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Category: academic

De Revolutionibus

I am currently reading Paolo Rossi’s The Birth of Modern Science [available here]. The chapter on Copernicus discusses his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium from 1543, which is today seen as the revolutionary work that established the heliocentric system and forever removed the earth from the center of the universe. Rossi however demonstrates how un-revolutionary Copernicus’ work in fact was, not only in terms of style and format – which were based entirely on Ptolemy’s Almagest from 1400 years earlier, but also in terms of argumentation. Virtually all of Copernicus’s arguments existed in one form or another before him, and some of them were in fact Ptolemy’s – most important of all being the argument on the uniform and regular circular motion of heavenly bodies. Fascinatingly, Copernicus argued that his work is important because it explains Ptolemean astronomy better than its author did – and the concept of circular motion across heavenly spheres was crucial for that. Apparently Johannes Kepler commented that Copernicus had interpreted Ptolemy rather than nature when he wrote his treatise (deducing from authority was a very Medieval approach to science, and the fact that the greatest scientific achievement of the Renaissance was achieved in that way is a damning comment on the notion of the Renaissance as a negation of scholasticism).

Copernicus never went as far as Giordano Bruno and suggest an infinite universe, populated by bodies in irregular motion. Rather, the revolutionary aspect of Copernicus’s work was in using the very same facts as everyone else, to propose a previously unsought direction disguised as an improvement on the dogma. It’s hard to get more unintentionally subversive than that. From the perspective of scientific advancement, the fascinating observation here is that a revolutionary jump was achieved thanks to a proposal asking many more questions than it could answer, rather than delivering a coherent theory to substitute the previous one. For example, Copernicus’s position on the earth’s rotation led directly to the need to explain gravity (now that the earth was not the center of a spherical universe), which in turn led to Newton.

This realization is interesting, because it questions, as so many other examples, the image of science as a monolithic coherent discipline engaged in an ever-forward progress. The move, if there is any move at all, is never forward, but more sideways-backwards-sideways until a new way to question the obvious emerges somewhere on the periphery.

Of course, it never hurts to ruffle a few feathers in the process – apparently Martin Luther fumed against ‘that fool astronomer who claims that the earth moves’.

Cloud computing and secret gardens

Charlie Stross has a great piece on his site commenting Apple’s strategy with the iPad and Steve Jobs’s vicious antipathy towards any cross-platform apps not originating from Apple. Plenty of material to discuss there, but for me the interesting part is [1] the notion that cloud computing is going to displace the PC in a controlled walled-garden way. By walled-garden I mean a total-control platform like iTunes – or anything else from that nightmarish company for that matter. I suspect that Stross is right, at least when it comes to Apple – their strategy after all is easy to deduce, but I just don’t see how walled-garden platform is going to dominate the cloud-space when you consider the relentless pressure for interoperability applied by a constantly emerging market. One could argue that Microsoft’s success with the PC platform has been solely due to their complete openness to hardware and third-party soft. Google seem to go down a similar path and if anything it is their already developing cloud platform that would probably dominate the early decade of cloud computing. Stross sums it up nicely:

‘Because you won’t have a “computer” in the current sense of the word. You’ll just be surrounded by a swarm of devices that give you access to your data whenever and however you need it.’

Apple’s and their ilk ‘success’ would be to maintain the cult by porting to a cloud platform, but the sheer necessity of total interoperability related to broad market penetration will prevent them from dominating the cloud. Finally, the comparison between Apple and BMW/Mercedes ‘high-end’ cars doesn’t work for me – I see Jobs’s cult as a Saab.

Tim O’Reilly: The State of the Internet Operating System

Just went though Tim O’Reilly’s The State of the Internet Operating System. Fascinating, thought-provoking, directly related to what I am working on regarding ambient socio-digital systems (ASDS). Key bits:

“What mobile app (other than casual games) exists solely on the phone? Virtually every application is a network application, relying on remote services to perform its function. Where is the “operating system” in all this? Clearly, it is still evolving. Applications use a hodgepodge of services from multiple different providers to get the information they need.”

“We are once again approaching the point at which the Faustian bargain will be made: simply use our facilities, and the complexity will go away. And much as happened during the 1980s, there is more than one company making that promise. We’re entering a modern version of “the Great Game”, the rivalry to control the narrow passes to the promised future of computing. “

“The underlying services accessed by applications today are not just device components and operating system features, but data subsystems: locations, social networks, indexes of web sites, speech recognition, image recognition, automated translation. It’s easy to think that it’s the sensors in your device – the touch screen, the microphone, the GPS, the magnetometer, the accelerometer – that are enabling their cool new functionality. But really, these sensors are just inputs to massive data subsystems living in the cloud.”

“Location is the sine-qua-non of mobile apps. When your phone knows where you are, it can find your friends, find services nearby, and even better authenticate a transaction.”

“Where is the memory management?”

Location, time, and emotive attachments (intensity) are the key vectors he identifies, and I agree. A fascinating problem is the management of a locally-cached memory-shadow. All in all, plenty to think of.

On intellectual monopoly

I recently discovered Michele Boldrin and David Levine‘s book Against Intellectual Monopoly*, in which they develop an arguably much more radical critique of the current ‘intellectual property rights’ regime than the one proposed by the alternative du jour – Lawrence Lessig‘s Creative Commons platform.  I find the differences illustrative of the way our understanding of property has slowly but inescapably eroded, while simultaneously we have expanded the hollowed-out shell of that term.

Lessig’s approach, and that epitomised by the CC platform, is best illustrated by this TED talk where he discusses among other things traditional property rights (as in rights to a scarce good such as land). His argument is about the way technology enacts changes in our understanding of the limits of property rights, and he illustrates it with the example of a court case revolving around military planes trespassing over someone’s property. In the larger context of his talk this particular episode serves as a sort of comic relief, as in – how absurd and inadequate the farmer for suing the air-force for trespassing, clearly he was not aware of the progressive march of technology and its effects on our understandings of property. In a nutshell, Lessig’s point is as follows – property rights evolve with technology, and our laws need to evolve accordingly; copyright and intellectual property have to be protected, but we need to keep in mind the way technology revolutionizes social norms.

Boldrin and Levine on the other hand attack the very notions of copyright and intellectual property at their very root, and their erudite argument exposes these notions for what they are –  state-granted monopoly to a non-scarce good. The book is full of historical examples from the dawn of the industrial age, and the authors attack not only the notion of copyright but also its chief support argument – that of defending creativity. They also point out that key to understanding copyright and intellectual property laws is their origin – The Statute of Queen Anne – and its thinly veiled intentions of total state control over dissent of opinion. I am reading their excellent book in tandem with Stephan Kinsella’s Against Intellectual Property, and it seems to me these books represent a growing intellectual alternative to the Creative Commons platform.

* The book is available for free download