Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

29 MARCH, 2010

Magazines: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow


Robin-Hooding print, vintage infographics, and what organ music has to do with the iPad.

As big proponents of the power of curated interestingness, we have to admit that despite their umbilical cord to the corpse that is the print world, magazines — the best of them, at least — are one of the finest examples of cultural curation. But in order for this editorial-curatorial model to survive and flourish past print, it has to adapt to the platform-blind content ecosystems enabled by technology, while staying rooted in the behavioral and cultural demands of its audience. So today, we’ll try to contextualize all this by looking at the past, present and future of magazine publishing from three different angles, exploring everything from the digitization of print archives, to the emergence of niche, indie titles, to the publishing potential of the iPad.


In the past decade, the magazine industry has has an incredible roller-coaster ride, from the boom of indie publishing to the bust of print’s web-induced slow and steady demise. Michael Bojkowski of the excellent LineFeed has just released Decadism: Magazines 2000—2009 — a brilliant and ambitious effort to distill 5 million minutes of magazine publishing into a 50-minute history.

Bojkowski delves into the most compelling depths of the print world, from what drives innovation (technology is the no-brainer guess, but there’s also a surprising layer of environmental concerns), to what factors make a magazine succeed or fail, to how audience fragmentation Robin-Hooded readership, eroding big-name titles while allowing smaller, nicher, independent ones to flourish. He highlights a handful of landmark publications, including a few of our favorite titles today — GOOD and Wired, we’re looking at you — and dissects the styles of some of the most iconic editors, art directors and designers working in publishing.

Lengthy as it may be, this video retrospective is more than worth a watch. We highly recommend it not only as an insightful look at the magazine industry, but also as a fascinating slice of the cultural anthroplogy in which the industry is rooted.


We have to preface this by saying that digitizing print is insufficient and misguided — trying to appropriate contend designed with one medium in mind for consumption in another, guided by entirely different reading behaviors, is like listening to an organ music concert on your iPod: You still hear the sound and get the main message, but all of its quality, authenticity and allure are lost. Still, it has a certain archival value that we can’t overlook — understanding the heritage of a medium is essential to crafting its future.

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen some of the most culturally significant magazines release digital archives in one form or another. In 2008, LIFE partnered with Google to release one of the world’s largest and richest photographic archives. Last month, Popular Science made 137 years of its archives available online. And every issue of SPIN magazine is available on Google Books.

Fulltable, a site dedicated to “the visual telling of stories, collects vintage magazine covers, ads, maps, photographs, illustrations and other print ephemera, covering everything from fashion to early data visualization. Despite the clumsy interface, the site is brimming with gems — like these John Falter magazine covers depicting small-town life in America, or this fascinating flowchart explaining big unionism, or this gorgeous 1939 map of Los Angeles.

While digitization is obviously not the answer to print’s relationship with web platforms, it’s a potent antidote to one of the web’s biggest plagues: Its ephemeral nature and the burying of excellent older content in this culture of immediacy and compulsive currentness.


It’s no secret the iPad has been profusely drooled on by the magazine industry, with print publishers hailing it as a silver bullet that will save their business and do their laundry in the process. Which it may be, but only if used in a smart way that harnesses its power to offer a more seamless and intuitive curatorial experience, rather than merely its techno-bling potential. Here are a handful of the better-conceived efforts to appropriate the iPad as a keeper of magazines’ fascination.

From Wired, a reader prototype running on Adobe Air, designed for the iPad before there was an iPad, set to launch this summer. We saw the demo live at TED last month, but the video is yet to be released, so we apologize for this poor-man’s version shot at SXSW this month — but you still get the basic idea.

From VIV, an interactive iPad demo — which we think falls a bit too much on the bling-over-editorial side, but is still compelling.

From Time Inc., a tablet concept for Sports Illustrated.

Finally, a concept from designer Jesse Rosten for Sunset Magazine reimagines the magazine industry’s most potent currency and readership gatekeeper: The allure of the magazine cover.

Of course, once these technologies are in place, pricing the content in an accessible way that’s not outrageously, unreasonably, prohibitively expensive is a different story. But however this forced evolution unfolds, one thing is for sure: A tectonic shift in media is upon us.

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12 MARCH, 2010

Beyond the Business Card: Three Alternative Tools


How to bump strangers, who killed the Rolodex, and what to do about it.

This week, we’re at SXSW, supposedly a mecca of interactivity and tech innovation. And yet we keep bumping into one massive business etiquette dinosaur: The exchange of physical, paper business cards.

So we’ve curated three handy digital tools to help unload the fossils and bring your networking up to speed with the digital age. The Rolodex is dead (we don’t even know anyone who owns one, let alone uses it), long live LinkedIn.


