Personal Dynamic Media

•March 5, 2012 • Leave a Comment

It’s hard to imagine how insightful Kay and Goldberg were as I read this article.  The technology that they describe is now ubiquitous and more capable than either could have imagined.  To really appreciate their vision, I have to try to put myself back into the 70’s.  Personal computers were a novelty.  Timeshared mainframes were king.  GUI’s didn’t exist for most people. There was no networking to speak of. They even anticipated sound.  Amazing.

On a side note, I had a student who graduated in the late 90’s and worked at a local firm that specialized in automated sorting for agricultural applications–Key Technology.  They do a lot of interesting R&D in computer vision.  According to this student, many of Key’s internal computer programs were written in Smalltalk.  For all I know, they still use it in house over there.

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Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib and Dream Machines

•February 28, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I liked this collection of excerpts.  There are some nearly prescient observations and ideas about hypertext, word processing, and visual presentation that are nearly ubiquitous today.  Here are a few disparate observations about the reading:

  • There’s an interesting philosophy that runs through the excerpts that learning should and can be a simple process of following your interests.  While that’s an appealing prospect, it’s easy to imagine situations where a necessary stretch of non-stimulating learning is required to reach a new area of stimulating learning.  It’s entirely possible that computer presentations can reduce the non-stimulating stretches, but they are unlikely to eliminate such stretches.
  • His statements in the Computer Lib section are often at odds with each other.  “Everybody Should Understand Computers” (Even if they find the topic uninteresting?)  And yet, he later says the reader may freely skip this part of the book and move on to the Dream Machines side.  I could go on and on, but his attitude and commentary is almost uniformly irritating.
  • Stellavision is a prediction of haptic technology.  This is an important area of human computer interaction.  For example, current smartphone touchscreens desperately need haptic technology built in.
  • Thinkertoys to envision complex alternatives.  This presages current technology like virtual neural networks and other component-based exploratory tools.
  • His use of advanced data structures (e.g. trees and graphs) in his Xanadu system is commendable.  I’m not sure of the history of applied data structures, but he has to be among the early thinkers in this area.

These excerpt got me to wondering what is the limit of computers in the representation of information.  It is clear that computers, not limited by physical constraints (like a book), have given us novel ways of exploring and learning.  It is also clear that the human mind can imagine, hold and manipulate spaces that no current computer can.  It would be an interesting exercise to try to find examples of such spaces.

The New Industrial Revolution.

•February 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

There are two quotes that stand out to me in this week’s readings:

  1. From the Weiner article:  “The new industrial revolution which is taking place now consists primarily in replacing human judgment and discrimination at low levels by the discrimination of the machine.”
  2. From the Licklider article:  “‘Mechanical extension’ has given way to replacement of men, to automation, and the men who remain are there more to help than to be helped.”

They bring to mind an interesting book by Kevin Kelly called “What technology wants.”  The premise of this book is to consider the global explosion of new media technologies as a single entity with its own agenda.  The perspective, which at first seems fantastical, is informative.  It suggests that we consider our technology as more than mere tools, that we negotiate with it,  that we recognize it as something with its own momentum and direction, and that we steer it rather than simply create it and set it free.

I think both Weiner and Licklider would agree with this perspective.  If you search Google for “technology replacing jobs” you get a significant number of hits.  Each of these suggests that we need to pay attention to what we are doing when we replace people with machines. Historians and economists will argue that the threat of technology to jobs is an age old problem–that we’re still here and still doing OK.  I would argue that as the pace of technological development increases, we might put ourselves out of our jobs so quickly that there is no time for the emergence of new sectors of the economy capable of creating new jobs.

Wiener later says, “We must value leisure.”  There is something to this.  Like it or not, we live in a world driven by markets and capitalism. We must develop market forces that value individual leisure.  These forces will act as a “homeostatic mechanism” against mass unemployment in the face of increasingly capable technology.  I have no idea what form these forces might take, but we need them and we need them now.  It’s clear that the United States places almost no value on leisure.  Workers put in more hours now than ever before.  That said, any shift in this direction will have to be done almost uniformly, simultaneously, and worldwide, or else global market forces will continue down the same old path of unbounded productivity increases.

The singularity is here-Bush style.

•February 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Bush’s predictions in this article are stunning.  His extensive work in information technology combined with astute, reality-based, extrapolations make it seem as though he is speaking to us from some nearby parallel universe.  Motivated by his predictions, I thought I’d take on a popular contemporary prognosticator, Ray Kurzweil, and his singularity theory.  Kurzweil uses less reality-based exponential extrapolation to promote the idea that with the near-term development of artificial super-human intelligence, humans are about to enter a technological utopia where, among other things, we will enjoy virtual immortality.  He predicts that with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), technology will progress at a rate and in a direction that is incomprehensible to humans and hence singularly unpredictable.  Using his simple exponential graphs, he predicts that this advent will occur somewhere around mid-21st century.  I claim that Mr. Kurzweil’s prediction is about 40 years too late and that this super-human AI is already here.   Based on this interview, I think the novelist Robert Harris, at least, would agree with me.

