Monthly Archives: September 2005

we’ve come unstuck

Something’s gone wrong with our server, and if:book has gone back in time three years. We’re attempting to figure out the problem. In the meantime, if you’re looking for Bob Stein’s post on a unified field theory of publishing, click here to go directly to that post. Things will be back to normal soon! we hope.

kurzweil’s techno-narcissism

Ray Kurzweil looks into the future and sees the singularity gazing back full of love. It whispers. It seduces. “Ray, take care. Preserve yourself. It will be another 50 years yet. Go. Preserve yourself with vitamins, fruits, infusions. Keep your body tender and vital, and soon enough you will be subsumed, you will transcend. The singularity is near!”
singularity.jpg Kurzweil’s book is out and it’s as big as a dictionary. A good friend of mine was given it as a gift a couple of nights ago for his birthday. After dinner, as we rode the crosstown bus toward a game of cards, I read the first few pages. Try holding this goliath in one hand! The bus was crowded and we were standing in the aisle, gripping the handles on the top rail. The bus lurched, and I cursed my physiognomy. If only I could download the damn thing into my brain! If only the singularity were here now!
Kurzweil’s theory, or rather, his unshakeable conviction, his messianic belief, is that we, the human species, are nearing the point (he predicts around 2045) when our tools will become more intelligent than us and we will merge – mentally, biologically, spiritually – with them. Computer processing, artificial intelligence, biotechnology are all developing at an exponential rate (the law of accelerating returns), and are approaching a point of singularity, an all-encompassing transformative power, that will enable us to eliminate poverty, eradicate hunger, and “transcend biology.”
The reason Kurzweil is preserving his body – “reprogramming his biochemistry,” as he puts it – is because he is convinced that in about a generation’s time we will be able to ingest millions of microscopic nanobots into our neural pathways that will turn our brains into supercomputers, and engineer ourselves to live as long as we please. We will become, to borrow a conceit from an earlier book of Kurzweil’s, “spiritual machines.”
I would like to say that I will take the time to read his book and engage with it in more than a passing (and admittedly reactionary) way. Perhaps we’ll make a project of reading Kurzweil here at the institute as a counterpoint to Neil Postman (see recent discussion). But I’m not sure how much of his flaming narcissism I can take. Kurzweil’s ideas of “transhumanism” are so divorced from any social context, so devoid of any acknowledgment of the destructive or enslaving capacities of technology, and above all, so self-involved (the fruit and vitamin regimen is no joke – and there is probably a black monolith at the foot of his bed), that I’m not quite sure how to have a useful discussion about them.
As an inventor, Kurzweil has made many valuable contributions to society, including text-to-speech synthesis and speech recognition technology that has greatly aided the blind. It is understandable that his success in these endeavors has instilled a certain faith in technology’s capacity to do good. But his ecstatic, almost sexual, enthusiasm for human-machine integration is more than a little grotesque. Kurzweil’s website and book jacket are splashed with approving quotes from big name technologists. But I don’t find it particularly reassuring, or convincing, to know that Bill Gates thinks

Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.

For a more reasoned, economic analysis of the possible outcomes of accelerating returns, read John Quiggins’ “The singularity and the knife-edge” on Crooked Timber. Another law – or if not a law, then at least a common sense suspicion – is that if the engine keeps accelerating and heating it up, it will eventually fall apart.

nyc2123: a graphic novel for psp

NYC2123 is a graphic novel conceived for the 480 by 272-pixel screen of the Play Station Portable video game device. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale set in a future, tsunami-ravaged New York in which the city’s wealthy have walled off the island of Manhattan against a violent river society of junkies, thieves and outlaw barges.
There are several sequences that read like a flip book, taking advantage of the single-frame interface and the fact that the reader has literally got his finger on the button. Quickly flipping through the panels creates a filmic effect, as here:
(Once again via Infocult – thanks Bryan)
Update: Someone has just developed a .pdf reader for the PSP.

