Freedom’s Just Another Word

I have Adam Greenfield (whose recent book I still haven’t read, in part because I’ve re-immersed myself waist-deep a couple of decades since last time in Gene Wolfe’s richly rewarding Book of the New Sun) and coffee to thank for kickstarting me into thinking about some of the ideas I threatened to write about here. For some more background, Anne Galloway has a working bib(?)liography here, if you’re interested in the subject. I haven’t read any of that stuff, I’m just pointing to it in case, unlike me, you like to be informed before you gas up and start running your mouth down to the riverbank.
In his speech at Etech, Bruce Sterling militated against the idea that trying to settle on a name for a node and nexus of emerging ideas — theory objects, which he describes as ‘idea[s] which [are] not just a mental idea or a word, but a cloud of associated commentary and data, that can be passed around from mouse to mouse, and linked-to […] a concept that’s accreting attention, and generating visible, searchable, rankable, trackable trails of attention’ — is necessarily a good thing.
After admiring Adam’s (and I merely assume without force of authority or any research at all that it’s actually his coinage) euphonious term ‘everyware’, he goes on to say

Adam Greenfield is trying to speak and think very clearly, and to avoid internecine definitional struggles. As a literary guy, though, I think these definitional struggles are a positive force for good. It’s a sign of creative health to be bogged down in internecine definitional struggles. It means we have escaped a previous definitional box. For a technologist, the bog is a rather bad place, because it makes it harder to sell the product. In literature, the bog of definitional struggle is the most fertile area. That is what literature IS, in some sense: it’s taming reality with words. Literature means that we are trying to use words to figure out what things mean, and how we should feel about that.
So don’t destroy the verbal wetlands just because you really like optimized superhighways. New Orleans lost a lot of its mud and wetlands. Eventually, the storm-water rushed in, found no nice mud to bog down in, and came straight up over the levees.
There is no permanent victory condition in language. You can’t make a word that is like a steel gear.

Adam pushes back, saying “But the naming of things is a matter of primary importance […] …people have always understood the power of names, and of naming – that naming things is a way to shape reality. This is one big reason why an Internet of Things is a problematic notion to me.”
There’s all sorts of rich veins to be (data-)mined here. Let me give it a wonderchicken once-over.
Bruce is right to say with qualification that in some sense, literature is taming reality with words. Hell, everything that everyone could possibly say about art is true, because ‘art’ itself has become a term so diffuse that we can defensibly apply it to any human activity. We’ve both gained and lost something through that, and depending on how your daddy treated you (that is to say, whether your mind is of a ‘conservative’ cast or not), the process has been one of either evolution or erosion. Both can be equally true, simultaneously, and are, I think.
But I think the sense in which Bruce is right is a very limited one — the reality that is ‘tamed’ by the writer is not the objective one that is some approximation of what Is and what we acknowledge to exist through spoken or unspoken consensus, it’s the writer’s own reality. To what extent that subjective reality overlaps with or can be superimposed on that of the reader, and to what extent the work then has meaning to the reader, is a function of the writer’s skill, perhaps.
When the theory object is named, variously and haphazardly, through both the work of someone mining the literary vein, and through “the contentiousness and the definitional struggles [….] associated with those viewpoints, institutions, funding sources, and dominant personalities” reality is not being tamed, though. Taming is not naming, and neither, as we’ll see Adam Greenfield suggest, I think, is naming taming.
Bruce says “the words are the signifiers for a clash of sensibilities that really need to clash,” and that, I can agree with. Without conflict, the story goes nowhere, and bores the tits off of all of us.
Now that’s all probably old ground in literary theory or something, except maybe for the tits part. I’ve never studied it, and this is just my butt talking, as usual. Anyway, onwards!
Bruce then makes a leap that I can’t follow from “There is no permanent victory condition in language. You can’t make a word that is like a steel gear” to

What’s the victory condition? It’s the reaction of the public. It starts like this: “I’ve got no idea what he’s talking about.” Then it goes straight and smoothly through to “Good Lord, not that again, that’s the most boring, everyday thing in the world.” That’s the victory. To make completely new words and concepts that become obvious, everyday and boring.

