Books & Literature Technology

How I stay informed…

A few months ago, a lovely chap called Kavi Guptta asked me how I stay informed. I wrote way too much and he had to edit it down aggressively. For anyone who is interested, here are my full, unedited responses

Describe your daily reading habit:

My reading habits have changed a lot over the years. I did postgrad work in the humanities, so I read a huge amount of academic literature in my mid-twenties — to the extent that it almost started to feel like I was bombarded by words everywhere I went. And yet I liked writing and reading — they feel like scaffolds for thinking about things—so I kept up that tradition of over-consumption when I abandoned academia and ran away to join the Internet.

This was sort of the mid-nineties, and I was still doing it by the earliest days of weblogs in 1999 to 2005-ish. I had a ritual of waking up around 8am, spending about an hour on the web reading and writing on plasticbag.orgbefore heading into work—which thankfully was a pretty short trip—and then keeping up with various discussions and news sites throughout the day. This escalated even more when RSS readers started to become popular. I’d be trying to keep up with several hundred sites — mostly interesting individuals talking about technology and the web—but I’d also be a member of several online communities where I could stretch my legs in various other areas.

Probably three things changed my reading practices. Firstly, my work got much more involving and creative. By the time I was running a little R&D team at the BBC I found myself attacking increasingly meaty and interesting problems on a daily basis, and that pushed me into a very different mode. General reading started to fade away and started to be replaced with much more directed exploration around the things that we were building. That’s stayed with me. A lot of the time I stumble upon really odd new areas simply because one of the projects I’m working on involves me knowing about it. And because I really like the transition point where new technology starts to pushes into the mainstream, I’ve followed all kinds of areas from social software, media distribution, the web of data, location services through to today the Internet of Things.

Secondly, I started to realize that the conversations moving around the internet on a daily basis were starting to repeat themselves. My first exposure to the ‘are bloggers journalists’ discussion is now twelve years old — but it would reappear every three or four years as a topic of discussion again. For the people involved in them, they’re no doubt interesting and new but I started to realize that the larger trends in technology don’t actually change on a daily basis and that once you’re up to speed with the area you’re currently focused on, you barely need to keep half an eye on the daily chatter.

Finally, the ways that I could engage in conversations with my friends or follow complete strangers changed a lot. I pick up a lot from just being in a room with interesting people and letting that inspire me to wander off in strange directions. Today, things like Twitter mean that I can pretty easily absorb the general zeitgeist by dipping in and out of what interesting people are discovering or pointing at in the background of my day.

Now, a normal day for me probably starts with checking Twitter to see what my friends are up to, and then I’ll probably have it on in the background pretty much all day. I dip in and out when I’m bored or when something interesting appears to be happening and I probably stumble on most of my news that way. On my way to work I listen to podcasts from the UK like In Our Time. I glance at The Guardian every day, read MacRumourscompulsively because I find Apple fascinating, and spend a lot of time on iO9 to satisfy my nerd needs.

Beyond that I’m now subscribed to a few RSS feeds again, but they’re very different from ten years ago — they’re either weird fragments of the future, like BLDG BLOG or Future Drama or they’re deep design blogs where I can get exposed to beautiful things and extreme craftsmanship of various kinds. As I get older, I get more and more interested in the complexities and depths of craft — ink traps in typography, printing methods, modernist design and stuff like that. I love that dedication to detail and the way that your appreciation of something deepens when you understand why it is the way that it is. Otherwise I mostly focus on reading and research for particular weird product problems I’m having when I’m trying to assemble things in my head, although I do read a fair number of non-fiction books on my iPad and a lot of shiny, ostentatious, brightly-coloured comic books full of big weird ideas.

How do you learn?

The short answer is I learn too slowly. The longer answer is that it’s mostly pretty directed — I like collecting new skills, but I mostly collect them because I have something I want to do with them. As I said, I started off planning to be a humanities academic before I discovered the web and when I had discovered it—like many people of my generation—I sort of had to do everything. I had to get my head around the code side, the design side and what would now be called the ‘product’ side. I spent a lot of time writing for the web, designing sites, building them, and while I’ve had to specialize a lot over the years, I try really hard to be able to talk intelligently to designers, engineers, business people and product people as well as critics and thinkers outside my specific area.

At this moment in history it feels to me like a lot of things that were separate and silo’d have been put in the same territory (the internet) sometimes for the first time ever. And so it feels like the greatest creative potential can come from trying to see how those things or ideas can connect to each other to make something new. That’s sort of how I understand things right now — that the more things you know, the more connections between them you can generate and the more amazing stuff happens.

By way of an example, a while ago when I was first getting into thinking about the Internet of Things I had to recognize that I didn’t really know how to manufacture physical products. My business partner is good with electronics and soldering irons and stuff like that, but that seemed like a mountain of work for me to get into at this stage. So I followed the lead of a few of my friends and started exploring how you could mock-up videos of objects apparently in people’s homes using 3D software and After Effects. To give myself a goal, I decided I’d try and do three or four very short videos that I could use in a talk I was going to give. It was enormously painful and the videos are not very good, but they communicated the idea.

But interestingly, we also started working on a different project around that time focused on interactive graphics for TV. My week of fiddling with After Effects was enormously helpful in thinking about what the possibilities might be for a live 3D graphics compositing + a TV programme and we explored all kinds of fun ways of integrating live data into TV shows using the right color palettes, vanishing points, while being sensitive to edits and all kinds of other stuff. That little bit of exploration in one area just triggered all kinds of fun ideas (plus we got to work with Greg Borensteinwho wrote the book on hacking the Kinect, which helped). Short directed forays with specific goals into weird areas end up being really really useful.

Where do you go for inspiration outside
of your day-to-day expertise?

One thing that has been very clear to me throughout my years in tech has been how useful my abortive PhD was. It had absolutely nothing to do with tech in any way whatsoever — I was writing about identity politics, film theory and Ancient Greek tragedy. But it gave me a whole range of mental tools and ways of looking at the world — new ways of understanding that things haven’t always been the way they are today. I genuinely believe that you pick up weird mental or creative strategies throughout your life and that a widely read person who is keen to employ some of what they learn will always do more interesting (if not always more valuable) work than someone who is super deep in only one or two areas.

So I guess if I had to point to non-tech specific areas that give me some perspective or inspiration, they’d probably include history or literature or graphic design a lot, as well as fantastic TV shows, books and comics. I mentioned In Our Time earlier, but I can’t recommend it enough — forty five minutes each week of a completely different subject, from the arrival of trains into Britain, or Ancient Alexandrian Librarians all the way through to Dark Matter. Matt Webb introduced me to it years and years ago. I suppose the truth is that you never really know what might trigger an idea for you, so exposing yourself to a lot of different things is probably the best strategy.

One particular thing that I do find very good for inspiration though is Pinterest. I know that for many people Pinterest is all about collecting hairstyles or recipes, but there are millions of people on it, each of whom cares about something different. I follow people interested in typography, visual design, illustration, information visualization, maps, network-connected devices and many other things. It’s such a great way to trigger bits of your brain into doing something useful but unexpected. I use it every day…

What’s one piece of advice for someone who wants to do what you do?

I’m not entirely sure I know precisely what it is that I do, but I think more generally my advice would be to play a lot, explore lots of things, sketch lots of ideas, learn weird bits of software that interest you and do something with them — to fundamentally try and work out what it is that you actually enjoy doing and then to do more of it. For me it gradually became clear to me that what I liked more than anything else was making things that I could show to other people or that other people could play with or use. The internet taught me how much fun that could be, and since then that element of my daily work has stuck with me as the fundamental goal — at times I’ve gone astray from it (taking the money instead of doing work I can be proud of) and all that did is make me hate my job and start to hate my discipline. But when I get back to making something that I actually care about with people that I like, there’s genuinely nothing better, occasionally harder but definitely more rewarding.

Other than that, I’d say that if you can find a passion that’s fulfills you that actually pays the bills then you’re incredibly lucky. Not everyone gets to find that in their lives. Don’t hold back, jump right in and do it as much as you can.

If you’d like to see what effect a good editor can have on my writing, the original article is here:

Books & Literature Net Culture Personal Publishing Social Software

On Andrew Keen…

Andrew Keen makes me furious but I don’t write about him as a rule. Why not? Because you don’t feed the trolls. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so clearly acting like a troll. I mean, you only have to read his post Etes-vous elitiste in which he declares that people have labelled him an anti-Christ and then uses that as a platform to sell his speaking gigs, while the right-hand column of his website lists all his media appearances. He wants to stir up an argument to get attention. We’re not supposed to enable behaviour like this in our children. We have to be firm. He must be placed on the naughty step.

