Notes on Media


Just another weblog. Lasse Bo Timmermann.

The Happy Button

Filed under: Photography

Calm Technology

Ubiquitous Computing is a concept firstly formulated by Mark Weise in 1991. Afterwards is has been used in various contexts and under various names. Pervasive computing, the Internet of things and ambient intelligence are only some of them. Whether the high expections formulated by Weiser and others can ever be reached or if the goals are at all desirable is a question still discussed. Dealing with Weiser and his work itensively during my Bachelor program I have been reminded of one of his ideas in a quite remarkable way. On TV I stumbled upon an ad of the new HTC campaign, which comes under the slogan “quietly brilliant”. As a description of mobile communication devices the slogan shows a striking closeness to Weiser’s notion of calm technology that appears in a paper from 1999. There he describes how technology fades to the background and adapts to the context in order to remain calm and disappear from the focus of attention. The ad itself then nicely plays with the ubiquity of phones in daily live. While the phones sold by HTC are arguably far from Weiser’s vision, the example still indicates a nice way to see the relevance of writings that are almost 20 years old.

Filed under: Future, Media, Nostalgia, Technology, Ubiquitous Computing

The Internet as the New Green?

In November I already wrote of the possibility to see movements, dealing critically with technology, taking a development similar to the idea of the green in the 1980s. Recently I found a news item quite interesting with respect to this connection. The screenshot above is taken from Spiegel Online, which arguably is the largest online news portal in Germany. It shows people taking part in the largest protest against nuclear power for more than 20 years. What I think is interesting about the article is the connection between the anti-nuclear movement and movements concerned with the Internet. The headline somehow strangely connects the “leakage” of data, dealing with the selection of final storage sites for nuclear waste, with the protest against nuclear power plants. It roughly reads “Confidental Gorleben-Files freely available on the Internet” next to the photograph of two protesters. Whilst the protest and the leakage of confidental files are only loosely connected, the article positions the Internet as some kind of protest space and puts two distinct movements in the same corner. Although the composition of the news item might just be a coincidence I think that it is quite telling regarding the larger discourse of Internet politics and its potential to become the green of the 2010s.

Filed under: Activism, Culture, Media, Politics

Invasion of Amsterdam

Filed under: Culture, Games, Nostalgia, Photography

The Power of Data

Sample Image of Data Driven Newspaper
An increasing amount of free data sets is becoming available through the Web every day. A talk by Alex Lundry on Chart Wars: The Political Power of Data Visualization shows how important the presentation of a data set is in order to achieve certain goals. While he is mainly concerned with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways of visualization the larger scope is widened in a post by Nat Torkington on Rethinking Open Data in which he points to the fact that most data sets made available by governments are not being used sufficiently for different reasons. He sees the problems in the indifferent goals of the people working with the data and the resulting difficulties for its uses. For future projects Torkington conludes that it is neccesary to

[…] build a tight feedback loop between those who want data and those who can provide it, to create an environment where the data users can support each other, and to make it easier to assess the value created by government-released open data.

It is thus neccessary to embed the open data sets into the existing media environment rather than trying to change the things entirely in a single step. One possible way to engage users with data is the present it aesthetically. Blogs like Information is Beautiful, Information Aesthetics or Databeautiful provide great collection of the possible outcomes of such work. The question, however, remains to which extend they also really serve as feedback loops as they only aim at the aesthetic representation of more or less useful data. The main issue hence seems to be in the possibility to engage with the data and repurpose it for one’s own means. What is therefore needed is the creation of tools that allow ‘real people’, as Nat Torkington writes, to access and use open data. Only if this is achieved, open data can serve the means that potentially make it a great thing. While already announced in April 2009 Google’s public data and its ingreation into search results might provide a first step in this direction. Arguably the visualization of open data within search results provides an example for the integration of such data into a Web environment experienced by most people. While the number of data available like this, as well as the interaction with it remain at a very basic level they appear in a ‘natural’ environment. I think that a further integration of data like this could be the next step in getting people in touch with open data. Thinking this further the data could make it from the browser into augmented reality environments. With augmented reality somehow in-between I finally want to point to a project situated in the offline world. Based on the data from the newspaper club created the prototype for a data driven newspaper that is aimed at people moving into a new area. It is thought to trigger an active engagement with the publicly available data for one’s local environment.

Despite the promising approaches mentioned above there’s a lot of work to do, as suggested in Nat Torkington’s article. The mere availability of data doesn’t change anything and thus what matters is representation and engagement.

