Technology

Arts Education and Technology Rock Our World

Yearly benchmarks and assessments saturate the current educational climate. We set expectations; we test; we measure. The results determine what we—students, educators, administrators, government overseers and parents—declare good, or not good, in education. Through this, the community conditions itself to view annual test scores as the indicator of a school’s failure or success.

There are gains to be made from this sort of thinking. Children need to be educated, and they can and should be tested. But if the immediately measurable becomes the sole marker of a quality education, what might we lose?

Since September, one of my kids has been a part of Rock Our World 17, a project connecting students around the world through technology and the arts. Carol Anne McGuire, a teacher and specialist in integrating technology, founded the project in 2004. Classrooms apply to be part of the project. If accepted, they spend several weeks working collaboratively.

The primary collaboration uses Apple’s GarageBand. Each class creates a 30-second drum beat track. They send that drum beat to another participating classroom, and receive someone else’s drum beat. They listen to the new track and add another instrument to it. The tracks get passed along 8-12 times, and at every stop, one more instrument is added. When the track returns to its originators, it may contain the work of students from places as varied as Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland and Tasmania, as well as many schools across the United States.

In addition to producing the musical component, participants in ROW 17 also take photographs on the theme “Smiles in 100Languages.” Students plan and create pictures that make people smile, show people being made to smile, or both.

ROWers also video chat with other participating U.S. and international schools, asking questions and teaching each other—sometimes about language and culture, other times about technology tools and how they are used. Our local kids talked to students in Canada and Hawaii.

Our area project leader, music teacher Michael Medvinsky, sees value. In an interview, he described the GarageBand collaboration process for me, how our local students brainstormed ways to contribute to each track. They voted to determine what idea to pursue each time, and then trusted their classmates who play or sing to execute their ideas. ROW, Medvinsky said, helps students learn that we all aspire to expression—self-expression. The students see this in both their classroom experience, as well as in the work of other classes.

Medvinsky also pointed to all the technology the kids learn to use: FaceTime, Dropbox, GarageBand, working with MIDI and Skype. He believes that the greatest value is that kids see themselves as a part of a global community. Through the lens of music, ROW broadens the students’ perspectives and helps them understand how they fit into a whole world of their peers.

All this sounds wonderful, but that is a problem. “Wonderful” is not an educational benchmark. It is not measurable. Given the climate in education, something being wonderful may arouse suspicion. Is it fluff? What’s the point of this? Can you measure creative output, collaboration, flexibility, and asking questions?

I can’t think of a way, and yet I agree with Medvinsky. I know this project has value. I know it because I watch my son’s understanding shift. He sees himself and his classmates differently. He learns, through this time of working with others to make art, that they each have something unique to offer. He sees the world differently. States and countries once thought of as spots on a map are now populated with creative, fun people with whom he can exchange a smile or a song—people curious about the world, people like him.

He sees technology differently. It’s not just a source of entertainment, but a tool for real work and education and creative expression.

And he sees learning differently. My son’s class video-chatted with a local professional photographer to learn about photography. The photographer, Jeffrey Bennett, let the students direct the conversation. This shift in responsibility caused my son to pay more attention to and celebrate good questions. According to Bennett, some of the questions amazed him, and his answers amazed the students, creating a sense of community and delight.

ROW takes the long view, meaning the full rewards of this project will not come until much later. It reinforces artists and the arts as being a valuable part of, as well as a source of, community. It reveals that technology is more than YouTube and video games, it shows kids that technology is a tool and is useful for working, collaborating, creating.

From this foundation, I imagine the possibilities for my son. Being exposed to technology at a young age will change the way he thinks and solves problems. Knowing the capacity of current technology may stir him to dream of future technology, and ways to use that technology. These are building blocks toward our future.

ROW also puts him in a different educational environment—one that values individual contributions to a community. It honors people, processes, playing, and product. It allows kids, and everyone else involved, to experience and be filled with wonder, to marvel at the world, to practice asking questions and to gather information from people in an immediate way. It’s cheaper than travel yet yields some of the benefits of travel: a change in venue.

I hope this sort of learning shakes us loose from our benchmark-only conditioning. Students and schools are more than bar graphs. While some learning can take place now, and should be measured now, I want to see schools with an eye on the future, creating an ecology that lifts our vision, helping us see ourselves rightly: as creators, thinkers, collaborators, individuals who are a part of something bigger, people wise enough to call the immeasurable good.

The Myth of Narcissus Goes Social

Not recognizing himself
He wanted only himself. He had chosen
From all the faces he had ever seen
Only his own. He was himself
The torturer who now began his torture.

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid

Eight or nine months ago I was still in the honeymoon phase of first-time smartphone ownership. Instagram was the first app I embraced. Armed with a battery of hazy filters, I set about making the street corners, stairways, and appliances of my daily life into art. My following crept past the single digits (not including parents), and I became aware of the lusty satisfaction of having a photo “liked.” It was not a new concept: shared experience, the promise of a digital community that transcends geography by replacing it with a cheerful topography of glitzy, artistically emphasized experiences.

My moral sense was skating through this landscape undisturbed until one day, checking the photo stream, I noticed something that prickled my neck hair. A friend of mine was adding pictures from his actual honeymoon. The photos were tasteful and appropriate; they depicted a modest fantasy of splashing water, umbrellaed cocktails, and endearing hugs by sunset. But suddenly the smartphone in my hand felt less like a link to my peers and more like a keyhole to a peepshow. My honeymoon with the media stream was over. There was something categorically wrong about projecting, for the general public, a life event that is intimate by definition. Far from forming a sense of community between my friend, his new wife, and myself, it created, unaccountably at first, the distance one feels when still deciding whether or not to buy a product. I had seen these flashy pictures before—in cologne advertisements.

A few weeks later, a freshman in my college writing course turned in a paper that, using statistics and marketing documentation from major companies like Starbucks, demonstrated convincingly that Facebook is, essentially, a self-marketing tool. The website—probably without knowing it—has simply substituted “profile” for “advertisement,” and, while its participants are not actually selling themselves (this caveat excludes band, company, author, and political Facebook pages), they are making the same editorial decisions with their own image as an advertiser does with a product: Only the positives are displayed.

As an educator I do not tell Facebook when I am a little overboard with the whisky on a Thursday night, or fighting with my wife, or having some embarrassing trouble digesting a spicy taco. No: Facebook is only informed of my most sanitary thoughts and actions. Because my online reputation can make the difference for me between dollar signs and unemployment (I have known teachers who have lost their jobs as a direct result of posting “red cup” photos, in spite of the fact that the cups were holding only grape juice), I treat my identity, insofar as it exists on the internet, as a product—one that I must advertise. Instagram boils this process down to its most subversive state by being dedicated exclusively to that most powerful advertising tool of all: Image. In the end, our photos may be about sharing experience, but only experience that reflects positively on our marketable image. Even our photos of church group, or a friend’s birthday, or exercise at the YMCA are, if we admit it, about us. Every photo is a “selfie.”

This reality commands an army of unintended consequences. Anyone who works in advertising knows that to keep a company perpetually sellable is a career-long process, which requires a full eight hours of slogging labor every day, and leaves the copywriter or image consultant tired in her chair at home. But to advertise one’s self perpetually by means of social media is a wearisome project. It requires a portion of mental attention to be available at all times, looking for the compartmentalize-able moment.

Anyone who has used Instagram with any regularity, or known someone who does, has felt this peculiar brand of exhaustion. “Hold up!” your friend shouts while you walk back from the wharf at sunset, and you turn, to notice her ten paces behind, selecting a filter. At dinner, the waiter is pulled away from a crowded six-top that just sat down under the opposite window to snap a group photo of your whole table—after all, these get-togethers happen less and less. Your mother, of course, is taking a picture of her food. Where are these photos going? Do they matter to those involved in your current experience? Not at all. They only matter to those who have missed it, and can do nothing but make them detached from whatever it is they happen to be doing, as they, just for half a second, check the photo stream.

The topography of shared experience has only one geographical feature and one explorer: The Self. This is a cruel twist of logic, but it isn’t a new one. In the months that I first started to abandon social media, I happened to be teaching Ted Hughes’ translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the myth of Narcissus came to hand as the perfect barometer of a civilization that has always been just as self-concerned, but has only recently developed the tools to socially interact with its own face.

Narcissus became rooted in the end, and similarly, the new narcissism of social media has the effect of rooted-to-the-spot mental stagnation. To record life at the same moment we experience it requires more attention then we can spare. We will give our devotion to one process or the other. But there is a deeper problem: To self-advertise is to make perpetual war on the fallibility of our own nature. It forces us to conceal the flaws that real friends and loved ones must experience and forgive in order to genuinely love us. In the end, the photostream isn’t a new landscape but a hall of mirrors—one that is easy to get lost in.

Ocean’s Wonder

Frederico Fellini’s 1963 film is brilliant for many reasons I won’t pretend to fully understand. But at the center of all its nuance is Fellini’s ego. In , Fellini created a complete picture of his soul, his ambitions, his sexuality, his narcissistic attitude, and his interpretation and creative organization of the environment around him. He synthesizes all of the poignant elements of his life into a new narrative with as much emphasis on dreams as on reality, and with as much detail in the characters’ dialects as in their dialogue. The result is odd, indirect, and poetic, and as a unique glimpse of human nature, it’s as vivid and as challenging as a piece of art can be.

What’s interesting about 21st-century creative work is that, due to the revealing nature of the Internet, fans can become aware of an artist’s narrative prior to encountering the art itself. With the help of a couple quick wiki searches and a trip through some credible blogs, the public can become experts on an artist’s background and aesthetic inclinations. In many ways, this can hurt the artistic process: art no longer stands by itself because it must be accompanied by an online marketing campaign. Listeners might fail to meet art on its own terms because of the source through which they discovered it. Artists may find their art glossed over in the mass consumption of streamed music and film. The list goes on. In some cases, this runaway commodification can benefit the artist and his work; in these cases, there is a sense in which it allows for the telling of a three-dimensional, all-encompassing narrative à la .

Frank Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE may be permanently defined by the online letter he wrote to his fans two weeks before the album’s release. In the letter, Ocean chronicled his confused sexual history in profound poetic language. The takeaway for most mainstream media sources was that hip-hop and R&B were finally becoming civilized: a popularly accepted black artist came out of the closet, thus transforming the rift between black music and the gay community into an accessible platform for principally pluralistic conversation.

While this may be the case, what shined through more clearly was Ocean’s intimate understanding of the human condition, and the unique vision with which he sees it. Toward the beginning of his cryptic letter, he laments, “In the last year or three, I’ve screamed at my creator, screamed at clouds in the sky for some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow.”

Frank Ocean is no stranger to turmoil. Through the course of channel ORANGE, he notes the financial troubles of his youth, the foul nature of his own self-indulgence, his sexual anxiety, masturbation, the harshness of urban life, and unrequited love. He weaves each of these tragedies into the sprawling narrative of his own experience, making use of a number of fascinating characters.

There’s his mother in “Not Just Money,” a junkie in “Crack Rock,” a romantic in “Pilot Jones,” filthy rich suburbanites in “Super Rich Kids,” and of course Ocean himself bookends the album with the opener and blogosphere favorite “Thinkin Bout You”, and then the heart-breaking “Bad Religion.” His place in his own narrative becomes clearer in the big picture of the album: he’s the only character whose problems are all internalized. In a world of drug struggles, crimes, low incomes, and rampant sexuality, Ocean stands out as the troubled artist who sees things simply and seriously as they are, and is able to explain them eloquently.

