Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Emergence of a City

From Emergence by Steven Johnson

Records exist of a Roman fort dating back to A.D. 76 situated at the confluence of the Medlock and Irwell Rivers, on the northwestern edge of modern England, about 150 miles from London. Settlements persisted there for three centuries, before dying out with the rest of the empire around A.D. 400. Historians believe that the site was unoccupied for half a millennium, until a town called Manchester began to take shape there, the name derived from the Roman settlement Mamucium-Latin for "place of the breast like hill."

Manchester subsisted through most of the millennium as a non-descript northern-England borough: granted a charter in 1301, the town established a college in the early 1400s, but remained secondary to the neighboring town of Salford for hundreds of years. In the 1600s, the Manchester region became a node for the wool trade, its merchants shipping goods to the Continent via the great ports of London. It was impossible to see it at the time, but Manchester - and indeed the entire Lancashire region - had planted itself at the very center of a technological and commercial revolution that would irrevocably alter the future of the planet. Manchester lay at the confluence of several world-historical rivers: the nascent industrial technologies of steam-powered looms; the banking system of commercial London; the global markets and labor pools of the British Empire. The story of that convergence has been told many times, and the debate over its consequences continues to this day. But beyond the epic effects that it had on the global economy, the industrial takeoff that occurred in Manchester between 1700 and 1850 also created a new kind of city, one that literally exploded into existence.

The statistics on population growth alone capture the force of that explosion: a 1773 estimate had 24,000 people living in Manchester; the first official census in 1801 found 70,000. By the midpoint of the century, there were more than 250,000 people in the city proper - a tenfold increase in only seventy-five years. That growth rate was as unprecedented and as violent as the steam engines themselves. In a real sense, the city grew too fast for the authorities to keep up with it. For five hundred years, Manchester had technically been considered a "manor," which meant, in the eyes of the law; it was run like a feudal estate, with no local government to speak of-no city planners, police, or public health authorities.

Manchester didn't even send representatives to Parliament until 1832, and it wasn't incorporated for another six years. By the early 1840s, the newly formed borough council finally began to institute public health reforms and urban planning, but the British government didn't officially recognize Manchester as a city until 1853. This constitutes one of the great ironies of the industrial revolution, and it captures just how dramatic the rate of change really was: the city that most defined the future of urban life for the first half of the nineteenth century didn't legally become a city until the great explosion had run its course.

The result of that discontinuity was arguably the least planned and most chaotic city in the six-thousand-year history of urban settlements. Noisy, polluted, massively overcrowded, Manchester attracted a steady stream of intellectuals and public figures in the 1830s, traveling north to the industrial magnet in search of the modern world's future. One by one, they returned with stories of abject squalor and sensory overload, their words straining to convey the immensity and uniqueness of the experience. "What I have seen has disgusted and astonished me beyond all measure," Dickens wrote after a visit in the fall of 1838. "I mean to strike the heaviest blow in my power for these unfortunate creatures." Appointed to command the northern districts in the late 1830s, Major General Charles James Napier wrote: "Manchester is the chimney of the world. Rich rascals, poor rogues, drunken ragamuffins and prostitutes form the moral .... What a place! The entrance to hell, realized." De Toqueville visited Lancashire in 1835 and described the landscape in language that would be echoed throughout the next two centuries: "From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage."

But Manchester's most celebrated and influential documentarian was a young man named Friedrich Engels, who arrived in 1842 to help oversee the family cotton plant there, and to witness firsthand the engines of history bringing the working class closer to self-awareness. While Engels was very much on the payroll of his father's firm, Ermen and Engels, by the time he arrived in Manchester he was also under the sway of the radical politics associated with the Young Hegelian school. He had befriended Karl Marx a few years before and had been encouraged to visit Manchester by the socialist Moses Hess, whom he'd met in early 1842. His three years in England were thus a kind of scouting mission for the revolution, financed by the capitalist class. The book that Engels eventually wrote, The Condition of the Working Class in England, remains to this day one of the classic tracts of urban history and stands as the definitive account of nineteenth-century Manchester life in all its tumult and dynamism. Dickens, Carlyle, and Disraeli had all attempted to capture Manchester in its epic wildness, but their efforts were outpaced by a twenty-four-year-old from Prussia.

