Don’t miss the latest episode of The Coode Street Podcast as it features author William Gibson. One of the topics is of course his latest book, The Peripheral, a story set in multiple futures. I guess ‘multiple futures’ sounds complex and the first part of the book is indeed bewildering. Wikipedia has a nice entry about The Peripheral (spoiler alert). I found the book intriguing because of the gloomy times we live in – think terrorism, war in Ukraine, societies in crisis, climate and environmental tragedies. In The Peripheral Gibson refers to a major crisis wiping out a big part of humanity, mysteriously called The Jackpot.
There’s no detailed account of what happens during The Jackpot except for some references to the climate. Yet the way in which Gibson talks about the Jackpot seems remarkably realistic:
And first of all that is was no one thing. That is was multicausal, with no particular beginning and no end.
A bit further it is described as
androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit
The climate change, caused by there being too much carbon, is an important driver of the catastrophes. People in the past “fucked it all up” so it is explained, at first they did not know what was going on and then they were unable “to get it together to do anything about it”.
But it’s not only the climate and the climate has multiple consequences. Like I witness it from our newsroom the world is an extremely interdependent, complex and delicate system breaking up at various places – environment, culture, society, economy, finance. It’s not an analysis I talk about here but a certain mood, and Gibson captures that mood brilliantly in his book.
If you wonder what a “peripheral” is in this context: it’s a cyborg avatar that users can connect to from another location. (Wikipedia)
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in het human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…
To be precise, it’s not necessarily Gibson who says this. It’s a voice-over in the device the protagonist is using, calling it “kid’s show”.
For those who never read any of Gibson’s books, do not fear, he explains some of his key ideas in the last chapter, such as the ‘cybernetic organism’:
There’s my cybernetic organism: the Internet. If you accept that “physical” isn’t only the things we can touch, it’s the largest man-made object on the planet, or will be, soon: It’s outstripping the telephone system, or ingesting it, as I speak. And we who participate in it are physically part of it. The Borg we are becoming.’
The interface evolves toward transparency, so he explains. The one you have to devote the least conscious effort to, survives.
So the sci-fi cyborg with brain inserts and bolts in the neck already looks slightly quaint. It’s a kind of steampunk version of what actually develops. Even Vannevar Bush, the author of the 1945 article As We May Think in The Atlantic Monthly, did not see this coming: that we would create libraries in common by linking up what Bush called “memex” and what we called later on “personal computer”.
The real cyborg is a global organism and it’s so invasive that the bolts in the neck look medieval.
The real-deal cyborg will be deeper and more subtle and exist increasingly at the particle level, in a humanity where unaugmented reality will eventually be a hypothetical construct, something we can only try, with great difficulty, to imagine – as we might try, today, to imagine a world without electronic media.
Which reminds me of the other book I’ve been reading, Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation by Beth Coleman, in which she explains her notion of “pervasive computing”:
(…) I use the term pervasive media to describe a global culture that engages a spectrum of networked technologies. I am speaking of technical affordances of platforms such as virtual worlds, voice-over-Internet protocol, mobile rich-media and texting, and microblogging formats such as Twitter.
She goes on mentioning YouTube, Facebook and blogs. Her assessment is that networked media, as a whole, simulates presence.
If a medium has a message, as McLuhan famously pronounced, then the message of the increasingly real-time, visual and locative media we engage is: “I am here”‘
She is not saying that a lived, bodily experience is the same as our experience of being filtered through an avatar (who are not just virtual world phenomena, but “our networked proxies”). Coleman is arguing for recognition of porous spheres of engagement that meet across a continuum of the actual.
And here is what Gibson says when he discusses the meaning of “the physical”:
The physical union of human and machine, long dreaded and long anticipated, has been an accomplished fact for decades, though we tend not to see it. We tend not to see it because we are it, and because we still employ Newtonian paradigms that tell us that “physical” has only to do with what we can see, or touch. Which of course is not the case. The electrons streaming into a child’s eye from the screen of the wooden television (RL: he refers to television sets of the fifties) are as physical as anything else. As physical as the neurons subsequently moving along that child’s optic nerves. As physical as the structures and chemicals those neurons will encounter in the human brain. We are implicit, here, all of us, in a vast physical construct of artificially linked nervous systems. Invisible. We cannot touch it.
Watch Gibson reading from his new book:
Now let’s switch to co-presence in yet another sci-fi masterpiece, Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge.. One of the most fascinating appearances in this book is the Rabbit, a person (or an AI entity) taking part in a conversation in Barcelona in the form of a rabbit. Others can see him – as a rabbit – and he (she?) can look around. Also featuring in this quote is effortless instant messaging:
The rabbit sipped its tea. Its gaze slid in a very un-rabbity way to take in the noisy crowds that swept past the tables, to
scan the costumes and body-plans of tourists and locals. “Ah, is it that Barcelona is a place for the beautiful and the
bizarre, one of the few great cities of the twentieth century whose charm survives in the modern world? (…) ” He stared at Braun and at Keiko Mitsuri. Mitsuri was frankly masked. She looked a bit like Marcel Duchamp’s
nude, built from a shifting complex of crystal planes. The rabbit shrugged, “But then again, maybe you two are
thousands of kilometers away.”
Keiko laughed. “Oh, don’t be so indecisive,” she said, speaking with a completely synthetic accent and syntax. “I’m quite
happy to be in Parc Güell right now, feeling reality with my very own real hands.”
