Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Carbonated Communication

I often stumble upon ideas for these posts while crashing back and forth between waking and sleep; dreams, events and memories bumping into one another - struggling to find a cogent narrative. In this morning's episode I found myself at a large, professional, academic meeting; a venue I no longer frequent. But there I was, expected to present my paper to a large, obviously enraptured, audience - good evidence that this was, in fact, a dream. But my laptop had been stolen and I had no hard copy of my paper, only the conference program with its title: Carbonated Communication. I ransacked the room until the program chair, who was a dead ringer for an old professional antagonist, announced to the suddenly present TV reporters, that "Dr. Schrag's paper has been withdrawn!"

Going back to sleep was not an option. So I got up, made coffee, and sat down in the morning room to pick the dream apart.

The title of the paper, Carbonated Communication, gave me my first clue. A few days ago we had been watching The Iron Chef, and the secret ingredient had been "Halloween Candy." Yeah, I know.  For the first time I can recall, I felt no envy for the judges. But both chefs used something called "carbonated candy." This is apparently a new incarnation of Pop Rocks from back in the 1970s, only now they "effervesce on the tongue." The old fear that if you ate them while drinking a carbonated drink your stomach would explode, seems to have dissipated. They are now sparkles that disappear into nothing leaving only a hint of flavor behind. OK, got that.

So, maybe the second piece was also a foodie thing. Yesterday, I was listening to The State of Things program on WUNC radio, over in Chapel Hill. The host, Frank Stasio, was talking with cookbook author Michael Ruhlman and food writer Kelly Alexander. One interesting idea they explored was the notion of a "lost generation" of cooks.  Apparently, in the 50s and 60s a generation "forgot" how to cook. The culprit, they opined, was that the cool new suburban appliances did it for us. Frozen dinners and packaged meals, TV trays and microwaves. We didn't cook so much as we opened, thawed, nuked, served and tossed everything that was left over into the trash compactor. The lessons once handed down from generation to generation faded. The old way became passé. So now, the authors asserted, cookbooks have to teach the basics, we must learn anew the "complexities" of boiling eggs, roasting a chicken, baking biscuits and making gravy - oops, preparing a sauce.

Alright, now what I think might have been the third part: Last night I invited a recent graduate back to campus to speak to my graduate seminar, "The Place of Text in the Digital Age." She was going to talk about a variety of digital tools the students might find helpful in constructing their final projects. The guest had created a "digital media resources-resource" as part of a directed study with me a couple of years ago, and I knew she had an encyclopedic knowledge of all things digital. She arrived even more amped than usual, which is hard to imagine. Seems that she had just gotten a job offer to work on an "AR Project" [Augmented Reality - think, your smart phone overlays Yelp restaurant data on top of the street you are viewing through the phone's camera. A website that lets you put the dress they are selling on a picture of you, so you can see how you look in it. The "heads-up" view pilots get of the instrument panel. That sort of thing.] with a very hip, very high end Design firm in NYC. She was as close to giddy as a very hip, very high end, digital design person can allow themselves to be. She talked with incredible knowledge about beta versions of digital message construction and distribution applications of which I had only the vaguest knowledge. The ideas popped and sparkled. And maybe that is what my lost paper, Carbonated Communication, was going to talk about:

I worry that in our current fascination with the pop and the sparkle of digital in-your-face, on-the-screen communication, we are forgetting how to communicate ideas and feelings thoughtfully, with depth. I am concerned that Twitter is our microwave, that Facebook is the trash compactor. We slip things with amazing speed across the glittering surface of the Internet - microblogs, the image of the instant, the tune passing through our earbuds right now! They effervesce, sparkle and disappear, leaving only a hint of flavor behind.  I am afraid that a decade or two down the road someone will have to "discover" the elegance of prose, the power of poetry, the awesome complexity of the analog novel. I am afraid we will have to reinvent all those wonderful wheels because we will have become lost in the snap, crackle and pop of carbonated communication.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It's N-uanced

I read in the New York Times today that a U.S. Intelligence entity called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or Iarpa, wants to launch a satellite that will automatically suck-up "big data," from various digital streams; things like "Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries" in order to, well, essentially predict the future.  From this avalanche of data they will, I suppose, get a heads-up on impending wars, revolutions, traffic jams in LA, and the Super Bowl winner.

Now I am always delighted to add a new follower to my blog, even if it is only an automated satellite. But that seems about the only positive piece to this puzzle.  The rest has a really creepy feel to it.  The article does begin with a nod to the "Psychohistory" of Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels.  Psychohistory was the fictional social science that was supposed to be able to predict human behavior to the "99-umtyith" decimal point, a level of confidence that was apparently "good enough for government work" when it came to running the galaxy.  But this Iarpa project is unfolding in what we are swiftly coming to understand as "real life."

Supposedly this super-data-sucker-satellite would allow Iarpa to compute and massage the global data stream in a way that "would not be limited to political and economic events, but would also explore the ability to predict pandemics and other types of widespread contagion."  I wonder if it has a built-in mirror in case it needs to catch a reflection of itself as an indication of "widespread contagion."  Still, I suppose there is some value to having a well-nigh perfect example of hubris floating around up there for all of us to see, but did the folks over at Iarpa also read Asimov? Did they not finish the book?

What happens is that all the efforts at predicting the future and dominating the galaxy get knocked into a cocked hat by the arrival of "The Mule."  The mule is not a raging Democrat hell-bent on whupping up on the Republicans whom he feels are protecting the super-rich of the galaxy.  He is rather a mutant, and, as such, behaves at odds with the predictions of "psychohistory."  Well, duh.  Has it ever been any other way?  Is history not the recording of the exceptional, the unexpected?  Were it not for the exceptional efforts and the unpredictable behavior of "aberrant" individuals, huge swathes of history would read "nothing much happened today."

What rankles me about Iarpa's creep-in-the-clouds project is that it presumes our predictability. That strikes me as either naive or childish - in much the same way that Facebook's "It's Complicated" status indicator is naive.  To assume it is ever anything but complicated asserts a level of predicability that is alien to human nature.  Human nature is, I contend, the least predictable and most nuanced variable floating around the galaxy.  Just about everything else seems to at least approximate the laws of physics.  We, on the other hand, are nuanced - we often act in ways that the data would indicate are contrary to our apparent best interests.  Peasants march off to war to defend the royalty who keep them in servitude, working class people vote to protect the rights of the wealthy who repress them, those born into great wealth lead movements to overthrow their own heritage.  As the bard put it, "O, brave new world, that has such creatures in it."

Here's the thing, we are each of us an N of one, the only subject in that ongoing experiment that is our life.  As individuals we are utterly unique.  You can gather all the data you want, you can run regression equations until a week from doomsday, and it will all fall apart when confronted by the behavior of that subtle, nuanced, extraordinary thing called a single human being.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Reflections of an Armchair Luddite

First we must remember that the Luddites were not opposed to technology that made people’s lives better; they were opposed to the implementation of technology that bruised the lives of human beings. The conflict that lent their name to history occurred in the early 1800s, when they demonstrated a disturbing tendency to burn down the factories housing the mechanized looms that, they asserted, were stealing their jobs and hence degrading the quality of human life.

And now Apple has introduced the iPhone 4S. The S stands, I assume, for Siri – the artificial intelligence-like “assistant” that allows you to talk to your phone, a function not to be confused with using your phone to actually talk to other human beings. In the cool video on Apple’s home page, [] Siri does the communicating to distant others:

Jogging Guy speaks: “Siri, read me my messages.”
Siri replys: “Great news, we got the go ahead on the project. Can you meet at 10?”
Jogging Guy: “You bet! See you there.”
Siri: Sent.
Jogging Guy: “Siri, text my wife. Tell her I’m going to be thirty minutes late.
Siri: I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that.

All right, I made that last part up. Unlike Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Siri seems quite compliant. But you can probably see where I am going with this. Actually, I’m headed in two directions. First is that potentially “Hal-ish” path that asks that we at least reflect on the notion of technological dependency. Consider the fact that we no longer know anyone’s phone number. To call them we just hit speed dial, or touch their picture on the screen, or select their name from a list. We forget that the “code” that Skynet recognizes is a string of numbers. That is, we forget it until we let our cell phone battery run down and we are forced to use another phone, one without our “contacts." We stare at the strange grid of numbers and wonder which ones to push.  And then, of course, there is GPS.   I drove around Chicago last week as if I had lived there for years; a task I could not repeat sans GPS for all the money in the world. Recalculating, recalculating.

I believe those technologies to be helpful. They free up grey matter for more complex tasks; for those issues at the top of the “thought pyramid,” if you will. If I don’t have to worry about the base of the pyramid – phone numbers, addresses, my library card number etc., I can devote my attention to upper level issues; my lecture for this afternoon, an idea for a painting, or wondering about the nature of dark energy. I like that. What does concern me is the extent to which Siri, and his/her even more powerful kin over on the Android platform, are creeping up the pyramid, sucking up more and more “helpful tasks.” Apple’s video goes on to demonstrate:

“Will I need an umbrella?”
“What the weather like in San Francisco?”
“Should be nice, highs in the mid-sixties.”
“How many ounces in a cup?”
“Let me think, 8 ounces.”
“Set my timer for 30 minutes.”
“Thirty minutes and counting.”

