All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace Episode Two

Having watched the first episode of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, I wrote how I wasn’t quite at ease with some of his proofs of how technology had influenced society. I was keen to see how he developed his ideas, which rolled on into a new direction, of “How the idea of the ecosystem was invented, how it inspired us, and how it wasn’t even true”. This exploration was preceded by the statement that:

In the mass democracies of the west, a new ideology has risen up. We have come to believe that the old hierarchies of power can be replaced by self-organising networks.

To investigate this and some of the other ideas from the episode further, I need first to go off on a Curtisian diversion.

In the 1950 the US military started to investigate the concept of how to communicate in a post-nuclear war world. This work was lead by Paul Baran of The Rand Corporation, creators of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence via mutually assured destruction, and subsequently spoofed as The Bland Corporation in Dr. Strangelove. To be clear given the tone of the first episode, there is no connection to Ayn Rand.

Their conclusion was that you needed a system that could send packets of information over a network. The packets would search for the best route, and would be reassembled at their destination into a whole message. The aim of this isn’t stability, or to balance the network, or for all nodes of the network to be of equal value. It is instead to have a functioning system for message delivery.

The realisation of this vision was ARPANET, a network for the exchange of information between military computers, and the forerunner of the internet. ARPA achieved this in part through the funding of a group led by Douglas Engelbart.

Englebart’s vision

Englebart was a graduate in the field of Electrical Engineering, and following his degree he laid out a set of principles he himself wished to follow as his career goals. They became his bootstrapping strategy, and he refined them into a set of principles that his laboratory work would follow.

  • Our world is a complex place with urgent problems of a global scale.
  • The rate, scale, and complex nature of change is unprecedented and beyond the capability of any one person, organisation, or even nation to comprehend and respond to.
  • Challenges of an exponential scale require an evolutionary coping strategy of a commensurate scale at a cooperative cross-disciplinary, international, cross-cultural level.
  • We need a new, co-evolutionary environment capable of handling simultaneous complex social, technical, and economic changes at an appropriate rate and scale.
  • The grand challenge is to boost the collective IQ of organisations and of society. A successful effort brings about an improved capacity for addressing any other grand challenge.
  • The improvements gained and applied in their own pursuit will accelerate the improvement of collective IQ. This is a bootstrapping strategy.
  • Those organisations, communities, institutions, and nations that successfully bootstrap their collective IQ will achieve the highest levels of performance and success.

His team’s work at SRI for ARPA produced early iterations of the mouse, hypertext links, tools for online collaboration and precursors to what became the GUI. Engelbart himself was granted a patent on the computer mouse in 1970. Adam Curtis showed a clip of his demonstration of several of these ideas from what is now known as “The Mother of All Demos”.

Doug Engelbart 1968 Demonstration from Nathan Garrett on Vimeo.


This is the whole demonstration, for a couple of quick highlights go to 10:00 to see him editing a shopping list, and to 26:00 for an explanation of the input systems he’s using, including his mouse.

Engelbart saw computers as a means for sharing and collaboration towards the greater good, but there is no mention of equality in his vision. Simply that man could improve his world through collaboration. Similarly, ARPANET didn’t work on the principle that all nodes should share and contribute equally, indeed, a computer network built on these principles would quickly run into bottlenecks. Instead the aim is to simply deliver in an effective manner.

Adam Curtis suggests that it was the ideas of people like Engelbart, Jay Forrester (creator of the Early Warning Network in the 1950s) and Buckminster Fuller (inventor of the Geodesic dome used to house the early warning network), along with Howard and Eugene Odum’s flawed principle of Ecosystems (based on Forrester’s Network Theory) that influenced how the hippie communes of the late 1960s were organised. Curtis explains some of this in a recent article in the Guardian.

His example was of the Synergia Commune, whose philosophies were specifically based on the theories of Buckminster Fuller, living in homes styled on geodesic domes and following his idea that the solidity of structures made of equal nodes could be reflected in a human society. However this is true of but one commune shown. The hippie culture itself drew from an array of influences, from mysticism, alternate philosophies and sheer hedonism. One of the acknowledged major influences on the culture as a whole was Dr Timothy Leary, who advocated to simply “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. Again, this isn’t a principle of equilibrium and balance. In terms of the influences on the communes themselves, one can also look back generations to farming cooperatives, the kibbutz, Socialism, Communism, all more general and far removed from Fuller’s theories.

