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Sjef van Gaalen (M)
Amsterdam, NL
Immortal since Dec 11, 2007
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    The great enhancement debate
    What will happen when for the first time in ages different human species will inhabit the earth at the same time? The day may be upon us when people...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.

    The need for reform and advances in education has been a recurring topic here on SC. In order to experiment on the frontier I enrolled in 'Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature' at P2PU.org with the self imposed mission to report back, so here we are as promised. Straight from the current bleeding edge of higher learning I'll show you my homework, expand a little on P2PU, briefly relate my thoughts on the course experience and try to draw some kind of conclusion about it all.

    My Homework:

    Bohemian Dyspepsia
    On Cyberpunk in Science Fiction.

    Gigantesque Caricature
    On the depiction of the environment in Bladerunner.

    Bidirectional Penetration
    On Androids, Cyborgs, and the line between man and machine.

    Atemporaneous Continuality
    On what came next in the future's past future.

    New Old Treachery
    A short work of fiction. Download it direct here. (.pdf, 2500 words)

    Peer 2 Peer University

    P2PU.org are the self-styled ‘gang stars’ of the Open Education scene, instead of simply trying to format-shift the teacher/classroom model or dumping resources from past courses online they want to create a new peer-to-peer based model of education suited to the knowledge sharing needs of the 21st century. P2PU co-founder Phillip Schmidt explains:

    P2PU 2010 from Philipp Schmidt on Vimeo.

    There is of course a wealth of other Open Education Resources around on the web (here's a long list of them). P2PU stands out in its approach, attitude, and by experimenting with breaking their model back out into the real world, recently through the Digital Journalism course taught by Joi Ito in parallel with his students at KMD. In the next cycle some courses may have an RL home in various hackerspaces, and there is also collaboration happening with the Mozilla foundation for the School of Webcraft.

    A wide range of courses is available, subjects include Behavioral Economics, Music Theory, Managing Elections, Kitchen Science, Sustainable Communities, and many more. Enrollment for the next cycle is happening soon, keep an eye on the P2Pu blog for announcements.

    There is great potential in what P2PU is doing, and it shows through their various initiatives and the growth of the community growing around the site. PhD students are starting to flock in, and I'm sure that interesting developments will be ongoing for quite some time.

    If there's a weak point in the site right now though, it's the platform itself which is still kind of clunky and at times actively user-unfriendly. But let's be honest, most online learning environments suck one way or another, as anyone who has had the pleasure of working with blackboard for example will be able to tell you. There's a lot of room for improvement, but it's built entirely on volunteer labor so they have to make the best of limited resources. On that note, if you are a skilled Drupal developer or Interaction Designer with some serious time to donate I'm sure they would love to hear from you, the community structure is still pretty flat and it's easy to get involved.

    Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature. Cycle 2, March 2010

    As I was under-equipped to partake in Kitchen Chemistry I enrolled in Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature, a course that set out to investigate the place of cyberpunk fiction and some of its characteristic traits, with the end goal of writing one's own 'cyberpunk' story.

    Time to organize the course was gracefully donated by Laurian Gridinoc, a busy man of many talents. You may remember his hilarious speech-to-text rendition of Bruce Sterling's Reboot 11 talk. The output required of the course consisted of 4 essays and the short work of fiction linked above. Assignments were due weekly (which didn't really fly), and the course was run through the P2PU site and weekly IRC chats. All up it was enjoyable, I found several new authors I was unaware of and came across a lot of interesting stuff, but it would have been better if there were more active participants.

    Unfortunately on several courses in this cycle attrition rates were high, our present case included. Out of the 12 participants enrolled I'm the only one who has made it to the end at the time of this writing, and it took me about 5 months instead of the intended 2. Busy schedules, timezones and platform issues all contributed to people dropping off and deadlines slipping constantly into the future. But these problems can be fairly easily fixed or at least reduced. More time can be allocated for the assignments, and an external platform used to circumvent participation and communication issues in as much as they were caused by the P2PU site. Both of these measures are likely to be implemented if/when the course runs another cycle.

