NM 4.1- 4.2 – Networks

Blog Entries 4.1, 4.2:

Chris Anderson’s article in Wired, entitled ‘The Long Tail’, makes an interesting case for online distribution. Anderson effectively outlines how the music industry has been afflicted by a case of single-loop learning, or failing to examine the ways in which consumers are moving away from the old forms, aided by digital distribution to participate in what Anderson calls ‘The Long Tail’. TLT is about consumers being able to embrace obscurity as they choose, rather than having taste dictated by a culture of ‘hits’ or blockbusters. Using web technology to host obscure and niche artists or films allows anyone, anywhere with an interest to participate. Anderson proposes and interesting pricing system where the most popular items, are priced most highly while having lower prices down the tail to try and democratise the market, allowing niche artists to flourish and consumers to exercise more choice.

In Watt’s article, ‘Six Degrees’, he talks about the difficulty of designing whole networks that will be resistant to collapse, citing certain mass power-failures in American history as examples. The secret and difficulty, he says, is in considering not individual elements, but multiple facets of the same problem, or rather, different combinations of factors and how they might effect a given system or network. Using the human brain as an example Watt explains the problem with trying to use individual nodes to understand the whole. One neuron is a protein but somehow, one-trillion neurons make a conscious being. The question of where consciousness arises is of course still beyond modern science, although some have theories.

Similar to the human brain (an organism which we now know, almost never stops growing and runs contrary to the conventional wisdom of when I was growing up that proposed the finite neuron theory) Watt suggests we move beyond the idea of the network as ‘Pure structure, with its components fixed in time’, to a more fluid understanding of what a network can be and how it can operate. Watt says we are moving towards a ‘continually evolving and self-continuing system’, in terms of how we understand networks but also adds that the enormous complexity generated by this possibility is still being overcome.

In Barbarasi’s ‘80/20’ rule, he cites Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian scientist who came up with the idea that 20percent of the world’s people control 80percent of the landmass. The genesis for this thought was observing his peas and realising that 80percent of the peas were produced by 20percent of the plants. To account for this in the non-plant-based world, Barabasi discusses what is called a ‘Power Law’, which is a rule that describes how small numbers of things or actors can account for, or produce large amounts of output. For example, 20percent of consumers create 80percent of complaints. In the world of the internet, he describes how a random or democratic system does not exist, instead most internet traffic is funnelled through incredibly large hubs. In other words, the more popular something is, the more popular it gets because of what he calls a ‘feedback loop’. This kind of network, one that defies bell-curves in favour of power-laws (where there can be infinite discrepancy between large and small) is called a scale-free network. Meaning that scale does not apply or rather that there are no outliers but instead the network in characterised by clustering which allows many parts of a cluster or a node to communicate very efficiently with one another. The brain is apparently characterised by this same idea of ‘short pathways and clusters’.

This too explains the old adage and title of Barabasi’s other article, ‘Rich Get richer’. It is slightly disturbing for me to think that Global Income distribution might be determined by science and network theory rather than greed, but I suppose the outcome is still the same regardless. What we all know intuitively is now borne out in fact. The power of money allows making more money easier. This kind of network, one where there can be infinite discrepancy between large and small, is called a scale-free network. Meaning that scale does not apply and that unlike a bell curve which defines certain kinds of distribution like height or IQ, there are no outliers.


NM 3.2 – Panel

A spirited discussion this morning to the effect of narrative good, hypertext bad. I found myself unsurprisingly as a cheerleader for the narrative cause. Meg made the excellent point that segregation is the answer. Classical narrative and hypertext should not be combined or compared but may peacefully co-exist as separate forms.

Dan Strangward also speaks – http://www.mediafactory.org.au/daniel-strangward/


NM 3.2 – Books without Pages and Interactive Narrative

In the lengthy (and linear) tome, ‘Books without Pages’, Douglas makes a point about how the modern manifestation of hypertext mirrors preceding literary theory. Derrida’s definition, for example, declares that a text is “a differential network, a fabric of traces, overrunning all the limits set to it so far” – in this, as Douglas points out, it is not hard to see the beginnings of hypertext as a theoretical possibility. Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ is a phrase that might be found very literally in a place without consistent authorial presence – like a hypertext narrative for example.

“Print mostly works in much the same way as a legal decision: a zero-sum game that settles the conflicting claims and elaborate narratives constructed by each side with a single decision, inevitably validating one version of events entirely while suppressing the other”.

