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Mmm technology, not merely man-made, but made of men!

February 24th, 2007
Old Lady Who Swallowed A FlyI couldn’t come up with a title for this post while writing it, but kept thinking of that great line from David Nobel’s America by Design:

For technology is not simply a driving force in human history, it is something in itself human; it is not merely man-made, but made of men.” (1977, xxi-xxii

I’m indebted to John Labovitz for his comments on my wiki lament and for pointers to two articles about efforts to build a better wiki. The first, “Meet the uber-wiki”, is about WikiProfessionial’s WikiProteins, a wiki with structured data, automatic updates of related pages and alerts. The second is a piece by Tim O’Reilly about a recent NSF award to the University of Colorado to research and create a “New Generation Wiki” that goes “beyond existing wikis.” (It’s gotta be vaporware when one of the specifications is “utilize new paradigms.” As if simply “using” them weren’t enough. “Use”, “utilize,” do you know the difference?)

Even though these projects seem to respond to many of the concerns I had with wikis as groupware, for me they call to mind the children’s song about the old lady who swallowed a fly. That is, in terms of the ailment I described as wiki-mania, these cures may simply be more of the disease. The problems to which I point–of creating meaningful order collectively–are not, I think, chiefly problems of software but of socialization. From that standpoint, the fact that wikiware is the object on which the talk centers is itself indicative of the problem, namely, the tendency to see collaborative representation and storage of knowledge primarily in technical terms. There’s a saying that any problem in computer science can be solved by another layer of indirection, but this problem is simply bumped along to each new layer. Users are part of the system, you always get to them in the end, and there’s no system so robust it can’t be thwarted by ignorant armies, or subverted by clever ones. Right about now is when the techno-faithful (friends and colleagues) usually protest “but you shouldn’t have to be an expert” and I counter, “Yes, silly, but there’s a whole spectrum out there, why dash to an extreme?” Because “plug-and-play” isn’t the only alternative to expertise, no matter how those “Exegesis for Dummies” books would have it.

Focus on perfecting the wiki will not get at the concerns I was raising which were more along the lines of acknowledging that inculcating users in habits of mind and protocols is vital to any wiki project. Of course, to take that on sincerely requires swimming upstream against a strong cultural current that views meaningful social order as something that arises automagically from myriad individual transactions. Evidence of this current, as well as the social relations within which wikis work, can be found in this blog about Wikipedia edit-wars (start at the bottom).

Here, Parker Peters, a (former?) Wikipedia admin, expounds with great detail and vigor on the tactics by which, as he sees it, “Wikipedia turns ‘consensus’ into ‘groupthink’.” What interests me most is his notion that legitimate consensus is threatened the instant individuals act in concert. It comes forth most clearly in the post Lesson #3: Organize, Organize, Organize where he writes: “First of all, the idea of “consensus” is thrown under the bus as soon as an organized group shows up trying to push their own point of view.”

I understand where Peters is coming from and feel his frustration because, whatever the particulars in contention, I wouldn’t suppose that an artifact such as Wikipedia could be anything other than a social construct (with all that that implies). It’s a point Stephen Colbert gets across more pointedly and mirthfully in Wikiality, The Truthiness Encyclopedia

One of my newbie complaints of Wikipedia was, in fact, that articles didn’t include anything about who’d authored them, so that I might understand on what bases they advanced their claims to knowledge? But the aspiration to “neutral point of view” is one Peters shares with Wikipedia. His critique basically calls project admins to task for acting against values they purportedly have in common.

It is these values in which I’m interested, or rather, the conceptions of the social they bespeak. How do you distinguish between “groupthink” and shared values you do, or do not, happen to share? What are the bounds of consensus? The conditions of community? In what size and kinds of groups does legitimate discourse take place, that is, what distinguishes a cabal from a public? Though such questions may seem far afield from my complaints of wiki-mania, the connecting thread I’m tracing is a backgrounding (and even eclipsing) of the social work entailed in collecting and representing knowledge of any sort. It’s never merely a matter of technicalities, so when you background all thinking about what records or articles should consist of, or move from a world of pages, to one of feeds, without much attention, let alone discussion, of what habits of mind can be translated or rendered in the new media, you quickly run into all sorts of problems. You can throw all the “New Generation” and “uber” warez you want at these problems, but the trend toward field specific wikis (WikiProfessional) and initiatives like Citizendium which “aims to improve on the Wikipedia model by adding “gentle expert oversight” and requiring contributors to use their real names,” indicate their deeply social and conventional nature.

Where’s the metadata, the anthropology?

February 13th, 2007

Though I joined the lovefest over this video at Savage Minds; shared it with dozens of people last week; and am genuinely grateful it was produced and posted; I have some problems with the representation of Web 2.0 it makes.

Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us

The focus on form and content a bit misleading. Sure, XML, enables you to separate abstract data (i.e. the so-called “content”) from rendition information (form, or better, formatting), but that’s hardly the heart of Web 2.0. Metadata, middleware, an interchange format that makes document processing and data processing one and the same, that’s the heart of it. Though the video emphasizes that XML facilitates automatic data exchange, and talks about tagging as teaching the machine, metadata is never mentioned by name.

