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Tuesday, February 16, 2010
The Overexamined Life: Finding Bits of Ourselves in Digital Ghost Towns: 'If I were to log into Friendster today I would see a perfectly preserved document of my life in 2003. The people I was friends with then (most of them, sadly, I'm no longer in touch with) and the inside jokes we shared, not to mention the photos of me at that age. It makes me really want to not log in or log in and destroy it all.' See also Caterina's defence of participatory media in the face of Jaron Lanier's contention that digital collectivism and 'making everything open all the time creates what I call a global mush.'


The iPad as a 'device for cities'. It's also demonstrating that the 'perfect computing device' is becoming more, not less, impossible to achieve. Convergence is an increasingly discredited idea: 'That 'Swiss army knife' model may well be on the way out.' Apple is a purveyor of unabashed design elitism. From an NYT piece, quoted by CoS: "Great products, according to Mr. Jobs, are triumphs of "taste." And taste, he explains, is a byproduct of study, observation and being steeped in the culture of the past and present.'

In this respect, the company is akin to the patrician approach of early design Quangos like the Council of Industrial Design, which railed against the vulgarity of popular taste with films like 'Deadly Lampshade' ('In the table lamp section of a department store, the salesman persuades a female customer to buy, against her better judgement, a badly designed table lamp in the shape of a Viking ship. The manufacturers, Kosi Glim, are pleased that this particular line is selling well, but their chief designer, Spencer, is aware that it is rubbish and shows his new design for a simple and efficient table lamp to the managing director, Millbank. Millbank, though he too dislikes fancy designs, turns down Spencer's idea on the arguments of the sales manager.')

It's not entirely unknown for a company to state baldly that it knows best for its consumers - the success of many major brands is entirely predicated on their self-stated authority. But Apple's authority rests not on its championing of a particular aesthetic but its disavowal of anything even remotely at odds with an ascetic approach (drawing attention to its employment of typographers, for example). Until now, perhaps. From CoS again: 'That [iBook] shelf interface is particularly horrible... Why would a Rams-fan such as Ive settle for clumsy faux-wooden shelving? Particularly when you might have referenced the Ram's designed 606 shelving system, which is about as perfect as shelving-as-modular-interface can get?' The answer perhaps lies in Apple's mastery of minimalism, a movement that in other genres is frequently derided for its 'blandness' or 'simplicity' (think Andre's bricks or a Pawson interior). Of course, no designers would deny the time and skill that it takes to create less out of more. Where iBook appears to fail is in the sudden metaphorical gulf between the minimalism of its physical product design and the increasingly popular use of real-world symbolism and imagery in operating systems. The Microsoft Bob system was a disaster, but the basic visual architecture - a room, objects, characters - is there in iBook.


Other things. All about Branjengilina, through the eyes of the gossip magazines / popular, revisiting British hit singles. It's all about the comments / love it:, for when you need tick or a snowflake / the myth of 'Broken Britain' / design a house for Lady Gaga / bookspaperscissors, an illustration blog / A petit bruit, a weblog focusing on design for children / the cost of New Modern construction at Modern South Florida, further proof that 'modernist' is the new bourgeouis-style decried by its original practitioners. See also Miami Modern.


Hitchens on A Nation of Racist Dwarfs: 'Kim Jong-il's regime is even weirder and more despicable than you thought.' From the piece: 'a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean' / Modern Capital, modernism in Washington / Kickcan and Conkers, a tumbler / photography by Elli Ioannou / Significant Objects looks at underwater things from New York /

Neat Pelican mash-ups. We wonder where they found the source images? Via ffffound / Tessellations, a weblog / works by the Future Mapping Company / all about the 747 / all about Battersea Power Station / all about Dennis Wheatley / a weblog by Caitlin Burke / Artybuzz, an artists' community.