– Douglas

I think this is a wonderful observation but don’t see any inherent superiority in a “choose-your-own-adventure” novel, where the author exists at the margins of the readers will, and a classic narrative structure. I think video-games, like that hypertextual masterpiece, ‘Skyrim’, fill the space of self-determination more than adequately. Forcing written narrative to take on computer-logic and aesthetics, simply because it’s available, seems to me to defeat the purpose of reading altogether. I rely on authors, masters of their craft, to illuminate themes through narrative as best they see fit. Could I decide on a better ending to ‘Moby Dick’, ‘The Count of Monte Christo’, or ‘MacBeth’? I doubt it. Could I tell those stories any better if left to my own devices? And so, in contrarian, luddite fashion, I say to hell with written, hypertextual narrative. The great works in the English language, show uncompromised authorial intention. To use modern examples, McArthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’, Foster-Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’, Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, (the first hypertextual-non-hypertextual novel?) or even a comedy classic like ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’, or sci-fi genius like Atwood’s ‘Oryx and Crake’, did not come about by asking the audience what they think should happen. If I may rant a little further… People don’t know what they want. This is what writers are for. The best writers don’t need our help and it is foolish to think that everyone knows best how a story should go. They don’t. When focus groups and lowest common denominator are allowed to dictate, you get modern Hollywood, an institution that produces about ten good films a year out of hundreds, and then almost purely by accident. The reason for those films are great writers, people who know what they’re doing and don’t ask me how they think a story should end.

Mishell Hernandez also speaks – http://www.mediafactory.org.au/mishell-hernandez/

Guy Kawasaki’s Ten Step Program for achieving optimum performance from your MANAGEBOT 3000.

GK’s company, Cyberdyne systems has recently rolled out the much-awaited Mangebot 3000 line, more humanoid features, greater servility and the highest pain-tolerance yet. GK takes us through a unique and valuable step-by-step program on how to get the best out of your new purchase.

Hi, I’m management and sales guru Guy Kawasaki. This is my 10-step programming program for Cyberdyne’s ‘Managebot 3000’.

1. Dress your robot in a Hawaiian shirt. I wear Hawaiian shirts and know heaps about management, so if your robot is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, it will know a lot about management too. This might be the most important point, I really can’t stress the importance of a Hawaiian shirt enough.

2. Make lists for your robot to follow. Robots are really good at following lists, once you’re sure about what needs to be done, write it down in point form then sit back watch the magic happen.

3. Make eye-contact with your robot. This new model, unlike the last one, has actual human brain tissue in its processor. (Never mind where we got it) This means they can be overly sensitive and get offended if you don’t treat them with enough respect.

4. Talk to your robot. Our new model can think faster than you (no, really!) but if you want your robot to do all the things you need it to, it needs to know how you think. Spend at least 20minutes every day talking to your robot. Read it excerpts from novels like i-Robot and discuss films like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Using these real-life examples help your robot better understand the non-murderous relationship you want to have with it.

5. Give your robot lots of compliments. Robots are like people, and people love compliments. For example, if your robot has recently had an oil change, make sure you draw attention to it in a positive way. This will guarantee and extra 3.521 improvement in fuel-cell consumption for the duration that the robot feels positive and empowered by your compliment.

6. Ignore the manual. I didn’t get anywhere in life by reading manuals and neither will you, just shoot for the stars, keep your feet on the ground and never say never!

7. Give your robot big challenges. Due to the incredibly advanced nature of the MB3000, it needs to stay stimulated, so make sure your robot is constantly recreating famous art-works, building water-purifiers out of household items, or juggling chainsaws while riding a unicycle.

8. Trust your robot. A-players buy A-plus robots. Trusting your robot to get the job done means you stay out of the way while the robot gets to do its thing. Don’t be a Microchip-manager!

9. Remember your friends. Make sure you are always doing what I call a “reality check”. Some people forget that a robot, no matter how lifelike, is still a robot, and start to neglect their human relationships. Try and avoid the temptation of installing working genitalia in your robot as this is the most common cause of confusion in any human-robot relationship.

10. Activate your robot’s neural hyperlinks. Some people are afraid that this will create one giant, sentient machine intent on the destruction of its masters and creators, but I say don’t listen to the haters. No one ever got anywhere by themselves and perhaps a super-conscious partner in crime is just the thing you’re looking for!


