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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 <nick14@gmail.com>
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 <justin@bud.com>
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 <jenny@cool.org>
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.

Surfing the ‘awesome’ tag

January 23rd, 2007

My aggregators have aggregators and other meta matters

image of popurls.comNothing much was happening that Friday, just a couple of friends kicking back on the sectional surfing the ‘awesome’ tag on Flickr. “All the kids are doing it,” said my pal, joshing me for taking notes as she and her work buddy sat glued to a laptop in her new apartment. As usual, fieldwork was doubling for a social life, or perhaps it was the other way around. No matter, that’s the lot of a participant-observer and that night it was a particularly good one.

In addition to tea and sandwiches, I got to witness folksonomies–the method of using collaboratively generated tags to categorize online content–in action in everyday life. Not that I hadn’t tagged and searched tags. I’d just never done it in a social context, alongside watching TV, listening to music, and playing video games while hanging out with friends. But this isn’t really so new, I thought. I mean, a dozen years ago geeks hung out, sprawled in clusters around screens, surfing the net, and there were all sorts of ranking and recommendation sites to play with, like that early classic, “Hot or Not.”

The genre of creating new value from user-input (e.g. letters to the editor) or from metadata, whether stats or votes, is an old one that’s transcended lots of delivery technologies. But I had to admit, folksonomies had something new with user-input as meta data. Lisa Gitelman writes of media working on two levels: (1) as technology that enables communication and (2) as a set of associated cultural protocols and practices. Do genres count as cultural practices that can (sometimes, always) span delivery technologies?

And what distinguishes user-input from statistics generated by use? That is, is there a meaningful difference (emic or etic) between aggregation of user stats (e.g. popurls.com) and tagging (e.g. del.icio.us) as kinds of metadata? Both seem to have uses and entertainment value for the natives, but what’s in it for Joe Social Science? What do you know when you know someone by the trails he leaves?

The popularity of aggregators puts me in mind of filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s admonition:

“it is not sufficient to present fragments of reality on the screen, to represent life by its crumbs. These fragments must be elaborated upon so as to make an integrated whole which is, in turn, the thematic reality.”

(in Jean Rouch, 1975. `The Camera and Man.’ In P. Hockings, ed. Principles of Visual Anthropology. Mouton, The Hague.)

Clearly Vertov, who died in 1954, would have favored directory-driven portals over aggregators, and would have sided with Jaron Lanier in the kerfuffle over Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, but maybe, just maybe, he would have been down with tags.

Bell System Beauty

January 15th, 2007

Bell System Beauty the participant observer’s Bell System Beauty photoset

The Data Structures of Everyday Life (The Limits of Automagical Order)

January 9th, 2007

For about a year now, wikis have peeved me. Not the software, which can certainly be useful, but its heedless deployment as the groupware of choice. In both corporate and academic contexts, wikis are thrown up as project intranets, but in many cases what escapes attention until after the fact is the flatness of the data they tend to collect. What I mean by flatness is posts tend to accumulate as linked lists, heaped up like middens with all the latest material at the top. Of course, wikiware also offers the advantages of searchable text, change logs, and revision histories, but do these eliminate the need for logical (editorial) ordering of uploaded “items?” Or, might it be that these flat, automatic ways of setting relations among posted items, deceive us in to thinking that order arises automagically from the nodes and links of user-generated hypertext?

Image of Wikipedia on a desktop

Wikipedia, which is probably the best known wiki, is a perfect match of task and tool because the simple structure of term and entry is sufficient architecturally for an encyclopedia. But encyclopedias are a special case. And they differ markedly from the various other forms collected knowledge takes in everyday life–from that random-access classic, the book, to online databases and corporate intranets. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, glossaries and the like: these are remarkably uncomplicated instances, structure is axiomatic, everyone already knows how to play, more or less. But even here I’d venture that on projects with any longevity, wiki gnomes edit people’s edits, educate and evangelize through other channels, and chastise rule-breakers in whatever hallways those channels afford. Which is to say, even in the most uncomplicated cases, meaningful order does not turn out to be an emergent property of shared, stored communications.

