Friday, October 22, 2010

Thoughts on 'Program or Be Programmed'

Program or Be Programmed
Douglas Rushkoff

I found this book after following a long trail from Bit Literacy, which I originally had found and read because it was free and featured on the Apple bookstore. Program or Be Programmed was also an opportunity to try using a PDF ebook from an independent publisher in iBooks. Kind of a cool factor there.

I thought this book would be about programming in the television sense of content - "don't just read, write; don't just watch, do," that sort of thing. And it sort of is - but he really means program in the "write computer programs" sense.

Despite the high-tech imperative, Rushkoff advocates more for limiting abuse of technology in ways that decrease quality of life. He is like Bit Literacy's author in emphasizing that people should be conscious of and control how they use technology. He can almost seem anti-technology. His personal example is that he does not use any sort of projected display when he does talks, because he wants to focus on the quality of his real in-person presence. You can watch PowerPoint slides without a person there, after all.

Rushkoff's central programming argument is not ever really all that compelling, but it is kind of interesting. He says that as technology has advanced, the masses have been one level behind the state of the art. So even when writing was invented, most people only listened to things read to them by priests or whatever. When printing was invented, people started to read but not write (or, publish). Now with computers and the Internet, everybody's writing, but still only specialists are programming. Rushkoff thinks programming is important and thinks ordinary people should be doing it too, or at least learning enough to understand it. There's a little bit of a "programming will create the future hive-mind of Homo sapiens neo" thing going on too, but just a touch.

Rushkoff also explains this sort of historic progression with a lot of references to the Jewish people, so that when writing is invented it is with a 22-letter alphabet, etc. Another interesting thing he does is try to connect the nature of monotheism (an "abstract god") to the nature of writing. Laws and so on become really possible with writing. Sort of an interesting observation.

I mostly agree with a lot of what Rushkoff has to say, as far as using technology intelligently, being honest and fair in our dealings with people online and off, etc. I also like that his organization is fairly clear. Even if the whole book is just a list of good recommendations, that much is clear from the table of contents. Here is that table of contents with a few quotes I thought were interesting stuck in the appropriate chapters:

1) Time: Do not be always on
2) Place: Live in person
3) Choice: You may always choose none of the above
4) Complexity: You are never completely right

"We lose sight of the fact that our digital tools are modeling reality, not substituting for it, and mistake its oversimplified contours for the way things should be. By acknowledging the bias of the digital toward a reduction of complexity, we regain the ability to treat its simulations as models occurring in a vacuum rather than accurate depictions of our world."

I think this is not an exclusively digital phenomenon but a pitfall of the scientific worldview generally. Something I think about quite a bit. People tend to think that the model is reality.

5) Scale: One size does not fit all

"Language is an abstraction of the real world, where sounds represent things and actions. It requires a tremendous amount of agreement, so that the same words mean the same thing to different people."

Language is another big problem. People tend to think that words are ideas. Words are just sounds. Like I said, I agree with a lot of this Rushkoff guy's stuff.

It's also in this chapter that Rushkoff mentions Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher who wrote a well-known essay on art and photography. I was interested so I found it and read it and was a little disappointed that it didn't totally live up to the expectations I had based on Rushkoff's interpretation. I wrote some thoughts on it.

6) Identity: Be yourself
7) Social: Do not sell your friends

"It turned out, content is not king - contact is. And so what we now call 'social media' was born."

I remember that "content is king" thing, from when people wanted their web sites to be popular even though there was nothing on the site. "Content is king" explained why nobody went to those sites - there was nothing to see. But I agree with Rushkoff that the real draw of the Internet, most of the time, is socialization, communication with friends, "connection." People really go for that stuff.

8) Fact: Tell the truth
9) Openness: Share, don't steal
10) Purpose: Program or be programmed

Honestly the weakest part of the whole book is it's titular assertion about programming. I'm all for computer literacy, not being an idiot, etc., but I don't see a compelling argument behind this one, and exactly what he means isn't all that clear either. Is it enough just to understand how computers are programmed an be a wary consumer? Do I have to write every line of code on all my machines? I've done more programming than the average bloke, but I don't do it now and I don't use anything I ever coded myself. Am I okay, by Rushkoff's rules? I'm not sure. I think I'm okay, regardless. It's a book with a lot of advice I agree with, and it dovetails nicely with Bit Literacy, for a technology life stance that seems reasonable to me. Good stuff. Still not sure about the meaning of life though.


The book was based on a talk, which is interesting to me in terms of how the book originated. Also, the talk has the main kernel of the book really, at least the part related to the title, so if you watch this five-minute video you get the main stuff. I watched the video after reading the book and writing all that mess above.

The book is available (exclusively) online here:

And this book isn't bad either; much more practical. Also free.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thoughts on 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Walter Benjamin 1936 (Full text)

I read this essay after seeing it mentioned in Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff. After reading it, I think Rushkoff rather misinterpreted Benjamin's essay. But then, the essay is not very good; it's rather hard to get a clear or concise interpretation out of it.

