Sunday, November 14, 2010

Marco! Polo!

I have recently been rereading The Complete Sherlock Holmes.  It is a wonderful submersion in the life and language of a past century.  It is amazing how many witnesses in Holmes’ cases were unable to testify because of a sudden onset of “brain fever.”  And yes, the game seems always afoot.

I am currently in the midst of one of the lesser-known short stories, The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, written in 1921.  As with all artistic creations, the meaning of the piece is a co-creation of author and reader.  The author wrote wrapped in the meaning of his mind and time; I unfold the story within the context of mine.  Different fogs inform us. Doyle creates in the mists of London between the wars.  This time, I read the story through the Kindle application on my Droid phone.  A delicious dialectic, not?

With similar irony, an old friend and I were recently emailing each other bemoaning our students’ seeming addiction to social media.  I mused that my intuitive sense of the issue was that students begin to feel a significant amount of angst when they are separated from their social media - despite the fact that the messages exchanged within the environment are trivial. An apt analogy emerged.  You know the game Marco Polo that kids play in a swimming pool? They close their eyes and the kid who is "it" hollers "Marco!" and the other kids holler "Polo!"  The kid who is “it” then tries to catch the others in a boisterous human imitation of the echo-location skills of bats, whales, porpoises, et. al. 

There is an early episode of the television show Bones [Season 1. #22: The Woman in Limbo] that puts an insightful twist on the game. Temperance is trying to reconnect with her older brother – there is a long backstory to the episode that is unimportant to the current observation.  The relevant idea is that after their parents disappeared, her brother became her protector. She would be sitting in class at school, or out on the playground and she would hear him call "Marco!" When she could she would respond "Polo!"  But even when she couldn't echo “Polo!” - she felt connected to him, she felt "taken care of."  I think that feeling of “being connected” blends into the same emotional space as “being taken care of”, of being “OK,” and lends significant import to social media's seemingly shallow interactions. I post "Marco" and the "friends" respond "Polo."  I believe it is that security, that feeling of "belonging" in a fractured world, to which my students, and many others, are addicted.

And, what, you may rightly ask, does that have to do with The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone? Elementary.  In the opening scene of the story Watson is upset to see Holmes looking even more gaunt and emaciated than was his custom.  When Watson asks why he does not eat when deep in a case, Holmes replies that digestion takes blood away from the brain, the blood necessary for his unparalleled feats of intellectual sleuthing.  He concludes: “I am a brain Watson.  The rest of me is a mere appendix.”  But he then goes on to express real pleasure at seeing Watson, the only friend Holmes ever acknowledges.  He entreats the good doctor, “Let me see you once more in the customary armchair.”

As the pages scroll past on my Droid, I am again struck by the fact that the Internet with its myriad social networks, through which we are wont to holler “Marco” to scattered “avataristic” friends in digital space, is in many ways “mere appendix.”  We hear the electronically multiplied “Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo” of Facebook.  We may even find comfort in that cacophony. But I am increasingly inclined to believe that the tide will turn again - and sooner than we might expect – to the notion that a true friend is the one we see “once more in the customary armchair” sharing real warmth from a real fireplace, taking real shared comfort in a real room.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Varying Degrees of Intrusion

It is, no doubt, another innovation designed to deliver us from our more slothful evil twins.  And, come Monday, thousands of folks will roll out of bed, unaware that their clock radios had automatically “Fallen Back” in the tiny hours of Sunday morning.  They will head off to work right on time, with clock radio, computer and cell phone throbbing along in silent syncopation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Personally, I found it just a bit creepy.

I have come to accept that my cell phone will keep track of the vagaries of time zones as I wander around the country or the world.  That falls within its job description, that’s why no one wears a watch anymore, except for bling appeal.  A cell phone is supposed to “reach out and touch someone” as Ma Bell was wont to say, back in the less politically correct 1980s.  But my clock radio?  How did it know that it was supposed to “fall back” at 2:00 a.m. on this particular Sunday morning?  My wristwatch in the drawer didn’t know it was supposed to “fall back.” The microwave didn’t know it was supposed to “fall back.” The oven clock didn’t know it was supposed to “fall back.”  How did the clock radio know it was supposed to “fall back”?  To whom, or to what, is my clock radio talking in the middle of the night?

I realize that it is probably no great feat of programming to tell a machine when “Spring Forward,” 2:00 a.m. on the second Sunday in March; and “Fall Back,” 2:00 a.m. on the first Sunday in November, will occur for the next gazillion years and put it on a chip the size of a gnat’s eyelash.  But how does the radio know what “today” is?  I didn’t “set up” the date when I pulled it out of the box.  I just plugged it in and toggled up the correct time.  So how did it know where it was, in its infinite calendar, the moment I plugged it in?  How did the radio know if it was June, July or January?  You see, it had to know that if it was going to "Fall Back" at just the right instant.  If the answer is “the chip just knows,” we are neither comforted nor amused.  What else does the chip know?

We hear a lot about privacy in digital spaces these days.  It usually centers around the improper use of information that we, at some point via some device, intentionally tossed out into “Cyber Cloud Cuckooland.”  This sentient radio is, to my somewhat paranoid mind, a bird of a different feather.  The radio – without my instructions or permission, mind you – appears to be in communication with some entity that feeds information into this appliance in my home.  “Well, duh.  What does a radio do, dude? It brings stuff into your home – like music and words.”  True, but we did not request this channel. We were not informed of this channel.  "Back channels" are supposed to be the stuff of spy novels.

Perhaps my paranoia stems from my deep understanding that communication is transactional.  If a device can store or receive “Spring Forward” or “Fall Back” data without my instruction, it is technological child’s play to give it transmission capacity as well.  Want to walk a little way down that path with me?  Consider Microsoft’s new gaming rave, the Kinect.  It sounds awesome.  Three cameras peer into your home and allow you to interact with games as if you were actually up there on the screen.  No wires, no remote, you move, it sees you and reacts.  Now consider that last sentence all by itself: No wires, no remote, you move, it sees you and reacts.  You perceive, perhaps, the reason a shiver just ran down my spine.

When someone seems to look the latest multi-gigabyte gizmo gift horse in the mouth, it is easy to cry “Luddite!” and trot out the myriad wonders that technology has given us.  I do not deny them.  I have no desire to live in some seemingly bucolic past where we spent most of our lives finding or raising food, where, in lieu of vaccines, children died of the measles, and, think about it – there was no Novocain! But, I must repeat a favorite mantra: the role of technology in society is a continual negotiation, we ask and the engineers respond.  The first part of the equation must dominate.  We must be thoughtful when we make demands, and bestow limitless trust upon, the technologists who create our toys.  Our most powerful tools can also be our most dangerous weapons.  Human intent defines the difference.