My gripe against wiki-mania, as I came to call it, first became fully apparent to me last May. At the time I was preparing to teach (TA) an anthropology course with a multimedia production component through USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy. The professor I was assisting had planned to scan a bunch of images of art, ritual and everyday objects, and photographs from her books (it was a course on the changing image of the Pacific in the Western imagination), so I suggested it would make sense to build on that work to create a database to which students could contribute and around which they could do their projects. That way, I thought, we’d all learn together about creating a networked, multimedia resource of this kind, and we’d be able to collect material and build and refine that resource over time. It seemed to me a perfect plan and, looking back, that should have been my first clue. Such illusions are made to be shattered and, quite shortly, mine were.

To create this online, multi-author, course database, I dutifully wrote a paragraph describing what we wanted to do, listed out all the capabilities we’d need, and asked the tech folks in charge of this particular sector of the grid (by way of a managerial intermediary) what type of software they would have me use. Having run a Mac/Tango/Filmaker site in the early 1990s that shared a FileMaker Pro (FMP) database over the Internet with a community of contributing users, the functionality requested seemed reasonable to me and I’d read about several current open source content management packages what sounded like they’d work just fine. The answer that came back, however, was, “You can use a wiki.

I was less than delighted, but that didn’t register until later because I was stunned by the curricular implications of the reply. Of course I could use wikiware to try to mimic the capabilities of a database, but why? That didn’t seem very sensible given that we were trying to teach something about the nature of records and databases, about the benefits and limitations of what Vannevar Bush called “associative trails”:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities…Vannevar Bush, As We May Think, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.

How would we teach them to think about different kinds of data structures? Not as computer science students do, but in terms of the tradeoffs of involved in representing, archiving, appending, and organizing any collection of information? The wiki format doesn’t lend itself well to the model of designing records with fields and coming up with a template for records, then seeding the database with partial records to give students some examples of the kinds of media projects that would fulfill the course objectives. We wanted to create a sort of fill-in-the-blank treasure hunt which could serve students and instructors alike as a resource in which to explore relationships of general structure (i.e. categories, fields, data types, associative trails) and specific entries, thereby discovering in the collected data patterns insensible in more limited scope. Databases are perfect for this sort of thing. Moreover, it would seem to me that understanding something of the various the ways humans have represented and archived knowledge and information through the ages–which today would include knowing the difference between a database and a wiki–would be an essential component of the “multimedia literacy” we were here to teach and which, quite logically, was the subject of our first teaching assistant orientation. Of all the fancy software suites, digital video production equipment, and multimedia labs on tap at this program, there was not one networked database application to be had. It seemed an astonishing oversight to me.

Image of Braudel's bookThis was right about the time I began to find the ubiquitous wiki irksome. I began to have nightmares of Wikipedia as the deceptively attractive harbinger of that age-old (and to me most savage) dream of reason–knowledge without a knower. I began to wonder if we didn’t need some sort of later-day Braudel to make sensible to us the structures and practices of daily life in the recent past. Like back in the late 1980s when most administrative assistants had a working knowledge of some database program like FileMaker.

Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life (1979) is famous as a work of historical imagination which makes palpable the weight, number, and quotidian realities of the pre-industrial world and the capitalist system that emerged within its material order. The book I’m daydreaming about, The Data Structures of Everyday Life would be far less ambitious, but it would give some overview of the history of archives, memory machines, data storage and retrieval (álà J. David Bolter, not in abstraction, but applied in a variety of specific tasks and contexts. “Think about your email,” it might say, “how is that kind of communication structured? Do you know what ‘cc’ and ‘bcc’ stand for?” And in the telling of such prosaic histories would seek to preserve knowledge of the invention of thousands of otherwise invisible wheels, pulleys, levers, and gnome systems, for the retention, retrieval, transmission and use of all sorts of shared bits and nibbles.

Must all that converges rise in my throat?

January 4th, 2007

I am finally getting around to reading Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide because the person who loaned it to me, Liz Losh (brilliant colleague, neighbor, and muse), needs it back. It is not going down easily and were it not for Liz’s gentle insistence, in her writing and on our walks together, that this is a book I cannot ignore, and her pointers to deft reviews, I doubt I’d have the courage or appetite.

What could I possibly find so distasteful about this often sanguine exposition of pop media convergence? Prudence dictates I finish the book before attempting a comprehensive answer, but let me just indulge in another erotema or two to whet my whistle.

Say you’re at Taco Bell and you order a drink and they give you a cup that you’re expected to fill yourself; or say you’re flying home for the holidays and choose your seat and print your boarding pass online; should we think of these as participatory fast food, participatory aviation? Though neither of these scenarios involve the kind of cultural production and consumption with which Jenkins is primarily concerned, they seem to me to be pretty central to the phenomena currently bundled as convergence.

