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Author Archives: Jimena

New Media in (Outer) Space

New Media is certainly aiding man in its search for new frontiers. Beyond are some introductory readings/viewings to where are these efforts leading:

Required Reading/Viewing:

  • Vint Cerf explains the origins and basics of the Interplanetary Internet Project (3 very short videos)
  1. Node
  2. Frequency
  3. Standarization

Recommended Reading:

Optional:

Concluding post: What makes people collaborate online?

The answer is: a mixture of circumstances. Some of them we can’t control, but in general what the leader of the project does or doesn’t, either helps or complicates the process of online collaboration. The key element? Planning.

During the past 3 weeks, I tried to get people to share pictures of interesting situations they encountered in the subway. I tried with a web page, a Facebook Fan page, and a Twitter account. What I got was collaboration from my own social network—friends, or friends of friends submitted some stuff, but always with a short-spanned interest. The next attempt was to tap directly on audiences already interested in the subject—Flickr groups that shared subway pictures. I also added the competition factor—first, the prize was only about prestige: getting voted as the best picture. Then, I finally got an online photography blog interested in publishing the winner picture on their site.

I hoped that would spark interest a bit more, but the fact is that the new collaborations continued to spring from my previous social network and its subsequent effects. That is, when I launched the contest, I got more response from my original Facebook group (which had grown from my own contacts and the “work” I’d previously done on that platform) than from my call for Flickr collaboration. Even though I tapped on the communities that were already interested in the topic (three groups focused on underground transportation photography) and got “professionals” involved by getting them to publish the winning picture on their sites, my guess is that the Flickr group didn’t find enough reasons to take me seriously: I’d never been an active participant in Flickr before, all of my photos are uploaded on Facebook, and I’ve previously “worked” that audience much more.

What did this experience bring? A lot of learning. Not just based on my own travelogue, but I tried to learn from Leslie’s excellent results what had worked in her case as well.

I’d like to share my findings in this video:

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As sidenotes:

Even though the contest wasn’t successful, I did receive some great pictures, and I’d like to share with you the most popular:

metro zocalo

Author: Davii Rangda.  Caption: A night before the “Day of the Dead” in Mexico City.

I will submit the picture to http://lagiraffe.com/, the site that was most interested in publishing the contest pictures.

Special thanks to Leslie for her help and sharing.

Online collaboration–pre-conclusion.

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Sorry about this temporary conclusion. In the end, the project finally started to give some results, but very slolwly. There’s a lot to learn from that, too (I know there was a reason). I will definitely post my conclusion, but I thought I needed to wait a bit more and see if I could reach the final stage or not. Thanks, guys.

what makes people collaborate online?

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* Images by the members of Found in the Subway Facebook Fan Page, Raph Koster website, Aaron Alamo, Adarian Herschel, and Flickr groups participants.

found in the subway- I need a new map.



In the subway

The medium of my choice is a) the web page and b) video, but everything went wrong with it today. Thanks for your understanding, guys.

“Empathy, not sympathy”: DIY, custom-made assistive technology.

Early 2009, NY based artist and programmer Zach Lieberman and a group formed by members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Research Lab were contacted to help develop drawing software. The hard part? The goal was helping Tony Quan (aka Tempt1), L.A. based graffiti artist, to draw again after 5 years of paralysis caused by ALS.

The team worked on a project based on an eye-tracking system, an adaptive technology device for measuring eye positions and eye movement; which allows people with limited or no bodily movement to use their eyes as controllers instead of the hands. They then developed a drawing program to be used with the eye-tracking system just for Tony’s needs, and the EyeWriter was born.

TemptOne wearingh the EyeWriter --- a tag from the 90s --- his first EyeTag

How it works

What Lieberman’s software does is interpret the movement of the eye’s pupil as the cursor on the screen of a program for drawing. The cursor moves as the pupil gazes over the screen, guiding it over the buttons and commands to select tools and draw. The movements are recorded by a single camera mounted on a pair of glasses, with infrared LEDs that illuminate the eye and create a dark pupil effect. The software reads the image from the camera and interprets the pupil as a black dot positioned on a grid, which can move as a mouse cursor that’s been guided with the eye instead of with the hand.

This program allows you to draw, manipulate and style a tag designed on the screen. Instead of point and click, it uses a time-based interface so that the “click” effect is triggered by focusing the eye on a position for a few seconds. This way the user selects/deselects commands and tools, and initiates/finishes the traces on the grid.

The program guides the user through the process of creating a tag, taking Tag projected on Kyoto's City Hallhim step by step through tracing the letters, their size, stroke, shadowing, coloring, and special effects. The final tags are saved into an FTP to be projected on a surface; only the tag isn’t just a static, finalized image being cast on the wall. Instead, the software repeats the process of how the tag was drawn, giving the effect of it being “live painted” on the wall.


Getting a lot of attention

TemptOne's electronic tag

Tony has been able to do some amazing tag work on the EyeWriter. The designs are very complex and beautiful, and it is getting a lot of attention within the graffiti community beyond LA and the US. Since his first EyeTag on August 2009, his work is being uploaded directly from his Eyewriter to here. The project has been presented at the BLK River Festival in Vienna, CREAM International Festival for Arts and Media in Yokohama, Japan; the Nuart festival in Norway, was completely re-fabricated at the Bombay TechFest 2009, and it just won the interactive category at Design Museum “designs of the year” awards.

DIY assistive technology.

The Eyewriter links two very different types of new media: art, and assistive technology (AT)– technology used by individuals with disabilities in order to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible, i.e. a wheelchair, a hearing aid, a screen reader or an artificial lung. In general, AT is very expensive and is linked to a costly process that includes highly specialized physicians, hospitalization and health insurance.

The Eyewriter offers an affordable alternative of DIY hardware and software that is open source. The price difference is huge: regular eyetracking systems go for no less than $7,000, like the Arrington Research Monocular Nystamus Laptop System, a device that consists of almost the same elements as the EW and that costs $7,998 . The Eyewriter can be built for less than $50, depending on the quality of the material for the headset and the place where you buy the stuff.