The final set of examples depicted were the people’s uprisings of the past ten years, which have often been characterised in the media as Internet revolutions, or in recent years as Twitter and Facebook revolutions. Again the social equality of the revolutions is shown as both the underpinning of its methodology and the crux of its failure. What most of them have in common though is that the initial focus has often come from a wronged opposition party. The Rose and Orange Revolutions of Georgia and the Ukraine both occurred following disputed elections, and the initial protests were organised by those wronged parties. In Iran the protests against the government similarly followed the disputed 2009 elections. And in Egypt, some observers credited years of organised protest by trade unions against the Government as a major contributing factor to its eventual overthrow. As for the use of the internet in Eastern Europe, and later the use of social media in the Arab Spring for Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, it is a facile argument that they “won” the day in any of the cases. However they certainly contributed to the organisation of the protests in every case, taking advantage of a lack of knowledge of those systems by the ruling parties to route around the more normal paths of comment and organisation that were being barred by oppressive regimes. Almost like ARPANET, they were able to find a route to deliver their message in the end.

It seems likely now that any oppressive government worth its salt will look to monitor, hack, and disable the commonly used social networks like Twitter and Facebook in future to prevent protest. It is equally likely that opposition groups will just find alternatives to route around the blockages in the system.

Adam Curtis rightly identifies the flaw with the theory of ecosystems explained early in this episode. Data was flawed, misrepresented, and simplified until it met the theory the Odums wanted to prove. It feels though that Curtis in the first two episodes has fallen into the same trap, misrepresenting his own evidence to “prove” a neatly defined argument, when in fact the results show broader and more pragmatic systems are in place.

Is tonight the night that Twitter takes off in the UK

It is said that Twitter may be discussed by Jonathon Ross and Stephen Fry on Ross’s chat show, tonight on BBC1. If it is mentioned (and we don’t know it will be, that could have been edited out), it could be the point that Twitter really takes off massively in the UK. I’ll predict if they do, watch out for a load of new people this weekend.

Facebook adds People you may know feature

Facebook now suggests “people you may know” – Download Squad

I’ve tested this out, and my own results seemed rather sensible, they were indeed by and large people I knew. I’m waiting for the “people I knew and lost touch with” feature though, that might be more fun. Or “people you were bullied by at school”.

Firefox Extension: Twitterfox

Twitterfox is a handy little Firefox Extension for all users of Twitter. It keeps you up to date with your friends twitters, and gives you a nice quick interface for posting. It takes up a tiny piece of real estate on your status bar (an issue if like me you have a lot of extensions that place things there, I have run out of space on some of my installs, and Firefox gets a bit ugly when that happens).
What is also worth mentioning is that it is really nicely designed, the alerts and interface for reading/posting twitters is tiny and well done. I suspect that the style may well end up influencing other similar extensions, as it is the way to do it. I’d love similar for status updates to Facebook for instance.

Flock for 64-bit Ubuntu Feisty Fawn and Gutsy Gibbon

I’ve been using the Mozilla-based Flock browser more in the past month, I do like how integrated the social networking side of it is. I can’t find extensions for Firefox that do it all so neatly and seamlessly. I’ve decided to start using it at work, and hit an issue, namely that the version supplied on the Flock site doesn’t work with 64-bit Linux. However, does compile a 64-bit version for the current and previous versions of 64-bit Ubuntu, namely Feisty Fawn and Gutsy Gibbon. This worked fine for me in Gibbon.

Blogged with Flock

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Another piece of the Google puzzle in place – Social Networking

Well I’d just finished writing the previous post, just went to flick through my feeds, and found this little gem. Google Maps is going Social. They’ve now added a profile section to Google Maps, so that any maps you chose to share will also now have your profile attached to them. I checked this out, and sure enough, I’ve already got my avatar and website in there already, from some other Google service I’ve used.

It’s very likely this is going to slip into the Google Apps family over the next few months. I suspect that it would go nicely into Gmail, so that you could find out more about anyone who mails you from a Gmail account.

This is going to be Facebook by stealth. Rather than a launch of a rival, they will add the profiles in. Rather than adding apps to a social networking app, they add the social networking to their existing apps. Google has Google Groups (formerly known as Usenet, in a way). They’re even a step ahead of Facebook by having IM and voice chat in place too. It’s starting to fall into place.

What can Facebook do for you, and what you can do for Facebook?