I was interested in the essay because Rushkoff described it as being about the relationship between art (like paintings) and photography/mass-production, which is a relationship I have been interested in for some time. Benjamin does talk about it a bit, but really seems to spend more time bogged down in film, which was comparatively new and novel at the time of Benjamin's writing.

Benjamin is also bogged down by Marxism. It's like reading something by a serious religious believer; he can't finish a sentence without "by the will of God" or "the means of production"...

My most serious gripe, though, is that it just doesn't have a clear point. It's got a preface, 15 parts, and an epilogue, and some of the parts do contain more or less unified ideas, but I'm left wondering exactly what the point is. I hope this is not my deficiency as a reader. The style is such that you can, if you want, pull a number of ideas out of it, certainly, but it doesn't seem to have clear message.

Aside: This generally reminds me of and informs an idea I've been thinking about for a while. How does writing particularly function to convey thought? It allows for preparation and editing, so that an author can distill his ideas, organize them into an outline, and then expand them into explanation for the reader. The reader can then carefully read and distill out the ideas into his own outline form, and we should hope that the author's outline and the reader's outline are similar. Importantly, the process is substantially different from just speaking extemporaneously. But this Benjamin's essay (and, by the way, my thoughts here) bear more of a resemblance to loosely organized meandering speech. Bertrand Russell also wrote that he writes all at one go, without preparing and without editing afterward. Of course I doubt he could say that of his mathematical proofs, etc. But I wonder what might be the differences or benefits/drawbacks of the two methods of writing, and if perhaps the more organized, structural approach is a more recent phenomenon. I would like to expand on this idea further, perhaps in a longer piece on language. I would like to expand on this idea further, perhaps

If I was forced to try to give a thesis for the Benjamin's essay, it would be something like "mass production and with it socialism lead art to be more political." And that's just not very interesting. A little interesting, but I get the feeling he has propaganda posters in mind more than really interesting conceptual art.

That said, there are definitely interesting things about Benjamin's essay. Some quotes have particular relevance.

"Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character."

Benjamin was talking about letters to the editor or being an extra in a film, but now with blogs, commenting everywhere, and the Internet generally, this seems prescient. One more like this:

"The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation."

"Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art."

One big theme is art being originally a cult, magic, religious thing - functional, in that sense, not just for looking at. More modern art is obviously just for exhibition. (The bit about assembly is largely because he's thinking of film and editing here.) I think Benjamin has something here, although I don't think he necessarily needs to go all the way to magic when decorative arts is far enough.

"Dadaism is film." (Crude paraphrase.)

Benjamin says that art pushes the boundaries of the available media, so that crazy-looking Dadaist "paintings" were really trying to achieve the rushing moment-by-moment effect of film. Kind of a neat idea. So what's next, then?

Benjamin compares architecture to film. This makes sense in that everybody sort of lives in its environment, without always consciously considering it. You're just in the building, you just have the TV on, something like that. He also comments that in a similar way everybody becomes a critic, saying:

"The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one."

Benjamin also has some political ideas, as mentioned above. Some are interesting.

"Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves."

Seems relevant when everyone can publish their ideas to their heart's content, but the political system seems if anything even more unresponsive and opaque.

"Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system."

This reminded me of 1984, with its perpetual war. Is that what we're doing now, with wars continuing on even with little or no press coverage?

“'Fiat ars – pereat mundus', says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art."

This is the very end of the piece. I looked up the Latin: let art be created, though the world is destroyed. Benjamin doesn't think war is beautiful, and in this I think I agree with him. Mostly. Have you seen those cool jets?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

'God couldn't do faster': Human solutions.

I read this article on NewScientist:

They found that any Rubik's cube can be solved in 20 moves or less, which doesn't matter. The interesting thing is that although mathematicians and math were involved, and even helped, ultimately the solution was not a mathematical one in the traditional sense.

They just tried every possibility.

To be clear, this is not mathematics as usual. This is the kind of solution that the slow kid in the back does, just plugging through something again and again because he doesn't see the obvious, simple, quick way to know the solution.

In math, you're not supposed to have to use a brute force attack. Sure, a lot of mathematical software uses numerical methods, but this is a case where they clearly would have liked to have found a proof of some kind, but instead just let the computer chug through it. The answer is definitely right, but there's no proof.

It seems like more and more stuff is going this way. It's as if a limit has been reached for human cleverness. Maybe most or all of the new results will come from techniques like this, relying on massive computer power.

Perhaps this will be the new revolution in physics - relativity and quantum mechanics rely on math that is at the boundary of understanding even for people who specialize in it, as far as I can tell. Maybe new methods of doing physics with computers, in a somehow analogous manner, will lead to more progress, as human-generated theories flounder. There's that software that takes raw data and automatically models it, for instance...

I wonder.