The Perfume of Sight

“Imagine a world so filled with intelligent objects that memory can be filled with the perfume of sight”
Edwin Schlossberg

Back at the end of the 1980s when Bob Cotton and I were first working on what became “Understanding Hypermedia” my working title was the “The Perfume of Sight” – its title taken from Edwin Schlossberg’s quote that sat on the back-cover of Chris Jones‘s “Essays in Design”.
Today, through a complex chain of links I found myself listening to Bruce Sterling‘s talk at SXSW 2006, where among many things he imagined a world filled with intelligent objects, objects he calls spimes – the internet of things, which, naturally reminded me of the Schlossberg quote.
But, that was a gentle interlude, where he speculated about a future world where you could find your shoes by googling them and every object would have an accessible history.
Much of his talk was a mixture of rage and despair as he surveyed the New World Disorder and what is happening to his own native America. I won’t go in to the details of his diagnosis, it is better to listen to his words and the sound of his voice as he says them. The hope he clings on to is the resilience of people. This is not a naive, sentimental hope. Living in Belgrade for some of the year he is brought face to face with the horrors that people can inflict on one another. But he can also see that other face, the face of resilience, decency and getting on with life and each other.
Listen to the speech to get the passion and emotion, look at the video clip to see him breaking into tears as he reads Carl Sandburg‘s “The People Yes” and then, thanks to Sean Harton, read the transcript to get the cool rationality of his analysis.
A couple of tasters:
“We’re on a kind of slider bar, between the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable, now. Between the grim meathook future, and the bright green future. And there are ways out of this situation: there are actual ways to move the slider from one side to the other. Except we haven’t invented the words for them yet. We’ve got smoke building in the crowded theater, but the exit sign is just a mysterious tangle of glowing red letters.”

“It’s not enough to sort of virtually, verbally theorize about these issues. If we’re going to get anywhere we’re going to have to become the change we want to see. Become the change we want to see. And if I have learned something from hanging out with the Eastern European dissident crowd: “Make no decision out of fear.” That is their motto. Make no decision out of fear. No, the decline does not hold indefinitely. Because the people tire of the fraud. They tire of the evil. The people tire of the sheer, stupid pettiness of their unnecessary miseries. The people tire of being promised jam and fed ashes. You know, globalization needs to be understood culturally. Because the Great American Novel is over. What’s required at this point in literature is a Great Regional Novel about the planet Earth. A regional novel. And if the inspiration for that is found, it’s going to be found in human resilience, and in the depth of world history. It’s going to be found in the resilience of people.”
By coincidence, I listened to a talk by Suketu Mehta about life in Mumbai. Like Bruce Sterling, he has a very realistic view of people, indeed he starts his talk with an account from someone, who, as part of a Hindu mob, set fire and killed a Muslim street seller, during some sectarian riots in Mumbai. But, also like Bruce Sterling, his hopes lie in the people. He describes how when Mumbai was flooded, it was the people who organised themselves to help each other. He ends his talk with a powerful metaphor. He describes how on the packed trains of Mumbai, if you find yourself arriving as the train is drawing out, hands will grab you, pulling you on to the already over-crowed train, drawing on the human sympathy of knowing you could lose your job if you were late and, at that moment, blind as to whether you were Hindu, Muslim, Christian or with no religious affiliation at all.
Now what, you may be thinking, has all this this got to do with intelligent objects. Well, somewhere in the middle of his talk, he describes the way that now land records have been digitised and put up on the net, fewer peasants are cheated out of their holdings by unscrupulous bureaucrats. If you scour the net you can find many examples of how technologies, such as mobile phones can be more valuable to the very poor than they are to the more privileged among us.
In his talk Bruce Sterling quotes William Gibson’s aphorism, “the street finds it’s own uses for things”, a quote I use often myself. And why is this important? My very strong sense is that if we are to move the slider from “the grim meathook future” to “the bright green future”, it will the resilience of the people, the improvisations of the everyday, that will move us there and that the uses that the street finds for things will play a crucial role in that process.

Planning is Utopian: A postscript

In the QA session that followed the presentation by Jim Coudal and Jason Fried I linked to in my last post, a questioner asked whether their ‘making it up as you go along’ approach could work with large teams involved in large projects. The question wasn’t really resolved. I got some friends of mine to listen to the presentation and they raised the same question. So I was interested to stumble across a piece by Chip Morningstar, who works on some very big projects, that echoed Jason Fried’s points.
He argues:
“You might reasonably ask how I can possibly reconcile this extreme skepticism about the value of (or, indeed, the possibility of) planning with what I mainly do for a living, which is to develop large, complex software systems. These undertakings would seem to demand exactly the kind of comprehensive, large-scale planning that I’m criticizing here. Indeed, this is how the world of software engineering has usually approached things, and they have the long history of schedule overruns, budget blowouts, and general mayhem and misery to prove it. Accepting the limitations of human rationality with respect to planning and forecasting is merely bowing to reality.”
And after describing some practical tactics for managing big projects, he concludes:
“In general, it is better to have a clear, simple statement of the goal and a good internal compass, than to have a big, thick document that nobody ever looks at. That good internal compass is key; it’s what distinguishes a top tier executive or developer from the second and third stringers.”
(Thanks to Dave Pollard of “how to save the world” for the link)

Planning is Utopian

Regular readers will hardly be surprised that when I saw the following quote from Jason Fried of 37signals in one of my favourite sites, Creating Passionate Users I had to track it down:
“‘Make it up as you go along. You’re in a much better place to make a decision when you’re in it, than when you’re planning.’
When questioned about whether the ‘no-planning’ notion was a nice utopian vision, but not practical in larger development worlds:
‘I think it is MORE utopian to think you can plan everything in advance.'”

