May 09, 2009
ETF FAIL: Understanding Time/Volatility Decay in Short and Leveraged ETFS
There is a crack epidemic on the stock market. It trades by a variety of street names, FAZ, FAS, SRS, TZA & QID being just a few. Like crack cocaine these vehicles promise fast and stunning highs, one small hit can take you to the top. Occasionally they even succeed, but like crack cocaine these vehicles are doomed to collapse, each successive hit providing ever diminishing returns, lower lows that an addict believes they can only escape from via another hit.
Unlike crack there is nothing illegal about these things, they are short and/or leveraged ETFs. Exchange Traded Funds designed to replicate the effects of shorting various industries and trading with high amounts of leverage like the big boys do. ETFs are a very new concept to finance, they are basically mutual fund like entities that trade on the stock market, making them more liquid and more accessible to investors than mutual funds. They've been around for about two decades, but it's only in the last few years that they have really taken off in big numbers, with "innovative" short (aka bear) and 2x or 3x leveraged ETFs popping up left and right. Take a look at a chart for FAZ, the 3x Short Financial Industry ETF and look at the volume indicator on the bottom to get a sense how interesting in these things has exploded.
In 2008 leveraged bear etfs like FAZ were tickets to riches, as the stock market crashed they erupted in value, possibly making a few clever operators insanely rich. But that initial success quickly turned nasty. These ETFs are all flawed to the core, they are designed in a way that they decay over time, their values fluctuate up in down, but the overall tend is mathematically almost guaranteed to be down. The easiest way to see this flaw is the look at chart of a leveraged Bull and Bear pair over time. FAZ is a 3x Bear, it is designed to go up when financial industry stocks go down, and to return 3 times more than the value that those stocks go down. FAS is the 3x Bull counterpart, it is designed to go up when the financials go up, and to go up 3 times faster on a daily basis.
One would logically expect these two ETFs to cancel each other out, one goes up 3x when the other goes down 3x, so over time the net result should be zero. Yet if one looks at chart of these two mapped out over the past 6 months a very different picture is drawn. FAZ is down 94%, and FAS somehow is down too, by an almost as nasty 75%. Both are decaying rapidly taking their holders down to the bottom all because of a nasty mathematical quirk (or less generously flaw) in their design.
What's happening is volatility decay, these ETFs all lose value when the stock indexes they track are fluctuating up and down. The key to understanding why is a very basic mathematical fact relating to the way these ETFs are designed to reflect the daily percent changes of the parts of the stock market. The problem is that percents going up and percents going down don't always sync up, but instead have a distinct downward trend. This is easiest to see by looking at a 3x leveraged ETF. Lets call this ETF BSBS, and assume it's positively tracking the Bull Shit Index. When it starts both the index and BSBS are valued at 100. The next day the index goes up by 25% to 125. Now BSBS is designed to return 3 times that percentage or 75% so it goes up to 175. For a day at least it's a great investment vehicle. Now suppose the next day the index falls back down to earth, a 20% decline back down to 100. Well BSBS is now designed to go down 3x that or 60%. Now 60% of 175 is 105, a monstrous decline. The BSBS ETF is now all the way down to 70, while the index is still hanging in at 100. That's it in an essence, these things rise fast, but they fall even faster. It's that simple and that toxic.
The exact same thing is even truer with Bear ETFs. A non leveraged Bull ETF will actually have no volatility decay (although there are other smaller decays in their design). But the corresponding non leveraged Bear ETF will have a decay. Say you have a Bear ETP called UUPP designed to track the Bull Shit Index. Like BSBS it starts with both UUPP and the index at 100. Now say that the index goes down 25% to 75. Well that's why you bought UUPP, cause you wanted to sell that Bull Shit Index short and for a day you were right, UUPP goes up 25% to 125. Now the next day, the index doesn't behave and goes back up to 100, a 33.3% rise from 75. Well the index is back where you started, but was does UUPP do? It does down 33.3% from 125 to... 83.75. Yep, once again the ETF structure is screwing you. There is only one way in the end with these drugs and it's down.
Now one has to assume the ETF makers are well aware of these properties, yet they still sell the ETFs. Of course to protect themselves they warn the buyers, these ETFs are marketed as daytrader vehicles, things that should be bought and sold over the very short term, a few hours at a time maybe, if not a few minutes and a day or two maximum. Its a fair enough warning and not bad advice, but it's also a misleading warning. The reason is that there are circumstances where these ETFs are actually perform well over longer periods of time, and in 2008 we experienced some of these circumstances. Buying say QID (2x Short the Nasdaq index) in early 2008 and holding on to it for the year would have netted you a very healthy return.
When the stock market is trending very strongly in one direction, with very little volatility, just day in and day out moving the same way, than a leveraged ETF in that direction is going to produce stunning results. But stock markets rarely move smoothly, they stop, start, reverse, correct, roll sideways and then jump. They usually have some direction, but it's rarely and clear path, and it's the volatility that cracks you.
There is at least one more misleading thing about how these ETFs are framed as well, the way the term leverage is used. There are situations where an 3x "leveraged" ETF produces returns a similar result to being 3x leveraged (ie borrowing money to buy three times the amount of a stock than you have the cash for.) There are also situations where the results are quite different. Again it's the result of a basic mathematical effect/flaw in the ETF construction. Basically these ETF return numbers like classic leveraged situations when moving away from your baseline investment. However as soon as there is any reversion back towards that baseline the numbers begin to skew.
Say you have $100 that you want to use to buy XXX. But you want to make more money so you go borrow $200 more so you can buy $300 worth. That's classic leverage. If the next day XXX jumps up 25% to $125, well you now have $375 worth of stock and $200 in debt. Net result is being up $75 on a $100 investment, so you've made 3 times the 25% increase in the stock.
You could also buy XETF though an 3x ETF that tracks XXX. $100 worth, on day one would also go up 3x the 25% increase, so far so good, you've made triple profits without even borrowing money. Sounds a little too good to be true, no? It is. Cause say the next day XXX goes back to 100, a 20% decline. In the classic leveraged situation you go from holding $375 to holding $300. Minus your debt you are even (ignoring interest for simplicity.) Not great, but not bad either. But with the "leveraged" ETF, as we've seen before, that same 20% decline in XXX is going to have a different result. It will produce a 3x the percentage decline, so 60%. Now 60% of 175 is 105, so this ETF is decaying down to 70. Instead of being flat on your initial $100, like you would in a classic leveraged situation you are down 30. Just like a crackhead you just can't back to those initial highs like that can you?
October 24, 2007
Photoshop by Committee
It's easy to just say design by committee. The story behind the new New York City Taxi graphics reads like a text book case. A firm makes a design. The client gives feedback. A new look comes in. Another firm comes late in the game with a new design element. A powerful department rejects a design for intruding on it's turf. The result is a sloppy hodgepodge of elements. Designers are rather predictably lining up to critique it.
Personally I rather like it. NYC Taxis have always had a sloppy mix of design elements on their side. Anything cleaner and neater, anything better designed, would threaten the only design element that matters. The bright yellow color screams "New York Taxi" louder than anything millions of design and innovation consulting fees could ever generate. As long as the cabs stay yellow, those taxis will look the same. What will never look the same again is NYC.
The new taxis provided a bit of political cover for an even bigger design project. New York City has a new logo. The suddenly infamous Wolff Olins designed it. and the new NYC taxis are the first place most New Yorkers have been exposed to it. Those taxis are design by committee, but that logo is something different. You can call it Photoshop by committee. Get used to it cause you'll be seeing a whole lot more of it.
What happens when you have a committee where every single member has a copy of Photoshop on their computer? Or worse yet every member has a designer on staff? Design by committee once broke down to a bunch of opinions and needs, all sorted out by one or two designers. The committee stacked up its requirements, its problems and its bullshit, and the designer cooked it all up into some bland result. A designer in that situation today would feel blessed.
What happens in Photoshop by committee is far worse. The needs and the problems and the bullshit are still there of course. But then comes the designs. Not just from the designer, but from the committee members. From their staff designers. From their assistants. From their teenagers and toddlers. From their neighbors, coffee shop baristas and dogs. Committees were once additive, the members just piled on the guidelines and suggestions and the designer boiled them down into a result. Now committees are recombinant. They warp, splinter and evolve into competing designs. The designer is barely the designer at all. They are the person who must make these mutations all work together.
Design by committee is about making rules. Photoshop by committee is about breaking rules. It's often the only way the designer can get the multiplying designs to recombine. Wolff Olins' professional salespeople call this "container logos" and it seems to be winning them some super premium clients. Most of us would just call it bullshit, but we aren't the ones with the super premium clients.
In the case of New York City what this amounts to is a big old smudge of the letters NYC. Not surprisingly it looks a lot like design from the early days of Photoshop. A design from an era where designers had no idea how to use the powertools in their hands. It's ugly and clunky and has nothing to do with NYC beyond using the letters. I love it. It follows none of the rules of design that stifle the profession. It's loud and bold and will show up in all sorts of places. Like the full NYC taxi design it graces, it will never step out of the shadows of a far bolder design, Milton Glaser's classic I (heart) NY logo. Is it great graphic design? Not at all. But it is great Photoshop by committee and it will work just fine.
March 11, 2007
Freebase is exactly the sort of thing that you only take seriously once you know Danny Hillis is behind it. Hillis is a bit of an underground hero in a world where many of his nerd peers skyrocket to fame in the business press, if not in popular culture as a whole. A nerd's nerd, his best known company went belly up in the 80's, his current one flies well under the radar and the NYT article linked above introduces him by mentioning his time as a Disney Imagineer, although it's never been clear he did anything notable there. But that first company was years ahead of it's time, his slim book Pattern on the Stone is easily the definitive text on how computers actually work and his Long Now Foundation one of the more audacious and mindboggling non-profits around (and one in which I'm technically a "charter member".) So yeah, when Danny Hillis launches a venture, you know the nerds at least are listening.
Freebase is the latest in a long series of essentially failed attempts to transform information into meaning. Or more specifically to transform computer readable information into computer readable meaning. Many have walked that path before, and in the end there is only one real success story, but that success story was Google with their Page Rank algorithm that made them a success. And like Google, Hillis is starting this venture with the best of intentions, and like Google Hillis is already starting say things that should make you very afraid.
The rhetoric of Freebase is all about freedom, openness and sharing. Everything about it says this is for you, this is for free this for the good of the world. Yet with a simple turn of a phrase or perhaps a slip of the tongue, Hillis lets on that he doesn't just want to share a lot of information, he wants it all. “We’re trying to create the world’s database, with all of the world’s information,” are his words and they probably sound familiar to anyone who has read a bit about Google over the past couple years. Despite loudly saying "don't be evil" Google is known to talk about the goal of "organizing all the world's information."* A phrase perhaps better suited for a cartoon supervillian than a large corporation.
The all might sound innocuous enough at first, until you place it into the context of Google's own actions. Perhaps you have a Gmail account, or at least send emails to someone who does. All the worlds info includes everything on those emails, do you want Google organizing all that information? The Gmail terms of service originally indicated that emails you delete might not actually be deleted off their servers, does that make "all the world's information" sound a little different then before? Some information is meant to disappear, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Google it seems is not willing to make that distinction, although ironically they more than any other entity have the power to make things disappear. Instead of a situation were information is either available or not, we are creeping towards a world where information is either available through the front of Google, or it's only available the back, to those who can move through the backdoors of their databases.
Now I'm a huge fan of Hillis' work, and on a certain level Freebase is designed precisely to mitigate some of Google's emerging database monopoly, yet it's pushing forward with the exact same hubris that has made Google's "don't be evil" mantra such a sick joke upon the world. The rhetoric of freedom and openness may sound as universal as "all the worlds information", but it speaks to humans, while the information gathering is done by Turing machines. Hillis and the Freebase team are probably genuine in their interest in doing something for the world, but in the end they can only represent the interests of those that share their tech forward beliefs. Nestled safely in Silicon Valley it's probably easy to think the whole world shares those sentiments, but nothing could be further from the truth. The result it seems is a strange incubator where the supernerds slowly morph into supervillians, bent upon conquering the world (of information.)
*Google seems to have backed off this as public stance of late, but it still pops up on their site in places like their corporate philosophy page.
February 19, 2007
Symbolic Action (In Defense of the New Radiation "Symbol")
Well next time you see that sign a coming you better run. It's a new supplemental symbol for radiation danger, commissioned by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and designed to convey danger in a more intuitive way then the traditional radiation "trefoil". Now the interaction designers over at Adaptive Path are absolutely turding all over the results (and Michael Beriut just sighs), and in many ways they are right, it clearly is the result of design by committee and there is nothing elegant nor simple about symbol they generated.
Then again, there is nothing simple nor elegant about dying from radiation poisoning is there? And to ask the IAEA and ISO to do anything but design by committee is akin to something in between asking for a complete redesign of international relations and the impossible. To accuse them of design by committee is a completely valid statement of fact, but it's also a rather impotent critique. To ask them not to design by committee may be fantasy, but we can very reasonably ask and expect them to design by committee the right way (or at least in one of the right ways) and with the new radiation symbol that appears to be be exactly what we got.
Now I have a lot of respect for Adaptive Path and I'm sure with the appropriate time and resources they could produce a symbol at least as good and most likely better than what has been created. In that process one of the first things they'd probably learn is something that is clearly not evident their current critique, that it is radically more difficult to create symbols that invoke action then it is to create symbols that describe objects.* At least at this juncture in time signage symbols are inherently static, solid and rigid. To transform a static, solid or rigid object into a symbol, is a relatively straight forward act of abstracting the objects characteristics into lines shapes and colors. Some objects are easier to work with than others, but all at least possess tangible starting points to abstract from. Verbs however are by there very nature intangible, and more difficult to capture in abstraction. When the goal is not just to encapsulate the verb, but actually trigger it, to create sign that does not just represent but actually creates an action then the challenge is exponentially harder, and that is exactly the challenge the IAEA and ISO were faced with, creating a sign that does not just warn people, but actually causes them to turn and run for their fucking lives. Not exactly the easiest task.
There is one sign that is radically more effective at creating action than any other, and that is the stop sign. Part of it's effectiveness is it's ubiquity, it many cultures you can find the stop sign just about everywhere, so it's easy for the meaning to get ingrained. The red color helps as well, but ultimately the stop sign is successful because all symbols are stop signs. Often it's more of a mental stop then the physical stop, but one can not process a symbol unless one pauses for microsecond and then reads it. When one reads the stop sign one has already begone the process of stopping, all the sign does is say continue on through with the stopping process. No matter how fast one might be traveling as soon as one actually sees the stop sign there is at least a little bit of inertia going into the act of stopping.
What this means in terms of making signs like the radiation symbol designed to induce action, is that task is even more difficult. Conveying an action in static is hard enough, and getting people to follow through and actually do the action it is exponentially harder, but on top of that the very fact that the message is embedded a symbol is invoking the exact opposite effect, causing the reader to pause and stop for at least a second before hopefully doing a 180° turn and running away. And it's this challenge that the committees of the IAEA and ISO were faced with as they went about designing their new symbol.
The result is indeed neither very elegant nor simple, but it is in fact I think rather effective and quite interesting.** Rather then produce a symbol as they claimed to have done, they actually produced something rather different, a small comic, five symbols sequenced to invoke an action. It's actually a rather innovative solution, something which contrary to the Adaptive Path post, you actually would not really expect to emerge from a committee in action. For if the goal is to create an action, a static symbol is not the right way to do it. But by creating a microcomic, a sequence of symbols, what emerges is not just a static sign, but a sign filled with action, filled with invisible gaps between the actual symbols, gaps that the mind fills in with actions. Gaps that turn the static noun of a flat still piece of signage into an active verb, a true call to action. It might not be the best looking sign but it pretty clearly warns far better than then old abstraction of the "trefoil." So there you have it, read the signage on the wall and get the fuck out of here ; )
- This lack of distinction is clearly apparent in the hypothetical symbol for taxi that is used as a rhetorical device in the Adaptive Path blog post. A taxi is of course an object, a noun, while running from radiation is an action, a verb, yet in the post they imagine that the taxi symbol would be created in a similar manner as the run from radiation symbol.
** It is however certainly not perfect, I'm a bit concerned with how people accustomed to reading right to left would interpret the bottom, it could well mean "if you run you die". However the symbol was apparently tested in China, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, so at least due diligence seems to have been done in that regard.
January 03, 2007
A Question for 2007: When is inequality a good thing?
The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, the tool that would let anyone become a publisher, a news source, a movie director or the creator of even new medias. Shockingly enough in large part it succeeded and the predictions came true. Anyone on the right side of certain economics and techno-literate thresholds can indeed go online and distribute their works for little or no cost. We live in a world of publishers now and it's great in many ways, for one it enables this blog to exist. Yet something also went horribly awry in the process. We got everything the internet promised, everything except the equality.
In a world of millions of news sources we still focus our attention on a select few. There has been a bit of a reshuffling at the top for sure, new information powerhouses have stepped up and dominated, while some of the old media players have stumbled while others danced nimbly into newly global audiences. But information continues to follow a power law curve, which roughly means we focus 80% of our energies upon what emits from just 20% of the providers, and the top 1% command half of our total attention. Wealth too follows this distribution, with the super rich dominating absurd amounts of the world's cash flow, and the payouts to the top dogs at the likes of Google, MySpace and YouTube only reinforce this inequity.
Equality is a concept wrought with it's own inequities. We pay incredible lip service to it as a concept, but rarely implement it well in reality. There are only a few people willing to defend say the extreme difference in earnings between top Wall Street executives and the entire quarter of New York City's population that lives below the poverty level while also living in one of the world's most expensive cities. But there are few still who are actually willing to do something about it.
One of the ironies of inequality is that it's almost always looked at a bad thing, when in fact it often is exactly the opposite. Take your blood for example. You may have left small drops from cuts and scratches around your childhood haunts. You've probably given a few samples that now sit in testing labs or medical disposal sites. You might have donated a few pints that now sit in blood banks or circulate in some form through another persons body. But the vast majority of your blood stays within your body and you wouldn't want it any other way, would you? Your blood evenly distributed across the globe wouldn't do anyone much good, would it? That globe of course is an inequality in itself, stars, planets and atmospheres are ultimately the result of a radically unequal distribution of elementary particles.
Equality of course can also be stunningly boring. We wouldn't want all flowers to be equal in shape and coloring, nor do we enjoy it when every building looks the same. But none of that takes away from the fact that the inequalities of power, wealth and culture we tend to focus on have awful and far reaching consequences. Consequences we don't often actually address. There is a danger in shifting more attention towards the overlooked space of positive inequalities, a risk of de-emphasising the existing problems even further than they are now. But with that risk comes the potential to find solutions. Perhaps, but just perhaps, the fact that so little is actually done to address the radical inequalities in America and beyond stems from that discord between the idea of inequality being bad and prevalence of subtle examples of where it isn't. More than that though is the prospect that somewhere within the examples of positive inequality lies an answer, or at least a start of answer to how we can transform the negative inequalities around us into a better state of being.
So it's 2007 now, maybe ask yourself, when is inequality a good thing?
December 31, 2006
The Long Tale of 2006
2006 is racing to a close and you may well be aware that Time Magazine has named "you" person of the year. If you work for a financial firm on Wall Street, in the City of London or on whatever expensive piece of real estate you've landed you probably could have figured that out by looking at your record breaking bonus check. Of course if you worked in New York's financial industry you were already making over $8,000 a week before that bonus even kicked in.
Across the East River from Wall Street there are parts of Brooklyn where the average household income per year is less than that average wall streeter is making each week. If you lived in one of those household you might be a bit more surprised about being named person of the year, no? Of course this radical inequality in income distribution isn't exactly news to anyone, it's been around ages and statically mapped out by the Italian economist Vilfedo Pareto about a century ago. If you graph that distribution out what you get is something called a power law curve. In 2006 though the trendy terminology was "the long tail", a phrase for just one part of the power law curve, the part where those of us making less than $8,000 a week happen to reside.
The long tail is in large part a phrase created and popularized by Wired Magazine's Chris Anderson in a book and blog of the same name. While I doubt Anderson intended it as such, the long tail is one of the more misleading pieces of rhetoric around. What Anderson wants to focus on is the stuff that drives Time magazine's "you", the increasing world of user generated content, movies, sound files, Flash animations, blog posts and all the other amusing detritus of unknown quality filling out the internet. And there is no denying that this stuff is exploding, sometimes in quite interesting ways. But what makes the long tail so disingenuous is that what happens in the long tail has almost no ramifications on what happens in the head. The language of the long tail often takes on the rhetoric of democracy or even revolution, but the fact is that nothing about the influx of user generated content necessarily impacts the inequalities encoded into the power law curve. If anything the long tail presupposes inequality, and Anderson is in essence saying "pay no mind to the inequalities at the top of the internet, look at all the exciting stuff over here in the tail".
