TECHNOLOGY

THE AGE OF THE INFORMAVORE

[10.25.09]

We are apparently now in a situation where modern technology is changing the way people behave, people talk, people react, people think, and people remember. And you encounter this not only in a theoretical way, but when you meet people, when suddenly people start forgetting things, when suddenly people depend on their gadgets, and other stuff, to remember certain things. This is the beginning, its just an experience. But if you think about it and you think about your own behavior, you suddenly realize that something fundamental is going on. There is one comment on Edge which I love, which is in Daniel Dennett's response to the 2007 annual question, in which he said that we have a population explosion of ideas, but not enough brains to cover them.

(*The term informavore characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food.)

THE REALITY CLUB: Daniel Kahneman, George Dyson, Jaron Lanier, Nick Bilton, Nick Carr, Douglas Rushkoff, Jesse Dylan, Virginia Heffernan, Gerd Gigerenzer, John Perry Barlow, Steven Pinker, John Bargh, George Dyson, Annalena McAfee, John Brockman, David Gelernter, Evgeny Morozov


Introduction

By John Brockman

The most significant intellectual development of the first decade of the 21st Century is that concepts of information and computation have infiltrated a wide range of sciences, from physics and cosmology, to cognitive psychology, to evolutionary biology, to genetic engineering. Such innovations as the binary code, the bit, and the algorithm have been applied in ways that reach far beyond the programming of computers, and are being used to understand such mysteries as the origins of the universe, the operation of the human body, and the working of the mind.

Enter Frank Schirrmacher, Editorial Director the editorial staff of the FAZ Feuilleton, a supplement of the FAZ on the arts and sciences. He is also one of the five publishers of the newspaper, responsible for the Feuilleton, and he has actively expanded science coverage in this section. He has been referred to as Germany's "Culture Czar", which may seem over the top, but his cultural influence is undeniable. He can, and does, begin national discussions on topics and ideas that interest him, such as genomic research, neuroscience, aging, and, in this regard, he has the ability to reshape the national consciousness.

I can provide a first-hand account of "the Schirrmacher treatment".

In May of 2000, he published a manifesto in FAZ, a call-to arms,entitled "Wake-Up Call for Europe Tech", in which he called for Europe to adopt the ideas of the third culture. His goal: to change the culture of the newspaper and to begin a process of change in Germany and Europe. "Europe should be more than just a source for the software of ego crisis, loss of identity, despair, and Western melancholy," he wrote. We should be helping write the code for tomorrow."

The Manifesto, and Schirrmacher's publishing program, was a departure for FAZ which has a somewhat conservative profile, and it was widely covered in the German press and made waves in intellectual circles. And a decade later, the national conversation continues. (See this week's Stuttargarter Zeitung).

Within weeks following publication of his manifesto, Schirrmacher began publishing articles by notable third culture thinkers such as Bill Joy, Ray Kurzweil, V.S. RamachandranPatrick Bateson, James Watson, Craig VenterDavid Gelernter, among others. Soon after, he devoted an entire edition of the Feuilleton to a printout the Human Genome code published by Craig Venter, which caused a sensation in Germany.

Then came 9/11. And everything changed. Schirrmacher was on to the next story.

I hadn't heard from him in a while when in July he emailed me from Vietnam. He was thinking about, and researching, ideas concerning the effect of new information technologies on human knowledge, on how the Internet is modifying our cognitive structures, on how we can begin the understand the cultural changes happening in today's technology/knowledge interface. He asked for my help regarding questions he had for George DysonDanny HillisRichard Thaler, and Larry Page.

With Schirrmacher, once he's obsessed with an idea to which you may happen to be connected, expect to be kept very busy. Dozens of emails went back and forth until, finally, I caught up with him in person in October for a conversation in his Frankfurt office.

So, what are the questions Schirrmacher is asking himself?

He is interested in George Dyson's comment "What if the price of machines that think is people who don't?" He is looking at how the modification of our cognitive structures is a process that eventually blends machines and humans in a deeper way, more than any human-computer interface could possibly achieve. He's also fascinated in an idea presented a decade ago by Danny Hillis: "In the long run, the Internet will arrive at a much richer infrastructure, in which ideas can potentially evolve outside of human minds."

