Collapsing Context

Assorted music amps, records, tapes, books, and televisions on a wall

Does Jaron Lanier follow blogs? Where does he get his news? How does he learn about Meltdown/Spectre?

 

Word of mouth was the original form of communication. Before there were books, people could only tell stories to share information. The collective hive mind of civilization would do their best to spread knowledge equally from one person to the next. Verification of stories could only be carried out collectively as groups of people could ensure what they believe was true. One could add Individual color a story to show creativity but ultimately lead to deviations from the original idea.

Fast forward to books. Once we mastered the skill of preserving information in physical objects the amount of our collective knowledge exploded. We could remember things across generations, and even without coming into contact with the person or people who first transcribed their ideas. We could pull from philosophers, physicists, mathematicians, composers, playwrights, and doctors to develop deeper ideas and advance our understanding.

What is the hive mind in the world of books? It was still among the people reading these works who pulled from their own experiences and created their own interpretations. Remixing their learnings into new forms of intelligence.

Today is another progression. We go beyond having all the knowledge in the world documented and at our fingertips, to peering into the minds of everyone on the internet. Social media, like Twitter, amplify ideas only for an instant, as the next thing comes along and yanks at our attention.

(This is no different than before when we spread stories across the world, or documented our understanding of nature.)

We go where the thought leaders go. And when rapid reactions and quick wit are incentivized, we miss out on the deep thinking required to keep progressing forward. As Lanier mentions, where are all the Woodward and Bernstein’s these days? Deep investigative journalism is becoming a thing of the past. Instead our big stories take the form of the aggregate. Pulling the voices of all perspectives involved. And taking down multiple people.

Continuing the thought, how can one create new ideas and seek blue oceans? Part of the success of the web (an any technology for that matter) is the externalities spawning new industries out of the original innovation. Like cryptography, it takes a lot of work to come up with a solution, but once public, the idea is easily verified. It’s the “why didn’t I think of that moment” you get when watching Shark Tank.

So how can we do it? Why is music from 90s and 00s so similar in sound? Are we bound to digitally rehash all of history? To find out, lets think about some of the new ideas stemming from web 2.0.

Well one more digression. To do so, lets start with some digital rehashes: Airbnb -> hotels. Lyft -> taxis. Wikipedia -> Encyclopedia. Ebay -> Thrift store. Amazon -> Bookstore, grocerystore, restauraunt brick and mortar. These are all hugely successful companies that replaced what existed before. I think what’s missing from Lanier’s manifesto is the added value web 2.0 tech brings to previous implementations. However, he does highlight what’s lost in the transformation. (there is more to talk about here, but I’m getting off track)

What is new thought. Is a review of a book just adding to the noise? How can we ever learn if we do not discuss our thoughts and opinions with others? There is value to rehashing work if the idea can stand for something greater. A new version of Unix? Ok sure. But openly available for all to improve and understand? This is novel and moves society forward. Lanier is concerned with the side effects of open culture and I agree with him on the aspect of sustainability (via employment, how do you make a living working on open source?), but how do we build cathedrals if we don’t have the tools?

Part of Lanier’s concern stems from the abstraction of humankind. Kevin Kelly’s one book theory, for example. And it is important to maintain human individuality and creativity. So how do we keep from abstracting the person behind the creation as we move to an aggregated world? People no longer know which studio produces a movie or TV show, unless it’s from Netflix. Netflix advertises their creations, and everyone else’s are abstracted to a title, image, and caption.

Context Collapse

There is a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show with Lanier. Instigated by the release of Lanier’s new book, the two discuss all sorts of things including VR, music, Facebook, blogs, and podcasts. The most intriguing thread was on the topic of social media’s influence in collapsing context of the things people create. They didn’t know who coined the term, but it seems to have been either danah boyd or Michael Wesch (see below), although it might as well have been Lanier.

