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.

Getting Google Buzz to post to Twitter

Google Buzz has been out for a couple of days now. It certainly seems to be getting a lot of attention, personally speaking it looks a lot more active than Twitter was when I first joined it. There is quite a bit of scope to link accounts to Buzz from the off, I’ve already got my blogs, Flickr, Twitter and Youtube posting to it. However at the moment it is all one way. What if you want your posts on Buzz to go back to Twitter?

Well for starters, looking at the API, it looks like that will come soon. However for now I have come up with a way of doing it to some extent. An existing service that has been pulled in to become part of Buzz was Google Profiles. This now has your Buzz posts on it. Usefully though, it also has an RSS feed (okay, an Atom feed), containing your Buzz posts. See my Google Profile for an example, once you’re there, in Firefox click on the blue RSS icon in the address bar, and you should get the option to subscribe to the page (depending on your settings). This will give you the URL for that page.

So, go to your own profile page, grab the RSS feed URL, and then go over to Create an account there, set it up to use your Google Profile feed, and after a delay of a few hours, it will start posting your Buzz posts onto Twitter.

Provisos are:
1) Obviously Twitter has a much shorter character limit, so your posts may potentially get cut short
2) If you set a post limit in Twitterfeed, it will only take the first x posts you’ve made.
3) It is only your posts, no comments
4) You’ll not get any of the other data such as location etc.
5) It does seem a little flaky thus far, there is potentially for tuning a bit how Twitterfeed changes the post to get it on Twitter, but not lots of options.

A proper integrated solution within Buzz will probably fix all of these, but it will do for now.

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.

How I Twitter

I’ve been finding over the past few months I’ve been using Twitter more and more. I have used it for quite a while, but recently I’ve found both more friends and colleagues using Twitter, and have found more people I wanted to follow. There has definitely been a surge in interest over the last six months, and it’s being seen in more surprising places, such as a Twitter joke on the election night Colbert/Stewart show, or on one of the many mobile phones of Stephen Fry.

So I thought I’d write about how I use it, seeing as I’ve been doing so for a while, and found myself a nice set of tools to help me.

First thing in the morning

I like to update both Twitter and Facebook first thing, so to kill two birds with one stone (actually a few other social networks too) I use . This allows me to subscribe to multiple social networks, and post my status to all of them from one place. They did also have a Facebook application I used for a while, however this has been broken since about the time the new version of Facebook launched, and they haven’t updated it to work yet.

On the move

Until recently I used a Nokia N95, and so I tended to use the mobile version of from a browser. Now I’m on an iPhone, I’m using that for posting, and the Twitterrific application (link to UK iTunes store) for reading other people’s tweets.

On the desktop

I’ve used twhirl for a little while now, as it is an Adobe Air application, it runs nicely on all platforms including Linux. In an ideal world I’d like something that combined Twitter nicely with IM and other social networks, and although several applications have come close, nothing is quite there on the Mac yet. My only real gripe with twhirl is that I’d like to size the window a bit smaller, other than that, it has a lot of functionality, and displays incoming tweets rather nicely. I’ll post on twitter mostly from there in the day and evening.

Sharing links on Twitter

This may not be the most obvious route, but to post a link on Twitter I use the Mahalo Share Firefox extension. You’ll need an account on Mahalo, which if you haven’t come across it, is trying to be a human version of Google, with user-submitted links reviewed by their staff. Once a member, you can set up the extension properly, and have a single button in Firefox you can click whilst on a page to submit the link to Mahalo, and to many other sites in one go. I mainly use it as a quick way of saving links at Delicious, but I have it set up with several accounts, so I can also post the link on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere too. A series of checkboxes allows you to choose which service(s) each link is posted to.

Adding tweets to my blog

I had been doing this by a more tiresome method until recently, however I’ve just discovered the Twitter WordPress Sidebar Widget. Don’t be put off by the fact it hasn’t been updated for a long time, it’s nice and simple, and works fine with my WordPress 2.6 installation.

Sites I read about Twitter

There are a couple of Twitter new sites that have started recently, Twitip and Twitterrati. I’m subscribed to the feeds for both, and have found them both useful. In fact this post was inspired by a recent article at Twitip. I’ve also used Twitterlocal and Twitter Grader to see who else is twittering near me, and how I compare to other Twitter users.

So there you have it: a little insight into the various ways I interact with Twitter. How about you?

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.