A matter of trust

In July, 1945 Vannevar Bush–The Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for the United States Government –wrote in an article for The Atlantic titled As we May Think:

“There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.”

It was a statement that he could make with authority, as he oversaw an organization of nearly 30,000 scientific men and women who–among other accomplishments–began the Manhattan Project, created the Norden Bomb Sight, developed instruments for SONAR and RADAR, and helped make the mass-production of drugs possible.

In Vannevar’s eyes, it was a clear signal of the end of the Renaissance man. As specialization increased, no one person could reasonably be expected to know everything necessary to bring new inventions and innovations to full maturity. And he suggested that it was only the development of devices that were beyond books–machines that could extend human memory and provide near instantaneous retrieval and cross referencing capabilities–that would allow scientific advancement to proceed.

Skipping past the decades in which the roots on the tree of knowledge continued to deepen to the point that the “memex” Vannevar Bush envisioned in his prescient article took its first step toward reality as a network of computers shared by governments and universities (and bypassing the explosion of technological advances that made it possible to create computers that were inexpensive enough to be dedicated to performing tasks for a single individual), we arrived at the moment in which personal computing devices became legion, palm sized, and constantly connected.

It was at this point the advancement of knowledge accelerated and deepened beyond anyone’s imagination. Job descriptions that could not even be comprehended 10 years prior came into existence, only to be completely replaced by new job descriptions five years later. Today, traveling visionaries fill their slide decks with predictions of job descriptions being torn down and reborn almost annually.

Throughout this entire process, the focus has been on the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge. Terms like “Knowledge Management” have entered the lexicon. “Knowledge Architects” focus on taxonomies, knowledge maps, and semantic searches. The Knol has been proposed as a unit of knowledge.

And the collective wisdom is that to reach the next point of specialization acceleration, we should continue to add to this base of knowledge, and invest in curators of that knowledge in the form of narrowly focused niche applications or sophisticated cloud enhanced software. (And given that such collective wisdom is now expanded to include two thirds of the world’s population, I would be foolish to argue against it.)

But I will humbly suggest that knowledge growth using refined search or curation as the sole determining factor for reaching the next stages of human intellectual advancement or even business success is becoming increasingly unlikely for a simple reason. The pool of human knowledge has become so choked with the detritus of an army of spiders and robots that rather than embrace the collective intelligence we have amassed, we try to insulate ourselves from it. There are too many “false positives” out there, and too few retractions and amendments.

Some contend that the occasional false story that spreads like wildfire is a natural consequence of the mediums upon which we have chosen to rely for our information. But it appears a far deeper issue is that there is no remorse in one being wrong as long as one is first. And data that goes uncorrected becomes useless for statistical analysis in the future.

So if quantity, curation, and focus alone cannot determine the rulers of the next information empires, is there a deciding factor? The following trends point toward trust as the critical ingredient.

  • Google was just a search engine with a funny name amidst a sea of competition at its outset. It was only by earning the trust of its users for returning the knowledge that was most likely to satisfy the questions asked that it rose to dominance. And, ironically, it was only when it moved onto shaky ground with its loyal users around issues of trust in both its results and its intentions that the door opened even slightly for its competition.
  • The rise of Facebook is as much about being able to insulate yourself from people who do not share your views and find information that only comes from sources you trust as it is about rekindling friendships. There, the “like” button is becoming a unit of confidence, a currency of trust, and an index of knowledge. And just as with Google, it is only matters of trust that threaten its continued success.
  • The entire premise of crowd-sourcing via ratings systems counts on how hungry we have become for validation that our faith is not being misplaced before we invest ourselves either financially or intellectually.
  • Wikipedia, arguably one of the largest collections of human knowledge ever amassed because it allows anyone to contribute to its body of work, is not allowed to be cited as a source of information by most colleges, universities, journals or publications. The reason? A lack of trust in its veracity.

It is the organizations that ask themselves “How can I become the most trusted source for the knowledge and information I provide?” rather than “How can I become the biggest or most profitable?” that will lead us into the coming decade.



