Who Invented the Internet, Anyway?

Steven Johnson, author of Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, reminds us that the Internet wasn’t created by the government (and certainly not by Al Gore):

Like many of the bedrock technologies that have come to define the digital age, the Internet was created by — and continues to be shaped by — decentralized groups of scientists and programmers and hobbyists (and more than a few entrepreneurs) freely sharing the fruits of their intellectual labor with the entire world. Yes, government financing supported much of the early research, and private corporations enhanced and commercialized the platforms. But the institutions responsible for the technology itself were neither governments nor private start-ups. They were much closer to the loose, collaborative organizations of academic research. They were networks of peers.

Peer networks break from the conventions of states and corporations in several crucial respects. They lack the traditional economic incentives of the private sector: almost all of the key technology standards are not owned by any one individual or organization, and a vast majority of contributors to open-source projects do not receive direct compensation for their work. (The Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler has called this phenomenon “commons-based peer production.”) And yet because peer networks are decentralized, they don’t suffer from the sclerosis of government bureaucracies. Peer networks are great innovators, not because they’re driven by the promise of commercial reward but rather because their open architecture allows others to build more easily on top of existing ideas, just as Berners-Lee built the Web on top of the Internet, and a host of subsequent contributors improved on Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web.

If you like how Steven Johnson writes, I highly recommend his other book published in 2005: Mind Wide Open.

Anatomy of an Idea

Author Steven B. Johnson was perusing his Twitter feed last year and stumbled across someone mentioning his book to a friend (while and also recommending something called “Seeing Like A State.”). From there, Steven B. Johnson tracked down the book, started reading it, and ended up writing a blog post summarizing his thoughts on how his ideas get developed:

1. The discovery process is remarkably social, and the social interactions come in amazingly diverse forms. Sometimes it’s overhearing a conversation on Twitter between two complete strangers; sometimes it’s the virtual book club of something like Findings; sometimes it’s going out to lunch with a friend and bouncing new ideas off them. It’s the social life of information, in John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s wonderful phrase — we just have so many more ways of being social now.

2. I find it interesting that there are certain kinds of questions that I now send out by default to Twitter, not Google. The more subtle and complex the question, the more likely it’ll go to Twitter. But if it’s simply trying to find a citation or source, I’ll use Google. So trying to figure out who wrote Seeing Like A State was a Google query, but wondering about the origins of the Internet made more sense on Twitter. (I should add that the responses I’m looking for on Twitter are links to longer discussions, not 140 character micro-essays.)

3. Priming is everything. All these new tools are incredible for making rapid-fire discoveries and associations, but you need a broad background of knowledge to prime you for those discoveries. I’m not sure I would have jumped down that wonderful rabbit hole of the French railway design if I hadn’t seen that map in grad school two decades ago. Same goes for the Hayek and the internet history as well. I had enough pre-existing knowledge to know that they belonged in the story, so when something about them got in my sights, I was ready to pounce on it.     

4. Very few of the key links came from the traditional approach of reading a work and then following the citations included in the endnotes. The reading was still critical, of course, but the connective branches turned out to lie in the social layer of commentary outside of the work.

5. It’s been said it a thousand times before, by me and many others, but it’s worth repeating again: people who think the Web is killing off serendipity are not using it correctly.

6.  Finally, this simple, but amazing fact: almost none of this–Twitter, blogs, PDFs, eBooks, Google, Findings–would have been intelligible to a writer fifteen years ago. 

I haven’t yet read Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, but I did read his Mind Wide Open and can recommend it.

The Top Ten Wired Articles of 2010

I subscribed to Wired Magazine (print edition) in December of 2009. I’ve read almost all of the feature articles over the last twelve months. The following is my list of top ten Wired articles which have appeared in print from January until December of this year. I highlight notable passages from each piece as well.