    The course has been described as ‘a sort of book club’, personally I'd like to see it find a comfortable spot somewhere between that and a peer writing group, where participation is a necessary function of the arrangement. It would be cool to see what might come out in future cycles if the assignments and required reading are made more open, and the deck of participants is stacked with writers using the essays as research towards a story.

    In Conclusion

    This isn't going to replace the public school system any time soon. The institution of 'school' sucks, but it is what it is. It starts off as daycare, and by the time university rolls around for most people it's about a social experience more than actually learning anything.

    For those who do want to learn however, initiatives like P2PU answer a specific need in a new and useful way. Many online education resources are boring, solitary affairs in practice, but by bringing you in contact with others wanting to advance their knowledge in the same area, you are exposed to a larger number of personal views on the subject, and provided with a social element that can't be obtained through straight up book learning.

    If you're interested in education reform, or for that matter any of the subjects that are being taught at P2PU or other similar organizations, I would certainly recommend checking them out and getting on board. Just don't be one of those guys that enrolls and never shows up.


    Sun, Aug 8, 2010  Permanent link

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    "We may be on the edge...
    ...of nothing particularly important."
      - Bruce Sterling


    Ray, Bruce, Charlie, Cory & Vernor.

    It should be clear to everyone on here that some time in the near future the ever accelerating pace of technological development will inevitably lead us all to become giant pink heads floating in space, or something. The singularity is on its way, and once it has arrived we will break out of the present as if by magic and finally inhabit the future we could never quite catch up with. However it turns out that some people don't get this idea at all and keep trying to find fault with it, even after you concede that they will probably get to pick their own colours for their floating space heads.

    This is going to be a basic rundown of singularity skeptics arguments, just an overview as there is no way I can document the long, in-depth fights nerds have about this stuff. If you're looking for hard core material and discussion, look away.

    If you're completely unfamiliar with the concept of the singularity there are several videos around you can watch on the subject. Most will involve the incredibly talented and famous pill muncher Ray Kurzweil showing off his charts at great length. For those of you who don't have a few hours available to listen to Mr. Kurzweil speak I have made this convenient summary of most of his talks:

    This obviously raises questions, and inevitably arguments. We'll look over some of the most common themes here today.

    Argument #1: "Fucking whatever man, pass me that shit."

    Also known as the 'No way' or 'I can't imagine that ever happening' position, it is in its various forms the most commonly used. Should you encounter it, its probably best to just avoid any further discussion of the topic. They say that in a post-singular world, the post- or super-human entities inhabiting it will be to us as we are to worms. People who deploy this argument will be those worms, I'm confident the rest of us will make out like at least cockroaches or goldfish.

    Argument #2: "Hey Ray, your chart sucks!".



    The chart should explain itself, the problem people have with it is that they think Ray just picks and chooses events that will suit the chart nicely and keep everything on a smooth line. He refutes this though with the claim that he can throw up an historical timeline from a number of sources, and while the dots may scatter a little you can still draw an average line that comes down at around the same pace. It's not a very exciting argument.

    Argument #3: "Debugging is a bitch dude, this will never work."

    This is the idea is that creating software smarter than us can't be done. At first this seems like a pretty good argument because writing software sucks. The analytical, problem solving stage and creating a mental abstract structure of your solution may be fun, but then you have to type a bunch of stuff and swear at the computer a lot, which it may hold against you once its intelligence exceeds yours. But while its likely that programming intelligence will be a lot harder than everyone thinks (seeing as it always has been), I think there are enough smart guys around to get it done eventually. They may end up not having to write much at all, but instead just mashing up some open-source wetware and home brewing pot-luck mutant abomination brains.

    If you want to go long on this argument I recommend reading One-Half of a Manifesto by Jaron Lanier, to which Ray Zurzweil has published a rebuttal; One-Half of an Argument, both of which are commented on in nauseating detail all over the web.

    Argument #4: "Hey Ray, your chart sucks!"



