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25 posts from October 2008
Know How Talks at IDEO Thu, 11/06/08 5:00 pm IDEO Cafe* Free and open to the public See bottom for venue, schedule, and more details
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang The End of Cyberspace
The concept of cyberspace— an alternate dimension of information, accessible from computers, that was separate from and superior to the physical world— has helped shaped the way we think about everything from the design of online environments, to intellectual property law, to predictions about the future of cities, work, and space. I want to explain how the idea of cyberspace came to be so compelling, and chart where it’s going. Cyberspace has its origins in science fiction, video games, the mythology of the Western frontier, and other cultural sources. But it became powerful because it helped us make sense of the emerging relationship between people, information, and the Web, in an era defined by desktop computers, modest Internet connections, and graphical interfaces. Cyberspace was an artifact of a particular moment in the cultural history of human-computer interaction. So what happens to the concept of cyberspace as the character of our interactions with computers and information change? What happens when we move toward an always-on, mobile, ubiquitous future? I argue that the notion of cyberspace will become obsolete. As Gene Becker puts it, «cyberspace was a separate place from our world only because the necessary bridging technologies didn’t exist. Now that they do … cyberspace is coming to us.» Given how influential the idea of cyberspace was, it’s worth asking what its obsolescence will mean, and what might come after cyberspace.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is a Research Director at the Institute for the Future, where he leads projects on the future of science, and an Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, where he works with students interested in futures and forecasting. Before becoming a futurist, Alex studied history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is writing a book on the end of cyberspace (http://www.endofcyberspace.com); his earlier projects include histories of Victorian solar eclipse expeditions; Buckminster Fuller and the geodesic dome; and the development of the Apple mouse.
Upcoming Know How Talks
This will be the last talk for 2008.
Stay tuned! *The Know How Talks are usually held on Thursdays at 5:00, in IDEO’s Palo Alto cafe next to our lobby at 100 Forest. Enter from the alley between Alma St and High St.
The talks are open to the public. No need to RSVP.
I’ve long been a fan of the IDEO talks, so it’ll be a real pleasure— and a real challenge— to give one. endofcyberspace, IDEO, talks
[Reposted from my Red Herring blog, 2005]
When modern architecture emerged in the first years of the last century, it threw down a gauntlet at the feet of traditional neoclassical and academic architecture. Modernism’s style was stripped-down and functional. It celebrated the beauty of machines and the art of engineering, and expressed itself in concrete and steel, rather than brick and wood. Most important, it declared that the future would never again look like the past: from now on, architecture would be about innovation and change, not about working with timeless principles and eternal proportions.
Implicitly at first, and then consciously, architectural exhibits became predictions. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house, first exhibited in 1927, exemplifies how modern architecture backed into the futures business. The Dymaxion house was a hexagonal structure, suspended from a central load- and services-bearing column. Virtually everything in it was made of aircraft-grade medal. The house wouldn’t be built on-site, like traditional houses; instead, it would be mass-produced, like cars or cans of peas, and delivered to owners.
Soon «the home of the future» became a stock element of every architectural exhibit, World’s Fair, forward-looking corporate display, or popular magazine special issue. (Even World War II couldn’t derail them: a 1943 brochure showed a couple admiring a neighborhood of modern houses under the caption, «After total war can come total living.») Sporting automated kitchens, robot butlers, furniture that you washed with a high-pressure hose, and helipads (the long, sad story of why we don’t have personal helicopters or jet packs will have to wait for another time), these houses were sleek temples of convenience, promises of a world in which the home would be as frictionless and worry-free as a department store.
Of course, almost none of this has come to pass. Instead, the «home of the future» projects serve as textbook examples of how you can get the future wrong, and why.
Continue reading «Smart home, smarter home» »
Long post on the nature of tinkering, coming out of a conference I’ve been attending at the beautiful Carnegie Foundation. I’ll link it to the end of cyberspace soon, I hope.
conference, endofcyberspace, tinkering
[Reposted from my Red Herring blog, 2005]
Recently BBC World had an article on baby blogs— blogs that parents will keep about their children, the digital equivalent of baby books. Coincidentally, that same day I posted my 500th entry on my blog about my children, which I started soon after getting a digital camera. Like most articles about blogs, its substantive points were mixed up with a measure of alarmism and technical naivete. Some of it was taken up with worries about what pedophiles unmentionable things could do to those cute baby pictures, and fretting over how revealing details about your child’s daily routine isn’t very smart. (Hello? Ever heard of password protection?)
The article also suggested that baby blogs were invasions of privacy. What if, twenty years from now, the merest acquaintance could read about your child’s potty-training exploits, or their first visit to Grandma’s house? Wouldn’t making those details of your child’s life available to people they barely know violate their privacy, and make it harder for them to get dates? (At this point in the article I wanted to pump my arm and shouted «Yessss!» My five year-old daughter is only in nursery school, and already I’ve guaranteed that she’ll spend her college years undistracted by a social life.)
My efforts to archive my children’s lives stand in stark contrast to the scanty documentation of my own past. My entire childhood is preserved in just under two hundred pictures, a few letters, and a couple yearbooks: it all fits in a single box. In contrast, I can take two hundred pictures of my daughter at a birthday party. The constantly-falling cost of digital media lower the barriers to recording everyday events, and preserving every last picture and audio file. At my current rate, each of my children are in danger of having me take 50,000 pictures of them by the time they turn 18.
Of course, parenting is one long invasion of privacy, but the idea of baby blogs coming back to haunt their subjects later in life is still an interesting one. Technology promises to take a ritual that had traditionally been a painful but very limited rite of passage— the baby books shown to the fiance, the clever candids shown at the wedding reception— and make it into a full-time affair.
It also shows that the relationship between privacy and technology is really pretty complex. Worries about technology affecting privacy are perfectly reasonable; but worries about specific technologies are often misplaced. To really know what to worry about, you have to think a bit more about what privacy is, and how technology can affect it.
Continue reading «Incognito ergo sum» »
- An appropriation-friendly, image-rich, experimental research library. Independent and open to the public.
- «A prototype for a portable collaborative space in libraries built by the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design.»
- In 1999, Brian Eno revisited his 1979 essay on the studio as a compositional space. «I was thrilled at how people were using studios to make music that otherwise simply could not exist. Studios opened up possibilities. But now I’m struck by the insidious, computer-driven tendency to take things out of the domain of muscular activity and put them into the domain of mental activity. This transfer is not paying off. Sure, muscles are unreliable, but they represent several million years of accumulated finesse. Musicians enjoy drawing on that finesse (and audiences respond to its exercise), so when muscular activity is rendered useless, the creative process is frustrated.»
- The studio is a space for composition, an instrument. «[Y]ou no longer come to the studio with a conception of the finished piece. Instead, you come with actually rather a bare skeleton of the piece, or perhaps with nothing at all. I often start working with no starting point. Once you become familiar with studio facilities, or even if you’re not, actually, you can begin to compose in relation to those facilities. You can begin to think in terms of putting something on, putting something else on, trying this on top of it, and so on, then taking some of the original things off, or taking a mixture of things off, and seeing what you’re left with — actually constructing a piece in the studio.»
- «Ah, that constant stream of information from the PDA, the wireless laptop connection, cable TV. Sure, you can work from wherever, whenever, be entertained around the clock. But how to manage it? How to pull back and gain time for personal pursuits, reflection and sanity?»
- «Thus began my “secular Sabbath” — a term I found floating around on blogs — a day a week where I would be free of screens, bells and beeps. An old-fashioned day not only of rest but of relief.»
From the MIT Scratch Web site, a tutorial on how to create popular projects. Just listen to it.
Learn more about this project
[Reposted from the Red Herring blog, ca. 2005.]
Let me begin with a confession. I spend most of my working life in front of a computer, and I suspect a fair amount of that time is wasted. I check my e-mail several times an hour. I regularly scan my RSS feeds for new posts. I visit news sites, just in case they’ve updated the list of breaking new stories. I can follow hyperlinks from one end of the Internet to the other if I’m not careful.
It’s all the electronic equivalent of bouncing your leg up and down, or ripping a napkin apart. And I don’t need to be this wired. It doesn’t help my work or thinking; to the contrary, these information-era equivalents nervous tics are just distractions. Yet I do them.
I’m hardly alone. Some of my friends lead lives that require Blackberries; others have Blackberries that take over their lives. A recent Yahoo-OMD study of 28 people forced to go offline for two weeks shows how dependent—both in the functional, and the emotional sense—people become to being connected. According to The Atlantic Monthly, «Across the board, participants reported withdrawal-like feelings of loss, frustration, and disconnectedness after the plug was plug was pulled.» Indeed, «[t]he temptation to go online was so great that the participants were offered «life lines»—one-time, one-task forays onto the Web—to ease their pain.» Add to this the recent Pew Internet Survey study that found that Internet users are spending more time online, and less watching TV, and you get a picture of growing numbers of people turning productivity tools into weapons of self-distraction.
It’s just the latest evidence confirming the truism that we live in an age of information overload. How did this happen? And is it going to get worse?
Continue reading «Solitude» »
Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchen’s 2001 book, The Atlas of Cyberspace, is now available as a free PDF. Of course it’s a huge file, and I still think the book itself is well worth owning, even though I think the concept of an «atlas» of cyberspace enshrines a concept that’s worth challenging.
books, cyberspace, endofcyberspace
[Reprinted from my Red Herring column, 2004.]
I’ve had my own blog since late 2002. The post with the largest number of comments isn’t my hilarious, cutting review of Matrix Reloaded; it’s not my insightful analysis of Andy Clark’s Natural-Born Cyborgs; it isn’t even my post about Danish train stations. No, the post that has inspired the largest number of comments is one about Super Nanny, a reality TV show.
And most of the comments don’t have anything to do at all with my post. Instead, the commenters are just venting about child-rearing, praising the show, or saying how much they love super nanny Jo Frost. I’m the equivalent of the bartender: I put out the nuts and wipe down the bar. Except this time, the patrons have brought their own bottles.
How did this happen? And why does it matter? The answer to the first question is easy: Google. For reasons that I can’t divine, a search on «Super Nanny» returns my post about the show as the #2 result. I have no idea why. And why does it matter? In its own small way, it’s an unexpected, but illuminating, example of user reinvention, the phenomenon wherein people take a technology or medium intended for one purpose, and remake it for themselves.
Continue reading «Super Nanny and the reinvention phenomenon» »