The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Boskone: Dataliths – Digging the Idea of the Programmer/Archaeologist


Dataliths: Digging the Idea of the Programmer/Archaeologist
Our GOH Vernor Vinge has posited that as computing-based civilizations age, layers upon layers of legacy code build up in vast — let’s call them dataliths. Who gets to dig through them for valuable info? How do they do it? Isn’t our data already in pretty deep doodoo in this regard?
Janice Gelb (M), Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Gary D. McGath, Dana Cameron

Stross opens by mentioning that we are obsolescing file formats at an ever-growing rate. Some of this is intentional, related to corporate greed, media consumption, and encryption, and DRM. Brings up the example of Microsoft’s .lit format, which was trying to compete in the ebook market but then was discontinued. Now the license servers for the protected format have been shut off, because there is no financial incentive to keep them up, which means that content that people bought in .lit is now unreadable.

McGath points out how ironic it is that we are in an age of so much data, yet so much of it is actually inaccessible. Calls it an approaching digital dark age.

Stross starts nerding out about an idea he has had for super-compressed solid state information storage, called memory diamond. Carbon-12 would be a 1 and Carbon-13 would be a 0 for example, and you could compress information into a very dense space. Note: I think this is a cool idea, but I also note that it still considers information storage in the paradigm of binary digits. What about quantum computing, which is near on the horizon? Or other natural phenomena which have many more possible states that two, and in which information could be usefully embedded?

Vinge talks about how we have so much redundancy of information. The same file has zillions of copies around the world, all of which have to be stored. He then moves to a larger topic of what do we do when civilization falls? How will we preserve our knowledge and culture for future generations and civilizations? We can’t rely on a particular data format that is proprietary and would never be resurrected. We would need stacked layers of ever more complex generations of data, that could be read and reinterpreted after a fall.

Cameron (the archaeologist): We would need something like a Rosetta Stone for data, for future civilizations to access our culture. I am trying to think about what an archaeologist of the future would want to know, and how best to store and format that information for them.

McGath counters that it is a tricky thing to try and determine the line between what we want to preserve and what we should preserve.

Cameron: culture through the eyes of individuals is the holy grail of archaeology and anthropology. With data we have an amazing opportunity to have that continuous spectrum of the broad down to the specific and then back up again. Even the mundane details of everyday life would help inform theories and ideas about the macroscopic scale system.

Stross wonders about convergence instead of divergence, citing figures that 80% or so of the operating systems out there have converged to either iOS or Android, and these have very similar architecture and heritage. (iOS is from Unix/BSD line and Android from Linux). Note that he is including the huge number of mobile devices out there, which more and more are outnumbering actual “computers” in the desktop and even laptop sense. 

Audience questions conclude with interesting discussion about the role of libraries, particularly public libraries in storing, archiving, and retrieving the data of an age. Calls for innovation on this front.

Boskone: Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?


Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?
Short attention span? Hyperdistraction? Googlecrutching? But parallel multiprocessing? Outsourced memory hyperaccessiblity? Superinfotegration? Let’s chat, C if anything clicks.
James Patrick Kelly (M), Justine Graykin, Jerry Pournelle, John P. Murphy, Charles Gannon

Gannon opens with the observation that the internet has increased the speed at which debate and negotiation can move forward. A query or proposition can be researched to a shallow extent very quickly and responded to in minutes or seconds. This is now the speed of business. It is like a cold war if information speed… if you can’t respond faster than the competition you may lose the deal. So this is driving shallowly researched dialogue.

Kelly comments on information hopping and how distracting it is to look up something and then get fascinated by a whole trail of information and find himself hours later reading about something totally different.

Graykin says the internet has greatly improved her research, reduced her patience, and reduced her reflection. She finds herself wanting things instantly, even not on the internet.

Pournelle opens with a sociopolitical tack, quoting someone that a sufficient condition for the end of a totalitarian state is the fere exchange of information within it. Proposes a gameshow of sorts for Iran called “Name That Prophet” in which all the winners and everyone else wins ipads that can’t be blocked (say via satellite link). Then liberate the minds of the people using them as a “cultural weapon of mass destruction”. (No public comment, but as Gannon said in a later session, “silence is not consent”.)

Gannon changes the direction and cites a Pew study in which 73% of people thought that the internet will make us smarter, with enhanced intelligence over time. Murphy responds that he doesn’t think that it’s making anyone smarter, but it is increasing access to the tools necessary to do so. Pournelle points out that the internet allows access to information from anywhere, so that smart people even in the middle of nowhere can now access knowledge, and further that the internet will “make the smart people smarter.”

Gannon says that technology is like a lens, amplifying whatever trends are already there. Draws analogy to a supermarket. If everyone had unlimited access to a supermarket, you wouldn’t get a population that was healthier. People already disposed to eating healthy might be eating the healthy food, but you’ll find most Americans in a pre-diabetic coma in the Twinkie aisle. As a professor he observes that the depth of analysis and thinking of his students has gone down over time, but the number of ideas and threads that they can hold in parallel and combine at once is higher.

Graykin notes that IQ tests can be biased and only really measure the ability to take an IQ test. Gannon seems to agree by making a comment about how it definitely depends on what we claim intelligence is.

Pournelle speaks disdainfully of political correctness and goes off on a rant about how IQ tests are the best single measure of human potential ever invented. This rant last several minutes. (Again, I don’t really think I need to comment here.)

Murphy tries to bring the panel back to less polemical topics by trying to segue into the marshmallow test (kids who could resist instant gratification ended up doing better later on), and trying to connect that to how the neuroplasticity of our brains is possibly changing our response to stimuli.

Pournelle responds with another rant about how there is no credible evidence for Head Start.

Kelly steps in as moderator and diverts the conversation to depth of thought and distraction, which Gannon is quick to back him up on with a brief discussion of ADD/ADHD and a balanced summary of its increased prevalence in society. Graykin tries to join in by remarking that flipping focus is physiologically stressful and these hormones can have negative effects.

Gannon recommends two books for further reading, The Shallows and Cognitive Surplus,

Opened up for audience questions. I ask Graykin (since I had heard the least from her) what observations she can lend to a science teacher. She lit up and responded with great advice. Firstly, to ignore quasi-intellectuals and polemicals and get to the real science, which is moving faster than any textbook can be. Passing on facts in the age of the internet is redundant, but the need for the mental skills necessary to filter, process, analyze, and synthesize that information is more in need than ever before. (Note: See What is 21st Century Education? for related thoughts.)

Questions I didn’t get to ask: What is the role of the digital divide in this? If the internet is truly changing our brains, then does that mean that those who do not have access (or choose not to have access) are not changing, and what are the social consequences for this phenomenon?  Also, what about the homogenizing effect resulting from the fact that a single cultural hegemony controls a disproportionate level of the discourse and media on the internet?