Filtering by Category: TheWorld

Communication infrastructures from 1901 to 2009

Last hours of 2009 devoted to contemplation of the world gets more and more interconnected; as attested by the following maps: A map of Eastern telegraph cables from 1901 (via):

Undersea cables in use mapped by TeleGeography Research (2001):

Undersea cables in use mapped by TeleGeography Research (2004):

Cisco Global peering map (2009):

Undersea cables in use mapped by TeleGeography Research (2009):

Reading "The Caryatids" by Bruce Sterling

The Caryatids Just finished reading "The Caryatids" by Bruce Sterling. This inspiring book is built around the history of the four Mihajlovic sisters, who are surviving clones of a biopiracy lab. Spread in different countries (Balkans, California and the Gobi desert in China), each of them represent a different "camp" (Acquis, Dispensation, China and crazy individual) with different values and approaches to see the world. All of this is wrapped in en eco-disaster twist that is a bit reminiscent of Sterling's other novels ("Holy Fire or "Distraction"). Both a fun and deep read.

The novel is an insightful extrapolation of our present: the description of the faction (through each character in the 3 chapters) is a good example of how todays trends could evolve in the mid-term. We have networked-participative-ecofriendly Acquis, futile-wired-greedy Dispensation and Nation-State China who all have their own approaches to see the world. After Distraction and its "Moderators versus Regulators" factions, Sterling keeps exploring social and political differences of the near future. Like a foresight research report with a 3-scenarios structure, the book offer different visions of how tackling today's world problems can be achieved through differently. Of course, these 3 responses correspond to existing forces at play nowadays.

This "3 responses" structure makes me think that futures think-tanks and foresight research group can take this novel as a great example of how they could craft engaging deliverables. The "futures/foresight" angle is important anyway and Sterling drops bits of wisdom here and there that will definitely echo with futurists' approaches:

"the sea had no 'real' blue and the camp was no 'real' camp. There as a mélange of potent forces best described as 'futurity'. They were futuring here, and the future was a process, not a destination." (p13)

"it was an old trick, but often a good one. Most trend-spotters using the net looked for raising new items that were gaining public credibility. But you could learn useful things in a hurry if you searched for precisely the opposite. News that should have public credibility, but didn't." (p118)

"Futurism is prediction. We all know that's impossible. But history is retrodiction, and that's impossible too. Se we have to paper over these black holes with sheer imagination." (p295)

Besides, one of the character (Little Mary Montalban, that looks IMO to some sort of "little miss sunshine") even described herself as a Black Swan.

Beyond these general elements, The Caryatids is an excellent platform where Sterling brings a context and some carefully-crafted poetry of technological devices and social trends. By describing the crossing of these elements, the novel shows various implications about what our society (researchers, designers, policy-makers, entrepreneurs) are doing right now on our planet.

One of the easiest aspect to get, if you're following ubiquitous computing and networked objects, consists in the discussion of everyware and what Sterling refers to as the "Sensorweb":

"the sensorweb was a single instrument, small pieces loosely joined into one huge environmental telescope. The sensorweb measured and archived changes in the island's status. Temperature, humidity, sunlight. Flights of pollen, flights of insects, the migrations of birds and fish" (p10)

"now the island was an aspect of the web" (p11)

"your everyware touches everything that we do here" (p33), "cover the world with scanner and sensors" (p78)

Reading Bruce Sterling

The vision the reader is presented here is not just descriptive since the most interesting aspect of the sensorweb discussion concern its implications. As shown on the picture above (p72), there is a relevant differentiation between "sensory analysis" versus "sensory control". The two correspond to different approaches to a problem at stake today with the advent of networked sensors and the possibility of collecting information from mobile devices and the web. The current debate (today, not in the novel) is basic: (1) We have traces that are available today (generated by the use of mobile devices, picture upload on the web) and that will be easier to collect tomorrow (brain activity, heartbeats), (2) some people think it can be an opportunity for social sciences renewal, others fear that it can lead to greater control. Which actually corresponds, in the novel, to this pertinent quote by a cloned chinese state warrior who paraphrase Gilles Deleuze's "Postscript on the Societies of Control":

