Saturday, May 31, 2008


I've been neglecting this blog lately because of a science fiction project I've started that covers many of the topics I've mentioned here. I figure it's still useful for me to keep my thinking in these directions going, though, in order to stay engaged.

Instead of theorizing I've been pursuing a more artistic approach to abandoned things.

A particular quotation from Hakim Bey's texts about the "haunted" or "gothic" feeling that pervades the Web has been stuck in my mind.

Found it:
In fact, just as Gibson predicted, the Net is already virtually haunted. Web cemeteries for dead cyber-pets---false obituaries---Tim Leary still sending personal messages---ascended masters of Heaven's Gate---not to mention the already vast lost archaeology of the Net, its ARPA levels, old BBSs, forgotten languages, abandoned Webpages. In fact, as someone said at the last NETTIME conference in Ljubljana, the Net has already become a kind of romantic ruin. And here, at the most "spectral" level of our analysis, suddenly, the Net begins to look...interesting again. A bit of gothic horror. Seduction of the Cyber Zombies. Fin-de-millennium, hothouse flowers, laudanum.

from Seduction of the Cyber Zombies

And don't forget The Ghost of William S. Burroughs.

I'll have to find this NETTIME post. He shifts into Stinerian Anarchist gear after that and abandons the image. Not sure how I feel about the article as a whole, but I love the title. The interesting problem with the archeology metaphor that we both adopt is that previous layers - the ARPAnet, ancient BBSes, for example - are most likely completely gone, or at least completely inaccessible. Some of the files might be floating around but our access to old systems diminishes as software and hardware progresses. A prime example is the Firefox / Gopher:// debate, which I'll go into later.

I know very little about Earth archeology, but it seems to me that in most circumstances physical objects stick around for a bit longer than a few decades. I realize that there are probably many barriers to accessing or preserving physical artifacts, but the complete disappearance or inaccessibility of digital information haunts me in a way that seems specific to this technological era.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Phantoms and Images

A glowing tripod, finally, will let you know
that you have reached the deepest depth of all,
and in the light it sheds you'll see the Mothers.
Some will be seated, some will stand or walk--
there is no rule--for all is form in transformation,
Eternal Mind's eternal entertainment.
About them hover images of all that's been created,
but you they will not see, for they see only phantoms.

from Goethe's Faust, line 6283

I'm pretty sure there are mythological roots that Goethe is drawing from in this section, but I'm not sure of them. This underworld eerily resembles the degree of information access we are quickly approaching. Our fascination with "the sum of all human knowledge" goes way back, and I'm interested in tracking it. Interpreted from a contemporary perspective, this brief passage sums up some of the problems with total information awareness.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I've been reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. It's pretentious, silly, overwrought, and thoroughly entertaining. Thrown in are some nice bits about human / machine interaction and memory:

But Belbo had found in the machine a kind of LSD and ran his fingers over the keyboard as if inventing, variations on 'The Happy Farmer' on the old piano at home, without fear of being judged. Not that he thought he was being creative: terrified as he was by writing, he knew that this was not writing but only the testing of an electronic skill. A gymnastic exercise. But, forgetting the usual ghosts that haunted him, he discovered that playing with the word processor was a way of giving vent to a fifty-year-old's second adolescence. His natural pessimism, his reluctant acceptance of his own past were somehow dissolved in this dialog with a memory that was inorganic, objective, obedient, nonmoral, transistorized, and so humanly inhuman that it enabled him to forget his chronic nervousness about life.
Also, a pertinent article at NYTimes on the growth of a digital preservation movement in the sciences. I still worry about most art (especially work not recognized as "high" art) being lost, though, because the people doing the preserving might not care.