I worry about what happens if Siri’s battery runs down after we have given it responsibility for much of the seemingly trivial portions of the thought pyramid:

“Siri, where do I keep my shoes?”
“Siri, how do I turn on the cable system?”
“Siri, what is my credit card number?”
“Siri, what was the make of my first car?”
“Siri, where is the hospital?”

I worry that “If we don’t use it, we will lose it.” And we are talking about our minds. Lurking in the back of my non-Siri mind is what Eric Schmidt of Google once said: "More and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type. I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.”

“Siri, I’m bored – what do I want to do?”
“I’m sorry, Dave, I don’t know.”

My second concern is less dark, but more likely. The Apple videos show Jogging Man wearing ear buds and the other Siri users chatting away with Siri in the privacy of their own homes. Somehow I don’t see it working out that way.   Jogging Man will join the growing legions of Bluetooth users who spew their self-important conversations, Tourette-like, into the air; toxic vapors vented into the sphere of public silence. And can you imagine sitting in your favorite coffee shop surrounded by hordes of “Siri speakers”? Will the phones get confused if they “overhear” other “masters” talking to their “Siris”? Will people have to name their Siris to avoid confusion? Can you imagine how that will work in our celebrity-obsessed world?

“Leonardo, turn on the microwave.”
“Beyonce, put more starch in my shirts.”
“Mr. President, text my mother, tell her I’ll be late for dinner.”

Don’t get me wrong – I like my technology for the most part. Much of my life would be far more difficult – at times impossible - without it. But I would remind us that technology has a way of drifting into spaces either unintended, or at least unheralded, by its creators. I remember, in much the same hazy way I remember watching The Mickey Mouse Club, a time when parents assumed that if their children were using the computer they were doing their homework, because it was, after all, just a computer.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Working Without a Net

It is, I suppose, the nature of things. The more you stretch something, the thinner and more fragile it becomes. Over the last week or two I have noticed my technology stretching and cracking around me.  Right now the cracks are minor irritations.  I can cover the flaws, work around the errors - but I wonder when they - like the car windshield in the TV commercial - will shatter before my eyes?  It is akin to being nibbled to death by ducks:

First, our tech support people failed to burn a DVD for my class because "the machine was down"  Nibble.

No problem, I can use the ancient VCR in the classroom, except, no, I can't because "Gosh. Never saw that before. The console software that controls the projector couldn't 'see' the VCR. Sorry." Nibble.

And then the online students couldn't see the video because the library "had a server meltdown." Nibble.

And my wife's iPad "doesn't work anywhere in Europe" so I only get emails when the hotels have computers in the lobby for the guests.  Nibble, nibble, nibble.

What concerns me is that subtly, without my really noticing it, the tools that had always been digital "enhancements" in my classroom and my life have become the primary platforms upon which I depend.  And with our increasing expectations and digital "solutions," the simple tools which technology used to enhance have faded into the mist with the dinosaurs and the giant sloth. You cannot draw on the board if there are no markers, and if there is no whiteboard, they frown upon your drawing on the screen that has replaced it. When your systems crash, there is no back-up, and a hundred kids are staring at you.

I wonder, as they gaze at me, if we have found too much comfort in the size of the digital world.  I could pull out my phone and instantly tell hundreds of people of my misery.  If I allowed my students to do same, we could report our plight to thousands.  Perhaps there would be some comfort in a public rant. It does seem quite the thing for celebrities, sports figures and politicians these days.  But, practically speaking, no one can provide me remedy before our class time slips away, leaving my students to mutter, "How lame was that?"

I wonder how many of us are out here working without a net?  We see the TV ads where the sleeping guy is roused by a phone call from his colleagues announcing "We're at the gate. Where are you? Do you have the presentation?!"  And before the end of the 15-second spot, our protagonist rolls out of bed, downloads the presentation to his mobile device, slips into business clothes, and is out the door - road warrior of the new millennium!  I wonder if that has ever happened in "the real world"?

But wait! There is a phone on the desk here in the classroom.  Furthermore, if I am teaching between 9 and 5 - it will connect me immediately to the "Help Desk."  It is five 'til three! I call. They are concerned. They are chagrined. They can do nothing. And that, of course, is the problem.  We are connected - digitally speaking - but they are functionally impotent here in the world beyond the TV commercial.

I hang up and push more "touch sensitive" screen buttons on the classroom control console.  Nothing happens.  I call the Help Desk again.

"Hello," growls a Slavic male.  "My name is Peggy."

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Marley's Digital Chains

The first time I read Dickens' A Christmas Carol, it wasn't so much Marley's ghost that bothered me, it was the chains.  OK, the rag that tied his mouth shut was pretty creepy too, but mostly I had a problem with the chains.  I was too young to realize that it was an existential thing - that I was undone by the notion that, no matter how sorry he was, those "chains of sin" would follow him forever.  As Marley said:

"I wear the chain I forged in life, I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

No matter his current regrets, he was going to haul those chains around with him throughout eternity.  It just didn't seem fair.

The same, it occurs to me, is true about the strands of text, image and experience we "make link by link of our own free will" out on the Internet.  No doubt, all those links seemed good decisions when forged, when we hit post, link, send or tag.  Each link was a momentary insight, a fleeting truth. But they grow heavier by the year, and we cannot shed them, no matter how sorry we now may be.

Actually, we cannot shed them even when we are not sorry, we cannot shed them when they are simply outgrown and inconvenient - like Uggs in a ballroom.  I came to that realization when I began my experiment with Google+.  I quite liked the idea of an upside-down version of Facebook, where the small group took precedent over the revealing hoard.  So I created a "circle" that contained only the graduate students who served as graders for my large undergraduate courses.  I flung open the door in anticipation of a cozy chat with a group of young scholars who shared my interest in online education.

In walked a member of the team, a bright and delightful young man, who was also a Google+ power user.  Trailing behind him was a chain ponderous beyond all imagining.  Posts and responses from utter strangers stretched off to the far horizons.

"Please leave those in the hall," said I.

"I cannot," said he, quoting poor Marley, "They are my business."

Well, I let him in anyhow.  But I wasn't wild about the idea.

Surely there is some simple way to strike off Marley's Chains when we enter the theoretically more cordial environment of Google+?  The idea was, I thought, to advantage the small, the private, the constrained. Yet still we hit "share" and forge anew these schizophrenic chains, condemned to drag their babbling voices behind us into any "Circle" to which we are invited.  What's more, they do not fit into the room, you cannot bar the door.  The chains stretch out, posting and re-posting time out of mind.

"This is just between us, " you say.

"Right," says Marley. "Strictly 'entre nous'"

"Got it," say his chains.  "Under the hat"

"Mum's the word!"

"Shhhh," "Keep it down!"  "Cool it!"  and so on around the world.  

Rude at best, creepy at worst. 

And Marley's Chains stretch far back beyond today's sexy new "social media." Old email, papers written and published online back when you were far more certain and foolish than you are today, programs from conferences you wish you hadn't attended.  All our digital faux pas clanking along behind us. It is not so much my own chains that trouble me, though a quick Google search reveals them significant in their own right.  Still, I have labored on Marley's Digital Chains for a mere mite of my life.  I was already 45 years old when the digital forge leapt to fire. Hence, many a callow and foolish link lay forgotten amidst the dust of analog attics.  Letters, notes, diaries, poems and photographs were abandoned - with only occasional regrets - to be swirled away by the insistent winds of time.

Time was when time was forgotten.  But that was the world before bits and bytes.  I read, with the same blend of fascination and horror we bring to train wrecks and natural disasters, of parents setting up Facebook accounts for their children in utero.  An ultrasound image anchors the profile of the unborn.  I swear, I wake up sweating.  But Marley chuckles, smashing away at the forge: "They're gonna love this at preschool."  These are the chains that worry me.

I have nothing against memory, though, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I prefer her more forgiving twin, memoir.  But the Internet's blind fidelity to "that which was entered" crafts for us all trailing tails of Marley's Chains.  Yes, some are chains of our own making, but others are struck by those beyond our ken, the creation of an unknown "friend" of a "friend", yet still permanent.

In closing let us turn again to Dickens:

"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change."

Perhaps we should consider departing from some of the courses down which we follow our Internet guides.  Perhaps every thought should not be given voice, perhaps some images should be restrained, perhaps some video should remain private, some music "thumbed" neither up nor down.  Perhaps, since we cannot break them at our leisure, some chains should be left un-forged.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

iThink, therefore, i.

I consider it irrefutable evidence of the universe's sense of humor that such an uppercase individual will forever be associated with the lowercase i.  I empathize with what must surely be his family's joy, as he steps out of the limelight to rest a bit before the hearth.  And I hope that he has years of inspiration yet to share from his new perch as Chairman of the Board.

Still, Jobs has to feel a bit like Tom Sawyer today, hearing all these almost eulogies while still firmly abroad in the world of the living, hiding in the gallery.  And he certainly has the ego to enjoy them.  Who wouldn't?

