January 30, 2005
Hypocritical Ludditism (prelude)
If you think you see a contradiction of sorts in my last two posts, well.. yes and no. What it really is is an example of what I call hypocritical ludditism, something that slowly seems to be evolving into a personal philosophy of mine. Not quite sure I'm ready to write about it, but both hypocrisy and ludditism get a pretty bad rap in today's culture, and I'm ready to celebrate them both..
this is a server
and no mr van Veen, its not made by Microsoft
Black Box Ubiquity (first draft)
For thirty years most interface design, and most computer design, has been headed down the path of the "dramatic" machine. Its highest ideal is to make a computer so exciting, so wonderful, so interesting, that we never want to be without it. A less-traveled path I call the "invisible"; its highest ideal is to make a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it. (I have also called this notion "Ubiquitous Computing", and have placed its origins in post-modernism.) I believe that in the next twenty years the second path will come to dominate.
- Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC, 1994 (emphasis added)
I've always had an uneasy disinterest in the concept of "ubiquitous computing", the idea that computerized electronics should be in the woodwork, working invisibly to serve humanity. A thought that would seem laughable to me if it wasn't so viscerally disturbing. Its a mediated disturbance, cut quickly away by an inability for me to quite conceptualize how the chunky frailty of today's electronics can translate into "invisible" machines that actually keep working. But the fact is that batteries are slowly improving, components shrinking, and there might actually be people fighting against the seemingly planned obsolescence of so many electronics and trying to make genuinely tough electronics. And I'd rather not laugh at something that might just be laughing back at me, so I'm going to take ubiquitous computing seriously for a bit.
The literature of ubiquitous computing is filled with allusions to "enhancing people's lives", empowering humans and the like. Funnily enough though if one browses the websites of Ubicomp conferences, where most of the action in the field seems to take place, what do you see? From year one corporate logos grace the splash page, and indeed other then bad design they seem to be the most ubiquitous element to the sites. (I must say I rather like the design of the 2005 site) If you can find a human face at all, you'll likely be three levels in already. All this of course begs the question: "just who does ubiquitous computing empower?"
While ubiquitous computing certainly has the potential to empower people, and in certain situations I'm sure it will, ultimately the main empowerment is to those who make the technology. The move towards an invisible technology is another step in the long process of "black boxing" technology, the process striation, the process of building walls around technology that separate the creators and controllers from the rest of the world. There is nothing new about this process, from the medieval church cloistering away its books to telegraph operators chatting amongst themselves while the rest of the world waited for the newspapers to get printed, there are a multitude of examples, some benign, others not.
In contemporary computer culture black boxing is deeply encoded throughout many layers. Think of a corporate office. Physically servers are locked inside rooms, while the technicians in charge of them run small fiefdoms that tend to be unwelcome to outsiders. The computers are a territory open only to those that understand. The technicians will venture out, installing and fixing computers, but few ever are invited in to their all too frequently windowless offices. What good would it do, they wouldn't know what to do with the technology anyway. The same process repeats inside the tech itself, a systems administrator often has full access, if they can't see everyone's files at least they can delete them. They control what sort of data passes into and out of the network and where. Sites can be blocked, ports turned off, words sensored, emails amended. The computer systems are their locus of control and they keep it that way. Their power might be modulated by the accountants, influenced by marketing and sales and manipulated by anyone with enough social skills, but ultimately they run the computers and thus stay empowered.
Perhaps more interesting is the way black boxing works on the layer of the computer itself. There a tension emerges in the workings of a black box. Power is never removed as an issue, but here it begins to flow in multiple directions. The operating system is a black box that hides the inner workings of the machine but at the same time empowers people to use a device they never would have before. Usability and design come into play. The graphical user interface might hide the operating system from the users, but it also enables users. It is important to note that the act of obscuring the inner workings and the act of increasing usability are not necessarily rigidly linked, they are the actions of two independent but interlinked and interacting forces. At least in theory there is no reason one can not simultaneously make a computer both easy to use and technologically transparent. However in practice it seems that increased usability tends to go hand in hand with an increase of opaqueness or hiding of the lower level workings.
