Edge 311—February 2, 2010
Edge @ DLD — Munich
Edge was in Munich for DLD 2010 and an Edge/DLD event. The event, entitled "Informavore", is a discussion featuring Frank Schirrmacher, Editor of the Feuilleton and Co-Publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Andrian Kreye, Feuilleton Editor of Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich; and Yale computer science visionary David Gelernter, who, in his 1991 book Mirror Worlds presented what's now called "cloud computing".
Gelernter's June, 2000 manifesto, published by both Edge and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, was at the time widely read and debated. In it, he famously wrote: "Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us."
In 2006, the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier published an incisive, groundbreaking and highly controversial essay about "digital Maoism" — about the downside of online collectivism, and the enshrinement by Web 2.0 enthusiasts of the "wisdom of the crowd." In that manifesto Mr. Lanier argued that design (or ratification) by committee often does not result in the best product, and that the new collectivist ethos — embodied by everything from Wikipedia to "American Idol" to Google searches — diminishes the importance and uniqueness of the individual voice, and that the "hive mind" can easily lead to mob rule.
Now, in his impassioned new book "You Are Not a Gadget," Mr. Lanier expands this thesis further, looking at the implications that digital Maoism or "cybernetic totalism" have for our society at large. Although some of his suggestions for addressing these problems wander into technical thickets the lay reader will find difficult to follow, the bulk of the book is lucid, powerful and persuasive. It is necessary reading for anyone interested in how the Web and the software we use every day are reshaping culture and the marketplace.
Mr. Lanier, a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran, is hardly a Luddite, as some of his critics have suggested. Rather he is a digital-world insider who wants to make the case for “a new digital humanism” before software engineers’ design decisions, which he says fundamentally shape users’ behavior, become “frozen into place by a process known as lock-in.” Just as decisions about the dimensions of railroad tracks determined the size and velocity of trains for decades to come, he argues, so choices made about software design now may yield “defining, unchangeable rules” for generations to come. ...
[ED. NOTE: Michiki Kakutani, the NewYork Times literary critic, in her admiring and interesting review (above) of Jaron Lanier's new book You Are Not a Gadget, writes: "In 2006, the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier published an incisive, groundbreaking and highly controversial essay about "digital Maoism". To be more precise, Lanier's essay was commissioned by Edge as part of the "Edge Original Essay" series. We co-pubished the essay in 2006 simultaneously with a German translation which appeared in the Feuilleton of Sueddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's major national newspapers. As she correctly notes, the piece drew a great deal of attention. It is one of the "most read" in the fourteen years of Edge publishing history.
Times readers might have benefited by having a link to the original piece and the Reality Club conversation that included serious and informed thinkers such as Douglas Rushkoff, Yochai Benkler, Clay Shirky, Cory Doctorow, Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, Larry Sanger, Jimmy Wales, George Dyson, and Howard Rheingold. Link: "Digital Maosim: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism" By Jaron Lanier. An Edge Original Essay.
p.s. An interesting aside: It was only about a month ago, at a post-Christmas Edge dinner in Harvard Square that Marvin Minsky and Benoit Mandelbrot began an unrelated conversation which caught my attention as they were discussing "Kakutani", no, not the Pulitzer-Prize winning literary critic for the New York Times. They were reminiscing about their colleague Shizuo Kakutani, her father, the esteemed Japanese mathematician who came to the Institute of Advanced Studies in 1940 to work with Herman Weyl and then studied with John von Neumann. While in Princeton Kakutani was Minsky's advisor. He went on to become a professor at Yale where he had a long and distinguished career that overlapped the Yale tenure of Mandelbrot. (A Google search for - Kakutani Mandelbrot - brings up 11,800 links).]
The Edge Annual Question — 2010
Italy: Internazionale (Cover Story), La Stampa (full-page profile), Il Giornale (two pages), Il Venerdi di Rebbpublica Weekend Magazine (on cover), Il 24 Ore Sole (four pages), Art News — Rai.IT TV, Il Secolo XIX; Germany: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (two pages), Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt; Lisbon: Publico (Weekend Magazine Cover Story); Brazil: O Estado De Sao Paulo; Argentina: Pagina 12; US: New York Times, Atlantic Wire, On Point with Tom Ashbrook— NPR, All Tech Considered — NPR, Washington Times; UK: New Scientist, Times Online, BBC World Service
It's not what you know, it's what you can find out. The Internet has put at the forefront resourcefulness and critical-thinking and relegated memorization of rote facts to mental exercise or enjoyment. Because of the abundance of information and this new emphasis on resourcefulness, the Internet creates a sense that anything is knowable or findable — as long as you can construct the right search, find the right tool, or connect to the right people. The Internet empowers better decision-making and a more efficient use of time.
Simultaneously, it also leads to a sense of frustration when the information doesn't exist online. What do you mean that the store hours aren't anywhere? Why can't I see a particular page of this book? And, if not verbatim, no one has quoted it even in part? What do you mean that page isn't available? Page not found?
The Internet can facilitate an incredible persistence and availability of information, but given the Internet's adolescence, all of the information simply isn't there yet. I find that in some ways my mind has evolved to this new way of the thinking, relying on the information's existence and availability, so much so that it's almost impossible to conclude that the information isn't findable because it just isn't online.
The Web has also enabled amazing dynamic visualizations, where an ideal presentation of information is constructed — a table of comparisons or a data-enhanced map, for example. These visualizations — be it news from around the world displayed on a globe or a sortable table of airfares — can greatly enhance our understanding of the world or our sense of opportunity. We can understand in an instant what would have taken months to create just a few short years ago. Yet, the Internet's lack of structure means that it is not possible to construct these types of visualizations over any or all data. To achieve true automated, general understanding and visualization, we will need much better machine learning, entity extraction, and semantics capable of operating at vast scale.
