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The End of Cyberspace

A few years ago I wrote an online column for Red Herring. The gig was interesting, but after a change of editorial regime, they decided to stop the experiment. The pieces all kind of disappeared after a while, and I realized that some of them were actually pretty good. Heaven knows I spent plenty of time on them.

So if for no other reason than to have easily-accessible copies of them, I’m going to start reposting them here. Most were from 2004, so they might seem a bit dated; but I think some of the ideas are still worth playing with.

Knowledge is power. For a long time we thought it was something immaterial, cerebral, almost otherworldly. No less a figure than Plato argued that the world of things and appearances was but a dim reflection of another world of ideal types, more real than reality itself. But Plato’s theory is too good for this world. Knowledge is also things, and actions.

One of the key events in twentieth-century philosophy was the discovery that the Platonic model of knowledge was incomplete. In mathematics, Kurt Gödel demonstrated that mathematics could never be a perfectly self-contained, exhaustively proven system. For decades, philosophers and mathematicians had worked to find the fundamental foundations of mathematics; Gödel’s incompleteness theorem showed that the search was fruitless.

The critique continued in philosophy. Cambridge University’s Ludwig Wittgenstein, arguably the twentieth century’s most influential philosophical mind, argued that the meaning of language arises from its use, rather than from its logical properties. A few years later, British philosopher Michael Polyani coined the term «tacit knowledge» to describe things that we can know but can’t effectively communicate. Tacit knowledge, Polyani argued, is an important component of skilled work, and even shapes activities that we traditionally have thought of as entirely logical (like science).

Historian Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions took Polyani one step further, and opened up a whole new front in the assault against traditional notions of knowledge. Structure reconceived science as a puzzle-solving activity guided by a mix of formal methods and cultural norms, and punctuated by dizzying revolutions and paradigm shifts. Sociologists of science, cultural anthropologists, literary and gender theorists, all used Kuhn as an inspiration to their critiques of objectivity.

You would think that after all this, the Platonic model of knowledge would be dead and gone. But it lives on in information technologies.

The words «Platonic» and «information technology» don’t normally appear together. But the experience of using computers—and the way we think about that experience—has breathed new life into the Platonic idea that information exists separate from the world. Using desk-bound computers gave many users a sense that information and knowledge reside in an alternate dimension, a separate, sometimes mysterious or forbidden, «cyberspace.» IBM acknowledged this sense of computer-as-portal by naming one line of its monitors the «infowindow.»

Information technologies are great at handling formal knowledge. They go gangbusters on anything that can be reduced to quantitative form, expressed as logical rules or instructions, and the like. Indeed, they’re as good at such tasks as we are bad at them; it’s one of the things that makes computers seem not just useful, but authoritative and even infallible. But computers are also hopeless at dealing with information that is deeply connected to things, to places, or to practices.

This hasn’t led to a new appreciation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of computers and people. Instead, for most people it has had the unintended and unfortunate effect of encouraging us to think of «information» strictly as stuff that computers can handle. If it can be poured into a database of best practices, it’s information; it if can’t, it’s not. The problem is that this kind of information is like the visible part of the iceberg. The other seven-eights are underwater and invisible. But that doesn’t mean that your ship can’t be sunk by it.

The great challenge of the future will be to turn information technologies from things that encourage us to narrow our conception of what knowledge is, to things that can more fully reflect the diverse ways that knowledge is produced and performed. You might say that we have to learn to give information technologies social lives.

What does it mean to say that information is also things? It means that the physical properties of objects can encourage users to build information storage and management practices around them.

Consider something as low-tech as the refrigerator door. Its main purpose is to help keep refrigerators cold. But add little magnets, and the door becomes a display space and holder for all kinds of documents and data. So far as anyone can tell, once refrigerators stopped being designed like Airstream trailers and became big metal boxes (in the late 1950s and 1960s), it took almost no time for them to acquire a second life as the family bulletin board.

So ubiquitous is this practice today that some appliance makers have experimented with creating refrigerators with Internet access and color screens built into the door. Palm’s ill-fated family information device Audrey was designed to be attached to the refrigerator—another example of an attempt to build on a well-established practice.

But why did the refrigerator ever develop a second life as an information appliance? First, physical location—which means social location—matters a lot. Every family member interacts with the refrigerator; in most homes, kitchens are an especially high-traffic area; and the kitchen is also a common space, unlike bathrooms or bedrooms.

Second, affordances are critical. Refrigerator doors are big and flat, so there’s lots of room to put stuff. They’re also pretty tall, so you can have the bills and coupons on the freezer door, and the fingerpaints and photos below.

Finally, social practices will shape what’s accessible to whom. The refrigerator is accessible to most of the family, unlike other appliances: most children are allowed to open the refrigerator long before they can touch other appliances.

Books are a more familiar information technology, but even they communicate information on several levels because of their design and physical properties. This is one reason that they haven’t become obsolete, despite the predictions of many futurists.

Books—and paper more generally—have been the whipping-boy of innovators and technologists since the late nineteenth century. For a few, predicting the death of the book at the hands of the Memex, microfilm, tape, or CD was merely the most efficient way to highlight the disruptiveness of the new technology; it was a side-effect, not the main point. For others, however, the book is a confining, constraining technology. Information wants to be free, but it’s stuck on the page. Readers want to follow their own interests, but books force them into linear reading patterns. For these critics, the death of the book can’t come too soon.

So why have books survived? It’s not just because of cultural inertia or the stubbornness of users. It’s because the book itself isn’t an inefficient carrier of information when compared to the computer. It’s because books carry—or even create—kinds of information that computers don’t.

