Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: end of cyberspace (page 1 of 2)

Blogging elsewhere

I realized I’ve not been writing much here, but have been doing more stuff on my professionally-related blogs. So, here’s a list of recent posts on Future2:

And on End of Cyberspace:

Just don’t want to seem like a slacker…

[To the tune of Michael Nyman Band, “An Eye For Optical Theory (from The Draughtsman’s Contract),” from the album The Essential Michael Nyman Band (a 1-star song, imo).]

Memory and Megabytes online

Just found an online reprint of Ellen Ullman's wonderful 2003 essay "Memory and Megabytes," originally published in American Scholar. It's one of my favorite short pieces ever, and started me thinking about the differences between human and machine memory.

Though her recent New York Times op-ed on adoption and knowing your family history is great, too:

I am not against … the trend… toward openness, a growing “right” to know. I simply want to give not-knowing its due.

I like mysteries. I like the sense of uniqueness that comes from having unknown origins (however false that sense may be).

[To the tune of Dead Man's Bones, "My Body's a Zombie for You," from the album Anti Sampler Fall 2009 (I give it 1 stars).]


About a year ago I wrote about Web 2.0 as a time machine for my generation, and my suspicion that "mine may be the last generation that has the experience of losing touch with friends." This concerned me because

when it comes to shaping identity, the ability to forget can be as important as the ability to remember. It's easy to implore people not to forget who they are; but sometimes, in order to become someone better, you need to forget a little bit.


Forgetting insults and painful events, we all recognize, is a pretty healthy thing for individuals: a well-adjusted person just doesn't feel the same shock over a breakup after ten years (if they can even remember the name of Whoever They Were), nor do they regard a fight from their childhood with anything but clinical detachment. Collectively, societies can also be said to make decisions about what they choose to remember, and how to act toward the past. Sometimes this happens informally, but has practical reasons: think of national decisions of avoid deep reflection on wars or civil strife, in the interests of promoting national unity and moving forward.

The idea that digital and human memory work differently, and that we fail to recognize the difference between the two at our peril, is something I've been writing about for a while. So I was very interested to see a review by Henry Farrell in Times Higher Education of Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger's new book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. It sounds like a book I need to read… or at least footnote!

At its heart, his case against digital memory is humanist. He worries that it will not only change the way we organise society, but it will damage our identities. Identity and memory interact in complicated ways. Our ability to forget may be as important to our social relationships as our ability to remember. To forgive may be to forget; when we forgive someone for serious transgressions we in effect forget how angry we once were at them.

Delete argues that digital memory has the capacity both to trap us in the past and to damage our trust in our own memories. When I read an old email describing how angry I once was at someone, I am likely to find myself becoming angry again, even if I have since forgiven the person. I may trust digital records over my own memory, even when these records are partial or positively misleading. Forgetting, in contrast, not only serves as a valuable social lubricant, but also as a bulwark of good judgment, allowing us to give appropriate weight to past events that are important, and to discard things that are not. Digital memory – which traps us in the past – may weaken our ability to judge by distorting what we remember.

[To the tune of Sukhwinder Singh, "Marjaani Marjaani," from the album Saavn Celebrates Bollywood (I give it 3 stars).]

Daniel Lyons on the iTablet

From Newsweek:

For those of us who carry iPhones, this shift to a persistent Internet has already happened, and it's really profound. The Internet is no longer a destination, someplace you "go to." You don't "get on the Internet." You're always on it. It's just there, like the air you breathe.

[To the tune of Future Sound of London, "Room 208," from the album Lifeforms (I give it 2 stars).]

Jyri Engstrom on Neuromancer

Hear, hear:

For almost two decades, when we imagined the future, we imagined ourselves tapped into cyberspace via our deck alongside Case, the protagonist in Neuromancer.

[To the tune of Alban Berg Quartet, "String Quartet Op.132 No.15 in A minor: III. Molto adagio," from the album Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets (Disc 7) (I give it 5 stars).]

