‘My client is civilisation’


There’s an interview with Stewart Brand in Volume, 24 — Counterculture: ‘With the help of countercultural figures, historians and architects, this issue of Volume examines the popularized characteristics of the 60s that have influenced our beliefs about technology, the environment and community’. Fred Turner country. From Jeffrey Inaba’s introduction to the issue:

At first glance, what appears prescient about the 60s when looking at current American culture is the preoccupation then and now with computer technology, the natural environment and alternative forms of community; but today each is disconnected from the radical political action and oppositional ideologies of the earlier era. For instance, concern for the planet, which was cast as flaky and indulgent, is shared by the majority of people despite the ideological differences between the counterculture and popular American opinion now. Sustainability is so much a part of our collective economic consciousness that its importance is cited in business sectors – like real estate development – which once ardently resisted entertaining pro-environmental stances. Similarly, the communal principles of the counterculture – such as participation, sharing information, erring on the side of social inclusion, networking and identifying areas of agreement with others in order to form collaborations – are the basic axioms for building social capital now.


SB: My client is civilisation and my approach is that of a hacker: to figure out the shortcuts that make things happen. …

JI: … What’s your definition of a hacker?

SB: Lazy engineer. The aspect of hacking that appeals to me is looking for the fiendishly clever shortcut. A ‘real’ engineer will do the homework – do the calculations, run the prototypes – all the necessary stuff to make something work. A hacker is usually looking for an easy solution. The code still has to run – it has to do whatever it is you’re attempting. But a hacker tries to find a way to do it with minimal effort, which is considered good; or with great cleverness, which is considered extra good. Fun is finessing an outcome. Stuff like that is just being lazy, and lazy is not necessarily bad. I was trained in the army to be a lazy officer. The worst officer is stupid and industrious. The best officer is brilliant and lazy. I don’t think I would be accused of industry. …

JI: … Would you consider yourself a hacker of policy? From what you say in your book, stewardship of the planet involves vigilance in monitoring all technologies and then deciding to employ some with great speed. Do you look for shortcuts to put into service technologies because the process of governments, institutions, and concerned individuals carefully weighing a technology’s consequences takes time?

SB: Some technologies take off on their own. Cell phones took off in very short order to the great benefit of all. Wikipedia and Google took off that way. The things that people see as beneficial and that don’t do recognizable harm can move quickly. But like you say, by far the best approach with complex systems is diplomatic negotiation with a lot of vigilance to ensure that things don’t go astray.

JI: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline is on statecraft. You start it with the Marshall McLuhan quote: ‘After Sputnik there is no nature, only art’. What significance does that statement have in relation to the responsibilities of governance and policymaking?

SB: It’s probably the most radical comment he ever made. Sputnik was shorthand for acting at a planetary scale. We consequently bear a completely different relation to everything on Earth and can no longer treat it, meaning nature, as existing independent of our own artifice – our own purposeful intentions.

What will remain of us

Smithsonian has an article about nautical archaeology, focusing on Dunwich:

The sea that brought trade to Dunwich was not entirely benevolent. The town was losing ground as early as 1086 when the Domesday Book, a survey of all holdings in England, was published; between 1066 and 1086 more than half of Dunwich’s taxable farmland had washed away. Major storms in 1287, 1328, 1347, and 1740 swallowed up more land. By 1844, only 237 people lived in Dunwich. Today, less than half as many reside there in a handful of ruins on dry land.

Here’s Henry James on Dunwich, in English Hours (‘Old Suffolk’ — originally published in Harper's Weekly, 25 September, 1897), 1905:

If at low tide you walk on the shore, the cliffs, of little height, show you a defence picked as bare as a bone … [The land] stretched, within historic times, out into towns and promontories for which there is now no more to show than the empty eye-holes of a skull; and half the effect of the whole thing, half the secret of the impression, and what I may really call, I think, the source of the distinction, is this very visibility of the mutilation. Such at any rate is the case for a mind that can properly brood. There is a presence in what is missing — there is history in there being so little. It is so little, to-day, that every item of the handful counts.