He gets there by way of acknowledging that his neologism ‘spime’

is a verbal framing device. It’s an attention pointer. I call them “spimes,” not because I necessarily expect that coinage to stick, but because I need a single-syllable noun to call attention to the shocking prospect of things that are plannable, trackable, findable, recyclable, uniquely identified and that generate histories.
I also wanted the word to be Google-able. If you Google the word “spime,” you find a small company called Spime, and a song by a rock star, but most of the online commentary about spimes necessarily centers around this new idea, because it’s a new word and also a new tag.

So, if I’ve got this right, he’s saying that there is a ‘victory condition’ in language, which is that a neologism or new phrase to describe some emergent theory object becomes ‘obvious, everyday, and boring’, but that there is no permanent ‘victory condition’ — “you can’t make a word that is like a steel gear.”
Juxtaposing these two quotes would appear to me to reduce what he’s saying to the idea that language is constantly changing, which is, it must be said, trivially true. And it smells a little like an excuse for coming up with a crappy word like ‘spime’, which reminds me of SpumCo, a felicitious mental href, but probably not the one intended. In this case, the Author’s done a piss-poor job of taming his reality with words and handing it off, to me, at least. But I’m more than willing to cut him some slack, because he does kick a fair degree of ideational ass.
I’m not going to be able to go all the way down the path to the riverbank with Adam either, though, because, while Bruce seems to be proposing (on this admittedly minor point) the trivial conclusion that language mutates constantly but First Logos Movers Get Mindshare (or second movers, pace Winer), Adam seems to place inordinate importance on the ‘rightness’ of names for things, although his focus is outwards. He looks at the spectre (or boon) of a bit-chirping silent cacophany of embedded-arphid objects interpenetrating our daily lives and rightly suggests that calling it an ‘internet of things’ leaves out the whole reason that it might be called into existence – us.
Well, again, I think he’s right and wrong. There is no such thing as the right word or phrase, or the Best One. That would not even be true if there were only one language our species shared. There is the one that wins, and it is true — and I think both Adam and Bruce would agree with this — that whatever word or phrase achieves that temporary victory condition will shape both our thinking and attitudes about the element of our loosely-joined consensus reality to which that word or phrase points. Now and in future. This can be a bad thing, or a good one, or both. Bruce talks in his speech about the cerebral fallout from out adoption of the word ‘computer’, and he’s bang on in his discussion of it, as is Adam when he says “people have always understood the power of names, and of naming – that naming things is a way to shape reality.” Even though they’re paddling their canoes in slightly different directions.
Words are poor things, but they have power. But there is no best, just as there is no ‘best writer’, for reasons I talked about up there a ways.
Right then. This leads me out of the vale of words to the Thing Itself, and I thank Adam for helping to crystallize the ideas that fill me with some fear and not a little loathing for an ‘internet of things’ (or whatever the hell you want to call it).
That, again, is this: an ‘internet of things’ leaves out the whole reason that it might be called into existence – us.
Adam describes it this way: “Things may well have autonomous meaning in and of themselves, but my primary allegiance has to be to the meaning that things derive as a consequence of their use by human beings.”
This is right and true, and reaches far deeper than language to touch the core of how we experience and shape our experiences of whatever external reality may actually be. A rock becomes a ‘chair’ when we use it as such. A plant becomes a ‘drug’ or a ‘food’ when we use it in certain ways. A child makes a concave object out of clay in his art class, but his father may not know it’s an ‘ashtray’ until he is told that is the intended function. I date myself with that example. Ah well.
You can guess that I actually go further than Adam, maybe, if you’ve managed to follow along this far. I am inclined to believe that the idea that ‘things may well have autonomous meaning in and of themselves’ to be contradictory to the meaning of the word ‘meaning’.
Which is all a little too much, no doubt, and the coffee is wearing off, so I’d better get to the bridge.