Of course it's become increasingly apparent that the internet is wrought by, if not outright characterized by inequality. Web traffic is even more concentrated to the largest web sites.* Of course a couple of those top 10 sites are actually places like YouTube and MySpace where large amounts of user generated content drives traffic and then deposits money in hands not of the creators, but instead in the coffers of the large corporate landlords. Nicholas Carr aptly compares this setup to sharecropping. One can see foreshadowing of this effect in Chris Anderson's writing, for all his hyping of the long tail he sees far more concerned with creating the structures and situations in which long tails can occur than he is concerned with what things might actually be like inside those long tails. The owners of the MySpaces and Flickrs and the producers of video editing softwares are getting rich by enabling an unprecedented amount of people to make and distribute their own 'content'. And way off at the edge of these systems are a few alpha users who also may be getting rich, or at least famous to their peers by making some of that content. They aren't in the long tail though, they are in privileged head. Those in the tail might have a little fun, but they get neither the audience nor financial rewards that demarcate success in this 21st century culture.
No matter how you spin the long tail, and without a doubt there are aspects of it that are interesting and perhaps even admirable, you can't detach the long tail from the power law curve that it is part of. And as long as we are talking about a power law curve, we are talking about radical inequality. Unfortunately that's something that's predated 2006 for quite some time and doesn't look to be leaving with the new year either...
- If you follow that link though, you might notice the story has a rather misleading headline "The Shrinking Long Tail - Top 10 Web Domains Increasing in Reach". That the top ten domains are increasing in reach is a fact, at least if the statistics in that article are correct, but that fact has no correlation the long tail shrinking or rising in any manner. It's perhaps easier to think about it in terms of income. When the rich get richer, does that mean there are less poor people or more? That's just not a question that can be answered without more information. The top websites are getting richer for sure, both in terms of money and in terms of attention paid to them, but there may well be millions of new tiny sites stretching the tail out further and further.
December 30, 2006
The cliche goes that the flapping of a butterfly wing in Asia just might be the movement of air of that triggers a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. The math of that cliche is relatively developed, but it's mainly a computer simulation situation, actually showing the effect of those flaps is a beyond our sensors...
Somewhere on the edge of academia circulates the idea that economics is defined as the "study of how human beings allocate scarce resources". It's a definition that doesn't show up in most dictionaries, but it has a stubborn persistence. Scarce resources are of course an important component to economics, but is it really all there is? Most definitions instead fall rather close to Webster's: "a social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services."
It's a curious distortion to make economics strictly a study of scarcity, and like the textbook chaos theory case it starts out as a rather minor disruption. Scarcity is after all essential to the generation of price and value, and economists hold those processes dear to their hearts. There is of course more to economics than just studying scarcity, but it's not exactly an alien concept. What's curious is what happens when non economists start latching onto the distortion, what's curious is when scarcity meets attention from three different directions.
Michael Goldhaber, Richard Lanham and Georg Franck, all more or less independently converged on a phrase, "the economics of attention" in the past decade or so. At the core of their thought (which varies widely in quality) is the observation that in a time where information is becoming, in Goldhaber's terms, "superabundant" what is scarce is attention. It's an interesting observation, one well worthy of economic exploration, but oddly enough Goldhaber, Lanham, and, from what I can tell without reading German, Franck as well all want to go much further. They pull back and wheel up with their distorted version of economics as being solely the study of scarce resources. It's a funny equation, an interesting observation plus a distorted definition equals a call for a whole new construction of economics.
The first irony is that if economics was really just to be about the distribution of scarce resources it wouldn't even be about money. For money is about as far from a scarce resource as there is. It can be printed out by any government and by a skilled counterfeiter too. Or it can be generated by any group or organization with enough clout. Airlines for instance have essentially created their own currencies of frequent flier miles, while towns like Ithaca, New York have created their own regional currencies with little more than a printing press and a PR campaign. Of course in this digital age a printing press is way to heavy, banks of course can famously create money by lending out money that people deposit for savings and in the twenty first century this operation has been extended into financial maneuvers of baroque complexity that span the globe in seconds. Money is anything but scarce. The problem is not there is not enough, but that it circulates with a damaging inequality.
Goldhaber and Lanham though don't seem really want economics to be about money anyways though. They'd much rather refocus it all around attention. It's an act of overstatement that probably does them far more harm than good. They get to make exaggerated statements about the need for a new economics, perhaps it makes their observations seem bigger, but it also makes it far easier to ignore them. They might want it all to be about attention, but quality and accuracy still have a bit of value left in them. Someone is going to make a career pulling attention scarcity into the wider economic stream of thought, but it just wont have the extreme ramifications the attention lovers vest into it. Goldhaber's work in particular is still worth of future attention, but until he pays a bit more attention to what economics actually is his insights will probably remain obscure to the discipline...
November 11, 2006
The story of Google is in many ways the archetypal engineer's dream. They invented a better way search the web, set up in a garage-like space and rose to the top. But engineer's also value results that can be reproduced, and part of what makes Google so scary is that it can not be reproduced. As hard as Yahoo and Microsoft are trying, with obscene amounts of financial, engineering and computing resources at their disposal they can't generate search results as good as Google's. The search world is already oligarchical, but as google rapidly turns into a verb, it is well on it's way to become a monopolized space.
Page Rank you see is an irreversible and an irreproducible process. Page Rank is the name for the key aspect of Google's search algorithm, the engineering breakthrough that make Google so much better than all those now dead or battered search engines of the 1990's. And it's also the thing that makes it so damn hard, if not impossible to make a search engine as good as Google's. You can reverse engineer Page Rank of course and you can be damn sure both Yahoo and Microsoft have invested plenty of time to that effort. The problem though is that Page Rank just would not work if you ran it today, and that's why Yahoo and Microsoft just can't provide the same quality of results as Google.
At it's core it's a problem of the data set. Page Rank's big break through was that it realized that links between webpages could be used as a way to judge the quality of a piece of content. If a page was linked to by multiple sites odds are it was a better page than one with no incoming links. Furthermore if the links came from other high quality pages the odds would be even higher. I wrote that all in the past tense though, because Page Rank is a victim of it's own success. The internet is now filled with massive amounts of pages generated with the explicit goal of hacking Google, of pushing sites up higher in it's search results. The internet as a dataset is now dirty, if not filthy.
This is a problem for Google of course, but it's not nearly the same problem it is for them as it is for it's competitors. Google needs to deal with the many sites trying to hack it's results, but it has a major tool to fight them, the data generated by Page Rank before search engine optimization became a profitable and fulfilling career. It means Google weighs slightly towards older sites, ones established in the era of clean Page Rank, but it also means that anyone trying to reproduce Page Rank by spidering the internet today, just can not get results nearly as good as Google's. So until someone devises a brand new algorithm, it's going to be Google's internet and the rest of us are just searching for our own small little piece of it...
November 01, 2006
It's a statement so dangerously wrought with oversimplification that I've been avoiding saying it for a while now. But simplification can sometimes be as, or more, useful than oversimplification is dangerous, and nothing sums up my political economic stance better than reducing it to two positions: pro-markets, and anti-profits.
First and foremost this stance requires a split from a great mistake made by most traditional appwroaches to economics from critical marxism to laissez faire boosterism. Market activity and profits are not the same thing, but in fact too very separate forces and while they can and often do work in concert with each other, they do not always do so and certainly do not need to. If the goal of economics is to gain an understanding of how economies operate in order to improve them, and I believe that that has to be a major goal of economics, than coming to grips with this split is absolutely essential.
My stance may simplify down to "pro-markets", but it is essential that this stance not be confused with the far more common "pro-market" approach. The difference might on the screen or page be a matter of one letter, the addition or absence of an "s", but like many differences between the singular and plural this is actually a difference of nearly infinite ramifications. There are many (upon many) markets in this world, but "The Market" in the sense it is often used does not exist at all. Of course "the market" can exist in a very local sense, the way a mom might tell a kid to "go to the market and pick up a quart of milk." But "The Market" in the abstract sense that both proponents of "The 'Free' Market" and their many critics like to use it just does not exist at all. There are many markets in this world and the behavior of these markets in fact varies wildly. The baazar in Marakesh just does not function the same way the London Stock Exchange functions or the the way my local coffee shop functions. Heck, even the New York Stock Exchange functions differently than the NASDAQ market, and in fact there are even multiple markets for New York Stock Exchange stocks, each of which behaves slightly differently. The market for art at Sotheby's auction house is different than the market for art in a Chelsea gallery, which is different than the market in an Amsterdam gallery which in turn functions radically different than the nearby Dutch flower auctions.
A market is at it's core simply a place of exchange, a bounded area where people converge, either physically or via a mediating technology, in order to move exchange goods, services and information. To be pro-markets is to be in favor of the existence of markets, and to understand that each and every one of them behaves differently. Sometimes this behavior can have quite positive results, sometimes they can be rather negative and generally what reality gives us is a complex and nuanced mix of the two. Overall though markets are places of exchange and exchange itself is a healthy operation. By realizing that some markets behavior better than others we can begin the process of designing better markets, emphasizing those that work well and improving those that need work.
In order to evolve and create better markets, we need to make at least one key conceptual leap, me must break the historic tie between market functions and profit. Markets do not need profits in order to function at all. In fact it's possible to interpret profits in such a way that they are actually indications of an improperly functioning market, where the existence of profits indicates an inefficiency in market actions, a flaw that a more perfect market would correct. It's not an approach I'm about to follow, because perfect markets do not exist in the real world, and what I'm interested in is working markets, and the task of making them actually better.
Profit is perhaps one of the more unclear and misunderstood words in the english language. So much so that a large portion of the entire profession of accounting is dedicated to the art of obfuscating profits, pushing and shifting them around in ways that tend to be highly unprofitable to the public at large but rather rewarding to a select group of individuals. And just as profits can miraculously transform in the hands of a skilled CPA, the very meaning of the word has evolved in a rather confusing mash of economic theory and government action.
In classical economic theory, profit was deeply associated with the figure of the entrepreneur. Profit was how these idealized people would make their way in the world, they would purchase goods, transform or move them and then resell in a market. The difference between their expenses and the selling point, provided it was positive, was profit and this profit functioned as the entrepreneur's reward, salary and means to continue their business. It's quite a positive viewpoint of profit, and unfortunately it has little to do with the reality of how business is conducted and profits actually calculated today.
The entrepreneur as mythologized by classical economics barely exists anymore. Even those bold individuals who embrace the title today tend to wrap their enterprises in the protective skin of some form of limited liability corporation rather than proceed as sole proprietors or in traditional partnerships. Profits that pass through these organizations take on a radically different form than they do in the naive view of an entrepreneur. In fact even in a sole proprietorship or partnership profit transforms the minute that salary is introduced to the equation. For salary is after all an expense and profit is from a legal standpoint what occurs after all the expenses are paid. As soon as an entrepreneur is getting a salary, suddenly profit is no longer their just compensation for effort and risk, but in fact what is left over after they have been compensated for their time and work. Some of this profit is reinvested back into the enterprise of course, but all to often it is extracted from the system and into the hands of a limited set of individuals.
Classical economics is essentially about "individual profit", yet in this day and age while there are plenty of individuals making profits, it is almost always "organization profit" that they are making. Organization profit is not the organization's reward for good work, but in fact it's punishment, this is money that is extracted from the organization and back into private hands. It is still entirely possible to incorporate and run a business as a not-for-profit corporation, and that's an action with rather interesting ramifications. Such a business would not be eligible for federal tax exempt status in the United States, and it still could generate surplus revenues for which it would need to pay taxes, but those surplus revenues would not actually be profits. These revenues would have nowhere to go but back into the not-for-profit corporation. This is the corporate for as a (semi)closed loop system. There is still plenty of money going in and out as expenses and revenue of course, but ultimately the money flowing through the system must remain concentrated on the organizations goals and purposes. For profit corporations are not closed at all, but in fact function as the opposite, they are designed explicitly to function as money extraction machines concentrating wealth into the hands of a few individuals.
A certain type of reader might be tempted to look this view of profits as something akin to Marx's "surplus value", but nothing could be further from the truth. Marx's construction hinges upon a rather absurd and mythical idea of labor value, and ultimately views all surplus revenues as a negative. I however take the exact opposite stance, that surplus revenue is an incredibly positive thing, it is ultimately a key engine of economic growth. It is only when surplus revenue is transformed into "profit" and then extracted from the organizations that created that a real problem emerges. So while marxists like to see the economic problems of the world as being a function of "the market", I locate those problems in a very different place, in the hands of the individuals that skim off the top of market activity, and in the organizational forms that enable and encourage this behavior. This leads us to the second challenge of a pro-markets and anti-profits stance, how do we develop better organizational forms for economic activities?
The for-profit corporation in it's current form is less than 200 years old. It is only in the last century that it has truly erupted to become the dominant economic form in Western economies. There is no reason other than historical circumstance that it needs to be the dominant form now. In fact from the Korean chaebols to the Basque Mondragon Cooperatives there is plenty of evidence that other organizational forms can function on a global industrial level. In The Wealth of Networks Yochai Benkler has argued that the networked efforts of open source programers and wikipedia addicts represents a whole other economic organizational form. But ultimately I believe that's just the beginning. Organizations and markets are two forms of entities that exist on a scale larger than the individual. It makes them exceedingly hard to conceptualize, understand and transform, but they are ultimately the creations of humans and it is well within our means to improve upon them. Pro-markets and anti-profits, it is an over simplification for sure, but that is where I start.
October 10, 2006
It's the year 2006, how do you get away with publishing a book without ever googling your title? I have no idea but Richard Lanham's new book The Economics of Attention curiously has no references at all to Michael Goldhaber's The Attention Economy: The Natural Economy of the Net, hmmmm. Goldhaber's work was published online in a peer-reviewed journal nine years ago. It's core premise is practically identical to Lanham's. Google the title of Lanham's book and Goldhaber shows up as the third full result, behind only references to Lanham's book. I'm all of nine pages into that book so who knows how it stacks up, but it sure hasn't started out right, at least if your a nerd like me who reads the bibliography first...
October 09, 2006
"Corporate Social Responsibility" and the "Bottom of the Pyramid"
Can a corporation have a conscience? Nobody really asked that at Columbia Business School's Social Enterprise Conference 2006, but the question underlaid it all uneasily. Well, at least for me. The fact that the conference exists at all clearly indicates that plenty of business school students have some conscience, but they fact that they are in business school in the first place also clearly indicates that conscience is modulated by a certain faith in enterprise.
The buzzword that resonated loudest to me in this buzzword filled environment was "corporate social responsibility" or CSR for short. The idea is that companies need to healthy citizens or something, but in practice it seemed more like a way for people embedded deep in giants like Citicorp or Alcoa to soothe their own consciences with a small diversion from the corporate cash flows. Strikingly absent from the discussion was any sense of how CSR spending, when it exists at all, might stack up against the rest of these giant's budgets.
Jim Sinegal, the CEO of Costco, at least talked real numbers as he accepted an award of some sort. He proudly threw up a quote about how it was better to be a Costco employee or customer than a shareholder. The Costco philosophy is to cut costs everywhere except when it comes to employees, who if I remember his sliders correctly represent 70% of the companies operating cost! But even as he deflected personal credit away from him and out towards his entire management team it was quite clear this approach is merely an iteration of the age old concept of the enlightened dictator. The employees/serfs may be happy, but only because the situation is enforced from the top. Like his counterparts at the head of Starbucks and American Apparel, Sinegal has no structure in place to ensure that his enlightened approach can be anything other than a management decision.
This situation has deep roots in the history of management theory, it's something of a Taylorism versus Fordism approach. Happy employees is clearly a successful business style, but so is the far more exploitative bean counting tight ship way of management. Costco might be better for employees than Wal-Mart, but both still are out there and both perpetuate hierarchies that pump money into a small upper class. Some kings were better to their serfs than others, but either approach meant the existence of a kingdom. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the corporate organizational form emerged just as democracy began to unstabilize the aristocracies of old.
It's not the aristocratic side of this corporate finishing school that's really disturbing though, it's the religious one. Most people in these environs have some sense, however watered down, of their privilege and the larger inequalities out there. It's the people who truly have a faith in "The Market" that really freak me out. The ones that really believe that "CSR" will spread because consumers demand it or scarier still those that believe in BOP. BOP stands for the "bottom (or sometimes "base") of the pyramid", the billion strong poorest of the poor. The idea is that by turning these people into entrepreneurs partnered with multi-national corporations and selling to their equally poor peers poverty can be eradicated.
One of the key mantras of BOP believers is that it can not be reduced to just selling goods to poor people, but instead requires a far more intense and interlocking relationship with the target market. This is absolutely true. What BOP is about is not selling products, that's just a corollary to all. What it is about is selling an ideology. Like the centuries of missionaries before them the BOP proponents think they are saving when actually they are converting.
Poverty is an issue with far more ramifications than can be explored here, but the simple point is that not having a lot of money can only be seen as an absolute bad thing if you follow a faith that revolves around the accumulation of wealth. Certainly there are probably problems that we as westerners see in the populations at the "base of the pyramid" that the people themselves might also agree are problems. But there are also problems that are far less physical and far more religious in nature. Like the heathens of old these are people with different value systems than us, and like missionaries trying to save souls, it's quite likely some of the problems the BOP practitioners are out trying to solve are only problems of faith. And as well meaning as they may be I for one have no faith their little enterprise...
October 08, 2006
Why is it that anytime you read about the advertising or video game industry, both of which are massive profitable and pretty much icons of our culture, they always claim to be struggling? Are industries based upon rapid fire information inherantly less stable than ones based on selling material goods?
October 02, 2006
The Ghost Map
When Steven Johnson says his next book is going to be about cholera, you can't help but be a little surprised. Yet while it has very little to do with Johnson's recent books on video games, television and brain machines, The Ghost Map is much less a departure and much more of a welcom return to the territory of his first two books. Follow the paths set by Interface Culture and Emergence till the point where they converge and you will find The Ghost Map. It's easily Johnson's best work yet and perhaps the first classic urbanist text of the new century.
The setting is precise, a handful of blocks in London's Soho neighborhood, late summer 1854. The stakes however are impossibly large, with London at the lead, the world in 1854 is getting increasingly urban, and the more urban it gets the greater the threat of cholera becomes. Cholera's vector of transmission is the digestive tract. It comes into the body through drinking water, and exits the other end, taking with it an extraordinary amount of a person's internal fluids, and usually their life with it. This leaves the cholera bacteria with a rather nasty biological challenge, it's main point of reproduction is the small intestine, yet getting from one person's small intestine to another is quite a journey. For most of history this meant cholera played quite a minor character.
As the industrial revolution pushed more and more of the world into cities, a unique opportunity for cholera arrived. When hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people squeeze into the tight streets of a city, their shit tends to flow downhill, and often straight into the same river that their drinking water is pulled from. The city literally began to function as a shit eating, or more accurately drinking, machine and cholera epidemics began to pop up regularly. The result was often tens of thousands of deaths in short periods of time. If the urban form was going to continue to grow, and all the pressures of the industrial age were pushing in that direction, it would need to deal with the problem of cholera. In London, in Soho, late summer of 1854 in a remarkable series of events the city essentially learned how to deal with cholera and this is the story of The Ghost Map.
Johnson approach to history clearly owes a certain debt to Manuel DeLanda's A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History but this book is almost it's inverse, centering on a highly specific point in time and space, and following a potent narrative. Perhaps you can call it "A Thousand Hours of Linear History". Those compact hours that form the core of the book are in a way an intricate tracing of something straight out of DeLanda's work, the crossing of a material threshold which then allows humans to settle into entirely new urban formations. For only by conquering, or at least learning to manage, cholera can people and cities evolve towards the massive scales we see today. DeLanda however labors hard to produce almost entirely material histories, invoking odd concepts like robot historians and the viewpoint of minerals themselves. Johnson follows something of this form when he talks about bacteria and cities, but then interjects two intensely human actors into the picture to produce a radically different sort of book.
