Thursday, October 15, 2009

the eros of multitouch

When Apple Inc. bought Fingerworks in 2005 nobody noticed so much, but that relatively small acquisition represented a crucial bridge crossed on the long, strange trip toward true intimacy with our machines.

Fingerworks brought multitouch into the Apple fold, and changed the point-and-click metaphor forever. Multitouch lets us tickle that perfectly smooth glass face to massage information in and out of the machine. Lots of companies implement multitouch now in different forms and flavors, but Apple blasted it into the mainstream with the iPhone.

Now there are tens of millions of opportunities to watch spidery fingers manipulate maps or 3d objects across that magical little tablet, probing and caressing their devices to coax responses from them.

It's more intimate than fingering strings or a keyboard, or driving a car or working with even the most subtle and precise types of hand tools. There is little frustration in it, since its subtleties are quickly and naturally learned. Like running one's fingers in small, gentle circles along the skin of an unfamiliar breast or other sensitive anatomical focus, the response is not initially predictable but once experienced is riveting and unforgettable.

Haptic and tactile feedback are coming, further intensifying the sensuality of the humachine. We'll feel its response and it will keep getting better at feeling ours.

All of it would seem pretty creepy if we weren't so involved and committed to this direction already. If we were looking in from 1950, say, or 1850, or from any place or time comparatively primitive we would stare open-mouthed and speechless at this unnatural spectacle of machines seducing their way into our bodies and brains.

We're often numbed to the most profound experiences while we're actively participating in them. It all just seems more ordinary and obvious while we're doing it than when we were fantasizing about it beforehand. Or afterward. So consider it a little, at least now and then. Watch the evidence accumulate. We're handing ourselves over to the machines, and while it's fun and novel and convenient and smart and even sort of erotic sometimes - the speed and inevitability of it should be unsettling.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


CitySourced may actually be the Urban Defects concept made kinetic. Hope so. Looks like a good start in any case. The founder's blog suggests there will be palm pre, blackberry and iphone apps running by winter, which will be vital for making the reporting and uptake component of the initiative work.

Many miles to travel still before such a system even begins to hint at an exhaustive asset accountability inventory - where reporting for any burnt out lightbulb or tagged wall is accurately brokered to the actionable owner or custodian. But CitySourced at least seems to comprehend this as a goal and be taking steps in that direction.

You will note that this initiative is not rising out of government. Crowdsourcing defects and routing them toward remedy is right smack in the middle of the government mandate, yet here it comes, springing from the happy pairing of tech and informed do-goodery, from the private side, energized by perceived need, disruptive vigor, and the whiff of possible profitability lurking somewhere downstream. And uncorrupted in its mission by even a single tax dollar.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

human containment and the 11th tablet

Human population growth, of course, is the core urban defect. The defect isn't that there are cities, or big ones. Really, most of us should be living in cities - urban existence is essential to the human experience. No, the problem is that there are already more than enough of us to fill enough cities, and we don't have sufficient self control to stop making more.

Here in 2009 the informed consensus is that world population tops off around 10 billion by the middle of this century and begins settling back from there. This isn't a generally held belief, and may not play out quite so predictably. But given that our population is 15x larger than it was in 1500, it should come as welcome news that a plateau is in sight.

But wait. Ten billion? Isn't that number a bit, um, heavy by any kind of objective assessment?

It would be responsible, kind of adult, if we had some target in mind - some ballpark sense of an appropriate human quantity we'd like creeping over the earth's surface at any given time. In a perfect world, I mean. Just as a benchmark. Crazy talk, right? Crazy to even suggest some sense of limit and load balancing of our raw numbers. But it would be a good exercise, wouldn't it?

Perhaps we could bang around on the stats, talk publicly amongst ourselves, discuss, debate, make maps, then maybe let the dust settle and start naming four billion, or three billion, or one billion as a target to get down to.

Think of the pressure this would take out of the system. Think of the relief this would introduce for food security and energy use. And if you look a few generations forward, encouraging small family sizes, nucleating our settlements more sensibly, it could be strikingly easy.

