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The End of Cyberspace

So why should we care what term (if any) replaces cyberspace? Why should we care that the term cyberspace was used in the first place?

Words have power— two kinds that especially interest me. First, words can reflect reality. As Raymond Williams showed in his great Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, you can use the changing meaning of certain «keywords» to trace deep changes in culture. Words can serve as weathervanes, signaling deeper shifts in the economic and social forces that shape history. Second, words can shape reality: whether we know it or not, they can affect the way we think about important things.

For me, the word «cyberspace» is interesting both as weathervane and as reality-maker. Its history serves as a nice entree into the cultural history of computing— the history of our use of computers, and thinking (or anxiety, or hope) about their uses and place in the world.

«Cyberspace» has also helped create belief in a space separate from the everyday world of people and things, in which information lives— and importantly, in which information can live more freely (in various senses) than in the real world. The belief in that separate space has had some real, unintended consequences. Let me give one example here; part of my larger project is to document others, so more will be coming.

Several legal scholars have argued that the concept of cyberspace has had a big impact on copyright law. A decade ago, when courts were just starting to deal with questions about how to apply law to the electronic realm— whether, for example, sales taxes should be applied to online sales based on where the buyer was, where the seller was, where the server was— David Johnson and David Post argued that thinking of cyberspace as a place would help clarify these issues: «Many of the jurisdictional and substantive quandaries raised by border-crossing electronic communications,» they wrote, «could be resolved by one simple principle: conceiving of Cyberspace as a distinct ‘place’ for purposes of legal analysis by recognizing a legally significant border between Cyberspace and the ‘real world.'»

Not everyone agreed. Two years later, Andrew Shapiro worried that this wasn’t a good move: «[W]e are not well served by the idea that cyberspace is an autonomous ‘place,'» he wrote. «This conception wrongly implies that online interactions are, or should be, governed by their own body of law. It suggests that what happens ‘there’ is in some way unconnected to what happens ‘here.’ In so doing, it distracts us from recognizing that the real significance of cyberspace is not in its being elsewhere but, quite the opposite, in its coming increasingly closer to us.»

So why did this matter? Dan Hunter argues that the popularization of the metaphor ultimately contributed to the «second enclosure movement» of cyberspace in the late 1990s and 2000s:

Cyberspace was once thought to be the modern equivalent of the Western Frontier, a place, where land was free for the taking, where explorers could roam, and communities could form with their own rules. It was an endless expanse of space: open, free, replete with possibility. This is true no longer…. [W]e are enclosing cyberspace, and imposing private property conceptions upon it…. The conception of ‘cyberspace as place’ leads to the implication that there is property online, and that this property should be privately owned, parceled out, and exploited.

Mark Lemley notes a deep irony in this history. «In a curious inversion, those who argued less than a decade ago that cyberspace was a place all its own — and therefore unregulable by territorial governments — are finding their arguments and assumptions used for a very different end. Instead of concluding that cyberspace is outside of the physical world, courts are increasingly using the metaphor of cyberspace as a «place» to justify application of traditional laws governing real property to this new medium.»

In other words, the «placeness» of cyberspace became a resource for asserting property rights in the digital realm— and often asserting forms of rights that destroy customary, important practices like fair use. Of course, you can argue that even without the notion of cyberspace— or a term for describing the Internet and our interactions with it that helped create that sense of place— lawyers for Hollywood, the record industry, etc., would have found ways of asserting their clients’ copyrights online. However, it seems fairly clear that in the U.S., the idea of cyberspace as a place made it easier for those arguments to gain ground.

Technorati Tags: copyright, cyberspace, end of cyberspace, language

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The End of Cyberspace

My latest article, on tinkering and the future, has been published in the latest issue of Vodafone’s Receiver Magazine. The piece is an effort to draw together a couple of my research and personal interests (though the boundaries between those two categories is pretty blurry), and to see the tinkering / DIY movement as one piece in an emerging strategy for creating better futures.

Almost forty years ago, the Whole Earth Catalog published its last issue. For the American counterculture, it was like the closing of a really great café: the Catalog had brought together the voices of contributors, readers and editors, all unified by a kind of tech-savvy, hands-on, thoughtful optimism. Don’t reject technology, the Catalog urged: make it your own. Don’t drop out of the world: change it, using the tools we and your fellow readers have found. Some technologies were environmentally destructive or made you stupid, others were empowering and trod softly on the earth; together we could learn which were which.

