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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Tue, 29 Mar 2005

Look Up More
Damn. I just read about this awesome performance art piece called Look Up More, performed here in New York a week ago Saturday. And I missed it! Damn! I needed better contacts here, apparently. I was about five blocks away when it went off, watching a play. Ah well.

They put volunteers in each of the windows of a massively huge building on the south side of Union Square, and had a conductor outside to coordinate them. They dressed all in black, and on cue, did jumping jacks, danced free style, did a few dance solos, jumping in unison, etc. It's totally awesome. Check out the video (mp4 format). This is exactly what I need more of in my life. Alas. I am disappointed I missed it, but I'm tempted to sign up for their mailing list just to continue reading about their exploits.

posted at: 13:13 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, by William J. Mitchell
I mentioned in this post how I picked up Me++ at the Whitney Museum, and started reading it. Some interesting ideas here. I found out later from Jofish that Mitchell is the current head of the Media Lab at MIT, which explains a lot about the book. There's nothing particularly innovative about his ideas, but he packages and explains them well, which makes sense since the Media Lab head is pretty much a public relations position.

It was a weird book to read in a way. While I really liked the general viewpoint of the book, there was nothing in it that made me scramble for a pen to note a particular idea (something which happens regularly with most nonfiction books I read). I think what I liked the most was the vision of our greater interdependence on each other in conjunction with our reduced ties to a particular location. In other words, to support my lifestyle requires a tremendous physical and electronic distribution network. For me to flit around the country, and be reachable no matter where I am because my cell phone and email are always with me is an astonishing phenomenon, even from the viewpoint of twenty years ago. I regularly remind myself on trips to not stress about packing because so long as I have my ID or passport, and a credit card, I can get whatever I need at my destination. I can walk down to the corner store and buy fresh fruit, or a replacement toothbrush, or a current magazine. It's amazing.

At the same time, our ties to an individual place and location are becoming far weaker. In some parts of the country, it is still common to grow up in one place, maybe go off to college, and then return to set up a home and family within thirty miles of your parents. My hometown is like that. But for many of us, we've developed our sense of virtual community, where between ubiquitous electronic communication and plane travel, I can almost as easily maintain ties with friends that live on the opposite coast as I do with my next door neighbor. I see my friend Batman, who currently lives outside of Toronto, more often than I see another friend who lives less than a mile from me.

The other point that I remember from the book was that we should be wary of the implicit nature of these networks. In ancient times, the distribution network was explicit; the entire town was centered around the granary. Even in more recent times, the networks of railroads or freeways made it evident where the centers were. These days, the networks are disappearing from view. The guy sitting in the park muttering to himself is as often a high-powered executive talking on his Bluetooth cellular headset as it is a bum these days. It's interesting that the networks are dropping from sight at the same time they are becoming more ubiquitous than ever. I suppose it makes sense - to quote McLuhan, "we don't know who discovered water but we know it wasn't a fish. A pervasive medium is always beyond perception."

I also like the vision of circles of control radiating outwards from ourselves, each of which requires more cooperation. He uses the example of climate control. At an individual level, I can choose how many layers of clothing to wear to control how warm or hot I want to be. Moving outward, I can change the temperature of the room I'm in, with the consent of others in the room. Moving outwards, we can change the temperature of the building with a central heating system. He imagines having a weather bubble around the city, and the negotiations associated with that. At each step, it requires more power, and a greater degree of cooperation to achieve an effect. Our control of our environment doesn't end at our arm's reach; it attenuates with each sphere of control.

One last thought (wow, I had more to say about this book than I expected). I liked his question of what the Golden Rule means in a distributed society. When we are dependent on a worldwide distribution network, what does it mean to treat others as we would like to be treated? Our actions can have effects on people halfway around the world. If I choose to buy Nike sneakers made in a sweatshop in southeast Asia, am I supporting the children that work there or am I dooming them to continued indentured servitude? In a less polarizing example, anybody that has written on the Internet knows that it's amazing how your words can haunt you, where they will turn up in the most unlikely of places. When each of our actions can have worldwide consequences, even if those consequences are attenuated greatly, we have to become far more aware of our environment.

