Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Sands of Time

Last week's very public, very digital confrontation over SOPA and PIPA may well have marked the moment when the "digitally dependent" drew a line in the sand and declared "here you may tread, but no further." And America's politicians, ever the facile navigators, hoisted their sails to run swiftly before the prevailing winds of public opinion. In this instance I approve of their self-serving agility.  The bills address issues of import, but both were penned by the lobbyists of the same dog in the fight - big content. Rupert Murdock's craggy visage became, no doubt to the horror of Hollywood's sleek elite, the poster child for "fighting Internet piracy."  The plucky hobbits arrayed against this Sauron of the cinema were the youthful scions of the united wiki-worlds, the google-eyed champions of the keyboard-tapping children of a brave new world.

It is probably not that simple. Despite the narrative clarity offered by depicting this conflict as being one of young versus old, that is an analogy which in itself affirms a misconception I feel driven to dispel: The sands in which this line has been drawn are not the sands of time; this battle is not, despite appearances, at its core generational.  It is about the nature of the media, and the conflict is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

"The media" themselves have always been rather mundane containers: a flat space on the cave wall, a plane of rough paper, canvas or wood, grooves on a spinning disk, and now pixels on a glowing screen, vibrations in the air.  The tools of communication have always been inert products, clever constructions of capable machinists and engineers.  They are animated only by the magic of human communicative intent.  When they come to contain and distribute the product of human minds and imaginations, then they acquire value because then they enable art and artifice, power and profit.

Mature media are those containers that have come to dominate the manifestation, distribution and marketing of those contents, contents that enable the acquisition power and profit through the distribution of information, influence and entertainment; their contents define the broad sweep of the culture in which they exist. Cave paintings, symbols on stone and mud, papyrus, paper, illuminated images dancing on silver screens, electrical bursts fleeing along copper strands, cathode ray tubes, all these containers - and the companies that controlled them - have had their days of dominance. None passed the torch willingly.  In every era the guilds, unions, and corporations whose power and profits depended on the dominance of a particular container sought - usually by seeking the succor of the current crop of rulers - protection from emerging forms of containers.  Old media companies always oppose new media companies unless they can co-opt them and maintain their hard won place in the world of power and profit. The current hue and cry over SOPA and PIPA is the latest iteration of the grinding of gears and the gnashing of teeth that have forever accompanied the inevitable turning of the wheels of change.

What concerns me in the current discussion of the nature and mandate of the media, of the nuances of our immediate transition into "digitally contained culture," is the increasing presence of a new "elephant in the room."  We have a grand tradition in American cultural discourse of choosing to - if I might invent a word - "obliqueocize" important but uncomfortable issues.  Race, gender and sexual preference or identity have all been genteelly ignored while people at the "adult table" blithely made paternalistic policy for "the kids in the next room."  I would like to draw our attention to another group of "OAs" -  "obliqueocized Americans" - folks over 55.  That is 25% of the population, with a disproportionate amount of leisure time and expendable income.  I suppose there are certain businesses and industries that can ignore that demographic group - we don't buy a lot of hip-hop music or toy helicopters that we control with our cellphones.  We shouldn't buy spandex.  But the seeming marginalization of those over 55 by the new media moguls is a significant strategic faux pas.  Finding references to seniors in tech-based advertising, websites or other dominant forms of digital content is a lot like trying to find people of color or women outside a kitchen in 1960s TV – “Oh, look there’s one! Aren’t they cute?”  Now, as then, a huge resource, and a huge market are being overlooked.