The most striking academic parallel to The Ghost Map is not DeLanda's work at all but Bruno Latour's The Pasteurization of France. It's been a long time time since I cracked upon that tome, and honestly I'm not certain I ever finished it, but Latour is telling a strikingly similar tale to Johnson, tracing the complex interplay of factors that lead Louis Pasteur to his ideas and the world into adopting him. Latour of course is almost deliberately obtuse in his explorations, his goal at the time was to multiply the possible explanations, so once again Johnson again takes a somewhat inverted approach. Johnson is of course one of the clearest and must lucid of the current crop of science and technology writers. Given Latour's recent exhalation of the art of writing as core to the successful application of his Actor Network Theory, one has to wonder if Johnson may have inadvertently produced one of ANTs finest documents.
Like Latour Johnson breaks from the hero model of scientific discovery. But while Latour and his ANT practicing colleagues attempt to introduce as many actors, both human and non-human, into the story as possible, Johnson finds a much more coherent middle ground. The traditional telling of this story focuses around John Snow the lone scientist fighting against prevailing opinion, and Johnson does not try to discredit him, but instead adds three more actors to the stage, the microscopic cholera bacterium, the massive water infrastructure of London itself, and the very human and very social figure of Reverend Henry Whitehead. The result is a complex yet compellingly clear tale of social, scientific, organic and urban forces interweaving to produce both a tragic outbreak of disease and ultimately it's solution. It may well be the best book on urbanism since City of Quartz, yet way more optimistic, and well worthy of a space next to Jacobs on your urbanism shelf.
September 27, 2006
Saving Through Destruction
BLDGBLOG: City of the Pharaoh At the end of this pretty incredible post (not an unusual thing at BLDGBLOG) is mention of an archeological discovery from back in 1850. But by digging stuff up in 1850 was evidence we could use here in 2006 destroyed? Is our current archeological practice, so intent on discovering the secret past, actually destroying it as much as it is discovering it?
September 15, 2006
It's Only Value Is That It Has No Value
All my bicycles are street bicycles, there are no dirt trails, half pipes or beautiful mountain passes in their future, only the torn urban asphalt of New York City. But there a whole variety of urban bicycles out there, and my latest frame finally emerged from six months of bike shop limbo with a working bottom bracket, which gives me three bikes, or one too many for an apartment dweller like me. The only question is which bike to get rid of, and it's proving to be a trickier problem than expected.
From a purely bike riding perspective its an easy question, the one I call my neighborhood cruiser has practically no value at all, it's worth more as parts than as a complete bicycle and those parts are not worth much.** It shouldn't be too hard to part with, should it? But that is exactly the problem. I live in New York City and this bike is actually tremendously valuable based on the sole fact that it has no value.
This is a bike I can lock up on the street and not stress about in the least. I can, and do even leave it out overnight. From an economic standpoint this creates quite an interesting situation, a value that can not be monetized, for the very act of this feature taking on a monetary value would eliminate any value that existed. A bike with a real monetary value is worth stealing and that translates directly into both financial risk and psychological stress for a bike owner.
From a purely urban perspective this is an easy problem as well, the nicest bike, with the nicest parts has the least use in the city. Sure it's nimble and quick, and the Phil Wood hubs are both buttery smooth and the most capable of handling the urban grit and grime over a lifetime that via sale or theft will probably be far longer than I will own them. It's both a little to valuable and little too sensitive to be an everyday, no matter the weather, vehicle. It's tight track geometry can zig and zag through every urban obstacle, but it also translates every bump and crack in the road back to the rider with far more precision than comfort. It is quite literally a physical manifestation of the phrase "too much information". As beautiful as thing is to ride it tells me a bit more about the state of the streets beneath me than my body wants to know. But as much as I love the city this is far to sweet a machine for me to just let go of and so it stays, it's visceral aesthetics trumping pure practicality.
Tactically the best maneuver would to take the middle machine, and somehow make it "street stable", somehow degrade it's value to a point it can be left locked up along overnight without much stress. It's perhaps an impossible task, how do you devalue a bicycle without eliminating just what makes it a good, fun thing to ride? This is a frame that's been evolving into what might be called an "inverse hybrid", a new style monster uniquely suited for urban riding.
The bicycle industry currently pumps out some hideous beasts it calls hybrids, essentially overgrown mountain bikes designed to be ridden fully upright. Basically they make it easier to ride over potholes while sucking the joy out of every other aspect of urban bike riding. The inverse hybrid is the reverse, fixed gear gives you control and real sense of the road, while chopped riser handlebars put you in the ultimate urban riding position. Higher than the drop bars of a road bike, but lower and narrower than the chunky riser bars of a mountain bike. It handles almost like an overgrown BMX, if a BMX was capable of any real speed and efficiency on the city streets. It's a stance that gives a unique combination of maneuverability, visibility, hopping ability and just the right feel of the road in your hands.
The challenge now is to make an inverse hybrid that no one wants to steal. So just how do you make something that's only value is that it has no real value?
** This is particularly true at this time of year, the beginning of the fall and the end of the bike season. Odds are for a few months in the spring this bike will be more valuable than the sum of it's parts, only to lose that property as days begin to get shorter.
September 09, 2006
Lunch Design/Conference Design
Actually breakfasts are always worse, but I forgot to photograph it. One thing conference designers never seem to think of is what food is best for creating a great environment. Lunch was a sandwich, which is mainly carbohydrates, with a bit of veggies and a modest amount of protein. There was also potato salad (more carbs), a banana (more carbs) and a cookie (more carbs). That's a formula for a food coma. The talk or two after lunch are never the most fun are they?
Breakfast as I said is worse. Pastries and muffins, all carbs, no protein, another recipe for putting people to sleep. In America this diet gets counterbalanced in part because people have plenty of energy after sleeping all night and in part because it's offset with large amounts of low quality caffeine. Downers cut with uppers, not exactly the path towards a healthy day, nor necessarily for the best conference experience. It works for the most part, minus that hour of post lunch coma, but can it be designed better?
September 06, 2006
Somewhere off on the periphery of my online home there is a whole conversation brewing about the merits of "social software". The spark for this round apparently is someone named Ryan Carson and his blog post on why he doesn't use social software. Now this is the sort of conversation I try and filter out and ignore. It was sort of pitiful from the start, a blog post is a piece of social software, so using it to proclaim you don't use social software is pretty much a nonstarter. Then there was Carson argument, which is essentially "I'm too busy, plus I'm married now", or in other words he's too lame and important to be interesting...
Now somehow Carson elicited a ton of response from some rather smart people, although Fred Stutzman's is probably the one most worth linking too. What was interesting to me though from these response was not what was said, although some was certainly insightful, but what was not. There was plenty said about social software but nothing at all about social hardware.
Now it's easy to say you don't have time for social software, although if you have time for email then clearly you are lying, as email is social software in it's purest form. More than that, do you have time go into conference rooms for meetings? Do you have time for drinks after work with colleagues and clients? Do you have time to attend conventions for work? Do you have time to meet friends for coffee, or go to a concert or ballgame or maybe head to a museum? Or if you are a married man like Carson, do you have time to go to a restaurant with your wife? A conference room, a convention center, a bar, a coffee shop, a stadium, an art gallery, these are all pieces of social hardware. Large objects constructed to allow you to interact with other people in a wide variety of styles. If you have time to be social you have time to use social software. Maybe you prefer other forms of socializing, but that is a choice you make. Everyone has time to be social, so to argue that social software is in trouble because it takes too much time is absurd.
A computer by itself, is a piece of antisocial hardware. It is all about a person alone in from of a glowing, captivating screen. But once that computer is connected to a network it has potential to become a social tool, but only if unlocked by software. This software can come in any flavor, look and feel capable of being generated by a Turing machine. And making new flavors and fads is pretty cheap, certainly a lot cheaper than creating a new bar, restaurant or convention center. Yet while what can go on the screen may be infinite, the social aspect of it all remains deeply tied to the hardware, making the machine social is simply the act of linking various nodes of a network together.
Social software is the art of managing links on a network over time. Instant messaging is a temporary and private link in real time. Email is temporary and private but time shifted. A blog post is also time shifted, but is public and if not permanent than at least has a much longer half life than a typical email. The classic social network apps like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook are different. Instead of turning links on and off when needed, they establish links once and then make them essentially permanent. What happens next is just a series of other social software styles overlaid onto this network. Most of the fuctionality of these sites is as blasé as it gets, replacements for email, blogs, photo albumns and bulletin boards, usually in a somewhat inferior form to the more deadicated versions of those apps. What makes them unique is merely that you can now use your social network itself as a modulating factor. It's a classic case of constraint unlocking potential. By constraining functionality to just a space determined by the semi-permanent links of a person's social network, these sites can channel other existing pieces of social software into a more vibrant, and from the looks of the use numbers, addictive form.
It's not quite a "nothing new under the sun" thing, there is a new twist to the new social softwares, but there is not that much new. To say that you don't have time for social software is essentially the same thing as saying you don't have time to be social at all. Maybe you prefer more of a hardware setting, to socialize at a country club or dive bar or at church or at ballfield. Maybe that leaves you too drained to keep up with your Facebook feeds. But it's not because you don't have time for social software, it's because you've made a simple choice to pursue a different social avenue. One that presents a different set of nuances and twists then what is available online. That's your choice and perhaps it's a great one. But social software is no more time consuming than any other social structure and it will continue to evolve in interesting directions. Now keeping up with those directions might indeed be tiring, but only if you are conscious of it. The people who actually are using these things without thinking about it are the ones truly pushing the form, to them their community lies in part in software, and from here on in, that is pretty much something to take for granted.
August 31, 2006
A Question of Scale
I keep on trying to write a post on how difficult it is to write about difficult it is to write and talk about scale. I keep of failing cause, well it's really difficult to write and talk about issues of scale... So instead of trying to say anything meaningful I'm just going to ask for advice. What works can you recommend that deal meaningfully with the concept of scale? Works that address how we as humans can talk about phenomena that occur at scales of time and space that differ from our standard 5-6 feet above the ground and cycles of seconds and hours, days and months?
What I'm really interested in is the physical and conceptual tools that we use to do this work. Things like microscopes and the periodic table let us deal meaningfully with objects and actions that occur on small scales far out of sight of our naked eyes. But it strikes me that the tools to deal with scales slightly larger than human are severely lacking compared to both the ones we use to address the microscopic and grand reaches of outer space. But than again maybe I just haven't been exposed to the right tools.
August 28, 2006
What happens when you press a button? A button can trigger close to anything nowadays, but it's not what the button triggers that I'm interested in at the moment. Until our current age of screens a button pretty much by definition produced a bit of tactical feedback. You press a button and it presses back at you, giving you a confirmation that yes indeed that button was pressed.
Even in the screen age, most buttons still produce tactical feedback of some sort. Every letter of this text I type comes complete with a nice, Apple designed, bit of feedback, each button of the keyboard press gently back at me. The buttons on the screen are trickier, the tactical feedback tends to still exist, but slightly abstracted, you press the mouse, or trackpad or whatever button, and you feel a small kickback, albeit one a handful of inches away from the button you are actually looking at and in your mind clicking upon. On screen buttons tend to compensate for this distant tactical feedback by adding visual and or audio feedback to the mix.
When it comes to touch screens though all of sudden the tactical feedback it gone completely, all that is left is whatever audio or visual guides the designers have left in the system. It's for exactly that reason I dislike touch screens, despite their name they just don't feel right. When I use a Citibank ATM, which is often as they are my bank, I tend to tap the screen not with my finger, but with the side of my ATM card, there is something completely wrong about "pressing" a hard glass screen, that neither gives in nor gives back any feedback as you push upon it. Its a cold and unresponsive feeling, a dead interface into a live machine.
Of course for all my dislike of the touchscreen I've been a big Treo fan since the days it was a clamshell. Maybe it's the softer screen, or the fact that you don't usually need to use the touchscreen if you don't want to, or maybe it's just the superiority of the Palm interface design. I still prefer real buttons and the Treo has no shortage of those with a full QWERTY keyboard, but it also showed that a touchscreen could work maybe. Until it stops working of course, which my current Treo's has been doing intermittently the past couple days. The Treo is well designed enough that this is just a minor annoyance, so far it's always started working before I've gotten fed up enough to call up insurance for a replacement. But it also led to an interesting observation. When the touchscreen is not working it literally feels different, harder, as if a secret mild tactical feedback mechanism just disappeared.
Odds are this is a psychological phenomena. I touch the screen and because I get no visual or audio feedback somehow my brain feels the screen differently. Yet every time the touchscreen cuts out it feels distinctly like I can feel the hardness of screen before my eyes register the failure of the touch to work. Its as if the eyes-fingers-consciousness circuit is faster than the simple eyes-consciousness one. Either way, when the touchscreen is working it seems like somewhere in my mind, the act of touching a handheld screen and seeing visual feedback of a button press is creating some sort of phantom tactile feedback. A subtle but real impression that screen is softer, has more give, than it really does. Does that mean there is hope for full touch screen interfaces? If the long circulating rumors about Apple's new video iPods are true, it sounds like Steve Jobs is better there is. Me, I'm not so sure, I still like to press real buttons.
August 23, 2006
Every once and a while you catch a moment that makes you precisely aware of the sort of things you take for granted. I cherish those moments, it's rare opportunity to actually be able to see yourself in a bit of perspective.
I had one today after placing an order for a small sample quantity of items from a large industrial company. Their New York rep sent an email saying they'd mail me an invoice, and being a sample I would need to prepay before shipment. Somehow that bewildered me, I knew I needed to prepay, but I was ready to swipe my debit card that instant, or at least send the numbers over. It just seemed so slow, so out of touch with the rhythms of my day to day. Especially since I pickup my mail maybe twice a month. I've been spending years trying to eliminate mail, now my whole project is on hold till the US Postal Service comes through? How slow, how primitive! And all that was before I realized the invoice wasn't even getting mailed from here in NY, on reread it seemed like it was getting mailed from Switzerland...
Of course the real primitive here is me. I've been living too much of my life on internet time, instant gratification time, always on, high speed download time... If I want to get into the business of physical goods I need to learn the rhythms and pacings that make them work. One step at a time was the mantra when I finally learned how to make physical computing projects work, and that is probably how I'll need to address the issues of manufacturing real goods, things with real weight, things that move on the backs of trucks and across oceans in twenty-foot equivalent units. Maybe it will be frustrating, maybe it will be a welcome pace, either way I'll need change my perception of time, my culture of time, just a little to make it work.
August 18, 2006
The Value of Metcalfe's Law
For whatever reason Metcalfe's Law has been all popping up everywhere I look over the past 24 hours.
The July issue of IEEE Spectrum has an article "Metcalfe's Law is Wrong" that is probably the crystal under which all this attention can be formed.
Metcalfe's law basically states that a value of a network grows exponentially with the number of nodes. A telephone network with only one phone is worthless. One with two is usefully only to the few people who can reach those two phones. But a phone network with a million phones has a massive value. The authors of the IEEE article don't dispute the existence of "network effects", the fact that as nodes increase networks rapidly increase in potential value. What they dispute is the exponential math that Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com, uses. The authors instead argue for logarithmic growth, or something close to it. They are probably right.
They also make an important point that "Metcalfe's law" is not a law at all, but merely a empirical observation that serves as a useful guide for analysis. What they completely miss is the wide open flaw in Metcalfe's Law, which can be summed up in one word, value.
What the fuck does it mean when you say the value of a network increases, with the number of nodes? Well it depends on what sort of value you are talking about. A network of phones in a world of deaf people has no value no matter how many nodes it has. What a network gains when it adds nodes is not value but potential value. That potential value only can turn into "real" value when valuable content flows through the network from node to node. You just can't sit down with Metcalfe's law, in either the original exponential or new logarithmic version, and use it to calculate the value of your network based on the number of nodes. All those nodes are worthless if they don't have anything to say to each other.
You can build a network, you can get a guideline of it's potential value, but to unlock it you first need to figure out just what value you are talking about. And then you need to get that value into the network in a way that is communicable and then and only then will the network actually begin to produce the values you want.
update: not 10 minutes after I posted this I stumbled on Metcalfe himself responding to the IEEE article in quite an interesting manner. And as usual Fred Stutzman has some interesting things to say as well.
August 15, 2006
The Innocence of Power Laws
I've been reading a short book - an essay, really - by John Kenneth Galbraith called The Economics of Innocent Fraud. It's his last work, written while he was in his nineties, not long before he died. In it, he explains how we, as a society, have come to use the term "market economy" in place of the term "capitalism." The new term is a kinder and gentler one, with its implication that economic power lies with consumers rather than with the owners of capital or with the managers who have taken over the work of the owners. It's a fine example, says Galbraith, of innocent fraud.
- Nicholas Carr Rough Type: The Great Unread
I've long argued that the "natural" shape of most markets is a powerlaw, and that any deviation from that shape is due to some bottleneck in distribution. Get rid of the bottleneck and you can tap the latent demand in the market, unlocking the potential of the Long Tail.
- Chris Anderson The Long Tail: A billion dollar question
Many have noted the irony that my book on niches appears to be a hit. It will enter the NYT Bestseller list this week at #13 (moving up to #10 next week) and is already #14 on the WSJ bestseller list (moving up to #11 next week). I can live with that irony!
- Chris Anderson The Long Tail: The Long Tail economy
Rosen's answer could not possibly have been more honest. The best way, by far, to get a link from an A List blogger is to provide a link to the A List blogger. As the blogophere has become more rigidly hierarchical, not by design but as a natural consequence of hyperlinking patterns, filtering algorithms, aggregation engines, and subscription and syndication technologies, not to mention human nature, it has turned into a grand system of patronage operated - with the best of intentions, mind you - by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite. A blog-peasant, one of the Great Unread, comes to the wall of the castle to offer a tribute to a royal, and the royal drops a couple of coins of attention into the peasant's little purse. The peasant is happy, and the royal's hold over his position in the castle is a little bit stronger.
- Nicholas Carr Rough Type: The Great Unread
Part of the reason the book is successful, I believe, is because as I was writing it the smart readers of this blog helped improve the ideas, catch my errors and suggest dozens of applications and dimensions of the Long Tail I never would have thought of myself. So today's recognition is also a recognition of the power of tapping collective intelligence. I couldn't have done it without you!
- Chris Anderson The Long Tail: A top ten bestseller!
August 07, 2006
A question: When you think about the word "interface", do you think about it as being a way to interact with information, or as a way to interact with a device or program?
July 21, 2006
GAM3R 7H30RY is McKenzie Wark's experimental online book, created with the Institute for the Future of the Book. I've always found Wark's writing both fascinating and infuriating and what little I've read of this work keeps up the pace. But what is far more interesting is just accurately the digital book format mirrors the same sort of fascinating/infuriating oscillation.
In the end the format both fails and succeeds in big ways. Like Bruno Latour's similar, yet less ambitious experiment Paris: Invisible City, the content is just incredibly ill suited to be read on a computer screen. Part of the problem is resolution, computer screens today tend to have resolutions around 100 pixels per inch. Reading comprehension off a screen apparently doesn't match that of printed matter until the resolution is about 200 pixels per inch. When you are reading the news, or some blogger, or the sports scores this does not matter much. But when you are trying to grok a complex academic text, forget it. I once read the entirety of Hardt and Negri's Empire on my "smartphone". I enjoyed it completely, yet I could not recall a single thing from the text.
The other side of the problem is posture, academic texts are also not meant to be read while sitting upright at a desk, and putting a hot laptop on your lap is not exactly the same as curling up with a good book, is it? But this again is ultimately a technical issue, and like with the screen resolution issue odds are it will be solved soon enough. Which brings us to the good stuff.
What's great about GAM3R 7H30RY is the incredible amount of commentary it is generating. It is pretty much the most dynamic feeling text out there. Lots of call and response going on and it makes it all feel very alive, like a breathe of fresh air in a stagnent library. Not only does it capture the vibrant energy that occurs in good blog powered exchanges, but thanks to it's ajax interface it actually pushes past into something even better.
The real question I have, and it's one I seem to ask all the time, is how much of this scales? How much of this is repeatable and how much is just a function of time, place and circumstance. There certainly might be some first mover advantage here, the novelty generates interest, which generates more feedback than the next experiment will get. Then there is the matter of the books structure. Wark is a highly stylized writer, and he loves playing with form. In this case the form is an almost ritualized structure of rather discrete paragraphs. Chunks of text that do not need a huge amount of context to be understood.
