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.