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Category: flaneur

Future networks lectures

This is a YouTube playlist of my lectures in BCM206 Future Networks, covering the story of information networks from the invention of the telegraph to the internet of things. The lecture series begins with the invention of the telegraph and the first great wiring on the planet. I tie this with the historical context of the US Civil War, the expansion of European colonial power, the work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, followed by the work of Tesla, Bell, and Turing. I close with the second world war, which acts as a terminus and marker for the paradigm shift from telegraph to computer. Each of the weekly topics is big enough to deserve its own lecture series, therefore by necessity I have to cover a lot, and focus on key tropes emergent from the new networked society paradigm – i.e. separation of information from matter, the global brain, the knowledge society, the electronic frontier – and examine their role in our complex cyberpunk present.

Drones, not droning on

Late last year I was in Hong Kong to establish our school’s media program at the City University College, and while there I gave an interview to The Standard, which is Hong Kong’s widest circulation English daily newspaper. Here is a reprint of the piece by Kelis Wong.

At first glance, communication studies and drones seem like an unlikely pairing. If the study of how human produces, processes and exchanges information is a subject in the social sciences, then learning how to operate a flying robot will be a matter of engineering.

But think about the purpose of a drone. Apart from the sheer pleasure of controlling an aerial vehicle, a commercial drone performs the function of gathering visual information in the form of pictures and videos for other people to consume.

That’s why Teodor Mitew, senior lecturer in digital media and communication at the University of Wollongong in Australia, kickstarted last year in his classes a technology exploration project called PlayMake Sessions.

“Any technology which allows digitalization, which allows the translation of materials into digital is an object of study for us,” said Mitew.

Every week, Mitew presents to a group of media and communication majors a trolley filled with quadcopters, mini cube action cameras, virtual reality headsets, gesture control devices, computer circuit boards and 3D printers.

One goal of the sessions is to encourage undergraduate students to play with the gadgets, and come up with a novel use for them in their digital lives.

A project, which originated from these sessions, created a digital archive of the university library, translating still images into virtual reality.

In another student project, some first year students started an open page on Facebook, called UOW Admirers, which posts love notes sent in anonymously. One year on, the page is still active, and has become a well-known matchmaking site on campus.

“The process of random experimentation without a goal is very important,” said Mitew. “That’s how students discover the affordance of a medium. So it’s not about me telling them do this and that, it’s about me telling them take the drone and see what happens.”

In the new school year, the University of Wollongong has introduced Mitew’s exploration project to a group of students enrolled in a top-up degree program taught at the community college of the City University of Hong Kong.

The students who take Mitew’s class are asked to engage in classroom activities which some people might find unconventional. A part of the course requires the students to get active on Reddit, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress.

The students also have to write short essays in an exercise which Mitew calls digital artefact. Here are things that the students have to hand in every week: one blog post, three tweets and three online comments.

“You can also make podcasts and memes. I love memes,” said Mitew in his first lecture.

Under the guise of juvenile fun, Mitew explained that his students are acquiring the cognitive skill sets which prepare them for a paradigm shift toward an information economy in which everyone can produce their own digital content from anywhere.

The paradigm shift will affect aspiring media professionals as they will face great career challenges in the proliferation stage of digitization.

“If you are in the legacy media industry, be it news, book publishing, or music and film, this is a terrible challenge because digitization entirely destroys your business model. You cannot charge for your content like you used to do,” said Mitew.

“Look at the content produced today in newspapers, then look at the online content produced by so-called amateurs. A lot of that stuff online are more professionally done, aesthetically more pleasing, and of much better quality.”

“This dichotomy will only increase in size as the pressure on legacy media increases, and as more and more people join the internet to the realization of everyone being a content producer.”

But producing interesting content is a big challenge. Some students will struggle with the task as they are confined by the reality, their educational experiences and the environment, said Mitew.

So, creating materials that others will find amusing is the ultimate goal. Writing on a deadline, writing different copies, making do on the go, and self- directed learning are also the abilities that Mitew expects his students to master.

And by making, aggregating and curating content in the online public sphere, students demonstrate their competencies in these aspects.

“I don’t teach technology. It’s more important to teach students how not to be afraid of technology,” said Mitew.

“We try to prepare our students for a radically different reality, giving them the opportunity to work on a self chosen project in public.”


