The Rapture of the Nerds

I’ve just finished reading The Rapture of the Nerds, written by Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow. It’s an often almost dream-like book about life in the era of the technological singularity. Wikipedia explains:

The technological singularity is the hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human superintelligence through technological means.Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which events cannot be predicted or understood.

However, followers of Ray Kurzweil, better have some sense of humor reading this book as it is a comic novel.
It often is even hilarious, and especially those who have experienced life in user-generated virtual worlds such as Second Life or Open Sim will have a good time reading this stuff. Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow are very interesting authors, who did some serious thinking about the issue of singularity and it seems they are very sceptical about it (Stross maybe even more than Doctorow). Here you find a wide-ranging interview with blogger, activist and author Doctorow:

Also visit Charlies’s Diary, being the blog of Charles Stross, and then try to comment there: you’ll be linked to an interesting Google Group where Stross interacts with his readers. He seems to use the Google Group to avoid the spam.
At The WELL you can participate in a forum discussion with both authors.

‘This is my cybernetic organism: the Internet’

I just finished reading William Gibson’s Distrust that Particular Flavor. Gibson is the man who gave us the notion of ‘cyberspace’ in his 1982 story “Burning Chrome” and popularized by his 1984 novel Neuromancer.
Here is his formulation of “cyberspace” in Neuromancer:

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.

In Natural Born Cyborgs professor Andy Clark the author says:

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.

Also read Pagan Kennedy in The New York Times: William Gibson’s Future is Now, and one of my earlier posts about this subject: What Aristotle teaches us about our being cyborgs

Researching the philosophers of Silicon Valley, using mindmaps in 2D and 3D

What are the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of Silicon Valley? I’m trying to find out, reading and watching thinkers, historians, sci-fi literature, visiting virtual environments.

I’m trying to put some structure in my work using a mindmap, partially based on the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture (by Fred Turner):

In Second Life I’m putting up some media panels with websites or videos illustrating this – it helps me generating new ideas shifting those things around and walking around there, or looking at the panels with other avatars and commenting them.

My mindmap-installation in Second Life

Talking about virtual worlds outside virtual worlds: The WELL

In our first blog about other venues where people discuss virtual worlds, we talked about Quora. While Quora is very new, The WELL is almost ancient:

The WELL is a cherished and acclaimed destination for conversation and discussion. It is widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born — where Howard Rheingold first coined the term “virtual community.” Since long before the public Internet was unleashed, it has quietly captivated some accomplished and imaginative people. Over the last two and a half decades, it’s been described as “the world’s most influential online community” in a Wired Magazine cover story, and ” the Park Place of email addresses” by John Perry Barlow. It’s won Dvorak and Webby Awards, inspired songs and novels, and almost invisibly influences modern culture.

In 2010, this social site celebrates its 25th birthday online. A wide variety of topics are being discussed in ‘conferences’. The ‘Virtual Communities’ conference has among its topics ‘Second Life: The World-Building MMOG’, but I don’t think there is a topic ‘blue mars’ or ‘opensim’ (search did not yield results).

The conversations are very instructive and friendly. Just like for the Quora discussions people are supposed to use their real names. There are moderators, ‘conference hosts’. However, there are also major differences between the two services.

Those differences boil down to this: The Well wants to be a walled garden. As they explain themselves: “Membership is not for everyone, partly because we are non-anonymous here.” One cannot vote a question or an answer up or down. There are no ‘follow’ buttons next to the names of the participants. In fact, you own your own words, meaning that you are responsible for them but also that others cannot simply copy paste them outside The WELL. Before quoting or even mentioning that another person is a member, one should ask that other person whether she agrees.

Another major aspect of the “walled garden”: membership is not free.

There are about 3.000 members now, and to be honest, I don’t think the community, owned by Salon.com, can boast tremendous growth figures.

In fact, The WELL is rather fascinating. Because of its history but also because of this non-viral approach of a members only gathering. Whether it will be able to survive, faced with competition such as Quora, is another matter. Quora uses real identities, but provides connections with Twitter and Facebook, is free, and for now manages to maintain good quality using a voting system. The WELL however is a bunch of micro-communities (around the conferences) where more intimate relationships can develop.

Sterling and Lebkowsky

conference page the well
To be fair, The WELL is not completely a walled garden. Non-members can for instance join the ‘Inkwell: Authors and Artists’ conference. Author Bruce Sterling and internet&cyberculture expert Jon Lebkowsky discuss this week State of the World 2011.

The organizers even run a wild experiment: a Facebook event page for feedback (great discussion there) and the ever cunning Lebkwoski announced on that page a Twitter hashtag (#sotw2011)!

Thinking the unthinkable

A strange sequence of events: last Saturday I was on a personal finance event (I’m a financial journalist) in Brussels, Belgium, and the day after I went to the Photo Museum of Antwerp (Belgium). I visited the exposition of the work of Willy Kessels (1898-1974), who is considered as one of the most important Belgian representatives of a new, ‘modernistic’ photography which came to the foreground from the end of the 1920’s onward. His body of works is particularly illustrative of the practise of the professional photographer in the 1930’s, so the museum site explains. Strangely enough, visiting that exposition made me muse about futurism.