Commercial tracker: $7,988 vs. EyeWriter: less than $50

Who is working at it right now?

Zach's class at Parsons working on their EW

The Ewewriter is an ongoing project under development. Zach’s students at Parson’s Collaboration Studios (collab.eyewriter.org) are working on it for the whole term, bringing different ideas and upgrades.

Just recently, one of the class members managed to control the computer’s cursor on the screen with the EW. This means a lot since it brings the EW a step forward to being useful for existing apps beyond the drawing program.

The main question: can it influence the field of assistive technology?

The answer is an absolute yes. The Eyewriter is gaining attention of AT developers, sellers and users alike. A lot of networking is going on around the project:

  • The developing team at eyewriter.org has been contacted by several hundreds of interested people.
  • Most of them are people that would like to use it for a loved one who is suffering from ASL or other kind of paralysis.
  • They have also been contacted by several ASL foundations.
  • There are a lot of people who would like to cooperate with the project, either by jumping in the design and programming, or with economic support.
  • The Veteran’s Authority also contacted Zach interested in the project, and he’ll be meeting with them next April in DC.
  • Mark Surabian, AT expert who has the only internet café for disabled people in NYC also contacted them and visited the class at Parsons.They’re also meeting with the people at the “Open Prosthetics Project” at Duke

    Robotagger uses the same language

    University.

  • The “Graffiti Markup Language” that was created for the Eyewriter has now been used to develop the Robotagger, a robotic arm that can reproduce tags with marker directly on a surface.

What are the EyeWriter’s limitations?

“I want an eyetracker that works just like a mouse, or at least like my headmouse – able to move freely between any programs, navigating buttons, text, sliders, keyframe rubberbanding, continuous controller data, all WITHOUT modifying the applications. I love my tools and I’m going to miss them, no matter what…”

-NuJack, comic and multimedia artist.

The project is receiving a lot of feedback: through TemptOne’s use, the student’s work, and the suggestions from outside people that have contacted Zach after trying to develop their own.

-The main challenge for the EyeWriter is that, until now, you can’t get it to control other software; it can only be used with the drawing program that was designed for. This means that it can’t substitute a headmouse, –which is what NuJack uses for now, since he has full movement of his head– and that can navigate you through any kind of application. Using the eyes for complex programs (such as Photoshop) is almost impossible—the EW needs larger buttons in order to adapt to the eye’s jittery movements, never as precise as the hand’s.

-There are a lot of people interested in the project, but as Zack Lieberman explained, it is very hard to manage a community that is very diverse in what it has to offer, the level of expertise and is also geographically disperse.

-Even though the software can be understood by a tech expert, it needs to be made even easier and more user friendly, not as intimidating.

What comes next?

-Improve both the hardware and software. The headset is designed for Tony, who can’t move his head. The next step is to adapt it so that people who can move their heads can also use it. This means finding a way to calibrate both the pupil and the head movement.

-Actively work with a ALS patient in NYC. That will help the development since Tony is in LA and it makes it so much harder to get immediate feedback.

-DIY Eyewriter kits—once the device is substantially improved, the developers would like to put together kits that contain all the necessary materials to build the EW. That would allow for a much lower unit price since the materials would be bought in bulk and they would be of proven quality.

Conclusions

“When Mark Surabian visited the class, he said something I personally found very touching, that the key to assistive tech is “empathy not sympathy”

–Zach Lieberman

That is the main challenge with the EyeWriter: to truly understand what the patient needs in order to develop assistive technology that effectively covers the necessity. It has been very successful for TemptOne’s tagging needs because it was designed exactly for him. As NuJack puts it, “when they went to make TEMPT1′s graffiti rig, they were building it from the ground up…that’s why it works!” Zach agrees with that: every case of paralysis is different and every patient has different communication needs.

The long-term goal is to create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open source research to creatively connect and develop eyetracking systems. The idea is to make the EW code so accessible and the hardware so easy to build that each person can adapt it to their patient’s needs.

“Without the proper team in place i fear endless frustration. it may well be that in a year’s time i will be corresponding with you using a (limited) eyetracker, reduced to relating solely through text, my multimedia empire nothing but a fond memory.”

-NuJack

Zach demonstrates the EW in his Brooklyn office

Creative Commons License
“Empathy, not sympathy”: DIY, custom-made assistive technology. by Jimena Lara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cultureandcommunication.org.

Will the Eyewriter influence the field of Assistive Technology?

So, after my excitement over the Eyewriter and its possibilities as artistic technology toned down a bit (and Mushon’s useful input), I focused my research on a different angle: its great possibilities as a communication tool for people that have lost this ability, either by ALS or any other kind of paralysis.

It links two very different types of new media: art and assistive technology (AT)– technology used by individuals with disabilities in order to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. i.e. a wheelchair, a hearing aid, a screen reader or an artificial lung. The Eyewriter has linked the subversive, colorful, cool world of graffiti with the often dry and no-nonsense field of medical technology. Not your usual combination.

In general, high-tech medical hardware belongs to the very expensive world of state of the art health care. As we know, this is not widely available and is linked to a costly process that includes highly specialized physicians, hospitalization and health insurance.

The Eyewriter is based on the eye tracking system, a piece of AT that already existed. One of the most prestigious manufacturers of eye tracking systems is Arrington Research, a company that used to be part of a technology transfer initiative at the MIT. One of their products is the Monocular Nystamus Laptop System, which looks somewhat like this:


Arrington Research's system

In essence, not extremely different from the Eyewriter: a camera mounted on a headset, connected to software that is installed on a computer (not included) that records and interprets the pupil movements.

EyeWriter diagram-- formed by cheap components

But there is a huge difference– the price.

Arlington Research's eye tracking, $7,998 Pricey? Yes.