First, there’s what literary theorists call paratexts, the information surrounding and interwoven with a book’s content: everything from the paragraph breaks to page numbers and chapter titles. We use these cues to organize our reading, but they also affect what we take from a book, for better or for worse. British philosopher John Locke argued that numbering the verses of the Bible—an innovation that was intended to make reading and citing passages easier—was a bad idea because it encouraged readers to focus on the individual verses rather than the whole. Too much attention to a few easily-remembered lines and too little to the grand sweep of the book, Locke worried, could lead readers to heretical views.

Other things provide context for readers, even though they have no formal connection to the information stored in a book. A book’s publisher tells you a lot about what you should expect from a book, and how seriously you should take it. A Harlequin book on geopolitics isn’t any more credible than a romance published by Harvard University Press.

Books acquire another patina of information in the course of being handled and read. Dog-eared pages and underlining can mark important or favorite passages. Handwritten annotations provide clues to how a reader responds to an argument or turn of phrase; a book handled by several readers can carry a virtual conversation in its margins. These can become useful social navigation cues for later readers (though having to read a book too much through someone else’s eyes can be distracting); after centuries, such notes become invaluable grist for the historians’ mill, material for reconstructing reading patterns and practices.

So how do you solve the problem of creating technologies that are more responsive to informal knowledge? You’d pursue different strategies depending on whether you’re designing tools to be used just by individuals, or by groups.

For individually-oriented tools, the first thing to do is to copy metaphors. Both the Macintosh and Windows user interfaces made themselves easier to use by drawing upon some familiar metaphors: the screen was a desktop, documents were files, files were organized into folders, and so on. One notable quality of emerging technologies like electronic paper is that they allow us to copy the affordances that make conventional information technologies useful. E-paper shares some of the qualities of a computer display (most notably its ability to be instantly erased and rewritten), but it can be folded, rolled, carried around, and read like paper. This will push it off the desktop and into application areas that computers couldn’t dream of going.

Another approach is to be sociable. Recommendation agents, the Alexa toolbar, and the good old hit counter attach a little social context to a page, giving you a sense of how many other people have accessed it, and what they thought of it. Researchers have experimented with more graphical ways of bringing social context to a page, for example by having a Web page change color with its age and the number of times it was read, just like real books.

An even subtler strategy is to not try to make computers more like people, but to create tighter connections between people and information technologies. You don’t have to imitate people if you can embed them in the system, and you solve the tacit knowledge problem by letting humans deal with it.

There’s an interesting parallel here to nanotechnology, in which scientists confronting the challenge of figuring out how to make nanoscale motors or manufacturing processes, are learning to use proteins to create tiny wires, or harnessing flagellates (a kind of bacteria with a long, whiplike tail) as pumps in fluidic systems. They’ve have realized that evolution has been working at the nanoscale a lot longer than humans; the results are nanoscale chimeras—part technology, part organism—but they work.

Likewise, some promising health monitoring systems have a limited capacity to infer health from behavioral data, but leave to humans (adult children of elderly parents, for example) the job of interpreting the patterns. Grandma may be watching a lot of TV, but if there’s a Cary Grant retrospective or she just got a DVD player, that’s not a problem. If she’s never liked TV but suddenly has it on for hours on end, that’s a cause to worry. Humans are much better-equipped than computers to make such fine judgments.

Such systems have the added virtue of reinforcing social connections and family ties, rather than undermining or replacing them. Further, they recognize that information has always had a physical dimension, and has always been a social thing. We’re about to reach a point where computers can work with those facts, not against them. Information technologies, in other words, are going to be more like information itself.

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The End of Cyberspace

The Oxford conference talk version of my «paper spaces» project is now viewable on ZuiPrezi, the presentation system I’ve been playing with and really like.

I’ve got extensive blog posts about the trip and conference on my personal blog.

conference, paper spaces, Oxford University

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

A great special report in the Guardian on writer’s room.

The relationships between space, contemplation, and writing are so well-established it’s hard to imagine them ever being detached.

Though I find that while I need space for books and stuff, a lot of my best writing is done in the absence of all that stuff— at cafe tables, on planes, and the like.

[via Heather]

Technorati Tags: place/space, work, writing

Just got a Nokia N95 (here’s a review), thanks to the generosity of Nokia Research. (You guys are the greatest! [sniff])

I’m mainly using it as a mobile blogging tool, since my Verizon account doesn’t work with it.

But I’m curious to see what being able to blog and Flickr in a more mobile manner, on a smaller device, will be like. A kind of empirical test of some of the things I’ve been talking about.

Technorati Tags: blogging, end of cyberspace, mobility, Nokia Research Center, Web 2.0

When I started this blog, I figured it would be useful. But it’s not. It’s proved to be incredibly valuable.

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that my Budapest talk was written just by going through the blog, picking out quotes, and stringing them together using ideas I’d just tossed up in the occasional post; but it certainly was a lot easier to write the talk, having this digital notebook to draw upon.

I haven’t actually given up on paper notebooks, but I find that I tend to write more about the organization of the book, and the management of the project itself, on paper. I do some Big Thinking on paper, but increasingly the bits and pieces start out in digital form, and stay there.

Technorati Tags: end of cyberspace, postacademic, work, writing

Occasionally you come across the work of someone you’ve never heard of, but whose interests curiously parallel your own. Tonight I came across Kristóf Nyíri’s 1993 essay «Thinking with a word processor,» which asks, «in what ways, if any, are our thoughts affected by the shift from the pen or the typewriter to a word processor?» The relationship between information technologies (very broadly understood), cognition, and perception is an especially difficult one to get at— starting with arguments about what constitutes «technology,» «cognition,» and «perception,» and moving on from there— and it’s one that some of my favorite recent authors (like Andy Clark and Michael Chorost) have thought about. Nyiri’s conclusion:

But what is it really, I would like to ask by way of conclusion, we think «with» when we think with a word processor?… [O]ne of the fundamental Wittgensteinian discoveries [was] that mental phenomena cannot be identified independently of Umstände, of the broad story within which they occur…. So what are the characteristics of the context, of the circumstances, under which we say that we are thinking — with a word processor? What kind of language game is: «thinking with a word processor»?