I suspect this structure is extremely helpful in fascillitating feedback. The pauses between paragraphs are so big and so deliberate, it makes it very easy to pause to type out a comment. You actually need to actively click to get the next paragraph, so it's pretty much a choice of two actions, react or continue on. The big question here is whether that amounts to something more like a parlor trick, or a writing tactic that can be replicated with relative ease. Or maybe it's a red herring, but then again maybe every academic book in some future will be written in these little chucks, explicitly to provoke feedback.
In the end though, I'm still waiting for the printed version to read this thing...
July 13, 2006
What could be more "California ideology" than listening to intellectual ideas as digital books-on-tape (aka podcasts)?
Nothing sums up the California Ideology better than the long running TED conference. TED stands for "technology, entertainment, design" and that's a tab of acid and a pinch of pop religious psychology short of an inclusive definition. And if TED represents the 1990's core of the ideology than the Long Now Foundation must be the trailblazer, marking the direction the ideology is evolving towards in this new millennium. And conveniently enough both organizations are now podcasting, letting you tune in with out ever leaving your computer, flipping a page or moving a dirty dollar.
I've been flipping through the offerings for a bit, and most are predictably interesting. Worth listening to for sure, but don't expect to be challenged or surprised by what you hear. So far only two have managed to surprise me and both are well worth the effort.
The Long Now podcasts are not surprisingly much longer than the TED ones and Stephen Lansing's "Perfect Order: A Thousand Years in Bali" fills that hour and a half with decades worth of fascinating research on the intersection of religion and ecology in Balinese culture. Incredible stuff.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise, but listening to Tony Robbins in action was far more engaging and interesting than I had expected, particularly if you just listen to the audio, rather than watching the video. It's actually rather an inverted Nixon-Kennedy debate situation, Robbins comes off far more intelligently when you can't see his pretty face and infomercial energy. On the other hand the video is worth watching if only because it captures the now classic exchange between Robbins and Al Gore.
In any case, Robbins is a motivational speaker, so of course he knows how speak well. It's worth listening to just to observe his technique. More than that though, what I didn't know about him is that he is pop priest of Neuro Linguistic Programming. As the new age movement shifts more towards the scientific and psuedo-scientific, pretty much makes Robbins the spiritual face of the California ideology. Give him 22 minutes at TED and he'll give you the world. For all the talk of Christianity in America, this is America's real religion, in one neat tidy package.
June 24, 2006
It took be stumbling into this link a few times before I actually was willing to watch the video, but if you are into computer interfaces it's well worth it, very well prototyped and thought out. My only suggestion would be that now that they've gotten the insights they wanted off the desktop/paper metaphor, they then ditch the metaphor and see what happens when they extract the techniques. Metaphors after all tend to hang around far past their expiration dates, crossing a point were they stop being useful and sometimes get in the way...
June 04, 2006
Economies of Design and Other Adventures in Nomad Economics
Ok, time to go a bit more public. That image that should be showing above is the front cover of the public draft of my first book Economies of Design and Other Adventures in Nomad Economics which you can buy by following this link. You can also download the pdf for free. It's a public draft which means its far from done, filled with typos, and due to the magic of print on demand it should be updated frequently. It's also the first(ish) draft of my first book, which means I've learned a tremendous amount just in pulling it together. If things work out the second draft will be a complete rewrite and a far better organized one at that. But the raw ideas are out on paper and I'd love to get as much feedback as possible, so please read, enjoy and comment!
The book also has a site, and like the book it's so far been semi-public. No longer. Feel free to point your browsers to nomadeconomics.org just what will happen there is slightly indeterminate, but hopefully informative and entertaining.
February 02, 2006
The Long Tail
Chris Anderson has finished his book on the long tail. I wonder if he wants his sales figures to lie somewhere in the middle of that tail or if he'd prefer something closer to a bestseller in the powerful head?
One curious thing about this long tail metaphor/diagram is that there is a tail and head, but where is the body exactly? Anderson "solves" this problem in his first post by calling the head the body, and helps himself out visually by using a curve that appears not to be an actual power law, but instead a distortion of one..
So in some ways Anderson has reached the end of this long tail, although I suspect the blog will continue on. But at this juncture I'm left wondering if Anderson's project is less about celebrating the long tail as a whole and more about exploiting the growing tail of distribution in order to find oneself in the powerful head of income.
All that said I still think Anderson sometimes is digging in interesting stuff and the blog to book model that he's help pioneer is quite intriguing...
November 24, 2005
Metataggers: Digital Graffiti / Empire / Archives
There are certain digital thresholds of history, points in which the type and amount of data available via computers and their networks changes radically. The point in which magazine and news articles are available via Lexus/Nexus for example, or the points in which archive.org started archiving the internet and DejaNews (now part of Google) started archiving the usenet.
It's not quite as clear a line, but I have a feeling one day the point in which everything started to get blogged will mark another such transition. Case to point I started digging around for the web evidence of a show I did back all of 3 years ago, september 2002. Neither archive.org nor google revealed the precise material I wanted, the gallery's original web page for the show. Instead I found a short post on evhead.com, the blog of Evan Williams founder of Blogger. I guess that's worth some geek cred... In anycase if something soon won't exist unless its been blogged, I best document this thing...
Metaggers: Digital Graffiti was the name, featuring the art of Shep Fairey, Paul Miller and 47 which at the time was me, [sic] and Ethan Eismann. Among the pieces I had in it was "Empire" which you can view "after the fold" for this entry.
October 13, 2005
Conspicuous Non-Consumption / An Email Free Lifestyle
When Veblen came up with the concept of conspicuous consumption it quite clearly contained within it the idea of conspicuous non-consumption as well. Having a servant is one thing, but having a servant who clearly doesn't even do anything is clearly more conspicuous. In contemporary society nothing can illustrate this clearer then a visit to a high end jeans emporium or a stroll through Williamsburg Brooklyn. The more your clothes make it look like you don't work, beyond perhaps maybe painting or playing in a band, the more status you get, and the price of damaged denim reflects that.
In the networked lifestyle of connected elite (and by that I mean 'elite' in a rather broad sense that almost certainly includes you, my reader) nothing could convey status more than a freedom from email. Not just a knee jerk turn off the computer sort of freedom from email. That might be nice for a week or two, but reactionary is not the answer. No, what would take real skill is the cut out email from your life and remain connected, to say be able to be a freelancer or run a business, without using email. Virtually an impossible task in that particular strata of Western culture I happen to live in. So hard to obtain, and thus such a potential status symbol.
Email is so deeply entrenched in our lives its become easy to hate, but impossible to let go. If one is looking for an obtainable status symbol, the empty inbox is of course the way to go. What I'd really like though is to be free not from the emails themselves, but from the obligations attached to the emails. Waves and waves of spam have somewhat weakened the expectation of a response to an email, but they haven't killed it. And not only do emails carry a sense of obligation, but they also have a longer half life than say a voicemail. Those voice messages sometimes pile up, but the system is architected to push them out. Limited recording time, minimal visual representation, and a linearity that pushes old messages out of the way.
Emails sits in your inbox, or whatever folder they get filtered too, and they stay there, visible until you take action. A visual nag, a persistent stress on the system. Lately I've been thinking of adding an autoresponce to my email system. Send me an email and I'll have an automated reply. Something to the effect that I will read the email, but I don't take actions based on emails. If you want me to do something, call, txt or im are the ways to go. Email is for archives, reference and file transfer. One way information and maybe an occasional long slow conversation. Calls to action? They belong on active media, live media.
So I don't quite have the nerve to install it yet. There is a rudeness and arrogance to it, exactly the sort of thing Veblen took such apparent pleasure in skewering. I'm still just another data whore, racking up messages in that inbox. So what about you?
September 06, 2005
Web 2.02 (bottom up)
Peter Merholz has a response up to my Web 2.0 piece. Peter is one of the sharpest commentators and observers of the internet around and par the course it well worth reading. And he brings up two points that need some clarification, so as Slick Rick would say, here we go:
First off Peter is entirely right that the early web was not a place where "anyone" could build. Not in the least. But I also was pretty careful not to make that claim, so I'm not sure where the "anyone" Peter puts in quotes comes from.
The distinction between and amateur and professional is like that between the ocean and land, very clear most of the time, but almost impossible to pin down at the border regions. And when you talk about amateur and professional skills rather than amateurs and professionals as in people, well then the distinction becomes almost impossible to sort out. But in the end I think it's pretty damn clear that it takes a lot more skills to be rolling your own up to general standards websites now then it did 10 years ago. You just can't learn how to make Ajax sites or database driven sites or write good CSS the way you used to be able to learn HTML or Flash 3. Precisely demarcating that difference is near impossible, but it's pretty clear that it exists. The somewhat arbitrary and perhaps a bit silly distinction I used, of a skill that a reasonably intelligent and motivated person could learn in a weekend was there precisely to make it clear that the amateur web was not one that "anyone" could get onto, but was one that took a very different sort of learning process then what exists today to become a creator.
Peter's second point is well taken and I'm afraid I'm a bit at fault. I never meant to imply in any way that Peter was intentionally arguing that companies should relinquish control over to his company. However whether he likes it or not I do believe that is part of what he in effect did end up arguing. I mean, the article appeared on the website of the company he founded, a company in the business of selling web consulting. And when he says companies should relinquish control he's not saying they should have a gang of monkey's generate their websites or hire 14 year old "script kiddies" to write their code or turn your whole ecommerce site into a wiki. Relinquishing control is not something that you can just do like its a Nike ad. Rather in order to do it, you need to make sure you do it right. And if you want to do it right, hiring Peter and Adaptive Path is probably one of the smartest things you could do. They are among the very best, I have a strange feeling they'll do a much better job figuring out how to relinquish control then you, or most other companies could do on their own.
There is a reason for this, "relinquishing control" is hard, really hard. And not just psychologically, there are an awful lot of ways you can do it wrong. There is a reason why Amazon lets you add comments to book pages, but not edit the author and title of the book or use the page a private bulletin board, and its not because they hate their customers. Flickr lets you upload photos, but not mp3s or java applets. Ebay lets you sell your items online but requires you register with them. None of these businesses would work if they just let customers do anything and everything. They aren't in the lose control business, they are in the business of facilitating the flow of information. Not just any information too, but specific information, quality specific information, information relevant to their particular focuses.
When Amazon opened up its pages to comments they radically increased the amount of information available about each book purchase. In the process they relinquished some control over to their customers, in a rather controlled manner of course. Flickr gives their users control over their own photos online, but the numerous interface innovations that in part drives their success stem from controlling exactly what type of files the users can post. By narrowing the channel of information down to a couple similar image file types, the Flickr team was able to open up a whole array of ways in which that particular type of information could flow.
It is important to understand that openness and control do not necessarily need to be in conflict, they are not paradoxical at all, but in fact often work together integrally. It is only in very localized circumstances, for instance in the specific decision whether to have an API to a system or not, that the two enter into a dialectical relationship. Most of the time the two coexist quite easily, often complementing each other, and sometime quite essential to each others operation. For instance the distributed network that is the entire internet, would be close to useless without the centralized DNS system, which dictates the address on the network of practically every publicly accessible object on the internet.
My favorite example is still Brian Eno's Music for Airports. On this record Eno set out to create a generative system for music, a way to create music without the rigid control proscribed by western (and most other) music tradition. But to give up control completely is to give up being music at all. Even John Cage, whose 4'33" opens the entire piece up to the audience to create, relies upon the piece being done in a controlled environment. Outside of the performance hall, absent a performer on stage to provide a focal point, the piece no longer is music, is no longer recognizable. Eno, went far beyond this, he carefully curated the sounds going into his record. He went through an elaborate and convoluted process to create longs loops of sound out of rhythmic sync with each other. He hijacked the entire studio space to make the mechanics possible. He gave up control over certain key elements of the piece, the time when any given sound would play, and opened up a vast potential space for variation in the piece, but in order to achieve that liberation, he needed to control most of the process.
From a creators point of view it might be helpful to think not of control, but of self-discipline. Mike Migusrki has a piece doing exactly that, and its quite insightful. As a creator, in order to achieve the freedom to create what you envision in your head you need to achieve a certain mastery of your discipline. Only once you have achieved a certain control over your tools are your free to create what you want. Translated into a networked environment this transforms into a slightly different discipline. Suddenly the tools are shared, in order for information to flow from site to site, system to system a shared discipline must be developed and maintained. This discipline then becomes both a potential means to achieve a freedom and a potential for control to be implemented.
I wrote most of the above last week, before Katrina and its aftereffects disrupted all thought patterns. Since then the Web 2.0 conversation has advanced a bit, most notably with danah boyd's "Why Web2.0 Matters: Preparing for Glocalization". Have a feeling there is plenty more to come too. But overall I have the feeling there isn't really much disagreement. Expansion yes, Web 2.0 is a pretty amorphous thing, but there is something there and everyone wants to finger it. But perhaps the real answer is that old stand by, "all of the above". Or perhaps not, I'm looking forward to what comes next...
September 04, 2005
Anarchy, New Orleans Edition (bottom up)
The first warning sign I caught was in midst of the Hurricane build up. Can't remember where, but buried in some article was a line about long lines to get into the Superdome, the shelter of 'last resort'. Long lines because security at the door was searching everyone for drugs and guns.
The storm of the century is blasting towards New Orleans and police are busy searching people for drugs and guns, something was ajar, the record skipped a groove. The impact wasn't in yet the storm had not landed, this was supposed to be a story about a natural disaster and the human response, where the hell did the drugs and guns, the search and seizure, where did it come into the picture.
Welcome to New Orleans.
Beneath the jazz history, oil flows and 24 hour drinking establishments, is a city of deeply entrenched poverty, distrust and inequality. Its a city where a quarter of the population lives in poverty. A city where a largely white police force plays enforcer to a population that is 70% black. As liberated as the city may seem to a drinker, its never escaped the shadows of slavery and the equally insidious but far more subtle structures of racism that followed. As in much of the south the Civil War never quite ended in New Orleans. Beneath the Marti Gras facade of the city is a perpetual tension, a poverty that goes beyond economics, a poverty of communication, a poverty of politics, a poverty of trust.
The destruction of New Orleans began long before the hurricane hit. The looting, chaos and armed gangs began long before the levees broke. You could read it in the paper as Katrina approached, a storm is coming and what are the police doing? What they always are doing, searching the population, imposing their will. The city is being evacuated, but the police and general population can never work together in this city, the divides are so deep that they stand up strong and violent even as the levees fall.
In the intensely disturbing days that followed, that as I write this still appear to continue, two news items hit even harder, even nastier, then the rest. One was the stories of New Orleans police turning in their badges, their ties to the community had been severed by the waters, they no longer cared for the city they had sworn to serve and protect. Nothing could be a stronger indictment of just what a wounded community existed in New Orleans, of just how much the police force was their to protect property not serve the people of the city. Perhaps even more shocking and nearly entirely blocked from the news is the fact that troops (Louisiana National Guard?) where blocking the bridge out of the city, preventing thousands from walking out the disaster zone and the Red Cross from coming in. New Orleans had been turned into a prison, a war zone, an area not to be helped, but to be contained. If these reports turn out to be true, so far the only source I've found is of all places Fox New's Shepard Smith, then the story evolves from disaster and into one of crimes against humanity. And I suspect its damn true, I was wondering just why no one was walking out long before that report, and Nola.com was filled with reports of people being denied entry to rescue people at confirmed locations.
What this all builds up to goes beyond just the racism, repression and persistent
low level class warfare at work and into anarchy. Anarchy is a funny word, the mainstream news was full of it for the past few days. Anarchy as chaos, lose of control, the inmates running the prison while the lights stayed out. Anarchists however have quite a different definition of anarchy however, and completely out of step with their philosophy, are rather insistent that others use their definition despite the fact that a vast majority of people use a quite different definition.
My friend tobias c. van Veen provides a good example, in his other wise spot on essay "A Black Rainbow Over Downtown New Orleans", he makes the claim that no, New Orleans is not in a state of anarchy, but rather "the rupture of the facade of global capital". Which is all probably true if one follows one of the rigid definitions of anarchy favored by practitioners, but utterly incomprehensible to those of us who still are aware of word in its common usage. New Orleans was in a state of anarchy after the disaster, a state where the law was absent, a non force, a state of chaos.
What's really interesting to me though is that neither definition of anarchy, the anarchist's own definition or the common more frenzied one need to be contradictory. In fact both anarchies are easily contained within one definition, and both are in reality potential states of one concept, potential states of anarchism.
Anarchy is the social state free of political authority, and in the days after Katrina hit New Orleans is a clear example of what can happen in such circumstances. That "can" is essential though, it does not mean that is what will always happen and in fact there are plenty of examples quite to the contrary. New York after 9-11 is the one that immediately springs to mind, but perhaps Chalmette, Louisiana is even better, a small town seven miles east of New Orleans where the Katrina tied together rather then divide the community.
Anarchy is by its very nature an emergent system. What emerges does not necessarily need to be intelligent or organized, but since there is no direct centralizing force, whatever group behavior exists must be emergent in some manner.* But just how anarchy emerges is not predetermined in any manner, and in fact there are a variety of potential states that it might take. What determines what state anarchy enters into is largely determined by environment, culture and forms of energy circulating within the anarchistic space.
In New Orleans a culture of distrust and borderline warfare was long present in the environment. Poverty, racism and drugs where part of day to day life. As nearly all the white people, along with the black middle class and elite fled New Orleans what remained was largely two groups the helpless and the deeply repressed. Free of the persistent police presence, hungry, lacking water, plumbing and electricity anarchy emerged. Some of the anarchy was people breaking into stores for food and water. Some was people breaking in to obtain those material goods they never obtain in the political and economic climate that was New Orleans. And some of it was just plain people breaking. Pains and pressures snapping into the form of rapes, beatings and bullets directed at the police.
It was all there and apparent as the Hurricane approached. The police officers slowly and intensely searching every person as they entered the Superdome seeking shelter clearly illustrated the failure of this community and the vicious environment constructed to keep it that way. This was a community already at war, a long drawn out police action of a war. A community without trust. These are the force that directed the emergence of anarchy. The forces that pushed the anarchy towards its violent emergence, its most tragic form.
Anarchists, expect perhaps a few lunatics, want no part of this sort of anarchy, and in fact will go to great measures to redefine anarchy to exclude these realities. But in fact the anarchies of the anarchists are merely other potential states of the exact same anarchy that New Orleans produced. Far more positive potential states, and ones that can be glimpsed at in places like Chalmette during this disaster. There residents ignored by authorities for six days distributed food via boat, did their own rescuing and created their own shelter. Just as in New Orleans it was anarchy, the absence of political control, the parish officials had fled. But a very different state of anarchy, guided by an environment not nearly as oppressive as New Orleans.
Just who is responsible for the various police actions around New Orleans is still pretty clear, but its becoming evident that the various government agencies at work went out of their way to ensure the anarchy of New Orleans would be pushed towards a negative not positive state. The searches at the Superdome where just the prelude. The combat operations, "little Somalia" approach of the US Army was the most over the top. Most odious and damaging though was the sealing of the city, the turning of the city into a prison where people could not walk out. Volunteers with boats where turned away, people with confirmed locations could not enter to pick up relatives and friends. Even the Red Cross was kept out. The government it seems was far more concerned with containing the poor of New Orleans then in solving any problems. Its not a new story, its merely a wretched retelling of the same foul story of slavery in America and lord its not pretty. Its a story that will get told again and again too, perhaps never with the same catastrophic energy of Katrina pulsing through it, perhaps never with the same media attention, but the same old story, same old tragedy once again.
* This it should be noted gets directly at one of the biggest confusions surrounding emergence, there is a massive difference between an emergent intelligence, an emergent system and an emergent property.
August 31, 2005
Libertarian Disasters (bottom up)
Jared Diamond has been asking a question for years. What where the Easter Islanders thinking when they cut down their last tree? If New Orleans is any guide then answer was that they were too busy looting to notice much.
Managers at a nursing home were prepared to cope with the power outages and had enough food for days, but then the looting began. The Covenant Home's bus driver surrendered the vehicle to carjackers after being threatened.
Bands of people drove by the nursing home, shouting to residents, ''Get out!'' On Wednesday, 80 residents, most of them in wheelchairs, were being evacuated to other nursing homes in the state.
''We had enough food for 10 days,'' said Peggy Hoffman, the home's executive director. ''Now we'll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot.''
