The trouble with tunnel vision is that it leads to tunnel design. We are designing all sorts of information technologies that make things more efficient, but not necessarily more effective. (John Seely Brown)
The trouble with tunnel vision is that it leads to tunnel design. We are designing all sorts of information technologies that make things more efficient, but not necessarily more effective. (John Seely Brown)
I do believe that there has to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at least calm, into modern life — or at least my version. Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, I experienced what, if I wasn’t such a skeptic, I would call a lightness of being. I felt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think, and distance from normal demands. I got to stop."
A few weeks ago a friend of mine announced that she was taking a break from Web 2.0.* She was going to prune her Twitter feeds, reduce her time on Facebook, and cut back on her time on IM. She needed to pay more attention to her real life, and to real relationships. Recollecting friends from high school and college was interesting for a while (Web 2.0 is a time machine for my generation, after all), but a large volume of acquaintances can't provide the same satisfaction and support as a handful of friends you can see-- or who can take the kids out to the park for an hour. Getting Tweets on her cell phone was also a poor combination of intrusiveness and minutiae. And there was laundry to be done.
As one of the digital lemmings who pushed her over the edge, the episode got me thinking. Why do I Tweet? After thinking about it for a while, I've come the conclusion that while it's certainly popular with lots of my friends, I have a couple serious questions about Twitter, as a writer and a reader.
First, I have to admit that my regular life isn't interesting enough to justify throwing out real-time updates about it. Nobody needs to know that I've just convinced the kids to make their own breakfasts, or have come back from lunch at Zao Noodles, or am trying to decide where to go on this weekend's hike. The exception is when I'm on the road or doing something else unusual: at those times, my life-- or my world-- might get interesting enough document in detail.There's also the problem that I'm not sure what I get out of my own tweets. One of the signal features of Web 2.0, I think, is that it's not just broadcasting: it's self-documentation. Some of my friends use Twitter to jot down little notes about what they're reading. But for me, the absence of tags in Twitter makes it hard for me to find things I've looked at long enough to know I should look for them again later, or to keep track of citations; del.icio.us is still the better tool for that. (I suppose you could replicate a little of that functionality with #tags, but that's a workaround, and there's no auto-complete....) And I'm not sure I've gone back and looked at my own Twitter stream, ever. My regular blog is valuable because it's a way to keep track of my own life; this one has been invaluable for recording and trying out ideas for my book; my kids' blog has been a place where I could store huge amounts of detail about my kids' childhoods-- those pictures of them doing cute but ordinary things, or saying wonderful things, or just growing up. Tossing out tweets feels like shooting sparks from a wheel: the sparks may be entertaining, but it's the object you're shaping with the wheel that's really valuable.
Finally, as a reader, I find that seeing the raw feed of even a few people's lives can quickly become overwhelming. In the last 24 hours, a relatively quiet time after Thanksgiving, I got 34 tweets; during a busy time-- when people are traveling or at SXSW-- I can get several times that, easily. There's an argument to be made, as Clive Thompson has done, that the minutiae of tweets resolve into ambient awareness... but as it's currently designed, the system still puts big demands on readers, who have to constantly read their friends' Twitter streams, develop a sense of the rhythm of their posting, and build up a model of their real-world state from their online behavior. In a world in which the challenge is not to broadcast a lot of information, but to generate a lot of meaning, the stream-of-existence quality of tweeting makes it easy to mistake detail for intimacy, quantity of tweets for quality of expression or depth of understanding. As a preview of the world of ubiquitous computing and ambient awareness, Twitter is an interesting experiment (an experiment that's being conducted my hundreds of thousands of people on themselves and their friends.)
This is actually not a bad lesson for designers. Creating ambient devices isn't about pushing information; presence isn't just about connection. Connecting people virtually is as much about quality and meaning in the digital world as it is in the real world.
Which is not to say that Twitter is hopeless. Twitter is strongest as a platform for conversation and reportage. It's easy to share a rapid fire of short notes at conferences, for example, and the final result-- assuming people are listening and paying attention-- can be useful. (I wonder if there are examples of Twitter being used by students in lecture classes?) A couple of the people I follow use it as much for pinging friends as for talking about what they're doing: for them, Twitter is a cross between the Facebook wall and a chat room. And I find Twitter useful for getting reactions to news events: I stopped watching the presidential debates this fall, for examples, after I realized that most of my friends were tweeting their reactions to them.
