Category Archives: metastuff

and another

These things seem to keep happening, this time as I thought about where to begin in laying out a landscape of African musics that I’ve been accumulating in mp3 form since the spring.

Start anywhere
It all connects
and the trick is to choose
among branching paths
or perhaps it’s to
unwind the thread
as you sally forth
so as to be able
to reconstruct
your wanderings

That reconstruction is a tale
a narrative of Tolkien proportions
though without the necessity
of any end to the hero’s quest
and indeed with no heroes
or deus ex machina
just the progress of discovery

And what does the Argonaut seek?
Not fleeces or immured maidens
gloriously slain foes
or vanquished enemies

It’s the link, the nexus,
the skein of allusion
the journey and not
the destination
the joys of finding and telling


Funny how stuff comes up and then is echoed. At dinner tonight I was asked about how I happened to do dissertation research in Nova Scotia, and that led to the tale of how in the late 1960s I’d wanted to return to Sarawak to study the effects of infrastructure projects on communities and regions, but at that time there was no interest in and certainly no money to support such research. So here’s an interesting post from Doc Searls, Rethinking out loud about infrastructure:

I’m here to suggest that two overlapping subjects — infrastructure and internet — are not well understood, even though both are made by humans and can be studied within the human timescale. The term “infrastructure” has been in common use only since the 1970s. While widely used, there are relatively few books about the subject itself. I’d say, in fact, that is more a subject in many fields than a field in itself. And I think it needs to be. Same with the Internet. Look it up on Google and see how many different definitions you get. Yet nothing could be more infrastructural without being physical, which the Internet is not.

Doc links to Stephen Lewis on The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the Internet which notes that

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term. A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.” After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe.

My own use of the term had specifically to do with consequences of what the 1960s labelled as Development, essentially the first steps toward the social and economic transformations that were eventually labelled as Globalization. Much more to say about all of that…

You really want to read this

Bruce Sterling is always provocative, an interesting writer-thinker-talker. His Viridian Ave atque vale, The Last Viridian Note, will not disappoint you. Seven pages or so, lots of cunningly-worded and highly relevant bits of observation, analysis and advice. Here’s a sample:

You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.

  1. Beautiful things.
  2. Emotionally important things.
  3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
  4. Everything else.

“Everything else” will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year — this very likely belongs in “everything else.”

You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers’ marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again. Store those digital pictures somewhere safe — along with all your other increasingly valuable, life-central digital data. Back them up both onsite and offsite.

Then remove them from your time and space. “Everything else” should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

It may belong *to* you, but it does not belong *with* you. You weren’t born with it. You won’t be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.

Now, mind you, I can’t actually follow this advice myself, but I know GOOD advice when I see it, and it’s worth thinking about.

(via Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing –he quotes different bits, equally trenchant)

Prophetic or what?

Cleaning up the Desktop led me to this image
Harry Grant Dart 1911
(see larger)
a Harry Grant Dart cartoon snagged from Paleofuture (who got it from Life 1911). Note that the multimedia User is pointing with his left hand to “Son Willie” on the menu, and that a real-time image of Son Willie’s doings is projected (other choices are “The Office”, “Golf Matches”, “Aeroplane Races”, “Theatres”, “Tennis” and so on), and that the sign to the left says “International Wireless Home News Service Events As They Transpire Accurately Recorded”

RE: The Sin of Pride

It doesn’t surprise me that my son John sees the Tip of the Iceberg more clearly than I did myself:

And the timing is just right for the internet — just the sort of little pearl for the attention-deficit medium. I’ll bet you’ve got thousands more just like this lined up — and to watch them tumble forth to cause unknowable whorls and eddies in countless minds is certainly tantalizing.

Now there’s a challenge, and indeed I did awake this morning with about fifty-leven ideas for the next few YouTube nuggets. Flash video does seem like an especially effective means to spread the dandelion seeds of my various collections. Stay tuned.

snowball gathers mass and speed

Here’s what occurred as I unfroze pipes and washed dishes: cultivate the Art of Contextualizing Juxtaposition, spinning out the stories liberated by juxtapositions, and encouraging others to play at doing the same. In the context of teaching-learning, it’s encouraging students to MAKE things; whether they’re haiku or collage or mashup or essay matters less than the evolving taste for making and mooting own expression, in [semi-] public space. The essential is that the instructor be seen to be doing the very same thing.

Tim O’Reilly is right

He points to the Edge Foundation’s annual Question, this year’s being What Have You Changed Your Mind About?. Hmm, I thought… and I still don’t have anything coherent to say myself, but O’Reilly is right that it’s quite interesting to read what others have written. And it’s the extraordinarily broad compass of rethought things that’s the really interesting part. I’ve spent half an hour looking at various people’s takes on topics quite tangential to what I thought were my own concerns, and recommend the exercise most heartily, especially as a New Year’s calisthenic.