Very purposive drift.
You can listen to Jim Coudal of Coudal Partners and Jason Fried of 37signals presentation at SXSW 2006 here (or read Jim Coudal’s bit here) Their talks and the following QA are filled with gems to mull over. Well worth several listens. The blurb below tells you what they are talking about, but doesn’t capture the wit and insights they provide in how they tell it.
“Frustrated by the conventional “work-for-hire” model of the creative business, Jim Coudal of Coudal Partners and Jason Fried of 37signals have pushed their companies in a decidedly more entrepreneurial direction over the past two years. With the idea of taking a greater amount of control over the creative they produce, both firms have built products and businesses which allow them a large degree of independence and the ability to apply the crafts of design, writing and programming for their own benefit. As Coudal said in a recent article, ‘the only way to free yourself from the tyranny of clients is to become one.'”

How to create an idiot

I often turn to Creative Generalist for good links. I particularly like this one on the the value of ‘slack’ for creative thinking and how the long hours culture in the US may be counter productive. (Something that is being echoed here in the UK) As the arfticle says:
“But it’s really, really hard, if not impossible, for the human brain to come up with fresh new ideas when its owner is overworked, overtired, and stressed out. And in today’s wonderful world of nonstop work, 40% of American adults get less than seven hours of sleep on weeknights.
“The physiological effects of tiredness are well-known. You can turn a smart person into an idiot just by overworking him,” notes Peter Capelli, a professor of management at Wharton.”

Ain’t the internet wonderful

Paul Graham is an interesting, prickly character. I’ve linked to him before, here and here. I recently finished reading his “Hackers & Painters” (well worth a read) and just wanted to query one point he had made, so whipped off an e-mail. To my surprise, a couple of hours later I got a thoughtful reply. This is what I love about the net, the way it has changed the relationship between creators and audiences.
I first encountered this many years ago when I was reading Douglas Rushkoff‘s “Children of Chaos”. After reading the first three or four chapters I was so excited I did a search, found his web site, got his e-mail address and sent him a rather over-excited rave. To my immense surprise he replied very quickly and it clicked that something significant was going on.
Since then I often write a quick appreciation if I encounter ideas I am enthusiatic about. I don’t usually expect a reply, but more often than not I get one.
I know from my own experience with the e-mails I have got from readers of the three books I wrote with Bob Cotton, that there is something rather special about getting a direct response from someone who has engaged with something you have done. It is almost better than royalties, knowing that in some small way you have made a difference.

Success or Control

An interesting snippet from Victor Lombardi‘s Noise Between Stations:
“…success with complex problems depends on sharing control with others. Joe Kraus, the founder of Excite and JotSpot has said, ‘Very early on, the founders of startups make an important choice. Do they want success or control? …I’ve picked success. And success implies giving up control – hiring people who are much better than you, or being willing to be the janitor if that’s what’s required.'”

Ban Smugging Now

Looking at the smug faces of of the MPs, who voted to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces, basking in their costless virtue, I was prompted to write a long piece urging a campaign to Ban Smugging Now.
I have written before of my sense that the anti-smoking crusade may itself be a threat to health in an extend piece “Why Do Dancers Smoke”, where I concluded:
“People who smoke have adopted the practice as a strategy for dealing with life and defining who they are. The fact that the number of smokers seems to have stabilised, even in countries like the USA, where there are massive social pressures against smoking, suggests that current propaganda and health education is no longer working.
What all this suggests to me is that anti-smoking as a moral crusade has itself become dangerous. What seems to be required is more disinterested research into why people smoke, the perceived and actual benefits of smoking, and what, if any, other strategies smokers could adopt to gain these benefits without the harmful effects of smoking.
What might also be worth considering too is whether there are any hidden costs to the possibility of the total elimination of tobacco smoking. The general assumption is that the elimination of tobacco smoking would be an unqualified good. This looks like a moral rather than a scientific judgement.”

However, rather than go over the same ground again I urge you to read a fascinating and pointed lecture, “In Praise of Bad Habits” by Peter Marsh, which puts the case against “healthism” more eloquently than I suspect I could manage. Here is taster:
“At the core of all healthism is a concern to eradicate risk in people’s lives. On the surface this appears to be a liberal, caring aim and is robustly defended by those in the health education and promotion fields. Risk, however, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas and others have pointed out, is now both a politicised and a moralised concept. Risk is now the secular equivalent of sin. In this sense exposing oneself to risk, when other options are available, is to act in a sinful manner.
But there is a further issue here, and that is to do with the (often arbitrary) definition of risk. Which particular aspects of lifestyle are to be defined as risky/sinful, and to which segments of society will ‘persuasion’ be applied for the ‘good of society as a whole’? These are not abstract questions for they raise yet another insidious component of healthism – its culturally divisive nature. Risk determination is undertaken by a relatively small, white, middle class elite group in Western society – scientists and health professionals. These are people who, in the main, do not smoke, drink to excess or engage in promiscuous sexual activities. They have low-fat and low-sodium diets and tend to be over-represented in the gymnasium and aerobic exercise groups. (They might, to some people, also appear phenomenally dull.)
Engaging in risk – smoking, drinking, creating the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases, eating fat, sugar, salt and avoiding too much exercise – is characteristic of a different strata of society – the poor and marginalised, the working classes, ethnic minorities and ‘deviant’ groups. When the proponents of healthism are urging changes in lifestyle in order to achieve, in their terms, ‘well-being’, they are advocating changes for others much more often than they are for themselves. In this sense they are essentially moralists seeking to stigmatise specific members of society.”