Robots sorting through 200,000 packages a day in a Chinese delivery firm’s warehouse. The robots are self-charging and operate 24/7, apparently saving more than 70% of the costs associated with human workers performing similar tasks.

The power of networks: distributed journalism, meme warfare, and collective intelligence

These are the slides for what was perhaps my favorite lecture so far in BCM112. The lecture has three distinct parts, presented by myself and my PhD students Doug Simkin and Travis Wall. I opened by building on the previous lecture which focused on the dynamics of networked participation, and expanded on the shift from passive consumption to produsage. The modalities of this shift are elegantly illustrated by the event-frame-story structure I developed to formalize the process of news production [it applies to any content production]. The event stage is where the original footage appears – it often is user generated, raw, messy, and with indeterminate context. The frame stage provides the filter for interpreting the raw data. The story stage is what is produced after the frame has done its work. In the legacy media paradigm the event and frame stages are closed to everyone except the authority figures responsible for story production – governments, institutions, journalists, academics, intellectuals, corporate content producers. This generates an environment where authority is dominant, and authenticity is whatever authority decides – the audience is passive and in a state of pure consumption. In the distributed media paradigm the entire process is open and can be entered by anyone at any point – event, frame, or story. This generates an environment where multiple event versions, frames, and stories compete for produser attention on an equal footing.

These dynamics have profound effects on information as a tool for persuasion and frame shifting, or in other words – propaganda. In legacy media propaganda is a function of the dynamics of the paradigm: high cost of entry, high cost of failure, minimum experimentation, inherent quality filter, limited competition, cartelization with limited variation, and an inevitable stagnation.

In distributed media propaganda is memes. Here too propaganda is a function of the dynamics of the paradigm, but those are characterized by collective intelligence as the default form of participation in distributed networks. In this configuration users act as a self-coordinating swarm towards an emergent aggregate goal. The swarm has an orders of magnitude faster production time than the legacy media. This results in orders of magnitude faster feedback loops and information dissemination.

The next part of the lecture, delivered by Doug Simkin, focused on a case study of the /SG/ threads on 4chan’s /pol/ board as an illustration of an emergent distributed swarm in action. This is an excellent case study as it focuses on real-world change produced with astonishing speed in a fully distributed manner.

The final part of the lecture, delivered by Travis Wall, focused on a case study of the #draftourdaughters memetic warfare campaign, which occurred on 4chan’s /pol/ board in the days preceding the 2016 US presidential election. This case study is a potent illustration of the ability of networked swarms to leverage fast feedback loops, rapid prototyping, error discovery, and distributed coordination in highly scalable content production.

Celestial Emporium

In his essay on the Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Borges ‘quotes’ the following passage from “a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its remote pages it is written that all animals are divided into:

(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) tame ones, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids or sirens, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) those that have just broken the flower vase, (n) those that, at a distance, resemble flies.


Seveneves: a review, with spoilers

I read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves over the weekend, all 867 pages of it. After the first 100 pages the only thing that kept me going was the ever-receding hope that it can and will only get better. A vain hope, as it turned out. Midway through I stopped hoping for improvement and simply decided to persevere since I’d gotten so far. The final third simply fell off from whatever standard the novel was trying to uphold until then and so I went through it with perverse fascination, savoring, as it were, its descent into uncharted territory.

The short version of this review would go something like this: this is the worst of Neal Stephenson’s books, by a very large margin. Huge plot holes, no character development whatsoever, multiple poorly developed points of view leading to superficial protagonists, illogical premises, inconsistent story-world. If you are a die-hard Neal Stephenson fan, as I am, this will be on your bookshelf anyway, but wait for the bargain bin copy. If you are into space exploration and/or hard sci-fi spare yourself the time and effort and read Andy Weir’s The Martian. If you are into post-apocalypse and TEOTWAWKI scenarios read everything by Hugh Howey, starting with his Silo Saga [Wool, Shift, Dust].

Now for the longer version [again, SPOILERS]. I can safely be described as a life-long fan of Neal Stephenson’s work, and have read and own all of his books. I re-read Anathem regularly, simply because it is an almost perfect science fiction novel. Such is my dedication. I feel I must say that as a preface to what comes next. Seveneves is by far the worst book written by Neal Stephenson, and that includes the meandering narrative of the Baroque Cycle, and his collaborative Mongoliad effort. Usually fiction of the magnitude of Seveneves, running close to a thousand pages, suffers from some weak points by the sheer nature of its size and complexity as a story. That being the case, it doesn’t mean that the whole book will suffer from these weaknesses, because if the fundamental structural elements of the story are sound then the whole will stand on its own. Unfortunately, Seveneves is a disaster in every respect.