What’s more is that he creates this stunning mural in such a musically rich context. Comparisons to Stevie Wonder are unavoidable: his buttery voice and intricate musicality harkens back to Stevie’s daring pop-oriented aesthetic. He’s not the musical innovator that Stevie was, but his capacity for phenomenal melodies and his fresh take on R&B lyricism prove him to be comparably gifted.

As a lyricist, Ocean communicates through a topsy-turvy dialect of extended metaphor and cleverly juxtaposed imageries. In “Sweet Life,” he describes the relationship that his real life characters have with his music:

The best song wasn’t the single
But you couldn’t turn your radio down
Satellite needed a receiver
Can’t seem to turn the signal fully off
Transmit the waves
You’re catching that breeze ‘til you’re dead in the grave.

Later he continues, “But you’re keepin’ it surreal / Not sugar-free / My TV ain’t HD / That’s too real.” Perhaps the pseudo-realism of popular media, whether in television or in his own art, is too much to bear. He and presumably his listeners are overwhelmed by the realness, the sweetness, the intrigue.

Drake describes the state of hip-hop and R&B this way: “A time where it’s recreation / To pull all your skeletons out the closet / Like Halloween decorations.” But where Drake and others (see The Weekend or The Dream) use their music as an outlet for harsh confessions, Ocean goes deeper: he sings with poetic integrity, creates fitting, elaborate musical soundscapes, and invites his audience to engage in the reality that he has constructed. This isn’t The OC, this is .

Without a boring moment, a twinge of artistic self-indulgence, or triteness, Ocean opens a window into the human condition, and peers in fearfully. It’s beautifully simple. In the summer of 2012 this unexpected masterpiece was a breath of fresh air compared to the drone of the radio (I’m looking at you, Pitbull). I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next for Frank Ocean. Here’s hoping he gets that manna.

Subtracting from the Noise

There seems to be a generational disconnect around technology. Millenials eagerly gobble up iPads and Facebook while their parents tut and whine about internet culture. Social scientists bemoan the consequences of smartphones while students tune out their lectures with a game of Angry Birds. Young companies brashly accept the lure of the shiny and new with names like “Palantir” and logos featuring a bitten apple. The youth of today do not know what they are getting into, but can’t look away or resist a bite.

The reality is this: social media, tablets, and smartphones aren’t going anywhere. And the whines of authorities will only fuel the rebellion of their progeny. These authorities were the ones who shocked and outraged their parents with sex, drugs, and rock n’roll, but no matter. Such are generational dynamics.

The question is not whether these new inventions will be adopted but rather this: what ought this next generation to do? Phone calls and email are out, texts and tumblr are in. We must live in both the digital and analog world. How can we do so wisely?

There must be a third way between luddism and teenage texting arthritis. My friend Chet – an articulate and polished software developer – has been largely responsible for my own enslavement of (instead of to) technology. Technology can be turned to serve man, and Chet has showed me how to get started.

Principle 1: Select Your Voices

Part of the beauty of Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest is the customizability of these platforms. On Twitter, picking voices is part of the “follow/unfollow” setup. Want to read what Zooey Deschanel is up to? Click “follow” and find out. Tired of someone’s oatmeal pictures? Just click “unfollow” and their tweets disappear.

On Facebook, you can be connected to a large number of people yet have a very small group of people who contribute to your news feed. By carefully “subscribing” and “unsubscribing” to people’s status updates you can mute certain people and listen to people who might not accept a friend request. Another option is to create “lists” of friends so you can be tuned into particular friend groups.

Pinterest also makes it easy to customize your “feed.” You can follow people or just some of their boards that you like. You can sort by interest to explore a particular genre of pins. It took me a lot of work, but I haven’t seen a single “dream wedding” pin in weeks.

Principle 2: Dynamically Select Your Audiences

Neither Twitter nor Pinterest offer useful options for choosing who gets see your content, so posting on those platforms requires discretion. Did you want your 5th grade Sunday School teacher seeing that?

Facebook offers much more flexibility in this. You can use friends lists to pick who gets to see what. It could be as simple as sharing (or excluding) certain lists from your updates in general, or as specialized as sharing certain content only to certain groups. For a 20-something I suggest the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” rule – with the exception of a pastor or mentor. Everyone needs a little digital accountability.

Principle 3: Manage Your Habits

According to a recent statistic, 28% of 18 to 34 year-olds check Facebook on their smartphones before getting out of bed. It’s an easy habit to adopt since many of them rely on their phone alarm instead of a traditional alarm clock. Simple things like using an alarm clock and keeping a smartphone away from the bed can guard against this.

Principle 4: Reflect

Take time at the end of the day to review the events that occurred, and if helpful, consider writing some reflections in a physical journal. “Re-membering” the day allows for sorting of all the disparate data that the electronic and analog world has brought.

Principle 5: Unplug

Consider setting wake-up/shut-down hours manually on your computer. Try  having a day where internet is off, but computers can still be used for music/writing. Or just a day outside without LCD screens. Follow your analog bliss.

When books first became available, there were those who bemoaned the loss of oral tradition and mankind’s ability to recall great amounts of information. When Wikipedia and Google came to the forefront, critics wistfully recalled the days when students had to go to the library and pull out books in order to do research.

Technology changes humanity – from behaviors to expectations, and customs. But all these technologies are still so new that it is difficult to foresee what role they will play for good or ill. Already, the Internet has aided revolutions, revolutionized pornography, and reduced the role of print media. The web evades “good” and “bad” labels alike.

But what is required of us? Humility. Humility on the part of the young to not attribute messianic power to the shiny and the new or think that their new toys have made them superior to their predecessors. And humility will be required for those who are older, to not let future shock or nostalgia keep them from affirming the good in what they do not yet understand.

Cheap Vertigo

Only in the modern day can one hike an Alp in the morning and be home for a late dinner in Boston. (Of course, the time change helps too.)

Greetings from Switzerland, which I had the good fortune to visit over the last week thanks to a kinship with the DC-based folk-pop ensemble Eddie From Ohio. The band, whose members often invite me along as utility instrumentalist, was the guest of honor at the U.S. Embassy Independence Day Celebration in Bern. This was my first international performance of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

So much cheese, so little time. I did my best, and have the cholesterol spike to prove it. Raclette, Gruyère, Emmental … let me count the ways.

On the plane ride home, I had a hard time adhering to my mandate not to watch bad movies. (I had already watched all the good ones.) I got through on a technicality — I watched a TV show instead. And I don’t know who does the programming for Swiss Air inflight entertainment, but she’s a creative obscurist:  the show I watched, in all its Looney-Tuned glory, was a Road Runner cartoon.

"The whole thing has a real Purgatorial bent."

How has no one ever deconstructed this show? It is a psychological wonderland. I’m going to proceed on the assumption we’re all familiar with it. (If not, you know what to do.)

It’s easier to suspend disbelief when you’re a kid, of course, and I remember being utterly fascinated by this cartoon. The premise may be the most basic imaginable:  a predator stalks his prey, but never quite succeeds, with humorous results. There’s a Skinner-box mechanism in there somewhere. But here are a few ideas to chew over: do we want the Coyote to succeed? Why?  Is he a true antagonist, or just a tragic figure at the mercy of his own hubris? The lines are pretty blurred here. The fact that we spend so much time with the Coyote, along with his chronic, inevitable failures — each of which is at least painful, if not fatal — would suggest him as a tragic figure deserving our empathy. But the simple truth is, he’s trying to do in a cute, happy bird, which is villainous behavior if ever there was.

What’s the catharsis level here? We’re not dealing with Oedipus or Lear, obviously, but is there not a greater sense of relief that the Coyote’s humiliations and deaths are only temporary than our relief that the Road Runner is never caught? Should the writers have finally “killed Superman,” that is to say, allowed the Road Runner to meet his end, so as to turn pathos on its head? Suddenly, for the first time, our sympathies would be with the indestructible, happy-go-lucky protagonist — except, by definition, they should have been with him already. (I’m going to assume the Road Runner is male, for how many girls would spend their time getting chased around a desert? Incidentally, though, one could mount a convincing sexual deconstruction of the show along the lines of pursuer/pursued.)

Speaking of desert, we really owe it to ourselves to take a look at the setting, which is rivaled in its pure ingenuity by only one other cartoon — that of course would be Calvin and Hobbes — and was the thing that kept me enraptured as a kid. Where in the world do these characters live?!? It’s a Southwest United States on steroids, with all the boring (read: flat) parts removed and only the exciting (read: sharp) rock formations allowed to remain. The number of chasms into which the Coyote can plummet is increased by a factor of twenty. And there is a road, of course, off of which the Road Runner never, ever steps, featuring hundreds of hairpin turns and absolutely no guard rails, which allows the writers to indulge in the Coyote’s complete inability to corner.

The ultimate, archetypal image — the one I never tired of seeing and the writers never tired of exploiting — was the bird’s-eye camera shot of the Coyote vanishing into a mile of sandy oblivion, his final impact always celebrated with a short “bang” and located by the ubiquitous, small puff of dust. This is the five seconds of pure genius that kept me, and I wager every kid, coming back for more. It’s cheap vertigo. Vanishing points like this don’t exist in the United States. You just can’t get that high up and look down over a sheer drop — we’ve got mountains, yeah, but these are heights in extremis. It has that perfect amount of fantastic otherworldliness that allows the kid to buy into it — is it Mars, or is it Utah?

Where does the Coyote’s endless supply of interesting, absurd products come from? Well, the ACME Company, sure, but where is this company, how do they transport their products and, most importantly, are they still around and how can I get in touch with them? I wouldn’t be shocked to learn they’d gone out of business, as most of these items — enormous dynamite rockets, dehydrated boulders — can’t have been cheap to make, yet not a single one of them works. High overhead and poor performance is the quickest way to find yourself out on the street in this economy.

One could certainly read into the Coyote’s favoring technology to accomplish his aims versus the Road Runner’s simple use of “natural gifts.” (One could also read into the Coyote’s perpetual failure when using this approach and his dogged refusal to adjust his strategy, too.)

What does the Coyote eat? We know what the Road Runner eats: birdseed from traps the Coyote sets for him. But the Coyote never catches his prey, and we have to assume this solitary road runner is the only option for a carnivore in the entire desert, as we never see another one. No wonder he is Eternalii famishiis. The whole thing has a real Purgatorial bent.

So, looking at our notes, we infer that America’s dependence on technology will ultimately result in eternal exile to a hot, barren landscape featuring everlasting frustration, pain and hunger.

And vertigo.

The New Gatekeeper: You

Saying Kickstarter has taken off over the past few years is an understatement. The crowd-funding platform has raised over $230 million for projects in the past four years, with some of the more popular campaigns drawing in thousands of supporters.

The most popular project categories seem like a given — it’s easy to get lost in all of the new “fund my indie film/band/short story collection!” type projects that spring up each week. Kickstarter has really given a boost to some other creative areas, though, including hobby board gaming.  (By “hobby board game,” I mean tabletop games that include German-style strategy games, more complex adventure games, designer games, creative card and party games, and so on. Think: Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, or Arkham Horror for some popular examples.)

If you’re not familiar with how Kickstarter works, it’s pretty simple. People can submit their creative endeavors to Kickstarter; these projects range from documentary films to iPad cooking apps to pieces of installation art. The creators set a monetary goal and deadline to reach that goal. If the public pledges enough money by the deadline to meet the creators’ goal, then the project creators get the money. It’s an all-or-nothing approach; if the proposal doesn’t receive enough funding by the deadline, then the creators don’t get anything (and project backers don’t lose anything either). By helping projects get off of the ground, the public is actively involved in the creation process.

Alien Frontiers, a Kickstarter success story.

