Polished metal and obsidian mirrors have existed from ancient times, and because of this, historians have usually passed over the introduction of the glass mirror as if it was just another variation on an old theme. But the development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics. Polished metal mirrors of copper or bronze were very inefficient by comparison, reflecting only about 20 percent of the light; and even silver mirrors had to be exceptionally smooth to give any meaningful reflection. These were also prohibitively expensive: most medieval people would only have glimpsed their faces darkly, reflected in a pool of water.
What an odd thing, to not actually know what your face looks like, and yet for most of human history, that was the case. Also interesting that the rise of glass mirrors led to an increase of commissioned painted portraits:
People’s ability to appreciate their unique appearance led to a huge rise in the number of portraits commissioned, especially in the Low Countries and Italy. While almost all the oil paintings that survive from the fourteenth century are of a religious nature, the few exceptions are portraits. This trend toward portraiture grew in the fifteenth century, and came to dominate nonreligious art. As important men increasingly commissioned artists to create their likenesses, the more those likenesses were viewed, encouraging other people to have their portraits painted.
Steven Johnson discussed glass mirrors in the opening chapter of his book How We Got To Now.
At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered. “The most powerful prince in the world created a vast hall of mirrors, and the mirror spread from one room to another in the bourgeois household,” Lewis Mumford writes in his Technics and Civilization. “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself.”
Social conventions as well as property rights and other legal customs began to revolve around the individual rather than the older, more collective units: the family, the tribe, the city, the kingdom. People began writing about their interior lives with far more scrutiny. Hamlet ruminated onstage; the novel emerged as a dominant form of storytelling, probing the inner mental lives of its characters with an unrivaled depth. Entering a novel, particularly a first-person narrative, was a kind of conceptual parlor trick: it let you swim through the consciousness, the thoughts and emotions, of other people more effectively than any aesthetic form yet invented. The psychological novel, in a sense, is the kind of story you start wanting to hear once you begin spending meaningful hours of your life staring at yourself in the mirror.
If glass mirrors helped bring about such a shift in society, I wonder how society is shifting with the ability, only over the past 10-15 years or so, for people to instantly share their inner thoughts and selfies with friends, family, and even strangers many times every day? Is this more “seeing ourselves clearly” (individualism) or is the ability to allow others to see us clearly so frequently steering us back toward collectivism? Or somewhere else entirely?
Steven Johnson’s new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, will be out in November. In it, he describes how novelties and games have been responsible for scientific innovation and technological change for hundreds of years.
This lushly illustrated history of popular entertainment takes a long-zoom approach, contending that the pursuit of novelty and wonder is a powerful driver of world-shaping technological change. Steven Johnson argues that, throughout history, the cutting edge of innovation lies wherever people are working the hardest to keep themselves and others amused.
Johnson’s storytelling is just as delightful as the inventions he describes, full of surprising stops along the journey from simple concepts to complex modern systems. He introduces us to the colorful innovators of leisure: the explorers, proprietors, showmen, and artists who changed the trajectory of history with their luxurious wares, exotic meals, taverns, gambling tables, and magic shows.
They all revolve around the creative power of play: ideas and innovations that initially came into the world because people were trying to come up with fresh ways to trigger the feeling of delight or surprise, by making new sounds with a musical instrument, or devising clever games of chance, or projecting fanciful images on a screen. And here’s the fascinating bit: Those amusements, as trivial as they seemed at the time, ended up setting in motion momentous changes in science, technology, politics, and society.
[Ok, riff mode engaged…I have no idea if Johnson talks about learning while playing in his book, but I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately so…ready or not, here I come.] Being the parent of young children, you hear a lot about the power of play. I’ve never been a fan of a lot of screen time for kids, but lately I’ve been letting them play more apps on the iPad and also Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U. I’ve even come to think of their Kart playing as educational as well as entertaining. Watching them level up in the game has been fascinating to watch — Minna (my almost 7-year-old) has gone from not even being able to steer the kart to winning Grand Prix gold cups at 50cc (and she’s a better shot with a green shell than I am) and Ollie (my 9-year-old) is improving so rapidly that with his superior neuroplasticity and desire, he’ll be beating me in just a few months.1
Ok, but what is Mario Kart really teaching them? This isn’t about preparing them for their driver’s license exam. As dumb as it sounds,2 Mario Kart is a good vehicle (har!) for learning some of life’s most essential skills. They’re learning how persistant practice leads to steady improvement (something which isn’t always readily visible with schoolwork). They’re learning how to ignore what they can’t control and focus on what they can (Minna still watches green shells after shooting them but Ollie no longer does…helloooooo Stoicism). They’re learning how to lose gracefully and try again with determination. Most of all, they’re learning how to navigate an unfamiliar system. Teaching someone how to learn — knowing how to learn things is one of life’s greatest superpowers — is about exposing them to many different kinds of systems and helping them figure them out.
