Monday, August 27, 2007

invisible thingyness

There's some chatter in the blathersphere at the moment concerning what the internet is now. Russell Davies suggests it's is more of a thing now and less of a service. Mark Cuban has rubbed a few people the wrong way saying the internet is dead and boring.

I have a cocktail of opinions:

1. Current discussions don't seem to acknowledge that there is no absolute perception of the internet. In parts of the developed world, for instance, when the only way you can "use" the internet is by walking five miles and paying a week's wages for it, then it's definitely a 'thing'. To a Hoxtonite blogging in a hotel bar, the internet is taken for granted.

2. There needs to be some distinction between 'the internet' and its applications and sites. "The internet" itself doesn't need new innovations, just as air does not need new innovations in order for new ideas to thrive in the physical world. Maybe a clever coder can tell me otherwise.

3. I see the internet almost as another sense/dimension: An empty channel for information exchange - defined only by what passes through it. I'm sure Mark Cuban wouldn't call "sight" dead and boring. We might however, agree that the novelty of seeing has worn off - at least until we see something new and incredible. (The term 'internet access' is a bit peculiar now too, as it's not really the internet we are accessing - just as looking at a picture isn't eye-access)

I disagree with Cuban's argument in its headline form, although I appreciate that the fabric of our lives isn't being constantly re-woven (perhaps gradually dyed) with current innovations. However, there are some very exciting and playful new experiments being explored.

Onto the sticky bit.
Davies made two comments that initially appeared to contradict one another, but which probably do work together after all: 'it's more of a thing' and 'soon we won't mention it at all'. I've been racking my brain over this question of whether the internet is solidifying or becoming more invisible. And actually, I think both are true...

I disagree that the internet is more of a commodity (in the west) because wireless is on its way to blanketing the developed world - and Russell is right, we won't be mentioning it at all soon. AOL etc will milk the last few years of charging for "unlimited downloads!!!"

But the concept of 'thingyness' - to quote Michael Frayn - takes us into philosophical places that my brain is too tiny to go. I'll just paddle lightly:

The internet was arguably more of a 'thing' at the very beginning, when we needed to reduce a seemingly abstract idea to a pocket-size concept. At that time it was interpreted by many as 'the thing you do email with', but a thing none-the-less.

It would seem to make sense that as the number of things we do with the internet increases its thingyness should become less tangible. It's now many things! But maybe the point is that in the beginning it was the internet's infinite 'possibilities' that led us to make it a thing and now it is its infinite 'uses' that overload our brains and require us to distil it once more.

So the internet is 'the great invisible thing' (that won't be going into Wikipedia any time soon) - a technological apparition, both everywhere, nowhere, tangible and limitless. Helpful? Maybe not, but this invisible thingyness leads neatly onto a thought I had recently:

The internet is like water.

Broadband is running water.
Dial-up is a well.
Wi-fi zones are expensive bottled water: irritatingly convenient but a bad use of money.
Internet cafes are warm, bottled tap water.

You only notice water/the internet when you don't have it.

In the developed world, you don't ask someone if they have running water - you assume they do and use it without thinking "I just used this tap (laptop/iPhone)".
In parts of the developing world you might expect that running water is less common and that the well could be a long walk away.

The metaphor falls down (ok, amongst other places I'm sure) when you consider that we need water to survive. Although people in the west would argue this is true of the internet. But I think it's an interesting metaphor to attach the internet's invisible thingyness to in order to temporarily relieve us from the metaphysical.

Oh - and the internet also shares water's boiling point of one thousand degrees:

And when the world is one big wi-fi zone? Well maybe then we can all stop talking about the internet completely. It would be very sad however, if this happened before the same could be said for running water.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 20, 2007

more cars = less traffic?

I've been a member of car-sharing service, Streetcar in the UK for over a year. It's great. Owning a car in London is really a luxury and the service is so cheap I've been a passionate ambassador for it.

