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Rene Daalder
Los Angeles, US
Immortal since Jan 18, 2007
Uplinks: 0, Generation 1

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    Project: The Total Library, What happened to nature?

    Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness: expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist and to offer a summary, a commentary.

    These words by genius Argentinian author and ex-librarian Jorge Luis Borges are close to my heart. Most people I know love books but my feelings about them are somewhat more ambivalent. For years I used to have a phobia for libraries that had less to do with my early anti-intellectual tendencies than with the institutional smell of musty ideas.

    Over time I became more appreciative of the knowledge and inspiration that could be derived from the occasional book, but more often than not I resisted reading every word between its covers. Only every once in a while did I hang on to every phrase in an attempt to postpone reaching the last page, unwilling to be faced with the emptiness that would await me in the absence of its fiction.

    Today, I’m much too vested in non-linearity, interactivity and immersive media to pay much attention to novels, and when I’m reading non-fiction books I often limit myself to the introduction and the end, while skimming through the content in between. Nevertheless I am surrounded by people who are writing and publishing their work in hefty volumes which may take up as much shelf-space as the Bible. I also have friends who are avid collectors of autographed first editions and others who are promoting beautifully crafted hand-made books, some of which can be seen on SpaceCollective (here and here). But to me books are rapidly becoming precious artifacts from an era that is about to pass.

    Recently I visited the public library in Seattle, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas who loves the print media and is the author of some of the above mentioned hefty tomes. His impressive building is an enticing sanctuary for the book, inspiring its visitors with an almost ecstatic optimism about a culture worth saving. The sense of exhilaration evoked by the architecture makes one look at the books as treasured objects for the ages. However the sense of euphoria lessened when it dawned on me how few people visited the library’s spiraling book stacks. Many more of them were frequenting the endless rows of computers, furnished by the city’s corporate giant Microsoft. Meanwhile the majority of visitors were sitting idle in the community spaces, neither reading nor surfing the web but simply getting through the day. The building’s most successful function, it turns out, is that of a public shelter for the homeless.

    The same is true for other public libraries all across America, but in the context of this celebrated building it is particularly poignant. It is as if some of the architect’s genuine respect for the book is extended to the lives of the many aimless drifters who are filing in every day during opening hours. Like the books that are patiently waiting for someone to take them off the shelves, the lost souls are lounging day in and day out on the stylish Vitra furniture hoping for a better day. They are the disenfranchised counterparts of the wistful library visitors in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, a cathedral filled with books and the thoughts of readers.

    But rather than being a nostalgic place full of people stuck in a luxurious waiting room, Koolhaas’ library appears to be in a strange sort of suspension waiting to be delivered into a future that seems to be taking shape all around its occupants. This effect is greatly enhanced by the glass structure’s panoramic view of cloud formations drifting over Seattle as if in time lapse. Everything here seems to be temporarily on hold in an otherwise proactive environment that is ready to respond to whatever may come.

    As it happens, it takes very little effort to discern the writing on the wall in the most literal way. On LCD screens mounted above the Help Desk a data visualization by George Legrady shows items being checked out at a remarkably slow pace, revealing an unexpected amount of titles that would be deemed utterly redundant by most educated people. Looking around the library the average demographic of its users turns out to be middle aged. In fact, in a city of half a million people, a paltry 1000 items per month are taken home out by teenagers, primarily checking out CD’s and DVD’s.

    In my post SpaceCollective’s Grand Narrative I mentioned that all the world’s books gathered in the digital domain will take up no more than 26 terabyes of disc space which can be contained on a bookshelf barely big enough to hold all 32 volumes that make up the Encyclopedia Britannica. By contrast, online competitor Wikipedia, whose content was generated in just a few years, contains 1 billion more words and can be accessed anytime and anywhere from a database stored on invisible servers. And despite being a paean to printed culture, the stacks of Seattle’s library hold only 780.000 books, all of which can be easily contained on an external hard drive that you can find on sale right now for $399 at your local department store.

