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Philippot : le couscous de la discorde

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On se plaint parfois que l'Internet démarre au quart de tour pour la moindre polémique. Mais là, franchement, y a de quoi.

Le patriote Florian Philippot a été photographié en train de manger un couscous à Strasbourg. Rien que ça. La fachosphère est depuis en ébullition et de nombreux militants FN crient au scandale, comme l'a remarqué Buzzfeed.

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7 days ago
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100+ exceptional works of journalism from 2016

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Each year, in one of my favorite media traditions, Conor Friedersdorf picks dozens of articles, essays, podcasts, and stories from the previous year “that stood the test of time”. Here’s his just-published installment for this year.

Friedersdorf has a keen eye (and ear) for good stories. Shamefully, I’ve read maybe 10% of the articles listed here…I’ve dropped my longform reading in recent years in favor of books, TV, and being out in the real world. Maybe on my next vacation, instead of a book, I’ll tackle this list instead.

Tags: best of   best of 2016   Conor Friedersdorf   lists
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17 days ago
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The Nuclear Potato Cannon Part 2

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As described in an earlier post (see above) in 1957, the Soviet scientists launched Sputnik from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now Kazakhstan. But was it the first man made object shot into space? Maybe, maybe not.

The nuclear test code named Bernalillo had a nuclear device which was relatively puny, having explosive equivalent of less than a kiloton of high explosive. But, small in nuclear terms is still very large and loosing large amounts of energy has hard-to-predict effects.

Dr. Brownlee said that the the scientists working on Bernalillo were trying to figure out what happens during the few micro-moments of the nuclear explosion. The Los Alamos team was testing the feasibility of underground nuclear testing, as an alternative to spreading radiation in the atmosphere with above ground tests. If underground testing was to suceed, then the experiments had to be designed such that scientists could track what kind of nuclear particles were emitted, how many there were, and where they were going.

The data they needed to collect had to be measured in the first few "shakes" after the detonation. A "shake," Brownlee told me, is a unit of time peculiar to nuclear scientists. It is the amount of time it takes light to travel 10 feet. Since light travels at 186,000 miles per second, that makes a shake about equal to 10 nanoseconds, or 1/100,000,000 of a second. That's a small time interval.

When the device was triggered, the scientists evidently got a bit more than they bargained for. The fissioning core emitted high energy particles of light, called photons. In the first few shakes of time, the photons, (or in the quaint lingo of Los Alamos’ tech community, the "shine"), bombarded the steel pipe lining the well, vaporizing it into superheated iron gas. About one third of a millisecond after detonation, the shockwave of gas, shine, and radiation blasted against the steel cover plate at the top of the well.

Brownlee and team had mounted high speed cameras near the well cover to record the blast effects. What the film showed is this: in one frame the steel cover plate is there. In the next frame, it is gone. Where did the 4-foot diameter, Jersey-cow-sized steel plate go? The area was searched carefully, but wasn't found. In fact, in the 40 plus years since project Bernllilo, no trace of the plate has ever been found, anywhere.

Dr. Brownlee told me about the high speed cameras used to record the test. In the film sequence, the plate was there in one frame of the high speed film, and gone in the next. I'm told that the film ran at 160 frames per second, so obviously the time interval between frames was 1/160 of a second. He also said that the field of view, or the vertical area in view in the camera frame captured an area of roughly about one quarter of a mile. Therefore, I reason that the steel plate traversed an area of one quarter mile in less than 1/160 of a second. That calculates out to a speed of an amazing 41 miles per second.

My understanding of Newtonian physics is that you throw something hard enough and fast enough, you can make it through the gravitational attraction of the earth and break free into outer space. The speed required to break free is what Newton called "escape velocity" and on earth is calculated to be just less than seven miles per second on earth. The Los Alamos plate was propelled by the atomic cannon into the summer sky at a speed of more than five times escape velocity.

So, it looks to me that the Los Alamos nuclear potato cannon won the space race. At least, that’s my theory. I’m not stuck on it, but I’ll stand by it until somebody proves (not speculates) otherwise.

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21 days ago
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More Accurate World Map Wins Prestigious Design Award

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The most accurate map you'll ever see. You probably won't like it.