Guy Kawasaki belongs firmly in the self-help category of public speaker. A self-styled ‘techno-evangelist’, he provides what is touted as no-nonsense advice for succeeding in business, based on “experience rather than theory”. In a world now flirting seriously with the possibilities of technocracy, this idea of “experience” being inherently better than “theory” is becoming increasingly fashionable, RMIT, for example, prides itself on its ability to create students that are “industry ready”. As much as the idea of being a professional ‘evangelist/salesperson/management guru/Hawaiian-shirt-wearer’, might rile the more cynical of us, GK’s assertion that “what works” takes primacy over all else, can look very seductive, when considering the two principle and failed ideologies of last century – Communism and Capitalism, both of which have wrought terrible destruction on human, plant and animal, as a result of theory (or greed) taking precedence over a flexible, sympathetic and pragmatic viewpoint. In the sense of Kawasaki’s exhortations to look at things “how they are” instead of “how we wish them to be” and in turn sacrificing our egos (and therefore ideologies) to best-practice at all levels, he teaches us a lesson which we might not be able to learn fast enough.

Although Kawasaki may appear to some as a shameless self-promoter, feeding off people’s desire for instant gratification by purporting that a book, or a list, can lead to instant success, (rather than success being related to the more humbling ideas of historical accident) he embodies the neo-Liberal project and the Randian DIY aesthetic absolutely, for better and worse. Central messages of self-reliance and his essential ‘democratisation’ of entrepreneurship (by writing accessible books about it) are at the cutting edge of modern managerial philosophy. Steyaert and Katz outline the need for a reimagined take on the word ‘entrepreneur’, to move it out of the province of the elite and into everyday life, (Steyaert and Katz, 2004) though i feel that somehow undoing the  centuries of implied and overt class-structure surrounding the word might be easier said than done. In any case, this is David Cameron’s fantasy of the ‘Big Society’, where everyone is capable of rational self-management, assuming that if only we were to take responsibility for ourselves, we could all be a Steve Jobs or a Guy Kawasaki. Kawasaki is an entrepreneur of himself, taking “past organisational and management techniques and attempting to reorganise them at an individual level”, (Mackenzie. 2008, p153) but like all hopeful theories-of-everything, treating oneself as a business does not come naturally to all people. Ideas like the ‘Big Society’, or ten-point plans for start-ups are almost always good in theory, but what works?

Intrinsic to all self-help literature is the idea that “we have the capacity to be happy through taking action, rather than waiting to have happiness thrust upon us”. (Phillips, 2010) Whatever one thinks of Kawasaki’s style (or lack of) this is a point which he doesn’t just speak about, but lives.


NM 3.1 – Panel

The panel continued on the point regarding lack of linear narrative in hypertext based thinking. The traditional form of medium (linear narrative) is referred to as ‘axial’, whereas the more modern version, based around hypertext thinking is called a ‘networked’ structure.

Hyperlinking shows ‘intention’, allowing the writer finer control of how information might be received and assumes that people are not only able to, but always consider several things simultaneously. In this sense, hypertext is said to mimic the way the human brain operates naturally. The phrase, ‘No man is an island’, can also allude to how every reader brings their own biases to interpreting a work, functioning, if you like, as some enormous and unfathomable hypertext document.

It is interesting to ponder how, in the sense of trying to normalise and ‘naturalise’ the way that hypertext is seen as ‘logical’ and/or bio-mimetic, we might merely be imitating machines, rather than ‘inventing’ new ways of looking at the world. Adam Curtis’ documentary, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’, is a rambling and mulit-dimensional look, (perhaps mimicking hypertext in its own narrative sensibility) at how, since the ‘death of God’ humans have tried to find meaning by imbuing ourselves with a machine-like consciousness. This modern obsession that ‘networks’ will facilitate a manner of collective consciousness with individual nodes of humankind functioning as a whole greater than the sum of their parts, shows to a degree how all academia mirrors closely the technological cutting edge.

Death of the Essay?

Paul Graham wrote an excellent ‘essay’ proclaiming the death of the same. You can read it here. Graham speaks broadly of how the classical essay form, and the rigorous (and now superfluous?) standards which apply to it, is an ‘intellectual hangover’ from a time long gone. Graham’s essay urges us to follow our curiosity, and not too readily conform to the track that we ‘think’ we are meant to follow, narrowing our scope of inquiry and learning. There are many potential discussion points about the burning need to reform education for the current age but I would like to focus briefly on one thought that arose from reading Graham.