The FacewikiTweet+ demonstration of online political moxie demonstrated by the technorati blunting, at least for the moment, SOPA and PIPA should not persuade those actively shaping the digital environment that they have got it right.  Actually, they aren't even asking the right questions.  You don't know the world better by simply knowing it faster, by just keeping the systems open and speedy. That notion is so 27 seconds ago.  There is a difference between successful media and mature media – and you can have one without the other.  Successful media generate revenue, sometimes massive amounts of it as reflected in the economic muscle of Google and Facebook. Sometimes the money is accumulated by profiting unethically or illegally from the work of others like the folks at Megaupload or Pirate Bay demonstrate, and the legitimate commercialized web, with its high profile start-ups and publicized IPOs, certainly gives more than passing kudos to acquisitiveness.  But despite the cool T-shirts, the person who dies with the most toys doesn't really win, they just die like everyone else, only a little more foolishly.  Bling doesn't do much for a casket, and often trivializes the significance of its contents.

The point is this, mature media are those that enable, distribute and archive the wisdom of the culture in which they exist.  Despite their current fixation with the quick and the glib, there is certainly nothing to prevent today's new media from maturing.  Examples may already exist, they just haven't been in existence long enough to demonstrate that they will have lasting cultural legitimacy.  It is inevitable that today's new media will become tomorrow's old media.  But the mantle of tomorrow's mature media is not inevitable, just as wisdom itself is not mandated by age. Both require effort and study.  Without effort and study we simply grow old.  My hope is that new media will seek new ways to address and benefit from more mature audiences – our cultural reservoirs of wisdom and literacy - and that those mature audiences will find creative ways to return the favor by taking a more active and attentive role in the development of the next iteration of mature media.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

To Add or Not To Add? To Accommodate or Enable? That is the Question.

It is without doubt my least favorite time in the semester. It has become particularly distressing in the last four or five years when I interact with most of my students “at a distance,” either in large lecture halls or over the Internet. Long gone is the university I signed up for almost 40 years ago, the one with small classes, and long, leisurely, writing assignments. The new U creates new tensions, tensions that may arise in no small part from the “at a distance” communication model that is the norm on the Internet.

Here’s my problem: You see, students still, technically, have five days to add a course despite the fact that classes started two weeks ago. I wonder what committee established that little bit of institutional insanity? I mean, I always tell my students that one of the worst things they can ever say to their professor is “Hi. I wasn’t here on Monday. Did I miss anything?” Yet, that is the message in an email that reads something like this:

“Hello Professor. I was told I needed your permission to add this class. I need it to graduate. Please put me in. My student number is #########.” Thanks! See ya soon!”

Translation: “Hi. I wasn’t here on Monday. Did I miss anything?”

“Monday? Oh, no. We played a little Farmville. Checked Facebook. And I brought 14 pizzas. You’re cool.”

Did I miss anything?! Did you check your brains at the door? Of course you missed something!

A college class – even an online class - is not like a bowl of M&Ms that sits there for the semester so you can just waltz in and scoop up a handful anytime you want. Bowl empty? Class over. Bye! No, it doesn’t work that way.

From my point of view, a good college course should be designed like a high-end dinner party. It begins with some finger food and a light beverage until everyone has arrived. Then you move to the dining room when the serious eating begins. You start with the Amuse Bouche, or second appetizer, to get the brain working. Next the salad. Then you cleanse the palate – a little sorbet is good. Now the entrĂ©e and sides. And finally, dessert. The host/professor should match the wines with each course of the meal, and keep the conversation rolling. It's about lectures, papers, quizzes, assignments, final projects, an exam. Ta da! Dinners over!  I am the chef and the student’s host. It is my job to provide the student with valuable, thoughtful content, well-considered and well-prepared.

The student/guest should make sure to be on time, not to spill on themselves, watch the host to know which utensil to use, pay attention, and be respectful. It is the student’s job to listen, think, absorb, question, respond – and appreciate.

The mature, focused student does not walk in, or email in, to class two weeks late toting an “apology six-pack” and ask “Did I miss anything?” It is just rude. Your host may, as etiquette demands, smile, but the truth is they are angry.

But that type of rude behavior is precisely the kind of behavior that this two-week long "add window" encourages. I think I know where it is coming from. Our cousins over in the small liberal arts college community have become enamored with the idea that students should be able to “shop the curriculum,” try a few courses at the beginning of the semester before settling in to the ones they really like - or will be an easy A. And I suppose that’s fine if you are teaching 13 to 25 students who are paying 40 grand a semester for the privilege of shopping the curriculum. That can probably be explained as “fiscally necessary accommodation.”

In my world it is simply “enabling.” The “late-adders” AKA "LAs", waltz in blithely, hand you their “apology six-pack” explanation – or not – and ask “Did I miss anything? Where do I sit?” They are often quite winsome; it is a necessary survival skill for an LA. And their late arrival is always “someone else’s fault.” Their schedule “got cancelled”, their “advisor” forgot to put them in the course, “they” lost my records. The “I” word is rarely attached to any culpable behavior. And the LAs expect to be accommodated as, I suspect, they are at home and were in high school. The LAs expect that all the other students, the ones who came to dinner on time, will get put on hold for awhile while everyone scurries around to make sure that the LAs are comfortable.

I know, I know, I should just chill. The LAs are a handful among hundreds. Yet, soooooo irritating, because experience has taught me that I will hear from them again at the end of the semester when their computer will have crashed, or their roommate will have run off with their girl/boyfriend, or their puppy will be sick and can they please have an extension on their paper? And that is yet another reason why, in these last few days of potential “guess who’s coming to dinner” abuse, I turn surly, I stop enabling:

The Would Be LA: “I want to add your class. Did I miss anything?”
Surly Me: “Yes, too much to make up.”
The Would Be LA: “I don’t understand. Where do I sit?”
Surly Me: “Anywhere you like, as long as it is not in my class.”
The Would Be LA: “But I need three hours to graduate.”
Surly Me: “Have a good day.”

Ta da, dinner's over.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Pathos of the Gator

It was, at first glance, a classic “jock-mobile.” A large black SUV, tall enough that the license plate was at eye-level as I pulled up behind in my little Yaris. From that vantage point I couldn’t help noticing the various “shout-outs” to the reptilian team from points South. Above the standard “Yukon” logo was an equally-sized ornate “Gators” written in chrome script. Level with my hood was the towing hitch, capped by a grinning Florida ‘gator.  The license plate frame surrounding the prestige plate declared “Florida Gators – National Champions.” The date was conveniently omitted, allowing the claim to ripple out across the decades.

“Jock-mobile,” right? Well, that aspect certainly can’t be over-looked. But as my Grandfather used to say, “Alles ist nicht so einfach,” – “It is not that simple,” or as Facebook would assert – “It’s complicated.” I told you it was a prestige plate. Six letters, no symbols, one word: PATHOS.

Whoa, there Nelly Bell!

I’m having trouble reconciling what seem to be the discordant worldviews etched across the back of this vehicle. Obviously sports, and certainly fandom, is all about emotion – but it is most often guy-type, fist- and chest-bumping passion – “I AM A WARRIOR!” Prevents any misinterpretation of all the butt slapping that goes on in pro sports. But “pathos?” Come on now, I mean it is Greek and it doesn’t stand for a fraternity. You encounter it in courses in literature, art and cultural criticism – not PE for crying out loud. The seeming contradiction in the juxtaposition of these various sets of symbols was, well, mysterious. And I love that.

You see, most days it feels like much of the mystery is draining out of human interaction. In just the last week Facebook has announced the release of “Actions”, which along with “Timeline”, “Ticker” and other various Apps, allows you to “instantly and seamlessly share” what you are doing, listening to, thinking about, eating, etc., etc. with all your “friends.” Google countered the next morning with Search Your World – which sends Google’s search spiders scurrying out through all your Google+ contacts, and includes their posts, reposts, pictures and whatever in the results of your normal Google searches. Just what I need to know, what do my second cousin’s school age children in Montana think about the candidates competing in the Presidential primary in South Carolina?

Let me share with you ancient hieroglyphic inscription by Peter Steiner published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993.