The basic idea is this (as nicely described by Joel on Software):

Here’s what happened with the 140 characters. You would start out having some kind of complicated thought. “Ya know, dogs are great and all? I love dogs! But sometimes they can be a little bit too friendly. They can get excited and jump on little kids and scare the bejesus out of them. They wag their tails so hard they knock things over. (PS not Huskies! Huskies are the cats of the dog world!)”

Ok, so now you try to post that on Twitter. And you edit and edit and you finally get it down to something that fits: “Dogs can be too friendly!”

All the nuance is lost. And this is where things go wrong. “@spolsky what about huskies? #dontforgethuskies”

Ten minutes later, “Boycott @stackoverflow. @spolsky proves again that tech bros hate huskies. #shame”

By the time you get off the plane in Africa you’re on the international pariah list and your @replies are full of people accusing you of throwing puppies out of moving cars for profit.

The context for Joel’s thought is his decision to give up Facebook and Twitter for 2018. (Isn’t it odd how things come in threes? Reading Lanier, Context Collapse, Joel on Facebook & Twitter). His reasons for doing so are exactly what Klein and Lanier discuss in the podcast. You just lose the human connection when everything we say and do is mashed up, chomped into a sound bite, and thrown around far outside the initial context for the idea.

And I realize I’m constantly doing that know. I haven’t quite figured out how to include quotes and references to others when developing new thoughts and creating new things. I have to keep exploring. Which leads to…

A basis for further understanding

A quick search lead me to this post from danah boyd on coining context collapse. danah boyd talked about the term back in 2013, referencing her thesis from 2002. So the idea, while not new, was new to me. This topic is a rabbit hole, and I have just scratched the surface. I need to go off to read, watch, and listen. I will return soon.

from danah:

From Michael Wesch:

P.S.

I’ve fallen victim just now. I scoured the web for an hour following links to uncover new and interesting things to read. Then I took it all out of the context I was in and distilled my findings into a nice tidy list. I’m grappling with how the onslaught of Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory can mesh with avoiding context collapse via boyd/Lanier (the three should do a podcast together). Does pulling together sources and finding key themes inherently strip the human side of what people create? Or are we bound to keep mashing up ideas. Certainly all new things come from the history that preceded, but how do we balance this growing from this influence with remembering where we came from?

To do research, you take all the mind space of the internet open 100 tabs, make some progress, then save it across all services to pick up again tomorrow. Just with this topic alone, I scattered material to YouTube, Kindle, Instapaper, iBooks, and OneNote. What in the world!? How do people keep any semblance of a train of thought when the best technologies are designed to keep us stretched in multiple directions. Where does the context remain after distilling your work into buckets and silos? This frustrates me, With all the learning one can do on the internet, why is it so unnatural and inhuman? What if the internet was set up more like college, where thoughts and ideas are shared amongst new learners and experts, instead of like a kindergarten classroom where things may be haphazardly thrown everywhere with no sense of where they came from?

There is more to this thread, but I need to dig deeper. I have my materials and my thoughts. Now I just need to stay focused. Keep my mental state and remember the context of where it all began.

Advertisements

Cosmic Brain

Stars in the sky

Remember this video? In it you start with a person lying on the ground looking up at the sky. The camera zooms out exponentially into space showing the immense scale of the galaxies. Then, we quickly zoom back in to molecular scale

Notice the similarity of the Cosmic Web at 1 billion light years and Quarks at 1 femtometer

I immediately recalled the Cosmic eye video when I read this headline:

The Strange Similarity of Neuron and Galaxy Networks

The article is written by an astrophysicist and a neuroscientist on the similar complexities and structures of the brain and the cosmic web.

The task of comparing brains and clusters of galaxies is a difficult one. For one thing it requires dealing with data obtained in drastically different ways: telescopes and numerical simulations on the one hand, electron microscopy, immunohistochemistry, and functional magnetic resonance on the other.