On that note — and in terms of future Internet innovation, the important question may not be how the Internet is changing how we think but instead how the Internet is teaching itself to think.
The Internet is not changing how we think. Instead, we are changing how the Internet thinks.
The Internet has become a real-time perpetual time capsule. A bottomless invisible urn. A storage locker for every moment of our lives, and a place to allow anyone to dip in and retrieve those memories.
The Internet has killed the private diary hiding under my under sisters mattress, and replaced it with a blog or social network.
Through the social sharing web, we have become an opt-everything society: Sharing our feelings in status updates. Uploading digital pictures of everything — good or otherwise. We discuss what we're reading or watching — and then offer brutally honest critique. We tweet the birth of a child, or announce an engagement. And we are completely unaware of the viewers we talk with. I suspect we don't even care? (I know I don't.)
We are all just a part of an infinite conversation.
And no-one stands above anyone else. The Internet gives everyone a bullhorn, and allows them to use it freely, wherever they see fit — to say whatever they want. In the past bullhorns were expensive, as were printing presses, or television studios and radio stations. To reach large audiences required deep pockets. But now we are all capable of distributing our voices, opinions and thoughts evenly.
When everyone has a bullhorn, no-one individual can shout louder than the others, instead, it just becomes a really loud conversation.
The Web is capable of spreading information quicker than any virus known to man, and it's impossible to stop. Without these confabulations, the Web would be an empty wasteland of one-sided conversation, just like newspapers and television programs and radio stations used to be.
Most importantly now, the Web allows for an equilibrium of chatter. People use the same services to share and consume their vastly divergent views and interests and then, in-turn, dice up the information accordingly.
The Internet has changed the way we think through numerous channels. But it's changed the way I think through one very simple action: Every important moment of my life is documented, cataloged, and sent online to be shared and eulogized with however wants to engage in the conversation.
Since I started to use Internet and all the options it offers in matter of communications, my perception of global time changed radically.
I'm now much more aware of time differences and, in a restless way, my nights became hunted from the presence of the other working day time around the world.
I'm became obsessed with being constantly updated about my correspondence and I lost that " no man's land " that was the time it took to a letter to arrive at destination, to receive and answer and travel all the way back to me.
My days become nights and my nights became brighter and more " available ".
As much as I can, and since I understood this trap, I try to fight back this system and to take back control of my time, but it's hard specially when it radically changed the perception I have of time itself.
I believe in the concept of the haptic nervous system, where the brain and neuronal cells are distributed along the nerve fibres of the whole body, not just resident in the skull. I therefore believe that body and brain are connected and that learning is also a physical phenomena.
I know how Internet has changed my body, not really how it changed my way of thinking.
My short sight has remained fairly stable: actually reading from a screen is forcing neither the retina nor the muscles of my eyes. Therefore I could avoid recurring to laser therapy so as to correct retinal tension, as it happened to me in the early nineties. In that period I used to study architecture and drawing by hand meant a great stress to my eyes, almost causing holes and retinal detachment.
Due to the position in front of the screen of the computer and to the lack of physical exercise deriving by a too intense use of the Internet (to every advance in connection speed more hours of it) I developed two herniated discs in the cervical region (detected in 2005) and two herniated discs in the lumbar region (detected in 2008). The first two provoke numbness and a certain diminution of strength in my thumbs, while the two last ones determine sciatica pains in my right leg, which is variable but aggravated by the position used to navigate the Internet for long hours. So it hurts more in the weekdays. There was anyway a family history of hernias.
The numbness of the thumbs, a disorder deriving from the compression of the spinal nerves in my neck, is aggravated by the use of portable devices from which to access the web, where the thumbs are the main fingers to be used, so that muscular fatigue is a secondary factor of stress. iPhones should carry some disclaimers about that.
On the other hand the information provided by the Internet and then stored in lightweight portable devices such as pen drives of external hard-disks save me from carrying heavy books around, therefore protecting my back. I can also shop online waiting for the goods to be delivered at my door. These were the main changes, registered so far.
The Internet also offers me with an instant and fast set of information about the pathologies that I know I suffer from and the new symptoms that arise suddenly, thus sustaining a mild form of hypochondria. It seems ironical that due to the easiness of this information, rather than thinking more of the world outside me, I tend to think more about myself and how I feel and what this could mean (not always, but quite frequently): I surf the website of some obscure osteopath in Nebraska to then come back at my petty little problems.
So I would say that at least Internet made me a more informed patient. But I am not sure if that knowledge is really valuable: the paediatrician of my daughters forbid me to check online about the illnesses they might be suffering, as my inclination to self-learning tends not to regard only myself but all my family and as the grim perspective that I tend to imagine can be very wrong. I wonder if the difficulty of getting information before the Internet was not somehow protecting us from a new diffused expertise as the one of Bouvard and Pecuchet.
We are a collective of three people who began thinking together, almost twenty years ago, before any one of us ever touched a computer, or had logged on to the Internet.
In those dark days of disconnect, in the early years of the final decade of the last century in Delhi, we plugged into each other's nervous systems by passing a book from one hand to another, by writing in each other's notebooks. Connectedness meant conversation. A great deal of conversation. We became each other's databases and servers, leaning on each other's memories, multiplying, amplifying and anchoring the things we could imagine by sharing our dreams, our speculations and our curiosities.
At the simplest level, the Internet expanded our already capacious, triangulated nervous system to touch the nerves and synapses of a changing and chaotic world. It transformed our collective capacity to forage for the nourishment of our imaginations and our curiosities. The libraries and archives that we had only dreamt of were now literally at our fingertips. The Internet brought with it the exhilaration and the abundance of a frontier-less commons along with the fractious and debilitating intensity of de-personalized disputes in electronic discussion lists. It demonstrated the possibilities of extraordinary feats of electronic generosity and altruism when people shared enormous quantities of information on peer-to-peer network and at the same time it provided early exposure to and warnings about the relentless narcissism of vanity blogging. It changed the ways in which the world became present to us and the ways in which we became present to the world, forever.
