Category Archives: New Media

New Media

Visualising computer memory

Green letters flowing

Did you ever see the Matrix and wonder just how all of those green characters of weird computer code flowing across the screen corresponded to what was represented on the screen inside the matrix?

Well, today I came across a tool on the BERG blog, which shows this correlation very well with real computer code:

ICU64 is a real-time debugger for Commodore 64 emulators. On the right is an emulator program emulating a virtual C64 machine. This virtual machine is running an old C64 game. On the left is ICU64 displaying the memory registers of the virtual C64 machine.

Tom Armitage on the aforementioned BERG blog does well to describe what’s going on:

To begin with, you can see the registers being filled and decompressed to in real time; then, you can see the ripple as all the registers empty and are refilled. And then, as the game in question loads, you can see registers being read directly corresponding to sprite animation. What from a distance appears to be green and yellow dots can be zoomed right into ?? the individual values of each register being made clear. It??s a long video, but the first minute or two makes the part I liked clear: a useful (and surprisingly beautiful) visualisation of computer memory. It helps that the computer in question has a memory small enough that it can reasonably be displayed on a modern screen.

Seeing how the individual memory registers of the C64 as it runs the game, you can get an idea of how the individual bytes all play a part in presenting the game. And as the video progresses, you get an understanding of how you can change individual bytes and thus change the game – in realtime. This is pretty much what Neo does in the Matrix films: He hacks the code of the Matrix on the fly to give himself superhuman powers such as the ability to fly or fight, thereby breaking the programmed laws of the game.

It is a beautiful visualisation of the relationship between the physical computer (the registers on the disk) and the information we see displayed on our screen.

The myth of perfection

One of the bloggers I read regularly is the American journalist Jeff Jarvis. Jarvis provides insight into the changing media landscape, and has written a book called “What Would Google Do”, which uses Google as a case in point of these changes.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is what Jarvis calls the “the end of the myth of perfection.” His point being that we need to get used to thinking products in a web-minded manner: Always in beta, releasing early to learn and collaborate and improve:

This is of course very similar to the open source mindset I’ve studied in my fieldwork, but I find Jarvis says it well. And not only that, he only also makes it clear that this is not just relevant for software developers, but for almost every walk of life. We have to let go of the notion that we’ll ever achieve perfection, and instead focus on how to provide the best circumstances for continual improvement. The new world order is a permanent state of acceptable errors and continuous improvement.

Roles for the 21st century artist

Recently, I’ve been fascinated with Douglas Rushkoff, and I came across this presentation, in which he does well to sum up some of the main themes of his work. His style is earnest and passionate, and though some of his arguments are very generalized for easy consumption, he does have some very good points:

Talking to a crowd of DIY artists, Rushkoff focuses on how art is changing in the 21st century. He argues that the classic male sexuality curve of narrative with which we’re so familiar (tension, climax, release), and which can be in just about any Hollywood film or thirty second tv advertisement, won’t be the only narrative in town.

Rushkoff argues that the new interactivity and active participation that the Internet and the computer offers us, will lead to new forms of narrative. And he ends his presentation highlighting 3 new roles for the artist to take on to explore these other forms of narrative:

1) Call and response
Open up your narrative for audience participation. The audience is still uncertain of their own abilities, and they don’t yet want complete freedom. Offer them some freedom to participate, but continue to lead the narrative – like classic oral storytelling or protestant preaching. Eventually, they will supply the best ideas for leading the narrative forward.

2) Make tools
Create the tools and means for the audience to tell their own story. Here, the artist’s role is more like the role of the Dungeon Master of old D&D games: He may have absolute power, but he is continually bending the rules and shaping the scenery to create those story moments where the audience, the players can interact and create their own story.
That story is not a matter of reaching the climax and going to sleep. The point of the game is to keep playing the game. To keep the game interesting. The art – the process of playing, of creating the story – is a goal unto itself.

