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The End of Cyberspace

I’m supposed to be taking some of the summer off, finishing the book and a couple articles, but like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, every time I think I’m out they pull me back in. I was at the first day of SciBarCamp today, playing local host / fixer / keeping an eye on the furniture. Sean Mooney (who in addition to being a former professor at Indiana University, was a World Wrestling Federation announcer) gave a very interesting talk about current challenges in bioinformatics.

A fair amount of Sean’s talk dealt with the technical challenges of creating federated databases, the differing demands of bench scientists and funders— the former want tools for managing and analyzing data in today’s problems, while the latter want to attack Big Questions— and the issues involved in getting people to share their data. The issues aren’t so much philosophical or competitive, but practical: people believe in sharing data, and once they’re done with it are generally willing to share so long as it doesn’t put a burden on them.

But as Sean was talking about how different labs used different procedures for similar experiments, and how those differences manifested themselves in the ways they produced and consumed data (at least, this is what I took away from his talk— he might have meant something complete different), a thought came to me. Projects intended to let scientists assume that data can be converted into something like the reagents or instruments labs buy from suppliers— a commodity that you don’t have to think about, you just use. But what if data can’t be black-boxed this way? Or, more specifically, what if only really uninteresting data— the kind that everyone understands very well, the kind that’s solidly in the realm of normal science— can be cleaned up, repackaged, commodified and standardized, and put online into generally-usable databases?

On one hand, this idea might seem stupid. After all, science is science: data is data, and facts about nature are true no matter where they’re created. That makes them scientific. On the other hand, if you buy the argument of people like Harry Collins, scientific research is as much a craft as a— well, a science. Databases tend to reflect the specific, local interests of researchers, working on particular problems. This tends to work against the generalizability of data: the more it’s a product of craft, and an object tailored to a particular job, the harder it’ll be to make it useful to other people.

So depending on how much databases are expressions of craftwork and problem-solving and bricolage, and how much they reflect a timeless, placeless crystallization of nature’s order, they’re going to be less or more easily poured into big projects to reuse data.

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The End of Cyberspace

As usual, I’m playing around with the fonts and colors, and will probably do so for a while.

I’m driving for the most minimalist look I can generate. Something like the menu of an extremely hip hotel bar in Copenhagen. Nothing extraneous. But still readable.

The fact that this is explicitly a professional / research blog, and not a personal one, is behind this drive for minimalism. I don’t want things to distract from the ideas. And, come to think of it, except for a postcard or flyer on the cover, I don’t decorate my real notebooks, either.

I’m also trying to get the visual space between the posts and comments down to a minimum— to level (at least somewhat) the implicit hierarchy that exists between the two.

Though maybe after I finish rereading William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, I’ll revert to something more colorful.

[To the tune of Keith Jarrett, «Vienna, Pt. 2,» from the album «Vienna Concert».]

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The End of Cyberspace

Dion Hinchcliffe:

One of the key aspects of Web 2.0 is that it connects people so they can effortlessly participate in fluid conversations and dynamic information sharing. At the same time, computing devices are giving people permapresence on the Web through PDAs, phones, digital cameras, and a slew of other emerging devices. Before now, you had to consciously go to cyberspace by sitting at a PC and looking at it through a window, in essence going to a place where you primarily observed and gathered knowledge. Not any more.

These days the boundaries between reality and cyberspace are becoming increasingly blurred and the activities on the Web are becoming more two way and integrated with reality, with the canonical example being the hypothetical Taxi button on a cellphone. With going into cyberspace no longer being a discrete step (folks are more and more always there now) and with the primary activity often being to interact with other folks transparently, and you have a folding of cyberspace so severe that it just disappears into the ether.

[via Writing and the Digital Life]

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, Web 2.0

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The End of Cyberspace

I was leafing through Margaret Wertheim’s The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet this evening, and was struck by her argument about the degree to which cyberspace became a technological expression of Christian desires for transcendence.

Here’s a thought. Wertheim was right about cyberspace. But we’re moving into a new relationship binding information to the world, and our metaphors for describing that world are more social than spiritual.

Put another way, cyberspace expresses a desire to transcend the world; Web 2.0 is about engaging with it. The early inhabitants of cyberspace were like the early Church monastics, who sought to serve God by going into the desert (Susan Bratton has written some pretty brilliant stuff on early Christianity and its attitudes towards nature and spirituality) and escaping the temptations and distractions of the world and the flesh. The vision of Web 2.0, in contrast, is more Franciscan: one of engagement with and improvement of the world, not escape from it.

Not a perfect metaphor, of course, but maybe there’s something there.

[To the tune of Seal, «Krazy (Non-Album Track),» from the album «Crazy».]

Technorati Tags: culture, cyberspace

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The End of Cyberspace

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

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The End of Cyberspace

Gene Becker comments on replacement for cyberspace. Gene’s a very smart guy, and funny, too. On Steve Jurveton’s «augmented reality:»

Huh? Okay, so it’s a cyberspace (oops!) tag team smackdown pitting us Borg against The Architect and the Tessier-Ashpool cores? Whoa.

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, pervasive computing, ubicomp

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The End of Cyberspace

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

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The End of Cyberspace

Swedish strategist and planner Martin Börjesson suggests another name «based on Karl Popper’s idea about the three worlds.»

World 1: The physical world of objects and biological entities which exists without humans World 2: The world of mental objects and events World 3: The world of products of the human mind like writings, songs and other non-physical ideas What we can see today is an explosion of World 3 objects which by far outnumbers the World 1 objects. One driving force behind this seems increasingly to be the urge to create a number of World 2 experiences. The vast number of World 3 objects gives us a feeling that we live in a virtual world.

What is “cyberspace” if not a collective word for all World 3 objects we relate to. I think the word “cyberspace” could and should be replaced by the word “World 3” or why not “the third world“. This could have the dual purpose of reload and reclaim the phrase “the third world” as well.

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, language

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The End of 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.

Catalink

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

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The End of Cyberspace

  • «[D]oesn’t cyberspace sound kind of played out? Clearly, we need a better word. The Institute for the Future asked a virtual roundtable of leading thinkers to coin a term for our new new reality. Here’s what they came up with.»