Besides, Jenkins doesn’t limit his purview to pop media fandom and “franchises” (Survivor, American Idol, The Matrix, Start Wars and Harry Potter), but consistently underscores the wider socio-political implications of his subject. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as convinced as anyone about the socially transformative powers of networked media, it’s just that Jenkins seems to have things a bit backwards (or, at least, a different understanding of the history and structural aspects of convergence) when he writes:

Right now, we are mostly using this collective power through our recreational life, but soon we will be deploying those skills for more “serious” purposes.

You don’t have to be Janet Abbate or Steven Levy to know that the serious and the recreational always coincide in new media; and that the development of many of the technologies, genres, forms, and practices Jenkins describes (message boards, emails, web pages), has been driven since elder days by powerful synergies of work and play.

As Fred Turner, who has just published From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006), wryly observes in another paper, the technophilia powering the transformation of communications technologies was “common to both the acidheads of the Trips Festival and the managers of America’s nuclear arsenal” (“Where the Counterculture Met The New Economy”, available on Turner’s site, 495). From my own fieldwork, I can drawn several examples, such as the birth of Apache on hyperreal.org.

Blokus with Nolan Bushnell: it’s all the field now, baby

January 3rd, 2007

I’ve never been big on unified field theories, but have to admit a realization that dawned on me several weeks ago (during the triple As) has held more generally than I’d thought. These days, wherever I go turns out to be the field.

Photo of people playing Blokus Case in point: last night the delightful and inspiring Ellen Steuer took me to a games party at which Nolan Bushnell (pong creator, Atari founder) turned up to play Blokus. Nolan’s the one with his hand on his head. Ellen’s the one who snapped the photo with her trusty Sidekick.

Apparently his latest venture is another entertainment and restaurant venue called uWink, but it wasn’t mentioned. Instead, Ellen quizzed Nolan about the installation he was planning for next year’s Burning Man. Something involving LEDs mounted on revolving cherry picker to project an image of a hovering flying saucer, a scaled-up use of the same light-scan technology found in those clocks that project the time in mid-air, and other geeky gadgets.

I was more fascinated with the mag-lev wind chime installation Mike Steele was designing for next year’s Burn, after going for the first time in 2006; and with Patricia Pizer’s ideas for the class on online game design she begins teaching next week. Mike and Patricia were the hosts of this Almost New Year’s Eve games (and snack!) extravaganza, and it has been a very long time since I’ve met such a gregarious, playful, and accomplished pair. This party they were throwing was a luscious testament to the capacities of human civilization, truly an anthropologists dream: a multi-generational gathering of kin, friends, and neighbors; knit of spatial, professional, and recreational affiliations; at which great swathes of non-codified knowledge were spun out in social space-time-being.

Photo of Blokus board game in endstateTo put it more specifically, I saw several people learning to play Blokus, rules and strategies were discussed. There was a show-and-tell history of caricatures in European art. I overheard an eight-year old girl ask her neighbor if she would enable communication between their Nintendo DS systems. All the while, in the front living room, a man with a guitar–who I later learned was Raph Koster–and many fine singers created a steady stream of pleasant and familiar songs, passing on traditions and practices of which I remain blissfully ignorant. Instead of ethnomusicology, I focused on finding out from Patricia what she had planned for her games class and how it had come to pass that Nolan Bushnell was in her family room playing Blokus with her teenager, their neighbor, and my friend Ellen.
Given the impending new year–which for me holds the task of writing a dissertation start to finish–I found the answers to both lines of questioning valuably portentous. To answer the second one first: Patricia and Mike took their kids to the uWink restaurant in Woodland Hills and Mike was bold enough to strike up a conversation with Nolan. Later, Nolan appears at their party. Mike’s bold gregariousness is precisely what I’ll need to strike up the conversations I need to write a dissertation, I think as I hear Patricia tell of husband’s prowess.

What Patricia said about her class, however, was an even more valuable touchstone for my project. She made a number of really astute points on misconceptions about multiplayer, online gaming. First, she pointed out the tendency to apply the label “multiplayer” only to  MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) when, with the exception of solitaire, most games–from chess to Ms. Pac-Man–have multiplayer capability. I take it as a sign of the social, its primacy and perpetual erasure in the naturalization (one of culture’s favorite methods) of such terms as “multiplayer.”