We discussed his notion that computer platforms can be seen as socio-biological systems which repeat three of the major concepts of the 19th century on an individual level: Taylorism (multitasking), Marxism (free content and copyright) and Darwinism (search algorithm and information foraging). "The Darwinian perspective is the most interesting," he says. "Information being an advantage for the informarvores and software that codes it with cues from foraging habits of the prehistoric man".

 —JB

[ED. NOTE: The conversation was in English, Schirrmacher's second language. Rather than edit the piece for grammar, and risk losing the spontaneity of the conversation, I present it here — for the most part — verbatim.]

FRANK SCHIRRMACHER is a an influential German journalist, essayist, best-selling author, and since 1994 co-publisher of the leading national German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), where he is Editor of the Feuilleton, cultural and science pages of the paper. He is the author of the Das Methusalem-Komplott (The Methusaleh Conspiracy), a book, published in 14 languages selling more than one million copies in Germany, on that country's aging society; and Payback: Warum wir im Informationszeitalter gezwungen sind zu tun, was wir nicht tun wollen, und wie wir die Kontrolle über unser Denken zurückgewinnen (Payback: Why in the Information Age we are forced to do what we do not want to do and how we can recover control over our thinking, November, Karl Blessing Verlag).

Frank Schirrmacher's Edge Bio Page


THE AGE OF THE INFORMAVORE

Topic: 

  • TECHNOLOGY
https://vimeo.com/82233053

"We are apparently now in a situation where modern technology is changing the way people behave, people talk, people react, people think, and people remember. And you encounter this not only in a theoretical way, but when you meet people, when suddenly people start forgetting things, when suddenly people depend on their gadgets, and other stuff, to remember certain things. This is the beginning, its just an experience. But if you think about it and you think about your own behavior, you suddenly realize that something fundamental is going on.

DOES TECHNOLOGY EVOLVE?

[9.21.09]

 

The two legs of the Theory of Evolution that are in technology, are not at all Darwinian. They are quite different. They are that certain existing building blocks are combined and re-combined to form new building-block technologies; and every so often technologies get used to capture novel, newly discovered phenomena, and encapsulate those and get further building blocks. As with Darwin, most new technologies that come into being are only useful for their own purpose and don't form other building blocks, but occasionally some do.

 

 

 

W. BRIAN ARTHUR, is External Professor Citibank Professor at the Santa Fe Institute and one of the pioneers of the new science of complexity. His main interests are technology, and the economics of high technology. He is the author of the recently published The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. 

W. Brian Arthur's Edge Bio Page


[16:08 minutes]

DOES TECHNOLOGY EVOLVE?

Topic: 

  • TECHNOLOGY
http://vimeo.com/82231745

"The two legs of the Theory of Evolution that are in technology, are not at all Darwinian. They are quite different. They are that certain existing building blocks are combined and re-combined to form new building-block technologies; and every so often technologies get used to capture novel, newly discovered phenomena, and encapsulate those and get further building blocks. As with Darwin, most new technologies that come into being are only useful for their own purpose and don't form other building blocks, but occasionally some do."

WE ARE AS GODS AND HAVE TO GET GOOD AT IT

Stewart Brand Talks About His Ecopragmatist Manifesto
[8.18.09]

 

The shift that has happened in 40 years which mainly has to do with climate change. Forty years ago, I could say in the Whole Earth Catalog, "we are as gods, we might as well get good at it". Photographs of earth from space had that god-like perspective.

What I'm saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it. Necessity comes from climate change, potentially disastrous for civilization. The planet will be okay, life will be okay. We will lose vast quantities of species, probably lose the rain forests if the climate keeps heating up. So it's a global issue, a global phenomenon. It doesn't happen in just one area. The planetary perspective now is not just aesthetic. It's not just perspective. It's actually a world-sized problem that will take world sized solutions that involves forms of governance we don't have yet. It involves technologies we are just glimpsing. It involves what ecologists call ecosystem engineering. Beavers do it, earthworms do it. They don't usually do it at a planetary scale. We have to do it at a planetary scale. A lot of sentiments and aesthetics of the environmental movement stand in the way of that.

