Bruce Sterling on the idea of Google as a collective intelligence

This is not an especially new thought, but Sterling does have a way with words (correction: see link below for his actual words):

The original sin of geekdom is to think that just because you can think algorithmically and impose it on a machine that this is disembodied intelligence. That is just rules-based machine behavior. Just code being executed. Sure it's an art and science. Calling it intelligence is dehumanizing. It makes you look delusional, sad and pathetic. It's like being an old woman whose only friends are cats. Also, collective intelligence is not your friend. Just as markets aren't your friend. They'll jerk you around.

The quote paraphrase is from a speech he gave about Web 2.0, reported by Annalee Newitz at io9: Why does Bruce Sterling hate web 2.0?

Update: What Bruce Sterling actually said about Web 2.0, a transcript posted by the man himself.

Rapture for the geeks

A new book about the singularity, this one by novelist Richard Dooling: Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ. From the publisher description:

In this fascinating, entertaining, and illuminating book, Dooling looks
at what some of the greatest minds have to say about our role in a
future in which technology rapidly leaves us in the dust. As Dooling
writes, comparing human evolution to technological evolution is “worse
than apples and oranges: It’s appliances versus orangutans.” Is the era
of Singularity, when machines outthink humans, almost upon us? Will we
be enslaved by our supercomputer overlords, as many a sci-fi writer has
wondered? Or will humans live lives of leisure with computers doing all
the heavy lifting?

With antic wit, fearless prescience, and
common sense, Dooling provocatively examines nothing less than what it
means to be human in what he playfully calls the age of b.s. (before
Singularity)—and what life will be like when we are no longer alone
with Mother Nature at Darwin’s card table. Are computers thinking and
feeling if they can mimic human speech and emotions? Does processing
capability equal consciousness? What happens to our quaint beliefs
about God when we’re all worshipping technology? What if the human
compulsion to create ever more capable machines ultimately leads to our
own extinction? Will human ingenuity and faith ultimately prevail over
our technological obsessions? Dooling hopes so, and his cautionary
glimpses into the future are the best medicine to restore our humanity.

Dooling has a website and blog.

Jeff Jarvis to address internet complaints once and for all

In a post called "Sigh," Jeff Jarvis complains about the whiners:

I’m thinking of writing my Guardian column this week responding to
some because I’m tired of having to answer the same complaints over and
over. I sometimes despair at being able to advance the discussion about
the opportunities of the connected age, as someone in the room will
inevitably say: “Yes, but there are inaccuracies on the internet.” Or:
“Most people watch junk.” Or: “There are no standards.”


And then I got email for a panel discussion at NYU on Oct. 21 called
Crossing the Line, which asks these questions: “Are there any ethics on
the web?” “Should bloggers be held to journalistic standards?” “Who
makes the rules — the media, the courts or YOU?”


The implied answers, of course: The web has no ethics… Bloggers have
no standards…. The wrong people are making the rules (if there are

To hash over these weightless questions they have nothing but the
products of big, old media: David Carr of the NY Times, Liz Smith of
the NY Post, Jim Kelley of Time, Judge Andrew Napolitano of Fox News,
and Sherrese Smith, counsel for WPNI.

Mind you, just across campus, NYU has at least two of the country’s
greatest thinkers on the internet and its implications for society, Jay
Rosen and Clay Shirky. But they’re not on that panel. New York is thick
with great practitioners of new ways on the internet, but they’re not

Same old questions/objections/complaints/fears. Where is the talk of new opportunities in our new reality?

Link: Sigh.

Here is the comment I posted over there.  I confess my mood was a little cranky, but I still stand by this…

Sighing over the questions and calling them “weightless” doesn’t
answer them. Maybe they keep getting asked because the pat answers
people give (on either side) aren’t good enough and some people are
hungering for deeper analysis.

For example, asking the question “Are there any ethics on the web?”
does not imply the questioner is assuming “the web has no ethics,” just
as I assume your response is not simply “the web has ethics.” (And the
other common response, which I’ve heard Shirky give — that the web has
the best and the worst — doesn’t cut it either.)

I get your point in the first part of the post and agree with you —
it’s a disservice to you as a speaker when people don’t hear you
because they can’t think past simple/closed-minded objections. My
problem is with you dismissing the NYU panel for the same reasons. I
don’t know anything about those speakers’ qualifications, but on the
face of it the panel sounds worthwhile.

Jarvis's sigh reminds me of danah boyd's similar post a while back called feeding quasi-"legitimate" trolls in an attention economy, which I wrote about in a previous post: The Tender Ears of the Blogosphere.

By the way, I finally read The Dumbest Generation (one of those troll books) and I think Boyd is wrong — it's a serious critique that deserves attention, though I certainly don't agree 100% with Bauerlein, and I think the book's title is ridiculous.

One of the points that Bauerlein makes is that there's no funding to study really fundamental questions about technology in education like "does it work?"  Danah boyd, Clay Shirky and the Berkman Center are all doing fine and important work but a lot of it presupposes that the internet and technology are beneficial, wherever they're applied.  It bypasses fundamentals and goes straight to studying what kids are doing with the technologies, how it's empowering them, and what else technology could do for them. (For example, see this talk abstract danah boyd posted Thursday.)  It's no surprise that a lot of funding for these researchers comes from industry.  Again, I'm not saying this isn't important work, but it's not the whole story.

