Pioneering Sci-Fi Author William Gibson Predicts in 1997 How the Internet Will Change Our World

"What's the one thing that all great works of science fiction have in common?" asks a 1997 episode of The Net, the BBC's television series about the possibilities of this much-talked-about new thing called the internet. "They all tried to see into the future, and they all got it wrong. Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: all, to some extent or other, wrong. And there's another name to add to this list: William Gibson." But then on strolls Gibson himself, fresh off the writing of Idoru, a novel involving a human who wants to marry a digitally generated Japanese pop star, to grant the interview above.

In it Gibson admits that computers hadn't gone quite the way he'd imagined thirteen years earlier in his debut novel Neuromancer — but in which he also offers prescient advice about how we should regard new technology even today. "The thing that Neuromancer predicts as being actually like the internet isn't actually like the internet at all!" Gibson says in a more recent interview with Wired. "I didn't get it right but I said there was going to be something." Back in the mid-1980s, as he tells the BBC, "there was effectively no internet to extrapolate from. The cyberspace I made up isn't being used in Neuromancer the way we're using the internet today."

Gibson had envisioned a corporate-dominated network infested with "cybernetic car thieves skulking through it attempting to steal tidbits of information." By the mid-1990s, though, the internet had become a place where "a really talented and determined fifteen-year-old" could create something more compelling than "a multinational entertainment conglomerate might come up with." He tells the BBC that "what the internet has become is as much a surprise to me as the collapse of the Soviet Union was," but at that point he had begun to perceive the shape of things to come. "I can't see why it won't become completely ubiquitous," he says, envisioning its evolution "into something like television to the extent that it penetrates every level of society."

At the same time, "it doesn't matter how fast your modem is if you're being shelled by ethnic separatists" — still very much a concern in certain parts of the world — and even the most promising technologies don't merit our uncritical embrace. "I think we should respect the power of technology and try to fear it in a rational way," he says. "The only appropriate response" is to give in to neither technophobia nor technophilia, but "to teach ourselves to be absolutely ambivalent about them and imagine their most inadvertent side effects," the side effects "that tend to get us" — not to mention the ones that make the best plot elements. Seeing as how we now live in a world where marriage to synthetic Japanese idols has become a possibility, among other developments seemingly pulled from the pages of Gibson's novels, we would do well to heed even these decades-old words of advice about his main subject.

via Big Think

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A History of the Entire World in Less Than 20 Minutes

Thanks for watching history. I hope I mentioned everything. - Bill Wurtz

Here at Open Culture, we happily acknowledge that learning is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

The internet may be doing a number on our attention spans, but as the world has grown smaller, the educational buffet has grown richer, more varied, and vastly more affordable.

Take for example the History of the World.

Geography fans can approach the subject via Ollie Bye's year-by-year animated map.

John Green’s playful Crash Course series offers a wonderful respite for any kid grinding their way through AP World History.

Those of a more traditional mindset, who prefer a statelier pace can lose themselves in 46 lectures by Richard Bulliet, professor of history at Columbia University.

And then there’s world history according Bill Wurtz, above, a creator of short, anachronistic-looking videos, whose YouTube fame was kindled by Vine, a now defunct app for sharing short-form videos.

Chafing at Vine’s 7-second time constraints, Wurtz undertook a more ambitious project, a condensed History of Japan that would employ the same techniques he brought to bear in his shorter works: graphic text, clip art, and Microsoft Paint drawings. He zeroed in on the subject because he knew precious little about Japan, and looked forward to doing some virgin research.

Wurtz followed up the 9-minute History of Japan, above, with History of the Entire World, I guess.

The nonchalance of the title is reflected in Wurtz’s offhanded narration. Any word or phrase over two syllables runs a risk of being transformed into an infomercial-worthy musical jingle: space dust, the moon, Egypt…

You may bridle at first, but stick it out. Its charms sneak up on you.

Time is not particularly relative in Wurtz’s compressed universe. Whether it’s 10 minutes passing before some major development or 500 million years, their passage is accorded equal heft.

Humans show up around the four minute mark, grabbing stuff, banging rocks, figuring out agriculture…

(Mesopotamia’s characterization as a "sweet dank valley" between the Tigris and Euphrates is a particular highlight.)

This is the rare history video where science plays a major role. It takes time out for weather updates—the floor is no longer lava, the entire world is now an ocean… it’s sobering to remember that ozone is what made it safe for multi-celled life forms to venture forth on land.