The first group to build a single integrated system for global trade were the Muslim spice merchants who came to prominence in the seventh century CE. Muslim traders worked the entire length of a network that stretched from the Indonesian archipelago to Turkey and the Balkans all the way across sub-Saharan Africa. Alongside the cloves and cinnamon, they brought the Koran. In almost all the places where Muslims attempted to convert local communities through military force — Spain or India, for instance — the Islamic faith failed to take root. But the traders turned out to be much more effective emissaries for their religion. The modern world continues to be shaped by those conversions more than a millennium later. The map of the Muslim spice trade circa 900 CE corresponds almost exactly to the map of Islamic populations around the world today.
By the dawn of the 20th century, almost every species in the 19th-century genus of illusion was wiped off the map by a new form of “natural magic”: the cinema. The stereoscope, too, withered in the public imagination. (It lingered on as a child’s toy in the 20th century through the cheap plastic View-Master devices many of us enjoyed in grade school.) But then something strange happened: After a century of irrelevance, Brewster’s idea — putting stereoscopic goggles over your eyes to fool your mind into thinking you are gazing out on a three-dimensional world — turned out to have a second life.
Ok, maybe in a year or two. Old Man Kottke is pretty good at Kart and has a few tricks left up his sleeve. Wisdom and experience can often be more than a match for youthful brilliance. ↩
It’s a bummer to have to caveat this. Even in the age of Minecraft, video games aren’t often thought of as learning opportunities. Very few in the US would bat an eyelash if I were talking about basketball or Little League. ↩
Sam Hinkie recently resigned as general manager of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. His resignation letter took the form of an investor letter, a la Warren Buffett’s annual letters. Before he gets down to basketball specifics, Hinkie spends several pages explaining his philosophy. Along with Buffett and his business partner Charlie Munger, Hinkie mentions in this introductory section Atul Gawande, Elon Musk, Bill James, James Clerk Maxwell, Bill Belichick, Jeff Bezos, Tim Urban (whom he suggests the Sixers owners should meet for coffee), AlphaGo, and Slack (the Sixers’ front office uses it). He even quotes Steven Johnson about the adjacent possible:
A yearning for innovation requires real exploration. It requires a persistent search to try (and fail) to move your understanding forward with a new tool, a new technique, a new insight. Sadly, the first innovation often isn’t even all that helpful, but may well provide a path to ones that are. This is an idea that Steven Johnson of Where Good Ideas Come From popularized called the “adjacent possible.” Where finding your way through a labyrinth of ignorance requires you to first open a door into a room of understanding, one that by its very existence has new doors to new rooms with deeper insights lurking behind them.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess that Hinkie is a regular kottke.org reader. (via farnum street)
In How We Got to Now, the TV series based on the book of the same name, Steven Johnson explains how the wine press was used to print books, which resulted in a surge in demand for reading glasses, which had yet more unintended effects.
This is how change happens in the natural world: sometime during the Cretaceous age, flowers began to evolve colors and scents that signaled the presence of pollen to insects, who simultaneously evolved complex equipment to extract the pollen and, inadvertently, fertilize other flowers with pollen.
Over time, the flowers supplemented the pollen with even more energy-rich nectar to lure the insects into the rituals of pollination. Bees and other insects evolved the sensory tools to see and be drawn to flowers, just as the flowers evolved the properties that attract bees. The symbiosis between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar ultimately created an opportunity for much larger organisms — the hummingbirds — to extract nectar from plants, though to do that they evolved a extremely unusual form of flight mechanics that enable them to hover alongside the flower in a way that few birds can even come close to doing. In other words, they had to learn an entirely new way to fly.
At the start of the 20th century, in Brooklyn, a printer was doing full-color magazines. In the summer the ink didn’t set up properly. The printer hired a young engineer, Willis Carrier, to devise a way to bring down the temperature and humidity in the room. He built this contraption that made the printing possible. Then the workers were like, “I’m gonna have my lunch in the room with the contraption, it’s cool in there.” Carrier says, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” He sets up the Carrier Corporation, which air-conditions movie theaters, paving the way for the summer blockbuster. Before air conditioning, a crowded theater was the last place you wanted to go. After a/c, summer movies become part of the cultural landscape.