Update: Jarvis's promised Guardian column is now up (and is mostly straw-man silliness): Once and for all.

Nick Carr’s sources for “Is Google making us stupid?”

Nick Carr has posted a comprehensive list of sources and related readings for his Atlantic piece "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" This is excellent and worth digging into: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?": sources and notes.

As I wrote before, I think the key question is whether there is scientific evidence for these effects or not — and Carr references one study and a book (Proust and the Squid) that claim such evidence. That's the most powerful part of Carr's article, in my opinion, and I haven't seen a rebuttal that doesn't ignore it (and thus fail as a rebuttal) — to wit, the bloviating, er, debate about this article that continues at The Edge and other such forums.

Google Privacy Math


Marissa Meyer at the official Google blog:

So, today we’re making a homepage change by adding a link to our
privacy overview and policies. […] 

Larry and Sergey told me we could only
add this to the homepage if we took a word away – keeping the “weight”
of the homepage unchanged at 28. […]

We think the easy access to our privacy information without any added
homepage heft is a clear win for our users and an enhancement to your

Link: What comes next in this series? 13, 33, 53, 61, 37, 28…

Bravo Google!  But you missed something: you also added a hyphen!  The hyphen weight is now a rather beefy three.  My gosh, that’s quite a lot of hyphens.  I think you ought to go crunch the numbers again.  Stay focused, people!

The Tender Ears of the Blogosphere

Pretty much everyone and their dog has commented on Nick Carr's piece
"Is Google making us stupid?"  Most offer up banal anecdotes to counter
Carr's claim but ignore the primary sources/studies he mentions.  I
didn't offer my own opinion because I don't think this is a matter of
opinion, it's a matter of science.  Either research shows there is a
new effect or it doesn't.

Two responses in particular bother me.  First, Seth Finkelstein
criticised Carr for not being "technology-positive" enough and for
writing too much in the style of "fogeyism."  His worry is that techies
won't listen to people who sound old or cranky.  That may be true but
the answer isn't to water down criticism.  Part of growing up is
learning to listen to people unlike yourself — even people you
disagree with.  A technology background does not teach you to think
critically about technology and society; if anything it leaves you with
a deficit (yes, I speak from experience).


second response is by Danah Boyd and I don't know whether she's talking
about Carr's piece or something else, but I'll assume she is (my second
guess is Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation).  Her post is another
meta-comment and is about how to respond to "quasi-legitimate trolls in
an attention economy."  She characterizes some writers as
attention-seeking trolls and is having trouble ignoring them so asks
for advice.  I asked in a comment for clarification of what
defines a troll vs. a rational critic you disagree with and also what
books she was talking about.  I was rebuffed so I won't ask again —
I'm afraid of appearing to be a troll myself.

My problem with Boyd's point is that it's grossly unfair to call
Carr or Bauerlein trolls (Keen and Siegel may be a little closer, but
still don't meet the definition in my opinion).  To be a troll (a term
borrowed from the Internet, of course) implies an irrational
attention-seeker who ignores logic and simply repeats their opinion to
annoy someone.  These writers, however, are drawing on real evidence to support
their arguments and are engaging in rational discussion.  They may be wrong but they deserve an intelligent response.

There's an irony in Boyd's post — she claims Internet-style trolls
are showing up more and more in real life.  What she misses is that
maybe real life is the same and what has transferred over from the internet is the habit
of labeling people as trolls as an excuse not to listen to them.


started this blog three years ago to try to point out the many good
books that have been written on technology's impact on society, as well
as the excellent work that continues to be done by people in fields
such as science and technology studies.  What still surprises me is how
shallow and closed-minded most discussion on the Internet tends to be. 
Most of the smartest stuff is still offline.

Negroponte’s $100 laptop is no longer about learning, if it ever was

Ivan Krstic, formerly the director of security architecture for the (now failing rather spectacularly) One Laptop Per Child project, has some strong words about the project’s philosophies, its leader, and the free-software gurus who hijacked the project to push their own agendas.  From his blog:

I quit when Nicholas told me — and not just me — that learning was
never part of the mission. The mission was, in his mind, always getting
as many laptops as possible out there; to say anything about learning
would be presumptuous, and so he doesn’t want OLPC to have a software
team, a hardware team, or a deployment team going forward.

Yeah, I’m not sure what that leaves either.

There are three key problems in one-to-one computer programs:
choosing a suitable device, getting it to children, and using it to
create sustainable learning and teaching experiences. They’re listed in
order of exponentially increasing difficulty.


That OLPC was never serious about solving deployment, and that it
seems to no longer be interested in even trying, is criminal. Left
uncorrected, it will turn the project into a historical information
technology fuckup unparalleled in scale.

