Lecture series by Ted Nelson (updated)

Are you a Dummy, naive and gullible?
If so, there are thousands of books for
the likes of you.  Go elsewhere, and
drink in the lies called “computer basics”.

But if you are a clever and sophisticated
person who wants to know the real story
of how the computer world works, you
may enjoy some of the insights I present
in this brief series.

• Computers for Cynics 0  - The Myth of Technology

• Computers for Cynics 1 – The Nightmare of Files and Directories

• Computers for Cynics 2 – It All Went Wrong at Xerox PARC

• Computers for Cynics 3 – The Database Mess

• Computers for Cynics 4 – The Dance of Apple and Microsoft

• Computers for Cynics 5 – Hyperhistory

• Computers for Cynics 6 – The Real Story of the World Wide Web

• Computers for Cynics N – CLOSURE: Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain


Xanadu: the Musical


Went to see Xanadu: the Musical with Ted Nelson, his partner Marlene and Andrew Pam (Nelson’s friend and longtime collaborator) last night. The performance was about a greek muse called Kira who inspires a young man to build an 80′s themed rollerskating rink that “contains all the arts”. This big disco skatepark would house singing, dancing, music and all the “inspiration that left the arts in the 80′s”. The big business bloke who is meant to fund the skating rink hesitates though as it wouldn’t make money. Then Kira the Greek muse appears and he decides to realise the dream. It’s like they wrote this play specifically for Nelson – it even had a recitation of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan at the end. I think Nelson got a bit teary at the end but it could have just been the light.

Privacy is “unrealistic” in this day and age – Google

I know I’m a little over-obsessed with Google, but this is really because they are light years ahead when it comes to personalisation, search and location-based services – or combinations of these, like Google Maps and Google Earth. There’s an article in The Age today about a recent US court case concerning Google Maps. A federal judge has ruled against a US couple who accused Google of invading their privacy by publishing a Street View picture of their house in the Internet giant’s free online map service. The pictures are certainly very detailed, and taken from a private road by the house.

The reason Google won? They argued that an expectation of privacy concerning pictures of houses or yards is unrealistic in this age of aerial and satellite imagery. Is privacy becoming unrealistic?

Personalised media flows

One of the most famous media scholars of our era, Raymond Williams, came up with the concept of ‘flow’ in the mid 70′s to describe the sequence of content on broadcast television (shows, trailers, advertisments, previews, movies, whatever else the station programmer throws in). Williams thought that the sequence should be understood as a composite, a distinct emotional and psychological experience, a ‘single irresponsible flow of images and feelings’ (Williams 2003, p.92). ‘Flow’ has since become one of the most powerful critical concepts in film and television studies. I think the idea is still useful to us, but that we have entered an era of content personalization; there is not one, but literally millions of media flows, assembled or aggregated for each individual. Increasingly, digital content is produced on demand based on your current location; it is shaped by your social network and what they are recommending; it is predicted based on your personal Google search history or what you’ve been writing about in your webmail account. This personalized flow is substantially different from the early web, where content did not change based on the user’s purchasing history or social network; personalization was confined to choosing which links to follow or what to download.I think we need a term to describe the fact that we are all consuming different content, and that this content is increasingly being assembled and delivered to us based on our personal preferences/browsing history/social network.

Life as a form of memory

I’m reading a book by the moment called ‘The Unifnished Universe’ by Louise Young, a science writer and former physicist. The book offers a theory of order, growth, change, and life in the universe. She tackles the theory of entropy – that the universe is running down and becoming disordered: she argues that there are ‘opposing’ forces that create more complex, highly organized, and efficient forms of matter at the same time – one of these forces is life. In a very elegant way, she argues that life is about preservation of form over time. For organisms this takes place through that most primary form of writing, DNA. We reproduce and evolve over generations, and the forms of life seem to grow ever more complex. Does this mean that life is a form of memory in a chaotic universe? I am interested in memory, particularly how human beings preserve knowledge and culture in material artefacts (for example, books and Boeing 747s).

The author is obviously a Christian, and although most of the book just explains the science, she does imply in parts that this creative force needs a reason, and this reason must be God. I have always seen this last step as unnecessary: there is incredibly beauty and creativity in the universe as it is, without positing a supernatural agent. As Darwin put it at the end of Origin of Species, ‘There is grandeur in this view of life…whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’. Anyway, this book is beautiful and for the most part explains some very difficult contemporary science and physics with clarity and lucidity.

Mobile media – what makes it distinct?

What is it that makes mobile devices distinct from computers as a medium? Obviously there is a convergence of the two in the form of smartphones, but there is also a divergence: in the way that people use the devices, and also in the way that content is delivered. People use mobiles on the move: when they access web content they are after information ‘snacks’ – little pieces to consume on the train, at the bustop, in a boring meeting. Nobody reads a feature article on a mobile phone, and we don’t seem interested in watching TV either, as Robert Andrews observes on moconews. But I think there is another, deeper difference: it is much easier to personalise content on a mobile device. In fact I think this is the key difference between mobile and other mediums at present. Mobiles enable us to deliver content that is relevant to people based on where they are geographically, what they have been interested in previously, and what their friends may be doing. I see a future where content is entirely personalised on mobile devices, and not just advertising, as Paz Saavendra suggests in her article on mobile advertising and personalisation. The benefits of customising data extend far beyond advertising. If you only have two minutes on the bus to go online and grab some info about the place you are heading for, then the more customised and ‘smart’ the content delivered to you, the less effort is required on your part. What makes mobile media distinct? I think it has a lot to do with the potential for customisation, particularly to location.

Camera phones, perpetual surveillance and the ‘event’

My colleague at Swinburne Lisa Gye gave a presentation recently on citizen journalism and mobile camera phones. She pointed out that mobile photos have an aura of authenticity about them because they are taken on the run, a ‘moment captured’. In Australia as in many other parts of the world, most of the population carry mobile phones – so we have a situation where lots of people have cameras in their pocket now, ready to capture a news event. This makes me think about perpetual surveillance: does the fact that we have millions of citizens armed with cameras change the way we behave? Foucalt claimed that people change their behaviour when they know they are being observed. How does mobile photography change the event it captures? I have been wondering for a while how mobile phones might shape or change our behaviour.

There have been many stories in the press about events which were actually staged for a phone (I can only think of the recent dreadful example of the rape of a teenager). But I think that even ‘everyday’ events are quite often staged for a mobile phone: when you take a short video of a friend for example, it must be a short, simple grab; the actor must turn and address the lens, the message must be simplified for its recipient. This means the life events we record are (at least in part) produced by the mobile device.

Mobile devices also have material limits that influence the events they capture: for example, a mobile screen is necessarily small (between 1 and 3″ for phones, up to 4″ for PDAs and Pocket PC), and video is comparatively hard to compress and expensive to receive, even on high-end 3G devices. So the material limits of the phone impact the recording. Mnemotechnics are never innocent; they shape the event they capture.

The politics of aggregation

I’ve been trying to get some critical purchase on personalisation for some time now. Essentially, I think the subject needs more attention. Cass Sunstein has written extensively on it, and some of his criticisms are valid on a commonsense level – but they are not particularly useful if we wish to develop a critical culture in relation to personalized media. Sunstein is mourning the death of the Fourth Estate, the passing of traditional news media platforms. His books and articles read like a eulogy for a bygone era, an era where people had a common news platform. I think a critical culture would begin by acknowledging that aggregation is a form of production in the same sense as editing a newspaper or a programming a radio show, and that it consequently involves selectivity – in other words, a politics. It’s just that aggregation is usually done by a software agent, not a human being – so we forget this crucial step of selection and assembly. When you visit a personalized news portal, a software aggregator has decided in advance which articles matter and which dont – this is precisely why it is convenient.

The term ‘personalisation’ has been used to describe all manner of things from downloading a wallpaper to customizing your cellphone. I’m going to define what I mean, and distinguish it from ‘customisation’. True personalisation is when digital content has been aggregated for you, based on who you are, where you are, or what you are interested in at the time. In other words, it is different for every single individual; pieces of content have been selected and assembled for you, and preferably delivered to your device. This also means that aggregation is a key first step in personalisation – so if we are to understand the cultural effects of personalisation I think we also need to understand aggregation.