The opening episode, for instance, is called “Clean,” and it sets the pattern for the five that follow. We tend not to acknowledge just how recent some of the trends and comforts of modern life are, including the luxury of not walking through horse manure and human waste on the way to the post office.
The episode turns back the clock just a century and a half, to a time before our liquid waste stream was largely contained in underground pipes. Mr. Johnson then traces the emergence of the idea that with a little effort, cities and towns could have a cleaner existence, and the concurrent idea that cleanliness would have public health benefits.
But his examination of “the ultraclean revolution,” as he calls it, doesn’t stop at the construction of sewage and water-purification systems. He extends the thread all the way to the computer revolution, visiting a laboratory where microchips are made.
The show is based on Johnson’s book of the same name, which enters the NY Times bestseller list at #4 this week. Also, I keep wanting to call the book/show How We Got to Know, which strikes me as a perfectly appropriate title as well.
The show builds on many of themes in the innovation history trilogy of The Ghost Map, The Invention Of Air, and Where Good Ideas Come From, but is based on new material with a completely different structure. Each hour-long episode takes one facet of modern life that we mostly take for granted — artificial cold, clean drinking water, the lenses in your spectacles — and tells the 500-year story of how that innovation came into being: the hobbyists and amateurs and entrepreneurs and collaborative networks that collectively made the modern world possible. It’s also the story of the unintended consequences of these inventions: air conditioning and refrigeration didn’t just make it possible to build ski slopes in the desert; they also triggered arguably the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species — to cities like Dubai or Phoenix that would otherwise be virtually uninhabitable.
Outside of the nature documentaries like Planet Earth, I haven’t seen a decent science series on TV in a long while — most of them are too slow with too much filler and not enough actual, you know, science — so I’m not getting my hopes up too high, but hoping this one bucks that trend.
I remember the very instant that I learned to be creative, to ‘invent’ things, to do things in an interesting and unusual way, and it happened by accident, literally.
I created mess around myself, the kind of chaos that would be very dangerous in an operating theater but which is synonymous with artists’ studios, and in that mess I edited the accidents. By increasing the amount of mess I had freed things up and increased the possibilities, I had maximised the adjacent possible and was able to create the appearance of inventing new things by editing the mistakes which appeared novel and interesting.
The adjacent possible is one of those ideas that, once you hear it, you want to apply to everything around you.
From Steven Johnson comes Future Perfect, a new book about “progress in a networked age”.
Combining the deft social analysis of Where Good Ideas Come From with the optimistic arguments of Everything Bad Is Good For You, New York Times bestselling author Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect makes the case that a new model of political change is on the rise, transforming everything from local governments to classrooms, from protest movements to health care. Johnson paints a compelling portrait of this new political worldview — influenced by the success and interconnectedness of the Internet, but not dependent on high-tech solutions — that breaks with the conventional categories of liberal or conservative thinking.
With his acclaimed gift for multi-disciplinary storytelling and big ideas, Johnson explores this new vision of progress through a series of fascinating narratives: from the “miracle on the Hudson” to the planning of the French railway system; from the battle against malnutrition in Vietnam to a mysterious outbreak of strange smells in downtown Manhattan; from underground music video artists to the invention of the Internet itself.
At a time when the conventional wisdom holds that the political system is hopelessly gridlocked with old ideas, Future Perfect makes the timely and inspiring case that progress is still possible, and that new solutions are on the rise. This is a hopeful, affirmative outlook for the future, from one of the most brilliant and inspiring visionaries of contemporary culture.
This is contrary to what we’ve been hearing from The Shallows et al.
The Innovator’s Cookbook is a collection of texts on innovation collected by Steven Johnson. The video is a pretty good introduction (and illustration) of what to expect from the book.
From bestselling author and Internet pioneer Steven Johnson, The Innovator’s Cookbook (on sale October 4, 2011) is an essential book for anyone interested in innovation: the key texts on the topic from a wide range of fields as well as interviews with successful, real-world innovators, prefaced with a new essay by Johnson that draws upon his own experiences as an entrepreneur and author.
But the service also helps city leaders detect patterns that might otherwise have escaped notice. After the first survey of 311 complaints ranked excessive noise as the number one source of irritation among residents, the Bloomberg administration instituted a series of noise-abatement programs, going after the offenders whom callers complained about most often (that means you, Mister Softee). Similarly, clusters of public-drinking complaints in certain neighborhoods have led to crackdowns on illegal social clubs. Some of the discoveries have been subtle but brilliant. For example, officials now know that the first warm day of spring will bring a surge in use of the city’s chlorofluorocarbon recycling programs. The connection is logical once you think about it: The hot weather inspires people to upgrade their air conditioners, and they don’t want to just leave the old, Freon-filled units out on the street.