Pirouettes continued

Still thinking about the Prelinger Library article, and considering that we need some models/visualizations for the kinds of distributed collections I’m working on, or toward. I made a marginal note when this phrase tripped through the forebrain:

tesseracted Whole Earth Catalog

and now I want to follow it up with some interlinked digressions.

First, the Whole Earth Catalog and, seriatim, its various successors (CoEvolution Quarterly, Whole Earth Review, the WELL, Long Now Foundation…) have been essential to me for …bless us… almost 40 years, ever since I first frequented the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park. The basic model of knowledge as a sprawling and interconnected and navigable system of tools for understanding the world has been with me ever since, and some of that snuck into a summary of Goals and Methods of Teaching that I wrote at tenure time, about 12 years ago, and still find apt. And Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism is a fine entrée into the dramatis personae and associated mindspaces.

The word ‘tesseracted’ isn’t one I can remember seeing or thinking before, but it seemed to fit the model of multidimensionally interconnected broad-ranging knowledge that I was imagining as an antidote to the geocentric but shelf-bound linear array that is described as the ordering principle of the Prelinger collection. The ‘tesseracted‘ form turns out to be not uncommon.

I first encountered the Tesseract as a concept in a Robert Heinlein story (“And he built a crooked house”) reprinted in Clifton Fadiman (ed.) Fantasia Mathematica (1958). The book was used as an auxiliary text in a marvelous math class (Plane and Solid Geometry) I had as a high school sophomore, taught by Phil Coyle, who went on to grander things.

Google found a 1996 text by Michael Jensen (now Director of Web Communications at National Academies Press) which is wonderfully prescient: Here there be Tygers: Uncharted Tesseracts in the Age of Disintermediation. Some bits:

Intermediation is what we all do, every one of us in this room, in some form or another. What happens when so many institutions are put in doubt or confusion because their primary role of intermediation is challenged by direct digital access to anything we want?

…Something quite separate from the technology –though predicated upon it– something under the sun that is truly new, something unfathomably transformative, is being loosed upon us: disintermediation.

I think of societial disintermediation as the online tesseract –you remember, the “wrinkle in time” that shortens the distance between two points.

Two things are required to make possible the tesseract of disintermediation: rapid easy access to distant digital content, and easy financial exchange.

The first of the pair is here, as we all know. I can pull down a Web page located in Australia as easily and almost as fast as I can one from Duluth. Any material –whether a recording, a video clip, a multimedia presentation, a monograph, a poem, an encyclopedia– can be put online by its creators, and pulled down and displayed the viewers. In three years, it’ll be absurdly easy.

The second part isn’t quite there yet, but we’re almost there, and that’s online micropayments… To my mind, when I can easily, safely, and comfortably pay a buck, a quarter, a nickel, or a tenth of a cent online, then a day of revolution will have arrived.

I don’t say that lightly, or with too much melodrama. I’m quite serious. Micropayments will be transformative, challenging most institutions, most governments, and most economies, perhaps even more than the Internet itself.

…It was Colin Day, director at the University of Michigan Press, who first described the Internet as a “giant disintermediation machine,” and he’s right. The Internet will be–heck, is–challenging the historical intermediaries like publishers, movie studios, television stations, printing companies, libraries, specialty stores, universities, schools, salespeople, even governments. The filterers, the gatherers, the duplicators, the distributors, the finders, will all find themselves sprinting to restructure themselves in the new economy, and they won’t all make it.

Just how to build and manage tesseracted collections is up for grabs, and seems like sort of an apotheosis of conventional hyperlinkage. I flirt with ‘holographic’ and ‘fractal’ as other terms that might convey the multiple interrelationships among objects in such collections, but I’m not as clear as I should be about where the metaphors outrun the requisite lexical precision. Working on it…

Conceptual pirouettes

Another piece from the May 2007 Harper’s: Gideon Lewis-Kraus “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the post-digital library” has me thinking about collections, legacies, contextualizations, and the bugaboos I struggled with during my 15 years as a Librarian. With all that, this posting may take a while to unreel itself, and I’m thinking to break it up into money quotes from the article (which is eminently worth reading, even if you are not now nor have ever been a Librarian) and my own ruminations. So (with emphasis added here and there for bits I particularly like):

…why do they [Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger] truck across town to spend their afternoons painstakingly arranging and rearranging fifty thousand uncataloged and whimsically classified items, very few of which are overwhelmingly rare or commercially valuable… (pg 48)