The Internet expands the horizon of every utterance or expressive act to a potentially planetary level. This makes it impossible to imagine a purely local context or public for anything that anyone creates today. It also de-centres the idea of the global from any privileged location. No place is any more or less the centre of the world than any other anymore. As people who once sensed that they inhabited the intellectual margins of the contemporary world simply because of the nature of geo-political arrangements, we know that nothing can be quite as debilitating as the constant production of proof of one's significance. The Internet has changed this one fact comprehensively. The significance, worth or import of one's statements is no longer automatically tied to the physical facts of one's location along a still unequal geo-political map.
While this does not mean that as artists, intellectuals or creative practitioners we stop considering or attending to our anchorage in specific co-ordinates of actual physical locations, what it does mean is that we understand that the concrete fact of our physical place in the world is striated by the location's transmitting and receiving capacities, which turns everything we choose to create into either a weak or a strong signal. We are aware that these signals go out, not just to those we know and to those who know us, but to the rest of the world, through possibly endless relays and loops.
This changes our understanding of the public for our work. We cannot view our public any longer as being arrayed along familiar and predictable lines. The public for our work, for any work that positions itself anywhere vis-a-vis the global digital commons is now a set of concentric and overlapping circles, arranged along the ripples produced by pebbles thrown into the fluid mass of the Internet. Artists have to think differently about their work in the time of the Internet because artistic work resonates differently, and at different amplitudes. More often than not, we are talking to strangers on intimate terms, even when we are not aware of the actual instances of communication.
This process also has its mirror. We are also listening to strangers all the time. Nothing that takes place anywhere in the world and is communicated on the Internet is at a remove any longer. Just as everyone on the Internet is a potential recipient and transmitter of our signals, we too are stations for the reception and relay of other people's messages. This constancy of connection to the nervous systems of billions of others comes with its own consequences.
No one can be immune to the storms that shake the world today. What happens down our streets becomes as present in our lives as what happens down our modems. This makes us present in vital and existential ways to what might be happening at great distance, but it also brings with it the possibility of a disconnect with what is happening around us, or near us, if they happen not to be online.
This is especially true of things and people that drop out, or are forced to drop out of the network, or are in any way compelled not to be present online. This foreshortening (and occasionally magnification) of distances and compression of time compels us to think in a more nuanced way about attention. Attention is no longer a simple function of things that are available for the regard of our senses. With everything that comes to our attention we have to now ask - 'what obstacles did it have to cross to traverse the threshold of our considerations' - and while asking this we have to understand that obstacles to attention are no longer a function of distance.
The Internet also alters our perception of duration. Sometimes, when working on an obstinately analog process such as the actual fabrication of an object, the internalized shadow of fleeting Internet time in our consciousness makes us perceive how the inevitable delays inherent in the fashioning of things (in all their messy 'thingness') ground us into appreciating the rhythms of the real world. In this way, the Internet's pervasive co-presence with real world processes, ends up reminding us of the fact that our experience of duration is now a layered thing. We now have more than one clock, running in more than one direction, at more than one speeds.
The simultaneous availability of different registers of time made manifest by the Internet also creates a continuous archive of our online presences and inscriptions. A message is archived as soon as it is sent. The everyday generation of an internal archive of our work, and the public archive of our utterances (on online discussion lists and on facebook) mean that nothing (not even a throwaway observation) is a throwaway observation anymore. We are all accountable to, and for, the things we have written in emails or posted on online fora. We are yet to get a full sense of what this actually implies in the longer term. The automatic generation of a chronicle and a history colours the destiny of all statements. Nothing can be consigned to amnesia, even though it may appear to be insignificant. Conversely, no matter how important a statement may have appeared when it was first uttered, its significance is compromised by the fact that it is ultimately filed away as just another datum, a pebble, in a growing mountain range.
Whosoever maintains an archive of their practice online is aware of the fact that they alter the terms of their visibility. Earlier, one assumed invisibility to be the default mode of life and practice. Today, visibility is the default mode, and one has to make a special effort to withhold any aspect of one's practice from visibility. This changes the way we think about the relationship between the private memory and public presence of a practice. It is not a matter of whether this leads to a loss of privacy or an erosion of spaces for intimacy, it is just that issues such as privacy, intimacy, publicity, inclusion and seclusion are now inflected very differently.
Finally, the Internet changes the way we think about information. The fact that we do not know something that exists in the extant expansive commons of human knowledge can no longer intimidate us into reticence. If we do not know something, someone else does, and there are enough ways around the commons of the Internet that enable us to get to sources of the known. The unknown is no longer that which is unavailable, because whatever is present is available on the network and so can be known, at least nominally if not substantively. A bearer of knowledge is no longer armed with secret weapons. We have always been auto-didacts, and knowing that we can touch what we do not yet know and make it our own, makes working with knowledge immensely playful and pleasurable. Sometimes, a surprise is only a click away.
ON THE COVER
In 1953, when the internet was not even a technological twinkle in the eye, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into two categories: the hedgehog and the fox: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
Hedgehog writers, argued Berlin, see the world through the prism of a single overriding idea, whereas foxes dart hither and thither, gathering inspiration from the widest variety of experiences and sources. Marx, Nietzsche and Plato were hedgehogs; Aristotle, Shakespeare and Berlin himself were foxes.
