Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dense and Thick. Future Present. Mark Pesce, Chu, Fly.

Mark Pesce - Words.
CHU - Images.
Steve 'Fly Agaric'' - Mixing


Dense and Thick

Part One: The Golden Age

In October of 1993 I bought myself a used SparcStation. I’d
just come off of a consulting gig at Apple, and, flush with
cash, wanted to learn UNIX systems administration. I also
had some ideas about coding networking protocols for shared
virtual worlds. Soon after I got the SparcStation installed in
my lounge room – complete with its thirty-kilo monster of a
monitor – I grabbed a modem, connected it to the RS-232
port, configured SLIP, and dialed out onto the Internet. Once
online I used FTP, logged into SUNSITE and downloaded the
newly released NSCA Mosaic, a graphical browser for the
World Wide Web.

I’d first seen Mosaic running on an SGI workstation at the
1993 SIGGRAPH conference. I knew what hypertext was –
I’d built a MacOS-based hypertext system back in the 1980s
so I could see what Mosaic was doing, but there wasn’t much
there. Not enough content to make it really interesting. The
same problem that had bedeviled all hypertext systems since
Douglas Englebart’s first demo, back in 1968. Without
sufficient content, hypertext systems are fundamentally
uninteresting. Even Hypercard, Apple’s early experiment in
Hypertext, never really moved beyond the toy stage. To make
hypertext interesting, it must be broadly connected – beyond
a document, beyond a hard drive. Either everything is
connected, or everything is useless.

In the three months between my first click on NCSA Mosaic
and when I fired it up in my lounge room, a lot of people had
come to the Web party. The master list of Websites –
maintained by CERN, the birthplace of the Web – kept
growing. Over the course of the last week of October 1993, I
visited every single one of those Websites. Then I was done. I
had surfed the entire World Wide Web. I was even able to
keep up, as new sites were added.

This gives you a sense of the size of the Web universe in those
very early days. Before the explosive ‘inflation’ of 1994 and
1995, the Web was a tiny, tidy place filled mostly with
academic websites. Yet even so, the Web had the capacity to
suck you in. I’d find something that interested me –
astronomy, perhaps, or philosophy – and with a click-clickclick
find myself deep within something that spoke to me
directly. This, I believe, is the core of the Web experience, an
experience that we’re so many years away from we tend to
overlook it. At its essence, the Web is personally seductive.
I realized the universal truth of this statement on a cold night
in early 1994, when I dragged my SparcStation and boatanchor
monitor across town to a house party. This party, a
monthly event known as Anon Salon, was notorious for
attracting the more intellectual and artistic crowd in San
Francisco. People would come to perform, create,
demonstrate, and spectate. I decided I would show these
people this new-fangled thing I’d become obsessed with. So,
that evening, as front the door opened, and another person
entered, I’d sidle along side them, and ask them, “So, what are
you interested in?” They’d mention their current hobby –
gardening or vaudeville or whatever it might be – and I’d use
the brand-new Yahoo! category index to look up a web page
on the subject. They’d be delighted, and begin to explore. At
no point did I say, “This is the World Wide Web.” Nor did I
use the word ‘hypertext’. I let the intrinsic seductiveness of
the Web snare them, one by one.

Of course, a few years later, San Francisco became the
epicenter of the Web revolution. Was I responsible for that?
I’d like to think so, but I reckon San Francisco was a bit of a
nexus. I wasn’t the only one exploring the Web. That night at
Anon Salon I met Jonathan Steuer, who walked on up and
said, “Mosaic, hmm? How about you type in
‘’?” Steuer was part of the crew at work,
just few blocks away, bringing WIRED magazine online.
Everyone working on the Web shared the same fervor – an
almost evangelical belief that the Web changes everything. I
didn’t have to tell Steuer, and he didn’t have to tell me. We
knew. And we knew if we simply shared the Web – not the
technology, not its potential, but its real, seductive human
face, we’d be done.

