Monday, November 26, 2012

Disaster Tourism-Sea Bright, NJ

I grew up 20-30 minutes, depending on the traffic, from Sandy Hook, NJ. Traveling down Rt. 36 to its end forces you to either go left to Sandy Hook and the beach or right onto the barrier island of Sea Bright. If you travel far enough Sea Bright turns into Long Branch and eventually, I believe, LBI. The houses in Sea Bright largely face the ocean with the river at their backs so that even in relatively mild hurricanes or nor'easters there is flooding. My father would often take us down to the beach after a hurricane to see what had changed on the beach or how Sea Bright had fared.
It is deeply sobering to see people's appliances, housing materials, clothes and other more personal materials piled in front of their houses waiting for trash pickup. It was late afternoon as we were driving around so the sun was starting to display the colors of sunset and the wind was chasing the clouds around the sky. There was a strange juxtaposition in the natural beauty of the day and the chaos of carefully purchased household items heaped in front yards and sidewalks. There is an odd aesthetic or architectural sense of awe in looking at how the storm punched out walls or moved houses off their foundation. Some of the houses missing their back or side walls seemed to have been designed that way. They are almost picturesque, framing the now-peaceful river moving in the background. This is not an attempt to diminish the loss or destruction caused by Sandy; rather, impressions received as we drove through and marveled and sorrowed.



Thursday, November 1, 2012

Less Definition-More Action: Doing Information Literacy Better

This post is the result of a failure to read all the details in a particular request for submissions. I failed to grasp the audience was not librarians but that was after I had finished what follows. So rather than consign it to the ether, I share it here. Please comment as able and willing.

The call of a particular publishing organ for an essay defining information literacy prompted the following thought: We don’t need any more essays/articles offering another definition of information literacy. While it is tempting to spend some time crafting a more marketable or catchier t-shirt wearable slogan, another essay that attempts to provide that kind of definition is exactly what is not needed. Instead of quibbling over verbiage in yet another IL definition, what is needed instead is discussions of doing. To that end, this essay will look at two issues that need to be dealt with in any institution, regardless of size. Secondly it will recommend three areas that we need to be better in order to take full advantage of information literacy opportunities.
                Information literacy is not an end to itself. It is deeply intertwined with and rooted in the processes of life-long learning and critical thinking. Successfully realizing an information literacy approach is found when students consistently ask three evaluative questions throughout their research process:

1) “Where do I look to find the information I need?”
2) “How do I evaluate the information that I’ve found?”
3) “How do I correctly use/cite the information that I’ve incorporated into my paper?”

                Many approaches to information literacy are often tied to the particular library rather than being tied to the process of life-long learning for two particular reasons:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             1) Time
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    2) Money

                 Often, librarians do not have enough time to spend in the classroom because of the amount of material the class needs to cover.  Attempts have been made to address this with first year programs and various seminars but these are far from being ubiquitously adopted. Technological responses have also been sought where some really nice tutorials/videos/games have been built to help students engage with tools and processes that will assist them. These tools take time to learn and as libraries combat for attention and use for engaging in the research process rather than simply shopping for information.
                 Money is the unavoidable second issue as the libraries are paying many hundreds of thousands of dollars for research database access. Often, these are only available for students as long as they are enrolled at the institution. Once the students graduate and are no longer counted in the full time enrollment, the access to the tools that they’ve been using, and trained to use, for the past 4-6 years are then removed from their reach. Information literacy practices should then focus not just on the habits and use of database searching but at the searching across all kinds of information sources (where do I look?). Because libraries are spending very much money on these resources, some return on that investment would be nice and time is limited so rather than actually teach a fully comprehensive information literacy curriculum, we end up teaching an information literacy that is platform dependent on a particular library and ends up lacking in relevance once the student leaves the institution.

