On Libraries

A library represents both hubris and humility. The rows and rows of books display the owner’s knowledge, breadth of interests, and depth of detail. But conversely, the larger the library, the more the library acknowledges that one lifetime is not enough to understand its contents. This idea should humble the owner of the books.

Terms of Use and Beyond

In corporate culture, the terms of service or use have been rapidly developing into manifestos. They blend moral and ethical beliefs that go much beyond their original purpose of legal protection between company and user.

Corporations have certainly taken on moral issues (Apple and privacy, Target and gender, Chik-fil-A and marriage, &c.) in part because of lax court rulings on their personhood and in part because of the strong political pull of the CEOs at those companies.

It only seems sensible that these rules become enshrined in the terms of service and other cultural artefacts (see for example The Aesthetics of Organization). They’ve grown and so too has our appetite for moral guidance from for-profit entities. Airbnb and other companies have made anti-discrimination and gender policies not only an internal HR practice, but fully-public — and possibly legally-binding — rules that govern not only their own employees but now (and here’s what is so interesting) the behavior of their end users.

People and regular users are regulated now by yet another set rules that govern their behavior on private platforms (mostly for better, maybe for worse), which adds another institutional layer of ethics to human behavior.

Essentialism versus Minimalism

Essentialism is not minimalism, though you can be both. I would say the work of Marie Kondo is mis-labeled as minimalist, when in fact it is “essentialist.” An essentialist is somebody who only holds onto those things and experiences that are most important to her or his identity and purpose. A person can indeed very easily cherish or value a great number of things. I often wonder if someone who has a cluttered home or does a great many number of things … are they living simply or minimally? Perhaps not in those terms, but they can certainly be living essentially.

One must choose between God and Man, and all ‘radicals’ and ‘progressives,’ from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.

“But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is ‘higher.’ The point is that they are incompatible.” George Orwell reflects on Ghandi, showing his political side along the way: “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals.”

He suggests being a saint is not an ideal to work towards and that the unevenness in life is valuable. The thoughts on Ghandi in 1949 are interesting because Orwell can look at Ghandi in a post world war world and also examine Ghandi’s beliefs that are often glossed over by popular accounts — beliefs Ghandi professed himself.

Orwell, George. “Reflections on Gandhi.” Partisan Review, London (January 1949). Accessed April 19, 2017.

Closing LinkedIn

Today I closed my LinkedIn account after having it open since March 31, 2009. I already closed Twitter, 500px, Klout,, Flickr, and other minor ones. In closing my account, I wrote this to LinkedIn:

“It’s been a good run, but the product is not high quality. LinkedIn has an experience you’d expect three engineers and a designer to slap together over a weekend and a case of red bulls. Except LinkedIn is over a decade old and employs thousands of very talented people. Which begs the question: where is this human capital being directed? Bottom line: does not spark joy.”

N.b. In 2019, I had to re-open LinkedIn as a requirement for my work.

Skilled Labor as a Service

There is a deluge of “creative” free time most college-educated people have. If Uber and Postmates (and countless others) successfully captured the low-end extra work potential of unskilled labor, then there is still a huge potential to capture the high-end extra work potential of skilled labor. Enter in the need for services that let people get “on-demand” services or products from skilled people.

We are seeing it in services like EyeEm and Snapwire, aimed at photographers. And we will be seeing more of it in other skilled professions.

Machine Learning

If you haven’t heard, a cooking robot and IBM’s Watson can now cook better than you.

This is interesting because we have to load machines with a basic set of assumptions, and because of the accuracy of machinery and their long-term memory, they essentially will never forget these assumptions.

For example, if you were teaching a robot how to write, you would teach it the difference between your and your’re. This is a pretty standard grammar rule that I very often forget or ignore, leaving my writing pot-marked with errors.

Though that example is banal, if we look at localization, evolution, and culture: most “innovations” or differences arise either from error, accident, or deliberate changes to a set of assumptions.

