Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Why We Web, Part II: Preservation

Pompeya._Cad├íveres_en_Porta_NoceraLong ago there stood a proud Roman city called Pompeii.  Pompeii was a bustling trade hub situated on the coast of Italy near modern-day Naples.  However, Pompeii sat under the merciless grip of a nearby volcano, Mt. Vesuvius.  One day, the volcano erupted and consumed Pompeii and a few small neighboring cities.  The entire city was lain to waste in merely two days from pyroclasitc flow, ash, and fire.  When the city was discovered again in 1748, archaeologists discovered people’s remains preserved in plaster.  Humans were found in the positions they laid in while their homes were destroyed without warning.

Findings like that are rare and seldom seen.  Scientists would practically kill for remains depicting full body representations of actual humans from the past.  It’s amazing to be able to recall a whole civilization based on their remains, especially from their people’s final moments.

Heather once brought up an interesting idea inspired by the remains found at Pompeii.  She hypothesized what it would be like if somehow our entire civilization was devastated in some way that would preserve us in our final moments.  Had this event come as suddenly as the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, surely some people’s last moments would be spent in front of a box of some sort, unaware of their inevitable and nearby demise.  She went on further to discuss what if many years from that catastrophe, someone (someone’s) came along and discovered the remains of our society.  What would they think?  How would the interpret us and what we did?  These are all very interesting questions and I would really like to examine them further.

The Boxes

I need to dwell on “the boxes” I mentioned earlier.  The one’s we’d be found in front of.  We have lots of boxes these days.  We have boxes that tell us the news; boxes that play our music; boxes that help us watch porn get our work done; even boxes that let us stay in touch.  We carry some of these boxes with us, some of them we keep at desks, or on tables, or mounted to the walls, even.  These boxes might as well be our God’s because we don’t seem to want to separate ourselves from the boxes.  We keep the boxes closer to our hearts than most people in the Midwest keep the bible close to theirs.  We stare at these boxes, we depend on them, we are indebted to our boxes.  If that’s not enough to show that these “boxes” of ours are really our Gods, then I don’t know what is.

We have a box that tells us what to think.  We call this box, television.  Television informs us all of what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with us, and the products we need to make it all better.  The television tell us that to be truly happy, we need other boxes.  So we set up these new boxes.  These new boxes let us connect to a network, and from that network we can do so many things.  We call this box a computer, and the network: the Internet.  With the Internet, we can go online and buy all sorts of new and exciting boxes.  Shiny boxes, ones with more specific functions.  There are boxes to store music, boxes to store appointments, boxes that tell us where we are, there are even portable versions of our computers, so we’ll never be without that box.

This is our world.  We live and die by these boxes, as if they were an extension of our selves.  As a society they really have become an extension of the self.  The global self.  Of course, not everyone has an iPod, a Palm Pilot, a laptop with Wi-Fi, and a GPS device, but we’re getting there.  The point is, our society has a passion for it’s boxes.  The technological marvels that purportedly make our lives easier, these boxes would help define us should our remnants be unearthed by some future civilization.

The Molds

We don’t have any ancient Romans lying around to tell us all about Pompeii.  We must rely on what those people left behind.  They left behind documents, frescos, paintings, and etchings.  This was how they archived their civilization.

We’re our archiving our civilization, but we’re doing it on a much larger, and more precise scale.  People today can create an online identity in effigy of themselves.  It’s not so much vanity as it is “creating a back up of ourselves”.  That sounds very high-tech and sci-fi and other hyphenated words, but it’s the truth.  Whether people do it consciously or not, by participating in social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook; posting in forums; using Twitter and weblogs; posting videos of oneself on YouTube; these are all repositories of not just our society as a whole, but as the individual people who make it up.

This goes far beyond the plaster molds of Pompeii.  These are molds that recall our faces, our thoughts, our dreams, and our lives.


It would be difficult, if not impossible, for any future civilization to understand our social taxonomy.  Our culture today relies so much on independent channels of communication that narrowing down our trends and patterns would be an immense task.  The mere collection of all relevant nodes of context with which we respond to stimuli would be so burdensome, I would imagine anyone who were to attempt such a task would easily be scared away from any further pursuits.  We’ve attempted to do similar things with societies we know less about, but for all we know, it’s all wrong…we couldn’t be more off the ball if we tried.  Who knows?  However, it’s safe to say it would be easier to accomplish the task when applied to ancient civilizations which required manual transit against the obstacles of distance and terrain to transmit messages over any significant distance.  Essentially, you would be analyzing small pockets of context in order to understand the local social hierarchy.