So what do I do with my Twitter stream? I'm not going to shut it down, because there are times when I'll want to provide moment-by-moment updates about what I'm doing ("Just cleared customs in Kai Tak! Where's the cab line?" "Have now been in Victoria Stations on four continents...."). But for me, when I do use it, the challenge will be to figure out how to write the Web 2.0 equivalent of Zen koans: to fit meaning into 140 characters, rather than to fight the limitations of the medium by posting a lot.
At a post-hike party this afternoon, I was talking to a friend about the Sydney Opera House, which I visited during a layover in Sydney in early 2007. Even now, visiting the Opera House seems like one of the high points of my life.
Now, I read in the Guardian that Jorn Utzon, the Opera House's architect, has died.
For some reason, this detail in the Telegraph about Utzon's creative process stands out for me:
Utzon rarely used a sketchbook, but would draw on anything that was available. He drew the initial plan for an art museum at Silkeborg, in Denmark, with poured salt on a restaurant table in Sydney, which he then photographed with a borrowed camera. Based on Buddhist caves he had visited near the Gobi Desert, the museum was never built.
Another friend recalled Utzon using a charred stick on a pavement to sketch the cross-section of a cave-room he had seen in China, which was to form the basis for his design for a new house; sadly the sketch was washed away by a thunderstorm that same night.
It also reports this anecdote:
He also told the audience [in London in 1978] of a letter he had received from a woman who was put off the idea of throwing herself into Sydney Harbour by the sight of the opera house, deciding that if Utzon could go through the agony of getting it built without wanting to kill himself, then she too could cope with life.
Thomas Keneally had a great piece on the Opera House last year. It waxed rhapsodic about the design, the amazing location, and the structure's long and complicated history, and is well worth reading. The conclusion:
But it is as a focus for citizens and visitors, as well as the home of art practitioners, that the Opera House works. It is the great communal house of Sydney. In this way, it is more than a mere monument. Inside and out, it is Sydney's agora. The excessive and often excluding awe induced by many European opera houses is missing in it. Children run on its concrete skirts under a blue sky (well, often it is blue), and do not need to be hushed. A building children can feel ownership of is more than a mere opera house.
They say that in the medieval period the great cathedrals - Chartres, say - operated both as a place of wonders and a market not just for bishops and priests but for the entertainment, instruction and delight of ordinary folk, peasants and craftsmen. That is the role the secular cathedral of the Opera House plays in Sydney.
Today we went with some friends to Wunderlich Park (here's a map), just outside the town of Woodside. A century ago the land was owned by James Folger, the founder of Folger's Coffee (like Levi Strauss, Folger had come to California during the gold rush, but made his money not by extracting wealth from the mines, but by extracting wealth from the miners).
The park was a pretty big hit with the kids. We took a roughly two-mile hike that took us through coast redwoods, eucalyptus, and oak. (I'm a complete pushover for redwoods, especially when the paths-- like the one in Wunderlich-- has lots of switchbacks and curves.)
The terrain is hilly, but not outrageous, and trails are pretty well-kept and -marked.
Of course, most of the kids enjoyed themselves mainly because they had company (if there's one essential piece of equipment to keep kids happy on a hike, it's not water or snacks or good shoes, but other kids). But my son, who likes to complain about hikes, even enjoyed himself. I caught up with him walking by himself on the trail-- the girls had run ahead-- and he seemed self-contained and perfectly content. Which is unusual for a 6 year-old.
The Bay Area has a pretty amazing network of parks, open spaces, nature preserves, and the like-- and I know very little about them. That, combined with a desire to explore the region more thoroughly and get the kids more vigorously engaged with nature, has made me start to take them hiking. Most of our experience hiking has been along the bay, and while those parks are nice, they're pretty small, and flat.
Today we took the kids hiking at Skyline Ridge, an open space preserve. (Here 's my Flickr map of it.) There are two artificial lakes near the intersection of Page Mill Road and Skyline Road, and we walked both of them.
It was very foggy on the drive up, and for the first half our or so of our hike, it was pleasantly cold and white. It reminded me a bit of an old black-and-white Kurosawa film.
We started with Horseshoe Lake.
It's the more interesting of the two lakes, as it has a hill overlooking it, with a pretty nice climb along the lake.
The trail along the lake's edge is pleasant, with several benches, a couple places where kids can go down to the water, and a bathroom nearby-- all essential when your party includes a 6-year old and a 9 year-old.
After Horseshoe Lake, we moved the car to the Russian Ridge parking lot, and walked around Alpine Lake. This is a smaller lake, and has maybe a half-mile circuit from parking lot and around the lake.
