Tuesday 29 March 2011

In Memoriam: Paul Baran, 1926-2011

Requiem for the Network
Catalyzing the Future

Friday 25 March 2011

Requiem for the Network - Essay Five, ‘Heads in the Clouds’, Tonight

‘Heads in the Clouds’, the fifth and final essay in my series for Radio 3, Requiem for the Network, goes out tonight, March 25, at 23.00hrs.

A map of central Europe drawn up in the 12th century could still show post roads established five hundred years previously upon what remained of the old Roman road system. Since then technical engineering has increasingly shaped moments of social and cultural transition. From the earliest centralized networks, when all roads led to and from Rome, to the decentralized networks of the European Enlightenment all the way through the distributed networks of the nuclear age, our paths have never stayed the same for very long. The networks might soon be replaced by ‘cloud computing’, a method of data storage which will allow you to access data from any terminal, anywhere, at any time. The meteorological metaphor seems appropriate: as data becomes another constantly-shifting element in our global environment. But doesn’t being anywhere also mean being nowhere?

The Wire asked me to make a statement about ‘Requiem for the Network’, so here it is:
The aim of this series of short essays has been to develop new critical perspectives on the profound changes brought about by networks in human development – it was a theme I had been working on in a number of lectures I have been giving to postgraduate communication design students at Central St Martins and elsewhere. Networks are both a form of architecture and a communications medium at the same time, which can lead to some quite vague thinking with regard to their power and effects. It does not, therefore, surprise me that the Network – usually understood as the Internet – is being treated with the same cheery and enthusiastic innocence that greeted electronic media like TV, radio and computers in the 1960s. That’s why my series of talks takes the form of a requiem - to lay some of this more optimistic thinking to rest. I am not making this argument in order to disparage networks or to present them in negative terms - it’s too late for that in any case. I am presenting these talks in the hope that people will take the Network more seriously and think about its history and development a little more critically. The Network continues to change our lives, but we’re not really taking the time to understand how or why this is happening.
Essays one, two, three and four from the series are currently available from BBC i-Player - each one, however, will only be available for seven days after the date of original broadcast. Thanks for listening.

Pictured above: KH in the studio at Henry Wood House – Is that it? Can I go now?

Thursday 24 March 2011

Requiem for the Network - Essay Four, ‘I’ll Be Your Orange Juice’, Tonight

‘I’ll Be Your Orange Juice’, the fourth essay in my series for Radio 3, Requiem for the Network, goes out tonight, March 24, at 23.00hrs.

From spotting craters on Mars to identifying images in museum archives, it seems that there is no longer a problem that can’t be solved simply by throwing enough people at it. Social networks, online communities, multiplayer games, open-source projects and long-tail marketing are all examples of how the masses of the 20th century have been replaced by ‘the crowd’ of today. The networked ‘wisdom of crowds’ continues to evolve – from Second Life to MySpace and from Facebook to Twitter. These, however, are nothing compared to the personal relationships the netizen of the future will enter into with inanimate objects: RFID chips and complex barcodes embedded in products will allow you to interact with the contents of the supermarket shelf, establishing a social network of things. Don’t look now but that carton of orange juice just called you by name.

Essays one, two and three from the series are currently available from BBC i-Player  - each one, however, will only be available for seven days after the date of original broadcast.

Pictured above: Producer Mark Burman at the controls during playback of talk number 4 in the ‘local radio’ studio at Henry Wood House, in the West End of London – so how ‘local’ is that exactly? Even Mark didn’t have an answer to that.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Requiem for the Network - Essay Three, ‘The Network Goes to War’, Tonight

‘The Network Goes to War’, the third essay in my series for Radio 3, Requiem for the Network, goes out tonight, March 23, at 23.00hrs.

In the 1945 Vannevar Bush, the head of US scientific research during World War II, wrote an essay called ‘As We May Think’ – it argued that, thanks to intricate mass-produced components, a whole new generation of communication devices would soon come into existence. By 1991 CNN was able to transmit a live commentary on the opening salvoes of Operation Desert Storm from the Baghdad Hilton. And even as the cable news network was in its ascendancy and Iraqi Command and Control became paralyzed, the public was also learning about a new communication system called the ‘Internet’ being used by Kuwaiti citizens to contact the outside world. From Sputnik to the development of the World Wide Web, the Cold War has provided an ideal climate for the network to flourish – with a little help from Neil McElroy, the man responsible for inventing the soap opera.

Essays one and two from the series are currently available from BBC i-Player - each one, however, will only be available for seven days after the date of original broadcast.

Pictured above: in the studio at Henry Wood House, London

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Requiem for the Network - Essay Two, ‘Victorian Search Engines’, Tonight

‘Victorian Search Engines’, the second essay in my series for Radio 3, Requiem for the Network, goes out tonight, March 22, at 23.00hrs.

Sherlock Holmes had his gazetteers, almanacs and timetables; the City had its Stock Exchange, the Parisians had their pneumatiques and Morse had his code; the early telegraph wires followed the existing network of railways throughout the country, receiving, storing and sending on information. All these examples indicate not just ways of distributing data but also ways of thinking. This essay will not only look at the historical development of such networks and reasons behind it but also the extent to which our own thinking about networks has been influenced by the past. The early telephone system, for example, was used for the delivery of music into the Victorian home, thanks to devices like the Telharmonium, a mighty switchboard-operated instrument so heavy the floor beneath it had to be specially reinforced. And whoever thought the idea of music being relayed over a phone would ever catch on?

Pictured above:  producer Mark Burman at the desk in the control room, KH in the studio, reflected in the glass partition between the two, recording the talks at Henry Wood House last week

Monday 21 March 2011

Requiem for the Network - Essay One, ‘Welcome to the Labyrinth’, Tonight

‘Welcome to the Labyrinth’, the first essay in my series for Radio 3, Requiem for the Network, goes out tonight, March 21, at 23.00hrs. Information on its availability either on BBC iPlayer or as a podcast will be posted in due course.

Today the business and academic communities embrace the ‘networks’ with the same fervour they once showed the electronic media of the 1960s. Thanks to the internet they have the basic model for ‘crowd sourcing’, ‘data farming’ and other forms of research. Online communities of ‘netizens’ continue to multiply and flourish, offering new perspectives on consumption, relationships, political participation and mass communication. ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom,’ was once the watchword for an early phase in the Chinese Cultural Revolution – and look how that turned out. The networks today seem ubiquitous and omnipotent: but do they represent a cultural revolution or a total regime change? And what do we understand of their history or their power? Who and what, finally, do the networks connect us to? Welcome to the Labyrinth.

We set great store by the welcome we receive – we have usually travelled a great distance to get there. Today the welcome offers access to an increasingly ‘soft’ architecture of responsive environments, transparent barriers, audible directives, unseen electronic gateways, transportation systems and temporary spaces. The reverse face of this welcome, however, is the heightened security of body scanners and metal detectors, firewalls, ‘pay-walls’ and denial of service. The network becomes a labyrinth which we navigate like laboratory rats in a maze. Looking at basic configurations and definitions of the ‘network’, this essay looks at its development in terms of behaviourism, game theory and systems management. Perhaps the hardest labyrinth to get out of is the one you don’t even realize you are in.

Pictured above: in the studio at Henry Wood House, London

Saturday 19 March 2011

'Requiem for the Network' on BBC Radio 3

Starting at 11.00 pm on Monday March 21 and continuing throughout the entire week, I shall be presenting ‘Requiem for the Network’, a sequence of five late-night talks on BBC Radio 3. The series explores how the network has extended the range of our senses but also compromised them.

As weaponry systems, commercial enterprises, banking and home entertainment draw increasingly upon the same operating platforms, the neutrality of the network is open to question. Perhaps the most appropriate model for understanding the enduring nature of the network is the Labyrinth: a structure of mystifying complexity where technology, deception and violence all meet. The US military, having been instrumental in developing the Internet, has now withdrawn into its own secret labyrinth, which it considers a safe environment for the transmission of classified data.

‘Welcome to the Labyrinth’ Monday March 21
‘Victorian Search Engines’ Tuesday March 22
‘The Network Goes to War’ Wednesday March 23
‘I’ll Be Your Orange Juice’ Thursday March 24
‘Heads in the Clouds’ Friday March 25

Each talk starts at 23.00 and lasts for fifteen minutes. Turn on, tune in – freak totally out.

Pictured above: in the studio at Henry Wood House, London

Monday 14 March 2011

Just Some Guys Fooling Around With Unseen Forces

Memories of a pleasant afternoon spent in the worshipful company of David Pescovitz of Boing Boing and Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor. The first copies of Strange Attractor Journal Four had just materialized, and we were in the mood to commemorate its arrival on this plane. You can see where we were. As to what we were doing…well, our lips must remain sealed. However, the pictures reproduced above should give you a few hints.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Homage to Japan – Catching Up With the Fukushima State of Emergency

Illusions depend a great deal upon not being in full possession of the facts. To see the kaiju eiga genre as the obsession of a culture repeatedly rehearsing its unvoiced fears of nuclear obliteration or natural catastrophe is to explain little and to obscure a great deal more. It is also an attitude based upon a very selective view of Japan’s filmic output. For example, in the decade that witnessed the rise of Godzilla, films explicitly confronting Japan’s continuing nuclear nightmare, such as Kaneto’s Shindo’s Children of Hiroshima and Lucky Dragon No. 5, were also being released. Ishiro Honda himself had visited Hiroshima in 1946 and had wanted to convey in Gojira some of the horrors which he experienced there. Unfortunately, the film’s references to bomb shelters, Nagasaki and its pleas for nuclear disarmament were deleted from the English-language version by its American distributors. Godzilla, however, had already selected a very different target for himself. It was a disaster area still waiting to happen, and each time he returned to it, he became more a part of its future than its past.

By 1945, Allied air raids had reduced most of Tokyo to smoking embers. Its predominantly wooden buildings had burned easily, resulting in the destruction of three-quarters of a million houses and the deaths of 100,000 of the city’s inhabitants. A further three million were left homeless. Today, as well as being one of the principal centres of world economic activity, the greater Tokyo area also houses an astonishing 25% of Japan’s entire population. This vast urban sprawl has come to be regarded by many as the ultimate megalopolis: the first city of the 21st Century. The planners and engineers responsible for its safety have also described it as a ‘disaster amplification mechanism’: a term which could just as easily be applied to Godzilla himself.

There is, however, something both reassuring and unsettling about the Tokyo which Honda and Tsuburaya had Godzilla smash so repeatedly. It never changed. No matter how far into the future the films were set, Tokyo always returned looking the same. In a universe increasingly populated by alien invaders, female psychics, killer androids and giant mecha, Tokyo’s vast centre-less sprawl seemed to expand into time and space, eternally rising unchanged from its own rubble. The more Godzilla demolished it, the more it came back, determined to survive.

From Tokyo Must Be Destroyed: Dreams of Tall Buildings and Monsters, written after the Kobe Earthquake, 1995

Monday 7 March 2011

Zuleika Dobson – Max Beerbohm

First published 1911 – the top entry in Susan Sontag’s ‘Random items which are part of the canon of Camp’ from her 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’.

And although I have had this image stored on my computer for some months now, I suddenly realize, having posted it, that we are back once again with a falling man, a woman and a balcony – some impressions are evidently harder to shake off than I had imagined.

‘But all fantasy should have a solid basis in reality; and to any young readers of the book it may seem that my presentment of Oxford life was a wild infraction of that law. Let me assure them that my fantasy was far more like to the old Oxford than was the old Oxford like to the place now besieged and invaded by Lord Nuffield’s armies.’ M.B. 1946