When we think with a word processor it is a synchronous intellectual exchange with fellow thinkers all over the world we are, ultimately, engaged in. So what are we thinking with when we think with a word processor? The word «with» here, I conclude, does in the last analysis point not to instrumental application — but to human companionship.

Nyiri has since gone on to head a project on the mobile information society in the 21st century:

While in all areas of life we witness a radical increase in the demand for mobile communications, questions as regards further directions of development are at many points open, and need to be addressed by the social sciences. The mobile telephone is by now more than merely a device to transmit voice. It has become a multi-purpose data transmitter – a mobile companion.

Basically, the man’s becoming a futurist, though his work remains as grounded in philosophy as mine in STS. It looks like it could be a very interesting project: it’s generated five volumes of essays so far, and I have to have some respect for anyone who’s willing to argue that

[T]he mobile telephone need not necessarily be anathema to the spirit of Heideggerian romanticism. For the mobile phone is not just the most successful machine ever invented, spreading with unheard-of speed; it is also a machine which corresponds to deep, primordial human communicational urges. The phenomenon of the mobile phone constitutes an obvious challenge to philosophy, and indeed to the humanities.

—or even think to raise the question, «does the cellphone constitute a challenge to Heideggerian romanticism, or doesn’t it?»

They’re doing a conference on the philosophy of telecommunications convergence this fall. Maybe I’ll try to whip up a proposal, though I doubt I’ll actually get it done.

Technorati Tags: collective intelligence, philosophy, technology, writing

I did an end-of-cyberspace-and-what-it-means-for-products talk tonight for the Silicon Valley chapter of the Product Management Institute. It was a pleasant time, a good crowd and all (and I’m sure the chocolate-dipped fruit will be delicious), but this is the last talk on the subject I’m giving until I’ve finished the book.

I printed it all out this afternoon, and was pleased to see that it’s starting to feel like a real book manuscript. It’s up to about 125 pages, and is about half finished; suddenly, it feels possible to write the rest.

Last night I finished an article on the uses of science studies in futures research, and will send it off the the journal soon, to begin its long journey through the editorial python of academic publishing. The end is also in sight for my wife’s book, which is due to the editors this month; there’s still lots of caption writing and other stuff she’ll have to do, but we can see the end of the tunnel.

Bottom line, I’ll be able to clear enough space in my life to get back to working on this seriously. So: Next task will be to run through the manuscript, and map out the major revisions and additions. A couple of the chapters near the back are pretty sketchy, so I’ve got to outline those as well. Then it’s just a matter of writing like Hell.

I figure I should be able to get this thing done by Christmas at the very latest, and preferably before my birthday in September.

Technorati Tags: books, end of cyberspace, work

Today one of my colleagues at the Institute and I finished up a draft of a piece on the future of biomimicry. We’ve been working on it for a while, and had divided up the piece into several sections. But when it came time to write the opening and conclusion, and do the editorial work necessary to make the pieces flow together, we decided to try something new: we put it up on Google docs (formerly Writely), and worked on it together.

The experience was a very interesting one, for a couple reasons.

First, the technology. Google docs has a basic word processor, and while it doesn’t do footnotes, it has most of the essentials for styling and structuring documents (though most people mistake the former for the latter). It also has a pretty good revisions tracker, which is a cross between the «track changes» functionality in Word, and the view changes feature you see on many wikis.

I suspect that when people design (or start to play around with) such systems, they imagine the collaborators being separated by oceans and time zones: that the real benefits will come to coauthors in Berlin and Berkeley, or Paris and Perth. And for lots of groups, that’s probably a plus. But what struck me, as my colleague and I were working on our article, was how valuable it was for the two of, even though we were right across from each other. We’d brainstorm a transition, or talk about how to restructure a paragraph; one of us would make the changes, and save the version; we’d hit refresh, look at it on our respective machines; and rework it until we had it right.

In a couple hours we had written as much as we’d each written in the previous month. Why? In part, writing together serves to tighten attention. I’m easily distracted, and can hit Google to look up some very specific fact, only to find myself ten minutes later looking at a Web site about animal pictures on the London Underground.

It also serves to eliminate some of the rationalizations that slow traditional multiauthored pieces. There are always turns of phrase or pieces of argument that really need to be worked out with your co-authors; when you’re writing alone, it’s easy to put those sections off until later, and tell yourself, «Well, I can’t write the next paragraph until we work out that transition. I wonder if there are any new cat videos on YouTube?» When your coauthor is right beside you, and it’s easy to make changes right in the document, the bar to completion gets lower.

It’s also much easier to make changes directly onscreen, in a way that everyone can see, than to put edits on a printed page, which have to then be carried later (if you can remember exactly what they meant).

Of course, the technology could be a little better: having automatic line or paragraph numbering, for example, would make it infinitely easier for collaborators to stay on the same page (as it were). Instinct suggests that this isn’t hard to implement, but if you assume that coauthors are going to be working asynchronously and at a distance, you don’t need it.

But that doesn’t detract from the big point: the system may facilitate collaboration at a distance, but it supercharges collaboration in person. More broadly, I suspect that this is where the really big gains in collaborative and social software will be made in the future: not in teams whose members are on opposite sides of a continent, but teams whose members are on opposite sides of a coffee table.

Technorati Tags: collaboration, collective intelligence, social software, work

I have an essay on rapid prototyping, personal fabrication, and the future of manufacturing in the latest issue of Samsung DigitAll Magazine. Here’s the opening:

The transformation of the factory from a vast machine into a creative, knowledge-intensive space is a development few could have seen. Are you ready for the next industrial revolution?