Patricia builds on it to talk about the kind of projects she hopes her students will undertake this spring. While everyone wants to create the next big MMOG, the budget and resource realities of producing such a game preclude the MMOG as a wise term project choice in most cases. Thus, she plans to point out the diverse variety of thriving game genres and communities online besides MMOGs and encourage students to design games they can feasibly produce in a semester. Here again, the potent and peculiar combination of object lesson and subject lesson all-in-one. Or, to put it in tagline form, it’s all the field now, baby.’

graceful degradation

January 24th, 2005

there’s something to be said for knowing when it’s time to go down, and for going down easily, without a fuss. but i don’t know what it is.

i wasn’t about to get yanked around for playing games in a world where there were truly dangerous people out there, doing truly dangerous and deceitful things. samuel would have to be reasoned with. “and you’re the one who’ll have to do it,” i kept telling myself as we walked through cambridge, got in a taxi, and disembarked at the train station in the morning gloom. but perhaps i was being hasty, maybe it made more sense to get hold of luddie, or professor singh? let somebody else do the talking, so i didn’t have to decide what would be said. samuel hadn’t exactly been grilling me, but he was making it pretty clear that he wanted to hear my story and until he did we’d be riding the rails, in limbo until a suitable landing could be arranged.

we got on the train near the front, walked back to the dining car, and sat down together, side by side, at a table. for a moment it struck me as peculiar that he hadn’t sat across from me, but i waved it off thinking perhaps that’s how it’s done on british trains. samuel leaned over and said, “now are you going to tell me why you were asked to work on sandstone, and why you have G9 clearances dating from 1975, and how you happen to be in the UK when there’s no record of you being active…..in any capacity…..ever?”

i leaned back, if only to breathe. he’d been less than an inch from my face. i wanted some air of my own to work with. “i’ll do my best to answer all, samuel. can we order some tea first? why don’t you take care of it and i’ll just sit here and tell you what i can, straight and quick, so you’ll know i’m not piecing something together, so you’ll know i’m being straight with you.” he nodded, but didn’t do a thing about the tea.

“i was in london for apachecon, a conference for apache users and fans, anyway, i was here with my boyfriend, or rather fiance, or rather, soon-to-be-ex coz we’re breaking up, it’s a sad story really, but tangential to the current topic which was how i came to be here doing some work for luddie.” i paused and looked around for any sign of how one might contrive to have hot tea arrive at the table.

the dining car was empty save for a man standing at one end, filling the doorway in a strangely casual way. my heart sank. there might be no tea. and that might not be the worst of it. boy i really screwed up this time and i hadn’t a clue what i’d done.

“luddie called me last wednesday, said he’d heard i was in england and wanted to know if i’d like to make some money, serious money, on my vacation…he said he needed someone who knew anything about the langauges of the Wakhan Corridor…. i remember, he kept emphasizing anything…like it would be enough to know the languages existed. i was confused by his request…a little put off that he kept saying ‘serious money’…it was cheesy.” i paused. samuel nodded. i continued.

“i told him, i know only a little Wakhi, i’m not literate in any turkic language, and i’m not an experienced translator….so, if you’re offering ‘serious money’, you better find a more serious candidate! besides, i have a job, it’s pretty strenuous, and i’m supposed to be on vacation.”

that is, word for word, nuance for nuance, exactly what i’d said to luddie. i had closed my eyes and was playing the conversation back in mind’s ear. i was being so completely faithful in my recreation of the event that i hadn’t noticed the train begin to move.

“so what did luddie say then?” asked samuel. i was relieved to hear him speak. he didn’t seem antagonistic. he seemed genial, but i mustn’t let that fool me. for some reason he thought i was dangerous and that made him dangerous. the fact that he was damned attractive made it worse. “stockholm syndrome” i tried to laugh it off. but there was no getting around it. i’d just have to factor it in as i went along.

“well, then luddie told me what they needed was someone to help out with a bunch of files that got corrupted, through some combination of faulty encryption and media storage, and that many of these were sound recordings made in the Wakhan Corridor by an ethnomusicologist in the 1980s… and that sounded interesting to me, like something i might be able to help with…. and then luddie said he’d pay me five thousand dollars just to come out to Cambridge, meet with professor singh, and spend a few hours working on their problem…….all that ego-appeal…..all that money, how could i say no?”

i waited for some sort of reaction, but there wasn’t any. not from samuel, not from the gentle blur of shubbery whirring by to my left, not from the man at the end of the car.