Monday, January 25, 2010

The age of cross-pollination. Curation Culture, for want of a better term, thrives on cross-pollination. Everything is interesting, and what's more, we've developed the tools and the aesthetics with which to create the deep levels of analysis that would overwhelm a masters thesis from the 80s or 90s. Take this, the Samizdat Drafting Company's One Book, Many Readings loving, obsessive examination of the 'choose your own adventure' books of the 1980s, complete with a remarkable set of animations and the ability to 'play' a book.

It's beautiful and fascinating. Yet content is practically overwhelmed by presentation. The contemporary digital toolset rips the books into their constituent pieces, making kinetic art out of what would once have been created with a set of index cards and an eraser. The site cross-pollinates modern obsessions - retro style and gaming and infographics - to create a dataset that is ultimately more than the sum of its parts, reflecting not so much our interest in the original books but in their role as a source of data.

(There are plenty of places online to find out about CYOA, Fighting Fantasy, etc., including the original company. The Samizdat project's conclusions were that the CYOA books gradually decreased in complexity over time (perversely going against Steven Johnson's contentions in Everything Bad Is Good for You that pop culture is increasingly multi-threaded and dense).)

As part of the analysis, Samizdat draws parallels with the typographic chaos of early web pages gradually giving way to restraint, concluding: 'When a world of new possibilities has just opened, it's hard to find the will for restraint. But, in time, people scale back the more gratuitous uses of this sort of glitz, moving from what's possible to what best suits the material.' In typography, perhaps this rings true, but in all other aspects of online culture, scaling back is not the dominant trend. Instead, information density and manipulation are pushed to the fore, their complexity a virtue and the brave new worlds created by statistic-saturated infographics form yet another spoke in the cut-and-paste culture celebrated by the visual weblog.

Sites like information aesthetics and cool infographics focus on contemporary graph fetishism; the data is almost a secondary consideration to the presentation. Nicholas Felton's 'Annual Reports' are a classic case in point, not only the ur-form of the personal infographic, but a clear precursor to the proliferation of Apps for tracking every aspect of your life.

Up until a few years ago, the information-saturated environment was a visual cue for extreme, dystopian futurism - Blade Runner's looming airship/billboards, or Minority Report's highly targeted augmented reality advertising. The logical conclusion of such a future is rendered in the speculative 'augmented hyper reality' video by Keiichi Matsuda, currently doing the rounds ('Augmented reality may recontextualise the functions of consumerism and architecture, and change in the way in which we operate within it.'). For fans of data density, augmented reality is truly a blessing, a means of overlaying the modern world with the many layers of extraneous data that would otherwise continue to go unseen.


Other things. Error Gorilla, a tumblr / The Brown Car Blog, pretty self-explanatory / Daniel Simon's work is unashamedly romantic, almost old-fashion in its shiny, fetishistic futurism / Cloudberry Cake Proselytism, cheerleading for old school indie pop / BooBooGBs photostream, old school Hollywood glamour / Burning World, an mp3 blog / make tracks on train tracks. Reminiscent of the great Fisher Price Music Box Record Player (not to be confused with the Fisher Price Phonograph, which could play actual records. More info).


England's most hated building to be demolished. Surprisingly this is the 'IMAX' in Bournemouth, a piece of waterfront regeneration tat that has long since lost the cinema that gave it its name and currently houses only a KFC. Here's hoping Plymouth's Drake Circus isn't too far behind / related, Confessions of a Conservation Officer / it's nice when ephemera is dovetailed with contemporary practice. Delicious Industries' Reference Box is a good case in point.


A collection of trade secrets / Photos of 24 abandoned and decayed hotels from around the world / The Soviet Heritage and European Modernism / squatting culture in Barcelona: Squat Barcelona and Usurpa / paintings by Gigi Scaria / Guitars for OK Go by Moritz Waldemeyer.