If I were to get a few words at the funeral, before Steve revealed himself to the startled congregation, I would dwell on the significance of the lowercase i.  Jobs has, no doubt, long realized that when you decide on a product all by your lonesome, and when don't "test market" it to catch the mood of the herd, when you insist on doing it your way, and when you are right as often as he is, well folks are going to get a bit testy.  Nothing irritates us like someone else's success.  I choose to believe that this is where the whole lowercase i concept came from - in Jobs's inherent feel for marketing. IBM, the first company to play Goliath to Jobs's David, pointed the I to the company - "I B the Man."  So with the iMac, the ancestral i, Jobs pointed the i to the user: "i'm just here for you."  And somehow i became us.

But i might be wrong, mightn't i?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Respect in Disrepair

Respect seems a crippled concept in contemporary culture, becoming, in some ways its own antonym.  The Godfather provides at least a cinematic history of this inversion.  "I am sorry. What happened to your father was business. I have much respect for your father."   But that respect will not prevent me from sending him to sleep with the fishes.  Or we can move from gangster to gangsta by spinning the dial to any of the festering "reality" programs and hear something like, "Diss me again and I'll kick your 'bleep!"  Spin again and we find C-SPAN with our "leaders" engaged in partisan bickering that makes it clear that they would not recognize respect if it jumped up and bit them in their "bleep."

It was not always so.  My wife and I were watching The Conspirator last night, the movie about the trial of Mary Surratt, accused of participating in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.  The film's reviews are mixed, but even those who found it somewhat pedantic are in agreement as to its attention to historical accuracy and detail.  In the 1860's lawyers always buttoned their coats as they stood to address the court. Even when that particular court had forfeited its claim on respect, you showed respect for the notion of the law by buttoning your coat in the presence of the court.  To do less reflected poorly upon you.  Etiquette, manners, were and are the external manifestations of respect.

I am concerned with the current Alice in Wonderland treatment of etiquette and respect because, quite simply, learning cannot occur in an environment devoid of either.  We sit atop the food chain not because we are big or strong or fast.  Rather we are there because we can construct culture.  We can define rules for civil behavior that say "Look, I extend an open hand.  I smile.  I will not kill you and eat you.  Let us talk, let us learn one from the other."

The notion of respect, of manners, of etiquette have been a little slow out of the gate when it comes to the whole area of mobile technology.  I was glad to see Mark Zuckerberg don a suit and tie for the G8 conference last year.  The iconic hoodie-wearing CEO of Facebook Nation demonstrated respect for the forum, and in so doing affirmed that etiquette and manners have a place in digital culture.

But what is that place?  I will admit, to affirm a meme from the Chairman, it's complicated.  The ability to be in constant contact gives rise to situations that did not exist in the pre-cellphone era.  Birth, death, tragedy and joy can - of an instant - flash from around the world into the palm of our hand.  It seems foolish to ignore information of such import.  To do so would be disrespectful - and we answer, we attend.  But then, far more often, the trivial, the banal, gains the same access and is awarded the same attention.  That, too, is disrespectful.

So what are the rules?  In flux no doubt, but I would like to propose some starting points:

The person present takes precedence.
  The individual with whom you are face-to-face, the person I see, takes respectful priority over the person I cannot see.  I will maintain eye-contact, I will not blatantly, nor surreptitiously, text the remote, intruding other.  To do so is simply bad manners.  If the remote message is truly of such import that it must interrupt the face-to-face then I will apologize - sincerely - and remove myself from the face-to-face environment.

The world is not your phone booth.
  There was a time in the paleotelephonic age when, not only were there phone booths, but they had doors.  The doors affirmed the notion that telephone calls were private.  We tend to assume that meant that people shouldn't eavesdrop on our conversations.  In the digital age we seem to have forgotten that it also meant that we should not inflict our conversations upon our neighbors.  Remember, your freedom to broadcast your conversation extends only to the point where it intrudes upon the freedom of others not to hear your conversation.  Speak quietly.  Better yet, take it outside.

Yes, that means you.
  I read a story recently about a group of passengers who broke into applause and cheers when some public transportation personnel forced a woman - who had been yammering into her cellphone for several hours - to leave the car, which was plainly labeled: "Quiet Car.  No cellphones or music players permitted."  The woman should be glad that applause and cheers were the only things broken.  There are obviously still soft spots in mobile communication etiquette, but when someone takes the trouble to create and clearly state "the rules of the game," read them, follow them.  They mean you.

I agree.  Those seem like common sense assertions, despite the extent to which they are ignored.  Yet "common sense" means commonly shared, common knowledge, commonly accepted good manners.  The way your mother raised you.  And maybe that is the problem - many of our mothers never had a cellphone.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Photoshopping the Filter Bubble

Eli Pariser first noticed the phenomenon that he calls the “Filter Bubble” when his conservative “friends” began to disappear from his Facebook page.  Now you might think that for Pariser, co-founder of the unabashedly liberal website, this was good news.  Not so, he asserts in his book titled, not surprisingly, The Filter Bubble. Pariser is apparently a throwback to the days of the founding fathers when savvy politicians believed in keeping their friends close and their enemies closer; when you learned by studying the perspective of your adversary. So, he wanted to find out why the Tea Party had left his Facebook party.  Not their choice, Pariser came to discover – they had been filter bubbled out.

What Pariser learned in the course of researching his book was that Facebook had shown his conservative friends the door because Facebook, or rather Facebook’s filtering algorithm had decided, based on the fact that Pariser did click on his Tea Party buddies less often than his MoveOn cronies, that he really wasn’t all that interested in them.  So why clutter his page with them?  “Off with their heads!”

I advise you to read the book.  It is interesting, and more than a little chilling.  Basically, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what is going on:  Most of THE INTERNET makes its money from advertising.  The ubiquitous little ads that pop-up on the pages you go to while online.  The hosting page – be it Google or Lands End, the Gap, Spotify, whoever – gets a bigger piece of the ad revenue if you actually click on an ad.  Hence the more the page "knows" about you the more it can push – in split seconds – ads onto the page that are tailored for your very personal profile.  Try this – do a Google search for Labrador retrievers, play around on dog pages for a while.  Now go to some other site – like Amazon or Yahoo news.  Look at the ads.  Seem a little more “doggy” than usual?  I told you it was a touch creepy.  There are very large, very wealthy companies that do nothing but gather our “click streams” and sell them to the algorithm-makers.

You can actually understand it from a business perspective.  Advertisers are simply trying to place their products in front of people whose own Internet behavior indicates that they are interested in the product.  Seems harmless until we remember the case of the vanishing conservatives.  THE INTERNET isn’t simply tracking and constructing filters based on the products we like, it is also building filters that keep out the ideas that we don’t like, while foregrounding our proclivities.  Internet algorithms try to construct, and lead us to, our vision of “a perfect world.”  You know the saying – someone asks you a question and you respond, “Well, in a perfect world .  .  .”  What we mean is in our perfect world,” the world as we would like it to be. 

In the movie Heaven Can Wait – the 1978 Warren Beatty version – the welcoming angel tells Beatty’s character that heaven is “a product of your image and that of those who share your image,” a perfect world, defined by what we, and our “friends” believe a perfect world should be.  That is a very prescient “internet-algorithm-esque” concept for a 1978 chick-flick!

There are, however, problems inherent in letting Internet algorithms define a perfect world for us, based upon their perception of our behavior.  I am reminded of the elementary schoolyard where I played as a child.  It was, by contemporary standards, a death trap.  Asphalt paving everywhere except on the fields where we played baseball and football.  Those were dirt, not grass, dirt.  The slides were really tall – you sort of had to lean back to see the top.  They were shiny steel with four-inch sides.  Sliding down on summer days was a delicate balance.  The heat seemed to increase your speed, but if you were too light to get all the way off the end, you stuck.  First degree burns on your butt.  So you leapt off to the easier embrace of the landing area, which was, remember, asphalt.  Similarly, sliding in a baseball game was a decision to which one did not come lightly.  You measured the transient heroism of victory against the possibility of major abrasions and a tetanus-shot trip to the nurse’s office.  All in all we had a good time.

My daughters grew up as playgrounds were transitioning into “a perfect world.”  Everything is now low and slow, plastic and padded.  No doubt injuries still occur, though it seems you would probably have to put some planning and effort into it.  According to the TV ads, successful injuries are dealt with by a phalanx of perfect moms welding spray-on antiseptic and instant bandages.

The point is this – sometimes the world that is constructed by others for our “own good” damages the depth of our experience and compromises the legitimacy of our conclusions.  Internet filters that show us only that which we already believe and desire, destroy the opportunity for the serendipitous discovery that comes from going somewhere we have never been before.  They deny us the opportunity to learn from those who think differently than we.  They create a perfect world in which everything seems low and slow, plastic and padded.

But wait! There is a software fix for this world in a bubble that might even increase Internet profits.  Listen up, moguls.  Photoshop has a feature that lets you select parts of an image; either parts that you click on, or parts that share a color.  Point is that it lets you select part of an image based on certain criteria.  Once you have selected those parts of the image you can go to the “Selection” menu, where among the options is: Select Inverse - which means "select all those elements that I have not chosen."

You see where I am going here?  If the algorithm can decide what it thinks I want, can’t it also decide what I don’t want?  Wouldn't it be cool if I could tell Google to “Select Inverse?”  Create a search based on the notion that what I haven’t experienced might be more intriguing than what I have already done?  Think about it as a clock face.  You are standing in the middle and facing 12 o’clock.  Noon is “a perfect world.”  Midnight is what the algorithm predicts you want it to find.  Six o’clock is “Select Inverse.”  Why can’t I ask for that “six o’clock search” instead?