There are now enough of us connected to each other via enough channels and enough data collected about us to create an aggregate intelligence that is fundamentally different from anything we’ve known before.  We now sift through mountains of data in the blink of an eye and are able to reach conclusions in seconds that would exhaust the lifetimes of a thousand researchers using traditional methods (e.g. data-driven medicine).  We use these fundamentally unverifiable methods to inform our own actions (e.g. matchmaking) and public policies (e.g. global warming).  These actions and policies are then fed back into the aggregate AI and new results and insights are returned.  One of Kurzweil’s characterizations of the singularity is its utter unpredictability.  This new aggregate AI that has grown up around us is arguably already producing new and unpredictable outcomes (e.g. arab spring, stock market fluctuations, wealth concentration).

What does this all mean for you and your children?  (I say with tongue in cheek.)

The rate limiter in this whole picture used to be the communication of new ideas.  Now the rate limiter is the absorption and application of new ideas.  We can’t hope to keep up.  The best we can do is remain engaged and try to bring these technologies to bear on the big problems.

Inventing the Medium

•January 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

As I read this essay I found my self focusing on the characterization of perceptions of new media.  With my trusty highlighter I noted words like:  confusion, breathlessness, exhilarated, alarmed, horrifying, question, creation, destruction, powerful, guard.  If nothing else, the variety of emotions evoked by these words suggests that “new media” is a vast and important landscape.  When I examine my own experiences with new media I find incidences of all of these words and many more.

On balance, as a techie, “hyper-rationalist”, interdisciplinarian, and mathematician, I lean towards the optimistic side of the new media emotional ledger.   This despite the fact that I have experienced many of the negative aspects of new media: libel, identity theft, lost data, wrecked computers, wasted time, and, yes, even the embarrassing, accidental group reply.  Am I an innate optimist?  Or, have I made some kind of subconscious, rational assessment, that all of this stuff adds up to a net gain?  Murray certainly guards her own leanings in this essay.  She paints a well-rounded view of new media.  So, how’s a body to approach this subject matter?

One theme of the essay of particular interest to me is the tension between humanists and rationalists.  As a mathematician, I tend to imagine large, complex systems as “high-dimensional spaces”.  Loosely speaking, we move around in a “low-dimensional space” in which we can be uniquely located by three numbers: latitude, longitude, and elevation.  Three dimensions.

Objects in high-dimensional spaces require a long list of numbers in order to be uniquely “located”.  Consider the space of human identities.  How do we locate ourselves in this space?  Here’s a list of “numbers” to help you find me in that space:  male, father, teacher, cyclist, independent, agnostic, son, forgetful,…  That’s 8 dimensions and counting–far more than 3 dimensions.  It’s likely that “identity space” is actually infinite dimensional.  Murray’s humanists crawl around in this infinite dimensional space with aplomb–not caring to even quantify their general vicinities.  Her rationalists quantify, measure, project, predict, draw conclusions, and attempt to list as many of the “numbers” as they can.

In an infinite dimensional space, you can’t list all of the numbers.  Rationalists hope that the numbers that they have ignored are ingnorable.  Humanists, by not bothering with the numbers, use other (referential) methods to convey meaning.  Murray’s essay convinces me that these two approaches inform each other in an ebb and flow.  In some ways, we see that the Rationalists have been rising for the last 500 years and that the current wave of new media will pave the way for a permanent ascension.  New media criticism is the way back for humanists.  By pointing out that “low-dimensional” approximations of high-dimensional spaces are fraught with danger, humanists demonstrate their value.  Think about the simplistic reliance on financial modeling that led to the recent global financial meltdown and the somewhat incoherent and distinctly high-dimensional response of the “Occupy movement”.

While I recognize that the paradigm that I have described here is yet another low-dimensional approximation of a complex idea, I plan to approach the remainder of The New Media Reader with this paradigm in mind.

First Post: New Media Seminar.

•January 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

This semester at Whitman College (Walla Walla, WA USA) I am participating in the New Media Seminar with a few other people at Whitman: Nick Bader, Juli Dunn, Noah Leavitt, Justin Lincoln, Bryan Lubbers, Greg Mitchell, Jennifer Mouat, and Mike Osterman.  We will be using The New Media Reader as a guide.

I am a member of the math dept here at Whitman and have an abiding interest in the pedagogical and academic effects of technology and new media.  More broadly, I am interested in how technology and new media affect the broader social landscape and how those changes affect my students and me.

I look forward to an engaging and ongoing discussion.