Today, feasting on the anarchic, ubiquitous, limitless and uncontrolled information cornucopia that is the web, we are all foxes. We browse and scavenge thoughts and influences, picking up what we want, discarding the rest, collecting, linking, hunting and gathering our information, social life and entertainment. The new Apple iPad is merely the latest step in the fusion of the human mind and the internet. This way of thinking is a direct threat to ideology. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate expression of hedgehog-thinking is totalitarian and fundamentalist, which explains why the regimes in China and Iran are so terrified of the internet. The hedgehogs rightly fear the foxes.
Edge (www.edge.org), a website dedicated to ideas and technology, recently asked scores of philosophers, scientists and scholars a simple but fundamental question: "How is the internet changing the way you think?" The responses were astonishingly varied, yet most agreed that the web had profoundly affected the way we gather our thoughts, if not the way we deploy that information.
Edge is an organization of deep, visionary thinkers on science and culture. Each year the group poses a question, this year collecting 168 essay responses to the question, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?"
In answer, academics, scientists and philosophers responded with musings on the Internet enabling telecommunication, or functioning as a sort of prosthesis, or robbing us of our old, linear" mode of thinking. Actor Alan Alda described the Web as "speed plus mobs." Responses alternate between the quirky and the profound ("In this future, knowledge will be fully outside the individual, focus will be fully inside, and everybody's selves will truly be spread everywhere.")
Since it takes a while to read the entire collection--and the Atlantic Wire should know, as we tried--here are some of the more piquant answers. Visit the Edge website for the full experience. For a smart, funny answer in video form, see here.
a cura di Clara Caverzasio Tanzi e Gaetano Prisciantelli
Science THEORY AND PRACTICE
"Between Possible and Imaginary" is the theme of the Science Festival which opens in Rome next week. The American popularizer John Brockman collected the forecasts of the greatest living minds about ideas that will change everything during their lifetime. From DNA to education, the book illustrates surprising and provocative discoveries from the world that await us.
On that Friday in January 2010 published by the American literary agent John Brockman, the question of 2010: How the Internet and networked computers to change the way we think? At the core of the debate lies the question asked by science historian George Dyson: "Is the price of machines that think, people who will not do?"
Brockman, who counts some of the most important scientists of our time as his authors, this vision orbits on Edge.org with one hundred twenty-one answers. We print the most interesting in the features section. Unlike Germany, where the debate about the information age is still focused on palaver about media, Edge debates the target in depth.
Who is planning what, where, by what means?
If one takes the digital revolution seriously , one must ask to what degree the communication of the industrialized twenty-first century will change our thinking. The computer pioneer Daniel Hillis describes how even such a simple procedure such as the programming of the time on networked computers is now barely understood by many programmers. And he concludes, with regard to climate change and financial crisis: "Our machines are embodiments of our reason, and we entrust them with a large number of our decisions. In this process we have created a world that is beyond our understanding. Experts no longer talk about data, but about what computers predict with the data."
Neurobiological effects of constant multitasking lead, as Nicholas Carr writes about outsourcing, for ever-increasing dependence on computers. What if not only decisions about loans and budgets were subject to the use of computers, but also those regarding resumes? After the recent incidents in America, profiling is an even more important means of web-based "pre-crime" analysis: Who is planning what, where, by what means? But profiling what works with terrorists can also be applied to in enterprises and workplaces as Cataphora.com has shown.
Been overtaken by reality
Some of those authors presented by Brockman do not find that the Net has changed their thinking. Others see it differently. Nobody, not even the skeptics, long to return to a time before the Internet. But many make it clear that what we experience as a user is in fact only a "surfing", a movement on the surface. The German Internet debate is stuck in the nineties. Brockman's question this year sets the chord for questions that take us beyond this set of attitudes.
PUBLICO (LISBON) — WEEKEND MAGAZINE — COVER STORY
Do you think the Internet has altered you mind at the neuronal, cognitive, processing, emotional levels? Yes, no, maybe, reply philosophers, scientists, writers, journalists to the Edge annual question 2010, in dozens of texts that are published online today
In the summer of 2008, American writer Nicholas Carr published in the Atlantic Monthly an article under the title Is Google making us stupid?: What the Internet is doing to our brains, in which highly criticized the Internet’s effects on our intellectual capabilities. The article had a high impact, both in the media and the blogosphere.
Edge.org – the intellectual online salon – has now expanded and deepened the debate through its traditional annual challenge to dozens of the world’s leading thinkers of science, technology, thought, arts, journalism. The 2010 question is: "How is the Internet changing the way you think?"
They reply that the Internet has made them (us) smarter, shallower, faster, less attentive, more accelerated, less creative, more tactile, less visual, more altruistic, less arrogant. That it has dramatically expanded our memory but at the same time made us the hostages of the present tense. The global web is compared to an ecosystem, a collective brain, a universal memory, a global conscience, a total map of geography and history.
One thing is certain: be they fans or critics, they all use it and they all admit that the Internet leaves no one untouched. No one can remain impervious to things such a Wikipedia or Google, no one can resist the attraction of instant, global, communication and knowledge.
More than 120 scientists, physicians, engineers, authors, artists, journalists met the challenge. Here, we present the gist some of their answers, including Nicholas Carr’s, who is also part of this online think tank founded by New-York literary agent John Brockman. If you have more time and think your attention span is up to it, we recommend you enjoy the whole scope of their length and diversity by visiting edge.org.
The online magazine Edge asked scientists, writers and artists, such as the Internet has changed their thinking. The answers are remarkable. ...
Two billion people worldwide use the Internet. The debates about the new technology, however, are not the same everywhere. In Germany, for example, the discourse is limited on the subject of the net, as it is especially focused on media and copyright debates.
Shortened attention span. Less interest in reflection and introspection. Inability to engage in in-depth thought. Fragmented, distracted thinking.
The ways the Internet supposedly affects thought are as apocalyptic as they are speculative, since all the above are supported by anecdote, not empirical data. So it is refreshing to hear how 109 philosophers, neurobiologists, and other scholars answered, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" That is the "annual question" at the online salon edge.org, where every year science impresario, author, and literary agent John Brockman poses a puzzler for his flock of scientists and other thinkers. ...
Articles of Note: John Brockman’s Edge question for 2010 asks over a hundred intellectuals, "Is the Internet changing the way you think?"... more»
BY CARLO WOLFF
Such ignorance, along with studied avoidance of physics and math since college, didn’t lessen my enjoyment of This Will Change Everything, a provocative, demanding clutch of essays covering everything from gene splicing to global warming to intelligence, both artificial and human, to immortality.
Edited by John Brockman, a literary agent who founded the Edge Foundation, this is the kind of book into which one can dip at will. Approaching it in a linear fashion might be frustrating because it is so wide-ranging. ...
...Overall, this will appeal primarily to scientists and academicians. But the way Brockman interlaces essays about research on the frontiers of science with ones on artistic vision, education, psychology and economics is sure to buzz any brain.
Stewart Brand, the father of the Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of hippie precursor of hypertext and intermedia (the last term is a Brockman coinage), calls Brockman "one of the great intellectual enzymes of our time" at www.edge.org, Brockman’s Web site. Brockman clearly is an agent provocateur of ideas. Getting the best of them to politicians who can use them to execute positive change is the next step.
CLOUD CULTURE: THE PROMISE AND THE THREAT
...A third threat comes from the new media moguls, the cloud capitalists: Facebook, Apple, Google, Salesforce, Twitter, who will seek to make money by creating and managing clouds for us.
These cloud capitalists are the new powers behind global cultural relations. Their rise has sparked an increasingly vicious civil war with the media old guard led by Rupert Murdoch. This battle between old and new media powers however has distracted attention from the question of how these companies will organise cloud culture on our behalf. Elements of their business models resemble traditional public services: Google's work with a consortium of libraries around the world to digitise books that are out of copyright; ITunes U provides thousands of models of course material for free. However these companies are also businesses: they will want to organise the cloud to make money. By the end of the decade Google will have unprecedented control over literary culture, past, present and future. Leave aside issues of trust, privacy and security, commercial providers of cloud services will have strong incentives to manage their users to maximise revenues and so to discourage them from roaming from one service to another. ...
In 1991, David Gelernter, in his book Mirror Worlds, forecast the Web and laid the groundworlk for what is now becomeing known as Cloud Computing. Ten years ago Edge published David Gelernter's now-famous "The Second Coming: A Manifesto", and followed up in 2009 with "Lord of the Cloud: John Markoff and Clay Shirky talk to David Gelernter'". The Cloud is now front and center in public consciousness. A recent trip to Europe for a related EDGE-DLD event featuring Gelernter and the Feuilleton editors of Germany's two leading national newspapers, showed that the European views on the subject are in many ways quite different than those in the news, the blogs, and twttersphere in the US.
Innovation consultant Charles Leadbeater represents the European view. He was commissioned by Counterpoint, the think tank of the British Council to write a position paper entitled "Cloud Culture: the future of global cultural relations" (publication by the British Council on February 8th). The following Edge essay is adapted from that document.
CHARLES LEADBEATER is a financial journalist turned innovation consultant (for clients ranging from the British government to Microsoft). He is the author of Living on Thin Air, and We-Think.
CLOUD CULTURE: THE PROMISE AND THE THREAT
We are about to get a very different kind of Internet, one replete with huge potential and danger. The spread of cloud computing will allow much greater personalisation and mobility, constant real time connection and easier collaboration. Cloud computing will give rise to a cloud culture. Many of the purveyors of that culture will be cloud capitalists. Our chief challenge will be to make cloud culture and cloud capitalism work, for public as well as private good.
The Net we have grown up with was based around data and software stored quite close to where it is used on personal and mainframe computers. That gave people a sense of ownership and control, exploiting cheap local storage because the bandwidth to download data from remote sources was too expensive and unreliable. The Net was a way for us easily to link these disparate and disconnected machines, with their separate data and software.
In the world of cloud computing our data — emails, documents, pictures, songs — would be stored remotely in a digital cloud hanging above us, always there for us to access from any device we like: computer, television, games console, handheld and mobile, embedded in our kitchen table, bathroom mirror or car dashboard. We should be able to access our data from anywhere, thanks to always on broadband and draw down as much or as little as and when we need. Instead of installing software on our computer we would pay for it only when we needed it.
The most familiar early version of a cloud based service is web mail — Googlemail and hotmail — in which email messages are stored on remote servers which can be accessed from anywhere. Google also provides ways for people to store and then share documents and spreadsheets, so many people can access the same document. Facebook and Twitter are like vast clouds of personal information held in a cloud. Wikipedia is a cloud of self-managed, user generated information. Open source software platforms like Drupal are software clouds which coders can draw down from and add to.
Sharing our programmes and data makes a lot of sense, at least in theory. Pooling storage and software with others should lower the cost. Cloud computing would turn computing power into just another utility that we would access much as we turn on a tap for water.
As computing becomes a utility it will power many more devices, many of them with no user interface, more of them mobile and handheld. The cloud should also encourage collaboration. Different people, using different devices should be able to access the same documents and resources more easily. Work on shared projects will become easier, especially as collaboration software and web video conferencing becomes easier to use. This should allow far more of what Hal Varian, Google's chief economist calls “combinatorial innovation” as developers mash-up data from different sources, as many people are doing already with Google maps. It is more sensible not to think of the cloud but clouds taking different shapes and forms.
The clouds in our skies take many different forms by mixing the same basic ingredients. They are often huge but fleeting, rarely retain their shape for more than a few minutes and often migrate from one form to another in the course of a day. Clouds range from the giant cumulonimbus to the shreds of stratus fractus, the fair weather cloud cumulus fractus to the beautiful whisps of cirrus uncinus. Clouds can be produced en mass by the advance of a depression or as a single form by a local convective eddy. Clouds live at ground level in the form of fog and at very high altitudes, the famous Cloud 9. If we are moving to a future of cloud computing and cloud culture then we should hope for a similar variety in the forms it takes.