Think of the terror in the corporate, grow-or-die gerbilwheel mindset this would engender until the concept of technical and cultural evolution without numerical increase became internalized into our overall day-to-day operations. The horror.

So it would be a challenge. It is a challenge. But the current situation is embarrassing, a farsical failure of self control, a massive incontinence that's destabilizing global climate and extincting thousands of animal and plant species.

Humor me a little more though. Think about the situation this way: Imagine that a higher intelligence - let's call it God, for lack of a better name - imagine God wants to hand a great secret over to humanity. He's getting old and just has to unburden himself. This is the natural order of things, an event that's been in the works for a long time. And God wants to bequeath this gift, let's call it the Eleventh Tablet, as an earned inheritance to humanity. It requires a lot of control though - it's a heap of responsibility to bear and God won't just dump it into the clumsy paws of some young bungler. He has no wish to pass the secret to a reckless, hormonally drunk teenager. In fact, he can't. The very act of the hand-off requires incredibly stable hands on the part of the recipient (on God's part too, and old age is starting to make him more than a little shaky).

On one side there's humanity, uncontrolled and undisciplined, incapable of getting its shit together; on the other is God, straining against age and patience to hang on to the Eleventh Tablet a little longer until his understudy settles down. But God's still dealing with this hot headed kid who has immortality delusions and spends all day drinking beers and dreaming about getting laid.

What's God gonna do? Will he hand the secret over? Or will he die still clutching it, break the chain, and let humanity sink back into the swamp?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

hello world

So the Singularity University will soon open in Nasa Research Park at Moffett Field.
Singularity University will bring students together from around the world to study subjects like nanotechnology, biotechnology, human enhancements and artificial intelligence to see how the technologies can work together.
Noble copy. The actual point is to study, possibly inflect, and likely accelerate our hand off of human hegemony to the machines. The uncomfortable truth that Kurzweil and the Singulirsity folks know is that all of civilization past and current is just the larval singularity, our inevitable and accelerating arc toward the post human future. And the chrysalis is about to open. Course you can't say that in lay company without getting dismissed as Hollywood-handicapped or science fiction addled. Yet.

The Singularity is sometimes referred to as the "geek rapture," which is apt, as it represents a kind of millennial threshold for the tech-obsessed. But despite all of the engineering and technology grinding its way in the direction of machine intelligence and autonomy, nothing close to a consensus has emerged regarding what the situation will look like when the machine actually wakes up.

It is worth worrying about, or at least wondering, why it remains impossible to see even the rough outlines of what is supposedly getting so close.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

economic nationalism

Here's one I can't figure out, Mr President. Perhaps you can help:

If we're gonna spend $800B more to stimulate the American economy, perhaps there should be a bit of "containment" enacted to make sure that money doesn't just rush out of the coffers of the US treasury through the hands of grab-happy American consumers and into the pockets of Chinese gadget manufacturers and Saudi oil gluttons. Because even though global economics is fiercely complex, one simple fact is easy to convey and hard to dispute: the longer the cash sloshes around in the US economy and avoids slipping out past the borders, the more any benefits of a stimulus will be amplified.

And there are creative ways of making this happen too. Infrastructure and technology projects can be restricted from using foreign contractors (even though they are so much cheaper), money can be doled out in large, targeted dollops (rather than pissed away in millions of meaningless dribbles to undisciplined individuals), disbursements can be focused toward areas where the US economy has the tools and talent to do the work itself.

But see, this is where I get confused. Because if a strategy like this were to work - if the government actually did the due diligence to find effective ways to keep the dollars here rather than sending them abroad, then the rest of the exporting world - that outside world feeding itself on America's hemorrhaging treasury - would grow angry and antagonistic. Economic nationalism would divide the world, elevate tensions and threaten peace, even while it made us locally richer in the short term.

Thus, an ugly impasse. We can't possibly elevate the overall global living standard with exported American affluence. Certainly not now. Even though most of the world thinks we can. But if we act responsibly in our own local interest we'll infuriate our neighbors and end up cultivating enemies.

It's a tough one all right. But the idea of spending all this money to just vaguely hope that good things are going to happen on a grand scale - wow - that's embarrassing. I hope you're not thinking along those lines, Sir.