Introduction

By John Brockman

I met Stewart Brand in 1965 at the USCO Church in Garnerville, NY, the home of a group of artists and poets who pioneered multimedia art, and who worked closely with Marshall McLuhan, giving joint presentations of a MclLuhan lecture coupled with an USCO performance for college audiences.

Brand and I hit it off immediately, partly because at the time had both recently finished our active duty in the military and I recall we both happened to show up that day wearing some semblance of our Army jackets. Thus began a lively conversation that has been continuous over the past 44 years.

At the time he was wearing a button that said "America Needs Indians". He was with his then-wife Lois, a mathematician, and an American Indian. A year or two later he wore a button that said, "Why Haven't We Seen A Picture of the Whole Earth?" This was remedied in 1969 when Apollo landed on the moon. I remember sitting on the floor in my living room on a sunny afternoon. Sunshine was streaming through the window, the time on the clock on top of the television set was 3:00 pm. The television screen showed a live photograph of the whole earth ... night and day at the same time.

It was a powerful moment: the understanding that there was a whole Earth and that it is always night and day at the same time. The images streaming back from the moon allowed us to step back from Earth, to objectify it, and create the mental space where we could begin to think about it and talk about it as an ecological system. This was the beginning of "the environment".

Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1968 was a key element in the beginning of environmentalism. He has been an influential voice in the conversation for forty years, but the world has changed and he is not one to get stuck holding on to ideas that are no longer viable.

In fact, in writing about a cultrually iconic figure such as Brand, it's easy to get caught up in the past — the Merry Pranksters, the hippies, The Whole East Catalog, the personal computer, The Well (one of the pioneering online communities, etc.) But that's not where he lives.

These days, he's advocating a science-based "whole Earth discipline" to tackle the global problem of climate change. Standing in the way: the Luddite attitudes of the leaders and the rank and file of the very environmentalist movement he helped to create and inspire, who in their opposition to GMO foods, engineering, nuclear power, and the like, he characterizes as being anti-science, and anti-intellectual, with a tendency to place ideology over pragmatism. His message to this crowd: "you're harmful"; it's time for "ecopragmatism".

 — JB

STEWART BRAND is cofounder and co-chairman of The Long Now Foundation. He is the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder of The Well, and cofounder of Global Business Network.

He is the original editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, (Winner of the National Book Award). His latest book is Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto(forthcoming, October 15th.)

Stewart Brand's Edge Bio Page

WE ARE AS GODS AND HAVE TO GET GOOD AT IT

Topic: 

  • TECHNOLOGY
http://vimeo.com/80908223

"What I'm saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it. Necessity comes from climate change, potentially disastrous for civilization. The planet will be okay, life will be okay. We will lose vast quantities of species, probably lose the rain forests if the climate keeps heating up. So it's a global issue, a global phenomenon. It doesn't happen in just one area. The planetary perspective now is not just aesthetic. It's not just perspective. It's actually a world-sized problem that will take world sized solutions that involves forms of governance we don't have yet.

LORD OF THE CLOUD

Topic: 

  • TECHNOLOGY
http://vimeo.com/80906018

"The central idea we were working on was this idea of de-localized information — information for which I didn't care what computer it was stored on. It didn't depend on any particular computer. I didn't know the identities of other computers in the ensemble that I was working on. I just knew myself and the cybersphere, or sometimes we called it the tuplesphere, or just a bunch of information floating around. We used the analogy — we talked about helium balloons. We used a million ways to try and explain this idea."
 

LORD OF THE CLOUD

[4.23.09]

 

The central idea we were working on was this idea of de-localized information — information for which I didn't care what computer it was stored on. It didn't depend on any particular computer. I didn't know the identities of other computers in the ensemble that I was working on. I just knew myself and the cybersphere, or sometimes we called it the tuplesphere, or just a bunch of information floating around. We used the analogy — we talked about helium balloons. We used a million ways to try and explain this idea. 

Introduction

In June, 2000 Edge published David Gelernter's audacious "The Second Coming: A Manifesto", in which he wrote: "Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us". Ppublication of the manifesto led to one of the most vibrant and interesting Edge discussions, with contributions from many of the leading Edge thinkers in the area of computation. from Stewart Brand, to Freeman dyson, to W. Daniel Hillis. To reprise the introduction:

David Gelernter .....