That's the saddest reminder of how low humanity can sink when things go bad, although Diamond pointing out how the Easter Islander's diet increasing consisted of humans as their society fell just might beat it. It leaves me wondering what the libertarian response to this disaster might be. That the government is actually impeding the repairs, the market would have fixed the levee faster? That looting is better called the "competitive redistribution of goods", and is actually a good thing? Or that if every nursing home aid carried a gun things would have turned out different?
I've been addressing these issues in some very different contexts in the various "bottom up" posts. Well New Orleans is at the bottom, in more ways then one right now, and it will be interesting to see what happens. And these early reports sound more like warfare in the Congo then the sort of beautiful emergence that free marketers and high tech libertarians love to fantasize about. None of this comes much of a surprise to me as I've long been arguing that emergent systems don't just emerge out of the ether. When they do occur they occur in very particular environments.
Markets (and no market is ever really "free") work in civil societies. They tend to fall apart in the face of guns, to the point of non existence in again the Congo, or to the point of deep corruption as in the mafia markets of Russia. Out of all the animals in the world only a few display the sort of emergent intelligence of ants or termites. Occasionally such as in elephant stampedes, humans rioting or perhaps the mythical lemming mass suicides some animals display behavior that's a bit more like emergent stupidity. The point being that emergence is not nearly the simple thing that some would make it out to be. Books on the subject naturally focus on the occasions where it works, but in the process they give a distorted idea of how often they don't work. Which in term leads to fans of the concept having completely unreasonable ideas of how to go about getting that magical self organization to happen.
Self organizing and self regulating systems are fantastic creature, but they take real effort to make happen. The environment needs to be right. For a market that means a stable trusting society with a surplus of goods and a standard of equable exchange. For a community to self organize to prevent looting I suspect you need a sort of cohesiveness, social equality and absence of poverty that just doesn't exist in New Orleans, a city rife with centuries of unresolved social tension. Rather then chaos theory down in Louisiana, instead we get a bit more traditional style of chaos, and no its not nearly as pretty as say a Julia set.
update: I wish I never wondered what the libertarian response to the hurricane was, cause it just made me a bit iller. Over at Reason, probably the premier libertarian blog, the only hurricane post out of nearly 50 in the past 3 days is entitled "Hurricane Bullshit". And its a rant against global warming and the Kyoto accord. Main source? That most reliable of them all, the guy who wrote the book predicting the Dow Jones average would hit 36,000 in 3-5 years. He wrote it oh about 6 years ago...
August 27, 2005
Are the internet hypelords getting a bit tired? There's this funny whiff of déjŕ vu that comes along with the latest and greatest buzzword: Web 2.0. Web 2.0? Wasn't that like 1995? Don't they remember that Business 2.0 magazine? Or remember how all the big companies have stopped using version numbers for software and instead hired professional marketers to make even blander and more confusing names? I hear "Web 2.0" and immediately smell yet another hit off the dotcom crackpipe...
But perhaps that's a little too harsh, while Web 2.0 might have emerged in a large part from tech publisher O'Reilly's PR, underneath it is a real feeling among some that there is something going on that makes the web of today different then the web of a few years ago. Blogs, open standards, long tails and the like. The most concise and clear definition I've found is Richard Manus', " the philosophy of Web 2.0 is to let go of control, share ideas and code, build on what others have built, free your data." Which of course doesn't sound that different then say the goes of the plain old unnumbered "web", back ten years ago. But the Web 2.0 are right, the web is different now, but the big differences aren't necessarily found in those prosaic "information wants to be free" ideals, which actually stand as one of the biggest constants in web evolution.
What really separates the "Web 2.0" from the "web" is the professionalism, the striation between the insiders and the users. When the web first started any motivated individual with an internet connection could join in the building. HTML took an hour or two to learn, and anyone could build. In the Web 2.0 they don't talk about anyone building sites, they talk about anyone publishing content. What's left unsaid is that when doing so they'll probably be using someone else's software. Blogger, TypePad, or if they are bit more technical maybe WordPress or Movable Type. It might be getting easier to publish, but its getting harder and harder to build the publishing tools. What's emerging is a power relationship, the insiders who build the technology and the outsiders who just use it.
Its 2005 now Ajax, the latest and greatest in web tech. If you want to build an Ajax site, you have two real options, be a professional or hire a professional. I'm sure there a few people out there who could teach themselves Ajax in a weekend, but they would have to be exceptional individuals. You can't just view source and reverse engineer Gmail or Reblog. You need to be a professional programmer who understands web standards, databases, CSS and dynamic html... These are apps built not just by pros, but often by teams of pros. The difference between a professional and amateur is no longer smooth, but striated.
The Web 2.0 is a professional web, a web run by insiders. In the larger space of the software industry as a whole these are still young brash upstarts pushing a somewhat radical agenda of openness and sharing. In contrast to the agenda's of old line software companies like Microsoft and Sun, AOL and Oracle, the Web 2.0 actually merits some of its hype. The world of RSS feeds, abundant APIs and open source code really is a major departure from the "own and control" approaches of an earlier generation of companies and something I'm personally in favor of. But just how open are these technologies really? And just how many people do they empower? Take a close look and Web 2.0 looks a bit more like a power grab and a bit less like a popular revolution.
Like the proponents of "free" markets, the pushers of Web 2.0 seem to have a quite an idealistic idea of just what "free" and "open" are, and how systems based around those concepts actually function. Peter Merholz is perhaps the sharpest and most thoughtful of Web 2.0 evangelists and his essay "How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Relinquish Control" just might be the best argument for the Web 2.0 philosophy around. But its also paints a radically misleading picture of what it means to "relinquish control". For relinquishing control doesn't just mean letting go, losing control, it actually means controlling just how you let go.
Netflicks is a great example. Merholz talks about how the company success revolved around giving up on late fees, unlike traditional video stores they did not control how long a customer could keep a video. A smart move for sure, but they didn't just relinquish control, but instead opted to control several other key factors. They gave up control on the length of the rental and instead opted to control how many videos a customer could have at any given time, and take control over the final decision as to what video a customer would get. Netflicks isn't giving up control, they are exchanging it, they built a highly controlled system in which enabled them to allow certain vectors, namely the length of video rentals, to fluctuate freely.
What Amazon.com's customer reviews, which Merholz prominently cites as an example of a company relinquishing control to its customers. And indeed if you write a review there is a good chance your words will show up in Amazon's page for the book. Amazon will cede control of that small section of the page to you. But just how much do they really give up? In submitting a review the reviewer grants "Amazon.com and its affiliates a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sub-licensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media." Even then Amazon requires you to follow their review guidelines and delays the publication for 5 to 7 business days, quite possibly so that they can review the review in some way. Once this is all done the review is then placed on a page that Amazon has complete control over the layout. The reviews go near the bottom, well "below the fold". So just how much control has Amazon given away? And just how much have they gained back in return?
At the technological core of the Web 2.0 ideology is another innovation that Amazon has been a early leader in, public APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. APIs are tricky concepts to grasp, they are essentially ways in which on computer program can talk to another, or one part of a computer program can talk to another part. Until recently, until Web 2.0, talking about public APIs basically meant talking about computer operating systems. Most APIs where private, things that development teams used to build complex systems of interlocking programs, things like Amazon, Ebay and Google. Amazon and Ebay in particular have quite complex relationships with a certain subset of their customers who happen to run businesses that rely in part or entirely on using Amazon or Ebay services. Amazon has affiliates and zshops, while Ebay its power sellers and eBay stores. I haven't been able to track down a good history of public web APIs, but I suspect Amazon and Ebay released theirs mainly as a service to their power customers, as a way to help these customers make them even more money. Google on the other hand released its public API mainly as a geek toy, not as a revenue source. The sort of action that makes Web 2.0 devotees ecstatic. The public API is a way to share data, allow independent programmers to build their own applications using information collected and sorted by the likes of Google and Amazon, and allows users to access this data in any variety of ways not fully controlled by the data holder. The public face of the public API is that of openness and sharing, of relinquishing control. Look a bit behind that facade though, and once again, we find yet another system of control.
A public API is not what a companies internal developers are using to extend their systems. It doesn't give you full access to the data or full access to the functionality of the system. This is often a good thing, as an Amazon customer I'm quite happy that the Amazon public API does not include access to credit card data or purchasing habits. Despite all the Web 2.0 hype about open data I've never seen anyone argue for companies sharing this info. But the limits on what can be accessed via a public API go far beyond just protecting confidential user information. In fact the company creating the API has absolute control over what goes into it. They maybe giving up a degree of control, but they are controlling exactly what that degree is.
A company that allows you to access their databases and applications via an API is clearly more open than one with no API at all. But the API is also instrumental in establishing an asymmetrical power relationship between the API maker and the user. The user is free to use the API, but the creator has control over just what goes into the API. In addition the use of the API is almost always governed by a license restricting just how free a user can be with an API. Google's API for instance restricts the number of "automated queries" to 1000 a day. This essentially means that it can be used to prototype an application, but not to create any sort of commercial use beyond the smallest of scales. But just in case the license also clearly prohibits any commercial use at all. Is this a way to free the data or a way to implement another level of control over it?
Any user of a public API runs the risk of entering a rather catch-22 position. The more useful the API is, the more dependent the user becomes on the APIs creator. In the case of Ebay sellers or Amazon affiliates this is often a mutually beneficial relationship, but also inherently unbalanced. The API user holds a position somewhat akin to a minor league baseball team or McDonald's franchisee, they are given the tools to run a successful operation, but are always beholden to the decisions of the parent organization. You can make a lot of money in one of those businesses, but you can't change the formula of the "beef" and you always run the risk of having your best prospects snatched away from you.
There is another asymmetrical relationship at work in the public API system, an asymmetry of data. The public API rarely, if ever, gives full access to the data and the way an internal API can. Even the most open of public APIs will not give access to stored credit card numbers and passwords, at least not intentionally. Often though the gap between the two systems is far greater. Google's public API for instance allows you to do searches and dictionary lookups, but doesn't give access any of the data mining functions at work in Google's internal system. You can't use the API to find out what terms are searched for more, what sort of searches are originating from a particular address, or what one particular user (based on Google's infamous 30 year cookie) has searched for over the past year. That sort of datamining is reserved for Google employees and their associates. And not only is the API user denied access to much of this information, they also are gifting Google with even more data from which it can extract data. With every public API call the creator gives out information it already possesses, while gaining a new piece of information back, information on what people are interested in.
At the core of the API is a system of control, the API creator has a nearly limitless ability to regulate what can go in and out of their system. And it is precisely this system of control that allows the API to set certain vectors of information free. In Google's case the ability to obtain ranked search results, definitions and a few other factors. In Amazon's case its book data, images of the cover, author names, titles, prices, etc. Ebay's lets you build your own interface to sell via their marketplace. Flickr's lets you search photos. In no case does the public API give full access to the system. You can't find passwords, credit card info, users addresses, all of which is a good thing. Nor can you find much info on what other API users are doing, or what the people using the standard web interface to these systems are doing. Often the volume of your activity is restricted. Often access requires registration, meaning not only is the use of the API monitored, but its also possible to associate that activity to a particular individual. By design, and perhaps by necessity an API privileges the creator over the user.
Privilege is what the Web 2.0 is really about. What separates the Web 2.0 from that plain old "web" is the establishment and entrenchment of a hierarchy of power and control. This is not the same control that Microsoft, AOL and other closed system / walled garden companies tried unsuccessfully to push upon internet users. Power in the Web 2.0 comes not from controlling the whole system, but in controlling the connections in a larger network of systems. It is the power of those who create not open systems, but semi-open systems, the power of API writers, network builders and standards definers.
More then anything else the paradoxes of Web 2.0 "freedom" then the open standard. Open standards are freely published protocols that people voluntarily agree to comply with. Standards like html (for publishing web pages), css (for controlling the look and layout of webpages), rss (for subscribing to information feeds) and jpeg (for compressing and viewing photolike images). These standards are not nearly as open as their name might imply. Sometimes they are created and run by corporations (Adobe's pdf format), sometimes by nonprofits (the W3C which governs html standards), sometimes like with RSS there are public fights and competing versions. Implementing changes to an open standard at the very least requires considerable political skills, one can easily make their own version of a standard, but unless they can convince others to adopt their version, its not a standard at all. It is only by gaining users that a protocol gains potency, and to do so the standard itself must be politicized, and frequently institutionalized.*
The real hook to the freedoms promised by the Web 2.0 disciples is that it requires nearly religious application of open standards (when of course it doesn't involve using a "public" API). The open standard is the control that enables the relinquishing of control. Data is not meant to circulate freely, its meant to circulate freely via the methods proscribed via an open standard. In order to relinquish control over the data one first must establish firm control over how that data is formatted and presented. An action that increasingly requires the services of a professional, whose involvement of course adds another layer of control. This is the world of the Web 2.0, a world of extreme freedom along certain vectors, extreme freedom for certain types of information. It is also a world of hierarchies and regulations, a world in which a (new) power structure has begun to establish and stratify itself.
If we return to Peter Merholz's essay, this can be seen rather clearly. It's title indicates its about him giving up control, but of course its really an argument that others should give up control. But where should this control go? How should it be done? This is, in Merholz's words, "a scary prospect". In the end he's not just arguing that companies should relinquish control, rather he's arguing that they should relinquish control over to him, his company Adaptive Path, and others that share their philosophy. Reliquish control over to the professionals, those that know what they are doing, know how to control things on the internet.
None of this should in anyway be construed as a critique of the Web 2.0, rather it is a critique of those who push one-sided visions of what the Web 2.0 is. If pushed into an oversimplified judgment I would come out solidly in favor of public APIs, open standard and circulation of information along the passages these systems create. But these transformations do not come unmitigated, they do not come without hooks and catches. In many ways Web 2.0 is just another revolution. Like many revolutionaries the leaders of the Web 2.0 make broad promises of empowerment for their supporters. But history shows time and time again that dust clears and the dirty battles washed away, it is the leaders, the insiders, that are by far the most empowered. At its heart this is the Web 2.0, a power grab by the internet generation, the installation of a new power structure, a new hierarchy, a new system of control.
*for a much more detailed exposition on the standards process and the issues of protocol see Alex Galloway's .
August 21, 2005
Datamining as the New Advertising
Actually the title is a bit misleading, datamining is not something that replaces advertising, the two are complementary. But while broadcast media operated on a tacit agreement between the producer and audience that the content would be free in exchange for the audience being exposed to ads, it looks like a new tacit agreement is emerging online, the content is free in exchange for the data to mine. Its been slowly cooking for years, cookies being the first real milestone, and like in broadcast no one is rushing to make clear to the audience/users just exactly they are getting themselves into...
August 15, 2005
The Power of Nightmares (bottom up)
Finally got around to watching The Power of Nightmares, or more accurately the final installment of the three part series. This BBC documentary is something of a fetish object among American Leftists, spoken about in hushed reverent tones as an object that will unveil the hidden truths. "Have you seen the Power of Nightmares? You must see the the Power of Nightmares". The object itself circulates via transcript and torrent, a little googling and you too can be an initiate...
Criticism often says as much about the critic themselves as it does about their target. Director Adam Curtis also directed a four hour documentary on Freud and his followers, so he surely must be aware of that fact. So is the autocratic tone of this film a deliberate maneuver or an unintentional slip on Curtis' part? This is a movie about politicians manipulating facts, but Curtis seems intent on mimicking them. Rather then raising questions it dictates an alternative history. Its clearly a successful tactic, but for me at least it deftly undercuts the purpose of the film. Is Curtis deliberately copping the style? Unconsciously aping it? Or is projecting his own paranoia and monomania onto his targets? Regardless of the truth, it makes the film a bit hard to take seriously, both Curtis and his targets want to tell stories without questions, when in reality the facts at hand are rather uncertain.
The most powerful and effective parts of the documentary where simply the clips of Bush and Rumsfeld selling the war. That they grossly distorted the facts shouldn't come as any surprise to just about anyone who has followed the story in any detail, but watching them in action with a few years of hindsight is quite revealing. These are characters who understand the power of authority and how to put it on television, and the left it seems has no counterpart, with perhaps the exception of director Curtis himself. During this build up the left was busy, working the web, trying to be bottom up, protesting in the streets. Some old ineffective tactics, some new ineffective tactics. Even with online fundraising a new effective tactic. But all the while the right kept pushing the tried and true, get on TV and say it with authority.
The more I look at it the more the rhetoric of emergence, "long tails", and "bottom up" begins to resemble a far older idea, divide and conquer. Only this time the dividing is self inflicted, praised even. That not to say I'm here to blanketly dismiss "bottom up", there is far to much unknown, and too much potential, to do anything of the sort. But until these theories come face to face with concept and application of power, they seem doomed to a particular ineffectiveness. In other words, a nightmare.
August 14, 2005
Survival of the Fittest / Intelligent Design
I've been holding back on writing about intelligent design for a few weeks. In part its because I'm not sure I can say anything about it better than Steven Shaviro did. But ultimately I'm just too in awe of the tactical brilliance of the "intelligent design" campaign, the latest attempt by religious conservatives to get creationism taught in schools. Intelligent design (in the origin of life sense, not the design as in a profession/process sense) is a beautifully crafted piece of intellectual judo, one that deftly uses the core tenets of science to unmask just how unscientific the defenders of science really are.
For the past century or so the creationism versus evolution debate has essentially been a binary one. The creationists want only creationism taught and as the tone setters for the debate they set up a battle that many darwinians where happy to follow along with. One or the other, not both, not in between. In many ways this is the 100 year setup, a long process to open up the ideological weakness of science's defenders. Intelligent design is the deft counter move. It grabs many of ideological tenets of science and whips them back. All the intelligent design proponents want is for it to be taught alongside Darwin's theory. Or so they claim.
The genius of the tactic is the response it provoked. Rather then thinking rationally, the defenders of evolution knee jerked out a response, they where opposed to teaching intelligent design, only evolution should be taught in schools. An argument fit for an ideology, not a for the defending the tenets of the enlightenment. And in many ways science has of course become an ideology. There are the fundamental faiths, in the scientific method, in the accuracy of math, in our ability to predict the past. Most importantly though there is a priesthood, a set of insiders who the general public is expected to trust. Scientists themselves can challenge the dogma of scientific theories, although it takes great political skill to do so successfully. Most everyone else is expected to accept the word of science the same way a priest wants you to accept the word of god.
This isn't an argument against science, its a highly functional system, it builds its satellites and vaccines just as the Egyptians built their pyramids and the Catholic church its paintings and cathedrals. But science still can't tolerate anything that falls outside its doctrine of thinking, it's strength is how open it is to change, evolution is built into the system. But its only open to change mediated on its own terms and through its own system. Science like any other religion wants to force you into its way of thinking.
The latest maneuvers by the creationists, the intelligent design tactic, lay it all out bare in the open. The defenders of science are defending their faith, they want only evolution taught in school. I like evolution, as theories go its a damn good one with loads of secondary evidence backing it up. Proving any sort of historical theory seems damn near impossible though, so what's wrong with allowing a few more to be taught? I have no problems with "intelligent design" being taught in schools, although I certainly prefer a different sort of intelligent design... But if creationism is going to be taught it should be taught alongside evolution, and perhaps more importantly along side the various theories that most religions have used to make peace with evolution. Let them all stand side by side, call it survival of the fittest, is that something evolution's defenders should be afraid of?
August 08, 2005
In the Bubble (bottom up)
The Doors of Perception conference is perhaps one of the better named (and from a distance more fascinating) events out there. So perhaps its a bit of karmic balance that its director, John Thackara's latest book is so misleadingly titled. There is no dot com bubble in this book, nor any soapy stuff, merely one paragraph long anecdote that never quite relates to the book. Luckily the subtitle, "Designing in a Complex World" is spot on. Thackara's work and experience puts him in a highly privileged position to see what's going on in the design world and the book is something of his guided tour. It's a damn good walk.
I've got a sneaking suspicion that Thackara might be a fellow hypocritical luddite. He certainly has a healthy immunity to much of the high tech worship that strikes so much of the product and information design industry. Its not a traditional reactionary ludditism though, Thackara is concerned with design that works and works on a human scale. And much of the book is concerned with the navigating the multitude of contradictory challenges of "designing in a complex world".
The luddite movement predated Darwin's research and its somewhat unfortunate. The central symbolic act of the luddite, the throwing of shoes into the gears of the new machines is almost always seen as a reactionary act, but in fact it can just as well be seen as an evolutionary act. The luddites where in some ways the first hackers, when the machines where all in the hands of industrialists, gumming up the works was the only hack available, the only way to explore the mechanics. And more importantly to test the machines, break them apart with the goal of making them better. Like the luddites I have a deep fear of technology, particularly when its created for its own sake. But the hypocrisy emerges when a technology works, works well and most importantly works well for humans. This is the technology I love, embrace and sometimes propagate. And to get this sort of technology sometimes you need to throw some shoes in the works.
