Glass, Tech and Civilization: The Material that Makes Just About Everything Better

imageI stared at the small glass bottle in the exhibit case for quite a while. Somehow it had survived millennia. Taken out of the case at the Museo del Vetro—the Museum of Glass—on the Italian island of Murano, its specialness would have been obscured by an utterly unremarkable appearance. Spectacular glasswork is part of the Venetian sparkle, its seductive shimmer. Such a small plain bottle. Who made it? What did it hold? How had it managed to navigate the centuries intact? 

It was late winter and the tourist rush was still off in the distance, so I had the Museum mostly to myself. Murano, too, for that matter. I strolled narrow streets festooned with colorful laundry hung to dry overhead, nibbled on the most delicious cookies from a local bakery, listened to seabirds and felt  the warmth the fast-approaching spring. It was easy to slip back in time—maybe not millennia, but certainly a few centuries into the past—to a time when even the plainest of glass jars was still something to treasure. In a pre-plastic world, glass provided secure, transparent storage. In Italy, of course, form and function are incomplete without beauty. The little bottle was a light translucent lavender. 

Last fall, I made a glass bowl of my own at a workshop given by Chicago’s Ignite Glass Studio (a particularly popular offering through the Chicago Ideas Week festival). Glass, it turns out, is neither a liquid or a solid, but an amorphous solid, which means it has properties of both. The basic recipe is simple—silica (sand), soda ash and lime—but it can be chemically manipulated in the most remarkable ways, adding color, thermal properties and resilience (the newest version of Corning’s Gorilla glass for smartphones and tablets can be bent without breaking). Glass can be molded in a kiln, “floated” on tin sheets to make windows, rolled, spun and even 3D printed

Blowing glass, though, has an almost alchemical magic to it. The glassblower literally breathes life into the form by providing a bubble of air and must keep the form alive by constantly spinning a heavy metal rod. What starts as an unpromising molten blob attached at one end slowly transforms into something delicate, translucent, ethereal. It takes brute strength and a delicate touch, neither of which I possess, but my master teacher deftly filled in the gaps. 

The video below is a demonstration from the Corning Glass Museum. Watch  all the way through and you’ll be joining in with the videographer exclaiming early and often, “Wow!”

My little bowl was nowhere near as elaborate, but still fills me with wonder. It turns out it doesn’t matter whether the glass is half-filled or half-empty. The point is there is a glass. 

GLASS AND TECH: FROM THE RENAISSANCE TO SILICON VALLEY

No one material has been at the center of more disruptive innovation than glass. Edison’s lightbulb, the archetypal symbol of innovation, required a glassblower to blow the bulb. 

Centuries earlier, Galileo, who ground his own lenses, pointed his telescope toward the heavens, boldly looked where no one had looked so clearly before, and profoundly altered our view of the cosmos and our place in it. The Space Age had begun. Similarly, microscopes made the invisible visible, leading to new theories of disease and a much deeper understanding of how bodily systems worked. These tools of superhuman sight led to insights that changed the world.

Eyeglasses, which date back as far as 13th century, did not bestow  superhuman powers, but vastly improved countless lives by bringing the day-to-day into focus. Eight centuries later, a project to make affordable glasses in Africa just won a prestigious award from the Siemens Foundation for empowering technologies. A single eyeglass machine carted from village to village by a trained operator can churn out thousands of pairs at a cost of less than one dollar per to manufacture That’s not just life-changing, but potentially society-changing.

Back to the 19th century, Edison’s lightbulb almost literally lit the way for a revolution in electronics that would define much of the 20th century. Vacuum tubes, which made radio, television and sound recording possible, also required glassblowers in their development. Even today, many university and corporate labs have a glassblowing studios on premises to fabricate equipment and components. 

The story of Steve Jobs’ discovery of a failed glass product developed by Corning in the early 1950s is the stuff of Silicon Valley legend. In a mind-boggling six weeks, the company manufactured enough of its super-tough Gorilla glass to launch Apple’s first iPhone, ushering in the era of the touchscreen. Tablets and smart phones are just the beginning. Thin bendable glass is the next gadget frontier: 

"…it also means an entire galaxy of new types of gadgets that haven’t even been conceived of yet. Imagine an in-car display that ripples and wraps itself across your dashboard, or some sort of super-charged Magic Eightball that is simply a sphere with a 360-degree display. These gadgets are still a ways off, but the likes of Corning, Apple, Samsung, and LG are skating to where the puck is going. In 20 years, you won’t be able to believe that the world of gadgets was once so boxy.

—John Brownlee / Fast Company Design

SKYLINES AND POWER PLAYS

Modern cities glisten with glass. Buildings soar ever taller, reflecting the sun, the weather, each other. But there is much more to a building’s glass surface than an elegant shimmer. Glass can let in light, add color and provide thermal insulation. Now, with integrated solar panels, a building’s skin can also generate electricity.  

Imagine:  a city full of elegant buildings that double as power plants. Let’s raise a glass to that. From ancient perfume bottles and stargazing telescopes to the lights of Broadway and a clean energy future, glass just seems to have a way of bringing out the best civilization has to offer. 

RELATED: 

• For the Files: Glass, Tech and Civilization bibliography

Beyond Measure: da Vinci’s Genius, Peripheral Vision, the Prepared Mind, Metric Traps and Hacking the Filter Bubble

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…Leonardo da Vinci was the first in long line of scientists who focused on the patterns interconnecting basic structures and processes of living systems. Today, this approach is called ‘systemic thinking.’ This, in my eyes, is the essence of what Leonardo meant by farsi universale. Freely translating his statement into modern scientific language, I would rephrase it this way: ‘For someone who can perceive interconnecting patterns, it is easy to be a systemic thinker.

— Fritjoj Capra, author, The Science of Leonardo

While the best—which is to say the most privileged—minds of his generation were drilled into complacent conformity, studying for tests to prove they had interpreted the classics “correctly,” Leonardo, a bastard offspring denied entrance to university, was left to think for himself. 

Wandering the Tuscan hills, he learned about nature from nature. And when it was time to get a job, he took a position as a sculptor’s apprentice in Florence. Long before anyone had heard of STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)—much less STEAM (just add Art)—Leonardo’s self-directed education was steeped in it. He was Maker’s maker, an imaginative inventor, a visionary artist. 

Centuries later, we still marvel at da Vinci’s brilliance—and that of his polymath kindred spirits, from Ben Franklin to Buckminster Fuller to Steve Jobs. All intuitively understood the importance and serendipity of peripheral vision: an awareness of what’s happening at the edges. Theirs were the kind of “prepared minds” that chance so famously favors.  

You would think we would want to do everything we possibly could to follow in such fortunate footsteps. Instead, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, led by ever-more powerful—and profitable—analytical tools designed to filter, slot, slice, dice, separate and blinder. Everything that can possibly be scored and ranked, including "Klout," has been. The metrics too often become the mission: the tail wagging the dog.

Peripheral vision, by its nature, is metric-defiant, specializing in kismet connections, collections of stray facts, flashes of insight and epiphanies that can be years in the making. It is the how and the why a college dropout—Jobs—could sit in on an obscure calligraphy class and, years later, draw on the experience to spark a revolution in digital publishing. 

Peripheral vision is also the key to solving the nine-dot puzzle which inspired the term, “thinking outside the box.” It is the essence of "think different." 

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LOST IN (ALGORITHMIC) SPACE

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," famously noted former Facebook data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher in a 2011 BusinessWeek interview. “That sucks.” 

Well, yes, it does. It may be a slight step up, perhaps, from the the test-cramming so prevalent in Leonardo’s day, but still a rather disappointing, though lucrative, use of talent.  

"Search Engine Optimization"—SEO—has become a multi-bazillion dollar industry, a never-ending keyword-and-ad-based competition to capture the top, most-clickable spots on a Google search page. 

Each click online contributes to our individual profiles, analyzed constantly by social media sites and search engines for targeting ad sales. Bizarrely, so detailed has the profiling become that two people using the same identical search terms are likely to pull up two different lists of links. We have become trapped in "filter bubbles" of an algorithm’s making. 

Quite literally—and scarily—we are no longer on the same page, nor are we free to see all there is to see. A wall of metrics has blocked the view. 

A BRIEF DIGRESSION ON BURSTING BUBBLES, SCALING WALLS & THE TRACKERNEWS PROJECT…

A few years ago, I developed a news aggregator as a demo project for a small, independent spin-off of Google.org called InSTEDD (named for Dr. Larry Brilliant’s TED wish—a double pun on TED and Early Disease Detection). 

The TrackerNews Project’s beat covered health issues (microbial to planetary), humanitarian response and technologies relevant to both. Its mission was to bring a multidisciplinary perspective. For example, since most infectious diseases are zoonotic (affecting multiple species, including humans), most public health crises have a veterinary component. A country’s demographic profile has huge implications for its economy. Extreme weather affects food supplies. And, of course, climate change affects everything. 

Working with a small budget as a side project to the organization’s main mission—developing digital tools to improve public health and disaster response—TrackerNews was perfectly positioned to experiment. In the era of Digg, we didn’t care how many hits a particular link tallied. Popularity wasn’t our guiding metric: context and connection were. 