But The Condition is not, as might be expected, purely a document of Manchester's industrial chaos, a story of all that is solid melting into air, to borrow a phrase Engels's comrade would write several years later. In the midst of the city's insanity, Engels's eye is drawn to a strange kind of order, in a wonderful passage where he leads the reader on a walking tour of the industrial capital, a tour that reveals a kind of politics built into the very topography of the city's streets. It captures Engels's acute powers of observation, but I quote from it at length because it captures something else as well - how difficult it is to think in models of self-organization, to imagine a world without pacemakers.

The town itself is peculiarly built, so that someone can live in it for years and travel into it and out of it daily without ever coming into contact with a working-class quarter or even with workers-so long, that is to say, as one confines himself to his business affairs or to strolling about for pleasure. This comes about mainly in the circumstances that through an unconscious, tacit agreement as much as through conscious, explicit intention, the working-class districts are most sharply separated from the parts of the city reserved for the middle class ....

I know perfectly well that this deceitful manner of building is more or less common to all big cities. I know as well that shopkeepers must in the nature of the business take premises on the main thoroughfares. I know in such streets there are more good houses than bad ones, and that the value of land is higher in their immediate vicinity than in neighborhoods that lie at a distance from them. But at the same time I have never come across so systematic a seclusion of the working class from the main streets as in Manchester. I have never elsewhere seen a concealment of such fine sensibility of everything that might offend the eyes and nerves of the middle classes. And yet it is precisely Manchester that has been built less according to a plan and less within the limitations of official regulations-and indeed more through accident-than any other town. Still ... I cannot help feeling that the liberal industrialists, the Manchester "bigwigs," are not so altogether innocent of this bashful style of building.

You can almost hear the contradictions thundering against each other in this passage, like the "dark satanic mills" of Manchester itself. The city has built a cordon sanitaire to separate the industrialists from the squalor they have unleashed on the world, concealing the demoralization of Manchester's working-class districts-and yet that disappearing act comes into the world without "conscious, explicit intention." The city seems artfully planned to hide its atrocities, and yet it "has been built less according to a plan" than any city in history. As Steven Marcus puts it, in his history of the young Engels's sojourn in Manchester, "The point to be taken is that this astonishing and outrageous arrangement cannot fully be understood as the result of a plot, or even a deliberate design, although those in whose interests it works also control it. It is indeed too huge and too complex a state of organized affairs ever to have been thought up in advance, to have preexisted as an idea."

Those broad, glittering avenues, in other words, suggest a Potemkin village without a Potemkin. That mix of order and anarchy is what we now call emergent behavior. Urban critics since Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs have known that cities have lives of their own, with neighborhoods clustering into place without any Robert Moses figure dictating the plan from above. But that understanding has entered the intellectual mainstream only in recent years-when Engels paced those Manchester streets in the 1840s, he was left groping blindly, trying to find a culprit for the city's fiendish organization, even as he acknowledged that the city was notoriously unplanned. Like most intellectual histories, the development of that new understanding-the sciences of complexity and self-organization-is a complicated, multithreaded tale, with many agents interacting over its duration. It is probably better to think of it as less a linear narrative and more an interconnected web, growing increasingly dense over the century and a half that separates us from Engels's first visit to Manchester.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Surprising Death of the Public Intellectual and a Manifesto for Its Restoration

Jo Guldi, Absent3

These days few professors of the humanities grace our newspapers on public questions. Consider the issue of sexuality. One is more likely to hear from an columnist like Thomas Friedman, who condemns on the basis of his flat-earth theory the injustice done a Pakistani victim of rape, or an evolutionary biologist like Randolph Nesse, who employs our hunter-gatherer ancestors to explain the courtship rituals of the American bar scene. A reading of how young women feel about nudity differently from their grandmothers, constructed from the novels of Nathanael West? An editorial about the unintended consequences of American feminism by generation, race, and class, as conjectured by a historian? Both are unusual in the extreme.

Public scholars of the humanities have become a rarer and rarer species. The last great demonstrations appeared in the late 1970s and 80s, when sociologists like Richard Sennett and Benedict Anderson took on the themes of public interaction and nationalism. Intellectuals with an explicitly public stake in discourse flourished in the recent present, when they ranged from intellectuals who favored direct intervention, like William Sloane Coffin, the Yale University chaplain who organized busloads of freedom riders headed south in 1961, like novelist John Hersey’s championing of anti-nuclear proliferation in the pages of the New Yorker. There were indirect public intellectuals, too, like Hannah Arendt’s excavation of types of public interaction and sociability from ancient Greece to the present day, delivered as lectures around the nation, or Irving Howe’s literary essays on topics like Ralph Ellison and the contemporary color line, published in The Nation, The New Republic, or the journal he founded, Dissent. Indeed, intellectuals of the 1950s sought out a public arena in which to engage questions of justice and to define notions like democracy. Their work in dissemination and public argument, as much as their intellectual work, underwrote the self-understanding of a generation of activists.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Inspiring 21st Century Scientists and Citizens to Explore a Complex World