British high tech architecture as evidence of 'a na•ve dream of an America which never existed', and now the epitome of contemporary cultural banality, at entschwindet und vergeht. Response at NB and S, mostly on the same page / more commentary: melancholy, sadness and Zaha: 'And this futility just deepensÉ the building is an example of 'Google Earth Urbanism'. That is to say; all this complexity can only really be seen from directly above.'

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Some more thoughts on augmentation. Michael Lascarides directs us towards Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond weblog, which devotes extensive space to augmented reality, tracking product and project announcements. Check the French company Total Immersion and their new announcement of a partnership with Microsoft, for example. The company specialises in creating an 'interactive experience where virtual components are dynamically merged into a live video stream in real time' - trade fairs quake with anticipation. Sure, there'll be a market for animated baseball cards, or even Franklin Mint produced Star Wars HoloChess and Battleships (tm), along with a myriad of other quasi-virtual family games that will be the yard sale detritus of the near future and our grandchildren's kitsch collectables.

But as Sterling usually concludes, the more interesting applications of AR appear to be mobile, where the layering of information atop of a small user-controlled section of reality - as opposed to media that envelopes you entirely - is practical, desirable, and here right now. The future dreams are still of people plucking dreamily at thin air, but little apps like Layar (which we've finally tracked down thanks to some Android ROM-flashing shenanigans) make a case for genuine usefulness. For example, the Archinform Layar promises to merge an international architecture database with your phone as the portal, bringing up information about the world around you. Throw in Pevsner and things start to get interesting.

The idea of a portal is key, be it a phone or personal projector, rather than the suggestion of data saturated landscapes generated by special glasses or headsets or whatever. We'll pitch in with a suggestion for a name. The history of technology is also the history of linguistic reappropriation - things get new meanings in the digital realm, loosely based on their function and appearance in the real world: tabs, layers, skins, windows, panes, palettes, panels, buttons, boxes, forms, paths, etc. etc. The lorgnette seems like a good match, something you hold up to your eyes to make something a little clearer.

See also, The Lorgnette, or Studies of the Town, by an Opera Goer (1854) / the Optical Heritage Museum.


More archives continue to drip out of the world's media repositories: Tomorrow's World, which we're partly being invited to laugh at and point at the fashions and the goggle-eyed optimism and hopelessly backwards, unoptimistic or great but wide of the mark predictions (as Maggie Philbin recalled). A shame, as always, that the whole programmes aren't just indexed and uploaded.

There's a bit more from the late Rex Malik, featured in that last TW clip, here. Prescient stuff (it's undated, but the show 'The Computer Programme' went out in 1982): 'Does this mean there's a kind of electronic Big Brother waiting out there in the future? Well, yes, I'm afraid there probably is. For the technology is now beginning to place awful temptations in front of administrators..... we need to be able to control what is held on computers, who has access to it and how they can use it.' On the future office and the role of technology: 'So you have problems with the office next door? Well just wait. I can see you having similar problems in the Eighties but with offices in Tokyo, San Francisco, London and Melbourne. As I say, welcome to the electronic village.'

The British Library Sound Archive are mostly free to peruse. The blog is good for actually tracking down sounds you can play (which, infuriatingly, isn't many of them).

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Friday, June 12, 2009

The dreary physical infrastructure that underpins the web, 'the real world architecture of the internet cloud' (link to an NYT piece by Tom Vanderbilt, author of How We Drive). Related, a map of all Google Data Center locations. Also, from 2006, Hiding in Plain Sight, Google Seeks More Power, the story behind the company's cheap electricity-guzzling data center in The Dalles, Oregon, also covered extensively in Harper's a couple of years later, linked via the rather specifically-targeted site Data Center Knowledge.

The NYT photographs were taken by Simon Norfolk, known for his Iraq photographs as well as his images of supercomputers (both links from BLDGBLOG). The above image is a crop of an IBM BlueGene/L installation, not a data center but a calculating machine with 'ultra-scalability for breakthrough science'.