Information literacy is not library instruction. Library instruction is often helpful, if not also deeply necessary, and is a definitive component of information literacy but a library instruction session does not an information literacy approach make. There is the hope that the other classes and training the student has received has equipped them with critical thinking skills so that they are able to track down needed information through other means upon graduation. Library instruction is not, by definition, interested in the students after they graduate. In contrast, information literacy needs to care about the student as a whole person in their educational process through college and continuing on through the rest of their life. Academic libraries do not do a typically good job of passing college graduates onto the public libraries. If information literacy programs are succeeding, public libraries should be receiving college graduates as new patrons. This does happen but not nearly enough as it ought too because more often than not, due to time and money, we settle for library instruction over teaching information literacy.
Librarians need to be better teachers. We need to read more books like Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, The End of Education by Neil Postman, Socrates CafĂ© by Christopher Phillips, Walking on Water by Derrick Jensen, What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain or Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach by Anne French Dalke.  There’s a bunch of really great examples out there of librarians working to be better teachers. (Example 1, Blog 2, Blog 3, Blog4?)  Good teachers engage their students and try to understand what their different audiences need. In order to do an exemplary job of presenting information literacy practices and not squander the precious opportunities that are available, librarians need to be good at communicating our own passion and joy about using good resources. In short, information literacy cannot be boring, lame or dumb. How can problem-based learning initiatives be incorporated into a class session? How can the Socratic method aid in helping establish a rapport with a class so that they begin to engage with the material? How hands-on can you get? What’s the takeaway or perhaps more importantly, what’s the hook? Why should students even start listening to you in the first place?[1]
Doing information literacy well requires a culture/process of assessment.
How do you know when the session went well or that students got it? As a profession, we’ve definitely gotten better at this, thanks in no small part to the diligent efforts of professionals like Megan Oakleaf, and projects like TRAILS, and RAILS. Most of us don’t have the time, energy or _______, to do a Journal of Academic Librarianship level of assessment on our information literacy sessions. We also don’t need to. Look at what other libraries are already doing and adapt an assessment plan to meet your needs. (Columbia, Cornell, Indiana State, etc.)[2] Subscribe on ACRL’s Information Literacy listserv. These people know what they are talking about and they are way friendly also. You don’t have to create stuff from scratch. Share some of your knowledge occasionally, glean from the threads and a lot of the stress from assessment will melt away.
                Ideally, librarians would work hand-in-hand with each academic department, serving as references for new class design, helping to design assignments, have ample time to spend in group and individual interactions with students, gain the respect of faculty and administration and commute via unicorn. But this is not typical library reality and the long hard process of fighting for information literacy inclusion into/across curriculum is not going to be accomplished with more discussion about definitions. Rather understanding what information literacy is supposed to do, practicing and working to be better communicators and teachers while measuring how we are doing will be instrumental in establishing information literacy as an essential part of the educational process.

[1] A couple of years ago a student named Chris very candidly remarked to me that “…at the very moment the professor mentions that the librarian is going to be coming to class, at that instant, I already beginning to be bored.” It’s difficult to say how much mileage I’ve gotten out of that quote because that’s what many students are thinking and well, it helps to let them know, that you know, how they might be thinking and also gives a launch point from which to say fair enough-I get it and then change the viewpoint.
[2] Indebted to the ACLR ill-l list-serv for furnishing this list.
Email from Megan Oakleaf on April 25, 2012 “Re:program assessment plans”

Monday, September 24, 2012

Seeing and hearing: Radio and TV in modern culture via Frightened Rabbit's Old, Old Fashioned

Finished reading Jonathan Sterne's excellent book The Audible Past yesterday. Sometimes, in particular works, there are chapters or sections that are well worth the time to be read again and again. The conclusion to Audible Past lands squarely in this category. While effectively wrapping up the entire work, the conclusion also raises additional questions and areas for additional study. One of the more memorable bits in this conclusion is Sterne's examination of the relationship of the metaphors of sight and hearing, especially in Western language and thought. After finishing up this book where the relationship of sound and vision were very much on my mind, my daughter and I were hanging out listening to Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight. The fifth song on this album is Old, Old Fashioned and the lyrics fit particularly well into the thinking about the relationship between sound, , sound reproduction, bodies and media that Sterne has explored throughout the book. So, largely for fun, here's an exegesis of FR's Old, Old Fashioned's lyrics and its connection to listening, sound reproduction and culture.

The first four verses w/ chorus are below with all lyrics available here:

I'll turn off the TV
It's killing us we never speak
There's a radio in the corner
It's dying to make us see

So give me soft, soft static
With a human voice underneath
And we can both get old fashioned
Put the brakes on these fast, fast wheels

Oh let's get old fashioned
Back to how things used to be
If I get old, old fashioned
Would you get old, old fashioned with me?

Put the wall clock in the top drawer
Turn off the lights so we can see
We will waltz across the carpet

So give me the soft, soft static
Of the open fire and the shuffle of our feet
We can both get old fashioned
Do it like they did in '43

