I wasn’t supposed to speak at this year’s Beyond Tellerrand conference, but alas, Ellen wasn’t able to make it so I stepped in and gave my talk on evaluating technology.
The Long Now Foundation has been posting some great stuff on their blog lately. The latest is a look at orreries, clocks, and computers throughout history …and into the future.
Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels?
This thought experiment leads to some fascinating conclusions.
So, would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution? Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?
Håkon wrote his doctoral thesis on CSS …which is kinda like Einstein writing a thesis on relativity. There’s some fascinating historical insight into the creation of the standards we use today.
The Internet Archive is now hosting early Macintosh software emulated right in your browser. That means you can play Adventure: the source of subsequent text adventures, natural language parsing, and chatbots.
Colossal Cave Adventure (also known as ADVENT, Colossal Cave, or Adventure) is a text adventure game, developed originally in 1976, by Will Crowther for the PDP-10 mainframe. The game was expanded upon in 1977, with help from Don Woods, and other programmers created variations on the game and ports to other systems in the following years.
In the game, the player controls a character through simple text commands to explore a cave rumored to be filled with wealth.
This wide-ranging essay by Nick Nielsen on Centauri Dreams has a proposition that resonates with my current talk about evaluating technology:
Science produces knowledge, but technology only selects that knowledge from the scientific enterprise that can be developed for practical uses.
Then there’s this:
The most remarkable feature of how we got from the origins of our species to the complex and sophisticated civilization we have today is that, with few exceptions, none of it was planned. Technology was not planned; civilization was not planned; industrialization was not planned; the internet was not planned.
Here’s the opening keynote I gave at the Render Conference in Oxford. The talk is called Evaluating Technology:
It’s fascinating to look back at this early proposal for CSS from 1994 and see what the syntax might have been:
A one-statement style sheet that sets the font size of the h1 element:
h1.font.size = 24pt 100%
The percentage at the end of the line indicates what degree of influence that is requested (here 100%).
This is wonderful meditation on the history of older technologies that degrade in varied conditions versus newer formats that fall of a “digital cliff”, all tied in to working on the web.
When digital TV fails, it fails completely. Analog TV, to use parlance of the web, degrades gracefully. The web could be similar, if we choose to make it so. It could be “the analog” web in contrast to “the digital” platforms. Perhaps in our hurry to replicate and mirror native platforms, we’re forgetting the killer strength of the web: universal accessibility.
Chapter 3 of Resilient Web Design, republished in Smashing Magazine:
In the world of web design, we tend to become preoccupied with the here and now. In “Resilient Web Design“, Jeremy Keith emphasizes the importance of learning from the past in order to better prepare ourselves for the future. So, perhaps we should stop and think more beyond our present moment? The following is an excerpt from Jeremy’s web book.
Time-shifted reports from the Russian revolution, 100 years on.
All the texts used are taken from genuine documents written by historical figures: letters, memoirs, diaries and other documents of the period.
Every day, when you go onto the site, you will find out what happened exactly one hundred years ago: what various people were thinking about and what happened to each of them in this eventful year. You may not fast-forward into the future, but must follow events as they happen in real time.
We’ve gone through the invention step. The infrastructure came out of DARPA and the World Wide Web itself came out of CERN.
We’ve gone through the hobbyist step. Everyone now knows what the internet is, and some of the amazing things it’s capable of.
We’ve gone through the commercialization step. Monopolies have emerged, refined, and scaled the internet.
But the question remains: can we break with the tragic history that has befallen all prior information empires? Can this time be different?
The first part of this article is a great history lesson in the style of Tim Wu’s The Master Switch. The second part is a great explanation of net neutrality, why it matters, and how we can fight for it.
If you do nothing, we will lose the war for the open internet. The greatest tool for communication and creativity in human history will fall into the hands of a few powerful corporations and governments.
There’s something very endearing about this docudrama retelling of the story of the web.
An alternative history of technology, emphasising curation over innovation:
We start to see the intangibles – the standards and ideologies that help to create and order technology systems, making them work at least most of the time. We start to see that technological change does not demand that we move fast and break things. Understanding the role that standards, ideologies, institutions – the non-thing aspects of technology – play, makes it possible to see how technological change actually happens, and who makes it happen.
A lovely piece of early web history—Olia Lialina describes the early Net Art scene in 2000.
The address bar is the author’s signature. It’s where action takes place, and it’s the action itself. The real action on the web doesn’t happen on the page with its animated GIFs or funny scripts, it’s concentrated in the address bar.
And how wonderful that this piece is now published on Rhizome, an online institution so committed to its mission that it’s mentioned in this seventeen year old article.
Changing our ways of thinking and doing isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s necessary though, and the first step on this journey is to let go. Let go of our imaginary feel of control. Forget the boundaries presented by our tools and ways of thinking. Break out of the silos we’ve created.
Churchill, as it turns out, had some pretty solid ideas on SETI.
Churchill was a science enthusiast and advocate, but he also contemplated important scientific questions in the context of human values. Particularly given today’s political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill’s example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.