The 311 system has proved useful not just at detecting reliable patterns but also at providing insights when the normal patterns are disrupted. Clusters of calls about food-borne illness or sanitary problems from the same restaurant now trigger a rapid response from the city’s health department.
Not discussed in the article is an assertion by my pal David that exclusive access to 311 data gives incumbent politicians — like, say, Michael Bloomberg — a distinct advantage when it comes to getting reelected. For instance, when campaigning on a neighborhood level, the incumbent can look at the 311 data for each neighborhood and tailor their message appropriately, e.g. promising to help combat noise in a neighborhood with lots of noise complaints or fix the streets in a neighborhood with lots of calls about potholes.
As a diverse city that supports countless industries and maverick interests, New York excels at creating those eclectic networks. Subcultures and small businesses generate ideas and skills that inevitably diffuse through society, influencing other groups. As the sociologist Claude Fischer put it in an influential essay on subcultures published in 1975, “The larger the town, the more likely it is to contain, in meaningful numbers and unity, drug addicts, radicals, intellectuals, ‘swingers’, health-food faddists, or whatever; and the more likely they are to influence (as well as offend) the conventional center of the society.”
Kelly: The musician Brian Eno invented a wonderful word to describe this phenomenon: scenius. We normally think of innovators as independent geniuses, but Eno’s point is that innovation comes from social scenes,from passionate and connected groups of people.
Johnson: At the end of my book, I try to look at that phenomenon systematically. I took roughly 200 crucial innovations from the post-Gutenberg era and figured out how many of them came from individual entrepreneurs or private companies and how many from collaborative networks working outside the market. It turns out that the lone genius entrepreneur has always been a rarity-there’s far more innovation coming out of open, nonmarket networks than we tend to assume.
Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.
Speaking of Steven Johnson and new books, Alex Ross has a post about how Johnson’s long zoom concept has influenced his music writing *and* has a new book of his own out soon called Listen to This (at Amazon). See how deftly I knitted that together in a Johnsonian way? Ahem. Anyway, here’s what Listen to This is about:
It offers a panoramic view of the musical scene, from Bach to Björk and beyond. In the Preface, I say that the aim is to “approach music not as a self-sufficient sphere but as a way of knowing the world.” I treat pop music as serious art and classical music as part of the wider culture; my hope is that the book will serve as an introduction to crucial figures and ideas in classical music, and also give an alternative perspective on modern pop.
The best part is that Ross’ web site contains an extensive collection of audio, video, and images of the works mentioned in the book.
Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, comes out in a couple weeks. As in many of Johnson’s previous books, place plays a starring role — Interface Culture was set in cyberspace, Emergence talked extensively about cities, The Ghost Map’s epicenter was a water pump on Broad St. in London, and Mind Wide Open mapped out our brain space. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson steps back to ask: what is the relationship between place and ideas? What are the attributes common to places in which innovation happens? The trailer for the book explains further.
I’ve read the book and the last chapter’s discussion of market/non-market environments & individual/network approaches in relation to innovation is alone worth the price of purchase, nevermind that the rest of it is interesting as well. Heck, even the appendix is fascinating; it contains a chronology of the key human inventions and innovations from 1400 to the present that is difficult to put down.
I look at human environments that have been unusually generative: the architecture of successful science labs, the information networks of the Web or the Enlightenment-era postal system, the public spaces of metropolitan cities, even the notebooks of great thinkers. But I also look at natural environments that have been biologically innovative: the coral reef and the rain forest, or the chemical soups that first gave birth to life’s good idea.
With books becoming part of this universe, “booklogs” will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, “In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.”) You’ll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage’s true meaning.
I recently used a Kindle for the first time and was really underwhelmed. I’d kind of wanted one but using it for few minutes turned me right off. The potential is definitely there, but the actual device is a bummer: too small, too slow, and too closed. Maybe using one for two weeks would change my mind…but I don’t know. I’m skeptical of the future that Johnson sketches out for the ebook, and it’s not just the Kindle.
When the web and the first browsers were built — mostly by scientists, not by billion-dollar retailers or publishing conglomerates — the openess that Johnson talks about as a metaphor for how ebooks will work was baked in: viewing source, copy/paste of text, the ability to download images, etc. All of the early web’s content was also free (as in beer).