I’ve been looking at the Facebook Developers site, and having thought about it a bit, I can see a lot of potential there. What drew me there in the first place was the Facebook-based game Scrabulous. I’ve been playing it quite a bit, and I was wondering how they might add to it. I was interested in setting up a league of fellow players, and wanted somewhere I could record the results. So I started looking at how this might be possible.

What occurs to me at first is that in terms of games, and possibly other applications as well, it shares several elements with the wonderful Xbox Live Arcade. You have a friends list, you can challenge those friends to games, you can suggest new games they might like to play against you, and you can compare your scores with them, and indeed with the best players out there. The scores in particular are a meta level that wraps around ordinary gaming, drives people to play and use the application more. I’ve seen a whole raft of friends get very involved in Scrabulous, many of whom are not computer “games players” at all.

You then get other possibilities, they have a donation advert built into the game, and there is also a service to listen to music as you play. These are the sort of things that are crying out for other sites, developers and artists to take advantage of. Got an album to promote? Build a small flash game, stick some tracks from the new album in as the soundtrack, and sit back and let Facebook’s users promote it for you. The News Feed that everyone has at the top centre of their home page shows (in the main) when and what applications their friends are using. The applications get spread and popularised in a viral fashion. It is in this way that Scrabulous has built up over 350,000 users.

It’s worth thinking of how your site could use Facebook. Maybe it’s just a Facebook group you want, somewhere your users can talk about you. Or it could be that there is an application that you promote at present you could adapt for Facebook. Or even that you could build one to promote your site in some manner.

What does Facebook get out of this? Well for one, they keep people on their site longer. Another benefit though, is that they are building up a massive body of developers creating ways of interacting with their site. They get all their API code tested on a large scale far beyond what they could ever do internally, and they also get the benefit of being able to mirror for themselves creative and successful uses of their site. For instance, they could choose to license Scrabble directly from its owners, mimic all the work of Scrabulous, and then build it into everyone’s profiles when they are created. Suddenly they cut out the middle man, and can potentially claim more traffic and advertising revenue for themselves.

I’m not suggesting that they would necessarily be this evil, but they do get a great benefit from all the 3rd party creative and development work being done for them. Of course this is a benefit that can come from an API in general, but it is rare you see it being utilised by both developers and users on such a large scale. It will be interesting to see what it produces over the next year.

Read The Next Age of Facebook.

The Next Age of Facebook?

I’m starting to second guess what the next stage of expansion for Facebook will be. I don’t think it is an IPO. I don’t think it is a takeover of another social network (although if they wanted to buy Myspace off Murdoch at a knockdown price and stop it being ugly, that could only be a good thing). I think the next stage of expansion for Facebook is when our parents start using it.

We, the sort-off grown up children, many of us with kids of our own, have busy lives. Many of us are lousy at keeping in touch. What better way for our parents to keep track of what we’re up to in more detail than by following our profiles?

I’ve had experience of this already with my own personal blog, I can remember the surprise I had a couple of years ago when I mentioned something I’d done to my father on the phone, and he responded with “Oh I know, I read it on your site last week.” I hadn’t hidden it from him, I had mentioned it at some stage, but I just hadn’t expected him to be a regular reader. Of course though, your parents are often likely to be your keenest readers (proviso: unless say you’re blogging about a specific subject, say microbiology or your own porn model career).

Myspace is very much a teen audience in the main, partly because it is just so garish. It is the unkempt teenagers bedroom of the internet, it looks bad, there’s some unearthly music you really don’t want to listen to, and if you read their diary you’re probably going to learn that they hate you, they can’t spell, and that they’re up to a whole load of stuff you wish you hadn’t read about.

Facebook is much more tidy, it’s more like their living room in their rented house after they’ve had a couple of decent jobs and made their first trip to Ikea. It’s much more simple, pleasing on the eye, and whilst there is still some clutter hiding in the corner, you can find most of what you want easily. It is also a lot quieter.

Thus I feel that Facebook is easier as a way for parents to read up on what their children are up to. They’ll come for that, then stay for keeping in touch with their own friends, and enjoying the Friends Reunited side of it. The social network will expand exponentially.

Of course this comes with its own set of issues. For one, you may have to think, just as many people are finding that employers are checking out potential new staff on it, what your parents might think of what you are saying, or of whom you are friends with. Why are you still friends with that ex that they had to listen to you complaining about? Or that friend that always gets you into scrapes? Why are you a member of the “I hope Michael Winner slips and falls” group? Or simply why are you spending so much time on the internet yet you can’t manage a phone call? All issues we are going to face in future.