As for the last key problem, transforming laptops into learning is a
non-trivial leap of logic, and one that remains inadequately explained.
No, we don’t know that it’ll work, especially not without teachers. And
that’s okay — the way to find out whether it works might well be by
trying. Sometimes you have to run before you can walk, yeah? But most
of us who joined OLPC believed that the educational ideology
behind the project is what actually set it apart from similar endeavors
in the past. Learning which is open, collaborative, shared, and
exploratory — we thought that’s what could make OLPC work. Because
people have tried plain laptop learning projects in the past, and as the New York Times noted on its front page not so long ago, they crashed and burned.

Nicholas’ new OLPC is dropping those pesky education goals from the
mission and turning itself into a 50-person nonprofit laptop
manufacturer, competing with Lenovo, Dell, Apple, Asus, HP and Intel on their home turf, and by using the one strategy we know doesn’t work. But hey, I guess they’ll sell more laptops that way.

Link: Sic Transit Gloria Laptopi,

via Fake Steve Jobs.

Hackers Assault Epilepsy Patients Online

Wow. This is disgusting. From Wired:

Internet griefers descended on an epilepsy support message board
last weekend and used JavaScript code and flashing computer animation
to trigger migraine headaches and seizures in some users.

The nonprofit Epilepsy Foundation, which runs the forum, briefly closed the site Sunday to purge the offending messages and to boost security.

"We are seeing people affected," says Ken Lowenberg, senior director
of web and print publishing at the Epilepsy Foundation. "It’s
fortunately only a handful. It’s possible that people are just not
reporting yet — people affected by it may not be coming back to the
forum so fast."

The incident, possibly the first computer attack to inflict physical
harm on the victims, began Saturday, March 22, when attackers used a
script to post hundreds of messages embedded with flashing animated

The attackers turned to a more effective tactic on Sunday, injecting
JavaScript into some posts that redirected users’ browsers to a page
with a more complex image designed to trigger seizures in both
photosensitive and pattern-sensitive epileptics.


Circumstantial evidence suggests the attack was the work of members
of Anonymous, an informal collective of griefers best known for their
recent war on the Church of Scientology. The first flurry of posts on
the epilepsy forum referenced the site EBaumsWorld, which is much hated
by Anonymous. And forum members claim they found a message board thread
— since deleted — planning the attack at, a group

Link: Hackers assault epilepsy patients via computer.

The Continuing Rise of the Intermobs

Internet-enabled mass juvenilia is our future.  Some recent signs:

  • At SXSW, where the tech hipsterati are gathered, audiences make fun of speakers live in chat rooms and on Twitter (story 1, story 2).
  • "Digg users revolt" is a bit redundant.  Mob rule is basically Digg’s MO.  So it’s no surprise Digg users are doing their best to kill an acquisition.
  • Forget laser pointers, personal portable projectors are the wave of future "visual pollution" (BBC, Engadget).
  • Anonymous is a group of hackers organizing on-line and off to take down The Church of Scientology through various measures, legal, illegal, and juvenile.

Previously: The Power of the Intermobs.

Nicholson Baker Appreciates Wikipedia

Nicholson Baker has a wonderful article about Wikipedia in the current New York Review of Books.  It’s ostensibly a review of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, but the best parts are Baker’s personal observations as a Wikipedia reader, contributor, and "inclusionist" fighting against the unnecessary deletion of articles.  An excerpt (which is not really representative — you should read the whole thing):

The Pop-Tarts page is often aflutter. Pop-Tarts, it says as of today
(February 8, 2008), were discontinued in Australia in 2005. Maybe
that’s true. Before that it said that Pop-Tarts were discontinued in
Korea. Before that Australia. Several days ago it said: "Pop-Tarts is
german for Little Iced Pastry O’ Germany." Other things I learned from
earlier versions: More than two trillion Pop-Tarts are sold each year.
George Washington invented them. They were developed in the early 1960s
in China. Popular flavors are "frosted strawberry, frosted brown sugar
cinnamon, and semen." Pop-Tarts are a "flat Cookie." No: "Pop-Tarts are
a flat Pastry, KEVIN MCCORMICK is a FRIGGIN LOSER notto mention a queer
inch." No: "A Pop-Tart is a flat condom." Once last fall the whole page
was replaced with "NIPPLES AND BROCCOLI!!!!!"

This sounds chaotic, but even the Pop-Tarts page is under control
most of the time. The "unhelpful" or "inappropriate"—sometimes stoned,
racist, violent, metalheaded—changes are quickly fixed by human
stompers and algorithmicized helper bots. It’s a game. Wikipedians see
vandalism as a problem, and it certainly can be, but a Diogenes-minded
observer would submit that Wikipedia would never have been the
prodigious success it has been without its demons.

This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who
knows whether, when you look up Harvard’s one-time warrior-president,
James Bryant Conant, you’re going to get a bland, evenhanded article
about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen
minutes on April 26, 2006): "HES A BIG STUPID HEAD." James Conant was,
after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously
anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite
as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a
great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can
taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever
made. Instead it’s a fast-paced game of paintball.

Link: The Charms of Wikipedia (New York Review of Books)

Baker has a new nonfiction book out next month called Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.