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The End of Cyberspace

More from the Clive Thompson article:

[Having your life documented on Facebook is] “just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” [UMBC sociologist and Facebook-watcher Zeynep] Tufekci said. “The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically. If you look at human history, the idea that you would drift through life, going from new relation to new relation, that’s very new. It’s just the 20th century.”…

Psychologists and sociologists spent years wondering how humanity would adjust to the anonymity of life in the city, the wrenching upheavals of mobile immigrant labor — a world of lonely people ripped from their social ties. We now have precisely the opposite problem. Indeed, our modern awareness tools reverse the original conceit of the Internet. When cyberspace came along in the early ’90s, it was celebrated as a place where you could reinvent your identity — become someone new….

As Leisa Reichelt, a consultant in London who writes regularly about ambient tools, put it to me: “Can you imagine a Facebook for children in kindergarten, and they never lose touch with those kids for the rest of their lives? What’s that going to do to them?” Young people today are already developing an attitude toward their privacy that is simultaneously vigilant and laissez-faire. They curate their online personas as carefully as possible, knowing that everyone is watching — but they have also learned to shrug and accept the limits of what they can control.

It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another — quite different — result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves. Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to “know thyself,” or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness.

digital culture, endofcyberspace, social software, Web 2.0, identity

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The End of Cyberspace

I have a strong interest in learning how people’s uses of technologies changes the way they think— or less grandly, how it shapes the way they perform cognitive tasks or approach problems. Recently, I found an example of something I do that’s definitely an artifact of my long engagement with a very specific technology: I realized I spell with my hands.

The other night, my wife and I were at the dining room table, each of us working on stuff. (Since she’s a teacher at a pretty demanding school, she often has papers to grade in the evening.) She asked me how to spell a long word. I thought about it for a second, and couldn’t just recite the letters, even though I was sure I knew how it was spelled. So I typed it.

Of course, I can recite the spelling of plenty of words, but after thirty years of typing, complex spelling is something I do with my hands more than my mind’s eye. I know a word is misspelled when I feel my fingers hit the wrong keys, or reverse the order of a pattern. For me, correct spelling is a matter of feeling my fingers move over the keyboard in the right, comfortable way, not a matter of thinking «this word is spelled like this,» then translating that into a set of motions. The keyboard has become an interface between the words I know how to spell, and the actual act of spelling them correctly.

This helps explain why I find using the predictive text feature on cell phones a somewhat puzzling experience. On a keypad with predictive text turned on, you really do have to think about the spelling of a word, because you’re essentially feeding the phone clues about the word you want it to spell. Hit the wrong number on the keypad, and it’s led astray, a sure as giving someone the wrong clue in a mystery will lead them to a mistaken conclusion. What makes it more confusing is that as you hit the keys, the phone may guess a completely different word than it had before; and of course, some keypad combinations can spell several different, equally popular words (46 can be «in» or «go,» or a bit less likely, «ho»).

For someone accustomed to spelling on a QWERTY keyboard, this is a pretty mystifying interaction. Of course, I’m getting better at it; but writing on a traditional keyboard and a keypad aren’t merely different activities in terms of the fingers you use, or the prominence of the thumb versus the other digits; it places different cognitive demands on someone who’s grown up spelling with his hands.

Technorati Tags: cognition, end of cyberspace, interface, keyboard, N95

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The End of Cyberspace

Cyrus Farivar pointed me to this piece from Harper’s Magazine, an annotation of a blueprint for a Google server farm on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon. It’s interesting as a reminder of the materiality of «the cloud,» that apparently amorphous and evanescent computational resource that exists… somewhere… but who care where.

Google and its rivals are raising server farms to tap into some of the cheapest electricity in North America. The blueprints depicting Google’s data center at The Dalles, Oregon, are proof that the Web is no ethereal store of ideas, shimmering over our heads like the aurora borealis. It is a new heavy industry, an energy glutton that is only growing hungrier…. [T]he Dalles plant can be expected to demand about 103 megawatts of electricity— enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington….

In 2006 American data centers consumed more power than American televisions. Google… and its rivals now head abroad for cheaper, often dirtier power. Microsoft has announced plans for a data center in Siberia, AT&T has built two in Shanghai, and Dublin has attracted Google and Microsoft…. As the functions long performed by personal computers come to be executed at these far-flung data centers, the technology industry has rapturously rebranded the Internet as «the cloud.» The metaphor is apt, both for our foggy notions of a green Web and for the storm that awaits a culture that squanders its resources.

Some time ago, Richard Grusin pointed out that claims by hypertext theorists that electronic writing was «immaterial, ephemeral, [and] evanescent» were problematic because «these ephemeral electromagnetic traces are dependent on extremely material hardware, software, communications networks, institutional and corporate structure, support personnel, and so on.» Or, as he put it elsewhere, «Claims for the agency of electronic technologies marginalize the materiality of these technologies.»* Clearly assumptions about immateriality and evanescence haven’t gone away.

It also occurs to me that the metaphor of «the cloud,» in contrast to cyberspace, is decidedly non-spatial: the could isn’t a place, it’s the absence of physicality.

*The Grusin quote is from, «What is an Electronic Author?» Configurations 3 (1994), 469-483, quotes on 476, 471.

Technorati Tags: end of cyberspace, internet, materiality

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The End of Cyberspace

Thanks to Heather for pointing out this E. B. White quote from… a long time ago.