It is tempting to look at ubiquitous computing as a similar trade off, the technology gets hidden, made invisible, made harder for the outside to enter and learn, but at the same time becomes radically easier to use, to the point where its so usable its unnoticeable. And there may well times when its true, but (and I can not stress this enough, this is a very dangerous construction and thus should be avoided if at all possible. For one thing it is inaccurate, since the act of hiding and the act of increasing usability are the products of two separate, but often interacting, forces one can not just assume you get one with the other. More importantly though this thinking, of pushing towards "invisible" computing in exchange for "calm" or usability is something of a trojan horse. If technology actually succeeds in becoming invisible it essentially becomes beyond social control and power shifts radically towards those that control the tech.
The layer of critique that does exist in the ubiquitous computing space tends to focus on surveillance, the ability of invisible tech to watch over us. This is of course a very real threat, but it is also in many ways a red herring. While surveillance might be disturbing it is also in many ways benign, it is an abstracted danger, one that only can affect us when actualized by being transformed into a physical action by something reacting to the surveillance. Invisible computing is ideal for surveillance, but also has the potential to be far more dangerous on a very real and physical level. Like many technologies ubiquitous computing is capable of murder. And not just any murder but invisible murder.
The "dramatic" computing that Weiser talks about in the opening quote is constantly calling attention to itself. And as such it's constantly integrating itself into society. No matter how loud or obnoxious it might be it is socially regulated. When computing reaches ubiquity, by definition it leaves the social space. It can only be accessed through abstract knowledge, if it is invisible, if its not calling attention to itself, then we can't know its there through our physical senses but only through our knowledge. And if our knowledge is regulated somehow, we lose our ability to engage the technology on a social level. And just how are we supposed to obtain knowledge of all the invisible things around us? The process shifts power dramatically, towards those who can regulate our knowledge of invisible, and perhaps more importantly to those who can access these invisible objects.
As long as the objects remain benign as the push towards ubiquity pushes onward, it becomes difficult modulate the threats with the potential of the technology. In this regard the human centric push of ubiquitous computing proponents is the ultimate trojan horse. They sell us something to enhance human experience, but in the process push technology to the point where we can't even see it operate. And if it gets there, then what?
note: I somehow never quite referenced her in the piece but Anne Galloway deserves a special shout out here as she's been looking critically at ubiquitous computing for quite a while, and with far more subtlety and rigor then you'll find in the above piece.
January 28, 2005
Cracking the LES
Yesterday the NY Post tells us the LES is reaching that inevitable upscaling moment. Then today they tell us a story that makes us think of the LES returning to its prebar strip despair. And somehow this seems like an equally inevitable option to me.
Maybe its just another tabloid murder but what sticks in my head about the murder of the actress from Minnesota on the streets of the Lower East Side is the shear stupidity of someone asking a man who just pistol whipped a friend "what are you going to do, shoot us?" Clearly at 3:15am there was alcohol involved. But with American nightlife well deep in a cocaine epidemic.. Speculation aside what's been nagging in the back of my head for a while is "what next?"
Back when the LES was dangerous and stupidity was going there at night at all, not challenging people with guns, NY was in the midst of the crack epidemic. And drug epidemics tend to run on cycles, or at least the ones that have been around long enough do. Crack's only had one run through, no one knows how or even if it cycles. But it doesn't take reading on page six about failing rock star's $1,500 a day habits to wonder if its about to return and return hard..
And yeah, who knows what crack could do to the real estate bubble. Lets just hope the city never gets to find out..
January 15, 2005
Mark C. Taylor's Confidence Games : Money and Markets in a World without Redemption chops broadly and ambitiously across the worlds of economics, religion, art, and philosophy at breakneck speed. Taylor is shockingly lucid for an academic writer, and clearly both and intelligent reader and gifted storyteller. All of which almost hides the severe lack of depth behind the vast facade constructed in Confidence Games. Indeed the real con game might just be the book, although its not quite clear if its the author or the reader getting conned in the end. And either way its a pretty enjoyable ride..
Halfway through I was marveling at how well read Taylor was. By the end though I was marveling at how well he managed to splice together the last eight random books he read. I found myself repeatedly flipping back to the index hunting for various authors that could have dramatically improved book, or rendered large sections somewhat superfluous. Manuel Castells and Philip Mirowski in particular would have done wonders towards fleshing out his attempt to capture the networked economy. Delanda, Latour and Deleuze all would have helped him as well.
