(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘information

“My fake plants died because I didn’t pretend to water them”*…

Your correspondent treasures Wikipedia, and uses it often. But as Marco Silva points out, it has its vulnerabilities…

“I read through Wikipedia a lot when I’m bored in class,” says Adam, aged 15, who studies photography and ICT at a school in Kent. One day last July, one of his teachers mentioned the online encyclopaedia’s entry about Alan MacMasters, who it said was a Scottish scientist from the late 1800s and had invented “the first electric bread toaster”.

At the top of the page was a picture of a man with a pronounced quiff and long sideburns, gazing contemplatively into the distance – apparently a relic of the 19th Century, the photograph appeared to have been torn at the bottom.

But Adam was suspicious. “It didn’t look like a normal photo,” he tells me. “It looked like it was edited.”

After he went home, he decided to post about his suspicions on a forum devoted to Wikipedia vandalism.

Until recently, if you had searched for “Alan MacMasters” on Wikipedia, you would have found the same article that Adam did. And who would have doubted it?

After all, like most Wikipedia articles, this one was peppered with references: news articles, books and websites that supposedly provided evidence of MacMasters’ life and legacy. As a result, lots of people accepted that MacMasters had been real.

More than a dozen books, published in various languages, named him as the inventor of the toaster. And, until recently, even the Scottish government’s Brand Scotland website listed the electric toaster as an example of the nation’s “innovative and inventive spirit”…

All the while, as the world got to know the supposed Scottish inventor, there was someone in London who could not avoid a smirk as the name “Alan MacMasters” popped up – again and again – on his screen…

For more than a decade, a prankster spun a web of deception about the inventor of the electric toaster: “Alan MacMasters: How the great online toaster hoax was exposed,” from @MarcoLSilva at @BBCNews.

* Mitch Hedberg

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As we consider the source’s source, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that Atari introduced its first product, Pong, which became the world’s first commercially successful video game. Indeed, Pong sparked the beginning of the video game industry, and positioned Atari as its leader (in both arcade and home video gaming) through the early 1980s.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 29, 2022 at 1:00 am

“I get slightly obsessive about working in archives because you don’t know what you’re going to find. In fact, you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it.”*…

An update on that remarkable treasure, The Internet Archive

Within the walls of a beautiful former church in San Francisco’s Richmond district [the facade of which is pictured above], racks of computer servers hum and blink with activity. They contain the internet. Well, a very large amount of it.

The Internet Archive, a non-profit, has been collecting web pages since 1996 for its famed and beloved Wayback Machine. In 1997, the collection amounted to 2 terabytes of data. Colossal back then, you could fit it on a $50 thumb drive now.

Today, the archive’s founder Brewster Kahle tells me, the project is on the brink of surpassing 100 petabytes – approximately 50,000 times larger than in 1997. It contains more than 700bn web pages.

The work isn’t getting any easier. Websites today are highly dynamic, changing with every refresh. Walled gardens like Facebook are a source of great frustration to Kahle, who worries that much of the political activity that has taken place on the platform could be lost to history if not properly captured. In the name of privacy and security, Facebook (and others) make scraping difficult. News organisations’ paywalls (such as the FT’s) are also “problematic”, Kahle says. News archiving used to be taken extremely seriously, but changes in ownership or even just a site redesign can mean disappearing content. The technology journalist Kara Swisher recently lamented that some of her early work at The Wall Street Journal has “gone poof”, after the paper declined to sell the material to her several years ago…

A quarter of a century after it began collecting web pages, the Internet Archive is adapting to new challenges: “The ever-expanding job of preserving the internet’s backpages” (gift article) from @DaveLeeFT in the @FinancialTimes.

Antony Beevor

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As we celebrate collection, we might recall that it was on this date in 2001 that the Polaroid Corporation– best known for its instant film and cameras– filed for bankruptcy. Its employment had peaked in 1978 at 21,000; it revenues, in 1991 at $3 Billion.

Polaroid 80B Highlander instant camera made in the USA, circa 1959

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 11, 2022 at 1:00 am

“It was orderly, like the universe. It had logic. It was dependable. Using it allowed a kind of moral uplift, as one’s own chaos was also brought under control.”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked before at the history of the filing cabinet, rooted in the work of Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson). He has deepened his research and published a new book, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. An Xiao Mina offers an appreciation– and a consideration of one of the central questions it raises: can emergent knowledge coexist with an internet that privileges the kind “certainty” that’s implicit in the filing paradigm that was born with the filing cabinet and that informs our “knowledge systems” today…

… The 20th century saw an emergent information paradigm shaped by corporate capitalism, which emphasized maximizing profit and minimizing the time workers spent on tasks. Offices once kept their information in books—think Ebenezer Scrooge with his quill pen, updating his thick ledger on Christmas. The filing cabinet changed all that, encouraging what Robertson calls “granular certainty,” or “the drive to break more and more of life and its everyday routines into discrete, observable, and manageable parts.” This represented an important conceptualization: Information became a practical unit of knowledge that could be standardized, classified, and effortlessly stored and retrieved.

Take medical records, which require multiple layers of organization to support routine hospital business. “At the Bryn Mawr Hospital,” Robertson writes, “six different card files provided access to patient information: an alphabetical file of admission cards for discharged patients, an alphabetical file for the accident ward, a file to record all operations, a disease file, a diagnostic file, and a doctors’ file that recorded the number of patients each physician referred to the hospital.” The underlying logic of this system was that the storage of medical records didn’t just keep them safe; it made sure that those records could be accessed easily.