The problem is, do we risk freezing culture at a point in time when we load our assumptions into the robot’s machine learning? Or are the scientist clever enough to introduce randomization and evolution into the machine learning? The problem is, how do you teach a robot to be both accurate but also open to doing things “wrong?” — the hallmark of creativity and innovation.

Roy Lichtenstein, iPhone

An art historian would find plenty to work off of on this image: the penultimate visual form of today, the GIF file, co-opting the style of pop art and mass media of Lichtenstein, and a reference to the iPhone (and Tinder’s iconic swipe-to-like feature of dating) just to keep things interesting.

Roy Lichtenstein iPhone

Who Is a Cultural Engineer?

An engineer is a problem solver. A cultural engineer uses culture (philosophical, material, social, political, artistic) to solve problems. In that sense most humanities or “soft” fields of study can all be considered cultural engineers as they use do not use purely scientific or mathematic solutions to solving problems. They work inside other bodies of theory.

These “solutions” take their cues from anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and aesthetics for the most part. Here are some rough examples:

  1. Aesthetic designers who use “good” design as a means of increasing product longevity (and slowing done consumerism) to help either benefit underprivileged communities or help the environment. The theory embraced here is that concerns of beauty, usefulness, and design create better solutions than merely solving for mechanical issues.
  2. Anthropological how airlines design status systems to increase customer spend taking cues from generally accepted ideas around status and gift giving. But human behavior or “cognitive biases" can also be used to promote better health and more just societies. Problem solving in this vein owes its theory from twentieth-century anthropologists.
  3. Sociological this is perhaps the easiest to pull from because essentially most policy makers, lobbyists, and governments use sociology — with its cherry-picking of mathematics and psychology — as the most “scientific” of the humanities to cull from. It is also a very popular field of study for liberal arts graduates, so many can relate to its vocabulary later on in life.
  4. Philosophical the work of Marx or Kant may be considered a systematic approach (like an engineer’s approach) to solving issues of the the present and future. Philosophy offers the most formalized system for the humanities, as it attempts to define semantics and the structure (of language) itself used by the discipline; concerns that also occupy many a computer engineer when dealing with computer languages.

These are merely top-of-the-head categories, which are useful insomuch as I jotted them down in this post. The more important point is that these fields of study borrow from mathematics and science but ultimately don’t need to obey their rules. They don’t need, for example:

  1. Empirical evidence
  2. Repeatability of findings
  3. Experiments
  4. Testable hypotheses
  5. Strong arguments
  6. Proofs necessary for validity

In fact, the idea of proving anything is debatable. Indeed, and especially, for aesthetics, proof is nearly a non-issue. Personal agency and force are more legitimate.

In anthropology and sociology, a single incident or case, or study, can pave way for validity and general acceptance, even without repeatability. By the very nature of the communities studied in anthropology, often repeatability of findings is impossible.

And in philosophy — a field I know little about — I will venture forward and say that many things have been argued quite elegantly in the course of time: from forgotten scrawls to major systems of thought like religion. These can range from highly systematic and “scientific” to requiring Kierkegaardian “leaps of faith” when some things are left unexplained. But all of which have seemed to find someplace in the philosophical canon as “legitimate” or “true.”

But rather than make this seem like I am pointing my finger at these broad fields of study to exclaim, “Look! Look at their fallacies, imprecisions, and false idols. Can they be trusted?” What I really mean to say is that their approach to problem solving is different from science and math (the original bastions of an engineer’s thought process), but not at all necessarily weaker or less valid.

And I cannot emphasize enough, these are certainly not a replacement or usurper to math or science.

In fact, that is why a cultural engineer is a particularly relevant position: they are poised to transform technology from a scientific and mathematic phenomena of problem solving into an uncharted world of culture and social significance only because they draw on the rules of those fields — and not math and science — as further areas of understanding for the engineer: as their points of departure, and as their tools to solving greater engineering problems than previously encountered.

And it is my hope, that by pulling from cultural systems of understanding that technology can be transformed in unforeseen ways but hopefully in ways that better humankind. I feel like the well of science has run dry in helping to guide technology to make us better, and perhaps we should feel free to take cues from elsewhere when solving issues of the engineer.

Shared Profits from Data Sharing

If I were to make a site that earns money based on my users’ data (like Facebook or Google), I would just be upfront about it and pay my users a percentage of the profits. If you’re gonna sell their data, you might as well give them some of the money.

The Patina of Images

Sassoferrato, The Virgin in Prayer

Online images seem to acquire a “patina” of sorts as they pass through the hands of many websites — each time being saved and re-compressed as a new image that is in fact very old. Indeed, JPEG compression is one of the few ways to tell that an image is old and circulated, without actually knowing the creation date of the image. JPEG compression enforces aging, since this compression is applied everytime an image is saved in that format.

We can appreciate the patina of modern materials like plastic, which now form a large part of the material culture in which we live. Now personally, I still find plastic and especially aged or old plastic to be nothing worth appreciating; however, as these materials are increasingly common in our visual landscape we have to create a visual language and appreciation of them in order to increase their beauty, longevity, and usefulness to us. In a way, we are using aesthetics to improve consumption. Though I would naturally be inclined to argue that there is no inherit beauty to old plastic, I can’t be sure if that is actually true or just true today, since there isn’t “connoisseurship” around aged plastic like there is around aged wood or metal. A large part of aesthetic appreciation is taught to us by various authorities and the marketplace that exists for things. Nothing new there.

So then, can we appreciate age in a digital world? And does an aesthetics of age even have a place in the digital landscape? In a digital world, age is almost non-existent: the physical objects that store data do age, but it does not manifest itself on the data. If we apply aesthetic rules for “old” things on the internet, we may or may not find anything useful there. Computers stamp a creation date, but I'm speaking more to age as interpreted through aesthetics and the visual field. For example, a more heavily compressed image would have a greater “patina” and thus be considered more precious. There is some silliness in this as to how easy it is to compress images instantly as opposed to actual age taking place through long periods of time.

Automatic JPEG compression is a happy accident, in my mind, that mimics the real world: a technical manifestation that things will age regardless of what we want or do. Based on an algorithm, certain data within the image is simply discarded forever and saved nowhere much like old materials that lose varnish or paint. JPEG images, each time they are saved, will “age” regardless of what we do: it’s built into its algorithm.

Then I wonder, is an older JPEG more beautiful than a new one? Is their something their to appreciate?

Graphic source: unknown. Source of original painting, Madonna orante (The Virgin in Prayer) by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (c. 1645), The National Gallery, London.

Local Production

Arguments that local or American made craft traditions are somehow implicitly superior to foreign production will be viewed with the same disdain we view Victorian ideas around nationalism and race. These are inherently nationalist (and even racist) statements that have swept the world of consumer goods. A globalized world must admit that every person is on equal footing with another and that country of origin should hardly be imbued with such mystique and pride as it is now. Do people who produce goods in other counties deserve less respect? Are they less capable of being called craftsman?

Digital Decay Revisited

Digital decay does not refer to how information is lost. Instead, it describes a deliberate process or belief by which content (information) is actively destroyed or neglected, as to prevent a glut of content.

One assumption of this is that there is a such thing as the trivial or unimportant, and its very existence is a burden — regardless of the cost or availability of space and resource.

The historian or curator now relies on a computer to first sort information before even approaching it because of the vastness of data. But can the initial sorting by the machine be flawed? In another case, the user of a piece of software can be overwhelmed by his own data-creation. Should the software have built in ways to eliminate data?

Digital Decay

Digital decay does not refer to how information is lost. Instead, it describes a deliberate process by which content (information) is actively destroyed, as to prevent a glut of content. How will a historian understand this time if the amount of content produced can only be processed initially by non-human means?