Additionally, personalities, and how they were viewed in ancient civilizations is much easier to pinpoint.  For starters we can only know about figures depicted in documents or art, and in cases like that, if someone felt it was important enough to draw him, let alone write about him, he was important enough that at least few choice people held him in high regards.

Stephen_colbertHowever, for us it’s not as easy.  I can’t think of an effective way to explain what some future historians may deduce about us, but I can say this, they may assume “Stephen Colbert” was a very powerful man (which he may or may not be).

Obviously we’ll never know how we will be preserved.  The data is volatile, and in the case of some major catastrophic event that successfully ends all human life on the planet, the odds of it surviving are slim, but who knows?  Civilizations will always archive themselves, ours is no different.  Our methods only change.  We search for new ways to create our identities.  We extend ourselves into a virtual universe parallel to our own.  This universe is made by man for man, and it holds the key to our society.  It is what will define us in the ages.  It is our web.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Why We Web, Part I: Communications

Alexander_Graham_BellI’ve been on the hunt for a new AIM client lately.  I’ve been using Trillian for a while, but the program is such an incredible resource hog that I simply don’t have the patience for it anymore.  On my laptop, which happens to be a Mac, I run a wonderful program called Adium.  Adium is, by far, the most efficient messenger I’ve ever used.  It has a genuine “no-bullshit” feature set and interface.  I get chat logs, tabbed IM’s, no ads, and best of all, it’s free!  I have yet to find such a client for windows.  I tried Pidgin (formerly Gaim) but the program couldn’t recall window positions or sizing properly which made it a huge hassle to use.  I finally came across a new client called Ahoihoi, which is made by a company Versoworks who used to be responsible for an AIM add-on called Messenger:Mate (of which I was a paying user).

The program is still in it’s infancy, but I found it rather amusing that the program would be named “Ahoihoi”, a term coined by Alexander Graham Bell, purported father of the telephone.  Back in Bell’s time, the idea of broad communication was only first being realized.  In modern times its only optimized, per se.  It’s interesting to see why after so many years of success, the telephone is being weaned out of society in favor of a near endless slew of “alternative mediums” for broad, global, person to person communications.


My current favorite platform is Twitter.  Twitter, is described as a “micro-blogging service” that allows users to post short messages of 140 characters or less from virtually any input medium, be it instant messages, SMS, handheld devices, or the nearly endless supply of widgets, desktop apps, and browser extensions available.  Twitter posts on their site that, “[Twitter is] A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: ‘What are you doing?’” and the site is pretty much, just that.  A slew of seemingly inane messages detailing the trite highs and lows of a person’s day.  I speak with a seemingly cynical tone, but as I mentioned it’s my current favorite, and if you look over on the right side of this site, you’ll see I have my little Twitter badge informing you of my latest doings.

So what is the allure of this application?

I feel like the allure of such a tool is the impression it gives the user.  I watched an interview on C|Net where they interviewed Twitter’s founder and asked him the same question.  His response was interesting as he commented that “people are always looking for yet another way to stay connected with each other…”.  That’s a seemingly obvious response considering the levels on which people connect in the modern world.  From weblogs, social-networking sites, cell phones, text messages, e-mail, etc. it’s clear to see that people, for the most part, like being connected to each other.  There’s a comfort, a security, to that knowledge that someone, somewhere, is listening to you; is connected to you as well.  The question then becomes, not why use Twitter, but why use Twitter?  Of all the “instant” methods of mass communication one has available to them (again: weblogs, social-networks, cell phones, text messages, instant messages, etc.) why would someone use Twitter?  I can’t seem to reconcile this one with anything logical, the only thing that crosses my mind is, “it’s fun.”  And that suits me.

However, if I had to fathom a guess as to it’s mass-appeal, I would have to bring up a few of the neat things I’ve seen done with Twitter.  A the 2007 South by Southwest festival, Twitter won the “Web Award” in the blog category.  Twitter had set up a large screen on the convention floor which showed small pop-ups of real time posts (what they refer to as “Tweets”) from Tweeters (Twitter users) at the convention.  This provided guests with a sort-of “real-time pulse” of the convention floor.  Messages saying someone was going over to a particular booth, or what someone may have thought of a performance, other guests were able to make a quick stop as they roamed the halls to get a sense for what was going on at that moment elsewhere on the premises.  Impressive, I must say.  In context, I can definitely see the purpose of this application, but in the simple form of what they dub “The Public Timeline” where every single Tweet is shown in sequence, I fail to see a point.  I can only describe this sequence as chaotic; a true manifestation of anarchy.  One might say Twitter has removed a barricade on a social-construct-cage that has kept this impulse to “Tweet” suppressed until now.