Millions found the Catalog’s message inspirational. In promoting an attitude toward technology that emphasized experimentation, re-use and re-invention, seeing the deeper consequences of your choices, appreciating the power of learning to do it yourself and sharing your ideas, the Whole Earth Catalog helped create the modern tinkering movement. Today, tinkering is growing in importance as a social movement, as a way of relating to technology and as a source of innovation. Tinkering is about seizing the moment: it is about ad-hoc learning, getting things done, innovation and novelty, all in a highly social, networked environment.

What is interesting is that at its best, tinkering has an almost Zen-like sense of the present: its ‘now’ is timeless. It is neither heedless of the past or future, nor is it in headlong pursuit of immediate gratification. Tinkering offers a way of engaging with today’s needs while also keeping an eye on the future consequences of our choices. And the same technological and social trends that have made tinkering appealing seem poised to make it even more pervasive and powerful in the future. Today we tinker with things; tomorrow, we will tinker with the world.

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The End of Cyberspace

This is going on in Johannesburg:

Hundreds of [traffic] lights have been damaged by thieves targeting the machines’ sim cards, which are then used to make mobile phone calls worth millions of South African rand.

More than two-thirds of 600 hi-tech lights have been affected over the past two months, according to the Johannesburg Roads Agency, causing traffic jams, accidents and frustration for motorists.

The traffic lights use sim cards, modem and use GPRS to send and receive information, a system intended to save time and manpower by alerting the road agency’s head office when any lights malfunction. According to Thulani Makhubela, a spokesman for the agency, the robberies have been «systematic and co-ordinated», possibly by a syndicate. An internal investigation has now been launched.

«They know which signals to target,» Makhubela added. «They clearly have information.»

Wow. Real world, meet ubicomp!

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The End of Cyberspace

A while ago I created a Prezi for an end of cyberspace talk. Prezi has a cool functionality that lets you create a path or trail through a presentation (very Vannevar Bush).

I’ve realized that because of the trail feature, this presentation isn’t just a single talk, or it doesn’t need to be. Rather, I can use it as a kind of online studio for displaying everything I talk about in this project, and just create different paths through the Prezi for different talks.

I think I’m going to make this a persistent post, so it always stays on the front page. If you want to go directly to the Prezi, here it is.

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The End of Cyberspace

Talk at the Philosophy of Telecommunications Convergence conference (caveat).

«I’m going to talk about everything in the world:… self and technology.» 10 minutes on nothing about technology, then 10 minutes connecting the first 10 to mobile communications.

Humans are «designed to operate with objects:» we’re the only species who also engage in conceptual blending, to take things that are complex and diffuse, and to integrate them into familiar frameworks.

Take cause-motion constructions: I threw the ball through the window, but «England pushed France to war» is a cause-motion construction at a vastly different scale, and even though they’re different phenomena, we use the cause-motion construction to make sense of it. This allows us to turn unfamiliar things into familiar ones, make big phenomena into ones at human scale, develop and evolve culture, etc..

Ironically, we’re not built to understand ourselves: we’re built to understand our world well enough to avoid being eaten and to find things to eat, but self-consciousness is an accident rather than an evolutionary advantage. We can describe ourselves in terms of stable identities, even though we vary greatly over our lives. We explain our actions in terms of desires or rationality, even though we often act first and «make» the decision a few milliseconds later.

What has all this to do with technology?

We have always blended our selves with our technologies. Writing and language are technologies, and are especially powerful ones. (The metaphor of communications is especially powerful in cause-motion constructions: we think of the self as converser, talk about «peoples of the book,» etc.) These days, we think of ourselves in terms of our communications technologies, by blending our general concept of ourselves with our understanding of how the communications technology works. In a sense, we know our technologies better than we know ourselves.

This matters because of the addictive power of communications technologies; the ease with which we can create avatars or online identities radically different from the ones we have in real life; the opportunities it creates to merge with others (or at least to engage in collective action), to differentiate or contextualize our identities (e.g., having different SIM cards that work in different countries, have different contacts).

[ Posted from Hungarian Academy of Sciences via plazes.com ]

Technorati Tags: Budapest, cognition, communication, conference, mobility, pervasive computing, philosophy, psychology, ubicomp

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The End of Cyberspace

Music writer and candy fanatic Steve Almond (one of my wife’s college classmates, interestingly) has a nice piece in the Boston Globe about music, materiality, and memory:

I start browsing the discs, and inevitably find one I haven’t heard in years and slip it onto the crappy boom-box I keep down there and pretty soon the record has transported me back to the exact time and place where I first fell in love with it. The physical object, in other words, becomes a time machine. And who in their right mind would throw away a time machine?

The younger generation has no romantic attachments to records as physical objects. To them, music exists as a kind of omnipresent atmospheric resource.

And it’s not that I begrudge them their online treasure troves or bite-size iPods. But I still miss the way it used to be, in the old days, when fans had to invest serious time and money to track down the album or song they wanted.

What I’m getting at here is a deeper irony: technology has made the pursuit of our pleasures much easier. But in so doing, I often wonder if it has made them less sacred. My children will grow up in a world that makes every song they might desire instantly available to them. And yet I sort of pity them that they will never know the kind of yearning I did.

As a young kid, before I could even afford records, I listened to the radio. I waited, sometimes hours, for the DJ to play one of the idiotic pop songs with which I’d (idiotically) fallen in love. And yet I can still remember the irrational glee I felt when the DJ finally did play «Undercover Angel» or «The Things We Do for Love.»

Almond and I are the same age, and I completely get where he’s coming from: I can still remember the pleasure of my favorite song finally coming on the radio, and rediscovering old music can sometimes be a Proustian experience.

But I don’t feel like something is really lost by moving from one playback medium to another. Or rather, I understand why Almond feels that way, but it’s not a universal for our generation.

Why do I think this? Maybe it’s because, despite the audiophile’s fetishization of the LP, I grew up in a pretty technologically heterogeneous musical environment: I had LPs, 45s, cassette tapes, a few 8-tracks, and of course the radio (AM and FM). The vinyl LP is the first edition book of the music world, the technological object that comes to stand for an era or cultural moment, and in so doing obscures all the other kinds of printed matter that surrounded us way back before personal computers but didn’t have much cultural significance (who has mourned the decline of the Sears catalog in the age of the Web?). So when CDs came along, it was kind of just one more thing.

I also think Almond somewhat overplays the idea that for kids, «music exists as a kind of omnipresent atmospheric resource,» as if it didn’t for us. How many times did our parents say, «Turn that music down!» How many times did we choose a particular restaurant, or go to the pool, or hang out somewhere, partly because of the music? I don’t remember music being a rare commodity when I was a kid. It might have been harder to make it completely private— to go out in public plugged into your own audio universe, the way my kids do with their iPods— but the music was definitely there.

Another reason my experience differs is that I don’t have a gigantic record collection that I’ve built up over decades. I once had a lot of LPs. Then I replaced them with a lot of CDs. Then all my CDs got stolen (I love Berkeley!). Then I rebuilt my collection, and again have a lot of CDs.

So iTunes— and more recently things like Concert Vault— allowed me to rediscover a lot of music that I hadn’t heard in decades. In other words, Almond and I have the same experience, only he has in his basement, and I have mine online. (There are virtues in deleting and forgetting, but on the whole I prefer rediscovery. Though you can’t have the last without one of the first two, I suppose.)

But there’s one other thing: as I discovered when I first upgraded to OS X and started dropping money into iTunes, finding an old song usually doesn’t involve getting back in touch with something I hadn’t heard in a long time. Just as often it’s about rediscovering the music. As I discovered about five years ago,

When I was young, I always had pretty lousy stereo equipment— often just a portable AM/FM radio, or a $39 stereo from K-Mart— and it turns out that, even though I heard some of these songs a thousand times, there was a lot of detail I missed. Now I hear it. Twenty years later.

Though it won’t be long before we start fondly remembering CDs or the early days of music on the Web…. Actually, MIT professor Henry Jenkins has already gotten nostalgic: years ago he compared Napster and iTunes, and argued that for his generation, the former was far superior. «iTunes is about music as commodity,» he wrote. «Napster was about music as mutual experience. iTunes is about cheap downloads; Napster was about file sharing— with sharing the key word.»

For me, the process of rediscovering music is more like the experience of reconnecting with people on Facebook than being transported back in time: yes, they have the same names as they did when they were in college (well, some of them have the same names), but they’re not the same people— and neither are you. But it’s still nice to hear from— or just hear— them.

[To the tune of Greg Lake, «In the Court of the Crimson King,» from the album Live at the Hammersmith Odeon, London (November 5 1981) (I give it 3 stars).]

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The End of Cyberspace

One of the distinctive features of Web 2.0, I’ve felt, is an understanding that humans are very good at certain things, computers are really good at different things, and groups of people are good at yet other things; and that creating systems that combine individual, machine, and collective intelligence will be powerful— more powerful than, for example, software that tries to mimic human capabilities.

Today, while reading Bill Leslie’s brilliant article, «Blue Collar Science,»* on Western Electric’s efforts to commercialize the transistor and integrated circuit— a category of work that, he argues, is just as important in the history of R&D as the more famous and detached style of research that we normally think of as «R&D»— I came across this 1964 quote by Eugene Anderson, a Bell Labs researcher:

[H]ighly complex assembly machines… are always expensive and are extremely specialized. A change in design or technology can turn a beautiful machine into a boat anchor overnight. We tend to forget that while labor costs are high, so is the cost of capital. We are finding that simple tools coupled with the sensing, judging and tactile abilities of people are often more desirable than complex machinery. It is very difficult to make a machine that has the eyeball sensory abilities or is as smart as even a scatterbrained 18-year old… at least for the same cost and flexibility.

A similar kind of relationship between human and machine, which recognizes that symbiotic systems can sometimes do better work, more cheaply, than ones that try to cut humans out of the loop.

* Stuart W. Leslie, «Blue collar science: Bringing the transistor to life in the Lehigh Valley,» Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Science 32:1 (2001), 71-113.

Technorati Tags: collective intelligence, manufacturing, social software, Web 2.0

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The End of Cyberspace

[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.

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The End of Cyberspace

This will probably be just a throwaway line in the book, or a paragraph at most, but I’ve been thinking a bit about RSIs and computer-related injuries as an example of the fractured manner in which we’ve tried to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds.

Of course, you can injure yourself carrying firewood, herding sheep, wrangling children, or doing a million other things in the real world. But as I understand it, people get RSIs when of two things happen: either when computers (or more precisely, keyboards, mice, and monitors and their relationships to the body) force users to do something that their body objects to; or when computers remove a physical constraint that prevented users from performing the same action for a long time.

This isn’t necessarily a problem caused by badly-designed computers. One of my colleagues sent around this bit (allegedly) from the New England Journal of Medicine:

A healthy 29-year-old medical resident awoke one Sunday morning with intense pain in the right shoulder. He did not recall any recent injuries or trauma and had not participated in any sports or physical exercise recently….

[H]e had bought a new Nintendo Wii (pronounced «wee») video-game system and had spent several hours playing the tennis video game…. In the tennis video game, the player makes the same arm movements as in a real game of tennis. If a player gets too engrossed, he may «play tennis» on the video screen for many hours. Unlike in the real sport, physical strength and endurance are not limiting factors.

The problem with the Wii isn’t that it makes you do something really unnatural. But in the real world, few of us can play tennis for four or five hours straight; a Wiimote, in contrast, is light enough to make that possible.

There’s also some criticism of the new Cisco open office on ergonomic grounds:

The photo of a Cisco no-cubicle office in the recent San Jose Mercury News article set off my alarm bells, however. The no-cubicle environment in the picture is an ergonomic nightmare. I can’t believe the article didn’t discuss this downside to the wonders of the new office.

I called Lisa Voge-Levin, an ergonomic consultant who helps companies design healthy work environments, and asked her to look at the Cisco photo with me…. [She reported that the armchairs, lack of eye-level monitors, and absence of tables for drinks and accessories] contributes to neck and back injuries including muscle and tendon strain as well as such serious injuries as ruptured discs. She also notes that in such an environment, it is hard to control lighting, glare, or noise; all can lead to headaches.

Technorati Tags: ergonomics, Wii

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The End of Cyberspace

Sitting in the quiet living in the pre-dawn hours, I came across William Deresiewicz’s essay on technology, sociability, and solitude in the Chronicle Review. For those who have access to it, it’s well worth reading.

One book that influenced me when I was younger was Anthony Storr’s Solitude. I didn’t actually read that much of it, and I doubt I understood it very well, but the idea that solitude was worthwhile and rewarding, and nothing to be afraid of, was a novel concept for me. Deresiewicz argues that his students, who’ve grown up with MySpace and text messaging (among other things), have lost most opportunities to learn and benefit from being alone.

If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.

I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she’ll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?

To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience…. For the still, small voice speaks only in silence.

One thing that jumped out at me was that Deresiewicz contrasts the physical solitude that used to characterize being online, with the situation today. It used to be that «connecting» online was more a physically isolating experience, done at desks, in front of desktops. Today, though, you don’t have to be alone to go online: just as cellphones and mobile Web technologies make it less likely that you’ll ever be offline, and lower the bar for jumping onto the Web, they make it less likely that you’ll be fruitfully alone.

But as the Internet’s dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing. Ten years ago we were writing e-mail messages on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our cellphones, posting pictures on our Facebook pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive…. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.

Of course, we all know plenty of people who manage to feel alone even today, and it’s possible to resist the pull of technology: there are people who rebel against constant connectivity, on the grounds that it’s too intrusive and distracting. But still, I think Deresiewicz points to a bigger trend that most of us will recognize.

A rich essay. Worth reading.