    In fact, future readers won’t even need a hard drive to bring the entire library into their home, where the online books will be infinitely more accessible than the originals which can neither be searched nor bookmarked, and not even quoted without retyping the text. Currently a book’s foot notes only serve as instructions for scholarly research, as opposed to the links in digital publications which will bring old texts further to life. Not to speak of the digitization of important literary archives that are now buried in the dark basements of universities, accessible only to the most diligent of researchers. The truth is that once the books are digitally available an entire universe will open up around each and every one of them as its contents are let loose on the world, which will be a milestone of the same order as the emergence of the printing press, which initially made books available to the masses.

    People often jump to the conclusion that digital technology threatens to bring about the end of books, but the opposite is bound to be true, as may be demonstrated by the Total Library project that is being launched on SpaceCollective. Obvious goes as far as to suggest that as “mass produced information slowly moves from the printed page to the computer screen, to hand-held digital-ink devices, so the value of the printed word will transmogrify.” There can be no doubt that in the digital age the significance of the books’ contents will more than ever live up to Obvious’ claim that they will once again become “equivalent with the contents of consciousness.” But to what extent this exalted status will be passed on to the actual printed book remains to be seen.

    At the very minimum we can rest assured that the stacks of Seattle’s library will remain the dedicated home to numerous bound editions which, like wizened elders, have been taken out of circulation, while being endowed with the highest status a library book can attain, clearly marked on their withered bindings: FOR REFERENCE ONLY.

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    Rourke     Sun, Mar 23, 2008  Permanent link
    There can be no doubt that in the digital age the significance of the books’ contents will more than ever live up to Obvious’ claim that they will become once again become “equivalent with the contents of consciousness.” But to what extent this exalted status will be passed on to the actual printed book remains to be seen.

    It is interesting to attend to the book in and of itself, but as my original article alluded to and yours continues to consider, although the relationship between books and consciousness has brought us to this priveleged point in the history of self-knowledge, it will be the relationship between consciousness and the internet which which take us onto the next stage.

    Novels emerged in union with a new way of looking at ourselves - a relationship we were only capable of acknowledging in retrospect. Yet although the internet is still in its primordial stages I believe it is possible to contemplate the emerging effect it is having on our idea of identity. In an era when no iota of information is allowed to exist unconnected to any other (e.g. hypertext, search engines, wikipedia), and communication is an activity which occurs regardless of whether humans are taking part in it (e.g. a box popping up on my screen to tell me that my friend has just come online), there can be no such thing as:
    The silence and privacy of the reading experience afforded by books mimick[ing] the silent privacy of individual consciousness - David Lodge


    On top of this, and in reflection of many of the other wonderful articles that have become entombed in The Total Library so far, I think it is time to start defining the difference between books as archaeological objects composed of paper, books as tomes of knowledge and books simply as entities that we read (in whatever form they happen to take). At present 26 terabyte hard-drives are not capable of attaining the multiplicity of forms that make paper books so easy to have visceral, intellectual and long lasting relationships with. Though as the internet evolves new ways for us to interact and merge with our data, this distinction is bound to become less obvious.

    I personally can't wait to see the outcome.
    sjef     Sun, Mar 23, 2008  Permanent link
    "all the world’s books gathered in the digital domain will take up no more than 26 terabyes of disc space"

    Where is this figure from? It's way too low. The Library of Congress is estimated at 20TB and that's just the books stored as raw text. To fairly say that a book is stored digitally it should at least retain its layout, typesetting, images etc.
    The point is kind of moot of course seeing as no matter how much disc space it will actually take we will be able to produce it at some point in the future with the same ease as 26TB now.

    I certainly hope that the effort will be made at some stage to preserve as many books as possible in a digital format as true to the original as possible from which hybrid, interactive forms can then be derived. It would be a shame if their content was lost, as between the musty, institutionalized ideas I'm sure there are some that are worth dusting off and airing out again.

    Maybe they'll just live on in the lore of the homeless...
    rene     Sun, Mar 23, 2008  Permanent link
    My information comes from the source mentioned below (see SpaceCollective's Grand Narrative):
    I interviewed Brewster Kahle who runs the Internet Archive, which he envisions as the digital equivalent of the fabled library of Alexandria (...) According to Kahle there are roughly 26 million books in the library of congress, the largest print library in the world. This may seem like a lot of books, but in the digital age it doesn’t represent that many data. On the web, for example, an equivalent amount of information as is printed in that amount of books is posted online every two months.

