiquitous that it has entered a new phase, which I call ‘qualculation’,» (584) and this new form of calculation is starting to change the way we perceive and think about space.

The World of Paratexts

«All human activity depends upon an imputed background whose content is rarely questioned: it is there because it is there. It is the surface on which life floats.» This used to be largely natural, but in the last century industrialization has created a new artificial background shaping human activity. «Now a second wave of second nature is appearing, extending its fugitive presence though object frames as diverse as cables, formulae, wireless signals, screens, software, artificial fibres and so on.» This is a mundane, inescapable «fugitive materiality» that requires a lot of invisible support— e.g., the creation of metrics, standards, addresses, and modularity. But if «all these characteristics can be imposed, then the logic of the system, as it becomes both necessary and general, will gradually become the logic of the world.» (586)

From Quantification to Qualculation: The Growth of Calculation

«The growth of quantitative calculation in the world… is a long and complicated story» going back to the ancient Greeks. «But what seems certain is that the sheer amount of calculation going on in the world has undergone a major shift of late… [and] is becoming a ubiquitous element of human life» (586) thanks to the growth of computing power, growth of ubiquitous computing, and the of substitution of «analytic solutions… by brute computing force.» (587)

Just as earlier systems for creating and organizing knowledge about the world— ranging from the discovery of mathematical notation in ancient Greece (a process akin to the impact of writing described by Havelock Ellis and other), to new visions of space in the Scientific Revolution, to information management tools in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the rise of logistics in the 20th century, all «produced a new sense of the world and new forms of representation of it, so we can see something similar happening now.» (587) In all these historical cases, and today, «number does not just describe, it constructs…. number tends to cast the world reciprocally in its image as entities are increasingly made in for ms that are countable. Number performs number.» (589-590)

New apprehensions of space and time

«[T]he sheer amount of calculation that is now becoming possible at all points of so many spaces is producing a new calculative sense, which I will call ‘qualculation’.» In this new calculative order, «calculations become part of a background whose presence is assumed.» (592) To those of us living today, qualculation is as much a part of the «background» of reality as animal tracks and weather were to our ancestors.

A new sensorium

So what effect will the rise of qualculation have on the sensorium? Two possibilities are the rise of new phobias (something we saw with the transformation of the Euro-American city in the 19th century), and «the rise of new forms of intuition» (like thin-slicing). (596) Most interesting, however, is a «reworking of space and time… written into the human body and language.» (596) Thrift points to three changes:

Hands. «The sensory system of the hand is complex and capable of exquisite fine-tuning. It is not just an ‘external’ organ: it is so vital to human evolution that it seems quite likely that parts of the brain have developed in order to cope with its complexities rather than vice versa.» (597)

[I]n a qualculative world… the sense of touch will be redefined in three ways as haptic engineering moves beyond today’s primitive keyboard, keypad, mouse and data glove. First, from being conceived as a heavily localized sensation, touch will increasingly be thought of as a sense that can stretch over large spaces…. Second, entities that are able to be touched will correspondingly expand; all manner of entities will be produced with an expanded sensory range. Third, paramount among these newly touchable entities will be data of various kinds which, through haptic engineering, will take on new kinds of presence in the world as something closer to what we conventionally regard as ‘physical’ objects. In other words, the hand will extend, be able to touch more entities and will encounter entities which are more ‘touchable’. The set of experiences gathered under ‘touch’ will therefore become a more important sense, taking in and naming experiences which heretofore have not been considered as tactile and generating haptic experiences which have hitherto been unknown. (598)

Space. «It will become normal to know where one is at any point…. As importantly, the ability to tag addresses to moving objects which started with barcodes and credit cards and is now expanding and becoming more infor mation-rich with the rapidly expanding use of radio frequency identifier chips will mean that over a grid of fixed co-ordinates will be laid a series of moving addresses specific to particular entities.» (598)

Language. «[V]ocabularies of spatial configuration will multiply. The critical importance of spatial distribution in flow architectures will produce an extended spatial vocabulary which will provide new opportunities for thinking the world, opportunities which will themselves be constitutive of that world. We can already see something of this going on in the practical aesthetics of fields like architecture, performance and film.» (600)

Technorati Tags: end of cyberspace, mobility, Nigel Thrift, pervasive computing, place/space, ubicomp