World Map Top


You probably don’t realize it, but virtually every world map you’ve ever seen is wrong. And while the new AuthaGraph World Map may look strange, it is in fact the most accurate map you’ve ever seen.

The world maps we’re all used to operate off of the Mercator projection, a cartographic technique developed by Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. This imperfect technique gave us a map that was “right side up,” orderly, and useful for ship navigation — but also one that distorted both the size of many landmasses and the distances between them.

To correct these distortions, Tokyo-based architect and artist Hajime Narukawa created the AuthaGraph map over the course of several years using a complex process that essentially amounts to taking the globe (more accurate than any Mercator map) and flattening it out:

Authagraph Map Process


Narukawa’s process indeed succeeded in creating a map that no longer shrinks Africa, enlarges Antarctica, or minimizes the vastness of the Pacific — and the list goes on.

In recognition of Narukawa’s success, he’s now beaten out thousands of other contestants to receive this year’s Grand Award from Japan’s Good Design Awards, and his map is featured in textbooks for Japanese schoolchildren.

“AuthaGraph faithfully represents all oceans [and] continents, including the neglected Antarctica,” according to the Good Design Awards, and shows “an advanced precise perspective of our planet.”

Furthermore, according to Narukawa, his map means a lot more than just a faithful cartographical representation of our planet. Because Earth is now facing down issues like climate change and contentious territorial sea claims, Narukawa believes that the planet needs to look at itself in a new light — a view that perceives the interests of our planet first and its countries second.

Next, check out what maps get wrong about the world. Then, dive into 33 maps that explain America better than any textbook.

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24 days ago
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Save Your Sanity. Downgrade Your Life.

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My personal mode of self-restraint is to always carry my phone when I’m not with my kids and always leave it in another room when I am. The kids themselves don’t get phones at all. When my 12-year-old daughter walks home from school without one, I intentionally have no idea where she is, just like nobody knew where kids were when I was growing up. How rare it is these days not to be able to know something.

Though we are a forward-looking people, Americans are also quite good at nostalgia. We understand that the economy, the technology, the culture, the media are relentlessly pushing forward (“The March of Time!”), yet a streak of Luddite backwardness persists. This tendency is aided and abetted by an ancient technology, the book. Each season seems to have its stop-the-world best seller. In the mid-1990s it was Elaine St. James’s “Simplify Your Life.” In the mid-aughts, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” At the end of the last decade, it was the sweaty toolbox of “Shop Class as Soulcraft.” Most recently, it was the minimalist Marie Kondo’s book about tidying and the sensibly titled “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” a book I may one day have time to read.

Why this yearning? In recent years, a number of studies have documented the effects of techno-stress — the psychological and physical impact of spending countless hours staring at a screen. According to the 2017 A.P.A. study, on a typical workday, 85 percent of people are constantly or often digitally connected (by email, text and social media). On their days “off”? It’s nearly the same: 81 percent.

This turns out not to be soothing. According to the A.P.A. study, nearly half of millennials worry about the negative effects of social media on their physical and mental health. Often for good reason. A 2017 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 66 percent of Americans have witnessed online harassment and 41 percent have experienced it themselves.

When I watch kids giggling at their phones rather than at one another or families in the local diner silently sitting together in front of their respective devices, I can’t help thinking of Pixar’s post-apocalyptic “WALL-E,” a nightmare vision in which earthlings, stripped of their musculature and humanity, recline blobbily in automated loungers, affixed to portable screens whose animated features are all they know of human interaction.

And so, I resist. I downgrade, I discard, I decline to upgrade. More than a decade ago, I got rid of cable TV, then network TV. I cut out personal phone calls (unless the person is a continent away), then anything other than businesslike emails. If I want to catch up with a good friend or a family member, I wait until we actually see each other.

When the pop-up window on my computer asks if I’d like to install the latest version of this or that, unless it’s for security reasons, my response is, “No, thank you.” Nor do I want that “amazing” new app. My mother — yes, my mother — knew about Lyft before I did. I’ve never tried whatever Spotify is, preferring the radio and ye olde compact discs. I’m sure I’d still be using a CD Walkman if I’d ever gotten one to begin with.