And let’s not forget the numbers in between.  Photoshop also has a slider attached to many of its functions called opacity or intensity.  Essentially, it a function rheostat.   You move from, say, 100% opacity, where you cannot see through an image at all, to 0% opacity where the image disappears and only the background is visible.  Why not a “Search Slider” that lets you move the algorithm around.  Say 1:00 o’clock equals a search with your characteristics intensified 30%, 2:00 o’clock is “you” intensified 60%.  And 11:00 o’clock reflects a search with your characteristics deflected by 30%, 10:00 o’clock and “you” are deflected 60%.  Fader Bar Search. Why not?

There are obvious and intriguing existential implications in the fact that moving in both a “positive” and a “negative” direction will eventually bring us to the same 6:00 o’clock “Select Inverse” world that stands in algorithmic opposition to the perfect world that the Filter Bubble seeks to create for us.  But, in the final analysis, shouldn’t we be allowed to choose the direction and intensity of the journey?  Isn’t that really what “searching” means?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Making Light of Art or Art with Lytro?

If you were an “image maker” back before 1800, odds are you worked in paint, ink, clay or stone, and your objective was representation.  Etch the critter you want to kill on the shaft of a spear or the wall of a cave and you increased your chances for a successful hunt.  If you were both a good hunter and a talented artist, maybe Og would slip you an extra hunk of Mastodon haunch to do some painting on his wall or weapon.  Fast forward 20,000 years, and the ability create a particularly godly rendering of the monarch or prelate could get you a pretty cushy stay in Athens, Alexandria, or Rome. 

Come the 14 and 15 hundreds, and the dominant artists of the Renaissance were employing canvas, oil paints, and occasionally ground glass from the thriving foundries out on Murano to craft portraits and landscapes that seemed real enough to stride off the wall and stroll around the piazza.  Brush and palette-type image-makers continued to thrive well into the 1800s.  Anybody who was anybody had a cluster of oils adorning the walls – like some eerie foreshadowing of today’s refrigerator doors or cubicle walls.  Consider James Whistler’s homage to his mother; still mainstream when painted in 1871.  But by then the game was definitely afoot.

As far back as 1826 Frenchman Joseph Nicephore had used a camera obscura to burn a permanent image of the view from his garden onto a doped pewter plate.  He called it heliography, or sun-drawing.  It was, in reality, the beginning of photography.  By mid-century image-makers were toting boxes of various shapes and sizes in to the halls of congress, the homes of the high and mighty, the backwaters of jungles, and onto any battlefield to which they could finagle access.  Photography arrived and changed image making for forever.

Photography was a double-edged sword.  It certainly loped the legs out from under the portrait painter.  Who needed a “close to real” painting when you could have something else that was “picture perfect”?  On the other hand, from this newly mandated supine perspective, artists began to look beyond the blinders of representationalism.  It is not by chance that Impressionism sprang onto canvases in the late 1800s, just as photography was claiming control of portraiture. 

Almost without exception, significant innovations in our ability to create images change the entire spectrum of human expression.  Consider these three connected innovations:
Point and shoot digital cameras, their inclusion into cellphones, and, the Internet. The result? At the end of May of this year, Facebook announced that its users photo archives had exceeded 100 billion images.  That is a lot of refrigerator doors, and an incredible number of dumb cat pictures.  But it is also a phenomenon that we should not ignore.  The iconic photographer, Ansel Adams, used to distinguish between “scenic beauty” and artistic beauty.  Scenic beauty is what you see on postcards.  Artistic beauty is what you see in images created by Adams, and Margaret Bourke-White, and Yousuf Karsh.  I would hazard to guess that the majority of Facebook photos contain neither scenic nor artistic beauty.  They are images of convenience posted as a shorthand peek into our experiences.  Neither the intent nor the impact is aesthetic.  They are reportorial – because the capabilities of the technology incline us to that usage:  Point. Click. Dog. Child. Vacation. Flat tire.  Photography trivialized.

But there is a new game in town.  Its name is Lytro.

The short explanation is that Lytro is a company founded by a freshly-minted Stanford Ph.D. by the name of Ren Ng that is going to put the light field camera in to our hands.  Whether it will be in our phones or a stand-alone unit is still up for grabs, but we will have it.  Dr. Ng intends to see to that.

“Cool.” I thought.  .  .  .  .  “What’s a light field camera?” [And, I’ve taught photography in a very respectable university!] 

I now know that a light field camera is one that grabs and stores all the light being reflected by whatever is in front of the camera.  That, too, seems something of a yawner until you think about what it means to have ALL the light that is reflected by whatever is in front of a camera.

Remember Joseph Nicephore and his heliography? Sun drawing?  And remember what it became? Photography?  That’s right – photo = light.  Photography is “light drawing.”  Photography has, until Lytro, grabbed SOME of the light being reflected by whatever is in front of the lens and makes a drawing with that little bit of light.  Without getting all warm and geeky about this, being able to grab ALL the light, store it, and play with it all you want AFTER clicking the shutter is, well, incredibly warm and geeky – and artistically awesome.  I understand that it used to take scads of cameras and computers to generate those “ALL the light” images.  Lytro does it with cellphone size technology.  Truly wonderful.  Why?

Just three examples:

Depth of field.  The depth of field in any photograph is the range of the image that is in focus.  Think of a photo as a loaf of sliced bread.  You are looking in one end of the loaf and the picture ends at the other end of the loaf.  The depth of field is the number of slices that are in focus.  Depth of field is one of the things that photographers who are concerned with artistic beauty agonize over.  Focus draws the eye, de-focus feathers attention.  Deciding which slice or slices of the loaf you want to be in focus is an artistic decision.  BL [Before Lytro] you had to decide on the desired slices beforehand and adjust light sources and the opening of the lens and the shutter speed that would – depending on the light sensitivity of your film – allow just the right amount of light into the camera so that it would draw the loaf of bread so that only the slices you wanted to be in focus, would be in focus.  Clear?  Of course not, and it no longer matters.  What is important is that an “ALL the light” image let's you determine depth of field AFTER you take the picture – and you can keep changing your mind and/or create multiple depths of field.  Make slice one clear, fuzz out 2 through 6, 7 and 8 clear, and so on.  Old images quickly become, well, toast.

Example two: Shutter delay.  Gone.  You had to push the shutter halfway so that, WAIT, the autofocus could decided which slices of the loaf you wanted in focus, adjust the light and shutter speed and NOW you can take the picture.  Oops.  Baby smile gone, speeding athlete out of frame, whatever.  Not with Lytro.  One click of the shutter gathers ALL the light – gobbles the whole loaf.

Example three: Flash.  Surely you jest.  Lytro grabs ALL the light, and rarely needs more.

I better stop now.  I’m feeling a little lightheaded.  Oh, I know, people will do silly things with it.  We’ll see images with more focus highlights than anyone could absorb.  Those will be horrible.  But the others?  Oh, the possibilities .  .  .  .

All right, way down here is the link to the Lytro picture gallery.  I knew if I put it up higher on the page, you’d never get here.  Enjoy.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Felix the Cat and the Mimeograph Machine

I do have a fuzzy recollection of those days when, as a young man, I would fall into bed, exhausted from the day, and find myself instantly asleep. Clearer are the memories of days of seeming unremitting stress as I struggled to pull my life into some semblance of, first, harmony, and then later, health.  Those days presaged whirligig nights of blanket fights that raged from dusk ‘til dawn. I awoke as exhausted as before the bout.  Thankfully, it has become better in these calmer years. Better, yes, but sometimes really weird.

I no longer retire with much expectation of sleep.  If it comes it comes, I can take it or leave it.  Night is, far more predictably, a time for meditation and the freedom to engage in conversation with someone who completely shares my interests and perspective.  I refer, naturally, with no slight intended to my dear wife, to myself.

It grows increasingly clear as I bumble through my 60s that enlightenment is a personal journey.  The only commonality we share with others on the trip is the ever-receding horizon.  As a result, the person closest to our heart is not the one who chatters along about plans for tomorrow or next week.  It is instead the one most tolerant of our inclination to stare dreamily into space, going where "no man has gone before," and where we all must travel alone.  I refer, of course, to our morning mirror buddy, ourselves.  If we happen to live with someone who not only tolerates us, but genuinely cares for us - that is truly wonderful. 

All of which is, of course, unnecessary prologue to the strange perceptual experience I had the other night.  I say "perceptual experience" because the line between a waking meditative reverie and a sleeping dream has become thin enough to ignore.  The “experience” had to do with Felix the Cat and a mimeograph machine.  In a scene reminiscent of Fantasia, an endless stream of Felix the Cat models spewed out of a mimeograph machine and marched downstairs, in search no doubt of the excellent scallop and garlic pasta dish Christine had made for dinner. I would awake, toss and turn, go back to sleep and Felix would march on.  The connection between Felix and the mimeograph may not be immediately obvious, but it does make sense.

Those who do not study the media may be unaware that Felix the Cat was the very first TV star.  In 1928 the experimental TV station in New York W2XBS needed a moving image to calibrate their primitive cameras. They put a 13-inch tall papier-mâché model of Felix, a current print and film star, on a record turntable and spun him around.  And there he sat for 2 hours a day for almost a decade, transfixing the handful of employees and engineers who could receive the gradually improving image on a fuzzy, black and white two-inch screen.

