Douglas Carl Engelbart is one of those people who should by now have become a household name, one of the pioneers of the computing revolution that we take for granted. I am saddened to learn of his death. Decent obituaries here and here. This from the latter:
In December 1968, however, he set the computing world on fire with a remarkable demonstration before more than a thousand of the world’s leading computer scientists at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, one of a series of national conferences in the computer field that had been held since the early 1950s. Dr. Engelbart was developing a raft of revolutionary interactive computer technologies and chose the conference as the proper moment to unveil them.
For the event, he sat on stage in front of a mouse, a keyboard and other controls and projected the computer display onto a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour, he showed how a networked, interactive computing system would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists. He demonstrated how a mouse, which he invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing.
Walked in the freezing cold from Odéon down to the Boulevard du Montparnasse for the end-of-conference “banquet” last night at La Coupole. Tragically we were in the downstairs ballroom rather than the brasserie itself. Food mediocre but the company very good: had long and involving conversations with Joshua Parker (Dept. of English and American Studies, Salzburg), Brian Richardson (Professor of English, Maryland), and Golnaz Shams (PhD student, Freiburg).
Nobody who is vaguely interested in technology can have failed to note the passing—on October 5th—of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. There have been many moving and insightful tributes in the press and across the WWW. It is not my intention here to add to that great outpouring: I never knew the guy and I’m not sure I have anything interesting or original to add to the story of Apple Computer. But I’ve got to say something: I’ve been using Macs as my main information-processing tools since 1991, and in any one year I may spend hundreds of hours sat in front of one. The quality of that interaction is something I both depend upon and enjoy. I owe the man… Nothing more than a few thoughts:
Firstly, we should surely recognize the tragedy of a man who has died so prematurely. Steve Jobs was almost exactly the same age as I am – in fact he was born about ten weeks before me – and I don’t feel old at all. With our rich diets and the supporting framework of modern medicine our life expectancies are stretching into the 90s. Dying in your mid-50s may have been a “good innings” in the Middle Ages, but it certainly isn’t nowadays.
Secondly, amongst the reams of text generated since his death Steve Jobs has been called many, many things, not least amongst them “visionary”, “genius”, “revolutionary”, “pioneer”, etc. All of which may or may not be be true: it’s very difficult to tell. The quality of the discourse in our current media ecology is such that hyperbole and lurid exaggeration are the norm: everyone’s shouting, everything’s turned up to 11. An overpaid pimply teenager who plays football for a living is a “hero”, the talent-shy showroom dummy who wins a hideously reactionary TV reality show is lauded as a “superstar”. The language we use is wearing dangerously thin.
What I can be sure of though—because I’m sitting here using one, directly experiencing it—is that the products that Apple design and produce are the best that money can buy. The man responsible for this is Steve Jobs. His long-term commitment to producing objects to the very highest standard means that for those of us who care about such things—those of us in other words who recognize that the tools we use directly impact upon the quality of work we ourselves produce—have somewhere to go. Apple Computer may be Big Business, but it is a business that has the quality of its products at the very core of its strategy. Apple products, on the whole, are so much better than everyone else’s it’s actually pretty embarrassing. A world without Apple would be a cheap and tawdry place indeed.
Thirdly, and following on from the above, it is gratifying that the whole Mac versus PC debate is finally dead and buried. Whether you view it technologically, conceptually, or financially Apple has blown the competition out of the water. The man responsible for this is Steve Jobs.
[As a footnote to this, an observation of mine: the Mac versus PC debate was always a lop-sided argument. Although I don’t have any actually data to back this up, it seems pretty obvious that everyone who uses a Mac can also use a PC pretty well. The reverse is not true. Even many so-called “IT specialists”—particularly those working in the corporate and public-sectors—have never used a Mac in their life. On other words, most people on the PC side of the fence, even the techies, haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about, and most of their views on Macs are simply mulch regurgitated from the media.]
Goodbye Steve Jobs. You leave the world a better place. I don’t think we realize how much we’re going to miss you.
About three weeks ago now—yeah, I know, but I’ve been busy—Chris Crawford delivered a ‘Masterclass On Interactivity’ at Swansea Metropolitan University.
Chris began with a light-hearted look back at the history of computing and, simultaneously, back over his career. Whilst offering a gentle introduction to the presentation and a chance to get to know him, the opening section did make on major point: that interactivity is what defines modern computing and, by extension, new media in general. The computer is an interaction machine.
Having set out his stall Chris went on to discuss the concept of interactivity. Firstly he said that the best example of interactivity—to which all machine interactions strive—was a human conversation: real-time, using all our senses, pure improvisation. From this observation he derives what I think is the best definition of interactivity I’ve come across: interactivity occurs when computer and user alternately listen, think, and speak.