For many people, the word “factory” conjures up images of William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. They imagine landscapes of machinery, consuming men and raw materials, blackening skies and destroying lives. Whatever they produce, factories are inhuman and unnatural. Certainly such factories still exist; but companies that aren’t trying to win the race to the bottom are taking different paths. The outsourcing movement, and more recent attention to product design, have eclipsed a quiet transformation of the factory from a vast machine into a more knowledge-intensive, even creative, space. In surprising ways, the factory is now following a path blazed by the design studio and modern office: it’s becoming more knowledge-intensive and flexible, even as it grows more tightly connected to markets and suppliers.

Technorati Tags: design, manufacturing, pervasive computing, ubicomp, Web 2.0

I’m doing a talk on the end of cyberspace at UC Santa Cruz on April 25. Here’s a copy of the flyer:

I’ve had long and sporadic, but very rewarding, intellectual relationship with UC Santa Cruz. In the late 1980s, I spent a month in the Lick Observatory archives, doing work that became the foundation of one of my dissertation chapters (and later an article in Osiris). A couple years later, I discovered a cache of papers in the Lick archives on astronomer-printer relations that became the basis for a second (and still in some ways my favorite) article.

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, end of cyberspace, future, Santa Cruz

I’ve been working on this end of cyberspace idea for a while, and occasionally posted about it on my other blog; this blog, in contrast, is just over a month old. However, I think there’s a good case to be made for the utility of special-topic research blogs— or perhaps more generally, of using social media (including blogs) as research tools.

For one thing, turning research into a form of public performance encourages you to keep at it. One of the great problems with scholarly work, or almost any kind of writing, is that it’s easy to get bogged down, blocked, run yourself around in circles, or just put the project down for a little (and then a little longer, and a little longer). Talking about it makes it harder for those things to happen.

More important, it makes public and sharable things— citations, notes, reflections on other people’s work, connections you draw between your work and others’— that in the pre-Web scholarship world were almost always private, or sharable only with a small circle of colleagues. Any given piece of content from this flow is going to be interesting only to a tiny number of other people; but to them, it could be very interesting.

With a more conventional specialist academic project, the value of a blog is likely to be reduced by the fact that you already know everyone else who’s interested in your work (or everyone who’s opinion is really going to matter when promotion time comes around). For interdisciplinary projects, in contrast, a blog can serve as a tool for attracting attention across disciplinary and geographical lines. The people who are most interested in this project, and have made the most thoughtful comments on it, are people I knew only very peripherally or not at all when I started the blog.

I’m also finding that Technorati and del.icio.us are more useful than I expected. I’ve used Technorati to follow references to this blog, the Wired article, and the term «end of cyberspace.» Essentially, it lets you follow your ideas, see who else is thinking about them, and survey the reactions they’re generating (ranging from positive, to thoughtful, to not so positive, to negative, to more negative). Del.icio.us, because it lets you follow keywords rather than specific hyperlinks or exact terms, has a slightly different, more diffuse function: it’s more a tool for sampling the collective unconscious than recording specific conversations. (If Del.icio.us is a Jungian analyst, Technorati is an NSA wiretap.)

In my old academic life, you rarely heard much about your articles, and the signals you did get that others had read them— comments from people at conferences, reprint requests, citations in other people’s work— were all the more precious for their rarity. Consequently, the ability to see how people are reacting to your work in real time— to turn an imagined community of scholars into a conversational circle— is as amazing as being able to iChat across the Atlantic.

Finally, this reinforces an argument I’ve been making in my work at the Institute: that information technologies often begin as tools for increasing efficiency and productivity, but morph into tools for enhancing sociability (without losing those earlier functions). The telephone started out as a tool for businessmen: early users were even warned to keep women off the line, since they’d just gossip. It took a couple decades for telephone companies to realize that there was a lot of money in people gossiping. Likewise, cell phones were first sold to busy executives and highly mobile workers (like sales reps); now my kids ask when they’ll be old enough to have cell phones. The personal computer? Efficiency tool— you can write papers, balance your checkbook— to social tool— you can IM with friends, play Everquest. Part of the value of setting up Technorati watchlists resides in the content they capture for you; but the deeper value, I suspect, will come from the people they help connect you to.

This begins to move you to a model of scholarly performance in which the value resides not exclusively in the finished, published work, but is distributed across a number of usually non-competitive media. If I ever do publish a book on the end of cyberspace, I seriously doubt that anyone who’s encountered the blog will think, «Well, I can read the notes, I don’t need to read the book.» The final product is more like the last chapter of a mystery. You want to know how it comes out.

It could ultimately point to a somewhat different model for both doing and evaluating scholarship: one that depends a little less on peer-reviewed papers and monographs, and more upon your ability to develop and maintain a piece of intellectual territory, and attract others to it— to build an interested, thoughtful audience. Since the former are getting more expensive for everyone (academic journals have become stunningly expensive, and some universities are starting to rebel against the high prices publishers are trying to charge), and the latter are getting harder to produce (university presses are less willing to subsidize the publication of books that are guaranteed to lose money), such changes may be in the cards anyway.

Of course, there are plenty of potential downsides to such a model: it could be license for people to perpetually tweak the details of projects, and never put a stake in the ground; there are opportunities for gaming a system that measures popularity and the quality of responses; and it might favor trendy, easier-to-describe subjects over harder ones. Then again, you could make the same criticisms of the current system.

[To the tune of Steppenwolf, «Magic Carpet Ride (Single),» from the album «Steppenwolf the Second».]