Augmented reality contact lenses

IEEE Spectrum has a very interesting article about a University of Washington project to create "a contact lens with simple built-in electronics" that's an early prototype of more sophisticated augmented reality vision technology.

These lenses don’t give us the vision of an eagle or the benefit of running subtitles on our surroundings yet. But we have built a lens with one LED, which we’ve powered wirelessly with RF. What we’ve done so far barely hints at what will soon be possible with this technology.

Conventional contact lenses are polymers formed in specific shapes to correct faulty vision. To turn such a lens into a functional system, we integrate control circuits, communication circuits, and miniature antennas into the lens using custom-built optoelectronic components. Those components will eventually include hundreds of LEDs, which will form images in front of the eye, such as words, charts, and photographs. Much of the hardware is semitransparent so that wearers can navigate their surroundings without crashing into them or becoming disoriented. In all likelihood, a separate, portable device will relay displayable information to the lens’s control circuit, which will operate the optoelectronics in the lens.

These lenses don’t need to be very complex to be useful. Even a lens with a single pixel could aid people with impaired hearing or be incorporated as an indicator into computer games. With more colors and resolution, the repertoire could be expanded to include displaying text, translating speech into captions in real time, or offering visual cues from a navigation system. With basic image processing and Internet access, a contact-lens display could unlock whole new worlds of visual information, unfettered by the constraints of a physical display.

But how do you make an image generated on a contact lens visible?

you’re probably wondering how a person wearing one of our contact lenses would be able to focus on an image generated on the surface of the eye. After all, a normal and healthy eye cannot focus on objects that are fewer than 10 centimeters from the corneal surface… [so] the image must be pushed away from the cornea. One way to do that is to employ an array of even smaller lenses placed on the surface of the contact lens. Arrays of such microlenses have been used in the past to focus lasers and, in photolithography, to draw patterns of light on a photoresist. On a contact lens, each pixel or small group of pixels would be assigned to a microlens placed between the eye and the pixels. Spacing a pixel and a microlens 360 micrometers apart would be enough to push back the virtual image and let the eye focus on it easily. To the wearer, the image would seem to hang in space about half a meter away, depending on the microlens.

There's also the problem of power.

Like all mobile electronics, these lenses must be powered by suitable sources, but among the options, none are particularly attractive. The space constraints are acute. For example, batteries are hard to miniaturize to this extent, require recharging, and raise the specter of, say, lithium ions floating around in the eye after an accident. A better strategy is gathering inertial power from the environment, by converting ambient vibrations into energy or by receiving solar or RF power. Most inertial power scavenging designs have unacceptably low power output, so we have focused on powering our lenses with solar or RF energy.

You could also use contact lenses as medical sensors.

We’ve built several simple sensors that can detect the concentration of a molecule, such as glucose. Sensors built onto lenses would let diabetic wearers keep tabs on blood-sugar levels without needing to prick a finger. The glucose detectors we’re evaluating now are a mere glimmer of what will be possible in the next 5 to 10 years. Contact lenses are worn daily by more than a hundred million people, and they are one of the only disposable, mass-market products that remain in contact, through fluids, with the interior of the body for an extended period of time. When you get a blood test, your doctor is probably measuring many of the same biomarkers that are found in the live cells on the surface of your eye—and in concentrations that correlate closely with the levels in your bloodstream. An appropriately configured contact lens could monitor cholesterol, sodium, and potassium levels, to name a few potential targets.

I find this whole project really fascinating.

[To the tune of The Police, "Contact," from the album Message In A Box: The Complete Recordings (Disc 2) (I give it 1 stars).]

Slow communications manifesto

I'm noticing an uptick in the number of articles on digital sabbaths, zeroing out, or whatever you want to call it. This from John Freeman in the Wall Street Journal:

It is time to launch a manifesto for a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world, where the following three statements are self-evident.