Never got a Nook, a Kindle, an iPad, don’t want them. Until quite recently, I thought Alexa was a joke, a wild, hypothetical Orwellian item that might one day be foisted upon the world, not something that anyone might actually desire, pay for and willingly allow into her home.

Forced to buy a laptop in order to work on the train, I had to consider the latest models, so swift, so dynamic, they might leap into your backpack lest you accidentally forget to tuck one in yourself. In the end, I let my husband pick out the sleekest, most enlightened version for himself, while I took his four-year-old model, one his own mother had rejected as a relic from another geological age.

Do I slip up? Do I email unnecessarily? Have I found myself frantically texting something inconsequential from a beautiful outdoor setting surrounded by impatient children and adults making the same judgy how-could-you-be-doing-that face I so often make myself? I have. But I feel bad about it.

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31 days ago
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Utopian Hacks | Limn

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Issue Number Eight: Hacks, Leaks, and Breaches

Not all engineers create equally. Götz Bachmann takes us inside the labs of “radical engineers” and the starkly different futures they imagine for us.

In a lab in Oakland a group of elite, yet heterodox engineers are trying to re-imagine what computers can and should ‘do.’ It is here, in this lab in Silicon Valley (or in close proximity to Silicon Valley, depending where you draw its boundaries), that I base my ongoing ethnography. The group, clustered around an engineer named Bret Victor, is part of YC Research’s Human Advancement Research Community (HARC), an industry-financed research lab devoted to open and foundational research. “Hacking” is for the members of this group, just as it is for many other engineers, at best a word for tentative work (as in: “This is just a hack”) or for using technologies for other purposes than those originally intended for them.  It can also be a derogatory term for not thinking through the consequences of the accumulation of amateurish, low-quality tech development. Thus: when the engineers I research describe their work, “hacking” would not be one of the key terms they would choose. However, I want to make the case that some of their work practices share similarities with hacking, albeit in a different realm. This article asks: How do engineers hack imaginaries of what technologies are and can be?

I argue this claim by analyzing these engineers as part of a tradition which I call, for lack of a better term, “radical engineering.” Radical engineers fundamentally challenge existing notions of (here, digital media) technologies: their basic features, purposes, and possible futures. Their radicality is not to be confused with political radicality, or the radicality of “disruption”, or the radicality of some of engineering’s outcomes. Theirs is a radicality that puts them outside of assumptions in the wider engineering field of what is obvious, self-evident, time-tested or desirable. Their positions are so heterodox that they often stop calling themselves “engineers.” But no other word can take its place. They might experiment with words like “artist” or “designer in the Horst Rittel way,” but neither stabilizes and both are prone to cause misunderstanding. After all, the people at stake here have their education in disciplines like electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science or mathematics, and their work often comes with the need to tackle highly complex technical problems.

Bret Victor’s group tries to build a new medium. To get there is less a question of a sudden eureka, but more a permanent and stubborn process of pushing beyond what is thinkable now. The lab takes existing technologies such as projectors, cameras, lasers, whiteboards, computers, and Go stones, and recombines them with new or historic ideas about programming paradigms, system design and information design, as well as a range of assumptions and visions about cognition, communication, sociality, politics and media. The group is constructing a series of operating systems for a spatial dynamic medium, each building on the experiences of building the last one, and each taking roughly two years to build. The current OS is named “Realtalk” and its predecessor was called “Hypercard in the World” (both names pay respect to historical, heterodox programming environments: Smalltalk in the 1970s and Hypercard in the 1980s). While the group develops such operating systems, it engages in a process of writing and rewriting code, as well as manifestos, lots of talking, even more moments of collective silence, of iterating and tweaking mantras, of digesting films and books ,as well as huge amounts of technical papers, and building dozens—indeed hundreds—of hardware and software prototypes.

The lab is filled with prototypes, and new ones are added by the week. In one month, a visitor is able to point a laser at a book in the library, and a projector beams the inside of that book on the wall next to her. A few weeks later you will see people jumping around on the floor, playing “laser socks”: a game where people try to laser each other’s white socks. Months later, a desk becomes a pinball machine made out of light from a projector, and cat videos follow around every rectangle drawn on a piece of paper. Currently, the group experiments with “little languages” in the spatial medium: domain specific programming languages based on paper, pen and scissors, Go stones, or wires, all equipped with dynamic properties, thus having capabilities to directly steer computation or visualize complexity. The point of all such prototypes is not technical sophistication of the glitzy kind. In fact, it is the opposite. The prototypes aim for simplicity and reduction—as a rule of thumb, you can assume that the fewer lines of code involved, and the simpler these lines are, the more the prototype is deemed successful.

Illustration (draft) by David Hellman, imagining jointly with Bret Victor’s group “Dynamic Land”, dynamic spatial media’s next iteration in 2017.

In all their playfulness, these prototypes remain “working artefacts” (Suchman et al 2002, 175), forming “traps” for potentialities with “illusions of self-movement” (Jiménez 2014, 391). In the research group of Bret Victor, the work of prototypes is to catch and demonstrate potential properties of a new, spatial, dynamic medium. As one of its desired properties is simplicity, those prototypes that show this property tend to be selected as successful. Every two years or so, the overall process results in a new operating system, which then allows a whole new generation of prototypes to be built, prototypes that are often (though not always) based on the abilities of the respective present operating system while at the same time already exploring potential capabilities of its next generation. The overall goal is to create a rupture of a fundamental kind, a jump in technology equivalent to the jump in the 1960s and early 1970s when the quadruple introduction of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the graphical user interface, and the internet revolutionized what computing could be by turning the computer into a medium. Turning computing into media was already in the 1960s and 1970s meant to work with technology against technology: by using new computational capabilities, a medium was carved out that complies less with perceptions at the time of what computing “is,” and more with what a medium that forms a dynamic version of paper could look like. This form of working with computing against computing is now radicalized in the work of Bret Victor’s research group.

The patron saint for this enterprise, both in spirit and as a real person, is Alan Kay, one of the most famous radical engineers and a key contributor to those ruptures in computing in the 1960s and 1970s that Bret Victor’s group tries to match today. So let’s zoom in on Kay. He started his work in the 1960s at the newly founded Computer Science Department at the University of Utah, writing what surely was one of the boldest doctoral dissertations ever written, a wild technological dream of a new form of computing. A reference to another radical engineer’s cry of despair—“I wish these calculations were executed by steam” (attributed to Charles Babbage and quoted in Kay 1969, III)—stands at its beginning, and after 250 pages of thinking through a “reactive engine,” it culminates in a “handbook” for an imaginary “Flex Machine”: a first iteration of a set of ideas that culminated a few years later in Kay’s vision for a “DynaBook” (1972). While still working on this thesis, Kay became one of the Young Turks in the research community funded by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Project Agency’s (ARPA) Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), which was at that time making its first steps towards building the ARPANET. In the early 1970s, after a quick stint as a postdoc with John McCarthy at Stanford, Kay joined Bob Taylor’s new Xerox PARC research lab, where engineering legends such as Lampson, Thacker, Metcalfe, and many others, were building the ALTO system, which was the first system of connected standalone machines with advanced graphic abilities.

Once the first iterations of the ALTO/Ethernet system—and it is essential to understand the latter as a system and not as standalone computers—were up and running, they provided Kay with a formidable playground. Kay went back to some of his work in the 1960s, when he had analyzed SIMULA (an obscure Norwegian programming language), and developed this, with Dan Ingalls and Adele Goldberg, among others, into a hybrid between a programming language, an operating system, and a kid’s toy called Smalltalk. The first iterations of Smalltalk were experiments in object orientation that aimed to model all programming from scratch after a distributed system of message passing (Kay 1993): later versions gave up on this, and after an initial phase of success Smalltalk eventually lost the battle over the dominant form of object orientation to the likes of C++ and Java. But in the mid 1970ties the ALTO/Ethernet/Smalltalk system became a hotbed for an explosion of ideas about the graphical user interface (GUI) as well as dozens of now common applications. The work of Kay and his “Learning Research Group” can thus be seen as both a lost holy grail of computing before it was spoiled by a model of computing as capitalism cast in hard- and software, but also as one of the crucial genealogical hubs for its later emergence. And it is this double meaning that makes this work so unique and interesting to this day.