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, end of cyberspace, history of science, postacademic, work

I’ve spent most of the morning at Caffe Espresso 1929, working on the uber-article from which the Berkshire Savant and Wired pieces spun off, and which will ultimately be its own publication. My wife gave me free Sunday mornings as a Christmas present, and the stars have finally aligned— I’m here, rather than some other country— in a way that lets me use them.

The article is currently up to 13,000 words, and will probably top 20,000 before I’m done, which raises a problem: it’s getting to be too long to be a journal article, unless I can break up into a two-part piece, but it’s not yet long enough to be a book. Getting lost between literary catgeories, and thus having the piece never come out anywhere, would be a shame. Ultimately, I’ll have to spend some time figuring out how to make it publishable; for now, getting it shaped and written is the top priority.

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, end of cyberspace

Hi. Welcome. Take a look around!

The last word (for the moment, anyway) on successors to cyberspace goes to Schuyler Earle. Schuyler is the co-author of Mapping Hacks: Tips and Tools for Electronic Cartography (with Rich Gibson and Jo Walsh) and Google Maps Hacks (with Rich Gibson). Earle, Gibson and Walsh also collaborate on the Mapping Hacks blog.

Schuyler’s response splits the difference between arguments (like David Sifry’s) that the term cyberspace isn’t going to disappear, and suggestions that the it’ll survive because its meaning is going to change:

I suspect that the idea of information occupying a location somewhere, as embodied in the word «cyberspace,» actually has great and subtle cognitive value. As networked computing devices become increasingly smaller, and spread through our physical environment, however, the notion of «cyberspace» as a «virtual» or alternate reality, will probably dissolve.

In the coming years, we may witness the vast quantity of essentially invisible information on every detail of the world we live in gradually extend /into/ the world, and become visible, in situ. As Jo Walsh puts it, «Information will live where it describes.» She dubs this idea the infomesh, perhaps for its both spatially, and computationally, distributed nature.

Clearly, our first glimpses are already emerging through portable computing devices with LCD displays — laptops and PDAs and mobile phones and audio players and such. But, as the infomesh spreads — well, who knows?

Earlier suggestions:

Dan Hunter: Mesh
Cory Doctorow: Chattergoods
James Boyle: None
Kris Pister: UberDustenWissenshaftsVergnugen
Luke Hughes: Reality Online
David Sifry: Cyberspace
Andy Clark: Interactatron
John Seely Brown: The Infomated World
Ross Mayfield: On and Catalink
…plus many others in the Wired article

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, geoweb, language, mobility, pervasive computing

Dan Hunter is a professor legal studies in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His article on cyberspace as place and the growth of a digital anti-commons does a terrific job of showing how the concept of cyberspace has been used to underwrite, rather than undermine, the imposition of property rights in the digital realm.

Dan is also a contributor of Terra Nova, an excellent group blog on online games. «I’m not sure that the words cyberspace or the net will ever be replaced,» he wrote in response to the big question, «because they’re such neat tags for the range of social practises that have emerged as a consequence of this new era in electronic connectedness.»

But if I had to nominate a word it would be mesh. I think that the future of the net is in ubiquitous connectivity: which will mean that we will always be online and our physical environment and our online environments will mesh in a seamless way.

We will be in a virtual world as we walk around in the physical world, and all sorts of extensions will come to seem natural: being able to check out ownership records of that building there; having a virtual «emergency call» button available on our sunglasses a la William Gibson’s Virtual Light; sitting in a park in downtown Philly, but exploring the Louvre in Paris; and so on.

My kids won’t ever see a disjunction between the virtual and the «real», because they will have meshed long before they are aware that anyone ever thought of cyberspace as a place separate from their lives.

Earlier suggestions:

Cory Doctorow: Chattergoods
James Boyle: None
Kris Pister: UberDustenWissenshaftsVergnugen
Luke Hughes: Reality Online
David Sifry: Cyberspace
Andy Clark: Interactatron
John Seely Brown: The Infomated World
Ross Mayfield: On and Catalink
…plus many others in the Wired article

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, language, pervasive computing, ubicomp

James Boyle is William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School, in Durham, North Carolina. He’s also one of the major figures— along with Larry Lessig, Dan Hunter, and a few others— exploring the intersection of cyberspace and the law.

For me, this literature is especially interesting for the ways it’s mapped how the argument that cyberspace is a place was mobilized against attempts to regulate online activity, but more recently has become a justification for extending copyright and intellectual property rights— and indeed, creating interpretations of those laws that are even more restrictive than apply in the physical world— into the digital realm. More than any other group, this crew has documented how cyberspace has become a «metaphor we live by»— and legislate by.

His answer to the big question works through a couple possibilities:

The Matrix, the metaverse, the right click universe? The answer, I think, is a boring one.


We won’t have a word for it precisely because it will be pervasive, and we won’t have novel, technologically accurate words even for its component experiences, because language does not work that way (thank goodness).

We will talk about getting online long after the lines have disappeared, and e-mailing long after most people have forgotten mail was ever sent another way.

So if cyberspace goes away, what happens to cyberlaw? That’s the next thing I want to know.

Earlier suggestions:

Kris Pister: UberDustenWissenshaftsVergnugen
Luke Hughes: Reality Online
David Sifry: Cyberspace
Andy Clark: Interactatron
John Seely Brown: The Infomated World
Ross Mayfield: On and Catalink
…plus many others in the Wired article

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, language, pervasive computing, ubicomp

Kris Pister is an engineering professor at U.C. Berkeley, and is best-known for his work on smart dust. He’s also founder and CTO of Dust Networks.

In answer to the Wired question, Kris suggested two terms:

Luke Hughes from Accenture calls it Reality Online, which I like because it emphasizes that this isn’t about imposing computers on our view of the world, but rather imposing or presenting the world on/to the computers. You and I still do what we normally do, and the world becomes a lot smarter about how it interacts with us, not the other way around.