3) Play spaces
This is the hardest part: Creating free spaces where the members of the former audience all participate on equal terms, creating play, art and magic together. Temporary Autonomous Zones without leaders, where everybody is an artist. I wonder whether story club be an example of this?

Bootstrapping complexity

So, last week I posted my remix of Kevin Kelly’s book “Out of Control”. And soon after putting the remix online, I sent a note with a link to Kevin Kelly to make him aware of the remix, hoping that he would approve.

He did approve. Much more than I expected. And it didn’t take him long to reply:

I LOVE the remix! I wish you had been my editor. There is only one thing missing from this fantastic remix – a better title. I was never happen with the book’s title and now that it is more focused, the need is even greater. What would you call it?

Whoa! Initially, I hadn’t considered changing the title as I wanted to make it as clear as possible where the material came from. Good titles are notoriously difficult to find, and I’m sure that Kevin has thought quite a bit about this one.

Considering the remix as a new whole work, I found that it was the notion of bootstrapping and self-organization that had kept me reading the book initially: the recurring patterns of self-sustaining systems, which I knew were to be summed up at the end of the book. What appealed to me was the fact that the book not only describes self-organisation but also invites further experimentation.

So I picked my title with that in mind: “Bootstrapping Complexity” plays on the fact that the book not only describes how complexity comes about but also how complex a venture self-organization really is. In this way, the title meant to signal a positive empowerment to explore self-organization – both by reading the book and by experimenting on the basis of the book.

I’ve updated the remix with the new title. The new PDF version is here.

Twitter is drive-by shouting

So, I finally succumbed and created a Twitter account. Despite my initial impression of it being fucking retarded. But now, having begun to follow some people and reading their “tweets” (what an awful word), I’ve been able to see how it works.

Imagine a large group of rednecks, each of them cruising down a broad highway in their pickup trucks. They’re in constant flow, constantly on the move. All of the rednecks are shouting out the window as they go. Typically letting the world know what they’re doing, but often also pointing out things that they’re passing by. At times, two cars are side by side, and the rednecks can holler at each other as they drive by. Such shout-versations rarely lasts longer than a few exchanges.

Now, the really odd thing is that each pickup truck has a microphone installed. But it only records the exclamations of the driver inside the car, not what the other drivers are saying. That means that you find a driver whose yelling seems exceptionally poignant to you, you will still have a hard time figuring out exactly what they’re going on about when they’re shouting replies to others. Your best chance is to listen in on a lot of people to get both sides of the conversation.

Twitter is sort of the redneck version of weblogs. It’s drive-by shouting online. It’s short and fast and furious and fragmented and mostly incoherent. I don’t doubt that it works. It’s obviously quite an effective way to let people know what you think. But it’s still shouting.

Dunbar’s number and Facebook

Recently, I made a brief reference to the so-called Dunbar number in relation to my list of friends on Facebook.

Since then, I’ve spent some time reading up on Dunbar’s number and the concept of friends on social networking sites, and feel the need to delve deeper into this discussion. danah boyd, one of the leading researchers on Social Networking Sites, has made the point that

Friends lists are not an accurate portrayal of who people know now, who they could ask favors of, who they would feel comfortable introducing at the moment. They’re a weird product of people from the past, people from the present, people unknown, people once met.

Based on my own anecdotal evidence, I find this to be exactly right. I have loads of contacts on Facebook that I haven’t seen, nor kept in touch with in ages, only now I have a sort of ambient awareness of what is happening in their lives. It’s like having a auto-updating version of the various social spheres I happen to be in. I guess the most apt metaphor would be a college yearbook – the original facebook – that updates itself everyday.

So, how does this relate to Dunbar’s number? Well, Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist who hypothesized that “there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships, that this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.”

Dunbar sought to prove this hypothesis by correlating a number of studies measuring the group size of a variety of different primates with the brain sizes of the primates. He used these correlations to produce a mathematical formula for how the two correspond. Using his formula, which is based on 36 primates, he found that 147.8 is the “mean group size” for humans, which he found to match census data on various village and tribe sizes in many cultures.

So that’s the basis of the Dunbar’s number of 150 relationships. But as Christopher Allen has done well to point out, reducing Dunbar’s research to just one number would be misleading. As he concludes: The “Dunbar’s group threshold of 150 applies more to groups that are highly incentivized and relatively exclusive and whose goal is survival.”

Similarly, boyd sums up Dunbar’s point quite well:

Just as monkeys groomed to maintain their networks, humans gossiped to maintain theirs! He found that the MAXIMUM number of people that a person could keep up with socially at any given time, gossip maintenance, was 150. This doesn’t mean that people don’t have 150 people in their social network, but that they only keep tabs on 150 people max at any given point.

So even if I’m casually surfing through loads of status updates and photos on Facebook, oftentimes I’m not actually maintaining my relationships with these people since I’m lacking the relevant social context to make sense of the information offered to me. To use a phrase of Clay Shirky’s, I am eavesdropping on a public conversation that I have little intention in participating in.

In this way, Facebook relays gossip that otherwise would be unavailable to me directly. As a social tool, it allows my relations to pass on information that otherwise wouldn’t reach me directly. But the problem often is though it allows people to pass on information, it is often very bad at letting people control which information is available to whom. As boyd puts it:

Our relationships have a context to them, not just a strength. That context is crucial for many distributions of information, support and trust. (…) [Social networking sites] expose more about us to different groups of people than we would ever do in real life. All of a sudden, we have to reconcile the bar-hopping facet of our identity with the proper work facet.

Basically, Facebook is offering more social information about us than we would otherwise give out. (yes, it’s technically possible to stop this by using the privacy settings – but nobody can figure those out anyway. Partly because it is an unnatural thing to consciously set up such filters, and partly because you can’t get an easy overview over who can access a given piece of content on your profile.

And that really puts a lot of basic social relations in flux.

As Clay Shirky concludes in this brilliant presentation: It is not the fact that we’re presented with too much information – it’s the fact that our old social filters no longer work. Fundamentally, social tools like Facebook are challenging age-old social norms about who told what to whom. And the challenge seems to be to find new ways – both technical and social – to filter the vast amounts of social information suddenly made available to us.

UPDATE: Many of these issues have been discussed very poignantly in this New York Times article The conclusion hits these themes very well:

Young people today are already developing an attitude toward their privacy that is simultaneously vigilant and laissez-faire. They curate their online personas as carefully as possible, knowing that everyone is watching ?? but they have also learned to shrug and accept the limits of what they can control.

It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another ?? quite different ?? result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves. Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you??re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It??s like the Greek dictum to ??know thyself,? or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter??s Web site ?? ??What are you doing?? ?? can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?) Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they??re trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form.

This notion of the status update as a literary form has also been explored recently by Nadja, whom I share office space with at Socialsquare, in this longish article (in Danish).

Teaching it

A long time ago, I wrote a post about anthropologist Michael Wesch‘s concept of anti-teaching. Since then, he has been refining it even further while teaching huge “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” classes at Kansas State University. And now he’s written a very worthwhile article [.pdf] explaining the concrete teaching concepts that he has developed.

Wesch is also doing some very interesting work in exploring new ways to integrate social media in teaching:

I was inspired to use Facebook for teaching by something I saw while visiting George Mason University. Like many universities, they were concerned that the library stacks were rarely being accessed by students. Instead of trying to bring students to the stacks, they brought the stacks to the students, placing a small library right in the middle of the food court where students hang out. We can do the same with popular social networking tools like Facebook. Facebook is not only great for expressing your identity, sharing with friends, and planning parties, it also has all the tools necessary to create an online learning community. Students are already frequently visiting Facebook, so we can bring our class discussions to them in a place where they have already invested significant effort in building up their identity, rather than asking them to login to Blackboard or some other course management system where they feel ??faceless? and out of place.

