A forthcoming documentary about the company spun out of Apple to create a handheld communication device …in 1990.
From mobile computing, social media, downloadable apps and e-commerce to touchscreens, emoji and USB, the products and services that now dominate the tech industry and our day-to-day lives were born at General Magic.
This 1993 article by Mark Weiser is relevant to our world today.
Take intelligent agents. The idea, as near as I can tell, is that the ideal computer should be like a human being, only more obedient. Anything so insidiously appealing should immediately give pause. Why should a computer be anything like a human being? Are airplanes like birds, typewriters like pens, alphabets like mouths, cars like horses? Are human interactions so free of trouble, misunderstanding, and ambiguity that they represent a desirable computer interface goal? Further, it takes a lot of time and attention to build and maintain a smoothly running team of people, even a pair of people. A computer I need to talk to, give commands to, or have a relationship with (much less be intimate with), is a computer that is too much the center of attention.
A device that could be cared for, and conspicuously so.
Then, it was like a cigarette:
A nervous tic, facilitated by a handheld apparatus that releases relief when operated.
Later, it was like a rosary:
Its toy-dog quirks having been tamed, its compulsive nature having been accepted, the iPhone became the magic wand by which all worldly actions could be performed, all possible information acquired.
Finally, it simply becomes …a rectangle.
Abstract, as a shape. Flat, as a surface. But suggestive of so much. A table for community. A door for entry, or for exit. A window for looking out of, or a picture for looking into. A movie screen for distraction, or a cradle for comfort, or a bed for seduction.
I have a term called a “tiny pony.” It is a thing that is exceptional that no one, for whatever reason, notices. Or, conversely, it is an exceptional thing that everyone notices, but quickly grows acclimated to despite the brilliance of it all.
We are surrounded by magical tiny ponies. I mean, just think: right now you are reading some words at a URL on the World Wide Web. Even more magically, I just published some words at my own URL on the World Wide Web. That still blows my mind! I hope I never lose that feeling.
The Unique Rune of the Fourth Order is the original and formative Unique Rune, still commonly in use. All existing Unique Runes of the Fourth Order were created simultaneously in the late 1970’s by the Numberkeepers, at a time when Rough Telepathy was a small and speculative effort tightly affiliated with the Warring Kingdom of the United States. There were then and are now 4.3 billion Unique Runes of the Fourth Order, a number which cannot be increased. The early Numberkeepers believed 4.3 billion would be more than enough. However, this number is no longer sufficient to provision the masses hungry to never disengage from participation in Rough Telepathy, and the Merchants eager to harness Rough Telepathy as a “feature” in new and often unnecessary consumer products. This shortage has caused considerable headache among the Fiefdoms, the Regional Telepathy Registers, and the Coven.
Writers and artists have long been fascinated by the idea of an English eerie – ‘the skull beneath the skin of the countryside’. But for a new generation this has nothing to do with hokey supernaturalism – it’s a cultural and political response to contemporary crises and fears
I liked it a lot. One of the reasons I liked it was not just for the text of the writing, but the hypertext of the writing. Throughout the piece there are links off to other articles, books, and blogs. For me, this enriches the piece and it set me off down some rabbit holes of hyperlinks with fascinating follow-ups waiting at the other end.
Back in 2010, Scott Rosenberg wrote a series of three articles over the course of two months called In Defense of Hyperlinks:
They’re all well worth reading. The whole thing was kicked off with a well-rounded debunking of Nicholas Carr’s claim that hyperlinks harm text. Instead, Rosenberg finds that hyperlinks within a text embiggen the writing …providing they’re done well:
I see links as primarily additive and creative. Even if it took me a little longer to read the text-with-links, even if I had to work a bit harder to get through it, I’d come out the other side with more meat and more juice.
Links, you see, do so much more than just whisk us from one Web page to another. They are not just textual tunnel-hops or narrative chutes-and-ladders. Links, properly used, don’t just pile one “And now this!” upon another. They tell us, “This relates to this, which relates to that.”
Imagine if you were to take away all the regular text and only left the hyperlinks on Wikipedia, you could still get the gist, right? Every single link there is like a wormhole to another part of this “choose your own adventure” game that we’re playing every day on the web. I love that. I love the way that Wikipedia uses links.
That ability of the humble hyperlink to join concepts together lies at the heart of Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web …and Ted Nelson’s Project Xanudu, and Douglas Engelbart’s Dynamic Knowledge Environments, and Vannevar Bush’s idea of the Memex. All of those previous visions of a hyperlinked world were—in many ways—superior to the web. But the web shipped. It shipped with brittle, one-way linking, but it shipped. And now today anyone can create a connection between two ideas by linking to resources that represent those ideas. All you need is an HTML document that contains some A elements with href attributes, and a URL to act as that document’s address.
Inventing the next twenty years, strategic foresight, fictional futurism and English rural magic: Warren Ellis attempts to convince you that they are all pretty much the same thing, and why it was very important that some people used to stalk around village hedgerows at night wearing iron goggles.
There is definitely the same feeling of “the eeriness of the English countryside” in Warren’s talk. If you haven’t listened to it yet, set aside some time. It is enticing and disquieting in equal measure …like many of the works linked to from the piece on the Guardian.
There’s another link I’d like to make, and it happens to be to another dConstruct speaker.
From that Guardian piece:
Yet state surveillance is no longer testified to in the landscape by giant edifices. Instead it is mostly carried out in by software programs running on computers housed in ordinary-looking government buildings, its sources and effects – like all eerie phenomena – glimpsed but never confronted.
James Bridle has been confronting just that. His recent series The Nor took him on a tour of a parallel, obfuscated English countryside. He returned with three pieces of hypertext:
I love being able to do this. I love being able to add strands to this world-wide web of ours. Not only can I say “this idea reminds me of another idea”, but I can point to both ideas. It’s up to you whether you follow those links.
My favourite is a portrait of my fellow bunny slopers. They all thought I was taking a picture. I started filming and counted the seconds until they realised. It’s a shame that the video quality on YouTube is so crap: you can’t really spot the subtle changes as their smiles transition from genuine to faltering to strained. I’d like to make a whole series of videos like this; what a wonderful way to break the social contract.
Update: David Swallow points me to Long Awkward Pose, a site dedicated to this technique. Wonderful!
My timid little foray into posting videos on YouTube pales in comparison to my fellow Clearleftist, “nice” Paul Annett. Paul is a magician, you see. I don’t just mean that he’s a really good designer; I mean he does honest-to-goodness magic. It always makes for fun Friday evening drinks.
Anyway, Paul posted one of his card tricks on YouTube. It appears to have a struck a chord. The video has over 2,000,000 views and 5,000 comments, making it one of the most popular videos on YouTube ever. It’s weird to think that Paul’s homemade video has been viewed more often than many television programs.
Oh, and if you’re curious about how the trick was done, read all about it. Now if only Jared Spool would reveal how he did that levitating trick he was showing in Vancouver last week.