Saturday, January 23, 2010

The circus is in town

The world's biggest attention whores, Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church (the "god hates fags" people) are coming to San Francisco, and planning a demonstration in front of my child's school, because god apparently hates Jews as well. The JCC and a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" are also targets.

I've had some fun in the past hacking the protests of religious extremists, but I'll give this a pass. The school quite reasonably is urging everyone to ignore these people completely, since they thrive on attention and fund themselves by suing people who take the bait and beat the crap out of them.

Here's an example of their style:
Congregation Beth Israel & Day School - Rabbis Rape Boys! ... You pretentious Jews are in BIG trouble, and WBC has the duty - job really - to tell you about it. Once upon a time a Messiah came to this world to redeem the elect children. Although it was in FACT needful for him to die on the cross in order to pay that ransom, that does NOT take the responsibility for His death off of the backs of the Jews. Check it out, you lying hypocrites who pretend you can blame Pilate and the Romans who handed the Lord Jesus over to those brutal, fag Roman officers....Each one of you Jews who refuse to help God's true servants, and hide in your little multiple-level-one-stop shops like this place, pretending to be so holy, selfless and kind are just as guilty of these murderers just referred to. AMEN!
One has to wonder: are these people sincere in their beliefs, or are they putting on an act to get attention, or is that not even a meaningful distinction? (similar questions come up in attempts to explain Hitler). Are they so far out of the mainstream that they are just freaks, or do they represent what happens when common human tendencies (in- and outgroup thinking, self-righteousness, and attention-seeking) are taken to extremes?

The thing that most marks these creatures as having left the realm of the human is their practice of violating the sanctity of funerals with their pickets. Most of us, I think, no matter how strong our ideological convictions will stop short of interfering with people mourning their dead. Fred Phelps and his followers cross a line that nobody else in civilized society will, and by making themselves pariahs help make us aware of that line. For that at least we can be thankful for them.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Diasters need atoms not bits

So I'm sitting at home in front of my big flat screen TV fed from a satellite watching the talking heads on CNN do tricks with Google Earth showing imagery shot from space that depicts the utter devastation in Haiti in near real time, augmented by a Twitter feed. What strikes me, aside from the obvious horror, is how far our capabilities in information gathering and distribution have advanced in the last 50 years, and how comparatively little our capabilities to actually do anything. People still need water and food and their wounds bandaged, all that needs to be transported and the means for transport haven't changed very much. It seems like development has proceeded in a imbalanced fashion. Our information handling abilities have grossly outstripped our matter handling abilities.

This isn't so surprising; it's just plain easier to manipulate bits than it is atoms. But I feel somewhat personally complicit. I've always tended toward the abstract; gravitating towards mathematics and computer science in school, I always felt a kind of awed admiration at the people who were actually working with stuff, like materials scientists who were pulling apart metal bars or the biologists pureeing mouse brains.

Some hackers are getting together today to try to do some kind of rapid software development for Haiti. I'm a little dubious -- no matter how quickly you can throw together a web application, it's unlikely to be quick enough to help, to connect with the real physical relief efforts on the ground. Maybe I'm wrong. Certainly there is mapping software and logistic software that can help with relief efforts, but I assume that this either is already integrated into the operations of relief agencies or it isn't -- you can't deploy stuff like that overnight. Nevertheless, all kudos to the people doing this for trying to help.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Twittering about twitter

I have a love/hate relationship with social media -- Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs,, etc. On the one hand, they take up endless time, and the information quality and density is generally much less than one gets from traditional media, such as books and journals. On the other hand, just because scholarly journals exist doesn't mean I shouldn't spend time chattering with friends and acquaintances -- in other words, the proper thing to compare Twitter to is, say, an ongoing cafe conversation, not publishing. On the other other hand, Twitter and Facebook are a pale simulacrum of actual face-to-face social interaction. On the other other other hand, so is letter-writing and that technology spawned a great deal of worthwhile instances.