The basic classification of clouds into cirrus (fibres), stratus (layers) and cumulus (heaps) was developed by Luke Howard, an amateur meterologist working in London's East End. Howard's classification, first published in 1803, allows for constant mutation as one form of cloud becomes another: thus cirrus clouds that are becoming stratus clouds are cirrostratus. That has since become a tenfold basic classification from 0 for cirrus to 9 for cumulonimbus, the highest climbing cloud. Within this scheme there are 52 main varieties of clouds, from low cumulus clouds — cumuluhumilis through to high altitude cirroculumolacunosus.
We may well need something as flexible and expansive to distinguish the many varieties of digital clouds that could emerge in the decades to come.
Digital clouds will be either commercial, social or public. Commercial clouds are either enabled or managed and supported by a commercial provider, who might also mine data from the cloud and provide tools for people to contribute. Flickr's clouds of photographs would probably fit into the commercial cloud sector. Google and Amazon are offering commercial cloud services. The World Digital Library, on the other hand, which is being created by government funded libraries around the world, is prime example of a public cloud. Wikipedia is a social cloud: it has mainly been created through voluntary effort.
Clouds will be either open or closed. Bechtel's cloud is a private, closed and commercial cloud for the use of its employees. Twitter is nominally a commercial cloud but it is very open to join. Wikipedia is both social and open. The cloud of online activity around the Muslim Brotherhood is social but closed. Governments are creating both open and closed clouds. The open data movement is forcing governments to be more open with data and to allow social entrepreneurs and citizens to reuse it. Meanwhile governments are also creating large closed clouds of data for intelligence and security purposes.
Some clouds will be fairly permanent while others are more transitory and emergent. Science, for example, is providing models for what might happen to the rest of cloud culture. Some clouds of scientific data and global collaboration are quite institutionalised and permanent, for example, around the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. Other clouds are more fleeting and passing. Viral marketing campaigns only succeed if they allow people to spread content very easily and openly and when successful create huge balloons of media activity. These clouds are already remaking our culture.
Culture is our ever-evolving store of images, texts and ideas through which we make sense and add meaning to our world. Our culture, in the broadest sense, helps us to frame and shape our identity, to say who we are, where and when we come from. Culture is not something we choose but find ourselves belonging to; it shapes what matters to us, and how we see the world. A culture that is alive is never entirely closed. As culture is vital to what matters to us and explaining who we are, so giving other people access to what we count as our culture is a vital way for us to understand one another, what we share and what makes us special.
The growth of the digital cloud will change culture, creativity and the relationship between them. Digital stores of data in the cloud, ubiquitous broadband, new search technologies, access through multiple devices — should make more culture, more available than ever before to more people. We are also living through a massive proliferation of expressive capacity to add to and remix culture with cheaper, more powerful tools for making music and films, taking and showing images, drawing up designs and games. That is why we are in the midst of a series of cultural eruptions that are throwing up vast clouds of new Pro-Am culture. For some these clouds are beautiful and inspiring. Others believe cloud culture will drop the equivalent of acid rain. Sometimes there will be mushroom clouds, huge explosions of activity, around crises like Iran and Haiti.
This is the cloud culture equation. New stores of digital cultural artefacts will become more accessible in more ways to more people that ever. More people will be able to explore these digital stores to find things of value to them. That could set in train a process of akin to the collaborative creativity that drives open source software. The open source software movement's rallying cry is: “many eyes make bugs shallow.” The more people that test out a programme the quicker the bugs will be found. The cultural equivalent is that the more eyes make culture richer. The more people that see a collection of content, from more vantage points, the more likely they are to find value in it, probably value that a small team of professional curators may have missed.
We will be equipped with better tools to allow us to make our own contribution, to post our photograph or composition. We will be able to mash-up, remix, amend and adapt existing content, even if only in small ways. As we collaborate with others who are also interested the same issues so this will throw up clouds of cultural activity as people debate, compare and refine what they share. These clouds will often have at their core high quality professionally produced content. But that will also attract to it skilled and dedicated amateurs as well as general users.
That equation will produce in the decade to come a vast cultural eruption — a mushroom cloud of culture.
The Cloud Culture Equation
More cultural heritage stored in digital form.
Cloud computing will be like a giant machine for making clouds of culture.
This could give us a way to connect with one another across different cultures. Disparate and particular interests could be brought together and connected in new ways. This will not be a new common global culture but at least common reference points and shared platforms for diverse cultural expression.
The dominant story of modern cultural relations is that ideas have spread around the world from Europe and the US, especially through industrial era media, which requires heavy capital investment for production and distribution. Whether in film, architecture or literature, the modern international style was largely an extension of the Western style, sometimes imposing itself upon and often inserting itself into foreign contexts. Industrial era media — film is a classic case — is still dominated by small centres of production in the West such as Hollywood. Half the 185 countries in the United Nations have never made a feature length film.
This has lead many critics to allege that Western culture carried by Western media is eradicating distinctive national and local cultures and languages. Jeremy Tunstall's The Media Are American captured this mood along with descriptions of the process as Dallasifcation, Coca colonisation and McDisneyfication. Seven of the world's top ten media companies are American, among them Walt Disney, Viacom, News Corporation and Time Warner. There are other important sources of film and television: Bollywood makes more films than Hollywood, the Latin American telenovela has a global following. Yet the US and some parts of Europe dominate traditional, industrial era media.
In 2002 UNESCO estimated rich countries exported $45bn worth of cultural goods and services, compared with $329m from the poorest countries. Three quarters of the world music industry worth $31bn at the start of the decade was accounted for by the US and Europe. Just 1% of recorded music came from Africa.
