An overly positive contribution — A review of How We Got to Now

cover of How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

How We Got to Now: The History and Power of Great Ideas by Steven Johnson

I have mixed feelings about this book. I am a big fan of Steven Johnson, and my familiarity of his work might be why I didn’t love this book.

In How We Got to Now Johnson explores the scaffolding of concepts throughout the history of innovation. This is the phenomenon where various social and scientific advances converge simultaneously so that a new invention or innovation becomes possible. It is the reason why co-invention exists, how radio can have more than 20 independent inventors all coming up with basically the same design within a span of a few years.

Terms like the “adjacent possible” and “network-based innovation” will be familiar to readers of Johnson’s earlier work. How We Got to Now seems like a re-hashing of his previous (and excellent I might add) book Where Good Ideas Come From. No, it is more like an appendix. And a rosy-glassed one at that. From the outset Johnson removes himself from any judgement of the innovations he covers. He does admit that each innovation has had both good and bad effects on society: when discussing the vacuum tube, he raises Hitler at Nuremberg and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech as examples. But on the whole, Johnson is focused on “progress.” He wears his techno-optimism on his sleeve, which is fine, but if you have read much of his previous work, this book may leave you wanting.

Furthermore, he walks a fine line in the story telling of the six innovations he covers (glass, cold, clean, sound, time, light). His conceit is the “hummingbird effects” of each innovation — how these effects ripple out and impact society through time. It is an analysis only enabled by 20/20 hindsight and comes mighty close to playing Six degrees of separation. The result is sometimes a wistful sentimentality, and positively Gladwellian. “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” A pithy quote from Carl Sagan, and one of my favourites. But I would refrain from using it as a framework to write a social history of innovation.

“Hummingbird effects” are certainly fun to ponder. Even though they had been around for centuries, popular demand for eye glasses was finally sparked by the Gutenburg press. Prior to the explosion in literacy rates, the common folk simply did not perceive that they were overwhelmingly short-sighted. Johnson’s book is littered with examples like this.

Thinking of today, and my work in computers, I cannot help but wonder what the hummingbird effects of code literacy might be. In the past 30 years the world has been eaten by software (to paraphrase Marc Andreessen). Some argue that to understand the world around us we must understand the code. Therefore everyone should learn to program. But learning to program is difficult — personally, I have had a terrible time of it. Which leads me to ponder — like the above-mentioned hummingbird effect of Gutenburg’s machine on reading glasses — is there some sort of short-coming in the human brain that makes coding so difficult to grasp for most people? Some sort of analogue to short-sightedness for programming that we are only just becoming aware of? At some point in the next 50 years will I be able to buy mental “glasses” that will allow me to code, and thereby perceive the world around me with more clarity? Or to the contrary, once we attain that clarity, might we discover that code is not the right lens to view society? In the face of the zeitgeist of our technocentric modern culture, that would be an interesting hummingbird effect.

Which leads me to another shortcoming of Johnson’s latest work: Silicon Valley-centrism. In How We Got to Now Johnson debunks the proverbial single inventor and his lightbulb moment. A laudible contribution, yet he falls flat in the last few pages. After detailing how Bell Labs was responsible for much of innovation during the 20th century (the subject of an upcoming review of mine in the LRC), he ends the book with a paen to the garage inventor — a nod to startups just south of Marin County where Johnson lives. Diversity is certainly a desirable attribute for spurring innovation, but do not discount the effects of a center of excellence like Murray Hill. Bell Labs provided literally tons of infrastructure for some of the smartest people of the age to gather around and build upon. No wonder it is called The Idea Factory (the title of Jon Gertner’s excellent book, also recommended by Johnson in How We Got to Now).

For those that have never read a book by Johnson, you may very well enjoy How We Got to Now. It certainly aspires to inspire. But I would rather recommend Where Good Ideas Come From, and then maybe pick up a more critical take to temper your view on innovation.