Clinging naked to the wall of the shower to avoid its scalding spray, Davis cursed the previous owners of his new house using a colorful language reserved for minister’s sons, night-shift store clerks, and roadies at political events. He resolved to turn the temperature on the hot water heater down just as soon as he escaped from his near-death experience and dried his hair.

Almost seven years later, the temperature dial remained unchanged. He had forgotten about it in his “first-morning-in-a-new-house haze,” only to notice shortly thereafter how clean the dishes were when the water in the dishwasher was truly hot, and how convenient it was to make instant oatmeal with water he didn’t need to spend extra time boiling.

Today, he put his finger in the soon to be too-hot water coming from the kitchen sink and waited. When his sacrificial digit started to burn, he hastily withdrew it and adjusted the pressure on the faucet to a trickle. He then pushed a tall glass containing about a teaspoon of sugar substitute underneath, let just enough water splash over the crystals to cover them, withdrew the glass, and stirred the indigestible sweetener mixed with hot water into a sugar-free simple syrup.

He watched until the cloudy mixture turned clear and added a couple of dashes of bitters to the fledgling drink. Stirring again, he smiled as his creation turned into a reddish-gold mixture and held the glass to his nose to enjoy its slightly-floral bouquet. Next he added a generous pour of Kentucky bourbon.

He took a solitary ice cube from the freezer and held his chalice of glowing golden liquid up to the light. He lowered the ice cube into the mixture of bourbon and sweetened water, then watched as tendrils sprang forth from the melting cube and descended like dozens of sprouting tentacles to the bottom of the glass.

“I fucking love chemistry,” he murmured under his breath. His first sip was strong and sweet, and he sighed contentedly as the alcohol spread its golden warmth throughout his body. He took the glass upstairs to his bedroom-slash-office, and sat down in front of his computer.

He stared at the cursor blinking in the upper left corner of the impossibly white rectangle; the illusion of a blank page helpfully facilitated by 2,076,300 incredibly small diodes acting under the direction of a solid state magician somewhere off stage. It was, for all intents and purposes, a blank canvas waiting for the words to move from his mind to his keyboard.




Damnshitpissfuck, he typed.

It had taken him the better part of a night some weeks ago to determine that, if one desired to make a single expletive by combining four others, damnshitpissfuck was the way to go. Sure, there were combinations that looked better on paper (fuckshitpissdamn, for example), but to his way of thinking, only one of the 24 possible combinations was both pleasing to the eye and easy to say when one was angry (which was ironic because he often said, “Damnshitfisspuck!” when he actually tried to use it).

He backspaced over the word, took a sip of bourbon, and typed instead:

Perfecting Your Spiritual Soulfflé: How to Rise to any Occasion.

He finished the bourbon in his glass, then backspaced over the entry, leaving a blank white rectangle with a blinking cursor once more. He went downstairs to make himself another drink. And maybe a cheese sandwich.

An hour later, having had both the cheese sandwich and some more whisky, he seated himself before the blank page and typed:

We are cursed with believing there is something inside of us that wishes to be freed. Some think that this thing inside is noble and beautiful and that it deserves to shine through. Others believe it’s something dark and ugly, and that it must be shown to be purged. But be it Angel or Demon, we try to free it through art–the composition of words, music, color, movement, or the mechanical reproduction of moments.

We are desperate to free this thing inside of us. To show it to others and to make them see what we see. But granting it freedom is not as simple as opening a door. First we must dig a tunnel from where it lives inside of us to world we share with each other. The blueprint for the tunnel is never the same (no surveyor can show us the way), the tunnel is always longer than we think, and there is inevitably pain. After all, who claws a tunnel through himself without striking a nerve or two?

But one day, the tunnel is finished, and what we felt trembling beneath the surface of our skin and twitching behind the images in our eyes waits behind the door that we had we imagined at the beginning.

Eagerly, we open it. Some of us are amazed at what emerges. Most of us are ashamed and disappointed. We imagined that it would somehow be bigger. Or brighter. Or more beautiful. We close the door and leave that feeling trapped inside of us to starve. We confuse our citizenship and our work with our purpose. We draw satisfaction from the things that our place in society gives us. The thing we felt inside us begins to die while we’re seated at our desks… reclining on our sofas… driving home from the office… kissing in the garden… walking through the zoo.

After the feeling passes, we flock to those lucky few who still have those vibrant living things inside of them. We take solace in their moments of inspiration and we are eager to see their creations.

But those lucky few are truly few, indeed. So rare, in fact, that we begin to treat the people who merely help us forget (or perhaps no longer care) that we’ve let a part of us die inside just the same as if they are the rare and precious ones. Inspiration becomes manufactured. Creativity is commoditized and consumed beyond sustainable levels.

Eventually, the truly rare ones among us seem more dangerous than desirable.

Open the door once more. Clear away the debris that chokes the tunnel. Feed the withered shell and see if there is still a chance that it might live. Among the farmers of the world, there is certainly one who is the best. But he alone cannot feed the world. We survive thanks to the efforts of all.

Make the curse a blessing and all the world will be richer for it.

“That’s it, I’m too drunk to write,” Davis muttered as he walked away from the glowing white page and headed for the black rectangle of his bed instead.

“Or not drunk enough…” he wondered aloud as he wavered between going downstairs again or going to sleep.

“No. Bed,” he told himself.

“Maybe tomorrow I’ll try writing erotic fiction,” he whispered as he curled the pillow into a ball under his head. “People are buying that.” Davis fiddled with the settings on his adjustable bed and decided that 12 degrees of incline at the head would be just enough to stop his reflux disorder from resharing his bourbon and cheese extravaganza in the night.

As he drifted off to sleep, just below the surface of Davis’ skin, something briefly twitched. It slowly worked its way to the place behind Davis’ eyes, and waited for Davis to dream. Perhaps there it might find enough to survive for one more day.


The number of words project – One (1)

A single mote drifts across the multiverse, moving so slowly that in ten thousand millennium it will have moved no more than a near-infinitesimal fraction of the smallest distance imaginable.

If it were to be detected by beings that attempted to catalog such occasions, they would record it as the only unique thing that has ever existed; an element whose properties have no match on the periodic tables of any civilization, from any universe, at any time. But the odds of such a discovery are astronomical (no pun intended); somewhere in the neighborhood of one-in-a-number-so-large-it-has-yet-to-be-conceived-recorded-or-expressed-by-any-sentient-creature.

Which is precisely as it should be, since the mote is the herald of the Void; a tiny loose thread sewn into the fabric of the multiverse at the instant of creation that has the power to unravel everything if it is tugged. All that needs happen to start the process is a simple collision between it and any matter that is not the same as itself.

Why would such a thing exist? No one will ever truly know, but one could speculate that it is the counterbalance; the thing that simply must be to give the Void a chance–however improbable–to conquer all. One could almost picture it as a clause in the contract of being that was negotiated by the Original Attorney so skillfully that it could, in theory, remain untouched forever.

But in practice (again, no pun intended) a radio signal from Earth that should have dissipated billions of miles prior–but found itself absorbed, magnified, and rebroadcast by a chance encounter with a star’s birth–will reach it. The wave’s impact will cause the aforementioned speck to careen across the multiverse, making the collision that might never have happened an inevitable conclusion.

The result?

The beginning of The End.

(What prognosticator could have foreseen that everything–every single thing–would be undone by talk radio and a born-again star?)

NOTE: This post originally ran on on December 1st, 2007. It was believed to have been lost forever, but a recent spelunking expedition into the crawlspace beneath the basement steps revealed a heretofore unknown passion for mildew and another copy.


The man who loved words

He sat with his fingers hovering over the keyboard staring at the blinking cursor on his screen. In a sudden flurry of clicks, he typed.