Naturally, the key issue here is power. "You look at a typical building," Michael Manos, [then Microsoft’s general manager of data-center services] explained, "and the mechanical and electrical infrastructure is probably below 10 percent of the upfront costs. Whereas here it's 82 percent of the costs." And "the cloud, calculates [Jonathan Koomey, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory], consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world's electricity.'

The numbers are huge. Vanderbilt's piece quotes someone saying Microsoft has around 150,000 servers in total, with one Google site containing 45,000 servers. Yet the DCK site quotes an unconfirmed report on an under-construction Chinese data center built beneath a dam and containing in excess of 1 million servers in total.


Other things. Photographer Michael Wolf's collection of cover illustrations of the French weekly newspaper Le Petit Journal: 'Published between 1863 and 1934, Le Petit Journal had a circulation of over one million in 1890. As Wolf says, 'the moments that the petit journal covers illustrate are a classical photojournalist's wet dream - to be in exactly the right place at the right time to catch the high point of a catastrophe or crime.'

Colossal collection of designer 'tart cards', created for the current issue of wallpaper magazine in collaboration with Type. Tart cards are a British tradition - see the X-Directory, hosted at the wonderful Irdial / Lucky Russian Trolley Ticket Cookies. Nice concept by Art Lebedev, via (Yanko) / Chest of Books hunts down open source tracts and collates them into categories / Prince Charles gets his way: Chelsea Barracks scheme scrapped (AJ, see also BBC), a controversy covered ably by Pearman a few weeks back

HTC Experiments, 'experimental practices in architectural history, theory, and criticism', and rich with interesting thoughts and theories / 50 ridiculous design rules / a short film about the Festival of Britain / The Rumpus, 'an online magazine focused on culture, as opposed to "pop culture"... Basically, we're not opposed to things that are popular, but we have no interest in “art” created by marketing executives'.

The Style Press, or bring on the marketing executives / We Can't Paint, a weblog about photography / beard crumbs, a weblog about stuff and other things / Design Kabinet, stuff blog. If one ever stopped to do a thorough semiotic analysis of the things that got posted on these websites then the list of products would make truly fascinating reading.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009
When did the technological menace that stalks popular culture shift from being carbon-based to entirely silicon? When did we evolve the perception that fictional computers could receive human-type personalities? When we reviewed Ray Kurzweil's Age of Spiritual Machines, eight and half years ago, we felt that artificial intelligence would be the foundations of a new era of virtual worlds, their actual function and purpose as yet unclear. It was a somewhat misguided idea. Instead, we have learnt to become ever more emotionally attached to our machines, a development that Kurzweil perhaps didn't bargain for in his original analysis.

Stephen Fry made an excellent point late last year, writing about how this state of affairs was essentially kick-started by Apple. At the heart of the iPhone, Fry wrote, is 'the fundamental understanding that is Steve Jobs and Jony Ive’s (Apple's Chief Designer) great contribution to digital (and therefore cultural) life in our time – that human beings, willy-nilly, forge relationships even with inanimate objects and that those relationships, being human, take on all the colours of emotion: it is in our DNA for this to be the case.'

How could this be overlooked for so long? Proponents of 'true' artificial intelligence were once rigorously focused on eking out logic and clarity in human-computer interaction (the foundations of the Turing Test - see the halting conversation with Eliza, recorded in things 6). As a result, we fill in the blanks for ourselves, assigning personality traits to the inanimate and dumb, extrapolating a relationship from the tiny flashes of coincidence that define and extend our bonding with an object - the files apparently withheld out of spite, for example, or blaming a slow connection on some inherent machine stupidity.