"...prophesied the rise of the World Wide Web. He understood the idea half a decade before it happened." (John Markoff)

"...is a treasure in the world of computer science...the most articulate and thoughtful of the great living practitioners" (Jaron Lanier)

"...is one of the pioneers in getting many computers to work together and cooperate on solving a single problem, which is the future of computing." (Danny Hillis)

"...is one of the most brilliant and visionary computer scientists of our time." (Bill Joy)

Yale computer scientist David Gelernter entered the public mind one morning in January '92 when The New York Sunday Timesran his picture on the front page of the business section; it filled nearly the whole page. The text of the accompanying story occupied almost another whole page inside.

In 1991 Gelernter had published a book for technologists (an extended research paper) called Mirror Worlds, claiming in effect that one day, there would be something like the Web. As well as forecasting the Web, the book, according to the people who built these systems, also helped lay the basis for the internet programming language "Java" and Sun Microsystems' "Jini."

Gelernter's earlier work on his parallel programming language "Linda" (which allows you to distribute a computer program across a multitude of processors and thus break down problems into a multitude of parts in order to solve them more quickly) and "tuple spaces" underlies such modern-day systems as Sun's JavaSpaces, IBM's T-Spaces, a Lucent company's new "InfernoSpaces" and many other descendants worldwide.

By mid-'92 this set of ideas had taken hold and was exerting a strong influence . By 1993 the Internet was growing fast, and the Web was about to be launched. Gelernter's research group at Yale was an acknowledged world leader in network software and more important, it was known for "The Vision Thing", for the big picture.

In June '93 everything stopped for Gelernter when he was critically injured by a terrorist mailbomb. He was out of action for the rest of '93 and most of '94 as the Web took off, the Internet become an international phenomenon and his aggressive forecasts started to come true. Gelernter endured numerous surgeries through 95, and then a long recuperation period.

Now Gelernter is back. In this audacious manifesto, "The Second Coming", he writes: "Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us."

In his manifesto, Gelernter further developed ideas he had been working on since the 1980s. One such idea was that of the cyberbody as a "cloud":

17. A cyberbody can be replicated or distributed over many computers; can inhabit many computers at the same time. If the Cybersphere's computers are tiles in a paved courtyard, a cyberbody is a cloud's drifting shadow covering many tiles simultaneously.

He also inroduced his idea of the "life stream":

38. A "lifestream" organizes information not as a file cabinet does but roughly as a mind does.

39. A lifestream is a sequence of all kinds of documents — all the electronic documents, digital photos, applications, Web bookmarks, rolodex cards, email messages and every other digital information chunk in your life — arranged from oldest to youngest, constantly growing as new documents arrive, easy to browse and search, with a past, present and future, appearing on your screen as a receding parade of index cards. Documents have no names and there are no directories; you retrieve elements by content: "Fifth Avenue" yields a sub-stream of every document that mentions Fifth Avenue.

40. A stream flows because time flows, and the stream is a concrete representation of time. The "now" line divides past from future. If you have a meeting at 10AM tomorow, you put a reminder document in the future of your stream, at 10AM tomorrow. It flows steadily towards now. When now equals 10AM tomorrow, the reminder leaps over the now line and flows into the past. When you look at the future of your stream you see your plans and appointments, flowing steadily out of the future into the present, then the past.

Today, Bill Gates's name is synonymous with Microsoft Basic. A mention of Bill Joy in the press is usally accompanied by acknowledgement of his early development work on UNIX. Ted Nelson is always associated with hypertext. Jaron Lanier is often identified and credited with his pioneering work on virtual reality. But rarely are "cloud computing" and "lifestreams" (or "lifestreaming") presented in connection with, and with proper credit to, the visionary behind them.

Edge asked John Markoff, who covers technology for The New York Times, and first brought Gelernter's ideas to a wide reading public with his 1991New York Times profile, and social software seer Clay Shirky. a professor at NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), to talk to Gelernter about his ideas. The roundtable took place in New York City on April 25, 2009.

-JB

DAVID GELERNTER is a professor of computer science at Yale and chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies (New Haven). His research centers on information management, parallel programming, and artificial intelligence. The "tuple spaces" introduced in Nicholas Carriero and Gelernter's Linda system (1983) are the basis of many computer communication systems worldwide. He is the author of Mirror Worlds, and Drawiing a Life: Surviving the Unabomber.

