Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘social web’

18 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Steven Johnson on the “Peer Progressive” Movement and What the Internet Wants


“When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably.”

Such is the nature of the reader’s ego: Whenever your favorite author comes out with another thoughtful, beautifully written, culturally relevant book, it’s potent and gratifying validation of your preference for his or her work and, by proxy, of yourself. This week, I have Steven Johnson to thank for gratifying my ego with Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age (public library) — an absorbing, provocative, and unapologetically optimistic vision for the society we have the capacity to build if we use the remarkable tools of our age intelligently and wisely. Driven by what Johnson calls “peer progressives” — a cohort of people who are “wary of centralized control, but [are] not free-market libertarians,” who identify as entrepreneurs but work mostly in the public sector, who believe in building “a new kind of institution, more network than hierarchy” — this new groundswell is using the power of networks as a problem-solving tool for civic society, and one of the finest nonfiction writers of our time has taken it upon himself to tell its story.

In the introduction, Johnson reminds us of something crucial Anaïs Nin observed more than 70 years ago — namely, the importance of understanding the role of the individual in making sense of mass movements:

Most new movements start this way: hundreds or thousands of individuals and groups, working in different fields and different locations, start thinking about change using a common language, without necessarily recognizing those shared values. You just start following your own vector, propelled along by people in your immediate vicinity. And then one day, you look up and realize that all those individual trajectories have turned into a wave.

One paradox of the digital age Johnson examines is the challenge of whether it’s “possible to believe that the Internet and the Web are pushing us in a positive direction, without becoming naive cyber-utopians.” To resolve the dissonance, he turns to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “affordances” — the deeply engrained tendencies of each new medium, which shape the message it conveys in consistent and predictable ways. Among television’s key affordances, for instance, was the strong bias for the visual and spoken over the textual. Johnson reflects on Neil Postman’s golden-age-of-TV bestseller, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

You do not need a ‘thorough theoretical understanding of the context’ to assume that the introduction of television will diminish the role of the written word in a given society.

On the web, however, these affordances get murky. It’s a medium that at once allows meticulous micro-customization — like, for instance, those Google AdSense ads that
“know” your search history and preferences, pushing you products and services increasingly more tailored to your tastes — and spews out endless, mass-produced spam. Johnson puts it wrily:

For every website that knows exactly what you want to read right now, there are probably ten penis-enlargement ads sitting in your inbox.

But, he points out, the web is after all software and, as such, it’s malleable and nimble enough to be able to thrive on these schizophrenic affordances:

Software interfaces are not fixed properties; they are possibility spaces, open to a near-infinite range of experimentation, which means that the defining affordances of the medium are more elastic than those of traditional media.


But this capacity for reinvention does not mean the Internet and its descendants are without affordances altogether. In fact, one of the Net’s affordances flows directly out if its shape-shifting powers. Because the software networks are more malleable than earlier forms of media, they tend to engage more people in the process of deciding how they should work. In the days of analog telephony or radio, the number of people actively involved in the conversation about how these technologies should work was vanishingly small. If we have too much of anything on the Internet, it’s engagement: too many minds pushing the platform in new directions, too many voices arguing about the social and economic consequences of those changes. A medium that displays a capacity for reinvention tends, in the long run at least, to build up a much larger community of people who anted to help reinvent it.

Ultimately, Johnson poses, then answers, one of our era’s most profound questions:

So what does the Internet want? It wants to lower the cost for creating and sharing information. The notion sounds unimpeachable when you phrase it like that, until you realize all the strange places that kind of affordance ultimately leads to. The Internet wants to breed algorithms that can execute thousands of financial transactions per minute, and it wants to disseminate the #occupywallstreet meme across the planet. The Internet ‘wants’ both the Wall Street tycoons and the popular insurrection at its feet.

Can that strange, contradictory cocktail drive progress on its own? Perhaps — for the simple reason that it democratizes the control of information. When information is expensive and scarce, powerful or wealthy individuals or groups have a disproportionate impact on how that information circulates. But as it gets cheaper and more abundant, the barriers to entry are lowered. This is hardly a new observation, but everything that has happened over the last twenty years has confirmed the basic insight. That democratization has not always led to positive outcomes — think of those spam artists — but there is no contesting the tremendous, orders-of-magnitude increase in the number of people creating and sharing, thanks to the mass adoption of the Internet.