The infelicitous syzygy: A concupiscent defenestration of sesquipedalian grandiloquence and rampant communicative disintermediation eclipsing decorous linguistic interrelation.

He stared at the screen for a few moments. Eventually, he backspaced over the sentence and, sighing, typed again.

Twitter. Leading our language down darkened tweets.

“It’s not like anyone is reading it anyway,” he said to himself as he went to the kitchen to find a clean glass.

“I wonder if is taken?”

NOTE: This was originally posted on on July 15, 2009. When the great purge of 2013 took place, it was thought to be lost forever. It was recovered unexpectedly when the author searched for “” (apparently having forgotten that this had already occurred to him once before), and a cached version of the page was found.


The number of words project – Four (4)

The brothers Ingvar are known for their eclectic designs and eccentric concept pieces. The four Norwegians are always seen together, taking a strange pleasure in the fact that there isn’t a single photograph of them in any gallery, magazine, or newspaper where they are pictured separately. This homogeneous identity even extends to the body of their work. It is never known which brother influences which piece.

Was it Tor’s inspiration to create a set of living room furniture out of Spam cans? Was it Edvard’s influence that led to the design of the Plexiglas mini-van? Perhaps Sven is the mastermind behind the skyscraper furnished entirely with bean bag chairs and beaded curtains? Or maybe Max is the genius behind all of the designs? No one really knows.

And now, with their latest creation, a massive a-frame shaped timepiece made entirely out of wax lips, no one will ultimately care. These brothers have cemented their place in history with this latest effort, and they will always be known as the four Norsemen of the, uh… clock of lips.

NOTE: This post originally ran on on December 12th, 2007. When “fell over” it was believed to have been lost forever, but a recent reach into the dryer for a missing sock uncovered another copy, which I now share with you.


The Tailgates of Hell

Dear Sir or Madam,

To begin, let me point out that I address you as ‘Sir or Madam’ merely because from the vantage point of my rear-view mirror, I can only see one of your vehicle’s headlights and a portion of its grill. I do not use both salutations because I consider your appearance to be androgynous, and I certainly am not being imprecise because I openly question your sexuality. Neither of those perceptions on your part would be helpful in focusing your attention on the two actual points of this missive, which — in the interest of time — I now elucidate.

You may not be aware of it, but you are driving far too close to my car’s rear bumper relative to the rate of speed at which we are traveling. This action — known to those of us who have taken a driver’s examination as tailgating — is endangering not only my life, but the lives of all of those around me. I find your action to be reckless; unwarranted; and (quite candidly) perplexing; as I do not know what you hope to obtain from it. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand cars ahead of us on this highway, and an equal number in the lane to our left that are all moving at the same speed as you and I. From my vantage point (which I re-iterate is uncomfortably close to your own at the moment), you have absolutely nothing to gain from your wanton endangerment.

Perhaps you feel that you have a greater entitlement to the road than the rest of us and you want us to know of your contempt by creating a sense of menace to those who stand in your way. Or maybe you lack the personal discipline to drive as you know you should. Possibly, you do not care how you treat others as long as you get what you want, which, at this moment, appears to be a coordinated effort on the part of ten thousand drivers to merge all vehicles except yours into a single lane of traffic so you may pass without hindrance.

Of course, at this point, I no longer care why. While others might have chosen to respond to your maddening lack of respect for your fellow beings with a rude gesture or a harsh slamming of brakes, I have picked a different course of action. I have submitted a petition on your behalf for admittance to a special circle of Hell reserved exclusively for chronic, stupid, tailgaters. If my petition is accepted, you will, upon shuffling off your mortal coil, spend one hour of each day being force fed asphalt and ground up tires; one hour of each day drinking gasoline; one hour shitting flaming tar on the hood of your vehicle, and the remaining twenty-one hours washing it off with your tongue.

