I was struck by a passage in the book, discussing ‘African Talking Drums’:
Before long, there were people for whom the path of communication technology had lept directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages.
This rang a few bells. First, this nugget from Alain de Botton:
If technology is developing well, what was normal when you were a child should by now seem ridiculous.
Which seems to me to be a variation on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous suggestion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. What’s interesting with regard to the African Talking Drums is that they are seen as a kind of primitive technology, even thought (as The Information explains) the language is so complex it appeared to be a form of magic to the white slavers, colonialists and anthropologists who heard them.
These technological leaps are interesting, I think, because so much of our culture is tied up in technological advancement. It dictates what kind of jobs are necessary and profitable, of course, but also influences design.
I am reminded of Jason Kottke’s posts on Timeline Twins (for example, watching Back to the Future today is like watching Bridge on the River Kwai in 1985, because the gap is 27 years in both cases), and also Human Wormholes and The Great Span (for example, this old man who witnessed the Lincoln Assassination).
It also makes me think of my great-grandfather, who (along with everyone else of his particular generation, I suppose) was alive to hear the news of the Wright Brothers achieving powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and also to watch the Apollo landings on the moon from 1969-72.
I’ve just finished REAMDE, Neil Stephenson’s latest tome. It continues his tradition of book titles which look like words from the dictionary, but aren’t, like Cryptonomicon and Anathem. It also continues the welcome trope of being centred around geeky heroes: Lawrence Waterhouse (codebreaker) and Randy Waterhouse (programmer) in Cryptonomicon; Erasmus/Ras, the science-monk in Anathem.
All three books have elements of the thriller genre about them. In all three stories the main characters find themselves forced to trek halfway across the globe (and beyond) to save the world and their own lives. Furthermore, the protagonists use their skills to affect the outcome of their adventure. However, REAMDE compares unfavourably to the other two books, in that these technical skills are secondary to the more worldly talents of gun fighting. It therefore reads much more like a Tom Clancy process thriller, than a book that examines the implications of new ideas and technologies on how we think. Continue reading “Neal Stephenson Misses a Trick”
In a paywalled Times article this time last week, Hugo Rifkind highlighted our loss of the communal Christmas TV moment. EastEnders can never achieve the dizzy ratings heights of the 1980s, Eric and Ernie are dead, and even the numbers for Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas message are in decline. Rifkind blames the spread of new viewing technologies as the cause of this: A plethora of channels; asynchronous viewing options like Sky+, TiVo, and iPlayer; and the alternatives presented by DVDs and YouTube.
It is interesting that despite this decline, new technology can provide a facsimile of the old, communal TV viewing experience. Instead of discussing an episode over the water-cooler or at the school gates the following morning, we all have a ‘second screen’ and discuss it in real time over Twitter. This is not a particularly original observation, but I mention it because it is Twitter that tells me just how universally popular is Sherlock, the second series of which began last weekend, with Episode 2 to be aired later this evening.
Hilariously, given the above paragraph, I did not actually watch the first episode ‘live’ – instead I caught up later in the week via iPlayer. That doesn’t detract from how popular the show seems to be, at least among the connected Twitterati.
There are plenty of explanations for the success. The writing is excellent and funny. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch exudes an autistic confidence that is true to Conan Doyle’s original character. Mysteries and puzzles are always the most popular stories (c.f. the perennial dominance of detective stories over Lit Fic) and the Sherlock series adheres to the rules of a good detective story, presenting all the clues to the audience as they are presented to the sleuth himself.
However, I think it is the representation of technology, and the visual choices inspired by technology, which make the thing feel so contemporary. Holmes receives text messages and interacts with Lestrade on a mobile phone. Dr Watson has a blog, and the villainess of Series 2, Ep. 1 had her own Twitter account (both of which, as is obligatory these days, also exist in the real world and keep up the conceit). However, it is not just that the characters use technology that makes the show interesting, but how the director integrates that into the visual style. Sherlock employs the popular technique of overlaying motion graphics onto the action. It is method made easy by new digital editing tools (see the opening scene of Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell for an ostentatious example of the genre, as is Fifty Nine Productions’ work in Two Boys at the ENO). In Sherlock, the subtle use of this style makes the technology seem fully integrated into the way the characters view the world. The text messages flow past and through Sherlock, he barely has to look at his handset. I think it mirrors the way most of us live, with our eyes flitting between the screen and reality so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how exactly a particular piece of information came to us. It certainly represents the way a large audience segment are experiencing the show. Are they watching Sherlock, or are they watching #Sherlock? Both.