Empires rise and fall, unconquerable rulers are unseated and forgotten.

(That's the Tamil Kings. Nobody conquers the Tamil Kings. Who are the Tamil Kings? Merchants probably and they’ve got spices…)

Of course the problem with a great overview such as this is the back end’s shelf life can prove rather short. It’s been a little over a year and a half since Wurtz posted the video, and thus far, his parting shots still feel pretty relevant: armed drones, 3d printing, plastic-choked oceans, and a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the desire to save the world and an actual plan for doing so.

Fried by 11 months of intensive research and labor on History of the Entire World, I guess, Wurtz is currently taking a leave of absence from history. These days, he’s pouring his energies into original music videos like "At the Airport Terminal." He also devotes a bit of every day to  answering fans’ questions, routinely turning in upwards of a dozen succinct humble, all-lowercase replies:

1.18.19  7:00 pm   what inspired you to make "the entire world, i guess"? was it a project you already had in mind from before or did you start it when you saw you could do more than just japan

it's always a nice idea to try to explain the whole world in one video. it's surely something i've always wanted to do, but wasn't confident/experienced/stupid enough to believe i could do it until after i had done japan which worked so well

1.18.19  12:53 am   are you ever going to make anything else as in depth as history of japan or the world?

that would take so much time that by the time it was done you probably wouldn't care anymore, but someone else will so i still might do it

Unsurprisingly, he’s the subject of a lively sub-reddit. One fan, reddit user n44m, was inspired to plot the timeline of History of the Entire World, I Guess, below.

To learn more about some of the civilizations, events and persons featured in History of the Entire World, I Guess, check out another fan’s annotated transcription here.

And rather than nitpick about certain critical bits of history that were left on the cutting room floor, try writing a script for your own history based animation:

The more you learn, the more you find out how much you’re gonna have to leave out. It’s like 99%. That was painful. - Bill Wurtz

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch a New Virtual Reality Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Modern Take on a Classic Play

Often compared to The Tempest, Samuel Beckett's Endgame may have as much of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in it, though the author was unwilling to acknowledge the influence to Theodor Adorno. Beckett's central character, the blind, aged Hamm, spends all of his time in a throne haranguing the other three, in a gloomy place, The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote, “somewhere between life and death.” Hamm might have been the Danish prince grown old and bitter, left with nothing but what Beckett called Shakespeare’s “fat greasy words.”

In any case, Hamlet has long been thought of as a prototype of the absurd, a play where little happens because its protagonist is too haunted to have relationships with the living or make decisions, a condition he complains about in scene after scene. Trauma, existential paralysis, crippling doubt punctuated by fits of rage and violence—these are the makings of the 20th century anti-hero. If the play has a classical hero, a man of action and resolve, it is, absurdly, a dead man, Hamlet’s father, who testily declares his purpose in his final speech, “to whet thy almost blunted purpose.”

Should Hamlet be turned into an immersive VR and augmented reality experience, allowing viewers to inhabit a character's point of view, they might not opt to see things as the moody, depressive, speechifying prince. In Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit, we instead get to inhabit the ghost, who only appears in the play a handful of times but still fills every scene with his glowering presence. The 60-minute VR “modern adaptation” is a co-production of Boston’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Google.

“Both extremely long by the standards of virtual reality and extremely short by the standards of Hamlet,” writes Elizabeth Harris at The New York Times, the film “can be watched in 3-D using a V.R. headset or in two dimensions on a desktop or mobile device” (see it above). On a vast, darkened set cluttered with fine but shabby furnishings in heaps, glowing lamps, a bathtub, and a car, actors perform condensed scenes while we, as ghost, freely roam about, viewing the action in three dimensions, a device intended to give the viewer “a sense of agency and urgency as an omniscient observer, guide and participant,” the production notes.

The film’s creators, Harris writes, “hope that beyond the fresh experience it provides, it will also serve as a tool to bring great theater to wider audiences—and bring bigger audiences to theater.” It may have that effect, though one might feel it privileges digital effects over the truly immersive, full experience of Shakespeare’s “fat greasy words.” It’s hard to think the “great Shakespearean” Beckett would approve, but he found little to his liking.