Bump may just be our favorite app ever. Free and available for iPhone and Android, it lets you exchange contact information with another person simply by bumping the two phones together. While it requires that the other person have the app as well, we’ve seen Bump adoption rates skyrocket in the past few months — it’s that good — so it’s bound to spare you a massive amount of number-crunching as you attempt to digitize those crumpled up business cards floating around your laptop bag.

Simple and incredibly fun to use, Bump combines seamless functionality with a kind of delightful playfulness — it’s hard not to smile when you see two grey-haired CEO’s bump fists and chuckle like fifth-graders.

Tip: If you keep your phone in your pant pocket, avoid walking up to people, saying “Let’s bump!” and pointing to said area of your pants. The capacity for martinis tossed in your face is limitless.


Let’s face it, most of us have more online profiles than we know what to do with — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, Google Buzz, Foursquare… they’re just the tip of the random registrations iceberg. And while a handful of them are actually useful for connecting with people, they’re becoming increasingly hard to manage, let alone share.

Enter, a nifty centralized home for all your digital dwellings. This tiny, update-from-anywhere video-enabled calling card contains all your favorite sites and services, giving you a simple URL to share with people.


We’ve always liked the idea of connecting real-life objects to the virtual world. Enter Stickybits, an ingenious tag-based platform for attaching digital information to physical objects. It’s simple — you get a bunch of barcode stickers, attach something to them online, and start handing them out. A free iPhone and Android app reads the barcodes and relays the embedded information.

Though meant for a much wider array of purposes — from “sticking” a wish on a gift to slapping on your laptop as a bring-it-home system in case you lose it — they’re perfect for sharing your contact info or even your resume.

Grab a pack of 20 barcodes for just $9.95 and start slapping.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2010

Kopernik: Crowdfunding World-Changing Design


Humanitarian three-ways, or what Polish astronomy has to with the future of civilization.

We fully endorsed Emily Pilloton’s vision that design can empower people and change the world. But there’s often a disonnect between the world-changing products and technologies that get dreamt up, and the actual ability to fund them and get them in the hands of those who need them the most.

No more. At least not if it’s up to Kopernik, a revolutionary new social platform that connects breakthrough technologies with the people and communities whose lives they will better the most, harnessing the power of crowdsourced microfunding.

The name, of course, comes from Copernicus, the Polish Renaissance astronomer who busted the geocentric model of the universe and completely changed the way people perceived the way around them — an aspirational metaphor for Kopernik‘s ambition to revolutionize how people see and understand the biggest challenges the world faces today.

From a rollable water container for women in East Timor, to self-adjustable glasses (remember those?) for refugees without access to eye clinics, to computer training for Sierra Leonean youth, Kopernik lets development groups write short proposals and submit them to the public for crowdfunding. Sort of like a humanitarian Kickstarter, which then does a three-way connect with individual supporters, technology provider companies, and the local organizations who seek those technologies.

Founded by a team of United Nations and World Bank expats, Kopernik is planning to expand beyond crowdfunding proposals and into developing their own products with DIY and open-source instructions that local communities can use to build technologies.

Because the only kind of design revolution that’s going to stick is one where grassroots empowerment lets people take ownership of the very solutions that are changing their lives.

via TBD

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12 FEBRUARY, 2010

Highlights from TED 2010: Day Two


Suspended animation, augmented reality, and what sheep’s knuckles have to do with the future of cultural problem-solving.

We’ve been busy live-tweeting from TED 2010, so yesterday’s highlights come mostly in photos and quotes — see Twitter for play-by-play updates.


Be skeptical. Ask questions. Get proof. Don’t take anything for granted. But when you get proof, accept it. We have a hard time doing that. ~ Michael Specter

Science tells us what we can value, but it never tells us what we ought to value. ~ Sam Harris

AIDS researcher Elizabeth Pisani shows the remarkable and life-saving effects of HIV treatment, but says that, contrary to popular belief, treatment is not all the prevention we need. In fact, it leads the infected to take their guards down, so they become less careful, which can be dangerous.

Pisani’s book, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS, sounds fascinating and eye-opening.

Pisani shows some counterintuitive HIV stats

Nicholas Christakis, whose social contagion studies we tweeted some time ago, talked about

Christakis’ book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, is a sociology and digital anthropology must-read.

Christakis calls obesity a 'multicentric epidemic,' reduced not to the behavior of individuals but to that of the 'human superorganism.'


Ex-CIA covert operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson shares Global Zero, her advocacy for eliminating nuclear weapons.

One thing our country needs is better political debates. We need to rediscover the lost art of political argument. ~ Michael Sandel

If we weren't afraid our servers might go down tomorrow, we'd dare say 4chan founder Christopher 'moot' Poole was endearing, but left us underwhelmed and missing a connect-the-dots idea. Hypothetically speaking.