The biggest items are of course the two ruins, the great church and its tall tower, now quite on the verge of the cliff, and the crumbled, ivied wall of the immense cincture of the Priory. These things have parted with almost every grace, but they still keep up the work that they have been engaged in for centuries and that cannot better be described than as the adding of mystery to mystery. … The mystery sounds for ever in the hard, straight tide, and hangs, through the long, still summer days and over the low, diked fields, in the soft, thick light. We play with it as with the answerless question, the question of the spirit and attitude, never again to be recovered, of the little city submerged. For it was a city, the main port of Suffolk, as even its poor relics show ; with a fleet of its own on the North Sea, and a big religious house on the hill. We wonder what were then the apparent conditions of security, and on what rough calculation a community could so build itself out to meet its fate. It keeps one easy company here to-day to think of the whole business as a magnificent mistake.

I’m keeping The Rings of Saturn for when we have a chance to go walking in Suffolk, but, via John Naughton, here’s Sebald on Dunwich:

The Dunwich of the present day is what remains of what was one of the most important ports of Europe in the Middle Ages. There were more than fifty churches, monasteries and convents, and hospitals here; there were shipyards and fortifications and a fisheries and merchant fleet of eighty vessels; and there were dozens of windmills … The parish churches of St James, St Leonard, St Martin, St Bartholomew, St Michael, St Patrick, St Mary, St John, St Peter, St Nicholas and St Felix, one after the other, toppled down the steadily-receding cliff-face and sank in the depths, along with the earth and stone of which the town had been built. All that survived, strange to say, were the walled well-shafts, which, for centuries, freed of what had once enclosed them, rose aloft like the chimney stacks of some subterranean smithy, as various chronicles report, until in due course these symbols of the vanished town also fell down.

Thinking about Dunwich and nautical archaeology made me read again about the project to use 3D seismic data to map the North Sea Palaeolandscapes — lands of hunter-gatherer communities, lost as water levels changed over 8000 years ago:


Professor Vince Gaffney:

It's like finding another country. … At times this change would have been insidious and slow — but at times, it could have been terrifyingly fast. It would have been very traumatic for these people. … It would be a mistake to think that these people were unsophisticated or without culture. … they would have had names for the rivers and hills and spiritual associations - it would have been a catastrophic loss. … In 10,000 BC, hunter-gatherers were living on the land in the middle of the North Sea. By 6,000 BC, Britain was an island. The area we have mapped was wiped out in the space of 4,000 years. BBC News

From the project’s introduction:

The British continental shelf contains one of the most detailed and comprehensive records of the Late Quaternary and Holocene landscapes in Europe. This landscape is unique in that it was extensively populated by humans but was rapidly inundated during the Mesolithic as a consequence of rising sea levels as a result of rapid climate change. Previous researchers have recognised the rapid inundation may have preserved topographic features and caches of environmental data of high quality which may be used to provide insights into Holocene landscapes which, if located and sampled, may be unparalleled by terrestrial sites. Knowledge of the development of this landscape is also critical to our understanding of the impact of climate change on palaeobathymetry and shoreline sequences. It is clear that the exploitation of the Southern North Sea for energy and mineral resources, most notably aggregate extraction, remains a strategic goal for the UK and without adequate data this remarkable landscape is under significant threat from development. Furthermore, given that this landscape suffered changes comparable with those predicted for the British shoreline over the next century, the value in providing comparative data for the future impact of global warming seems clear.

Dymaxion cubicle

A week ago today, I was in the Design Museum (enjoying the Zaha Hadid exhibition — a few photos here, though sadly I couldn't do her wonderful project paintings justice). A surprise to me was the Buckminster Fuller cubicle door drawing — in the Gents. I seemed to have the room to myself, so I took a couple of photos of the door (wondering what I'd say if someone came in or, worse by far, if the cubicle turned out not to be empty after all).