In the first verse, the act of turning off the TV is turning off a host of other voices and images that interfere with the song's protagonists' own conversation(s).  The speaking of the TV versus the act of having a conversation with the ensuing or desired destruction or silencing of the TV is a popular trope within Western culture. This trope holds that destroying your TV is in the best interests of the individual and his/her relationships. (Good examples can be found by googling kill your tv.) Because we are so easily distracted by the combination of moving images and audio, our conversation cannot transcend or push back that of the TV unless it is turned off.
However something needs to replace the TV as a medium to draw people together. Thus the radio, drawing deeply on the nostalgia of the radio as a centralizing, community-building entity is called upon; see Norman Rockwell illustrations of listeners gathered around the radio. Additionally, turning off moving images forces the erstwhile viewers to look at each other, hence the radio " dying to make us see". Note that the radio which projects no images but only sound is a better conduit of sight because it connect the listeners with, presumably, a better understanding of the real world through personal conversation and interaction. There is the subtext that sound/image are difficult, if not impossible to traverse in conversation but sound only can be pushed into the background so that conversation can be foreground. Additionally, the radio's "soft, soft static" pushes back against the hyper-edited, HD-obssessed TV viewing. The radio as a media object that receives and interprets particular waves, in fact would be useless without those waves, also, in this context, functions as a communicative medium that reconnects two individuals. The chorus's desire to get "old fashioned" and "back to how things used to be" refers not only to the removal of interfering media (TV) but also the restoration of the relationships between the protagonist and his audience. Nostalgia is drawn on heavily here, while nostalgia is often for a falsely remembered golden age, in the case of this relationship the couple is well able to relive their previous relationship by reducing the relationship back to what mattered, time together.
Both verse one and verse three make entreaties to re-enabling the ability to see by the means of listening. The radio in verse one is "...dying to make us see" while verse three asks to "Turn off the lights so we can see". The joint juxtaposition of opposites is mirrored in both verses. Where verse one calls for sound to cause the listeners to see, verse three sees turning off the lights, which mirrors turning off the TV-also light-emitting,calls for the absence of light to cause the individuals see each other. While normally we seek to "shed light on a matter" in this case the reduction of light allows or helps to foster reconnection. Presumably the parallelism between the TV's light and the room's light are both or have been distracting enough to warrant their dimming.
It's particularly interesting in the third verse that time is stuffed into a drawer. Where watching TV kills time or is accused of doing so, here time is deliberately taken in hand to be disregarded until further notice. Rather than wasting time, time is gathered up and subjected to the listener's control in defiance of its passing. Sterne suggests that "In bourgeious modernity sound recording becomes a way to deal with time....moderntiy being assumed to assure the perpetiuty of cages, the constanty of upheaval and transformation. But the sound recording itself also embodies fragmented time. It offers a little piece of repeatable time within a carefully bounded frame." (p. 310) Time now only exists for the listener based on the length of the song. Also, the repeatable time is not only the possibility of replaying a particular favorite song but also attempting to recreate "how things used to be".
The fourth verse re-emphasizes the importance of made sound rather than relying on outside, edited or delivered sound. The singer asks "give me the soft, soft static/ Of the open fire and the shuffle of our feet" The human or organic aspects of the radio static is mirrored in the static created by the interactions of the listeners in and with their environment. The fire is a real fire, not a fake one on TV. Not only is the static generated by dancing feet, but also the static is generated by bodies moving together and over physical surfaces. Since the TV is off there is not danger of vicariously living through the dancing of others. The dance is itself the old-fashioned waltz which is both a way of marking the time signature of a piece (waltz time-3/4-tying back to repeatable and controllable time) and performing an fairly dated dance style.
Sterne, in his conclusion emphasizes the importance of sound culture to our modern way of living. "...we must first recognize that there is a domain of significant and connected questions surrounding the social life of sound in all its manifestations." (p. 348) The enjoyment of sound, via the radio, between two people is deliberately contrasted between the isolation of TV (image/sound) even while being watched by two people. What struck me in playing around this idea and listening is that this song, Old, Old Fashioned, becomes the song playing on the radio. Old, Old Fashioned is itself a waltz and while the lyrics presume a slightly pleading one-sided conversation, the song as a whole calls out on a larger scale to any one listening to join in and dance, turning off the TV to  embrace literally the physicality and immediacy of the available present relationships. Passively listening is not enough. Passivity is for the TV watchers. Dancing or movement is for the radio listeners.
Throughout this song while vision, 'the gaze' is privileged as two individual relearn to look at one another, listening is incredibly important. The dancers must here the music in order to dance to it. Seeing each other is not enough, the dancers must also speak to one another to "remember how things used to be" and stop death. In this song, listening halts the progress of the death of a relationship.
Additionally, to grasp the full impact of the lyrics of the FR song in the first place, one must be able to listen to or hear the song.
 It's interesting that, in this case, I was listening to this song as a MP3 which is the least physical or the least old-fashioned of any of the currently available musical formats. I also, unfortunately, have never heard this song on the radio. Fully embracing the song's calling for an return to old fashioned ways would, in my case, nullify my ability to listen to it because of the changes to how music  is consumed. Except, I think this is missing the point slightly. The medium of the music matters less than the act of listening to it and to the conversation we generate "like soft, soft static" between one another. And not simply passively listening but dancing "like they did in '43".