human versus algorithm

I just came across Common Times, a new community-generated news aggregation page, part of something called the Common Media Network, that takes the social bookmarking concept of and applies it specifically to news gathering. Anyone can add a story from any source to a series of sections (which seem pre-set and non-editable) arranged on a newspaper-style “front page.” You add links through a bookmarklet on the links bar on your browser. Whenever you come across an article you’d like to submit, you just click the button and a page comes up where you can enter the metadata like tags and comments. Each user has a “channel” – basically a stripped-down blog – where all their links are displayed chronologically with an RSS feed, giving individuals a venue to show their chops as news curators and annotators. You can set it up so links are posted simultaneously to a account (there’s also a Firefox extension that allows you to post stories directly from Bloglines).
Human aggregation is often more interesting than what the Google News algorithm can turn up, but it can easily mould to the biases of the community. Of course, search algorithms are developed by people, and source lists don’t just manufacture themselves (Google is notoriously tight-lipped about its list of news sources). In the case of something like Common Times, a slick new web application hyped on Boing Boing and other digital culture sites, the communities can be rather self-selecting. Still, this is a very interesting experiment in multi-player annotation. When I first arrived at the front page, not yet knowing how it all worked, I was impressed by the fairly broad spread of stories. And the tag cloud to the right is an interesting little snapshot of the zeitgeist.
(via Infocult)

directory of open access journals

The Directory of Open Access Journals indexes free peer review research journals from any country in any discipline. The directory is funded by the Soros “Open Access Initiative” which seeks to make the fruits of academic research freely available on the internet.

We define open access journals as journals that use a funding model that does not charge readers or their institutions for access. From the BOAI, Budapest Open Access Initiative, definition of “open access” we take the right of “users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles” as mandatory for a journal to be included in the directory. The journal should offer open access to their content without delay. Free user registration online is accepted.


this laptop costs $100

MIT has released some new images of its $100 laptop prototype, of which it hopes to have 5 to 15 million test units within the year. The laptops are much more durable than your average commercial machine, can be used as writing tablets or rotated 90 degrees as ebooks, and run on Linux – 100% free software. The idea is for the machines to provide a platform for an open source education movement throughout the South – a major hack of the current global order.
I love the hand cranks on the side, a backup charging option for remote or poorly provided areas where there is little or no electricity.
(“The $100 laptop moves closer to reality” in CNET)

the future of the institute

lately i’ve been thinking about how the institute for the future of the book should be experimental in form as well as content – an organization whose work, when appropriate, is carried out in real time in a relatively public forum. one of the key themes of our first year has been the way a network adds value to an enterprise, whether that be a thought experiment, an attempt to create a collective memory, a curated archive of best practices, or a blog that gathers and processes the world around it. i sense we are feeling our way to new methods of organizing work and distributing the results, and i want to figure out ways to make that aspect of our effort more transparent, more available to the world. this probably calls for a reevaluation of (or a re-acquaintance with) our idea of what an institute actually is, or should be.
the university-based institute arose in the age of print. scholars gathering together to make headway in a particular area of inquiry wrote papers, edited journals, held symposia and printed books of the proceedings. if books are what humans have used to move big ideas around, institutes arose to focus attention on particular big ideas and to distribute the result of that attention, mostly via print. now, as the medium shifts from printed page to networked screen, the organization and methods of “institutes” will change as well.
how they will change is what we hope to find out, and in some small way, influence. so over the next year or so we’ll be trying out a variety of different approaches to presenting our work, and new ways of facilitating debate and discussion. hopefully, we’ll draw some of you in along the way.
here’s a first try. we’ve decided (see thinking out loud) to initiate a weekly discussion at the institute where we read a book (or article or….) and then have a no-holds discussion about it — hoping to at least begin to understand some of the first order questions about what we are doing and how it fits into our perspectives on society. mostly we’re hoping to get to a place where we are regularly asking these questions in our work (whether designing software, studying the web, holding a symposium, or encouraging new publishing projects), measuring technological developments against a sense of what kind of society we’d like to live in and how a particular technology might help or hinder our getting there.
the first discussion is focused on neil postman’s “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.” following is the audio we recorded broken into annotated chapters. we would be interested in getting people’s feedback on both form and content. (jump to the discussion)

podcast: discussing neil postman’s “building a bridge to the 18th century”

book_building_a_bridge.jpg (Annotated audio recordings of this discussion appear further down.)
On the dedication page of “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,” Neil Postman quotes the poet Randall Jarrell:

Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.