“so that answers two of your questions, but maybe raises some more? as for the clearances, that’s completely unrelated, as far as i know, except you never know with luddie, he’s active in so many circles.” i tried to laugh, but it came out more like a cough. “that has to do with my father, he was a prisoner of the Patet Lao sometime before i was born, and later in ’75….” i trailed off.

“and so, did you meet with professor singh? tell me about that,” he coaxed.

“you know i did, first thing friday morning, you probably know the time, what train i took, and all that better than i do, so i’ll focus on what i think you don’t know….okay?”

no response.

“we met at professor singh’s lab, luddie, this fellow eric, and i. eric walked me through what they had, but it wasn’t much, just a list of files, mostly, and some gibberish they’d tried unsuccessfully to extract. eric quizzed me to see what i knew about sound file formats, then professor singh came in to test my langauge skills. he had me listen to a bunch of recordings, like sentences from a language lesson, and i remember thinking he must be trying to test my hearing at the same time, because the volume was very low, and some of the speakers barely discernable. after thirty minutes or so the professor excused himself, eric followed him out and came back several minutes later saying that he was looking forward to working together and would be sending a set of recordings to me in london the next day. that was it. it around lunchtime on friday and i thought i was done for the day, so i decided to look up simon schaeffer, who was my friend lisa’s professor when she was at Cambridge for her masters in the history of science, i think it was.” samuel interrrupted.

“yes, and he met you, gave you a lovely tour of the colleges, showed you the classroom where your great uncle harrie used to teach, and left you at king’s college only to meet you an hour later at the eagle.” he seemed to know it at least as well as i did at that point. it had been a busy weekend with little sleep and far too little tea.

“okay, so you know luddie tracked me down and eventually brought me over to the bunker, or complex, or whatever it is, and eric and i started working on this three-second loop, and after a couple hours some guys came in and told us to take a break. they showed us to the break room and said we’d have to wait there until our clearances had been checked. i had no idea what they were talking about, but luddie told me not to worry, that he’d call professor singh and work it out. so i didn’t worry. afterall, the job wouldn’t pay so well unless it were some kind of hassle, right?

besides, i was in no hurry to get back to london, my soon to be ex-fiance, and the eight by ten hotel room we were sharing.”

“and the sound loop” samuel leaned in, “what did you learn about it?”

“it was pretty interesting, actually, all that information packed in to such a short loop, parts were definitely music, other parts seemed to be speech, and other parts, neither. it was super-dense, super-saturated, we hadn’t gotten too far, but we were making progress.”

“and how is it that someone clever enough to figure out all that can’t give me any other name than luddie balmer’s at the end of the day? who did you think you were working for?”

“the university?” i was sounding rattled, but less rattled than i felt.

“and it didn’t strike you as odd that there were all these langley types hanging about the complex? or that you were held for clearances doing piecework on a university project?” he sounded a bit condescending, but not saractic. small mercies.

“yes, that was odd, but this is new to me, i’ve never done work like this for money before, so it’s all a bit odd, but i like puzzles, and eric and i were working well together, making progress faster than either of us expected, i suppose i got caught up….but, yes, in retrospect, with you shining a light on it, the whole thing seems……surreal, not just odd.”

“jennifer, jennifer” he sounded like he was talking to someone else. a child lodged deep within the tabletop he was staring in to. “isn’t there a name you can give me, someone who can explain your clearances?

i stared in to the table, too, trying to put my mind where his was, trying to answer his question. i was stumped. who, who, whom, yes that’s right, whom should i name, on whom should i call? the question went round in my brain in time with the train, both were slowing, and as they did, it seemed in the tabletop world as if we were pulling in to a familiar station (was it guildford?) and i could see the child he’d been talking to, and she was me, and all at once it came to me, just came over me like a wave, not a flash you understand, but a wave of experience containing every particle of air, light, moisture, every sonic vibration, every packet of energy in that moment of pulling to a stop on a sunny afternoon long ago, the squeal of braking wheels, of new equilibria breaking to the surface. and then we were stopped, the electricity cut out and in the silence she and i together speak one name. “Pop Yule”.

Modernity 4.0 now with more less tradition!