During that same era the stencil printing, or mimeograph, machine was gaining some popularity in business offices around the country.  My memories of that particular piece of technology spring from my first teaching jobs in the early 1970s.  I recall being particularly entranced with the first electric mimeograph machines where the hand crank was replaced by an electric motor that allowed the copies to spill from the machine at seemingly blinding speed.

The implications for the Internet may not be immediately obvious – still they are there.  You see, the most amazing thing about Felix spinning around in front of the primordial TV camera and the pages marching out of the mimeograph machine, like brooms under Mickey's spell, was the technology that produced them.  Felix transfixed us because of how he got to that tiny little screen - pictures through the air - awesome.  Same for the mimeograph machine.  Dozens of copies at the flip of a switch - hundreds if you wanted them.  OK, so you couldn't read the last few dozen, but look how many there are!!

We are currently entranced with the incredibly cool ways that the Internet gets stuff before our i-s. That's not a typo, I mean our iPhones, our iPads, our iPods and all the other iLike things that we stuff into our pockets.  Mr. Jobs sure got that one right - as did the guys in the Googleplex and the kid over at Facebook.  We are in love with seeing things on screens - we are in love with the technology that the Internet mainlines into our lives. The content? Well, that's lagging a bit behind. Angry Birds?  Come on now.

It has often been thus with new forms of technology.  Mature content flourishes in mature technology.  In mature technology the issue is not "What can I do?"  The concern is "what can I say?" In mature communication media content dominates; combining nuance, depth and subtlety in pursuit of conceptual clarity is a primary concern. 

In new technologies the fascination is with "What can I do?" Make pictures move, stuff Morse code into a wire, send print, speech and moving images through the air.  Look what we can DO! Isn't that cool?

  The disparity between “do” and “say” usually sorts itself out.  Eventually the "Wow cool, look what I can do!" fascination fades and the subtlety of insightful content creation resurfaces - often more vibrant than before.  It is then that new art forms evolve, communication becomes increasingly nuanced.

  However, it strikes me that the unprecedented speed at which new layers of communication media are evolving is warping that traditional process.  Content struggles to keep up with capacity - hence messages struggle to gain maturity:

"Look, I can point my phone at the bar code next to that coat in the window and click this little thingy and - since I put my size and address info onto the store's website - I can buy it right now, at 3:00 in the morning!!"

"Do you want the coat?"

"No, not really, but how cool is that app!?"

See what I mean?  I'm not saying that there isn't worthwhile content out there in cyberspace. There is. However, at this point in time, increasingly the tail wags the dog. Actually the tail is wagging the puppy.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

To Hashtag or #To Hashtag

I just read an article about the extent to which the “hashtag”, the symbol formerly known as the “number sign” or the “pound key” - “#”, has made it's way out of Twitter into the language at large.  The rather long NY Times article asserts that the symbol has come to indicate a sort of ironic separation from the content following the #.  I admit to not completely understanding - as I don't tweet.  But apparently a # inserted before the content seems to have much the same linguistic function as "not" inserted behind the content.  So, "#I completely agree" and "I completely agree . . . Not!" would be roughly equivalent statements.

In the interest of full disclosure I must admit to a personal history of symbolic manipulation.  It was probably sometime after 5th and 6th grade spent in Vienna, Austria, when I first encountered exotic symbol systems, but before college, when the odds of being outed as a poser would have been far greater. I used to take notes in class in fluid nonsense symbols.  I would cover pages with intricate symbols - sometimes starting from the left, sometimes from the right.  It was great fun.  I would even cross out and make corrections.  I think, perhaps, it was somehow tied up with masking ignorance as secret knowledge.  And that, it seems, is a characteristic shared with the #.  The symbol, the article implies, carries the flavor of shared, but assertive, indecision.  A declaration of "I may not know what I'm talking about - but here is what I think anyhow!" It is a phase we all go through, and perhaps there is something hopeful in a generation with the courage to symbolically acknowledge, no matter how obliquely, their indecision or uncertainty.

Still, it worries me that there seems to be an increasingly positive connotation attached to imprecise expression.  As I grow older, and more aware of how little of existence I understand, I try to express those few insights as clearly as possible.  But perhaps there is an inverse linguistic relationship at play; as maturity seeks clarity, youth masks uncertainty with oblique prose.

A couple of examples, from opposite ends of the "complexity continuum."  I mentioned several posts ago that I recently re-read The Great Gatsby.  Although he had already written two previous novels, Fitzgerald was just turning 30 when he wrote Gatsby, and, had he not died so young, we would consider Gatsby one of his "early works."  The point is that the prose is lovely, but the novel winds down to a whimpering "nobody loves me, everybody hates me, guess I'll go eat worms" concept.  Youthful uncertainty wrapped in beautiful, complex, oblique prose.

Texting holds down the other end of the spectrum, well, more Twitter than texting. There are increasingly sophisticated speech-to-text software programs out there that by-pass tiny little keyboards to allow for less painful forays into texting. Some of them even get around the 160-character limits of SMS.  Still, Twitter, increasingly the short-message platform of preference, for the nonce restricts messages to 140 characters.  A restriction that, regular readers of my posts realize, might cause me to fling myself in front of a bus.

Still, younger writers seem to love it - because, I would argue, the enforced brevity lends itself to a sort of protective ambiguity. Doesn't demand it, mind you, but inclines one in that direction.  Take for example, from another iconic platform of the young, Facebook, the relationship-status descriptor "It's complicated."  What a superb example of terse ambiguity.  It says nothing specific, but implies a world of possibilities.  But a word of caution; the lack of precision does not always spin out in the protective way the author might intend. Two succinct phrases, one verifiable, the other probably mythic, serve as excellent examples of terse ambiguity gone awry:  "I am not a crook!" and "Let them eat cake!"  Neither leader spoke the phrase in an attempt to end a career.  However, the intent of the speaker notwithstanding, the audiences apparently heard, "#I am not a crook!" and "#Let them eat cake!"

Did I do that right? #It will break my heart if I can't figure out how to use the #.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Fascination of the Small

The southern summer has settled in with a vengeance, spawning tornadoes that swept northward like latter-day Jeb Stuarts taking the war to the Yankees.  The thermometer puts up numbers of which students only dream, and you can soak a shirt walking out to get the mail.   All in all, it seemed a strange time to take my camera for a stroll.  But Christine has been gone for awhile, up in the Second City doing “Aunt Chris” duty, and I have succumbed to cabin fever.  So I made it a two-stop day.  First, I walked a short loop over by Lake Crabtree, then the “Investigator” path through the meadow and woods adjoining the North Carolina Museum of Art. 

The lake trail was peacefully deserted, save for a few other mad dogs and Englishmen jogging and biking the perimeter.  There is a calming silence to heat.  It would be oppressive indoors, but out here it seems a filter – nothing expends energy on unnecessary sound.  All that remains is important and worthy of our efforts to listen.  The smell of pine and honeysuckle steep together nicely in the quiet; trumpet vines and mimosas splash pink and scarlet among shade upon shade of green and brown. Several times I raised the camera to frame a shot, only to let it fall.  I began to realize that, today at least, simply pausing and watching would suffice.  More and more these days, when I take a photo it has a way of sinking into the voracious, multi-layered and cross-indexed “Pictures” file, never to be seen again.  Better to gaze, to breathe, and to listen.

Coming around a bend, I chanced upon a biker in full Lance Armstrong regalia; Area 51 styled helmet, spandex this and wicking that, all held together with Velcro and clever clips.  His stylish steed rested lightly against him as he fiddled with ear buds looping down to something small and digital.  I nodded, but he seemed oblivious to my awesome walking staff and raffish fedora.  A yard or two past him a flashy bluebird perched above a spectacular thicket of poison ivy draped with honeysuckle. I stopped and peeked through my viewfinder.  Damn near dropped the camera as a huge heron exploded from an eddy just behind her tiny blue buddy.  She screamed, and beat her way into the air.  I turned to see if Lance, too, had avoided a coronary, only to find him head down, staring intently at his digital doodad, thumbs flying.  It struck me that had we invented cellphones first, we would never have tamed fire – the saber-tooth tigers and cave bears would have been picking us off like jellybeans as we texted our way to extinction.

The path embracing the art museum was more populated, but still not crowded.  The large sculptures scattered across the landscape lay baking in the sun, pieces pulled from some gigantic kiln, cooling under Carolina blue.  Dogs, which had no doubt started the day straining the leash, now toiled up slight inclines, tongues panted to full extend.  Parents pushed, pulled and carried children among ponds and plantings perhaps a tad too obviously designed to tempt modern-day Monets.  Still, I caved, and took a couple of shots as background for a new set of images I am drawing.

I suppose it was the sleepy little ones being toted through the lush landscape that took me back to the first serialized fiction I can remember reading, Thorton Burgess’s Old Mother West Wind stories.  Burgess, a naturalist and author from Massachusetts, penned the tales over a stretch of almost 50 years, starting in 1910.  I first encountered Little Joe Otter, Spotty the Turtle, Billy Mink, Peter Cottontail, et al., in 1954, when I was still several months shy of my sixth birthday.  My father had taken a summer teaching position in California, and our rented home was not far from the local library.  My mother used books the way modern moms use DVD players, and so we read the summer away.

