Category Archives: a8385f6e-c117-4057-b6cc-9cf94feaee9b

Marshall McLuhan and Understanding Digital Reality

Understanding McLuhan

While slumming on the internet looking for new content about digital media I came across this promising article entitled Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Application Development. I was feeling hopeful about it until I came across this peculiar statement:

“Of the two technologies, augmented reality has so far been seen as the more viable choice…”

What a strange thing to write. Would we ever ask whether the keyboard or the mouse is the more viable choice? The knife or the fork? Paper or plastic? It should be clear by now that this is a false choice and not a case of having your cake or eating it, too. We all know that the cake is a lie.

But this corporate blog post was admittedly not unique in creating a false choice between virtual reality and augmented reality. I’ve come across this before and it occurred to me that this might be an instance of a category mistake. A category mistake is itself a category of philosophical error identified by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle to tackle the sticky problem of Cartesian dualism. He pointed out that even though it is generally accepted in the modern world that mind is not truly a separate substance from mind but is in fact a formation that emerges in some fashion out of the structure of our brains, we nevertheless continue to divide the things of the world, almost as if by accident, into two categories: mental stuff and material stuff.

sony betamax

There are certainly cases of competing technologies where one eventually dies off. The most commonly cited example is the Betamax and VHS. Of course, they both ultimately died off and it is meaningless today to claim that either one really succeeded. There are many many more examples of apparently technological duels in which neither party ultimately falls or concedes defeat. PC versus Mac. IE vs Chrome. NHibernate vs EF. etc.

The rare case is when one technology completely dominates a product category. The few cases where this has happened, however, have so captured our imaginations that we forget it is the exception and not the rule. This is the case with category busters like the iPhone and the iPad – brands that are so powerful it has taken years for competitors to even come up with viable alternatives.

What this highlights is that, typically, technology is not a zero sum game. The norm in technology is that competition is good and leads to improvements across the board. Competition can grow an entire product category. The underlying lie, however, is perhaps that each competitor tells itself that they are in a fight to the death and that they are the next iPhone. This is rarely the case. The lie beneath that lie is that each competitor is hoping to be bought out by another larger company for billions of dollars and has to look competitive up until that happens. A case of having your cake and eating it, too.


There is, however, a category in which one set of products regularly displace another set of products. This happens in the fashion world.

Each season, each year, we change out our cuts, our colors and accessories. We put away last year’s fashions and wouldn’t be caught dead in them. We don’t understand how these fashion changes occur or what rules they obey but the fashion houses all seem to conform to these unwritten rules of the season and bring us similar new things at the proper time.

This is the category mistake that people make when they ask things such as which is more viable: augmented reality or virtual reality? Such questions belong to the category of fashion (which is in season: earth tones or pastels?) and not to technology. In the few unusual cases where this does happen, then the category mistake is clearly in the opposite direction. The iPhone and iPad are not technologies: they are fashion statements.

Virtual reality and augmented reality are not fashion statements. They aren’t even technologies in the way we commonly talk about technology today – they are not software platforms (though they require SDKs), they are not hardware (though they are useless without hardware), they are not development tools (you need 3D modeling tools and game engines for this). In fact, they have more in common with books, radio, movies and television than they do to software. They are new media.

Dr Mabuse

A medium, etymologically speaking, is the thing in the middle. It is a conduit from a source to a receiver – from one world to another. A medium lets us see or hear things we would otherwise not have access to. Books allow us to hear the words of people long dead. Radio transmits words over vast distances. Movies and television let us see things that other people want us to see and we pay for the right to see those things. Augmented reality and virtual reality, similarly, are conduits for new content. They allow us to see and hear things in ways we haven’t experienced content before.

The moment we cross over from talking about technology and realize we are talking about media, we automatically invoke the spirit of Marshall McLuhan, the author of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan thought deeply about the function of media in culture and many of his ideas and aphorisms, such as “the medium is the message,” have become mainstays of contemporary discourse. Other concepts that were central to McLuhan’s thought still elude us and continue to be debated. Among these are his two media categories: hot and cold.

understanding media

McLuhan claimed that any media is either hot or cold, warm or cool. Cool mostly means what we think it means metaphorically; for instance, James Dean is cool in exactly the way McLuhan meant. Hot media, in turn, is in most ways what you would think it is: kinetic with a tendency to overwhelm the senses. To illustrate what he meant by hot and cold, McLuhan often provides contrasting examples. Movies are a hot medium. Television is a cold medium. Jazz is a hot medium. The twist is a cool medium. Cool media leave gaps that the observer must fill in. It is highly participatory. Hot media is a wall of sensation that does not require any filling in: McLuhan characterizes it as “high definition.”

