Archive for the 'Technology' Category

The Ecstasy of the iPhone

July 2, 2007

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One thousand and one entries

June 23, 2007

No matter how diverse my entries may seem on the surface, there is a quality that all of them perform – a readiness to write and an eagerness to share. When I sit down to write on this blog, it’s because I have something that I want to say in this medium and have calculated a way in which I want to approach it. My entries, that is to say, mark an entrance into a certain mindset; they are all written from within the same walls.

Starting at 2:32 in this interview with Momus, he talks about the kind of storytelling he likes best: “I love the idea of Scheherazade,” he says, “And if there’s one umbrella idea which links all the different things I do – like making pop records, or doing performance art, or writing a column for Wired, or blogging – it’s this idea of someone habitually storytelling.”

“It’s essential that it could go wrong,” he continues. “It has to be this Scheherazade-like structure; it’s the same with blogging – it has to be every day.”

What fascinates me about this is the potential for a great diversity of performances. Instead of always getting a fairly polished, well-composed entry (as I’ll flatter myself to pretend the readers of my Chronofile are used to), the possibility exists for a performance of an entirely different sort; with the pressure to put something down every day, it’s inevitable that some days’ entries become performances of frustration, failure, or resistance. The blog becomes an anti-Feuilleton – enticing the reader some days with its eagerness to share and discuss, then crankily chasing him off the next day.

Another strength of this every day approach to blogging is that it encourages a spirit of play. In the format of the blogging software, in accordance with an idea of what makes a suitable blog entry, the writer is allowed free reign over most aspects of her entry; she has entered a space which is neither too ordered, nor too chaotic.

But the blog writer exists as a single node in the much larger hypertextual community. Her inspirations are subject to come from her a somewhat variable diet of blogs, and so the rules, as it were, of the game change daily or even hourly. Writing every day forces a certain engagement with the larger community.

Keeping in mind that these thoughts are all simply explications of the Momus interview above, it was with a bit of shock that I read this recent entry on his blog. He writes:

As an experiment — and in order to give my quality time to writing The Book of Jokes — I’ve been trying over the last week or so to revive old content from Click Opera. Retro Click has attempted to breathe new life into ephemeral dead content. The results basically just confirm that blogging, whilst it may give you the rush of instant worldwide publication, is the most ephemeral thing in the world. Comments are way down and the consensus is that reviving old blog entries is as dull as digging out yesterday’s newspapers and reading them.

Blogging has been incredibly useful to me as an aide memoire, a way to note the things that interest and excite me, and anchor them in a public place, make them googlable, and increase their power (they’re usually frail, underexposed things) by widening their appeal a tiny bit. (Go buy that Gay Against You album today, people! If we can turn one White Stripes sale into a Gay Against You sale, we have not lived in vain!) What it mustn’t become, though, is either the main thing I do, or the main thing I’m known for. Blogging is — in John Updike’s term for journalism — “hugging the shore”.

If the Momus of the above interview is saying that blogging can help build a more playful everyday, what’s happened in this recent entry? It may be that it’s best read as an inevitable outcome of blogging every day – a cranky shaking of the fist from the anti-Feuilleton.

Internet pioneers, circling their wagons

June 17, 2007

So far as I can tell, the thought actually did pass through my mind once some time ago of how I might possibly store a two month supply of water and food in my tiny apartment. A rehearsal of the failed attempt at sleep still several minutes away from having that thought had occurred a couple hours earlier, and my determination to be among the few still breathing after disaster had befallen all of those around me was unflagging. All of this anguish was set in the bluish white light of my laptop’s screen.

If I were to say that it started simply or innocently, I might be stifling an eschatological lineage that has puzzled thinkers for centuries; but it started by dipping my toe in that raging, inexplicable torrent – following a link on the internet about the avian flu, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or peak oil. And I conflate them all not because they bear an equally plausible threat to our world, but because I have run the same course with each of them, predictably enough without ever having noticed that very predictability when once I give myself over to the hand wagging they induce. One link, as often as not followed for the pure spectacle of somebody else’s hand wagging, has brought me to this state again and again wherein I abandon any sort of reason and give myself over to manifold layers of survivalistic planning.

One followed link accomplishes all this, though, not because a single website could have such persuasive power, but because tight clusters of links form in these corners of the internet: introverted in as much as they all seem to link to each other and to build off of each other’s panic, links – tokens of these websites’ content – pour into them, recruiting new members and onlookers. Yet looking out is done only tentatively and subjected to the approval of the interpretive community.

Like the best of games, there is an incredible level of absorption in the experience of circulating between these websites, reading their discussions, their diatribes, and their advice. And like a game, a sharp distinction is made between those who play and those who don’t – that is to say, a rule-following community is created as an extension of the eschatological belief. We find, on the accepted basis that how one came to believe in this particular apocalypse is irrelevant, a terrific variety of participants in these forums – rural survivalists or ecologists, urban or suburban dwellers bent on protecting their families, otherwise uncategorizable individuals – all adopting a similar vocabulary and mode of interpretation for the sake of these online forums. (You may be interested to know, for example, that one acronym that stretches between these communities is TSHTF: “the shit hits the fan,” used to describe a situation of rioting, looting, and other desperate human behavior.)

For some, this dalliance with the end of the world leads them to buy rural properties, to start massive gardening projects, or take up shooting; but, in accordance with the theory that those most likely to embrace eschaton are those who would have the least to lose in such an event, the vast majority must content themselves with playing online only.

The agglomeration of identities which the internet allows is vital in understanding this phenomenon, and not only in that it allows the creation of an exclusive interpretive- and play-community based on an easily avowed belief. No, the stakes of this game being what they are, participants can add perspicacity to any list of their qualities. It is as if, invitations to the end of the world having been sent out, we play a game of potlatch with apocalypse itself, hoping that it will keep up its end of the bargain.

The resistance to gesture

June 10, 2007

Behold the pixelization of art:

Though one is made of toast and the other is made of post-its, both create their art on the principle of the pixel. Even one recent music video has gotten in on this trend, using dice to form images complete with shadows and highlights:

What strikes me most about the creation of these pieces is how they eliminate the gesture from their creation and execution. Art that is based on the pixel always refers to a plan – a plan usually created with the assistance of computer-based graphics programs. This is of course no surprise, since pixels on a screen themselves refer to the orders of a control unit. The execution of these pieces on a grid, too, leaves room for impromptu changes only of color or shade: placement is wholly determined, and even those variations of color which are permissible are made only for the greater execution of the plan.

The sole pixel is absolutely meaningless, like the only extant word from an otherwise forgotten language. Instead, it forms a relationship with the other pixels such that it always refers to its surroundings for its meaning, just as it lends meaning to those same surroundings. This is illustrated by the fact that pixels can be placed on their grid in any order. Being able to glean a larger picture from the pixelated form depends on looping constantly between pixels, acknowledging their dependencies and their references.

The gesture, though, operates differently. From the very first, it stifles planning through its dependency on skill and each subsequent mark threatens to undo any success by the prior ones. A careful sequentiality is the closest that one can come to planning when dealing with gestures. And gesture is fundamentally expressive in ways that placement onto a grid simply cannot be.

A pixelation of art might be read, then, as a Platonic protest against responsibility. Image exists, the pixel artist maintains, on the level of order, where each individual cannot see the larger effects he makes; the best thing for one to do is therefore to follow the plan and not waggle about too much. It is a hermit ethics, in awe of chaos, abjuring the material in supplication to metaphysical meaning. Stunning for its command of planning processes, pixelated art fits perfectly our age of simultaneously global and microscopic orchestration.

The sorrows and joys of productivity

June 2, 2007

Merlin Mann, owner of productivity blog 43 Folders, has posted a well-circulated blog entry about the temptations of e-mail bankruptcy. He writes at one point, “I don’t know what the solution is apart from just trying to manage expectations. But how do you relate the scale of your debt without resorting to melodrama and without looking like a stuck-up douche nozzle?”

The last sentence in particular struck me as analogous to the problems of the art. As the more traditionally-acknowledged artist must avoid over-determinations of meaning in her art, the productivity artist must avoid making farce of his work; expectations must be managed preemptively, outside of the inbox, such that a total work is formed. This is how the productivity artist justifies his failure in responding to e-mail: by sketching the picture of his normally superior productivity and showing by comparison that not even he can tackle this “debt.” Above all, the seriousness of the production – and thus the necessity of its continuation – must be maintained.

When Emily Dickinson met an editor who displayed a little too much curiosity about her circumstances, she replied, “You ask great questions accidentally. To answer them would be events. I trust that you are safe.”

Mann continues:

Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What ‘pile’? It’s just a fucking pebble!”

E-mail builds until it requires an event to clear. Mann’s metaphor of stones reminds me of nothing other than Yoko Ono’s “Cleaning Piece,” which consists of a pile of stones with the following instructions:

Make a numbered list of sadness in your life. Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a sadness. Burn the list and appreciate the mound of stones for its beauty.

Make a numbered list of happiness in your life. Pile up the stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a happiness. Compare the mound of stones to the one of sadness.

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The productivity artist is left with nothing to burn and a beauty he is too overwhelmed to see. He is exhausted from placing other people’s stones for them, and must state that exhaustion if he is ever to be appreciated. Even as the performance commences, a sequel is already unavoidable.

Towards an epistemology of the internet

May 23, 2007

Since the internet became truly popular, the media and government have been obsessed with the shakiness of knowing anything for sure on the internet. Children especially are warned not to believe anything about strangers on the internet, but adults as well are occasionally paraded out to tell their stories of being defrauded by misleading websites or on the lam Nigerian royalty.

These are worthwhile endeavors to those concerned, but my own interest is in how people will make a very large deal about epistemologically dicey propositions online and what is at stake in these claims. Though these issues have been in the back of my head for a long time – inspired in large part by the reactions to rumors of new Apple products – a new opportunity has arisen to make my thoughts more concrete.

Above is a flying craft that has been (reportedly) spotted and photographed by several denizens of the internet. The issue of the veracity of the photographs doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the reactions of other people to them.

In the comments to this picture, we find the most sustained and detailed discussion of these photos around. The commenters can be divided into five types: believers who offer positive proof of the photos’ veracity, believers who attack the narrow-mindedness of their detractors, a similar bifurcation amongst non-believers, and those who are undecided but open to either possibility.

In every case where a commenter takes a definite stand, that stand has, to some degree or another, been influenced by viral marketing ploys and more recreational hoaxes that have been spotted around the internet. What is at stake then, when a person comments in support or non-support for the reality of a photo, is the issue of experience. Believers say things such as NASAnerd1947 does: “I’m not an expert on faking digital images, but I have studied the field of electric and electromagnetic propulsion as a professional aerospace engineer.” (S)he acknowledges the possibility of faking, while at the same time designating this instance as an exception through an appeal to her or his experience. On the other hand, doubters like fxmodels say things like, “[H]e started by modeling a BF Goodrich All Terrain Tire and got bored!!! He smooth shifted, beveled and Nurnied. Those three things take about an hour in any reasonable 3D program. The whole model was probably an hour to build.” Again, experience (in the form of esoteric vocabulary) is called upon to defend this person’s view.

In this way, duration claims its territory in a place renowned for its ephemerality. Any amount of time online is measurable by the passing of memes. I could, perhaps, refer to the time when “All Your Base…” swept through the internet and a specific time would come to mind. Yet this sense of time has little relation to time spent in the real world. Bringing up experience when faced with the possibility of a hoax is a way of asserting a relationship with the non-internet world – where the claims of reality or unreality actually matter.

These possible hoaxes inspire such frantic argument largely because every attempt to weigh in on them is both read and rhetorically framed as a reflection of the commenter’s grasp of reality. The distinction between those who “get it” and those who do not is exaggerated on the internet like few other places. This constitutes, perhaps, a blatantly hierarchical element – an order under which all users are graded on their knowledge of internet culture and technology – in an otherwise anarchic system.

To argue against the reality of a photo like this is thus to argue against wide-eyed “noobs” who are used to applying everyday epistemology to the internet; but conversely, those who argue for its reality are accusing their detractors of not having recovered from the epistemological impact of the internet. The flame war is displaced, but only temporarily – maybe everything on the internet comes back to identity.

Productivity performance art, part II

May 12, 2007

Holding square flags diagonally divided, the productivity artist extends her left arm completely to the horizontal. She repeats the gesture with her right arm, holding it only a moment before bending at the elbow such that her right hand (still bearing its flag) rests on her left collarbone. She draws the right hand across her throat, indicating in the semaphore of productivity that she has committed e-mail bankruptcy.

Her momentarily cruciform position is the first step in this performance of exhaustion, and it indicates the extent to which she has suffered for her busyness. She has been pecked at by her e-mail messages, flayed by them.

Yet it is very rare to see the productivity artist in this position, for the public performance begins only in the next step. She “apologize[s] five times in five paragraphs, acknowledging that by not responding, [she has] failed in the most basic form of ‘cyber decency.'” Her confession is thorough, delimiting the effort she has made to be productive and her inadequacy for such a task; and her penance is the shame of the performance itself.

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(Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas)

And when she emerges from these humiliations, her disciples and coworkers may touch her wounds, incredulous at how she has suffered and been created (almost) anew.

Productivity performance art

May 11, 2007

Is the difference between performer and audience simply a matter of gaze? Is it simply that the audience member must focus on a more distant object than the performer?

Consider the men and women that each of us likely encounter every day who spin digital yarn on the public stage – walking and sending text messages; dining with friends and checking e-mail. Their gazes, like those of actors, are directed at a closer field of action contained within a larger, framing space. If the tool of the audience member or, in the latter case, the random passer-by is the loupe, which flattens everything into details of a monolithic reality (an all-encompassing scene), the macro lens might be the most appropriate tool for the actor or the human engrossed in technology, who conceives of everything in a figure/ground dichotomy: there is existence out “there,” but the details are few, and the most important object is close and small.

Yet in the figure/ground organization of an image, the ground has to give context and meaning to the delicate, particular object which is in focus. Consider the stereotypical macro image of a flower; then, consider the difference between a background composed of more flowers or foliage and one of a raging fire. The ground gives meaning to the figure, but our interpretation of that ground is influenced by the details, the frailty of the figure.

So it is that the apparatus of technological productivity includes a never-ending semaphore: “I am being productive.” This, of course, requires its own allocation of time.

No where is this more apparent than the internet, where discrete web pages make up the otherwise fluid and immersive hypertext. And no single web page contributes more (or more popularly) to the putative productivity of the busy masses than Lifehacker. Full of hints for shaving seconds off of routine tasks, this website updates often enough to constitute a task in and of itself. Reading it becomes like a visit to the Container Store: a utopian vision of order, where the system itself is so conducive to accomplishment that it requires only your bare presence.

My idea is therefore this: to follow every single suggestion made by the website and document as my life turns into an unmanageable morass. (Please don’t interpret this as the inauguration of that project; others are encouraged to try it before I ever do.) I would be so occupied with developing new, more productive habits that I would be utterly immobilized. My computer would be so weighed down with productive software that it could hardly run (and I could scarcely navigate it). I would be in a state of such pure productivity that, bizarrely, I could get nothing done.