Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Who would want to live when you can watch?

"...our experience is weird now...something weird and thrice-removed from the real world..
What is at stake is in many ways human agency the way we experience the world.
Would I rather go muck around by the sea shore
or watch a marvelously put together documentary about the death of egrets.
I have already experienced the smooth documentary so many times that it becomes quickly incoherent to talk about an
extra-mediated or extra-
televisual reality.
I can go to the ocean I've never seen before but I've spent a 1,000 hours.
Who would want to live when you can watch?"
Documentary by the BBC
Transcribed here about 60% down

The hope in technology

This is actually pretty old but I've had extra time to blog so have been trying to post and/or delete older blog drafts.

There are two recent writing from the interwebs that are worth taking a brief look at. The first entitled The End of Content Ownership and the second entitled What Books Will Become. Each of these articles is marked by the flavor of techno-fundamentalism (future technology will fix the issues encountered by current states/technology)

Directly in opposition to these two articles is Robert Darnton's recent article 5 Myths about the Information Age.

Amazon's Lending Library Waves Goodbye to the Enlightenment?

People are somewhat leery about this  in regards to libraries/future/future of publishing. Currently though the selection of Amazon's Lending Library is apparently somewhat limited so it will be interesting to see how this takes off.
It  seemed to be only a matter of time until something on this scale was available. With the focus on solo use of devices Andrew Carnegie's ghost is staring grumpily at his Kindle wondering where he's going to want to build his next library. Or how are virtual places going to maintain Enlightenment-styled edifices that are designed to benefit more than the ones who can purchase. Not to beat this into the ground but the gap of have/have-nots is going to continue to widen because electronic books don’t go to used book sales. While e-books may not burn they are also way harder to share.
The process of one-to-many-to-one-to-many-to-one (book gets sold to one, book donated to a book sale (many options for purchase) book gets sold to one, book is given away (many))
This approach is simply not an option with an electronic file, especially with DRM . It’s possible that the real problem with electronic books is one of the culture industry (Adorno) that has deliberately severed ties with the benefits of Enlightenment-style thinking; namely that education is a community process that requires community investment and input rather than customized, solo experience. This has the distinct possibility of returning back to pre-Enlightenment thinking where those who read were those who could afford it because of the exclusivity of the written word based on platform. Don't forget about the factor of planned/structured obsolescence requiring users to upgrade from platform to platform to stay current.
If publishing really goes all electronic where proprietary devices are required and publishers pull back from print runs so that price per book goes up, texts once again have the distinct potential of becoming exclusive.

Monday, February 27, 2012

This is what we talk about when we talk about gazelles

Growing up I lived in what has historically been referred to as "the parsonage" a house adjacent to a church building  that is typically owned by that church for the pastor to live in. The parsonage that I grew up in, which has since been bulldozed to make room for a as yet unrealized gym, was design as an almost two family house. Meaning that two families could live there as long as the second family was smaller and/or not staying for a lengthy amount of time. There were some definitive perks to this including a fairly massive yard for our area of suburban NJ and a half-sized basketball court.
When speakers came to the church  for particular speaking engagements, such the annual week-long "summer seminar", they would often stay in the bottom part of the parsonage. The summer of my 12th year one such speaker brought along his wife and his fourteen year old son. My mom informed me that this kid played basketball and was into the piano/keyboard. Large chunks of my day were devoted to playing mediocre basketball with much smaller chunks grudgingly given to playing mediocre piano and thought this other kid might be pretty good stuff.
There was a particular detail that my mom failed to share with me which was that this kid was a behemoth, especially compared to me. At fourteen this kid was inches, if not at least a foot, taller than me and much bigger. While I was an average height I was a really skinny kid. (I didn't weigh over a hundred pounds until well into my 13th year which was kind of a milestone.) Te outcome of the games is lost to memory but I do remember playing multiple bouts of basketball throughout that week  in which my attempts at rebounding were distinctly Sisyphean. There's not a lot of distinct recollection from that week of summer and in the standard thinking of a pre-adolescent there wasn't much expectation of needing to remember anything from that particular time.
So fast forward eight or nine years to sophmore year at Philadelphia Biblical University. I run into another student under circumstances that I don't totally remember though I'm  pretty sure it was outside the cafeteria entrance. I don't even remember what the initial conversation was. Not sure if was our parents but we both had vague inklings that other was in PBU's vicinity but hadn't run into each other. However both of us recalled the basketball games. Jon and his then girlfriend/now wife Kim and my my then girlfriend/now wife Kara and myself, that is to say all four of us started hanging outplaying once a week poker games.
Jon had a breadth of cultural interaction and experience that was quite foreign to me.
It wasn't until my senior year that Jon and I started hanging out quite a lot. Jon had graduate from college and was working/waiting for Kim to finish up school so that they could get married. Jon  introduced me to good coffee, interesting movies  the New Yorker and wide range of books. However the thing that we both spent a ton of time working on that year was Word of Warcraft Diablo II. This was Jon's last go-round for gaming. Our standard operating procedure was a call from Jon to me or from me to Jon around 9 or 10pm around the lines of
hey you doing anything
not really.
Want to swing by?
We'd play until 2 am  and then fall asleep on his floor.
It was at least a year or so after Jon and Kim's wedding and I was going through my phone to call a another John. However, I got my Johns mixed up and was seriously surprised to hear Jon Beall's voice on the other end. So surprised that it took me about 20 seconds to figure out exactly which Jon/John to whom I was speaking. This accidental phone call kicked into gear a now ongoing every couple of months phone call from me to Jon or Jon to me which results, not unsurprisingly, in these intense 30-35 minute chats about music, politics, future of reading/texts, tech, the cell-phone industry and any variety of other topics.