Design is a process of modulated hypocrisy. Thackara never reaches this conclusion, but he certainly illustrates in the course the books journey. The book is divided into ten thematic chapters, Lightness, Speed, Locality, Flow, etc, etc and, as fitting an exploration of complexity, they often contradict. The human mind of course is amazing at handling contradictions, to ignore the rules of logic is a fundamentally human act. In America liberals are pro abortion, anti death penalty, conservatives anti government, pro military industrial complex. Preachers make careers out of criticizing the very actions they discreetly carried out the night before. People argue for tougher criminal sentences and fight against building prisons near their homes, are militantly prorecyling until they found out it means building loud plants down the street, artists gentrify neighborhoods then fight the "yuppies" that they opened the doors for. Peruse any internet bulletin board and you'll inevitably find people typing messages telling other members to go outside and get away from the keyboard. And most telling people are happy to criticize others of hypocrisy, despite almost certainly being prone to it themselves.
A designer navigating a complex world inevitably needs to pick their focus, pick where their hypocrisy lies. Environmental architects rely on high speed computers filled with toxins to build zero emission buildings. Solar engineers suck massive power off the grid in an effort to build technology that ends it. The project needs to be bounded, a network can potentially, and often functionally does, stretch to infinity or fold recursively inward, fractal-like. If there is a designer, the designer is bounding the project, drawing lines and cutting off aspects to the network. The designer is applying directed energy, the product is not emerging, it is being designed.
In Thakara's "Mobility" section he cites a Swedish study of deliveries in Uppsala region. By optimizing delivery routes it seems "the results were startling" the vehicle fleet could shrink from 19 to 11, the total distance of delivery travel reduced by 39%, etc. Great for the environment, probably good for profit margins. But what about jobs, community and communication? Less delivery equals less work, and less networking. Community is in many ways an outgrowth of inefficiency, slowness advocated the chapter before, allows things to develop, conviviality (chapter 6) and locality (chapter 4). Both of which are probably served by more deliveries, done slower, with space for the idle chatter that lets information circulate across town, small ties to form and networks to grow.
Is it possible to address these contradictions continually? Humans it seems would rather just ignore them, our design choices perpetually solve certain problems and birth new ones behind them. And this is not necessarily bad, perhaps it's only human. Designers and the engineers, inventors and politicians who often play similar roles are in constant states of oscillation. Mass produced and cheap is in one day, handcrafted and intimate the next. A car plant is lauded for bringing jobs to the community and then five years later seen only as source of traffic and pollution. A freeway once liberated people, but now seems to destroy neighborhoods separating one side from another with a gulf far wider in effect then the block it occupies.
Thackara wanders the world where designers are questioning just where to bound their projects. He urges designers to expand their parameters, to think of broader connections and more locality, to watch energy flows and slow down. To design smarter but also go design free. "We are all designers" are his closing words, his books "premise" is "if we can design our way into difficulty, we can designer our way out". What is missing from it all is what design actually is. "Design is what people do" is the answer you can find on the first page, but that makes is pretty much everything human. And I'd actually agree, design can be everything humans do, but it can't be all of them at the same time. Rather design is the process of bounding and prioritizing around a particular set of focuses.
Most design decisions are directed actions that collapse our possibilities, guiding our focus. Often they open up new possibilities too, but only within a particular set of bounds. Picking up a hammer for instance reduces what our hand can do greatly. But it also opens up the possibility of driving in nails, breaking stone and shaping metal. This is a repeated cycle, collapse and release, a process that guides and sometimes directs us in actions. Thackara, along with other proponents of the 'design thinking' meme, wants to redesign design itself. And the book functions as a wonderful guide to the variety of potential spaces that design can enter. This is the back half of the pattern, the release. Design can be released into any number of spaces, but just how does one collapse them into a working process, a working product, not design thinking but a design itself?
August 02, 2005
The Long Tail (bottom up)
The latest and greatest bottom up hype is a concept called the Long Tail and its main booster is Wired magazine's editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. Following what's fast becoming bottom up proper protocol Chris has a blog and its devoted to turning the Long Tail into a book. He's a smart writer and its an interesting read as he knowledgeably tells tales from one could call the emerging networked culture. But something has always gritted on me and to understand just why its worth looking at far less digital topic, abortion in America.
The debate over abortion in the US is a strange sort of conflict. On one side you have "pro-life" and on the other side you have "pro-choice". No one its seems is anti anything. Barring perhaps the radical fringes, you don't find pro-choice protesters talking about how they want to deny women the right to make decisions, nor do you find pro-choice activists talking about how they want to kill babies. The two sides are locked in a deep conflict, but they aren't even arguing about the same thing! Or at least not over the same concepts, they are of course battling over the same action. And they are battling over how they want people, society as a whole even, to look at that particular action.
The concept of the Long Tail comes from a reading of another trendy idea in the world of technology intellectuals, the power law distribution. Power law curves show situations of profound inequality, most famously perhaps being Vilfredo Pareto's observation that 20% of all individuals in a society general control 80% of all the wealth. That was a century ago, and it still holds true. More to the point though, power laws have come into vogue and people are , especially where networks are involved. The long tail refers to the "tail" of the curve, the 80% of the people making 20% of the money.
Now there is a hell of a lot going on in this area, and it makes Chris Anderson's site quite an interesting read as he details the ins and outs of the information and entertainment businesses reacting to the massive network that is the internet. But the long tail, is not a neutral description, rather much like the stances of both sides in the abortion debate it is a deep ideological one. Much the way the abortion warriors are fighting to control the terms of the debate, the long tail is about controlling what the power law distribution is about. "Pay no mind to the 20% with all the power, what's really interesting is what's happening over here under this long tail..."
There is a huge philosophical issue at stake for those who are best termed the technorati, the boosters of high tech and networks roughly clustered around Anderson's Wired Magazine. In this circle an awful lot of hope and thought has been invested in the idea that the internet and other 'open' networks are a democratizing force. The belief that this is true underlies the much of the moral framework that the technorati in. It gives them faith that they are doing the right thing. The discovery that networks tend to develop quickly into situations of inequality, situations that tend to map towards the very 80-20 power laws that characterize the vast inequalities of wealth and power the internet was supposed to route around, this discovery slices straight to heart of any faith in the democratic power of the internet.
In many ways the long tail resembles a classic magician's slight of hand. A big distraction to call one's attention away from the relevant actions. Suddenly power laws are not illustrations of inequity, but ways to call attention away from it. But its increasingly clear that internet is not a massive democratizing force, but rather a standard transition of power. Sure some of the classic late 20th century media powers might fall, there is way more TV to watch and blogs hit hard at the newspaper and magazine models. But rather then having the power law curves fade we just have new powerhouses moving in. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon and the like. Its early on, expect new powers to arise and others to merger. But when the smoke has cleared who wants to bet that the top 20% are still making 80% of the money, the top 20% of sites grabbing 80% of the traffic?
Imagine a medieval lord showing off his serf's vegetables. Talking about how he's empowered them with growing opportunities. Its not then what you'll find on Chris Anderson's blog, except Anderson isn't the lord, just some servant nicely entrenched in the court. The long tail is cast as vast practice of empowering users, freeing them perhaps from the clutches of old media. But ultimately the site is not about freeing anyone, its about seducing and capturing those users, its about building new media kingdoms where the users trade amongst themselves while the technorati lords reap a tax off of every harvest.
Sometimes the tax straight monetary. Ebay is the classic example, like a casino they take a cut out of every transaction. And while Ebay might just be "empowering" thousands or millions of small business people, one wonders just how much more empowered the high ranking Ebay execs and investors are then the average Ebay seller? 80/20 maybe?
Often though "long tail" business is more about information and Anderson stresses the importance of filtering to these businesses, which is spot on. But what he misses is just how asymmetrical the filtering is. Businesses like Amazon, Yahoo and Google filter massive information and then send it back to their users. But they also keep large amounts of the information for themselves and their business partners. Sure they'll give you a slice of what you have, a chance to till some of their information, but in the end they are the lords of their domains, opening what they please (and what benifits them) to the long tail.
I'm pretty certain Anderson and most of his fellow network/technology boosters are not concious of the fact, but there is a strong undercurrent of a power grab to their beliefs. The rhetoric speaks of democratic revolutions that empower everyone, but the reality is that its about empowering a particular set of people. The ability of the internet and its related technologies to upset certain industries, communications systems and political structures is becoming more documented fact and less theory, Anderson's site is great at illustrating some of this pattern. But the particulars of who gains, and more importantly who does not, are far less commented upon.
Does networked technology benefit everyone? Or does it benifit only those who have the access, knowledge and will to use it?
June 29, 2005
"Bottom up", if there is one intellectual theme to this moment in time, buttom up it is. The Wired magazine hyper-capitalists chew it up, as do the neomarxist empire theorists. In science it takes the form of complexity theory and its more pop predecessor chaos theory. In politics its Howard Dean, MoveOn and Michael Moore, but more importantly John Kerry and the Democratic powerbase got hip to the kool aid quick and stole as many of the techniques as they could. In the media its weblogs and "long tails". On Wall Street and in neoclassical economics its about markets and believing in them. A lot of motherfuckers talking about "bottom up" thinking, as opposed to top down of course.
This post is likely the first in a series, I kept on reading books that begged to be tied together in a "buttom up" post, but it soon became clear there where far to many books, the post would need to become posts. Is that a top down decision, me deciding to break up the posts into sections, or is a bottom up decision, the multiplication of books forced me to change tactics? Or maybe, just maybe its sort of dumb to try and look at everything that way...
I'm not sure where the concept and phrase first emerged, but I'm guessing politics or management theory. In these contexts, in places where formal organizational hierarchies are the norm, it actually makes sense. A top down decision comes from the top of the hierarchy, and bottom up emerges from the "workers", from the depths of collective action.
The party line is that bottom up is good, top down is bad. Freedom versus control, collective intelligence versus ego driven power moves, markets versus central planning, linux versus microsoft. The reality is that it makes no sense. Bottom up is a catch phrase for a half formed idea. You can find the idea fully formed in a multitude of manifestations, and they ain't all good, and they sure as hell are not all the same either.
The plan then, the maneuver, is to bob, weave and parse through the bottom up landscape and emerge with some genuinely useful concepts, stay tuned and we'll see how it goes...
June 25, 2005
A performer sits on stage or at least in focus, generally, perhaps always, they are female. Traditionally in a dress. There is a pair of scissors in front. The audience is invited to come up and cut away a piece of clothing, one by one.
Yoko Ono created the source code in 1964 and first performed it in Tokyo that year. The tone apparently was violent and angry. Performed in NY, 2005, by Xaviera Simmons, the violence of the act, the cut, remained, but tension was the dominate feeling. To me the piece works primarily as a . What makes it interesting is watching the audience, who cuts next, and how? Does someone move, break the silence, or do we all just sit? How do they cut and who are they anyway?
Then again I've always preferred audiences to stages, very few performers have what it takes to fill the absurd amount of time given to them in our culture, despite what their egos might say. The audience with its multitudes offers a far more interesting view, to me at least. Watching the cut piece being watched made it clear that most audiences, even in the art world, are far more comfortable looking at a stage (with next to nothing going on!) then looking at themselves. Well its either the look at the stage, or enter into "subway mode", the blank looking at nothing glaze that constitutes urban travel for millions. Looking at other people is of course dangerous, it might spark a fight, or worse yet a conversation, an insight or a new piece of knowledge.
Of course Ono's piece still works as a staged focus, the issues it addresses, the relationship of audience and performer, clothing and human, violence and invitation, have shifted little in four decades. Uptown at the Cooper Hewitt is an exhibition Extreme Textiles, and one wonders just how much more extreme Ono's dress is then those on display there.
Fittingly of all one name sections, "stronger, lighter, faster, smarter, safer", "smarter" proved to be the least intelligent. The industrial revolution did not lead to clothes with machines in them (the zipper being the simple exception), is there any reason to think the computational era will lead to clothes with computers in them? Then again one of the traditional functions of clothes is to broadcast identity, perhaps that is where the "wearable computing" comes in? Somehow the webbed suits that turn humans into high rent flying squirrels seem to say more about the wearer, but not perhaps as much as Ono's scissors.
June 22, 2005
Minor League Charm
The minor league baseball stadiums might just be the last institution where 'American' and 'charm' still walk together. And that's probably why Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan's summer tour only plays minor league ballparks. I suspect with some Clear Channel promotion behind them they could easily sell out Giant's Stadium and its ilk, but god what an awful set of venues to play, listen too and see music. Instead they can't even sell out Dodd Stadium, home of the Norwich Navigators, and that's good old American charm. No worries, head up on Friday and not only can you watch the Navigator's play the Portland Sea Dogs, but you can also get a free Groucho Marx Nose n Glasses!
I-95 chewed up the oppurtunity to meet with Mr. Nelson, but squeezing next to the soundboard and watching him play in profile 10 feet away pretty much made up for that. Who else can take the stage in New Balance sneaks and still claim to be a pure entertainer. Willie loves the crowd, gives them what they want, shining, pure American charm. A throwback to when country music meant smoking joints on the White House roof and not paying taxes, not soft rock for xenophobes.
I don't think anyone in their right mind ever accused Dylan of being a performer. He makes music, any performance that emerges is purely accidental. I think he plays minor league parks to escape from the hype machine that wants to eat him up, and even then he apparently doesn't leave is darth vader black bus. The air conditioning never goes on, which must let Dylan experience the world in what seems to be his favorite manor, eavesdropping.
On stage Dylan has little presence other then that residue of celebrity he's so desperately tried to shake off. He barely left his post behind the electic organ, the guitar left to other hands. Doesn't much matter where you are on stage though with a voice like Dylan's. Out on the grass of a minor league ballclub you might think it's aged into some bonerattling perfection, he sound's like an alien telling tales of an earth he see's like no one else, unable to relate, but clearly able to communicate.
Out on the Norwich strip, or on its dying New England mill town main street, that voice seems more like a classic rock merger and aquisition, Dylan plus Tom Waits, dinosaur style. The minor league ballpark keeps its charm while main street fades because the minor league park is part of a larger machine, a feeder toward the big league hype machine. Down in Double AA baseball is still about dreams, kids who dream of making the majors, journeymen who still are happy they get paid to play baseball, these towns aren't big enough for major league egos, although the Navigators seem to have as many luxury boxes as Shea or Yankee stadium despite being drastically smaller/more intimate. Even the ads in the stadium have a bit of charm left, like the local plumbing company bought them to impress their old high school friends and maybe get some business, rather then as part of their international marketing scheme. Sure the players are all dreaming of the world series one day, but down in Double AA globalization is still a big city thing. As long as the local Wal-Mart hasn't bought any ads that is, and I think they are too cheap and ubiquitous for that...
June 11, 2005
Hans Ulrich Obrist
I first caught trace of Hans Ulrich Obrist via Bruce Mau's "Incomplete Manifesto for Growth". I'm not much of a fan for manifestos and Mau's was as bland, obvious and self serving as most of his work (and please note that's not entirely a criticism). One item glared out though, number 39 "Coffee breaks, cab rides, green rooms".
Hans Ulrich Obrist once organized a science and art conference with all of the infrastructure of a conference — the parties, chats, lunches, airport arrivals — but with no actual conference. Apparently it was hugely successful and spawned many ongoing collaborations.
It was one of those things that just gets lodged in the periphery, an idea that never quite escaped my mind, but never quite got put into focus either. A few times a year I'd reference it in a conversation, think about it in a plan, make sure it never quite disappeared from thought. A month or so back it surfaced in text, in a paper, I did a bit more research.
There is very little documentation at all on the "green room" conference, at least that I could find. It was entitled something like "Art and Brain" and Obrist claims it was successful.
No matter though, the import bit was stumbling on Obrist's . Weighing in at nearly 1000 pages, but in terms of content it's far denser then even that implies. Since 1993 Obrist has been interviewing as many interesting people as he can come across. And as a young hustling art curator its a fuck of a lot of people. It reads like an encyclopedia of the contemporary art world, high concept division. Artists and architects, philosophers and scientists. Its a joyous little tome and it might just be the best guidebook to the state of aesthetic thought, circa the new millenium. Highly recommended.
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 . 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
April 13, 2005
Malcolm Gladwell probably considers himself a "journalist" or just "writer", but I'm more inclined to view him as something of a prosumer philosopher. Even more then his first hit, The Tipping Point his new work, Blink is a book about a concept. And if one is to believe Gilles Deleuze (as I seem to be inclined to do perhaps a bit too frequently) then the creation of concepts is exactly what a philosopher does. And while Gladwell gives no indication he has even heard of Deleuze, the core concept of Blink is a subject dear to the late philosopher's heart, the space in the human mind where rational thought fails to enter, where discourse collapses into a univocality, where instinct and thinking are one and the same.
Gladwell interestingly puts forth what is essentially an argument for nonrationalism using hard rationalist techniques. A repeated theme of the book is the "thin slice". The thin slice is essentially a period of time where decisions are made so quickly that they can not be rationally thought through. The core concept of the book is that these thin slices or blinks are extremely powerful, capable of producing decisions that sometimes brilliant and at other times devastatingly wrong. Like Deleuze places these nonrationalist decisions at the core of human experience. But by relying extensively on the slice, the rationalist/analytical operation of breaking apart a problem into component parts in order to understand it, Gladwell ends up with a somewhat more limited concept then Deleuze. Gladwell is only really able to reach this very interesting space by breaking apart actions rationally until they no longer can be broken apart. Hence the focus on the "blink" the split second decision. What he misses is that these blinks can be extraordinarily long, lasting perhaps entire lifetimes.
The conclusion of Blink is about the use of screens in auditioning of orchestra members. Before the widespread use of these screens, which hide the players from the people making hiring decisions, there where very few women in professional orchestras. Once the screens became widespread an interesting thing happened, the number of women hired increase radically. Gladwell's argument is that the screen's allowed the decision makers to "blink" properly, making choices based on the music alone, not how the players looked. But what he misses is that the inbred discrimination at work, biases against women or minority musicians are also blinks, but blinks that happen to last years or decades.
Within those thin slices, Blink is an excellent book, a well written and entertaining exploration of a concept. If it approaches the success of The Tipping Point Gladwell will be in the position of America's most popular philosopher, most popular producer of concepts, without ever acknowledging and most likely personally accepting that he's even engaged in philosophy at all. But as large swathes of academia continues to ensnare themselves in a variety of traps of their own devising, hard rationalism, marxist dialectics, poststructuralism and the like, it is the popular producers of concepts that are filling the role of philosophers in our society. Like the high end consumer electronics I've named them after these prosumer philosophers are giving the public high quality intellectual products unburdened by the weight of professionalism (although this is not true when it comes to the art of writing). There is of course a lot to be lost in this transition, the intellectual rigor of the prosumer is non-existant compared to academia, but its also a profoundly liberating experience as the playing field of culture and concept shifts into new grounds. More soon, hopefully.
April 09, 2005
A couple days ago the New York Public Library (as in the big one guarded by lions) asked Who Owns Culture? and called in Lawrence Lessig, Jeff Tweedy and Steven Johnson to navigate. Actually the real question getting asked seemed to be "Who Makes Culture?" And the answer it seemed was "us". Whether the us was the three people on stage, the lily white crowd or something larger was utterly unclear. Ultimately though what made the event interesting though was not the questions that where asked but those that were not.
Only the a few years ago the fact that our current system of intellectual property is rift with problems, dangers and tragedies was radical, the "copyright is good for creators, no questions" Kool Aid was being served nearly universally. Mentioning the deep problems in the system was akin to unleashing the hounds, all too often I'd watch as otherwise intelligent humans turned into rabid hard copyright defenders. Thanks in large part by Lessig this is no longer the case. In fact not a single questioner in the room ever stood up the challenge the panelists. The besuited middle age lawyer looking men to my right nodded and smiled repeatedly to Lessig's arguments. It was a friendly crowd admittedly, but also one of privilege, people with something to gain from keeping things the way they are. And Lessig's "free culture" arguments pretty much where accepted as common truth, at least among those who listen to too much NPR.. Now Lessig of course represents the mainstream compromise side of the anti-copyright warriors, but at least culturally he's looking like a winning general nowadays.