October 13th, 2004

Today I was talking with Coops, one of the spirit guides aiding me on the dreamquest of getting a Ph.D. I was trying to persuade him that Manuel Castell’s idea of the network society is in important ways different from what Braudel and Wallerstein say about the world system.

Coop told me about Janet Abu-Lughod’s book “Before European Hegemony
The World System A.D. 1250-1350
” and Andre Gunder Frank’s new book “ReORIENT” and I went out and bought them right after, but continued to press my case.

Let us not contest that the world economy is Silk Road era news, but the network society is something different because technological networks make it possible for social forces to organize on “a planetary scale in real time.”

And if you say that’s only a quantitative difference I say it’s so many orders of magnitude more of the same that it becomes radically different. So, if Abu-Lughod is correct and the roots of the force that remade the world, aka capitalism, lie earlier and in Asia, then that’s 1.0. Next there’s the whole familiar story that Eric Wolf told so well of capitalism 2.0, and then post-industrialism is 3.0, which brings us to 4.0 and that’s when Coop broke in with the line “now with more less tradition.”

the mancunian candidate

August 28th, 2004

stairsgarage.JPG it took over a minute for me to realize we’d come to the surface and into some sort of parking structure. dazed, i followed samuel through the wide, shallow puddles of natural light. the light had been the give-away. this space didn’t feel or smell outdoors. it was only the light and i moved toward it.

two pots of tea, a rack of toast, and a soft boiled egg later i was a new animal. no longer a timid, little reptile, i now counted myself among the primates. though not quite human, of course, next to this highly polished specimen, samuel.

he hadn’t said a word about anything other than breakfast since we’d left the cold room, now it seemed like the dining portion of my adventure would soon be coming to a close. his energy’s shifting, i noticed, knowing how new agey that sounded in this setting. he was getting a bit twitchy, so i decided to seed the cloud.

“so, what’s on your mind, anyway? i’m positive i’ve done nothing intentionally remiss, so how can i be a help to you lot, whoever you are?”

“is bruce massie really your cousin?” he asked, motioning for the check to someone i couldn’t see.

“once removed, yes, of course. and i really had no idea what our little game might look like to someone else….you, for instance. same with that silly gamebot…just games that spooked the spooks…..”

“sounds like that movie “WarGames.”

“man, i loved that movie….’shall we play a game?’…the story, the teen romance, the moral, all great, but i really, really hated that they expected us to believe you could war-dial using an acoustic modem…….”

samuel wasn’t responding, so i put down my half of the conversation and took a drink of water. after a time, he spoke.

“okay, say i believe that none of your card buddies had a clue where they were, which seems to be the case. and also about your gamebot. i understand you were in the facility as part of luddie’s team, helping out with sandstone, the project you know as professor singh’s file conversions and translations.”

“yup, that’s right, that’s what they kept me here for and then they didn’t need me for hours. and i was supposed to be at Apachecon, and that made me impatient. so i strayed from the straights and narrows of outrageous fortune right into a card game and now seem to have ended up in another fine mess.”

i’d finished my tea ages ago, but i picked up the teacup, swirled it around gently, and turned it over in my saucer.

“are you reading your tea leaves?” he smiles and once again it is disarming.

“i’m looking for any insight i can get, samuel. i honestly have no idea why i’ve been carted off, kept, and questioned, and i think i’ve been a darn good sport….i’m on the clock, after all, and i figure we’re all on the same team….but now i’m wondering.”

“well, here’s the problem.” he opened his briefcase and pulled out a thick stack of paper, a print-out on old-fashioned autofeed, perforated paper, which he put on the table between us.

“wow, i didn’t know any one still used that stuff, impressive.” i said of the paper.

“these are logs for the past two weeks of your home computer as well as the two boxes at the co-lo in fremont, california.” he turned the stack around for me to read.

“you’ll notice, about twenty pages in, we found of particular interest, a little daemon process called imperial.msg. would you mind explaining that?”

i open the report, look down rows and across columns, trying to take it all in calmly and quickly, to see just what they’d “logged”. this is yet another kind of literacy our schools don’t teach, reading machine generated reports.

i smile at the wanderings of my mind, even in moments like these, and keep skimming through the print-out in silence, not exactly surprised by the complete transparency of my electronic life, but stunned, and sort of in awe of this brave, new universe around me. after a time i regain powers of speech.

