Monthly Archives: July 2008

do you remember the first time?

Siva Vaidhyanathan, the Institute’s fellow, is busy writing a book about Google, to be titled The Googlization of Everything. He’s working in public, and right now, he’s interested in hearing stories about how people – that means you! – began to use Google:

Do you remember the first time you used Google? When was it? How did you hear about Google? What was you first impression?
Please use the comments over on The Googlization of Everything to tell me stories.
As Mudbone (Richard Pryor’s character) used to say, “you only remember two times, your first and your last.”

There are a lot of interesting comments there already . . .

kerfluffle at

I got a note from someone at Britannica online telling me about a discussion prompted by Clay Shirky’s riposte to Nicolas Carr’s Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
The conversation on the Britannica site, and the related posts on John Brockman’s EDGE, remind me as much as anything of the conversational swordplay typical of TV pundits, who are so enamored of their own words that they can barely be bothered to listen to or read each other’s ideas, much less respond sincerely.
(Can it possibly be a coincidence that all the players in this drama are male? Get a grip guys! This is not about scoring points. You’re dealing with issues central to the future of the species and the planet.)
And as long as we’re dealing with missing persons, i was stunned to realize that not one of these media gurus references McLuhan, who as far as i’m concerned, not only asked more profound questions about the effect of media on humans and their society, but provided first-pass answers which we would still do well to heed.
Of the myriad posts and pages that now comprise the Britannica Carr/Shirky discussion, three posts are particular interest.
The first is from the critic Sven Birkerts, whom many people consider conservative. I don’t. Rather, I see Birkerts as the most eloquent voice on behalf of what we are losing as we shed the culture of the Gutenberg age. Birkerts doesn’t entreat us to stop time or throw wrenches in the wheels of change. He’s just asking us to be conscious of what’s good about the present.
Another is from George Dyson who writes in a way that in my worst nightmares i fear is prescient:

Nicholas Carr asks a question that all of us should be asking ourselves:
“What if the cost of machines that think is people who don’t?”
It’s a risk. “The ancestors of oysters and barnacles had heads. Snakes have lost their limbs and ostriches and penguins their power of flight. Man may just as easily lose his intelligence,” warned J. B. S. Haldane in 1928.

The third is a comment by Blair Boland, which appears as a comment to Nicolas Carr’s response to Shirky. Not only does Boland provide a taut history lesson, setting the record straight on the Luddites, but he states a fundamental issue of our time more clearly than anyone else: “who controls technology and for what ends?”

What both critiques share in common and take for granted is a smugly false and typically misleading disparagement of so-called Luddism. The original, much maligned Luddites are commonly dismissed as cranks, or worse still, “murderous thugs” and the “essential fact” of Luddite “complaint” twisted to serve the ends of propagandists for capital. Ned Ludd and his followers were not necessarily opposed to technological ‘change’ or ‘progress’ per se but the social context in which it occurred and the economic consequences it presaged. As Ludd expressed it, “we will never lay down our arms…[’til]the House of Commons passes an act to put down all machinery Hurtful to Commonality”. They realized that these changes were being undertaken undemocratically for the benefit of a narrow class of economic elites. Luddite anxieties were well founded as was their understanding of the implications for the working class in general, even though they couldn’t have foreseen all of the consequences fully. Their protests and resistance was met with the most aggressive and “murderous” suppression by the British government of the day. Thousands of troops were dispatched to put down the rebellion, not only succeeding in ruthlessly exterminating the Luddite uprising but also serving notice to workers in general of the close bonds between the state and industrialists; and the means that could be employed to discipline intractable workers. The dire conditions of the working class in the new “industrial age’ that ensued proved Luddite premonitions largely prophetic. These conditions still exist in many parts of the world. So while it’s fine to fret over the impact of the net on the reading habits of the affluent, the concerns of the Luddites still haven’t gone away. The important principle then as now, is who controls technology and for what ends? Taylor’s time/motion practices further tightened the hold of the owners of production technology over the wage serfs operating that technology, again in a very undemocratic and restrictive way, “hurtful to commonality”. These, as noted, are the same principles that guide much technological development today and are among the most worrisome aspects of its ultimate applications. “And now we’re facing a similar challenge”, to see that the latent democratizing abundance of the net is not “shaped” into the greatest expansion of social control and commercial concentration of power the world has ever known.

now you can judge a virtual book by its cover too

Zoomii, a new virtual bookstore that uses Amazon’s prices and fulfilment, provides a nifty ‘browse’ interface that lets the viewer zoom in and out of 21,000 ‘books’ – read cover thumbnails – arranged on ‘shelves’ according to category.
It’s the most bookshop-like experience I’ve encountered online. Within seconds I’d been reminded of several books I’ve been meaning to read. And arguably the proximity of a diverse selection of titles could help strikes a blow for browsing and against the homophily that characterizes much Web browsing.
It’s debatable, though, whether this kind of heavily-mediated pseudo-serendipity, while a pleasant change from the messy Amazon experience, isn’t one metaphor too far. After all, how ‘serendipitous’ are the book thumbnails I find on its digitally-rendered ‘shelves’?
What concerns me is that, while this site provides something of the feel of browsing a bookstore, this is not only a superficial impression but reproduces the worst of the industrialized mainstream bookstores. The buying practices necessitated in order to keep a large bookstore financially viable these days have skewed the kinds of books that are deemed saleable profoundly; the redemptive promise of the Web was that the magical long tail might create markets for even those niche publications that have been edged out of mainstream publishing and book sales.
And yet (as I understand it – corrections welcome) for a book to be sold in more than one place online it must be equipped with a set of tags (ISBN, summary, thumbnail image etc) according to a metadata standard. Without these, the multiplicity of bookselling affiliate schemes, APIs and so on will not be able to carry the title, and the book will not sell. And this additional informational labor is beyond the technical and time resources of many small publishers. So while a bookstore (in its ideal, pre-Scott Pack form at least) might be imagined to carry a genuinely serendipitous mix of local publications, the manager’s choices, remainders, bestsellers and second-hand titles, this slick performance of serendipity relies on several intricate but invisible additional layers of technologization. Thus, while it gives the feeling of serendipity, the data architectures required to sustain the ‘bookstore’ metaphor push the available selection ever more towards a literary monoculture.
In an age where more books than ever are being published, perhaps this doesn’t matter. But despite the attractiveness of Zoomii as a piece of data visualization, it seems to me to point towards a worst-case combination of manual, recommendation-free browsing and industrialized depletion of diversity.