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2 January 2012

European vacation summation: Blackie Books, NextNature & deep thoughts on email (from Jacob Palme) and fireworks (from Amsterdam)

Back on the grid again, after a holiday week in Amsterdam & Barcelona. For the most part devices remained out-of-sight if not entirely out of mind. For example, my reading material was James Gleick‘s The Information which, in a not-so-roundabout way, is all about the items we use to analyze, access & overwhelm us with said information. Instead of digital data, I tried to focus on physical stuff, like this:

But more on that in a second. Let me first discuss my lapses. I’ll admit to heavy use of GPS, and a few bursts of excitable iPadding to pursue various touristic & location specific sub-interests. In Amsterdam, trying to get a bead on design & design-thinking trends, I fell into a Google hole reading up on Koert van Mensvoort and the NextNature organization. (Sorry no actual deep thoughts on Koert or NextNature; you can consider the prominent use of his name as my amateur attempt at SEO.) In Spain, I was frustrated by the lack of internet presence for Blackie Books (their website reads “Estamos haciendo una web nueva muy bonita. Muy pronto, aqui,” which I’d invite you to Google Translate); however, I was equally blown away & entranced by the lovely production sensibility of the books themselves. I wish I could find a definitive Google Image but instead I’ll leave you with this video which, sadly, Google Translate cannot translate…yet:

Nicest of all, during the break my own personal internet traffic seemed to fall into a pleasant holiday lull and, today, I’ve returned to a mere 500 emails requiring attention, pruning, disinterest, fervent attention or otherwise.

Let’s circle back to the beginning of this post for a second, and consider what it means to get 500 pieces of “mail” over a one week period. (“Mail” in scare quotes because, if ever there was a bad metaphor for electronic communication, it is the inherent physicality & consequence of the concept of mail as it was understood until about a decade ago…) Now before I digress entirely into crankiness, here’s one of my favorite quotes from The Information, which quotes in turn the Swedish computer scientist Jacob Palme, whose thoughts on email I plan to spend more time with in the new year.

    Electronic mail system can, if used by many people, cause severe information overload problems. The cause of this problem is that it is so easy to send a message to a large number of people, and that systems are often designed to give the sender too much control of the communication process, and the receiver too little control…

    People get too many messages, which they do not have time to read. This also means that the really important messages are difficult to find in a large flow of less important messages.

    In the future, when we get larger and larger message systems, and these systems get more and more interconnected, this will be a problem for almost all users of these systems.

As you prepare to re-enter your own personal information scrum, assuming you too work in an office & with a computer, keep these words in mind.

To wrap up I’ll explain the photo at the top of this post — it’s a group of dudes in Amsterdam on New Year’s Eve, setting aloft a crude hot air balloon, I believe a device used mostly by stranded sea vessels. The photo is the result of some inadvertent research done in Amsterdam which proved that certain phenomenon still happen entirely offline — in this case, a previously unknown side-effect of the city’s laissez-faire attitude toward public-order laws, which is to say, two or three day of non-stop firework use culminating in a sense-expanding, limits testing, city-wide 360° rat-tat-tat of small explosions. To summarize it in a few words it was fucking crazy, and no joke it brought to mind a warzone. You may find that characterization a bit strong and admittedly I missed the full aftermath as my flight was early in the day on January 1, but the first website I could find on the matter more or less bears out my words: “Fire fighters were busy putting out fires around the country. In several cities cars and rubbish skips were set ablaze. Seventeen cars went up in flames in and around Utrecht alone. In Amsterdam, four cars and two lorries were set alight.”

And with that, I wish you a happy new year and a fresh reminder that neither offline or online is inherently better. It’s all in how you use it.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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