Santa Fe Institute

"The core problem is that our education and training systems were built for another era. We can get where we must go only by changing the system itself." —National Center on Education and the Economy 2007, Tough Choices for Tough Times

Learn@sfi is educating the next generation of scientists and citizens. Since 1984, SFI’s leadership role in multidisciplinary research has provided the foundation for educational and outreach programs that challenge the next generation’s brightest scholars and inspire the broader population to think critically about the complex problems facing science and society today.

The learn@sfi philosophy seeks to help students, educators and citizens understand the complex, interacting systems that make up the world around us. Programs for students of all ages and backgrounds prepare today’s scientists, inspire new communities, improve pedagogical methods, and build the foundation for systemic, long-term change in science education.

The study of complex systems through a multidisciplinary approach offers a powerful framework for improving science literacy in all citizens and educating the next generation of scientists, born into a networked world and comfortable with thinking across disciplinary boundaries.


Crows, Cartoons and Screen Paintings

This "comic strip" is an amazing work of art considering the limitations of the technology and the generally accepted paradigm of comics. It was drawn by margantj using Pixton, a cartoon web based tool that anyone can use.

As art it reminds me of Japanese screen paintings. These paintings are beautiful and I still remember visiting an exhibit of folding painted screens while in Tokyo many years ago. After looking at several in an instant I got that each panel was a painting that could stand alone, but they were meant to be seen together. The metaphor of people in a group that functioned well together stayed with me.*

In Understanding Comics, Scoot McCloud develops the theory and practice of designing comics. One of the things he describes is the space between the individual drawings in a comic strip. Because of this space between, the reader is engaged to fill in what has transpired (time), or the connections between the drawings (space). It's cool. This strip is a great example of that principle. I've put them all together so that the connections are clear, and it doesn't require much work to make the connections.

* As a corollary, the Japanese are also very fond of painting of cherry trees in blossom. The individual blossoms of the tree are not impressive, but the whole tree is unbelievable. The metaphor there is that individuals are so much more beautiful in large numbers.

Understanding Comics

This book is a pleasure to read and it contains valuable insights. It is a book about comics written and drawn in comic book form. The principles of comics are related to story telling. After all, they both are stories. McCloud defines comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an esthetic response in the viewer." The difference between comics and an animated movie is that "each successive frame of a movie is projected on exactly the same space - while each frame of comics must occupy different space. Space does for comics what time does for film."

McCloud demonstrates without a doubt the power and validity of comics to tell a story and to explain extremely complex ideas. My interpretation of McLuhan's idea of the post literate age leads me to believe that comics will be a growing form of communication.

Chapter 1 traces the history of comics from early cave art to the present. In Chapter 2 he develops a rather complete model for human written/drawn communication. In doing so, he considers the four dimensions of:

1. Complex - Simple
2. Realistic - Iconic
3. Objective - Subjective
4. Specific - Universal

From this he develops a model that relates reality, abstract and symbolic types of communication in a triangle. He also populates this triangle (which he alter expands into a pyramid) with examples of the many comic artists of history indicating how they relate to one another.

In Chapter 4, the author explains "closure". Closure is the mind's power to complete an image or an idea with incomplete information. Closure can be involuntary or voluntary. With many modern technologies, McCloud points out that closure is involuntary. However, with comics, the reader is a participant in completing the action or thought. He writes that there are six different types of closure employed in comics:

1. Moment to moment
2. Action to action
3. Subject to subject
4. Scene to scene
5. Aspect to aspect
6. Nonsequitur

He gives examples of each type. In addition he has statistics on which type is used by what artist and the differences between cultures. American and European comics rarely use the aspect to aspect transition, whereas Japanese artists use this type of transition frequently. This may be due to fact that art, like the Japanese garden, changes as you walk through it. With each new aspect, you get a different composition. In the West, the dominant transition is type 2 - action to action.

In a striking example, McCloud shows how different it is to view strips of cartoon, realistic images and abstractions. Closure is easy with cartoon images, very difficult with realistic images (tend to view each image alone), and almost impossible with abstract images (tend to look at the whole strip as a single piece of art).

