- It’s enormously valuable to simply follow your curiosity—and follow it for a really long time, even if it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere in particular.
- Surprisingly big breakthrough ideas come when you bridge two seemingly unconnected areas.
Tuesday, January 10th, 2023
Saturday, October 15th, 2022
You don’t need to write for anyone else. You don’t need to share, or even keep it. You just need the act of it. Writing is a particle collider for reality and the imagination. And new discoveries are the result.
(That’s why I write here, of course. It’s how I think.)
Saturday, September 17th, 2022
I love the thoughtfulness that Sally put into her personal write-up of dConstruct.
Thursday, March 11th, 2021
A wonderful look at the kind of links we didn’t get on the World Wide Web.
From the memex and Xanadu right up to web mentions, this ticks all my boxes!
Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020
In 1990, the science fiction writer Douglas Adams produced a “fantasy documentary” for the BBC called Hyperland. It’s a magnificent paleo-futuristic artifact, rich in sideways predictions about the technologies of tomorrow.
I remember coming across a repeating loop of this documentary playing in a dusty corner of a Smithsonian museum in Washington DC. Douglas Adams wasn’t credited but I recognised his voice.
Hyperland aired on the BBC a full year before the World Wide Web. It is a prophecy waylaid in time: the technology it predicts is not the Web. It’s what William Gibson might call a “stub,” evidence of a dead node in the timeline, a three-point turn where history took a pause and backed out before heading elsewhere.
Here, Claire L. Evans uses Adams’s documentary as an opening to dive into the history of hypertext starting with Bush’s Memex, Nelson’s Xanadu and Engelbart’s oNLine System. But then she describes some lesser-known hypertext systems…
In 1985, the students at Brown who encountered Intermedia had never seen anything like it before in their lives. The system laid a world of information at their fingertips, saved them hours at the library, and helped them work through tangles of thought.
Sunday, August 9th, 2020
Fourteen years ago, I gave a talk at the Reboot conference in Copenhagen. It was called In Praise of the Hyperlink. For the most part, it was a gushing love letter to hypertext, but it also included this observation:
For a conspiracy theorist, there can be no better tool than a piece of technology that allows you to arbitrarily connect information. That tool now exists. It’s called the World Wide Web and it was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
You know those “crazy walls” that are such a common trope in TV shows and movies? The detectives enter the lair of the unhinged villain and discover an overwhelming wall that’s like looking at the inside of that person’s head. It’s not the stuff itself that’s unnerving; it’s the red thread that connects the stuff.
Red thread. Blue hyperlinks.
When I spoke about the World Wide Web, hypertext, apophenia, and conspiracy theorists back in 2006, conspiracy theories could still be considered mostly harmless. It was the domain of Dan Brown potboilers and UFO enthusiasts with posters on their walls declaring “I Want To Believe”. But even back then, 911 truthers were demonstrating a darker side to the fun and games.
There’s always been a gamification angle to conspiracy theories. Players are rewarded with the same dopamine hits for “doing the research” and connecting unrelated topics. Now that’s been weaponised into QAnon.
In his newsletter, Dan Hon wrote QAnon looks like an alternate reality game. You remember ARGs? The kind of designed experience where people had to cooperate in order to solve the puzzle.
Being a part of QAnon involves doing a lot of independent research. You can imagine the onboarding experience in terms of being exposed to some new phrases, Googling those phrases (which are specifically coded enough to lead to certain websites, and certain information). Finding something out, doing that independent research will give you a dopamine hit. You’ve discovered something, all by yourself. You’ve achieved something. You get to tell your friends about what you’ve discovered because now you know a secret that other people don’t. You’ve done something smart.
We saw this in the games we designed. Players love to be the first person to do something. They love even more to tell everyone else about it. It’s like Crossfit.
Dan’s brother Adrian also wrote about this connection: What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon:
There is a vast amount of information online, and sometimes it is possible to solve “mysteries”, which makes it hard to criticise people for trying, especially when it comes to stopping perceived injustices. But it’s the sheer volume of information online that makes it so easy and so tempting and so fun to draw spurious connections.
This is something that Molly Sauter has been studying for years now, like in her essay The Apophenic Machine:
Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us, when we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet, the web circling back to itself again and again. The internet is an apophenic machine.
I remember interviewing Lauren Beukes back in 2012 about her forthcoming book about a time-travelling serial killer:
Me: And you’ve written a time-travel book that’s set entirely in the past.
Lauren: Yes. The book ends in 1993 and that’s because I did not want to have to deal with Kirby the heroine getting some access to CCTV cameras and uploading the footage to 4chan and having them solve the mystery in four minutes flat.
By the way, I noticed something interesting about the methodology behind conspiracy theories—particularly the open-ended never-ending miasma of something like QAnon. It’s no surprise that the methodology is basically an inversion of the scientific method. It’s the Texas sharpshooter fallacy writ large. Well, you know the way that I’m always going on about design principles and they way that good design principles should be reversible? Conspiracy theories take universal principles and invert them. Take Occam’s razor:
Do not multiply entities without necessity.
That’s what they want you to think! Wake up, sheeple! The success of something like QAnon—or a well-designed ARG—depends on a mindset that rigorously inverts Occam’s razor:
Multiply entities without necessity!
That’s always been the logic of conspiracy theories from faked moon landings to crop circles. I remember well when the circlemakers came clean and showed exactly how they had been making their beautiful art. Conspiracy theorists—just like cultists—don’t pack up and go home in the face of evidence. They double down. There was something almost pitiable about the way the crop circle UFO crowd were bending over backwards to reject proof and instead apply the inversion of Occam’s razor to come up with even more outlandish explanations to encompass the circlemakers’ confession.