Tapping into the cognitive surplus

Last week I began a 4-week internship at Social Square, one of the leading Danish developers of social software. “Leading” can be somewhat misleading since there’s almost no dedicated developers of social software in Denmark. Actually, the founders have spent the last two years giving talks and writing a book about social software, making the pedagogical effort to show potential clients how they might use social software to their advantage both internally in their organisation and externally in communicating and relating to their users, customers, and clients.

So what is social software really about? Well, as the very clever Internet theorist Clay Shirky argues, it’s about tapping into the massive cognitive surplus that has been created with all the free time, which people have nowadays in the industrial world. He argues that traditionally, this surplus has been soaked up by gin and television. Now, it’s possible to use that surplus in more creative and constructive ways (think Wikipedia, free software etc.). Shirky is a very entertaining speaker, and I recommend hearing the word from the horse’s mouth:

UPDATE: Oh, just to counterpoint Shirky’s rather exuberant optimism, I just saw this video with Jonathan Zittrain, another extremely clever internet theorist who has spent a bit more time worrýing about how the internet might be corrupted. As a Ubuntu veteran, I love his analogy between the development of the US constitution and the development of operating systems:

Online communities work like parties

Recently, I’ve come across several blog posts using the metaphor of a good party to describe well-functioning online communities. Paraphrasing Matt Mullenweg, founder of the WordPress project, Service Untitled sums up the metaphor thus:

Parties that are successful bring the right number of people together. Those people end up having a good time and having fun. They will hopefully come for whatever their purpose is and achieve that sort of goal (having fun, learning, meeting people, etc.). When people achieve their particular goals and have fun, they leave feeling happy.

Good parties almost always have good hosts. It is their job to keep the size of the space appropriate for the number of guests, plan the party, get people involved, and keep things rolling. The host not only needs to be the organizer of many things, but sometimes the life of the party and cheerleader. Sometimes this is is necessary, but not always.

One or two bad guests can ruin a party and make it miserable for almost everyone. A space that is too large or too small for the number of guests can make for a bad party. A party with a terrible host will likely be bad. Sometimes parties are really great or really bad for no apparent reason.

Now replace every use of the word party with community, every use of the word guest with member, and host with community leader.

Lee LeFever
, who probably first made up the metaphor, lists all the ingredients which a good party and an active online community have in common. Unsuprisingly, his conclusion is simple:

In the end, if you’re truly interested in online communities, the most important ingredient is you. Without people who care about the community and are willing and excited about making it work, it will not succeed.

This sounds misleadingly obvious, but in my experience, it’s true. The open source projects that I’ve taken part in all work hard to maintain a solid focus on what they have in common and how to have fun doing it. Ubuntu uses a Code of Conduct to ensure the good intentions of its participants, while two Subversion developers have made a very successful talk on “How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People (And You Can Too).”

Concerns which are very similar to those of discotheque managers and bouncers. And I suppose the tools of kicking and banning aren’t really that dissimilar…

Witty gamers

The new trend among video gamers appear to be making video game reviews in the form of bile-overflowing, yet extremely witty films.

One of these reviewers goes by the supremely unfortunate moniker “Yahtzee”, who presents a new review each week under the title Zero Punctuation, which subtly hints that the main trademark of the reviews is a non-stop hilarious gabbing at whatever game he happens to review. A good example of his style can be found in his review of the latest installment in the Tomb Raider saga:

Another witty gamer is the Angry Video Game Nerd – formerly known as the Angry Nintendo Nerd (though he had to change his nom-de-plume in order to avoid unhappy interest from certain Italian plumbers). The nerd makes humorous, though at times rather long-winded, reviews of old Nintendo and Atari video games, showcasing just how primitive they were. But it is not so much the games themselves, as it is the Angry Nerd’s ability to look back upon the pop culture which fostered these games in the first place. The best example of that is probably his excellent review of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the Nintendo:

It gets even better when he goes on to describe his old indulgence with the pubescent amphibians even further by reminiscing the Turtles movie trilogy.