Mitsuri –> Braun, Vaz: In fact, I’m in my office, admiring the moonlight on Tokyo bay.
The rabbit continued, ignorant of the silent messaging byplay: “Whatever. In any case, the real reasons for meeting
here: Barcelona has very direct connections to wherever you’re really from, and modern security to disguise what we
say. Best of all, it has laws banning popular and police snooping … unless of course you are the EU Intelligence Board.”
Mitsuri –> Braun, Vaz: Well, that’s one third of a correct guess.
Braun –> Mitsuri, Vaz: Mr. Rabbit himself is calling from some distance. An EU real-time estimate hung in the
air above the little creature’s head: 75 percent probability that the mind behind the rabbit image was in North America.
Now connect this with a non-fiction setting, the GigaOM Roadmap conference. Om Malik reports on GigaOm:
Mathew Ingram. The thread I was most interested in that came out of RoadMap was what Jack Dorsey called “the arc where technology meets humanness.” The Twitter and Square founder talked about using technology to help us connect more with what makes us human, Tony Fadell of Nest talked about making devices that respond more intuitively, and Mark Rolston from frog design was really passionate about getting the computer out of the way, to the point where we barely even realize there is a computer at all. Put together, all those make for a very powerful message that I wish more technology companies would pay attention to.
Understanding what is distinctive about human reason thus involves understanding the complementary contributions of both biology and (broadly speaking) technology, as well as the dense, reciprocal patterns of causal and co-evolutionary influence that run between them. We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature’s very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.
So the computer becoming human-like is not something external, which happens “out there” and involves just one of the many tools we humans use. It actually is another evolution of our extended mind, our becoming increasingly cyborg-like.
Of course, we generally don’t like being assimilated by the Borg. But then again, this is not what seems to be happening. The connectedness of our extended minds does not lead to an organism which obeys one set of rules and follows one single common belief system. As one of the participants at a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) said on Twitter, MOOCs are communities with smaller communities within. We do connect beyond geographical limitations of course, and it seems we respond to affinities. Beth Coleman in Hello Avatar:
The Pew Internet study tells us that affinity groups are thriving, but the connections are configured along new lines that often defy the demarcation of territory or blood. We find the dissolution of traditional frames of community and society, even as we relocate ourselves across networks of affiliation. The critical aspect to grasp is the value of networked engagement in moving toward a better understanding of society in the twenty-first century.
Fandom culture is a very interesting topic to study in order to understand this “networked engagement”. I’m reading Fandom Unbound now (see my previous post) and Lawrence Eng, in his contribution about Anime and Manga Fandom as Networked Culture, explains about radical fandom (“otaku” in Japanese):
Contrary to the stereotypical image of the otaku as socially isolated, anime fan communities are highly social and networked, relying on a combination of online and offline connections.
Just consider the possibility of amplifying the concept of “otaku” to the curation practices we talks so much about these days, and one can easily understand these studies are relevant for web culture as a whole, while web culture studies are not just about “the web”, but about where humanity is going.
Professor Henry Jenkins published the second part of his interview with his colleague Beth Coleman about avatars and the x-reality (the thing we live in when we constantly switch back and forth from digital space to what we used to call the ‘real world’). I also read Coleman’s book Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation.
About everything in the interviews and the book is very important to me (also have a look at my Storify of the interview). It’s a deep meditation about the power of co-presence in participatory culture:
Telepresence, or what I am calling copresence (the sense of being present with someone via mediation), is huge for participatory culture. We are moving unerringly toward a more graphic and increasingly real-time mediation. One of the things I underscore in the book is the idea that people in their everyday engagement of networked media create all kinds of innovation and intervention.
Beth Coleman puts all the stuff I care about in a very rich context of the history of gaming, virtuality, but also of cultural studies and philosophy (yes, even the French philosopher Jacques Derrida is mentioned as is the French thinker Jean Baudrillard).
I was just recovering from the book and the tremendous interview when I noticed that Jenkins posted yet another fascinating post, about Otaku culture:
(…) the culture of a technologically literate segment of the population which is characterized by their impassioned engagement, skilled reworking, and intellectual mastery over elements borrowed from many aspects of popular culture, including not only anime and manga, but also games, popular music, digital culture, even history or trains.
Understanding otaku-hood, I think, is one of the keys to understanding the culture of the Web. There is something profoundly postnational about it, extra-geographic. We are all curators, in the postmodern world, whether we want to be or not.
Jenkins now reports the publication of Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World, edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji, and bringing together works by leading Japanese and western researchers interested in Otaku culture as both a national and transnational phenomenon.
I’ve the impression many people who are knowledgeable in all kinds of web and mobile technologies often are no longer aware of the culture and literature of ‘cyberspace’ – which is a shame, as I think it’s crucial for creativity to combine technical expertise with in-depth knowledge of the humanities (literature, philosophy, sociology, anthropology…) as it relates to the disruptive change toward a networked society. Not just creativity in the sense of inventing yet another location-based social network, but the kind of creativity which gave us the iPhone and the iPad.
Anyway, here is a nice video about Otaku which you can also find on Aca-Fan, Jenkins’ site:
An overview of some major discussions about the internet and technology during the last few days. About technology and ideology, big internet corporations and their doom, project glass and its discontents.