The peer progressive’s faith in the positive effects of the Internet rests on this democratic principle: When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably. Yes, when you push the intelligence out to the edges of the network, sometimes individuals or groups abuse those newfound privileges; a world without gatekeepers or planners is noisier and more chaotic. But the same is true of other institutions that have stood the test of time. Democracies on occasion elect charlatans or bigots or imbeciles; markets on occasion erupt in catastrophic bubbles, or choose to direct resources to trivial problems while ignoring the more pressing ones. We accept these imperfections because the alternatives are so much worse. The same is true of the Internet and the peer networks it has inspired. They are not perfect, far from it. But over the long haul, they produce better results than the Legrand Stars that came before them. They’re not utopias. They’re just leaning that way.

Future Perfect, which comes on the heels of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2010) and The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next (2011), goes on to examine the wide-reaching impact of the peer progressive movement through a fascinating cross-section of Johnson’s characteristic seeming-deviations-that-turn-out-to-be-brilliant-allegories-for-the-core-argument, spanning everything from the history of early aviation to New York’s mysterious maple syrup event of 2005 to what the “pothole paradox” tells us about the future of journalism.

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30 MAY, 2012

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet


What undersea cables have to do with Brooklyn squirrels.

Do you ever stop to think what happens when a web page, like this one, manifests as digital text and image on your screen to transmit ideas between someone else’s brain and your own across time and space — and how it all works, in practical terms? The very thought of this physical underbelly of our information ecosystem feels strange and uncomfortable, as if betraying our dichotomous culture of “virtual” vs. “real,” cyberspace vs. physical space. And yet, while we may ponder its cultural impact, its biases, and its economics, the internet — despite our metaphors of clouds and information superhighways, and our concept of a “wireless” web — is a thoroughly physical thing. That’s precisely the unsettling realization at which Andrew Blum arrived after a squirrel in his Brooklyn backyard nibbled through the cable connection of his internet, the internet, causing it to falter. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet records Blum’s quest to uncover what few of us consider and even fewer understand — the jarringly tactile, material nuts and bolts of an intricate architectural system we tend to see as an abstract, amorphous blob.

If you have received an email or loaded a web page already today — indeed, if you are receiving an email or loading a web page (or a book) right now — I can guarantee that you are touching these very real places. I can admit that the Internet is a strange landscape, but I insist that it is a landscape nonetheless… For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.

From the vast data warehouses of major tech companies and giant labyrinths of undersea cables that bridge continents to the nano scale of optical switches and fine fiberglass, Blum reveals an internet that has “a seemingly infinite number of edges, but a shockingly small number of centers.”

Submarine cable map by TeleGeography, depicting more than 150 cable systems that connect the world.

He writes in the introduction:

This is a book about real places on the map: their sounds and smells, their storied pasts, their physical details, and the people who live there. To stitch together two halves of a broken world — to put the physical and the virtual back in the same place — I’ve stopped looking at web ‘sites’ and ‘addresses’ and instead sought out real sites and addresses, and the humming machines they house. I’ve stepped away from my keyboard, and with it the mirror-world of Google, Wikipedia, and blogs, and boarded planes and trains. I’ve driven on empty stretches of highway and to the edges of continents. In visiting the Internet, I’ve tried to strip away my individual experience of it — as that thing manifest on the screen — to reveal its underlying mass. My search for ‘the Internet’ has therefore been a search for reality, or really a specific breed of reality: the hard truths of geography.

What emerges is Blum’s three-way Venn diagram of understanding:

The networks that compose the Internet could be imagined as existing in three overlapping realms: logically, meaning the magical and (for most of us) opaque way the electronic signals travel; physically, meaning the machines and wires those signals run through; and geographically, meaning the places those signals reach. The logical realm inevitably requires quite a lot of specialized knowledge to get at; most of us leave the that to the coders and engineers. But the second two realms — the physical and geographic — are fully a part of our familiar world. They are accessible to the senses. But they are mostly hidden from view. In fact, trying to see them disturbed the way I imagined the interstices of the physical and electronic world.