This West's cultural dominance has spawned its own response, a defence of particular, distinctive cultures, particularly those at risk, whether fast disappearing languages being displaced by the many varieties of English, religious faiths threatened by Western individualism or local producers being run out of business by global brands. Cultural relations can become cultural conflict, whether in Thomas Friedman's Lexus and the Olive Tree, Benjamin Barber's McWorld vs Jihad or Samuel Huntingdon's Clash of Civilisations . As Edward Said argued in Culture and Imperialism, the yearning to return to distinctive cultural roots can quickly become a breeding ground for fundamentalism. Culture becomes a protective enclosure for endangered identities rather than something that unfolds and opens out. Meic Pearse's Why The Rest Hate the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage argued the spread of Western culture, especially in the way it threatened traditional moralities and authority, would license violent reaction and resuscitate traditional cultures. In much of the world young consumers want western brands. In some parts of the world the new cool is to reject them in favour of tradition.
The truth is few people are one thing and one thing only. Our cultures are increasingly entangled, by their shared histories and the reality of international travel, trade and communications. Writers like Ulrich Beck in Cosmopolitan Vision and G. Pascal Zachary, The Global Me: The New Cosmopolitans take this as their starting point to celebrate the rich and poor migrants of this liquid world, living in diasporas, circulating from a home in one country to work in another. Beck describes a global culture of mobility, constant and eclectic consumption, openness to others and ceaseless connections between cultures. Marwan Kraidy in Hybridity or the Cultural Logic of Globalisation and Jan Nederveen Pieterse in Globalisation and Culture: Global Melange , focus on a culture shaped by people with hyphenated identities — Black-British, Chinese-American, what economic geographer Annalee Saxenian calls the new argonauts in her book of that title, people who shuttle from Bangalore to Silicon Valley, between Pune and Dubai.
These stories — Western domination; resistance to it; celebration of difference and the culture of modern nomads and hybrids — have shaped our view of the possibilities and the power embedded in international cultural relations. Cloud culture offers to create another story, one which allows for much greater diversity of cultural expression from many more sources, as technology costs fall, but which also allows for much more diffuse reciprocity and connection, based on the shared resources of the cloud. Cloud culture is a recipe for more cultural difference to be expressed, on an equal footing and for more connections to be made to find points of shared interest. The task for cultural relations in this context is to allow as many people as possible to contribute and connect, translate and blend culture.
Cloud culture should be a rare and delicate mix: more decentralised, plural and collaborative; less hierarchical, proprietary and money driven; the boundaries between amateur and professional, consumer and producer, grassroots and mainstream are breached, if not erased. Open source software communities and collaborative science, based on shared data sources and open access journals, point the way for what will be possible in other areas.
Yet for all its promise that is no more than a possibility. Indeed the emergence of this new communication based power, vested in forms of mass collaboration in civil society, is already provoking a fierce struggle, as governments and companies, try to wrest control over the cloud away from citizens.
Cyberspace should help civil society organisations and campaigns. The costs of political organisation are falling. Yet as fast as this civic space is opening up, authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly adept and sophisticated in closing it down. The idea that authoritarian governments will always be so top heavy that they will be outwitted by the fast moving throng on the web is mistaken. As Evgeny Morozov, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, shows, many regimes are eschewing direct confrontation in favour of more, subtle, pernicious and pervasive forms of cloud management.
The Thai authorities, for example, have used crowdsourcing to uncover the addresses of websites making comments critical of the Royal family, which are gathered in a site called ProtectTheKing.net. In Georgia the authorities have helped to mobilise “denial of service” attacks on blogging platforms to force them to evict bloggers critical of the government. The most critical bloggers have been turned into refugees unable to find a home in cyberspace. In China up to 50,000 people are members of the so-called 50cent party: the sum they are paid for noting a critical comment on a web site or making a favourable comment in support of the government.
Even when cloud culture does seem to threaten authoritarian rule it is easy to overestimate its power. A classic example is the role played by Twitter in the protests in Iran in June 2009 following the country's disputed elections. Twitter became one of the ways that web users in Iran distributed news of protests and crackdowns, as Mir Hossein Mousavi supporters took to the streets to protest against the victory awarded to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Twitter provided a direct and compelling connection with events in Iran as they unfolded. Original tweets from Iran were passed on — re-tweeted — by other Twitter users in the west, often people with large followings, amplifying their impact. The scale and intensity of the activity led some web commentators to dub it “the Twitter revolution.” Between June 7th and June 26th there were 2,024,166 tweets about the Iranian election. For a few days it seemed as if Iran would provide conclusive proof of the web's power to remake the world. As the dust settled however the complex reality emerged more clearly. A study of 79,000 tweets about the protests by Mike Edwards, a social network researcher at the Parsons New School for Design, found that a third were re-tweets, people passing on an original posting. The majority of Mousavi supporters are young and urban, the main demographic of Twitter users. About 93% of Iranian Twitter users are based in Tehran. Most importantly the numbers do not add up. According to Sysomos, which analyses social media activity, there was a surge in Twitter accounts in Iran from 8,654 in May to 19,235 in June 2009. Part of this surge, however, might have been due to Twitter users outside Iran registering in the country to confuse the authorities. Yet even the higher figure of 19,235 is only equivalent to 0.027% of Iran's population (70,049,262 according to the 2006 census.) A survey carried out by the The Centre for Public Opinion and the New American Foundation found a third of Iranians have internet access. That would mean Twitter users at the time of the revolution made up 0.082% of Internet users in Iran.
Clouds come and go, they balloon up into the sky and then they disperse. That is why cloud culture can be both mesmerising and bewildering.