Mostly, I find the video problematic as a work of cultural anthropology because it so readily serves up the party line of the Web 2.0 initiative in the native tongue of marketing: “Digital text can do better,” XML leaves us “free from formatting constraints,” no need to “know complicated code,” “no longer just linking information, Web 2.0 is linking people.” This last one strikes me as particularly odd coming from an anthropologist. Were people not connected by the Web in 1994? A lot of complicated codes are required to blog and use social networking tools, the fact that most of them aren’t machine-readable shouldn’t keep a social scientist from recognizing them as code.

Liz Losh: a very proper and discreet girl

February 7th, 2007
Photo of Liz Losh at her desk, Harvard 1985Scantily clad, yes, but incredibly well-lettered. In the years since I took this photo, the young woman pictured here in front of her Xerox 820 has become a brilliant scholar of digital rhetoric. Back then she was the only person I knew with a letter-quality printer. Today she is the only person I know who manages to confront the outrages of our time on a daily basis with scholarly rigor, wry humor, and a detached equanimity worthy of an L.A. Punk, or a Unitarian.

I’ve chosen to open my people posts with Liz Losh, not because of her pioneering scholarship and blog, not even because she plugged this blog a couple days ago on, but because of her service to humanity as a close reader.

In my nightmares of information overload, I often wonder, “Is there a close reader in this lifeboat?” Cuz if not, RTFM is just a slogan.

The title of this post is a reference to a bizarre line towards the end of Warren Weaver’s Recent Contributions to The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) [PDF], that Liz once pointed out to me. In arguing for a statistical view of information (i.e. one that “has nothing to do with meaning”), Weaver writes:

“An engineering communication theory is just like a very proper and discreet girl accepting your telegram. She pays no attention to the meaning, whether it be sad, or joyous, or embarrassing. But she must be prepared to deal with all that come to her desk. (27)

Photo of Liz Losh 2003I remember this striking me a a rather odd analogy, but I hadn’t stopped to think about it. Liz had, noting that these discreet girls pop up all over the early literature of information theory, including the classic “As We May Think” in which: “A girl strokes its [the stenotype] keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze.”

Shades of Milton’s daughters here, the female as faithful but uncomprehending conduit of information. What this fantasy of communication always seems to miss is that, however proper and discreet on the job, the girls talk among themselves after hours. When they do, the attention they have been paying becomes quite evident and is surely not without significance for communication in general.

At right, Liz Losh in 2003, dressed for protest.

Jonathan Steuer: online publishing pioneer

February 7th, 2007
image Jonathan SteuerA couple months ago my friend Justin Hall alerted me that the Wikipedia article on Jonathan Steuer had been flagged by an editor concerned that it did not “satisfy the notability guideline… for inclusion on Wikipedia.” Justin, whose own Wikipedia entry stands unquestioned, thought I might want to do something in response. I did, but didn’t know what until now.

I didn’t want to just go in and edit the entry on Wikipedia even though a quick look at the notability guidelines told me they’d be easily satisfied by a gathering of citations and sources, mortared with a little exposition. But I wanted to profile Steuer in the “People” section here before going in to edit his Wikipedia entry.

First, I’m going to demonstrate that, as “the subject of multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject itself and each other,” Steuer certainly meets the definition of “notable” specified in Wikipedia’s guideline.

Jonathan Steuer is, as the Wikipedia article in question says, “a pioneer in online publishing.” In addition to leading the launch teams of a number of early and influential online publishing ventures (such as HotWired, the first ad-supported web magazine, and c|net’s online operations), his article “Defining virtual realities: Dimensions determining telepresence,” is widely cited in academic and industry literature. Originally published in 1992 in the Journal of Communication 42, 73-9, it has been reprinted in Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality (1995), F. Biocca & M. R. Levy (Eds.) and is freely available in PDF format.

image of vividness and interactivity matrix
Steuer’s vividness and interactivity matrix from that article appeared in Wired magazine circa 1995 (I don’t have the exact citation) and has been particularly influential in shaping the discourse by defining virtual reality in terms of human experience, rather than technological hardware, and setting out vividness and interactivity as axial dimensions of that experience. Some years ago I made this simple Flash version of the vividness/interactivity matrix for my own use in teaching.

Steuer’s notablity in diverse arenas as a scholar, architect, and instigator of new media is documented in multiple, independent, non-trivial, published works, some of which I will proceed to list here.

Some books and print articles that discuss Steuer’s role in the web publishing industry that emerged in San Francisco in the 1990s (if you know of others, send ’em in via comments):

  • Net Voice in the City by Yoshihiro Kaneda, ASCII Corporation, Japan, 1997, pp. 88-107
  • Architects of the Web by Robert H. Reid, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997, pp. 289-292, 296-297, 299-300, 302-303.
  • “Webheads on Ramona Street,” by Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone, Issue 722, November 30, 1995.

