May 27, 2005
Visceral Aesthetics (fixed gear)
I've been riding fixed gear bicycles for a while now. Not long enough to be old school, but long enough to be asked why I do it far too many times. And I rarely have a satisfactory answer. The simplest way is to call it "zen", which explains the stripped down elegance of the fixed gear and then fills in the rest with a vague mysticism. Its a cop out answer, a non explanation, does the job but leaves me empty. I'd like to be able to explain it to myself you see.
Over the past couple years my main answer was something along the lines of "its an aesthetic", which is completely the wrong thing to say. Their is an aesthetic component to fixed gear, they are gorgeous machines. Stripped of the gears, the cables and extra brakes, a fixed gear bike looks far more graceful then your standard ride. You can't coast on a fixed, a trained eye can tell when someone is riding one by the way they pedal, the even pacing that takes years of practice to master on a standard bike emerges by design on a fixed. There are probably people who ride fixed gears because of the way they look. There are definitely those who ride without front brakes because they like they way it looks, some of them can actually do it safely. But thatís another matter.
What I finally came to realize is that fixed gears are an aesthetic, there is a reason I always used the word, but its not the traditional visual aesthetic that is operative. What explains fixed gear is a visceral aesthetic. Its an utterly distinct feeling to ride a fixed gear, either you like it or you don't, and usually you can tell within five minutes of riding whether fixed is for you or not. Feeling is another misleading word though, its not feeling as in tactile, touch, its feeling more in an internal sense, kinesthesia or proprioception are the technical terms that approach the right meaning. But these terms are not quite there yet, although they too need an aesthetic understanding. Kinesthesia referrers to the sense of the body in relation to itself, its key to feeling of peddling ones feet, but it doesn't explain the sense of motion through space.
The visceral aesthetics of fixed gear riding are a cyborg aesthetic. A rider is directly connected to the pedals (usually clipped in), the pedals are directly connected to the wheel via a chain, cog and other mechanics, and this in turn is connected to the ground producing motion through space. All this is roughly the same on a fixed gear or a standard bike with a freewheel (the mechanical device that allows coasting). What is radically different on a fixed gear, where the true cybernetics comes in, is that on a fixed gear this relation is symmetrical. The ground is connected back to the wheel, and then in a major shift, the wheel is then connected back to the pedals.
When you ride fixed you feel the ground directly, and more importantly you feel the energy of the wheel spinning fast over that ground. The operative fact is not that you can not coast, its possible to ride a freewheeled bike without coasting, but why you can not coast. Try and stop pedaling and your legs are thrust forward. The wheel/ground machine strikes back and pushes you forward, and pushes you hard. When I first rode a fixed I compared it a motorcycle, the amount of energy that moving 200 pounds of human, bike and gear at 20 miles an hour takes is immense, and you never experience it on a freewheeled bike unless you crash. Then again you rarely experience it on the fixed gear either, the motorcycle feeling is a difficult memory for me to recall, its so different from the visceral aesthetic of riding now that I know how to do it properly.
A fixed gear rider does not feel anything like full energy of the wheel spinning over the ground because they don't ride against the ground-wheel machine, they ride in sync with it. Only when braking hard does anything remotely like the full energy become apparent. Generally the rider rides with the forces, they spin their legs at right about the speed that the wheel turns the pedal. They'll go a touch faster to accelerate, a touch slower to slow down, but a the heart of it is one linked machine, legs, pedal, wheel, ground, working in both directions, locked together as one system. The person does not feel the full force of the machine, because the person is part of the machine.
Standard freewheel bicycles divorce the rider from the forces in quite a different manner. The freewheel breaks the symmetry between the pedal and wheel. The wheel can go forward while the pedal stays in place or even goes backwards. The rider and machine are striated into two parts. The rider is no longer part of the machine, but instead controls the machine. An asymmetrical relationship where the human becomes dominant. Or rather moves towards dominance, the machine is still capable of striking back, tires losing traction, going flat, wheels going out of true, veering unexpectedly. And of course the act of remaining in balance (and with it much steering) is very much a symmetrical one, the bike and human in total synthesis.
Compared with say a car, the bicycle of any sort is radically more cybernetic, and this only goes to show how radical the visceral aesthetic of the fixed gear is. A complete synchronization with the machine, in an age where automobiles are built like armored wombs, designed to disconnect from all elements of the machine. The visceral aesthetic of the SUV is comfortable control, of feeling above everyone, stronger yet plusher, sounds cut off, the engine little more then a purr, the feel of the road forgotten, the air well conditioned. The machine is not a partner, there certainly is no cybernetic cohesion and merge, instead the machine becomes a slave.
Me you'll find me part of a machine, feet-pedal-wheel-ground, moving as one, it's beautiful outside today.
