What I Read This Week - 16th September

Versions of the future juxtaposed with glimpses of the mundane ongoing present. - Isn't it pretty to tweet so? (Matt Pearce at the Los Angeles Review of Books)

That’s what Hem did for Jake — basically tweeted away his life, line by line and made a book of it — and doesn’t that seem so much truer to life? How everything just keeps going, and the curtain doesn’t drop, and there isn’t even a stage?

- The fourth place (Jean Hannah Edelstein)

My real career as a freelance writer commenced about a year later, and the church flat was central to it, because I spent ALL MY TIME THERE. Sometimes, out of laziness; sometimes, because I couldn’t take a shower and was thus ashamed to go out in public; sometimes because my cash flow was so intermittent that I couldn’t really afford to go anywhere else, had days when I was literally digging in the sofa cushions for enough money to buy some porridge while I waited for a payment to hit my bank account.

- What I talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami)

I'm no great runner, by any means. I'm at an ordinary - or perhaps more like mediocre - level. But that's not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.

A book, yes, but a lot of my attention this week has been focused on this and it would seem dishonest not to include it. Moreover, this particular version of progress is quite relevant, I think, to the rest of this week's list. It's also, incidentally, why I swim, at least in part. Every day - hell, every lap - is an opportunity for improvement. People say, don't you get bored? What do you think about? But there's nothing boring about making some tiny, incremental, almost unmeasurable improvement, and there's nothing to think about other than to just keep going.

- Google Glasses and the Myth of Augmented Reality (Navneet Alang at the Atlantic)

What happened to literature and language in the last century must now happen to tech. For all of the flaws of 20th century critical theory--its obtuseness, its abandonment of the ordinary reader--it also made it impossible to look at words as transparent conduits of meaning. Instead, we had no choice but to see the webs of power and ideas that they wove and we wove with them. Project Glass, and its tantalizingly close promise of augmented reality, demands we do the same for the world of digital technology: to acknowledge that we cannot simplyput on and take off glasses that color our world; instead, we can only exchange one ambivalent, culturally loaded pair for another.

- What Will the 'Phone' of 2022 Look Like? (Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic)

In this scenario, your phone is hardly a phone anymore, in terms of being a piece of hardware. Rather, it's a hyper-connected device with access to your data from everywhere. It might even have finally have lost the misnomer, phone. "It's no longer your phone but the feed of your life," he said. "It's the data you're encountering either pushed on you or pulled by you. Either the things you're consuming or the things you're sharing."

You could TiVo your life, constantly recording and occasionally sharing.

- Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll (James Burke)

The next big thing being discussed in nanotechnology is what's called a personal nanofactory - thirty or forty years from now, sitting in your garage or garden shed, assembling and processing stuff at the molecular level to produce anything you want. […] If it's atoms and molecules, and what isn't, you'll be able to make it. […] With a nanofactory, you're totally autonomous. And then the thing about it is the nanofactory makes a copy of itself. […] The guess is, one for everybody on the planet in a matter of months. I'm not making a case for how soon this will happen. That it will come does not seem to be in doubt. No law of physics prevents it, according to nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. […] Exactly when, nobody knows for sure. But certainly within the lifetime of some of the people in this room. Call it four scholastic generations.

What I'm arguing is that even forty years isn't much to turn around an entire social and commercial infrastructure, remodeling society from the bottom up, working out in time for the event new rules for everything. Because everything will be changed, made obsolete. Let me offer a few thoughts about what that might mean. Let's say that in forty years or so each of us can make every material essential we need autonomously and at virtually at no cost. […] What comes then is something for which our one hundred thousand years of talking, two million years of tool use, our millenial backward-looking obsession with survival in the face of scarcity have not prepared us: abundance.

Every aspect of our social existence, like our institutions, has always been shaped by the culture of scarcity in which we've lived since the beginning. All our values and ethics and beliefs and standards and behaviour patterns relate to scarcity. Property is private, PhDs are special people, diamonds are expensive, genius is rare: scare equals valuable. Every organisaiton and institution in the world is in some way or other, dealing with the problem with scarcity. […] So what happens to the organisations satisfying these needs, when people with people with personal nanofactories don't need?"

James Burke talking at dConstruct. This is something you have to listen to, rather than something you can read, but I like what he says about abundance. I know he's talking about something more literal, but I sometimes think we've already shifted into a world where abundance, rather than scarcity, is the norm, at least intellectually.