(1) “The Neuroscience of Screwing Up” (January 2010). Jonah Lehrer is one of my favorite science writers (do subscribe to his excellent blog, The Frontal Cortex), and his piece in the January edition of Wired is a good way to begin this list. The piece challenges our preconceptions of the scientific process and how we make mistakes in the scientific quest for answers:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

(2) “Fill in the Blanks: Using Math to Turn Lo-Res Datasets into High-Res Samples” (March 2010). I highlighted this piece in this entry, and it’s still definitely of the most interesting articles I’ve read this year, not least because the entire concept of compressed sensing was totally new to me:

Compressed sensing works something like this: You’ve got a picture — of a kidney, of the president, doesn’t matter. The picture is made of 1 million pixels. In traditional imaging, that’s a million measurements you have to make. In compressed sensing, you measure only a small fraction — say, 100,000 pixels randomly selected from various parts of the image. From that starting point there is a gigantic, effectively infinite number of ways the remaining 900,000 pixels could be filled in.

(3) “Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief” (April 2010). A fascinating piece about Gerald Blanchard, who has been described as “cunning, clever, conniving, and creative.” Incredible what he was able to accomplish during his stint:

Over the years, Blanchard procured and stockpiled IDs and uniforms from various security companies and even law enforcement agencies. Sometimes, just for fun and to see whether it would work, he pretended to be a reporter so he could hang out with celebrities. He created VIP passes and applied for press cards so he could go to NHL playoff games or take a spin around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with racing legend Mario Andretti. He met the prince of Monaco at a yacht race in Monte Carlo and interviewed Christina Aguilera at one of her concerts.

(4) “Getting LOST” (May 2010). LOST is my favorite show on television (by far), so it’s with some bias that I select this piece into the top 10. This piece has outstanding trivia about the show, an interview with executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and really excellent infographics (my favorite is this one).

(5) “The Man Who Could Unsnarl Manhattan Traffic” (June 2010). Felix Salmon (whose finance blog I follow at Reuters; unrelated, but I also recommend Salmon’s excellent take on bicycling in New York City.) reports on Charles Komanoff, the man whose goal is to alleviate traffic in New York City.

[It is ] the most ambitious effort yet to impose mathematical rigor and predictability on an inherently chaotic phenomenon. Despite decades of attempts to curb delays—adding lanes to highways, synchronizing traffic lights—planners haven’t had much success at unsnarling gridlock. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that in 2007, metropolitan-area drivers in the US spent an average of 36 hours stuck in traffic—up from 14 hours in 1982.

Komanoff tracks ALL of this data in a massive spreadsheet, dubbed Balanced Transportation Analyzer (warning! .xls link, 5.5MB):

Over the course of about 50 worksheets, the BTA breaks down every aspect of New York City transportation—subway revenues, traffic jams, noise pollution—in an attempt to discover which mix of tolls and surcharges would create the greatest benefit for the largest number of people.

(6) “Secret of AA” (July 2010). Some 1.2 million people belong to one of Alcoholic Anonymous’s 55,000 meeting groups in the United States. But after 75 years, we still don’t know how it works. Fascinating:

There’s no doubt that when AA works, it can be transformative. But what aspect of the program deserves most of the credit? Is it the act of surrendering to a higher power? The making of amends to people a drinker has wronged? The simple admission that you have a problem? Stunningly, even the most highly regarded AA experts have no idea.

(7) “The News Factory” (September 2010). You’ve probably seen those videos from Taiwan recounting events of the moment through hilarious animated videos (see The iPhone Antennagate; Chilean Miners). What’s fascinating is that there’s an entire company working to create these videos. Next Media Animation (NMA) is a factory churning out  videos:

The team at Next Media Animation cranks out about 20 short clips a day, most involving crimes and scandals in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But a few are focused on tabloid staples in the US—from Tiger Woods’ marital troubles to Michael Jackson’s death. Seeing them filtered through the Next Media lens is as disorienting as it is entertaining.

How can they create such impressive (relatively speaking) videos in such a short period of time?

It takes Pixar up to seven hours to render a single frame of footage—that is, to convert the computer data into video. NMA needed to create an animated clip in a third of that time and render more than a thousand frames of animation in just a few minutes. A team spent two years wrestling with the problem, experimenting with one digital tool after another—Poser, 3ds Max, Maya. “It didn’t look good, and it took too long,” says Eric Ryder, a Next art director. “But Jimmy doesn’t want excuses.”