"The worst threats among those state running dogs are provocative figures who foment new relationships emerging from the long-standing interplay of social and urban control experiments practices by the state elite against the colonized posturban peoples. Through continually linking sensors, databases, defensive and security architectures, and through the scanning of bodies, these running nodes export the state's architecture of control" (p257)

"Diseases were everywhere, while surveillance was everyware, Everyware crushed diseases, subtly, comprehensively, remorselessly" (p211)

Moreover, Sterling reminds us that the situation is not so simple and that "blackspots" are part of the solutions:

"a hole in a sensorweb was called a blackspot. The laws of physics declared that there were always blackspots in the world. Computer science could assume perfectly smooth connections, but the Earth had hills and valleys and earthquakes and giant volcanoes. The sky had lightning storms, and even the sun had sunspots. Wireless connections were not magic fogs. Real-worl wireless connections were waves, particles, bits: real things in real places. So, If you didn't want to be seen, or heard, or known in a world of ubiquitous sensorwebs, there were options. You could find a blackspot. Or created blackspot. Some blaskspots were made by organized crime or official corruption. Other blackspots just grew in their natural blackness." (p161)

If you read Human-Computer Interaction, you'll recognize here the discussion around the messiness of the physical environment, seams and seamful design described by Bell and Dourish or Fabien Girardin). Which is exemplified by the part about augmented reality that is criticized by one the character as "pasting fantasies onto the island" and flawed because there is "a design conflict between strict geolocative accuracy and an augment that everyday viewers might willingly pay to see". To put in shortly, the augmented layer is not well adjusted to the physical environment and the digital part "appears to be hovering" over the material layer.

As a side remark, I would highlight the fact that this argument about the inherent messiness of the physical world is one of the trickiest to convey to a certain class of people who always think that "eventually XXX will be taken care of" (replace XXX by "phone connectivity" or "GPS coverage). One of the concluding remark in the novel is not so optimistic though:

"Those ubiquitous systems, what they used to call the 'mediation', the 'sensorwebs'. (...) Those technologies advanced so far that they vanished. The language operating systems, frameworks of interaction, the eyeball-lasting laser-colored neural helmets... all that stuff is more primitive than steam engines now. I mean, you can tell how a steam engine works by just looking at it, but a complex, distributed, ubiquitous system? There's no way to maintain that! That all became ubijunk! Those cutting-edge systems are gone like sandcastles. A rising tide of major transformations threw them up on the shore, and then the whole sea rose and they are beyond retrieval" p295

There is of course more in the novel. The two last points I was intrigued about are finally:

  • Participation and reputation-based social systems are in the background, a bit less than in Distraction (with the reputation servers process). The Acquis faction is based on "glory rating" and they use "an architecture of participation" to promote people at other ranks.
  • The whole fun around "correlation engines"n which are "an amazing new business tool (...) that never fails to hit on correlations of major interest"

Why do I blog this? this is a quick and rough transcript of the notes I've taken when reading the book. I enjoyed the whole thing and it's interesting to put the novel in perspective with the author's musings, warnings and speeches. As usual, there is a lot to draw from Sterling's novel, and I tried to make some connections here in the 30' I allowed myself to write in this blogpost.

Beach computing

Beach computing Seen this afternoon in Marie-Galante (a french island in the Caribbean sea), a desktop PC screen that someone tossed 2 meters from the sea. Computing is reaching the very end, isn't it?

Last post for 2008.

Warning signs using digital/physical hybridization

Warning! As it says: "If you pee here, please smile, you're videotaped... find the video on www.youtube.com" (seen in Lyon, France, last saturday)

Why do I blog this? using the power of IT network to prevent people form doing certain things (haven't found any videos of this on youtube (yet)). Surely some interesting material for urban computing.

Networking knowledge, net IQ and whuffies

Reading "Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present" by Bob Johansen, I find intriguing the connection between the following excerpt and some stuff I read the other day in "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" by Cory Doctorow. It's mostly about the future of "networking knowledge". First, the excerpt by Johansen:

"Networking knowledge will become important to success, for individuals and for organizations. A cohort of people with traditional networking skills and new media practices is defining a new index of networking intelligence - a networking IQ - that sets them apart from others. Networking IQ is basically the combination of traditional networking skills with the application of new media and technologies. IFTF research has identified the following six factors as being most important to networking IQ: group participation (how you use the network in effective ways to engage with others), referral behavior (how you use networks to link to other resources available through the network), online lifestyle (how the network fits into the context of the rest of your life), personal mobile computing (how you use the network as you move about), locative activity (how you use the network to draw links to specific geographic locations), computer connectivity (your skills in linking to computer-based resources)."

