Fear of the ‘Stopping Point’

Head in water by Rose Borchovski
Head in water by Rose Borchovski

There is an awful lot to know. According to my old copy of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary the word ‘know’ made its first appearance in the English language in 1592: “The act of knowing; knowledge”. The very earliest reference to ‘knowledge’ in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary dates back to 1477 when it was used to describe “The fact or condition of being instructed; information acquired by study; learning.” I wonder, when ‘know’ initially appeared was it viewed as a bit of slang used by trendy young Elizabethans?

Fear of Sleeping by Rose Borchovski
Fear of Sleeping by Rose Borchovski

My father inherited a small library and his study was lined with books organized in tall dark bookcases that scraped the ceiling with their pointed gothic trim. Most of these books caused me to feel quite faint with the stunning dullness of their long winded (picture-less) yet at one time (at least) solidly knowledgeable texts. Hidden amongst these musty books there were some gems; one was Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary which contained words that have long since fallen out of use. Interesting to consider that the eventual standardization of the English language actually caused words to vanish. The classifications of Johnson’s Dictionary trumped earlier dictionaries and 173 years later the Oxford English Dictionary trumped Johnson’s. It is a funny thought that we lost words as we tried to organize and standardize their spelling and meaning.

These dictionary knowledge-games sprang to mind recently when I heard a NY Tech Council talk given by David Weinberger author of the book Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the RoomWeinberger observes that we have conjured up some successful strategies for managing the infinitely unknown amount of things we may one day need to know. We have developed these strategies because, as he says, the world is way bigger than our skulls and our skulls simply don’t scale; in truth, as we learn more and more, we do indeed find our skulls don’t get bigger. (In fact, they have got smaller when compared to Cro Magnon‘s skull.)

As Weinberger says, we manage the infinite amount of things that there are ‘to know’ by breaking off brain sized chunks of the world, we get to know this chunk, master it, and in due course become expert. If we need to find answers to certain questions (beyond our ken) we can go off and find someone who knows the answers (because of their particular chunk of expertise) and see if they can resolve our questions.

The Smaller Spectacles by Rose Borchovski
The Smaller Spectacles by Rose Borchovski

Now (suggests Weinberger) this is a very effective system, it gives us a mechanism where ‘experts’ know what we don’t know so we can stop asking the questions! This is what Weinberger calls a ‘stopping point’. He also suggests that this idea of containing knowledge is not natural; knowledge finds itself stored in libraries, folded within dictionaries and other learned tomes where it might end up laced through 8pt font footnotes. The result is that knowledge is rationed out, compartmentalized, freeze dried and re-packaged. Knowledge is manipulated through good intentions and attempts are made, by generally well meaning people, to carefully control it. (I am not including overt manifestations of political censorship here just actions done with the kindest of intentions.) The result is that experts, libraries, dictionaries, books and footnotes turn into stopping points for ideas and imagination. Education itself, the honorable dispensary of knowledge is a stopping point. Schools and universities and libraries are stopping points, good ideas themselves can be stopping points! All quite alarming when you stop to think about it…

Rather Puzzled by Rose Borchovski
Rather Puzzled by Rose Borchovski

Knowledge found at a stopping point is:

  • Settled
  • Scarce
  • Orderly
  • Clean
  • Perfect in its organization.

On those occasions when we avoid, or fail to contain knowledge i.e. when knowledge has not been forced into a stopping point it is characteristically :

  • Unbounded
  • Overwhelming
  • Unsettled
  • Messy to its core
  • Disorganized
Why by Rose Borchovski

Weinberger observes that knowledge ‘unbounded’ shares the same characteristics as the Internet and (perhaps more profoundly) also shares the same characteristics of what it means to be human. He rounds out his talk by identifying some new methods of knowledge management and education via our messy Internet. He gives an example of how education in the future might avoid stopping points when he describes how software developers act as if education is a public act. I think he is referring to the open source community where software developers ask their questions in online forums, and help each other out by posting code for all to use. Through this process they communicate the very act of learning across their networks and reap rich results by developing rapid learning environments tailor made to meet their needs.

Perhaps online educational experiments such as CCK MOOCs demonstrate another avenue for the open sourcing of knowledge? I am also wondering whether online dictionaries of slang might allow knowledge (and the words we use to describe it) to expand into infinity and beyond?