One might say that this impulse was easily satisfied by the weblog (I will NOT call it a “blog”), and for the most part they are correct.  However, as you can see from this journal, I like to write about [what I think] are a topics with some depth, worthy of discussion.  This seems to be a growing trend, especially now with Twitter’s rise in popularity.  People can exhaust their petty thoughts and daily going-on’s with their Twitter accounts, and their weblogs are reserved for more drawn out matters.  This isn’t to say that this will improve the content of these online diaries, as being able to whine about how “Jenny is such a bitch” in real-time can be done in 140 characters or less, explaining in graphic detail why Jenny is such a bitch, cannot.

This is, but one of the many new ways which we communicate.  We create, as I’ve said previously, an online repository of our society.  We are logging our movements, our thoughts, or insights, and our ideas for some unstated purpose.  That purpose, is why we web.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Why We Web, Overture.

In the first of what I hope to be an ongoing series of related articles, I examine the culture, economy, and underbelly of the World Wide Web in a segment I’ve dubbed, “Why We Web”.  In these articles I hope to reach an understanding about the technology we live with and depend on every day of our lives and where we as a society are headed if current trends continue.

Some time back in November ‘06, as a result of the ubiquitous Playstation 3 Frenzy, a short blip on the radar of “old men criticizing technology and blaming young people who use technology for the downfall of western civilization” came up.

Apparently Bill O’Reilly, a popular conservative pundit for the Fox News Network, made a few noteworthy comments on his radio broadcast targeted at young people and the machines they use.  You can read a few choice excerpts in the article I’ve linked to, but I want to focus in on a few particular lines in order to examine them further.

Basically what you have is a large portion of the population, mostly younger people under the age of 45, who don’t deal with reality - ever. So they don’t know what day it is; they don’t know temperature it is; they don’t know what their neighbor looks like. They don’t know anything… because they are constantly diverted by a machine. Now what this does is it takes a person away from reality because they’ve created their own reality…

Now, I’ll admit, I spend a fair amount of time indoors, and that time spent indoors is usually spent in front of a computer.  I’m not a very social person, by nature I generally like being alone.  I’m not very active, but I do what I can to stay…”fit” (though, I don’t know what one expects from a college student).  All that aside, I know what reality is, and so do most people, no matter how much time the spend playing video games or surfing the web.


The Internet is a means of communication, fundamentally, that’s all it is.  I would imagine someone who spends 80% of their time staring at a screen would be the last person you’d expect to not at least know what day it is.

Knowing the temperature is probably some gutless sub-text as he really means to say, “they don’t go outside”.  However, I’m willing to wager he can’t tell me the temperature just by stepping outside either.

they don’t know what their neighbor looks like.

On the contrary, Bill (can I call ya Bill?), they know exactly what their neighbors look like.  They know what their neighbors look like, they know their neighbors’ favorite hobbies, movies, television shows, and books, and it gets better!  Their neighbors know all the same stuff about them.  They know all kinds of stuff about each other, and they’re communicating on a much higher level than you, Mr. O’Reilly.

Putting the bastard aside (pardon my French, Bill hates the French), this “higher level of communication” is what I want to hone in on.  Advancements in technology, specifically, those made in the realm of the Internet and the new semantic web, is influencing our social patterns in so many ways, now more than ever.  New applications for the web, those impacting the blogosphere, especially by way of folksonomies and mash-ups are released every day.  Repositories like the Wikipedia and blogs provide us with an inexhaustible wealth of information on virtually any topic.  This is the true World Wide Web: a global infrastructure and database of information, ideas, and events all stored and completely accessible to anyone who wishes to access it (and has the proper means of course).  That is communication at it’s finest…but why do we web?

The desire to stay connected at all times is a very strange paradigm and it stems from man’s constant insecurity and inherent fear.  Man fears loneliness.  The mind, by nature, is always lacking something, and so we form bonds with other people in order to fill those gaps.  It is because of this that mankind always seeks to be connected.  Even something virtual like a telephone or a text-message can make an impact.  The simple notion of having access to someone somewhere, is enough to fill the void sometimes.

So that’s the appeal, but what’s the drive?  The drive stems from a number of sources, many of them far more difficult to ascertain than others, but with careful examination and further discussion, I feel we can come to some sort of a resolution on the matter.


It’s not your money that they’re after, boy it’s you.