I think it is pretty clear, between virtual reality and augmented reality, which falls into the category of a cool medium and which a hot one.

To help you come to your own conclusions about how to categorize augmented reality glasses and the virtual reality goggles, though, I’ll provide a few clues from Understanding Media:

“In terms of the theme of media hot and cold, backward countries are cool, and we are hot. The ‘city slicker’ is hot, and the rustic is cool. But in terms of the reversal of procedures and values in the electric age, the past mechanical time was hot, and we of the the TV age are cool. The waltz was hot, fast mechanical dance suited to the industrial time in its moods of pomp and circumstance.”


“Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than dialogue. With print many earlier forms were excluded from life and art, and many were given strange new intensity. But our own time is crowded with examples of the principle that the hot form excludes, and the cool one includes.”


“The principle that distinguishes hot and cold media is perfectly embodied in the folk wisdom: ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.’ Glasses intensify the outward-going vision, and fill in the feminine image exceedingly, Marion the Librarian notwithstanding. Dark glasses, on the other hand, create the inscrutable and inaccessible image that invites a great deal of participation and completion.”


audrey hepburn glasses

WP7 and the Anxiety of Influence

iphone wp7

When Microsoft put together a design team over a year ago to come up with “Metro” – the design language for their new Windows Phone platform – they were faced with a difficult challenge.  After years of ignoring Apple’s iPhone and trying to heap features onto the Windows Mobile platform in an effort to compensate for a lack of  design savvy – to the extent that even owning a Windows Phone was considered a career limiting move for Microsoft employees – a sudden change of direction occurred within Microsoft.  All at once, design values seemed to matter.

But what should the new phone look like?  Led by people like Albert Shum from Nike, the new design team could not afford to ignore the iPhone.  Ignoring the iPhone was in part the source of Microsoft’s decline in the phone market up to that point.  They also could not simply copy the iPhone’s look.  An iPhone knock-off would quickly kill the venture.   Finally, they faced the danger of trying too hard to design an anti-iPhone.  This would be just as deadly as creating something that looked too much like the iPhone.

The literary critic Harold Bloom coined the term “anxiety of influence” to describe a similar problem that faced the great Romantic poets.  Byron and Keats learned to be poets by reading and emulating John Milton.  At some point, however, they had to find their own voices in order to become great poets in their own right.  What greater horror can there be for a poet that leaving of the footsteps of a greater poet and making a new path.  The tracks of the master are sure while the new steps are difficult to evaluate – are they brilliant but different or merely random steps that eventually end in the gutter?  What must Shakespeare have felt as he stepped from behind the shadow of Christopher Marlowe and first tried to pen something original and truly Shakespearean?

As the release date for Windows Phone approaches – as developers wait for the WP7 Marketplace to start accepting applications – phone developers must decide what sort of apps they will build for the device.  Will they copy the great apps of the iPhone – the fart app, the beer app, the squealing cats app – or will they come up with something original?

Writing a phone application is not quite the same thing as writing poetry.  The goal of the one is to create art that edifies and glorifies while the goal of the other is to make money.  So everyone should definitely take some time to write a copy of an Android app that is a copy of an iPhone app that was a bad idea in the first place.

But what do we do after that?

Phone apps are a genre unto themselves.  They have to work within a small display.  Ideally they should be simple.  They must be easy to use since users of phone apps have short attention spans.  Yet people continue to copy ideas that are native to to PCs and game consoles.  It is worth emphasizing that a phone is not a light-weight PC and it certainly is not a light-weight console (that’s what the Nintendo DS is for).

Is it talking in circles to say that the apps we write for the phone should be guided by a notion of what works well on the phone and nowhere else?  To paraphrase Bill Buxton, any idea is good for something and terrible for something else.  For this reason, with the phone we should be wary of ideas that work well on other platforms.  If they work best on other platforms then there’s no need for them on the phone.  The real breakthroughs will be with game concepts that are horrible for the PC or the game console – or even for the iPhone – but which might just work great on Windows Phone 7.