It also requires us to consider enormously different scales: The entirety of the cosmic web—the large-scale structure traced out by all of the universe’s galaxies—extends over at least a few tens of billions of light-years. This is 27 orders of magnitude larger than the human brain. Plus, one of these galaxies is home to billions of actual brains. If the cosmic web is at least as complex as any of its constituent parts, we might naively conclude that it must be at least as complex as the brain.

Complexity of the brain and cosmos “can be quantified by counting how many bits of information are necessary for building the smallest possible computer program that can … predict its behavior.” We do this using an equally fascinating measurement tool: Computers. “independent studies have concluded that the total memory capacity of the adult human brain should be around 2.5 petabytes, not far from the 1-10 petabyte range estimated for the cosmic web!” Petabytes are huge.  This means the amount of information needed to predict the behavior of a human brain is roughly equivalent to the amount of data required to stream the first two seasons of Stranger Things 50 thousand times.

Does this fact tell us something profound about the physics of emergent phenomena in the two systems? Maybe. But we must take these findings with a grain of salt. Our analysis has been limited to small samples taken with very different measurement techniques.

But it’s fun to think about.

Netflix and Coinbase Engineering Cultures

Lightbulb drawing on white paper with blue paper ball

I watched a few QCon videos on the InfoQ YouTube channel. The presentations are from conferences over the last year or so, but the videos were all uploaded within the last month.

A blueprint for organizational success- case study Netflix

I’m pretty sure this is a re-upload, but it caught my eye again. (Here’s another great session by Josh Evans Mastering Chaos – A Netflix Guide to Microservices) Josh Evans begins the talk with with focus on how the organizational structure at Netflix led to internal struggle and dictated the engineering process. Tribalism and the expression of Conway’s law meant the way Netflix shipped code mirrored the team hierarchy. It wasn’t until upper management got involved that the teams sorted out their differences and began to put the architecture before the org structure.

These quotes stood out to me:

Organizational Scalability: The ability for an organization to easily add people and domain responsibilities in response to increased work and complexity. The ease with which an organization or team can adapt to shifts in business strategy

For an organization to grow, the culture must be able to adapt to changes and fluctuations in daily tasks. Netflix grew from prioritizing DVD through the mail to online streaming, two starkly different business models. Looking back at the change, it is easy to place explainations on how things went, but what seemed to be constant is the engineering culture. As Evans mentions:

We have a culture of creativity and self discipline, freedom and responsibility.

Once defined, culture is not easily changed, but setting the right culture from the beginning is crucial to and validated by success.

If you get a chance, be sure to watch (or at least listen) to the video.

Crushing Tech Debt Through Automation at Coinbase

This session with Rob Witoff at Coinbase from March 6, 2017 details how the startup is growing its technology with the interest in cryptocurrencies. The nine month distance in timing gives more perspective in light of recent events. Things are constantly evolving with Bitcoin, but just look at the comments relevant to the week the video was published on November 30, 2017. While cryptocurrency is its own fascinating discussion, the engineering culture at Coinbase is of paramount importance to the company and worth investigating.

Engineering Velocity requires tools and guardrails to empower engineers to work without fear.

And what is the Coinbase engineering velocity? Devs deploy an average of 4 times per week and 16 times a month. This rate of code movement requires heavy investment in testing and tools to ensure changes are good. Not every deploy succeeds (by design) and each failure is an opportunity to improve the product. Bugs in successful deployments is an opportunity to improve the deployment pipeline, and catch similar errors in the future.

Coinbase avoids a culture of blame to ensure people have the freedom to learn and grow. The engineering systems support this ideal and allow the company to scale. People like to compare market caps of Bitcoin and publicly traded companies, and we’ll have to see if the culture at Coinbase allows it to scale similar to Netflix

Again, I won’t spoil it all, as it’s worth the watch.

Post note

The InfoQ youtube channel used to be NewCircle. NewCircle specialized in tech training videos, and InfoQ has a similar focus. I originally subscribed to the NewCircle channel, and when the channel switched over to InfoQ I was happily surprised by the new QCon session videos.

