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The End of Cyberspace

Yet another interesting reflection on Facebook portraits, this time by Columbia architecture professor Kazys Varnelis (whose recent book I mentioned in a previous post):

The Facebook self-portrait makes everyone a superstar, famous for no particular reason, but notable for their embrace of fame. So it is that on Facebook, I see friends who I never thought of as self-conscious take photographs of remarkable humor, intelligence, and wry self-deprecation. The Facebook self-portrait insists upon mastery over one’s self-image and the instant feedback of digital photography allows us this. Not happy? Well, try again.

Long ago, when I was in high school, I read a book on the Bloomsbury group. I remember that the caption underneath a group photograph in the book (whose title now escapes me) pointed out that even in this über-hip clique, only one member was relaxed, only one understood that the right pose for the camera was a calculated non-pose. Our idea of the self can be read through such images: from the stiff formality of the painted portrait to the relaxed pose of the photograph to the calculated self-consciousness of the Facebook digital image. Each time, the self becomes a more cunning manipulator of the media. Each time, the self becomes more conscious of being defined outside itself, in a flow of impulses rather than a notion of inner essence.

So it was that in reading the first article, I felt that the author missed his friend Caroline’s point when she told him «You can never be too cool for your past.» As your images catch up to you in network culture, you have to become the consummate manipulator of your image, imagery from the past being less an indictment of present flaws and more an indicator of your ability to remake yourself.

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The End of Cyberspace

David M. Levy, Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age (New York: Arcade, 2002).

When I got the chance to review Scrolling Forward, I went to Kepler’s, my local bookstore, to pick up a copy. I had seen a stack there a few days earlier, but by the time I arrived it had moved, and I had forgotten the title. I asked at the information desk about a book that had been on the «New Science and Technology» table that past weekend, had orange and blue on the cover, and was about documents. They couldn’t remember the title either, but they remembered the book, and knew the most likely place their stock of half a dozen copies had been moved. So, despite not knowing the author or title, we found it in a matter of seconds.

Drawing on knowledge of its recent location, jacket design, general subject, and the way books circulate between display tables and shelves to find a particular volume may seem disorganized and baroque. It is, but it’s how most of us work. Our complicated relationship with documents— everything from Post-Its to encyclopedias— is the subject of David Levy’s Scrolling Forward: Thinking About Documents in the Digital Age. Levy, a computer science Ph.D. and calligraphy, is well-placed to compare the old and new. His books is organized around broad subjects— reading, writing, and the like— but each chapter is a meditation, written more on the this- reminds-me-of-that principle, rather than something more formal. Such an approach can occasionally get out of control, but at its best the book’s style effectively juxtaposes printed and electronic documents, and calculates the gains and losses of moving information from one medium to the other.

The very fact that Levy is interested in this question indicates a growing maturity in our attitudes towards digital materials. A decade ago, the first important works on hypertext and multimedia— George Landow’s Hypertext and Jay David Bolter’s The Writing Space— declared that thanks to the computer, the author was dead, the reader reigned supreme, the book was doomed, and linear thinking was passe. They were widely praised within academic circles, and provoked defenders like Sven Birketts to assert the eternal value of the book. The debate that has followed has largely been beside the point, because it misses several things that Levy wisely considers in depth.

First, arguments over «the future of the book» focus on books, particularly high literature. But we live in a world saturated with texts: we might not read Dante every today, but we’ll read street signs, scan newspapers, select from restaurant menus, answer e-mail, ignore ads, type URLs. To drive the point home, Scrolling Forward begins not with a discussion of encyclopedias or the Bible, but a… deli receipt. Even something so utterly inconsequential turns out draw upon thousands of years of history and complex social institutions, not to mention a host of technologies. «Over the centuries a complex network of institutions and practices has grown up to create and maintain meaningful and reliable paper documents,» (162) Levy argues. This is as true of receipts as it is of Rilke: «To be a receipt is to be connected to cash registers, sellers, buyers, products, expense reports, the IRS, and so on.» (29) It takes a village to make a document.

Levy’s receipt was a hybrid, a printed record generated by an electronic system; therein lies a second big point. It turns out that documents have sloshed between electronic and printed form for decades. Checks and airline tickets were computer-printed from the 1950s. Mainframe computer publishing systems were developed in the 1960s and 1970s for newspapers and other high-volume publishers. (It is instructive that the early adopters weren’t book publishers, but companies that had high-volume, varied, or rapidly- changing material. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s publishing system was adapted from one developed for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who published countless pamphlets in dozens of languages.) In the 1980s, word processors allowed writers to create digital texts. In the 1990s, web browsers gave readers direct access digital works. This last, and most-publicized step, was a culmination, not a revolution. Seen in this light, the whole «print versus digital» debate seems irrelelvant.

The fact that the debate over «the future of the book» took off in the last decade suggests that what’s at stake isn’t just materials, but practices and cultural institutions. We pick up cues about the utility and reputability of printed sources from the publisher, the feel of the paper, even from a document’s location in a library or bookstore; such cues have yet to be reproduced consistently online, and the social networks that add value to printed works weren’t threatened by the computerization of typesetting and printing. Documents, Levy argues, aren’t just information; they’re also material things and cultural artifacts. Even digital documents aren’t «just» immaterial bits. As Levy notes, «the ones and zeros of our digital representations… are embedded in a material substrate no less than are calligraphic letterforms on a piece of vellum.» (156)

This is not to say that an electronic document can’t have all the qualities of a printed one. It IS to say that those qualities can’t be programmed as features in the next upgrade: they have to be created in the social world, and in the world of human practices and attitudes. Levy’s concern is that we recognize that books and journals are much more than containers from which content can now be «liberated.» They have influenced— often to the good— the way we read, organize our thoughts, and create order in our intellectual worlds.