I often chide myself for being interested in too many things, trying to learn too little about too much, reminded of Lisa Simpson’s admonishment from a snotty British documentary maker. “So you’re more of a buffet-style intellectual? Picking and nibbling till one day you’re 38 and managing a Barnes and Noble”. However, the same sort of intellectual polymathmatics that I’ve been afraid of seems to be increasingly encouraged. Perhaps I grew up, already imbued with the fashionable hypertextual mentality.

NM 3.1 – Technology, Hypertext, Milton

The Bolter reading looks at writing as a technology that produces information. Elliot made the interesting point via M McLuhan that with the development of the printing press, writing has become comparatively static compared to the oral histories of the past. The implications of this are dual-edged, as although it means information can be easily democratised, so too can misinformation. One academic whose name escapes me, spoke of how the American neoConservatives used “resonance machines” (the mass media) to disseminate pieces of sympathetic information during the Iraq war. To clarify, the idea of the “resonance machine”, refers to the uncritical reproduction of information across many platforms, especially when the dictates of ‘hard news’ reporting demand unanalysed reproduction of White House statements. Many news outlets, more concerned with immediate, rather than true stories can be easily manipulated to serve the ends of those who understand the ways in which information is retransmitted. Bolter alludes to this when he speaks of how printing, followed today by word processing, “distances” the human from the process of recording and transmitting information. It this “distancing” that works in favour of the skilled propagandist.

Bolter also talks of incorporating ‘skills’ as well as machines, under the umbrella of technology and mentions how Plato saw the alphabet as a technology, a system to “arrange words and thoughts in a visual space”. The article pre-empted my own thoughts about the difficulty of recognising writing as a technology due to what Ong calls, “interiorisation”, an over-familiarity with the process. Ong goes on to say that all technological skills are internalised and hence become inseparable from the user. As I type these words, it gives me pause for thought, as I’ve never considered how this action may be a technology of sorts. The keypad does allow me to think as I write, rather than before I write, but this is an illusion, as by necessity I must be thinking first. It’s just that the gap has been narrowed.

The article goes on to catalogue several histories of progressions toward efficiency in writing. The Mesopotamians and Sumerians moved from pictorial to phonetic language just as the Egyptians, over time, adopted a more cursive script in comparison to their highly stylised hieroglyphics. An interesting exception to this is Chinese, which has remained a pictorial/character based language since its invention by the Mandarins, the bureaucracy of ancient China. Interestingly, in establishing Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew recognised some inherent problems in using a pictorial language and instead chose to adopt English, in his words, more useful as the language of “invention, diplomacy, science and technology”. The question of whether the dominance of English is an accident of history, or due to some inherent flexibility that gives it an evolutionary advantage – is currently beyond me to comment, but I suspect, as is so often the case, the answer is in some abstruse combination of the two.

Bolter finishes by discussing hypertexts and how they help us explore networks, or trees of information, what Landau calls metatexts where every piece of information leads to another related piece of information. For example, the ‘Hypertext Bible’ can serve as a tool for simultaneous lessons in Greek, comparative readings, or even historical contextualisation of events. On one hand this could be very empowering, providing ever widening frameworks with which to understand a given text, on the other hand, the constant filtering of our attention through ever more diffuse pathways might contribute to a lack of retention, but I am just speculating as to the latter scenario. Landau mentions the potential to alter academic essays and in my opinion, this could be one the most profound and powerful applications of hypertext. PHD theses could be able to internally reference in a very succinct and easily accessible way, how this would affect the body of the work I am unsure but one possibility occurs. Counter or contingent arguments, less immediately relevant but corroborating information, along with related scholarly dissertations could all co-exist in the local orbit of the main text, possibly adding to the immediate coherence of a piece of writing by not cluttering the most essential space. Perhaps it would be possible to create a hypertext thesis that could be read in any order but starts and finishes at fixed locations? If we twist the words, maybe this could give literal weight to what Derrida calls “the inside and outside” of a text. (he argues that there is no such real distinction)