It is easy to understand how driverless cars would be safer. Maintaining a constant speed on the motorways will reduce chaotic braking, and the small variations in spaces and speed that create phantom traffic jams will be eliminated. And with a little bit of linking technology between a group of driverless cars, hazards in one place can be communicated to the other cars on the road much quicker than human drivers with their relatively poor reaction times.
The operating percent of a car will go from 4% to that 96%. But back to my leading statement: there are unintended consequences. Parked cars will be a relic from the past. What happens to car insurance prices if a driver is no longer part of the equation? And if cars are receiving 20 times more actual use, that would imply that there would be 20 times less cars sold. This is the kind of disruptive change that can reshape the automotive industry. The recent GM/Chrysler bailout may have been for naught. … Of course, car companies realize this. And I can guarantee you, they will lobby against driverless cars.
Despite the clear benefits of such driverless technology, one can also see how winning changes in legislation to operate driverless cars may lag far behind the technology. Aside from the active lobbying against such schemes from car companies (and haulage unions, taxi drivers, &ct) I imagine people and legislators would be slightly squeamish about letting automated cars out onto the road. Even though we know that auto-pilots do most of the commercial airline flying, there is something reassuring about the fact that the pilot is on board, sharing the ‘danger’ of flying with you. Presumably, a passenger in a driverless car would be able to take control of the vehicle if they needed to… but the real benefit of such a car is precisely that it can drive itself home (or, come and pick you up), making a portion of the journey with no-one in the vehicle.
There is also the problem of mixing human driven cars, with driverless cars. The safety benefit of the new technology is surely at its greatest when everyone is using the driverless technology. All vehicles can travel at a constant speed and there would not be any crashes. But in order to introduce such technology, and to get it widely adopted, you have to go through an intermediate stage where early adopters have to share the roads with the human muggles who still insist on actually driving their cars. Perhaps legislators will demand that the driverless vehicles are specially painted, or have flashing lights on them, to warn other drivers that their is something on the road that will not behave in the way you might expect, much like ‘Long Vehicle’ and ‘Wide Load’ livery on haulage vehicles.
A related problem is that when there is no actual person in the vehicles we share the road with, the moral duty we feel we owe to other drivers to stay safe will dissipate. Driverless vehicles will not be given right of way, and human drivers will cut in front of driverless cars more frequently. Young joyriders on bikes or in cars could start ‘teasing’ the driverless vehicles, deliberately driving erratically to test the avoidance capabilities of the software.
There is also a civil liberties concern, in that driverless cars will presumably log every journey they make somewhere, for diagnostic and ‘learning’ purposes, but this information could be exploited by the state, companies or anyone else who wants to invade your privacy. Governments or commercial interests could programme cars to refuse to take you to certain locations, or to drive you via advertising hoardings. This would be undesirable… but appropriate technological checks could easily guard against such abuse.
The way to introduce such technology is in a closed system, where the entire road infrastructure can be controlled. The DLR operates without drivers, and a new pod system has been introduced at Heathrow Airport, where driverless pods operate on dedicated lanes. Perhaps Heathrow or another airport, one out of the city centre and with a spur road serving it, could invest in dedicated driverless lanes, plus detailed road mapping, and some sort of API for their traffic lights? This would allow driverless cars to operate efficiently to-and-from the airport, and provide a ‘proof of concept’ to legislators and regulators.
Finally, there will be car enthusiasts who insist that driving a car is one of the joys of life. Why surrender it to a machine? Well, yes, but even though horse riding was made obsolete as a system of mass transit when engines (steam, internal combustion) were invented, enthusiasts can still do it for fun. But for those who only drive out of necessity, driverless cars offer a tantalising glimpse of a congestion free future.
Earlier this week I commented on that photo of Obama and his advisors in the Situation Room:
The image in question is particularly good because it seems to portray a very long moment. If Souza had been filming the scene we imagine that it would not have looked very different from the still photograph… apart from some blinking.