And then there are the ideas no one has thought of yet.

To that end, here are links to some rather crazy, idiosyncratic games.  They may simply be frustrating or, potentially, they could be inspiring.  Here is an article from the New York Times to accompany them.

Erik Svedang’s Blueberry Garden

Cloud by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago

Jason Rohrer’s Passage

The WP7 design team in the end were able to overcome the anxiety of influence by setting up a manifesto, of sorts, outlining their design philosophy and building up from there.  Where the iPhone design philosophy is dominated by icons and gel buttons, the WP7 core philosophy, called Metro, is built around text and flat, “chrome-less” design.  The overwhelming spirit is one of minimalism.  The Metro design even has precedents in the Bauhaus movement and the works of Frank Lloyd Wright – a return to simplicity in design and an eschewing of ornamentation without purpose.  At times, the Black Book even reads like Adolf Loos’s famous 1908 essay Ornament and Crime.

What kind of consultant are you?

A few Magenic colleagues  and I happened to be in the office at the same time today and were discussing what makes a good software consultant.  We arrived at the idea that there are certain archetypes that can be associated with our profession.  Consulting and independent contracting require a peculiar combination of skills which are not always compatible: leadership, salesmanship, problem solving, commitment, patience, quick thinking, geekiness, attention to detail, attention to vision, and so forth. 

As a consultant, one is often both the salesman and the product being sold, and it requires a bit of a split personality to pull both off well.  Most consultants are able to do well with certain aspects of consulting but not others.  It seemed to us, however, that if we could identify certain “types” of consultants rather than try to identify the particular skills that make up a consultant, we would arrive at something approaching a broad spectrum of what consulting is all about.

After a bit of work, Whitney Weaver, Colin Whitlatch, Tim Price-Williams (who needs a blog because he knows too much about the entity framework not to share)  and I came up with the following list of consulting archetypes and the qualities that exemplify each one. 

For our unit test, we then tried to match consultants we know first with who they think they are and then with who they actually resemble.  It worked out pretty well, and so we thought we’d turn the idea loose.  (I turned out to be a weird mix of MacGuyver and the Jump-To-Conclusions-Guy, though I also have a savior complex.)

See if any of the following archetypes matches people you know.  And if you think we’ve left an important archetype out of our catalog, please let me know in the comments.



Jack Bauer

Jack is the ultimate get-things-done guy.  This is in part because he takes the full weight of any project on his own shoulders.  He is admired by everyone he encounters for his dedication and competence. 

He also comes across as a bit harsh, however, so we can’t really say he has good soft skills.  Some consider consultants like him to be a bit too good to be true.




House is great at diagnosing any problem.  He is methodical and thorough while at the same time he is able to think well outside of the box. 

He is also a bit of a dick and will turn on you when you least expect it.  On the other hand, when he throws you under the bus, at least you’ll know it wasn’t personal.




Maverick is charismatic as well as intensely competitive, though his arrogance tends to put people off.  If you think a task will take two weeks, he’ll claim it can be done in two days.  If you estimate that something will take two days, he’ll insist he can do it in two hours.

He always manages to be successful though no one is sure how. 



Sarah Connor

Sarah thinks quickly on her feet and is an extraordinary problem solver.  She has a great mix of soft and technical skills. 

Sadly, she tends to get the people around her killed.  Consultants with skills like hers seem to take on a lot more risk than the rest of us would, and we all reap the consequences.



Don Draper (Mad Men)

Don has infinite charm and is a perennial winner.  Women love him and men want to be his friend.

He is also clearly hiding something from everyone, and is haunted by the notion that he is ultimately a fraud.




Neo can re-program reality.

Some consider him to be wooden.  He also has a bit of a savior complex.



The Chick from Terminator 3

Pros: She’s smokin’ hot.

Cons: She will kill you at the drop of a hat.




MacGuyver is a jack-of-all trades, the kind of consultant you want on any project.  He also has great hair.

He tends to be a bit of a one-man-show, however.




Kramer has the “vision” thing.  He’s the one who will envision and lay out the entire architecture of the project in the first few days despite other people’s misgivings.

Unfortunately Kramer has poor follow-through.  You’ll be living with his architectural decisions long after he’s moved on to bigger and better things.



Benjamin Linus

Ben has excellent soft skills.  He is a master manipulator.  He can turn any situation to his own advantage.  In a tough negotiation, he’s the consultant you want at your side.

On the other hand, he is pure EVIL and cannot be trusted.



Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross

“Second prize is a set of steak knives.”  Alec is a motivator.  Other people quiver in his presence.  We all know that sometimes you have to be an asshole to get things done.  Fortunately a consultant like Alec loves that part of the job.

We can assume that he will eventually flame out, as people of this type always do.  Sadly, no one will really feel sorry for him when this happens.




Eric Cartman has strong survival skills and is highly self-confident, both of which enable him to accomplish his sometimes overly ambitious schemes. He also aways has a private agenda.

Because of this, he tends to make himself a bit of a target, while his single-minded pursuit of his own ends can cause serious problems for other consultants.



George Costanza

Everything always seems to blow up on George.  He is also high maintenance.

On the upside, he is generally considered non-threatening, which can sometimes be a very good thing in consulting.



The Jump-To-Conclusions-Guy

This guy is eternally optimistic.  He considers himself to have excellent people skills.

He does not have excellent people skills.



Vanilla Ice

Vanilla Ice is the archetypal one-hit wonder. 

He did something important back in 1990 and has been living off of that one success ever since.  Then again, not everyone gets even that one success, so don’t judge him too harshly.




Lumbergh is the anti-Jack Bauer.  He is a human deflector shield, and while you’re not looking he’ll manage to blame you for his screw ups.   When he throws you under the bus, you’ll know that it really was in fact personal.

The best that can be said of Lumbergh is that you don’t run into too many Lumberghs in software consulting.



We are so happy with this catalog of consulting types that we are thinking of using it in our local vetting of new-hire candidates.  Given the broad range of technical skills people can have, it seems rather unfair to try to label new-hires as “senior” or “junior” or anything like that.  What we’re looking for, after all, is a good fit for our local office, and the best way to do this is to, say, determine that we need another Maverick or a Sarah Connor or a Neo, and to try to find the right person following the guidelines above.

Moreover, when we tell our clients that we are sending them our A-Team, we can mean it literally: they are getting one Alec Baldwin, one Don Draper,  a MacGuyver and a Jump-To-Conclusions-Guy.  On the other hand, if someone wants the cast from Seinfeld, we can fill that order, too.

William James and the Squirrel



In the same lecture excerpted previously, William James provides an earthy example of what he means by pragmatism.  It involves squirrel.

Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find everyone engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel–a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: DOES THE MAN GO ROUND THE SQUIRREL OR NOT? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Everyone had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared, therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: "Which party is right," I said, "depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other."

Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ’round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute.

On Pragmatism: some excerpts


Over the past ten years or so the software development world has split itself between two extremes of temperament.  One is pragmatic while the other, for lack of a better term, is purist.  This is a division which actually happens again and again from one year to the next, with members of one party sometimes becoming members of the other, and practitioners of one philosophy in one technical domain becoming practitioners of the other under other circumstances.

This is not a division of temperament unique to programming of course, though it perhaps gets a little more play there than in other fields these days.  As a matter of interest and of clarification, I thought I might provide some excerpts from William James’s work Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking from 1907:

“The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament.”

. . .

“Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned. I am sure it would contribute to clearness if in these lectures we should break this rule and mention it, and I accordingly feel free to do so.”

. . .

“Now the particular difference of temperament that I have in mind in making these remarks is one that has counted in literature, art, government and manners as well as in philosophy. In manners we find formalists and free-and-easy persons. In government, authoritarians and anarchists. In literature, purists or academicals, and realists. In art, classics and romantics. You recognize these contrasts as familiar; well, in philosophy we have a very similar contrast expressed in the pair of terms ‘rationalist’ and ’empiricist,’ ’empiricist’ meaning your lover of facts in all their crude variety, ‘rationalist’ meaning your devotee to abstract and eternal principles. No one can live an hour without both facts and principles, so it is a difference rather of emphasis; yet it breeds antipathies of the most pungent character between those who lay the emphasis differently; and we shall find it extraordinarily convenient to express a certain contrast in men’s ways of taking their universe, by talking of the ’empiricist’ and of the ‘rationalist’ temper. These terms make the contrast simple and massive.

“More simple and massive than are usually the men of whom the terms are predicated. For every sort of permutation and combination is possible in human nature; and if I now proceed to define more fully what I have in mind when I speak of rationalists and empiricists, by adding to each of those titles some secondary qualifying characteristics, I beg you to regard my conduct as to a certain extent arbitrary. I select types of combination that nature offers very frequently, but by no means uniformly, and I select them solely for their convenience in helping me to my ulterior purpose of characterizing pragmatism. Historically we find the terms ‘intellectualism’ and ‘sensationalism’ used as synonyms of ‘rationalism’ and ’empiricism.’ Well, nature seems to combine most frequently with intellectualism an idealistic and optimistic tendency. Empiricists on the other hand are not uncommonly materialistic, and their optimism is apt to be decidedly conditional and tremulous. Rationalism is always monistic. It starts from wholes and universals, and makes much of the unity of things. Empiricism starts from the parts, and makes of the whole a collection-is not averse therefore to calling itself pluralistic. Rationalism usually considers itself more religious than empiricism, but there is much to say about this claim, so I merely mention it. It is a true claim when the individual rationalist is what is called a man of feeling, and when the individual empiricist prides himself on being hard- headed. In that case the rationalist will usually also be in favor of what is called free-will, and the empiricist will be a fatalist– I use the terms most popularly current. The rationalist finally will be of dogmatic temper in his affirmations, while the empiricist may be more sceptical and open to discussion.

“I will write these traits down in two columns. I think you will practically recognize the two types of mental make-up that I mean if I head the columns by the titles ‘tender-minded’ and ‘tough-minded’ respectively.”

Rationalistic (going by ‘principles’) Empiricist (going by ‘facts’)
Intellectualistic Sensationalistic
Idealistic Materialistic
Optimistic Pessimistic
Religious Irreligious
Free-willist Fatalistic
Monistic Pluralistic
Dogmatical Sceptical


“Pray postpone for a moment the question whether the two contrasted mixtures which I have written down are each inwardly coherent and self-consistent or not–I shall very soon have a good deal to say on that point. It suffices for our immediate purpose that tender-minded and tough-minded people, characterized as I have written them down, do both exist. Each of you probably knows some well-marked example of each type, and you know what each example thinks of the example on the other side of the line. They have a low opinion of each other. Their antagonism, whenever as individuals their temperaments have been intense, has formed in all ages a part of the philosophic atmosphere of the time. It forms a part of the philosophic atmosphere to-day. The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and soft-heads. The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal. Their mutual reaction is very much like that that takes place when Bostonian tourists mingle with a population like that of Cripple Creek. Each type believes the other to be inferior to itself; but disdain in the one case is mingled with amusement, in the other it has a dash of fear.”

And here’s the bait and switch portion of this post.  When we speak of being pragmatic today, we generally mean by it the items in the second column above.  For James, however, the term describes a way of looking at the world that resolves disputes between the possessors of these two temperaments.  It is the tertia via.

“The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?–fated or free?–material or spiritual?–here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.”

. . .

“It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can BE no difference any- where that doesn’t MAKE a difference elsewhere–no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world- formula or that world-formula be the true one.”

. . .

“There is absolutely nothing new in the pragmatic method. Socrates was an adept at it. Aristotle used it methodically. Locke, Berkeley and Hume made momentous contributions to truth by its means. Shadworth Hodgson keeps insisting that realities are only what they are ‘known-as.’ But these forerunners of pragmatism used it in fragments: they were preluders only. Not until in our time has it generalized itself, become conscious of a universal mission, pretended to a conquering destiny. I believe in that destiny, and I hope I may end by inspiring you with my belief.”

. . .

“At the same time it does not stand for any special results. It is a method only. But the general triumph of that method would mean an enormous change in what I called in my last lecture the ‘temperament’ of philosophy.”

It is a philosophy that requires us to ask, when given two temperamental approaches to the same problem, a very rude question. 

We would be required to ask “What practical difference does it make?”  On the other hand, in programming if not in other spheres, it would save an insufferable amount of time and effort were we simply to ask this a little more often.