An Anthropologist on the edge

I have linked to Grant McCracken before when he introduced me to the idea of Low Latent Inhibition and its relation to creativity. Recently he has written a series of posts about identity, which are well worth reading and thinking about. They begin on the 21st of June with some reflections on the TV show “Monk”, which features a detective with obsessive compulsive disorder. I must confess I have some ambivalence about McCracken. I find his free market evangelism a bit uneasy, but his position, as he puts it, at Intersection of Anthropology & Economics, leads to some intriguing ideas.

Locking-in IP

Some months ago I wrote approvingly of Lawrence Lessig’s attack on the over protection of intellectual property. Cory Doctorow continues the argument in a talk he gave to staff at Microsoft. Here is a taster:
“Whenever a new technology has disrupted copyright, we’ve changed copyright. Copyright isn’t an ethical proposition, it’s a utlititarian one. There’s nothing *moral* about paying a composer tuppence for the piano-roll rights, there’s nothing *immoral* about not paying Hollywood for the right to videotape a movie off your TV. They’re just the best way of balancing out so that people’s physical property rights in their VCRs and phonographs are respected and so that creators get enough of a dangling carrot to go on making shows and music and books and paintings.”


I have long been an admirer of Ellen Langer ever since I read her book Mindfulness. So I was pleased to find a collection of her articles on-line here. Most of them are written in her deceptively light tone, which conceal some real wisdom. This quote, which explains the concept, is drawn from one of the heavier ones:
“Mindfulness is not an easy concept to define but can be best understood as the process of drawing novel distinctions. It does not matter whether what is noticed is important or trivial, as long as it is new to the viewer. Actively drawing these distinctions keeps us situated in the present. It also makes us more aware of the context and perspective of our actions than if we rely upon distinctions and categories drawn in the past. Under this latter situation, rules and routines are more likely to govern our behavior, irrespective of the current circumstances, and this can be construed as mindless behavior. The process of drawing novel distinctions can lead to a number of diverse consequences, including (1) a greater sensitivity to one’s environment, (2) more openness to new information, (3) the creation of new categories for structuring perception, and (4) enhanced awareness of multiple perspectives in problem solving.”

How Websites Learn

One of the things I love about the Web is the way you can stumble across fellow spirits or at least people who share some of your thinking. This morning via Matt Jones I followed a link to Steven Garrity‘s blog, Acts of Volition, where I found something I wish I’d written. In his piece “How Websites Learn” Garrity applies some of the lessons from Stewart Brand‘s classic, “How Buildings Learn” to the design of websites. Well worth a read.
I’ve long been advocating Brand’s book as key text for designers. In a footnote to “As We Might Learn: Vannevar Bush where are you now?” I wrote:
“Another winner from Stewart Brand. “How Building Learn: What happens after they are built”, Viking, 1994, ISBN 0 670 83515 3 is ostensibly about architecture, but contains many valuable insights for would be society builders, hypermedia designers and many others whose professional interests would seem to be far from architecture. Highly recommended.”
And in the bibliography to “Understanding Hypermedia 2.000”:
“Not a word about hypermedia, but this book about architecture is well worth reading by any hypermedia designer who is interested in designing systems that can change and evolve over time. Filled with insights and general principles about adaptive design.”

To this I would now add, read Steve Garrity’s piece on the Web and then get yourself Stewart Brand’s book and read it carefully. There is much to learn.

Asymmetric threats

I was following a quite different trail in pursuit of Vannevar Bush, when I stumbled across this article by Jef Raskin. Written six years ago it describes the record-breaking flight of the “Laima”. The first un-manned flight across the Atlantic. As Raskin perceptively points out:
“The men who had built the craft were interested in meteorological research, but if they succeeded, they would also unwittingly show that Reagan?s Star Wars (now updated as the Clinton/Bush anti-missile defense against “rogue” nations) was useless. Just as the Germans easily found a way around what the French thought was an impenetrable thicket of defensive bunkers on the ground prior to World War II, the Maginot line, this small plane would barely be noticed, much less brought down, by anything the defense department has in its armamentarium.”
And to show you how I got here, he ends:
” Years ago, the far-seeing Vannevar Bush had pointed out that our seaports were vulnerable to a sneak attack by means of small boats, indistinguishable from pleasure craft, carrying atomic weapons. Now, every point in the world is vulnerable. Laima has demonstrated the foolishness of trying build a Maginot line in the sky.”
As I read Raskin’s piece I was reminded of a curiosity I found some time ago about how at the end of the Second World War the Japanese launched a series of balloons carrying firebombs. These were carried by the slipstream across the Pacific to land on the West Coast of the USA and Canada. Like “Laima” these balloons would pass undetected by radar.
Now as I have argued before, the threats posed by terrorism, may well be overstated and a distraction from some of the more pressing problems we face – like for example my last posting on short-termism and energy illiteracy. But, what is also clear is that if we are to deal with threats from terrorism and “rogue states” we should be avoiding hi-tech distractions like the National Missile Defence programme (more popularly known as Star Wars), which look likely to go ahead whoever wins the US Presidential elections, and focus more on dealing intelligently with the creative low-tech threats, which may pose the real problem.

The Short Now

It’s curious how things seem to cluster together. I found a good essay by Brian Eno in the Long Foundation‘s library talking about the way we seem to have become increaingly short-term in our thinking. Then shortly afterwards I found an interview with Paul Roberts in Mother Jones where he talks about energy illiteracy. These two extracts, the first from Brian Eno, the second from Paul Roberts, would seem to make the point.
“Now is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you’re in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes. It’s ironic that, at a time when humankind is at a peak of its technical powers, able to create huge global changes that will echo down the centuries, most of our social systems seem geared to increasingly short nows. Huge industries feel pressure to plan for the bottom line and the next shareholders’ meeting. Politicians feel forced to perform for the next election or opinion poll. The media attract bigger audiences by spurring instant and heated reactions to human interest stories while overlooking longer-term issues the real human interest.”
“We won’t really run out of oil, because before oil runs out, it will become too expensive to use. Another way to ask that is: When will we hit peak production? The estimates range anywhere from 30 years, to 35 years, to it’s already happened. I think that we’re going to hit peak production in probably about 25 years. But that’s worldwide, and really the one you want to think about is when do we hit production peak outside of OPEC? Because when that happens — when we can’t get any more oil out of the ground outside of OPEC — then we have to turn to OPEC. And that’s a tough thing for America and other countries to have to do, because they don’t trust OPEC. The non-OPEC peak will be in about 10 years. Although OPEC countries will still have a lot of oil, they may still be as unsympathetic and as an unfriendly to Western countries as they are today.”

The Possibility Machine

Some years ago when the Web was still young, I came across the writing of the Canadian theologian David Lochhead. While I am not a religious man – in fact I tend to fall into the anti camp – Lochhead’s writing impressed me with its humanity and insights into computer technology.
The other night after shouting at Microsoft’s Word for insisting on inserting a huge space – nearly half a page – between two sections of text and to continuing doing so despite all my best efforts to over-ride it, I began to reflect about what I liked about digital technology and what I hated.
This reminded me of a piece Lochhead wrote in 1988, three years before the Web was born, which I must have first read in about 1995. In “The Magical Computer” Lochhead talks about the relationship of computers to power and of power to magic. If like me you are not a Christian, you may have to strip out some of the overtly Biblical language to get the message. But if you do you may find it reads more powerfully today than it did when I read it nine years ago.
Here’s some of what he had to say:

Continue reading The Possibility Machine