Though often failing to provide satisfying answers, Postman asks the kind of first-order questions one hears all too infrequently at a time when technology’s impact on our social, political and intellectual lives grows ever more profound. Postman has been accused of deep reactionism toward technology, and indeed, his hostility toward computers and telecommunications betrays an elitism that discredits some of his larger, and quite compelling observations.
In spite of this, Postman’s diagnosis is persuasive: that the idea of technological progress bequeathed by the Enlightenment has detached from reason and become a runaway train, that we are unquestioningly embracing new technologies that unleash massive change on our family and communal life, our democracy, and our capacity to think critically. We have stopped asking the single most important question that should be applied to all new technological innovations: does this technology solve a problem? If so, then at what cost? To whose benefit? And at whose expense?
Postman portrays the contemporary West as a culture without a narrative, littered with the shards of broken ideologies – depressed, unmotivated, and therefore uncritical of the new technologies that are foisted upon it by a rapacious capitalist system. The culprit, as he sees it, is postmodernism, which he lambasts (rather simplistically) as a corrosive intellectual trend, picking at the corpse of the Enlightenment, and instilling torpor and malaise at all levels of culture through its distrust of language and dogged refusal to accept one truth over another. This kind of thinking, Postman argues, is seductive, but it starves humans of their inspiration and sense of purpose.
To be saved, he goes on, and to build a better future, we would do well to look back to the philosophes of 18th century Europe, who, in the face of surging industrialization, defined a new idea of universal rational humanism – one that allowed for various interpretations within its fold, was rigorously suspicious of religious or any other kind of dogma, and yet gave the world a sense of moral uplift and progress. Postman does not suggest that we copy the 18th century, but rather give it careful study in order to draw inspiration for a new positive narrative, and for a reinvigoration of our critical outlook. This, Postman insists, offers us the best chance of surviving our future.
Postman’s note of alarm, if at times shrill, is nonetheless a refreshing antidote to the techno-optimism that pervades contemporary culture. And his recognition of our “crisis in narrative” – a formulation borrowed from Vaclav Havel – is dead on.
September 19: Bob, Dan, Kim, and Ben discuss Postman’s book at our new Brooklyn office (special prize if you pick out the sound of the ice cream truck passing by).
1. Bob’s preface – thoughts about how we do business at the institute (1:56) (download)

2. Ben’s first impressions – childhood under threat… Dan’s first impressions into discussion – a Clinton-era book, sets up a rather straw man caricature with the postmodernists, but society’s need for a narrative is compelling – why the Christian right has done so well… Postman seems to be assuming that progress is a law, that there is a directed narrative to history – problems with how he treats evolution. (6:43) (download)

3. Bob: Postman is much better at identifying problems than at coming up with solutions. Which is what makes him compelling. His stance is courageous. People assume with technology that just because something can be done it should be done. This is a tremendous problem – an affliction. If you could go back in time and be the inventor of the automobile, would you do it? People get angry at the responsibility this question imputes to them. How can we put these big questions at the center of our work? (13:34) (download)

4. Another big question… “An electronic community is only a simulation of a real community”? Flickr, Friendster, Howard Dean campaign? What is the vehicle for talking about this? What format is best for engaging these questions? Looking for new forms that illuminate or activate the questions. (15:43) (download)

