SETI@home II


Yesterday, I thought out loud about what a trend surveillance system might look like, and two friends of This Blog Sits At, Steve Portigal and Tom Guarriello, were kind enough to offer illustrative materials.

Steve offered this photo taken in April 2004. His blog comment:

My cool-hunting moment. Kids in front of the Metreon in SF wearing backpacks made from cereal boxes.

This is a near perfect example of the task ahead of us. It is, at least from my point of view, completely cryptic. No ready explanation leaps to mind.

We cannot apply the Shaeffer-Letterman test: “is this something or is this nothing?”

It could be something. It could be first warning of a larger trend that will someday dominate youth culture and the marketplace it controls. Or it could be the final piece of evidence someone in the SETI system needs to leap to a conclusion, that small ledge on the sheer cliff face of contemporary culture. For instance, this might be the evidence that persuades someone that the long hip hop regime is finally on the wane. And definitive warning on this development would be worth its weight in gold.

Or it could be nothing, an act of almost perfect randomness, a prank, or a trick. Nothing comes of nothing, and we will say no more of this.

At this point, we don’t know what we don’t know and we are obliged to be ecumenical. All evidence is allowed in. The Shaeffer-Letterman test will eventually be accomplished by repetition. If this is “something,” it’s something we will see again. (And we will be quicker to see it the second time, having seen it the first.) The SETI net, cast wide, would decide the matter quickly, and if cereal boxes are something, then ethnographic interviewers can be dispatched to ask the crucial questions that would begin to reveal what the dickens is going on here. (We can hope that university courses in ethnographic and qualitative methodology would seize upon SETI and might supply some of this investigative work.)

Now chances are most of us will not hear of the cereal box phenomenon until it has been spotted and vetted by a couple of layers of editorial scrutiny in the SETI system. And that’s as it should be. There is so much spotting and thinking to be done in a culture as dynamic as our own that we want to divide the labor into manageable chunks.

The importance of editorial scrutiny is revealed by a splendid link offered by Tom Guarriello. It appears to be sponsored by a Japanese trade association and it documents what people are wearing each week in 5 neighborhoods of Tokyo. Here’s a case in point:

japanese fashion.jpg

If Steve’s example was conspicuous for its conspicuity, Tom’s example suggests the more usual fare at SETI will be tons of photos of tons of lots and lots people. It will take a well trained eye to spot the datum that counts for something. (All of us will remark on a cereal box. Only a very few of us will be in a position to say, “oh, an M hat!”) In this case, SETI becomes a high volume, a Gill Whale, game and now the division of labor becomes still more important.

The book I’ve got coming out from IUP suggests the value of capturing trends in talk and all the expressive media. Gathering and sorting ALL this data is a staggering task. And it will not happen at all until we can think of some way of paying for it.

A couple of months ago, I thought I had a commercial client who would fund the thing, but more and more I think no one commercial interests has deep enough pockets or patience to make this work.

The incentive system remains the most vexing matter.


Steve’s find:

Tom’s find:

(sorry my links are not working at the moment)

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