Maybe it was not that strange after all: in the thirties Kessels made pictures of the modernist headquarters of the socialist newspaper Le Peuple, of the at the time very modern installations of the national broadcasting organization NIR, of new installations of factories and breweries. The pictures show us an optimistic, modern wold which seems very familiar to us, even in this day and age.

It was that familiarity which made me feel uneasy. The people in those modern interiors and buildings, would they have realized what horror and collapse of civilization would take place a few year later (the Second World War, the holocaust… )?

Kessels’ career was rather strange. He made those modernist pictures, and also pictures of the making of the movie Misère au Borinage about the suffering of workers. But he would also befriend Joris Van Severen of the Verdinaso, a very right-wing organization. Kessels would become a photographer of rural Flanders, trying to capture a sense of authenticity.

While many observers think Kessels was an opportunist, he also demonstrates an important cultural tension in the West: on the one hand the optimism, a belief in progress (economically, socially, politically, technologically) and on the other hand a Romantic rejection of all this in favor of the (often imaginary) virtues of the past, of local roots versus cosmopolitanism and globalization.

This tension increases when the social fabric of society is threatened. This was one of the themes we discussed at the investment seminars the day before and it is one of the big underlying issues in the trade discussions between the US and China: which of both countries will end up with an unemployment of 10 percent to 20 percent of the labor force? About 42 million people, more than one in eight Americans, are now on food stamps.

It’s rather difficult to have constructive political debates in such a context – on the contrary, it’s an ideal environment for extremists.

All of which explains my rather depressing thoughts: will museum visitors of the future look at pictures of our time, with our technological dreams and our modernist buildings and interiors, and wonder whether we realized what horror would happen to us a few year later?

As financial experts said during the seminar, the shift toward the East of the world economy is not that strange. Before the Industrial Revolution about 70 percent of the world economy was non-Western, so the fact that we return to that situation should not surprise us.

The road toward that new world order will be bumpy. How bumpy, we cannot know at this point in time. Will discussion about trade and exchange rates lead to war? Will extremists and fundamentalists use of the technological empowerment of the individual in order to commit horrible acts of mass destruction?

It’s strange that experts these days often work in ignorance of each other’s work. While security experts study issues like nuclear- cyber- and bio-terrorism, urbanists and economists often just don’t take these dreadful possibilities into account in their risk assessments. It’s one of the reasons that I like near-future science fiction so much: it constitutes one of the few accessible places where scenarios are developed and knowledge from various fields is combined into possible futures. It helps us imagine the unthinkable, so that we can try to prevent it.

Roland Legrand

Learning about globalization, terror, and media by reading near-future sci-fi

How will the future look like, for media and for society in general? It’s impossible to predict, but what we can do is work with plausible scenarios. One of my sources of inspiration is literature, more specifically near-future science fiction which seems to extrapolate trends we already see happening today. These are books I’ve read recently or which I’m reading now:

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. There is lots of augmented reality in the book, and the world has to deal with major security issues. Among the many fascinating characters: an anthropomorphic virtual rabbit. What about media? There are still paparazzi (maybe more than ever) and Vinge dedicates the novel to the internet-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives such as Wikipedia and Google. There are still physical books, but in danger of extinction. Laptops are still being used – by those who are resistant to change. I think it’s possible to use this book as a starting point for a meditation on the radicalization of instant messaging, online networks and gaming and online cognitive tools, discussing the challenges and opportunities of these developments.

Halting State by Charles Stross is a thriller set in the software houses that write multiplayer games. Once again it’s about security issues but also about finance as the software house is a public company. If you don’t have first-hand experience with Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) or Alternate Reality Games (ARG), chances are that this book will make you want to try it out.

Super Sad True Love Story by Shteyngart, Gary. What I like particularly in this book is the fact that the state of the economy plays an important role here. Things look bleak with China (and even Europe) in a very strong position while the US suffers a terrible crisis with massive social implications. Streaming media are a big hit – but do not necessarily contribute to the quality of public debate. Wearable devices double as tools for the security services. Physical books are still around, but they are considered weird.

For the Win by Cory Doctorow also deals extensively massively multiplayer online role-playing games. It’s about globalization, economics, virtual goods and labor. Independent news media production (in China!) is another important element here.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald is set in 2027 Istanbul. Once again trade, security, economics, globalization and (nano)technology are prominent elements in the story. There are not only paparazzi in the future, but also investigative journalists using stealthy, secretive surveillers – as does the state.

Online social networks, effortless and pervasive instant messaging, the menace of mass destruction or of Big Brother, the transformation of reality in a mixture of the physical world (manipulated on nano level), virtual reality, gaming and augmented reality, the globalization and its geo-political and social consequences are themes in which you can immerse yourself by reading those books.

My project: organizing some meetings about these books, discussing what they tell us about different possible futures. My personal interest would be the future of the media, but others would be more than welcome to look at these and other books from other angles.

We would meet (of course) in a virtual world, most probably in the virtual town of Chilbo in Second Life. If you have suggestions for other books (or games, or videos… ) about the near-future, please let me know.