Eyeball and butterfly net by Rose Borchovski
Eyeball and butterfly net by Rose Borchovski

Images of the work of virtual world artist Rose Borchovski taken in Second Life at her exhibition The Susa Bubble Story located at http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Cariacou/97/113/22

Article about Rose Borchovski (aka) Saskia Boddeke.

My blog is my connectome…

I watched a fascinating TED Talk the other day, it was given by Sebastian Seung, an MIT scientist who is mapping the human brain. He is focusing on the mass of connections that span the spaces between our neurons, and calls this mass of cerebral wires the ‘connectome’. Seung suggests that our personality and memories may lie within these connecting cerebral threads. This got me thinking about memory and how our brains are like sieves; I am not thinking about what the sieve loses rather than what it seeks to keep. That is, our brains are dainty filters capturing useful little thoughts from the torrent of information pouring through our minds. The best way to remember things seems to lie in finding connections, by linking items to each other we increase our recall quotient. One way of connecting ideas about the Web is by using the Web for memory capture, and though blogs require effort they are wonderful tools for building all manner of connections.

Those quick ‘Bookmark‘ and ‘Tag This’ buttons provided by various applications embedded on my browser tool bar mean I can store links to all manner of articles while expending very little effort. In turn, the less thought used to record the link, the less useful the bookmark finally ends up being to me… not to mention the fact that I bombard myself with so much information I end up bookmarking items instead of reading them.

Antique maps on display in Second Life
David Rumsey Maps in the 3D cloud. Antique maps displayed above the Topographical Map of the Yosemite Valley (1883) (note how the map below looks surprisingly like a brain!)

However, if I mention an article in a blog post it helps me to recall it years later.  I usually add in images to illustrate a post and this helps to glue the ideas and articles into my memory.  In effect, the activity of blogging helps me remember things.  Blog tools such as tags, categories, calender and archive provide additional mental hooks. Categorizing and tagging encourage me to clarify my ramblings whilst also providing routes and connections which help retrieve those same thoughts later. Now, those who travel in the 3D web of virtual worlds know these worlds provide wild and wonderful images which they can fly around and explore, images that are far more interesting than clipart and Google images. In other words, Second Life, InWorldz and other blossoming digital realms provide us with an extraordinary 3D sketchpad if we so chose.

World and Celestial Globes created by Giovanni Maria Cassini
The World and Celestial Globes of Giovanni Maria Cassini on display at Rumsey Maps (note you can fly your avatar right inside these globes).

Of course, writing is also an important part of blogging, though oddly enough expressing yourself in words does not have to be the priority. Bloggers blog in many different ways; blogs can be a list of links, a store of images, short pithy paragraphs, bunches of quotes etc.  Still, for me writing helps me discover what I am thinking as sometimes I have only a vague notion when I start typing. I hand write notes to myself, scrawling with such horrible handwriting that sometimes I can’t even read it later. These  notes save ideas in their early stages  i.e., the idea is outlined but it is not fully explored. When I return to read it (or at least try to read it) I often find I have lost the original insight and energy that prompted the note taking in the first place.

Blogging makes these rambles available for viewing by an unknown audience of strangers, awareness of this shadowy crew is enough to encourage me to tidy up my thoughts. Ultimately, the person who writes the post writes to themselves in the future. That is, the anonymous others who might read a blog post includes the writer as well.

Japanese Scroll Map at Rumsey Maps in Second Life
Beautiful Japanese Scroll Map with Map Walk and the Rumsey Maps Welcome Center in the background

I admire R.B. Wild’s Great Map blog, he keeps things very simple generally just using quotes and links to items that have attracted his interest. He is fascinated by maps and his blog is his map through cyberspace. This blog is called Cyberloom because I see myself as a space weaver. This is a little tongue in cheek, it comes from the days long ago when I was a recently graduated graphic design student in the UK. The professional designers I was in contact with (at that time) viewed self expression as self indulgence, and they called artists ‘basket weavers’ (and not in a complimentary tone). This blog weaves together a trail of thought threads, and virtual world photographs, to create a small personal memory mind map of the vast, ever growing, digital vacuum known as the World Wide Web.