I think the best way to fight QAnon, at its roots, is with a robust social safety net program. This not-a-game is being played out of fear, out of a lack of safety, and it’s meeting peoples’ needs in a collectively, societally destructive way.
I want to add one more red thread to this crazy wall. There’s a book about conspiracy theories that has become more and more relevant over time. It’s also wonderfully entertaining. Here’s my recommendation from that Reboot presentation in 2006:
For a real hot-tub of conspiracy theory pleasure, nothing beats Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.
…luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…
Friday, July 17th, 2020
Look out someone else’s window somewhere in the world.
There’s something indescribably lovely about this. It’s like a kind of positive voyeurism.
I lost a lot of time to this.
Wednesday, February 26th, 2020
This looks like an interesting hypertexty tool.
Monday, January 20th, 2020
Friday, April 5th, 2019
After two decades in tech, I realise phones and social media won’t be going away, so we work with them. My take is that I now need to seek positive digital tools that connect more of us to the non-digital world and really benefit our lives.
Thursday, February 14th, 2019
On the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think, Tim Berners-Lee delivered this address in 1995.
To a large part we have MEMEXes on our desks today. We have not yet seen the wide scale deployment of easy human interfaces for editing hypertext and making links. (I find this constantly frustrating, but always assume will be cured by cheap commercial products within the year.)
Sunday, September 9th, 2018
Videos for the whole first season of James Burke’s brilliant Connections TV series.
Internet Archive and chill.
Saturday, October 29th, 2016
When it seems like all our online activity is being tracked by Google, Facebook, and co., it comforts me to think of all the untracked usage out there, from shared (or fake) Facebook accounts to the good ol’ sneakernet:
Packets of information can be distributed via SMS and mobile 3G but also pieces of paper, USB sticks and Bluetooth.
Connectivity isn’t binary. Long live the papernet!
Saturday, October 4th, 2014
How the printing press led to the microscope, and chlorination transformed women’s fashion—Steven Johnson channels James Burke.
Monday, April 7th, 2014
There’s one obvious connection between the two speakers this time ‘round: their first names are homophones.
We’ve got Leigh Taylor of Medium and Gravita fame. He’ll be talking about this holacracy stuff that people have been banging on about lately, and what it takes to actually make a creative company work in a decentralised way.
Should be good brain-tickling fun. You can secure your place at the event now. It’s free. But the usual warning applies: if you can’t make it, be sure to cancel your ticket—if you book a place and then don’t show up, you will be persona non grata for any future Connections.
See you in two weeks time.
Thursday, February 6th, 2014
Connections: Weak Signals
There was a great turn-out. Normally I’d expect a fairly significant no-show rate for a free event (they’re often oversubscribed to account for this very reason), but I was amazed how many people braved the dreadful weather to come along. We greeted them all with free beer, courtesy of Clearleft.
Honor made plentiful use of sound during her presentation. Or rather, plentiful use of electromagnetic signals converted into sound: asteroseismology from the sun; transient luminous events in the Earth’s upper atmosphere; the hailstorm as Cassini pirouettes through Saturn’s rings; subatomic particle collisions sonified. They all combined to eerie effect.
Justin’s talk was more down to Earth, despite sounding like a near-future science-fiction scenario: individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.
There was a beer break between the talks and we had a joint discussion afterwards, with questions from the audience. I was leading the discussion, and to a certain extent, I played devil’s advocate to Justin’s ideas, countering his solar energy enthusiasm with nuclear energy enthusiasm—I’m on Team Thorium. (Actually, I wasn’t really playing devil’s advocate. I genuinely believe that nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest source of energy available to us and that an anti-nuclear environmentalist is a contradiction in terms—but that’s a discussion for another day.)
There was a bittersweet tinge to the evening. The first Connections event was also Honor’s last public speaking engagement in Brighton for a while. She is bidding farewell to Lighthouse Arts and winging her way to a new life in Singapore. We wish her well. We will miss her.
The evening finished with a facetious rhetorical question from the audience for Honor. It was related to the sonification of particle collisions like the ones that produced evidence for “the God particle”, the Higgs boson. “Given that the music produced is so unmusical”, went the question, “does that mean it’s proof that God doesn’t exist?”
We all had a laugh and then we all went to the pub. But I’ve been thinking about that question, and while I don’t have an answer, I do have a connection to make between both of the talks and algorithmically-generated music. Here goes…
Justin talked about the photovoltaic work done at Bell Labs. An uncle of Ray Kurzweil worked at Bell Labs and taught the young Kurzweil the basics of computer science. Soon after, Ray Kurzweil wrote his first computer program, one that analysed works of classical music and then generated its own music. Here it is.
Thursday, January 16th, 2014
There’s a new event in town (“town” being Brighton). It’s called Connections and the first event takes place on February 4th.
Actually, it’s not really that new. Connections has been carved from the belly of Skillswap.
After a while, it got somewhat tedious to have to explain to potential speakers and attendees that they should “just ignore the name—it’s not really about swapping skills.”
Hence, Connections; a much more appropriate name. And yes, it is a nod to Saint James of Burke.
Tickets are available now. They’re free. But if you grab a ticket, you’d better show up. If you can’t make it, please let us know—either me or James—so that we can pass the place along to someone else. If you have a ticket, and you don’t tell us you can’t make, and then you don’t show up, you won’t be able to attend any future editions of Connections …and that would be a real shame, because this is going to be a jolly good series of events.
Thursday, October 18th, 2012
This is quite an astounding piece of writing. Robert Lucky imagines the internet of things mashed up with online social networking …but this was published in 1999!
Thursday, October 6th, 2011
This remains one of the greatest pieces of documentary footage ever filmed.
Wednesday, March 9th, 2011
The web demonstrates its loosely-joined nature yet again; a photo of mine from a science hack/design fiction exhibit results in Dave discovering his family crest.