    Up to now this argument has held the most weight in my opinion, although I'm sure it too can be explained away by both sides to the point where I'll just lose interest. Chaos evangelist & axe-wielding maniac Bruce Sterling has a thing or two to say about this (see video below), allow me to paraphrase:

    1. What the shit Ray? How exactly do you know an IBM PS/2 is as smart as a nematode worm? We don't even actually know what intelligence is, so this chart is kind of stupid.
    2. Spiders, Lizards, Worms & Bacteria have all been around for millions of years already. Almost every electronic device on your chart is extinct. Think about that, there's your future, all dead & buried.

    At this point it seems like Bruce is poised for flawless victory, but then he makes a bad move and pulls out his own chart. We all know that a chart for a chart leaves everyone bored, but I'll run this down very quickly. On the left you see the Gartner Hype Cycle, the curve that shows how we hype things, slag them off and then get over it. This is the chart Bruce claims we live by, and he's right, but Ray is quick to point out that the straight line on his chart is in fact made up of a series of s-curves (see image on right), which probably match up pretty well to the rise & decline of hyped technologies, so there isn't really any argument left there.


    Advanced material:

    If you're still reading it's probably best you start following links away from this page. A good place to head might be The Skeptics Guide to the Singularity at World of Wierd Things, where a much better discussion takes place and a bunch of other good content can also be found.

    The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era is the document that really kicked this whole thing off, it was written by Vernor Vinge in 1993, and he doesn't seem too happy about his survival prospects.

    By far the most entertaining material on this subject is Bruce Sterling's talk for the Long Now Foundation, "Your Future as a Black Hole". I recommend watching this for a few laughs if nothing else. The sound on the video is rubbish unfortunately, so I've also embedded a separate audio track which is recorded properly, and has the added bonus of the Q&A round at the end. Just synch the two up and you're off. There's also a summary of this written by Stewart Brand.



    Charles Stross has written an excellent book called 'Accelerando' , which chronicles three generations of a healthily dysfunctional family and their pet cat passing through a technological & economic singularity. The book is available for free online.
    He also wrote Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds, which provides the internets currently most accurate account of the true nature of the Singularity.

    Cory Doctorow didn't actually have anything to do with this, he just shows up everywhere. I happened to image search 'rapture of the nerds', and there he was, waiting for his pink head to float in space.
    His books are good too though, and also available for free under Creative Commons licenses.

    *edit 04/01/10 - Got a working url & added the Tough guide to the rapture of the Nerds
    Sun, Jan 3, 2010  Permanent link

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    Marshall McLuhan has been mentioned in passing in various comments here on spacecollective, hence why his name had ended up scribbled on my 'to read' list. So yesterday during a routine trawl of local second hand bookstores I happened to turn up a decent copy of 'The Medium is the Massage'.

    It came as a pleasant surprise that the book is co-authored by a graphic designer (Quentin Fiore), and as such has undergone a decent graphic treatment, combining modernist typography with collage and various illustrations. Having just looked up the wikipedia entry on the book, it turns out that the text is a condensed, visual treatment of McLuhans 'Understanding Media', so if you prefer 180 pages of which half pictures to a 400 page thesis, this is probably a good introduction to McLuhans ideas.

    The book predates computer networking on any scale, simply lumping new forms of communication under 'electronic technology', but is quite accurate in its forecast of the means in which the ever increasing speed and volume of communication would influence our environment and the individuals relationship to it and each other.

    Some key quotes (for me, arguably not for the message of the book):
    "There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening"
    "All media are extensions of some human faculty - psychic or physical"
    "Print technology created the public. Electronic technology created the mass."


    I find this quote interesting because many consider us now to be well on our way in the age of 'Information technology', as the next step surpassing electronic technology. The book describes the public as consisting 'separate individuals walking around with separate, fixed points of view', the mass is not defined, but I would say something to the extent of, 'a large group of individuals, sitting on couches being spoon-fed a point of view'.
    So what has information technology now brought us? I'd like to hope it will turn out to be something along the lines of Wildcats collex, in which loosely linked networked individuals exchange points of view in an ever expanding upward spiral of knowledge. The thing of course being that the technology lends itself equally well to an ever expanding, outward spiraling network of captioned cat pictures, so I'm not sure where that leaves us in terms of describing this new social form.

    Oh am I rambling? Another quote:
    "Art is anything you can get away with."