Still, we seem drawn to the spatial and physical mystery of the internet, often visualizing it with the same egocentrism with which medieval man visualized the universe. Blum points to The Internet Mapping Project, in which Kevin Kelly asked ordinary people to sketch how they conceive of the internet, constructing a kind of “folk cartography” and exposing the internet as what Blum calls “a landscape of the mind.”

An entry from Kevin Kelly's Internet Mapping Project, soliciting hand-drawn depictions of the internet.

Blum, in fact, dedicates an entire chapter to maps — a treat for a cartographically compulsive map-lover like myself. In it, he recounts the story of a Milwaukee printer that runs into technical difficulties in printing TeleGeography’s annual map of the global internet. Blum observes:

The networked world claims to be frictionless — to allow for things to be anywhere. Transferring the map’s electronic file to Milwaukee was as effortless as sending an email. Yet the map itself wasn’t a JPEG, PDF, or scalable Google map, but something fixed and lasting — printed on a synthetic paper called Yupo, updated once a year, sold for $250, packaged in cardboard tubes, and shipped around the world. [This] map of the physical infrastructure of the Internet was itself the physical world. It may have represented the Internet, but inevitably it came from somewhere — specifically, North Eighty-Seventh Street in Milwaukee, a place that knew a little something about how the world was made.

To go in search of the physical Internet was to go in search of the gaps between fluid and fixed. To ask, what could happen anywhere? And, what had to happen here?

But Tubes is far more than a technical anatomy, revealing instead the broader implications of this seemingly ubiquitous parallel world that two billion of us inhabit, in one form or another, on any given day. In the epilogue, Blum transcends the physicality of his quest to ponder the philosophical:

As everyone from Odysseus on down has pointed out, a journey is really understood upon arriving home. […] What I understood when I arrived home was that the Internet wasn’t a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world. The Internet’s physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me. The lowercase i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are.

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23 MARCH, 2012

PBS Off Book: Art in the Age of the Internet


How the digital age is changing the rhetoric and regimes of creative expression.

Over the past few months, the fine folks at PBS Arts have been exploring various facets of creative culture — including typography, product design, generative art, papercraft, and more — and their evolution in the digital age as part of the ongoing Off Book series. The latest installment explores art in the era of the Internet, and features Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler, Creative Commons mastermind Lawrence Lessig, and my dear friend Julia Kaganskiy, editor of Creators Project, along with her colleague and creative director Ciel Hunter.

When extend the life of a physical project on the web, and give people the ability to remix that media, they’ll do some really inventive stuff with it.” ~ Julia Kaganskiy, Creators Project

The Internet’s incredible ability to align people with similar interests makes it very possible for normal people to make big things happen, and that’s something that wasn’t possible at any other time.” ~ Yancey Strickler, Kickstarter

We had a regime of copyright and the Internet completely flipped the technical foundation upon which that regime had been built. […] My creative utopia is that we have a huge proportion of all of us creating all the time.” ~ Lawrence Lessig, Creative Commons

As Edward Gorey might remind you, PBS is public media supported by “viewers like you” — show them some love here.


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09 MARCH, 2012

Introducing The Curator’s Code: A Standard for Honoring Attribution of Discovery Across the Web


UPDATE: Some thoughts on some of the responses, by way of Einstein.

UPDATE 2: This segment from NPR’s On the Media articulates the project well — give it a listen.

Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.” ~ Ray Bradbury

You are a mashup of what you let into your life.” ~ Austin Kleon

Chance favors the connected mind.” ~ Steven Johnson

As both a consumer and curator of information, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the architecture of knowledge. Over the past year, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about a fundamental disconnect in the “information economy”: In an age of information overload, information discovery — the service of bringing to the public’s attention that which is interesting, meaningful, important, and otherwise worthy of our time and thought — is a form of creative and intellectual labor, and one of increasing importance and urgency. A form of authorship, if you will. Yet we don’t have a standardized system for honoring discovery the way we honor other forms of authorship and other modalities of creative and intellectual investment, from literary citations to Creative Commons image rights.