The second term was uberDustenWissenshaftsVergnugen, which mean, more or less, «everywhere dust scholarship amusement» (try plugging that into one of those online translation programs!), though I’m hopeful that someone will suggest a better translation. (On the other hand, «Dusten» isn’t German, so this more an Anglo-Germanic hybrid— High Tech + High Saxon, perhaps.)

Earlier suggestions:

Luke Hughes: Reality Online
David Sifry: Cyberspace
Andy Clark: Interactatron
John Seely Brown: The Infomated World
Ross Mayfield: On and Catalink
…plus many others in the Wired article

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, language, pervasive computing, ubicomp

I’m in London for the next several days, and probably will be posting quite erratically, if at all. However, I’ve still got at least four more responses to the Wired magazine query to post. Back after I return to the States.

Luke Hughes is research director of the Accenture Labs in Palo Alto, California. His answer to the big question draws upon work that he and his team have been doing for the last couple years:

Reality Online is the observation that we may in the future go online not to go online but rather to surf physical reality. It will seem as archaic as being excited about ‘plugging into the electric grid’ would be to our children to get excited about going ‘online’. Rather it will be a utility by which we strangely enough get efficiently to «reality»… to our supply chains via RFID, to our forests and pipelines by Smart Dust, to our children and nannies via webcams, to our friends and relatives via camera phones and eventually video phones.

Technologically it’s part of a general trend, first we had the Internet (Web), then ubiquitous computing where internet reached out into phyiscal world (our phones, PDAs, cars)… now the reverse is happening. Based on sensors in such devices as well as new sensors (RFID systems, Smart Dust, etc.), we can bring a digital copy of the physical world online that will have two distinctive qualities: more real time, and more detail.

Earlier suggestions:

David Sifry: Cyberspace
Andy Clark: Interactatron
John Seely Brown: The Infomated World
Ross Mayfield: On and Catalink
…plus many others in the Wired article

Technorati Tags: culture, cyberspace, language, pervasive computing, RFID, ubicomp

David Sifry is best-known as founder of Technorati, one of the flagship social software services. However, David has been in high tech for a couple decades, as CTO of a couple other companies. This is his answer to the big question:

I take a contrarian view to your question: I like and still use the word Cyberspace, and I think that there’s no need for a new word. The reason for this is the shared definition and vision that the word represents. First off, cyberspace gets the metaphor right — we’re describing a new dimension, a spatial dimension. Rather than being the immersive VR-based world that Gibson originally envisioned, cyberspace is now a semi-transparent stream that is layered over our meatspace lives. It is an enhancement to our physical existence, an augmentation, not a retreat from it.

Cyberspace is not modal. It is ever-present, and we intersect and interact through the increasing number of tools and devices (dare I say implants at some point in the future) that is enhancing and enabling a new form of consciousness. I’m not talking about EST or transcendental meditation here, I’m talking about a sharpened awareness of our surroundings and the global events and people that shape our lives, all around us, that we ourselves participate in, both explicitly, and implicitly. As we live our daily lives, cyberspace itself is changed, even if we ourselves aren’t aware of the changes, like small shifts in the earth’s magnetic field when we simply move from one place to another.

Earlier suggestions:

Andy Clark: Interactatron
John Seely Brown: The Infomated World
Ross Mayfield: On and Catalink
…plus many others in the Wired article

Technorati Tags: culture, cyberspace, language, social software

Andy Clark probably has the coolest, and certainly longest-lived, title of any of the people David Pescovitz and I talked to: he holds the Chair in Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh University, in Scotland.

Andy first caught my eye when I happened upon his wonderful book, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. (He’s also written a ton of other stuff.) It makes the argument that this ability of humans to merge with technologies is one of the things that makes us human: that we are, in other words, natural-born cyborgs. (I interviewed Andy a couple years ago about his book.)

Here’s his take on the big question:

Recall, if you will, the Orgasmatron from Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper. «Orgasmatron» was a delightfully clumsy word. It immediately conveyed the right idea, then stuck in your head like a permanent thorn.

With this role model in mind, I suggest that the new word for that multi-layered space in which people, things, and computational and communicative overlays conspire to create a richer place to be should be The Interactatron. All there is, all reality ever was, is a space of interaction possibilities of various shapes and kinds.

Cyberspace made sense when our electronic outreach was distinctive and confined, was mainly about word and picture based interactions. But those limits are passing fast. We reach and are reached at in so many different ways. It’s one big machine out there, and interactions, brute-physical, social, intellectual and artistic, are what its about.

So…. There we are….

To me, the really big question Andy’s nomination, and his earlier work, raises is this. Natural-Born Cyborgs does a great job of showing how much cognitive flexibility we have when it comes to adapting our brains to use certain tools, and how that flexibility can affect such fundamental (and even apparently biological and physical) things as our sense of our own bodies. What happens when cognitive flexibility meets not eyeglasses or hand-held tools, but information-charged versions of physical devices? or combinations of technologies that let you see information in spaces?

Sherry Turkle made a name for herself documenting the evolution of The Second Self (a self that was quite dependent on the sense of computers constituting a separate geography in which we could do things like create new personas). Will there be a comparable— or even more powerful— story to tell about the fate of the self in the post-cyberspace age?

Technorati Tags: culture, cyberspace, cyborg, language

John Seely Brown is a former Chief Scientist of Xerox PARC, and coauthor of two recent excellent books: The Social Life of Infomation (with Paul Duguid), and The Only Sustainable Edge (with John Hagel).

