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The End of Cyberspace

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

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The End of Cyberspace

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a new study on media multitasking and its impact on cognitive control:

You might think that this influx of media would make the heaviest of users better at processing competing streams of information. But Eyal Ophir from Stanford University thinks otherwise. From a group of 262 students, Ophir indentified two sets of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ multimedia multi-taskers from the extreme ends of the group. The heavy users were more likely to spend more time reading, watching TV, surfing the web, sending emails or text messages, listening to music and more, and more likely to do these at the same time.

The heavy group also fared worse at tasks designed to test their ability to filter out irrelevant information or, surprisingly, to switch from one task to another. In short, they show poorer «cognitive control», a loosely grouped set of abilities that include allocating attention and blocking out irrelevancy in the face of larger goals. They’re more easily distracted by their many incoming streams of data, or less good at shining the spotlight of their attention on a single goal, even though they are similar to the light group in terms of general intelligence, performance on creativity tests, basic personality types, and proportion of women to men….

The key question here is whether heavy multimedia use is actually degrading the ability to focus, or whether people who are already easily distracted are more likely to drown themselves in media. «This is really the next big question,» says Ophir. «Our study makes no causal claims; we have simply shown that media multitaskers are more distractable.» The next step is to follow a group of people with different media habits over time to see how their mental abilities shift, and that’s something that Ophir is working to set up.

Nonetheless, as ever-larger computer screens support more applications (Google Wave, anyone?), and social norms shift towards more immediate responses, it seems that multitasking is here to stay and perhaps merely in its infancy. It’s important to understand if these technologies will shift our portfolio of mental skills, or equally if people who are naturally easy to distract will gravitate towards this new media environment, and encounter difficulties because of it.

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The End of Cyberspace

Hear, hear:

For almost two decades, when we imagined the future, we imagined ourselves tapped into cyberspace via our deck alongside Case, the protagonist in Neuromancer.

[To the tune of Alban Berg Quartet, «String Quartet Op.132 No.15 in A minor: III. Molto adagio,» from the album Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets (Disc 7) (I give it 5 stars).]

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The End of Cyberspace

From the Good Morning Silicon Valley blog:

Simple common sense should tell us that trying to text while driving is as stupid and dangerous as trying to crochet. We shouldn’t need a bunch of studies calculating and quantifying the risk to goad us into a response, but if that’s what it takes, here’s the latest. A Virginia Tech study that outfitted the cabs of long-haul trucks with video cameras found that when the drivers were texting, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when they had their attention on the road — a figure far higher than the estimates coming out of lab research and a rate by far more dangerous than other driving distractions. And at the University of Utah, research on college students using driving simulators showed texting raised the crash risk by eight times. The variance in the figures is beside the point. “You’re off the charts in both cases,” said Utah professor David Strayer. “It’s crazy to be doing it.”

And the heck of it is, people already know that and they keep doing it anyway.

This is a near-perfect example of how most humans are geniuses at rationalization: yes, I know it’s dangerous, but I’ll be careful and do it just this time, because I really need to let the office know where that file is. Oh wait, they’ve got another question. Well, it would be more dangerous to wait and put the phone down, so I’ll just— dammit, can’t the kids find anything by themselves? Okay, now I’ll make up for it by really focusing on the road.

It’s also a nice example of the kinds of dissonance created when we take practices and technologies designed for one use context, and move it into another— a phenomenon that mobile technologies makes increasingly common. It was hard to take a Macintosh SE or IBM PC Junior on the road; a smartphone, on the other hand, is a perfect storm of transportable, always-on, and just usable enough when you’re doing other things to be dangerous.

[To the tune of Jean Sibelius, «Tapiola, Op. 112,» from the album Finlandia/Tone Poems (I give it 2 stars).]

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The End of Cyberspace

From the Good Morning Silicon Valley blog:

Simple common sense should tell us that trying to text while driving is as stupid and dangerous as trying to crochet. We shouldn’t need a bunch of studies calculating and quantifying the risk to goad us into a response, but if that’s what it takes, here’s the latest. A Virginia Tech study that outfitted the cabs of long-haul trucks with video cameras found that when the drivers were texting, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when they had their attention on the road — a figure far higher than the estimates coming out of lab research and a rate by far more dangerous than other driving distractions. And at the University of Utah, research on college students using driving simulators showed texting raised the crash risk by eight times. The variance in the figures is beside the point. “You’re off the charts in both cases,” said Utah professor David Strayer. “It’s crazy to be doing it.”

