Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘social web’

08 JULY, 2014

The Man Who Turned Paper into Pixels: How Mathematician and Black Jack Wizard Claude Shannon Ignited the Information Age

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How the most important man you never heard of laid the groundwork for the digital world.

The so-called Information Age we live in, like all major leaps in human achievement, isn’t a self-contained bubble that coalesced out of nothingness in a flash of genius but the cumulative product of incremental innovation stretching back centuries. It builds upon the work of multiple inventors, scientists, and thinkers, including Lady Ada Lovelace, celebrated as the world’s first computer programmer, Alan Turing, considered the godfather of modern computing, Paul Otlet, who built a proto-internet in the early twentieth century, and Vannevar Bush, who envisioned the web in 1945.

Among them was the American mathematician, engineer, and cryptographer Claude Shannon (April 30, 1916–February 24, 2001), who laid the foundation for the Information Age. According to British filmmaker Adam Westbrook — who gave us those fantastic video essays on the long game of creativity — Shannon is “the most important man you’ve probably never heard of” and his work impacted the modern world as profoundly as Einstein’s did. In this short film inspired by James Gleick’s remarkable The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (public library) — one of the very best, most illuminating and stimulating books I’ve ever read — Westbrook traces Shannon’s story and his enduring legacy, which permeates our everyday lives more powerfully than we dare imagine.

A Renoir and a receipt — they’re completely different… You couldn’t possibly think of them in the same way — or could you?

For a deeper dive, do treat yourself to Gleick’s The Information, then complement with the story of The Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s first analog computer circa 150 B.C., and The Mundaneum, an analog version of the world wide web from the early twentieth century.

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09 JUNE, 2014

The Birth of the Information Age: How Paul Otlet’s Vision for Cataloging and Connecting Humanity Shaped Our World

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“Everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts.”

Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet (August 23, 1868–December 10, 1944) set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media. His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web. (Even the visual bookshelf I use to manage the Brain Pickings book archive is named after him.)

In Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (public library | IndieBound), writer, educator, and design historian Alex Wright traces Otlet’s legacy not only in technology and information science, but also in politics, social reform, and peace activism, illustrating why not only Otlet’s ideas, but also his idealism matter as we contemplate the future of humanity.

The Mundaneum, with its enormous filing system designed by Otlet himself, allowed people to request information by mail-order. By 1912, Otlet and his team were fielding 1,500 such requests per year.

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

Wright writes:

Paul Otlet … seems to connect a series of major turning points in the history of the early twentieth-century information age, synthesizing and incorporating their ideas along with his own, and ultimately coming tantalizingly close to building a fully integrated global information network.

[…]

Otlet embraced the new internationalism and emerged as one of its most prominent apostles in Europe in the early twentieth century. In his work we can see many of these trends intersecting — the rise of industrial technologies, the problem of managing humanity’s growing intellectual output, and the birth of a new internationalism. To sustain it Otlet tried to assemble a great catalog of the world’s published information, create an encyclopedic atlas of human knowledge, build a network of federated museums and other cultural institutions, and establish a World City that would serve as the headquarters for a new world government. For Otlet these were not disconnected activities but part of a larger vision of worldwide harmony. In his later years he started to describe the Mundaneum in transcendental terms, envisioning his global knowledge network as something akin to a universal consciousness and as a gateway to collective enlightenment.

In 1903, Otlet developed a revolutionary index card system for organizing information.

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

Otlet's primarily female staff answered information requests by hand. Without the digital luxury of keyword searches, a single query could take painstaking hours, even days, of sifting through the elaborate index card catalog.

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

The Mundaneum, which officially opened its doors in 1920, a decade after Otlet first dreamt it up, wasn’t merely a prescient vision for the utilitarian information-retrieval function of the modern internet, but the ideological framework for a far nobler and more ambitious goal to unite the world around a new culture of networked peace and understanding, which would shepherd humanity toward reaching its spiritual potential — an idea that makes the Mundaneum’s fate in actuality all the more bitterly ironic.

