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this week’s reading

sgs | review | Sunday, April 27th, 2008

I find the best writing almost impossible to read. Partly because I want to savor it; I want to deny it ends. Or, sometimes, it’s so provocative it forces me to reconsider everything before I can continue. But, mostly, great writing pisses me off because I didn’t — and I never will — write it first.

I had the painful pleasure of reading two such articles this week:

 

The Memory Master
by Gary Wolf

I have always insisted that Gary Wolf is the best writer in the WIRED stable, but evidence has been pretty thin on the ground recently. His profile of productivity author David Allen was starting to seem typical: an occasional spot-on sentence surrounded by otherwise very workmanlike prose, and a seeming unwillingness to really confront the big ideas he briefly exposed.

But in the May 2008 issue of WIRED, Gary Wolf kicks out the mother effin’ jams. His article on Piotr Wozniak and his algorithm to optimize memory is effortlessly brilliant. Part profile, part Eastern European ethnography; part software review, part scientific history; part reverie, part requiem. There are more substantive ideas in this one article than in a year of back issues.

But Wolf had better be careful — this is at least the second time he’s written subtly and beautifully about memory. His 1995 feature on Ted Nelson repeatedly returns to Nelson’s childhood memory of the “ephemeral eddies under his grandfather’s rowboat” , “how the particles would separate around his fingers and reconnect on the other side” as a metaphor for memory and its disconnects.

This means he’s dangerously close to being called “Proust-ian”, or “WIRED’s digital Proust”. And he’s better than that.

 

Spacewar, Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums
by Stewart Brand

Yes, I may be the last person on the planet to read this screed from the December, 1972 (!!!) issue of Rolling Stone. It is a loosely narrated (it reads more like the notes for an article), journalistically uneven (some quotes seem… impressionistic), investigation of the future, based on what a group of  Northern Californian “heads”, drop outs, government agents, and self-described hustlers tell him over drinks.

And he gets everything exactly right.

One favorite bit is when he extrapolates from seeing a stoneage TTY, a 110 baud ARPAnet connection used to print an ASCII fortune on a tiny green screen. Then, with just one more sentence, he takes a giant leap that soars over the subsequent thirty years, and nonchalantly predicts the death of newspapers and record stores. (“Since huge quantities of information can be computer-digitalized and transmitted, music researchers could, for example, swap records over the Net with ‘essentially perfect fidelity.'”) 1972!!!

And it’s not just that he predicts today’s headlines without even the occasional whiff that would seem obligatory for someone swinging so determindly for the fences. It’s that he’s still ahead!  Even after reading the article today, you come away feeling like you have a little better feel for what’s to come.

Best of all, the article justifies my preference for learning from the margins. Sometimes I worry that I listen to hackers and other degenerates just because I find them more congenial; that maybe I should pay more attention to, say, what Steve Jobs thinks about streaming video, or, hell, read TechCrunch. But the richly predictive ore Brand mined from the “Computer Bums” says otherwise. In fact, so does he, in the article’s conclusion: “In our arrogance we close our ears to voices not our rational own, we routinely reject the princely gifts of spontaneous generation. ” 

group think

sgs | academic | Friday, April 4th, 2008

Spring is here, and with spring comes:  sunshine, fresh flowers, … and a slew of navel-gazing, big-idea technology conferences. I recently returned from two such trend-spotting confabs: CI Foo Camp and ETech.

In format, the events were completely different. CI Foo Camp, organized by Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian and held on the Google campus, brought together 60 or so researchers all loosely connected to the idea of “collective intelligence” for a wide-ranging discussion with no set schedule. For ETech, O’Reilly’s flagship annual conference, several hundred hackers, academics, and online gadflies converged on San Diego for four days of presentations about anything deemed an emerging technology.

But what I distilled from the two conferences was very similar—the same topic kept coming up, over and over.  This emerging area doesn’t have a catchy moniker yet, but you can think of it as an amalgamation of crowd theory, human terrain mapping, and social simulation. It is the science of groups; it is a new kind of quantitative political science.

The tools and theories needed to analyze social interactions are just now reaching the level of sophistication — in accuracy, in robustness – necessary to leave the lab and enter commercial duty. We are in a period analogous to the early 1970s, when developments like the Capital Asset Pricing Model and the Black-Scholes equation transformed finance, changing it from an art to a science, and opening enormous new markets in the process. Now, new equations describing “crowd dynamics” are about to change our lives. And not always for the better. This is one of the most significant technology trends I have seen in years; it may also be one of the most pernicious.

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