And the heck of it is, people already know that and they keep doing it anyway.

This is a near-perfect example of how most humans are geniuses at rationalization: yes, I know it’s dangerous, but I’ll be careful and do it just this time, because I really need to let the office know where that file is. Oh wait, they’ve got another question. Well, it would be more dangerous to wait and put the phone down, so I’ll just— dammit, can’t the kids find anything by themselves? Okay, now I’ll make up for it by really focusing on the road.

It’s also a nice example of the kinds of dissonance created when we take practices and technologies designed for one use context, and move it into another— a phenomenon that mobile technologies makes increasingly common. It was hard to take a Macintosh SE or IBM PC Junior on the road; a smartphone, on the other hand, is a perfect storm of transportable, always-on, and just usable enough when you’re doing other things to be dangerous.

[To the tune of Jean Sibelius, «Tapiola, Op. 112,» from the album Finlandia/Tone Poems (I give it 2 stars).]

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The End of Cyberspace

I’m noticing an uptick in the number of articles on digital sabbaths, zeroing out, or whatever you want to call it. This from John Freeman in the Wall Street Journal:

It is time to launch a manifesto for a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world, where the following three statements are self-evident.

1. Speed matters…. «The speed at which we do something—anything—changes our experience of it…. The Internet has provided us with an almost unlimited amount of information, but the speed at which it works—and we work through it—has deprived us of its benefits. We might work at a higher rate, but this is not work ing.»…

2. The Physical World matters. A large part of electronic commu nication leads us away from the physical world. Our cafes, post offices, parks, cinemas, town centers, main streets and community meeting halls have suffered as a result of this development…. Sitting in the modern coffee shop, you don’t hear the murmur or rise and fall of conversation but the continuous, insect-like patter of typing. The disuse of real-world commons drives people back into the virtual world, causing a feedback cycle that leads to an ever-deepening isolation and neglect of the tangible commons.

3. Context matters. We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communication has stopped providing it, we shouldn’t search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from effi ciency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships.

In a different register but playing some of the same themes, Mercury News tech columnist Troy Wolverton confesses, «I’ve been thinking I need to take a break from technology.»

Resisting the urge to check my e-mail on my phone, say. Finding something else to do when the TV’s not on at night than retreat to my computer for some Web surfing or game playing. Focusing on the people in my life, rather than the gadgets….

Reading a newspaper Web site on my iPhone while sitting next to my son may seem no different from when my dad used to read a real newspaper while I was eating breakfast as a kid. But the iPhone tends to be a lot more engrossing and addictive than a physical newspaper — and not just because the latter keeps getting thinner.

I can peruse hundreds of newspapers on my iPhone, seeking out those stories and topics I’m most interested in. If that gets dull, I can check my e-mail. If there’s nothing there to grab my attention, there’s always my Facebook app or a game. In short, it’s hard to pull away. And once you’re entrapped, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.

[To the tune of Keith Jarrett Trio, «Five Brothers,» from the album The Out Of Towners (I give it 1 stars).]

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The End of Cyberspace

I’m noticing an uptick in the number of articles on digital sabbaths, zeroing out, or whatever you want to call it. This from John Freeman in the Wall Street Journal:

It is time to launch a manifesto for a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world, where the following three statements are self-evident.

1. Speed matters…. «The speed at which we do something—anything—changes our experience of it…. The Internet has provided us with an almost unlimited amount of information, but the speed at which it works—and we work through it—has deprived us of its benefits. We might work at a higher rate, but this is not work ing.»…

2. The Physical World matters. A large part of electronic commu nication leads us away from the physical world. Our cafes, post offices, parks, cinemas, town centers, main streets and community meeting halls have suffered as a result of this development…. Sitting in the modern coffee shop, you don’t hear the murmur or rise and fall of conversation but the continuous, insect-like patter of typing. The disuse of real-world commons drives people back into the virtual world, causing a feedback cycle that leads to an ever-deepening isolation and neglect of the tangible commons.