Kevin Bales reveals some shocking facts about modern-day slavery: Today, there are 27,000 people in real, physical slavery. He points to four main causes: Overpopulation, extreme poverty, vulnerability of disadvantaged groups, and corruption.

'What enables slavery is the absence of the rule of law. It lets people use violence with impunity.' ~ Kevin Bales

Kevin advocates “freedom dividend” — letting people out of slavery and letting them work for themselves, which causes local communities to flourish. He says the total cost of enduring freedom for those 27,000 contemporary slaves is $10.8 billion, which is how much the US spent shopping this past holiday season.

We stand wholeheartedly behind Chris Anderson’s recommendation for Bales’ chilling and fascinating book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

A TED first: Mark Jacobson and Stewart Brand (whose compelling new book, Whole Earth Discipline, we reviewed recently) entered a good old fashioned debate on the merits of nuclear power.

Brand for, Jacobson against

If all of the electricity in your lifetime came from nuclear, waste would fit in a Coke can. ~ Stewart Brand

Each got 6 minutes to defend his stance, followed by an audience grill and refuting arguments.

To power the entire world with wind you will need only about 1% of US land area. ~ Mark Jacobson

Despite his charisma, Brand 'lost' in the end -- the audience skew moved from 75/25 in favor of nukes in the beginning of the debate to 65/35 by the end.


The Extraordinary Legion of Dancers, LXD, were extraordinary indeed.

LXD received the most enthusiastic standing ovation at TED 2010 yet.

Though without the impact of a live performance, you can see for yourself:

When I dance, I want people to question the reality of what they’re seeing. ~ Madd Chadd

Game designer Jane McGonigal delivered some staggering statistics on gaming: Since World of Warcraft launched, we’ve spent 5.33 million years solving it; to put this in time perspective, 5.33 million years ago, the first humans stood up.

In the game world, we become the best version of ourselves. ~Jane McGonigal

Today’s kids, McGonigal pointed out, spend some 10,000 hours gaming by the time they turn 21. At the same time, the average child with perfect attendance spends 10,800 hours in school by graduation — so there’s a parallel “education” going on. She advocates for using social games as something bigger than escapism from reality — a cultural advancement tool putting gamers’ problem-solving talents to work. She demoes World Without Oil, a collaborative social game made in 2007.

Ancient dice made out of sheep's knuckles, invented in Libya, are world's first recorded gaming device.

McGonigal premieres Urgent Evoke, a game developed in partnership with the World Bank. If you complete it, you get certified by the World Bank as “social innovator”.

Music icon David Byrne, a cultural hero of ours.

Byrne says people in 19th-century opera houses used to yell at each other just like they did at CBGB's in the 70's.

Photosynth mastermind Blaise Aguera y Arcas demoes some remarkable Augmented Reality technologies using Microsoft's Bing

Inventor Gary Lauder says energy efficiency is about more than just vehicles: It's also about the road. He points out that converting a traffic light into a roundabout -- something well-adopted in Europe, but tragically scarce here in the US -- reduces accidents by 40%. He proposes a new hybrid sign that blends a Stop sign and a Yield one.

In the developing world, 10-50% of vaccines spoil before delivery. Kids die. ~Nathan Myhrvold

Polymath Nathan Myhrvold delivers some known but still chilling statistics about malaria — it sickens 250 million people a year; every 43 seconds a child in Africa dies — and demonstrates a radical new way of fighting the disease: By laser-blasting infected mosquitoes.

Myhrvold orchestrates an incredible on-stage demonstration, wherein a mosquito is shot by a laser beam in a glass tank.

We've stitched together the slow-motion sequence of the mosquito blast. Click the image to look closer.


Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird, amazing as usual.

Stephen Wolfram, creator of revolutionary semantic search engine Wolfram|Alpha, argues raw computation combined with built-in knowledge changes the economics of the web and democratizes programming. He talks about the principle of computational equivalence — the idea that even incredibly simple systems can do complex computation.

Wolfram says you don't have to go very far in the computational universe to start finding candidate universes for our own.

For the first time, Microsoft Labs’ revolutionary Pivot software is availble for the world to tinker with.

MacArthur genius fellow Mark Roth admits he didn’t know what TED was until Chris invited him to talk, but we quickly forgive him after hearing his incredible — literally — and surprisingly grounded sci-fiish work in “suspended animation,” a slowing life process and makes a living being appear dead without harming, then reanimates it. In layman’s terms, resurrection.

The amazing TED Fellows are a mind-blowingly multi-talented group, working in anything from crowdsourced citizen journalism to e-waste management to humanitarian documentary film-making.

For live coverage of today’s and and tomorrow’s TED talks, follow us on Twitter. And keep an eye on the TED website as the first of this year’s talks begin being uploaded.

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