Chapter 4 discusses time in comics. "Just as pictures and the intervals between them create the illusion of time through closure, words introduce time by representing that which can only exist in time - sound." In comics, it is the panel that is an icon that "acts as a general indicator that time or space is being divided." As a result, the size, shape and arrangements of panels on a page are an integral part of the creative effort for the artist to get the reader involvement he or she wants. The content of a silent panel (without words or action) "offers no clues as to its duration. It can also produce a sense of timelessness." The effects of such a panel can "bleed over" into subsequent panels creating a mood or sense of place. In this chapter he also treats the subject of motion in comics - multiple images, action lines, subjective (putting the reader in the action) and the use of a continuous background.

The techniques of conveying emotion are described in Chapter 5. In comics, emotions are conveyed through the character and spacing of the lines, by icons, the character of the word balloon and of course, the words themselves.

In Chapter 6, McCloud discusses the subject of the combination of words and pictures in comics through time - history and future.

In Chapter 7, he explains the seven steps of creating comics (or any form of art):

1. Idea/purpose
2. Form
3. Idiom
4. Structure
5. Craft
6. Surface

McCloud discusses the use of color in Chapter 8 and in Chapter 9 ties all the elements together. In the closing chapter he writes about the difficulties of an artist getting the ideas on paper and the viewer getting an approximation of the original idea. This is the dilemma of any artist and comics are no different. He sees a great future for comics, best told in his word and image:

After reading this book, you may want to read his second book, Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing an Art Form, Harper Perennial, 2000.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Scott McCloud
Harper Perennial, 1993

Inspiring 21st Century Scientists and Citizens to Explore a Complex World

Santa Fe Institute

"The core problem is that our education and training systems were built for another era. We can get where we must go only by changing the system itself." —National Center on Education and the Economy 2007, Tough Choices for Tough Times

Learn@sfi is educating the next generation of scientists and citizens. Since 1984, SFI’s leadership role in multidisciplinary research has provided the foundation for educational and outreach programs that challenge the next generation’s brightest scholars and inspire the broader population to think critically about the complex problems facing science and society today.

The learn@sfi philosophy seeks to help students, educators and citizens understand the complex, interacting systems that make up the world around us. Programs for students of all ages and backgrounds prepare today’s scientists, inspire new communities, improve pedagogical methods, and build the foundation for systemic, long-term change in science education.

The study of complex systems through a multidisciplinary approach offers a powerful framework for improving science literacy in all citizens and educating the next generation of scientists, born into a networked world and comfortable with thinking across disciplinary boundaries.

More with video

Monday, February 9, 2009

What Technology Has Taught Us

Innovation Watch, International Herald Tribune

Frisky thumbs aren't the only legacy of the latest round of design innovations. The type of products and technologies we use not only affects the development of our physical skills, but mental skills too. Mostly it does so surreptitiously, because we make the necessary changes instinctively.


Astronaut's Video Satirizes NASA Bureaucracy

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR

Morning Edition, February 9, 2009 · A short, satirical video produced by an astronaut and posted on YouTube is generating a lot of discussion within NASA and the space community. The video focuses on making sure the agency's bureaucracy doesn't crush innovative ideas and dissenting opinions.

The video, written and filmed by four-time space flier Andrew Thomas, tells the fictional story of a young engineer at Johnson Space Center in Houston who has a great new concept for a spacecraft design.

Her attempts to convince her managers go nowhere. They dismiss her proposal with administrative objections even as they assure her that her efforts are valued.

"We don't want to repress dissenting views or innovation like this. That's not how we operate," says a fictional manager in the video. As he speaks, a caption appears and poses a question: "Are you sure?"


Thursday, February 5, 2009


A lot of negative media has been fed to the public over the years, full of pessimism and paranoia over the future. Thoughtware.TV, knowing that the future is not something that happens to us, but rather something we create, aims to spread knowledge and positive memes on future technological advancements in order to educate the public on the potential of positively enhancing the human condition.

We collect only the best videos and news on Human Progress, ranging from topics such as Transhumanism, Artificial General Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Robotics, Nanotechnology, Life Extension, Biotechnology, Genetics, Ethics and many other fields of Social, Scientific and Technological interest.