David Rumsey's Antique Maps in Second Life
3 antique maps: 'A Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters' connecting to a 'General Map of the World and Terraqueous Globe' and floating above the 'Topographical Map of the Yosemite Valley & Vicinity'.

All images taken on David Rumsey Maps in Second Life.

Also please see the online David Rumsey Map Collection.


Steaming into Viewer 2

Sunset over the dreaming spires of Oxbridge Caledon
Sunset over the dreaming spires of The University of Caledon Oxbridge

If you feel the need to brush up on the finer points of the official Second Life viewer then perhaps it is time to take a stroll through the grand halls of the University of Caledon Oxbridge?  This Steampunk influenced location applies the theme of a Victorian museum crossed with a university, placing tutorials inside glass cabinets which are then organized into topic areas within ‘colleges’. Volunteers are available to help the true newbies who can be seen wandering wildly in circles bumping into walls and threatening to crack the glass of the display cases (possibly on the verge of abandoning Second Life forever). I observed a ‘Professor’ rescue one confused newbie (who was holding a shopping bag, the new newbie ‘give-away’) by offering guidance, plus words of encouragement, before dispatching them on their way across the campus.

Oxbridge orientation
The University of Caledon Oxbridge orientation starting point

Once you have landed at the university’s orientation starting point follow the arrows to each of the colleges listed below:

College of Avatar Motion
Walking, Running, Flying, Sitting Down, World Map, Using landmarks and Short Range Teleports.
College of Camera Control
Camera Controls, Keyboard and Mouse Controls, Screen Controls and Mouselook
College of Communication:
Chat, Instant Messaging, Friends, Groups, Voice Chat, Setting Up Voice Chat and Etiquette
College of Finding:
Finding Things, My Inventory, Find Window, Search All, Search Places and Classifieds and Search People
College of Avatar Customization:
Varities of Avatars, Shapes and Skins, Changing Clothing, Outfits, Attachments, Clothing Layers, Appearance Mode, Animation Override
College of Money and Commerce:
Linden Dollars, Using the Lindex, Buying Lindens, Buying Things, Free Stuff, Opening Boxes, Prims, Land

'Try Sitting' in the College of Avatar Motion
'Try Sitting' in the College of Avatar Motion
College of Camera Control
Preparing to focus attention in the College of Camera Control

At the end of the orientation you arrive at the Caledon Library of Oxbridge. This is the place to visit if you are remotely interested in researching Steampunk as it provides all manner of 19th Century book resources. You can seat your avatar in the library and read books online, simply click on the appropriate bookcases for web links links that will open your browser at gutenberg.org. Topic areas include 19th Century Art & Fashion, Children’s Books, Science Fiction and Proto Steampunk, Science & Technology, Fantasy & Fairytales to name a few. One bookcase is labeled as Steampunk Information and this takes you to Steampunk related blogs (beware a couple of these links are broken). Finally, avatars without premium accounts can find free digs on the university’s campus, other avatars with a little spending money can rent rather classy accommodations in the Oxbridge Mews.

Oxbridge Mews
Oxbridge Mews (note the penny farthing icon and number, a little homage to the mysterious show 'The Prisoner' with Patrick McGoohan.)


Desmond Shang – Founder of the University Caledon Oxbridge

University Caledon Oxbridge tutorial created by Carl Metropolitan.

Love the Ending

Many recent tweets, blog posts and tech news sites have commented on the Linden Labs layoffs. Some commentators are filled with doom and gloom for the future of Second Life (SL). Others tend toward a more matter of fact approach, pointing out that even virtual worlds are touched by the moving shadow of economic recession. One writer, Alex Salkever at Daily Finance writes that social gaming on sites like Facebook’s popular Farmville is drawing people away from mega-social worlds like Second Life. I wonder, is Farmville remotely comparable to Second Life? (Not to mention the fact that most users don’t perceive SL as a game in the first place.) Is Farmville really the place where folks retiring from Second Life’s lag and bustle go to play? I know people who visit Second Life and also play Farmville with their Second Life friends; demonstrating that the general public mix and match their entertainments, and few have a totally singular focus anyway.

sleeping lady and wings
Church by Thatch Thibaud of the BOSL & Co Group. In the background you can see 'The Grand Odalisque' (in all her glory) sleeping in the nave.

I understand that Linden Labs is looking at implementing a mobile version of SL for the iPhone and the iPad. I am guessing such applications will be similar to Web.Alive? As there have been different SL viewers around for a while, a simplified, easy to use web application for mobile devices sounds like it could be fun and useful. The skill will lie in maintaining the different levels of interaction (i.e. perhaps permit a range of different viewers with varying levels of complexity that can co-exist alongside each other?) SL just needs to beware the dangers of turning itself and its ‘easy to use’ viewer into something it was never intended to be, a gaming app for distracted people. In the meantime, the wind of change is reaching far into the corners of our favorite virtual world. (For more thoughtful blog posts analyzing the implications of the recent layoffs in Second Life see: Gwyneth Llewelyn, Taturu Nino, Rob Knop, Grace McDunnough and TidalBlog.)

Change is inevitable of course and our response to inevitable change has an intriguing impact of its own… Will we let something like Farmville threaten how we use SL?  When we consider the extraordinary level of creativity that SL makes possible to those prepared to spend a couple of hours learning its tools, then Farmville is like a child’s wax crayon compared to a master oil painter’s palette with SL. Farmville has its place but it is stunningly limited whereas Second Life has unlimited potential.

The Grand Odalisque (created by an unknown artist) sleeping below heavenly wings and billowing clouds.

A beautiful illustration of the depth and power of Second Life and its potential for realizing creative collaboration can be seen in the work of D.B. Bailey (architect David Denton) and his friends at Cetus. In fact, D.B. Bailey’s Cetus is so extraordinary it has received the ultimate compliment and is due to be preserved for posterity by Stamford University Library and the Library of Congress. These two institutions have developed a program capable of archiving the entire glorious site. When the digital curtain closes on Cetus (and that will be soon so hurry over) a slew of creative works by SL artists and architects will be saved by these libraries. This may be an obvious point to make, but the reason these two institutions have invented the means to archive the work of virtual world artists is because it is worth preserving! SL art can be outstanding (and sometimes appalling.) However, some truly exciting work is made in SL and we have seen it vanish into the ether over and over again. Machinima and photography capture memories but opportunities to walk in each particular creative 3D space vanish away.

Arcade walkway with moving invisible walls of secret code by Selavy Oh

Finding the means to save the work of virtual world artists presents fascinating posssibilities. DB Bailey’s Cetus is the first to be preserved in this fashion by Stamford University Library and the Library of Congress, and it sounds as though other virtual creations will follow in time. Cetus will no longer be accessible to the public but it will be available for private viewing in the future. It has always been tantalizing to consider how the work of SL artists might be shown in the physical world, preserving Cetus may be the first step towards such an experience? There are other projects attempting to save the works of virtual 3D artists but it seems all such initiatives are in the early experimental stages. In many ways we all struggle to come to terms with the potential of virtual environments. Our brains have difficulty comprehending that which is extraordinary and different. Flying through Cetus in D.B. Bailey’s balloon is a glimpse into the future, at least I hope it is. Cetus is a metaphor for the future we cannot understand, it is full of awe and mystery and imagination. I cannot (or will not) say the same for Facebook’s Farmville. So visit Cetus while it is open to the public in Second Life. Please note that though the creation ‘Cetus’ is being archived away, the artists are not. In fact D.B. Bailey is now hard at work on Locus and you can visit that location and watch it evolving into a new future…

lDB Bailey takes Cyberloom on a balloon tour
Balloon tour of Cetus with DB Bailey

This blog post is titled ‘Love the Ending’, this is not a reference to layoffs or Linden Labs’ refocus; it refers to a picture hanging on the ‘back wall’ of Cetus. If we think of building in SL as an activity that explores the creative use of 3D space, we can see it as an expressive medium like painting. In the physical world the finished painting would be taken and hung on a gallery wall but in the virtual world what usually happens when the work is finished? It must be broken down until it all vanishes away into the abstract folders of virtual inventories. Thanks to these two libraries, D.B. Baileys fabulous creation known as Cetus is being saved for a future where it can be seen again.

Love the Ending..

Double click on these images to see them super large.

Cyberloom’s following post will show more photos of Cetus.

Visit Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/groups/dbbailey/pool/ To see D.B. Bailey’s Creations