John answered the big question in a more philosophical vein than Ross Mayfield:

Cyberspace is an outmoded term. Let’s consider as an alternative The Informated World, a world where the virtual and physical boundaries have become blurred and the virtual and physical worlds dance together and enhance each other. Mark Weiser’s vision of ubiquitous computing was a start down this phenomenological path where the concept of ‘ready-at-hand’ now wondrously crossed the physical/virtual boundary. Ideally, we all sought out a state of being where much like as in Heidegger’s story, the blind man sitting feels the handle of the cane but once he starts walking the handle disappears and he feels as if he were directly touching the world.

Likewise, in the informated world, the interface disappears and we feel we can touch the augmented world directly.

Personally, I think this idea of technologies merging with us— not in the sci-fi implants kind of way, but merging through interaction and familiarity, the way a bicycle or really good pen can become an extension or expression of our bodies— is an important one to highlight. In my view, one reason cyberspace made sense for so long was that our interactions with computers supported the idea of The World being separate from The Matrix, with only the monitor joining the two together. Brown points out that as technologies change, the character of our experience with them changes; and thus our sense of the world— and of alternate digital worlds— inevitably changes as well.

Technorati Tags: culture, cyberspace, cyborg, language, ubicomp

The online version of the Wired article leaves off my last name!

Now I know why the Legos are looking so smug….

[To the tune of Snoop Dogg, «Who Am I (What’s My Name)?,» from the album «Doggystyle».]

Technorati Tags: cyberspace

Ross Mayfield is the founder and CEO of Socialtext, an enterprise social software company based in Palo Alto, and a member of what I’ve come to think of as the Many-To-Many conspiracy. As background for the Wired article, we asked him what term should replace «cyberspace.» He sent back two suggestions:

On When kids use the Net, they are either On, using it as a conduit for social interaction, or Off, a way of not being present. We need to retain Off as a right.


This is my shot at branding it, but all the good names are taken. Cata implies both action and memory. Linking is a social act.One that contributes to the structure of the web that we all contribute to, a vote for attention that could be ranks, but also an anchor through text or tag that provides context and meaning. As you link, you are connected, anywhere, anytime with anyone you so choose. This choice is important as we need to retain the right to de-link. When you link enough people, it is a catalyst for wonderful things.

Update. Personally, what I like best about Ross’ suggestions is the implication of the need for the continued existence of an alternate state: off and unlinked. I’m afraid that the idea of «Off as a right» may, if we’re not careful, one day disappear, without our really being aware of it. Already, you can stumble into bad relationships with partners who get suspicious if your cell phone’s not on, and employers who want you always to be reachable. A government that treats your turning the GPS in your car or cell phone off as proof that you’re Up To Something is, alas, a bit easier to imagine these days.

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, future, language

The Wired article, «»Cyberspace» Is Dead,» is online!

However, I encourage you to go buy a copy of the magazine— the printed version looks cooler. And this month’s cover is outstanding. (Though the article isn’t mentioned in the table of contents, and shares a page with Jargon Watch and a pie chart with the results of a survey asking «In the future, would you put money into an Internet startup?» It’s on page 39. Find the DataPipe.com ad and turn right.)

Despite its low place on the magazine’s totem— I’m convinced the Lego guys on the front are looking so cocksure because they’re thinking, «Ha! We are mere Danish toys, and we rate higher that you!»— I must confess I’ve never waited longer for an issue of Wired in my entire life. And I’ve been subscribing since roughly issue 1.02.

I would be remiss if I didn’t explain that while I’ve been thinking about this general issue for a while, it was really my co-author David Pescovitz who came up with the idea for this article: ask a bunch of smart people what word they think best describes the mobile, always-on, social- and wireless- network-saturated world we seem to be building. And of course, the fact that a lot of people responded with great suggestions made the whole thing possible.

Here, by the way, is the question we sent out:

Cyberspace is doomed. Well, the word anyway. Twenty years after William Gibson coined the term, cyberspace as a metaphor for a place we «visit» to interact with information is not only played out but on the verge of irrelevance. The wireless Web, sensor networks, pervasive computing, RFID, context-aware environments, and the «Internet of things» promise to transform our experience of creating, accessing, and interacting with data. Digital information won’t feel like it exists in an alternate world that we «go to» but rather as a layer atop our entire everyday reality. «The Network» will finally become intertwined with the fabric of our lives. So when cyberspace loses its relevance, we’ll need a new word to replace it.

What is that word or phrase?

The article features suggestions from William Gibson, Steve Jurvetson, Vint Cerf, and others. Over the next few days, I’ll post other suggestions from people like Edinburgh University professor Andy Clark, Berkeley smart dust pioneer Kris Pister, former Xerox PARC head John Seely Brown, and cyberlaw professor James Boyle, that we couldn’t fit in the article. (And two people have already posted comments with their own suggestions. I’d love to hear more.)

And, just because I’m going to be obsessed about tracking the article and might as well admit it, a link to a Technorati search of blog posts linking to the article. Of course, there aren’t any yet….

[To the tune of Bee Gees, «Love So Right,» from the album «The Bee Gees — Their Greatest Hits: The Record».]

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, language, pervasive computing, ubicomp

I hear from a friend that the latest issue of Wired is out. My colleague David Pescovitz and I have a short piece in it on what comes after cyberspace— just half a page, but still it was fun to work on.

I’ve been reading Wired forever, and have every issue but the very first, so getting a piece in the magazine is quite exciting.

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, language

I’ve got a piece on the end of cyberspace and its meaning for libraries in the just-published Berkshire Savant, the newsletter of Berkshire Publishing.

None of us were supposed to be here. According to futurists writing in the early years of the personal computer age, by 2005 printed newsletters were supposed to be obsolete, books a rarity, libraries an anachronism. Digital media were creating an alternate dimension of information and thought: cyberspace. In cyberspace, information would roam free of the constraints of pages and books, becoming accessible anywhere to anyone, unstoppable by borders, unmanageable by jealous professions and priesthoods. So why are you still librarians, working in libraries, reading this in a printed newsletter?