Some books and print that draw on Steuer’s definitions of virtual reality and telepresence (again, let me know if you have titles to add)

Besides the printed works above, Steuer’s article is taught in university courses (for example, this Ethics class, this English class) and is cited in many online works, a few of which I list here:

OK, space cadets! Prepare to hurtle through the woods

February 5th, 2007

Paul Dourish’s talk last night at UCLA on Rethinking Information and Space in Ubiquitous Computing was an unmitigated joy for this anthropologist who’s been grappling with the anomie of spending most of her time in extra- and interdisciplinary contexts the last several years. A professor of Informatics with appointments in Computer Science and Anthropology, Paul gave a virtuoso performance of the power and logic of this disciplinary combination which bears some similarity to the house blend here at Garret Cool.

In using Australian aboriginal and Western Apache examples to demonstrate other logics of spatiality and, thus, argue that ubiquitous computing presents opportunities to reencounter space as a cultural construct, he deployed Anthropology’s classic thought experiment (denaturalizing the familiar via the detour of familiarizing the strange) to good effect before an audience of approximately 50 people. It seems this strategy, which James Clifford has described as ethnographic surrealism (1983), continues to work its magic outside anthropology, even as so many of the discipline’s other magic tricks have been grounded by critique, or rendered common sensical, the victims of their own success (for example the culture concept, reflexivity).

But let’s put all that disciplinary self-consciousness aside and turn, instead, to some of the really stimulating things Paul said last night about the relationship of spatiality and information. He referenced the Shannon/Weaver metaphor of information (entropy) and then cited someone whose name I’ll have to track down as saying that a walk in the woods presents a person with orders of magnitude more information than any computer interface, yet is experienced as relaxing, rather than stressful. My question is whether it makes sense of conceive of whatever it is that passes between woods and walker as information. Not that this is what Dourish was proposing, but just to address more directly the critique of Weaver’s view of information implicit in his talk.

Is it too simplistic to say that a walk in the woods is relaxing precisely because the sensory input is not organized as information, but rather as meaning, which is capable of the most astonishing feats of compression and polysemia known to humankind? If Weaver’s (to me rather surreal) contention that measuring information as entropy is only natural held true, wouldn’t the sylvan stroll with all that additional noise and signal be overwhelming? Not that one should jump so readily from Shannon’s mathematics to the realm of meaning and effects, but that, as our lecturer indicated, is precisely what Weaver’s metaphor of information worked to do.

A final note, before exiting these woods for the freeway, on the relationship of spatiality and information. One thing I noticed over and over in my internet industry fieldwork, on the part of developers and clients alike, was a zeal to employ spatial metaphors for web site architecture and navigation. For example, structuring parts of a web site as if they were parts of a house, village, or some other physical place, even if this wasn’t always a practical choice. Cross culturally, it’s very common for people to project their cosmologies spatially, building them into houses, towns, and rituals. But the symbolic freight of web sites isn’t inherently spatial and cosmologies are the exact opposite of entropy, they order universes. So, this urge to spatialize often tested my patience.

Thursday Night Dinner (TND), September 1994

February 5th, 2007

For a while, TND was the place to be for San Francisco’s up-and-coming Web workers. Generation X author Douglas Coupland was a regular at the apartment. Rolling Stone chronicled the scene, as did a German documentary crew.
— Paul Boutin, “One More Thursday Night Dinner,” Wired News, May, 02, 2002

Photograph of people at Thursday Night Dinner Sept 29, 1994
Thursday Night Dinners began in 59 Ramona where I lived with Graham (now Francis) Potter and Bagus Haig and moved with me when I moved to 65 Ramona in March 1995.

They started small as you can see from this weathered Polaroid. I can identify everyone except the woman in the middle back, and the two gentlemen at far right. Kudos and a toy surprise to anyone who can supply names, especially for the poor fellow defaced by an errant thumb. The rest, from left to right, are: First Row: Ken Goldberg, Jenny Cool, Jonathan Steuer, ??. Middle Row: Safi Bahcall, Bagus Haig, Anne Francis. Back Row: Ovid Jacob, ??, Graham Potter, ??

Comments on original post (that got munged in Oz crash):

From: Nick Matelli <>
You should really bullet-point these posts. It’ll make them easier to skim while at work.

From: Francis Potter
It’s possible that the woman in the back row is Amber Luttrell, who was a friend of mine at the time. Although it’s really hard to tell. In fact, I could barely even identify myself! What’s the fuzzy thing in the top right corner?’

From: Justin Hall <>
I believe that sitting next to Jonathan Steuer might be one Jonathan Wells, who helped start RES magazine and the RESfest film festivals.

From: Jenny Cool <>
Thanks, Francis, I think you’re right, that is Amber, I remember now that I hear the name again. Thanks, Justin, but how sure are you? Somehow your note sounds tentative. Meanwhile, kudos to you both and, if you email me your postal addys, a toy surprise will be dispatched from my vast collection of dotcom era schwag.