That’s pretty much how it worked out: the Web exploded from
the second half of 1994, because it appeared to every single
person who encountered it as the object of their desire. It
was, and is, all things to all people. This makes it the perfect
love machine – nothing can confirm your prejudices better
than the Web. It also makes the Web a very pretty hate
machine. It is the reflector and amplifier of all things human.
We were completely unprepared, and for that reason the Web
has utterly overwhelmed us. There is no going back. If every
website suddenly crashed, we would find another way to
recreate the universal infinite hypertextual connection.
In the process of overwhelming us – in fact, part of the
process itself – the Web has hoovered up the entire space of
human culture; anything that can be digitized has been
sucked into the Web. Of course, this presents all sorts of
thorny problems for individuals who claim copyright over
cultural products, but they are, in essence swimming against
the tide. The rest, everything that marks us as definably
human, everything that is artifice, has, over the last fifteen
years, been neatly and completely sucked into the space of
infinite connection. The project is not complete – it will never
be complete – but it is substantially underway, and more will
simply be more: it will not represent a qualitative difference.
We have already arrived at a new space, where human culture
is now instantaneously and pervasively accessible to any of
the four and a half billion network-connected individuals on
the planet.

This, then, is the Golden Age, a time of rosy dawns and bright
beginnings, when everything seems possible. But this age is
drawing to a close. Two recent developments will, in
retrospect, be seen as the beginning of the end. The first of
these is the transformation of the oldest medium into the
newest. The book is coextensive with history, with the largest
part of what we regard as human culture. Until five hundred
and fifty years ago, books were handwritten, rare and
precious. Moveable type made books a mass medium, and lit
the spark of modernity. But the book, unlike nearly every
other medium, has resisted its own digitization. This year the
defenses of the book have been breached, and ones and zeroes
are rushing in. Over the next decade perhaps half or more of
all books will ephemeralize, disappearing into the ether,
never to return to physical form. That will seal the
transformation of the human cultural project.

On the other hand, the arrival of the Web-as-appliance means
it is now leaving the rarefied space of computers and mobiles129
as-computers, and will now be seen as something as mundane
as a book or a dinner plate. Apple’s iPad is the first device of
an entirely new class which treat the Web as an appliance, as
something that is pervasively just there when needed, and put
down when not. The genius of Apple’s design is its extreme
simplicity – too simple, I might add, for most of us. It
presents the Web as a surface, nothing more. iPad is a portal
into the human universe, stripped of everything that is a
computer. It is emphatically not a computer. Now, we can
discuss the relative merits of Apple’s design decisions – and
we will, for some years to come. But the basic strength of the
iPad’s simplistic design will influence what the Web is about
to become.

eBooks and the iPad bookend the Golden Age; together they
represent the complete translation of the human universe into
a universally and ubiquitously accessible form. But the
human universe is not the whole universe. We tend to forget
this as we stare into the alluring and seductive navel of our
ever-more-present culture. But the real world remains, and
loses none of its importance even as the flashing lights of
culture grow brighter and more hypnotic.

external image g09lies_11-650x139.jpg

Part Two: The Silver Age

Human beings have the peculiar capability of endowing
material objects with inner meaning. We know this as one of
the basic characteristics of humanness. From the time a child
anthropomorphizes a favorite doll or wooden train, we imbue
the material world with the attributes of our own
consciousness. Soon enough we learn to discriminate
between the animate and the inanimate, but we never
surrender our continual attribution of meaning to the
material world. Things are never purely what they appear to
be, instead we overlay our own meanings and associations
onto every object in the world. This process actually provides
the mechanism by which the world comes to make sense to
us. If we could not overload the material world with meaning,
we could not come to know it or manipulate it.

This layer of meaning is most often implicit; only in works of
‘art’ does the meaning crowd into the definition of the
material itself. But none of us can look at a thing and be
completely innocent about its hidden meanings. They
constantly nip at the edges of our consciousness, unless, Zenlike,
we practice an ‘emptiness of mind’, and attempt to
encounter the material in an immediate, moment-to-moment
awareness. For those of us not in such a blessed state, the
material world has a subconscious component. Everything
means something. Everything is surrounded by a penumbra
of meaning, associations that may be universal (an apple can
invoke the Fall of Man, or Newton’s Laws of Gravity), or
something entirely specific. Through all of human history the
interiority of the material world has remained hidden except
in such moments as when we choose to allude to it. It is
always there, but rarely spoken of. That is about to change.