The one flip to the back that actually yielded results is perhaps the most telling. Robert Nelson's Economics as Religion is in many ways the perfect inversion of this book. Taylor is a theologian attempting to cast economics as religion. Nelson is an economist attempting to do the same. Taylor runs rampant yet deftly across the intellectual spectrum while Nelson delves deeply if not always with nuance. Despite the fact that Nelson is making essentially the same argument as him, Taylor shoves his one reference to him into a footnote. While Taylor is probably correct about Nelson's "unsophisticated understanding of religion", one wonders if Taylor ever considered he might be making similar mistakes in his foray into economics.
Taylor throws one more jab at Nelson when he states that "he does not even seem to have heard of postmodernism". By the end of Confidence Games though one might wish that it was Taylor who never head of postmoderism. Taylor is one of the rare authors to actually use the close to meaningless term as something other then an easy way to dismiss 30 years of theory they haven't actually read. Instead he uses his limited embrace of "postmodernism" to hide the fact that he's hasn't actually read any theory from the past 20 years.
What he has read is Venturi, Baudrilliard and Derrida, and what its left him with is a vision of a world completely constructed of signs. His solution to this absurd vision is a retreat to Hegel (someone page Zizek!). I suspect this is far better detailed in some of his other books, but Taylor's solution is a Hegelian dialectic with the synthesis aspect stripped out. Instead multiple "dialectics" phase in and out of prominence without disappearing, which to me sounds a lot like a Hegelian dialectic with the dialectic stripped out, leaving only a surface reference to Hegel. This might pass muster in Taylor's sign world but to me sounds pretty meaningless..
Thankfully Taylor keeps this personal philosophy to a minimum, and fills the book up with loads of his enjoyable prose. He's at his strongest unsurprisingly when he can pull his religious studies background into play and when telling someone else's story, from Luther and Calvin's relationship to business through the religious roots of Adam Smith and into world of daytraders and derivatives, Taylor narrates it well and drops in an occasional insight. Take it out of an academic context and place it into the world of popular non fiction and it stands up quite nicely.
January 13, 2005
The Slice Game: On DeMarco's Pizza
Pizza by the slice is the crack cocaine of the food world, cheap, overrated but mad addictive. In its home element, New York City, the cheap is less about the money then about the time, get it fast eat it fast, forget about it, back to work. I was born in raised in money making Manhattan, but I never quite could rep my borough's slices with the gusto. Sure you can grab a decent one at Joe's(Bleeker & 6th), Nino's(St, Marks & A) or Sal and Carmine's (102 & Bway), but out in outer Bs they have a bit more time and time makes a better pizza.
Deep out in Midwood is where the true slice addicts journey, to Di Faro's home of the legendary pizza dealer/maker they call Dom. The junkies swear he cuts the best slice around. Me I've only made the trip once, good shit, but I didn't get hooked. I'd rather get the real quality, by the pie, brick oven style. If I'm going way into Brooklyn for pizza I'll do Tontonno's, but usually its Lombardi's or Grimaldi's or the childhood local, the V&T.
But just as the crack game changed, so to does the slice game. Dom's staying tight in Midwood, but his family is expanding. DeMarco's is their maneuver and it puts them in the heart of it all, Houston and MacDougal, the West Village.
The kinks are still getting worked out, ovens take time to break in and master, but things are looking good. Too good really given how dangerously close they are to my school..
Visit one was a hit or miss. I got the slice, good, but somehow off to. You could feel the quality, but no magic. I wasn't impressed yet somehow as they pulled a square pie out I found myself ordering a slice of that too.
Visit two stepped it up. The pepperoni on the take out pie getting boxed looked supreme but I stayed with the plain slice. Good again, still no magic. And once again as I finished, I craved another. Remember some comment I noticed somewhere about Dom's three (or four really) cheese combo needing to cool to really taste right I ordered an as is slice, no reheating. There was the magic, a slice coming together, damn.
