February 2004 Archives

The NY Times covers a B&O speaker that adjusts its tone to suit the shape of the room:

As its downward-facing deep bass driver, or woofer, emits several test tones, an onboard microphone at the bottom of the speaker picks them up. Then a servomotor moves the microphone several inches so that it protrudes from the bottom and can pick up reflections from the room, and the tones are emitted again. A signal-processing chip within the speaker analyzes the difference between the two tests and digital equalization circuitry, also on board, adjusts the sound.

Nifty. Sadly, the design they went with is way too Jetsons for me.

So I've recently been playing a fair bit with BitTorrent and I noticed a torrent for a new episode of The Broken a video hacker zine.

It's been almost 20 years since I did the community access video thing, but, damn, these guys really put out a professional looking product. A suspiciously professional-looking product, in fact. It's fun and funny, but it's softcore hacking at best. Subversion Lite. They don't say much that's actually controvertial or give any instructions that are likely to get them in trouble, and they bleep out the swear words. It seems almost like an audition tape for TechTV. If it is, it's a great audition tape. If it's not, maybe it's a TechTV plant (or some other major organization), getting street cred before these guys are miraculously hired and given their own show. Or maybe it's Fox testing out BitTorrent for scalability as a content delivery system. Maybe it's even just these guys actually doing this on their own, but they've been so indoctrinated by TV that their stuff looks like it should be fake (in which case I suggest they drop the half-hour format and the Screen Savers framing devices and hax0r the whole idea of a TV show).

Regardless, it's clever, well-made and I was entertained.

Last week Molly and I were in San Diego for O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference, where Molly and Michael Kieslinger's did a highly-lauded Fluidtime presentation. I'm sure it's been overblogged and superwikied, so I won't belabor the details, but I did have a couple of observations of the trends I noticed in the conference, which could be trends in emerging tech, or maybe just this group.

  • Social Networks as access control. With the practice of discussing social networks as the next big thing kind of coming to a close, people are starting to discuss what they're for, after they've been populated. A number of dicussions basically boiled down to the idea of social networks as the new access control list. Social networks allow me to use a quick shorthand for who should see what of my information.
  • Document sharing was also big, with various groups presenting all kinds of clever ways of interchanging documents, often coupled with social network access control. So look for new services such as Flickr (from the fine folks at Ludicorp, who would are in my social network). Personally, I want something to merge BitTorrent, Orkut and Allmusic with iTunes so that I can listen to the stuff that my friends have in their music folders.
  • Geeks working for the army. This was a weird one, but there were at least three sessions (from iRobot--the Roomba people, JC Herz--of Joystick nation, and icosystems--a splinter of the Santa Fe Institute studying emergent behavior) that had people really focused on, and being funded by, military applications. That's not surprising, since a lot of tech gets dough from the Army, but it was surprising at this conference. There seemed to be little introspection or remorse about it, though there was some guilt. As much as I believe in the inevitability of conflict and that keeping our soldiers safe is important, these technologies worry me. I believe there's currently a military culture that aims to disassociate itself from the human side of war and treat war as a hygenic process, where reducing the messiness makes it somehow less contagious. I think that's a bad metaphor, one that's gotten us into trouble in Iraq and will again. Creating technology that further mediates the process makes it easier to avoid the learning that's important to creating peace.

That last concern apart, it was a great conference, if only for all the hanging out in the lobby bar. I think having it in San Diego, away from the Bay Area where people felt comfortable and could leave at night, was a good one. It made everyone stew in the same juices for a couple of days and although I'm now exhausted from all the socializing, it was well worth it. I will now know to prepare for any conference that has lots of social network and mobile technology participants: the combination of highly social people with lots of cutting-edge mobile technology in a town that no one really knows means dinnertime decisionmaking paralysis on a scale like never before.

Oh, one last random thought I had there, which mixes scientific metaphors in an attempt to explain Howard Dean's success and subsequent failure: it was because of a combination of first mover advantage amplified by a highly networked environment (the media). It seems analagous to a forest fire in August. A spark in a fuel-rich system that has no inherent controls, it reacts strongly, but the strength of that reaction can distort any examination of the underlying landscape. When the initial fuel burns away, it reveals the layer beneath it, which may or may not be able to support further growth.

Peter points me to this excellent slide presentation, now 10 years old, by the late Rich Gold. He asked a bunch of great questions--some real, many clearly hyperbolic--that try to understand the boundary between technology as a means to an end and technology as the end itself (or at least that's how I read it). For example:

How smart does the bed in your house have to be before you are afraid to go to sleep at night? Which is smarter: awnings over the windows to keep out the sun or a massive interactive, cybernetic cooling system that attempts to keep the temperature of the house within one degree of optimal?

Some are precient of what would happen just a couple of years after he wrote the slides:

If it turned out that you would get 25% discount on the price of your home if instead of paintings, you had to place advertisements on the wall, would you do it?

In the end, his questions are about technologically mediated experiences versus real experiences, design for people versus design for design's sake, personal responsibility versus responsibility delegated to machines. It's a great palette cleanser after consuming so much technology-as-panacea thinking. And though it stands the test of time, I'm not sure if the 10 years have answered any of the questions, or ever will, yet the world has really changed, probably for the better, because of technology.

I just bumped into HP's Agile Computing intitiative, which they apparently started (or announced) in 2002. It's an interesting perspective, a beginning, of creating systems of smart objects, rather than individual smart objects. I'm pretty much convinced that people's changing relationships to technology and the possibilities offered by the power of new technolgies, are going to necessitate a rethinking of design from single object to object system. HP's initiative seems to be a technological platform for this, and their Cooltown project seems to be an attempt at creating applications for this. I really agree with the core idea, which is articulated well by Jim Rowson:

We are proposing with the agile model that appliances be designed to be single-purpose in an ergonomic sense (it should be simple and natural to use and fit with the constraints of the human form) but general-purpose in an application sense.

And although there seems to be some amount of confusion (PDF) around the "agile computing" term and what it means in practice, it's clear that the idea of computation as being a generic service that the user is supposed to know what to do with (the old "buy an electric motor and make attachments for it" model) is going away. The new model, a reaction to people's animist expectations for technology, is to create interactive, mutually-aware systems of task-focused devices (much like how blenders, vacuum cleaners and drill presses replaced electric motor attachments).

Hell, while we're on the a's in the term-coining game, I'll coin mine: I hearby define any group of mutually-aware computational devices as being an animist system. ;-)




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