The site was loosely modeled after one of the first major news aggregators, The Drudge Report: three columns with news stories snaking up and down as they cycled through. Instead of singleton articles, suites of related links would cycle through together. A breaking news story might be paired with research papers, videos, archival articles, interviews, relevant technology websites and book links. 

Long before Pinterest, we included small photos and short content descriptions with each link. Each link tagged for a searchable database. Later, we added overview blog posts to provide another way to access the information.

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We also experimented with a personal aggregation tool, where it was possible to generate as many categories and sub-categories as needed; move elements by drag’n’drop anywhere on the page; and clone individual links for slotting into multiple categories.

While TrackerNews was focused on bridging silos, the personal aggregation tool was designed  for special projects and collaborations: a kind of public bookmarking, providing context, in a format designed to maximize at-a-glance utility. 

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TrackerNews put the human algorithm back into the mix. Search engines are programmed to skew toward content that either new, popular, cleverly tagged for SEO or flat out paid for. That doesn’t always line up with what may be the most relevant and useful information. Unless or until Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy-champion computer, comes online, it takes human insight to bring contextual value. There is still a filter bubble, but the metrics are determined by human users, rather than calculated for them by machines. 

Although TrackerNews developed a loyal following of UN’ers, NGOs and energy wonks—and I developed a bit of a reputation as a general “go to” reference—the project was more proof-of-concept than a game-changer. I kept the twitter feed going after we closed down the demo, and shifted the blog into this tumblr, which is now more of a personal blog. 

DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN

I have never really stopped thinking about the issues that TrackerNews tried to address: contextual utility, bridging disciplines, the human algorithm, collaboration, peripheral vision, poking holes in search engine filter bubbles. 

In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I created a spin-off blog—For the filesas a kind of TrackerNews Lite to try make  some sense of all the stray links piling up in my Pocket account. Daily forays through aggregators Zite and Flipboard, various social media, news sites and searches had left me with digital ADD. This, I thought, would be a way to connect some dots: each post a mini-bibliography of two to five links. 

For the files posts are really quite fun to write, a daily wander among the peripheral in all its non sequitur serendipitous glory. So far, it’s covered everything from a climate-changing Pleistocene asteroid, Chinese language apps, a Robot-a-looza and Woody Allen’s prescient take on the Internet of things.

But the limitations of the format, a tumblr blog, quickly made me long for the TrackerNews aggregation tool that never made it beyond prototype.

Sure, few of us will ever match Leonardo’s gifts as a great systems thinker, but with the right tools to help organize information, it would be at least a little easier to see patterns and bask in the glitters of insight. 

Pinterest, Evernote and my much adored Pocket all have their charms for gathering, organizing and sharing digital treasure, but there is still room for improvement. My specs wish list for an aggregation tool:

• generates as many categories and sub-categories as required, each with its own shareable url within a master template

• accommodates all types of digital data  

• Individual links, sub-categories and categories can be moved by drag’n’drop

• individual links can be cloned for inclusion in multiple categories

• no limit for descriptive copy 

• discussion threads

• maximum at-a-glance utility 

• content scraping for a Flipboard / Zite-style presentation on tablets

• public and private options 

• ???

"IF IT’S FREE, THEN YOU’RE THE PRODUCT"

The above quote has been cited so often, it has become a meme. From Google to Twitter to Facebook to Tumblr, personal data are regularly traded for services. The fairness of the deal, however, can become murky when data are used to determine access to content and opportunities. The line between the convenience of personalization and unfairness of segregation can be a fine one.

Machine learning tools are designed to tailor content to an individual’s interests. Past choices determine future selections. Incremental changes, however, can quickly add up to distortions. For example, the Zite account on my iPhone delivers more tech news than the one on my iPad, which “thinks” I am more interested in renewable energy stories. It is a daily reminder that people identifying the same set of interests don’t always access the same information. 

Metrics, of course, can only measure what they have been designed to measure. There is much that is simply beyond measure. Yet the relentless competition for “clicks,” combined with data mining and the linearity of machine learning have led us down a narrow path where focus trumps vision.

Anatomically, the area of focus is just 3% of the visual field. The other 97% is peripheral vision, providing both awareness and context. Why would limit ourselves to such thin slice of all there is to see and know? 

To quote Leonardo: 

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

— J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews

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RELATED: (since text embedded videos do not appear on the tumblr dashboard or iOS app, links have also been provided) 

• Leonardo da Vinci: Eco Designer and Systems Thinker / Fritjof Capra (video) 

• When in Roma…On the Way to the Piazza Navona: China, Africa & The Lessons of Leonardo / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog

STEM TO STEAM / RISD (website)

• 'You've got to find what you love,' Jobs says / text of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address

“Think Different” / Steve Jobs narrates “The Crazy Ones” commerical / (video)

• Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles” / TED talk  (video)

• The Information Diet: You Are What You Read…Really (so read this) / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog

Clay Johnson, “Is SEO Killing America?” / Tools of Change conference (video)

Who Owns the Future? / Jaron Lanier (book) 

• Who Owns The Future? | Keen On… / TechCrunch interview with Jaron Lanier (video)

Think Bigger

It seems so sensible: Add voice to text messages. A smart phone is still a phone, designed to transmit sound. Which is why I found myself completely entranced by utellit, a small Chicago startup, at a recent “pitch” evening sponsored local website Technori

Founder Rishi Khullar’s epiphany? Profound annoyance at the rote Facebook response to the news of a friend’s birthday, i.e. “Happy Birthday!” scrawled endlessly on the celebrant’s wall. “Lame,” thought Khullar. Wouldn’t it be nicer to leave an old-fashioned voice message, but in new-fangled way? 

Wouldn’t it be in nicer still, thought I, to use the tech for humanitarian work or disaster response? Imagine emergency workers surveying a neighborhood leveled by an earthquake, recording detailed messages of the scene, then tucking them into geocoded text messages as shortened urls? This could take crisismapping to a whole new level. 

So exciting were the the possibilities, I whipped out an email to some of the best and brightest I know working in the humanitarian space. “Am I having a morning coffee moment, or is this really a good idea?”

It turns out it’s a really good idea. 

So much so, that many have been working on it, using open source tools. Eduardo Jezierski, CTO of InSTEDD* wrote:

…As ICT4D (ed. note: internet and communication technology for development) / social media / apps reach lower and lower swaths of the “pyramid,” voice becomes an increased need. Maternal child health services are not for doctors anymore: They involve mothers. The best, most valuable information post crisis is generated by—and curated by—the affected populations themselves, in their own language. 

Except from some privileged areas where text-based systems don’t run into the literacy, scripting, and dialect issues; voice is the key to involving a broader set of the population.

But what was fairly easy for the utellit team to set up here in the U.S. is much trickier elsewhere in the world, where smart phones are rare, telco infrastructure spotty and API’s come with lots of strings attached. 

All of this leaves a huge empowerment gap—communities can’t invent and deploy their own voice-like systems…

At InSTEDD our interest is in enabling a hundred apps like these bloom (without a dependency on iPhones, at least until they are common in rural india), invented by those that are part of, or close to, the communities with the needs; and (designed to be) integrated into the likes of Medic Mobile and Ushahidi.

We want any developer (wherever… in Nigeria…) that comes up with an idea like utellit to be able to implement it in days.

Working with Google.org and USAID, Ed’s team has been busy simplifying the creation of voice services to make them easier to build.  

We are building on top of open source switches (Asterisk/FreeSWITCH) direct VoIP integration and in some cases hardware integration to help folks build voice apps. 

These apps can span DIY-level for a few users; to national scale services by taking an approach similar to what we did with Nuntium

We are providing a simple HTTP API anyone can code to from any programming language to build almost any app they imagine; and then below that API  we allow a mix of rapid-deployment or operator-class “gateways” for the calls. 

Nicolas di Tada, InSTEDD’s Director or Platform Engineering provides more background and detail: Verboice - Listen and respond to the voice of your community.

                                     •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

When Steve Jobs died, Wired writer Tim Carmody wrote eloquently about the profound impact of the iPod in the life of his young autistic son: 

…It may be a stretch to say Steve Jobs invented the iPod Touch or most of the technologies contained in it. But Steve Jobs certainly put it in my son’s hands, both by making it a sub-$200 device (and in our case, giving it away free with a laptop) and by helping to create an ecosystem of software applications for people with disabilities — perhaps especially communication disabilities…

The iPod wasn’t invented for people with disabilities, but nonetheless proved an answer to many prayers. That led to an interesting feedback look. The demo video for Siri, the new voice-command assistant, ends with a blind woman using her iPod to confirm a dinner date. 

Too often, startup tech pitches focus on a single, narrowly defined “haiku” problem: 

Hate waiting in line? / Pre-order equals happy / Download app today

Yet true breakthrough innovation demands taking the blinders off and noticing other possibilities (think Robin Williams pondering the potential of a pink scarf). A single brilliant insight can address many needs and trigger cascades of additional insights.

To think bigger, first you must begin to see bigger.

—  J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

* full disclosure: the TrackerNews Project was incubated at InSTEDD