Via Matt Haughey, I’ve discovered From Me To You, the work of Jamie, a photographer who takes photos and adds a little bit of movement into them as animated GIFs. Its not clear at first glance that you’re looking at a manipulated photograph and not an actual movie.
A fascinating link that has been doing the rounds recently is the Live London Tube Map by Matthew Somerville. The link is meant to be here, but at present (24/6/2010) it is not active… probably because so many people re-tweeted it and I guess it makes pretty heavy demands on the servers of Transport For London, who provide the raw location data.
The appearance of Matt’s tube page inspires me to post a short concept for an urban game that I wrote a few years ago, uploaded to a wiki, and then failed to develop much further. It is reproduced below. I sense that Foursquare may actually perform many similar functions, though I haven’t used that platform yet. Either way, it would be great to get some input from people like those who run LiveFiction and Hide&Seek. Continue reading “The Underground Project”
Jason Kottke thinks that the stills video camera will become obsolete in a few years time:
As resolution rises & prices fall on video cameras and hard drive space, memory, and video editing capabilities increase on PCs, I suspect that in 5-10 years, photography will largely involve pointing video cameras at things and finding the best images in the editing phase. Professional photographers already take hundreds or thousands of shots during the course of a shoot like this, so it’s not such a huge shift for them.
I think he underestimates the convenience that the traditional method provides. Editing even a few moments of video is a lengthy process, and selecting a precise frame or three from a length of footage will be too time consuming for the average punter. Granted, professional photographers do fire off dozens of snaps in quick succession, to increase their chances of capturing ‘the moment’. But the ratio of wheat to chaf in this process must surely never approach that generated by 25 f.p.s. video (or film). I don’t doubt that at the very high-end, photographers will continue to use this technique, but the act of editing, of post-production, will keep the time premium high, and restrain its use to a limited number of professionals. Without devoting the time to inspect every single frame, how can you be sure the quality of the image would be any better than normal? It is certainly not an appropriate technique for photojournalists on a deadline, or the amateur snapper with other things to do.
The buoyancy of the President’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, at the inauguration yesterday, was refreshing and delightful. Its fashionable to lament the fact that children “grow up too quickly these days.” Its becoming equally fashionable to note the innocence of the Obama girls in the midst of the overwhelming pomp of campaign, transition, and inauguration.
Especially noteworthy, bizarre yet endearing, was Malia’s insistence on taking digital photos of the event with her consumer camera (appallingly, though not unsurprisingly, E! Magazine has wondered aloud about how much those pictures would be worth). Most hilarious was the moment, right after her father’s speech, when she leant forward and asked the old man sitting in front to take a photo of the crowd, because he clearly had a better view. It was Joe Biden, the new Vice-President.
Meanwhile, a defining image of the inauguration for me was the sight of thousands of other citizens all stretching to capture the moment on their own cameras, phones and camcorders, something like this:
This sort of image will become, has become, commonplace. I think this obsession with recording significant moments for ourselves is fascinating. Malia and The Crowd had two utterly different viewpoints on the proceedings, yet both exhibited the same urge. In both cases, there is an irrationality to their actions. The inauguration was long known to be one of the most reported events in the history of news media. On one level, its absurd that the First Daughter would need to actually press the shutter herself – the image of her father raising his hand will persist without her (I noted athletes doing a similar thing during the Olympics). Likewise, its absurd that the grainy figure of Obama raising his hand in a wave, as he strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, will not be similarly recorded in high-resolution, extreme close-up, by hundreds of professionals.
And that, I suppose, is the answer. Contrary to what the reporters at E! Magazine might hope, Malia’s photos are not for public consumption. They are a personal aide memoir (much like this blog). The camera-phone photos, poor quality, though they may be, server as a document to one’s presence of the event, a self-generated certificate of attendance. The grainier the better, to the extent that poor picture quality actually becomes a mark of authenticity.
Weegee (my favorite photographer) would go to a fire and while all the other photogs were taking pictures of the flames, he would take pictures of the fire’s victims watching their homes burn. That seems to be what Malia is doing. While the media focuses on her Dad, she seems to be focusing on the people who came to see him. It’s a whole different perspective.
Here’s the sort of image I mean. The glow from the digital camera screens looks like fireflies: