Elsewhere

Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.

— Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices

(via buzz)

The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. It’s the equivalent of the dream time, in your daily life, times when things get sorted out and reshuffled. If you’re constantly awake work-wise you don’t allow that to happen. One of the reasons I have to take distinct breaks when I work is to allow the momentum of a particular direction to run down, so that another one can establish itself.

- Brian Eno, cited by Eric Tamm in Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Sound Of Color

I try to take walks everyday, to let the world wash over me and wipe out work thoughts for a while.

The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. It’s the equivalent of the dream time, in your daily life, times when things get sorted out and reshuffled. If you’re constantly awake work-wise you don’t allow that to happen. One of the reasons I have to take distinct breaks when I work is to allow the momentum of a particular direction to run down, so that another one can establish itself.

- Brian Eno, cited by Eric Tamm in Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Sound Of Color

I try to take walks everyday, to let the world wash over me and wipe out work thoughts for a while.

Messiness At Scale

I stumbled onto a hilarious but unenlightening Twitter flame war instigated by Dave Winer — the Godfather of RSS — in response to MG Siegler’s 'RSS is dead' wisecrack.

At the risk of putting my fingers in the sausage machine, let me add a touch of nuance:

  • RSS has declined in use, as web heads shift their source of ‘things to read’ away from RSS readers — like Google Reader — to tools like Twitter and Flipboard.
  • The role of RSS in web infrastructure is being threatened by non-RSS based architectures, like Flipboard’s. That product ignores RSS and fetches through the URL to get directly at images, text, and other content.

Winer is ideologically opposed to closed, proprietary approaches like that of Twitter (or, by extension, of Flipboard):

Dave Winer, What I mean by “the open web”

Anyway, here’s what I meant by “open web.”

I meant not in a corporate blogging silo.

If I put stuff in Twitter, the only way to get it out is through a heavily regulated and always-changing API. It will change a lot in the coming months and years. It will certainly narrow more than it expands. I feel very confident in predicting this, because I understand where Twitter is going.

If you put stuff in Facebook, it’s even more silo’d than it is in Twitter.

However, if you put stuff in WordPress, even on wordpress.com, you have full fluidity. You are not silo’d. You can get data in and out using widely-supported APIs that are implemented by Drupal, Movable Type, TypePad, etc etc. At least there’s some compatibility. And in a pinch you could probably move your content to a static website and have it be useful.

If you write in static HTML and RSS, you’re very portable, there will be no lock-in at all.

So to the extent you’re locked in, that’s the extent you are not on the open web. The perfectly open web has zero lock-in. The silos are totally locked-in and therefore not on the open web.

Winer’s complaints are about control of our content: that we should be able to easily manage what we write. It’s a political argument. 

But his points fly in the face of innovation, where a Twitter or Quora or Facebook create very different — and not solitary — models of open social discourse, which need to be managed in ways that are different from old school blogging. It’s not every man for himself, anymore. Time is a shared resource on today’s web: our time is not our own, anymore. And that’s largely good.

I liken this problem to the trade offs inherent in living in large cities versus towns or the country. There’s more noise, bigger crowds, and longer lines at the DMV: more things that we can’t control, or where our control is restricted, relative to folks living in bucolic Des Moines.

Only in cities we get superlinear scaling, as Geoffrey West and his colleagues have shown:

Jonah Lehrer, A Physicist Turns the City Into an Equation

When a superlinear equation is graphed, it looks like the start of a roller coaster, climbing into the sky. The steep slope emerges from the positive feedback loop of urban life — a growing city makes everyone in that city more productive, which encourages more people to move to the city, and so on. According to West, these superlinear patterns demonstrate why cities are one of the single most important inventions in human history. They are the idea, he says, that enabled our economic potential and unleashed our ingenuity. “When we started living in cities, we did something that had never happened before in the history of life,” West says. “We broke away from the equations of biology, all of which are sublinear. Every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating. There is no equivalent for this in nature. It would be like finding an elephant that’s proportionally faster than a mouse.

I maintain that Twitter, Facebook, and other ‘closed’ systems are really something else: they are dense and complex social systems, more like modern cities than Web 1.0 publishing platforms. And, like cities, there is more going on, less being controlled by specifications like RSS, and the food is better, the music is better, and there is more dangerous sex taking place.

Brian Eno uses the term ‘scenius’ to define the quality of the great cities, their ability to foster deep shared understanding and purpose for large networks of people. This collective intellect arises from messiness at scale, not carefully mediated and clearly defined standards. 

Said differently, the best food comes from cities with the highest number of health code violations, and the best art is produced where the largest number of building code infractions are found.

So, if you are looking for clean bathrooms and no traffic jams, stay in Iowa. But it is in cities — dense, loud, unplanned, messy — where the breakthroughs emerge.

Getting back to the specific case, here, let’s look at Flipboard. Flipboard rejects the use of neat-and-tidy RSS, and reaches through the URLs it finds in Twitter to directly paw the text, images, and links placed into articles and posts, and then it chooses what to display based on a proprietary algorithm inside the guts of the app, not based on the publisher’s RSS specification. 

Flipboard, Twitter, and other dense, complex social tools create a messier world, one that has superlinear scale. The tradeoff between complete ‘openness’ (or individual control of information and its experience) and superlinear social density is one I am willing to make. And so are all the users of these tools, or should I say, residents of these cities?

West Coast v East Coast Tech Scene Mudslinging

Antonio at Adgrok collates a grab bag of reasons as to why NYC isn’t as good a place for (tech) start-ups, but forgets a few keypoints: NYC is the world center for finance, entertainment, art, and media circles, while the Bay Area is the center of its own circle. Silicon Valley was originally the outgrowth of government funding for Standford, and later for the development of the semiconductor industry. The rest just happened because the VCs and established companies were there. So, once VCs and established tech companies exist in NYC — which we are seeing — we can expect similar results.

I lived in SF halftime for five years and I was struck by how insular the tech scene is. Perhaps my disaffection was personal, or I am simply more of an east coast guy. But I think New York is the place where the most social scenes intersect, here in America. It has what Brian Eno calls scenius, the communal form of genius, in abundance. True, SF has its own scenius as well, but it is narrower, more tech-obsessed, and less international than NYC’s.

The fact that Antonio doesn’t give that a value higher than low-cost housing is a sign of some of what is wrong in the Bay Area these days.

And trying to diss NYC’s food offerings is laughable. But I agree about Katz’s Deli making a great pastrami.

In a blinding flash of inspiration, the other day I realized that “interactive” anything is the wrong word. Interactive makes you imagine people sitting with their hands on controls, some kind of gamelike thing. The right word is “unfinished.” Think of cultural products, or art works, or the people who use them even, as being unfinished. Permanently unfinished. We come from a cultural heritage that says things have a “nature,” and that this nature is fixed and describable. We find more and more that this idea is insupportable - the “nature” of something is not by any means singular, and depends on where and when you find it, and what you want it for. The functional identity of things is a product of our interaction with them. And our own identities are products of our interaction with everything else. Now a lot of cultures far more “primitive” than ours take this entirely for granted - surely it is the whole basis of animism that the universe is a living, changing, changeable place. Does this make clearer why I welcome that African thing? It’s not nostalgia or admiration of the exotic - it’s saying, Here is a bundle of ideas that we would do well to learn from.

Brian Eno, Wired interview, 1995

via underpaidgenius John Borthwick

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