The quality of the interaction is defined by the weakest element in that chain. For example, modern computer games are very good at ‘speaking to us’—they look fabulous and they sound fabulous—but they’re not so good at thinking: very often the characters or the basic game AI is actually pretty dumb. Call of Duty:Modern Warfare 2 is a perfect example.
Computers are also not very good at ‘listening’ to us. Interaction with a computer is usually limited to a surprisingly small range of gestures and actions: pointing, clicking, dragging, etc.. Whilst multi-touch and gestural interfaces are widening that vocabulary, it remains very limited compared to what is possible with natural language. Chris suggested a Linguistic User Interface as being the future, in turn paving the way for the social aspects of interaction (and, by extension, the social aspects of gaming, evolving into what he calls “interactive storytelling”).
Although computers are good at ‘thinking’, Chris argued that the main limitation of computing was that it currently only used a small number of the “mental modules” we possess, the main ones being spatial reasoning, hand/eye coordination, resource management, and problem-solving. Crucially, our all-important social reasoning module was not challenged at all.
Summing up the first half of the presentation, Chris suggested that our current generation of computer games have developed as far as they can go, and that a separate industry will emerge exploiting the social aspect of the technologies.
After lunch Chris began by talking about the human predilection for talking about experience in terms of things rather than as a system of processes (nouns rather than verbs, data rather than algorithms). Interactivity is communication through process. He went on to talk about interactive storytelling environments where each use generated a new narrative instance, as opposed to our current paradigm where stories are fixed within a medium (novels, comics, films, TV programmes). Chris argued that these interactive stories—hypernarratives—would never achieve the polish of the story fixed within its medium, but that they would have much greater emotional impact because of their personal, individually generated, meaning.
For the final section of the afternoon, Chris talked about what the requirements were for the designer of these new interactive storytelling environments. This was Chris at his most overtly evangelical, throwing wide the doors of learning and revealing an endless landscape for exploration and discovery. Using Erasmus as an example, he very cleverly and humorously showed how little information there was on the Internet compared to that encoded in books. He showed how you could use equations that describe natural processes to model human interaction (for example, human attraction and repulsion convincingly modeled using spring compression equations). He tried to get as to look at the processes underlying the world we live in, not its surface features.
Inevitably I have only offered a very brief overview of the contents of Chris’s Masterclass On Interactivity. The presentation was funny, inspirational, thought-provoking, and very, very, smart. Despite speaking for about 5 hours there was barely a moment that was less than engaging, and the whole audience was gripped throughout. As much as anything else, it was a masterclass on giving a presentation.
The death of J.G. Ballard cannot pass without note. As a young man his books were incredibly influential on me, with their intensely symbolic Max Ernst-like landscapes, pathologically driven anti-heroes, and their willful coupling of rabid sexuality and technological fetishism.
But the enigmatic presence of the terrace city, with its crumbling galleries and internal courts encrusted by the giant thistles and wire moss, seemed a huge man-made artefact which militated against the super-real naturalism of the delta. However, the terrace city, like the delta, was moving backwards in time, the baroque tracery of the serpent deities along the friezes dissolving and being replaced by the intertwined tendrils of the moss-plants, the pseudo-organic forms made by man in the image of nature reverting to their original.
For example, I particularly remember reading Concrete Island and being dumbfounded by both the simplicity of the idea and the way Ballard was able to develop something so chilling, so plausible, from the mundanity of the initial premise. Even now I still occasionally think of Maitland as I negotiate motorway intersections:
Far from wanting this girl to help him escape from the island, he was using her for motives he had never before accepted, his need to be freed of the past, from his childhood, his wife and friends, with all their affections and demands, and to rove forever within the empty city of his mind.
The Drowned World, The Drought, Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, High Rise, Concrete Island, Super Cannes—to name but a few of my own personal favourites—all powerful novels that spoke in an utterly unique and unflinching contemporary voice:
Helen knelt across me, elbows pressed into the seat on either side of my head. I lay back, feeling the hot, scented vinyl. My hands pushed her skirt around her waist so that I could see the curve of her hips. I moved her slowly against me, pressing the shaft of my penis against her clitoris. Elements of her body, her square kneecaps below my elbows, her right breast jacked out of its brassiere cup, the small ulcer that marked the lower arc of her nipple, were framed against the cabin of the car. As I pressed the head of my penis against the neck of her uterus, in which I could feel a dead machine, her cap, I looked at the cabin around me. This small space was crowded with angular control surfaces and rounded sections of human bodies interacting in unfamiliar junctions, like the first act of homosexual intercourse inside an Apollo capsule.
Leaving the last words to Mr. Ballard himself:
We wait here, at the threshold of time and space, celebrating the identity and kinship of the particles within our bodies with those of the sun and stars, of our brief private times with the vast periods of the galaxies, with the total unifying time of the cosmos…