    Just thought I'd throw that one in there, cause some people get away with some bull shit. (So do I at times, so it's ok I guess)

    All up I think McLuhan understood media too well for his time. The possibilities he seems to have seen were never really realized in the 'electronic' age, that the issues he foresaw and discusses have only fully come to fruition over the last 10 years with the popular acceptance of the internet and the mass exploration of its possibilities.

    This 'review' of mine doesn't do the book that much justice, but you should be reading it yourself really anyway. I recommend it highly, as it is still current and is bound set off thoughts at angles you may not have previously considered. (Unless of course you happen to be writing your thesis on this kind of thing...)

    In closing the quote from the final page of the book:
    "It is the business of the future to be dangerous"
    -A.N. Whitehead

    Wed, Aug 6, 2008  Permanent link

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    "Hyperlinks are amazing.
    They let you follow any path..
    ..any path anyone has ever made.
    But what about your intuition, your hunches?
    What about all the other words,
    the words that are not hyperlinks?

    These other words are hyperwords...


    I've had the hyperwords plugin installed for a while now and thought it deserved a mention here.
    Basically it turns the entire web into hypertext. I've found myself using it mostly for the inline translation & reference features, but as it's highly customisable I doubt that I've explored all the possibilities.



    Once you get used to it you'll wonder why you haven't had something like this for ages already. It adds a certain level of contextual depth & immediacy to browsing that simply wasn't available previously. The difference is kind of similar to the transition when tabbed browsing came about & you no longer had to bother with 17 different browser windows on screen.

    In the words of the project founder:
    My aim is to improve how networked computers help us learn, think and communicate. I assert that we don't interface with computers - we interface with information - and people - increasingly through the mediated information environments of networked computers. I feel that this connection - this flow - between people - information, and tools can benefit from becoming more liquid.

    Frode Hegland - http://www.liquidinformation.org/

    Assuming you're using firefox (sorry safari nerds), you can install the plugin from here:
    http://www.hyperwords.net/
    Thu, Jun 19, 2008  Permanent link

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    If you haven't read any Buckminster Fuller, you need to get on it. I don't think you necessarily need to get your hands on this book in particular, although it does provide a good cross-section of his ideas. It would be a good idea if you're not familiar with him to sample a compilation of his writings, as the topics he attacks are quite broad, and any single paper or specialized book may give you a narrow view of his scope.

    His writing can be long-winded, complicated and tedious, but that comes with the territory as the concepts he has articulated during his lifetime are nothing short of world changing. It will take quite a bit of effort to get your head around what's going on at times but it's worth it.

    Apparently known mostly in architectural circles, Buckminster Fullers concept of 'comprehensive anticipatory design science' as aided through the exercise of 'total thinking' really should be spread to anyone who cares about our future as a species. The material discussed in this particular book includes but is not limited to;

    • The industrial equation, the tenets of its currently flawed implementation, and a direction for its optimal implementation. Primarily shifting the focus of industry from weaponry to 'livingry' as mans highest developed capability, providing an environment conducive to an enlightened world view in which advancement is accepted as inevitable.

    • Educational reform, the changes in thought processes that will need to be spread as common knowledge in order to enable to collectively envision our new direction.

    • Historical accounts, explanations of key developments in 20th century history that provide important insights as to how we got into the mess we're in now.

    • New systems of wealth, based on dynamic redirection of energy and knowledge, as opposed to the traditional stockpiling of static goods or a system underwritten by debt.


    All in all, what is proposed is a system for creating "An Energy Borne Commonwealth of Humanity". A way to break out of the 'them or us till death' mentality that currently still controls the motives of most of the earths inhabitants, a mindset that can be made history through education and technological reform applied through comprehensive design.

    Buckminster Fuller understood the problems caused by increasing speeds of communication and how traditional political and social structures (in particular the democratic process) were inadequately tooled to deal with this reality. While his ideas will need some polishing in order to be applied in our age, they are nonetheless as relevant now as they were at the time of their inception.

    Here are a few quotes from sections I highlighted while reading, which while weakened by being removed from their original content, and completely inadequate in illustrating his eloquence & vocabulary will hopefully still convey a taste of what more his work holds.