5. Where/who are the public intellectuals today? [The ice cream truck passes by.] Strange bifurcation of the intellectual elite – many of the best-educated people most able to deal with abstraction make their living producing popular media that controls society. (10:07) (download)

6. Is capitalism the problem? Postman’s bias: written language will never be surpassed in its power to deal with abstract thought and cultivation of ideas. But we are arguably past the primacy of print. What is our attitude toward this? (9:39) (download)

7. What opportunities for reflection do different media afford? Films on DVD can be read and reread like a book – the viewer controls, rather than being controlled – a possibility for reflection not available in broadcast. What is the proper venue for discussing this? Capitalism is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. How do we create, if not a mass agitation, then at least a mass discussion? Tie it to the larger pressing problems of the world and how they will be better addressed by certain forms of discourse and reflection. Averting ecological catastrophe as one possible narrative – an inspiring motivator that will get people moving. How do find our way back into history? (10:09) (download)

8. What should we read next as counterpoint/antidote to Postman? The Matrix – are we headed that way? (12:33) (download)

9. How do we organize new kinds of debates about technology and society? Other issues to be addressed – class, race and gender inequality. (11:26) (download)

yahoo! hires finance writers

Following Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone, Yahoo! takes another step in its transformation into original content provider (see Wall Street Journal – free). Though they say they have no intention of becoming a full-fledged news service.
Yahoo’s move suggests increased specialization and atomization of news media on the web, as full-fledged news services find it increasingly hard to stay afloat (as the recent wave of staff cuts at major papers suggests). As newspapers agonize over how to make more money from their websites (e.g. Times Select), companies with diverse revenue bases (like the big search portals) will find it a lot easier to deliver the news. But it will be a stripped down service, heavy on features. Can the news media as public trust survive this process of atomization? Or was the idea of a public trust always a fairy tale?

excellent analysis of times select

You can’t fault the Times for trying to find a new business model for the web, but they seem to be doing themselves more harm than good with Times Select. Jay Rosen has a terrific post on Press Think running through various reactions to the NY Times’ new subscription service that charges $49.99 per year for access to columnists, archives, and exclusive interactive features. Rosen rightly notes that the Times has gotten the idea of exclusivity all wrong:

The phrase “exclusive online accesss” advertises two different goods. The first good is the work of the Times columnists themselves. The proposition that some will pay for that is hard to prove until you try, but it’s simple to understand. The second good being advertised is exclusivity. You, the lucky TimesSelect subscriber, have access to these voices. Others do not. The value proposition there is muddled. If we prize up-to-date information about petroleum markets, we might value it more–and pay a premium–if the news is exclusively available to paying customers; but do we value Nicholas D. Kristof’s column more if he’s an “exclusive?”
We don’t. In fact, it’s probably the reverse. If everyone is reading a columnist, that makes the columnist more of a must have. If “everyone” isn’t, less of a must. “Exclusive online access” attacks the perception of ubiquity that is part and parcel of a great columnist’s power. In his prime Walter Lippmann was called “the name that opened every door.” Nick Kristof’s brand of human rights journalism, which depends on the mobilization of outrage, is simply less potent if it can’t reach widely around the world, and pass by every door.

The Wall Street Journal is an exclusive paper, so offering it over the web as a pay subscription service actually increases its cachet. The Times is a different sort of paper – it has a general audience and is read the world over. Its ubiquity, its availability over the web, is part of its identity.
Moroever, the Times is seriously overvaluing its columnists, or worse, de-valuing them by placing them behind a pay wall. If I were Tierney, or Kristof or Dowd, I would be furious. It makes them look like preened show dogs when everyone else is duking it out in the commons for all to read. Seems like a one-way ticket to irrelevance. Plus, soon they’re going to have to take part in all sorts of online chats and seminars with Select subscribers – I bet they’ll really start to chafe then.
The archive access is certainly tempting, though over-priced. Still, that seems a better starting point for a paperless subscription model, though it’s hard to imagine archives alone finding a mass paying audience.