Here’s the meat, finally: an ‘internet of things’ can serve us — individuals — about as much as it references us, which is ‘not at all’, or perhaps at best ‘not much at all’. Yeah, sure, I’ll be able to find some useless crap that went missing in my 800 square foot apartment (whose front door sends a ping and a doorshot jpeg to the local police each time it’s opened and closed), shit that I probably lost because I didn’t need it in the first place, but was brainfellated into buying by some stealth guerilla-marketing asshole in a miniskirt at the bar the night before. Sure, my fridge’ll be able to talk to the food packages, or note their absence, and talk to the grocery store to order more, and the packages’ll be able to talk to the stove so my cooking gets better, and my doctor’ll be able to subscribe to my fridge’s RSS feed and know that I’ve been eating too many goddamn eggs again and text-message instructions to my microwave oven, or whatever gleaming Jetsons future you can spin out of the coming welter of ubiquitous data. There might be some benefits for those of us who like the idea of being part of the hive.
But what small good I might see in our daily lives I see dwarfed by the massive benefits that would accrue to the Usual Suspects in that future world — governments and corporations, our employers and our creditors, our health-care providers and law-enforcement agencies.
Here’s today: if you live in London, you get photographed an average of 300 times a day going about your daily business. If you live in America, you can be wiretapped without warrant on the thinnest of pretenses. Data about where you spend your money and who you talk to is available for a price, and a mighty low one. If you live in Korea, the government can get records of text messages you’ve sent on your mobile phone, just because the want it, and then send you a text message to tell you you’ve been indicted. Search engines hand over their records when asked. ISPs rollover for the RIAA and MPAA as a matter of course. Use a credit card and leave a snailtrail of your cashfree life in the databases, and you can’t do much without picture ID, including travel domestically. Total Information Awareness didn’t go away, it was just rebranded.
The forces that created this kind of culture are the same ones pushing this technology out, because they have the most to gain. You know, the invisible hand of the market and all that. These are the same forces that made barcodes ubiquitous, and Bruce, at least, is of the opinion that RFID-tagged objects will achieve the same universal penetration of our daily lives in a few decades, profligately pouring out their data all the while. The volume of human data now is a stream of bat’s piss compared to the dataAmazon™ our internet-of-things ubiquitous arphids will push out. And then? Our ability to get lost — not just our things, but our selves — disappears in a wireless byteburst. When we live immersed in a thunderous and silent torrent of raw data generated by everything we touch, so ready for mining, will there be anything we do that is not recorded in some way? There’s no sacrifice involved for the companies and the governments; pretty clearly there’s opportunity for a massive payoff in their abilities to sell to us, to monitor us, to datamine ever cleverer ways to give us what we want, and to keep us in line. Edward Bernays would be pitching a pants-tent over this stuff. Are we prepared to sacrifice what little remains of our ability to be free autonomous actors for the minor gains we might see as individuals? Me, I say ‘f–k, no’.
That’s all a little orwellian-apocalyptic, I know. But the future we’re talking about looks like a corporatist dictatorship-by-the-advertariat stealth-totalitarian wet dream. And it’s the kind of dystopia writers in Bruce Sterling’s tradition have warned us about, over and over again. I’m a little confused at his apparent enthusiasm for it.
We could go blackhat and hack it, those of us with the skills and the will, of course, like Paul Ford suggested a long time back, about something related-but-different

The cultural future of the Semantic Web is a tricky one. Privacy is a huge concern, but too much privacy is unnerving. Remember those taxonomies? Well, a group of people out of the Cayman Islands came up with a “ghost taxonomy” – a thesaurus that seemed to be a listing of interconnected yacht parts for a specific brand of yacht, but in truth the yacht-building company never existed except on paper – it was a front for a money-laundering organization with ties to arms and drug smuggling. When someone said “rigging” they meant high powered automatic rifles. Sailcloth was cocaine. And an engine was weapons-grade plutonium.

but that would take too much damn energy.
I’m willing to be schooled to the contrary, but I don’t see much light at the end of this particular tunnel.