A whiteboard in the lab of Bret Victor’s group filled with papers by Alan Kay.

Alan Kay’s contributions to the history of computing are results of radical hacks of the computational paradigms and imaginaries of his time. Kay took heterodox programming techniques like the one pioneered by SIMULA, new visualization techniques like the ones developed by the Sutherland brothers, McCarthy cravings for “private computing” (1962:225) and Wes Clark’s lonely machines, the experiments in augmentation by Doug Engelbart’s group, and new ideas about distributed networks, to name a few. Such techniques were not common sense in the emerging professions of software engineering and programming, but had started to circulate in the elite engineering circles where Kay worked. Kay combined them with ideas about pedagogy, psychology, and mathematics by Maria Montessori, Seymour Papert, and Jerome Bruner, and added further zest in form of the sassy media theoretical speculations of Marshall McLuhan. Kay was also very early in understanding the implications of what Carver Mead called “Moore’s Law,” an exponential line of ever smaller, faster, and cheaper forms of computing kicked off by the mass-produced integrated circuit, and now leading to the positive feedback of technical development and the creation of new markets. So Kay took all of these ideas, desires, technologies, and opportunities, and recombined them. The results were crucial contributions to a new and emerging sociotechnical imaginary, in many ways representing the computer as a digital medium, which we now have today. Kay’s work can thus be seen as a benchmark in radical engineering, as such enabling us to critique the stalemate and possible decline in quality of most currently available imaginaries about technologies.

But is it really that easy? Is radical engineering simply the result of a bit of remixing? Obviously it is a much more complicated process. One of the most convincing descriptions of this process stems from another legendary radical engineer, the aforementioned Doug Engelbart. In 1962, a few years before Alan Kay started his career, Engelbart set the program for his own U.S. Air Force–funded research group at the Stanford Research Institute (Bardini 2000:1-32), aiming for nothing less than to re-engineer the “HLAM-T,” the “Human using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, in which he is Trained” (Engelbart 1962:9). This HLAM-T was always a cyborg, and as such it can be engaged in a continuous process of “augmenting human intellect.” According to Engelbart, the latter can be achieved through the process of “bootstrapping.” This is a term that can mean many things in the Silicon Valley, from initiating systems to kicking off startups, but in the context of Engelbart’s work, bootstrapping is the “…interesting (recursive) assignment of developing tools and techniques to make it more effective at carrying out its assignment. Its tangible product is a developing augmentation system to provide increased capability for developing and studying augmentation systems” (Engelbart and English 2003:234). Just as Moore’s so-called law, this is a dream of exponential progress emerging out of nonlinear, self-enforcing feedback. How much more Californian can you be?

For Engelbart and English’s description to be more than just a cybernetic pipedream, we need to remind ourselves that they were not only speaking about technical artifacts. Simply building prototypes with prototypes would not be a smart recipe for radical engineering: once in use, prototypes tend to break; thus, a toolset of prototypes would not be a very useful toolset for developing further prototypes. Bootstrapping as a process can thus only work if we assume that it is a larger process in which “tools and techniques” are developing with social structures and local knowledge over longer periods of time. The processes are recursive, much like the “recursive publics” that Chris Kelty (2008:30) describes for the free software development community: in both cases developers create sociotechnical infrastructures with which they can communicate and cooperate, which then spread to other parts of life. Kelty shows how such recursive effects are not simply the magical result of self-enforcing positive feedback. Recursive processes are based on politics. And resources. And qualified personnel. And care. And steering. In short, they need to be continually produced.

As such, bootstrapping can assume different scopes and directions. While Engelbart’s and English’s project might sound ambitious, they still believed, at least in the 1960s, that bootstrapping inside a research group would achieve the desired results. Alan Kay’s Learning Research Group extended this setting in the 1970s through pedagogy and McLuhanite media theory. By bringing children in, they aimed to achieve recursive effects beyond the lab, with the long-term goal of involving the whole world in a process akin to bootstrapping. Bret Victor and his research group’s form of bootstrapping resembles a multi-layered onion. The kind of people who should be part of it, and at what moments, can lead to intense internal discussion. Once the group launches “Dynamic Land” (see image), it will reach its next stage (to be described in a future paper). Meanwhile, bootstrapping has already taken many forms. Prototypes relate to the process of bootstrapping as pointers, feelers, searchers, riffs, scaffolds, operating systems, jams, representations, imaginary test cases, demos and so on. There is, indeed, a bestiary of prototyping techniques contained in the larger process of bootstrapping. Together, inside the lab, they produce a feeling of sitting inside a brain. The lab as a whole—its walls, desks, whiteboards, roofs, machines, and the people inhabiting it—functions as a first demo for an alternative medium.

A detail in the HARC Lab: Above, Alan Kay, in white jeans. Below: Engelbart’s 1962 paper, glued on a wall in San Francisco’s Mission district by Bret Victor.

Building the iterations of the series of operating systems can require substantial engineering tasks in the more classical sense; such as, for example, programming a kernel in C, or a process host in Haskell. But the overall endeavor is decidedly not driven by technology. In the spatial medium to come, computing is supposed to be reduced. Computing is to take the role of an infrastructure: much as books need light, but are not modeled after the light’s logic, the medium might draw, where necessary, on the computing possibilities provided by the OS in the background, but it should not be driven by them. Instead, the dynamic spatial medium should be driven by properties of the medium itself, and as such, it should drive technology. The medium’s properties are yet to be explored by the very process of bootstrapping it. In the parlance of the group, both the medium and the ways in which they produce this medium, are “from the future.” That future is not given, but depends on the medium the group is imagining. It thus depends on the properties of the medium that the group is exploring, selecting, and practicing. On the one hand, technology enables a new medium, which is imagined as shaping the future, on the other hand the future is imagined as shaping the new medium, which then should drive technology.

While most of the group’s work consists of building devices, speculative thought is part of their work as well. The latter enables the engineers to understand what the prototyping work unveils. It also gives the lab’s work direction, motivates its enterprise, and is part of acquiring funding. The overall process has by now led to a set of interconnected and evolving ideas and goals: One cluster looks, for example, for new ways of representing and understanding complex systems. A second cluster aims for more access to knowledge by undoing contemporary media’s restrictions (such as the restriction of the screen, which produces, with its peek-a-boo access to complexity, impenetrable forms of knowledge such as the trillions of lines of code, written on screens and then stared at on screens). A third cluster explores new forms of representing time, and a fourth one more effective inclusion of physical properties into the spatial media system. All these clusters would lead, so the goal and the assumption, to more seamless travels up and down the “ladder of abstraction” (Victor 2011.) As if to echo Nietzsche’s, McLuhan’s, or Kittler’s media theoretical musings with engineering solutions, a larger goal is to make new thoughts possible, which have until now remained “unthinkable” due to contemporary media’s inadequacies. Enhanced forms of embodied cognition, and better ways of cooperative generation of ideas could cure the loneliness and pain that are often part of deep thought. And all of it together might, to quote an internal email, “prevent the world from taking itself apart.”

One way to understand what’s going on here is to frame all this as an alternative form of “hacking.” When you “hack,” you might be said to be hacking apart or hacking together. Hacking apart could then be seen as the practices evolving out of the refusal to accept former acts of black boxing. Transferred to radical engineering, hacking apart would translate into not accepting the black boxes of present technological paradigms such as screen-based computers, or ready-made futures such as, say, “Smart Cities, Smart Homes” or the “Internet of Things.” Instead you would open such black boxes and dissect them: assumptions about what is deemed as technologically successful and about technological advances to come, matched by certain versions of social order, and often glued together with an unhealthy dose of business opportunity porn. The black boxes will most likely also contain ideas about the roles of the different types of engineers, programmers, designers, managers, and so on. If you take all this apart, you might look at the elements, throw away a lot of them, twist others, add stuff from elsewhere, and grow some on your own. You will look into different, often historical, technological paradigms, other ideas about what will become technologically possible (and when), different ideas of social order, the good life and problems that need addressing, other books to be read, alternative uses of the forces of media, and different ideas about the kind of people and the nature of their professions or non-professions, who should take charge of all this. If you are lucky, you have the conditions and abilities to work all this through in a long, non-linear process also known as bootstrapping, where you go through many iterations of hacking apart and hacking together, all the while creating fundamentally different ideas about what technologies should do, and could do, matched by a succession of devices and practices that help shape these ideas, and “demo” to yourself and others that some utopias might not be out of reach. This is what radical engineers do.