One of the most significant, yet least understood implications
of a planet where everyone is ubiquitously connected to the
network via the mobile is that it brings the depth of the
network ubiquitously to the individual. You are – amazingly
– connected to the other five billion individuals who carry
mobiles, and you are also connected to everything that’s been
hoovered into cyberspace over the past fifteen years. That
connection did not become entirely apparent until year, as the
first mobiles appeared with both GPS and compass
capabilities. Suddenly, it became possible to point through
the camera on a mobile, and – using the location and
orientation of the device – search through the network.
This technique has become known as ‘Augmented Reality’, or
AR, and it promises to be one of the great growth areas in
technology over the next decade – but perhaps not the
reasons the leaders of the field currently envision. The
strength of AR is not what it brings to the big things – the
buildings and monuments – but what it brings to the smallest
and most common objects in the material world. At present,
AR is flashy, but not at all useful. It’s about to make a
transition. It will no longer be spectacular, but we’ll wonder
how we lived without it.

Let me illustrate the nature of this transition, drawn from
examples in my own experience. These three ‘thought
experiments’ represent the different axes of a world which is
making the transition between implicit meaning, and a world
where the implicit has become explicit. Once meaning is
exposed, it can be manipulated: this is something unexpected,
and unexpectedly powerful.

51 CHU cube
51 CHU cube

Example One: The Book

Last year I read a wonderful book. The Rest is Noise:
Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross, is a
thorough and thoroughly enjoyable history of music in the
20th century. By music, Ross means what we would
commonly call ‘classical’ music, even though the Classical
period ended some two hundred years ago. That’s not as
stuffy as it sounds: George Gershwin and Aaron Copland are
both major figures in 20th century music, though their works
have always been classed as ‘popular’.

Ross’ book has a companion website,,
which offers up a chapter-by-chapter samples of the
composers whose lives and exploits he explores in the text.
When I wrote The Playful World, back in 2000, and built a
companion website to augment the text, it was considered
quite revolutionary, but this is all pretty much standard for
better books these days.

As I said earlier, the book is on the edge of ephemeralization.
It wants to be digitized, because it has always been a message,
encoded. When I dreamed up this example, I thought it
would be very straightforward: you’d walk into your
bookstore, point your smartphone at a book that caught your
fancy, and instantly you’d find out what your friends thought
of it, what their friends thought of it, what the reviewers
thought of it, and so on. You’d be able to make a well-briefed
decision on whether this book is the right book for you.
Simple. In fact, Google Labs has already shown a basic
example of this kind of technology in a demo running on

But that’s not what a book is anymore. Yes, it’s good to know
whether you should buy this or that book, but a book
represents an investment of time, and an opportunity to open
a window into an experience of knowledge in depth. It’s this
intension that the device has to support. As the book slowly
dissolves into the sea of fragmentary but infinitely threaded
nodes of hypertext which are the human database, the device
becomes the focal point, the lens through which the whole
book appears, and appears to assemble itself.

This means that the book will vary, person to person. My
fragments will be sewn together with my threads, yours with
your threads. The idea of unitary authorship – persistent
over the last five hundred years – won’t be overwhelmed by
the collective efforts of crowdsourcing, but rather by the
corrosive effects of hyperconnection. The more connected
everything becomes, the less likely we are prone to linearity.
We already see this in the ’tl;dr' phenomenon, where any text
over 300 words becomes too onerous to read.

Somehow, whatever the book is becoming must balance the
need for clarity and linearity against the centrifugal and
connective forces of hypertext. The book is about to be
subsumed within the network; the device is the place where it
will reassemble into meaning. The implicit meaning of the
book – that it has a linear story to tell, from first page to last –
must be made explicit if the idea and function of the book is to

The book stands on the threshold, between the worlds of the
physical and the immaterial. As such it is pulled in both
directions at once. It wants to be liberated, but will be utterly
destroyed in that liberation. The next example is something
far more physical, and, consequentially, far more important.

Cover Your Tracks (3D Sketch) By CHU
Cover Your Tracks (3D Sketch) By CHU

Example Two: Beef Mince

I go into the supermarket to buy myself the makings for a nice
Spaghetti Bolognese. Among the ingredients I’ll need some
beef mince (ground beef for those of you in the United States)
to put into the sauce. Today I’d walk up to the meat case and
throw a random package into my shopping trolley. If I were
being thoughtful, I’d probably read the label carefully, to
make sure the expiration date wasn’t too close. I might also
check to see how much fat is in the mince. Or perhaps it’s
grass-fed beef. Or organically grown. All of this information
is offered up on the label placed on the package. And all of it
is so carefully filtered that it means nearly nothing at all.

What I want to do is hold my device up to the package, and
have it do the hard work. Go through the supermarket to the
distributor, through the distributor to the abattoir, through
the abattoir to farmer, through the farmer to the animal itself.
Was it healthy? Where was it slaughtered? Is that abattoir
healthy? (This isn’t much of an issue in Australia, or New
Zealand. but in America things are quite a bit different.) Was
it fed lots of antibiotics in a feedlot? Which ones?
And – perhaps most importantly – what about the carbon
footprint of this little package of mince? How much CO2 was
created? How much methane? How much water was
consumed? These questions, at the very core of 21st century
life, need to be answered on demand if we can be expected to
adjust our lifestyles so as minimize our footprint on the
planet. Without a system like this, it is essentially impossible.
With such a system it can potentially become easy. As I walk
through the market, popping items into my trolley, my device
can record and keep me informed of a careful balance
between my carbon budget and my financial budget, helping
me to optimize both – all while referencing my purchases
against sales on offer in other supermarkets.

Finally, what about the caloric count of that packet of mince?
And its nutritional value? I should be tracking those as well –
or rather, my device should – so that I can maintain optimal
health. I should know whether I’m getting too much fat, or
insufficient fiber, or – as I’ll discuss in a moment – too much
sodium. Something should be keeping track of this.

Something that can watch and record and use that recording
to build a model. Something that can connect the real world
of objects with the intangible set of goals that I have for
myself. Something that could do that would be exceptionally
desirable. It would be as seductive as the Web.

The more information we have at hand, the better the
decisions we can make for ourselves. It’s an idea so simple it
is completely self-evident. We won’t need to convince anyone
of this, to sell them on the truth of it. They will simply ask,
‘When can I have it?’ But there’s more. My final example
touches on something so personal and so vital that it may
become the center of the drive to make the implicit explicit.

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Example Three: Medicine
Four months ago, I contracted adult-onset chickenpox.
Which was just about as much fun as that sounds. (And yes,
since you’ve asked, I did have it as a child. Go figure.) Every
few days I had doctors come by to make sure that I was
surviving the viral infection. While the first doctor didn’t
touch me at all – understandably – the second doctor took my
blood pressure, and showed me the reading – 160/120, a bit
too uncomfortably high. He suggested that I go on Micardis,
a common medication for hypertension. I was too sick to
argue, so I dutifully filled the prescription and began taking it
that evening.

Whenever I begin taking a new medication – and I’m getting
to an age where that happens with annoying regularity – I am
always somewhat worried. Medicines are never perfect; they
work for a certain large cohort of people. For others they do
nothing at all. For a far smaller number, they might be toxic.
So, when I popped that pill in my mouth I did wonder
whether that medicine might turn out to be poison.
The doctor who came to see me was not my regular GP. He
did not know my medical history. He did not know the
history of the other medications I had been taking. All he
knew was what he saw when he walked into my flat. That
could be a recipe for disaster. Not in this situation – I was
fine, and have continued to take Micardis – but there are
numerous other situations where medications can interact
within the patient to cause all sorts of problems. This is well
known. It is one of the drawbacks of modern pharmaceutical

This situation is only going to grow more intense as the
population ages and pharmaceutical management of the
chronic diseases of aging becomes ever-more-pervasive.
Right now we rely on doctors and pharmacists to keep their
own models of our pharmaceutical consumption. But that’s a
model which is precisely backward. While it is very important
for them to know what drugs we’re on, it is even more
important for us to be able to manage that knowledge for
ourselves. I need to be able to point my device at any
medicine, and know, more or less immediately, whether that
medicine will cure me or kill me.