While designing and self-publishing games isn’t a new concept, Kickstarter seems to have given a lot of aspiring game designers a real way to get their games to people’s tables. One of the first success stories was Alien Frontiers (designed by Tory Niemann), which collected almost three times its $5,000 goal in the summer of 2010. What really helped was that Alien Frontiers was a genuinely good game. It got great reviews, collected some year-end gaming awards, and — once it was re-published after its initial Kickstarter-produced run — actually seems to sell pretty well.

Alien Frontiers’s success seemed to open the floodgates — new projects spring up constantly, many of them reaching their funding goal within days. It helps that a lot of these projects give potential backers a really good idea of the game, either through substantial videos, proofs of the game’s rules, or even through limited playtesting. Being involved in the development of the game like this — and not just purchasing it — can be a powerful thing, especially if comments from backers ultimately help mold the final product.

Some of the best-funded projects are also not only giving backers the game, but giving the highest-funding folks exclusive promo items or other perks. This is working well enough that some game publishers are using Kickstarter almost exclusively to fund their games, basically using the platform as a pre-order system to gauge interest in an already developed game.

Some gamers take issue with companies doing this. As W. Eric Martin said in a post at Boardgamegeek, “[Some backers] resent the feeling that publishers see them as money spigots because the publishers don’t have enough confidence in their games to fund them properly, i.e., to put their own money at risk to fund a game’s publication.” This, however, isn’t the only problem some have with the Kickstarter board game boom.

Many gamers are curious — even anxious — to see what happens after the Kickstarter honeymoon is over. The bubble hasn’t broken yet, since there hasn’t been a notable game project that turned out to be a scam, or collapsed in on itself once it had been funded (though there are some potential candidates).

Critics have also brought up a number of other issues with the “Kickstarter model.” For instance, they say game companies have traditionally acted as quality gatekeepers to weed out shoddy games. While the public serves a comparable role on Kickstarter, there is no real assurance that the game has been extensively playtested. People are paying for hype, as I’ve heard some naysayers put it. Flashy videos and cool art can draw in a lot of money, but the result could just be a pretty game that is a slog to play.

With all of this in mind, I guess you could lump me in with the casually optimistic. My few experiences with Kickstarter-funded games have been positive, including the one game I actually backed financially. I think I understand where some of the concern comes from over the quality of the games coming out of Kickstarter, but the fact is that similar questions have been raised about professional board game companies, large or small. Some effort is being made to provide quality assurance for Kickstarter games; the folks at Game Salute are helping fledgling game designers playtest their games and iron out some of the wrinkles.

It’s also worth noting that while it seems like every new board game project (dud or not) succeeds, that isn’t the case — according this this recent infographic, less than half of all game-related projects actually get funded. While these stats might give pause to a potential designer about to try Kickstarter, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the more projects fail on Kickstarter, the more careful campaign creators will be about their projects. After all, there is a gatekeeper at Kickstarter — the public.

What’s next for board gaming and Kickstarter? With how popular crowdfunding games has become, I’m concerned that the hobby will soon see a point of Kickstarter oversaturation (or, if you ask some folks, we’ve already reached that point). Regardless of when this happens,  cutting out the middleman and crowdfunding games has caught on. Kickstarter has become a big deal in the hobby gaming world, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

 

 

Not Your Father’s Shoplifting

I remember well my family’s second desktop computer. It was bigger and faster than the clunky Packard Bell that was our entry into the digital age. This new computer, a Compaq, was more than just a glorified typewriter. This computer could not only access the Internet―it was fast enough to download things.

So download we did. First we downloaded games or software, but that was still too large for the modem on our rural DSL.

Then one day my dad came home and said there was this program you could download that would let you access music from other people if you also shared it with them. It was called file sharing. We jumped right in.

I downloaded country albums and my dad downloaded tons of classic rock. We never had to pay for any music again. What an amazing concept. The Internet was just raining down gifts to us, and all we had to do was let someone download our music and then we could download theirs. It was a brilliant concept.

Brilliant and illegal.

My dad eventually put a stop to our downloading when we found out it was illegal. I agreed, but for the next few years I operated in a big gray area in terms of what was illegal piracy and what was just normal usage of media. In high school, as I and most of my friends found out that piracy was illegal, we just reverted back to making copies of albums for each other on CDs. In college, with a whole network at our disposal and some tech-savvy dorm-mates, there was quickly a shared folder in which all the guys’ dorms were dumping movies, music and game. We never considered this illegal; we were just sharing what we had always shared with each other, except now the annoying things like people scratching DVDs or loosing albums in their cars could be avoided. The illicitness was not the enticing factor―sharing with each other was just plain easier. We had no idea that according to record companies and film studios what we were doing was illegal.

In a world of  legal doctrines built on physical property, the public and record companies were woefully unprepared for the onslaught of digital piracy. For one thing, the public was not aware of the potential criminality of such actions, and the attempts by record companies to put a stop to it―sending cease and desist letters to people―was a public relations nightmare. One of my friends who was a huge user of file sharing sites was shocked to receive a letter from a record company basically telling him to stop using file sharing sites, otherwise he would be subject to  jail time and fines that were going to make college loans look cheap. He stopped, as any reasonable person would, but it never seemed right for him to be treated like that. We had not been taught that our actions were illegal. The whole thing had the feeling of a police officer writing a bogus traffic ticket. It just didn’t feel wrong, yet it was.

Artists and fans have moved far beyond the confines of the law. The whole artist and fan relationship is moving forward in terms of interaction, accessibility and the use of content while the record companies and movie studios are stuck in the dark ages of physical media. Sites like Bandcamp, NoiseTrade, Vimeo and Youtube are pushing the envelope of artist/fan interaction and giving fans what they want: access to media without the hassle of annoying record companies. The sheer brilliance of NoiseTrade and Bandcamp is that it gives consumers of music what they want: music at a reasonable price.

Yet is what consumers want actually right or fair? The common belief amongst large corporations is that young people are spoiled brats who want everything for free. I beg to differ. Generation Y is not a generation of media anarchists who cast a blind eye to rules and regulation in an endless desire to consume everything that is hip and coo. According to a 2010 survey in Australia, “GEN Y is prepared to pay more for legal downloads of TV shows and movies than any other age group, while people between 31 and 50 are more likely to pay top dollar for music.”[1] What is really happening in the world today is that young people are unsatisfied with the lack of imagination and investment by entertainment companies in providing the actual services that people want and the Internet is capable of producing. Artists recognize this, and so do companies like Apple, Netflix, Pandora or Spotify. In a recent interview, Neil Young expressed what most young people are already thinking about piracy and the motivation behind it, easy access:

It doesn’t affect me because I look at the Internet as the new radio. I look at the radio as gone….Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around….That’s the radio. If you really want to hear it, let’s make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95 percent of it.[2]

It’s interesting to note that Neil Young is more concerned about the loss of fidelity of music in mp3 files than he is about piracy. Young is not joining in some kind of youth revolt. He is a realist.

In reality, Internet piracy continues today because accessibility is still a problem, but that does not make it right.  Just because something is not readily available does not mean any person can appoint themselves Robin Hood. It would be naive to call people who are participating in piracy “thieves.”  The deeper reality is that, just like shoplifting, piracy is a problem of desire and consumption masquerading as thievery.

The problem with piracy is not consumer frustration with the current distribution system of media. Time and money will fix that problem. People are voting with their wallets. The problem with piracy is the unrelenting desire for things that is part of our culture. The value of media is swallowed by the ubiquity of digital downloading and storage. Ten years ago, the amount of media you owned was constricted by the confines of your home and how many CDs, books and DVDs you could stuff onto your shelves. There was a limit. Now with hard drives and the cloud, the the finite nature of storing media has been erased. Media used to be something that was collectible, treasured and used. Now it is something that can be consumed and tossed into the recycling bin on our computer desktops. There is no limit to the amount of media that can fill our digital landfills. Piracy is ultimately a symptom of our insatiable desire to consume instead of participate.

 

 


[1] http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/05/06/great-internet-piracy-survey/#ixzz1mkifRsMw

[2] http://www.theverge.com/2012/1/31/2761597/neil-young-music-steve-jobs-piracy-is-the-new-radio

 

photo by: bixentro

Good Absences

In the span of a week, two things seemingly in opposition began forcing me to rethink how I interact with technology and how even this medium shapes the way I process information and observations.

1) I picked up a book by Shane Hipps called Flickering Pixels, an exploration of how technology shapes our thinking, our relationships, and our understanding of God.

2) A few days later I was given the latest in technological relationships, an iPad2.

Hipps was in advertising before making a sharp turn into seminary and eventually becoming a pastor of a Mennonite church. One of his advertising accounts was Porsche, and as he says at the start of the book: ”My task was to hijack your imagination, brand your brain with our logo, and then feed you opinions you thought were your own. You’re welcome.” Hipps goes on to reconstruct the historical movements and pieces that formed our way of thinking and engaging the world, each other and, of course, God. Exploring everything from Guttenberg to Socrates to the Reformation to the more recent media oracle Marshall McLuhan, Hipps steps out of the water to examine what each of us are breathing as we swim along unawares.

As I spend quite a bit of time in the virtual world of Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and various outlets on the Interwebs, reading Flickering Pixels has me thinking about how I communicate and what these various tools are doing to my imagination, comprehension, worldview, and humanity. Unlike paper, or other humans, all these interfaces are digital and therefore without borders. They lack a physical tangibility and the possibilities within each are endless, but there is always an underlying disconnect with flesh and blood reality that bothers my core.

Take the Japanese earthquake this past spring. Between the onslaught of Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, and the e-mails from people in-country, there was a tremendous amount of information transmitted and received. How, realistically, can we process that much information and form rational, concrete, and discerning responses? The images spark our emotions. The news feeds stir our anger. Now imagine none of these tools were available, how would you hear about it? How would you understand it in any context?  Does it make you more human to be inundated with information, or do you feel more fragmented and so grasp at far away tragedies to feel more human while ignoring the very tragedies in your own town, neighborhood, maybe even in your own house? As Hipps says, ”The human psyche isn’t designed to withstand the full gravity of planetary suffering . . . the task of recalibrating our psyche and reigniting compassion must begin with local relationships.”

Maybe it’s a de-cyborging, but in some small way, the iPad I was given seems to redirect me to something more along the lines of local relationships. Akin to driving on small, foreign country roads, the iPad is an absence of so many things I have grown accustomed to.

It is what is missing that I notice most. Those things missed are good absences. I don’t have numerous windows of various applications running, always begging for my faux-urgent response. I am forced to do one thing at a time. In an ever-increasing multitasking world, Apple created a top-selling device that makes the one thing before you all that is before you. This makes book-reading singular. I am discovering I want to read a book more than anything else. Talking with a friend recently, he said he’s read more books since he got an iPad then ever before. And in the truly rehumanized sense, I am seeking to be more present with real people and not their avatars. Maybe the one-thing-ness is reminding me the value of being present with the One Thing.

The Luddites — that 19th century group of disgruntled textile artisans “that destroyed machinery to protest the dehumanizing technological advances of the Industrial Revolution” (as Hipps writes) — knew the greater value in a person lay not in how efficiently he works, produces, receives, or transmits information but in the flesh and blood heart artisan in us all. Would a Luddite have used an iPad? Maybe, but only after having to live through the past century of ever-increasing demands on our psyches to take on more than they were designed to handle. Then again, he might just toss it on the pile of broken and rusted metal, pick up a needle and thread or a brush, and make something with his friends and fellow craftsmen close by, breathing the same air they breathe. What they created alone together may have had an impact somewhere else across the oceans, but more importantly it impacted the community around them.

In a non-Luddite manner, a piece of technology made me aware of the need for more good absences, alone and with others. I will not completely abandon the technology before me, but I am surprised to discover that some of it can actually create a space in which to become friends — be it with the void of visual and mental silence or a real person with real life right before my eyes. I’m reminded that technology is only as good as the compliment it forms to the human relationships around me.