David Gelernter's Edge Bio page

JOHN MARKOFF covers the computer industry and technology for The New York Times. He is the coauthor of Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw (with Tsutomu Shimomura), and author of What The Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

John Markoff's Edge Bio page

CLAY SHIRKY is an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he teaches courses on the interrelated effects of social and technological network topology—how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. He is the author of Here Comes Everybody.

Clay Shirky's Edge Bio page


GIN, TELEVISION, AND COGNITIVE SURPLUS

[8.20.08]

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we're talking about. It's so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let's say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That's about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 98 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I think that's going to be a big deal. Don't you?

Introduction
By John Brockman

Reporting on the recent Edge Master Class 08 in Sonoma, George Dyson wrote:

Retreating to the luxury of Sonoma to discuss economic theory in mid-2008 conveys images of Fiddling while Rome Burns. Do the architects of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Facebook have anything to teach the behavioral economists—and anything to learn? So what? What's new?? As it turns out, all kinds of things are new.

"All kinds of things are new", and something very big is in the air. According to Sean Parker, the cofounder of Napster, Plaxo, and Facebook (as well as Facebook's founding president) who was present in Sonoma. "If you're not on Facebook, you don't exist".

Social software has arrived, and if you don't pay attention and take onboard the developments at Google, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, etc., you are opting out of being a serious player in the realm of 21st Century ideas.

One of the more interesting contributions to the 2008 Edge World Question Center event was by Tim O'Reilly, the always-innovative guru, entrepreneur, publisher/evangelist of Web 2.0 social software revolution. In his piece (below), O'Reilly writes about his initial skepticism regarding Clay Shirky's 2002 vision of "social software". These comments are an infomative preamble to a recent talk in which Shirky coins the phrase "cognitive surplus".

According to Shirky:

Starting after the second world war, a whole host of factors, like rising GDP, rising educational attainment, and rising life-span, forced the industrialized world to grapple with something new: free time. Lots and lots of free time. The amount of unstructured time among the educated population ballooned, accounting for billions of hours a year. And what did we do with that time? Mostly, we watched TV.

Society never really knows what do do with any surplus at first. (That's what makes it a surplus.) In this case, we had to find something to do with the sudden spike in surplus hours. The sitcom was our gin, a ready-made response to the crisis of free time. TV has become a half-time job for most citizens of the industrialized world, at an average of 20 hours a week, every week, for decades.

Now, though, for the first time in its history, young people are watching less TV than their elders, and the cause of the decline is competition for their free time from media that allow for active and social participation, not just passive and individual consumption.

The value in media is no longer in sources but in flows; when we pool our cognitive surplus, it creates value that doesn't exist when we operate in isolation. The displacement of TV watching is coming among people who are using more of their time to make things and do things, sometimes alone and sometimes together, and to share those things with others.

When Shirky first made this assertion at a tech conference, he was astonished to see the video of the speech rocket around the web faster and more broadly than anything else he had ever said or done.

Shirky believes that "we can take advantage of our cognitive surplus, but only if we start regarding pure consumption as an anomaly, and broad participation as the norm. This not a dispassionate argument, because the stakes are so high. We don't get to decide whether we want a new society. The changes we are under can't be rolled back, nor contained in the present institutional frameworks. What we might get to decide is how we want this change to turn out."

"To call the current opportunity 'once in a lifetime'", he continues, "understates its enormity; the change in the social landscape is altering institutions that have been stable for generations, and making possible new kinds of human engagement that have never existed before. The results could be a marvel, or a catastrophe, depending on how seriously we try to shape what's possible."

If you want new, and original thinking, look no further.

Edge is pleased to present the video and transcript of Shirky's talk below with the hope that an ensuing Reality Club discussion will further sharpen the argument.

JB

CLAY SHIRKY is an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he teaches courses on the interrelated effects of social and technological network topology—how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. He is the author of Here Comes Everybody.

Clay Shirky's Edge Bio page


[16:30 minutes]

 

THE REALITY CLUB: Nicholas Carr, Chris Anderson, James O'Donnell


 

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