Aside from some notable exceptions like Project Gutenberg, e-books are currently only as open and free as the publishing companies (and Amazon and Google) want them to be. I think those two initial conditions change the playing field. Copy/paste/publish to your booklog without significant restrictions or payment? Sharing a passage of a book with someone who doesn’t own that book, as verified through a third-party DRM system? Good luck! Readers will have to fight for those kinds of features. And perhaps we’ll eventually win. But for right now, the bookloggers that Johnson speaks of are only two letters away from how the publishing industry might label them: bootleggers.
Steven Johnson takes on the future of journalism and newspapers using the ecosystem metaphor that he successfully deployed in The Invention of Air. Johnson argues that journalism in the future will look a lot like how technology and politics are covered now because those two topics are the “old growth forests of the web”, i.e. they’ve been covered long enough on the web that old media has had time to adjust, react, and in many cases, go out of business in the face of that coverage.
The funny thing about newspapers today is that their audience is growing at a remarkable clip. Their underlying business model is being attacked by multiple forces, but their online audience is growing faster than their print audience is shrinking. As of January, print circulation had declined from 62 million to 49 million since my days at the College Hill Bookstore. But their online audience has grown from zero to 75 million over that period. Measured by pure audience interest, newspapers have never been more relevant. If they embrace this role as an authoritative guide to the entire ecosystem of news, if they stop paying for content that the web is already generating on its own, I suspect in the long run they will be as sustainable and as vital as they have ever been. The implied motto of every paper in the country should be: all the news that’s fit to link.
As such, it is a metaphorical representation of the fundamental ideology of the United States; the past is no constraint on the future, and each individual should strive resolutely for personal advance despite whatever the past may hold. The child born in a log cabin may achieve the presidency, an immigrant boy who grows up in the slums of Brooklyn may become a real-estate magnate, an Ivy-educated scion of wealth may wind up on a bread line, and a double green will speed you to the fore. Though there are winners and losers, initial conditions are no determinant of outcome in the freedom of America.
Tom Armitage references both Johnson and Costikyan in his response, Taking Turns.
Candyland is a great first game; literally, the very first. It teaches turn-taking. It teaches the mores, the manners, the culture of playing boardgames. Later, when a child comes to a game where the rules are more complex, the turn process more intricate, the customs of gameplay are already learned; rather than focusing on learning the social interactions, they can focus on the complexity of the game itself.
I’m not big into the “moral message” interpretation of pop culture, but plenty of critics of digital games are, so just for the record: what sort of message does Candy Land send to our kids? (And I’m not just talking about all the implicit advertisements for cane sugar products.) It says you are powerless, that your destiny is entirely determined by the luck of the draw, that the only chance you have of winning the game lies in following the rules, and accepting the cards as they come. Who wants to grow up in that kind of universe?
On the other hand, games of chance allow children of all ages and abilities to play the same games together and experience both winning and losing.
The cycle of photosynthesis is the cycle of life, says science journalist Morton (Mapping Mars). Green leaves trap sunlight and use it to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and emit life-giving oxygen in its place. Indeed, plants likely created Earth’s life-friendly oxygen- and nitrogen-rich biosphere. In the first part, Morton, chief news and features editor of the leading science journal, Nature, traces scientists’ quest to understand how photosynthesis works at the molecular level. In part two, Morton addresses evidence of how plants may have kick-started the complex life cycle on Earth. The book’s final part considers photosynthesis in relation to global warming, for, he says, the Earth’s plant-based balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen is broken: in burning vast amounts of fossil fuels, we are emitting more carbon dioxide than the plants can absorb. But Morton also explores the possibility that our understanding of photosynthesis might be harnessed to regain that balance.
It has an organizing theme of how innovative ideas emerge and spread in a society, while integrating many different threads along the way: 18th-century London coffeehouse culture; the Adams-Jefferson letters; the origins of ecosystem science; the giant dragonflies of the Carboniferous Era; the impact of energy deposits on British political change; the discovery of the gulf stream; the Alien and Sedition acts; Jefferson’s bible; the Lunar Society; mob violence; Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions; Ben Franklin’s kite experiment.
It’s also not, somehow, 6500 pages. I thought for sure that this was going to be some sort of long zoom book, not a book with a long zoom approach.
Earlier this week, Toshiba announced that they would no longer be manufacturing or marketing HD DVD players, which effectively ended the HD disc format war going on between HD DVD and the victorious Blu-ray format. Later that day, author and tech gadget enthusiast Steven Johnson twittered the following:
Chuckling at the fact that the ENTIRE PLATFORM died a month after I bought my HD-DVD player.
Thinking that it would be interesting to hear the tale of an early adopter in the age of hyper-obsolescence, I sent Johnson a few questions that he was kind enough to answer.
Jason Kottke: Warner Brothers went exclusively Blu-ray on January 4. When did you buy your player?
Steven Johnson: Basically our old DVD player broke, and so I figured we might as well buy a next generation player if we were buying a new one. Being the renowned technology futurist that I am, I analyzed the marketplace and decided that the HD-DVD/Blu-ray standoff was going to be around for a long time, and so I might as well just pick one and go with it. I think I had HD-DVD in my head because I had been thinking about buying the XBOX-360 HD-DVD accessory, so that’s what I bought. Right around December 20th I think.
Kottke: The pace of HD DVD’s collapse was dizzying, even by contemporary standards. How do you feel about owning a brand new piece of obsolete technology? You’re an early adopter…is this just how the game is played, even at this fantastic velocity?
Johnson: I thought it was pretty funny. I mean, the Betamax adopters at least had a few years to nag their VHS friends about the better picture quality, before the format died a slow death. But HD-DVD — they just took it out back and shot it! I think that’s what’s so striking about this. I can’t remember a standards war where the winner was crowned so definitively. For a few weeks there, I felt like the technology world was taunting me for my decision: I got email from Netflix saying that they were NEVER going to buy another HD-DVD again.
The consolation prize is that Apple introduced HD rentals with the AppleTV — which we also have — right as HD-DVD was dying, so I might be able to bypass Blu-Ray altogether, just out of spite.
Kottke: Do you think Blu-ray will achieve the popularity that DVDs did or is the age of shuttling bits around on silver platters over?
Johnson: I really hope so. I’ve been using the new Apple TV version for the past 48 hours, and the whole HD movie rental process is just completely painless, other than the fact that they should give you 48 hours to watch the movie once you’ve started it. (By the way, I don’t think enough people have commented on that Take Two upgrade: it is basically an entirely new product, and Apple just gave away the upgrade for free — I think as an implicit acknowledgment that the first iteration wasn’t fully baked. Still, how cool.)
Kottke: So you’re the owner of a machine that will perform its task perfectly for many years to come but is de-facto useless because you can’t buy any new media for it beyond the ~400 currently available titles. Is this becoming a more commonplace situation for consumers?
Johnson: Yes and no. There are more new standards proposed, and new innovations, and thus more obsolescence, but more and more of the new standards are coming in the form of software not hardware, so the transitions aren’t nearly as painful as my HD-DVD misadventure. My AppleTV box that I bought last year wouldn’t let me watch HD movies or browse Flickr photos, but after twenty minutes of a software update, I can now enjoy both with ease. I think that experience is probably going to be more commonplace than my getting burned buying into the wrong silver platter.
The most encouraging word we have so far had about television came from a grade-school principal we encountered the other afternoon.
“They say it’s going to bring back vaudeville,” he said, “but I think it’s going to bring back the book.”
Before television, he told us, his pupils never read; that is, they knew how to read and could do it in school, but their reading ended there. Their entertainment was predominantly pictorial and auditory — movies, comic books, radio.
Now, the principal said, news summaries are typed out and displayed on the television screen to the accompaniment of soothing music, the opening pages of dramatized novels are shown, words are written on blackboards in quiz and panel programs, commercials are spelled out in letters made up of dancing cigarettes, and even the packages of cleansers and breakfast foods and the announcers exhibit for identification bear printed messages.
It’s only a question of time, our principal felt, before the new literacy of the television audience reaches the point where whole books can be held up to the screen and all their pages slowly turned.
If you stop thinking of TV in the specific sense as a box on which ABC, CBS, and NBC are shown and instead imagine it in the general sense as a service that pipes content into the home to be shown on a screen, the prediction hits pretty close to the mark. The experience of using the web is not so different than reading pages of words that are “held up to the screen” while we scroll slowly through them. If we can imagine that what Paul Otlet and Vannevar Bush described as the “televised book” and the “memex” corresponds to today’s web, why not give our high school principal here the same benefit of the doubt?
OK, Kottke faithful: this is it—the last of my interviews on The State We’re In. I know you’ve all come to know and love Jason’s short, link-y goodness (so do I) & am happy to say it returns tomorrow. Meantime, I can’t think of a better way to cap off this week’s talks than with Steven Berlin Johnson. Author of two of my favorite books, Emergence and The Ghost Map, Steven also heads up one of the more interesting social networking sites, outside.in. He spent some time this week exchanging ideas on the Web’s various geographies and the different ways we navigate both the physical and mental worlds we inhabit.
JT: Outside.in is a great idea—I love the kind of Jane Jacobs/crowded sidewalks thing you’re striving for—or seem to be: how is it working out? Have you been surprised by anything? Any new ideas?
SBJ: It has been really fun and rewarding. I had seriously resisted the idea of starting a new company, because my lifestyle as a writer for the past five or six years had been pretty amazing. But it’s just such an interesting problem that we’re trying to solve at outside.in, and it’s such an interesting time to be trying to solve it—so I ultimately couldn’t help myself. In a way there are a lot of parallels to the timing of the first two web sites that I helped build—trying to build an online magazine (FEED) in 1995, or a community-authored news site (Plastic) in 2000 is quite a bit like trying to build out the geographic web in 2007.
One of the big surprises has to do with the long tail of geography. When we originally conceived of the site, we thought the tail was all about neighborhoods—that was the geographic niche that big media had traditionally ignored in favor of cities and greater metro areas. But it turns out the tail is even longer: a huge amount of our traffic goes to our place pages, where you can see all the discussion from around the web about a specific public school, or park, or restaurant, or real estate development. So we’ve started adjusting the UI for the site to reflect that focus; the new city front door has a “Places” tab that lets you see the most talked about places in your community.
But I think the most surprising thing about it is how hard it is to convince people of the general importance of geo-tagging pages. I’ve just written a little essay—called “The Pothole Paradox“—to coincide with the new version we’re launching this week, and one of the things that I talk about is the fact that the Web itself was made possible by standardizing the virtual location of pages. And in many ways, what made blogging so valuable was that you had standardized time stamps for pages as well. So we had virtual space and actual time, but not actual space. But it turns out there are amazing things that can be done if the geographic location of pages (the location they’re describing, not where their servers are located) is machine-readable. Flickr showed this with photos, of course, and we’re trying to make the case for it as well.
JT: One thing I wonder about is whether or not you could (or, even so, should) consider other kinds of geographies: of the mind, for instance. I live in Minneapolis, but as a writer I spend a week to a month every year in New York. My daily paper—to the extent that this notion even makes sense anymore: but until very recently it was an actual paper—is The New York Times. Isn’t one of the great things about the Web—and specifically things like blogs and social networking sites—that we have the tools to build dense communities that map to more than just the physical geography of our lives? And these geographies interact in interesting ways (consider the richness of Thoreau’s remark: “I have traveled a great deal in Concord.”): are we bound to live in a world in which these maps—and their attendant communities—are disconnected?
SBJ: I think you’re absolutely right. And yet the fact that the Web creates a new kind of semantic or social geography untethered to physical space doesn’t mean that the old kind of geography disappears. 99% of the Web 2.0 companies that have launched over the past five years have been, in effect, pursuing those kinds of new associations that you describe, but there hasn’t been nearly as much focus on the possibility of using the Web to enhance physical geography. So we’re trying to correct that imbalance. If everyone was doing hyperlocal, and no one was doing, say, social networks, I’d probably start a social network site.
What we’re really grappling with at outside.in is the fact that we built the site around a very specific ideal-case geography: Brooklyn. In other words, it’s a site that works really, really well in communities where you find high population density, many local bloggers, intense gentrification and development debates, and clearly-defined neighborhoods. But it turns out the rest of the country (much less the world) doesn’t always look like Brooklyn. So that’s one of the things we’ve been tweaking in terms of the way that the database is structured.
JT: In an interview with Jason B. Jones in Pop Matters last year, the two of you talked quite a bit about the Long Zoom as a kind of guiding principle of your books, specifically in my two favorites: Emergence and The Ghost Map. In the latter, the zoom between the physical and mental map of the world—the long zoom from our senses and surroundings to our greater ideas about those things—zoomed up quite naturally into error & disaster. Then John Snow recalibrated things, created a new, different path along which to zoom, and virtually eliminated cholera from London. You and Jason referenced the great Eames documentary, Powers of Ten, in this regard: but isn’t this metaphor broken—or at least inexact? We’re not really just going up and down—but more like traversing an n-dimensional graph. Outside.in gives us a way of moving in certain directions—but I wonder whether you have any thoughts on how the blogosphere, the ways in which it creates large numbers of short paths, helps us navigate the world? Or does it, as the complainers say, just muck it up?
SBJ: One of the great things that Jane Jacobs wrote about in Life and Death of the Great American Cities is the design principle of favoring short blocks over longer ones—the crooked streets of the Village versus the big avenues of Chelsea—because short blocks diversify the flow of pedestrian traffic. In an avenue system, everyone feeds onto the big streets, and you have insanely overcrowded streets and then side streets that are deserted (which leads to storefront real estate that only the big chains can afford, and real estate that no one wants because there’s not enough foot traffic). In a short block model, the streets tend to gravitate towards that middle zone where there are always some people on them, but not too many.
I’ve always thought that the blogosphere can be thought of as a kind of small blocks model for the Web, whereas the original portal idea was much more of a big avenues model. Yes, there are some increasing returns effects that lead to some A-list bloggers having millions of visitors, and yes, there is a long tail of bloggers who have almost no traffic. But the healthiest part of the curve is what Dave Sifry once called “the big butt”—the middle zone between the head and tail of the Power Law distribution, all those sites with 1000 to 100,000 readers. That’s the part of the blogosphere that I think is really cause for celebration, because something like that just didn’t exist before on that scale. And as Yochai—who of course is very smart about all this—points out: those mid-list sites also communicate up the chain to the A-listers, who can broadcast out the interesting developments in the mid-list so that those stories enter a broader public dialogue. Maybe the new slogan is, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 Digg links.”
Your “n-dimensional graph” is exactly right, and it’s exactly that shape that makes the “death of public space” or “Daily Me” argument so silly. There are plenty things to complain about in the kinds of communication that the Internet fosters (think about the spam alone), but the idea that this environment is somehow encouraging too much filtering, too much echo-chamber insularity, is a fundamental misreading of the medium.
JT: Finally, I want to stump for story for a minute—but then raise some questions about their role & interaction with the Web and blogs and the ubiquity/inexpense of media produciton. A part of me thinks that every additional word I say about something I publish diminishes it in some way: I write a book with (very nearly) exactly the right combination and number of words to mean what I say. And then several other parts of me chime in to say, “But you know that’s not the whole story!” or “Don’t you wish you could say ‘X’ now—after it’s too late to include it in the book?” You point, for instance, to Ralph Frerichs’ John Snow site at the end of The Ghost Map and mention Tufte’s work and there are a host of reproductions of the map available (including this one, in Flash). I also think that, by now, we all know that authorial intention isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—and yet, it’s not trivial. Given that just about everything is connected to everything else now, what is the role of the discrete story?
SBJ: I’m kind of a traditionalist when it comes to the book form, particularly the writing process. The book is fundamentally a one-to-one form, in the sense that 99% of the time, you’re talking directly as a single author to a single reader, and the whole interaction is about this very intimate exchange (though of course it’s a very one-way exchange). No doubt you end up having many different readers if your books are successful, but the actual experience of the form keeps returning to that direct encounter between two individual minds. I love that about books, and I’m probably happiest and most at home when I’m in the middle of writing one. And so that part of the constraint I really embrace; I almost never discuss the book I’m currently writing on my blog, for instance.
But at the same time, I love all these new forms that are emerging where the relationships between authors and readers are far more complicated and multi-dimensional, which also causes the text itself to blur around the edges. When you look at something like TechMeme, it’s about as far as you can get from that one-to-one exchange. And that’s great. Or BoingBoing—I mean, those guys might have had only 25 phone calls, as Cory said, but there’s an incredible group jam going on there that’s entirely distinct from the much more private, interior space of book writing.
For me, the blog is where the edges of the book form blur, and blur in a really nice way—after the book comes out. I can’t imagine publishing a book now without having the blog to promote, respond, re-evaluate, extend, connect—even retract! It’s not quite as impossible to imagine as writing without Google (which seems like writing a book on a typewriter to me now) but it’s close.
I’m loving the new 1.1.1 update to the iPhone. Best new features for me: the double-tap of the Home button to go to your address book favorites (first suggested by Steven Johnson shortly after the phone’s introduction) and more alert ringtone choices for when a new text message comes in. I still wish I could set that alert volume independently from the main ringtone volume, but this is a good start…I’ll be able to hear my texts coming in again.
Wired’s cover feature for the March 2007 issue is Snack Culture. “Movies, TV, songs, games. Pop culture now comes packaged like cookies or chips, in bite-size bits for high-speed munching. It’s instant entertainment - and boy, is it tasty.” Even though kottke.org is a part of this culture, I still prefer a full meal.