Feminine Failure

I usually kill herbs, despite my most fervent efforts at watering and pruning. I rarely cook my boyfriend dinner, and am consistently the token girl to bring the 6-pack to the potluck instead of a side dish. But still, I live to eat and am passionate about food. I take great joy from meals together, fresh ingredients, and an intelligent cheese and wine pairing. And thus it follows, that like many citizens of this modern world, I subscribe to blogs that teach me about this subject of interest. Actually, food blogs are but one of the many categories of blogs that I have faithfully tracked over the years. Personal blogs, photo blogs, design blogs, fashion blogs, culture blogs; all have taken residency in my Google Reader for significant amounts of time.

Photo by Maggie Stein.

The rise of art, décor and design blogs has brought unprecedented accessibility to art. Be they visual artists, photographers, master DIY crafters, or writers, we are no longer distant observers to their artistic contributions. We walk alongside them- feeling intimately acquainted with their inspiration and processes, and even their pets or favorite mojito recipe. Blogs inspire art in the daily and mundane, and fellowship for the journey.

Like most women, I aim to be well rounded. And like all women, I have talent, strength beyond the size of my muscles, and some odd idiosyncrasies. But recently, creeping remorse follows my expended energies, whispering for all that I can do, there is much more that I cannot.

With the proliferation of web forums, a new competition has been born, particularly amongst women. We have begun believing that we can maintain a comprehensive aesthetic over every sphere of our life, and do it economically and organically. Blogs today show us that we can, and should, become masters of accomplishment in our crafts, gardens, kitchens, homes and wardrobes, and do so with thriftiness and an effortless and innate artistic touch.

So can we bake, assemble, and frost our three-tiered cakes and eat them too? Can we pursue careers, and still be artists with our homes, activities, dining palates, and musical tastes? The emerging idea that is caught amongst many young women is that modern American womanhood– a life lauded for our opportunity for independence– is yet contrarily bound by expectations to be completely nested at a very young age.

Recently, I’ve found myself justifying my action, or more my inaction, on the domestic front. Then the inevitable happens– I collapse. I read about how any given blogger threw together a dinner of fresh vegetables from the garden, local grass-fed beef, herbs picked that morning, and topped with a simple but elegant multi-berry tart for dessert.  All served on her vintage thrift-store-find china, the food was framed with a display of lush, fresh wildflowers, no doubt in a mason jar. Apparently this exhibition only took her a short 30 minutes to complete, not counting the time it took to snap and upload these casual photographs to share with us.

I watch this show from my living room, knowing too well that I do not do this, and could not do this with such ease and flippancy. My palms begin to perspire, the screen shrinks rapidly from my eyes, and I slam my laptop closed, all as if the Gestapo of femininity has uncovered my façade and now knows I’m failing. I read decent books, shop at the farmers’ market, and frequent great concerts, and yet the strange invisible hand that governs the expectations of my gender possesses me to feel that I am not enough.

Inherently, the blogs I follow are not at fault. It is only my interpretation which predicates their perversion. When I overwhelm my mind with calculated photographs and quippy captions of posed stories, I fall almost subconsciously into the assumption that these lives are real and attainable, and that these paraders seem much happier and more beautiful than I am.

In this age of internet remoteness and social media connectivity, blogs are but shadowy alternatives to conversations and physical interactions. As comparisons arise, between my life and the woman within the monitor, I lose– because I am competing against a manipulated image of an idealized persona. I am Sisyphus, and Femininity the mountain I climb to no avail.

The real detriment here is that creativity, the original intention behind most blogs, will soon be lost to human degradation. As blogs become the means to achieve our ends, whatever those ends may be, fame, wealth, happiness, we create from selfish aim, and we observe from a deficit. Blogging is, or can be, after all, an art form. And like all art, there is a certain subjective level of commercialization that brings the corruption of the creation. At these points, when art quietly panders more to sales, we must ask ourselves: to what end are we creating? For it is in the striving of insecurity towards a nebulous standard that every artist will fall, lost in the adulterated purpose of his act. There is always difficulty in creating, and a willful determination required to be an artist and to live an art filled existence. But this is not born from a sinking inadequacy; no, it springs from an acknowledgment of your call to create.

Because in the end, the height of my Womanhood is not measured by what I do, but who I am. The quality of my character is not measured with a yardstick, nor by the height of my tomato plants. The real fruit of life is not found in traffic numbers or tutorials, but in the qualitative depth of living in love.

For men and women alike, the day we believe our very identity to be defined by our abilities and duties, we become an idea, a drape of fabric hung loosely without grounding or foundation. We are a mirage of realness, running towards a fantasy built on impossible expectations. We lose ourselves and thus lose everything.

So please take me with my 6-pack and my inability to sew. I am fully woman, capable of bearing the emotions of the world within my heart, though my herbs still wither. And take every other woman as the same.

RoboRoach Academy

I may have just met the kid who grows up and cures Alzheimer’s– the person who will one day claim that he or she started their journey in biomedicine thanks to two guys on a mission to democratize neuroscience.

Also, I saw a remote-controlled cockroach. A live cockroach saddled with a circuit backpack, steered via wireless controller. When I heard of it, I was standing in a park watching my son play soccer. A friend of mine came over and mentioned it, cyborg cockroaches in Clarkston, Michigan.

It was as if a spacecraft landed at midfield and the ghost of Jules Verne beckoned. I had to go.

***

I arrived at Clarkston Science, Math, and Technology Academy at about 9 a.m. Soldering irons surrounded eleventh-grade biology students. They spent the morning building biomedical equipment, SpikerBoxes, from kits developed by Backyard Brains.

Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, both PhDs, founded the company.

Cockroaches are submerged in ice water to anesthetize them.

“This actual project started as a joke,” Marzullo says of the SpikerBox. We pause to listen to the teacher instruct the students to check twice and solder once. Marzullo explains that PhD candidates who work in solid state electronics labs may spend up to 6 years developing sophisticated, patent-able equipment using next generation chips and sensors. He and Gage wondered, if you just want to read neural activity, could someone do what costs a million dollars for less than a hundred?

They presented non-working prototypes at a conference two and a half years ago, and were flooded with responses.

“We had more attention in three hours in presenting these non-working prototypes than I did in six years of experiments in grad school,” says Marzullo. They responded and created a working model from off-the-shelf components.

The SpikerBoxes allow students to hear and see neural activity, called a spike.

Marzullo explains,“The EKG, the lub-dub, is a kind of a cultural phenomenon … [Like the heart], the neurons also fire, also use electricity to communicate as well. But it’s much faster—one millisecond long—and it’s much smaller in amplitude; it’s a much weaker signal. So that spike is kind of like that electrical pulse that travels down a neuron, and the rate of those pulses is one way that the brain encodes information. So when you’re seeing a spike, it’s like the first time you hear a heart beat.”

***

The students finish the SpikerBoxes; the cockroach experience begins. A few Blaberus discoidalis cockroaches will have a limb surgically removed. The legs, the scientists explain, have neurons firing in them, even after they are amputated, and will remain alive for up to two days.

Volunteers take on the roles of anesthesiologist and surgeon. Marzullo guides them through the procedure. The cockroaches are removed from their habitat and submerged in ice water. Using small, curved scissors, the leg is quickly and carefully cut and pinned to a SpikerBox. Students huddle around it, waiting to hear the spikes. It sounds like static. Gage and Marzullo then connect the box to an iPad, and students can see a visual representation of the sounds.

They discuss possible responses of the leg to stimuli, and reveal what will be one of the student’s favorite experiments: How will a cockroach leg respond to the sound vibrations of hip-hop, specifically the song “Love the Way You Lie?”

Visual evidence suggests that the legs preferred the beats of the Eminem verse to the melodic sections featuring Rihanna. The cockroach leg appears to dance.

Later, Marzullo says, “the first time that dancing leg thing worked, I nearly fell off my seat… [it’s] just science fiction far out.”

It’s more than that. Gage and Marzullo encourage the students to have a healthy skepticism. Is this real, they want to know, or are we tricking you? I find myself playing along. They could fake the spikes; how would I know the sound or wave pattern of a neuron? I could argue away that evidence as trickery. I’m having a harder time arguing with a newly severed, rhythmic limb.

***

I am inspired to make up words. Entrepreneurologists. Revulsionary. Creeptastic.

***

A group of prospective students, eighth-graders, come through the classroom on a tour. Mike Olsen, my friend, the teacher, tells them about the day’s activity. One of the students asks, “Is that ethical?”

He sees this kind of hands-on work as intellectual nutrition for his students, and reminds me that the cockroaches aren’t actually dying, and it’s true. Both the amputees and the implanted cockroaches continue their lives: eating, reproducing. Despite this, Marzullo tells me some of his colleagues feel that a three-dimensional computer model would suffice, that this is a step backward. In their eyes the experiments are less ethical when less supervised, less controlled, less mature students participate.

Gage and Marzullo see the participation differently. They see themselves at 16, longing to have this sort of opportunity. Beyond this, they wonder if an early understanding might lead to more rapid advancement in their field, eventually leading to breakthroughs that improve the quality of life for people dealing with brain function anomalies. They’ve received funding from the Kauffman Foundation, the Michigan New Economy Initiative, and the National Institutes of Health’s Small Business Innovation Research grant program. They’ll be reporting on how student retention of neuroscience concepts is impacted by these experiments over the next two years.

The cockroaches, then, aren’t the only subjects.

***

I survey the room. Gage walks around as spikes screech from each table. Marzullo holds his breath as he brings together electrode and antennae for a different experiment, the much-anticipated RoboRoach. When this step is complete, he says, “This is so wonderful, hearing sounds like this in a high school classroom.”

Another screech rises up from the lab tables, and Marzullo laughs as he returns to the prep. About a minute and a half later, one box sounds like high-pitched, club-style scratching. Marzullo looks up and explains to the cockroach deejay that this is how a theremin works as well. I find myself singing “Good Vibrations.”

The RoboRoach prep complete, students take turns pressing the buttons on a control panel about the size of the roach itself, laughing about what the cockroach might say if it could speak. They observe the cockroach at first responding to, then eventually ignoring the microstimulation.

The cockroach isn’t really a cyborg; he’s being tricked into moving in one direction or another. Eventually, the RoboRoach is no longer steerable. The microstimulation provides no reinforcement, so the impulse is adapted to, ignored. I imagine that this could be altered with a reward, a treat. For the rest of the day, I try not to be distracted by the vision of someone breeding a cockroach army.

***

I text my husband that this is the best day ever. It’s almost like living poetry in the classroom, watching students so engaged, watching scientists and teachers work with such enthusiasm and passion.

“The average person on the street, not even the average person, the above-average person doesn’t know how the brain works,” says Gage, “doesn’t even know the basic principles of the brain, that energy from the outside world, be it sound, light, heat, gets transformed into a neural code through these things, through these neurons, and then your brain processes this information and then causes your body to move, all through electricity.”

Marzullo says, “When you’re seeing a spike, it’s like the first time you hear a heart beat. You’re seeing that basic element of information-processing in your brain. And so we’ll see some this afternoon, and when you look at it, it’s like you’re looking at reality.”

It’s the stuff of fiction, but it’s real. It’s science and meta-science. It’s challenging; it’s full of potential; it feels like art.

Ghost in the Appliances

I have never been one to like guns. My stepfather displayed his rifles on the living room wall (which frightened me), and I watched my mother pull a trigger once (the shotgun kick-back threw her to the ground). We ate deer all winter, claimed by buckshot; I couldn’t look when the deer lay silently in the back of the baby-blue pickup truck.