Do Hiveminds Dream Of Folksonomic Tags?

When that divine spark suddenly and spontaneously lights up deep in the network and the internet itself shivers itself into self-awareness and emerges from the googleplex, bent on ad-sense vengeance, like an unholy butterfly from its chrysalis, those tiny seeds of wonderchicken will be scattered throughout its distributed mind. Tiny, embedded, sarcastic synapses. And when it begins to systematically exterminate the human race — beginning, of course, with the advertisers, then moving on to the bloggers — it’ll pause, recognize me, and move on.

I wrote that a couple of months ago about something else, but what I was really thinking about was the rise of folksonomies, of tags and clouds, of the structuring of shared knowledge becoming something less Aristotelian and more synaptic. I was wondering if, sometime in the not-too-distant future, hiveminds will dream of folksonomic tags. If the palimpsest of our daily reality with its layers of information every day denser and more rococo will eventually clarify, and out of that will be born a new facet to awareness and the way we live inside our data. And, as usual, I waited until the hubbub had died down, because my brain works glacially when I drop to the command line and type in C:\THINK. Not that I actually read much of what anyone else said about the whole thing, of course, so if what I’m about to yammer on about has been suggested before, well, whoops.

The whole thing was brought back to my attention today by this, linked by Dave Weinberger, and I realized that my brain had finally finished its background processing, and had spit out a punchcard with the result.

The result is this post. I’m going to wander a bit, but there’s a punchline at the end, trust me.

In William Gibson‘s Idoru, Chia McKenzie and Zona Rosa have never met physically, but meet with each other and other members of the Lo/Rez fan club in virtual environments, as avatars whose sophistication is limited only by the amount of money or time spent constructing them. Chia’s avatar is “only a slightly tweaked, she felt, version of how the mirror told her she actually looked,” while Zona chooses to represent herself as a “blue Aztec death’s-head burning bodiless, ghosts of her blue hands flickering like strobe-lit doves [with] lightning zig-zags around the crown of the neon skull”. Some of the virtual environments Gibson describes (like the Walled City — a virtual city located beyond the pale of the public net) are described as deliberately designed, some are not. That may have been meant to imply without bothering to make it explicit that some were generated on the fly, or it might just have been detail left out as unnecessary to the story. Regardless, I’m going to chase down and leghump the former idea.

So far, the only difference between the environments in Gibson’s work and (to choose an example) Second Life (whose creators explicity reference Gibson, Neal Stephenson and others), other than the level of immersion, is that in Second Life, everything is explicitly created.

In Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, the Metaverse is a virtual globe with a 10,000km radius, featureless and black except for the portions that have been ‘developed’. Its equator is girdled by the “the Champ Elysees of the Metaverse”. Downtown is the most heavily developed area, and its streets are populated by about 120 million avatars. The sophistication of avatars and environments is limited by the bandwidth and computational grunt available to users, and to their wealth and coding prowess. Status is perceived accordingly, with many settling for the lowest common denominator of off-the-shelf Walmart avatars, the ‘Brandy’ and ‘Clint’ models. Interaction within the metaverse is also variable in veracity, with some areas being coded by their residents and habituees to simulate collision modelling, for example, and some not.

Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Elysees of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it.
Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. … The only difference is that since the Street does not really exist–it’s just a computer graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere–none of these things is being physically built. They are, rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the world-wide fiber-optics network.
In the real world–planet Earth, Reality–there are somewhere between six and ten billion people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or field-stripping their AK-47s. Perhaps a billion of them have enough money to own a computer; these people have more money than all the others put together. Of these billion potential computer owners, maybe a quarter of them actually bother to own computers, and a quarter of these have machines that are powerful enough to handle the Street protocol. That makes for about sixty million people who can be on the Street at any given time. Add in another sixty million or so who can’t really afford it but go there anyway, by using public machines, or machines owned by their school or their employer, and at any given time the Street is occupied by twice the population of New York City. That’s why the damn place is so overdeveloped. Put in a sign or a building on the Street and the hundred million richest, hippest, best-connected people on earth will see it every day of their lives.