A couple of months ago I noticed that US-based zipcar had also recently started up in London. This immediately got under my skin. Having a single car-share service in a city has a great opportunity to reduce the number of cars on the roads, the number of parking spaces needed etc etc. This benefits a huge number of people - it's a cultural improvement. Indeed, zipcar's homepage reads:

"Imagine a nation with a million fewer cars on the road... we do"

And yet they're putting more cars on the roads!

While I'm all for consumer choice and all against corporate monopolies, I think zipcar's move appears a little irresponsible and inward-looking. What if Flexcar opened there too? And a host of others after that? It would completely negate the purpose of the thought.

This kind of thing highlights how companies' interest in eco-friendly ideas so often seems to be about them and not about the environment at all.

If zipcar thinks genuinely that a second car-share company (I.e. more cars) will still lead to "less cars" then I'd like to see a more honest communication: One that acknowledges the presence of Streetcar; one that shows some numbers and perhaps that proposes a campaign to ensure that the number of cars is reduced (I.e. Encourage potential consumers to sell their existing cars to zipcar).

In other words: It should acknowledge the world beyond its own goals.

Am I being over-sensitive? Does anyone share the view that this "our brand is the centre of everything" approach is misplaced when the proposal concerns the bigger picture?

Labels: , ,

Friday, August 17, 2007

conditions apply

I get freakishly excited by the potential of combining digital and 'real' elements to create new experiences. Like Microsoft Surface's physical-digital foreplay below.

I just read about EA games' new NCAA 08 Football, which cleverly features realtime weather from

"From a snowstorm in Boston to a heat wave in Arizona, the exact environment will not only affect the visuals but also alter game dynamics."


And got me thinking about where else this kind of technology could go. If you link to realtime conditions then in theory gamers could play against people at the actual location. Imagine a surfing video game where video gamers could compete with real surfers at the location with the same conditions.

OK, still weather.
How about playing poker with people in an actual Vegas casino. Absent players play remotely through the video game and as the cards are dealt in the casino it registers in the game.

I feel like we need a new word to describe this interplay between real world conditions and digital interaction. Any ideas?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

write stuff

* Here's Davies' thing. And remember Miranda July's lovely example?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

the wall

I've been amused recently at the traces left when etiquettes (or lack of them) collide between meatspace and the online world. I've been collecting screen grabs of comments and announcements that paint a picture of this new world and thought I'd share some.

The first is a list of comments under a Wired article. Advertisers, be warned. AT&T had created a pop-up ad before the article and every comment was an attack on the network. Nice reminder that a 'comment' button is an open invitation.

Next is a grab of three consecutive posts on Myspace by members commenting on the winning short film for the My Movie Mash-up initiative. We've seen this before, but I thought its juxtaposition between two genuine comments was amusing - even more so for the bad grammar. Imagine these as verbal contributions in a live panel at a film festival.

My third example is a Facebook feed. I still haven't adjusted to the way every tiny detail of people's lives is broadcast. This is a couple I know that decided between themselves that after probably 6 months together they were no longer just 'casually' seeing each other. To the rest of us the transition was invisible and fairly incidental; their behaviour was the same. But in the age of Facebook, every incremental change is a Bloomberg-style bulletin. Weird. And I love that I have the option to share the news, just in case someone on the Internet didn't see it. Oh, I've done this now.

Finally, an example of a sub-culture that I'm sure you've seen in posting columns. Teenagers (presumably) crave being the first to make a comment - so much so that the comment itself becomes an unnecessary obstacle. I've had this idea for a while that online comment boards are the new graffiti - I guess a whitewashed wall is the most prized canvas.

I'd love to hear from Meathammer. Or anyone else that other interesting examples of this kind of thing.

Monday, August 13, 2007

chat central

Commenting on Noah Brier's Facebook discussion reminded me of a thought I had recently. There's a growing number of online content providers that allow viewers to interact around the content. I.e. Joost viewers can chat about the shows they're watching together. This is a no-brainer. It ensures that no experience cuts its user off from possible 'live' interaction - but even more: that the piece of content becomes the focal point for interaction.