Robertson’s deep focus on the filing cabinet grounds the book in history and not historical analogy. He touches very little on Big Data and indexing and instead dives into the materiality of the filing cabinet and the principles of information management that guided its evolution. But students of technology and information studies will immediately see this history shaping our world today…

[And] if the filing cabinet, as a tool of business and capital, guides how we access digital information today, its legacy of certainty overshadows the messiness intrinsic to acquiring knowledge—the sort that requires reflection, contextualization, and good-faith debate. Ask the internet difficult questions with complex answers—questions of philosophy, political science, aesthetics, perception—and you’ll get responses using the same neat little index cards with summaries of findings. What makes for an ethical way of life? What is the best English-language translation of the poetry of Borges? What are the long-term effects of social inequalities, and how do we resolve them? Is it Yanny or Laurel?

Information collection and distribution today tends to follow the rigidity of cabinet logic to its natural extreme, but that bias leaves unattended more complex puzzles. The human condition inherently demands a degree of comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity, as we carefully balance incomplete and conflicting data points, competing value systems, and intricate frameworks to arrive at some form of knowing. In that sense, the filing cabinet, despite its deep roots in our contemporary information architecture, is just one step in our epistemological journey, not its end…

A captivating new history helps us see a humble appliance’s sweeping influence on modern life: “The Logic of the Filing Cabinet Is Everywhere.”

* Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

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As we store and retrieve, we might recall that it was on this date in 19955 that the term “artificial intelligence” was coined in a proposal for a “2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence” submitted by John McCarthy (Dartmouth College), Marvin Minsky (Harvard University), Nathaniel Rochester (IBM), and Claude Shannon (Bell Telephone Laboratories). The workshop, which took place at Dartmouth a year later, in July and August 1956, is generally recognized as the official birth date of the new field. 

Dartmouth Conference attendees: Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon, Ray Solomonoff and other scientists at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence (Photo: Margaret Minsky)

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“The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.”*…

Tim O’Reilly with a (customarily) wise assessment of an emerging new technology…

The metaphors we use to describe new technology constrain how we think about it, and, like an out-of-date map, often lead us astray. So it is with the metaverse. Some people seem to think of it as a kind of real estate, complete with land grabs and the attempt to bring traffic to whatever bit of virtual property they’ve created.

Seen through the lens of the real estate metaphor, the metaverse becomes a natural successor not just to Second Life but to the World Wide Web and to social media feeds, which can be thought of as a set of places (sites) to visit. Virtual Reality headsets will make these places more immersive, we imagine.

But what if, instead of thinking of the metaverse as a set of interconnected virtual places, we think of it as a communications medium? Using this metaphor, we see the metaverse as a continuation of a line that passes through messaging and email to “rendezvous”-type social apps like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and, for wide broadcast, Twitch + Discord. This is a progression from text to images to video, and from store-and-forward networks to real time (and, for broadcast, “stored time,” which is a useful way of thinking about recorded video), but in each case, the interactions are not place based but happening in the ether between two or more connected people. The occasion is more the point than the place…

Tim explains what he means– and what that could mean: “The Metaverse is not a place- it’s a communications medium,” @timoreilly in @radar.

* Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (the origination of the term “metaverse”)

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As we jack in, we might send well-connected birthday greetings to Paul Otlet; he was born on this date in 1868. An author, entrepreneur, lawyer, and peace activist, he is considered the father of information science. He created Universal Decimal Classification (which would later become a faceted classification) and was responsible for the development of an early information retrieval tool, the “Repertoire Bibliographique Universel” (RBU) which utilized 3×5 inch index cards, used commonly in library catalogs around the world (though now largely displaced by the advent of the online public access catalog or OPAC). Indeed, Otlet predicted the advent of the internet (though over-optimisitically imagined that it would appear in the 1930s).

For more of his remarkable story, see “Knowledge, like air, is vital to life. Like air, no one should be denied it.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 23, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Our beauty lies in this extended capacity for convolution”*…

John Semley contemplates an America awash in junk mail and junk science…

… In the long interregnum between Trump’s loss and his unceremonious retreat from the White House, the postal service would play a critical role in what the pundit class liked to call his Big Lie. He framed mail-in ballots, baselessly, as being especially susceptible to fraud and manipulation. Even before the election, back when he could still avail himself of Twitter, Trump tweeted that such ballots would lead, irrevocably, to “MAYHEM!!!” His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, freshly clowned-on in the new Borat movie, would likewise crow that hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots tilted the results. Elsewhere, on newly struck TV ads, postal workers were framed as pandemic-era heroes, delivering parcels to communities squirming under stay-at-home orders.

This contest over the image of the postal service—and mail itself—revealed a more profound tension, a deeper crisis facing democracies in America and elsewhere. It is a fundamentally epistemic crisis: about the control and promulgation of information, and how that information comes to shape a worldview, and how those worldviews come to bear on the world itself. And it’s just one front in a war of epistemologies that has been raging since at least the republic’s inception. Because to control the mail, as [Seinfeld‘s] Newman himself once memorably snarled, is to control information.

The control of information is key to any ideological project….

There follows a fascinating historical rumination on postal services and America’s history with information and mis/disinformation, and a consideration of our current moment, replete with insights from observers ranging from Scientific American to Thomas Pynchon– richly informative, genuinely entertaining, deeply provocative, and, in the end, at least mildly optimistic: “America, Ex Post Facto,” from @johnsemley3000 in @thebafflermag.

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

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As we scrutinize sense and sensibility, we might recall that it was on this date in 1998 that Clarence E. Lewis Jr. was named Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of the U.S. Postal Service, becoming the highest-ranking African-American postal employee to that date. He had started his postal career as a substitute city letter carrier in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1966. On his retirement in 2000, he was given the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Postal Service’s highest honor.

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