Interesting book. It's a nice summary of some of the social consequences of the new networked capabilities that technology has enabled. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but it'd be a good book to give to a non-technology-oriented friend to have them start thinking about these issues.

posted at: 12:02 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith
While we were driving up to Cornell, Jofish recommended this book. I'd read another of Smith's books, Spares, borrowed from the library, but it made absolutely no impact on me, and I didn't remember a single detail. But, in the mornings, while waiting for others to wake up, I picked up Only Forward from Jofish's bookshelf, and slammed through it.

I thought it was interesting. I liked the world that it takes place in, which is sort of the logical extreme of the Burbclaves in Snow Crash, where the Neighborhoods grow to be completely separate and cut off from each other. And I really like how the protagonist's flexible viewpoint lets him move between the different Neighborhoods seamlessly, because it picks up on the contextual nature of reality that I've been thinking about. The second half gets more metaphysical, and I'm not sure I liked where Smith went with it. But it was a quick read, and had some interesting ideas, so it's a qualified thumbs up.

posted at: 11:38 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Finite and Infinite Games, by James Carse
After seeing James Carse speak, I was eager to read his book, which I finally got around to doing on this vacation. It's a deceptively simple book, with lots of short, simple sentences. But there's a lot of thought packed into those sentences.

I covered his overall gist in that previous post, where finite games are played within boundaries and with the goal of winning and ending them, and infinite games are played to expand one's horizons and with the goal of continuing them. I just went and skimmed through the sections of this book that I noted as capturing an idea particularly well (the book is divided in 101 sections, each of which is only a page or two long), and it covers such a wide variety of concepts. I liked his application of the finite and infinite games idea in some cases more than others; in particular, I didn't get much out of his attempt to apply it to sexual relations.

One thing I really liked was the observation that in a finite game, the past is fixed, and can never be changed. No matter what happens, the Chicago Bears beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX in January of 1986. That is a fact. However, in an infinite game, the past is fluid - we can always bring a new perspective to it that changes the way we view events. To use Robert Anton Wilson's example:

"A cop clubs a man on the street. Observer A sees Law and Order performing their necessary function of restraining the violent with counter-violence. Observer B sees that the cop has white skin and the man hit has black skin, and draws somewhat different conclusions. Observer C arrived earlier and noted that the man pointed a gun at the cop before being clubbed. Observer D hears the cop saying "Stay away from my wife" and has a fourth view of the "meaning" of the situation. Etc."

Each viewpoint opens up new ways of seeing the situation. We can always tell new stories and change the way we view the universe. I think that this is a powerful observation; far too many people are trapped in a finite world where they can't even question the assumptions, where there is only one way of seeing. Not only is it sad, but it's also dangerous; those trapped in a finite world are all too apt to impose their will on infinite players, destroying all alternative viewpoints, rather than open themselves up to the infinite possibilities.

For Carse, conversations should be infinite in the sense that we are open to the possibility of discovering new viewpoints in our interaction with each other. In a finite conversation, each person has their viewpoint and is not going to change, and it is more of a zero-sum negotiation where if I win, you lose ("Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"). In an infinite conversation, both of us may influence the other, and a new viewpoint can be constructed out of bits of each of our side, such that our eyes are both opened to a new way of viewing the world. Everybody wins. I love these kinds of conversations, where it's not about winning or losing, but striving to get a different perspective.

There's so much good stuff in this book. Just go read it. It's short, but thought-provoking; because it was a small paperback that fit in my jacket pocket, I was carrying it everywhere in New York, and was just as often re-reading previous sections as reading new material. It's the kind of book where you could read a random section, and ponder how it applies to one's life today. I need to think more about how I can make myself more of an infinite player, and to move beyond the constrictions of a finite life.

posted at: 11:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal