Features

net.wars: Re-emerging technology

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 March 2007


About the third day of this year's Emerging Technology conference someone put up... ...a slide of the opening screen of the Commodore Pet. At this rate, we should be back to cave paintings by the end of the week.

Wendy M Grossman

After all, yesterday we saw a demonstration of email software that works offline; the display looked just like Ameol, an offline mail and news reader I've used for 14 years. (The similarity is only partial, though; Zimbra does synching with mobile devices and a bunch of other things that Ameol doesn't - but that Lotus Notes probably did).

"Reverse pioneering", Tim O'Reilly said the first day, while describing a San Francisco group who build things - including a beer-hauling railway car and carnival rides - out of old bicycle parts.

At some point, also, O'Reilly editor Dale Dougherty gave a talk on the publisher's two relatively new magazines Make and Craft. He illustrated it with pictures of: log cabin quilts, Jacquard looms, the Babbage Differential Calculator, Hollerith tabulating machines, punch cards, and an ancient Singer treadle sewing machine. And oh look! Sewing patterns! And, I heard someone say quite seriously, "what about tatting? Do you know anyone who does it who could teach me?"

A day later, in Boston, I hear that knitting is taking East Coast geeks by storm. Apparently geek gatherings now produce as many baby hats as the average nursing home.

Not that I'm making fun of all this.

After all, recovering old knowledge is a lot of what we do on the folk scene, and I have no doubt that today's geek culture will plunder these past technologies and, very like the Society for Creative Anachronism, which has a large geek (and also folk music community) crossover, mutate them into something newer and stranger.

I'd guess that we're about two years away from a quilting bee in the lobby. Of course, the quilting thread will be conductive, and the quilt will glow in the dark with beaded LEDs so you can read under the covers, and version 2.0 will incorporate miniature solar panels (like those little mirrors in the Eastern stuff you used to get in the 1970s) that release heat at night like an electric blanket?and it will be all black.

Of course, this isn't really new even in geek terms. A dozen years ago, the MIT Media Lab held a fashion show to display its latest ideas for embroidering functional keyboards onto networked but otherwise standard Levi's denim jackets and dresses made of conductive fabrics. We don't seem to have come very far toward the future they were predicting then, in which we'd all be wearing T-shirts with sensors that measured our body heat and controlled the room thermostat accordingly (another idea for that quilt).

Instead, geeks, like everyone else, adopted the mobile phone, which has the advantage that you don't have to worry about how to cope with that important conference when your personal area network is in the dirty laundry.

But this is Generation C, as Matt Webb, from the two-man design consultancy Schulze and Webb told us. Generation C likes complexity, connection, and control. GenC is not satisfied with technologies that expect us to respond as passive consumers. We ought to despise mobile phones, especially in the US: they are locked down, controlled by the manufacturers and network operators. Everything should come with an open applications programming interface and - and a serial port. Hack your washing machine so it only shows the settings you use; hack your luggage so it phones home its GPS coordinates when it's lost.

The conference speaker who drew the most enthusiastic response was Danah Boyd, who had a simple message: people outside of Silicon Valley are different. Don't assume all your users are like you. They have different life stages. This seems so basic and obvious it's shocking to hear people cheer it.

It was during a talk on building technology to selectively jam RFID chips that I had a simple thought: every technology breeds its opposite. Radar to trap speeders begets radar scanners. Cryptography breeds cryptanalysis. Email breeds spam, which breeds spam filtering, which breeds spam smart enough to pass the Turing test.

The same is true of every social trend and phenomenon. John Perry Barlow used to say that years of living in the virtual world had made him appreciate the physical world far more. It's not much of a jump from that to all sorts of traditional crafts.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad geeks want to knit, sew, and build wooden telescopes. Sewing used to be a relatively mainstream activity, and over the last couple of decades it's been progressively dumbed down. The patterns you buy today are far simpler (and less interesting) to construct than the ones you used to get in the 1970s. It would be terrific if geeks brought some complexity back to it.

But jeez, guys, you need to get out more. Not only is there an entire universe of people who are different from Silicon Valley, there's an entire industry of magazines and books about fabric arts. Next, you get to reinvent colours.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).