5 Intriguing Things: Tuesday, 2/25

Facebook in the developing world, how the last animal died, technodystopian fiction, Iceland's data havens, and the School for Poetic Computation.
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Lake Perris (Alexis Madrigal)

Hi friends. I make it a rule not to spam this list with my stories. However, rules are made to be broken. I wrote a piece about the saga of California's water and culture. It's the most ambitious story I've ever attempted. I hope you read it.

Now back to the show.

 

1. The mechanics of locking the developing world into Facebook

"The other thing it needed to understand, above and beyond the networks, were the devices themselves. Facebook bought up a slew of obscure handsets from Amazon–devices running older versions of Android, feature phones, all sorts of crazy devices that you just don’t see here in the United States. It began handing these out to it engineers, and one point, even mulled over taking away their iPhones. That didn’t fly.

"'Our initial plan was to say you’re not going to use your primary phone, but this was going to be over Christmas and we realized that wasn’t going to make us very popular,' laughs Srinivasan. 'So what we did instead was ask them to use them and come back and file reports.'

"They found all sorts of ways to deliver a lower-bandwidth experience in the main app. When possible, Facebook’s mobile app offloads code fetching to WiFi. It began delivering different resolution images based on the device–there’s no point in serving up a high resolution image to a low resolution screen. It went to a different image format as well, WebP, a newer file type that lets developers use smaller images. 'What we’ve seen is 20- to 30-percent reduction in bytes for the same quality of images,' says Wang. The app also began doing things like letting users know it was seeing network problems, and offering them the option of trying again–instead of just continually trying to communicate with a tower and sucking out precious battery life. That’s vitally important when you’re serving areas that are often off the grid and have to pay per juice up."

 

2. How the last died.

"The Great Auk was a large flightless bird that lived on remote islands across the North Atlantic. In 1844, a group of Scottish fishermen captured the last Great Auk in the British Isles. They kept the bird tied up for three days until an ominous storm arose. Believing the bird was a witch responsible for their predicament, the men clubbed it to death...

"The Dusky Seaside Sparrow lived in the marshes of Merritt Island, Florida, until it was threatened by the development of the Kennedy Space Center. The last four surviving birds, all male, were moved to Discovery Island in Disney World for a hybrid breeding programme. The effort was a failure, and in 1987 the final surviving member, an elderly male named Orange, passed away in the Magic Kingdom."

 

3. The four trademarks of recent technodystopian fiction, with examples from Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario

"1. The use of Corporate Speak, where key nouns are capitalized to create the impression that the characters’ lives could also exist in marketing brochures. ('He [Leonard] was perfectly fulfilled in his White Room, and joyous in his Life Plan, which was to heal clients-in-pain.')

"2. Parodies of TV shows, videogames, and/or the Internet (A literary-historical device known as the Brazen Head becomes a retroactive parody of Wikipedia, spewing out any information requested of it in a hip manner.)

"3. A lambasting of consumer culture (Companies like the 'Heraclitan Grill' and 'Neetsa Pizza' control the world while, as Leonard’s sister exclaims, 'Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle class!')

"4. Person vs. technology is a major conflict, often the most thematically important one. (The first third of the novel revolves around drama involving Leonard and his telephone.)"

+ And here's Cantor's book on Amazon.

 

4. A new center of the post-Snowden world: Iceland? 

" In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an 'information haven': an attractive place to store the data of the world.  The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing 'information friendly' legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the 'information haven' as it’s materially made...

I sure hope it’s apparent by now that the internet is material and the internet is political – my work starts from these propositions and argues the two are intertwined.  Information infrastructure in Iceland shows it matters where 'the cloud' touches ground – data centers reconfigure local landscapes, while concretizing specific vectors of transnational connection.  In doing to they shift senses of identity, space and place, allowing, for example, a relatively marginal North Atlantic island to reposition itself as the center of a new world.  So far from a smooth space of frictionless flows, the internet is striated and uneven terrain.  Digital anthropologists have shown this to be true in social spaces (i.e. who participates in online communities and how), but I think questions of difference and power are equally visible and equally interesting in the internet’s very physical presence, as a network of cables, chemicals and machines."

 

5. The School for Poetic Computation, opening soon.

"school for poetic computation is an artist run school launching this fall in New York. A small group of students and faculty will work closely to explore the intersections of code, design, hardware and theory -- focusing especially on artistic intervention. It's a 10 week program, a hybrid of residency and research group, that will happen multiple times per year to be a powerboost for creativity. Our motto is: more poetry, less demo."

 

Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip:

ARCHAISM. A certain number of words through the book are referred to this article, & such reference, where nothing more is said, is intended to give warning that the word is dangerous except in the hands of an experienced writer who can trust his sense of congruity. Archaic words thrust into a commonplace context to redeem its ordinariness are an abomination. More detailed remarks will be found in the general articles INCONGRUOUS VOCABULARY, REVIVALS, SUBJUNCTIVES, & WARDOUR STREET. Some words archaic in Brit. are in current usage in the US and will be so designated under the separate entries.

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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