No one is suggesting that we try to hold on to every bit of data lingering in every obsolete corner. Choices must be made about the kind of material that should be kept fresh and accessible for 5 years, or 50, or 1,000. Census data? Put it on the “forever” drive, please. To-do lists? A little less crucial.
People outside the science and engineering crowd need to have some say in the decisions about what will be preserved using expensive long-term storage. Of course, the arts community could always set up some sort of trans-generational, ritualistic cult to ensure the preservation of culture. Maybe I've been reading too many novels.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


A few years ago, I noticed that the state of my desktop correlated pretty well with the state of my mind. Following the model described in the "Dataclypse" post, my thoughts reached a peak level of chaos and then snapped into a new mode, clearing out most of the remaining debris. Occasional screenshots of my desktop seemed to mirror this, but with so little data and the limits of my subjective interpretation, it's hard to tell. Here are a few:

Winter 2006. I think I had just gone through a fit of reorganization. Melancholy.

Spring 2007. Slightly more cluttered, reaching the end of college.

From my notes:

As I reorganize I rearticulate my space, my self. I dump everything out onto the desktop and then send the files to different folders. It's a process of evisceration followed by containment. Many of my creative processes follow this model. I create on a large scale, then rework the raw materials into something that makes sense to other people. When working with a desktop I create a datacloud in which the background image is central, visually and conceptually.
Taken today:

I am currently researching automation of desktop screenshots in Ubuntu/Gnome. I don't know whose leg that is.

Friday, March 14, 2008


As you can probably tell from my previous post, I have very mixed feelings about where technology is going and how fast it is going there. I formed this blog with the intent of putting a restraint on my pessimism by focusing on the past, so I will do my best to refrain from blasting recent developments.

One of my favorite things about SciFi is that no matter what kinds of insane speculative technology take hold, the human narrative continues. I find that very comforting. One aspect of my adventure into the world of book scanning that I failed to mention is that while most of the scanners were wealthy-looking individuals, two were a couple with kids. Two running around, one in utero. I can imagine that the extra cash they get from scanning helps them get by if they live anywhere near this area. The cost of living is ridiculous.

Thinking about them, the ideological frustration and technological pessimism that resulted in my last post begin to lose lose their edges.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Last weekend I got up early to go to a huge book sale held at a local high school cafeteria. I picked up some neat computer books and magazines. What disturbed me, though, was something I had never seen at a book sale before.

I might be out of the loop on this, but I was boggled to find that 5 or 6 people were scanning mass amounts of books using bar code readers hooked up to PDA's. My first thought was that they were associated with the book sale, but then I realized something sleazy was going on. They were playing the middleman by sifting through as many books as possible to find valuable ones they could mark up online. In other words, they were flipping books at a high school book sale.

One guy asked a scanner, "Hey, are you scanning those to mark them up?" The scanner ignored him and quickly moved on. I occasionally took a moment from my browsing to watch the scanners. They looked up at me nervously. The guilt I thought I saw on their faces could have just as easily been the addled state of mind brought on by hours of fast-paced scanning. One guy even had a cell earpiece on for additional connectivity.

This phenomenon disgusts me for a few reasons. First, flipping in any setting is an unnecessary and dismal step in commerce. It's no better than ticket scalping.

Second, the scanners are a leech on the community event of a book sale. They are there solely to rip people off. There is pleasure of searching and finding books with knowledge value in mind, not market value. Scanners destroy the aesthetics and mechanics that allow this search to happen.

Instead of being found by someone at the book sale, the books end up in an online marketplace where discovering a book is about as exciting as executing a Google search. All the scanners are interested in is jacking up the price, so the people actually interested in books get screwed. When all transactions migrate online, the "magical find" of the physical marketplace is replaced by credit cards and flashy Web2.0 interfaces.

There have always been people who have drawn on their knowledge of books to find the ones with high market value. Technology, as it often does, has scaled this situation to the extreme and created WiFi Vultures that skeletize book sales with unprecedented efficiency.

On my way out, I asked one of the cashiers "Do you have a policy on the cyborgs with the scanners?"

"They get here at 6:30AM," he shrugged.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Slowing Down

"I need a Virtual Break" NYTimes Article. Restraint proposed rationally.

I've come up with a few methods for removing myself from the virtual, but they were much too large-scale and complex to be easily implemented. When the year 2000 came around, I fantasized about committing cyber suicide by putting salt on the family computer's motherboard.

Choosing a day of the week to stay away from computers and other electronic devices seems much more reasonable.