Partly I wrote it because it’s hard to say no to Karen Christensen, Berkshire’s co-founder and CEO, but mainly because Berkshire Savant sounds like a 19th-century literary magazine that published some of Emerson and Thoreau’s early works, was run as a labor of love and expression of faith in emerging American intellectual life, and is now available only in a handful of New England college and atheneum libraries.

And, as I’ve thought about claims about the impact of cyberspace (and the Internet and digital communications more generally), it struck me that the failure of the library to disappear— despite the consistency of a decade’s punditry that held that the library was an expensive, outmoded anachronism— would help understand what cyberspace hath and hath not wrought. And, conversely, thinking about what just-over-the-horizon technologies like RFID could do for libraries would help illuminate the possibilities that emerging technologies will create for connecting bits and atoms.

The entire issue of the Savant is quite interesting, just as one would expect from Berkshire, which is the Maas Biolabs of reference publishing— small, ruthless, and all Edge.

The newsletter is available as a PDF, but be warned, it’s an awfully big file (over 4 MB).

[To the tune of Peter Gabriel, «Digging In The Dirt,» from the album «Secret World Live».]

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, future, library

(For those who don’t want to read the various articles in which I lay out this argument, and its various elaborations.)

What is cyberspace?

Cyberspace is a place.

Cyberspace is separate from the everyday world in which our bodies live.

Cyberspace is superior to the everyday world. Information lives in cyberspace, or wants to live there. In cyberspace, information can be free.

As more information migrates to cyberspace, or originates there, older media— like books— and information-managing institutions— like offices and libraries— will wither.

Why did we believe in it?

It had intellectual origins in science fiction, video games, arcane academic scholarship, and the writings of California futurists. Arguably John Perry Barlow has done more than anyone to make the concept of «cyberspace» appealing.

It became very popular in the 1990s because it made sense of the experience of going online in the PC-and-Internet era. When the Web was new and 28.8 kbs was blazing fast, going online was often like travel: difficult, time-consuming, yet novel and exciting.

The way we interact with PCs reinforces the sense of the computer as portal to a different world. The GUI uses spatial metaphors (e.g., «windows»); PCs are very good at absorbing our attention; and it’s hard to interact with computers and with your surroundings. You can either focus on the screen, or the world, but not both.

Why does the concept matter?

Cyberspace is a metaphor we live by, to borrow a phrase from Berkeley anthropologist George Lakoff. Not only have we used it to explain what happens when we go online; it’s come to guide our thinking about new work in everything from interface design to copyright law.

The idea of cyberspace as place has had profound implications for copyright and intellectual property law. If cyberspace is a place, one argument goes, then property rights must apply there.

Why is cyberspace coming to an end?

Our experience of interacting with digital information is changing. We’re moving to a world in which we (or objects acting on our behalf) are online all the time, everywhere.

Designers and computer scientists are also trying hard to create a new generation of devices and interfaces that don’t monopolize our attention, but ride on the edges of our awareness. We’ll no longer have to choose between cyberspace and the world; we’ll constantly access the first while being fully part of the second.

Because of this, the idea of cyberspace as separate from the real world will collapse.

So if «cyberspace» is no longer relevant, what will we call this new world?

That’s the big question, isn’t it?

What will life be like in this new world?

That’s the other big question, isn’t it?

Technorati Tags: culture, cyberspace, internet

Yes, I need another blog like I need a hole in my head. But since this whole end of cyberspace thing seems to have taken on a life of its own— articles setting out my argument are going to start coming out in the next few weeks— I thought it time to start a blog dedicated to the concept, and documenting my exploration of it.

I’ve also registered the domain name www.endofcyberspace.com, on the theory that— well, I haven’t registered a domain name for a while. I’ll do a domain mappping as soon as the name shows up in the DNS servers, and TypePad can detect it.

Let the fun begin.

Technorati Tags: cyberspace

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The End of Cyberspace

  • What has happened over the past decades is we now have a much better understanding of what e-learning can do and what it cannot do. We know what types of subjects are well taught online and which aren’t. For example, we know that e-learning is well suited for delivering information and basic levels of education. It is widely used to deliver safety training, to introduce new employees to company policies, and to show step-by-step instructions. It is superb at teaching anything visual or physical such as photography, painting, exercise routines, and so forth.
  • «Our current teacher-centered framework is hard to challenge because it is familiar and because we are all products of what it delivers. But it prevents change and inhibits new architectures. I believe we need to deliberately create frameworks where experimentation, non-verbal communication systems, social networks, learn-by-doing, and other tools and concepts enhance our learning. This is happening in some places. The Idea Lab and other innovation centers practice much of what I am talking about. The corporate university has an opportunity to resist the “develop a curriculum” challenge and to break the habits and frameworks of traditional learning.»
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The End of Cyberspace

Natalie Jeremijenko, «If Things Can Talk, What Do They Say? If We Can Talk to Things, What Do We Say?» electronic book review (2005).


Voice Chips and their newer partners, speech recognition chips, are small low power silicon chips that synthesize voice, play prerecorded voice messages, or recognize voice commands. Although this functionality is not new, what makes voice chips unique is that they are small and cheap enough to be deployed in many, in fact almost any, product. Sprinkled throughout the technosocial landscape, their presence in products is a (not quite arbitrary) sampling mechanism, and enables us to compare very different products. So their secondary function, the concern of this essay, is as a simple instrument to slice through the history of our attempts to swap attributes with machines and be able to understand the nuances of complex sociotechnical systems — precisely because the systems are rendered in the form in which we can best recognize nuance: English, be it our own or the machines’….


The question we begin with is simply, when things can talk, what do they say?

design, digital-physical, endofcyberspace, interface, voice