“i understand your interest in imperial.msg and the traffic it might conceal, but that’s not what it’s there for, and not what it’s used for, at least not by me. it’s basically just an arty network monitor that cycles through a set of diagnostics, generates and sends reports…all the dummy content, odd as it may seem to you, is……….well, art, or something like that…a game of sorts…you know.”

he looks at me, then at his watch. he’d paid the bill before taking the logs out of his briefcase, so we were free to leave. i wait for a cue, but he just looks at me skeptically, or is that disdain?”

“look, samuel, do you know the kafka short story An Imperial Message?”

“yes, i like kafka quite a bit, actually.” i’m surprised to hear him answer.

“and i’m fairly sure i’ve read that, a very short story indeed, right, only a paragraph, but i can’t recall it, other than a line or two. why? what’s the relation between that story and your daemon?”

it’s a surreal question and i laugh. kafka is always a cut-up at interrogations.

“sorry, i promise i’ll answer the question, i mean no disrespect, laughing, it’s just a reflex…sorry….but first, tell me what line of imperial message you remember?” do you remember this?:

“No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man.”

samuel smiles, “this is all very edifying, jennifer, but would you get to the question at hand?”

“that’s got to be one of my all-time favorite lines, that, and the one right after it, the last line of the story, anyway, okay, you’re a patient guy, i’m a chatty cathy, but knowing the story is actually relevant to understanding the daemon that you’re asking about.”

i pause to make sure he understands i’m serious, then continue.

“because, as you’ll recall, in the story the emperor, from his deathbed has sent a message to you the humble subject, and the tireless messenger struggles through an infinite series of walls, crowds, and obstacles, striving to bring you this message that never arrives…so that’s what imperial.msg is designed to mimic, the endless circuit of this message through the network…that’s the arty part, but as far as functionality goes, it’s pretty basic stuff.”

“but you see the dangers, you understand our concerns, right?” he leans in to say this as if to keep others from overhearing, but there’s no one else about.

“i do and i’m very sorry for any misunderstandings. even though i only do contract stuff for luddie’s group now and again, i have some family history here, i hope you understand i would never deliberately do anything to compromise country or company.”

“this is precisely what i’m trying to ascertain, your mum’s uncle taught here, right? an australian physicist knighted for his work with oppenheimer on the bomb, i believe. but luddie says you told him it’s your dad’s work that got you involved, so i’m a bit unclear, even after doing my homework.”

“where are you from?” i ask boldly.

i’d been wondering since he’d introduced himself where on earth to place his accent. it was so many different things at once, and yet it’s own thing entirely. he’d said “mum” just now and that was, finally, a major clue. i just had to ask.

“what?” he sounded surprised.

“where are you from? where were you born and bred?

“why do you ask?”

“because i’ve been trying to place your accent for about three hours now, and it’s defied me, and you just said ‘mum’ and i wanted to know…”

“please…” i continue in a mock plaintive voice. “it’s less awful for me if i feel there’s an exchange of information taking place here. otherwise, you know, i feel so used.” perhaps flirtatious joking would get him to talk.

“what are your guesses so far?” he asks. it seems to be working.

“well, at first i thought american, east-coast, but then i thought ah, clearly some kind of british accent i’ve not heard before, or maybe a south african who’s worked closely with americans for a long time, but every now and again, i hear something vaguely yiddish, like when you said ‘oppenheimer’ just then, so i can’t place it, i’m stumped.”

“wow, that’s damn good actually.” he laughs, takes a long, slow breath, and relents with a shy smile.

“i was born and raised here in england, in manchester, actually. my mother’s israeli, my dad’s american, both german jews, and i’ve lived in the states since i was 12, so you covered all the bases, actually, and i’m quite impressed.” he seemed genuine.

“so do I win anything?”

“no, because you gave up. you might have presented exactly those observations in a far more assertive light.”

“meanie.” i grumble, making a frowny face.

“tell you what, let’s walk and talk.” he pushed back from the table.

“i’ll have someone contact luddie, let him know how to reach you when and if he needs. you’re still on the clock and you and i, we’re just having a friendly chat, where you’ll fill me in and we’ll get you back to london as soon as possible. how does that sound?”

i watched as he stood, put on his well-made raincoat, and put the papers back in the briefcase.

“that sounds peachy” i said. and it did.

i relish few things better than a morning walk and the streets of this medieval city were as fine a place as any for such undertaking.