(8) “The Nerd Superstore” (October 2010). An excellent look into ThinkGeek, a site for nerds. ThinkGeek is a profitable company that carries an assortment of products:

Today ThinkGeek has 51 employees. Single-day orders occasionally top out at $1 million, and an astonishing amount of that product is caffeine. You can purchase it online or from the mail-order catalog in the form of mints, candy, gum, jerky, sprays, capsules, chews, cookies, and powders, as well as in lip balms, brownie mix, and soaps (liquid and solid). The company has thus far pushed more than 1 billion milligrams of the stimulant.

Where else could you purchase awesome sauce, brain freeze ice cubes, and an 8-bit tie all in one place?

(9) “The Quantified City” (November 2010). What can a hundred million calls to 311 reveal about a city? Steven Johnson uses New York City as an example where the collected data is quantified:

As useful as 311 is to ordinary New Yorkers, the most intriguing thing about the service is all the information it supplies back to the city. Each complaint is logged, tagged, and mapped to make it available for subsequent analysis. In some cases, 311 simply helps New York respond more intelligently to needs that were obvious to begin with. Holidays, for example, spark reliable surges in call volume, with questions about government closings and parking regulations. On snow days, call volume spikes precipitously, which 311 anticipates with recorded messages about school closings and parking rules.

The 311 complaints, visualized in an infographic, for one week in September (question for the reader: do you think population density matters here?)

(10) “Teen Mathletes Do Battle at Algorithm Olympics” (December 2010). Excellent piece by Jason Fagone about kids competing at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). While the piece focuses on two students, it’s important to note how elite this event is:

China’s approach to IOI is proof of just how serious the contest has become and how tied up it is in notions of national prestige and economic competitiveness. To earn a spot on the Chinese team, a coder has to beat 80,000 of his compatriots in a series of provincial elimination rounds that last an entire year.

But what’s the downside of such intense training and competition? I ponder the possibilities with some personal reflections in this post.

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Notes:

1) For some of the titles above, I’ve used the titles presented in the print edition of Wired (the titles are usually longer on the Web).

2) If you’re a fan of Wired, what’s your favorite article from 2010? Feel free to comment below.

Mind Wide Open: Quotable (on the l’esprit d’escalier)

I am currently reading Steven Johnson’s book on neuroscience, Mind Wide Open. It feels a bit odd to read a book published in 2004 (so much new in neuroscience has been discovered in the last six years), but Mind Wide Open has been sitting on my shelf, begging my attention the last two years. I’ve finally decided that I needed to read it.

There’s a great quote in the book regarding a phenomenon we all often encounter. Imagine you’re engaged in dialogue and are processing what the other person is saying. The other person says something witty or sharp, something that your brain consciously processes. But you want to be able to respond with wit as well, and perhaps you fail. Moments later you step away from the conversation and it hits you: I know what I should have said. Is there a word for such a phrase?

Turns out, the French have an expression: l’esprit d’escalier (or l’esprit de l’escalier). Quoting from Mind Wide Open:

You can see this mechanism captured in the wonderful French expressions l’esprit d’escalier—literally, “the wit of the staircase”—that the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations defines as follows: “An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one’s way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room.” We haven’t thought of the smart retort in the drawing room because the barb we’re responding to surprised us, caught us off guard. We have plenty of good retorts handy for predictable comments; it’s the ones that come out of the blue that perplex us. Sometimes we’re still mulling over potential retorts on the way down the staircase because we’ve suffered a social slight by not being quick-witted enough to respond. But we’re also mulling because our memory is designed to dwell on events that surprise us.

So next you find yourself wondering: “Why didn’t I think of that when I had the chance,” know that it happens to everyone… What’s interesting, to me, is that there are ways to train our brain to act less surprised, so that we have a greater chance of being able to express that clever retort at the right time.

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Note: you may also be interested in reading a post I published earlier this year, Lost in Translation.