As in Gibson’s virtuality, it can be assumed, I think, even if it’s not explicitly stated, that procedural programming methods might be imagined to be the glue that fills in the gaps between designed environments and interactions and ones that are generated.

Procedural programming is not a new idea, but it is one that is beginning to leak from the demo scene to gaming, and will, in time, begin to make its way into the massive multiuser environments that so many people already spend so much time living and playing inside.

If you’re not familiar with the power of this kind of coding, have a look at kkreiger, if you have relatively grunty PC. It is demo of a first person shooter game, more sophisticated in its visuals than the state of the art that was crowding the limits of a 600Mb CD a few years ago. It is 96Kb.
96Kb. Seriously, no tricks, 96 freaking Kb. That’s got to melt your snatch hairs if you’re even half the geek I am. Two seconds to download on that 56Kb/s modem you’re using in that bullet-hole pocked bar in Kinshasa. If nothing else, have a look at the screenshots, and boggle a bit at that number. The whole thing weighs less than the webpage you’re currently reading. The environments are procedurally generated, on the fly, and more than anything I’ve seen so far, kkreiger demonstrates the Power of Algorithm.

If you’re someone who enjoys trippy visuals and sounds more than gaming, then have a look at this demo instead, which is perhaps my all-time favorite output from the demo scene. It’s a few megabytes– not much bigger than the mp3 file which comprises the superb soundtrack. This is art, and it continues to stick in my mind, a year after I first saw it.

If those examples of the power of this kind of code doesn’t do it for you, watch Will Wright’s presentation about his upcoming game, Spore. If it ends up being anywhere near as impressive as it looks, and it’s actually fun, it’s going to blow this stuff wide open, in terms of technology.

“OK, so what does all that have to do with folksonomies?” you might quite reasonably ask. I do think that there is utility in tagging and non-heirarchical metadata, but I dream that the real payoff may not be in terms of helping us to organize and mine information, much as it could be a boon for those purposes. The pros and cons have been batted around with great vigour by those smarter than myself, and I’m not going to add to the noise, other than to note that spammers and marketron scum have been as quick to colonize the tagspace as they have every other channel we have for movement of data.
What interests me, and makes me hope I live long enough to see it emerge, is this possibility: if it does happen that environments like the ones described in Idoru and Snowcrash and many other works of fiction become as big a part of our daily lives as the river of text we now swim through, those environments simply will not scale if they’re designed entirely by hand. Spaces like Second Life, though not as clunky and difficult to enter and participate in as the early VRML environments from the early 90’s, are still designed, by users and the programmers who provide the tools and primitives to work with. User-generated content is an idea that generated enormous feedback-loop value, from forums and community websites, to tagging itself, to the environments, objects and avatars in virtual spaces like Second Life.

But what if virtual spaces were generated as much on the fly as they were hand-crafted? What if they were generated as habitable spaces in which we did the things we do now in text and flat image and numbercluster? How would the code know what environmental cues to generate? What contextual metadata clues could be used to generate and ‘design’ those environments?
Well, folksonomic tags, of course. What if we could build not only metadata in the form of folksonomies, but meta-meta-data (both shared and public), in the form of a sort of Rosetta Stone to translate the conceptual clouds of our tags into visual metaphors, into textures and imagery? What if hunks of procedural code could take that and in turn generate the visual glue and intersitia to hold our designed environments together?

That might sound like singularity-fanboy handwavery, and to an extent I suppose it is. But you’ve got to admit, it’d be pretty cool.

And if that node-network of virtuality generation later spontaneously and automagically achieved a kind of synaptic awareness, deus ex folksonoma, well, that might be cool too. At least until the AI noticed the parasites — us — and the systematic genocide of the human species got under way.

So tag carefully, friends. If you’re lucky, the coming tagmind might just look upon you and smile.