Pulling back the tattered ethical rags of the sharing economy

Mike Bulajewski has written a lengthy reflection on ethical consumerism singling out the “sharing economy.” His premise:

We’re led to believe that as consumers and suppliers for these services, we’re supporting ethical values of kindness, community-building and trust between strangers; living more sustainably by sharing unused property; building community wealth; reducing the power of centralized corporations by transacting directly with each other; and developing a new economic model which will solve global poverty.

We are wrong. Read the essay to find out why.

Long Morozov

The New Left Review has an excellent in depth interview with Evgeny Morozov called Socialize The Data Centres! Too bad that was the headline they went with, because his argument is more subtle than that, and the article contains so much more. For example, we learn about Morozov’s upbringing in Belarus and his early intellectual development (a major in Business Admin!?). Even better is discussion about his ideological evolution since writing his books. I find this interesting because while he has been working on his PhD at Harvard we have been only getting the occasional opinion piece. I can imagine he is going through a transformation and look forward to the resulting book(s?) at the end. Below are a few choice quotes from the article, however I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

On the problem:

… the encroachment of capital into everyday life by means of Silicon Valley, which I think is probably more consequential than the encroachment of the nsa into our civil liberties.

… we’re in danger of ending up with a kind of idiot history, in which everything starts in Silicon Valley, and there are no other forces or causes.

On the solution:

Right now all we can do is try to articulate some kind of utopian vision of what a non-neoliberal, but technology-friendly, world might look like.

The question is how can we build a system that will actually favour citizens, and perhaps even favour some kind of competition in its search engines. It’s primarily from data and not their algorithms that powerful companies currently derive their advantages, and the only way to curb that power is to take the data completely out of the market realm, so that no company can own them.

Some related links:

Computing in North Korea

RedStarOS screencap

There has been a wave of information about the computing environment and networking capabilities of North Korea coming out in the past week. Vice reported on the the release of a torrent of RedStar OS, a North Korean fork of Fedora. Combined with heightened interest over the purported Sony hack, there have been a lot of tear-downs of RedStar on security sites, including this one of the Naenara browser. Among other things, it hints at how the Nork internet is like a SME intranet, and not a private part of the global internet.

Another great piece is this CCC talk about teaching computer science in North Korea. Will Scott taught at PUST (Pyongyang University of Science & Technology) in 2013, a couple of years after Suki Kim did. Her book about her experience there is recommended (read my review: Emotional prisoner — a review of Without You, There Is No Us). In this talk Scott gives a demo of RedStar, and puts it into context of the day to day computing in North Korea, which he says is mostly WinXP. The demo is sort of a bizarro world Steve Jobsian demo, as the RedStar UX is heavily, heavily influenced my Mac OS X. He also demos an Android tablet.

Language is obviously a challenge, since not a lot of English-speaking security researchers can read Korean. But the code is much more legible, being that most coding conventions are based on English (a little bit of Anglo developer privilege there). Regardless, any glimpse into the “Hermit Kingdom” is a welcome one.

Disruptive politics

As Silicon Valley becomes the economic and cultural center of the US (and everywhere else, considering how “software is eating the world”) it is only natural that it will seek to become a political center. Hiring lobbyists — like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber (and Netflix in Canada) have — is just the first step. In fact, since that is an attempt to work inside of the existing system, those big companies are stuck within the innovator’s dilemma. For some in Silicon Valley, what is needed is disruptive innovation.

In Come With Us If You Want to Live: Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley, Sam Frank takes us on a networking spree with transhumanists, singularitarians, panpsychists, and negative hedonic utilitarians; all seeking to “change the world” in a much larger sense than Facebook or Whatsapp. The article “investigates the sometimes elitist, anti-democratic, utopian, and millenarian politics of Silicon Valley” and in it Frank relates a number of apocalyptic scenarios. Here is one that I think outlines the logic quite succinctly (or, at least how Frank sees it):

In five years an estimated 5.9 billion people will own smartphones. Anyone who can code, or who has something to sell, can be a free agent on the global marketplace. You can work from anywhere on your laptop and talk to anyone in the world; you can receive good anywhere via drone and pay for them with bitcoins — that is, if you can’t 3-D print them at home. As software eats everything, prices will plunge. You won’t need much money to live like a king; it won’t be a big deal if your job is made obsolete by code or a robot. The rich will enjoy bespoke luxury goods and be first in line for new experiences, but otherwise there will be no differences among people; inequality will increase but cease to matter. Politics as we know it will lose relevance. Large, grid-locked states will be disrupted like any monopoly. Customer-citizens, armed with information, will demand transparency, accountability, choice. They will want their countries to be run as well as a start-up.