My suggestion on Noah's blog was that the next evolutionary step for a 'social network' that wants to be the centre of its users' universe would be to create a web browser so ALL online activity was initiated within the community.

I love the idea of flipping things around. Instead of creating content around which people could chat, we build a dynamic chatting application that could connect to any content.

We've all experienced IM-ing a friend whilst browsing the web; posting URLs backwards and forwards etc. But why should the chat window be isolated from the rest of your experience? If not a browser then what about a simple, dynamic chat portal where right-clicking on any link, picture or quote could share the snapshot instantly with a friend at the same time as opening a pop-up chat-window. The conversation follows the content - not the other way around. Seems crazy that an IM app hasn't tried to evolve into a browser already.

Is there anything like this out there? Am I enough of a geek to think of this but not enough of a geek to have spotted a flaw in this concept?

Thursday, August 09, 2007


I went to see The Shapes Of Space at the Guggenheim on Saturday. After studying art for years and learning how to post-rationalise (read: bullshit) I have developed into a tainted and infrequent appreciator of gallery art. I liken my gallery visits to thumbing through the clothes in a thrift store. If I go through enough shit I might find a gem.

The gem for me at TSOS was the work of Yuken Teruya, who cleverly made cuts into paper bags to sculpt little trees that appeared to grow inside them. I managed to take these pictures of a Happy Meal shrub before being told off for using a camera:

You can see more of Teruya's work here.

I've seen other examples of clever paper-crafting recently, but what makes this stand out is that two tree shapes were cut out, folded down and twisted together to make 3-dimensional forms.

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 06, 2007

is ted the best site on the internet?

The likeliness is that you too have bookmarked I discovered it last year and haven't looked back. Endless talks from the world's most interesting people. Free.

If anyone knows of a better source for inspiration and knowledge please tell me.

Friday, August 03, 2007

the science of passive pleasure

Earlier on, while checking out, I was reminded how much more I enjoy music when it's not me that initiates it. You must have experienced the same thing: a song is played at work - a song you own but never listen to - and you find yourself really enjoying it. It almost sounds different, even new!
Apple smartly hijacked this thought with its iPod shuffle, but what is the secret behind the randomness? And do opportunities extend beyond music?

Pondering this, I was reminded of Jeff Hawkin's On Intelligence, a book I've mentioned before, which attempts to unravel the workings of the human brain. Hawkins offers enlightening thoughts on the relationship between action and perception. He suggests that for all intents and purposes, motor commands can be seen as our sixth sense:
"There are no pure sensory or pure motor areas in the cortex. Sensory patterns simultaneously flow in anywhere and everywhere -- and then flow back down any area of the hierachy, leading to predictions or motor behavior. Although the motor cortex has some special attributes, it is correct to think of it as just part of one large hierarchical memory system. It's almost like another sense. Seeing, hearing, touching and acting are profoundly intertwined."
Seeing motor commands as a sixth sense goes a long way to explaining why self-initiated stimulus could differ so much from the exact same sensory input when initiated by another force. To put it simply, 'doing' is a part of 'feeling'.

This helps us to understand, for example, why passive music consumption can breathe new life into an old song. The very act of selecting and playing a song confines us to auto-associative memories of it. When it plays without warning we are freed from our own predictions to enjoy it very differently.

There are other simple examples where sensory input is very different - often magnified - when we do not initiate them ourselves: When someone else tickles us; when an old movie is played unexpectedly in a bar; eating a meal cooked by a friend.

As our level of consciousness develops and while we tire of being able to have 'anything, any time, anywhere', I think there is more and more need for these unpredictable experiences. What opportunities are there for brands? Restaurants without menus? Nike runs that don't share the course beforehand? New clothes you don't see until you get home?

I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on existing examples or potential ones.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

design to (not) die for

This site is shamefully short of strong visual stimulus (although, thank you Google Images). So I thought I'd point to friend, Diddo Velema's great Designer Gas mask project he's been working on. Fantastic images. Can't wait to see the fashion shoots.

Labels: ,