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The End of Cyberspace

  • Although it is generally agreed that the outer space should be used for the benefit of all mankind, only a fraction of the countries have the necessary technological base for accessing space. Space technology, with its implications on science, economy and well-being of citizens, is mostly chosen as one of the priority areas for technological development by developing countries. However, there is already an over-capacity in global space industry and there are doubts on necessity of additional capacity establishment by developing countries. In this study, the importance and benefits of capacity-building in these countries are emphasized and the advantages and disadvantages that developing countries have in the framework of space technology acquisition are briefly presented.
  • «Scientists said today they plan to commercially produce the CubeSat — which is 10cm high and weighs the same as a bag of sugar. The 1kg device, which can be constructed with off-the-shelf electronic components, have traditionally been a cheap way for universities to research outer space. They are taken into space on the back of larger satellites from which they are launched. Once in space they are powered with solar panels. But University of Strathclyde scientists have teamed up with Glasgow space firm Clyde Space to develop an advanced version of these satellites. Clyde Space would like to commercially produce them, and the university team hopes to use the partnership to launch Scotland’s first satellite.»
  • a national space programme has tended to be the exclusive preserve of a few rich industrialised countries. Some developing countries notably North Korea, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, and lately Nigeria, though not usually classified as industrialized countries, are however trying to catch up. These countries have tried to start at the miniaturized, lightweight end of satellites, because they are less complex as well as much cheaper to assemble and launch.
  • «[T]he Naro-1, was due to put a scientific observation satellite into orbit and propel South Korea into an exclusive group of nine nations that have launched domestically built satellites from their own territory.»
  • «This paper addresses the development and design of the HAUSAT-1 (Hankuk Aviation University SATellite-1), a new generation picosatellite, being developed by SSRI (Space System Research Lab.) of Hankuk Aviation University.»
  • «We’ve known that the DIY ethic is good for modding your Roomba or building a beer bong, but groups of college students have taken the movement to the next level: space. Working on shoestring budgets and short timelines, duct tape and tape measures, CubeSat enthusiasts build 4-inch square satellites and then piggyback their dreams on bigger missions’ rockets. They do it dirty and cheap, but their results are competitive with their spendier counterparts.»
  • «[T]his site is about university-class satellites (sometimes called student-built satellites); we prefer this term to “student satellite” because the latter has become nonspecific through overuse…. [T]he significant distinction of a university-class satellite (as opposed to a space mission with strong university participation) comes from programmatics, not cost or performance; while university-class satellites have traditionally been lowcost and low-performance, this is a logical consequence of the way the missions have proceeded, not an inherent part of their nature. (In fact, there is a mistaken belief that university-built spacecraft are a low-cost alternative to “professional” satellites; see my 2004 paper for further discussion.) The purpose of a university-class mission is to train students in the design, integration and operation of spacecraft, and this is accomplished by giving students direct control over the progress of the program.»
  • «In an effort to reduce risk in developing operational spy satellites, the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has started a new program that will use tiny satellites, known as cubesats, as in-space test platforms for promising new technologies.»
  • «This category intends to gather all PicoSat and CubeSat projects.»
  • «Students often believe that their work will lead to breakthroughs in the satellite industry because student projects can afford to be more innovative and ambitious.» According to the aerospace industry and NASA, in contrast, «The value of student-built spacecraft is not in the hardware, but in the experience developed by students…. Who is correct? Are student-built spacecraft valuable because they provide technological innovation or because of the student training opportunities?»
  • «Swartwout said there has been a boom in spacecraft production at universities worldwide, with 30 university-built spacecraft launched over the past decade. Enabling this trend has been the electronics revolution of the late ’90s, which made possible the opportunity for universities to make much smaller vehicles with much cheaper price tags. This in turn led to Swartwout developing the modus operandi of developing student-built, «disposable,» spacecraft that function over a short timeframe of a few weeks. The hope, Swartwout said, is that some day an innovation developed by students at a university will become a «disruptive» technology — one that is implemented and alters the status quo of spacecraft design.»
  • «Flying satellites in space might seem like a real stretch for the amateur. In fact, for decades the amateur radio community has been building and flying their series of amateur satellites under the guidance of AMSAT (The Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation). Furthermore, amsats have been first in a number of satellite technologies including store and forward messaging and dopplar location for search and rescue. See Highlights of Space Radio for more examples of amsat accomplishments. Amsats have also become the models for the smallsat revolution. More and more spacecraft, such as the space probes Lunar Prospector and the Mars Global Surveyor, as well as low earth orbit comsats like Orbcomm, are built small and specialised and in relatively short times. This goes against the traditional approach of huge general purpose spacecraft (see, for example, the Cassini probe to Saturn) that take many years to build.»
  • «Orbiting Satellites Carrying Amateur Radio (OSCAR) series of small satellites was initiated for radio amateurs to experience satellite tracking and participate in radio propagation experiments.» First amateur satellites were launched in 1961, substituting for ballast on a USAF rocket.
  • List of cubesat launches, 2003-2009.
  • «A payload from Trondheim and a satellite platform developed in Canada can give Norway a better view of activities in ocean areas under national jurisdiction.»
  • «This list is meant to give an overview over the success rate, mission and payloads, communication, attitude and orbit determination and control systems along with links to the various projects. Only missions already launched, scheduled for launch, or being actively worked on are included on this page.»
  • Website of the Libertad-1 project, Colombia’s first satellite.
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The End of Cyberspace

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

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

The World of Paratexts

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

From Quantification to Qualculation: The Growth of Calculation

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

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

New apprehensions of space and time

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

A new sensorium

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

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

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

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

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

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