I am struck by the differences between then and now, between those stories and today’s.  The Mother West Wind tales made the small large – they created an entire world in a meadow or along a stretch of riverbank.  It is a characteristic shared with Kenneth Grahame’s British classic, Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, and Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, from 1926. These works all appear to have their roots in a close observation of nature writ small.  I envision Burgess, Grahame and Milne, children when the 19th century turned 20, forced to go outside and play without things plastic or electric. They were, no doubt, initially bored.  But boredom, like necessity, often proves the mother of invention.  And they invented entire worlds in the gardens, meadows and streams that surrounded them – worlds that later flowed from their pens onto receptive pages, worlds they shared with me, waiting anxious and unknowing, across the decades. 

I wonder if, when even the youngest of children can touch the wide world through today’s magic screens, do we deny them the fascination of the small?  Do we ever allow them to become bored enough to track an ant across the garden?  To follow the flight of the bluebird? To imagine the throat that gives voice to thunder, or the world to which a rabbit hole allows entry? Have we become so averse to leaving our children alone with themselves that we impair their ability to discover who they are, and by what small thing they may be fascinated? And is the same true for you, and for me?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Numbers Game

Maybe primitive cultures had the right idea when it came to counting: one, two, more, a whole lot.  For one thing it made things like “credit default swaps” impossible.  But the evolution of civilization eventually drove us forward to those banes of school kids everywhere – long division and “making change”, social diseases almost completely eradicated by the invention of the calculator, and now unknown in the civilized world since the calculator app has come to the smartphone.

Still, I remember when numbers had the power to both shock and surprise us:  “Hundreds of cars were involved in a pile-up on icy I-95 just south of the nation’s capitol.” “20,000 Fans Crammed into the RBC on Saturday to See the Wolfpack take on the Tarheels!”  Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands – big numbers, but numbers close enough to our own lives to have meaning, to be understood, to be confronted. 

Studying and teaching about digital culture brings me into regular contact with a class of numbers that need a new name.  I vaguely remember a math professor talking, during my freshman year [back when one was allowed to call it that], about “imaginary numbers” – a number with a negative square, hence, a number that could be defined but did not exist.  When I read about the Internet I find myself constantly running into a different kind of number - a number that exists but is really beyond our imagination.  Perhaps we could call them whelms: "numbers, the implications of which capsize us, overrunning our understanding.” [And that, “to capsize, to over run” is, according to the OED, the meaning of “whelm.” “Overwhelm”, strangely, means the same thing – but if I’m going to make a noun from a verb – whelm seems the better choice.]

So what are some whelms currently in play? 

700 million: the estimated population of Facebook Nation.
1.5 – 2 billion:  searches performed by Google every day.
200 – 400 billion: the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which is but one of approximately 500 billion galaxies in the visible universe, which is only 4% of the entire universe.

The thing about whelms is that they encourage us to go for a walk, or make a sandwich, or watch TV, go shopping, head for the bar, anything - because there is just no way we are ever going to get our heads around numbers of such magnitude.  .  .  .  except sometimes they sneak up on us, and we are startled into considering the actual implications of a whelm.  It happened to me yesterday.  As some of you know, because you are them, I spend a good deal of time browsing the wonderful world of digital information looking for fascinating stories to pass along to my students.  Yesterday PC World provided us with this whelm:

“Facebook estimates its users' photo archives will reach 100 billion images by the end of the summer.”

Here is the context that allowed me to consider the whelm.  One of the hats I occasionally wear is that of an “artist.”  I claim the hat not solely to justify the amount of time I spend creating images and constructions, but more pragmatically, because people have actually spent money to acquire said works.  Still, one of the places where I would least like to wear the artist hat is at a place like Artsplosure – a large arts festival held annually here in Raleigh.  It ended just a few days ago.  It is your standard art fair.  Hundreds of artists set up their booths and people wander through, gazing at the wares and pawing through the bins.  There are far more shoppers than buyers.  I have never bought anything at Artsplosure.  It is certainly not because there is nothing worth buying.  On the contrary, there is always some very nice work on display – but buying art is, well, it's complicated.  And it was within that complicated context that I considered the whelm of images on Facebook, and how it might inform the world of art.

In the complicated mix of art buyers, you have folks for whom art is an investment – like LinkedIn stock or pork bellies.  You buy low and hope to sell high.  That has nothing to do with art – that is business.  Then you have folks who buy art with their ears – they have heard of the artist.  “Oh, my! Is that a High Falutin, there above the sofa?” “Yes, one of her early works.  .  .”  But I hope that for most people buying a piece of art is a personal and important decision.  Think about it.  How much wall or display space do you have in your home?  How often do you change the objects on your walls or on your counters?  This is the environment you have created in which to live – hopefully it defines you and gives you pleasure.  We ought to fill it with great care.

An artist at an art fair is working at the very edges of the art world.  Most people are there with their kids for the street vendors and the music.  High school and college kids cruise the booths and the bars nearby.  Not many attendees are really there to spend real money to bring home a major purchase to put in their homes.  Oh, certainly, sometimes one stumbles across just the right piece, something grabs you, you love it and whip out the plastic.  And that outside chance is precisely why all those artists are sitting there in their director’s chairs with smiles on their faces, despite the heat and humidity.  But, ordinarily, the art we allow to share our homes is chosen with far more care.  We go back to the gallery, or the artist’s website several times.  We agonize.  We decide, and “un-decide” and decide again.  And finally we make the purchase and move in together.

“Facebook estimates its users' photo archives will reach 100 billion images by the end of the summer.” Flickr, a more tony image site, hit 4 billion images a few years ago.  Other sites like Picasa and various social networks also contribute to the growing pictorial whelm. Hmmm.

Now, it is true that most of those images are personal and trivial – they have meaning only for those people who posted them, or for whom they were posted.  But ask for a moment where, today, can we encounter the works of “real artists”?  It is true that there are still galleries where one can view the works of artists whose “significance” is to some extent vetted by the reputation of the gallery.  But the gallery, no doubt, also has a website and an email list, as do the major museums of the world.  The point is that the Internet has blended fine art into one huge art fair and the number of fine art images available for our consideration has become, like Facebook’s billions, a whelm.

It makes me wonder how Michelangelo would have done on Facebook?  Would the Hudson River School page on Fickr be seen as quaint, but minor? Mary Cassatt, a Picasa wannabe?  Warhol – just a point-and-click, copy-and-paste, make-a-photobook kind of guy?  Isn’t there an app for that?  More importantly, would we have even seen their work if it had had to fight for attention in the swirl of the whelm?  It was hard enough to compete for attention among a few hundred, maybe a thousand, important artists of their day – how does one surface among the billions?

Does a whelm of art define an awesome increase in options and opportunity for artists, or does it herald an age of almost certain anonymity where savvy Internet marketing will determine what art our era bequeaths to the ages?

My apologies, but this is one of those times when the question ends the essay.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Converging Media Conforming Lives, Or Convergence 2.0

In the beginning there was the stream.  Ones and zeros ionizing the atmosphere, streaking through silicone, rushing through wire; then held in abeyance in multiple forms of memory until once again they were converted to their previous incarnation as text or image or sound.  Convergence 1.0 marked the reductionist movement that reduced all human expression to that never-ending flood of 1s and 0s.

Convergence 1.0 also led, albeit briefly, to a period of diversification and specialization.  The challenge was to create environments to massage the digital streams of ones and zeros in the service of old media, better music, photography, writing, painting, math and science; more efficient gathering and manipulation of data of all types. We popped open the CPUs and stuck in sound-boards and graphics cards.  But inevitably those divergent streams found a common canyon - the Internet.  It was a Renaissance re-conceived.

The polymaths of the first Renaissance, the Michelangelos and da Vincis, had to put down the paintbrush to pick up the chisel, lay aside the lute to gather parchment and caliper.  They had to, literally, shift gears and spaces to cast their inspirations in different media.  In the converged digital Renaissance the screen became a single workbench for "everymedium," the keyboard and the mouse, "everypalette."  Multimedia became the lingua franca of the new age.  The mantra was not "word or image or sound" it was "this and that and the other."

It was not long before commonality of modality fostered common intention.  What, after all, does one do with a platform capable of producing all the creatures of this strange new world - while still, of course, making a profit?  And one must remember that the Internet is an American creation, and America is as much a creature of the marketplace as it is a product of the Constitution.  In America one is free to pursue whatever Quixotic quest may call to you.  Those that endure tend to pay the bills.  In this regard, the Internet is as American as Apple pie.

It is undeniable that the Internet provides safe haven, information and solace for individuals previously “alone” in the world.  My just-completed serendipitous Google search for one-handed violin players did not come up empty.  And many tout the ability of the “long-tail of the Internet” to gather thousands of isolates together in the joyous warmth, or sometimes, sadly, the vicious darkness, of a previously unimagined community.  But on the Internet real profit, real power, is measured in hundreds of millions of users and billions of clicks.

What I call Convergence 2.0 is based on an increasingly obvious dominant Internet business model.  Not long ago it was common to refer to “walled gardens” on the Internet.  These were online spaces created by content providers with an eye toward keeping us within their environment.  We were to be well cared for.  Shopping, entertainment, stock reports, sports, communication, community, even government would be within easy reach here in our gated-community; as would be the advertisements from the companies affiliated with this particular garden. But as history has proved again and again, it is a short step from walled-garden to ghetto.  One wonders, even in the most gilded of cages, what is going on outside? And it has been that curiosity that has led to the destruction of the walled-garden model. It has been replaced by what is now variously known as Web 2.0, or even more vaguely, social media.  We might beneficially think of it as “The Internet Tour Bus.”

Consider the challenge that confronts today’s major Internet entities: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Yahoo, et. al.  In order to attract the hundreds of millions of users necessary to gain traction in the Internet marketplace, you cannot create an entity that attracts exclusive audience demographics.  Rather you must devise a business model that allows you to provide everything that a global audience indicates that it values and desires. You need to provide a Tour Bus from which your users can vicariously participate in the world around them, but from which they do not stray – allowing you to direct their attention to the ubiquitous, revenue creating, ads posted inside the bus, where the eyes of weary riders rest between stops. Hence, it becomes a business necessity to discover, encourage and market those “tours,” or apps, defined by characteristics that appeal to everyone. "Lovely revolution.  Good job.  Now please step back on the bus.  What can we get you for lunch?"

Two paths diverge from such a model. The first path is the more hopeful, although I fear will be less dominant.  That path actually increases our appreciation for the complexity of the world:  I may just be a kid from Smalltown, Anywhere, but the Tour Bus can take me to The Getty, in Los Angeles, USA, or The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.  I may be housebound in Poughkeepsie, but the Tour Bus allows me to make friends with folks around the world. I may be steeped in one cultural, political perspective, but the Tour Bus allows me to visit, understand and perhaps even appreciate others.

The second seems more common, more likely, and is directly driven by increasing convergence.  Call it Internet Nation.  I steal the idea directly from ESPN’s Sports Nation, although the notion is mirrored across a range of media from serious news sources such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to the delightfully silly and irreverent cotton candy of The Fashion Police with Joan Rivers.  The idea is that the tour guide poses a question to the passengers on the bus. They vote and truth is revealed.  67% believe Bin Laden is dead.  Fine.  Next question, please.  Which is better, Coffee or Tea?  How many hurricanes will come ashore this year?  Is there life after death?  Do fish have souls?  Post the numbers that generate “truthiness” and move on.

As an educator, Internet Nation is a terrifying concept for me; truth defined by a vote of the likely uninformed.  Just because 110 million people believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776, do we overlook the fact that most historians assert that it wasn’t actually signed until August 2nd of that year?  Yet, truth by acclamation seems an increasingly popular phenomenon.  The phenomenon would also signal the end of meaningful diversity and minority reports, for as Sports Nation clearly demonstrates, no one really remembers who lost.

My reasons for finding the latter path the more likely of the two are twofold:  First, and most important, it is the more profitable option.  Appealing to a common denominator draws a larger crowd, and the larger the crowd the higher the advertising revenue.  For that reason alone the Internet business community will favor the continued convergence model, Convergence 2.0.  The second reason derives from the first.  As the Internet business community pours more resources into the convergence model, that version of the Internet becomes more efficient and user-friendly.  Why seek to create an Internet-based environment that reflects your particular perspective of the world when you can simply fold your group into the larger GoogleFacebookiLifeLinkedIn TwitterMacWindows world?  To do otherwise requires effort and reflective thought, focus and attention.  And, alas, those qualities and abilities, current research indicates, are precisely the ones being eroded on the single workbench of the Internet-based re-conceived Renaissance.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, is only one of a spate of recent publications that assert that we lost intellectual, as well as physical, muscle when we no longer had to pick up the chisel to free the sculpture from the stone.  Seemingly, the kinetic act of slapping paint on canvas, of hoisting the book down from the stacks, of hauling the Sunday Times up the stairs, sharpens our critical skills, and deepens our appreciation of appreciation itself.  The Internet is point and click, cut and paste, thumbs up, thumbs down.  Quick, slick and often silly.   But, is the “evil Internet” really sucking our brains out through our eyes and fingertips?  I sincerely doubt it.  It is after all, just electricity in a box – no matter how sweet or sleek the box.  The task that confronts us, therefore, is not to break the boxes.  It is, rather, to reinvigorate the mind.  The mass Internet beguiles us with the banal.  It masks the silly as profound.  We must, as we always have, reclaim the medium, resisting the call of the effortless Internet, where appearance masquerades as substance.

I remember well when the Macintosh first brought multiple fonts to word processing.  Students felt compelled to use them all in the course of a three-page paper – and in the process covered those three pages with glitzy graphics, but fewer words and fewer thoughts.  We seem to have weathered that storm.  Today’s most articulate and arcane challenges to technology’s slippery slope leap initially from keyboard to screen. Use the beast to confront the beast. To mash the Bard, the fault, dear reader, lies not in the Internet but in ourselves.  Certainly much of what is slapped on our screens via the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters of the world will fade into deserved obscurity.  But others will find a place in the canon of human intellect.   Convergence 2.0 simply provides the enticing communication environment that inclines us to the trivial.  It in no way mandates that we follow that inclination.  We choose the trivial .  .  .  .  or not.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


It is getting to be "beach time" here in North Carolina.  The snowbirds have begun their southern trek.  Houseboats bloom on the Intracoastal Waterway and RVs swarm the parking lots along NC 12.  The gentle aroma of sunscreen competes with the magnolias.  For many it will be a summer at the beach very similar to those I remember from my own childhood summers, spent along the beaches of Lake Michigan.  Roasted hot dogs, gritty soda, sandy samores, sand in the pages of my book, sand in my swimsuit, well, sand everywhere.  But in at least one way a summer at the beach will be different for today's children: the buckets have changed.

I remember building sandcastles with the one bucket that came with the pail.  You pack the damp sand into the bucket, flip it upside down, give it a thump, and "voila!" there was a tower, or part of a wall, or whatever.  You took the shovel and carved it into the necessary "castle element." You drizzled turrets with a wet sand slurry.  I have since learned that such an approach is completely passé.  The contemporary beach child has a set of forms that would make Frank Lloyd Wright envious.  Turrets and towers, crenelated walls; you name it, it is there in their Super Sandcastle Set.  The new containers allow them to shape sand in ways I never imagined.

The same is obviously true of the Internet.  No, really.  Think about it, the Internet changes the shape of our communicative world. It provides new containers, new molds, for culture, society, art and politics.   My recent polemic against smartphones was not so much an attack on the "container" itself, .i.e. the smart phone.  Instead I was objecting to the notion that we are trying to stuff all the sand on the beach into that one container and when we turn it upside down we don't always get what we wanted; rather we get what the container is capable of producing.

Consider if you will FOMO.  I had no idea what FOMO meant until recently when I read an article in The NY Times that informed me that FOMO was text-speak for "Fear Of Missing Out."  And what, you might well ask, does Fear Of Missing Out mean?  It is, the article informed me, a new 21st century anxiety.  The syndrome appears to be driven by social media messages that shoulder their way onto our various screens, touting all the wonderful things currently filling the lives of our "contacts".  The author, it seems, had just settled down for a rainy night of cocooning - popcorn and Netflix movie at the ready.  But then her phone started flashing.  "Status updates" began pouring in from her friends:  "We're out here at Fancy Place!"  "Awesome Group!"  "Food is Wonderful!" "Killer Cocktails!" and, of course the unspoken message, "Anyone Who Isn't Here is a Loser!"

She was immediately besieged with FOMO.  But she fought back.  While not able to make the ultimate sacrifice and actually turn her phone off, she did turn it over so she couldn't see the messages flashing.  She seized control of her technology, tossed Orville in the microwave, and fired up Netflix.

Point is, we are sold communication technology on the presumption that it will make our lives better and, when we keep the upper hand, it often does.  The problem is that our new culture containers often drop unsuspected and distorted forms out onto the sandcastles of our lives.  The author wanted her technology to deliver Netflix and comfort, but FOMO tried to sneak in.  Some degree of FOMO is probably unavoidable as we use technology to keep us connected to life.  My iPad just beeped to warn me that I had a dentist appointment in 15 minutes.  Plenty of time to call, apologize, and reschedule. But if I want my technology to do those things for me, I have to be ready for a little FOMO and keep plenty of popcorn in the cupboard.  Or you could just text back "IBBI!"  Oh, you haven't heard of IBBI?  Not surprising - I just made it up. It stands for "Irritated By Banal Intrusions."

So when someone posts: "Changed the color of my toenail polish!" or "OMG! Little Tommy spit up on the cat!" just shoot back: IBBI!

Maybe we could make an app for that .  .  .  .

Monday, May 9, 2011

Kick the Phone to the Curb

I teach about communication and technology, so it makes sense that I tell my students that they will wake up everyday out of date.  It is not really a new concept – sages since the dawn of time have been telling us that “you cannot step in the same river twice,” or words to that effect.  But time was when the notion wasn’t rubbed in our face the way it is today.  So what if Og, a couple of rivers and a mountain range away, was chipping a new axe head that would let him skin mammoths faster?  Big deal. When, or if, I ran into him he could tell me about it – or maybe eventually his kids could tell mine.  Time meandered.  But yesterday I learned that the world was in a lather to learn whether or not a K-9 corp dog was on the mission to kill Bin Laden.  What breed? How big? Did he/she carry technology? Canine tech? Do you really care?  Do you really want, or need, to know?

A corollary to my admonition to my students needs to be that out-of-date doesn’t necessarily mean out-of-touch with reality.  On occasion the opposite is true, sometimes that which is newly-minted, all shiny and popular, will also lead you astray.

It has been a long time since I have ranted about cell phones, now known as smartphones - too long.  So, I am now officially going on record as advocating that for many of us the time has come to kick the “smartphone” to the curb along with the 8-track, the Walkman, and the VCR.  Are you sensing an odd turn of example here?  Those are pieces of old technology – and the smartphone is the latest and greatest right?  No, not really.  For me the smartphone is the latest victim of technological Darwinism, they have become a branch that needs some heavy pruning here in the technology rose garden.

This is, however, not a universal condemnation of those smarty-pants phones.  It is restricted to “people like me.”  You see, despite myriad marketing claims to the contrary, no one technology platform can be all things to all people.  The tool is only a good tool if it meets your needs.  Too often we get that backwards.  We think, “Everybody has one.  I should too.  And if it does things differently, well,  I’m no old dog! I can learn new tricks!”  Personally, I have no desire to roll over and play dead for the smart phone.  And if you are, in some degree, a person like me, you might want to join the revolution.

OK, what defines a person like me? Here we go:

A person like me carries reading glasses.  I have always been visually challenged, but starting back at about 50 I had to begin using reading glasses in addition to my contact lenses.  So, I now need reading glasses to read my Droid, which has a larger screen than an iPhone.  And that is just to read the name of who is calling me - big stuff, center screen.  Surf the web?  Oh, sure.   Now, I need my reading glasses and a magnifying glass.  Maybe there is one here in the glove compartment. Oops.  Wrong lane.

A person like me never learned to “keyboard” and has hands larger than your average six-year old.  You can see where I am going with this.  My Droid has a cool little keyboard hidden underneath the touch screen upon which five-year olds and hobbits – who know how to keyboard – can easily use their apps by typing tiny words upon the tiny screen.  If you don’t want to use that keyboard, you can use the on-screen touch keyboard.  OK, it is a little smaller than the other keyboard – but don’t worry, when you touch a letter, the letter you are touching pops up on the screen.  That would reveal errors that would prompt you move to another key if you could, a: read the letter on the screen and b: knew where it lived on the keyboard.

Apparently, smarty phones also don't like the fingers of people like me.  Last night my wife and I were driving home.  Issues of import were unfolding in places far away.  First, her phone rang.  She touched and dragged, touched and dragged.  The icons were unimpressed and resolute.  They remained steadfast as the phone warbled along into voicemail.  Then my phone buzzed.  I thumbed and dragged, thumbed and dragged until finally the phone relented and connected the call.  I understand I can overcome this problem by using a small sausage as a stylus, which is an awesome solution.

A person like me makes actual phone calls in preference to texting.  Miniaturization is, as I have noted in the preceding paragraphs, a wonderful thing.  I note with especial awe the miniaturization of the receiver and microphone in my Droid and the various smart phones of my friends.  They are crammed right in there with the keyboard and the still camera and the video camera, and all that has been sacrificed is the ability to capture or reproduce sound with any fidelity during a phone conversation.  I am somewhat puzzled since these same gadgets seem to be able to record audio suitable for YouTube and play back mp3 files through ear buds with relative fidelity.  Phone calls, however, those become exercises in conjecture.  Rarely do I have any idea of what is being said to me.  Fortunately, I have years of experience in both cocktail parties and faculty meetings which enables me to respond to most unintelligible remarks with phrases that occasionally make sense. The downside is, of course, those times when my responses have nothing to do with the other side of the conversation.  My hope is that those to whom I am speaking are also faking it. Wait, maybe if I stick my finger in my other ear .  .  . Oops.  Wrong lane.

A person like me remains uncomfortable with the idea that a cell phone should get its own seat at the table.  I realize that in the 1950s the television began to claim a place in the living room.  Now it often gets the whole room.  I suppose you could try to talk over it, but surround-sound makes that difficult.  So we shut up and let the TV do the talking.  Nowadays, people position their phones on the table so it can share in, if not dominate, the conversation.  It has somehow gained the same dispensation as a precocious child - it can interrupt whenever it wants because, well, it is just so cute.  "Seen and not heard?"  My, what a quaint concept!

A person like me resents having to pay .  .  . doesn't have pockets where the thing fits .  .  .  .  can't merge contacts on .  .  . . well, I could go on.  But I will restrain myself.

So what is the point you ask?  Should those who share my biases and complaints retreat back into the 20th century?  Hook our phones to the wall with wire?  Pass on the pleasures of the Internet?  Au contraries, mon frère!  All I am suggesting is that we considered the attractions of other tools.

I would assert that my iPad or Xoom or any other of the emerging tablet computers excel at everything my Droid can do.  My iPad does it better and faster on a bigger screen that I can read and which actually recognizes my fingers.  The color and sound is better, the battery life far superior.  And it does more - I can paint on my iPad :-)  I have stayed with the wi-fi option as opposed to paying another arm and a leg to connect to the latest G3, 4, or 5 network.  Even with that cheap option I can sit just about anywhere, in the bathtub [very carefully], in coffee shops, in McDonalds, in parks, and there is usually an wi-fi network that allows me to iPad away.  And if I actually need to talk with someone - well, now for that I need a cell phone.  But it can be pretty cheap, and really stupid.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Secrets in the Social Network

Facebook and other social networks combine with micro-blogging sites like Twitter to create an online environment designed to encourage the immediate sharing of our lives.  The interface inclines one to post the momentary reality, to share the “wisdom of the herd.”  Such an environment carries certain cultural assumptions.  One of these, articulated at various times by such luminaries as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt, is that privacy is, at best, moribund.  In the brave new digital world it is more acceptable to shatter secrecy, to discourage contemplative privacy - at least online if not in life, assuming for the moment a life beyond online.

I am bothered by that perspective.  It is often the unsophisticated or the intolerant who believe “there should be no secrets.”  The unsophisticated equate privacy with secrecy, and keeping secrets with lying.  It is a youthful error, and never a surprising one.  The assumption implies another naive notion; that one should answer inappropriate questions.  The idea of either discretion or silence vanishes.  After all, if discrete silence came again into vogue we would be forced to live without either Facebook or reality TV; Twitter would perish utterly.

Such a guileless view of the world is what provides the humor in the current Gieco commericial in which a rotunde Mary Lincoln inquires of the President if her dress makes her "backside look big." Honest Abe is unable to maintain a discrete silence, and Mary flounces off with feelings hurt, leaving the President, we assume, to a night on The First Couch. A lose/lose situation that is somehow valued because it was "honest", because the President refused to keep his perception "secret."

Intolerance is almost easier to understand.  The intolerant eschew secrets because if thoughts or actions are kept secret, then those holier-than-we are denied the pleasure of pointing out the errors of our ways and punishing us for them.  The “necessity” of their own secrets is often wrapped in a “special relationship” with a “higher power.” It is a convenient duality: My secrets are good, yours are bad.

Much of our ambivalence regarding secrets springs from the fact that there are secrets, and then, there are secrets. Some secrets are encased in bubblewrap and velvet.  They rest enshrined in memory, devotion and belief.  They are secret, not because they are wrong or evil, but rather because they are too precious to bear the crass scrutiny of the masses - they are moonflowers that bloom only when sheltered from the harsh light of the sun.

And then, some secrets are cancers.  These secret thoughts, ideas and behaviors eat away at people’s lives.  They are born most often from hate and ignorance, of others or of ourselves. Such secrets rob our lives of sunshine, casting all into the shadow they inhabit.  The challenge, of course, is telling which is which.

Most often we learn the difference over time.  You see, most of our secrets look the same when they are babies. It is only as they mature and begin to influence our lives that we learn their true character, discovering which should be cherished and which must be excised.  So, confusion is a common bloom in our youthful secret gardens.  At first blush, love and obsession look much the same.  Bravery and bravado are often mistaken for one another.  Acquiescence may be taken for agreement.  Hopefully, as we grow older, we prune our cancerous secrets. We leave them behind, molted with the rejected alternative selves of our intolerant youth.  Equally desirous is a growing ability to shield the softer secrets of our better selves, allowing us to aid without fanfare, to succor without glory.

Given what I feel is the complexity of the issue, I am uneasy regarding the animosity with which the architects of social media appear to view privacy, with their tendency to conflate privacy with secrecy. How does one repair the damage done when those same architects, by implementing what seems like a “cool feature,” reveal private relationships in public spaces?  Wikileaks seems content to serve as judge and jury regarding the secrets they expose.  I wonder if Julian Assange's certainty is warranted?  How does one apologize, how does one "make it right" if the "cancerous secret" you have just exposed to the world is, on closer inspection, a secret more worthy of the protection of bubblewrap and velvet?

As with many of the life’s ambiguities, the notion of “keeping a secret” most likely has no inherent morality.  Secrets are now, and have always been, employed for both good and ill.  Still, I would prefer that I, and not my software, make that decision.