Archive for November, 2006|Monthly archive page

From lines to webs…

Think back to the 90s and move forward – think of the much-touted metaphor of the “Information Superhighway.” True, the “web” was an early metaphor as well, but in reality the browser – and the user – were very much thinking in linear terms. Fed to your computer through a modem connected to your phone line, then your cable connection, then to your phone line again in a much faster way. Linear.

Now think of the “network” metaphor: Facebook, blog rings, Wikipedia and other collaborative projects, wi-fi hot spots, in which the Internet connection is available not through a linear wire but a spatial sphere surrounding the central node. Have we moved into a second (and maybe even third) dimension of our understanding of the Internet?

… Okay, this thought isn’t going too far, but it’s something to ponder nonetheless.

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Believing in the Future

There’s something really sexy about science.

And by that I don’t mean the individual sciences, biology and physics and the like (although, I won’t deny that for some individuals, no doubt, there is a not-exclusively intellectual attraction). And in this category, too, I would also include technology – “applied science” – as well as “pure science,” the people in white coats pottering around in laboratories and so on. You can make some useful distinctions between the two (and probably some not-so-useful ones) but in my mind, they share a purpose and a population: those driven to succeed in science and technology are fundamentally concerned with solving problems, with implicit beliefs that 1) solutions can (if not necessarily will) be found; and 2) solving these problems will make life better.

A fundamental challenge to this admittedly idealistic view of human progress (aside from questioning whether progress indeed occurs) is the profit motive: that is, do people invent or study or tinker or innovate because they want to? Because they are deeply driven to seek knowledge for its own sake, or create something that mimics and/or manipulates the forces of nature? Or because they simply want a reward in return – most often, money or reputation?

Individual motivations aside, I have to believe that sometimes, at least, it’s not always self-driven, or at least not for external rewards. Some people have indeed worked for profit and received it; others have tried and never received it, their work either ignored or stolen or simply not valuable; but surely still others have received unsought fame? Or strove to figure out a puzzle for its own sake, perhaps leaving the rest of the world still ignorant of their findings?

It is these people, I think, whom we should really appreciate not simply for their intelligence or creativity or accomplishments, but for their belief in the future, and their willingness to take steps, however tentative, toward it. I hesitate to use the word “optimism,” which to me connotes more cheerfulness than substance. It’s not simply that science has all the answers, but that science (its methods of close observation, testing, and reassessing current understanding) and technology (its use of scientific principles and experimentation, explicitly or implicitly, to engage with problems and possibilities in the world) see great potential. Both have been misused and misled in the past; both should recognize that past (and present) solutions may lead to further problems in the future; but underlying it all is the irrepressible drive to keep trying, perhaps abandoning a theory or a doctrine but not losing faith to take the next step forward.

Can I count myself among this faithful, in spirit if not in accomplishment? I’m still not sure. But at the very least, I can’t help but think that we need those who are willing to believe in the future. Inevitably it comes.

* * *
On the Concept of History IX: The Angel of History

Walter Benjamin

There is a picture by Paul Klee called Angelus Novus. In it, an angel is depicted who appears as if trying to distance himself from something that he stares at. His eyes and mouth gape wide, his wings are stressed to their limit.

The Angel of History must look this way; he has turned to face the past. Where we see a constant chain of events, he sees only a single catastrophe incessantly piling ruin upon ruin and hurling them at his feet.

He would probably like to stop, waken the dead, and correct the devastation – but a storm is blowing hard from Paradise, and it is so strong he can no longer fold his wings.

While the debris piles toward the heavens before his eyes, the storm drives him incessantly into the Future that he has turned his back upon.

What we call Progress is this storm.

eThority

This was originally on my AIM away message, but I figured I’d give it a little longer life.

Observations on eThority, our increasing reliance on electronic entities for our information:
* “Google it”
* the Facebook group, “If Wikipedia Says It, It Must Be True”
* the widespread implicit agreement with that statement, even among those not on Facebook
* Facebook
* MySpace
* “I read online somewhere …”
* Finding how-to on “the Internet” > gardening, recipes, WebMD, “So you want to be a ___”
* New York Times online; BBC Online; CNN.com; et al.
* the blogging phenomenon, or more specifically, to refer to one or more blogs for current informations and opinions
* Deferring to MS SpellCheck, or that split-second when you wonder whether the underlined word really doesn’t exist
* Microsoft Office Assistants

… and finally, “Just visit our website for more information…”

Requiem for a Pepper Plant

Peppers by the stairs
Each week, drooping and wrinkling
Neglected, they die

I should have saved them when I had the chance!

R.I.P. peppers… cursed be they who left you at the mercy of the elements, under the stairs by the storage rooms, still in your little plastic tray from the store. I could have done so much more!!!

Preface to “Unit-y”

I had to check to make sure Preface is the right word; loosely, it is.

I had intended to write something entitled “Unit-y,” about the compartmentalization of modern(?) life. However, I didn’t feel I had time this week. Which in itself kind of serves as an illustrative anecdote of what I was going to write about.

So, provided I get around to it and feel I can, I’ll get on that soon.<> In the meantime, here’s a start:

“So you’re in your favorite coffee shop, carrying your own freshly-printed, freshly-purchased edition of the daily newspaper. Let’s say, the ______. You wait in line; you order a small coffee; you purchase a cellophaned bagel, just to tide you over until lunch time, which is to say, approximately 12:32, when you check the clock and realize you should probably claim your full half-hour of ostensible freedom. With the bagel you receive a small portion of cream cheese in a tiny plastic tub, no doubt measured with near-pathological accuracy to be 1 ounce by the dairy conglomerate from whence it came. Upon doling out the cash for your purchase – exact change, you have so many coins to get rid of! – you move along past the counter, past the biscotti selection, and receive your 12 oz cup at the other end. Approaching the napkin-straw-sugar counter, you shake the contents of two packets of sweetener to the far side of the pouch, empty them into the coffee, followed by two individual containers of half & half. Stirring the coffee with the peculiar variety of stir-stick that features the absurd, non-functional straw-like hollow, you wonder idly what percent of the garbage produced in coffee shops is actual food, not packaging. Glancing at your watch, you toss such speculation aside, nudge the door open with your shoulder – always the door to the right! – and hasten toward the corner as the bus approaches.

Count the units.

And if you diligently re-read the first paragraph, looking for instances of these discrete amounts – physical or otherwise – you just demonstrated exactly what I intend to explore: the compartmentalization of American (although not exclusively American) life. Did you count waiting in line for your coffee? Remaining in a designated place, behind the same person, until you can claim the cashier’s attention for sufficient time allotted to receive your item(s)?

Unit-ed we stand!

(to be continued … probably)