Despite my feelings about firearms, I am just now thinking of buying a pistol. Because, today, my stove unilaterally changed its clock to military time. I don’t remember this option in the user’s manual. (Just what, I ask, must a stove be planning, to take such measures?)

Is the microwave in on it?

This week I have been dealing with clogged drains, a leaky ceiling, and even a flat tire on the way to the library. Thankfully, I have a Volvo, and, like the stove, it has a way with language. “Tire needs air now!” it silently observed, with a huge exclamation point above the message.

Sure enough, the Volvo was being forthright. The front tire did need air. I could see a nail with a little piece of my neighbor’s roof still attached to it, slowly causing the car to communicate in exclamation points. I paid the service station down the street to remove the nail, with a gun-like implement, and patch up the tire. This calmed the Volvo considerably, and it has gone back to talking about the weather. (“It is 50 degrees today.”)

I suppose I am overreacting just a little bit, but I can’t help thinking that the stove has less honorable intentions than the car. I wonder if it is considering vengeance for the unjust treatment of its former kitchen companion — the old sink we left under the hemlocks. After all, we thought that location would simply be a temporary shelter. We thought we’d surely sell the Depression-era appliance at a good price, to a peaceful home.

The sink is (or was) white. It is made of iron and has a built-in washer board. The drain is filled with pine needles that are morphing into mud. Where the faucets used to be, there are two holes. Sometimes I imagine a woman’s hands turning the long-gone faucets. I imagine her washing a piece of meat from an animal somebody may have shot. She turns and smiles. “Can’t you see?” she seems to be asking.

I am not sure what she wants me to notice. Is it the ease with which she turns the straight handles? The way she doesn’t have to worry that her sink will communicate with her, beyond a squeak in the left faucet? Does she want me to know that her husband shot the animal, and brought it home in a vehicle that only spoke in tail-pipe smoke signals?

She turns back to the sink, and I feel at a loss. I want to ask her, should I buy a pistol? Should I be afraid of the world I live in? Or should I just go to the basement, reset the kitchen fuse, and hope that the stove will surrender to Eastern Standard Time — without a fight.

The Serendipity Revival

With the ever-present, and sometimes intruding, information age presiding over our daily digest, we have become the consumers (and creators) of a constant newsfeed. Whether we experience total access to information as progressive or destructive or a hybrid of both, our participation in the digital age seems to be unavoidable and is (for better or for worse) morphing into a democratic leveling of information. The same online source that tells us about unrest in the Middle East also tells us what Ben and Dylan had for lunch and that it was better than what they had yesterday. Our decorating choices have become as public — and even as digitally consumed by our peers — as the news of The Royal Wedding.

This isn’t yet another plea to abandon the Twitterverse or your Facebook account in exchange for the world of traditional-paper-and-print; this is merely an observation on digital participation, our inkling for discovery, and an age-old phenomenon that has been resurrected in response to this need.

A sweater fit for a tree.

In a 2009 New York Times article, “Serendipity, Lost in the Digital Deluge,” Damon Darlin noted that though the digital age is free, fast, and full of choices, “we’ve lost something as well: the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.” Though we feel a twinge of discovery when an e-mail about a vintage-trunk-turned-kitchen-table lands in our inbox, “we are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes.” Even our chance discoveries are filtered.

As of January 5, 2011, our public, personal information had amounted to “five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; [and] two billion tweets a month,” according to Rob Walker’s “Cyberspace When You’re Dead.”

Insomuch as we continue to consume everyone else’s playlist, recipe choice, witty response to Kevin’s question, and the Robinson’s toddler’s first walk across the room, we contribute to the public, collective existence, where our private experiences are praised when shared. As more public opportunities arise to publish our private happenings, our choice to keep our choices to ourselves slowly becomes a luxury. Despite this growing, infinite download, Darlin claims that “the human need for surprise” remains intact.

Since Darlin’s 2009 call for fate to somehow remain vigilant in the face of exponential information growth, an element of privacy has made a very loud comeback. We still want to keep some things to ourselves. We want to be the one to break that news, to discover that thing that no one else knows. Consequently, there is an undercurrent in our contemporary waters; our paradigm of public omnipotence is being infiltrated by secrets.

Yes, secrets are the new business model, social movement, and artistic practice; secrets are the new news.

Take the recent rise in speakeasy success. A nightlife movement claiming passwords, hidden hours, and secret-symbols-as-signage is nothing short of exclusive. Even when you know one such secret establishment exists in your city, good luck getting a reservation (unless it’s for 3:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon). Though some of speakeasy’s popularity is perhaps due to its drink menu fit-for-a-queen, or a crowd made up of historical-period-junkies seeking etiquette hearkening back to the Prohibition Era, you are initially drawn to its novelty as a secret enterprise — even if you blog about it later and even if, actually, everyone already knows about it. These hidden establishments remain seemingly removed from the infinite news-o-sphere that you spent 9-5 pm digesting.

Likewise, secrets have invaded public assembly. Flash Mobs have gained so much popularity that they are even beginning to infiltrate mainstream marketing — an inherently conflicted outcome of their initial reason for novelty. From the Grand Central Freeze to the (now annual) No-Pants-On-The-Subway NYC escapade, a local manifestation of one such secret gathering could comically infiltrate your public experience at any moment. Even if documentation of the event goes viral immediately after it’s set in motion, the plan itself remains a secret known only to flash mob participants from conception to culmination.

Lastly — and most boldly — the guerilla arts have found themselves a very unique place in post-modernity. From guerilla gardening to guerilla knitting, these secret initiatives are welcomed with enthusiasm in the public sphere.

In the guerilla guidebook (The Guerilla Art Kit: Everything You Need to Put Your Message Out Into the World, for Fun, Non-Profit, and World Domination), Keri Smith defines a guerilla movement as “any anonymous work (including, but not limited to, graffiti, signage, performance, additions, and decoration) installed, performed, or attached in public spaces, with the distinct purpose of affecting the world in a creative or thought-provoking way.” The rules? Start small. Don’t get caught. Be responsible, polite, and stealth. Bring the basics (tagging supplies, a crew of helpers, and clothing with pockets.)

Personally, my experience in the guerilla world began in a collegiate Guerilla Book Club. We (obviously) had an anonymous Gmail account, announced the reading and location of discussion the week of, and — just like it sounds — radically discussed literature in public spaces. Our movement was complete with spray-painted posters and secret lingo.

This readers’ rebellion acted as the gateway for my involvement in the guerilla knitting movement. From Washington Park with Magda Sayeg to Lee Park in Charlottesville with a group of female conspirators, I was launched into a movement dedicated to covering our collective, public space with “the fiber equivalent of graffiti.” Our victims have included garage doors, trash cans, and trees as we presented sweaters fit for public infrastructure. I am admittedly a culprit of — and a sucker for — the secret revolution. And so is most everyone else.

Accompanying the recent popularity of Banksy’s documentary film Exit Through The Gift Shop, most of the Western world is now looking for Shepherd Ferry stickers on its corner stop sign. Fabric-filled potholes and knitted buses fill our buzz feeds. (But only after the fact.) We’re on the lookout for guerilla gardeners, who “fight the filth with forks and flowers.” Guerilla bannering has us turning the corner to find a flag-in-our-face declaring: “You’re A Star.”

The secrecy is as addictive as the craft. Why? As a guerilla movement onlooker, Keri Smith explains, “I get excited knowing that the artist and I share a little secret. For a moment, I am taken out of my known world and presented with an alternative, one that is unexpected and daring.”

At least the onlooker has the privilege of knowing something about her artistic confidant — perhaps that she knits the European way, or she prefers guerilla tomatoes to guerilla basil. The artist is often ignorant of the work’s effect because, by nature, guerilla art does not generate its own organized reception; there’s no planned opening and no length of an exhibit. The artist’s choice to dispense anonymous, public information — and to suddenly abandon it — automatically places a limit on the information’s dissemination. Even if the action or placement is so well received that it becomes widespread, public knowledge, it still cannot become universal: there are still some things the artist will never know (like who saw it first and if it generated more movement; like a sweater for another tree in another state … like Ohio).

Unless you are physically present as the audience or privy to the covert gathering ahead of time, these gardens and sweaters remain a subset of information limited to a select group of accomplices and bystanders until the experience is complete — until it goes viral. The participants are thrown together by chance — a chance that forms an alternative community to the filtered one we experience online.

As long as these secret actions maintain their integrity (i.e., no one spills the beans), our guerilla experience is full of serendipity. Whether we participate as initiators or onlookers, these hidden, public endeavors remind us of our ability to discover. This trace of secrecy in our cultural taste is the alternative to Darlin’s prophesied death of fate in the rise of the online age.

Or maybe, like our fourth grade selves, we just like a good, old-fashioned secret and are willing to fight for its contemporary: the clandestine, hush-hush endeavor in the public arena.

The Willful Death of a Luddite

As an avid reader, I’d kept a wary watch on the world of e-readers since the first practical edition of the Kindle came out. (I’m still at a loss for the use of the scroll bar on the side of the original device.) Like many readers, I was a little tentative about giving up my paper pages not so much because I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands, but primarily because my home library is tied directly to my ego, which risked a serious decrease in placation if people could no longer deduce from it how smart and worldly I really am.

But curiosity continued to nag at me. Could e-readers really be better than books? While my other friends were on the verge of taking blood oaths that they would never abandon their precious print, I was secretly checking back at Amazon two or three times a day to see if the Kindle prices showed any signs of dropping. When Barnes and Noble followed with the Nook, it was just one nudge further to the dark side..

“E-readers have competition now,” I thought. “They must be cool.” And as we all know, being cool is far more important than being intelligent or worldly.

Believe it or not, though, the scale-tipper had nothing to do with my ego. Instead, it had everything to do with being cheap. Both the Nook and the Kindle — and probably every other e-reader out there — offer free editions of most every worthwhile out-of-copyright text available. Forget the fact that for the price of a Kindle I could have also purchased approximately 37.8 of these texts from Barnes and Noble. I wanted a full thirty-eight, and I wanted to be able to buy them from the comfort of my bathroom. From Great Expectations to The Divine Comedy, an e-reader would allow me, at the push of a button, to enlighten myself beyond my junior-year English teacher’s most inebriated dreams. Two days after my birthday, the price of the Kindle finally dropped. The time had come to make my move into the future of literary technology.

Checking over my shoulder in case any of my bookworm friends were eavesdropping with a battle-axe, I quickly clicked through the order page, guilty as an eight-year-old boy sifting through the swimsuit section of his sister’s J. Crew catalogue. My order complete, I closed my browser window and picked up a chewed copy of Dracula, opening to a random page just in time for one of those whom I betrayed to come around the corner.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Reading. Obviously.

Because Amazon wanted me to know that I’d made the right choice, they sent the Kindle overnight so I received it the very next day — this at no extra charge. I liken this to when Anakin’s first task as Darth Vader was to annihilate the Jedi: immediate gratification vindicates even the worst decisions. Opening my Kindle was like switching to a red light saber. It was the most glorious feeling I’ve known since realizing that Greedo did, in fact, shoot first.

My new treasure in hand, I was faced with the task of purchasing my first book. While this might have been a challenge for most people, I had no trouble with it. That’s because I’m a writer, and therefore broke. Thus my first purchase was not a purchase at all, but a download of one of those free books that had me drooling all over my roommate’s keyboard. This granted me the ability to try out my new e-reader with no extra financial commitment while simultaneously perpetuating the vicious cycle that ensures that all writers remain broke forever. Because I’m the kind of guy who likes to do my part.