1. Speed matters…. "The speed at which we do something—anything—changes our experience of it…. The Internet has provided us with an almost unlimited amount of information, but the speed at which it works—and we work through it—has deprived us of its benefits. We might work at a higher rate, but this is not work ing."…

2. The Physical World matters. A large part of electronic commu nication leads us away from the physical world. Our cafes, post offices, parks, cinemas, town centers, main streets and community meeting halls have suffered as a result of this development…. Sitting in the modern coffee shop, you don't hear the murmur or rise and fall of conversation but the continuous, insect-like patter of typing. The disuse of real-world commons drives people back into the virtual world, causing a feedback cycle that leads to an ever-deepening isolation and neglect of the tangible commons.

3. Context matters. We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communication has stopped providing it, we shouldn't search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from effi ciency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships.

In a different register but playing some of the same themes, Mercury News tech columnist Troy Wolverton confesses, "I've been thinking I need to take a break from technology."

Resisting the urge to check my e-mail on my phone, say. Finding something else to do when the TV's not on at night than retreat to my computer for some Web surfing or game playing. Focusing on the people in my life, rather than the gadgets….

Reading a newspaper Web site on my iPhone while sitting next to my son may seem no different from when my dad used to read a real newspaper while I was eating breakfast as a kid. But the iPhone tends to be a lot more engrossing and addictive than a physical newspaper — and not just because the latter keeps getting thinner.

I can peruse hundreds of newspapers on my iPhone, seeking out those stories and topics I'm most interested in. If that gets dull, I can check my e-mail. If there's nothing there to grab my attention, there's always my Facebook app or a game. In short, it's hard to pull away. And once you're entrapped, it's hard to pay attention to anything else.

[To the tune of Keith Jarrett Trio, "Five Brothers," from the album The Out Of Towners (I give it 1 stars).]

This is your brain on multimedia

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a new study on media multitasking and its impact on cognitive control:

You might think that this influx of media would make the heaviest of users better at processing competing streams of information. But Eyal Ophir from Stanford University thinks otherwise. From a group of 262 students, Ophir indentified two sets of 'light' and 'heavy' multimedia multi-taskers from the extreme ends of the group. The heavy users were more likely to spend more time reading, watching TV, surfing the web, sending emails or text messages, listening to music and more, and more likely to do these at the same time.

The heavy group also fared worse at tasks designed to test their ability to filter out irrelevant information or, surprisingly, to switch from one task to another. In short, they show poorer "cognitive control", a loosely grouped set of abilities that include allocating attention and blocking out irrelevancy in the face of larger goals. They're more easily distracted by their many incoming streams of data, or less good at shining the spotlight of their attention on a single goal, even though they are similar to the light group in terms of general intelligence, performance on creativity tests, basic personality types, and proportion of women to men….

The key question here is whether heavy multimedia use is actually degrading the ability to focus, or whether people who are already easily distracted are more likely to drown themselves in media. "This is really the next big question," says Ophir. "Our study makes no causal claims; we have simply shown that media multitaskers are more distractable." The next step is to follow a group of people with different media habits over time to see how their mental abilities shift, and that's something that Ophir is working to set up.

Nonetheless, as ever-larger computer screens support more applications (Google Wave, anyone?), and social norms shift towards more immediate responses, it seems that multitasking is here to stay and perhaps merely in its infancy. It's important to understand if these technologies will shift our portfolio of mental skills, or equally if people who are naturally easy to distract will gravitate towards this new media environment, and encounter difficulties because of it.

One last high-frequency trading post for the day

Even though this is a perfect illustration of things I talk about in the book, I'll do one more round of quotes (which'll find their way into the book), then turn to other things.

First, via Andymatic, this piece from Ars Technica:

The Matrix, but with money: the world of high-speed trading

Supercomputers pitted against one another in a high-stakes battle of attack and counterattack over a global network where predatory algorithms trawl the information stream, competing every millisecond to gain an informational advantage over rivals. It sounds like Hollywood fiction, but it's just an average trading day on the stock market.

