Emil Johansson, a student in Gothenburg, has created a fabulous site called the LOTRProject (or Lord Of The Rings Project. The site provides different types of visualizations about Tolkien’s world (Silmarillion, Hobbit, and LOTR) from maps to family trees to character mentions (see image above).
Ars Technica has a good article on Cybergeddon: Why the Internet could be the next “failed state”. The article all the ways the internet is being abused (from porn to the theft of information.) The article starts by reminding us of all the abuse on the internet from revenge porn to the theft of personal information. It then summarizes a paper by Jason Healey, The Five Futures of Cyber Conflict and Cooperation that outlines five possible cyber futures from the unlikely Paradise to Status Quo, Domain (where cyberspace is a domain like any other for conflict), Balkanization, and Cybergeddon.
One wonders what the futures for cyberspace for the academy are. Here are my speculative futures:
- Balkanization: universities create their own internets (intranets?) to keep out the great unwashed. Alumnae get to keep their university email addresses if they behave. The elite universities (like the University of Alberta) then create a ivory tower subnet where only the important hang.
- Cybergeddon: trolls drive academics off the internet as we are all Social Justice Warriors who should be doxxed, swatted, and watched. Risk management takes over and academics are not allowed on the internet without grant-funded insurance.
- Paradise: universities finally succeed is teaching ethics reliably and the world is made a better place. Philosopher rulers are put in charge. The internet becomes the nice safe place it was originally. Microsoft goes out of business, but wills Bob to the internet to be its AI policeperson.
From Slashdot I was led to a great critique of Kurzweil’s futurism, see the IEEE Spectrum: Ray Kurzweil’s Slippery Futurism. I’ve tried to tackle Kurzweil in previous posts here (on Singularity University), but never quite nailed his form of prediction the way John Rennie does.
Therein lie the frustrations of Kurzweil’s brand of tech punditry. On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable. Yet he continues to be taken seriously enough as an oracle of technology to command very impressive speaker fees at pricey conferences, to author best-selling books, and to have cofounded Singularity University, where executives and others are paying quite handsomely to learn how to plan for the not-too-distant day when those disappearing computers will make humans both obsolete and immortal.
Back to Pontypool, the semiotic zombie movie that has infected me. The image above is of the poster for the missing cat Honey that seems to have something to do with the start of the semiotic infection. The movie starts with Grant Mazzy’s voice over the radio talking about,
Mrs French’s cat is missing. The signs are posted all over town. Have you seen Honey? Well, we have all seen the posters, but nobody has seen Honey the cat. Nobody, until last Thursday morning when Miss Collettepiscine … (drove off the bridge to avoid the cat)
He goes on to pun on “Pontypool” (the name of the town the movie takes place in), Miss Collettepiscine’s name (French for “panty-pool”), and the local name of the bridge she drove off. He keeps repeating variations of Pontypool a hint at the language virus to come.
As for the language virus, I replayed parts of the movie where they talk about it. At about 58 minutes in they hear the character Ken clearly get infected and begin to repeat himself as they talk on the cellphone. Dr. Mendez concludes, “That’s it, he is gone. He is just a crude radio signal, seeking.” A little later Mendez gets it and proposes,
Mendez: No … it can’t be, it can’t be. It’s viral, that much is clear. But not of the blood, not of the air, not on or even in our bodies. It is here.
Mendez: It is in words. Not all words, not all speaking, but in some. Some words are infected. And it spreads out when the contaminated word is spoken. Ohhhh. We are witnessing the emergence of a new arrangement for life … and our language is its host. It could have sprung spontaneously out of a perception. If it found its way into language it could leap into reality itself, changing everything. It may be boundless. It may be a God bug.
Grant: OK, Dr. Mendez. Look, I don’t even believe in UFOs, so I … I’ve got to stop you there with that God bug thing.
Mendez: Well that is very sensible because UFOs don’t exist. But I assure you, there is a monster loose and it is bouncing through our language, frantically trying to keep its host alive.
Grant: Is this transmission itself … um …
Mendez: No, no, no, no. If the bug enters us, it does not enter by making contact with our eardrum. It enters us when we hear the word and we understand it. Understand?
It is when the word is understood that the virus takes hold. And it copies itself in our understanding.
Grant: Should we be … talking about this?