Visit three, time to see if they are a one hit wonder, or the real deal. Once again I grabbed an as is slice and this time walked out the door with it. The best environment for a slice is walking down a busy street anyways. The destination was Joe's reigning king of NY slices. Their famous corner location just got slain, victim of the NY real estate game, but the shop a few doors over cooks the same pizza. No matter, they can't hold fire to DeMarco's, first round knockout, no contest. A good slice sure, but I ate it quick and forgot it. My bike was still locked up outside DeMarco's. Bad positioning, I walked past the door and got sucked right in for the good shit, fast, cheap, addictive..
January 08, 2005
Single, Song, Mix, Welcome to the Curatorial Era
2004 was another step in the long slow death of the album, a process that started with the invention of the CD. It wasn't an awful year for music, yet there wasn't a single classic album produced. But how many musicians can make 70 minutes of flawless music? It happens yes, but radically less frequently then classic 40 minute LPs got dropped. Its not pure math either, it might just be that the break, the physical and psychological space created by flipping the vinyl, is as important as the problem of filling 70 whole minutes. There are still occasional albums better enjoyed as a unit then a collection of songs, but iTunes sure helps to edit them, doesn't it?
If the album is close to dead, its perhaps time to redefine those units we address our music. The old single versus album dichotomy has actually been dying even longer, at least since the advent of AOR (Album Orient Rock) radio. Album tracks have been slipping into the singles category for quite a while, but now in the P2P-iTunes-mix cd-mash up era the song now reigns supreme and I think we need a bit more distinction.
The single is far from dead but it's not exactly tied to a discreet physical or economic unit. Perhaps instead it's best looked at as something still economic, but far broader, as a song with a promotional machine behind it. Or more often more then one promotional machines. Record label promo departments, PR agencies, radio payola, DJ pressure, mixtape exclusives, advertising exposure. The promotional machine can occasionally rise organically, as a multiplicity, through pure demand and repeated pumping from car stereos (the real American pirate radio). Generally however a song becomes a single via the strategic and skillful use of capital, the skill set that keeps record labels afloat in the peer to peer waters of the 21st.
A proper single soon becomes broadcast across enough networks, airwaves and channels that it enters the mass unconscious. It exists not as discreet occurrence, but as a rhythm, and repetition, a virus even, a sonic that can only be avoid through active effort. It exists in a completely different social space from the average song. A song stays discreet, it generally takes action on the listener's part to here the average song. They need to hunt it on Soulseek or buy it off iTunes, then manually insert it into their sonic rotational medium of choice. The song is more or less a deliberate consumption, although there is a complex micropolitics and microeconomy of songs in which they can take on certain elements of a single within localized contexts. For instance a song played everyday in your local coffee shop or in on endless repeat by your next door neighbor is as potentially infectious or noxious as the latest Ashlee Simpson single. For the purposes of the single versus song distinction then its important to note that a single must achieve a degree of broadcast over a relatively broad space with a decent amount of speed. In other words it needs to propagate over networks.
The rise of the song though does not mean that long form music is necessarily dead. Rather it can no longer be defined by the constraints of the physical media that holds it. One format that has been lurking in the underground for decades, the live concert recording, is a good example. Here clearly the defining form is the performer and the time of the recording. Far more interesting to me though is the DJ mix. Just as DJ's kept the vinyl record vital far longer then might have been expected, it looks as if they might keep the CD vital far beyond its initial uses as well. And while musicians can rarely fill the 70 minutes of a CD without large dose of filler, DJs can bless those 70 minutes with relative ease.
For a year or two in the late 90's DJ's made serious claims to being musicians. And there are a few "turntablists" worthy of that name. But increasingly DJs are looking more like curators and becoming all that more important in the process. The curator essentially engages in an act of filtration as well as an act of recombination. While the recombination must be done well, its the filtration that is truly valuable in an age of rapidly increasing information. A good DJ, or mix creator of any name is a star if they can give you the great shit without making you work for it. Maybe they dig in the crates, maybe they hustle artists for exclusives. Maybe they listen to everything, maybe they just know how to get the hot artist in the studio and let them freestyle. Maybe they lay old beats under new vocals, maybe they just know the sequence that makes it all sound better. Regardless in the past couple years the mix and the mixtape have become essential. A DJ Kast One dancehall mix every few months keeps me as up to date as I want to be. A reggaeton mix, a little OPP (other people's playlists), a frantic cut up of the history of cut ups, an occasional dose of the woozy slowed down Houston freestyle rap. I probably invested less energy into finding new music this year then I have in a decade, and I probably heard more then I ever have. This the curatorial era and I think I'm ready.