"On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog" Quaint isn’t it?   The notion that on the Internet nobody knew who you really were. It is now ancient, the idea that the Internet was this huge Carnival, a Masked Ball where mystery and intrigue were only a mouse click away. "Who was that?" "What did they mean?"

Now, almost two decades later, I know the "mysterious stranger" just had the egg and cheese biscuit at the McDonald’s on Western Boulevard, while listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN radio. Also they are looking for a parking place in the parking structure off Dan Allen Drive while tracking the campus bus that they hope to catch out to Centennial campus because parking out there is just terreeeeb! And maybe they have a little cold coming on because on their pillow this morning . . . .

Do we really want to know? Is there any way we could possibly care?   Zuckerberg may believe that privacy is so 20th century, but this old guy clings to the notion that a life without secrets, without mystery, without romance, is not worth living.

No, I don’t really need to understand "the pathos of the gator" to take comfort in the knowledge that something that mysterious is gliding through some swamp, somewhere.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy New Year! - More or Less

I'm not really playing the Grinch here, but conversations about New Years usually deal with "more or less."  We want to weigh less, we want to earn more.  We want to spend more quality time with those we love, we want to be less driven by the demands of work. We wish Congress would do more, and spend less time explaining why it is always the other guy's fault that nothing gets done - stuff like that.  So I thought it would be fun to take this first essay of 2012 to look back at 2011 to see  - from a digital technology perspective - when "more" was a good thing, and when, instead, "more" was really less.

When more really is more: The Lytro Camera

The Lytro camera [] claims my top spot by virtue of the fact that it is "more" in a sense far beyond "more of the same."  Lytro is more in the sense that it increases the total of what we had before - it is "more" in that we never had this before.

Never had what before?  Excellent question.  Everyone who has ever taken a picture, from the gods of Ansel Adams and Margaret Bourke-White to the worst Facebook projectile photo poster, has had the experience of wanting a "do over."  "If I could only go back and focus more on their faces!" "I wish I could see both the foreground flower and the background mountain better."  But the shutter had snapped and marched on and no amount of fretting could undo the compositional decision made at that moment - until now.

Lytro is a light field camera for the masses, and you can Google "light field camera" if you want to read the long explanation.  In a nutshell, it means that a light field camera like Lytro gathers all the light waves bouncing off the scene in front of the camera's lens and stores them as a data set that can be manipulated after you trip the shutter.  Focus points, depth of field, light dark, framing - you can mess with everything.  Just thinking about the creative possibilities that arise when you add Lytro to our already existing bag of Photoshop goodies is enough to make a photo geek - dare I say it? Swoon?

One can preorder the Lytro for $499.00 for a 16 MG version, $399.00 for 8MG, so it still isn't an impulse buy item, but compared with the far more expensive, far less portable previous generations of light field cameras, that is an exceptional price for some really sweet technology.

And the downside is?  Well, just as a word processor can turn you into a sloppy writer, I can see the Lytro making one a sloppier photographer.  Back in a previous life when I taught photography, I would ramble on at length over the arcane aspects of f-stops, shutter speed, depth of field and the aesthetics of composition.  Now, I must admit to more than one instance when I came across some natural or urban vista and realized that there was a good photograph "in there somewhere."  However, rather than seek it out, compose and shoot the desired image, I would simply loosen the frame and shoot the wider image, capturing mega-megapixels, and trusting Photoshop to allow me to do the compositional work necessary to find the good photograph in post-production.  Sloppy, sloppy! A "where's Waldo" approach to photography.  The Lytro gathers far more information in each exposure than the most muscular digital cameras - and thereby possibly increases our inclination to "shoot now, compose later."  That, I must admit, concerns me.

When more is less: Social Networks

Facebook is the worst, simply because it is the biggest and can bring us even more of the "more that is less."  I could wax tiresomely on and on about my concerns regarding the trivializing of social ties that spin out from the "culture by the herd" churned by social networks, but I will limit myself to just a couple motes of "more is less."