So that was that, and then Stowe noticed that Dopplr had used Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map in their Dopplr 100 launch. From Wikipedia:

Wikipedia: Unfolded Dymaxion map with nearly-contiguous land masses

The Dymaxion map of the Earth is a projection of a global map onto the surface of a polyhedron, which can then be unfolded to a net in many different ways and flattened to form a two-dimensional map which retains most of the relative proportional integrity of the globe map. It was created by Buckminster Fuller, and patented by him in 1946, the patent application showing a projection onto a cuboctahedron. The 1954 version published by Fuller under the title The AirOcean World Map used a slightly modified but mostly regular icosahedron as the base for the projection, and this is the version most commonly referred to today. The name Dymaxion was applied by Fuller to several of his inventions.

Unlike most other projections, the Dymaxion is intended purely for representations of the entire globe. Each face of the polyhedron is a gnomonic projection, so zooming in on one such face renders the Dymaxion equivalent to such a projection.

Dymaxion map folded into an icosahedron
Dymaxion map folded into an icosahedron

Fuller claimed his map had several advantages over other projections for world maps. It has less distortion of relative size of areas, most notably when compared to the Mercator projection; and less distortion of shapes of areas, notably when compared to the Gall-Peters projection. Other compromise projections attempt a similar trade-off.

More unusually, the Dymaxion map has no 'right way up'. Fuller frequently argued that in the universe there is no 'up' and 'down', or 'north' and 'south': only 'in' and 'out'. Gravitational forces of the stars and planets created 'in', meaning 'towards the gravitational center', and 'out', meaning 'away from the gravitational center'. He linked the north-up-superior/south-down-inferior presentation of most other world maps to cultural bias. Note that there are some other maps without north at the top.

There is no one 'correct' view of the Dymaxion map. Peeling the triangular faces of the icosahedron apart in one way results in an icosahedral net that shows an almost contiguous land mass comprising all of earth's continents - not groups of continents divided by oceans. Peeling the solid apart in a different way presents a view of the world dominated by connected oceans surrounded by land.

Which set me thinking: that Buckminster Fuller is someone we ought to be teaching in schools, of course (and I can see how we might start doing that easily enough — and soon), and about Dopplr and good design. For another very cool Dopplr ... er ... effect, if you've not seen their sparkline stack and read Matt's post about it, you really should.

Gawping in amazement: Flickr & Upcoming

Prelude: TechCrunch says 'Flickr continues to rock along, with 4.5 million registered users and 17 million unique visitors per month. They have just under 230 million total photos uploaded and 900,000 new photos are uploaded daily on average'.

And after that, the stats for geo-tagging (launched 28 August) are still amazing! '24 hours in, there were 1,234,384 geotagged photos (and now more than 1.6 million geotagged photos as I write this, about 9 hours later)' — Stewart Butterfield, Flickr blog.

But how much more impressive is this (all from Stewart Butterfield's posting):

One of the "little" things that was incredibly complex technically was the integration of location-based searching into our existing tag and text-based search technology. That means you can do things like search for photos matching "food" in southern Asia or architecture in South America. … marrying "traditional" search with spatial search in a real-time context is extremely hard, especially at our volumes and rate of growth. More than 228,000,000 photos have been uploaded, with over a million new photos being added on a good day. There are billions of bits of data that go into the search (more than half a billion tags alone), along with privacy controls, group membership, and so on. This is one of the largest real-time search indexes in the world. In contrast, nearly all web search is done in a "batch" mode with periodic updates, while nearly all real time search is done on a small set of items which "expire" after a short period. But new or updated Flickr photos are typically searchable in under a minute.


… today we're also releasing extensions to Flickr's API to enable adding and retrieving geo information, setting privacy permissions, and searching by location: everything you need to roll your own. … This also means: "hey, if our maps don't work for you, use whatever maps you'd like!"


… if you take a photo "near" an event (in time and space), it'll automatically get tagged with the correct Upcoming event and show up on the corresponding event page without you doing anything.