Two Weeks in Review – November 5, 2017

Sunset over mountains from black to blue to orange

4:45 and its dark outside

Podcasts

The Finnish (UBI) Experiment – 99 Percent Invisible

The Psychology of Self-Righteousness – Jonathan Haidt – On Being
An interesting psychological take on political leanings

Readings

Bitcoin uses a lot of energy. Why not a solar powered rig?

The World’s Happiest Places – National Geographic

Tech

Xbox One X

iPhone X

A raspi cluster looks fun, and so does gaming on a plane.

And so many video games: BF1, Fortnite and TF2.

Food

Challah French toast

Donut or doughnut?

Week in Review – August 27, 2017

Eclipse 2K17!

Tech & Programming

Books & Reading

Disney’s Choice

Stratechery

Vertical companies like Apple achieve profits by selling differentiated goods at high margins. Horizontal companies like Google, on the other hand, achieve profits through scale, which by extension means being free (or as low cost as possible) is more important than being the “best”; the brilliance of Google’s model, of course, is that having more users, and thus more data, means it is the best as well.

Epic of Gilgamesh

Wikipedia page

This story is over 4000 years old but was only discovered in 1853. Time deteriorated the tablets and filtered the text to what we have today. The story is about King Gilgamesh of Uruk and his quest to beat death, but what amazed me was the insight it gave to the scale of humanity at the time the story was written (my thoughts were influenced from just reading Sapiens). If all stories were kept on multiple tablets of similar size, where are all the others? What happened in the 4000 years that we never decided to make another copy? Today, it seems the internet will preserve all we create for the foreseeable future, so Gilgamesh will live on.

Everything Else

CinemaSins

CinemaSins is great for screening movies of questionable quality without investing the entire 2 hours on a rotten tomato (but the Kong director doesn’t think so). For example, Power Rangers. Now I know I only need to watch the end to see Megazord. Granted this is not a replacement for watching the movie, just a way to rearrange your list of what to watch next. Still, such nostalgia.

Don’t forget the second step

Seth Godin

Showing up and doing it again and again until you’re good at it, and until it’s part of who you are and what you do.

Gothic Basin

A preview of what’s to come…

At the top of Gothic Basin

Earworm

Two Weeks in Review – August 20, 2017

It's about time

Thoughts

on Renew Psychology

Here’s a test. I decided not to renew nautilus for $29 a year. I already have another 1 year on my subscription, and while I currently would like to have the magazine for another year I am balancing a few things to decide if in one year I want it for another year. In reality, the $29 for a year is really, $29 for two more years since I already acclimated to the original cost. So now, I am taking the option of not wanting the magazine in a year at the cost of an increase over $29. My current rate is $35 a year, so my value on the option is $6.

 

Readings

Aziz Ansari Quit the Internet

via Cal Newport (via GQ)

when he gets into a cab, he now leaves his phone in his pocket and simply sits there and thinks; when he gets home, instead of “looking at websites for an hour and half, checking to see if there’s a new thing,” he reads a book.

Like Macklemore

 

Podcasts

 

Tech and Learning

 

Knick-knacks

San Juan Island

Ferry and driving tour

Cele is no more

I removed it from the App Store. It had a good run, but it was time for other things.

Gated Reverb

via Vox on YouTube
and a Spotify playlist

Weekly Productivity

I like the option I have with this iPad to either read, or write in the mornings. I swing back and forth between the two activities (right now trying to finish Sapiens), but I thought a lot last night about how I was going to write a book. That fell flat in July and August. Replaced with video editing, coding, and having fun with friends. All in moderation is my way of doing things.

Flying with Seals

lighthouse

Alki Beach at sunset

I did not realize I was recording while setting up the drone. When I got back, I noticed the random 30 seconds of filming the ground. Instead of deleting it, I made a preview for the rest of the movie!

And the main feature. Enjoy!