We advocate all sentient life's freedom for evolutionary self-determination, through the ethical implementation of enhancement technologies powered by scientific discovery.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Network Dynamics and Field Evolution: The Growth of Interorganizational Collaboration in the Life Sciences

We develop and test four alternative logics of attachment – accumulative advantage, homophily, follow-the-trend, and multiconnectivity – to account for both the structure and dynamics of interorganizational collaboration in the field of biotechnology. The commercial field of the life sciences is typified by wide dispersion in the sources of basic knowledge and rapid development of the underlying science, fostering collaboration among a broad range of institutionally diverse actors. We map the network dynamics of the field over the period 1988-99. Using multiple novel methods, including analysis of network degree distributions, network visualizations, and multi-probability models to estimate dyadic attachments, we demonstrate how different rules for affiliation shape network evolution.

Commercialization strategies pursued by early corporate entrants are supplanted by collaborative activities influenced more by universities, research institutes, venture capital, and small firms. As organizations increase both the number of activities on which they collaborate
and the diversity of organizations with whom they are linked, cohesive subnetworks form that are characterized by multiple, independent pathways. These structural components, in turn, condition the choices and opportunities available to members of a field, thereby reinforcing an attachment logic based on connections to diverse partners that are differently linked. The dual analysis of network and institutional evolution provides an explanation for the decentralized structure of this science-based field.


The Next Step in Open Innovation

Jacques Bughin, Michael Chui, and Brad Johnson, McKinsey Quarterly

The creation of knowledge, products, and services by online communities of companies and consumers is still in its earliest stages. Who knows where it will lead?

For most companies, innovation is a proprietary activity conducted largely inside the organization in a series of closely managed steps. Over the last decade, however, a few consumer product, fashion, and technology businesses have been opening up the product-development process to new ideas hatched outside their walls—from suppliers, independent inventors, and university labs.

Executives in a number of companies are now considering the next step in this trend toward more open innovation. For one thing, they are looking at ways to delegate more of the management of innovation to networks of suppliers and independent specialists that interact with each other to cocreate products and services. They also hope to get their customers into the act. If a company could use technology to link these outsiders into its development projects, could it come up with better ideas for new products and develop those ideas more quickly and cheaply than it can today? Suppose that a wireless carrier, say, were to orchestrate the design of a new generation of mobile devices through an open network of interested customers, software engineers, and component suppliers, all working interactively with one another.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Deborah Gordon: How do ants know what to do?

At least among ants. See the talk by Deborah Gorden.

I think that there's a clue here our behavior with the web.

How to Fix the Innovation Gap


The author and tech executive says we are living off the fruits of previous research and need to seed new ideas.


There's a Crack in Everything

Gurteen Knowledge Letter

In a recent conversation with Dominic Kelleher in Brussels we discovered a joint appreciation of the poems and songs of Leonard Cohen and Dominic told me of one of his favorite songs and a quote from it that I too particularly liked. This was the quote.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

From the the lyrics of the song Anthem by Leonard Cohen

But then in googling the song and the quote I found this fragment from an interview with Leonard Cohen that brought the words even more to live for me.


How cooperation (eventually) trumps conflict

Author Robert Wright explains "non-zero-sumness" -- the network of linked fortunes and cooperation that has guided our evolution to this point -- and how we can use it to help save humanity today.

Author Robert Wright thinks the crises the human species now faces are moral in nature, and that our salvation lies in the intelligent pursuit of self-interest. In his book Nonzero, Wright argues that life depends on a non-zero-sum dynamic. While a zero-sum game depends on a winner and loser, all parties in a non-zero-sum game win or lose together, so players will more likely survive if they cooperate. This points to an optimistic future of ultimate cooperation among humans -- if we recognize the game.

How do ants know what to do?

With a dusty backhoe, a handful of Japanese paint markers and a few students in tow, Deborah Gordon digs up ant colonies in the Arizona desert in search of keys to understanding complex systems.

Ant biologist Deborah M. Gordon has spent decades digging in the Arizona desert to decipher the chemical, genetic and behavioral codes of ant colonies. Contrary to the popular notion that colonies have evolved into efficient, organized systems, she has instead discovered that the long evolution of the ant colony has resulted in a system driven by accident, adaptation and the chaos and "noise" of unconscious communication.

Her studies of the harvester ant have shed light on the evolution of aggregate systems, whether biological or virtual, and may someday yield clues tracing the evolution of the brain from neuron to cortex.

Gordon, a Stanford professor, wrote the acclaimed book Ants at Work, outlining her discoveries in generous, nontechnical detail.