For developments at Upcoming (also 28 August), go here: undiscovered events ('a very deep well of events that Upcoming members haven't added yet, collected from around the web and updated daily by our friends over at Yahoo! Local. To put this in perspective, we increased the number of upcoming events by 3000% overnight'), event filters, Flickr photos for events, buddy icons, new event pages.

All this is already old news on the web. I blog it because the value of this to anyone involved in education is immense and the achievement it represents (on the part of Flickr and Upcoming staff, but also, of course, the user communities) is the kind of stuff about which we should be telling our students — the next generation of innovators and co-creators.

Best overview of Flickr's geotagging I've seen to date? Thomas Hawks', here. (Hawks is the Chief Evangelist for the photo sharing site, Zooomr — 'We would be seen as a competitor to Flickr'.) A 'Go Read'.


1) Bokardo has posted on it, too: 'With geotags, Flickr pushes the envelope that much forward. I think it’s a great social feature, and one whose surface has only been scratched so far. I’m excited to see what other views people will come up with, given what we’ve seen in the first few days'.

2) Google Earth Blog: Better Method for Geotagging Photos for Flickr Using Google Earth/Picasa.

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , ,

GPS puzzle ... cleared up?

I've wondered why GPS isn't embedded in cellphones. Charlie Schick said both there and on his own blog that he couldn't be certain but 'I am sure there is a reason related to size of chip-set, power issues, usability, licensing, pricing, target users'.

David Weinberger's just posted this:

Nikolaj says that it'll be at least five years before we can programmatically and ubiquitously locate someone in terms of latitude.longitude based on their phone positions, but we can already (see Imity) see who is around a particular phone number. GPS will take that long to get put into cellphones because of battery life...

(Nikolaj is Nikolaj Nyholm of Imity — whose app impressed me so much at Reboot.)

Technorati tags: , , , ,



Having some fun today with the tiny Holux SiRF Star III chip-set receiver, the GPSlim 236. The size of a matchbox, it is breathtakingly smart. PocketGPSWorld has a glowing review (the photo comes from there):

'… if you are considering a GPS purchase then you should not consider any other chipset. The performance improvement is massive and makes a GPS system very much more usable as a result. The time to first fix (TTFF) and high sensitivity of this chipset makes use practical in areas such as inner cities, when worn around your neck on a lanyard with a smart phone solution and any other use where marginal reception conditions make it difficult for other lesser chipset's to function. … This has become my Bluetooth GPS of choice ever since I first began using it. I thought I could never again be amazed at the places a SiRFStarIII receiver would work in yet the GPSlim 236 once again sets new boundaries in terms of performance. It is a well designed unit, small and light and sits nicely on the dashboard thanks to its rubber feet although I have taken to throwing mine in the glove box or even leaving it in my briefcase where it works just as well! I've given it 99% because nothing can genuinely be 100% perfect and it would be nice to have the Mouse USB cable included but that really is nit picking in the extreme.'

Nav4All has an excellent offer on: you can buy the GPSlim 236 for €69.50 and enjoy free Nav4All until 15 August.

This post by Charlie Schick led me to Nav4All and the receiver. Nokia are about to produce a new GPS device, but can't we have them built into the phone?

Technorati tags: , , ,

Layered, furcating stories in time and space

Kim posting Stories in Urban Spaces and my happening to be re-reading Borges (in the Andrew Hurley translation), made me go back to 'The Garden of Forking Paths' (1941).

Borges' narrator, Yu Tsun, is the great-grandson of Ts'ui Pen, a 'governor of Yunan province … who renounced all temporal power in order to write a novel containing more characters than the Hung Lu Meng and construct a labyrinth in which all men would lose their way'. Ts'ui Pen is murdered after 13 years of work on these labours, and what survived was a 'novel (that) made no sense' — and 'no one ever found the labyrinth'. Early in the story, Yu Tsun, on the run, reflects that 'all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now. Century follows century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the land and sea, yet everything that truly happens, happens to me.' Choosing a name from a phone book (the reason for which choice only becomes fully clear at the end of the story), he finds himself at the house of the famous Sinologist, Stephen Albert. Improbability is heaped on improbability (after all, this is anti-literature, no matter that it is also literature of exquisite skill, intelligence and inventiveness), and Stephen Albert is not only intimate with the life and work of Ts'ui Pen but has, he believes, cracked the secret of both novel and labyrinth: they are one and the same. Ts'ui Pen had left a fragment of a letter: 'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths'. Stephen Albert explains to Yu Tsun:

'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.' Almost instantly, I saw it — the garden of forking paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase 'several futures (not all)' suggest to me the image of a forking in time, rather than in space. A full rereading of the book confirmed my theory. In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts'ui Pen, the character chooses — simultaneously — all of them. He creates, thereby, 'several futures', several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. That is the explanation for the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger knocks at the door; Fang decides to kill him. Naturally, there are various possible outcomes — Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they can both live, they can both be killed, and so on. In Ts'ui Pen's novel, all the outcomes in fact occur; each is the starting point for further bifurcations. Once in a while, the paths of that labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend.

… 'The Garden of Forking Paths' is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as conceived by Ts'ui Pen. Unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favouring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost.

Life as layered narrative, diachronically and synchronically; shared and individual, typical/general and unique — knowledge fundamental to our sense of being human. The advent of technologies which could allow us to interact with place and time raises questions that are profoundly old. (Kim's questions towards the end of her post made me think of urban plays, from medieval pageants to contemporary community projects — The Dillen, for example.) The extension of all this, in and through new technology, into new "theatres" of play, entertainment and education … The possibilities for grass-roots up development, for social and communal initiatives which bypass official or authorised pictures of the polis … 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' (Borges, 'A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain', 1941).

But in Borges, 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' suggests a weariness and meaninglessness. (Ecclesiastes, 12.12: 'Of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh'.) This melancholy may even embrace the world. 'The Library of Babel', 1941, conceives of a universe, the Library, as 'unlimited but periodic': 'If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder — which, repeated, becomes order: the Order'. In this story, the librarian finds this an 'elegant hope'; this reader finds the thought dispiriting.

Will a glut of gorgeous visualisations and interactive, highly social "games" deepen our melancholy — too much meaning to be finally meaningful? Or, instead, will the glamour of technology encourage us to forget and to take again the picture for the world? I doubt there will be anything new in the range of answers we come up with to either of these questions.

In 1984, Harold Fisch published A Remembered Future and wrote of how art can give us 'the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled'. More recently, Heaney has written of how 'We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. What is at work … is the mind's capacity to conceive a new plane of regard for itself, a new scope for its own activity' ('Joy or Night', 1990, in The Redress of Poetry, 1995). New ways of presenting layered narratives, as yet but 'tiny glimmers' (Kim's phrase), will acquire their maturity as art when they allow us to conceive a new plane of regard for ourselves as both unique and typical, simultaneously liberating us from the lonely egotism of Yu Tsun, where 'everything that truly happens, happens to me', and the merely 'unlimited but periodic'.

Two sites

Google Earth (via Helmintholog) is well worth watching — both immediately and as the layers feature fills out (for the UK) and the resolution at high-zoom improves for all mapped areas. Playing with it today made me think back to Matt Jones' piece, Practical Mirrorworlds.

And then my thanks to anti-mega for introducing me to Bleep, 'the digital distribution arm of Warp Records'. Excellent site and anti-mega's nudge got me to download Jamie Lidell's new album, Multiply.

My thanks, too, to Ol for telling me about Tom Vek's We Have Sound.

Google local mobile

We were on a roll after we launched Google Local UK last month, and went on to build a mobile web browser version of Google Local for our UK users. Users can now access Local on their mobile by going straight to the Local home page (that's or the Google UK home page (a.k.a. So we say: step away from that computer. Click a few buttons on your keypad and head to that new Thai restaurant near Piccadilly Circus. If you're slightly disoriented once away from the screen, Local gives you Google Maps and driving directions too. Google Blog