The first I dubbed "Marley's Digital Chains," in a previous essay [].  The core of the problem is this: when you "friend" or "connect" or "co-join" or whatever with someone via a social network, you also invite his or her other friends/contacts/accomplices onto your screen as well.  The result, without hiring a professional programmer to prevent it, is that entering the realm of "your" social network, is akin to walking into what you thought was going to be your class reunion or your family Thanksgiving dinner only to discover that most of the people there are utter strangers - strangers seeking to engage you in embarrassingly personal conversations regarding individuals you neither know nor about whom you care.  Yeech.

The other problem stemming from social networks and the general increasing transparency of the Internet is a loss of intentional private communication, whether with another individual or a group of close friends.  Google+ seemed to be addressing this issue with its notion of circles, but it was in the context of what I thought was a close and closed Google+ circle, that the notion of Marley's Chains first became apparent. One invited circle member signed in, and trailing behind him was a digital chain ponderous beyond all imagining. Friends and friends of friends clung to his coattails, and posts upon re-posts from utter strangers stretched off to the far horizons.  Another time, I posted an anonymous comment on the website of a TV show, only to have it show up - with full attribution - during one of my infrequent visits to my Facebook page.  I have no idea how it got there.  It was more than slightly creepy.  I worry that perhaps privacy really is a fading relic of the previous century.

And the upside is?  The rebirth of snail mail?  Of personal correspondence?  I have a friend who still mails cards of his own photographs with brief, but tangible, messages of commemoration or remembrance.  The experience is unusual enough as to be slightly disorienting.  But the notes affirm that if I REALLY want to send a private message to just one person perhaps I need to take up a writing implement of some form or another, mark meaningful symbols upon a page, download postage from the USPS website [Heheheheh] and mail the letter.  Does that guarantee privacy?  Of course not - but it greatly reduces the number of possible peekers.

When I'm not really sure whether more is more or less: Free books in the Kindle store. 

Hello, my name is Robert and I am a mysteryoholic.  I read them the way I used to smoke cigarettes - back before cigarettes were a health hazard and cost less than a steak dinner or a small car.  You weren't really aware that you were smoking, but then at the end of the day there was this empty pack in your shirt pocket.  Huh? Weird, wonder who smoked all my cigarettes.  Now it's "Damn, finished another mystery.  When did I start that one, and where is the next one coming from?"

Obviously then, when I mosey on over to the Kindle store and search the top hundred free offerings, I am immediately drawn to the mysteries and thrillers.  Actually, I don't even have to do that anymore.  Given the transparency of the Internet, my Amazon history, and the increasing sophistication of "personalized search,"  Amazon now emails me the top free and 99 cent mysteries each week in a personal email.

I download a few.  I start them all.  Some die, along with the vic, in the first few pages.  Some last only a couple of chapters, and a surprising number I read completely.  But remember, I do have an addiction in this area. The issue you see, is that we are fast moving into an era when a self-published book, the product of what we used to call a vanity press, is - in a digital format - indistinguishable from a publication by an established publishing house.  That is until you begin to read it.  The self-published book often makes it into the hands of a reader without benefit of a second opinion, let alone an editor.

The results are as varied as stars in the sky.  A few are delightful, even shimmering.  More, like dark matter, are best appreciated unseen.  I don't know where this glut of electronic novels will lead.  I think we are going to have to wait out 2012 and the evolution of e-readers and the digital publishing industry before hanging the "more is more" or "more is less" label on these Saturday Night Special Digital Mysteries.  Maybe the good ones will find their way to established houses or digital cooperatives and return a living to their authors.  The bad will, no doubt, remain with us due to imperturbable self-confidence of their creators.  But with any luck at all, the ugly will end up swimming with the fishes in that dirty, dark river, Denial.

So then, forward into the New Year with eyes wide open - more or less.