At the peak of Otlet’s efforts to organize the world’s knowledge around a generosity of spirit, humanity’s greatest tragedy of ignorance and cruelty descended upon Europe. As the Nazis seized power, they launched a calculated campaign to thwart critical thought by banning and burning all books that didn’t agree with their ideology — the very atrocity that prompted Helen Keller’s scorching letter on book-burning — and even paved the muddy streets of Eastern Europe with such books so the tanks would pass more efficiently. When the Nazi inspectors responsible for the censorship effort eventually got to Otlet’s collection, they weren’t quite sure what to make of it. One report summed up their contemptuous bafflement:

The institute and its goals cannot be clearly defined. It is some sort of … ‘museum for the whole world,’ displayed through the most embarrassing and cheap and primitive methods… The library is cobbled together and contains, besides a lot of waste, some things we can use. The card catalog might prove rather useful.

But behind the “waste” and the “embarrassing” methods of organizing it lay far greater ideas that evaded, as is reliably the case, small minds. Wright outlines the remarkable prescience of Otlet’s vision:

What the Nazis saw as a “pile of rubbish,” Otlet saw as the foundation for a global network that, one day, would make knowledge freely available to people all over the world. In 1934, he described his vision for a system of networked computers — “electric telescopes,” he called them — that would allow people to search through millions of interlinked documents, images, and audio and video files. He imagined that individuals would have desktop workstations—each equipped with a viewing screen and multiple movable surfaces — connected to a central repository that would provide access to a wide range of resources on whatever topics might interest them. As the network spread, it would unite individuals and institutions of all stripes — from local bookstores and classrooms to universities and governments. The system would also feature so-called selection machines capable of pinpointing a particular passage or individual fact in a document stored on microfilm, retrieved via a mechanical indexing and retrieval tool. He dubbed the whole thing a réseau mondial: a “worldwide network” or, as the scholar Charles van den Heuvel puts it, an “analog World Wide Web.”

Twenty-five years before the first microchip, forty years before the first personal computer, and fifty years before the first Web browser, Paul Otlet had envisioned something very much like today’s Internet.

Otlet articulated this vision in his own writing, describing an infrastructure remarkably similar to the underlying paradigm of the modern web:

Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of [its] memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts.

Otlet’s prescience, Wright notes, didn’t end there — he also envisioned speech recognition tools, wireless networks that would enable people to upload files to remote servers, social networks and virtual communities around individual pieces of media that would allow people to “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus,” and even concepts we are yet to crack with our present technology, such as transmitting sensory experiences like smell and taste.

Otlet's sketch for the 'worldwide network' he envisioned

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

But Otlet’s most significant vision wasn’t about the technology of it — it was about politics and peace, the very things that most bedevil the modern web, from cyber terrorism to the ongoing struggle for net neutrality. Wright writes:

An ardent “internationalist,” Otlet believed in the inevitable progress of humanity toward a peaceful new future, in which the free flow of information over a distributed network would render traditional institutions — like state governments — anachronistic. Instead, he envisioned a dawning age of social progress, scientific achievement, and collective spiritual enlightenment. At the center of it all would stand the Mundaneum, a bulwark and beacon of truth for the whole world.

But when the Nazis swept Europe and crept closer to Belgium, it became clear to Otlet that not only the physical presence of the Mundaneum but also its political ideals stood at grave risk. He grew increasingly concerned. In swelling desperation to save his life’s work, he sent President Roosevelt a telegram offering the entire collection to the United States “as nucleus of a great World Institution for World Peace and Progress with a seat in America.” Otlet’s urgent plea made it all the way to the Belgian press, who printed the telegram, but he never heard back from Roosevelt. He send a second telegram, even more urgent, once Belgium was invaded, but again received no response. Finally, in a final act of despair, he decided to make “an appeal on behalf of humanity” and try persuading the Nazi inspectors that the Mundaneum was worth saving. Predictably, they were unmoved. A few days later, Nazi soldiers destroyed 63 tons’ worth of books Otlet’s meticulously preserved and indexed materials that constituted the heart of his collection.