All this to say is that Jon posts pictures here in Google+ and Flikr and roasts really amazing coffee while listening to awesome music. Kim has a delightful day-in-the-life blog here and a deeply compelling, incredibly moving, very honest and thought-provoking blog about living with infertility and the implications of that. Frankly, I wish we saw them more often.

Books, reading and owning our stuff

Leon Wieseltier has this article on The New Republic's website which is a wonderful and thoughtful examination of his book shelves as he moves and the impact and nature of the book as artifact. There's some distinct similarities between this and Walter Benjamin's essay Unpacking My Library found in Illuminations.
This article has been kicking around the interwebs for the past week and made it onto at least one of the librarian list-servs I subscribe to. One of the librarians responded to the article with the suggestion of the a technology that would seek to individuate (his word-and a good one) the use of ebooks. Driving at a technology that would help or cause ebooks to seem less infinite or as Wieseltier suggests "There is something inhuman about the pristinity of digital publication. It lacks fingerprints." So why not then create a technology that allows one to fingerprint their electronic copy? This isn't a bad idea except waiting for waiting for some app to cause ebooks to feel or be more personal misses the point of what texts do. What follows is the somewhat rambling email I sent back to this individual. It's nothing new but I spent some time on it and figured I would share it here.

While appealing this notion of “individuation” (good word!)  seems counter-intuitive to the very nature of technology, as it has been presented to the end user/consumer. The customization of an interface or device is not the same as individuation even if those who push customization as personalization would like the users to think so. Technology does not succeed based on its ability to create individualized experiences but rather via a platform that is abstracted out enough to pull in the widest possible user group that is willing to bend to the concession of the maker’s terms. The iPhone is a good example of this. The closest thing to an individualized iPhone experience requires jailbreaking or hacking the phone’s operating system in such a way as to remove the system of blocks that come installed by Apple. The problem is you have to do it every time a new iOS is issued so that it takes a significant amount of work to maintain one’s “individuation” of device because the content providers don’t particularly want individualized users.
My own struggle with the idea of individuating technology is the buying into the idea that the digital copy on my device is unique. One does not typically purchase books with the expectation of replacing the same volume in 3-4 years because that volume has become obsolete.  However this is the expectation when purchasing a computer and I would suggest e-readers are included in this category. The principle of planned obsolescence prevents the digital item from truly becoming an artifact that is able to genuinely fingerprinted by the user especially when the content provider still retains power of control over the items on that device. (Netflix, Amazon, etc.) As the physical book is self-contained one is not worried about porting previous purchases from a pre-existing platform to a new one. Really the main problem one has with moving a book is making sure there is room on one’s bookshelf.
Since the Kindle, and other e-readers, require an online connection any option for individuation would be subject to this connection being monitored, not to be overly paranoid here, by the content provider. The similar parallel are the discount cards we use at the grocery store-even if we get gas points/etc. those points are simply in exchange for getting our buying habits. (See Vaidhyanathan’s Googlization of Everything) As new books are purchased this monitoring would leverage that information to track, compile and then market the consumer’s taste choices (Facebook, Google, etc.) for additional profits. It’s not the other reader(s) this technology would be benefiting in sharing the previous reader’s “fingerprints” but the publishers, e-readers or content providers.
I don’t mean to sound cranky about e-readers. I think they are a great idea, necessary to a certain extent. and provide healthy competition to the overblown prices of physical objects, also to an extent. I think, based solely on anecdotal experience, that more people are reading with their e-readers.
The problem with most, if not all digital content, is that the idea of owning has dramatically shifted. The expectation of owning our digital content so that we can fingerprint it (marginalia, sharing) is going to be at the mercy of content providers unless we are willing, I think, to hack our devices so that the content on those devices is truly ours.

You should be reading David Sizemore

A friend of mine down in NC has a tumblr that is really worth checking out. I've been lax in keeping track of my RSS feeds but was searching for something for a class presentation and came across Dave's post entitled Mad Men and Me. His post deals with the problems of context, art/advertising/graphic design and connecting the commerical value of advertising for a tv show with living in present history. It's good.

"All of this would be forgivable if I honestly believed the billboard wasn’t a calculated maneuver to be controversial. Obviously, the images work on many levels—like I said, it’s on brand and conveys a message successfully to viewers of the show. But it is controversial, and I can’t image smart people creating this without realizing that and choosing to capitalize on it."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Birthdays in repose

Happy 50 Birthday to David Foster Wallace
You can check out a handful of short stories and other writings from the New Yorker here.
The David Foster Wallace Audio Project is well worth checking out.
The very funny, fairly well-known cruise piece is here via Harper's.
Also The Awl's 46 things to do do/see on DFW's 50th is pretty comprehensive.

My brother, who is ten years younger than I am and happens to attend the same college at which I work, swung by my desk in the library last week and asked if I had any David Foster Wallace books in my office as his professor in the previous class on media had mentioned DFW and my brother, Kyle, wanted to check out his, DFW's, writings as he wasn't particularly familiar, a request that I was only to happy to oblige Kyle though the size of Infinite Jest was a wee bit intimidating Kyle did walk away with This is Water and Oblivion.
This is what I
am trying to say that
at 50 David Foster Wallace still matters.
A lot.
 Last but not least.

Happy 105th Birthday to W.H. Auden

You can read a lovely poem by Auden Law Like Love here, courtesy of Alan Jacobs.