Thursday, September 13, 2012

GoogleGlasses and the Telephone: Getting technologies off the ground

Came across this video demoing GoogleGlasses today. I would like to submit that GoogleGlasses looks good because of its editing. The fact it's promoted as a short film is mildly silly as no one, yet, really wants to watch hours of straight pov footage.Google in this particular clip is not showing off the glasses as much as highlights. Unfortunately, as far as I know, when you get the glasses, you're not getting the editor as well, unless you can afford one or take the time to do it yourself.
 In his book The Audible Past Jonathan Sterne documents how Bell and Watson traveled around the country to promote the use of the telephone, demonstrating it in various cities. Since being able to comprehend, let alone hear all the words being spoken by the other person on the opposite end was pretty, at best, terrible, common words, phrases and songs were used  to help encourage legibility. ""...experimentation with sound reproduction largely had the machines reproducing easily remembered and imitated language." (p. 254) Sterne argues that these particular common words/phrases, etc. were used in order to help the technology; "...the desire for the machine to work" (p. 251). That is, if the message was completely unintelligible who would be interested? Bell and Watson had to prove that the telephone could indeed "speak". If people got even parts of the message that at least proved the possibility of communication in some capacity with hope for the future.
Thus, the telephone in its early, development stages, received assistance from its developers in order to generate enough interest in it so that "...the machine and the process [were] as desirable to audiences as possible." (p. 251)
I think there's a parallel here with GoogleGlasses. The vast majority of viewers are not yet at the place where there is desire to watch someone else watching the view in an unedited fashion. Getting stuck in traffic, using the bathroom falling asleep at your desk, eating a meal-there are things that are not important enough (right term?) to be viewed.
If you read the blurb about the video on its page as well as observing the editing style (sped up sequences, jumps in time, etc.) which really closely mirrors that of reality tv (think TLC-type shows). The language in the blurb "never before seen footage", "capture", "fit seamlessly" etc. These phrases pull from common language of the extra footage of DVDs, behind the scenes desires and one of the biggest consumerist desires-no hassle. The blurb, at least, speaks our language. The editing of the event takes it one step further using editing styles and practices that remind one of another type of show but as we are reminded by the lipstick on the glass, this is a special camera.
What's edited also communicates glamour, success, smiling faces and, if permissible, happiness. Nothing breaks, nothing is hurt, nothing is wrong in this particular film. As interesting and potentially important as the ability to shoot video is, editing how or what is seen, is just as important. The choice of language for the messages conveyed through early telephone demonstrations could have greatly decreased the effectiveness of the telephone if no one could understand what was being said. Similarly if the recording from the glasses went on for a Warholian 15 hours no one would watch because that footage would be truly incomprehensible; any message would be lost.
The editing in this piece seeks to help the use of GoogleGlasses make sense by condensing what was probably hours of footage into a nice couple minute long exciting package. Lacking the hours of footage would diminish the amount of highlights to be drawn from them but including everything swamps the message.
Since video can not be self-edited, as speech can, the editing process assists, or attempts to assist our embrace of GoogleGlasses as a viable technology. This bit of filming is designed to make us want the Glasses to "work", succeed and become part of our daily life.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hammering on the ego

David Sizemore, a rather talented graphic designer whom I'm really pleased to consider a friend, has a really excellent recent blog post. This post originates out of Dave's recently attending a design conference and wrestling with the conundrum or philosophical state of choosing between fulfilling work versus paying work. The last paragraph and the next to last sentence in that paragraph is where the meat of David's thoughts lay. He states "...I’m trying to figure out if my ego can take hammering out a solid living for myself and my family doing good, smaller work."
Doing work that may be loved takes a certain toll or has particular consequences. It's really romantic to state "do what you love" but it's something else entirely to actually do that type of work because our egos, shaped and called upon and worked at by the advertising, writing and people around us, don't, usually, want to be hammered on. They want to be massaged and stroked, frankly. Understanding up front what type of hammering might occur and that hammering is inevitable is going to give a better understanding of the worth of attempting to do what one loves for a living. Beyond the personal ego trip there's the economic implications of what stuff one can buy or the ways one's family gets supported in attempting to do good, fulfilling work.

If you go to Liga Masiva you will find that after 3 years in business this really awesome coffee company is closing their doors. In the section of the page on "What Didn't Work" they write "...we failed to build a strong enough consumer community around this mission and failed to create a product that was so remarkable that it would spread ... at a scale necessary to support such an ambitious project."
If you go to David's blog and go down to his second post, you will see an animated FAILURE looping in an infinite circle. Beneath that image is a post where David describes his inability to start a t-shirt company. Toward the end of that post he states "But I did enjoy this process, even though it was a failure. I learned to embrace a teeny-tiny failure, and I think it’s given me the willingness to fail at bigger things. "

How failure gets processed demonstrates how well prepared the ego is for the hammering process. And not just giving lip service to learning from failure but good engagement and interaction with the implications and necessary steps to pick up what is left and try again.

To quote a poet "everyone makes mistakes /like it’s the only way we learn." ~David Bazan "'Messes"

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Worship, Technology, and the Church: A Failure of Language