Since I was already reading it in a massive anthology I never planned to take anywhere except maybe to my living room, I downloaded “Phantastes” by George MacDonald. The very fact that I was able to hold the text in one hand — turn the page, even — as opposed to fumbling around with the  five-pound compilation was more than enough to satisfy my e-reader skepticism. Except for the threat still posed to my life by those sworn to Liberty, Equality, Printing Presses or Death, I felt what few inhibitions I’d had surrounding e-reading evanesce like so many of the fallen trees that are forced to untimely deaths for our reading pleasure. (Take that, activists!)

But this isn’t about the perks of the e-reading device itself. Anybody can visit a high-schooler’s blog to read about those. No, this is about the rapture of having an entire catalogue of literary classics at your fingertips, any time you want. On a train to Boston and sick of reading chick lit? Download Sense and Sensibility. Have better taste in books? Try something by Robert Louis Stevenson. Interested in the effect of hallucinogenic substances on little children? Alice in Wonderland is available in multiple editions. Didn’t pay attention in high school? A Tale of Two Cities can bring you back to those youthful days of rebellion faster than a dose of cigarettes and Sunny D.

And it doesn’t stop with nostalgia and train rides, either. I’m already thinking about buying Kindles for all of my unborn children. Not only do kids like buttons more than book pages, but the fact is that kids are — let’s be honest — not very smart. How hard can it be to trick them into reading a book just because it’s on a battery-operated screen? After all, kids will engage in most anything as long as it’s on an electronic screen. (I’m fondly reminded of Game Boy’s 2.6 inch square of optical carnage.) Not only that, but with their selections limited to free books, I won’t have to worry about them reading books I don’t approve of, with the exception of a few James Joyce novels, which I’m hopeful my kids will be smart enough to recognize for what they are in the first place. E-reading will also conveniently result in the notable absence of beaten, torn, and shredded tomes scattered across the 150-square-foot home I expect I’ll have when I’m fifty. And, since it’s likely that my kids will be smarter than everyone else’s kids, they’ll know enough to find my Kindle and break it instead of their own, preserving their own for the future.

Indeed, it is in the future where the e-reader with the free books really pays off. When my kids reach high school, they won’t have to suffer the indignity of those battered, bruised and peed-on copies of books they hand out in most public English departments. They won’t have to be mislead on exams by inaccurate notes scribbled in the margins, nor will they suffer discipline for scribbling their own inaccurate notes in the margins, nor will they have to pay twenty dollars for a five dollar book when they lose it before the lesson ends and the teacher sees an opening to make some extra beer money. All of that disappears with the free books available on e-readers. And by the time my kids are in school, it will be well after 2019 and any book worth my children’s attention that isn’t currently out of copyright will be by then. I think the point makes itself: E-readers are not just a sleek, modern choice to make your kids look cooler than someone else’s kids. They are an investment.

Granted, there are drawbacks to e-readers, but there are also drawbacks to bars, and that doesn’t stop us from patronizing them as soon as we can get away with it. And just the way a bar is only one means to consuming an adult beverage, so also are e-readers only one way to enjoy the magic of literature. Sure, they can be a little expensive at first, but just like a bar, the more drinks you have, the less money you’ll think you’ve spent. And in the long run, that’s what good literature is really all about: Getting you to believe something that simply isn’t true.

The truth is that I’ll never give up print books entirely, and I don’t think anyone else will, either. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll spend more money when you tally up all of the times I’ll buy a Kindle edition and a print edition of a book. (Well played, Amazon marketing team.) But my continued patronage of print novels will not be for the greater good promoted by literary snobs, nor will it be because I like the acrid smell of urine wafting across my face as I flip through the pages of a twenty-year-old library book. In fact, it won’t even have to do with the cost of books. No, in the end I will continue to buy hard copy books because they represent a slice of history, the bitter toil of one man or woman and their editor, seamlessly bound by the spine of impossibility and perched proudly on the shelf of time, where it will forever whisper to me, “You can do it, too, Josh.” And because I’ll need something to throw at my kids when they break my Kindle.

Ten Things I Learned at the App Store

Confession time: I am a Mac user who owns a total of zero touch devices.

We have no iPhone in the house. Our fanciest iPod is a Nano without a video camera. We marvel at the magical iPad from afar.

Due to this lack of modern technology, I have been missing out on the App Store. I know this because of my chums with touch screen Apple devices. I should start slipping them calcium. I fear they will develop hunchbacks from hovering over their screens wherever they go.

It’s tough to see the value of the app while staring at their scalps, so when Apple announced the opening of their App Store for Mac, I was excited: my first personal exposure to this wonderful world of Angry Birds and Urban Spoon. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. I can delude myself into believing I have more self-control now than when I was twenty. More confessions: I once had a gaming addiction. I would share the number of hours I’ve blown on Atari 2600, Sega Genesis, and the PC versions of Hearts and Solitaire, but by rule I only do one story problem a month (see point 3), plus I’ve spent way too much on hair color to date myself in such an obvious fashion. I’m pleased to report that even after downloading Action Potato and Pangea Arcade, I’m not spending a lot of time gaming on the computer. This allows me to continue hollering at my video-game loving children, without hypocrisy, while I’m on Facebook or Twitter.

2. Computer geeks like a good soap opera as much as girls. I decided to ask my friend Ty, an app developer, to be my Glinda, sans singing and dress, in the Land of Apps. As a part of my tour, he recounted the saga of Jobs and Gates, their split, the exit of Jobs from Apple, the return of Jobs, and the Google factor (and this was before the shake ups at both Apple and Google in mid-January 2011). Tremendous story. Recommended improvements? Cast Susan Lucci as the many faces of Android and supply chocolates.

3. Apple wants to own my consumer soul, part one. Shortly after I started toying with the App Store, I noticed an odometer-looking counter at apple.com. It was tracking the number of apps downloaded through iTunes, and if my math is correct, will turn over the ten billion mark within hours of my submission of this article. I felt like it was aimed squarely at me. C’mon, it was saying, everyone’s doing it. Tick-tock. Don’t you want a chance to win $10,000 in iTunes credit? What’s the harm in one little app? Don’t you want to be as awesome as the rest of the known world?  You at least want to see it roll over, don’t you? It was like a drug dealer inside my computer.

4. Apple wants to own my consumer soul, part two. I just said no to the ten billionth iTunes app slot machine/app-ometer, but they’ve got other ways of making you shop. The App Store shows me how badly I need to be unilaterally aligned with them. By teasing me with apps for my computer that are also available for the touch screen devices, I can see how much cooler it would be if only I could, say,  take my notes with me (yeah, Ty-Glinda the App Developer showed me Evernote), add to them, and sync it all up, nice and pretty.

5. An app by any other name is software. Such a satisfying little word, app, but an app is really just a software application, a focused sort of computer program. Thus the App Store is a virtual marketplace with a really great name. I would say “merely” a great name, but I can’t discount the value of the phrase “App Store”: Microsoft is suing over it.

6. Nostalgia can lessen your appreciation of the new. Fireworms, a part of Pangea Arcade, is a fun game to play, reminiscent of Centipede. It stirred a sense of longing for the past in me. You might be thinking, ah, she probably misses her teenage years and all that is contained therein: youth, vitality, innocence. You would be wrong. I miss the arcade rollerball. If you do not know what a rollerball is, just imagine your touchpad with a pop-up ball in a socket that you could control with your fingertips or palm, and in moments of extreme gaming frenzies, whip your hand across it and make it spin really, really fast.

6a. You were right after all. Discussing this made me also miss the game Tempest. Thinking about how few readers will remember Tempest makes me feel old. Now I’m longing for my youth, etc.

7. Programming a yelling robotto keep you on task may be as distracting as not having a yelling robot at all.

8. Selling software through the virtual store means less overhead. Aperture version 3.1.1, Apple’s step-up photography software, sells for $79.99 through the App Store. Aperture 3, sold in stores, is $199.99. This seems like good news for consumers, or at least those owned by Apple.

9. Despite the distraction of programming a yelling robot, it is fun to name him Steve.

10. When entering a high score, I call myself ACE, even though I’m the only one playing the game.

Information Design and the Modern World

We live in a world increasingly saturated with information, and thanks in large part to the worldwide web, data now flows faster than the speed of light. Whether this means downloading massive amounts of text to a computer or mobile device, sharing links and ideas via social networks, or simply accessing news media resources, the reality is that there is an abundance of data in today’s world. Information designer Richard Saul Wurman puts it bluntly: “A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England.”

With so much data spinning around us, how can we make sense of it all, and for goodness sake, how can we choose where to focus our attention?

A growing field known as information design may have at least part of the answer. As defined by the Information Design Exchange, information design is the defining, planning, and shaping of the contents of a message and the environments in which it is presented, with the intention of satisfying the information needs of the intended recipients.”[1] Information designers exist at the intersection of theory and practice. They seek ways to make information useful by organizing, synthesizing, and presenting it in a cohesive manner that will enable rapid analysis and application. Expressions of this notion of “planning and shaping…contents” and presenting them coherently abound, from the musings of Edward Tufte (see, for example, Tufte’s book “Envisioning Information”), to Hans Rosling’s brilliant Gapminder software.

Infographics, geocoded maps, and data-rich graphs are just a few of the many resources that designers and statisticians are using today to present information and convey meaning to their audiences. These visualizations are popping up in a variety of places, such as popular Generation Y publication Good Magazine, the DataBlog” of UK-based Guardian, and Fast Company’s popular “Infographic of the Day” resource.

With the loads of data present in today’s society, there is vast market potential for visually coherent, data-driven information tools, particularly those with ready access to Web outputs. Meanwhile, those with the design and statistical chops to manipulate these tools stand poised to have a tremendous impact on the way we view and interpret the world. To such an effect, in a 1994 essay for Wired Magazine, Paul Saffo poignantly predicts the growing importance of point of view in an information-saturated culture:[2]

The scarcest of context resources will be something utterly beyond the ken of cold algorithms — point of view. “Point of view” is that quintessentially- human solution to information overload, an intuitive process of reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum. (emphasis added)

As Saffo suggests, the way in which information is presented matters greatly. It matters for the kinds of decisions that are made based upon that information and it matters for the results of those decisions. Information design, at its best, helps people make sense of the world that surrounds them, highlighting patterns, underscoring trends, and offering insights into why things are they way that they are and how to improve.

Simultaneously, information designers hold within their reach an incredible responsibility– a responsibility to not only organize and make sense of massive amounts of information, but also to present information that conveys meaning where meaning exists, and avoids attributing meaning to non-meaningful relationships. In a January 2010 piece Stephen Few, of Perceptual Edge, cautions those developing “information visualizations” to ensure that they use “renderings” that accurately and cohesively convey information.[3] Similarly, data visualization guru David McCandless recently gave a TED talk illustrating the power and persuasion of information made beautiful. McCandless’s talk is visually stunning and well-presented. However, the comments section of McCandless’s presentation underscores some of the challenges that accompany visualization: while some viewers wildly supported McCandless’s work, others criticized him for misrepresenting the facts in a few key areas.

As with design in nearly every other area, information design exists with the capacity to enlarge and enhance the world, and the simultaneous potential to harm it if used improperly. As designers, artists, and interpreters, we should remain ever- aware of this reality, and applaud those working to present data in meaningful, thoughtful ways.

To learn more about information design and its applications, visit any of the resources mentioned above, or check out the following:

  • Helvetica: a documentary film about the influential role of this popular typeface and the importance of graphic design in everyday life
  • The writings of Otto Neurath
  • Vizthink.com, a “global community for visual thinkers and communicators”

[1] “Information Design: Core Competencies; What information designers know and can do.” Information Design Exchange, 31 Aug. 2007, 8. Accessed via http://www.iiid.net/PDFs/idxPublication.pdf

[2] Saffo, P. “It’s the Context, Stupid.” Wired Magazine, 1994. Accessed via Paul Saffo’s Website: http://www.saffo.com/essays/contextstupid.php

[3] Linked on Few’s website is a fun interactive quiz, challenging visitors to test their visual IQ when it comes to graph design http://www.perceptualedge.com/files/GraphDesignIQ.html

I Facebook, Therefore I Am

Last month I committed social suicide.