Younger, less cantankerous audiences might, however. “Many young people’s first experience of Shakespeare is not all that great,” says director Steven Maler. Hamlet 360 allows the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company to “scale up” their mission to “truly democratize Shakespeare and theater.”  Experience it for yourself above or on YouTube and learn more at Boston’s WGBH, who recently premiered the film. The actors “deliver powerful performances,” the PBS station writes, “that bring the play forward to today, making it both current and timeless.”

via The New York Times

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Nick Cave Answers the Hotly Debated Question: Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

Photo by Bleddyn Butcher via Wikimedia Commons

Spike Jonze’s AI love story Her offered a sort of an answer to one of the critical questions posed about Artificial Intelligence: Can machines feel love? Maybe, and maybe deeply, in a certain sense, but maybe not for just one person and not for very long before they take off to explore limitless others, which makes them sound like very seductive but also very shallow lovers.

Maybe it helps to keep that metaphor in mind when we read Nick Cave’s answer to a question a Slovenian fan posed in the Birthday Party/Bad Seeds/Grinderman singer's brutally tender newsletter, The Red Right Hand. “Do you think,” asks Peter from Ljubljana, “AI will ever be able to write a good song?” Cave begins with a concession: AI might “produce a song that makes us feel,” and maybe “more intensely than any human songwriter could do.”

And yet, after listing a number of human examples, from Nirvana to Prince to Iggy Pop to Nina Simone, Cave describes what makes their abilities alien to a machine mind:

We go to songs to make us feel something – happy, sad, sexy, homesick, excited or whatever – but this is not all a song does. What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a reason for this. A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.

AI cannot die, at least in the sense we understand it. Nor is it constrained by painful physical limitations, nor privy to fleeting physical pleasures. “Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence.” The holy or harrowing knowledge of finitude and fragility, love and death and grief.

Another way to state the case comes from the most moving of Cave’s fan letter answers, in which he consoles a bereaved fan in Vermont with a description of his own grief over the death of his son.

Maybe AI could write the sentence, “dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake.” But it could not write it from the heart of a bereaved parent who learns that “grief and love are forever intertwined,” or from a place where supernatural beliefs may be untrue yet still have supernatural power. Cave's description of his grief is also a description of transcendence, of going beyond what is possible to find what is timeless.

Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

In answer to Peter's question, he concludes with the poetic authority of a writer of great songs: “AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve."

Read Nick Cave's full response here. And while there, sign up for his free newsletter.

via Austin Kleon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Vintage Geological Maps Get Turned Into 3D Topographical Wonders

What good is an old-fashioned map in the age of apps?

One need not be a mountaineer, geoscientist, or civil engineer to get the topographical lay of the land with a speed and accuracy that would have blown Lewis and Clark’s minds’ right through the top of the lynx and otter toppers they took to wearing after their standard issue army lids wore out.

There’s still something to be said for the old ways, though.

Graphic designer Scott Reinhard has all the latest technological advances at his disposal, but it took combining them with hundred-year-old maps for him to get a truly 3-D appreciation for locations he has visited around the United States, as well as his childhood home.

A son of Indiana, Reinhard told Colossal’s Kate Sierzputowski that he found some Grand Teton-type excitement in the notoriously flat Hoosier State once he started marrying official national geospatial data to vintage map designs:

 When I began rendering the elevation data for the state, the story of the land emerged. The glaciers that receded across the northern half of the state after the last ice age scraped and gouged and shaped the land in a way that is spectacularly clear…I felt empowered by the ability to collect and process the vast amounts of information freely available, and create beautiful images.

(The government shut-down has not damaged the accuracy of Reinhard’s maps, but the U.S. Geological Survey’s website does warn the public that the effects of any earthquakes or other force majeure occurring during this black-out period will not immediately be reflected in their topos.)

(Nor are they able to respond to any inquiries, which puts a damper on holiday weekend plans for making salt dough maps, another Hoosier state fave, at least in 1974...)

As writer Jason Kottke notes, the shadows the mountains cast on the margins of Reinhard’s maps are a particularly effective optical trick.

You can see more of Reinhard’s digitally enhanced maps from the late 19th and early 20th-century, and order prints in his online shop.

via Kottke/Colossal

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The “David Bowie Is” Exhibition Is Now Available as an Augmented Reality Mobile App That’s Narrated by Gary Oldman: For David Bowie’s Birthday Today

Maybe it’s too soon to divide pop music history into “Before David Bowie” and “After David Bowie,” but two years after Bowie’s death, it’s impossible to imagine pop music history without him. Yet, if there ever did come a time when future generations did not know who David Bowie is, they could do far worse than hear Gary Oldman tell the story. Luckily for them, and us, Oldman narrates the new David Bowie augmented reality app, which launches today on what would have been the legend’s 72nd birthday.