I live in a strictly rural community, and people here speak of “The Radio” in the large sense, with an over-meaning. When they say “The Radio” they don’t mean a cabinet, an electrical phenomenon, or a man in a studio, they refer to a pervading and somewhat godlike presence which has come into their lives and homes (E. B. White, quoted in Tom Lewis, » ‘A Godlike Presence: The Impact of Radio on the 1920s and 1930s,» OAH Magazine of History, 1992)

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

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The End of Cyberspace

  • «The general objective of the Research Creativity and Management Office (RCMO) is to provide management, administrative and implementation needs as well as support, liaise and sustain the R&D activities of the university.»
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The End of Cyberspace

Another example (via Mike) of how the digital world and physical intersect, to our peril: a timeline of the top 10 data breaches of the decade (here’s a bigger version). The smallest affected 5 million people; the largest, 97 million.

[To the tune of Johann Sebastian Bach, «- Sarabande (s1),» from the album «Yo-Yo Ma: Complete Cello Suites — Inspired By Bach (Disc 1)».]

Technorati Tags: internet, security

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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

Painter David Hockney— who has in the last few years made some very interesting speculations about the history of art— has a piece on the Guardian about «Pictures and Power:»

Michael Curtis, one of the founders of Hollywood and director of Casablanca and many swashbuckling Erroll Flynn movies, tells a story about seeing his first bit of cinema in about 1908, in the Cafe New York in Budapest. He recalls what fascinated him: it wasn’t the film itself but the fact that everybody watched it. He realised not everyone goes to the theatre, not everyone goes to the opera, but the cinema will attract the masses. By 1920 he was in Hollywood — which was the sticks then, compared with Budapest — but California had the money, the light, and the technology. He was right.

Now let’s go back 350 years, to Neopolitan scholar Giambattista Della Porta, who published a book, Natural Magick, about optical projections of nature. He was a renaissance man: scientist, playwright and showman. He put on shows using optical projections (simple to do) and was hauled before the Inquisition by the church.

The church at that time was the sole purveyor of pictures. It knew the power of images, and Della Porta would have noticed, like Michael Curtis, how people were attracted to that optical projection. They still are.

The church had social control. Whoever controlled the images had power. And they still do. Social control followed the lens and mirror for most of the 20th century. What’s now known as the media exert social control, not the church, but we are moving into a new era, because the making and distribution of images is changing. Anyone can make and distribute images on a mobile phone. The equipment is everywhere.

As a number of commenters have pointed out, the church didn’t quite have «control» over images: Renaissance states could be substantial patrons of the arts, and popular iconography— particularly after the invention of the printing press— both served as counterbalances to ecclesiastical power. On the other hand, you can make the argument that for familiarity and drama, the church’s was hard to beat. It wasn’t just the ability to produce rival images that earned Della Porta an appointment with the Inquisition: it was his ability to do novel, dramatic things.

I’m not exactly sure how this connects with the end of cyberspace, except through cellphones… but I’m sure I’ll find some link.

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

Technorati Tags: art, history, religion

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The End of Cyberspace

The New York Talk Exchange is a really interesting exhibit now running at MOMA.

New York Talk Exchange illustrates the global exchange of information in real time by visualizing volumes of long distance telephone and IP (Internet Protocol) data flowing between New York and cities around the world.

In an information age, telecommunications such as the Internet and the telephone bind people across space by eviscerating the constraints of distance. To reveal the relationships that New Yorkers have with the rest of the world, New York Talk Exchange asks: How does the city of New York connect to other cities? With which cities does New York have the strongest ties and how do these relationships shift with time? How does the rest of the world reach into the neighborhoods of New York?

Naturally, there are some really cool visuals, and some terrific animations.

Technorati Tags: art, cities, end of cyberspace, internet, museum, visualization

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Today I got proofs for my article on «Mobility, Convergence, and the End of Cyberspace,» for the volume of papers from the Budapest conference on the philosophy of telecommunications convergence. Even though I spend so much of my intellectual life online, I still have this atavistic reaction to page proofs: it marks a passage of my words from tentative, fragile things to Truth, even if it’s riddled with typos and things I’ve still got to fix.

Of course, I know that there’s no difference between a PDF I print from a file in Write Room, and something generated by Page Maker. But it still feels different.

Recently I’ve been getting more ruthless about spending a little time each night on the book manuscript, and am making progress. I’ve got several small essays that I wrote here and there that need to be incorporated into the Giant Official Manuscript File, and a pretty clear set of changes I need to make. I’m also going to start setting up interviews with researchers who I think of as doing end of cyberspace-type things, or who’ve thought about subjects— copyright and intellectual property, most notably— that I’m talking about.

It’s easy to think of little articles like this Budapest piece as a distraction from the big monograph, but I’m not sure that’s the right way to think about it. One reason I’m doing more on the cyberspace book is that I recently had an article come out in a history of science volume in Germany (what is it with publishing in Central European collections? I don’t know), am doing more stuff with friends at the Said School at Oxford, and just had a paper accepted at a conference in Europe this summer.

While none of these generate any money or professional capital (that I know if), they’re tokens of recognition of my effort to maintain a scholarly life both outside the academy and the Institute. The fact that these admittedly small efforts are paying off (in some fashion) makes working seriously on the book seem more worthwhile.

So small projects are a distraction in the sense that they take away some amount of the always-finite time and energy that you have to spend; but they may make up for it by incentivizing you to shift time away from, say, Nintendo Wii, to research and writing.

Technorati Tags: Budapest, end of cyberspace, postacademic