Best of 2004
Why? - Jadakiss
Gasolina - Daddy Yankee
Fuck It (I Don't Want You Back) - Eamon
Freek-A-Leak - Petey Pablo
Girl Act Right - Eamon
Yeah - Usher with Lil Jon
Slow Motion - Juvenile & Soulja Slim
Turn Me On - Kevin Lyttle
I Don't Want to Know - Mario Winans
Lean Back - Terror Squad (original & Lil Jon remix)
Game Over - Lil Flip
Drop it Like It's Hot - Snoop
Holla - Ghostface
Numb Numb - Juvenile
No, No, No - Ghostface
Beatles - Ghostface
Ambulance - TV on the Radio
The Wrong Way - TV on the Radio
Staring at the Sun - TV on the Radio
Young Liars Live (on some SxSW promo crap cd) - TV on the Radio
Anything and everything from Swisha House and the Boss Hogg Outlawz
Jadakiss & Green Lantern - The Champ is Here
Reggae Bashment 4-6 - DJ Kast One (best dancehall mixtape DJ readily available on the NY streets since Road Warrior)
Reggaeton Vol 2 - Rondon (best one I have, don't know enough to know how it really stands in the Reggaeton hierarchy)
Raiding the 20th Century - Strictly Kev
Nas - Street's Disciple
- Louden Up Now
Black Dice - Creature Comforts
MOP @ some industry party
Ghostface @ Roseland
on a boat
Lightening Bolt @ in a junkyard
The Fall @ in a loft in Bushwick
Musically I pretty much opted out of the new for the back third of 2004, listening to nothing but Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan. Turns out I slept on at least one nasty joint in Nas' Street's Disciple. Not too surprising actually given that Cooke meets Dylan is probably one of the better ways to invoke Nas without involving the god Rakim..
It took Greg Tate's all too rare piece of hip hop writing to wake me up to the now, perhaps Nas' best since his untoppable debut with Illmatic. Of course if you ignore the god awful Nastradamus ever album Nas has dropped has arguably been his best since Illmatic. And like practically every album since Illmatic Street's Disciple is way to long. But as a double album in the iTunes era, that leaves a slamming hour of music in our hands.
Tate rightfully focuses on Nas the sex, love, marriage man. But the second potent story of the album is the emergence of Salaam Remi as Nas' music man. Unlike his main rival Jay-Z, who actively sought out the best beat makers then brought the best out of them, Nas somehow seems to uninspire greatest beakmakers in hip hop. The top producers seek him out and somehow leave him with beats that max out as unmemorable. But in Remi, who produced some the best tracks ("Get Down", "Made You Look", "Hey Nas") on 2002's God's Son, Nas' might have finally someone who can keep the beats hard and raw enough to move on their own, but discreet enough to let Nas' ghetto intellectual flow shine through on the regular.
In many ways "Made You Look" was the prototype of a new Nas, or perhaps more of a return to the Nas who "went to hell for snuffing Jesus" on his debut on "Live at the Barbeque". Remi strips the down the beats, drums hitting hard in the forefront, minimal instrumentation, loads of space. The space is for Nas to explore, space to fill with the complex flow. But the drums stay hard and loud with a gravity that must call him back to the summer jams in the park. If only the rest of hip hop would follow..
January 05, 2005
TrueMajority want's to run an ad with this theme in the New York Times, click to contribute to the cause, yes?
It's interesting to see the anti-Gonzales momentum pick up, particularly with the torture memo revelations. Honestly I was once ready to let him slide in, he's uncommitted on enough issues to make him seem like a Trojan Horse moderate, at least by Bushco standards. It seemed like energy might be best spent elsewhere, but I've been very nicely surprised at the way the attack on him has been emerging. Kerik was something of a warm up, hors d'oeuvres before the guests sit down, perhaps Gonzales can be the first real appetizer to Supreme Court battles to come.