February 20, 2005
The Database Avant-Garde
Talk about flattering, Steven Johnson responds to my review of Interface Culture, taking minor issue with my characterization that there hasn't been a real emergence of an "interface avant-garde". And using his broad definition of the term "interface" he's clearly right.
If one is ooking at interface mainly from the perspective of information, as Johnson does, the broad definition is probably the best approach, if a bit confusing. If however we look at it from the perspective of the computer as a medium, I think a further articulation is warranted. Here we can use interface in its more traditional sense, as the inputs and outputs. In addition to interface we also have the database and the algorithm.
Now if we look on this level we can see that Johnson's examples of new interfaces for information (Google, Technorati, del.icio.us) actually are actually all actions on the database. The big exception is Google which has radically innovated on both the database and also on the algorithm. What we are seeing is not as much the formation of an interface avant-garde but more a database avant-garde. It all adds up to better access to information, improvements to Johnson's broad interface, but all done with out anything but minor improvements to the more traditional interface (which it should be noted is far larger then just the GUI). We may be interfacing better with our information, thanks mainly to our better databases, but the interfaces to our machines continue to limp along..
February 01, 2005
might just be Steven Johnson's most important book, but at the same time its probably his least read, and deservedly so. This is a less a book that was written before its time and more of a book that was written too soon. If one could extract an algorithm that Johnson used to generate the book in 1997 and run it today the result would be markedly better.
Johnson's core argument is simple, interface is important and needs to be understood. As simple as it sounds, its never quite been articulated properly, we still lack a language to properly address interface. Johnson comes the closest of anyone in this book, but ultimately he's betrayed by his examples, which are more rotted then dated. The materials to properly write this book just where not around in 1997 and it suffers. Johnson also has a problem I wish a lot more of us had, he writes too well. The prose is so efficiently polished it leaves on craving a clunky paragraph or two simply to break the pace and create a space to actually think about what he's written.
Wrapping up his little breakneck ride, Johnson calls out for the creation of an interface avant garde, a subculture of radical interface designers. Since the books publication there have been numerous moves in this direction, but I'm unsure if any have actually gelled into real form. Flash designers circa 2000, skinners, game modders, they are more like microcultures of interface, never quite reaching the mass and velocity necessary to self-replicate into full fledged subcultures.
The one group that has emerged is the information architect/interaction/experience designer, a set that seemingly seeks obscurity through a constant renaming process. There is no question though this is a subculture, and they tend to focus on a space Johnson quite accurately brought to the for, text as interface. But as an "interface subculture" I find them rather lacking. In Lev Manovich postulates that a core task of new media is the creation of interfaces for databases. And it seems to me much of what the information architects are doing is prepping the database for future interfaces. There is of course a degree of interface innovation going on, but its yet to reach any level fitting of the "avant garde". But much like the shortcomings of Interface Culture in many ways this comes from a lacking in the contemporary database, not from a lack of concepts.
Manovich's book is in many ways a better starting point then Johnson's although they are quite complementary. Manovich devotes quite a lot of space to interface, but essentially stops right where Johnson starts, focusing on the screen as interface through history. Neither break very far from the screen either, interface clearly needs a dose of . And the tools for analysis of computing culture are still being built, beyond the interface and database lies algorithm (anyone know a good book here?), and beyond..
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..
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 15, 2005
Mark C. Taylor's 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. and 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 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 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.
November 10, 2004
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
That all dropped in the NY Times Magazine a few weeks before the election, caused a bit of blognoise and has been reduced to a soundbite. A soundbite by which the American left tries to feel superior those that are now cracking political whips across their backs. But the truth is that this unnamed "senior adviser" (Rove?) gives perhaps the best explanation yet of why the Republican's won this election. And it brings back too me with full force just how much I disagree with much of the left, despite my frequent tactical alignment
The truth is the American left is in many ways as conservative (if not more so) then the right. While I may align with them in opposition to baby fascisms and banana republic stylistics of the current Republican party, in the end I have a hard time seeing anything but reactionaries and utopians out there struggling with me. There are exceptions of course, but the fact that so many on the left are completely incapable of understanding just how much of "reality" is constructed out of human faith, belief and stubbornness, is absurd. I'm now left in fear that their faith in an unmutable reality amounts to something close to a surrender towards the propaganda mills of Karl Rove and the Christian right.
Compounding it all in frustration is the fact that Rove and company borrow freely from the Hollywood/Madison Avenue terrain dominated by core cultural leftists. They dominate the non political storytelling of our age, yet fall utterly flat when it comes to the construction of the political narrative. Why? Perhaps they know too well how potent their magic is, and refuse embrace the black arts the GOP embrace so readily (cue the Swift Boat ads for reference).
I wonder how much this difference stems from the urban vs. rural/suburban divide that seems so clear in the past election. Perhaps urban space is so overloaded with conflicting constructions of reality that the population becomes immune, and sees only the concrete. Meanwhile out in horizontal, the low-flow, low-density, landscape the evangelicals and friends are busy building new realities just like any other religion of the past milleniums. And here in the cities my compatriots it seems don't quite know what hit them. The reality based community has yet to wake up to the reality of faith, have they?
September 19, 2004
Calm technology. What an odd concept they pitch. Calm technology essentially comes into being via the act of frantic listening to its environment. Can a technology really be calm while its insides are stuck in an infinite loop, churning code, waiting for the moment to "calmly" react to the outside world?
September 02, 2004
RNC vs NYC
Some notes from the Republican National Convention and the streets of New York. If all goes as planned a more essayish thing to follow...
- New York is just to big for these things to impact for real. Neither the RNC nor the protesters have the numbers to make more than a half skip in the patterns of the city that never sleeps. It now seems laughable that people actually bothered to leave town over this. None of this however is relevant to the unlucky few who happened to be at the precisely wrong spot as the NYP broke out the orange security fences trapping and arresting like deep sea fishermen.
- the police have fine tuned the art of using the physical form of the city against protesters. 1 city block + 100 cops on scooters and motorcycles = a mobile holding pen. The protests are divided and dispersed before they can even truly form. It takes active hard work to find an active protest. At the moment it seems the action is at 100 Center Street.
- the sms channels are marvelous sources of tactical news. Let us hope they refine further. The fact that police can listen in and in some cases post makes for a fascinating experiment in open systems. As a historical note, I first noticed these tactics in action during the post 9-11 Davos Economic Summit, held here in NY.
- many of the police seem to be without gasmasks of any kind. A clear indication they have dropped tear gas as a tactic. One wonders if the cops will soon be the ones getting tear gassed? Or perhaps the no tear gas rule is temporary, a gift to the poor Republican eyes, they clearly have enough trouble viewing reality already.
- on Tuesday the undercovers wore green bands around their arms or on their heads. Wednesday yellow. Today orange and red.
- has anyone ever seen a protester with a gun? if there was such a thing as a "violent protester" don't you think they would arm themselves?
- the standard tactic in anarchist channels now seems to be to blame any and all calls (and acts) to violence on undercover police provocateurs. One wonders if they get a different color armband. Maybe black?
June 25, 2004
Hosting a couple new blogs, go forth and enjoy friends.
First up is Analytica run by Scott Von, quite possibly the only analyst practicing in the world today.
And on the global scale is Hyperstition run by Reza Negarestani, the Iranian intellectual. Quite honestly I don't quite understand just what Hyperstition is or what they are talking about... but it features Mark K-Punk and a gaggle of other hyper intelligent posters.
June 20, 2004
The Champ is Here (Street Fire)
With a hat tip to Jon Caramanica we snag that fire for the streets. Jada as in Jadakiss. "he's been a threat from the hood to the internet". The Champ is Here. Green Lantern branded. Big Mike branded. "this right here is an official doctrine/ from a smart young real nigga with options" The options are the mix tape. Put the streets in a frenzy. Only the permanent button ups call it guerilla marketing. "ya know wha the fauck I'm talkin bout here guys?"
We bootleg the bootleg. Slsk represents true. Options. The "official" release is up there. We don't think twice, all we need is that mix tape. Never had love for the Jada before. Never had love for Yonkers, never felt substance past those beautiful DMX growls. Lox/D-Block always rolled like number 8 batters. Defense, a single here, a single there. No big hits. Major label maybe, but their game is still pick up. Street ballers. "Why is the industry designed to keep the artist in debt?".
When the legal single drops does it still ask: "why did Bush knock down the towers?" Jadakiss. "Currently a slave to Interscope". But does he stay that way? The mix tape economy is strong enough to make the hottest records. Is it strong enough to support the artists, or does record company capital reign supreme? Symbiotic, parasitic, or at war? There are two record industries now. One perpetuates legal crimes, the other criminally illegal. "Why sell in the stores what you can sell in the streets?"
June 17, 2004
The Corporation, Take 3 (of 3), Constructions:
The jewel of The Corporation is its conception of the corporation as being a psychopathic organization. I've previously mentioned its value (or invalue) as a propaganda tool. But this also stands as a key point from which to begin constructing solutions.
I'm not sure to what extent the filmmakers view the psychopath diagnosis as metaphor versus being the actual truth, but I'm fully in the metaphor camp. As a metaphor the psychopath construct's utility is basically constrained to its propaganda value. I don't think you can give a corporation the same therapy you would human psychopath. But right beneath the surface of the psychopath metaphor is an extremely useful analysis of the corporation.
Essentially the filmmakers look at the Corporation as an organizational form, one with a deep genetic flaw. Within the legal and cultural code of the contemporary joint stock corporation are serious flaws that influence the behavior of many, if not all corporations today. By locating and analyzing these flaws we unlock the potential to both alter the corporate legal code for the better, and to construct better organizations capable of replacing the corporate form.
The film underscores one particular flaw in the legal status of a corporation, corporate personhood, the fact that corporations have many of the rights of people under the law. Pretty much an absurdity, so much so that the law doesn't always actually follow the concept. Still a strong legal acknowledgement that corporations are not humans and thus subject to a completely different set of laws and rights could go a long way towards a better conceptualization of what roles these entities should play in society.
Ultimately though I suspect that corporate personhood is an effect of the corporate drive for power, not a cause. Is shifting the balance of power back towards another organization with repressive tendencies, the State, an answer to the problems posed by big business? In order for the answer to be "yes" the State must be ready to recode the corporate laws in a constructive manner. A dubious but not impossible prospect, and one that can be furthered greatly if the ideas on how to recode these entities are in existence. And this my friends is our job.
plus a note: this piece was actually intended to be much longer, and might be updated, or might birth another piece. I'm putting it up now mainly because I dislike having an essentially negative piece as the first one on my site, my personal take on the Corporation is more positive then critical and hopefully the site will reflect that now.
June 16, 2004
The Corporation, Take 2 (of 3), The Permanent Critique:
The contemporary left has seemingly unlimited capacity for the negative. Their ability to find faults with world is match only with their in ability to offer viable alternatives to the awful picture of the world they generate.
An hour into The Corporation I'm fully convinced of the evil of this organization form, and I want to change things. Another hour passes, and I'd would like to thinking about the viable alternatives, the course of action. Instead I'm approaching the point of nihilism, of surrender, situation normal - all fucked up.
Its is at this point where point where one thread in my mind leaves the movies flow. If the world is really as awful as this movie paints it, then perhaps I am better off not caring? Would you rather be a medieval serf, toiling in servitude, or instead the king, living in luxury off the exploitation of the same serfs? Robber baron or the labor leader shot dead by Pinkerton guards? If the world is so bleak in helpless, perhaps you best of accepting that and living in ignorant pleasure.
Happily that is not my world view. I do not see world as half empty and out of resources for a refill. I don't see critique as a bludgeon or sword, but instead think it should be wielded more like a scalpel. With extreme precision and only when deemed necessary.
The king of the American left's materialist ubercritics is linguist Noam Chomsky. Now Chomsky occasionally is spot on. But I've never yet seen Chomsky acknowledge that life has room for pleasure. Chomsky seems to believe the overriding goal of most people's lives should be worrying about the world's atrocities. And from a propaganda standpoint that's a dud. Doesn't matter if he's right or wrong, few but the pessimists and sadists are going to subscribe to that world view. Critique as a bludgeon. Can someone please surgically remove this man from my mindscape?
It's not that The Corporation is 100% negative, there are a couple mild positives in the mix. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface an industrial carpet company, pops in repeatedly through the film as a something of a hero. His Paul Hawkin inspired transformation of his company into a vision of sustainable development comes off quite well. Of course there is a certain violence between the possibilities he preaches and the filmmaker's "corporation as a psychopath" thesis, that unfortunately never gets addressed. Hmmmm.
The other hero is Oscar Olivera the Bolivian anti water privatization activist. And while I don't know his story other then through the film, he serves as a guide to what seems to be an old school marxist revolt against government privitization. Inspiring, yet hazily told, with no indication on how to reproduce or maintain such an action. More please!
Ultimately looking back on film (and bare in mind I have only had the opportunity to view it once, I will be rewatching once it is fully in the theaters), there is a clear junction of potentiality where the film could have run in any number of directions. The point is maybe an hours in, when the corporation is diagnosed as a psychopath. This could have easily been the climax of the film, a critical point, made sharply and strongly. Or it could have been the point of inflection, the diagnosis is in, time to develop a cure. Instead the filmmakers opt for more brutalist approach, they have diagnosed the corporation's illness and then proceed to kick the shit out it. And I'll admit I took some pleasure watching the god of neoclassical economics, Milton Friedman, hang himself with his own rope, for the most part the film criticizes endlessly into a cycle of despair. A cycle that seems perhaps perversely enjoyable to a certain breed of leftist. Count me out, I exit at the point of inflection. Critique ultimately breeds more critique and so its time to jump back and move on.
June 15, 2004
The Corporation, Take 1 (of 3), Propaganda:
The Corporation - A film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan is some damn good leftist propaganda. Be even better where it 40 minutes shorter (cut Noam no pleasure Chomsky please...) but well worth watching. The corporation as a psychopath is brilliant meme to propagate, let it spread. Propaganda is a good thing, Emma Goldman proudly produced it, todays left could gain a lot taking that perspective. Hopefully a couple kids with some free time and a copy of Final Cut Pro will do just that and make a good piece of propaganda even better.
May 19, 2004
Anyone out there know of any historians worthy of being called institutionalists? The more contemporary the better (assuming any exist). What I'd like to find are historians looking at the world in terms of the interactions between large institutions (religions, governments, labor/guilds, armies, businesses, etc), sans dialectics and sans over reliance on markets as an end all be all.
Anyone know of a good jumping off point?
May 05, 2004
American Dynamics: War and Spectacle
Astute readers of this site will remember I've shifted my political posts over to an new site, American Dynamics. Still in the beta/experimental stage as I figure out exactly how I want to develop the site, but there is loads of content already...
In particular you might want to check out American Dynamics: War and Spectacle, which is something of a borderline post. Its certainly political, hence its posted there not here, but its got a theoretical side that might be of interest. So yeah go read it if ya wish.
all my love,
ps: I already linked it in the sidebar, but my friend Adam Greenfield's post: On responsibility and hope also deserves the main column attention.
April 24, 2004
Basslines? We Don't Need No Stinking Basslines!
The hallmark of a 21st century musical genre might just be is its ability to incorporate every other genre, without losing its own unique cohesiveness. And if that's true, I'm watch for Baltimore house getting its 15 seconds of fame real soon.
First off I'll admit to doing more then just sleeping on this music. House music without bass is the hollywood pitch for the sound, and really can you think of anything worse sounding? As a basshead the concept is appalling...
Thankfully Baltimore house is neither house music nor is it completely bass free. What it lacks is basslines, but there is still plenty of bass punch in the kick drums. And while the tracks might be at a house tempo, they are breakbeat driven, free of house's insistent mechanical syncopation.
Somehow somewhere in Baltimore a set of producers, DJs and partiers have reached a collective realization that bass is a grounding force, and as such its can subtly undercut a dancefloor, even when acting as the main driving force for all that dancing.
Psytrance have long known this and have turned it into a philosophy making music designed to release partiers from the earth and leave them stuck in some astral plane hallucination for as long as possible. However the removal of the bassline is only the start of the psytrance equation, the driving force behind it all are acidic synths that sound like they go on forever and ever, music sans ricochet.
Baltimore house has no use for leaving the earth, its only concerned with leaving behind the drudgery of the day to day. But they are quite content to stay within the room, thank you. The removal of the bassline only needs to unground the dancers enough to get their hands above their heads and their feet blurring a few inches in the air. While psytrance never wants to bounce unless perhaps it collides with some solar entity, Baltimore house shrapnels off every available surface. This is carnival music, manic beats and whistles, screams and shouts. Its party ya!
The absence of bassline it seems also makes the art of song splicing all that much easier. This music can have entire songs layered on top of it while still retaining its distinctiveness. Unlike most sample music, the splicing is not measured in bars, but in minutes. Throw the entirety of "Please Mr. Postman" on top of a Baltimore track and you've got a Baltimore classic. Repeat till everyone is sick of the sound... All that's missing is a <a href="Malcolm McLaren to hype it all.
April 22, 2004
Religion, like Gibson's "the street", finds its own uses for technology. But does technology find its own uses for religion?
That's the question that comes to mind after reading this post/thread: [Purse Lip Square Jaw] Anne Galloway: Cultural logic and computing
March 29, 2004
What happens to landmarks when every store is a chain? When we live life at 70 miles an hour we hand our navigation skills over to the government and place our trust in freeway signage. But what about when slow down to 35, stop and go, through the infinite "strip" feeds Americans and their cars?
The preferred navigation is landmark. Follow the river, keep the mountain on your left, turn right at the large oak, veer left at the rabbit rock. Walk towards the walls, through the iron gates, left at inn, right at the bank. Towards the capital, left at the Starbucks, right at the Jamba Juice, you'll see it right before the B of A... All of a sudden our landmarks are multiplying. And make no mistake plenty of effort goes into making sure those marks are memorable. But anyone who turns at a Starbucks is going nowhere but in circles... Drive around any populated space, USA and you navigate not by landmark but by pattern. Radio Shack doesn't define the location, but a Radio Shack, Baja Fresh, Noah's Bagels sequence just might.
To an extent we need to shut down the landmarks to navigate. "Look over there, to the right, a, Albertson's supermarket" This is not an expression of location, it represents instead a dislocation. For a moment we could be at any number of supermarkets. We need to establish pattern, step back, reorient to a larger world. Is there a Sally's Beauty Supply next door? An In N Out Burger behind us? The patterns of spacial DNA decode, our location revealed, or perhaps transposed.
One wonders how much meaning the patterns carry. Do our emotions rise as Dunkin' Donuts to Starbucks to Peet's signal the motion into wealthier neighborhoods. Or do our windows and locks tighten as the fried chicken downgrades, Popeye's to Kennedy Fried. Does the tinker's heart beat quicken as a Circuit City, Pep Boy's, Mienke sequence signals the shift into a preferential space.
Is there perhaps a shift back into history, away from the landmarked space of agriculture and into the woods of a hunter gatherer. A sequence of footsteps leads towards a limping deer. A pattern of droppings leading towards the blueberry bushes. A spectrum of greens encircling a rush of fresh water. As information multiplies around us like kudzu and giant crabs, are we pulled back towards the forests, into the jungle of complexity? A space that can be navigated by a slow gather or rapid hunt, but not by rational reduction of the stimuli?
February 27, 2004
Magazine, Blog, Future
En route to Texas I got plenty of chances to browse the magazine racks. And what struck me hardest is just how out of date the content seemed. The rapid fire publication form of web and blogs in particular seems to have routed the news around the magazine magazine world. Once I used to devour dozens of mags a month, all in the name of information, and now I struggle to find glimmers of new information inside an overstuffed newstand.
Magazines aren't going anywhere of course, the demand for print is real and nothing digital in the pipeline will replace it. But content wise the mags are at an extreme disadvantage. The only thing they provide that isn't free online is the long form investigative piece. And how many mags offer that at all?
During last fall's Creativity Now conference writer and editor Carlo McCormick told an anecdote of his first meeting of his eventual wife's father, an old school British ad man.
The question of his work of course emerges and McCormick begins going into all the fantastic cultural events he's covered, interviews done, major magazines he's written for and so on. The father listens patiently. Finally he speaks:
"oh, so you write the stuff that goes on the back of the ads".