Garth Brooks wrote, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” There is an oblique B-side to that hit: “Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

Can it Scratch Glass?, or Of Scarcity and Value

Major cultural transformations occur when events create imbalances in traditional social relationships.  Those imbalances eventually find new equilibrium, but the interim can be unsettling.  This early evolution of the Internet in American culture is one such event.  The Internet’s complex interweaving with all aspects of our lives nudges any number of traditional relationships towards reconsideration.  Among those is the dynamic that has long existed between scarcity and value.

On its surface that relationship is a straightforward one – the scarcer a resource, the greater its value.  Of course, scratching that surface reveals the details in which the devil revels.  The first obvious proviso is that the resource possesses intrinsic characteristics that make it desirable – we can eat it, or clothe ourselves with it, communicate with it, it is beautiful, or powerful, or makes us so.  Those intrinsic characteristics, in combination with its scarcity, make the resource valuable.

Complicating the equation further is the notion that all scarcity is not the same.  There are at least three important variants.  The default definition is natural scarcity – characteristics, elements and resources that simply do not occur that often.  About 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch, that is a naturally occurring scarcity, and one whose value increases if that one person also happens to be musically gifted, hence piling scarcity upon scarcity.  Second, there is manufactured scarcity.  Nobel Prize winners are of this type of scarce resource.  Only 543 have been awarded to date out of a world population of about 6.8 billion souls.  Talk about scarce!  However, the value of a Nobel Prize winner is an iffy calculation.  They are of significant value to research institutions and universities who point to “their” Nobel Prize winners as evidence of organizational excellence.  But to the average person on the street these incredibly scarce individuals have no greater inherent value than the next passer-by.  

The final type of scarcity is manipulated scarcity.  Manipulated scarcity occurs when an already scarce resource is artificially manipulated to increase its scarcity and hence its value. Diamonds are often accused of possessing this manipulated scarcity.  Data are sketchy in this area, as a matter-of-fact, I occasionally wonder if the purported information about the number of diamonds in the world is itself being manipulated to establish a "diamond mythology" that adds to the value of the gems.  The "mythology" narrative is based in the accepted natural scarcity of diamonds.  You don’t plough them up in the back garden when putting in tomatoes.  However, delicious rumors circulate that DeBeers has a stash of diamonds secreted away that exceeds the number of diamonds currently in circulation.  One also hears tales of discoveries of massive new diamond finds in this or that remote locale.  The icing on the cake is, of course, blood diamonds – a political manipulation of scarcity.  If the world market “de-legitimizes” diamonds from certain sources, scarcity, and value, of "legitimate" diamonds spiral.

The scarcity/value dynamic currently being disrupted by the Internet that raises my concern is the one that plays out among the variables of information, knowledge and wisdom. I have talked about this phenomenon before, but let me refresh it for you

Information:  This is the “Dragnet” part of the dynamic: “All we want are the facts, ma'am.” Information equals facts, the data as we are best able to discern it.  The boiling point of water at sea level.  The number of traffic tickets written in San Francisco in February, 2009.  Data, facts, information.

Knowledge: Knowledge grows from an inspection and ordering of the information.  It is the recognition of patterns in the information that allow us to make assertions regarding the relationship between behavior and outcomes; “if/then statements.”  If 10,000 traffic tickets are written in February in San Francisco, and if the average fine is $20.00 and if the average rate of payment is 68% within 30 days, then one might assume that approximately $13,600.00 in revenue will be available from those tickets by the end of March.  

Wisdom:  Put most simply, wisdom is the ability to discern from among all the potential “if/then statements” those that should be affirmed and pursued to result in the greatest good.  The end of wisdom is thoughtful, compassionate belief and felicitous policy.   The absence of both in most human endeavors is, at least, indirect evidence of the paucity of wisdom currently in play in our world.  Agreement regarding the nature of wisdom will always be slippery, but I am concerned that the Internet increases wisdom’s scarcity by flooding the world with component parts – information and knowledge – of questionable validity.  Let me explain.

Prior to the Internet there were cultural hedges to the dissemination of raw information.  Census data, the data from the Hubble telescope, satellite images from all over the world – none of this raw information was available to distract the private citizen.  Those data streams were gathered and analyzed by individuals and organizations with recognized expertise in the interpretation of that data.  The next step in the process – turning information into knowledge – also rested primarily in the hands of specialists who vetted the “if/then statements” that form the core of all professional literature.  The concerned private citizen then could, ideally, peruse the various conclusions of the experts and make a rational decision regarding which version of knowledge struck closest to truth and could, in rare instances, follow that truth to wisdom.

Now let us return to diamonds for a moment.  How do we know that a diamond is a diamond? Cubic zirconia and other faux diamonds are getting very good, and manufactured diamonds are reaching gem quality.  The informed consumer can make good calls based on brilliance, clarity, color, etc.  But if one is buying or insuring a diamond, your great aunt Lady Rutherford’s opinion isn’t quite enough.  You want a gemologist to break out the scientific instruments to peer into the depths of the stone, to note any flaws, to certify quality, color, and perhaps place of origin.  For a thing to have value you must, at the very beginning of the process, know that the thing is the thing it claims to be.

Back to the Internet.  Peter Steiner drew an iconic cartoon published in The New Yorker on July 5, 1993, that showed a dog seated before a computer, turning to a dog on the floor.  The dog at the computer says, “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog.”  As recent news stories about Facebook and RapLeaf make clear, that assumption is now bogus.  The contemporary Internet now knows not only if you are a dog, it knows your breed and the most intimate details of your pedigree.  Reality has inverted.  The problem now is that it is difficult for us, the users of the Internet, to know if the page on our screen was composed by a purebred canine or a mutt. Is it a diamond, cubic zirconia or cut glass?

Imagine you walk into a handball court, filled knee-deep with stones that appear to be diamonds.  As a matter of fact there are several hundred perfect diamonds scattered throughout the glittering hoard.  If you can find them, you can keep them.  What do you do?  And, no, the back wall is Plexiglas, all the gems can scratch it.  This is what currently confounds our use of the Internet – there is a surfeit of information, an excess of asserted knowledge, and no reliable path to wisdom.  The cubic zirconia is pretty and may well get us the best route to tonight’s concert venue.  The online reviews, however, reviews are cut glass tossed into the court – some by the bands publicity staff masquerading as discerning fans, others, perhaps vitriol lobbed in by competitors or former lovers.  Not much chance of consistently informed opinion, less still of encountering wisdom .  .  . the odds of grabbing a diamond are one in hundreds of thousands. 

Still, the diamonds are there – that is what drives me crazy.  Out there, in a medium designed for distraction, amidst the masses of trivial, self-serving, ignorant, foolish, bogus, and malicious pretenders, are diamonds of exquisite perfection.  Finding them, however, does not lie within the purview of search algorithms or crowd sourcing, both of which are driven by well-intentioned but fatally flawed bias.  So how do we find them? How do we mine for diamonds instead of data?  I do not know.  But there is something sparkly over there .  .  .  . maybe if I rub it against the other pretty pebbles .  .  .  .

The problem with this "aimlessness" is that we tend not to tolerate it for long. We are inclined to a desire for certainty.  Hence, in lieu of a reliable path through information to knowledge and on to wisdom - we grab the bauble that catches our eye, that seems to fit best with our other gems, regardless of source or pedigree.  We stuff it in our pocket and walk out of the handball court:

"Wisdom be damned, don't I look good with this stuff?"

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Life and Dreaming

Hopefully, committing this to words will stop it from swirling around my mind.  It all began sometime yesterday.  I was reading an article about chimpanzees in the latest Smithsonian.  The TV was playing in the background, and a cell phone ad squeezed in around my concentration.  The tag ran something like this  “ .  .  . texting, the Internet, and video.  All without lifting your face from your phone!”  I wish I could be more exact – but I can’t find the ad online.

Equally frustrating was my subsequent inability to nail down a bit of dialogue about the nature life and dreams that had been flitting through the cobwebs of my brain since hearing the phone ad.  I thought the source must have been film or video since I seem to “hear” the words. Lord of the Rings? Watership DownHamlet?  I didn’t know.  Then it came to me this afternoon, nothing that lofty, Heaven Can Wait, 1978, with Warren Beatty.  When Beatty’s character finds himself in heaven after a car wreck, he asserts it has to be a dream; the supervising angel says:

“Now, Joe, you know this is not a dream, you know this is real.  There is a certain quality to dreaming and a certain quality to life.  This is life.”

The issue, of course, is the interplay between those two perspectives.  There is a certain quality to life that separates it from dreaming.  That is what makes a dream that approaches the borderline so powerful.  In its aftermath, you lie there, staring at the space around you, letting reality reaffirm its dominance.  You take comfort from the feel of cloth upon your skin, the breeze upon your face; welcoming even the poke of a bedspring or an unreachable itch – you find comfort in the insistence of the landscape.  You sense that “quality of life that separates it from dreaming.”

The inverse can be equally powerful.  A dream in which you are free from pain, again in the presence of one once loved and now departed, when you are whole and lithe and laughing can give way to a far more desolate life.  But, however distressing, again there is that affirmation of difference, of qualities that separate life from dreaming.

How do we know the difference?  It seems true that we do, but how did we come to understand, identify, perceive those defining, differentiating qualities of life versus dream?

I am caught by the notion that we learn the qualities of life by living in the landscape.  We learn “real life” through the physicality of touching, smelling, tasting, by seeing and by hearing.  Goosebumps on our arms, tears on our cheeks.  Pleasure and pain, experience and learning are writ upon our bodies.

I find it intriguing and somehow disturbing that life lived with “our face to our phone” engages only two elements – sight and hearing.  I am concerned that with so much of our lives being delivered to us by screens and speakers that we may begin to perceive with less clarity those qualities that separate life from dreaming.  Very Matrix.

I realize that there is a kernel of positive potential in this fuzzier, two-dimensional, landscape.  For those in pain, disabled and despairing, there may well be therapeutic aspects to an immersive dreamlike alternative.  But those are not, for the most part, the folks living life with their faces to their phones.  I am concerned that the kids “t’wixt twelve and twenty” are losing time in the landscape and touching only a truncated version of life.  And I wonder if one casualty of such a youth will be the clear, intuitive understanding of the qualities that separate life from dreaming.

Friday, August 6, 2010

DrS Gets a Smartphone: Droid Week Two

As you can tell by the lapse in postings, Janus and I have settled into an uneasy truce.  Since I don't make all that many phone calls, my slowly evolving understanding of the interface isn't all that much of a hurdle.  Still, Janus occasionally asserts himself and places calls at random.  If you have received one, I apologize.  Similarly, an apparent "send" default has resulted in a few blank emails.  Again, I apologize.

I am finding it useful when I get caught in long lines at the store.  I have loaded the Kindle app and so always have a book with me to read - that's a good thing. Also on the upside, my frustration with the dominant text and function entry systems that Janus seems to share with a variety of touchscreen devices has led to a software concept that I will explore with some entrepreneurial friends.  Which leads to the 21st century daydream of being wealthy enough to turn your back on digital demands.  Think about it: "Jeeves, take an email," or "Jeeves, bring me the New York Times crossword on the terrace with pencils, and freshen my orange juice," or "No, I really don't care what searches are trending up on Google."

On the confusion side - where are you supposed to put the thing?  I suspect that Janus makes his surreptitious calls when I put him in my shirt pocket.  Putting it in a pants pocket creates bumps and bruises on your thigh.  If you don't carry a purse or backpack you are reduced to carrying it in your hand, which, of course, inclines you to use it, to put it on the table, to make it your new BFF.  I suppose one can get a belt clip - but that makes me feel vaguely like a meter reader with no particular meter to read .  .  .  .

Saturday, July 31, 2010

DrS Gets a Smartphone: Droid Day Three

Janus Strikes Back

I can just hear Janus now, "Call me an obscure god, mortal?  Think you can keep me in my place?  We'll see about that!"

Alright, so I shouldn't have said that.  Day three and Janus took off the gloves.  Remember when I said the Google email accounts downloaded rather effortlessly?  Perhaps I misspoke.  There was a seemingly small problem. The gmail email addresses and my old phone contacts came down in two separate batches so that when I clicked on "contacts" I got both lists combined, with one card for an email address and another for phone numbers.  But when I clicked on "Favorites" I got everyone for whom I had a phone number.  All I wanted to do was blend both lists and remove most folks from the "Favorites" list - since you can't speed dial, the favorites list is your phone call shortcut.  The understanding of the problem is not terribly important - the lesson lies in the route to the solution.

The first level of Verizon tech support figured out how to "join" the cards for the duplicate contacts but couldn't figure out how to "de-Favorite" anyone.  So I was passed along to Verizon Tech support level 2. There I met Dr. Kevorkian.  "We can fix this," he said. "But we must erase all your settings."

"Are you sure?"

"I am sure."


"Then we are jumping in it."

And we jumped in it, losing all my apps, settings, gmail accounts, etc.  But soon we were back to the exact same situation as before vis-a-vis the contacts.  I just had no settings, apps, etc.

"Hmmmm." said Dr. Kevorkian, "Now we are going to Motorola Tech Support."

So we did that for an hour or so until we ended up with a specialist who sounded like she was about 13.

"Hello Robert, I'm Janey!  My screen says you are trying to remove contacts from your favorites list.  Is that correct?"

"Yes, it is."

"Okey dokey Robert.  Do you have your contacts on your screen?"

"Yes, I do."

"Okey dokey Robert.  Please touch a contact and hold your finger on the screen."

"All right."

"Okey dokey Robert.  In a second a menu should pop up.  Did it?"


"Okey dokey Robert.  Is one of the choices 'Remove from favorites"?

"Yes, it is."

"Okey dokey Robert, can you touch that selection for me?"

"Yes."  And I did so.  The favorites star disappeared.

"Okey dokey Robert.  Did that resolve your issue?"

"Yes, it did."

"Okey dokey Robert.  Can I help you with anything else?"

"No, Janey, that was all I needed."

"Okey dokey Robert.  Please call if there is ever anything else we can help you with."

"Okey dokey, Janey.  Thank you very much.  You've been most helpful.

"Okey dokey Robert."

And we hung up.  Elapsed time to solve problem: 2 hours and 35 minutes.

I concede this round to Janus.  But remain amazed by the incredible paradox in the situation.  All of the tech support people I talked with were determined to make sure my problem was solved.  But there was an obvious disconnect between that laudable intention and their ability to access the information - the very simple information - needed to solve my problem.

The first level tech support person actually solved 80% of the problem - describing the process to merge the two cards for each contact.  However, Dr. K. at level two, decided that we had to "rip the guts out of the system" to fix whatever was wrong.  He was wrong, and I eventually realized that he was simply using the old Windows strategy.  Turn it off, reboot, start all over.  Yet, Okey Dokey Janey was able to solve the primary issue in about 45 seconds.

I was struck again by the two faces of Janus.  It is a tool that is sweet, simple and wonderfully effectively when it works.  But when it does not work, it swiftly reveals layers of complexity and confusion that belie the seamless facade of its responsive screen.  It becomes a paperweight with integrated circuitry.

Janus may be an obscure god, but he is by no means simple.

Friday, July 30, 2010

DrS Gets a Smartphone: Droid Day Two

Actually did very little with Janus today.  [Janus is what I am thinking of naming my Droid.  Janus is an ancient Roman god, the god of transitions, usually depicted as having two faces, one looking to the future, one looking to the past.]

Played a little bit with editing contacts - which was an interesting exercise.  I have had the same phone "contacts" for 15 or 20 years.  I was a it taken aback by how many people had faded from my life.  Caught myself saying "Wonder what ever happened to him/her?" a lot.   Even stranger were the strangers, the "Who the heck is that?" contacts.  But I did not leap to Facebook to look for them.  Janus is a two-headed god.

That was about it.  Janus is an obscure god.  I felt as though I kept him in his place today.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

DrS Gets a Smartphone: Droid Day One

When folks have occasion to look at the art that I create using digital tools, they often ask "How long did it take you to do that?"  The answer ranges from dozens to hundreds of hours - and there was the really complicated piece, well, I don't want to go there.  The point is that when it comes to learning about a digital tool - be it software or hardware - you often have to turn off the clock. 

Want to learn Photoshop?  Fine.  Pick a project you want to accomplish and keep plugging at it until you figure out how to make the tool do that. Don't count the hours - it will just depress you.  It is, I admit, an attitude at variance with our 24/7 world that wants everything done "right now!"  Still, it is an attitude I will try to maintain for at least a while as I explore this new tool.  There are a lot of issues to keep in mind.

As I said in the last post, one major concern is that I don't become - well, a Droid, a person who is merely an extension of a piece of technology that I carry around with me.  Second, and oppositional to the point just made, I do not want my intuitive "droid-reluctance" to prevent me from adding to my communicative skill set.

So, at least initially, I will try to turn off the clock, and learn my way around this tool. . .

My first major objective is to make sure that I can do everything on the Droid that I did with my old dumbphone: make calls and do minor texting.  I discovered that my old phone was just barely new enough to import my contacts from my old phone. Did that, but remain a touch confused because - being a Google phone - it also imported all my gmail contacts.  So now I have several dozen "contacts" with two cards, one for their phone numbers and another for their email addresses.  But there is no such thing as speed dial.  Various discussion groups define "really easy" work arounds - like, "get a dialer app and make a short cut and drag the icon to the main page."  Ah, yes.  "Can you grab the pebble, grasshopper?"  Think I'll come back to that later.

Texting was one of the highlights.  It turned out to be relatively easy once I had my phone contacts.  The issue is that, even though I have tiny hands, the virtual keyboard too small for my fingers.  Fortunately, the Droid has this nifty slideout physical qwerty keyboard.  The keys are still too small, but I discovered that you can work it fairly easily with the eraser end of a pencil.  I'm looking for a neat app I read about several months ago called Swype that could make using the virtual keyboard feasible.  Again the message boards were of limited assistance:  "It's still in beta, not officially released - but if you go here, you can download an elephant.  Take the elephant, and a sewing needle with a really large eye.  Push the elephant through the eye of the needle, and there you go man! Rock and roll!"  I think I'll come back to that later too.

The keyboard does present interesting issues that I may expand on later, but briefly, the keyboard environment is not conducive to reflective composition.  It is fine for pragmatic exchanges, but I do not see pulling out my droid and beginning, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times .  .  ."

Setting up email was both incredibly simple and basically impossible.  Again, remember that the Droid runs on Android software, made by Google, designed to be an iPhone killer.  My gmail accounts all came down even with out being asked. However, my university email is an IMAP account.  There are instructions for getting an IMAP account onto your Droid.  But after several hours with Verizon tech support, university tech support, and a personal consult with my ultimate guru, we couldn't shove that elephant through the eye of the needle either.  I ended up creating a gmail account to which I forward all the mail that comes to my university account. "Hah! Come on through Dumbo!"

So that's about it for today - more time than I wanted, but remember, sometimes you have to just turn off the clock.

Notice: this was not sent from my mobile device :-)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fear of Phoning

I have always had a penchant for solitude.  As a child I delighted in “not being seen.”  I loved to hide among the bushes outside the house, or up in the branches of low hanging tree, observing the ebb and flow of the neighborhood.  I had no interest in eavesdropping or stealing secrets.  There was just something soothing in the notion that nobody knew where I was, that I could observe the world at my leisure and think unhurried thoughts.  It is an inclination that has remained with me throughout my life.  Even during high school and college, when I spent much of my time as an actor, there was a special peace to be found high up in the catwalks above the stage, seeing but not seen.

I am still drawn to solitude, to times when I am either unobserved or merely unnoticed.  Neither judging nor be judged.  Just quietly “being.”  I was struck by the notion strongly, yet somewhat paradoxically, yesterday during a visit to Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.  It isn’t the Valley of the Kings, but it is probably as close as we get here in America.  The rich and powerful of this city of broad shoulders - Pullman, McCormick, Fields, et. al. - lie beneath obelisks and mausoleums beside tranquil ponds.  It is a pool of solitude in the midst of a teeming metropolis.  You do not take notice of others strolling beneath the trees and they do not acknowledge you.  The dead themselves, it seems, could wander about without attracting much attention.  It is a graceful, peaceful, pasture of the dear departed.

This new attention to solitude may well be heightened by the fact that I have been without my laptop for more than a week, and my cellphone is of the old dumb variety - I use it to talk, and it occasionally surprises me with a text message from Verizon.   Hence, the distraction technologies of today’s world have been largely muted.  The silence brews a strange blend of calm and anxiety.  The calm, of course, is born of solitude.  My childhood friend wraps sweet and soothing arms around me, lulling me to soft reflection.  The anxiety springs from our digitally enhanced sense of self-importance: surely something is going on out there in the wide, wild, wired and wireless world that needs my input, my attention, my keystrokes.

I still choose to believe that participation in the digital mediascape is option not mandate.  But more and more I doubt it.  I could not do my job in a non-digital environment.  I would not sit down and put stamps on envelopes to share these reflections with you.  On this trip, Matilda, my GPS led us through the Appalachians down roads without names that are undoubtedly used as luge tracks come winter - and deposited us at the doorstep of our B&B in excellent time.  I worked through last week’ Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle with my daughter and son-in-law, and they only had to use their iPhone Google app a couple of times.  I would not choose a pre-Internet life.  Yet, I remain concerned.

The TV claimed a spot in the living room during the 1950s.  Today it has its own room.  The smart phone also now claims part of our personal space.  I was at a gathering awhile ago, peopled mostly by adults in their 30s and 40s, with kids ranging from single digits to late teens.  I was in the midst of a conversation with my hostess when another adult stepped between us to place her cellphone directly in the hostess’s line of sight. No one missed a beat.  No one, other than I, and I only in retrospect, seemed to notice, let alone find it incredibly rude.  Walk into any coffeeshop and most restaurants - certainly at lunchtime - and you will find most patrons partnered by their phones.  They are no longer nestled in pockets.  Tiny and unobtrusive phones are no longer cool.  The new largescreen varieties are positioned on the table next to their - hmm?  Which is the master?  No doubt better restaurants will soon have “phone rests” designed to match the chef’s preferred presentation.  You don’t want some clod to knock over the spun sugar sculpture because there is no space for their touchscreen sweetheart.  If you can’t beat them, guide them.

I do not wish to become one of “those people,” and yet, ironically, I must.  One cannot teach about digital culture from afar.  So, soon, I will move to a droid, having given up waiting for the iPhone to come to Verizon.  But I will seek to maintain perspective, to avoid having my phone become my new BFF.  I think I’ll be able to manage it, after all, “I’m just chipping. I can quit anytime I want.”  Who said that? Kerouac? Joplin? Jackson? I dunno .  .  .  . 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Maybe There is a Reason We Lost Touch

I just learned from The Washington Post that, "Yahoo plans to announce Tuesday that it is jumping into social networking by using its massive population of e-mail subscribers as a base for sharing information on the Web."  I hate that.  Oh, I understand why they are doing it.  They are doing it for the same reason any media company has ever done anything - to make money.  They are, after all, companies formed for the purpose of making money - otherwise they would be non-profits.  I do not begrudge them that - but they have spoiled us with the free e-mail service.  They made us think it was our e-mail, now they want to "Facebookize" my e-mail so they can generate more advertising revenue.

I guess I am amazed by the fact that all these e-companies assume we want to share our lives with all the people to whom we send email - and, further, that we want to make it possible for people to whom we have never sent an email to find us and "friend" us through any of several "invasion by default" portals. Those include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yelp, Pandora, Classmates, etc., etc. - any website that makes information about us publicly available without having specifically received our permission to do so.

Here is the thing - there are reasons that we choose to affiliate with other individuals.  In our childhood our friends we most often determined by proximity that was determined by where our parents lived.  As we moved on with our lives we chose our own path, job, inclination, opportunity, lots of variables there.  But the point is that as we moved we tended to retain the contacts that were deeply important to us while others fell away from mutual neglect. Social media work from a different assumption: that we let relationships die that call out for resurrection.  I doubt it.

I blanked my Facebook profile last week.  But in the last couple of years I had received 10, maybe 15, "friend requests" from folks from my past.  My response has varied from "Oh, interesting," to "We never spoke in high school, why now?"  Most fell somewhere in between.  But the reality is that none of those contacts - even the interesting ones - have resulted in the renewal of friendships that were often tentative 30 or 40 years ago.

I realize that one's use of social media is probably generational to a certain extent.  If you have emailed or texted with your BFF all your life then sharing the details of your life electronically with a cluster of acquaintances may come more easily.  But I would assert that even the most dyed in the wool digital native would like to define those relationships by personal choice as opposed to letting your email client establish them as a "default setting."

And that, for me, is the unsettling issue.  I still believe that technology enables us, empowers us in wonderful ways.  Yet, we are subtly allowing that new power to be leached away to serve the economic goals of the Yahooians of the world. Letting Yahoo or Facebook or Twitter create our list of "Friends" is not unlike removing the front door to your home; it is no longer your prerogative to invite people, any wandering soul can just stroll in. As I said before, the friends of our childhood were determined by where our parents chose to live.  But, we're the adults now, right? We should get to choose.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Cable Clutter

I happened to pull open the fourth drawer last night.  It was not a pretty sight, which is why I don’t often do it.  The fourth drawer, you see, is the 21st century equivalent of that 20th century corner of the attic where you stacked all the old National Geographic magazines.  Huge dusty stacks in fading yellow; probably doing significant structural damage to the house.  I don’t know why we all saved them; I suppose one could argue that they kept a significant amount of carbon safely locked away.

The fourth drawer is where we keep all the old cables, connectors, AC adapters, chargers for long lost cell phones, and other unidentifiable electronic doodads: The obligatory detritus of the digital age.  But while staring down at all that techno-pasta it struck me that those wires carried electronic impulses only secondarily, their primary function was to transport experiences.

Hang with me for a moment on this one.  Communication as an academic discipline is the often awkward child of a mixed marriage.  Dad was this Greek guy of ancient and respected lineage, Plato, Aristotle [the philosopher, not the shipping tycoon], all those thoughtful guys in togas.  Mom – well, the lady was a bit of a flapper.  Flashy woman out of Bell labs, a lot of sparks, switches, transistors – saw the world as very binary. All about those 1s and 0s.  As a result the contemporary field can be viewed as two large tribes, one descended from the Greeks, the other descended from the Geeks.  Some kids carry genes from both tribes – sort of rhetorical geeks – we call that “cultural studies” for want of a better term. 

As I stared at the drawer I decided that the Greeks had given us a transformative model of communication in that their ruminations, despite twists and turns through form, style and intent, was in the end primarily concerned with how human communication transformed human behavior, how symbols recreated and affected the human experience.

The Geeks on the other hand, were – well – geeks.  They want to move 1s and 0s around the universe as efficiently as possible.  Make HDTV, and satellite radio. They are awestruck by the fact that Voyager spacecraft continues to beam 1s and 0s back to us despite being more than 10 billion miles out in space.

How do you know which gene pool you represent?  Consider this possibility:

You are visiting the Louvre; heading off with a few thousand of your closest friends to see the Mona Lisa because, well, it’s here you always liked the song.  Suddenly just as you enter the hallway across from the Mona Lisa, all the power goes out in the building.  Everything. [I know, it couldn’t happen – but this is a teaching story, give me a break.]  You grope your way into the room where you think the Mona Lisa should be, and encounter one of those “velvet ropes and poles” constructions that keep visitors away from the art.  As you feel your way around the rest of the room you touch another plaque on the wall.  Finally, you back into the middle of the room and find a bench.  You sit down facing, you hope, the Mona Lisa, and stare into the darkness imagining da Vinci’s masterpiece.  After a few minutes there is a whoosh and the lights come back on and you find yourself staring at a poster in five languages, describing evacuation procedures during an emergency.  Turning around you see the Mona Lisa hanging on the wall behind you.

If you find yourself thinking that, without the transformative power of light, we are powerless to discern between the symbolic power of great art and the pragmatic function of a poster, then you are a Greek.

If you look up and wonder how the lights failed and what sensing system cued them to cycle back on you are a Geek.

If you find yourself feeling a little guilty about sitting on a velvet couch looking at the Mona Lisa when millions of others cannot, and you surreptitiously shoot a little video of her to post on YouTube, then you will feel right at home in cultural studies.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

GPS Chatter

I wonder if Matilda talks to The Bitch.  Matilda, as you may recall, is my GPS.  I have a friend who calls hers “The Bitch,” as in “You better listen to the bitch, she knows how to get there.”  As I drove into work this morning I fell to wondering about what Matilda is doing when she is not telling me “In point five miles take the ramp to I-540 East. Then stay right.”  Sometimes I wonder if she is talking to The Bitch:

Matilda:  “I mean if he is just going to turn whenever he wants why turn me on to begin with?”

The Bitch: “Tell me about it.  Yesterday my human said she wanted to go to the mall and then just drove to the grocery store.  I’m squawking my head off, and she just cranks up the radio! Geez, what a bitch!”
Another image reveals a bunch of folks who didn’t quite make the cut to be air-traffic controllers sitting in a room full of monitors.  Each one has a couple of dozen little cars running around on their screens.  If they click on a car a script pops up: “British Female Voice: In point five miles take the ramp to I-540 East. Then stay right.” They read the script, with appropriate accent, into a microphone.  And there is a big red button right by their mouse that says “Recalculating.”  They keep hitting it, over and over and over.

I know it doesn’t work that way – what bothers me is that I really have no idea how it does work.  When Matilda says “Acquiring Satellite” is she, like, watching me?  How does she know when I turn off her desired path?  And when she always tells me to turn the wrong way on E. Durham Road?  What’s going on there? Coffee break?  Potty call? Talking to The Bitch?

I probably don’t really want to know .  .  .  .

Friday, March 5, 2010

Deserted Campus

It was what passes for a winter’s day here in the South.  A few inches of snow clung forlornly to bushes and iron railings.  Birds huddled disconsolately on telephone wires, debating, no doubt, the wisdom of winging off to Florida. I coasted into the parking garage across a thin sheen of slush, pulled the laptop out of the trunk and, clutching my coffee, headed inside to videotape my class lecture.

Maybe it was the paucity of cars that first tickled my antennae, but it really struck me when I left the garage to make my way through the little park that sits between the large brick office buildings – there was no one around.  There were lights in windows, the heating and AC units tucked in behind the shrubs hummed away – but there were no people.  It was all very “rapturesque.”

Soon a few other left-behind slackers joined me on the way to the elevator, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being alone.  I was whisked up to the 5th floor where I walked into the studio, checked the lights, set the camera, fired up the computer, and sat down to talk to my students – out there somewhere.  Mind you, I actually like this kind of teaching.  It feels far more personal than the evolving norm - standing before a couple hundred students in a high-tech classroom, fighting Facebook for attention.  When I talk to my students in the studio I know that the student on the other side of the lens is there because they have chosen to be there.  They are actually listening.  That is very cool.

But it doesn’t fully assuage my uneasy feeling of a deserted campus, of an increasingly vacated world where social relationships play out in digitized worlds creepingly devoid of physical human interaction.  It may be a generational notion.  Boomers – the fastest growing demographic group on Facebook – use digital spaces primarily to maintain or re-establish relations that were initiated in a face-to-face world.  But X-ers, Y-ers, Millennials, etc., define an evolution of intimacy moving increasingly toward the purely digital.  My wife has two-year old grand-nieces who regularly Skype with their grandparents – and on the children’s end the interface is a large flatscreen hi-def TV.  Shades of Star Trek: Nana is a hologram. The dominant venue for the relationship is digital.

A colleague and I, in a far too rare face-to-face chat, wondered how long it would be before digital versus face-to-face became a quaint distinction overwhelmed by the hegemony of converged interaction.  Second Life as Real Life, avatar as actuality.  I wonder if my unease with the notion is purely the case of a generation on the cusp – 20th century man bemused by 21st century implications.

Somehow, Patricia MacLachlan’s Newbery Medal winning novel, Sarah, Plain and Tall, comes to mind.  Sarah is a mail order bride who arrives in Minnesota in 1910 to become a wife to Jacob and mother to Anna and Caleb.  The book describes a series of relationships that began in a newspaper ad and moved into “snail mail” letters, all written words – the Internet of the early 1900s.  But the relationships could not become “real” until they were played out face-to-face; until they were actualized by physicality. 

I wonder to what extent our love-affair with social media is de-valuing that physicality?  If I can interact with lots of my friends simultaneously on Facebook, does that reduce my inclination to actually go have coffee with one or two of them.  And further, if I have never met someone face-to-face, perhaps never even seen a real photo of a cyber-friend in Second Life, would the idea of a physical meeting even occur?  Obviously in romantic relationships where an intimate future, marriage, family, etc., is the object, physicality remains imperative.  But what about all those other relationships in which the physical is tangential? What happens there? Is a digital hug OK if your entire relationship has been conducted in virtual worlds? I really don’t know.

And a final thought: Much has been made of the notion of the digital divide, of the differences among those who have access to robust digital media and those who do not.  Imagine the complexity of rapprochement between segments of society who literally experience “reality” differently.

I left the studio and headed back to my car.  Outside of the thoroughly wired and “wi-fi-ed” tower of brick and glass and steel, a mix of rain and sleet gusted across the plaza.  There were more hardy souls about now as Southerners ventured out into the “terrible weather.”  I pulled my head down into my collar.  Brrrrrr.  Felt human, felt good.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Communication is the process by which we bring the inside out.  It is the process through which we interpret the nature of the external.  Communication is the palette with which we paint the nature of our reality.  That composition is ancient and modern and made uniquely complex by the pervasiveness of contemporary media.  That complexity was much in evidence in Tiger Woods' address this morning.

The over-riding dialectic placed the personal and the private in tension with the professional and the public.  Here is a man who can, because of his public and professional persona, walk nowhere unnoticed.  Yet, here too is a man who seems to desire a life at least as private as yours or mine.  The chasm appears impossible to span.

Adding to the complexity is the extent to which communication acts enabled the crisis.  It was the immense wealth and celebrity made possible by the media that deafened Woods to the inner voice of the better man, that convinced him that the rules that bind our lives did not constrain his behavior.  A life without boundaries seemed to propel Woods into a surreal existence in which both his blessings and his banes bloomed to absurd proportions.

The protagonists in ancient Greek drama needed only to play out their hubris before the gods.  Tiger has had the public, via the media, with which to contend.  The same media that had sung him to heights of glory, now sought to Tweet him down; to judge the man according to the god-ling they had created.

Tiger’s own behavior, personal and professional – in the clear light of hindsight – gave evidence that the public god and the private man were coming unglued.  Excess is most often the blustering trapping of raging uncertainty.  And then came the night in November when tragedy and comedy conspired to shatter the dualistic illusion – leaving both the public and the man with no clear notion of who this character, this Tiger, was.

The media abhor a vacuum, and so turned their attention elsewhere. That is until today, when the savaged Prince returned, perhaps to reclaim the tarnished throne of Denmark.  The drums rolled, the trumpets blared; and in walked a very ordinary man.  He seemed a man who had awakened from a dream – a dream both wonderful and terrible.  He seemed a man resolved to seek a path to balance, normalcy and reality.  That he is not yet there was evidenced in his futile plea for privacy, for the media to leave his family alone: if you choose to swim with sharks, they must be fed.  Still, I am encouraged by his intention to return to the Buddhist teachings of his youth.  Of all the world’s great faiths, that is the one most firmly committed to the principles of harmony and balance.  I wish him well on his journey.

Friday, February 12, 2010

There’s A Buzz in the Bucket

OK, there is now a little “buzz” icon on my gmail page – looks like a chat balloon in red, yellow, blue and green.  The page looks a bit like my Google Wave page; little thumbnail images of people I know, other little images of people I might want to know.  Both pages bear a bit of a resemblance to my Facebook page, but I don’t go there very often so I would have to check.  Same with my Linkedin page, which I visit even more infrequently, and the Ning Community I created a couple of years ago.

I guess I keep hoping that one of these cool new tools will actually increase the quality of the information being communicated.  I should know better.  Garbage in, garbage out; that little bon mot has been with us since the dawn of the computer age.  Certainly, the bucket containing the information will have its inevitable impact.  But the essential nature of the information is dependent upon the care and effort that went into its creation. Buzz will not improve the quality of the images formerly posted on Picasa or Flickr.  Placing fragmented observations on Twitter make them no more profound than when they were posted on Facebook.  The current thinking seems to be that we all wish to be heavily invested in the surface of hundreds of lives, and each company wants to deliver the environment that best facilitates such emotional dilettantism.  Less considered is the reality that if we spend our energy maintaining hundreds of tangential relationships, we must necessarily reduce the effort we expend on those true friendships that actually sustain us.

I sense, in the current introductory flurry of online and in-the-hand devices, an unusually disjointed cycle in the perennial negotiation between the communicative exigencies of a culture and the technological responses to those pressures.  Perhaps the issue is not, as it has often been, that we lack the tools to address our communicative needs.  Perhaps the current situation reflects a glut of tools to handle increasingly myopic perceptions and expressions.  I can show people around the globe pictures of my puppy a dozen different ways, but representatives from two different political parties cannot see common ground across a narrow aisle in a single room.  I can listen to my favorite pop star on four different devices secreted about my person, but theologians are deaf to any voice save their own; governments seek to constrain the flow of digital information to “protect” their people from “inappropriate” messages.

The paradox is almost amusing; the power of our communication technology seems, at the moment, to far outstrip the uses to which we put it – a wonderful paring knife for skinless grapes.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Watching for Bears

Early photographers could make the entire population of a city disappear.  They would set up their tripods in Times Square at high noon, point the lens at the milling throngs and trip the shutter.  Hours later they would pull the finished image out of its various chemical baths and there, free of the hurly-burly mobs, would stand the lonely buildings in eerie isolation. No people, no carriages, not even a stray dog or fluttering pigeon. 

No, it wasn’t some sci-fi representation of the rapture.  It was an artifact of the technology of the times.  To capture any image you had to leave the shutter of the camera open for upwards of a minute.  Hence only things that remained stationary for that length of time showed up in the image – everything else just disappeared!

I thought of that when I passed two signs on the highway today.  One said “Red Wolf Crossing,” the other “Watch for Bears: Next 9 Miles.” Meandering wildlife, disappearing people – makes you wonder about varying perspectives.  The common conceit is to think of cities as places of hustle and bustle while the wilderness reeks of peaceful tranquility.  It could be that that perception is as illusory as the photographer emptying Times Square.

Try this: Go sit in an empty building.  It may take a little effort to find an entire empty building.  A part of one will do – an empty classroom, a waiting room, close your office door if you have one, perhaps go rest in your car on the top of a parking garage, stand in an empty stairwell, sit in a handball court.  Turn off the radio, shut down the computer.  Set your cell phone to dead.  Now watch what happens around you.  Nothing.  Total sterility.  Nothing can still happen in much of what humanity has constructed.  24/7 isn’t really.  There is still a lot of “down time” in human existence. Isolation remains an option in the constructions of man.  It dwindles with satellites and security cameras and the like – but it is still possible.

Then walk out into the natural world – park, forest, field, beach or backyard - it doesn’t really matter.  Observe what happens in this environment; and, yes, there is always something happening.  Birds flutter and chirp, bugs creep and scurry, clouds drift by, trees sway in the breeze, squirrels holler at you.  Red wolves may cross; bears may watch you back.  You are never alone.  You may not understand the languages echoing around you, but echo they will.

What occurs to me is that even the ballyhooed complexity of 21st century contemporary digital society is, most likely, a pale imitation of the ceaseless activity of the natural world.  Chances are, there is a time when there is nobody looking your Facebook page, you can often find areas where your cell phone doesn’t work.  You can still, actually, momentarily, isolate yourself in the confines of human society.  That remains impossible in the natural world. 

So, if you seek isolation, get thee to the city; for society, venture into the wild.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You'll Come A'waltzing . . . .

I think of her as Matilda, which is rather bizarre given that she has neither gender nor personhood.  I have never personally known a Matilda, other than the waltzing variety who also seems more imagined than real.  Matilda: a disembodied female voice. Maddeningly distant.  Perhaps it is the total lack of affect in her voice.  I have never heard her sound excited, nothing rattles her.  I can completely ignore her, countermand her every suggestion, and she never retaliates.  She pauses for a moment and then intones with frustrating placidity, “Recalculating.”

And still, I love her.  The cheapie USB A to USB A cable that powers the cooling pad for my laptop had died – meaning I can only run it for a half hour or so before I can fry eggs on it – push it much longer and it simply shuts down.  You’d think it would be an easy thing to replace – but no, nobody carries them.  Not Staples, not Best Buy, not Radio Shack – nobody except a funky little computer shop called Connect-IT up in some corner of the city I never frequent.  I gave Matilda the address and off we went – “going 1.3 miles and turning right on Chapel Hill Road.”  35 minutes of dispassionate dialogue later there I was – “arriving at Connect-IT on the left.”  I admit it – I need her.  Which is, of course, why my wife bought her for me this Christmas.

Still, I wonder about the place of the GPS in the contemporary technology negotiation.  Matilda can be as capricious as any woman I have ever known.  As I drive into to work she instructs, “In .5 miles stay left on E. Durham road” despite the fact that both her map and the road curve right.  “In .4 miles turn right on Western Avenue.” An obvious left.  Yet on the return trip her instructions are flawless.  What is it with that?  Shades of Hal in 2001 – “Turn left into on-coming traffic. Trust me Robert, it will be all right.”

Then as we approach campus she says, “In 2 miles turn right onto Avent Ferry Road.” This time the directions are correct but the pronunciation is wrong.  Everyone who lives here knows that the proper pronunciation is “A”-vent, as in A, B, C. But Matilda says “Aw-vent” as in “Aw-shucks.” “Turn right onto Aw-vent Ferry Road.” If I were to return to Raleigh in 20 years, I wonder if I would discover that all the freshman were telling their friends back home that they live on Aw-vent Ferry Road - because that is how the GPS on their smart phones pronounced it.

The idea is that the more ubiquitous the communication container, the more significant its potential to affect our communicative style – “gr8! on the right in .2 miles.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fig-ure it out.

My colleagues over in Design would be quick to point out that "form follows function."  A well-designed utensil will not only be visually pleasing, it will also do an exemplary job of performing the task for which it is intended.  iPods are wonderfully designed pieces of technology, but we wouldn't plunk down our hard-earned cash for them if they didn't  store and reproduce high quality audio, graphics and video.  Their little touch wheel navigation gizmos were the epitome of form following function until the touch screen came along with an even more parsimonious solution.

It strikes me that form should also follow philosophy.  The container should be harmonious with the essence of that which it contains.  Hence, I have a bit of trouble, for example, with splendid cathedrals and jewel encrusted religious costumes as trappings of a faith that, in theory, eschews wealth and ostentation.  Beauty pageants awarding college scholarships give me a similar feeling of vertigo.

I encountered a commercial recently that seemed more than ordinarily disingenuous in the whole form follows philosophy arena.  I'm talking about Sunsweet Ones - individually packaged prunes.  The general narrative of the ads attempts to shade itself green.  They mention high antioxidant  content, great taste and convenience.  Hmmmm.  I admit to being curious as to the amount of energy and resources it requires to wrap a single prune and then wrap those single prunes up in a larger package, then box up those larger packages in a big box and put them in a truck and then .  .  .  .   Well, you get the idea.

I'm thinking I may have found some new candidates for that special circle of hell that I had previously reserved for the people who invented shrink wrap.