There's a nice grove (is that the right word?) of stones near the lake.
The kids enjoyed climbing on the rocks.
One of the more interesting features is a grinding rock, where the Ohlone used to grind acorns into flour.
My kids and their cousin, all ready for the traditional pre-Thanksgiving walk along the bay.
This morning I was replacing a bike tire, and it unexpectedly blew up.
My ears were really buzzing for a while. I cam hear out of both, but one feels like it's underwater, or muffled. I wonder how long before I should start to worry.
From the always-snarky Sadly, No!
'[C]yberspace’ used to mean an interactive post-media nexus of transformative hyperrealities whose multi-dimensionalized datasphere you flew through as a bodiless post-human, via sitting in a farted-out desk chair typing on Usenet.
What was it to be a second-class citizen? It was, crudely, to be constantly judged and assessed by people less skilled and less competent than oneself. There was no innate marginality to being Indian; marginality was conferred upon you by nationalities that clearly had a proprietorial relationship to the world. The assessment of the more skilled by the less began long before you were employed; it began at the airport, the immigration desk. 'So you're a creative arts fellow,' said one of the more friendly immigration officials at Heathrow 15 years ago, as I was returning to Oxford. 'What are you creative at?' (Amit Chaudhuri )
Really interesting trend: countries looking for long-term leases of agricultural land to increase their food security. The latest data-point comes from Afrik:
Daewoo Logistics of South Korea has secured farmland in Madagascar to grow food crops for Seoul, in a deal that diplomats and consultants said was the largest of its kind.
The company said it had leased 1.3m hectares of farmland – about half the size of Belgium – from Madagascar’s government for 99 years. It plans to ship the maize and palm oil harvests back to South Korea.... Daewoo’s farm in Madagascar represents about half the African country’s arable land, according to estimates by the US government....
The pursuit of foreign farm investments is a clear sign of how countries are seeking food security following this year’s crisis – which saw record prices for commodities such as wheat and rice and food riots in countries from Egypt to Haiti.
However, not everyone considers this to be neocolonial exploitation:
Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia, said this year its government was “very eager” to provide hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land to Middle Eastern countries for investment.
We spent the last couple days in Disneyland. One of my main responsibilities there, after keeping the kids from getting abducted, is to go on the wet and/or scary rides. The kids' favorite is the California Grizzly, a white water rafting ride.
Somehow I was the one who seemed to get the wettest.
I was really glad I remembered by waterproof camera bag-- it saved my electronics from a watery death. (My small Moleskine notebook, however, was not so lucky; it's still drying out.)
I just got back from a family vacation in Disneyland. Having spent more time on rides than I want to think about, and less time doing actual productive work (I know that vacations are supposed to be when you completely unplug; sue me), I was naturally tickled to see this post by Ophelia comparing old browser bookmarks to carnival attractions.
How many bookmarks do you have? I have over 10 folders and each one holds an average of 100 bookmarks. These have been gathered over the last 8 years. I have even more on my other laptops that I had not transferred over, just because I wanted to start fresh with each new computer. Going back and looking at those bookmarks is like a walk back in time, a road map backwards and as I scroll through, I can see the burning heaps alongside the road....
Why haven’t I gone back and visited those sites? Probably the same reasons I don’t go to fun fair carnivals that set up for a day. At night the carnivals are a thing of beauty, the sparkling lights, the smell of popcorn, and the booming music coming from each ride is a lure to buy a book of tickets. I am a sucker for anything flashy and I will try each ride, but after the quick thrill I am done. I could ride the most exciting rides again, but I already know what is going to happen, when it will break to the right or drop suddenly, a sense of ennui sets in. My bookmark folders are Fun Fair carnivals filled with exciting rides that I have ridden once. My reasons why can be explained by using the carnival ride analogy.
Here for a couple days:
br />via flickr
Art museums are usually considered the ultimate architectural commissions, but after seeing the Academy, I'm not so sure. In an art gallery, a conscientious architect such as Piano must continually restrain himself, lest his architecture overpower the art on the walls. In a natural science museum, there is no such problem—you can't outshine a school of piranhas or an albino alligator. In that sense, the architect is freer. At LACMA I felt that Piano was sometimes gritting his teeth, while here he seems to have been enjoying himself. Another difference between the two buildings: live fish, birds, and reptiles are a lot more fun to look at than Damien Hirst's creepy formaldehyde menagerie.