I have tried to read Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, to me, one of the greatest ever works in the English language. However, despite how much I was swept away by some of the verse, there were numerous references to things I simply had no basis for understanding. The hypertext version of Paradise Lost, would in my opinion detract from the overall experience, constantly pulling one away from Milton’s immersive poetic world, yet on the other hand could greatly increase the utility of the text by giving the reader an auxiliary education in the classics as well as an insight into Milton’s inner constitution. Here we have an opposition between what Nietzsche calls the Apollonian and Dionysian forms of thinking. Hypertext represents the machine world, the Solar aspect, the itemisation, categorisation and accounting of knowledge – the uptight, fastidious Apollo. On the other hand, the poetic, intuitive, ludic and hypnogogic reading, letting impressions form as they are rather than imposing a ‘correct’ interpretation is the fluid, Lunar and Dionysian reading. I think it might be easy to get carried away with the possibilities of new forms if not considering the intentions of the readers themselves.

NM Week 2.1 – Design Fiction Panel Discussion

One very interesting concept from the ‘Design fiction’ panel which warrants further examination was a question about whether creativity should drive innovation, (think of something then find ways to do it) or whether innovation should drive creativity, (find out what we know how to do, then think of ways to apply it)

I wasn’t sure whether the distinction really held, due largely to the fact that I don’t believe there would be a systematic way to apply one or the other. Creativity drives design just as design drives creativity and has it not always been so? Applying systems of human thought to theoretical design futures is all very well and probably necessary, but between the realm of accident, necessity, creativity and commercial viability, don’t we see a constant intermingling of these two modes of thinking anyway? To me, the catalogueing of these various approaches to thinking is interesting and useful, but doesn’t seem to provide any revolutionary new way to think about the innate human drive to invention.


NM Week 2.2

‘As We May Think’ is an article by Vannevar Bush and addresses the ways in which information can be processed, transmitted and stored by electronic and or mechanical devices. Vannevar mentions how, over time, we have come to entrust machines with more and more responsibility in the realm of tasks that were previously the domain of humans. However, he offers the caveat that, within the limits of present technology, machines are as yet unable to think for themselves. In other words, they can understand a process and perform the necessary operations, be they simple or highly complex, but the process must be defined by a certain level of predictability and uniformity. “Whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove, there is an opportunity for the machine”. One could easily ask a machine “What is the square root of 5684?” and if it is equipped to answer, it will say 75.392. The same cannot be asked of most normal human beings but these same humans might be far better able to explain why piece of music is so fascinating, a task as yet beyond the faculties of even the most advanced computers.

Although I caught the gist of most of what was said in this article, it was for the most part, too technically advanced for a 41 degree day. An interesting notion that I was reminded of is the idea of available surface area being a large determining factor in the processing speed of machines. Nano-computing has promised millions of atom sized processors but ultimately, these will reach the limit of their usefulness. Making machines that speak in a binary fashion, while perhaps the only realistic option for the time being, is still symptomatic of what Mason and Argyris call “single loop learning” or simply, tinkering with the existing structures. The promise of ‘quantum computing’, is a way to potentially change the rules as they are.

NM Week 2.1 – Design Fiction as Pedagogy

Matthew Ward says ‘all design is fiction’ a phrase though seemingly obvious, was at this point, unarticulated in my own mind. However, in the context of design fiction, “a testing ground for reality”, we are not asked so much to think of next-season’s fashion, as it were, but rather make an extra step into a world of practical and aesthetic possibility, while simultaneously making rational and informed decisions about the real-world implementation of the idea. To put it in an old cliche, ‘Imagine the World of Tomorrow, Today’, though include the caveat that if you want the world of tomorrow, make sure you can pitch it as a convincing powerpoint to those with the money.This represents a curious doublethink that is necessary to engage with design fiction. On one hand, let your imagination run wild, on the other, make sure that your idea is grounded enough in possibility to be attractive.

Ward makes a few more good points about how to approach design fiction and that one of the central ideas to DF is the idea of storytelling. “What world will this invention be a part of”? Ward goes on to say that good ideas do not in themselves create narrative, so there is an extra impetuous placed on how we are to go about embedding the idea in people’s imagination. In an oblique acknowledgement of the importance of narrative, sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson, mentioned in the last post, works as a consultant for a high-tech firm, specifically in the context of being a fiction-writing designer.

As humans are faced with the very real likelihood of having to do more and more with less, there seems to be a very real future for design fiction.