Ok, so its only a half true statement, but that half a truth is painfully clear. There is of course a degree of consumer demand for magazines and for high quality content to fill them. But the demand that is really pushing these magazines to the press is the demand by advertisers for a high quality space in which to promote their products. Nothing testifies to this fact more then the way magazines determine how much content to publish based on how many ad pages they've sold. The ratio of ads to content remains constant, so more ads means more content, less ads less content.
Now at the moment advertisers are far happier spending their money on high res tactile environment of a magazine then on the viscous ether of blog space. But as more advertisers get comfortable with the web and web advertising begins showing more clear results the balance will begin to shift. I wouldn't be surprised if the top political blogs this year pull in north of $100,000 in ad sales.
And if and when blog ads can generate enough revenue in the realm of real salaries we are going to see something interesting occur. Suddenly the blog space will begin generating stories that compete directly with the higher levels of magazine journalism. And that feedback loop just brings in more audience and more ad revenue and then more writers.
Magazines strength once was that they could be printed cheaply and quickly, read then disposed of. Unlike the even cheaper and quicker newspapers though, they were also highly filtered and focused. Weblogs hit at both these strengths simultaneously. There is no way magazines can compete on the quick cheap and disposable front, they'll get lapped by the rapid fire publishing of blogs every time. On filtration and focus magazines are on better ground, the art of the editor is a refined one and it works well in the magazine context. But the blog form has its own filtration dynamic, one that overlaps significantly with the magazine space.
So what happens to magazines when their chief value as a medium shifts from being a fast and cheap information delivery vehicle and towards a dense, hi res marketing tool?
The process of course is well underway and I think we can see a few trends. One is the all ad magazine. Lucky and Sony Style capture this dynamic well. The difference between editorial and ad? I wouldn't know I don't read those things. The question is does anyone? Lucky (a magazine about shopping) at least appears to be a smash hit. I'm not even going to try and guess what comes out of this space, other say: 1 - given how much demand there is from the marketing side for this stuff at some point something interesting is bound to emerge. 2 - the amount of money it will take for each interesting thing to emerge is going to be abysmally low.
There is fortunately a more interesting demand for magazines though, one driven not by the advertisers or readers, but by the producers. The cost of becoming a designer or photographer has lowered dramatically over the past couple decades, leaving us with a excess of wannabe magazine producers. The results are perhaps most visible in the space of fashion, which now churns out dozens of glossy expensive magazines. And for the most part what these multitude of producers want is use the magazine as a space of creative expression.
These are forces pushing the magazine towards being a work of art. For the most part they have not succeeded. Instead they collide with more material forces. The magazine as creative showcase has a tendency to demand expensive production. More gloss, more color, more resolution, better paper, die cuts, and onward. Suddenly the push is no longer towards art but towards luxury. It here that the creative push meets the needs of potential funders. Visionaire is the trailblazer here, and I suspect that trail is about to get paved over, and perhaps turned into a mini-mall, high end of course...
February 21, 2004
Marxism and Schizophrenia
Social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxieties they engenger, and on the infernal operations they regenerate. Capitalism has learned this and has ceased doubting itself, while even socialists have abandoned belief in capitalism's natural death by attrition. No one has ever died from contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works, the American way.
- Deleuze and Guattari,
Diving into Anti-Oedipus once again and I'm left wondering if perhaps the capitalism/schizophrenia connection of the title is merely a manifestation of the schizoanalysis process they take themselves through. Its not capitalism itself that is schizophrenic, but the marxist/leftist critique of it.
As Deleuze and Guattari begin to emerge from their schizophrenic journey in A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia part 2 both the capitalism and schizophrenia of the subtitle are conspicuously absent from large portions of the book. The analysis is no longer schizophrenic, we have left the marxist plane of immanence and entered into Delueze and Guattari's own. And in this plane capitalism perhaps does not even exist. And in its place we have a whole host of concepts through which a new economic analysis can be built.
The obligatory irony is that Delueze and Guattari were never willing to give up their own marxism as Delanda has pointed out:
Marxism is Deleuze and Guattari's little Oedipus, the small piece of territory they must keep to come back at night after a wild day of deterritorializing. Who could blame them for needing a resting place, a familiar place with all the reassurances of the Marxist tradition (and its powerful iconography of martyrs and revolutionaries)?
And of course this is not a problem limited to just Deleuze and Guattari. The left of today has dismissed most of marxism in little bits and pieces. But when it comes to larger analysis they retreat right back to its core assumptions. Faith that capitalism exists as some sort of worldwide system. Belief that that system contains internal contractions that make it evil or wrong, and perhaps might lead to collapse. Hope for some sort of larger scale revolution overthrowing said system. Desire for continuous resistance against the system. All without much real evidence that said system actually exists in anyway like the manner it is conceptualized...
February 15, 2004
Fashion is perhaps both the highest and lowest of the art forms. On the low it is inescapable, nearly everyone wears clothes and the clothes they where inevitably communicate. Perhaps its no surprise that most people run from this creative opportunity, wearing only what it takes to go unnoticed amongst their peers, in the process broadcasting their tribal identities.
On the high though, fashion is impossibly rarified and encoded. There are apparently only several hundred individuals in the world both wealthy and inclined enough to actually buy regularly from the couture collections. While I'm not aware of the legitimate history of our present fashion system, one can sense the strong links back to the courts of Europe, France in particular.
Pretenses aside, a fashion show is as much a temporary autonomous court as it is a way to show clothes. The structure is better designed for seeing social status then actually watching the lowly models act as mobile clothes hangers. The hierarchy is clearly demarcated in the seating arrangements, themselves arranged perfectly to look at everyone else. No opera glasses needed, its all there in the open. You barely need to pretend to watch the show, half the court is ten feet away on the other side of the runway.
The models themselves are another story. Faces' ice cold, eyes focused several miles outside the room, the walk rigid and robotic. Dehumanized for the court, lucky to be there in some form at all. If they play the game right, they one day too can be seated like a courtier.
The modeling system itself is as much about lifting the fashion nobles ideas of beauty out of the lower classes and injecting it into their own microcosm. Most models are paid little, but compensated in more devious manners. They are perhaps the last social group trained to walk and act, put through a finishing school. Much of their small wages gets funneled towards the agency's network, photographs, portfolios, postcards, agency owned apartments in city centers. In turn they get clothes, and party invites. Dressed up and trained, then wisked into the world of nightclubs where getting a table means spending buying $300 bottles of liquor. Work this space right and the model just may, with luck and skill wind up one of those few hundred wealthy and inclined enough to afford that couture.
February 03, 2004
Nuance, Nuisance and Networks
Way back maybe 9 or 10 months ago in the first golden age of social software, the concept of nuance came up. Several people whose opinion I respect mentioned that the then current generation of software, just wasn't nuanced enough to capture the social dynamics properly.
At the time I had a sense I couldn't quite agree, but it was impossible to figure out why. Its not that it wouldn't be great to see more nuanced social software, it certainly would be. But I have my doubts as to just how possible it is. Certainly not impossible, but it seems ever more unlikely as Google's entry into the space, Orkut, makes abundantly clear.
Orkut is in "alpha" so we are going to do the best we can to pass on criticizing their hemorrhoid at the Renaissance Faire aesthetic. No, what we are really interested in is just what happens when a quality software company with massive networking experience enters into this social software space... and falls flat on its face. Rather then adding nuance, Orkut seems to add nothing but nuisance to the social software experience.
A piece of software can be looked at as a conversation between the user and the software itself, and by extension the software's creators. The software exists to figure out what the user wants to do and then to guide them towards their goals. And even in this one to one, software to user relationship its pretty rare to find a truly nuanced piece of software. Of all the software I use extensively I think only two I'm comfortable calling nuanced (in a positive manner at least) are Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator.
Now when it comes social software, the conversation suddenly gets dramatically more complex. Suddenly the software is not just having a conversation with the user, but its trying to get the various users have conversations with each other. And the software is present in each one of these conversations, butting its ugly head in and shaping the dialogue. All you want to do is connect with your friends, but this damn application keeps getting in way trying to "help". The nuances that the users want are not in the conversation with the program, but in the conversation with their friends.
Over on Many 2 Many David Weinberger has a good post on part of the reason social software like Orkut keeps getting in the way. Social ties and conversations are inherently fuzzy and blurry. In Deleuzian terms they exist within smooth space, where as the databases powering social software programs are striated by definition. The more datapoints the software tries to define, the more violence it does to the fuzzy nuanced connections that construct real friendship and relationships.
In many ways it is the stripped down dataset of Friendster that allows for nuance. It isolates one key variable essential for building a social network and then gets the hell out of the way. Orkut by contrast tries to define all sorts of data, coolness, sexiness, reliability, and in the process just makes a fool of itself. All 7 of my Orkut friends are of course 3 smiles reliable, 3 ice cubes cool and 3 hearts sexy. But I've actually met less of half of them, so I have an advantage in making those judgements... But really, do you want to explain why you only gave someone two smiles, or why you gave one sister a heart more then the other? This isn't a space you want to be hanging out in. Each datapoint that Orkut grabs is striation, a point of potential conflict, a nuisance not a nuance.
A good social software programmer could do well learning from the great social engineers and machines of our time, the waiter and the restaurant. The restaurant provides a table of you and your companions. It provides the setting (food and drink) to make the conversation comfortable. And then it disappears in the background, allowing your conversation to develop on its own.
A good waiter is there when you need him or her and then disappears. The waiter doesn't provide the conversation, the waiter provides the elements to make the conversation comfortable. But when you need service, switch. The good waiter is there, always ready to react if something goes wrong, but never interupting the natural flow of your conversation. Provide the setting, maintain it discreetly, stay aware of requests for help, but otherwise disappear.
January 18, 2004
"The Problem" and it's problems
His conclusion is one I can pretty much agree with, but with notes:
I take the rather unfashionable position that a progressive and democratic politics today must conceptualize and affirm some form of the State, and that “politics without the State” is a chimera.
note 1, the "today" is essential I's use it to mean now and for the short term (next couple decades most likely) future.
note 2, the "unfashionable" is pretty funny. Its true for a particular subsection of leftist intellectuals, but doesn't really scale much at all. The anti State leftists are on the radical fringes with Chomsky and Hardt/Negri being about as close as these ideas even get to major "progressive" information channels.
Now while I agree with Shaviro's conclusions, I'm not sure I can say the same with all the stops along the road. Here he gets into one of his major disagreements with the anti-State crew:
I wish that anarcho-collectivists, like Veroli et al, would get over their negative fetishization of “the State” as the source of all evil. I know this may make me sound like an old-line marxist fundamentalist, but I’m sorry: the State is not the problem, multi- and transnational capital is.
Its that last line that kills me. Its not like this is a multiple choice test, with either the State or multinational capital being "the problem". In fact I'd start by saying its far clear that anything at all is "the problem". There are problems for sure, problems with both states and with multinational corporations. But to bundle the multitude of issues up into "the problem" seems to me to be highly problematic in itself.
Fundamentally I find it really hard to take seriously anyone's claims that they actually understand how such enormous, interwoven and somewhat abstract entities such as "the State" and transnational capital actually function. The reality is that we just don't have a great understanding of their workings. Marx made perhaps the best attempt to break it all down. And a hundred years ago you could probably make a good case that he was reasonably accurate. But given radical economic transformations of the past century, his analysis doesn't look so accurate. Yet his claim that surplus labor will lead to the inevitable collapse of "capitalism" remains the only rigorous leftist critique of contemporary economic mechanics. And quite honestly its laughable.
Increasing I get a sense that the left has a deep seed personal need to believe that there is something seriously wrong with the world. And of course there are numerous localized problems that can identified. But there also appears to be a need to extrapolate these problems into a massive boogeyman of "capitalism" or "the State". The process of this extrapolation is beyond me.
Perhaps the same brain centers that produce belief in the supernatural are at work, those that have killed god seek to fill the void with another amorphous entity. The left traditionally looks to capitalism as jealous and vengeful god, while the right prefers the kind "invisible hand" god driven by "free" markets.
The action of producing these massive amorphous entities is also one of an odd personal liberation. Suddenly the problems of the world are driven by operations larger then the mind can quite grasp. They are several steps away from day to day existence, part of an imaginary system, that can be critiqued at will, but desperately hard to change and isolated from acts of living and working. Only the clergy, the hardcore protesters and activists end up dealing with the concepts and problems created by "capitalism" and "the State".
I've got no use for this bullshit. We live and world filled both with great beauty and substantive problems. And those problems are ones that we can do a lot towards solving. But in order to begin solving these issues its important to set aside many of tropes that have left the left stagnating in their own outdated concepts. Its time to move beyond the notions of "resistance", "revolution" and the excessive reliance on "critical" theory. There is no known war for the left to fight, no proven "system" to revolt against. There is a time and space for the critical, but there also need for the constructive and positive, both in reality and theory.
January 15, 2004
Carnegie Mellon: Journal of Social Structure: Visualizing Social Networks has absurd amount of information that I can't process at the moment. Tempted to hold it for a cold snowy day, except that would be now... Beautiful pictures though.
December 28, 2003
Beware of Leo Strauss
December 26, 2003
No Style, No Substance
Virginia Postrel's is neither substantive nor stylish. In fact the prose is about as bland and drab as a Soviet apartment block. The deeper problem however is that Mrs. Postrel apparently lives in a world where urban legends, trends hyped up by hack journalists and the contents of corporate press releases constitute reality. I highly suspect Mrs. Postrel is the sort of person you could convince gullible is not a word in the dictionary. Needless to say critical thinking is not a part of her vocabulary.
All this is sad because she sets out to right about what should be a fascinating subject to me, the rising popularity of design culture in America. And for a moment or two in chapter 5 "The Boundaries of Design" she actually touches on some interesting issues. Touches, but does not explore.
For the rest of the book Mrs. Postrel is content to do two things:
1 - State the blindingly obvious, that people care about aesthetics.
2 - Completely strip the current trends of design out of any meaningful context in order to construct a bumbling argument that we are entering an "age of aesthetics".
The core absurdity of this woeful excuse for a book is that Postrel somehow thinks people caring about aesthetics is a new thing. Its as if people never took care in selecting their china patterns a hundred years ago, indigo was never a luxury commodity and homes where never filled with decoration.
What Postrel completely misses, that the Henry Ford style "any color as long as its black" anti aesthetic stance that she hates so much, is actually the anomaly. The uniformity of design that is currently disappearing is actually a manifestation of the first stages of industrialization and mass production.
Postrel appears to want to believe that an "Age of Aestetics" is rising out of a new popular demand. And in order to make the argument she completely ignores the context of what is actually driving the events that she's read the press releases for. What she wants to see as a demand driven focus on "design" is actually a manifestation of various technological, economic and sociocultural changes in society. The demand for customization is not new at all, but in early state mass production it just wasn't possible.
Postrel however has no interest in exploring the real dynamics that are driving transformation, despite the ironic fact that her blog is titled "Dynamist". Instead she spends her whole time attempting to isolate "aesthetics" from any context, in order to manufacture her little "age". Of course the truth is that aesthetics, which are of course important to people, can not be so easily stripped from surroundings.
The 20 toilet brushes of Target exist, not just because there is demand, but because the technology exists to make them cheaply. The twelve year old dying his hair purple is not just doing because he love the color, he's doing it because of the cultural meaning associated with the action. The gold lettering on Postrel's book jacket is not there purely because she likes shiny things, its there because gold conveys a story, one that has evolved through geology, war and commerce.
The fact is there is probably a whole slew of books ready to emerge from the territory Postrel bumbles through so cluelessly. Good books. The Substance of Style is not one of them.
December 16, 2003
You Down With OPC, Yeah You Know Me
The back cover of Steven Shaviro's calls him a DJ theorist, and for once the cover blurb is spot on. Like a DJ in the mix, Shaviro never pauses the flow of information, there are no chapters. Instead he cuts back and forth between what we'll call, in homage to and , "Other People's Concepts" or OPC for short. Of course like many a good DJ me makes sure to mix in a good amount of his own creations in the proceedings. But make no mistake about it this is a mix, and its pretty seamless.
So we have the DJ, but what about the party? Connected plays like the dark afterhours club we stumbled into after the bright eyed euphoria of the dot com party got harshly shutdown. The venture capitalists and marketing bunnies have all gone home to nurse their stock option hangovers, but many of the interesting people are still around. Or maybe finally gotten out of the house. The vibe is dark, hard sci fi cyberpunks, mixing it up with west coast, Whole Earth/Wired school thinkers and euro cultural theorists.
There are A list stars in the mix, is cut together with for instance. But Shaviro brings in a lot of gems that well known only to the trainspotters, serves as something of villain/antihero, while Warren Ellis, Ken MacLeod and concepts are prominent in the mix. In fact the bibliography serves as a damn good guide to turn of the century cybertheory.
Like many a good afterhours Connected makes plenty of sense while your in the midst of it. Whether you will take anything away is another question, and one that might take time to answer. From Jazz through Electroclash, many a music form has been born in the dark spaces of illicit entertainment. Shaviro would have us believe that he dark spaces of hard science fiction and radical theory are equally as fertile, and he may well be right.
December 13, 2003
Coase, Information and Dean
Everett Ehrlich has a very interesting article applying some of Roland Coase's (economist du jour) ideas to the Howard Dean campaign. Fascinating, but somewhat misguided, almost science fiction in the way it focuses on a couple ideas and stretches them out. It's a fun ride, raising good questions, but his fundamental premise is fundamentally flawed:
But the Internet has changed all that in one crucial respect that wouldn't surprise Coase one bit. To an economist, the "trick" of the Internet is that it drives the cost of information down to virtually zero. So according to Coase's theory, smaller information-gathering costs mean smaller organizations. And that's why the Internet has made it easier for small folks, whether small firms or dark-horse candidates such as Howard Dean, to take on the big ones.
Now this ignores a few potent issues. While the internet might make it easier to get information from halfway around the world, it also makes it dramatically easier to create information. The problem shifts from gathering information, to filtering information. The internet opens up new methodologies for organization building, but does it make it fundamentally easier? You are reading this on the internet, can you build Howard Dean's organization?
Not all information is equal. Knowing the direct line to the oval office is worth more then knowing my cell phone number. And information is not the end all be all. Just cause you've learned the number to the oval office doesn't mean the president will listen to you. In short information isn't quite as simple as Ehrlich would make it out to be. And Dean isn't quite as revolutionary either. There is more value in the traditional party structure then Ehrlich realizes when he predicts Dean would form a third party if he loses this election. Dean on the other hand is well aware that the dems organization is still worth something. The internet is a component, not the whole machine.
[via Many to Many]
December 05, 2003
crashage ate a longer post jumping off from that link, but for now if your into proto-Deleuzian thought you'll probably just enjoy reading the link itself.
December 02, 2003
Psychogeography is a concept that's been buzzing in the periphery of my information flows for a while now, but I've never quite explored it. But glowlab, -: nicolas nova and socialfiction.org seem like the places to start.
Coincidentally I just got a copy of in the mail today.
The very first quote leading off the first chapter:
"Advertisers will have their choice of horizontal demographic groups and vertical psychogeographic program types"
Which appeared in Advertising Age back in 1981. Wonder if this is the same psychogeography? More perhaps to come.
November 29, 2003
Is Slavoj Žižek the world's foremost intellectual shit talker? reads like an imaginary game of the dozens played with Deleuze as the stumbling sucker who never gets off a proper snap. Plus its a game of the dozens written in academic prose and coupled with non sequitur monologues. Entertaining? sometimes. Insightful? occasionally. Am I remotely convinced that Deleuze is secretly Hegelian? You've gots to be shitting me.
I'd hire Žižek as a copywriter in a second. Probably not going to read another book of his for quite a while though...
November 18, 2003
Worshipping the Bomb
and you remember back to all those 50s movies where all these kids are doing nuclear drills, the air-raid siren goes and all these kids get down on their hands and knees and they hold their arms over their heads. You think: what's going on here? and it's obvious - they're worshipping the bomb, they're like atomic Muslims, the mushroom has become this Mecca and they're pointing towards the East. The bomb is mutation and the kids are going "mutate me, mutate me", "melt me, meld me".
from Kodwo Eshun's - Abducted by Audio (Live), which is actually mainly about the darkside in music.
November 10, 2003
Referenced for Future Reference: Information Wants to Be Valuable
November 05, 2003
October 30, 2003
Wander: Gabriel Tarde + ANT
new added bonus wander: anne galloway [purse lip square jaw]: Belief and desire all the way down --> Forefathers of Memetics: Gabriel Tarde and the Laws of Imitation --> Mineure : Tarde intempestif (that last one is in french and thus beyond me...)