3. Context matters. We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communication has stopped providing it, we shouldn’t search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from effi ciency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships.

In a different register but playing some of the same themes, Mercury News tech columnist Troy Wolverton confesses, «I’ve been thinking I need to take a break from technology.»

Resisting the urge to check my e-mail on my phone, say. Finding something else to do when the TV’s not on at night than retreat to my computer for some Web surfing or game playing. Focusing on the people in my life, rather than the gadgets….

Reading a newspaper Web site on my iPhone while sitting next to my son may seem no different from when my dad used to read a real newspaper while I was eating breakfast as a kid. But the iPhone tends to be a lot more engrossing and addictive than a physical newspaper — and not just because the latter keeps getting thinner.

I can peruse hundreds of newspapers on my iPhone, seeking out those stories and topics I’m most interested in. If that gets dull, I can check my e-mail. If there’s nothing there to grab my attention, there’s always my Facebook app or a game. In short, it’s hard to pull away. And once you’re entrapped, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.

[To the tune of Keith Jarrett Trio, «Five Brothers,» from the album The Out Of Towners (I give it 1 stars).]

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The End of Cyberspace

I’m noticing an uptick in the number of articles on digital sabbaths, zeroing out, or whatever you want to call it. This from John Freeman in the Wall Street Journal:

It is time to launch a manifesto for a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world, where the following three statements are self-evident.

1. Speed matters…. «The speed at which we do something—anything—changes our experience of it…. The Internet has provided us with an almost unlimited amount of information, but the speed at which it works—and we work through it—has deprived us of its benefits. We might work at a higher rate, but this is not work ing.»…

2. The Physical World matters. A large part of electronic commu nication leads us away from the physical world. Our cafes, post offices, parks, cinemas, town centers, main streets and community meeting halls have suffered as a result of this development…. Sitting in the modern coffee shop, you don’t hear the murmur or rise and fall of conversation but the continuous, insect-like patter of typing. The disuse of real-world commons drives people back into the virtual world, causing a feedback cycle that leads to an ever-deepening isolation and neglect of the tangible commons.

3. Context matters. We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communication has stopped providing it, we shouldn’t search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from effi ciency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships.

In a different register but playing some of the same themes, Mercury News tech columnist Troy Wolverton confesses, «I’ve been thinking I need to take a break from technology.»

Resisting the urge to check my e-mail on my phone, say. Finding something else to do when the TV’s not on at night than retreat to my computer for some Web surfing or game playing. Focusing on the people in my life, rather than the gadgets….

Reading a newspaper Web site on my iPhone while sitting next to my son may seem no different from when my dad used to read a real newspaper while I was eating breakfast as a kid. But the iPhone tends to be a lot more engrossing and addictive than a physical newspaper — and not just because the latter keeps getting thinner.

I can peruse hundreds of newspapers on my iPhone, seeking out those stories and topics I’m most interested in. If that gets dull, I can check my e-mail. If there’s nothing there to grab my attention, there’s always my Facebook app or a game. In short, it’s hard to pull away. And once you’re entrapped, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.

[To the tune of Keith Jarrett Trio, «Five Brothers,» from the album The Out Of Towners (I give it 1 stars).]

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The End of Cyberspace

This from a 2007 article from Low Latency:

Firms are turning to electronic trading, in part because a 1-millisecond advantage in trading applications can be worth millions of dollars a year to a major brokerage firm. That is why colocation — in which firms move the systems running their algorithms as close to the exchanges as possible — is so popular.

The need for speed has opened up opportunities for nontraditional competitors in the space, and it has provided established exchanges with new revenue opportunities, such as colocation services for companies that wish to place their servers in direct physical proximity to the exchanges’ systems. Electronic trading also has created opportunities for a new class of vendors — execution services firms and systems integrators promising the fastest possible transaction times….