The rhetoric is great, I love the term “customer-citizens” in particular. Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall, but you can get a taste with the online supplemental: Battlefield Worth: Occupy goes to TechCrunch Disrupt.

Sam Frank’s take is by no means even-handed. He opens his article with a visit to Zucotti Park and self-identifies as a “democratic-socialist introvert” and a Gramsci-ite. Frank’s interactions with the “libertarians” are a pastiche, with myriad quotes entirely out-of-context and comes off not thoroughly representative. Although that seems like a weakness, it actually turns out to be a strength. Through this whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley’s fringe politics we get a snapshot of the primordial ooze of political thought there — all seeking to disrupt politics as we know it, even seeking “post-politics” as Frank puts it.

The political spectrum of Silicon Valley is wide and varied. First there are the engaged politics which span the traditional right and left. For example: hyper-capitalist libertarians like Peter Thiel (“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”); neoreactionaries which pine for a technocratic aristocracy; political activists like Aaron Swartz; or techno-socialists like Astra Taylor that want to shake up the system as it is. Then there is the more sinister, underlying ideology of the system of the type that Evgeny Morozov tries to expose and attack when he rails against cyber-utopianism and the “de-institutionalization of society.” I would love to see a catalogue of political ideology in Silicon Valley by someone like Mike Bulajewski or a working academic like Michael Sacasas. An impossible task maybe. But the next disruptive politics — the next Marx or Hobbes — could be in there somewhere.

In the meantime, explore one section of the spectrum with Sam Frank’s enjoyable piece.

Podcast devolution


This is my current roster of podcasts. It has been pared down severely from what it was a few years ago. It is a mix of Canadian news, tech law and philosophy, actual philosophy, movies and pop culture. I highly recommend them all.

With all the talk about a podcasting renaissance recently, I thought I would try out a few of the old tech podcasts I used to listen to years ago… What inanity! I ranted on Twitter that I am:

No longer interested in how internet-famous people are layering the windows in their workspaces or if their [sp] gonna buy the new iMac…

Nothing had changed! They are still talking about the same stuff they were 3 years ago, and none of it important (to me at least). I thought this was supposed to be a renaissance!

Then I saw this excellent video from Dave Wiskus about having a “podcast intervention.” The money quote:

Two or more white males talk into their microphones for two or more hours sharing their unscripted thoughts about their phones and their computers… sponsored by Squarespace!

Nailed it.

Podcasting is a great medium and there are a lot of innovative and interesting shows out there. Just don’t stray into the “consumer tech fanboy” genre.

Tech and social control — an OKDG After Action

@sundaysociology and @chadkoh deep in discussion.
@sundaysociology and @chadkoh deep in discussion. Photo by @scdaustin

How does technology influence the social and political lives of humans? That was the central topic of discussion during the second half of last night’s OKDG event. I sat down with UBCO Professor of Sociology Christopher Schneider to talk about technology and social control.

My purpose in inviting Dr Schneider was to introduce our community of developers and designers to some of the literature and concepts used in the formal inquiry into technology and society. We talked about the use of technology in formal social control (eg. police using Facebook to identify rioters during the 2011 Vancouver Riots), in informal social control (eg. expectations about timing of social interactions due to “instantaneous” communications channels), and about unlimited tech freedom (cf. Inverse Amish link below).

We as early adopters and practitioners seldom ask ourselves about the impact of what we make on society at large. How do you determine if a new piece of tech actually contributes to “progress”? Many of us are self taught and are never exposed to “ethics” classes (nevermind the ACM’s Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice) like other more established professions. That is why I like having these types of discussions in our community. It is a blind spot that we need to address.