I realize that wishing such an awful thing upon someone — even under the stressful circumstances you are so thoughtlessly creating with your hazardous conduct — is harsh. Therefore, in the event that you are simply having a bad day I offer the following ‘get out of Hell free’ card:

If you can spend one calendar month’s time consciously attempting to observe a proper following distance while driving at speeds over 55 kph (it doesn’t matter if you have the distance in meters just right; I’m only suggesting honest and thoughtful effort in the matter), my curse is lifted.

Personally, I would prefer that you succeed in removing the curse as, after a month of actually trying to be courteous and respectful while driving, you will no doubt find it satisfying to make the roads we share safer and less stress-filled for yourself and others. You might even notice that your responsible driving is actually increasing the speed at which we all arrive at our destinations and influencing others to drive more safely, as well.

But, in the event you are unwilling to try such a trivial thing for such an insignificant period of time to contribute to the betterment of us all, well… to Hell with you.

Warmest regards,

NOTE: This post originally ran on on November 27, 2007. When “fell over” it was believed to have been lost forever, but a recent expedition into the darkest recesses of the area just behind the basement toilet uncovered another copy, which I now share with you.


Come the revolution.

A couple of days ago was hacked with such a degree of thoroughness that I was left with no choice but to change all my passwords, strip the site bare, and start over. Because of the severity of the attack, I decided to call my hosting provider and let them know. Their response was to attempt to sell me their “watchdog” service (which would only *triple* my monthly hosting fee). I hung up, shaking my head at their apparent lack of concern, and set upon the task of rebuilding. I’ve wanted to switch from WordPress to WordPress MU on this account anyway, and this seemed like a chance to make lemonade out of lemons, even if I wasn’t 100% confident that my lemonade stand wouldn’t be kicked over the next day by the exact same bullies.

During that time of digital catharsis, however, I ran into a problem with one of the tools the provider offers (it seemed to be hung), so I called customer service again. At this point, I decided that if there is another revolution in America, it won’t be over bankers, gun control, or religious fundamentalism. It will be over dealing with customer service.

The conversation started innocently enough:

“Thank you for calling our company, my name is Paul, how may I help you today?”

“I’m having a problem I can’t fix myself, and I need your help.”

“Certainly, I just need to verify some information about you before we start.”

“Ok. [Gives information].”

“Now what’s the problem?”

“[Explains problem].”

“Ok. Here’s a suggestion about how to fix a completely unrelated problem.”

“[Explains problem again.]”

“I see, well, I’d like to help you, but I notice that on a completely unrelated note, you don’t have a required field in your profile filled out to my liking. I cannot help you further until this tangential issue is satisfied.”

“[Explains problem again and offers possible solution.]”

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you until my desire for irrelevant changes to your account profile is satisfied.”

Imagine the time I would have saved if I had just gotten out my Customerserveless to English dictionary at the start of the call.

“Your call is yet another nail on the blackboard of my life, but it’s costing me fifty bucks a night to visit my girlfriend at the strip club, so I guess we’re stuck with each other for as long as I want to hang on to the fantasy that I’m going to get laid someday, my name is none of your damned business, what is it going to take to get you to shut up?”

“I’m having a problem I can’t fix myself, and I need your help.”

“I understand. I’m going to look for a loophole that either allows me to hang up on you, gives me a chance escalate your call to someone I hate worse than my current life at this desk, or emasculates your sense of self worth in an attempt to drive you to the point of giving up this pointless conversation.”

Now, I’m freshly tinged with the sting of having either an ill-mannered teenager or a calculating pharmaceutical link slave fire off an emotionless script designed to rape my web-site, so perhaps my translation from Customerserveless to English is tainted with emotional residue, and my idea of revolution is actually a bit of over-reaction. After all, there is no shortage of customers who are rude, deceiving, manipulative, and downright unpleasant to deal with, and they may be the reason that the Customerserveless language was invented in the first place.

But consider the problems being outlined in this article from the New York Times, and tell me that there aren’t thousands of others out there who have far more justification in calling for an overthrow than I.

The only downside I can see is that after the revolution, we’ll have to establish a customer service department to deal with the complaints.