Physical colocation eliminates the unavoidable time lags inherent in even the fastest wide area networks. Servers in shared data centers typically are connected via Gigabit Ethernet, with the ultrahigh-speed switching fabric called InfiniBand increasingly used for the same purpose, relates Yaron Haviv, CTO at Voltaire, a supplier of systems that Haviv contends can achieve latencies of less than 1 millionth of a second….

The NYSE will begin reducing its 10 data centers, including those associated with Euronext, to two in the next couple of years, says CTO Steve Rubinow. Colocation, Rubinow says, not only guarantees fast transactions but also predictable ones. «If you’ve got some trades going through at 10 milliseconds and some at 1 millisecond, that’s a problem,» he says. «Our customers don’t like variance.»

There’s also this interesting tidbit about place and security:

Later this year, Nasdaq will shutter its data center in Trumbull, Conn., and move all operations to one opened last year in New Jersey, with a backup in the mid-Atlantic region, the exchange’s Hyndman says. (Trading firms and exchanges are reluctant to disclose the exact locations of their data centers.)

So what’s this mean for the future?

Once you hit physical limits to data-transmission speeds, where do you go from there?… There are two schools of thought on this issue. One is that traders, exchanges and brokers must shave latency from other parts of the system — in the applications they use, for instance — and that the race will continue.

The other is that latency will cease to be an issue once everyone has access to the same trading infrastructure and that other, older-school elements of the business, such as customer service and market savvy, will once again become the differentiators. «Shortly, we’ll be talking micro- versus milliseconds, and at that point speed will probably have less and less relevance,» says Lime Brokerage’s [Alistair] Brown. «Once you’ve got half a dozen systems that can all handle that kind of throughput, then you have to distinguish yourself somewhere else.»

[To the tune of Fear Of Pop, «In Love,» from the album Versions (I give it 3 stars).]

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The End of Cyberspace

This from a 2007 article from Low Latency:

Firms are turning to electronic trading, in part because a 1-millisecond advantage in trading applications can be worth millions of dollars a year to a major brokerage firm. That is why colocation — in which firms move the systems running their algorithms as close to the exchanges as possible — is so popular.

The need for speed has opened up opportunities for nontraditional competitors in the space, and it has provided established exchanges with new revenue opportunities, such as colocation services for companies that wish to place their servers in direct physical proximity to the exchanges’ systems. Electronic trading also has created opportunities for a new class of vendors — execution services firms and systems integrators promising the fastest possible transaction times….

Physical colocation eliminates the unavoidable time lags inherent in even the fastest wide area networks. Servers in shared data centers typically are connected via Gigabit Ethernet, with the ultrahigh-speed switching fabric called InfiniBand increasingly used for the same purpose, relates Yaron Haviv, CTO at Voltaire, a supplier of systems that Haviv contends can achieve latencies of less than 1 millionth of a second….

The NYSE will begin reducing its 10 data centers, including those associated with Euronext, to two in the next couple of years, says CTO Steve Rubinow. Colocation, Rubinow says, not only guarantees fast transactions but also predictable ones. «If you’ve got some trades going through at 10 milliseconds and some at 1 millisecond, that’s a problem,» he says. «Our customers don’t like variance.»

There’s also this interesting tidbit about place and security:

Later this year, Nasdaq will shutter its data center in Trumbull, Conn., and move all operations to one opened last year in New Jersey, with a backup in the mid-Atlantic region, the exchange’s Hyndman says. (Trading firms and exchanges are reluctant to disclose the exact locations of their data centers.)

So what’s this mean for the future?

Once you hit physical limits to data-transmission speeds, where do you go from there?… There are two schools of thought on this issue. One is that traders, exchanges and brokers must shave latency from other parts of the system — in the applications they use, for instance — and that the race will continue.

The other is that latency will cease to be an issue once everyone has access to the same trading infrastructure and that other, older-school elements of the business, such as customer service and market savvy, will once again become the differentiators. «Shortly, we’ll be talking micro- versus milliseconds, and at that point speed will probably have less and less relevance,» says Lime Brokerage’s [Alistair] Brown. «Once you’ve got half a dozen systems that can all handle that kind of throughput, then you have to distinguish yourself somewhere else.»

[To the tune of Fear Of Pop, «In Love,» from the album Versions (I give it 3 stars).]