…they want to help preserve a space for the physical, the limited, and the fussily hand-sorted alongside the digital pile. And they think there is a way that the small private library …can be reimagined to do just that. (pg 49)

The first rule [of the classification scheme] is that locality trumps all other considerations (pg 49)

Megan describes the library as fundamentally a physical organization of their own mental furniture. Their assortment maps out the range of future projects they have considered pursuing, and its varying granularity of organization provides insight into what they have worked through and what they haven’t quite gotten around to yet. (pp 50-51)

The charm of the Prelinger Library lies in the canny and pleasantly unexpected ways one subject blends into another [examples]…This latter transition is one of the conceptual pirouettes that Megan is proudest of, as it bridges the gap between the material and immaterial worlds. (pg 51)

The connections in Rick and Megan’s browsable narrative require varying degrees of imaginative exertion. (pg 52)

…the library is in a constant state of associative refinement, what Megan characteristically calls “brushing the teeth of the granularity” –that is, “work,” which also includes the transport of heavy cardboard boxes from one heap to another. (pg 52)

(Public libraries) are increasingly centered around computer terminals and stupidly grandiose atria that make them feel less like book repositories and more like shopping malls or free Internet cafés. The San Francisco Public Library… was constructed at enormous public expense in the nineties, and the result –a vacuous hotel-lobby sort of space, the actual books peripherized as a guilty afterthought— is unanimously considered a disaster… The reference librarians, reconciled to their new roles as customer-service technicians in the guise of advanced-degree “information scientists,” stand behind high oak-paneled counters and field questions about how to use these Internet resources, or more often how to get the printer to work… (pp 52, 54)

[the Prelinger Collection] is not about browsability per se but tailored and pointed browsability —browsability within a narrative structure and in service to some very particular ideas about the ownership of culture and the cultural frameworks of democracy (pg 55)

The promise of the Internet-as-Alexandria is more than the roiling plenitude of information. It’s the ability of individuals to choreograph that information in idiosyncratic ways… (pg 56)

…the Dewey decimal system is a helpful but ossified structure best suited to the bureaucratic centralization of thousands of different libraries (pg 56)

“We want to foment bursts of concentrated discovery across the spectrum,” Megan told one tour (pg 57)

As I read and re-read this article I found myself alternately cheering and tut-tutting, and here and there scribbling something in the margin, and when I add all that up I end up with the label “provocative” for the whole thing. There are some things that bother me, some scabs I continue to pick and itches that will be scratched.

The actual physical environment of the Prelinger collection centers on

haphazardly rigged shelves, eleven-foot stanchions, a gleaming gunmetal… [consisting of] about fifty thousand items… [including] twenty thousand pieces of what they call “ephemera,” maps and charts and brochures and errant scraps of apposite paper (pp 47, 48)

…so it’s different from my private library in being, well, bigger, but a lot of us preside over collections of a lifetime, which we tend and prune and augment and keep in idiosyncratic order (generally less apparent to outsiders than to ourselves), and which contain precisely what we “have worked through and what we haven’t quite gotten around to yet.” Managing such mathom houses, and turning them to productive use, is the greatest of pleasures for some of us. And now we have the means (via the Web) to put such ephemera into context and present some of their facets to a global audience.

The challenges of array and navigation are pretty profound, and I’m not convinced that the Prelinger approach to classification and order (“locality trumps all other considerations”) is of general utility –though I surely have myself bits of shelvage that are ordered by geographical considerations. Really the important point is one that I can’t find mentioned anywhere in the article: every item has more than one quality/characteristic that makes it worthy of membership in a collection, and a user needs to be able to use those earmarks to find associated items, and needs to be able to attach additional earmarks (OK, let’s call them TAGS) as new relationships emerge as a consequence of use.

A physical item pretty much has to reside in one location (its place on a shelf, or a labelled folder, or whatever), and serendipitous browsing is an important discovery method, but systematic frameworks and tools for managing such dynamic collections are essentially non-existent. The world of cataloging standards isn’t much help if the materials aren’t included in the standards (e.g., my collections of photographs, or of musical instruments, or coffin plaques, or extinct mass storage devices…). Thinking through all of this makes me realize the fairly obvious truth that what associates all these things is a narrative structure, the tales they are or can be woven into. Again, we have the medium for curation and distribution of those tales –the Web– but there aren’t a lot of examples or models out there. Perhaps more accurately, most of the existing examples and models are institutional, and based on grants and budgets and administrations. I need to keep a weather eye peeled for the work of others who are thinking along these lines, while continuing to pursue them myself. Expect to see more about this in this space…