Food for Worms
King. Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
Ham. At supper.
King. At supper? Where?
Ham. Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service- two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.
King. Alas, alas!
Ham. A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
King. What dost thou mean by this?
Ham. Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 3)
Following his murder of Polonius, Hamlet starts talking about worms. As a subject, worms are disgusting and it is easy to simply brush his comments aside as the incoherent ramblings of an antic disposition. But there is something that gripped me as I have been re-reading this. What does Hamlet mean by “variable service” and is it really “progress” if a beggar is simply remixed as a King?
Another month has gone by as I have been collecting my thoughts for this final section of Media Futures. As you know, I have been looking for the light at the end of the tunnel of Internet Arbitrage. If automata is a form of artificial life, then it is the function of arbitrage to extinguish such life through the systematic liquidation of all vital spreads. Arbitrage is a key lubricant for any emerging market economy. The conventional meaning of therapy is overdetermined by the specter of Freud and the practice of talking about your childhood to a shrink on the Upper West Side. But this is only one context, and I would like to remove the practice of therapy from psychology per se and introduce it into our conversation about Media Futures.
Let us understand therapy to be the practice of working with decay: decay in the sense of something that has happened and needs to be worked through in order for one to move forward, grow, prosper, profit, progress, develop. Therapy can happen in a variety of ways so long as it is a dynamic process. Talking, writing, reading, shopping, running are all potentially therapeutic processes in so far as they act on prior conversations, states and conditions. In describing how we use language to create a meaningful social environment, Wittgenstein says that "in the practice of the use of language one party calls out the words, the other acts on them" (PI, #7).
What the Internet has enabled is an “acting-upon-ness” of singular historical scope and scale. I was recently at an exhibit at the ZKM in Karlsruhe called “Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy” curated by French Anthropologist Bruno Latour and New Media Philosopher Peter Weibel. The core assumption is that we have always used communications and computing instruments to participation in the architecture of social meaning. The Internet has simply normalized our feedback to the point where our interests are indistinguishable from the history of our click streams.
Not that this is an avant garde European theory, just look at the recent cover of Business Week:
The poster for the ZKM exhibit was a giant quote from Tom Watson of IBM stating “There will be a need for no more than 5 computers in the world.” The intended comment I believe was to show how far off he was on the downside. For me, the error was on the upside, for there really is only one computer and it is called the Internet. Yes, there are billions of CPUs out there each of which is technically a computer but in so far as an increasing majority of them are connected or connectable via TCP/IP, then they collectively form the I/O extensions of a single social computing machine.
And so now we can go back to thinking about our 5 A’s of Media Futures: Automata, Algorithm, API, Alchemy and Arbitrage in the context of this computer that we are all acting upon. Our actions, expressed as Attention, establish networks that connect us, our family, our friends, our colleagues and our affinities.
As we spend time online we are actually impressing ourselves upon certain links within these social networks and choosing not to impress ourselves upon other links. Our most popular email recipients and instant message buddies, our bookmarks, our cookie trails are residues of where we have decided to pay attention. The net currently has a schizophrenic but unique way of remembering bits and pieces of these attention streams: Not all data is captured; the consumer has no central attention management tool; and most companies don’t want you moving your history between their networks anyway.
Despite these points of friction, more and more applications are being built upon our attention streams. Every new web application or mash-up from HousingMaps to Backpack to Del.icio.us is simply a better enabler of some existing user behavior. People were using Google to find Craigs Listings, people were using wikis and blogs to manage their projects and to-do lists, people were storing and sharing their favorite links for themselves and their friends.
It is the promise of Internet media to know everything about you so that it can engage you in an intimate conversation with advertisers around specific products you are looking to buy. But we are still many years away from a truly personalized advertising experience. In the meantime, architects of participation are channeling specific community zeitgeists into hyper functional media products. The consumer is invisible in the moment, leaving only traces of her clickstream behind her as a trail of evidence. Innovations in internet media are like handfuls of white flour dropped over the invisible outlines of consumer intention. At times, user behavior drives media construction directly, but at other times the original user behavior evolves beyond the ability of the media to engage it. These hollow shells of former behavior are being swept up constantly by domain, banner, click-thru and lead brokers who recycle the detritus into more usable (aka monetizable) impressions.
Remediation is the removal of pollution or contaminants from land (including sediments in waterways) for the general protection of the environment. Remediation in terms of new media, is the representation of one medium in another. (from wikipedia)
The process of remediation has become the status quo of Internet media consumption. What we consume online is likely the residues of other people’s behaviors. Innovation occurs through the subtle differences between my behavior and that of everybody else who has formed the sediment that I now surf upon. In so far as my strange behavior becomes reinforced by that of others, then I am creating the foundation for new forms of media. These are typically the alchemical moments when the mad scientist designs a feature that becomes a product that becomes a company. Josh Schachter transformed del.icio.us from a link storage feature for him, to a link sharing product for the community to a link sharing company for investors.
If we are comfortable describing the process of Internet innovation as a form of remediation, then we might as well put Hamlet’s worms back on the table. Worms are like arbitrageurs: nobody likes them very much but then again nobody questions the role they play in making markets more liquid. The covalence of arbs and worms should not come as a great surprise, since I am sure many of the greatest financial arbitrageurs have been referred to as “maggots” as some point in their careers. This may however be the first time a maggot has been called an arbitrageur.
The technical term for using worms as a form a medicine is Biotherapy. Shakespeare’s cure for Polonius was hundreds of years ahead of its time. In February 2003, the BBC ran a story about a novel approach to treating wounds:
Maggots heal hospital wounds
A hospital in Northern Ireland has been using an unorthodox treatment involving maggots to treat wounds where modern medicine has failed to cope. Known as larval therapy, the maggots eat dead tissue, but leave healthy tissue alone. Although staff at Daisy Hill hospital in Newry were initially skeptical, clinical specialist in tissue viability Jenny Mullan said the treatment produced "unbelievable" results. Hospital maggots are specially bred for wound treatment. They are sterile and are usually of the green blowfly variety as this species only ingests dead tissue. The therapy was first used at the hospital on a diabetic patient, who had recently had a limb amputated and developed a pressure sore on his other heel. The patient reported that the pain had been reduced, said Ms Mullan. Even so, maggot therapy may have a bright future. According to Handler, they’re cheap, they don’t become ineffective over time like some antibiotics, and they work. "Especially as doctors are getting stretched thinner and thinner," he said, "it will be helpful for them to conserve their resources and use maggots." (emphasis mine)
I like the irony of doctors “stretched thinner and thinner” using maggots as an enriching way to “conserve their resources.” This expands the conventional meaning of worms as consumers to embrace worms as creators. The very fact that these worms are recycling, remediating and remnating diseased tissue is in itself a creative activity, not unlike many of the Web 2.0 mashups that synthesize a vital new experience from two or more existing web services. All of these examples underscore the core thesis of Internet media therapy, namely the ability for quantitative reorganizations to produce qualitative change. This is perhaps best exemplified online by the Web API which routes multiples streams of data input into (the potential for) a qualitatively different stream out.
The relationships between worms in the organic and Internet worlds is a rich vein of interpretation. In both contexts they provide an infrastructure for processing decaying materials. At the end of his life, Darwin became obsessed with worms and his penultimate book of 1883 was in fact entitled The Formation Of Vegetable Mould Through The Action Of Worms With Observations Of Their Habits; in it, he writes:
Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose. In almost all humid countries they are extraordinarily numerous, and for their size possess great muscular power. In many parts of England a weight of more than ten tons (10,516 kilogrammes) of dry earth annually passes through their bodies and is brought to the surface on each acre of land; so that the whole superficial bed of vegetable mould passes through their bodies in the course of every few years. From the collapsing of the old burrows the mould is in constant though slow movement, and the particles composing it are thus rubbed together. By these means fresh surfaces are continually exposed to the action of the carbonic acid in the soil, and of the humus-acids which appear to be still more efficient in the decomposition of rocks… When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.
Darwin establishes here two core principles that we have been working through in a variety of contexts:
- Finished products (be they Darwin’s smooth, “wide, turf-covered expanse” or today’s Google homepage) are the consequences of worm arbitrage.
- Worms feed on mould, detritus and death. Remnant spaces, recyclable materials and remediation are critical for their success.
At his now-famous graduation speech to Stanford University students, Steve Jobs, the preeminent creative entrepreneur of our time, shared a story of his near-death experience with pancreatic cancer. His suggested that "Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new." Jobs ended his speech with the Whole Earth Catalog refrain "Stay Hungry" which puts worm logic in a beautifully constructive, creative and curious context.
There is, of course, a techno-literal meaning for worms (and viruses) as they relate to Internet media and communications. Bruce Schneier, the Internet’s best critic of cryptography and security, forecast the following worm reality for 2005:
In 2005, we expect to see ever-more-complex worms and viruses in the wild, incorporating complex behavior: polymorphic worms, metamorphic worms, and worms that make use of entry-point obscuration. For example, SpyBot.KEG is a sophisticated vulnerability assessment worm that reports discovered vulnerabilities back to the author via IRC channels. We expect to see more blended threats: exploit code that combines malicious code with vulnerabilities in order to launch an attack. We expect Microsoft’s IIS (Internet Information Services) Web server to continue to be an attractive target. As more and more companies migrate to Windows 2003 and IIS 6, however, we expect attacks against IIS to decrease. We also expect to see peer-to-peer networking as a vector to launch viruses.
Targeted worms are another trend we’re starting to see. Recently there have been worms that use third-party information-gathering techniques, such as Google, for advanced reconnaissance. This leads to a more intelligent propagation methodology; instead of propagating scattershot, these worms are focusing on specific targets. By identifying targets through third-party information gathering, the worms reduce the noise they would normally make when randomly selecting targets, thus increasing the window of opportunity between release and first detection.
Even though Schneier is referring specifically computer security, his comments are useful for our conversation about Media Futures. The “window of opportunity” that he identifies "between release and first detection" applies equally well to the creation of new media applications and the attention management tools that they enable. Once new applications have been “discovered,” just like that of any wide spread, they are likely already in the process of deteriorating.
Over the past month, I have been reading my boys Norton Juster’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth. In a chapter entitled “The Word Market,” Juster sets the ambiance of a bazaar of fresh fruit and exotic delicacies, but where instead of food there are words. Suddenly, a merchant cries out: “Juicy, tempting words for sale.” My six year-old loves this part; he appreciates words’ unique ability to convey different shades of meaning. Every new word he learns is another tool he can use to establish control over his environment. He wants to take each new word and wield it like a light saber of intention.
This weekend maybe I will sit down with him outside, on the grass, dig into the soil with my hand and pick up a worm. “Do you remember that scene from Phantom Tollbooth, where they are selling words? Well, when the words go stale and nobody wants them, do you know what happens to them?” I am not sure how he will respond. But I will take the worm, put it in his hand, and say "The worms eat the words.” And he will probably look at me like I am joking and being the smartie that he is, will ask “And what do the worms do with them?” And I’ll tell him frankly “Why, the worms feed the words to Google.” And he will laugh, and I will laugh.
But I wont be kidding