Andrew is the chap who thinks that the whole internet is full of amateurish morons and that nothing rises to the top and that professional media has become corrupted and less good as a result of all this stuff. I could agree with his comments about mainstream media losing the plot if it didn’t seem to be quite the other way around. As far as I can see in the US at least, mainstream news became about entertainment way before the bloggers came along, there’s lots of money in cinema still and Harry Potter sells by the ton. I watched a TV programme about how in the US they sold Life on Earth as basically animal on animal bestial snuff movies. Presumably also the effect of the nascent internet, even if about four people in the world were using it back then. And clearly the blunt utility of Wikipedia counts for nothing, the beautiful pictures in Flickr aren’t worth looking at, Keen’s own blog presumably yet another indication of how low you now have to stoop to make an impact in the world rather than something we should celebrate – another citizen gets to express their opinion and try and persuade the world he’s right.

The thing is about this, all this conversation is a total waste of time. I don’t understand why he gets the traction he does. I mean, what is he actually trying to accomplish? Does he think that the millions of bloggers will get bored and go home if he explains why their voices don’t count? Does he think that Wikipedia will stop being useful to people (even with its inaccuracies) or YouTube will stop being entertaining? No, of course he doesn’t. He can’t honestly think he can accomplish anything. The future comes, for good or ill, whether you like it or not. The best you can do in such a situation is try and work to fix the issues you see. No market for decent commentary and opinion? Look for a business model that could support it! No way that Encyclopedia Britannica can compete with Wikipedia? Well then why not move some of the resourcing of Britannica towards creating a trusted version of Wikipedia? Check articles every so often for factual accuracy, pull them aside and enhance them and make that your business.

The world we have as a result of technologies of the internet is not a world I find particularly troubling, because it’s a world finding its feet and its a world that has also created significant beauty. It’s a world I feel comfortable in, and there is always a market for what people want and often for what people need. I don’t doubt that journalism will survive or resurge but it will have to adapt.

People like Keen are professional complainers, stirring up fights, decrying the state of the world that we find ourselves in without facing the fact that it is where we are and wishing won’t make it not so. If you don’t like the way the world is, then use the tools that exist and push them further and find a way to compensate for the problems that you think the existing technology has created. I’m afraid it’s a clich√© but it’s true. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The world we have is the world we can work with, and anyone wanting to push it back to the fifties will fail.

And that’s what really gets to me. Because it’s pretty clear that he knows this. He’s writing his own bloody blog for a start. He knows he can’t win the battle, but he’s put himself on the side of respectability, trustworthiness, reliability and is decrying all the terrible new things in the world. As I once said of Nick Carr, this is a brilliant strategy to make yourself like a terribly intelligent and responsible, serious person without actually having to go to any of the trouble of thinking. That’s why he’s a troll – because his opinion cannot do any good, cannot change anything for the better, but in its decrying of the nascent environment of millions of people finding their voices for the first time, he can get nothing but attention, media coverage and book-sales. It’s not an appeal to better standards, it’s not an appeal to quality or tradition. It has no aspirations to honour. It’s disingenuous to the core, manipulative of the people, anti-progressive, cynical and hypocritical.

Books & Literature

Incapable of restraint or idleness…

Mary is one of the last surviving members of humanity, sat on a boat in the Galápagos Islands in the book Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut. She is accompanied by a handful of other survivors and Mandarax, a small portable information resource, translator and repository of quotations:

What Manadax didn’t tell her, and what her big brain certainly wasn’t going to tell her, was that, if she came up with an idea for a novel experiment which had a chance of working, her big brain would make her life a hell until she had actually performed that experiment.

That, in my opinion, was the most diabolical aspect of those old-time big brains: They would tell their owners, in effect, ‘Here is a crazy thing we could actually do, probably, but we would never do it, of course. It’s just fun to think about.’

And then, as though in trances, the people would really do it have slaves fight each other to the death in the Colosseum, or burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities, or to blow up whole cities, and on and on.

Nobody leads a life of quiet desperation nowadays. The mass of men was quietly desperate a million years ago because the infernal computers inside their skulls were incapable of restraint or idleness; were forever demanding more challenging problems which life could not provide.