Otlet was devastated, but continued to labor quietly over his dream of a global information network throughout the occupation. Four months after the liberation of Paris, he died. And yet the ghost of his work went on to greatly influence the modern information world. Wright contextualizes Otlet’s legacy:

While Otlet did not by any stretch of the imagination “invent” the Internet — working as he did in an age before digital computers, magnetic storage, or packet-switching networks — nonetheless his vision looks nothing short of prophetic. In Otlet’s day, microfilm may have qualified as the most advanced information storage technology, and the closest thing anyone had ever seen to a database was a drawer full of index cards. Yet despite these analog limitations, he envisioned a global network of interconnected institutions that would alter the flow of information around the world, and in the process lead to profound social, cultural, and political transformations.

By today’s standards, Otlet’s proto-Web was a clumsy affair, relying on a patchwork system of index cards, file cabinets, telegraph machines, and a small army of clerical workers. But in his writing he looked far ahead to a future in which networks circled the globe and data could travel freely. Moreover, he imagined a wide range of expression taking shape across the network: distributed encyclopedias, virtual classrooms, three-dimensional information spaces, social networks, and other forms of knowledge that anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web. He saw these developments as fundamentally connected to a larger utopian project that would bring the world closer to a state of permanent and lasting peace and toward a state of collective spiritual enlightenment.

And yet there’s a poignant duality in how the modern web came to both embody and defy Otlet’s ideals:

During its brief heyday, Otlet’s Mundaneum was also a window onto the world ahead: a vision of a networked information system spanning the globe. Today’s Internet represents both a manifestation of Otlet’s dream and also, arguably, the realization of his worst fears. For the system he imagined differed in crucial ways from the global computer network that would ultimately take shape during the Cold War. He must have sensed that his dream was over when he confronted Krüss and the Nazi delegation on that day in 1940. But before we can fully grasp the importance of Otlet’s vision, we need to look further back, to where it all began.

Comparing the Mundaneum with Sir Tim Berners Lee’s original 1989 proposal for the world wide web, both premised on an essential property of universality, Wright notes both the parallels between the two and the superiority, in certain key aspects, of Otlet’s ideals compared to how the modern web turned out:

[Otlet] never framed his thinking in purely technological terms; he saw the need for a whole-system approach that encompassed not just a technical solution for sharing documents and a classification system to bind them together, but also the attendant political, organizational, and financial structures that would make such an effort sustainable in the long term. And while his highly centralized, controlled approach may have smacked of nineteenth-century cultural imperialism (or, to put it more generously, at least the trappings of positivism), it had the considerable advantages of any controlled system, or what today we might call a “walled garden”: namely, the ability to control what goes in and out, to curate the experience, and to exert a level of quality control on the contents that are exchanged within the system.

Paul Otlet in 1932, months before the Nazis destroyed his Mundaneum

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

But Otlet’s greatest ambition, as well as the one most enduring due to its as-yet unfulfilled fruition, was that of the Mundaneum’s humanistic effect in strengthening the invisible bonds that link us together — an ethos rather antithetical to the individualistic, almost narcissistic paradigm of today’s social web. Wright explains:

The contemporary construct of “the user” that underlies so much software design figures nowhere in Otlet’s work. He saw the mission of the Mundaneum as benefiting humanity as a whole, rather than serving the whims of individuals. While he imagined personalized workstations (those Mondotheques), he never envisioned the network along the lines of a client-server “architecture” (a term that would not come into being for another two decades). Instead, each machine would act as a kind of “dumb” terminal, fetching and displaying material stored in a central location.

The counterculture programmers who paved the way for the Web believed they were participating in a process of personal liberation. Otlet saw it as a collective undertaking, one dedicated to a higher purpose than mere personal gratification. And while he might well have been flummoxed by the anything-goes ethos of present-day social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, he also imagined a system that allowed groups of individuals to take part in collaborative experiences like lectures, opera performances, or scholarly meetings, where they might “applaud” or “give ovations.” It seems a short conceptual hop from here to Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” button.

A reproduction of Otlet's original Mondotheque desk

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

In this regard, Otlet’s idea of collective intelligence working toward a common good presaged modern concepts like crowdsourcing and “cognitive surplus” as well as initiatives like Singularity University. Wright considers the essence of his legacy:

Otlet’s work invites us to consider a simple question: whether the path to liberation requires maximum personal freedom of the kind that characterizes today’s anything-goes Internet, or whether humanity would find itself better served by pursuing liberation through the exertion of discipline.