    "I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe."
    "Man creates naught. If he comprehends in principle, he rearranges locally in universe by realization of the interactions of priciples."
    "The most successful exploiters of the invention man, to date, are those who have bet on the supremacy of his ignorance and have, therefore, stressed the negative probabilities."
    "Science is obsucure only to cultivated momentum of ignorance."
    "It is indeed a comprehensive educational problem."


    Mon, Mar 17, 2008  Permanent link

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    Predictions of future events have been around for as long as history has cared to document, and probably a lot longer. Unsurprisingly, most predictions made in any detail concerning any significant amount of time turn out to be wrong. This is simply bound to be true by the nature of the universe as we perceive it, as out of all the uncountable futures imaginable, only one will ever come to pass.

    In order for this discussion to be useful it will be necessary to define a certain scope. Guesswork such as picking lotto numbers, and anything bound by the laws of physics and its consequences will immediately fall outside of this, as will mythical prophecy, statistical/operational forecasting and fashion life-cycles. What I will be concerning myself with here will primarily concentrate on the predictions of science fiction during the last two centuries. The failed predictions that have now given rise to the term paleo-futurism, and have left a pool of bitter cynics in their wake, asking 'Where is my jet-pack?', and bemoaning the loss of dreams never realized. (Yes, that includes me.)

    Historically (by which I mean from about 1880 to 1980) the worth of these predictions has been their value as ideas, the stock and trade of science fiction. The world as we currently know it has been shaped by these ideas, and we enjoy a lifestyle made possible by technologies that may never have been developed had the scientific minds at their base not been inspired by the speculation of others. Writers such as Verne and Clarke are responsible for a great deal of todays tools and toys, however while both have had good hits, in most details they have been proven wrong. What is important though is that their avenues of thought were explored by others, and while proving them wrong, they have driven further development and lead to new avenues of exploration that now carve out our path into the future.

    Now though, the failures are starting to stack up. We've reached the 21st century and shit just isn't going down the way we were told it would be. Our space programs are rubbish (yes they are, they suck.), we still predominantly use fossil fuels, our cars are stuck on the ground, machines don't have decent human language capabilities, I still have to lace my sneakers and I could go on like this for a while. We're supposed to be living in the age of science fiction, so how do we now benefit from all those futures that never came to fruition?

    Firstly I believe there is an enormous historical and anthropological value. It should be a well known fact that science fiction authors use the future mode to discuss the realities and developments of their current day, and set forth extrapolations on those scenarios. It is therefore of the utmost importance to not just take their writings at face value, but to view them within the context of the time of writing, and to any extent possible the authors' circumstances at the time. This then presents us with the opportunity to utilize the gift of hindsight, and to look back along the paths of those extrapolations to the point of their genesis, where we may find fascinating insights into the minds of some of the greatest forward thinkers of the previous two centuries, showing their perceptions, passions and concerns, and as such writing a rich alternative history of the birth of our modern age.

    Secondly these 'failures' should serve to inform our opinions on the shape of things to come. The dose of cynicism we have now been dealt should serve us well in maintaining a cautious stance on our progress, especially now the stakes are becoming so high. Recent history has shown that areas of technology undergoing rapid growth can stagnate in their development, their predicted grandeur not coming to pass. It is important for us to reflect on the reasons for their stalling, and to consider this in relation to our own circumstances as we go forward.

    Lastly is an element often lost in the clouds of disappointment, which is probably the most important, and that is sheer optimism. Many of these predictions have been made overeagerly out of a belief in the remarkable capabilities and spirit of mankind. Even bleak post-apocalyptic futures carry an element of optimism in the fact that there even is a future after whatever events have destroyed their worlds. The feeling that has driven men to predict great things for us all must be kept alive, for without it little will happen to benefit us as a race. No matter exactly how they are to pan out, radical changes are going to take place, and if we are to take any role in shaping these events it should be with the view that they may serve to secure our future as a force of life and knowledge in the universe.
    Fri, Jan 18, 2008  Permanent link

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    Bear with me as I ramble through some general thoughts on the upcoming development of us humans...