Would the networking IQ also take the Whuffie system described by Cory Doctorow?

"I pinged his Whuffie a few times, and noticed that it was climbing steadily upward as he accumulated more esteem from the people he met. (...) I'd get him to concede that Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn't starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented -- your personal capital with your friends and neighbors -- you more accurately gauged your success. (...) He had a lot of left-handed Whuffie; respect garnered from people who shared very few of my opinions. I expected that. What I didn't expect was that his weighted whuffie score, the one that lent extra credence to the rankings of people I respected was also high"

Why do I blog this? I don't really work on that topic but find it intriguing. People interested in that should have a look at bitchun.org, a marketplace for trading and rewarding favors for your friends and like-minded strangers.

more impressive the other way

"It would be more impressive if it ran the other way" said Oscar Wilde when seeing Niagara Falls for the first time. I like this idea of Oscar Wilde standing next to Niagara Falls, thinking that it's "a lot of unnecessary water going the wrong way and then falling over unnecessary rock"

Why do I blog this unlike other people who analyze this statement in terms of places and wonder, this quote seems interesting to me as a sort of motto for a near future laboratory approach of observing the world. Looking at fringes, taking other perspectives, questioning situations... maybe there are indeed more pertinent structures than water flowing down on "unnecessary rocks".

Towards grassroots consumer electronics recycling

The digital space is not only made of bits but also of such phenomenon ...expexted to find a new home Street machine!

Curiously enough, my encounters with devices like this (not to mention office chairs, desktop pcs, screen, dishwasher) down the streets in Geneva (among other european cities) makes me wondering about the future of these artifacts. What I found intriguing is that they often disappear out of pick-up days, which means that some good folk take them and do something out of it.

Tossed bikes are now gathered by some not-for profit association which recycle them and use the bits and pieces to create new ones that they sell. Will we see similar operations doing consumer electronics recycling based on elements picked up ont the streets?

Selective disConnectvity

Mindful Disconnection: Counterpowering the Panopticon from the Inside by Howard Rheingold and Eric Kluitenberg in Skor.nl challenges the "unquestioned connectivity" of the Internets and propose a possible alternative they call ‘mindful disconnection’, or rather the ‘art of selective disconnectivity’. Some excerpts I found relevant:

"We are not as convinced as others that technology is only, primarily, or necessarily a dangerous toxin. There is a danger in locating technologies' malignancies in the tools themselves rather than the way people use them (...) Perhaps tools, methods, motivations, and opportunities for making the choice to disconnect – and perceiving the value of disconnecting in ways of our choosing – might be worth considering as a response to the web of info-tech that both extends and ensnares us. (...) In a world of prevailing disconnectivity, to be able to connect is a privilege (e.g., the ‘digital divide). In a world of always-on connectivity, this relation might very well be reversed and the real privilege could then be the ability to withdraw and disconnect – to find sanctuary from eternal coercion to communicate, to connect, or to be traceable."

The article ends with a nice list about the "Art and Science of Selective disConnectvity".

Why do I blog this? disconnectivity is a topic that I am remotely interested in, rather as a personal feeling about technologies than a research field.

This said, there might certainly be a need for a "disconnection literacy", a concept closed to the "information literacy" and learning how to eat properly. The point would be to reach a balance between the connected and the isconnected status to ponder the information overload/attention disruptions.

Furthermore, what they describe in this article can even go beyond technological connectivity... I take jokes such as Isolatr very seriously: our world values connection so much that it's not only connection to devices but also connections to people that are important. The word "serendipity" is now everywhere, what's next: a renaissance of the misanthropes?

Ethnography and warfare

Via Space and Culture, the concept of "ethnographic intelligence". What a term, it reminds me of the name of a workshop at Doors of Perception called "Guerilla Ethnography". Here is how this concept is defined:

"As recent debate, especially in the services, attests, there is an increased demand for cultural intelligence. (...) "What we mean by EI is information about indigenous forms of association, local means of organization, and traditional methods of mobilization.