Not only do these authoritarian regimes often use technology developed in the West to monitor and disrupt online dissent, they also use Western government policies to justify their actions. Recent moves in Australia and the UK to put more onus on internet service providers to control how the web is used will have been welcomed by authoritarian regimes keen to justify their own controls.
Keeping the cloud open for cultural exchange within means we should focus on:
Another threat to cloud culture comes from copyright owners who see the internet not as a technology of cultural freedom but of destruction: it is destroying their business models by making it easier to copy content for free. They argue this will undermine the creation of high quality commercial cultural products — whether books, films, television. Far from opening up a cultural cornucopia, quality culture will be blighted by a mass of low grade, user generated content. Critics such as Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr argue that the web is already drenching us in the cultural equivalent of acid rain — poor quality, short attention span, amateur culture — will displace crafted, professional culture, which requires patience and application.
To prevent that destruction, traditional publishers and content owners, argue they need increased control over how their content is used, reaching deep down into how people listen to, watch and share culture. As content can so easily be copied and shared, complete control over a single piece of content — like a song or a book chapter — would be impossible without control over all the links made by someone sharing it. The promise of the open, collaborative web could eventually license equally pervasive forms of control in the name of established commercial cultural industries threatened by the web. Not surprisingly content owners are pressing for expanded protections, longer copyright terms and harsher punishments for illegal downloading. All of this could limit the spread, scale and creativity of open cloud culture. Our cultural clouds will be rendered sterile and inert.
Already much of our culture that could be in the open cloud is kept out of it by copyright. According to the British Film Institute, for example, thousands of British films are under copyright but no longer commercially available. The copyright holders do not think they will be able to make money from them but nor are the films in the public domain, free to be used and reused. Clearing the rights to use these orphaned works is still very hard. A tragically high proportion of our culture lies in this cultural coma, including perhaps 95% of commercially published books.
If content in the cloud is entangled in copyright and other forms of intellectual property then it will become increasingly difficult to mingle, match and collaborate. The creative potential of the web, to create new mixes, will be vastly reduced. To promote more open cultural relations on the web we should focus on:
A third threat comes from the new media moguls, the cloud capitalists: Facebook, Apple, Google, Salesforce, Twitter, who will seek to make money by creating and managing clouds for us.
These cloud capitalists are the new powers behind global cultural relations. Their rise has sparked an increasingly vicious civil war with the media old guard led by Rupert Murdoch. This battle between old and new media powers however has distracted attention from the question of how these companies will organise cloud culture on our behalf. Elements of their business models resemble traditional public services: Google's work with a consortium of libraries around the world to digitise books that are out of copyright; ITunes U provides thousands of models of course material for free. However these companies are also businesses: they will want to organise the cloud to make money. By the end of the decade Google will have unprecedented control over literary culture, past, present and future. Leave aside issues of trust, privacy and security, commercial providers of cloud services will have strong incentives to manage their users to maximise revenues and so to discourage them from roaming from one service to another.
We will find our choices, social connection and searches being shaped by the clumsy algorithms these companies come up with: Facebook recently recommended I reconnect with my wife because we seemed to have lost touch; Amazon helpfully suggested I buy a copy of my own book. I love my iPhone but I am not completely convinced I want Apple to become my conduit to the web and so to the rest of the world and its culture. The coming issue then is to counter the threat of corporate control of the cloud. To do that we need to focus on:
Traditional media companies are trying to stall and resist the emergence of cloud culture. New media companies are engaged in a battle with one another over who will control which bits of the cloud. Governments are worried that the cloud will just making governing harder. What is likely to get lost in all of this are the interests of citizens, consumers and cultural creators.
We are living at a time of huge cultural possibility. We have access to untold stores of culture in digital form. We have more tools to allow us to search, modify and amend the ingredients of these stores and to create our own cultural products. We are more able than ever to find outlets for our cultural creativity and to connect with people who share our interests, our culture.
In the 20th century cultural experience was mainly associated with watching, listening and reading. The dominant mass culture — television — is engaging without being too demanding. It offers stimulation while people are at rest. As a result it is often wonderful but oddly hollow. The traditional alternative to this mass culture of enjoyable watching was the more demanding and educative high culture of intellectual inspiration and challenge. But now another alternative is emerging, a mass culture which is more participative and collaborative, which is about searching, doing, sharing, making, modifying. It is stimulating because it people become active participants, makers of culture not simply receivers.
The optimists see in this shift great possibility, a global platform for cultural expression and exchange, which will be more open and connected, more diverse and plural. The optimists see vast new clouds of cultural expression mushrooming across the landscape, in a variety of wonderful shapes and sizes. The sceptics warn that these clouds are more likely to produce the cultural equivalent of acid rain or worse heavy storms. They worry we are heading for a culture of constant interference, noise and distraction, in which the more music and writing, photos and films there are, the more cultural chaos and social disorder there will be. It will be harder and harder, they warn, to cull any lasting sense of meaning from the vast fog of meaningless cultural mediocrity about to engulf us.
This essay has sought to map out a position that is both hopeful but realistic. The web has huge and still unfolding potential to allow for more cultural self-expression and connection. Our interests as citizens and consumers will be best served by their being a rich variety of cultural clouds: public and private, social and voluntary, global and very local, cosmopolitan and nationalist. We should seek the maximum possible diversity of clouds rather than thinking simply of the cloud. It is inevitable that some of cloud culture will not be benign and may well be predatory and even vicious.
However there is still untold potential for us to enrich our own cultures, understand one another's cultures more fully and to enjoy greater freedom of cultural expression. That possibility, a new kind of global cultural commons, will only be kept open if we resist the threats to it from governments and companies, new and old, seeking to control cloud culture for their own ends. The new kinds of cultural relations the web seems to offer will only come about through thousands of struggles as citizens try to hold onto the possibility that at last it could be our culture not someone else's.
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