The reason for this post is that I'm concerned with, to borrow Lanier's term, trying to make humans into gadgets, especially in language. The official term for this being technological determinism. Technological determinism is dangerous wherever it shows up but when its adherents pop up in evangelical journals in the discussion of worship, church and technology, I get especially nervous.
    Multnomah Seminary publishes a journal called Cultural Encounters. The current issue deals in part with questions of the impact of interactions with technology. To that end this issue features an interview with the editor of the journal, Robb Redman, Quentin Schultze, professor of Communications/Arts at Calvin College and DJ Chuang who works for Worship Leader magazine entitled Worship, Technology, and the Church. The discussion/roundtable interview revolves around the use of technology in worship and the possible uses and implications for worship practices and church communication. There are some interesting points raised in the discussion as the three discuss philosophical shifts, changes and implications in worship and congregational interaction as churches try out  various technologies. What caught my eye are several dicey statement which bear some closer examination.
On page 97, in discussing the impact of streaming a worship service, Quentin Schultze states that "We're technological beings, and even the use of the voice and ears constitute forms of technology." There's a couple of problems with this statement. First, this statement is a type of technological determinism manifesting itself in Schultze's reading of technology back onto the human body. To say everything about the human body is technological reduces, I think, our status as created beings and thus our humanity. If we are technological beings then we as humans are easily replaceable, able to be swapped out like a hard drive or power supply. Additionally if everything is technology why make the differentiation at all? What good is the term if it can be applied to anything.
Later on in the article, DJ Chuang claims that " is awakening another aspect of our humantiy and desire to connect, both virtually and in person shops or "third places" are a place to do othat..." (p. 102) But he does not go on to say what this aspect is. I would guess that this other aspect is in some ways related to the cultural shift towards postmodernism, which is the subject for another post. What's implicit about Chuang's statement here is that technology can awaken which implies that technology has certain powers and/or that those technological powers effect or cause cultural change. Johnathan Sterne in his book The Audible Past suggests that "Technological change follows cultural change". To state or imply the reverse, as Chuang does, implies that technology drives culture giving the arena of technology a much greater amount of control then it really has. Finding the line between whether culture or technology can be rather difficult. In reflecting on Sterne's statement the emphasis is not as much on causation as the overall philosophical approach. To say we are technological or that technology is awakening us states that we are now in service to or subjected to technology. Rather I would suggest that technological development is driven, for better or worse, by our cultural decisions, supposed needs and consumerist desires.
Shortly after Chuang's quote above Schultze states "Technology involves human action-it's always a thing embedded in action-and we can't completely separate the thing from our action...all that we do as human beings is like technology. The most central technology to the human begin coming from the body is actually speech. Techne, the origin for the word technology, actually comes from "speech," and in the Hebrew and Christian tradition, we say God spoke the world into existence, and tthen of course from the Gosple of John, "In the beginning was the Word." So you get this idea that the primary technology is word, and word shapes culture and ways of life and it never does so neutrally." (p. 103)
First, Schultze dramatically misuses language here. while techne may come from speech it does not serve as the root for technology-please see the OED listing. This is an unwarranted linguistic leap. Secondly, I believe that Schultze digs himself a bit of a hole with this statement. If speech is technology and God spoke the world into existence, is God then a technology or composed of (a) technology? Should John 1 read "In the beginning was technology?" This seems absurd and I doubt this was the point Schultze was trying to make but that seems to be a logical implication of Schultze's thinking in this interview. Lastly,  if speech was a technology then it should have been able to be easily reproduced, which is not the case historically. (See Sterne's The Audible Past)
  Technology is most certainly a tool and instead of  having moral value, as a tool, it possesses both good and evil qualities in that it is up to the user how the tool is used.To suggest that realm of technology can be good or evil misses the point of its existence as a medium through which good or evil can be accomplished.
In closing, my point is not that these are bad people or that is a bad interview. Rather my concern is that this type of thinking creeps in around and through legitmate and truthful conversation. Humans are not gadgets and we cannot succumb to language that attempts to elevate technological processes to human levels especially in the context of discussions of worship and church. We need to be able to recognize the errors and failures in this thinking and call it out when necessary so that we can adjust our thinking, our speech/language and our practices accordingly.

Happy 100th Birthday John Cage

Today is John Cage's 100th Birthday. I was looking for his home page to post on the library Facebook page and found it.
In clicking around and through the site, I selected Indeterminacy and this was what was displayed:

"I     went     to     hear     Krishnamurti     speak.
                                            He     was
  lecturing                on     how     to     hear
    a     lecture.
                                                He     said,
                                 “You     must     pay
   full     attention     to     what     is     being
    said                 and     you     can’t     do
   that     if     you     take     notes.”
lady     on     my     right     was     taking   
                                     The     man     on
    her     right     nudged      her      and     
said,                                    “Don’t      you
     hear      what      he’s      saying?
                                    You’re      not
 supposed      to      take      notes.”
                                               She      then
     read      what      she      had      written
  and      said,                                   
“That’s      right.
             I      have      it      written      down
     right       here       in       my       notes.”"

When the process of note-taking distracts us from the process of listening. When the process of doing distracts us from listening. I don't agree with all of Cage's philosophy of approaching music and composition. But he worked and hung out with a lot of the same people that Stefan Wolpe did and like Wolpe has much to say on the relationship of opposites, sound and silence, movement and stillness.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Unforgettable: Maria Bustillos' article Not Fade Away

Thanks to the fantastic walllace-l listserv I was recently made aware of Maria Bustillos' excellent article Not fade away: on living, dying, and the digital afterlife. 
There's a bunch of good stuff in this article but the aspect of memory and online activity is really interesting to me. "When someone dies nowadays, we are liable to return to find that person's digital self — his blog, say, or his Flickr, tumblr or Facebook‐entirely unchanged. I knew a young man who passed away suddenly last October. His Facebook page/wall became a digital memorial and people have continued to post photos and remembrances to it as recently as today. Until Facebook takes it down or it is removed for other reasons, it is likely to stay available, almost infinitely. The same technology that can get people fired for posting "inappropriate", however defined, images/video/text, in its unforgetting also, as Bustillos points out, does not forget the dead. There is no relief to be found in the forgetfulness of human memory in regards to a individual's online presences unless steps are deliberately taken to remove that presence. (Even the way we talk about being online, as being a "presence", suggests a false physicality or even a projection of "a second self". See Sherry Turkle.) Corey Doctorow has made the point of creating a means of access for all of his online accounts as part of his will so that his data and his body will be accessible by his loved ones upon death. Online content is a loop that is started the first time one logs in and posts something, anything. That rendering of code  as text, video,blog post will then remain for as long as the server/ISP/browser/Wayback Machine recognizes it. The loop continues on. If you'd like to add to it, great, but the original content doesn't get tarnished in the sunlight or faded with age. "Entropy is our enemy, but also our friend; it defines that part of us that is changing, coming into bloom and then, because we are mortal, fading." Entropy can not be seen in its inevitable progress online. There is no sense of time in the digital world. Once recorded, once captured we continue on. This is dangerous because it seems that we have no need for memory or that all memories can be committed to this much greater brain which does not suffer from Alzheimer's. Not to say that there are not advantages to this but the ability to forget and remember is a significant part of our humanity. It must not be forgotten however that to remember should be a conscious act, not merely a keyword search.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Internet made me write this

The latest issue of Newsweek features an article entitled iCrazy: Panic. Depression. Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is rewiring our brains by Tony Dokoupil. Currently the whole article is available to read on the site.
My own reaction to this sort of thinking is mixed. On one hand it seems to fall into the general this-really-big-thing-is-really-bad-for-you while on the other, there may be some points to consider. There's probably a good chunk of truth to the fact that the way we think about life has been radically altered by the use of the Internet. Being "always on", to borrow the title of a 2008 book by Naomi Baron, surely has consequences. However, I hesitate, because correlation is not causation. Or to quote Baron " David Hume taught us long ago, constant conjunction has no necessary relationship to causation." (p. 227)
Additionally, discussion(s) of the Internet as a very large, disembodied entity that makes conscious decisions on its own, demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what technology's role is. For an example from the Newsweek article: "But the research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed."
Please note words like "creating", "state of nature", "becomes" and "survive". While this article is decrying the brain rewiring work of the Internet it still speaks the language of technological determinism. To quote Baron again "The way we use a technology is always a joint product of the technology's affordances and of the cultural milieu in which it plays out." (p. 234) Jaron Lanier, for all his crankiness, makes this point throughout his book You are Not a Gadget.
The discussion of "the Internet" throughout the article is confusing. It seems to substitute for a discussion of social media rather than the wide breadth of activities that a full use of the medium of the Internet enables. I'm pretty sure no one is going crazy because they are reading too many articles from a library database, or at least no one is studying, or is interested, in those people. When Dokoupil mentions the Internet I would suggest he largely is referring to social media.
My biggest issue with this article is not the presentation of the Internet as a cause of anxiety, depression and psychosis. My issue with this article is its attempt to only present the Internet as a cause of anxiety, depression, etc. For example "And don’t kid yourself: the gap between an “Internet addict” and John Q. Public is thin to nonexistent. One of the early flags for addiction was spending more than 38 hours a week online." Dokoupil does not give any current flags for what defines "Internet addiction". Also one of the reasons that 38 hours a week seemed excessive was that typically the user was paying per hour. It was not only time, it was money that was being spent.
The Internet represents/offers a mass amount of people the ability to engage in repetitious, rote behavior that, either truly or falsely, offers a sense of connection. Sherry Turkle is right. We are alone together and changes in behavior are necessary. But to blame it all, or much, of it on Internet usage sees correlation without causation.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Tallking about TED: Nathan Heller's Listen and Learn (New Yorker)

The recent copy of the New Yorker has a fascinating, well-written article on video phenomenon known as the TED Talk(s). The first page is available here and Heller has a web-only introduction here. There's several points that Heller raises or makes that are worth noting.
The first is the extent to which the online videos are shot, using 8 cameras (p. 72),  and edited to create what is an almost entirely different experience from physically attending the event. This is not necessarily any different than the dichotomy between attending a professional sporting event and watching it on TV. The screen offers a much closer, if not better, view of the field in a very dynamic, almost constantly changing series of views that the producer feels best exemplifies the action on the playing surface. The video viewer benefits though from the dynamic views that the changing camera angles offer in a way that the physical attendee does not. However, physically attending allows one to be physically present, "I was there" for the event which grants a particular status (bragging rights) to the observer. I wonder if the TED talks would not be as successful w/o the audience just as the excitement/deflation of the observing physical crowd drives excitement levels at sporting events. The presence of the audience responding enthusiastically is necessary, note the reference to "more than half of Long Beach talks end in standing ovations" (p. 74). I would suggest that the audience response drives the emotional connection on the part of the viewer. Malcolm Gladwell's talk on spaghetti sauce or Ken Robinson's talk on education lack certain poignancy w/o the audience to respond in real-time.
Knowing that the edited versions are streamlined versions of what actually happens in a TED Talk raises, in my mind, some questions of what the purpose of the TED talk is. In conjunction with the editing is the inclusion of narrative over stats/data. Stories are way more interesting than graphs, hands-down. But stories can be left as vehicles unto themselves which is somewhat dangerous because the narrative emotional effect can reduce the story to a emotionally moving moment. Back to this in a second. Robert Krulwich delivered a commencement speech at Columbia University back in 2008 which the Radiolab podcast offered up as a short entitled Tell Me a Story. This is one of my favorite speeches as Krulwich makes an incredible simple argument for the discussion, in this case, of science as story. It's brilliant. He's addressing a rang of incredibly bright science students who are going to go home and when their relatives ask what they've been doing for the past four/five years and what are they going to do now, Krulwich suggests some sort of story to explain the fairly complex scientific thing that the students have been/will be working on. Not because the relatives are dumb but because well-told, well-formulated stories clarify where esoteric language. Krulwich's point being that if these graduates really want to help people get science they need to tell quality stories about that science to help the listeners connect with the ideas.
Which is probably what the point of the TED talk is, particularly the video version. It's a story that the viewer is supposed to connect with. But to do what? Feel good, make a change, submit their own application for a TED talk, play around with TEDEd to make their own version? What's the point of TED? Is it simply edu/infotainment or something more? Does it kick back to the Enlightenment principles of humanism and the cheering-on of what we have accomplished?
I think Heller addresses the most poignant, if unintentional, point of TED, as it currently stands.
"The TED talk is today a sentimental form. Once, searching for transport, people might have read Charles Dickens, rushed the dance floor, watched the Oscars, biked Mount Tamalpais, put on Rachmaninoff, put on the Smiths, played Frisbee, poured wine until someone started reciting "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond." Now there is TED. "I got all inspired and my hair stood on end and I got weepy-like and energized and enthused," wrote a participant in an online TED-discussion forum. (The talk that brought on such delirium was about education.) Debby Ruth, a Long Beach attendee, told me that she started going to TED after reaching a point in her life when "nothing excited me anymore"; she returns now for a yearly fix. TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel." (p. 73) (emphasis mine)
Perhaps the true contribution of the TED Talks is an excitement about ideas. Exiting ideas are good. Isaiah Berlin once stated that "an intellectual is a person who wants ideas to be as interesting as possible." I'm not convinced, however, that the goal of TED is an excitement about how interesting ideas can be, as opposed to a repackaging of that idea in an easily palatable, bite-sized tidbit. There is/can be a place for this type of interaction of ideas but the plastic-wrapped emotionalism of an exciting idea should not replace the messiness and struggling that a truly interesting idea requires.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The night each plows

The night each plows
A furrow of death
In the field of stars
Who calls?
I am nothing
But one with the one
That makes the nothing All.

- Charles Bell

Monday, June 11, 2012

Selling memory and conversation: Three thoughts on Apple/Siri's latest ads

You may have seen one of these iPhone/Siri ads from this NPR article: Hey Celebs, Are You Lonesome Tonight? Siri's Gotcha  There are three aspects to the program that struck me as I read the article and watched the included ads.

First: Siri embodies the clueless alien with massive mental firepower-literally a computer for a brain-as seemingly all-knowing but lacks understanding of basic pop/cultural syntax or semantics.
My best example of this is traveling recently with my two teenage cousins sitting in the back seat of the car firing questions at the Siri program. Ridiculous questions that they would very quickly become tired of asking an adult or peer because the answers to their questions would actually be answers. Instead interaction with Siri offers either straightforwardly sincere (admitting that Siri doesn't get humor minus the occasional flash of programmed wit) or, in response to a particularly obscure or ludicrous question the phrase "I don't understand".  In this context Siri becomes a parlor game, a novelty. A harmless interactive-only version of the Turing Test where the questions being asked are designed to stump for purposes of amusement of the listeners. "Can you stump the machine?" This is the context of every friendly alien movie where the amusement comes from the watching the outsider trying to fit themselves into the daily activity/routine with which the rest of the culture is comfortable. At least it's amusing to 13 and 14 year olds.

Second: The fact you have to hit the button every time seems like an intercom system to a disembodied intelligence waiting to interact with you. The sense is not of a whimsical, helpful tool but rather the sadness of a deeply, limited conversation and the need to ask questions for almost every single thing. The NPR article suggests that "The overt message of these TV ads is obvious: By the command of your voice, Siri can help you with the mundane tasks of everyday life." Is this the true American dream-to have our questions/whims answered by simply speaking them, without labor or effort? Or is it deeper that there is something/some entity to always respond to our questions so that we never feel alone? (See this brief history of the ELIZA talk bot, built as a sort of simulation of Rogerian psychotherapy.)

Thirdly: What's especially interesting about each one of these commercials is the absence of memory. Jackson can't remember how many ounces are in a cup, Deschanel asks to be reminded to clean up her house and Malkovitch wants to know what is in store for his evening. Siri is really only helpful if the user is willing to stop remembering or at the very least cede the role of memory from the user's brain to the iPhone's memory chip. What struck me as well is the sense conveyed that not knowing or not remembering is incredibly "cool", which the use of Jackson/Deschanel and Malkovich as characters, convey.