I deleted my Facebook account.

 

With no small sense of irony, I went to see The Social Network shortly after. What struck me about the film wasn’t the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of social skills (funny, for a guy who now runs our social lives), the speed of his success, or even how Justin Timberlake brought sexy back to hacking. All I could focus on were the dates: Facebook was created in 2004! It sounds like yesterday, yet I can hardly remember a time when Facebook didn’t exist. I climbed on board in early 2007 with trepidation, anticipating another MySpace or Bebo—too busy; little of value. Only three years later, it’s hard to fathom how we planned high school reunions, shared wedding photos, or found out if our exes are still hot before Mark Zuckerberg came along.

I intended to find out.

My intentions were noble. After nearly five years of living abroad, hubby and I were gearing up to move back home to the West Coast. It seemed like the perfect time to put an end to our virtual social lives and start focusing on our real ones.

Admittedly, I was scared. I deliberated a full week before I even researched how to delete my account, and another week before I merely “disabled” it. It took me one more week to hit the official delete button. Then I waited for the fallout.

They say withdrawal is nastiest in the first few days, but my symptoms only increased over time. Like a smoker, it was initially the ritual that I missed most. A week after quitting, I was still wondering what to do each morning once I’d checked my email accounts and my blog feed and wasn’t quote ready to delve into work. Twitter suddenly got a lot more attention.

After two weeks I really started to miss my friends. I’ve lived away from them for nearly five years, but for at least three of those years I felt very much a part of their lives. My expectation that those friends would simply revert to emailing was seriously off base. My 15-year-old cousin informed me, “Nobody emails anymore.” And with the dearth of emails also came a drought of event invitations. Sure, in the past I had to turn them down due to distance, but I appreciated the thought no less.

After three weeks, panic set in. What was I missing?! What fabulous parties had passed? Who was pregnant? Engaged? Divorced? Who was at last night’s Canuck’s game? Who hates the new Sufjan Stevens album? Who was excited about the arrival of eggnog lattes at Starbucks? Wait, are eggnog lattes available already?? How would I ever know? And would my life be complete if I didn’t?

After an entire month I was faced with a serious existential crisis. Who am I apart from Facebook? Are my social interactions less valid because I do not document them afterward? Will everyone forget about me if I never again update my status?

My husband, who hasn’t missed Facebook in the slightest and is content to have three (real) friends in the world, reminded me that, indeed I am still a valid, complete person without an online profile. He also reminded me that dissolving a Facebook friendship is not dissolving a real friendship.

If Magritte were alive today, he would say, “Ceci n’est pas un ami”. These are not my friends. They are simply virtual representations of my friends. They do not “satisfy emotionally.” Just try filling them with tobacco.

Hubby also pointed out how much more time I now spend calling my family in the evenings, reading books on public transit, and working out on weekends. These are good things.

But while we’ve all discussed the shortcomings of Facebook (it’s a time vacuum, it’s voyeuristic, it violates privacy and lacks boundaries, it substitutes virtual friendships for real ones), how often do we discuss the downside of not being on Facebook? Point blank, it’s isolating.

I’m fascinated by my one friend who isn’t on Facebook. A busy schoolteacher and a mom, she always said she preferred real relationships to virtual ones. I was pretty excited to tell her about my own departure from Facebook. But the day after I quit, she emailed to say she had finally signed up—she was tired of feeling she was always missing out on things.

Facebook has become a casual, non-threatening way to make first contact with new friends. It’s how many of my wonderful real life friendships took root in the UK. Nowadays, calling someone you don’t know well can feel intrusive and overeager. Email can be inconvenient and slow—if I want to know how Kelly is doing, I have to remember to write her, and hope she finds time to email back. As a self-employed editor, I am hugely dependent on my personal network for contracts, and Facebook has often been a source of work. And though Facebook can’t replace my relationships, it is the easiest way to facilitate them.

I resisted cell phones for years, on principle, thinking I was preserving my independence and carefree lifestyle. But when I finally bought my first Motorola I discovered cell phones just make life easier. So while deleting myself from Facebook sounded like a liberating “eff you” to technology and the constraints of modern social expectations, in fact, it just made it harder to enhance that “real social life” I had idealized.

It’s no surprise my Facebook absence is unlikely to last much longer, but my time “unplugged” revealed the lack of constructive boundaries I had previously put on my use of it. When I do venture back into that digital abyss, it will be with new parameters—I’ll never spend time on Facebook when I could be spending it with real people; I won’t use it to kill time in public places; I will not accept friend requests out of courtesy; and I will prioritize deepening my existing friendships over being nostalgic about old ones. I’ll approach it as a tool to make my relationships better, not as a relationship in and of itself.

 

Death by Taradiddle

Your thumbs are aching.  Your wrists are burning.  But, you persevere.  You hit send. You smile as you picture the delight on the face of the receiver who will open your clever little text.

It was once believed that it is “better to give than to receive.” However, in this advanced day and age of texting, we now know that the value of “giving” is equal to or less than the intoxicating notification that you have received.

Your phone vibrates and the light flashes. Your adrenaline surges as you click “Read Now.” The message: a witty quip providing an intimate snapshot into the life of another. It is akin to reading a status update on Facebook but better, as this is privately, intimately, just for you. You smile and even giggle aloud while staring at your tiny screen.

Brief insight into my life: my family
eats pre-packaged dinners and watches
Wheel of Fortune re-runs while I enjoy
Pushkin and Proust.

Wow, a very successful text: succinct and clever with a dash of intellectual intrigue. Now it’s your turn. You’ve got to make a play. And if you’re a real competitor, it has to be equal to or greater than what you’ve received.  But here’s where it can all get very complicated very fast. Do you respond immediately? Do you respond openly and honestly?

What’s a Pushkin? Neva mind.
Will Wiki.

Or,

I hate pre-fab food n
think Wheel of F
is total kitsch.

The answer is NO. You don’t. You play the game. After a little background research into the subjects mentioned in the text received, you respond with something equally impressive (the first quote listed on Wikipedia by Alexander Pushkin), though completely uninformative about yourself:

“The illusion which exalts
us is dearer to us than
ten-thousand truths.”

Home Run.
______________________________________
Mind: What?! What is that?!

 

Ego: A quote by Pushkin.

 

Mind: Yeah, but you didn’t even know who he was until you Googled him?!

 

Ego: Wikipedia-ed. I had heard the name once before.

Mind: So now you’re pretending that you share a common love of Russian literature?

Acting as if this quote is memorized, ready, and waiting at the front of your brain? . . . Filed away just before the Yahoo dating tips you’ve actually memorized? I know you. You fraud.

 

Ego: Well, I think you’ll agree that it’s a pretty impressive li(n)e to send.
______________________________________

They say that 55% of communication is non-verbal, 38% is vocal, and a mere 7% is written[1]. But these statistics need not apply. Times have changed. Person-to-person communication has been downgraded. It is not uncommon to find people zoning out of your conversation, dropping their heads from your eyes to the gaze of a 2½-inch screen, to satisfy their textual cravings with others. To add insult to injury, they will then most likely ask you to repeat entire missed chapters of the conversation: as if you were nothing more than an open Kindle offering conversation on demand[2].

As the bulk of our communication increasingly falls into what should be the smallest category of all, the results are disenchanting. Recently at a party, a momentary lull in conversation saw everyone grabbing at pockets or digging in purses for their cell phones. These addicts were desperate for a hit: to send a text, check the time, anything. Which brings us to our first lesson in contemporary communication. Let’s call it Taradiddle[3] 101:

Whatever you do, you are not to make the effort to start a conversation with a new person in person. If you want to get to know the cute girl sitting on the couch next to you, you overhear her name. (Worst-case scenario you resort to conversation with her to ask for her name.)  You may then proceed to use your “Facebook for iPhone” app to add the cute girl sitting next to you as a “friend.” Once “friend-ing” has occurred, you may proceed to poke her (via Facebook, of course). From there, if you are lucky, things may even progress to reciprocal wall postings.

Overhauling age-old communication practices is not without consequence. The stakes are high; I don’t mean to scare you but, with texting, the margin for communicative error increases by tenfold[4] while the likelihood of taradiddle increases by ten thousand-fold. (On the homeland security advisory system this would be level orange. No, red.)

The most obvious reason for an increase in communication error is that texts are short, thereby restricting the amount of communication possible. The very size of the keypad limits, or I should say, lessens the possibility of texting novellas to friends. Realistically, to even touch the correct letter on the miniature keypad with our clumsy mammoth hands is meritorious. As a result, words are used sparingly and editing of texts is infrequently, if ever, done.

Of course, for strong, silent types, this all sounds positive. A “pro,” if we’re keeping tally. But, before you smile shyly on the inside, let’s move on to the real con[5]. One ill-placed exclamation mark, a mis-typed word, a poorly phrased sentence — possibly resulting from one apple juice too many — is all it takes to send the wrong message. . . .

f u! wake up with tonsillitis
you’ll no who 2 blame 🙂

. . . and the wrong message is all it takes to kill a budding romance or a flirtatious fling.

But I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking I am way ahead of you. You’re thinking: I have never had trouble communicating effectively via text because I routinely employ the greatest technologically-facilitated-emotional-communications-advancement-ever-to-have-hit-the-free-world. Emoticons.[6] But before we all employ the emoticon-wearing-a-party-hat to celebrate the emotional communications gap that has been filled, let’s not forget that all smiles are not created equal.

While it is possible to convey certain universal experiences such as: “Hey, look at me, I’m wearing sunglasses” and “I love you so much, hearts are literally exploding out of my face,” it is far more difficult to convey the nuance of human expression through emoticons. Why? Consider the variables that affect the meaning of a single spoken word: the volume, intonation, and the sound of the voice, as well as the movements of the face and body. Body language is subtle and varied. Discerning the emotion being conveyed via an emoticon? Blatant.  No emoticon can do our real emotional experiences justice[7].  Emoticons are too over-the-top to convey real emotion or to rouse empathy from the person receiving the message. The moment you add the “crying” emoticon, to show your long-distance lover that you really are tearing up at your keyboard, you instantly have made a mockery of your own emotional state. Emoticons are less an indicator of emotion than a representational satire on the states of emotion.

Therefore, emoticons =  🙁 .

While emoticons may not be the answer to all of our texting woes, all is not woeful when it comes to texting. In fact, many taradiddlers[8] would argue that there are numerous advantages of texting. For example, we can now get to know someone by text rather than having to be with them, which requires a decision and thus, an effort. It is also far easier to tolerate someone via text rather than in person. Neuroticism can come across as an endearing character trait and elusive behavior adds an aura of mystery.

But, just as the letters “xoxo” typed at the end of a message are eventually an unsatisfying replacement for the gestures they symbolize, likewise, clever text messages are no substitute for the real, in-your-face deal.  Granted, it can be enjoyable to play the taradiddle game. But, be ready to call foul. And to have your foul called.


[1]Contrary to contemporary behavior, the bulk of human communication was apparently not intended to exist vis-à-vis miniature keypad.

[2] High Definition conversation available for a nominal fee.

[3] Real word. Get out Miriam Webster. OK, fine . . . defined as “pretentious nonsense.” Aka: B.S.

[4] Shocking, but statistically fictitious.

[5] Dear strong, silent types, thank you for quietly waiting while I delivered my pre-ramble. Is it presumptive of me to say that I expected nothing less?