The moon is blown up by a never explained Agent and humanity has 2 years to find a way to survive as a species before the earth is bombarded by a meteorite shower lasting several thousand years and obliterating everything on the surface of the planet. So far so good, but the humans of Seveneves decide that the best solution from this predicament is to focus all their resources into an escape into low earth orbit around the International Space Station [ISS]. If you are technically inclined you will immediately observe that this is by far the most energy inefficient option, as opposed to building deep underground or underwater bases [more on that below]. In effect, the majority of the plot is centered around the desperate efforts of a tiny remnant of humanity to deal with the totally predictable effects of the absurd premise, namely, the fact that their survival plan positioned them right in the middle of a millenia-long meteorite shower and constant solar radiation. Speaking of solar radiation, its plot role is to magically deal with characters Stephenson doesn’t know what to do with. It also turns out that solar radiation, when compounded over millenia,  has zero adverse effects on the human organism. Who could have imagined?

Facing this world-ending event, all world governments, including the Chinese and the Russians, magically delegate all their authorities and resources to the US President [I kid you not] and a totally US-dominated team of scientists and military led by [I kid you not] Neil deGrasse Tyson. The character of Doc Dubois is such an obvious and lazy reference to Tyson that after the first 100 pages I started doubting whether the book was written by Stephenson at all. The plot, while dead serious about pretty much everything, asks us to believe that a TV science presenter is a deus ex machina capable of solving impossible problems on the go, and that real scientists not only take him seriously but always delegate final decision making to him. Eventually this dynamic becomes comical. But wait, there is more! On his journey to Superman-hood and species-saving exploits Neil deGrasse Tyson is accompanied by the internet mogul turned asteroid mining entrepreneur Sean Whatshisname, modeled on the love-child of Jeff Bezos [Amazon] and Elon Musk [PayPal]. Yes.

Absurdly long stretches of the narrative are focused on detailed technical descriptions of contraptions which will never be encountered again in the story, while major moments in the plot such as losing ones family and children are dedicated a paragraph or less. Apparently scientists do not emote much. Characters constantly appear to value trivial technical problems quite more than the ability to speak to their loved ones condemned to die on earth. It takes Neil deGrasse Tyson all of 5 seconds to decide to abandon his children for the benefit of being on the ISS, and this is not presented as a moral issue at all. Why bother building characters and developing a story when you could spend the next twenty pages describing an airlock? Why indeed.

Speaking of the ISS. If you know anything about the ISS you probably know that the only way to get to it right now is on a Russian Soyuz module. The commander of the Soyuz is always a Russian, and, while ISS mission commanders can be from other nations, the commander of the Russian Orbital Segment [ROS] of the ISS is always a Russian too. Now, the ROS is important, because it and only it controls the navigation and guidance systems of the ISS. In other words, the control room of the ISS is and always has been controlled by Russians, who pretty much wrote the book on space station building and maintenance. It would take you less than one hour to learn all of these things from the open internet. Apart from the Russians, the Chinese are the only other nation to currently put people into space independently, with an active space station program of their own, modeled on the Mir and Soyuz programs. Obviously, if you were to write a book whose plot is entirely centered around a quasi-realistic sci-fi scenario involving the ISS, with a target audience of people interested in these sorts of things, this might be an important fact to consider and weave in your plot. Not so with Seveneves, which magically deals with uncomfortable facts by ignoring them altogether. And so, the Russians play a plot role oscillating between space-plumbers and thugs, while the Chinese have no plot role at all. A rag-tag team of US scientists led by Neil deGrasse Tyson is all it takes.