(Not to be that old dude shaking his cane at the youngsters on the lawn but this kind of thing that draws parallels to Socrates' story of the loss of memory due to memory. Anne Blair's book Too Much to Know, which I don't have in front of me, also shares a similar story from the Muslim tradition. In both stories there is legitimate fear that writing will eliminate the need to remember. While writing has allowed for the more efficient preservation of knowledge there is something to be said for the act of remembering that, for the ancient world, writing supplanted. There's a distinct difference between purposefully recording a future event and trusting the act of recall to a tool. The paper doesn't read itself.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"Sticking with it" versus "becoming unstuck": an exercise in metaphor

Yesterday I was reading the Cambridge book review of The Pale King and this quote, toward the end of the review stuck with me: "...based on the evidence of this novel, I’d take Pietsch’s more hopeful view, that Wallace was trying to come unstuck and believed it was worth his while to try to do so and thought of his writing as a way of understanding how to do it." (Emphasis mine)
This is a great review and worth reading but what stayed with my brain was the idea of "being stuck" versus the idea of "sticking with".
If you're not familiar with David Foster Wallace, the aformentioned mention to Wallace's being stuck references Wallace's struggle with depression. Knowing this background helps to clarify what the reviewer perceived Wallace as being stuck in. One of the best examples of being stuck, at least what leaps to mind is the story of  Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit manages to stick himself so fast into the Tar Baby that his enemy, Brer Fox, comes as close as he ever will to actually eating the rabbit.  Being stuck in or on something (i.e. being stranded) is typically negative. Referring back to the quote at the top of this post suggests that becoming unstuck can be read as synonymous with escape or release. For example the phrases "stuck in traffic", "stuck (or caught) between a rock and a hard place" and, with reluctance, Linkin Park's By Myself references being "stuck on the outside" or, with more enthusiasm, The Hold Steady's "stuck between stations", convey a negative or less than desirable state. In describing the creative process there is reference to being stuck at a particular point in the process (writer's block) connecting to the metaphor of the creative process as flow in which flowing freely is a positive attribute but to be stuck is to suggest the pausing or stoppage of the creative flow. ("stuck in a rut"). The negative connotation of "being stuck" connects to the metaphorical understanding of forward is good, backwards is bad. (See Lakoff/Johnson Metaphors We Live By) Moving forward is synonymous with the idea of progress and to be stuck negates progress and/or forward movement; the loss of freedom. Being stuck as a negative idea also references the related metaphor of "life as a journey". If one is stuck, one cannot journey or progress, (Brer Rabbit cannot escape) or  therefore being stuck, in many situations, is seen as negative.

On the other hand the phrase "sticking with it" is positive. "Sticking with it" implies perseverance through a difficult situation and even if that particular situation didn't end successfully the act of "sticking with it" can be added as a sort of back-handed encouragement ("We lost the game but at least we stuck it out to the end.")  Successful gymnast dismounts are often commentated as "sticking the landing" or having "stuck the landing" implying the successful setting of feet back onto the gymn floor w/o wavering or falling over. ("Sticking the landing" may have some relationship to the gymnast's ability to control their body not only through the, typically, continuous, movements on the particular apparatus but also to stop completely so that by ceasing all movement they demonstrate the end of their routine and control of their selves.)   The phrase "sticking it out" also can refer to perseverance through a difficult situations through a particularly grueling process and succeeding, or at least making it, to the end. ("It was a tough climb, but I stuck it out for the view(s) from the top.") To "stick it out" implies a sense in which the thing (it) in which one is participating or undertaking is less than the sum of the whole. That is the "it" is relatively small to the overall benefit of sticking it out. I think this also has a connection to the metaphor of "life as a journey" as the ability to successfully "stick it out"  or "sticking with it" implies that it is a temporary, or at least non-permanent, state. One can stick it out or stick with it because one can see the end. (On the flipside, failing to "stick it out" during a difficult situation or a situation in which others can see the end(ing) is typically seen as failing or a direct result of giving up.)
The ability to "stick it out" carries with it the sense that the "it" is finite; at the very least one can see the end of whatever one is sticking. Because the outcomes of many of life's events are not foreknown, sticking it out also carries with it hope that the end result is different than the currently expected or experienced state of being.
I think the difference in understanding "sticking it out" versus being "stuck" is one of proximity or perspective. Note that "sticking it out" or "sticking with it" are related to whatever it is as companion or as platform. Personal effort is being made to maintain close distance/proximity to the thing that is causing difficulty. One is pursuing or must at least keep pace with that thing to which one is trying to master or beat. To become unstuck from something implies that the "it" has somehow overtaken you or that you are, or have become, subservient to the situation. Brer Rabbit is unable to free himself from the Tar Baby or if one's creative flow is blocked; reading any author's memoir or instructions on how to write often includes steps explaining how to remove that block or to realize the creative flow.
However both metaphors of "becoming unstuck" or "sticking with it" depend on the concept of life as a journey. Both depend upon the idea of progress as positive to derive their meanings.
(I'm not sure if there's a larger concept to draw upon here. I thought there was in the time I've spent thinking about it but that concept has come in and out of focus and currently it's pretty far out of focus so I'm going to leave this here. If I'm able to derive something further, I'll post it.)