While they make considerable efforts to evade techno-solutionist fantasies, they don’t abandon engineering’s approach of addressing problems by building things, and they have developed an approach that one might call, once more for the lack of a better word, “radical media solutionism” (even though they have ambivalent attitudes in regards to the latter, too.) To prevent misunderstanding: neither I, nor the engineers I research, think that the actual future can be hacked together singlehandedly by a bunch of engineers in Palo Alto or Oakland. But I do think that radical engineers such as Engelbart’s, Kay’s, or maybe Victor’s research groups, in their specific, highly privileged positions, add something crucial to the complex assemblage of forces that move us in the direction of futures. My ongoing fieldwork makes me curious about what is produced here, and many people who visit the lab agree that the first “arrivals” are stunning and mind boggling indeed. If we believe the group’s self-perception, their technologies are, just like hacks, tentative interim solutions for something bigger that might arrive one day. The radical engineers would also be the first to state that the same interim solutions, if stopped in their development and reified too early, are potential sources of hacks in the derogatory sense. The latter is, according to their stories, exactly what happened when, 40 years ago, the prototypes left the labs too soon, and entered the world of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft, producing the accumulation of bad decisions that led to a world where people stare at smartphones.

Within such stories, radical engineers might employ a retrospective “could have been,” a “Möglichkeitssinn” (sense of possibility, Musil 1930/1990, 14-18) in hindsight, mixed with traces of distinction against “normal” engineers. Even though they distance themselves from Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial cultures, their isolation against the “Californian ideology” (Barbrook 2007; Barbrook and Cameron 1995) might not always be 100% tight. Indeed, they might provide the Silicon Valley mainstream with the fix of heterodoxy it so desperately needs. Yet the same radical engineers are potential allies to those, who aim to hack apart the libertarian, totalitarian and toothless imaginaries that Silicon Valley so often provides us with, be it the “Internet of Shit” or the “crapularity” (Cramer 2016). The conceptual poverty of most of Silicon Valley’s currently available futures surely can become visible from the perspectives of critical theory, from viewpoints of social movements, or through political economy’s analysis. But Silicon Valley’s timidity in thinking, which is only thinly veiled by the devastation it causes, also becomes apparent, if we compare it to radical engineering’s utopias.

Alan Kay in a Japanese manga by Mari Yamazaki

Götz Bachmann is based at Leuphana University, Germany and is currently a Visiting Fellow at Stanford. He is an ethnographer, with former fieldwork among warehouse workers, saleswoman, and cashiers in Germany, and among Japan’s Nico Chuu. He also authors the German children’s comic series KNAX.


Barbrook, Richard. 2007. Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village. London, UK: Pluto.

Barbrook, Richard, and David Cameron. 1995. “The Californian Ideology.” Mute 1(3) (republished in Proud to be Flesh, edited by Josephine Berry Slater and Pauline van Mourik Broekman, pp.27-34. London, UK: Mute Publishing)

Bardini, Thierry. 2000. Bootstrapping. Douglas Engelbart, Co-evolution and the Origin of Personal Computing. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cramer, Florian. 2016. “Crapularity Hermeneutics.” Available at link.

Engelbart, Doug. 1962. Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Summary Report. AFO SR 3223. Stanford, CA: Stanford Research Institute.

Engelbart, Doug, and William English. 2003. “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect.” In The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, pp. 231–246. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jiménez, Alberto Corsín. 2014. “Introduction  – The Prototype: More than many and less than one.” In Journal of Cultural Economy 7(4):381-398

Kay, Alan C. 1969. “The Reactive Engine.” PhD dissertation, The University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

———. 1972. “A Personal Computer for Children of all Ages.” In Proceedings of the ACM National Conference, Boston (typed manuscript, no page numbers)

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