    The topic of this project is an interesting one, as it's something we'll probably actually have to deal with within our lifetimes. Something bothers me about the project description from the first line though.

    What will happen when for the first time in ages different human species will inhabit the earth at the same time?

    While it's likely that eventually the split of new species will occur, I don't think it's probable that this will occur to the level of a Sterlingesque Shaper/Mechanist society in the short- to mid term, as a separation of multiple generations in which there is little to no cultural exchange would be necessary to create such a rift. Basically we would probably have to be off-planet. Our coming progression through varying levels of technological sophistication, various combinations of technologies and cultural inertia are rather more likely to produce a myriad of hybrid specimens and possibly several new breeds before distinct species can be distinguished.

    The first development, which is currently underway, is the rise of ubiquitous computing. The way we interact with our devices is already changing the way we think, externalizing memory and altering the processing of multiple flows of information. A lot of people, (of which I see myself being one), will choose to remain fully human but not shy away from technology, simply interfacing with external peripheral devices may be all the augmentation they ever use. I can imagine a creative cocktail of sub-vocal voice recognition, eye tracking, exoskeletal prosthesis, retinal projection & haptic sensors could deliver a fairly sophisticated level of augmentation without the use of any invasive modifications, which I myself at this point would only consider for medical reasons.

    But who is to say what will be considered invasive in 20 years?
    I'll probably have kids coming home with unlicensed wetware before I ever get any, but hopefully I'll have raised them well enough to make intelligent decisions about their tech, and if they know what they're doing it's probably preferable to them camping out in front of the Apple Clinic to get hooked into the iMind or whatever. I do believe it should be the right of the individual to decide on their own modifications.

    The imminent rise of biotechnology will be where things really start to get interesting, when genes can be worked on with the same level of resources currently necessary to develop hardware gadgets there is no end to the number of permutations upon mutations that may be produced. As mentioned in the murmurs it will be interesting to see how this takes off commercially, and what will happen to early adopters, as there's certain potential for nasty situations if you're stuck with some buggy biotech.
    (You may notice I'm also in the camp that believes that this development will be commercially driven, as opposed to out of some benevolent re-distribution of resources due to the collective enlightenment of mankind. Not holding my breath for that one.)

    Anyway.

    This brings me to the point of this whole thing.
    In the upcoming early stages of human augmentation there will not be an immediate split into multiple species, but a progression upwards through the taxonomic ranks. Hardware modifications aren't hereditary, so the children of heavily augmented individuals would remain human. Should a faction break off that consistently applies the same level of technological modification to all its offspring, this could still only qualify as a hybrid.

    The extent to which bio-technological modifications turn out to be hereditary will have a major effect, as this will lead to the rise of numerous new hybrids which through selection of the most efficient/convenient/fashionable mods could lead to the rise of new breeds, however there may be no reason that these breeds cannot still bear mixed offspring, therefore still not making them classifiable as different species.

    And what would withhold the biologically augmented from accepting additional hardware modification as well, exponentially multiplying the number of variations available?
    Hence my view that in the short to midterm a definite split of species is not likely to occur, more likely we will get used to a world in which human capabilities and specialties differ in a far greater range than we are currently used to, with uncountable hybrid forms of human present.

    In the longer term who is to say what could happen. A singularity or the rise of a new mind may cause us to redefine our entire existence. The distances and timeframes of interstellar travel and off-world habitats would surely give rise to yet even more variations on our form, and provide the seclusion necessary for various other rounds of specialist evolution, truly creating new races. I think that until the time we really manage to get off this planet though, we'll likely have to see each other as a single race, and it would be useful for a system to be devised with which our newfound genetic and technological diversity could be classified.
    Thu, Dec 20, 2007  Permanent link

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    Tired of the transient nature of digital artifacts, I recently decided to create something manually again for a change. The result was this collage, created from a 1966 issue of National Geographic.
    While it started with no real goal in mind, it became quite a narrative image, depicting human development through a clash of cultures and the consequential technological development.

    If you want you can grab the poster as a hi-res A3 .pdf from http://www.sjef.nu
    Wed, Dec 12, 2007  Permanent link

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