Books & Literature

On my favourite books…

Okay. I don’t normally do these things and please God don’t take this as an opportunity to start sending me more of them, but I’m going to respond to Lubin Odana’s book-reading memetic challenge. I don’t normally do these kinds of things because I don’t really think they’re aimed at me. I think they’re really good ways to introduce people to the wider world, to help people get a grasp on your character and stuff, and that if people haven’t figured out what I’m like by now after five years of slapping this rubbish on the internet, then they basically never will. Still never mind, here we go…

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be? This is a really tricky one for me. Probably my all-time favourite book is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 which I’ll talk about in a bit. But another favourite of mine is a book called Ready to Catch him Should he Fall by Neil Bartlett which I think is one of the few books that I’ve read that managed to capture a powerful and natural-feeling, balanced idea of a non-hetero-orthodox gay relationship. I found it incredibly powerful and interesting. More importantly, I’m much less confident that anyone else would look after it in a dystopian future than I am about Slaughterhouse 5, and someone has to stand up for the poofs and it might as well be me.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character? God, I have absolutely no idea. Probably when I was much younger I thought that Keill Randor from Planet of the Warlord was unbelievably hot and there was some weird S&M plot in that book too which probably did a lot to confuse my teenage mind. There are many characters in books that I’ve idolised in various ways – Des Esseintes in Huysmans’ Against Nature was probably a core one. And Dionysus in Euripides’ Bacchae. But I think probably I have more crushes on fictional characters from TV shows, comics and films than I do from books. This probably suggests that what people look like is important to me. So I’d talk about Booster Gold from his original comic book series, Dr John Carter from the first few seasons of E.R., Ricky Fitts from American Beauty, Han Solo / Indiana Jones and maybe the Colonel from Stargate. I’m so shallow that the slightest drop of water would find no rest in my embrace…

The last book you bought was: Terrifyingly it was Getting Things Done by Dave Allen. I bought it months ago and have bought no books since because I’ve been busy and found it difficult to focus. I read about half of it. Then got stuck. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

What are you currently reading? On my last count I had 160 open tabs in Safari, I had 30 open tabs in NetNewsWire, I had 3000 unread posts in my newsreader and I had 27,000 unread e-mails across my work and personal e-mail accounts. What the crap do you think I’m reading?

Five Books you would take to a desert island:

  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers – A sprawling, indolent and defiantly (arrogantly) colloquial / personal autobiography that pushes many of my fantasy buttons – being able to hang out with my brother a lot, being relatively free in the world, being able to be creative and misbehave, working and living in San Francisco.
  • The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster – or ideally a huge anthology of all of Paul Auster’s books. The thing about these books for me is that their resemblence to reality seems entirely incidental to the clean arcing groves of plot and narrative that don’t necessarily convey you through character but which one feels (if one could move abstractly in a direction orthogonal to the book) would look so perfect and structural when observed from ‘above’.
  • Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein – honestly because it’s the longest book I’ve ever read and because it’s wide and deep enough to get lost in for long periods of time. It appeals to the completist and the geek within me, always looking for consistent continuities and wanting to be convinced that the world could be something other than it is.
  • Slaugherhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut – a time-travelling blackly comic war novel. I think that you can deduce much about my character from this book. Science fiction books and fantasy novels are read by people ill-adjusted to reality, the same people who write comic books and aspire towards making future technology that will make everyone happy. This book has that in it. These people are also kind of childish, and if confronted by the world directly seem to only be able to understand it in terms of black humour. This book has that in it. There’s also a desperation and a wit to it as well that I really respond to. I don’t know if this is a particularly happy description of my personality, but there you go.
  • Gravity’s Rainbow or V by Thomas Pynchon – because I haven’t completely read either of them, and they’re rich and deep and thrillingly written enough to last a while and continue to resonate and mean for a long period of time (and because I’ll never read them in the meantime).

I’d also take with me about four hundred dodgy comic books and a pile of DVDs. But hey. Anyway, I hope that’s satisfactory and interesting enough for you filthy voyeurs out there in realspace. I’m going to pass the challenge on to some people who almost certainly won’t want to go near it: Dan Hill because he’s my boss and needs to suffer, Stefan Magdalinski because he’s a stroppy bastard and as such I’d enjoy hearing his rants and Matt Jones because he reads weird shit…

Books & Literature Conference Notes

Live from ETech: Cory Doctorow and e-books…

Warning: What follows makes increasingly little sense. Day Three Proper of ETech has resulted in a certain lack of mental flexibility and a weird warm grinding feeling at the temples as my over-saturated lobes rub together…

So in a few weeks I’m presenting a piece on e-publishing and weblogs at the London Book Fair. To be honest, I’ve never understood the compound, “e-publishing”. It seems to mean different things to different people at different times. For most people it seems to bear little or no relationship to what I consider publishing online – ie. those content-rich sites like BBC News Online and or weblog-style stuff or in fact anything browser-readable, but instead just that highly narrow field of e-book publishing (generally considered as some kind of proprietary text-based format glued into a PDA or piece of dedicated e-book-reading hardware / software). In a nutshell, then, I didn’t really consider it terribly interesting.

I was surprised, then, to see Cory Doctorow talking on the subject at Emerging Tech. I mean, obviously I knew that he’d released his books online under a Creative Commons license and obviously I’d known that had been quite a successful and publicity-garnering thing to have done, but – to be honest – I’d somehow never really made the connection between that and “e-books”. In my mind an e-book was little more than a species of niche electronic emphemera designed to sit within a tiny ecosystem of highly-tech-friendly but not particularly tech-savvy over-monied poseurs. So, why would that have any connection with Cory? I mean – he basically slapped the plain-text of the book onto the web. Which is – you know – useful. Where’s the connection?

Forty-five minutes later, of course, and my views are different. It’s not that Cory said that much which was alien to my sensibility or world-view – in a sense he’s preaching to the converted – but I’ve now got slightly more of an understanding of the publishing of books ‘electronically’ as a spectrum rather than as a set of rather problematic models in competition with each other. Which demonstrates, I guess, what a dumbass I was fifty minutes ago. Still… I guess it’s good that I can face up to that, right?

Anyway – I’ve stuck up my personal transcript and understanding of his piece and I recommend everyone read it.

More importantly, Cory did a really cool thing just before getting off-stage – he’s releasing even more of the rights to “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” under a Creative Commons license. Originally it was just free to distribute, but not to change or undertake any derivative works. But now – as long as it’s uncommercial – he’s freed up derivative works as well. This is more important than it might sound – it means that individuals can make t-shirts or badges on the one hand (as long as it’s non-commercial), but more significantly, they can now make and distribute reader translations of the book without trouble and they can even write fan-fiction and slash without any trouble – just as long as these translations and derivative works are distributed under the same terms. Very interesting and worthy of considerable celebration and approval. More later…

Books & Literature

God Bless You, Mr Vonnegut…

One of my favourite authors is Kurt Vonnegut. One of his favourite authors is Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout is what Kurt Vonnegut would be if life was a ludicrous joke and reality was one of Kurt Vonnegut books. Kilgore Trout writes stories. Mostly they’re quite short. And thanks to a link from a nice chap on Metafilter you can now read all of Kilgore Trout’s stories without the laborious time expenditure of reading Kurt Vonnegut’s short, devastating and brilliant novels. My favourite goes like this:

   In 2BR0TB [Kilgore Trout] hypothecated an America in which almost all of the work was done by machines, and the only people who could get work had three or more Ph.D’s. There was a serious overpopulation problem, too.

   All serious diseases had been conquered. So death was voluntary, and the government, to encourage volunteers for death, set up a purple-roofed Ethical Suicide Parlor at every major intersection, right next door to an orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s. There were pretty hostesses in the parlor, and Barca-Loungers, and Muzak, and a choice of fourteen painless ways to die. The suicide parlors were busy places, because so many people felt silly and pointless, and because it was supposed to be an unselfish, patriotic thing to do, to die. The suicides also got free last meals next door.

   And so on. Trout had a wonderful imagination.

   One of the characters asked a death stewardess if he would go to Heaven, and she told him that of course he would. He asked if he would see God, and she said, “Certainly, honey.”

   And he said, “I sure hope so. I want to ask Him something I never was able to find out down here.”

   “What’s that?” she said, strapping him in.

   “What the hell are people for?”

Books & Literature Life

Flashbacks and Comic Books…

Flashback madness. I’m ten – I’m living in a little village in Norfolk called Belaugh. On Sunday mornings my dad drives to the nearest village (Wroxham) for the Sunday papers. Sunday is the only day of the week that the papers aren’t delivered. I look forward to this all week, because it’s pretty much the only time that I can guarantee I’ll be able to leave my village and do anything interesting (apart from go to school). More importantly, I get my pocket money then, so it’s all really exciting.

This particular weekend, my friend Adam is staying with me. We have remarkably similar tastes, and have been friends for a couple of years, since I started going to the Norwich School after leaving Town Close (where I was really happy). We go into the newsagents and start looking through the comic books. Now I’m sure I bought comic books before that – but I really don’t remember then. But I remember reading the comic books I bought that day again and again. And until about an hour ago I didn’t remember what they were – and thanks to the internet, here they are! If anyone knows a place in the UK where I can get these, I’d be astonishingly grateful.