Remember the absurd premise of trying to survive in low earth orbit for 5 thousand years in the middle of a meteorite shower? Apparently someone pointed that out in early draft edits, because there is a secondary plot latched superficially to the main plot, involving throwaway characters who somehow manage to successfully survive 5 thousand years in a mine and on the ocean floor of planet earth. Yes. How did they do that without the major nation-state resources necessary to accomplish it? We are never told. Instead, these characters are superficially tied to the main protagonists through family bonds which conveniently melt into air the moment the meteor shower starts, only to reappear as cherished relics 5 thousand years later [I kid you not]. In Neal Stephenson’s version of historical development, 5 thousand years is basically like 50 years – some people die, some people change a bit, some people get a little bit weird, but basically everyone still speaks the same language [naturally – English], and everyone understands each other’s jokes. After 5 thousand years of solitary development all it takes to immediately reestablish connection between 3 cultures is taking out the family heirlooms from 5 millenia ago, which includes pictures. Let that sink in. This is not even high-school level of absurd, so I don’t really know what to say about it. Even 50 years in a shared cultural space generates more variety than what Stephenson wants us to believe was generated over 5000 years in communities completely cut off from each other. Imagine bumping into a Sumerian and immediately starting to discuss life, politics and economics, in English. This is the major plot moment of Seveneves. It repeats twice, in case you did not get the message the first time.

Characters make randomly absurd decisions with infuriating consistency. Protagonists who are clearly dangerous for the survival of the species [cannibals] are not only allowed to live, but others regularly sacrifice themselves on their behalf. A protagonist who continuously endangers the lives of everyone is allowed to continue to do so, in a situation where what is at stake is the survival of the species – something which, we are told, is constantly on everyone’s mind. Characters do not undergo any dramatic development, they just appear, are given a two page treatment reading like a Wired advertorial for a tech stock, and then go on their business to die for other characters without an explanation why. The final part of the book introduces a new main protagonist who, and I have to admit this is an achievement of sorts, has no personality whatsoever. Points of view between protagonists shift so often that the reader cannot begin to empathize with the poorly written characters because there is no time.

Coming to think of it, the only redeeming element of the book are the space propulsion ideas. If Stephenson had written a short story collection playing with each idea in turn, it would have been honest, and great. Instead, we have this monolith of bad writing and worse characterization, which, in solidarity with its plot, should be shot into low earth orbit and kept there indefinitely.

On Nightmares

In a lecture on Nightmares, delivered in Buenos Aires in the summer of 1977, by which time he was completely blind and therefore speaking entirely from memory, Jorge Luis Borges narrates the following story from the fifth book of Wordsworth’s Prelude, one that was later to be praised by De Quincey.

Wordsworth tells us that he was in a rocky cave by the sea. It was noon, and he was reading Don Quixote, one of his favorite books, ‘the famous history of the errant knight recorded by Cervantes.’ He put down the book and began to think about the end of science and art, and then the hour came. The powerful hour of noon, a hot summer noon. ‘Sleep seized me’, he recalls, ‘and I passed into a dream.’ He falls asleep in the cave, facing the sea, amid the golden sands of the beach. In his dream he is also surrounded by sand, a Sahara of black sand. There is no water, there is no sea. He is in the middle of a desert – in the desert one is always in the middle – and he is horrified at the thought of trying to escape. Suddenly he sees there is someone next to him. It is, oddly enough, an Arab of the Bedouin tribes, mounted on a camel and with a lance in his right hand. Under his left arm he has a stone, and in his hand he holds a shell. He brings the shell to the poet’s ear; the shell is of an extraordinary beauty. Wordsworth tells us he hears a prophecy ‘in an unknown tongue which yet I understood’: a sort of tender ode, prophesying that the earth was on the verge of being destroyed by a flood sent by the wrath of God.  The Arab tells him that it is true, the flood is coming, but that he has a mission: to save the arts and sciences. He shows him the stone. And the stone is, curiously, Euclid’s Elements, while remaining a stone. Then he brings the shell closer, and the shell too is a book; it is what had spoken those terrible things. The shell is, moreover, all the poetry of the world, including – why not? – the poem by Wordsworth. The Bedouin tells him that he must save these two things, the stone and the shell, both of them books. He turns around, and there is a moment in which Wordsworth sees that the face of the Bedouin has changed, that it is full of horror. He too turns around, and he sees a great light, a light that has now flooded the middle of the desert. It is the waters of the flood that will destroy the earth. The Bedouin goes off, and Wordsworth sees that the Bedouin is also Don Quixote and that the camel is also Rosinante and that, in the same way that the stone was a book and the shell a book, so the Bedouin is Don Quixote and is neither of the two and is both at once. This duality corresponds to the horror of the dream. Wordsworth, at that moment, wakes with a cry of terror, for the waters have engulfed him.

I think that this nightmare is one of the most beautiful in literature.