Over the next decade the cost of sequencing an entire human
genome will fall from the roughly $5000 it costs today to less
than $500. Well within the range of your typical medical test.
Once that happens, will be possible to compile
epidemiological data which compares various genomes to the
effectiveness of drugs. Initial research in this area has already
shown that some drugs are more effective among certain
ethnic groups than others. Our genome holds the clue to why
drugs work, why they occasionally don’t, and why they
sometimes kill.

The device is the connection point between our genome –
which lives, most likely, somewhere out on a medical cloud –
and the medicines we take, and the diagnoses we receive. It is
our interface to ourselves, and in that becomes an object of
almost unimaginable importance. In twenty years time, when
I am ‘officially’ a senior, I will have a handheld device – an
augmented reality – whose sole intent is to keep me as
healthy as possible for as long as possible. It will encompass
everything known about me medically, and will integrate with
everything I capture about my own life – my activities, my
diet, my relationships. It will work with me to optimize
everything we know about health (which is bound to be quite
a bit by 2030) so that I can live a long, rich, healthy life.
These three examples represent the promise bound up in the
collision between the handheld device and the ubiquitous,
knowledge-filled network. There are already bits and pieces
of much of this in place. It is a revolution waiting to happen.
That revolution will change everything about the Web, and
why we use it, how, and who profits from it.

24 Phase CHU CUBE
24 Phase CHU CUBE

Part Three: The Bronze Age

By now, some of you sitting here listening to me this
afternoon are probably thinking, “That’s the Semantic Web.
He’s talking about the Semantic Web.” And you’re right, I am
talking about the Semantic Web. But the Semantic Web as
proposed and endlessly promoted by Sir Tim Berners-Lee was
always about pushing, pushing, pushing to get the machines
talking to one another. What I have demonstrated in these
three thought experiments is a world that is intrinsically so
alluring and so seductive that it will pull us all into it. That’s
the vital difference which made the Web such a success in
1994 and 1995. And it’s about to happen once again.

But we are starting from near zero. Right now, I should be
able to hold up my device, wave it around my flat, and have an
interaction with the device about what’s in my flat. I can not.
I can not Google for the contents of my home. There is no
place to put that information, even if I had it, nor systems to
put that information to work. It is exactly like the Web in
1993: the lights on, but nobody home. We have the capability
to conceive of the world-as-a-database. We have the
capability to create that database. We have systems which
can put that database to work. And we have the need to
overlay the real world with that rich set of data.

We have the capability, we have the systems, we have the
need. But we have precious little connecting these three.
These are not businesses that exist yet. We have not brought
the real world into our conception of the Web. That will have
to change. As it changes, the door opens to a crescendo of
innovations that will make the Web revolution look puny in
comparison. There is an opportunity here to create industries
bigger than Google, bigger than Microsoft, bigger than Apple.
As individuals and organizations figure out how to inject data
into the real world, entirely new industry segments will be

I can not tell you exactly what will fire off this next revolution.
I doubt it will be the integration of Wikipedia with a mobile
camera. It will be something much more immediate. Much
more concrete. Much more useful. Perhaps something
concerned with health. Or with managing your carbon
footprint. Those two seem the most obvious to me. But the
real revolution will probably come from a direction no one
expects. It’s nearly always that way.

There no reason to think that Wellington couldn’t be the
epicenter of that revolution. There was nothing special about
San Francisco back in 1993 and 1994. But, once things got
started, they created a ‘virtuous cycle’ of feedbacks that
brought the best-and-brightest to San Francisco to build out
the Web. Wellington is doing that to the film industry; why
shouldn’t it stretch out a bit, and invent this next generation
web-of things’?

This is where the future is entirely in your hands. You can
leave here today promising yourself to invent the future, to
write meaning explicitly onto the real world, to transform our
relationship to the universe of objects. Or, you can wait for
someone else to come along and do it. Because someone
inevitably will. Every day, the pressure grows. The real world
is clamoring to crawl into cyberspace. You can open the door.


Mark Pesce - Words.
CHU - Images.
Steve 'Fly Agaric'' - Mixing

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