    When you consider that at the moment it takes one person a year to scan 3000 books, it means that all 26 million titles can be scanned by the population of Detroit in the course of one long weekend. In terms of computer storage the entire content of a book on average takes up only one megabyte. Twenty six million megabytes translates into 26 terabytes, which can be stored in a box that comfortably fits on one small shelf.

    Even if Brewster was off by a few million, the point is that in computer terms this order of data can be considered minimal, and - issues of preservation aside - it is fair to assume that the digital liberation of all this content is near.
    sjef     Sun, Mar 23, 2008  Permanent link
    Ah ok, I was going off this breakdown.
    The 20TB for the LoC is widely quoted, not sure where it originated.

    Rourke     Mon, Mar 24, 2008  Permanent link
    I remember reading somewhere that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, was considering licensing out the entire encyclopedia to robot designers. Eventually he hoped that all ranges of domestic robots would have built within them the knowledge of Wikipedia.

    If all books that have reached their copyright age could also be included in that compendium then it would be quite easy for anyone who could afford a home robot to have access to the majority of human knowledge. Here's to asking your vacuum cleaner to read you Edwin Abbot's Flatland, or have your fridge dictate the figure of Pi to 10,000 decimal places.

    (I think the Jimmy Wales/robot article was this one. There is also an interesting Q & A with him here.)
    rene     Mon, Mar 24, 2008  Permanent link
    Downloading Wikipedia into robots may turn out to be less absurd than it sounds. In the Seattle library is a special department for the handicapped where methods are explored to make books accessible for deaf people by converting regular letters into Braille dots which are instantly embossed on printing paper. A librarian also pointed proudly at a Kurzweil reading machine developed in 1976, which turns written words into synthesized speech by way of a flatbed scanner. It reminded me how Ray Kurzweil built exceptional keyboard synthesizers accurately reproducing the sounds of acoustic instruments as early as 1983. From there he went on to create artificially intelligent software for his “Cybernetic Poet” which helps users write poetry and song lyrics, to be followed by his Cyber Artist and pattern recognition software that served as a stock market prognosticator. All this eventually led to his embrace of the Singularity as the defining moment when machines are supposed to surpass human intelligence. Even though I have also been very influenced by the audio (and visual) sampling metaphor as an introduction into our current ways of recombinant information processing, I’m personally more interested in the meeting point where the artificial and the organic intersect while reflecting on each other. As opposed to Kurzweil’s technocratic approach which happens to be rather cold and devoid of sensuality, I love robots the way the Japanese do, mocking our humanity in an endearing way. I love the early versions of synthesizers that allowed musicians to blow into a hose connected to their keyboards to introduce human breath into their impersonal saxophone samples. I'm a fan of the techno-timbre of Daft Punk’s Vocoder voices, and the virtual/physical simulations of the Wii interface. I enjoy putting my scanned signature on computer-generated documents, and am astonished every time a computer animator dials in the artificial gravity that rules the behavior of a CG animated character. When we still watched films on VHS, my thumb developed a peculiar reflex trying in vain to push the fast forward button of an imaginary remote to skip boring scenes of the movie unspooling in the theater's projection room. As a result of the relentless linearity of the experience I increasingly turned away from the cinema, and for similar reasons I am now reading far less books than I used to because I cannot search their printed pages. But perhaps we can have it all. In the past there have been various unique contraptions that aspired to be reading machines, and Philips has made a lot of headway with the development of its electronic paper. Also, at some point there will undoubtedly be interfaces that may allow our eyes to relate to visual information as intimately as the auditory input of our earphones. The truth is that at this point I couldn’t possibly sustain my intellectual curiosity without books, but I will never again be the captive reader I once was. So as far as I’m concerned I would try an intellectually savvy robot anytime. I’m sure it’ll be a lot more fun to engage with an educated robot than listening to books on my iPod in the car, especially since, as an added benefit, my man-made passenger will give me access to the carpool lane.