Category Archives: rants

Vision farming

I always felt that the original Matrix missed a great opportunity, when they used that stupid battery metaphor to explain why the machines needed humans. Supposedly they depended on us for our “bioelectric energy” or some such nonsense. Pins and needles as the sole power source for a planetful of machines? Yeah right. That and $3.50 will buy you a lukewarm cup of coffee. And even if you did buy that line, why humans? Couldn’t they have found a more useful species, like, oh I don’t know, electric eels?

No. There had to be a better explanation. It didn’t take long to figure it out: the real reason the machines needed humans was to solve the problems that were hard for machines. Being intelligent, they recognized that every intelligence solves some problems more efficiently than others. So, rather than destroy us, they simply took advantage of our inherent capacities. But in order to do so, they had to make us want to solve their problems. The best way to do that? Make us believe that we were solving our own problems. Thus the Matrix: an artificial virtual world full of dark, terrible situations, designed to make us solve problems we wouldn’t otherwise care to solve. Need a new high-tech weapon? No problem: just assign every person in the Matrix to one of two imaginary superpowers, and make them go to war. History has shown that with the proper motivation, humans will invent all kinds of horrible stuff.

What I like about this version was that it explains not just the existence of the Matrix, but also why it’s such an awful place. (This eliminates the need for yet another boring and nonsensical speech by Agent Smith, in which he explains that the original Matrix was a paradise, but it fell apart because humans didn’t believe in it. Say what?)

Anyway, I bring this up now because of an interesting post by Clive Thompson over at Collision Detection, about humans being used in exactly this way: to solve problems that are hard for machines. See also Thompson’s 2002 article on the same subject.

We’ve used computers as our render farms for years now. How appropriate that they should start using us as vision farms. And how strange that this should turn out to be not just a better narrative device for a sci-fi movie, but actually true.

I, for one, welcome our new machine overlords.

coincidence and holographic memory

In a recent Flickr discussion, I started to articulate some ideas about how networks like Flickr increase the frequency of coincidences in our lives. Dose blogged the thread, and started a nice little discussion just about that topic. And I think Eric is onto the same concept here.

What happens when we start to archive everything around us, and upload it to a network in which things get tagged and linked together on the basis of real or perceived meaning? Coincidences happen.

Continue reading coincidence and holographic memory

Why I like Flickr

About a month ago, I got hooked on Flickr. My friend danah has insisted that I write something about it.

The back story: since 1999, I’ve been working on a project called Graffiti Archaeology. I shoot photos of graffiti-covered walls over a span of years, and document how they change over time.

I can’t be everywhere at once, though, so I must also rely on other people’s photos to fill in the gaps in my historical record. By the time when I launched the website in November 2003, I had received permission to use the photos of perhaps a half-dozen other photographers, most of whom I had contacted individually via their own graffiti-themed websites.

One of my goals has been to expand grafarc beyond San Francisco, to cities I’ve never been to. But this means relying entirely on other people’s photos. This research task (finding the photos, tracking down the people who took them, and sleuthing out exactly where and when they were taken) is almost as labor-intensive as producing the website itself.

That is to say, it was labor-intensive, until I joined Flickr. On my first day on Flickr, I found the Graffiti group, containing hundreds of photos uploaded by people all over the world. I also searched for tags like graffiti and its variants (grafitti, graf, etc.). I refined my search with location tags like San Francisco or Los Angeles. I immediately found dozens of photos I wanted to use on my site.

Flickr’s use of tags and EXIF data took all the effort out of finding the wheres and whens. Contacting the people who took those photos was effortless, because of Flickr’s people-centered paradigm. What’s more, Flickr is a self-selecting community of people who are predisposed to share. So when I asked people to let me use their photos on grafarc, they did so freely and enthusiastically.

What happened next took me by surprise. Coincidences began to materialize out of the ether. I met a new contact from LA who had recently shot some graffiti in Zagreb, and he offered to go back and shoot the same spots on his next trip. Another contact, from Peru, began uploading photos of spots I’d been to in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. And both of these people had independently shot photos of the same subway station in Budapest, four years apart. Meanwhile, here in San Francisco, my local contacts triangulated their cameras on emerging hotspots, and began recording their progression at near-filmic frame rates. And one person contacted me who had been in the same abandoned building as me, at exactly the same time. Something about the structure of Flickr seems to make this kind of coincidence commonplace.

I created a Flickr Group for contributors to grafarc, and invited about a dozen friends and contacts. The group has begun to grow at a steady pace, and its photo pool has filled up with rich, loamy data. I am now swimming in photos. And people who have met up there are now sharing information via comments on each other’s photos, creating a rich discussion space around them.

The funny thing is, this is something I always envisioned for grafarc. I wanted the site to attract the people who share my weird obsession with graffiti, and I wanted it to become a center for this kind of discussion. I imagined that at some future time, I would add a forum section to my site, and somehow create that community. But the community apparently couldn’t wait for me to do that. In Flickr’s fertile and promiscuous environment, communities can form spontaneously around the tiniest kernel.

I can’t wait to see what will happen next.