Sydney: What are we talking about?
Grant: Should we be talking at all?
Mendez: Well, to be safe, no, probably not. Talking is risky, and well, talk radio is high risk. And so … we should stop.
Grant: But, we need to tell people about this. People need to know. We have to get this out.
Mendez: Well it’s your call Mr Mazzy. But let’s just hope that your getting out there doesn’t destroy your world.
As one thoughtful review essay points out, Pontypool is not the first to play with the meme of information viruses that can infect us. Snow Crash, the Stephenson novel which features a language-virus, even appears in the movie.
Pontypool itself is infectious, morphing from form to form. Sequels are threatened. The book, Pontypool Changes Everything, which starts with a character who keeps Ovid’s Metamorphoses in his, led to the movie which led to the radio play which was created by re-editing the movie audio (and it apparently has a different ending with “paper”.)
A couple months ago I stumbled on an intriguing connection. Monty Norman who is credited with the theme song for James Bond apparently adapted it from the score for Bad Sign, Good Sign, a tune that he had written for an ill-fated stage version of Naipal’s “A House for Mr Biswas.” See Monty Norman – The first man of James Bond music. That the James Bond theme song turns out to be based on a song meant to be sung by Mr Biswas is some sort of post-colonial irony.
Here are the lyrics to Bad Sign, Good Sign start,
I-I was born with this unlu-ucky sneeze and what is wo-orse I came into the the wo-orld the wrong way round. Pundits all agree that I-I’m the reason why…
Stan pointed me to the inaugural issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research which has a number of fine articles.
- “Cityspace, Cyberspace, and the Spatiology of Information” by Michael L. Benedikt is a reprint of a classic paper where he argues that,
If we wish to reach deeply into the â€œnatureâ€ of â€œspace itselfâ€ then, I believe we must allow into it, as it were, a substance of some sort: not the Ã¦ther of nineteenth-century science perhaps, but a registering, tracing, questioning, remembering substance, spread as thinly as we can imagine, but present nonetheless, and definitive of here versus there because of how it pools, how it vibrates, how it scatters difference, diffÃ©rance. (p. 2)
That substance is information. As he puts it later, “ultimately, the space in information and the information in space are one.” (p. 15)
- “Toward a Definition of ‘Virtual Worlds'” by Mark W Bell is a short “Think Piece” defining “virtual worlds” as “A synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers.” (p. 2)
These two pieces make an interesting contrast since Benedikt focuses on space and Bell manages to define virtual worlds without any reference to space. Benedikt calls for architects to engage in the design of virtual spaces while Bell focuses on the network of avatars – or the people within the space (and persistent time.)
Ever since the Gartner press release saying that “80 Percent of Active Internet Users Will Have A “Second Life” in the Virtual World by the End of 2011″ there has been a renewed interest in virtual worlds. My sense is that the 1990s interest in virtual reality was overblown and ultimately wrong in that people predicted we would be manipulating information inside virtual worlds with VR interfaces, data-gloves, headsets and so on. What has emerged instead is the proliferation of massive multiplayer online environments from games like World of Warcraft to social/creative spaces like Second Life. The headsets and torture apparatus of Lawnmower Man are gone, thank you!
So … what is next? I’ve just finished Halting State by Charles Stross which is a near-future detective story set in Edinburgh where players can move their avatars from game to game in the Zone (something actually proposed by Linden Labs and IBM – see Lohr Free the Avatars – this reference is from the Messinger, Stroulia and Lyons article “A Typology of Virtual Worlds” in the JCWR.) What is more interesting is the way Stross imagines the overlay of virtual and real worlds. Everyone, including cops, wear glasses that provide augmented reality views on the world they walk through, including the ability to see people in their in-game avatar representation while, for example, at a trade fair. Stross does a imaginative job or weaving the virtual into everyday life. (If you like this book you should also read Accelerando – a great accelerating run through the artificial life as it leaves meat behind.)