Considering the darker side of the modern internet in information monopolies like Google and Facebook, Wright reflects on how antithetical this dominance of private enterprise is to Otlet’s vision of a democratic, publicly funded international network. “He likely would have seen the pandemonium of today’s Web as an enormous waste of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual potential,” Wright writes and as he contemplates the messy machinery of money and motives propelling the modern web:

Would the Internet have turned out any differently had Paul Otlet’s vision come to fruition? Counterfactual history is a fool’s game, but it is perhaps worth considering a few possible lessons from the Mundaneum. First and foremost, Otlet acted not out of a desire to make money — something he never succeeded at doing — but out of sheer idealism. His was a quest for universal knowledge, world peace, and progress for humanity as a whole. The Mundaneum was to remain, as he said, “pure.” While many entrepreneurs vow to “change the world” in one way or another, the high-tech industry’s particular brand of utopianism almost always carries with it an underlying strain of free-market ideology: a preference for private enterprise over central planning and a distrust of large organizational structures. This faith in the power of “bottom-up” initiatives has long been a hallmark of Silicon Valley culture, and one that all but precludes the possibility of a large-scale knowledge network emanating from anywhere but the private sector.

But rather than a hapless historical lament, Wright argues, Otlet’s work can serve as an ideal — moral, social, political — to aspire to as we continue to shape this fairly young medium. It could lead us to devise more intelligent intellectual property regulations, build more sophisticated hyperlinks, and hone our ability to curate and contextualize information in more meaningful ways. He writes:

That is why Paul Otlet still matters. His vision was not just cloud castles and Utopian scheming and positivist cant but in some ways more relevant and realizable now than at any point in history. To be sure, some of his most cherished ideas seem anachronistic by today’s standards: his quest for “universal” truth, his faith in international organizations, and his conviction in the inexorable progress of humanity. But as more and more of us rely on the Internet to conduct our everyday lives, we are also beginning to discover the dark side of such extreme decentralization. The hopeful rhetoric of the early years of the Internet revolution has given way to the realization that we may be entering a state of permanent cultural amnesia, in which the sheer fluidity of the Web makes it difficult to keep our bearings. Along the way, many of us have also entrusted our most valued personal data — letters, photographs, films, and all kinds of other intellectual artifacts — to a handful of corporations who are ultimately beholden not to serving humanity but to meeting Wall Street quarterly earnings estimates. For all the utopian Silicon Valley rhetoric about changing the world, the technology industry seems to have little appetite for long-term thinking beyond its immediate parochial interests.

[…]

Otlet’s Mundaneum will never be. But it nonetheless offers us a kind of Platonic object, evoking the possibility of a technological future driven not by greed and vanity, but by a yearning for truth, a commitment to social change, and a belief in the possibility of spiritual liberation. Otlet’s vision for an international knowledge network—always far more expansive than a mere information retrieval tool—points toward a more purposeful vision of what the global network could yet become. And while history may judge Otlet a relic from another time, he also offers us an example of a man driven by a sense of noble purpose, who remained sure in his convictions and unbowed by failure, and whose deep insights about the structure of human knowledge allowed him to peer far into the future…

His work points to a deeply optimistic vision of the future: one in which the world’s knowledge coalesces into a unified whole, narrow national interests give way to the pursuit of humanity’s greater good, and we all work together toward building an enlightened society.

Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age is a remarkable read in its entirety, not only in illuminating history but in extracting from it a beacon for the future. Complement it with Vannevar Bush’s 1945 “memex” concept and George Dyson’s history of bits. And lest we forget, it all started with a woman — Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter and the world’s first computer programmer.

Thanks, Liz

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16 MAY, 2014

The Definitive Manifesto for Handling Haters: Anne Lamott on Priorities and How We Keep Ourselves Small by People-Pleasing

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“What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65… and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?”

What makes Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) so timelessly rewarding and one of the greatest books on writing of all time is that besides her wisdom on the craft, Lamott extends enormous sensitivity to and consolation for the general pathologies of the human condition — our insecurities, our social anxieties, our inner turmoils. Among her most powerful and memorable meditations in the book is that on how our perfectionism kills the creative spirit — something she revisited recently in a short essay on her Facebook page, spurred by a surge in negative comments and vicious troll attacks.