Clans, tribes, secret societies, the hawala system, religious brotherhoods, all represent indigenous or latent forms of social organization available to our adversaries throughout the non-Western, and increasingly the Western, world. These create networks that are invisible to us unless we are specifically looking for them; they come in forms with which we are not culturally familiar; and they are impossible to 'see' or monitor, let alone map, without consistent attention and the right training (...) Because EI is the only way to truly know a society, it is the best tool to divine the intentions of a society's members. "

Why do I blog this? it's intriguing to see how technologies are not the only thing militaries like to steal from researchers. Now, even ethnographical methods and cultural anthropology are possibly employed for warfare or military intelligence.

Inappropriate responses by robots

Read in the last "technology quarterly" of "the E", this article about chatbot technology and call centres. It describes some potential problems of hooking speech analytics software to a call center:

"it will be also necessary to program chatbots to deal with verbal abuse. In some cases, (...), companies that have used chatbots to handle online queries have found that when confronted by verbal abuse or sexual innuendo, the chatbots were programmed to respond inappropriately in kind, with insults of their own"

Why do I blog this? this kind of story makes me giggling; this perspective of having people and robots insulting each other...

People interested in this should have a look at Sheryl Brahnam's work, the paper 'Gendered bods and bot abuse' (CHI 2006 workshop Misuse and abuse of interactive technologies) is kinda scary as what it reveals about human beings.

The fusion of research and development

The Economist gives a good overview of coporate research in an article entitled "The rise and fall of corporate R&D Out of the dusty labs". The author highlights the fact that tech firms/big corporate R&D laboratories are shifting their attention and forces from research to development. Some excerpts:

Now the big corporate laboratories are either gone or a shadow of what they were. Companies tinker with today's products rather than pay researchers to think big thoughts. (...) “The lesson learnt is that you don't isolate researchers,” says Eric Schmidt, the boss of Google. The “smart people on the hill” method no longer works, he adds. Instead, researchers have become intellectual mercenaries for product teams: they are there to solve immediate needs. (...) At its Zurich Research Laboratory [IBM] around 300 scientists representing over 20 nationalities concentrate on areas such as microelectronics, nanotechnology and computer security. Only a few years ago researchers were judged on the basis of patents and papers, but today they roll up their shirtsleeves and work alongside the company's consultants (...) This reflects IBM's transition into “services science”.

There is a lot more to draw in the paper, especially more examples from Intel, Yahoo, Google and other tech companies. An intriguing issue is also the fact that academia now struggles to find funds and then is forced into projects of just one or two years—even shorter than industry horizons. Whereas "corporate research can look farther ahead, do bigger things and risk more money for a big payout".

Another aspect that I found curious is the idea of failure: "Failure is an essential part of the process. “The way you say this is: ‘Please fail very quickly—so that you can try again’,” says Mr Schmidt".

Why do I blog this? pure interest towards the evolution of R&D.

Trashed mailboxes, direct digital equivalent

snail mail We certainly have no problem to find the digital equivalent for this. That's usually how digital mailboxes look like nowadays, less colorful though.

If you look carefully (and if you speak french), behind the added mailbox on top of the others, there is a written message that says "No Pub!" (= "No ads!") as come kind of last attempt to avoid being flooded that has desperately failed (through the addition of another mailbox!)

Aerial shot, skyscrapers and goods

A good story in Metroplis: Searching for the Future by Karrie Jacobs is about "figuring out what the twenty-first century looks like". Some excerpts I liked about this:

Some things are obvious (...) The aural landscape—punctuated by all manner of cell-phone rings and BlackBerry buzz—has changed more conspicuously than the physical scenery. Yet mostly what I notice is that other people are not noticing. (...) But then there’s only so much you can see from street level.(...) Some of the current popularity of satellite imagery—now readily available to anyone with a modicum of bandwidth—can be explained by a simple desire to see. (...) Manufactured Landscapes offers a handy synopsis of the extraordinary work Burtynsky did in China: he photographed the factories where the bulk of our consumer goods are manufactured, (...) I asked Burtynsky which of his photos best depicts the present moment. He replies, “The one Shanghai picture where it’s just this forest of skyscrapers is the one that, to me, stands as a sobering reminder of a world we’re creating.” (...) We’re all seduced by the pleasure of twenty-first-century life, but then there’s a payback.” Or maybe it’s the butterfly effect in reverse: a cell phone rings in New Jersey, and it causes an earthquake in China.

Industrial food production and high-tech farming

(Via): Unser Täglich Brot ("our daily bread") is an impressive film about industrial food production and high-tech farming:

Ein Blick in die Welt der industriellen Nahrungsmittel-produktion und der High-Tech-Landwirtschaft: Zum Rhythmus von Fließbändern und riesigen Maschinen gibt der Film kommentarlos Einsicht in die Orte, an denen Nahrungsmittel in Europa produziert werden: Monumentale Räume, surreale Landschaften und bizarre Klänge - eine kühle industrielle Umgebung, die wenig Raum für Individualität lässt. Menschen, Tiere, Pflanzen und Maschinen erfüllen die Funktion, die ihnen die Logistik dieses Systems zuschreibt, auf dem der Lebensstandard unserer Gesellschaft aufbaut.

UNSER TÄGLICH BROT ist ein Bildermahl im Breitwandformat, das nicht immer leicht verdaulich ist - und an dem wir alle Anteil haben. Eine pure, detailgenaue Filmerfahrung, die dem Publikum Raum für eigene Erkenntnisse lässt.

Why do I blog this? sunday morning blogpost.

World history timeline

Look at this world history timeline (by Scientific Timeline Productions):

13.7 billion years of universal history Over 60.000 years of art, technology and religion Over 6000 years of literature, art, world religion, philosophy, science, music and political facts A horizontal and vertical linkage of the artistic, intellectual, and scientific movements in world history. Thousands of important people and their publications situated with data. A full colour edition, illustrated with over 150 images and maps The content is based upon comparison of various reliable courses and supervised by 18 European academics

Why do I blog this? I was looking for some nice examples of timelines/sparkline and visualization of events that happened over time and I found this huge project. I found it smart and informative, would be good to have this at home.

Wandering objects down the street

This week, there was a very cute article in a swiss newspaper about left things on the streets of Geneva. Entitled "Le temps de survie des objets errants" ("The time of wandering objects"), this article by Laurent Wolf details the author's experience of leaving objects down his street.

Certains objets ont une longue survie urbaine. Ainsi ce sommier apparu aux environs du 15 septembre et qui a tenu un mois. Armature de métal, lattes de bois, modèle standard, posé sur la tranche contre la vitrine de l'opticien voisin qui s'est empressé, dès l'ouverture, de le pousser vers la vitrine d'a côté. Le sommier n'a pas excité la convoitise, si ce n'est qu'il a perdu une latte par jour jusqu'a n'être qu'une armature de métal traînant sa langueur de long en large. Car le voisin de l'opticien l'a poussé vers le bord du trottoir, d'où un automobiliste l'a délogé pour parquer son véhicule. Il est ensuite allé de droite a gauche, d'abord devant un guichet automatique de banque, ensuite au milieu d'un parking de motocyclettes, puis a 2 mètres d'une terrasse de bistrot où il faisait mauvais effet, pour finir près d'une barrière de chantier.

A sa disparition, je me suis demandé s'il avait continué son parcours. J'ai arpenté les rues voisines où j'ai compté une bibliothèque sans rayonnages, un clavier d'ordinateur, un carton de canapé trois places, un réfrigérateur sans porte et un scooter désossé. Il a fallu que je franchisse la frontière d'une rue � grande circulation pour retrouver un sommier errant. Mais celui-ci étant � ressorts, j'ai considéré que c'était un signe et j'ai pris la décision douloureuse d'abandonner les recherches.

No time to provide the english translation.

RFID tag + ahstray

Seen in Geneva: an arphid ashtray rfid tagged ashtray

Why do I blog this? it seems that RFID tags (arphids) are everywhere lately.... the pervasiveness of technology in everyday objects? it's rather someone who bought a CD or something, removed the tag and left it here.

Stuff on the street

Things on the street around my place in Geneva are more and more curious, look at that one I saw yesterday: thing on the street

Might be a mixer or something that is able to rotate. Why do I blog this? even though this is garbage I am always intrigued by this sort of thing dropped here and often think about what was the passé (past) of this object and what would be it potential future (chances are high that it will be tossed but you never know).