May 22, 2005
TV Makes You?
I'm never believed that television makes you dumb, and I suppose that means I'm outside of the target audience for Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. And indeed, this is actually not a reaction to the book, but a reaction to his talk , his NYT Magazine article and the various other media floating around the book launch. If you want the hollywood version of this reaction, lets just say seeing Johnson talk did not make me want to buy the book...
I've never bought the television makes you dumb argument, because I've never seen any evidence about, just knee jerk reactions. Johnson to his credit never falls into this trap, he's got a load of charts and figures to push his point. And indeed he's got a load of evidence that television plots are far more complex then they where 20 or 30 years ago. But does all this make us smarter? Shit, we are back to that same no evidence situation that the tv=dumb have, aren't we. What Johnson has is not evidence that we are smarter, but evidence that people are better at watching TV then they used to be.
So we can watch more complicated TV shows, big fucking deal. It's not that surprising given that most people in America have grown up with TV, the screens are bigger, the audio better, there are no more rabbit years to adjust, the reception is almost always flawless, the competition higher, etc, etc. If we weren't watching more complex TV shows something would be wrong. But is there any proven cause and effect between complex TV show viewing and intelligence? Well that's a bit too much to prove in a polemic isn't it?
Ultimately metricizing intelligence is an unsolved and perhaps unsolvable task. Johnson seems to make an assumption that very specific instances of increased complexity translate into a broader intelligence, which strikes me as a wrong approach. And if my memory of the talk is right he also makes claims that the sort of thinking watching complex tv requires is the same as what makes us do well on certain tests. Which doesn't solve much, the ability of test scores to measure anything but an ability to do well on a particular type of test is a wide open question.
Stripped of the "smarter/dumber" argument I think Johnson touches on something very interesting, the vector of transformation in television. But ironically much like the cultural critics who the book is written in opposition to, there is a huge disconnect in between the analysis of what happens on TV and what happens to people. Without causality, all we have is vacant speculation...
May 20, 2005
Been meening to return to the issue of Google and write something proper up. But before we drop the written, consider this something of the freestyle, emerged off the dome in an email exchange with T van Veen and Wayne Marshall on the subject of this particular propaganda.
1- There is nothing democratic about google, yes they provide information freely, but they take in radically more info then they give out. For instance each time you search they get more info, about what people are searching for, about what you (as a cookie) like to search for, which link results you click, which ads, etc. In exchange for all this data they give you back stuff they already know. All the relational stuff they keep for themselves and maybe their big advertisers. Its a completely asynchronous relationship. Google is a black box, you can only get out of it what they let out, they don't even provide a public way to get in touch with any human at the company..
2- There are only 3 search engines of note, Google, Yahoo, and MSN, all the other big ones use services from one of the three. The necessary capital to create new one is extraordinary over a year ago the NYT claimed Google had 100,000 servers running...
3- If you don't show up in a web search you barely exist online. People have an extremely limited capacity to remember addresses, bookmarks, links on their friends pages, memory. Everything else they go to google, which essentially defines the global web. Everyone has a small local web, cool. But if you are trying to communicate to a broader audience you need to leave your local web, and without the search engines you are pretty much fucked, they can sensor your info. Not completely, but enough marginalize you. Similarly the way they rank sites can radically alter traffic patterns, they claim the ranking is purely an algorithm, but its always shifting and could easily be politicized.
4- Google is a private company. Technically they are publicly traded, but the stock is structured so that only the holders of preferred shares have any say over the companies actions. Shareholder activism is a bit of a joke ala Nader, but its sure beats nothing, and occasionally is even effective. Google is structured to make this impossible, so is the NYT for that matter, but very few companies are. There is zero public accountability in Google's world. They say 'don't be evil' and we have to trust them. So far they seem pretty cool, they run porn ads but not gun ads for instance. But they've also rolled over every time a large entity sues them, ie the Scientologists and the French government. What happens when the NSA knocks on their door? Come to think of it, have they ever denied sharing info with the NSA, FBI, Homeland Security, etc...
5- Until Orkut and Gmail Google never knew your name. Not anymore.. The original Gmail terms of service even gave them the right to archive emails that you delete from you Gmail account. The only thing preventing them from reading these emails is that TOS agreement that splashed across your screen as a digital file a while back..
6- The issue isn't really what Google has done, but what they have the potential of doing.
May 14, 2005
My piece on political art-technology is up in the latest issue of XLR8R (#87), it was conceived and pitched (curated perhaps?) by me, but written along with the excellent Daniel Perlin and Ben Godsill, please enjoy. Unfortunately its not online, but grab the mag anyways its a good issue, reggaeton and baile funk in the mix.