NOTE: If you are looking for a quick and easy primer, I highly recommend Shannon Vallor’s module An Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics.

Anyways, Dr Schneider spoke at length and regaled us with anecdotes and dilemmas to think about. I think everyone had a good time. If you want to continue this discussion, or explore it further together, just let me know. Maybe we can do another event.

Below is a list of resources, concepts and events that was talked about that you can explore. (Thanks to @pondernook for writing all this down in realtime! I have corrected all the drunken spelling mistakes.)


Qualitative Media Analysis by Schneider and Althaide

Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience by Erving Goffman

Media Logic by Althaide and Snow

Digital Dualism

W.I. Thomas: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”

Cass Sunstein and Thaler “Nudging

Routine Activities Theory

Crime and Everyday Life by Marcus Felson

Crime as a social necessity

Toronto Police Service social media accounts
Richard Ericson

Crowd sourced policing

Reddit and the Boston Bombers

1992 LA Riots, media refusing to be a “deputy”

Aaron Doyle

Data Exhaust

Documentary: Terms and Conditions May Apply

Bruce Schneier, Trust and security

Balaji Srinivasan’s idea of the “Inverse Amish“. Also see Exiting Silicon Valley

Peter Thiel (paid kids not to go to college) and building offshore utopias

C Wright Mills

Cognitive Surplus

Neil Postman, technopoly: the cultural state of mind that assumes technology is always positive and of value

Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton

Sugar Hill Gang

The Filthy Fifteen

Adam Buxton sings “Help” the Police by NWA [EDITOR’s NOTE: Too funny!]

Embracing the Z-axis — OKDG after action report

“Technology changes society” is a truism but it is always worth asking “how?” At last night’s talk to the Okanagan Developer Group I used my trip to MakerHaus last February as a jumping off point to explore this question in light of recent advancements in the Maker Movement.

Me presenting at OKDG
Photos c/o @jvdwdesigns and @gunsinger. Yes, that is Lenin in the background.

MakerHaus (see my photos here) is a symbol of the democratization of manufacturing. Historically, putting the means of production into the hands of the people has wrought massive changes on society. Digital fabrication and personal manufacturing technologies like 3D printers, CNC machines and laser cutters are the latest iteration of this pattern. To paraphrase Chris Anderson, in the 1980s the Desktop Publishing revolution gave us the PRINT button and changed everything; in the 90s the internet revolution gave us the PUBLISH button and changed everything; now our computers are getting a MAKE button, and it will and change everything.

My talk at the Okanagan Developer Group focused on three dynamics: better tools, better products and the evolution of manufacturing. “Making” is not new. Humans have 200,000 years of evolutionary history as makers. The difference this time round is the new community of makers: typically digital creatives. These people are good at manipulating bits, and now have the power to turn bits into atoms. 30 years of computing heritage is disrupting 200,000 years of traditional making. We are already seeing exaptations from the digital into the physical world. The new makers and their new tools will lead to better products. It is time to apply the Long Tail to manufacturing. Small batch manufacturing means more customization and niche products. Rapid prototyping means tighter iterations in physical product development and more innovation. Similar to the digital world “beta” physical products are now a possibility. We are also seeing the evolution of manufacturing returning to the time of the single craftsperson, able to design and create a complete physical from scratch. Yet this new craftsperson has the power of globalization at their fingertips.

In this new age of digital fabrication and personal manufacturing you can send physical objects over the internet. It will result in changes in patterns of consumption and new design techniques, which we touched on in our discussion last night. Some of the products I introduced included:

However, there will be unintended consequences, and social problems that will need to be solved as 3D printers become more mainstream. We talked about the copyright problem, and the printing of illicit materials such as guns, viruses and drugs. Pollution was another big topic, including the issue of space, and our already huge problem with plastic. Consider when every household has a device that can create stuff at the push of a button, and that overwhelmingly that stuff will be made of plastic.

I closed by encouraging the audience to get involved by learning and doing, for example at OK Makerspace. For those that don’t want to actually make things, there is a lot of opportunity to get involved in the new industrial revolution by thinking about creative solutions to the problems raised. Furthermore I implored the audience to involve their children. The generation before us had to foresight to give us computers. We must do the same for our children.

