Museum of Lost Interactions

Posted by jerry on March 20th, 2007 — Posted in History, Journal, New media, Technology

What a gem! Sharon came across a wonderfully quirky site dealing with pre-digital technologies that addressed the communicative and interactive needs of today. So they were technologies ‘before their time’.


The Museum of Lost Interactions showcases real devices from times past – up to 1970 – that gave people portable wireless communication with a telegraphic PDA using Morse code through to portable video players that filled a need currently occupied by the new iPods and 3G phones. The multi-track recording device for studio remixing – onto wax cylinders was quite a highlight!. It’s a fascinating site that in some cases reinforces the notion that it can take time for society to catch up with an emerging technology and find uses in daily life – or perhaps it’s the other way around? Equally, sometimes the social need is there, but the technology needed to make it a social phenomenon has yet to be developed. So this museum showcases some interesting dead-ends in the tree of technology innovation.


Meta tags – so 200BCE

Posted by jerry on March 13th, 2007 — Posted in History, Journal, New media, Technology

There are continuing discussions over web 2.0 – on the issue of tagging and tag clouds (all forms of meta data) – so I thought it timely to revisit an idea I first explored in 2004. The internet has come up with a range of standards in relation to information about information – meta data standards. The best known of these are the Dublin Core meta data standards But the issues that led to the Dublin core standards are not new. The Rosetta Stone (196 BC) – just 200 years after Plato, and – significantly – during the Greek administration of Egypt, revealed something really interesting – the existence of meta tags almost 2000 years before the Internet.

The two languages in three scripts on the stone revealed the difficulties of applying consistent language standards across an empire. Just as Web pages today specify a language an script to be applied, so too, the Rosetta stone includes as part of the inscribed decree, the stipulation that it is to be set in hard stone, in the three scripts: heiroglyphic, demotic and Greek.

What we have in fact is a meta data standard that specified the platform (a stele of hard stone); the language versions; the authority of the specification, (Ptolemy V); and its URL (each of the first, second and third rank temples). In web language these would look like this in the head part of the cartouche:

Rosetta Stone meta tags

In other words about half of the Dublin Core meta data standards are incorporated into the Rosetta Stone. This must surely provide us with an insight into something fundamental about the nature of information, and the nature of official discourse. What is needed to establish the intelligibility and authoritativeness of a piece of text when it is removed from the body (speech) and placed into a third-party medium? This is not a new question – and goes to the heart of what it means to be part of a speech community, and indeed part of the virtual community of human culture whether online or face-to-face.


Plato and new media

Posted by jerry on March 8th, 2007 — Posted in History, Journal, New media, Technology, Theory, Writing

Plato, one of the first new media analysts was concerned about the then new technology of writing. And he understood the potential (and actual) pitfalls of this new operating system. The same has been true of all subsequent new technologies. Always there remains the need for a meta-helper – one who understands the new technology to help later adopters make full use of the new technology.

This wonderful skit on medieval helpdesk support to a new user switching from scrolls to folio books is truly one of the internet video classics!


There is a wonderful parable here that speaks to one of Plato’s greatest concerns with writing over face-to-face communication. And that is that when something is written you can no longer query it or interrogate it – a bit like the user manual in the video here.

Plato, writing between 411 and 406 BC in the Phaedrus noted five key concerns with new information technology:

  • Education will suffer because it presents information rather than promoting thought
  • Information security will be compromised
  • Authorship will be difficult to authenticate;
  • It will be nothing more than a shallow distraction, devoid of serious purpose; and
  • people will stop interacting with real people.

Quite prescient really when you consider the many criticisms of the internet and with web 2.0. His objections were raised almost 2500 years ago, but remain true today, and form the basis for the key themes of almost any information technology seminar whether about censorship or eLaw or online banking or copyright.

In popular discourse, the internet is often presented as a dangerous and anarchic space. At the heart of the arguments against the internet lies the issue of authenticity.

The point is that virtual communities, like SecondLife, are real communities that exist in a virtual space. But people are still talking to people, albeit mediated by computers. It is no different from peopletalking on telephones, excpt that the interface is different.

In addition, the real/virtual distinction breaks down because human idiscourse is already mediated through language and social conventions – we can no longer harken back nostalgically to a ‘state of nature’.

There’s a lot more about this in chapter 9 of my book Virtual States, but there are elements here that will form the basis for my next book – more on that later.

Thanks to Angela Thomas for the YouTube link (though I haven’t yet figured out how to embed it properly into my self-hosted WordPress blog) *sigh*.