He's also dead right about the Piazza being the least impressive part of the museum.
Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (1990-) - Volume 363 - Number 1499 / June 12, 2008 - p1939-1949.
Tonight after dinner my wife convinced me to go see Kip Fulbeck speak at Castilleja School. Castilleja has a pretty outrageously good speaker series (seeing Tom "The World is Flat" Friedman there was an especially memorable experience), and Fulbeck didn't disappoint. Like me, Fulbeck is part Asian (Chinese in his case, Korean in mine), part European, and he was born when anti-miscegenation laws were still on the books. Some of his work explores the role of race and ethnicity in the construction of identity.
A lot of what he talked about was the Hapa Project:
Once a derogatory label derived from the Hawaiian word for “half,” Hapa has since been embraced as a term of pride by many whose mixed racial heritage includes Asian or Pacific Island descent. Kip Fulbeck began The Hapa Project as a forum for Hapas to answer the question “What are you?” in their own words and be pictured in simple head-on portraits. Traveling throughout the country, he photographed over 1200 people from all walks of life – from babies to adults, construction workers to rock stars, gangbangers to pro surfers, schoolteachers to porn stars, engineers to comic book artists.
For me, one of the most interesting things about the project was just how varied people's explanations of themselves tend to be: the sample pages give you a sense of this. (Also, 10% of the people in the book listed "Norwegian" in their ancestry. This is a weird statistical blip.)
What's striking to me about this is that in my lifetime we've already gone from what I think of as the Old Math of race, which recognized only whole numbers-- you had to be one thing or the other, but not both; and to be half of something and half of something else was to be something less than a full person-- to a New Math that's comfortable with fractions and fuzzy numbers. I think, however, there's another shift brewing: we may be moving from a world in which we check multiple boxes or quantify our backgrounds, to one in which telling stories is the native way of explaining who we are.
After all, we live in a world in which the relationship between ethnicity and geography is pretty mixed up. I have two friends whose parents are Norwegian and Jewish, but the details of their biographies (growing up in Minnesota versus New York, for starters) are quite different. And that's a relatively easy case. Someone with, say, Chinese and African ancestry might be a fifth-generation Trinidadian; have one parent who went to work as an engineer in Ghana during the heady revolutionary days of the 1960s, or leave Africa to study in China; or have parents from Vancouver and L.A. You just don't know these days.
Numbers can't quite capture that complexity, nor can parsing the percentages ever more finely bring a better description of who you are. You need to capture that motion, the multiple travels and relocations and dislocations that end up with you. Math doesn't capture that; stories can.
Gene Spafford's axioms of Usenet, first circulated in 1987 and 1988. (This version from Spafford's 1992 farewell to Usenet.)
"The Usenet is not the real world. The Usenet usually does not even resemble the real world."
"Attempts to change the real world by altering the structure of the Usenet is an attempt to work sympathetic magic -- electronic voodoo."
"Arguing about the significance of newsgroup names and their relation to the way people really think is equivalent to arguing whether it is better to read tea leaves or chicken entrails to divine the future."
"Ability to type on a computer terminal is no guarantee of sanity, intelligence, or common sense."
"An infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards could produce something like Usenet."
"They could do a better job of it."
"Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies to Usenet."
"In an unmoderated newsgroup, no one can agree on what constitutes the 10%."
"Nothing guarantees that the 10% isn't crap, too."
From the great Donald Knuth:
I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don't have time for such study.
Via Edward Vielmetti and his Twitter Zero manifesto.
Hey, I quoted this Knuth line in a post four years ago. I thought it seemed familiar.
I write about people, technology, and the worlds they make.
I'm a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Menlo Park, CA consulting and research firm. I also have two academic appointments: I'm a visitor at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, and an Associate Fellow at Oxford University's Saïd Business School. (I also have profiles on Linked In, Google Scholar and Academia.edu.)
I began thinking seriously about contemplative computing in the winter of 2011 while a Visiting Researcher in the Socio-Digital Systems Group at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. I wanted to figure out how to design information technologies and user experiences that promote concentration and deep focused thinking, rather than distract you, fracture your attention, and make you feel dumb. You can read about it on my Contemplative Computing Blog.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, will be published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013. (It will also appear in Dutch and Russian.)
My latest book, and the first book from the contemplative computing project. The Distraction Addiction will appear in summer 2013, published by Little, Brown and Co.. (You can pre-order it through Amazon or IndieBound now, though!)
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
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