Until today.

I’m thrilled to introduce The Curator’s Code — a movement to honor and standardize attribution of discovery across the web.

One of the most magical things about the Internet is that it’s a whimsical rabbit hole of discovery — we start somewhere familiar and click our way to a wonderland of curiosity and fascination we never knew existed. What makes this contagion of semi-serendipity possible is an intricate ecosystem of “link love” — a via-chain of attribution that allows us to discover new wonderlands through those we already know and trust.

The Curator’s Code is an effort to keep this whimsical rabbit hole open by honoring discovery through an actionable code of ethics — first, understanding why attribution matters, and then, implementing it across the web in a codified common standard, doing for attribution of discovery what Creative Commons has done for image attribution. It’s a suggested system for honoring the creative and intellectual labor of information discovery by making attribution consistent and codified, celebrating authors and creators, and also respecting those who discover and amplify their work. It’s an effort to make the rabbit hole open, fair, and ever-alluring. This not about policing the Internet from a place of top-down authority, it’s about encouraging respect and kindness among the community.

Together with my design and thought partner on the project, the infinitely brilliant and hard-working Kelli Anderson, and with invaluable input from my wonderful studiomate Tina of Swiss Miss fame, we’ve devised a simple system that any publisher and curator of information can use across the social web and on any publishing platform.

The system is based on two basic types of attribution, each shorthanded by a special unicode character, much like ™ for “trademark” and for © “copyright.” And while the symbols are a cleaner way to do it, you may still choose to credit the “old-fashioned” way, using “via” and “HT” — the message here is not about how to credit but simply to credit.

stands for “via” and signifies a direct link of discovery, to be used when you simply repost a piece of content you found elsewhere, with little or no modification or addition. This type of attribution looks something like this:

stands for the common “HT” or “hat tip,” signifying an indirect link of discovery, to be used for content you significantly modify or expand upon compared to your source, for story leads, or for indirect inspiration encountered elsewhere that led you to create your own original content. For example:

In both cases, just like the words “via” and “HT,” the respective unicode character would be followed by the actual hotlink to your source. For example:

Brain Pickings

One reason we’re using unicode characters is that we we wanted the symbols themselves to be a kind of messenger for the ethos of the code — the character is hotlinked to the Curator’s Code site, which allows the ethos of attribution to spread as curious readers click the symbol to find out what it stands for.

This is where it gets interesting. With generous help from my studiomates Cameron and Jonnie, we’re offering a bookmarklet that lets you easily copy-paste the unicode characters for use in any text field, from a tweet to your blog CMS. Just drag the bookmarklet to your bookmarks bar and click it every time you want to attribute discovery, then click your preferred type of attribution and watch the unicode magically appear wherever your cursor is in a text field. Add the actual hotlink to your source after it like you normally would.

See it in action:

If you’re a publisher, you can also grab the Curator’s Code badge pack to display your support, and sign the public pledge to join the ranks of supporting sites.

As for the design, Kelli — as much a designer as a visual philosopher — came up with this beautifully meta concept, where we display famous quotes related to attribution in a parallax rabbit hole of sites on which they actually occur, layered in the order of source attribution. Hovering over the hole makes the parallax shift before your eyes, as if the Internet is burning a hole of discovery through your very screen. In Kelli’s words:

Maria spoke about attribution less as an obligation and more as an enabler of deep, surprising (and perhaps infinite) voyages through information. Through linking, the Internet connects disparate sources in a way that no other medium has before — effectively creating these meta-narratives of discovery. Maria called them ‘rabbit holes.’ With that one phrase, I knew that the site should demonstrate pathways of attribution by (literally) poking a hole in the Internet to glimpse the pathways of attribution beyond.”

Here’s to a new dawn of keeping the Internet’s whimsical rabbit hole of information open by honoring discovery like the creative and intellectual labor that it is.

Questions? See the FAQ section.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.