Samplers in Salem

Posted by jerry on February 28th, 2007 — Posted in History, Journal, Travel

Okay I was actually looking at woodworking sites, but I came across the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA and saw a couple of delightful samplers by the Gould sisters – amazing work for ones so young


There’s a lot more to see – lovely period furniture in abundance on the MESDA site


Information economy – building the cathedral

Posted by jerry on February 24th, 2007 — Posted in History, Journal, New media, Technology

Information overload has become one of the great catchphrases of the so-called information economy, and today the average office worker is dealing with and managing vastly more information than at any time in the past. Terms are bandied around like ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘the greatest revolution since the Renaissance’ – to describe the events facing the contemporary developed world. Why Renaissance? Why not Victorian times or since the Industrial Revolution? Leaving aside the continuing periodisation discussion about what constituted the Renaisssance, what was it that distinguished the Renaissance from the previous several hundred years?

In the 1420s a young architect called Filippo Brunelleschi arrived in Florence. With powerful patrons trying to out-do each other in the extravagances of their public buildings, the city fathers had finally over-reached themselves. In trying to build the world’s largest church, the designers had exceeded their construction ability, and the church of Santa Maria del Fiore – Florence cathedral remained unroofed over the drum-like crossing. The problem was how to span a 45 metre space with a dome without using a timber crossing – because no timber grew that could span that space and support a dome under construction. Giotto (who designed the bell tower), Pisano, Talenti, and Ghiberti – none of them could solve the problem.

So Brunelleschi – then still in his 20s – came along. He faced three challenges:

  • to lighten the massive structure (40,000 tonnes and 90 metres high)
  • to set up a worksite organisation that could efficiently handle each successive construction phase; and
  • to ensure the stability of the brickwork courses by devising new ways to interlock the structure.

Brunelleschi solved the problems by developing technological force multipliers, by developing new workplace organisational structures and by using innovative techniques. Sound familiar? In each case there are resonances with corporate life today.

What resulted was the largest unsupported masonry dome in Europe. Today we are dealing with new forms of business organisation that span across state boundaries, that needs to make decisions and adapt faster than ever before, supporting massive organisational structures.

Brunellschi dome
Image courtesy of Finbonetti’s photostream on flickr

For Brunelleschi, technology was only part of the revolution. The rest was a philosophical outlook which resulted – at least at one level – in a set of management practices that formed a revolution no less dramatic than his many inventions, including several types of crane.

As workers in the information economy today, we too are building a cathedral. We are building a structure from within which is disseminated informational products which both reflect and shape the way we see the world.

Brunellesci lived in a world beginning to be shaped by the philosophy of William of Ockham (ca.1300-1349) who provided the basis for rational scientific thought we use today. He lived in a humanist world of new certainties that celebrated humanity based on Aristotelian principles from which we derive our disciplinary categories, and our clerically-based social organisation seen today in large corporations and in the public sector.

But his was a radically different world from before. In the Renaissance world the old certainty that somehow God would keep everything running smoothly was disappearing, and humankind found itself alone and having to take responsibility for essentially human acts.

However, from this came new optimism – the Renaissance was heading somewhere. Somehow, if humankind could keep improving things we would find the one best way to do something. There was an end-state – an exit strategy – when we would live in the best of all possible human worlds. Such was humanism.

Today, the great individualising humanist, modernist philosophy is standing on less firm ground. Humankind no longer stands proudly apart from the rest of the world, but rather perceives an uncomfortable sense of inter-connectedness. Chernobyl and global warming have taught us the arrogance of individual state-based environmental regulations.

Our world-view has changed. The world is no longer just a world of atoms. The way we understand the world is shaped by the concepts and language we use to describe it. What we make of the world is a by-product of the process by which we set about understanding and explaining the world. And there is nothing fundamentally stable about it. Each time we pin it down, we have already begun to change it. The world we are coming to understand it is the outward sign of continuous proceses interacting with each other. It is a world of change.

There remain those who yearn for a mythical pre-humanist stability based on an external Provider, or who try to cling to modernist certainties of earlier economic times. But we can no longer afford to manage change as though it were a temporary state between fixed forms of organisation, but rather as an integral part of the process of maintaining organisation. Our world is one of verbs, not nouns.

Our challenge then is to build a culture of positive change. When Brunelleschi was building his cathedral, he turned challenges into opportunities:

  • how to handle an unprecedented quantity of work;
  • how to organise the work in ways that made its fundamental instability contribute to the strength of the structure; and
  • how to organise and design the work practices in ways that took the weight off the scaffolding and allowed the building itself to take the weight of its own construction.

So Brunelleschi’s revolution was as much in logistics and organisational practices as of technology. And we are facing the same challenges. Where Brunelleschi worked with the limits of what one person could lift or carry, today we are dealing with how much information one person can process. Our force multipliers are computers and networked processes, matrix organisations, teamwork and web 2.0, just as Brunelleschi used gears, pulleys and pre-Fordist production line techniques.

But in our own way, we are building our own version of the cathedral. Our strength will depend on the interlocking network of people comprising the dome of web 2.0.

(excerpted from my book Virtual States: The Internet and the Boundaries of the Nation-State)