Because high-frequency trading is, as Richard Bookstaber has recently described it, an "arms race" where relative speed matters much more than absolute speed, this market is one of the few left with a demand for raw performance at any cost. Indeed, my personal introduction to the world of HFT came in bits and pieces over the past few years via parts of briefings from the Intel, NVIDIA, AMD and their would-be competitors, all of whom have been aggressively pursuing this market….

In all, it's ironic that the hardware that HFT platforms are using to battle it out over stocks, bonds, commodities, and other assets is essentially the same as the technology that PC gamers are using to play their own games with much lower stakes.

And this observation from Rich Bookstaber:

I think the days for high frequency trading are numbered. For one thing, high frequency trading is capacity constrained like few other strategies. The high frequency trader is basically a stand-alone market maker; he is sitting there to provide liquidity to others. And one way he provides it is to pull in the positions that others will shortly be demanding – thus the need for speed. If the footprint for high frequency traders gets too large, they become liquidity demanders themselves, and the gig is up. The Renaissances of the strategy will make their way through, but generally we will see a lot of shooting stars.

A second reason is that high frequency trading is embroiled in an arms race. And arms races are negative sum games. The arms in this case are not tanks and jets, but computer chips and throughput. But like any arms race, the result is a cycle of spending which leaves everyone in the same relative position, only poorer. Put another way, like any arms race, what is happening with high frequency trading is a net drain on social welfare.

[To the tune of Transglobal Underground, "Khalghi Stomp," from the album Versions (I give it 1 stars).]

More on high-frequency trading and colocation

This from a 2007 article from Low Latency:

Firms are turning to electronic trading, in part because a 1-millisecond advantage in trading applications can be worth millions of dollars a year to a major brokerage firm. That is why colocation — in which firms move the systems running their algorithms as close to the exchanges as possible — is so popular.

The need for speed has opened up opportunities for nontraditional competitors in the space, and it has provided established exchanges with new revenue opportunities, such as colocation services for companies that wish to place their servers in direct physical proximity to the exchanges' systems. Electronic trading also has created opportunities for a new class of vendors — execution services firms and systems integrators promising the fastest possible transaction times….

Physical colocation eliminates the unavoidable time lags inherent in even the fastest wide area networks. Servers in shared data centers typically are connected via Gigabit Ethernet, with the ultrahigh-speed switching fabric called InfiniBand increasingly used for the same purpose, relates Yaron Haviv, CTO at Voltaire, a supplier of systems that Haviv contends can achieve latencies of less than 1 millionth of a second….

The NYSE will begin reducing its 10 data centers, including those associated with Euronext, to two in the next couple of years, says CTO Steve Rubinow. Colocation, Rubinow says, not only guarantees fast transactions but also predictable ones. "If you've got some trades going through at 10 milliseconds and some at 1 millisecond, that's a problem," he says. "Our customers don't like variance."

There's also this interesting tidbit about place and security:

Later this year, Nasdaq will shutter its data center in Trumbull, Conn., and move all operations to one opened last year in New Jersey, with a backup in the mid-Atlantic region, the exchange's Hyndman says. (Trading firms and exchanges are reluctant to disclose the exact locations of their data centers.)

So what's this mean for the future?

Once you hit physical limits to data-transmission speeds, where do you go from there?… There are two schools of thought on this issue. One is that traders, exchanges and brokers must shave latency from other parts of the system — in the applications they use, for instance — and that the race will continue.

The other is that latency will cease to be an issue once everyone has access to the same trading infrastructure and that other, older-school elements of the business, such as customer service and market savvy, will once again become the differentiators. "Shortly, we'll be talking micro- versus milliseconds, and at that point speed will probably have less and less relevance," says Lime Brokerage's [Alistair] Brown. "Once you've got half a dozen systems that can all handle that kind of throughput, then you have to distinguish yourself somewhere else."

[To the tune of Fear Of Pop, "In Love," from the album Versions (I give it 3 stars).]
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