The Monocular system goes at $7,998. The Eyewriter, on the other hand, can be (almost) homemade—you need someone who has knowledge in programming (easier to find and cheaper than a specialized physician), a webcam ($20), a pair of sunglasses ($5), developed camera film ($10), wire, tape & other basic hardware items ($15)—all can go for less than 50 bucks. The team that developed the software has made it open source and posted some great video tutorials on their site.

The Eyewriter definitely has gotten a lot of attention from the graffiti community, and it’s also making some good noise in the medical/A.T. world, as well as with ALS patients.

Zach Lieberman has shared some great news: that several eye-tracking companies and some great experts in assistive technology are already in contact with them [such as the ITU GazeGroup, a research group at the IT University of Copenhagen that focuses in finding accessible alternatives for gaze tracking systems and bring them to the m ainstream] as well as some ALS foundations and a lot of potential users and their families.

NewJack


A very well known case of ALS is Stephen Hawking’s, although I think he hasn’t heard about the Eyewriter… yet :) But NewJack has, a  film editor/ video artist/ photographer/ painter/ musician who was recently diagnosed with it. He has continued doing all of his amazing work aided by AT: visual art, video, original composition, comics, and a long, impressive etcetera. He has contacted Eyewriter.org and is one of the many patients who are sharing their ideas for further developing the project.

I have now contacted both NewJack and the GazeGroup, and hope to get direct input soon . I’ll also be meeting Zach Lieberman in the following days. As you can see, the live reporting for this project isn’t so direct since stuff is happening mainly outside the web (and outside NYC) and being known about after it has happened. Still, I’m on it and will surely get some more answers… stay tuned.

Is the Eyewriter a tool for creating or rather for reinterpreting a form of creation?

“Part of our interest in technology is on technology that empowers people” -Graffiti Research Lab

Reminder– the Eyewriter project is a low-cost, open source eye-tracking system+custom software that allows graffiti writers and artists with ALS paralysis to draw with light projected on large surfaces, using only their eyes. The project was developed to help L.A.-based graffiti artist TemptOne, by a team of artists and software programmers led by Zach Lieberman. The core development team consists of members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Research Lab [GRL have a great previous project that’s related--LaserTag].

The technical stuff—how it works

The Eyewriter software has three parts —

  • an eye tracking software
  • a drawing software designed for drawing with eye movements.
  • a system that projects the tag on a physical surface

The softwarehas been developed using openFrameworks, a cross library for creative development also co-founded by Lieberman.

Eye-Tracking Software

“Eye tracking is the process of measuring either the point of gaze (“where we are looking”) or the motion of an eye relative to the head. An eye tracker is a device for measuring eye positions and eye movement.” (Wikipedia) The concept has been around for quite a while—scientists have worked with apparatuses to record the gaze since the early 20th century.

What Lieberman’s software does is interpret the movement of the eye’s pupil as the cursor on the screen of a program for drawing. The pupil is recorded by a single camera mounted on a pair of glasses and focuses on one eye, with infrared LEDs that illuminate the eye and create a dark pupil effect. The software reads the image from the camera and interprets the pupil as a black dot positioned on a grid, which can move as a mouse coursor that’s been guided with the eye instead of with the hand.

The software follows this process:

  • It detects and tracks the position of the pupil from the incoming camera or video image,
  • It then callibrates the tracked eye with its position on the computer screen, using the grid to transform the point of the gaze into coordinates.

A person wearing the glasses for the first time has to focus on a sequence of points randomly displayed on the screen. When the sequence is finished, the two sets of data are used to interpolate where the eye positions are located in relation to the screen.

Eye-Drawing Software

After the sequence is completed, the gaze is what operates the tools on the drawing stage. This program allows you to draw, manipulate and style a tag designed on the screen. Instead of point and click, it uses a time-based interface so that the “click” effect is triggered by focusing the eye on a position for a few seconds. This way the user selects/deselects commands and tools, and initiates/finishes the traces on the grid.

The program guides the user through the process of creating a tag, taking him step by step through tracing the letters, their size, stroke, shadowing, coloring, and special effects. It allows to paste in previous tags and uploads the finished work directly to both the hard drive and a FTP for projection, if desired.  The amount of work that the eyes have to do in order to complete a tag is very straining, so the team’s aim is to keep upgrading the program to reduce the amount of time spent doing unnecessary tasks.

Projection

The finalized tags are saved into an FTP to be projected on a surface. To to this, the software uses GFL- Graffiti Markup Language– created by the team specifically for this project. GFL allows the replay of the action as the tag is being “painted” on the wall, instead of just casting a static, finalized image as if it were a slide.

Here you can see TemptOne’s tags taking over L.A.


Where has it gone?

The long-term goal is to create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artist and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open source research to creatively connect and make eye art. The code is available at http://code.google.com/p/eyewriter, and they have caught the attention of people interested in donating and collaborating with design and programming.

TemptOne did his first EyeTag on August 2009. Since then, his tags are uploaded directly from his Eyewriter to here: http://fffff.at/tempt1/photos/eyetags/ The project has been at the BLK River Festival in Vienna, CREAM International Festival for Arts and Media in Yokohama, Japan; the Nuart festival in Norway, and was completely re-fabricated in January at the Bombay TechFest 2009.

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And how is the Eyewriter impacting graffiti?

There is no doubt that the Eyewriter provides patients who suffer from ALS with a unique form of expression that allows the creative potential to flow in spite of the physical barriers. The possibilities are endless and the impact huge. But what happens to graffiti when it is executed through the Eyewriter? How is this technique transformed?

To some, graffiti is an art form worthy of display in galleries and exhibitions; to others it is merely vandalism. It is usually employed as a strong form of communication. In any case, it is a form of appropriation of the public space linked to social and political messages and moved by a subversive intention—it is an illegal activity of an invasive nature that has a competitive spirit and seeks fame.

The Eyewriter’s projections with light strip graffiti of its permanent nature and transform it into an ephemeral form of expression. The gang is expanded to include the design and production team, who may play a more important role than the fellow taggers. The act of tagging necessarily loses spontaneity to become a more planned, organized activity. The actual moment of creation is documented and broadcasted—everyone knows who the tagger is, his location and the exact moment of action. By participating in festivals, graffiti is incorporated into an institutionalized arts scene.

Seen through McLuhan’s lens, a medium can’t be dissociated from the message it carries, and the use that is given to any medium is not as transcendental as the fact that “the medium shapes and controls the scale and form of human action.” How is this new media shaping graffiti as a particular form of action? Can we understand it as a process of cultural transcoding in Lev Manovich’s sense— “To transcode is to translate something into another format. Cultural categories and concepts are substituted by new ones, on the level of meaning and/or language.” (The Language of New Media, 47)

I’m having a hard time trying to formulate this question. I guess I’m trying to understand how new media triggers change and transformation that goes beyond its immediate impact on the subject of action. I’m trying to understand, in this particular case, how is technology affecting the message?

Just in: Zach Lieberman has been super kind and accepted to meet this week to talk about the project. I hope to go further into these questions, and any other inquires that you guys can think of are much welcomed and appreciated.




Two Heads are (Sometimes) Better Than One. The Individual and the Collective in the Web 2.0

Lanier- Digital Maoism

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, visual artist and author, who popularized the term “Virtual Reality”. His latest book is “You are not a Gadget. A Manifesto“.

The basic tenets of Maoism include revolutionary struggle of the vast majority of people against the exploiting classes and their state structures, termed a People’s War. Usually involving peasants, its military strategies have involved guerrilla war tactics focused on surrounding the cities from the countryside, with a heavy emphasis on political transformation through the mass involvement of the basic people of the society. -Wikipedia

Anecdotal starter: Lanier directed an unsuccessful experimental short film about 10 years ago, and that data somehow crept into his Wikipedia entry. He would like that particular piece of information to be forgotten and has edited it many times but someone (or many) keep typing it back in. Media reporters (“the portion of the world that is attempting to remain real”) have asked him about his filmmaking career—based, of course, on that profile. In this essay, he uses Wikipedia as an example to analyze and criticize “online collectivism”.

He points out two ideas present now in the current online collective trend:

  1. The idea that the collective is all-wise.
  2. That it is desirable to have few coordinating actors: “to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force.” This concentration of power is not to be taken for representative democracy or meritocracy, rather he compares it with extremist politics, used both by the far Right and far Left in different historical moments and presently re-introduced by technologists.

He then argues against online collectivism:

  • Wikipedia is not as marvelous as it’s believed. It is not balanced to make a comparison between Britannica and Wikipedia encyclopedias. Wikipedia is strong in topics that change constantly, such as science, because the web is the place to find the right authors (young, “competent specialist graduate students”) that research and review this kind of knowledge.
  • “Sometimes loosely structured collective activities yield continuous improvements and sometimes they don’t.” The idea that problems in the wiki will correct themselves as the process unfolds is as imprecise as thinking that free market regulates itself. He believes that for a text to be desirable, it needs to offer more than just accurate data.
  • Most of the information in Wikipedia was already on the Web, but original texts lose value in the process of being modified for it.

  • W. lacks an editorial voice and it decontextualizes the content. For Lanier, Myspace is a better example of collectivism: the central idea is authorship and it doesn’t pretend to be objective or a trustworthy authority, as an encyclopedia.

Removing the scent of people

Aggregating sites started with the first site directories, such as Yahoo or AltaVista, and developed all the way to blogs and meta-blogs. According to Lanier, up to this point “real people were still in charge”—there was some form of identified authorship that allowed for interpretation of the source. Value was considered to come from connecting with real humans, not from faceless conglomerates. Google (this is 2006) is not a threat to authorship, because it provides “one layer of page ranking.” The problem comes with apparent objectivity—when the aim is to erase the trace of people to simulate that “content is emerging out of the web…as a supernatural oracle”.

The Hive Mind

There is a proliferation in the Web 2.0 of aggregating sites that function as “Consensus Web Filters” (Digg, Reddit, Populrs, Vivisimo, and social aggregating sites like SecondBrain, FriendFeed, profilactic and, of course, Feast and Buzz) which use algorithms to present data from other aggregating sites. The criterion is to present what is most popular, or more present in the Web, but that doesn’t mean they’re showing the most important or relevant information. According to Kevin Kelly (Wired) these sites show the hive mind—the opposite of the individual author or institution who takes responsibility for the information provided. The danger, Lanier argues, is that “people become uncritical and dim in order to make these Meta-aggregator sites become coherent.” According to him, this is how Artificial Inteligence technology is (or was) welcomed– “people are too willing to lower standards in order to make the purported newcomer appear smart.”

Collective thought is becoming mainstream

The Internet connects people; it’s not an entity in itself with a voice of its own. Lanier makes a strong distinction between the quality of writing professionally (“writing meant to last”) and blogging—he believes that “it’s easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play the crowd”. Still, he believes that the problem is that new business models for people who think and write haven’t appeared as quickly as hoped. Thus, the aggregators earn much more out of compiling than the reporters who create the content. This Meta-system is going beyond the Web and influencing other areas:

  • Elite organizations (government, universities, planning corporations, opinion leaders like The New York Times) that are attracted by the idea of the infallible collective.
  • There is a trend of privileging collective knowledge (such as surveys) over new ideas crafted by independent minds that are considered authorities in the field.
  • This is favored because in the current “liability phobia” it minimizes risks and responsibilities. It is safer to be the aggregator of the collective.

As a consultant for large institutions, Lanier has participated in elite Meta-surveys, finding these results: loss of insight and subtlety, disregard for the nuances of considered opinions, and a tendency to enshrine the beliefs of an organization [What would Google do?]

He believes that the lack of critical reaction the to this phenomenon is because “bad old ideas look confusingly fresh when they are packed as technology”.

For him, the main problem with collectivism is that it is becoming central and leading. If only what the majority likes has a chance at success, then the periphery is left outside. For example, American Idol is dictating the trends for new pop artists to thrive—but under the show’s standards, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan would’ve lost the competition.

The collective isn’t always stupid—and the individual isn’t always right.

The “Wisdom of Crowds” is a real, very useful phenomenon in certain situations. Google’s algorithms and Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” are valuable and successful tools that can’t be substituted by a single person’s knowledge.

On the other hand, there are cases “when intelligent thought really matters. In that case, the average idea can be quite wrong, and only the best ideas have lasting value. Science is like that”

Therefore, both kinds of intelligence are essential. The market is a good example of “the marriage of collective and individual intelligence”: The prices are determined by competition, but individual entrepreneurs come up with the products that are competing in the first place.

For him, clever individuals ask the questions and the collective behavior answers them.

The collective thought:

  • is more likely to be smart when it isn’t defining its own questions,
  • is better at solving problems which demand results that can be evaluated by uncontroversial parameters (such as hard data and numbers) but bad when taste and judgment matter.
  • needs its information to be filtered by a quality control mechanism that relies highly on individuals.

He compares aggregation sites with open source, like Linux:

  • They differ in authorship: open source programming is not anonymous, as personal glory is part of the motivational engine for collaboration.

  • They both lack a coherent design sensibility in an esthetic sense (i.e., if we compare Wikipedia or Linux with Apple applications)
  • Open source is very efficient in building hidden information plumbing layers, such as Web servers, but hopeless in producing fine user interfaces or user experiences. [Thinking back to Google Buzz and Mushon’s point: Google’s social applications are designed by engineers, not by sociologists—therefore, the whole social point is missed]

We must consider that there are certain things which are better done by individuals—such as design, lawmaking, and aesthetics–  but others that should be carried out by communities—such as official price setting and, of course, deciding who will rule a country. Still, the best examples of collective intelligence are those that are guided by well-meaning individuals (like democracies and scientific communities). Personality-based quality control can improve collective intelligence and prevent it from becoming stupid and unreliable. Such is the case of independent press and the academy, where opinion leaders are guides or shapers of collective thought.

Lanier acknowledges that no mechanism is perfect, of course, but that it’s important to learn the good stuff from the pre-Internet institutions and apply it to the new ways of knowledge formation. Likewise, the collectivity of the hive mind can help keep in check the doings of the like of the academy, the government, and the press, by maintaining strict observation of their doings.

The hive’s speed

Another thing to consider is the time and speed of collective work:it can move too quickly, fidgeting from one subject to the next without focusing enough to fully provide a working answer. (As THE THESIS warns against the mind-grazing tendency that takes the attention from one site to the other, leaving things unfinished.)

  • it can keep changing incessantly matters that need to be settled, such as law.
  • it might be moving in the right direction, but too slowly. Consensus takes time, and certain situations (such as national emergencies or problems like global warming) require immediate action taken by individuals.
  • rules help to speed up development. According to Lanier, technology took off in Modernity thanks to the structure and constraints that had developed by then. Therefore, excessive openness and flexibility can slow down the process.

The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it will fix itself, is a dangerous illusion.

Lanier ends on a strong note by warning against the dangers of an empowered hive mind that, according to him, historically has gone to extremes such as Maoism and Fascism.

Empowering the collective does not empower individuals—it works the other way around. The hive mind is a tool that can provide feedback to individuals, but it’s too chaotic to be fed back into itself. Therefore, it needs the individual thought to filter and guide it. Individuals should always be cherished first. There needs to be a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without “turning ourselves into idiots.”

Responses to Lanier’s Digital Maoism

Lanier’s essay, as you can imagine, generated Tsunami waves throughout the Web. Clay Shirky organized the very diverse responses to the text, from several authors.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF- Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out, award-winning Frontline documentary “The Merchants of Cool”, ex-professor at NYU’s ITP (Tisch).

Indeed, a poorly developed group mind is unpredictable and dangerous. Therefore, user-created database cannot be used with blind confidence.

Still, collective intelligences are not emerging in a vacuum. Specific media platforms are shaping their processes. Wikipedia isn’t throwing away the academic elite of thinkers: it is replacing it with the interactive media elite. This group has its own kind of credentials: (“just because [it] may include a 14-year-old with an internet connection doesn’t change the fact that he’s educated, techno-savvy, and [has] free time to research and post for no pay… he’s certainly in as good position as anyone to get there”)

A networked collaboration is not the Wild West: it is an ecology of interdependencies, with status and influence. In many cases, the filters are more fair and merit-based than those of grad school.

Yes, many current websites have more aggregation that original work. But all of Western culture since post-modernism suffers the same problem. The cultural problem (as in American Idol and the NYT) is not caused by digital populism, but by a priority shift that replaces cultural values with consumer capitalism. The alienating effects of this shift is motivating today’s collective activity.

Authorship is a matter of ego and royalties. Science and technology’s greatest achievements are articulations of collective realizations. The collective is not good at artistic writing or composing—because the Web is aimed at connecting things, not creating them.

Therefore, let’s not dismiss the possibilities of a virtual community based solely on the early results of the technology. The internet may not produce a whole cooperative society, but it might help model new kinds of behaviors towards that goal. The “individual” is as much a social construction as “the collective”.

QUENTIN HARDY- Silicon Valley bureau chief of Forbes Magazine, Berkley School of Information.

Wikipedia might be the worst example of collective mind. It is only a great experiment. Unlike successful collectives, t is unbounded and ungoverned.

It is not desirable to eliminate all error. The process of mistakes is necessary in society and nature.

Definitions of the self and the crowd are ever changing. This new tool might be taking us away from individualism and back towards folk culture, but it’s possible that a third thing might be happening.

The discovery of new ways to be is not a new phenomenon: it’s typical of revolutionary advances in transport and communications.

What is considered successful filtering? Aggregation is just one more example of the problem of the excess of information and what is managed to be heard. Newspapers are filters, too.

Pop culture has always existed, and it has never thrown out endless great stuff. Carrie Underwood and Clay Aiken are not supposed to be Janis Joplin and John Lennon.

Existing hierarchies are not the best places to test the efficacy of the new communication tools. Lanier is testing meta-surveys as part of consulting work for institutions that prefer collective thought doesn’t grow, such as governments and corporations.

Yes, collectives need rules and are best when they don’t define their own questions.

YOCHAI BENKLER- Law professor at Yale, Author: The Wealth of Networks.

Yes, decentralized production can be effective at certain tasks, but that doesn’t mean “collective is always better”—rather, a system needs to be designed to guard against mediocre or malicious contributions through filters.

But there is no loss of individuality by the growth of the collective. Rather, Benkler sees markets, governments and general social relations as overlapping systems that enable and disable action for the individuals who inhabit them. “Because of constraints and organizational adaptations in the last 150 years, information, knowledge and cultural production system has taken on an industrial form to the exclusion of social and peer-production.” That is the cause of the Britney Spears and American Idols, and also of the decline of the NYT and traditional media. The mainstream media tends to uncritically repeat official information much more than the blogosphere does.

As for filters and aggregations, the Web allows for clusters, links and conversation around interesting topics. Those choices create a different path for determining what issues are relevant. This new system is imperfect but harder to corrupt than the advertising-supported media that dominated the 20th century.

Wikipedia is not faceless—its participants develop persistent identities and communities around the definitions. What is amazing is that ten years ago it would’ve been seen as impossible, and now the product of well-intentioned individuals is being compared to the gold standard of encyclopedias.

Network based social production offers new challenges and new opportunities. It is an alternative form of production than markets, firms and governments—with different motivations, accreditation and organization. And it’s the opposite of Maoism: it is based on enhanced individual capabilities, either solo or in loose voluntary associations.

CLAY SHIRKY-you know him.

Lanier reunites dissimilar kinds of group action to analyze the downsides of collective production. There are things wrong with each form of collective action, but the same mistakes are not made in each of them. Lanier misses the opportunity of a good critique by overgeneralizing Wikipedia, American Idol and RSS aggregators, and they work differently.

“Wikipedia is an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits. Anonymous additions are subjected to a higher degree of control. It is similar to Linux in that the motivations of the contributors are much the same.” Therefore, it has the filters and organization that Lanier considers to be lacking.

“Since social life involves a tension between individual freedom and group participation, the changes wrought by computers and networks are therefore in tension. To have a discussion about the plusses and minuses of various forms of group action requires discussing the current tools and services as they exist.”

CORY DOCTOROW- Science fiction novelist, blogger, activist, co-editor of boingboing.net

Historically, the best way to keep the important things around is to reduce the barriers to entry. It is impossible to predict what will be important in the future, and therefore the more things you have, the more important things you’ll have then. There is no reason to eliminate a new business model because it doesn’t look like today’s models.

Wikipedia was created in no time, for almost no cost, by people who had no access to the traditional cannon. It isn’t great because it’s like Britannica—B. is great at being authoritative, edited, expensive and monolithic. W. is great at being free, brawling, universal and instantaneous. B. tells you what white dead men agreed upon, W. tells you what live internet users are fighting over. Its “history” and “discuss” pages allow learning about the discussions that go under the task of defining “truth”—since truth is an illusion and there’s always more than one approach to any issue.

“Wikipedia is a noble experiment in defining a protocol for organizing the individual efforts of disparate authors with conflicting agendas.” The important thing about systems is not how they work, but how they fail. Fixing a Wikipedia article is simpler than participating in the discussion, but “that’s the price you pay for truth, and it’s still cheaper than starting up your own Britannica”.

KEVIN KELLY- Wired, Cool Tools, Out of Control.

Nor the Wikipedia, or any other collective entities, are pure hive mind. Wikipedia has an elite at is center, and a lot of deliberate design management going on. Evolution in these systems need to be hastened, that is why the hive mind needs to have intelligent design introduced. Top-down control is inserted to speed and direct a system toward its goals. Until this era, technology was primarily all control and design. Now it can be design and hive.

Because the hive mind is smart enough to care about, even if it is dumb. Its brute dumbness produces the raw material that design smarts can work on.

Is Wikipedia a template of other kinds of information of creative works? It might be that the 2006 model is not good for much more than writing universal encyclopedias, but the 2056 one will be.

Wikipedia (impossible in theory, possible in practice) is an example of the fact that the bottom-up hive mind will take us much further than it seems possible. At the same time, it proves that the hive mind by itself won’t ever take us to our goal. We are too impatient for it to evolve by itself, so we add design and top-down control to get where we want to go.

ESTHER DYSON- Editor at large, CNET Networks; Editor, Release 1.0; Director, PC Forum; Author, Release 2.0

The argument is between voting/aggregating (where anonymous people raise or lower averages) versus arguments by recognizable individuals that answer the arguments of other individuals.

The first is useful in coming up with numbers and trends, but it’s not creative in the way that evolution creates species (not by blind voting, but through structured logical changes consistent with the whole).

That’s why there’s representative government: they are the individual experts that design coherent strategies, and collective action (voters) select them.

So, to get the best results, we have people sharpening their ideas against one another rather than simply editing someone’s contribution and replacing it with another (Wikipedia). And we also have a world where the contributors have identities (like politicians or journalists) and are accountable for their words.

LARRY SANGER- Co-founder of Wikipedia; Director of Collaborative Projects, Digital Universe Foundation; Director, Text Outline Project.

The collectivism that Lanier describes is a terrible thing, but no one would admit believing that the collective is “all wise”. Sanger criticized Wikipedia in 2004 for not properly respecting expertise, and got replies saying that Wikipedia has shown that experts are no longer needed, and a wide-ranging description of everyone’s opinions is more valuable than what an expert thinks.

For Sanger, this speaks about an epistemological shift: “Positive epistemic status” is a term that refers to the positive features that can attach to beliefs: i.e. truth, knowledge, justification, evidence, etc.

According to the existing tendency of validating the collective thought over expertise opinion, he sees that the traditional kinds of positive epidemic status are being replaced of whatever it is that the collective believes or endorses. Sanger calls this “epistemic collectivism”.

Epistemic collectivism is a real phenomenon: a lot of people do place the views of the collective uppermost. The phenomenon is rooted in relativism: if there is no objective truth, if there is no reality “out there” that we can be wrong or right about, then there is no way to make sense of expertise or intellectual authority. If you are an epistemic collectivist, then it’s natural to think that the experts can be overruled by the rest of us.

Sanger rejects epistemic collectivism, but promotes strong collaboration because:

  • Wikipedia does not produce an averaged view that is better than an authoritative statement by experts. It organizes enormous amounts of labor for a single intellectual purpose.
  • The virtue of strong collaboration is that it represents a new kind of “industrial revolution” for mental effort.
  • What is great is the sheer efficiency of these systems, not their ability to produce The Truth. That is another problem.

Lanier’s negative collectivism does exist, but is not inherent in tools, such as wikis, nor in methods, such as collaboration and aggregation.

FERNANDA VIEGAS & MARTIN WATTENBERG- Visual Communication Lab, IBM Research

It is hard to claim that Wikipedia is built by an anonymous, mindless mob engaged in foolish collectivism. It provides the transparency that almost no other system offers, by giving full context of the discussion on any entry in the “talk pages”. “This kind of debate doubtless happens in the NYT and Britannica as well, but behind the scenes. Wikipedia readers can see it all, and understand how choices were made…That is not exactly a Maoist mob.” Wikipedia’s uniqueness also resides in its shared policy, providing guidelines to the situations that emerge in editing.

The hive mind is hard to find in Wikipedia—crowd editing usually comes with current events, and plummets after the event loses media exposure. Once that happens, the core group of editors takes over the page maintenance.

As long as critiques of Wikipedia’s processes stop at the article level, they will continue to miss the point. The collective will makes mistakes but also attempts to keep itself in check through emerging policies and guidelines. This publicly available context distinguishes W from algorithmic or market-based aggregation.

JIMMY WALES- Founder and Chair of the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation.

“A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds”. To that, Wales argues that this “core belief” is not held by him or any important or prominent Wikimedians—nor do they have any particular faith in collectives or collectivism as a mode of writing. Authoring at Wikipedia, as everywhere, is done by individuals exercising the judgment of their own minds.

GEORGE DYSON- Science historian; author, Project Orion

All intelligence is collective. Lanier’s own intelligence was formed by meta levels of information processing language, symbols and meanings throughout his childhood…

The important part of his message is a warning to respect, and preserve, our own intelligence. The dangers of relinquishing individual intelligence are real.

“Real artificial intelligence (if and when) will be unfathomable to us. At our level, it may appear as dumb as American Idol, or as pointless as [the endless corrections of Lanier’s Wikipedia entry.]”

DAN GILLMOR-Founder & director, Center for Citizen Media. Columnist and author.

Lanier’s unfortunate title undermines his essay, to say the least.

The issue is more about a community than a collective. Like with any task, you need experts and novices to chip in. Leaders emerge to steer the process and the goal is reached. “It is also about persistence—and celebrating the reality that knowledge is not a static end-point but rather an ongoing process.” Mistakes were committed in old journalism and research, too—and those articles are now there, never to be updated because they are in print. The flaws in Wikipedia are real, but they’re worth enduring because we can watch the community operates around individual articles and the project as a whole.

The debate does demonstrate that we need to update our media literacy in a digital, distributed era. Our critical thinking is there, but it’s fallen into a low level of use in the old media world. People tend to believe everything they read, or to disbelief everything. Too few apply proper skepticism and do the additional work that true media literacy requires.

More than popularity, we need better tools to help the community gauge the reliability and authenticity of what we find online. “Reputation has to become part of the mix in systems that combine human and machine intelligence in novel ways” [Reputation is still a tricky tool. How about the critique to the NYT?]

HOWARD RHEINGOLD- Communications expert; Author, Smart Mobs

  • Collective action is not the same as collectivism.
  • Commons-based peer production in Wikipedia, open source software, and prediction markets is collective action, not collectivism.
  • Collective action involves freely chosen self-election and distributed coordination.
  • Collectivism involves coercion and centralized control; treating the internet as commons doesn’t mean it’s communist.

World Wide Mush- Jaron Lanier

Four years after Digital Maoism,  Lanier critically analyzes the collective nature of the online world and the existing framework that organizes the Web 2.0. This was published in the Wall Street Journal on January 8, as a preview for his book “You Are Not a Gadget”.

Lanier considers that “a new kind of collectivism” dictates the way many (or most) people participate in the online world. From Wikipedia to Google Wave to music sites like Pandora, the most easily available information on the web is put together, directly or indirectly, by millions of authors.

This is a shift from more passive ways of cultural consuming that were the norm back in the 80’s (such as watching TV). In a way, this collective production is actually what the pioneers of the Internet dreamt of back in its early years—a participative community replacing the inactive one.

But Lanier points to the darker consequences on the other side of the coin:

He questions the utopist idea of the Web 2.0 as a forum where everybody’s voice can be heard, because too many voices “can pile on, ending drowning one another out”.

The global mush: These millions of voices (or collaborators) sharing their ideas and projects on the Web form a huge mixture that Lanier calls the global mush. He points out that collectivism lets everyone know what the rest is working on, and eventually aims at consensus, lowering both innovation and diversity. Collectivism eliminates competition, which (as with everything else in the market) forces people to find better alternatives and fosters creativity “When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things”.

He makes an argument of proprietary development still being the most successful way of creating innovative products. To prove that, he points at booming examples, such as the iPhone and Adobe’s Flash, which are definitely not built by collectives.

But the problem does not reside solely on the ideological level. He explains that on the last third of the 20th century, the US shifted its economic and industrial structure from physical labor to intellectual activities. Instead of internally taking care of manufacture, those tasks were outsourced to the developing countries while Americans focused on generating design, entertainment, and other types of intellectual property. But at the same time, there was a general championing of information flow and sharing; the Web 2.0 was becoming more and more open and free—free music, free videos, and free info.

For Lanier, this equation “leaves no way … to earn a living in the long term”. Aiming at making a living from intellectual property contradicts opening the doors for free culture.

Unlike capitalism, in collectivism money is not the ideal earning. “The open paradigm rests on the assumption that the way to get ahead is to give away your brain’s work … and earn kudos instead of money.”

For him, this framework just isn’t working:

  • Intellectual work is produced for free, which gives the author some recognition in response, creating a personal brand which he can cash in by doing some other kind of physical work. But as technology is getting better, all jobs, even those, are threatened.
  • Only a tiny handful of writers and musicians are actually making a good living out of their collective labor.
  • The big players in the Internet (like Google) will keep on making money out of data and advertising for quite a long time. The rest will be forced to keep on working in exchange of pure recognition (such as “Likes”, ratings, comments, or any other rating scale).
  • Furthermore, these anonymous contributions “rob people of dignity”—by not fairly paying them back for their time and intellectual labor.

On the contrary, improved technology should be creating better jobs for people (more comfortable and cerebral).

In general, he considers collectivism to be a fallacy, linked to youthful and naïve utopian views of fairness. He warns about pointless aggregation substituting active, productive energy. “I want [young people] to develop as fierce individuals…when they work together, I hope they’ll do so in competitive, genuinely distinctive teams so that they can get hones feedback and create big-time innovations that earn royalties, instead of spending all their time on crowd-pleasing[activities]…or become a mob”.

He believes the actual framework to be so entrenched that it’s hard to make people challenge it and consider other alternatives. He seems to argue that the market allows for more benefits than collective work does.

The Digital Given—10 Web 2.0 Theses. by Ippolita, Geert Lovink & Ned Rossiter

On 2009, media scholars Geert Lovink, Ned Rossiter (who came to NYU last Fall to the Internet as Playground conference) , and the Ippolita Collective published this manifesto on the status of Web 2.0.   I consider that Lanier’s texts are related to several of the theses, particularly No. 2 , 3 & 4.

0. Internet is an indifferent bystander to the global financial crisis. If we consider that the digital is given—the everyday—it’s possible to rethink the political, emotional and social involvement in internet culture over the next few years.

1. In the middle of the economic crisis, the internet is not an essential actor—it’s out of the guilt. Even more so, it’s still growing madly. Web 2.0 applications remain new, but get lost fast amongst the stressful and uncertain working lives of the connected users.

2. Networking sites are social drugs for those in need of the human that is located elsewhere. They lure us with the promise of distraction from the present moment, and situate us all in a comfortable middle ground where social antagonisms are diluted and softened into the organized mainstream. Alternative and diversity are erased from the Web, and the same old opinions and cultural patterns prevail. The network becomes the language itself. They are all data-mined, designed to be exploited and trap us in the illusion of not working, while in reality we are laboring without producing.

3. Social networking sites do not fill the need for sustainable social relations. They respond to fashion and demonstrate the “enculturalisation of software”— people move from one to the next site in an “impulsive grazing mentality” without developing true attachment for a common goal. Sustainability is connected with scaleability. Unlike the big social transformations of the past decades, they do not promote true political change in any substantial way, even if they are as massive as these social movements were.

4. What are the collective concepts of the social networked masses? The networked activity (tag, link, share, tweet) is engineered from the top-down by the corporate programmers and is not a signal of any form of collective intelligence. [but, according to Clay Shirky, isn’t it sharing definitely ahead of consuming? Is social networking a form of corporativism?] Better social networks are organized networks involving better individuals – it’s your responsibility, it’s your time. We need imagination, but only if it illuminates concepts that transform concrete conditions. What is needed is an invention of social network software where everybody is a concept designer.

5. Web 2.0 provides a much better forum for “positive” emphatic linkage than for antagonism. The applications function as a structure that shape social relations in the web under certain rules—actual physical specifications determine the relationships between users and are zones of exclusion, but they also exclude the conflict of the border. Where is the enemy? Not on Facebook, where you can only have “friends”. Formats need to be transformed if they are going to accommodate the plurality of expression of networked life. The virus is the closest thing to conflict online [and they do not allow dialogue].

6. There is nothing false about the virtuality of social networking sites. There is absolute reality to them—managing your online life takes time, energy and strategy. There is an ongoing dynamic that requires attention and has true impact on your life: you do or don’t get the users’ attention, feel accepted or rejected, belong to a relationship and therefore have to nurture it. That is a huge distractor.

7. The network will not be revolutionized. There is no fertile ground for real social transformation in the Web. Indymedia.org, (an attempt of independent media that would give a voice to the stories that don’t make the top news) failed and did not further develop into an active and open social networking site. Transnational social-political networks seem to need face-to-face interactions.

8. Open does not equal free. There is nothing free about the free activities on the Web. Free culture has also an “underlying parasitic economy and deprofessionalization of cultural work.” The inescapable cost of social networking is to provide consumer information. Online activity does not equal social change. So what if you have an anti-whatever Facebook group? What does it change other than expanding your number of friends? Deleting can’t be the radical online gesture—there must be a more subversive and funny way of action.

9. The Web is fueled at the core by the never ending growth of consumerism. It is based on the “endless growth principle” that guided the dotcom model: nonstop growth = healthy systems. But we can learn from natural resource exploitation and pollution that infinite growth brings serious collateral effects. If the Web 2.0 follows the insane capitalist model, we can expect similar crisis. A good end cannot justify a bad means. We have to start elaborating appropriate technologies for a limited world. Collective freedom should be the common goal to be reached through technology.

10. “Better a complex identity than an identity complex”. There is an obsession with the virtual identity, with our and others’ personal profile, a ‘digital narcissism’. Digital identities need to both answer to individual desires and satisfy multiple needs. They should go beyond anonymity as a form of outsmarting the control society. One strategy could be to make the one (real) identity more complex and, when possible, contradictory. If identity is always being harvested by the powerful data corporations, why give them the real you?