Lamott’s words, once again, shine with warm and luminous wisdom. Alluding to the chapter on perfectionism, she writes:

There’s a whole chapter on perfectionism in Bird by Bird, because it is the great enemy of the writer, and of life, our sweet messy beautiful screwed up human lives. It is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you very scared and restless your entire life if you do not awaken, and fight back, and if you’re an artist, it will destroy you.

[…]

Do you mind even a little that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else’s needs and laundry and career ahead of your creative, spiritual life? Giving all your life force away, to “help” and impress. Well, your help is not helpful, and falls short.

Look, I struggle with this. I hate to be criticized. I am just the tiniest bit more sensitive than the average bear. And yet, I’m a writer, so I periodically put my work out there, and sometimes like all writers, I get terrible reviews, so personal in nature that they leave me panting. Even with a Facebook post … do you have any idea what it’s like to get 500-plus negative attacks, on my character, from truly bizarre strangers.

Really, it’s not ideal.

Yet, I get to tell my truth. I get to seek meaning and realization. I get to live fully, wildly, imperfectly. That’s why I’m alive. And all I actually have to offer as a writer, is my version of life. Every single thing that has happened to me is mine. As I’ve said a hundred times, if people wanted me to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

She reminds us that we don’t find time for what matters, we make time — and the priorities we set define our destiny:

Is it okay with you that you blow off your writing, or whatever your creative/spiritual calling, because your priority is to go to the gym or do yoga five days a week? Would you give us one of those days back, to play or study poetry? To have an awakening? Have you asked yourself lately, “How alive am I willing to be?” It’s all going very quickly. It’s mid-May, for God’s sake. Who knew. I thought it was late February.

It’s time to get serious about joy and fulfillment, work on our books, songs, dances, gardens. But perfectionism is always lurking nearby, like the demonic prowling lion in the Old Testament, waiting to pounce. It will convince you that your work-in-progress is not great, and that you may never get published. (Wait, forget the prowling satanic lion — your parents, living or dead, almost just as loudly either way, and your aunt Beth, and your passive-aggressive friends, whom we all think you should ditch, are going to ask, “Oh, you’re writing again? That’s nice. Do you have an agent?”)

She reminds us, too, of something that Debbie Millman articulated beautifully in her 2013 commencement address, advising aspiring creators: “Imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.” Lamott echoes this sentiment with exquisite, poetic rawness:

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.

Echoing Neil Gaiman, who counseled young artists to “make glorious, amazing mistakes,” Lamott concludes with a recipe for an antidote — the only real antidote — to perfectionism:

Here’s how to break through the perfectionism: make a LOT of mistakes. Fall on your butt more often. Waste more paper, printing out your shitty first drafts, and maybe send a check to the Sierra Club. Celebrate messes — these are where the goods are. Put something on the calendar that you know you’ll be terrible at, like dance lessons, or a meditation retreat, or boot camp. Find a writing partner, who will help you with your work, by reading it for you, and telling you the truth about it, with respect, to help you make it better and better; for whom you will do the same thing. Find someone who wants to steal his or her life back, too. Now; today. One wild and crazy thing: wears shorts out in public if it is hot, even if your legs are milky white or heavy. Go to a poetry slam. Go to open mike,and read the story you wrote about the hilariously god-awful family reunion, with a trusted friend, even though it could be better, and would hurt Uncle Ed’s feelings if he read it, which he isn’t going to.

Change his name and hair color — he won’t even recognize himself.

At work, you begin to fulfill your artistic destiny. Wow! A reviewer may hate your style, or newspapers may neglect you, or 500 people may tell you that you are bitter, delusional and boring.

Let me ask you this: in the big juicy Zorba scheme of things, who fucking cares?

(Or, as I wrote some time ago in reflecting on my learnings from seven years of doing this: “When people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.”)

Lamott is truly a mystic of the written word and of the human soul. Treat yourself to Bird by Bird for closer communion with her singular spirit, then revisit Benjamin Franklin’s trick for handling haters, Vi Hart on how to tame the trolls, and Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness.

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