During the question period the topics of printing food, the advancement of materials science and how 3D printing might change our economic relationship to China came up. It lead to intriguing discussion and I even got to deploy my thinking on what 3D printing and future recycling techniques will mean for Plato’s Theory of Forms. Overall, everyone seemed engaged and the reaction afterwards and on Twitter was encouraging.

Below are some links to resources, products and services that I mentioned in the talk. As usual, feel free to hit me up to learn more, or if you want to discuss these issues.

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson (my review here)

New Disruptors interview with Ellie and Mike Kemery of Makerhaus

New Disruptors interview with Chris Anderson

Make Magazine

Negative 3D — A technical review of The Hobbit

I finally saw The Hobbit in 3D HFR. The experience overall was a good one. Watching the regular 24fps previews and then the actual film was like night and day. You could tell right when the Newline Cinema logo floated onto the screen that this would be different.

I would recommend reading Kevin Kelly’s explanation of why the movie looks different. I can confirm that it looked very smooth, the amount of detail was amazing. I originally saw the film in 2D at the regular frame rate and thought it looked beautiful (see my initial reaction here). I think this version was much more sharp.

One thing I feared was that the HFR would reveal shoddy set production, much like HD first revealed every little imperfection of newscasters on television. Lower resolution gives cinematographers the ability to “hide” things. It is all about the illusion. Yet the designers of The Hobbit proved to have amazing attention to detail: the props and sets looked to be of high quality — this was revealed moreso by the sharpness of the high frame rate version.

Interactions between live characters and CG characters was sometimes weak, and for some reason Weta still can’t make wargs look believable, but they hit it out of the park with Gollum this time around. The lighting issues from the first series seems to have been solved.

Quick camera movements were jarring. There is too much information on screen in 48fps and any jerky movements, or unsteady camera work didn’t look very good. It might simply be a matter of what we are used to, but I doubt if you could film a “shaky-cam” film in HFR.

My biggest complaint was sound. It was not “big” enough for all the extra dimensions and frames of the film. Maybe it was the theatre I was in, but the sound was very tinny (I noticed this in the 2D version which I saw in a different theatre, especially during the dwarf meeting at Bilbo’s). This tinny sound combined with overlighting (see Kevin Kelly’s article) I think contributes to the sense that one is “on set”, especially during interior scenes.

Watching The Hobbit this time in HFR I really noticed something: overcrowding of the frame. It is common practice to position people and objects much closer to one another than in real life. For example when filming two characters having a conversation, oftentimes the actors heads will be extremely close on set, however on the screen it looks natural. Because of the “realness” of the HFR, I think this trick no longer works. The troll battle scene is an example. The set seemed way too crowded. This might be used to good effect, such as in the dwarf council meeting at Bilbo’s, but I think we might see a change in technique.

3D In-N-out

My final point is related to the 3D. I have seen a number of films in 3D but this time I really noticed something related to the overcrowding point mentioned above, and it has to do with which way the 3D goes.

Think of the movie screen as neutral space and the 3D elements as active space. When sitting perpendicular to a 3D screen, the “active” space is between the viewer and the screen — this contributes to the “popping out” effect. However it narrows the field of vision, blocking off what is happening in the neutral space which adds to overcrowding effect mentioned above.

Rather than using the gimmicky “pop out” effects of current day 3D, I would like to see the reverse: placing the active space beyond the screen, widening the field of vision. Think of a photo shot with a fisheye lens versus a wide angle lens. IMAX screens achieve a wider perspective simply by using much larger screen areas, but enhance the effect with a concave shape. Imagine this being even more enhanced “negative 3D.” Then we would get the amazing vistas and the sense of being “in the action”, rather than the sense that the action is outside of us, but periodically invading our space.

I am no film professional and am not sure if this is even possible. Maybe it is already being done now and I am just not seeing enough films in 3D. Hopefully someone can chime in with some reasons why this is a terrible or impossible idea.

Regardless, go see The Hobbit in 3D FPS. It is brilliant.