Supporting this imposition of a hidden agenda has been half a century or so of fictional computer personalities, running in tandem with computer history. However, there has always been a dark side to this anthropomorphic feast, as the supercomputer turned psychopath and monster. In early science fiction, the 'alien' element had been robotic, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Forbidden Planet, where the character of Robby the Robot comes to epitomise the mid-50s view of what a robot would look like and what it would be able to do. This was the era of rampant futurism, when a robot in every home seemed a very real possibility. Ultimately, such optimism evaporated in the face of insurmountable technical obstacles, to be replaced by robots as a science fiction trope and a hobbyist's preserve, two spheres that have been forever kept apart by practicality and cost.

As computing power increased, the idea that a villain - or at least a malevolent force - need not be a living entity started to propagate in speculative fiction. What was the first evil computer, that transitional cultural fossil? The list of computers in fiction shows that by the mid-1950s, it was the data-sorting and management ability of computers that led to their eventual demonisation. As a character says in Isaac Asimov's The Evitable Conflict (1950): 'The Machines are not super-brains in Sunday supplement sense,—although they are so pictured in the Sunday supplements. It is merely that in their own particular province of collecting and analyzing a nearly infinite number of data and relationships thereof, in nearly infinitesimal time, they have progressed beyond the possibility of detailed human control'.

The same year, Kurt Vonnegut wrote EPIPAC, the tale of a computer becoming sentient, emotionally attached and ultimately suicidal, while Colossus, a 1966 novel, featured computers hell-bent on world security at the expense of human life. Evil machines were extrapolations of evil government, systems that sought efficiency at the expense of freedom and personal expression. The book also became a film, Colossus: The Forbin Project (video, arriving at around the same time as the screen treatment of Arthur C.Clarke's 2001 (expanded from his story The Sentinel through the addition, we think, of the Hal plot element).

Clark retained the theme of misapplied self-preservation through HAL's murderous activities, focusing on a relatively small scale - a space mission - rather than an entire city or planet. This is a fairly arbitrary dating, but sometime during the 1970s the term 'supercomputer' came into usage, apparently coined by Seymour Cray, the founder of Cray Research. Cray's products were a public relations triumph; giant, almost architectonic devices that used moody lighting, shiny materials and faceted forms reminiscent of post-modernist/metabolist architecture or ancient Mayan temples - they were mysterious objects to be worshipped. Dubbed 'supercomputers', Cray's products immediately caught the public attention, thanks to high profile, media-friendly applications like the creation of effects for The Last Starfighter by Digital Productions.

Being 'super' humanised the computer, ascribing it powers that many were quick to anthropomorphosise, even deify. Cray founded his company in 1972. Kubrick's 2001 dates from a few years before, with the character of HAL evolving from NASA's use of computers for spaceship control, developed since the Gemini Program (video). From there it became de rigeur to have a computer 'character' aboard a space ship, from HAL 9000 in 2001 (voiced by Douglas Rain with all the quiet precision of the sociopath), Mother in Alien, through to Icarus in Sunshine, even Slave in Blake's 7 and Bomb 20 in Dark Star. The computer had stopped being an inanimate 'thing' and become a sentient being, to be romanticised, feared and mistrusted.


Other things and related links. Visit the HP Museum, or Vintage Computer, or the IBM Archives. There's also the Pioneers of Soviet Computing and the frankly amazing DigiBarn Computer Museum, with its vast collection of machinery and associated print and ephemera. These 1995 screenshots of AlphaWord show you around an early 3D world, a virtual place that is now as lost as any of the real lost civilisations or cities around the world.

A vast pulp gallery / Hal's Legacy: 2001's computer as dream and reality, a 1997 book by David Stork that has its own, lovingly preserved, _enhanced_ web site / a collection of speculative fiction tropes / the B9 Robot Builders' Club / A New Zero, free online war game crammed into less than half a megabyte (via RPS).

The Repository of Records, a weblog / secret messages, an idea via stephanie's weblog / slow muse, a weblog / postcards for sale, amongst other things / photographs by John Davies of Rachel Whiteread's House, a now iconic emblem of lost Britain / on the virtual proliferation of watermelons.

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