Filed under: Data, Politics, Visualization, Web 2.0

Internet Politics

Who Google is according to Google
Google’s announcement to no longer support the state imposed filtering of the Chinese version of their search engine has created quite a buzz recently. Despite many tech bloggers, who are celebrating Google’s step as a heroic act for freedom and human rights, there are some more serious thoughts around as well. An interesting article on the issue, titled The Google Republic has been published by Die Zeit. They point to the fact that Google’s step can be seen as an example of companies applying pressure on nation-states to enforce their goals. This step that can be very well related to the activities undertaken by United Fruit Company (Chiquita) to achieve their goals in Central America and lead to the term Banana Republics – therefore The Google Republic. Siva Vaidhyanathan’s argument is even more forthright in that he writes that Google governs the Internet, just because no state is willing to take that role. He further states that

[o]ne could read this showdown (as I do) as a classic international power conflict between a major traditional state and a new, virtual state: the Googlenet.

Thus, the step Google took is probably more than just clever PR or the heroic support of the human rights. It more seems as if it is the first move towards a new kind of politics. The rise of Google to the status of a quasi-state, pointed to in the Zeit article, indicates a potential development. Although their view of the nation-state as transparent and acting solely for the good of its people is rather romantic, it still is and important hint that we have to ask ourselves how desirable this trend is. A deeper implication might be a conflict between the models of a traditional state and the virtual state of Google. A redefinition of the traditional model provides great chances to change things for the better, but also bears specific dangers. A positive result of the recent announcement could thus be a more intensive debate about the future of politics with the Internet.

Filed under: Censorship, China, Google, Internet, Politics

The End of (Reality) Browsing?

Siva Vaidhyanathan’s notion of googlization is around for quite a while already. The practice of search arguably spread from the Internet into other areas of life. With mobile devices the ability to search became increasingly pervasive and finally enabled, however basic, augmented reality applications. Jeff Jarvis calls this the hyperlocal and recently published a nice blogpost summarizing where this might lead. There he speaks of the annotated world and he concludes with a redefinition of search:

This is the new way I want to look at search: not to search a data base but to search my world, to see what is around me in new ways […]

Arguably being a form of googlization in the sense of Vaidhyanathan the idea might imply some more things. Before the massive success of search engines one was browsing the Web by calling a URL to start from, and then followed its links to the next page and so on. Very similar one is ‘browsing’ reality today, just strolling around to see what comes. In a local context one usually knows certains paths, like on the portals used earlier on the Web. Landmarks could be described as links that are used for navigational purposes. If this reality is increasingly augmented with data and constantly searched will this change? What happens if I can search the reality around me? The experience of reality changes fundamentaly when I can point a device to anything and anyone in order to search for further information. It might be too far fetched to argue that the way one experiences reality will change from browsing to search. Thinking about the implications of such a shift, however, remains interesting. Google’s experimental “near me now” button points to a possible outcome. Rather then walking on known paths one can explore the local by searching it.

Filed under: Future, Google, Mobile, Ubiquitous Computing

Digital Archives

If one looks at the Internet and its increasing use as an environment of communication, social interaction and writing an often heard claim is that whatever is put on the Internet will be there forever. The Internet does not forget. The usual assumption is that with storing all our e-mails, having facebook profiles, twitter and weblogs the history of persons or institutions will soon be available in machine readable formats, ready to be recalled at any moment and in a detail never seen before. Stefan Heidenreich describes this in a recent episode of the medienradio podcast as a point in time where we will ascend from a ‘dark era’. Heidenreich’s argument is that 20 Years from now we will be able to look back in time on the basis of our digital biographies to a certain point between 2000 and 2005 at which our history is obscured or dark simply because there is no data. I got a similar idea from a recent lecture of my digital methods seminar. The digital methods intiative is researching, among other things, the history ob websites with the Internet archive. While this kind of research has its own limitations (e.g. with websites extensivle using JavaScript or Flash) the research posibilities seem to increase with growing archives. The above approaches and common ideas about the Internet as an archive thus generally expect an increasing availability of data. The issues of studying history with the Internet rather lies in privacy issues than somewhere else. A recent post by Manuel Lima on the visual complexity blog, however, provides a striking viewpoint on this topic. He refers to an article by Robert Lee Hotz in which he argues that

“Scientists who collaborate via email, Google, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are leaving fewer paper trails, while the information technologies that do document their accomplishments can be incomprehensible to other researchers and historians trying to read them.”

Lima writes that the more channels we are using to communicate the smaller the trails we are leaving behind get. New platforms, networks and formats come along daily. The important question is to what extend we will be able to access the data we collect in lets say 20 or 200 years from now. Paper trails have been a pretty save form of archiving even for thousands of years – although time consuming. Opposed to that, the data stored on floppy disks requires a significant effort to be restored only 15 years from the time in which it was the dominant storage media for data. So, will we still use e-mail in 50 years? Will facebook be around in 10 years? The larger question is whether the predictions of a future in which all our memories a available with the click on a button are right. Are we at the verge of entering a time of almost infinite recollection, as Stefan Heidenreich puts it, or rather facing a memoryless generation of what Manuel Lima calls the dark digital age?

Filed under: Digital Methods, Future, Internet, Memory, University

Urban Screens – Visualizing the Rhythms of the City

Visiting the urbancreens conference in Amsterdam provided some interesting insights into the connections between urban culture, architecture and media spaces. Most interesting in view was Martijn de Waals’s talk on Improving Cultural Public Spaces. In his talk he was concerned with urban screens, mobile media and urban culture. In his terms the city is a space full of strangers in which we only know a small fraction personally. He asks how we shape and express our own identity in these spaces and how we relate ourselve to others?
real-time rome visualization taken from
De Waal then turned to the analysis of different urban practices that are fundamentally reshaped by the use of mobile communication devices. The space of the city can hence serve as a space for political debate and the encounter of different people and perspectives. The cultural public space offers a bodily experience of collective rhythms, performances and habits. Wearing particular clothes and visiting shared places leads of the creation of patterns. Just by being in space a person creates a specific urban space. Over time the same persons encounter each other frequently which can build a sense of trust, similarly to social networks and recommendation systems. The sense of belonging to a collective can therefore be argued to be based on a shared space. This sense of belonging can further lead to what de Waal terms dwelling and that describes the process of making oneself at home in a city. In his talk de Waal provides a comeplling way of describing urban life in the time of the increasing use of mobile communication devices (and their screens). I really enjoyed his descriptions of actively formed and constantly re-formed spaces in an urban environment.
The examples introduced show current projects that support the creation of the spaces described by de Waal. In a project called citysense one can download a cell phone application in order to find people and places with similar interests based on one’s own habits. The inhabitants of the city are placed into different tribes, hence pointing towards a future possibility to form and bring together dynamic groups of people. A second example introduced was MIT’s SENSEable City Lab which includes several different projects. In one of the featured projects the cell phone data is combined with public transportation data to provide a real-time visualization of the collective rhythms and flows of the city of Rome (see visualization above).
Plastic Container of Liquid Soap in New York
Obviously most of the current projects are more aesthetic experiments pointing towards a certain direction. If, however, the concepts described by de Waal and realized in many different projects can be lifted to the next level the will most likely have a tremendous impact. Imagine local political discussion based on these technologies. New forms of collaborative action and new ways of living together might become available. Projects like Trash|Track (see visualization above) can help to create an awareness of spatial relations. If we can manage to solve issues of privacy that are arising from the collection of large amounts of data, which is certainly not an easy task, the metaphors introduced by de Waal point to an interesting future.

Filed under: Amsterdam, Architecture, Conference, Mobile, Visualization

The ‘Flow’ of the Web 2.0 – Cyberspace Revisited?

In a talk at the Web 2.0 Expo Danah Boyd provides a nice overview on how social media could shape the way of experiencing the ‘flow’ of information on the Web. The speech is published on her blog and reading it something came to my mind which keeps puzzling me since. Boyd basically describes the shift from broadcast media to networked media. The goal for us then seems to be in achieving a state in which one is actively embedded into a constant flow of information. Further, tools should be used to distill the relevant parts of this information stream. The summary she provides gives comprehensive overview on the goods and bads we can expect of the described development. Four core issues are pointed out that arise from the increasing use of social media and personalized media streams. Towards the end she calls for an active participation in this process and also to help people to reach this state. What keeps puzzling me, however, is the somewhat utopian tone of her address that reminds me of the old cyberspace days.

“[…] to live in a world where information is everywhere. To be peripherally aware of information as it flows by, grabbing it at the right moment when it is most relevant and valuable, entertaining or insightful. Living with, in, and around information.”

she writes. For my sense her words are strikingly close to what William Gibson writes about cyberspace in Neuromancer.

“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts […] A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

There are obvious differences of course. The ‘flow’ of the Web 2.0 is certainly not a hallucination and not described like that. However, it seems rather abstract to me. The idea of information everywhere and a peripheral awareness brings one close to Mark Weiser’s idea of ubiquitous computing, so rather the opposite of the cyberspace’s virtual reality, but not necessarily less utopian. The general tone of being within the stream of information, being surrounded by it and hence liberated from the constraints of the centralized broadcasting model nevertheless leaves me with an uncanny feeling. It leaves me uneasy because it seems too passive from the user’s perspective. Just plug in to the ‘flow’ and dive into another realm?

Filed under: Conference, Cyberspace, Web 2.0