William Gibson can’t read his own fiction, I’m sorry to say. I went to his reading here in Hamilton organized by Brian Prince and some guy from a bookstore in Burlington who thought it was a good idea to merge the science fiction in his bookstore with the other fiction (see below). Gibson read from Spook Country which I blogged before. He is a bland reader who, when combined with local musician Tom Wilson looks pickled white. He also had some strange pronunciations, like “bitch” for “bench”. (Benches show up surprisingly often in Spook Country chapters, something you don’t notice until someone pronounces them “bitch.”) Perhaps it’s an elaborate joke, or a Vancouver accent, or just that Gibson was at the end of a tour in boring town in Ontario reading after Tom Wilson.
Reminder to self … never follow Tom Wilson!
To be fair Gibson was good at answering questions, most of which were of the sort, “what sort of books-music-movies do you read-listen-watch.” I think Gibson fans confuse him for an oracle of nerd cool because his recent characters seem so hip. To be frank I’m more interested in what music Tom Wilson listens to. For that matter, Gibson more or less said he doesn’t read fiction after a long day writing it. As for his musical tastes his answers felt canned, and sure enough, showed up verbatim on his web site.
Now to comment on the idea of merging sci fi with regular fiction. This was presented to us (Gibson fans) as a legitimation of sci fi as if we were worried all along that our reading wasn’t being taken seriously. Who cares what others think? I personally prefer my sci fi in one place so I don’t have to wade through a large bookstore by author; that’s how I discover new authors like Ian Banks. The advantage of organization by genre is that you can discover more books in that genre when you don’t have an author in mind. Margaret Atwood talks about what sci fi or speculative fiction can do in The Guardian. If she is right that certain things can be done better with sci fi, and if that is what you want to read, why not have a couple shelves dedicated to it (and, of course, fantasy, which doesn’t do the same stuff, but gets lumped in there.) Thank Atwood that Brian Prince hasn’t reorganized their shelves.
Last weekend I read William Gibson’s new book, Spook Country. Like most of Gibson’s book he does a great job imagining the evolution of computing technologies. He is the master of close-future forecasting. In this case he looks at GPS (Global Positioning System) or, more specifically its use for what is called locative art or augmented reality. One of the parallel plots of the story has the main character Hollis follow an artist and look (through a special visor) at virtual works superimposed over real locations like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death where it really happened. Gibson in Q&A with the Boston Globe calls it graffitti (compared to current locative art which is mostly audio-cellphone based.) Gibson has put his finger on something important – the way GPS and WiFi enable an outdoor virtual reality superimposed on where you are.
What I find dissappointing is the increasing predictable passivity of Gibson’s characters. In Spook Country he has three witness zombie characters who essentially move around the plot watching the real protagonists and reflecting on them. That Hollis would by sheer luck (and her having been part of a defunct band) get invited to witness and talk to the protagonists becomes unbelievable at the end. I can see no reason why either Bigend or the old man would involve her as they do based on Gibson’s prose. Likewise the character Milgrim is dragged along to witness the far more interesting character Brown. The strange passivity of such central characters spoils an otherwise very smart book. Gibson is trying too hard to avoid a third-person point-of-view so he creates unbelievable witnesses.
One thing Gibson does well is science fiction of the here-and-now. Spook Country takes place after 9/11 and in the shady reality of contract intelligence. It reflects in the way that speculative fiction can on what we are worried we will become. Washington Post reviewer Bill Sheehan rightly compares Gibson to Don DeLillo, both of whom write “fiction that is powerfully attuned to the currents of dread, dismay and baffled fury that permeate our culture.”
The BBC has a story about roboethics, Robotic age poses ethical dilemma, triggered by a South Korean initiative to develop a Robot Ethics Charter as part of a focus on robotics as a growth area.
In the past, robots were considered just a useful tool in the manufacturing industry. But it is gradually embedded in human life by cleaning homes, protecting them from thieves and providing education. Nowadays robots are also used to rescue people at accident spots such as fires.
This year, various robots are to be introduced: a robot that teaches English and sings songs to children, a robot that guides people at the post office and a robot designed to save people at disaster areas. (Korea.net, Robots, cars, batteries hold key to future growth)
Roboethics is the ethics applied to Robotics, guiding the design, construction and use of the robots.
In this site you may find: birth and history of Roboethics; all the information concerning the development of the concept of a human-centered Roboethics; the events which have marked the update of the original proposal; the international projects on Roboethics; the EURON Roboethics Roadmap; the activity of the IEEE-RAS Technical Committee on Roboethics.
Thanks to Daryl for this link.