It's a brave new universe and it's still in progress; the rules for formats and genres and etiquette are being explored and seem to change on a daily basis. Worlds are colliding. As a certified Doctor of Media I feel obliged to at least keep track of what's going on and participate a bit, even if it is part of the ruination of intellectual life. I don't really think it is -- or, rather, it is wrecking some parts of the universe of discourse (newspapers, most obviously) and enabling a great many others, and we are a couple of decades away, at least. from seeing how things will ultimately shake out.

One example: I have various services that gate my blog posts onto Twitter and Facebook, and gate Twitter posts onto Facebook. The directionality is significant -- I'd never do it the other way around. Identity is uncomfortable -- the blog is pseudonymous, Facebook is under my real name, Twitter is a bit of both. The mtraven alias was supposed to be decoupled from my real identity so I wouldn't have to worry about professional implications of anything I said here, but eventually I couldn't be bothered to maintain the wall of separation and have been more or less letting it decay or actively undermining it. I can barely be bothered to maintain one persona let alone several.

Aside from the identity discomfort, the flowing-together of these different media also causes other slight irritations -- call it genre discomfor. Something that makes a good blog post doesn't necessarily make a good tweet. For instance, tweets seem more ephemeral than Facebook posts, since the latter have a more explicit mechanism for replying and can become the locus of a conversation. But I undermine the casual nature of Twitter by connecting the two together.

One way to frame thinking about these technologies is to change from thinking of them as a medium to thinking of them as infrastructure. Twitter, for instance, as a medium is kind of stupid -- what possible good can come of a 140-characte limit (on the other hand, haiku). But as an infrastructure -- a utility that supports the controllable multicasting of short messages -- it enables all kinds of unexpected things. My most practical use of Twitter is the Caltrain feed, which allows riders to send reports of train delays, outages, and accidents (which happen with alarming frequency). I have this feed piped to my phone so I typically get better reports of what's going on than the conductors do. I enjoy the mild irony of using this cutting-edge 21st century technology to monitor and improve the utility of the largely broken 19th century technology of railroads.

Google Wave is another new technology that seems really crappy as a medium (if you've used it you know what I mean; if not and you want an invitation let me know), but has great promise as infrastructure. In this case the infrastructure supports the standardization of collaborative applications, ie, it makes it easy to create apps that work like Google Documents do (through the web real-time collaborative editing of documents).

Hm, on further thought there are many subtly different ways to treat these things:
  • medium
  • infrastructure
  • platform
  • ecosystem
  • community
  • standard
For any web technology, these are different and related aspects of the elephant. They all fit together -- standards are useless without a community that is interested in using them; standards once established becomes a platform on which other things are built. Things that start out as new media seem compelled by market forces to become platforms. Etc.

Facebook, for instance, had no appeal for me until some actual people I wanted to communicate with pulled me in (community). Twitter on theo ther hand is more interesting (to me) because of its API. Because it's so trivial, it is developing an interesting ecosystem of clients (like Brizzly and dozens of others), and tools that put different spins on the date such as Twibes and Tweememe. I just learned about a new, interesting, scary part of the Twitter ecosystem a site that lets you add sponsored links: automatically inserts one tweet from an advertiser that you approve into your feed every other day.
Here's my own (pretty trivial) contribution to the Twitter ecosystem -- Twitlines, a client that uses a scrollable timeline. The idea is to create an ambient view This was done mostly as an experiment to test out how quickly I could deploy a web app in the new universe of platform services (answer -- very quickly, but tweaking it into shape was starting taking too much time so I am forcing myself to release it to the wild). More interesting variations to come, I hope.

The profusion of multiple standards and platforms is a symptom of the youthful stage of the Internet. It's pretty healthy, if annoying, to have so many different growth points.

Oh well, this post has turned into the opposite of a tweet, which is necessarily pithy and pointed. If I have a point, it's that these media are going to be the nervous system of the planetary collective mind, like it or not, and radically shape whatever civilization we might have in the future, just as the printing press shaped the Enlightenment. So it won't do to dismiss them as trivial, even though 99% of the contents may be just that.