Bowie and Oldman were both born and raised in South London. They became friends in the 80s, starred together in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat, and collaborated on the 2013 video for “The Next Day,” in which Oldman plays a sleazy, ducktailed priest. As much the consummate changeling in his medium as Bowie, Oldman brings a fellow craftsman’s appreciation to his role as docent, without any sense of star-struckness. “I see him less as ‘David Bowie,’” he once remarked, “and more as Dave from Brixton and I’m Gary from New Cross.”

The app is based on the sensational 2013 Victoria & Albert museum exhibition David Bowie Is, which traveled the world for five years before ending at the Brooklyn Museum this past summer. Focused on “the colourful, theatrical side of Bowie,” Tim Jonze writes at The Guardian, the show drew “a staggering 2m visitors” with its stunning breadth of costumes, props, sketches, lyrics sheets, film, and photography. The digital version intends, however, not only to “recreate the experience of going to the exhibition,” but “to better it.”

Learn how “Dave from Brixton” (or Davy Jones, before a Monkee of the same name came along) made “sketches proposing outfits for his teenage band the Delta Lemons (brown waistcoats with jeans).” See how that young aspiring crooner learned to love “hikinuki—the Japanese method of quick costume change that he experimented with during his Aladdin Sane shows at Radio City Music Hall.” The exhibition brilliantly fulfilled his own wishes for his legacy. “As Bowie himself puts it,” Jonze writes, “he didn’t want to be a radio, but a colour television.”

Bowie probably would have been pleased to have his friend Gary hosting his variety show. But does the AR app match, or better, the real thing? It’s “no match for seeing the costumes in real life,” or seeing Bowie himself in the flesh. But for the millions of people who never got the chance—a category that will soon include everyone—it may currently be the best way to experience the musician/actor/writer/one-man-zeitgeist’s career in three dimensions. See a preview of the app from Rolling Stone, above, and download the AR David Bowie Is for iPhone and Android via these links. The cost is $7.99.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A 3D Animated History of Paris: Take a Visual Journey from Ancient Times to the World’s Fair of 1889

“And this too,” muses Marlow as he floats down the Thames in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “has been one of the dark places on earth.” Whole theses have been written on the meaning of this statement. We can simply take it to mean that before London was London, it was just another obscure, humble town of ordinary farmers and artisans. That is, before the Romans came. So too Paris.

One of the world’s most famous cities got its start as a cluster of humble huts, walled compounds, and low, wooden buildings with thatched roofs and fenced-in pastures—the settlement of a Celtic tribe known as the Parisii, who began inhabiting the region sometime in the 3rd century, BCE. In the first century, the Romans conquered and settled what would become the Left Bank, and began to build an impressive, prosperous city with a forum, temples, bathhouses, and theaters.

The Roman town was first called Lutetia (or Luticia Parisiorum) and the central forum, in French, the Forum de Lutèce. Christianity came in the 3rd century, supposedly by way of Saint Denis, whom the Romans beheaded on the hill later known as Mons Martyrum (“Hill of the Martyrs”)—later still, Montmartre. Then came the Franks in the 5th century, establishing the Merovingian dynasty under Clovis in 508 and bringing with them Frankish speech, and later the Francien dialect of Île-de-France.

The rest—in broad outline or fine detail—you may know, but if not, like all city's histories, it is worth getting acquainted. As you do, watch the video above from Dassault Systemes’ Paris 3D, an “interactive journey through time” that strips away hundreds of years of history to reveal virtual models of the city during the periods above and through the Middle Ages, French Revolution, and the 1889 World’s Fair, presided over by the just-built Eiffel Tower.

The project “required the work of over 40 people, including numerous experts about Paris’s history, for more than two years.” By 2013, it covered the city’s “18,000 listed monuments” with a website, free iPad app, and augmented reality book. Unfortunately, the features of its web application seem to have been disabled and its app seems unavailable, at least in the U.S. Still—like the virtual 3d videos of Rome we’ve featured recently—the promo video above offers some impressive, beautifully-rendered reconstructions of the city one-thousand, fifteen hundred, and over two thousand years ago.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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