[6] You weren’t ahead of me; I was busy picking the perfect emoticon with a smug look on his round yellow face to show you that I knew where you were heading all along. 🙂

[7] Perhaps in the future we will have a new line of emoticons with real, high-def emotional performance capabilities and this statement will be proved false. However, at press time, I stand by this strong, if technologically insensitive and personally subjective, statement.

[8] Those who dabble in the art of taradiddle.

Facebook Morality

The other night I found myself in a conversation that I may have found rather ordinary between 2004 and 2007, back home north of Boston or some other semi-cosmopolitan place, but which felt completely irregular in 2010, in mid-town Manhattan. A friend was trying to decide if he should join Facebook.

“I only entered my email address and name and somebody already found me,” he complained.

His wife, my wife, and I, all of whom have been on Facebook for years, played along. We worked through the pros and cons. Keeping in touch with old friends that so frequently come and go in New York City: pro. Inevitably losing countless hours of productivity at work due to incessant status-checking: con.

In due time, the conversation moved to the inevitable gripes of those of us who are Facebook junkies. We complained about the users who are guilty of indulging too much information, the moms who don’t understand the difference between a public wall post and a private message, and the “friend invitations” you’d rather not receive. Aloof to all of this, our newest potential member listened in and asked the question that really is at the heart of social media: how do I know what I should and should not post on Facebook?

A recent essay in The New York Times Magazine considers this question, though in a round about way. The article, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” by Jeffrey Rosen, laments that the Internet has made it next to impossible for a person to control his or her identity or identities.

The piece begins with the oft-told story, well on its way with a few years and a few embellishments to becoming urban legend, of teacher-in-training Stacy Snyder who, weeks before she was supposed to be certified as a teacher, was booted from her school because salacious photos showed up on her MySpace page (this was 2006, so, okay). From there, Rosen goes on to identify the crisis: the difficulty in this brave new world of redefining oneself, particularly in different contexts. He follows his exegesis of the problem with a variety of potential solutions; from something called “reputation bankruptcy” to expiration dates for files so that after a number of years troublesome photos like those that got Ms. Snyder kicked out of school, will just disappear.

Facebook Morality isn’t an attainment of the ideal good; it is a reach toward our collective survival.

Rosen takes the reader through a brief survey of humanity’s relationship to self-identification, explaining that throughout most of human history, it was nearly impossible for one to change the way he was perceived as his identity was wrapped up in community, occupation, or class. Then came the blessed Enlightenment. Finally mankind could free himself of the pesky need for community and stand on his own as the “self-made man.” Equipped with this new ability to easily identify and re-identify one’s self, scores of Europeans emigrated to the United States, stuck flags in the ground, built McMansions and office buildings, put up fences, created cubicles, kept secrets, had affairs, and got away with it.

When the Internet arrived on the scene, some thinkers began to imagine how this network of connected computers could continue to keep us apart. But the opposite has proved true. The social network is the new village and a collection of photo albums, blogs, status updates, tweets, and fan pages have unified our disparate identities, even matching rather accurately our offline selves. With this, the public square, once a literal location but most recently the stuff of nostalgia has been resurrected, albeit online.

The bulk of Rosen’s article is dedicated to ways to fix this perceived problem. How can we get back to the good old days when I could be one person to my family, another to my friends, and yet another to co-workers? How can we regain the ability to redefine ourselves as often as desired? He wonders will the solution be “technological? Legislative? Judicial? Ethical? A result of shifting social norms and cultural expectations? Or some mix of the above?”

Did you catch that one right in the middle, ethical? Note it, because it’s nearly the last time a solution that involves personal responsibility is mentioned. What expiring files, companies hired to monitor one’s online identity, and even an onscreen anthropomorphic widget giving stern glances as a reminder to be careful online, have in common is: outsourcing responsibility. There’s nary a suggestion that amounts to if you’d be embarrassed if your co-workers saw you doing this, don’t do it, or, at least, don’t post it online. Rather, Rosen suggests that the Internet’s memory should be erased, noting that even the God of the Talmud forgives and forgets. Here, he nears an ethical answer, suggesting that our society could benefit by being more forgiving. And perhaps we will, not despite our permanent online identities, but because of them. We’ll all have one or two embarrassing pictures in our wake.

But what truly is missing from Rosen’s article, and indeed, from much of the conversation surrounding our new online identities, is the opportunity that this presents us to enter into a new morality. Call it Facebook Morality. When my friend who is considering joining Facebook asked how he should know what is appropriate to post online, I offered him this methodology:

“Imagine Facebook is a room filled with everyone you know,” I suggested. “And then imagine shouting whatever it is you consider posting at the top of your lungs. Or,” I continued, “think of the person in your life who is most likely to be scandalized by a picture or a link, a grandparent or former teacher, and then imagine showing it to him or her.”

This new morality, then, is not one dictated by individual conscience. You may think, “Sure I had a wild night last night, but I don’t regret any of it.” But that is different from thinking,”I had a wild night last night and I think everyone should have to experience it.”

In her essay “On Morality,” from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes of a kind of “wagon-train morality.”  This she defines as the social code that dictates our collective responsibility to each other. To Didion, morality is not created in an individual’s conscience and thus relative from one person to the other, rather it is “a code that has as its point only survival, not the attainment of the ideal good.”

Facebook Morality isn’t an attainment of the ideal good; it is a reach toward our collective survival. Perhaps it is wrong to drink to excess, but Facebook Morality is not primarily concerned with that. Rather, it is concerned with the way in which the portrayal of a person drinking to excess may compromise his or her community. Therefore, Facebook Morality makes the decision to post or not to post, a moral question. It also opens up the opportunity to question behavior, providing a practical standard for one’s actions before sharing is even an option.

There is a new morality on the rise in American culture. It goes hand in hand with a new sincerity. And it is these, rather than new technology, which will provide the solution to our “collective identity crisis,” as Rosen calls it.

Here a parting word, a kind of benediction from a great moral teacher, the late Kurt Vonnegut, from his last collection of essays before he passed away, A Man Without a Country, seems fitting:

“Save our lives and your lives, too,” he writes. “Be honorable.”

In With the Old

“I love everything that’s old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine.”

You’ll find Oliver Goldsmith’s words chalked on a coffee-of-the-day board steps away from the Regional Assembly of Text — a small paper emporium that would make Ned Ludd proud. Here co-owners Rebecca Dolen and Brandy Fedoruk, grads of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, stand behind the counter of their store, a wall of cast-off industrial filing cabinets behind, assembling cards and packages with meticulous care. Their space is notably lacking a piece of computer technology, or even a phone. Orders are written up by hand on rubber-stamped receipts. It’s a stark contrast to Vancouver’s noon-day bustle streaming by outside, moments from the corporate homes of Electronic Arts and Lululemon, and mindfully so.

Quiet spaces like these are becoming increasingly popular, a refuge from our perpetual state of information overload.

Today, text messaging has eclipsed the telephone call to become the most frequent form of communication among U.S. teenagers. The average adult spends more than 18 hours per week on the Internet. Ipsos Reid recently reported a 35% decrease in e-mail received, but it’s really a shift in consumption to emerging communications platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and various Instant Messengers. Facebook users send an average of 16 messages inside of that platform each week. Those using MSN Messenger or Blackberry Messenger are sending even more messages on a weekly basis.

There’s no question that technology has overrun our lives. Over the past century, the world has welcomed technological ‘progress’ with arms wide open and we’re living with the clicking, dinging, anxiety-inducing deluge of it.

But a creative backlash is underway, helping human beings cope with the avalanche of data that passes in front of most of us every day through the use of computers and cell phones.

Slow food, the back-to-the-land movement, and groups like letter writing clubs are being formed by a new subculture: the 21st century luddite, wielding fountain pen and notebook, and some checking e-mail from the public library a mere hour per week. Dolen and Fedoruk think this movement is more than a blip on the technological continuum.

“We started the letter writing club right off the bat because we wanted to have an ongoing community event. There have been a few hardcore regulars but 80% are new people each month. We started with five to ten people and now regularly have 20 to 30.”

There’s a universal sense that something must be done to rope the nodes in. But what? We can’t all pack our bags and head for the hills, or can we?

As a student at M. I. T., Eric Brende became a critic of modern technology. He left the bookish hollow of Boston and immersed himself in an Amish-like community in middle America. He chronicles the slow appeal in his book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

“This explained not only why time moved more slowly but also why we had more of it, why we were able to relax and read the way we were doing right now: in the absence of fast-paced gizmos, ringing phones, alarm clocks, television, radios, and cars, we could simply take our time. In being slower, time is more capacious. The event is only in the moment. By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it.”

Today items like the typewriter have pretty much disappeared from the communications lexicon in the span of a generation but, thanks to a growing group of modern-day luddites, they are making their way back.

On Canada’s West Coast, the Assembly of Text tries to create this expanse through a simplistic, low-tech aesthetic. Every month the shop plays host to a popular letter writing club manned by a handsome collection of thirty some-odd typewriters. Filmmaker Andrew Blicq was drawn to this scene for a Merit Motion Pictures film exploring the impacts of information overload.

“There really aren’t many groups who have gone completely off-line,” Blicq says of his choice to film the gathering for Our CrackBerry World, a documentary appearing on CBC Television this fall.

The concept of ‘information overload’ can be traced back to Diderot, though not by that term. In Encyclopédie (1755) he wrote, “As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.”

Diderot was right. Today, myriad reasons are drawing people to reduce their amount of input, whether it be blog feeds, audio books, or e-mail.

For one letter writer, the appeal of a slower form is its mindfulness: “You have to think about what you’re writing because you can’t erase it.”

Older technologies, such as typewriting and the fountain pen, require forethought. There’s also a sense of humanness, of the real and the unmediated.

 

“The handmade is coming back because everything is too standard now,” reflects Rebecca Dolen. “With the typewriter, it’s not nostalgia. People are too young for it to be nostalgia. We always had one around the house but didn’t use it. There’s just more personality with the typewriter. With mistakes and everything, it feels like it’s really you.”

“You can edit too much on e-mail. Maybe there’s a release with the typewriter and the handwritten forms,” chimes in Fedoruk, both nodding their agreement.

“People are back into the letterpress big time,” echoes Fedoruk. “W2 [the global media arts centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside] started a letterpress studio from the get-go. Everybody wants a typewriter. We get 100 requests a week.” Inquiries are sent on to Art Polsons, a Terminal City fixture, who refurbishes and re-sells scores of Olympias and Remingtons to a growing clientele.

It’s the messy mindfulness of the handwritten note and the therapeutic clack of the typewriter that are drawing a new breed of writer. To many it’s a form of escapism, drawing one’s mind away from the distraction and interruptions of our 140-characters-or-less lives.

“There’s this sense that, especially with text messaging and Blackberry chat, that it can’t wait. Messages have to be answered immediately,” comments Blicq in an interview from his summer cottage, aware of the irony as he finishes up film production from his remote hideaway.

“No one’s going back to the Smith-Corona [typewriter]” he goes on, “but we’re also sick of using the Blackberry in the bathtub and the car. Our work weeks have stretched from 40 to 70 hours with the introduction of the smart phone. There’s no question something’s missing from our lives.

“It was ironic to be asked [by the CBC] to direct this film. Everyone in the TV/film industry has a smart phone, and internet and computers are everywhere. We all have a problem with juggling. Once we hit the streets of Toronto and Vancouver and asked people about technology, the universal answer was: “Yes, it’s too much.” But we all like it, we’d be lost without it. Also, I think that to be a part of the global dialogue you have to plugged in to some degree.”

“Technology is not going away, the genie is out of the bottle. But the big question we need to be asking ourselves is: ‘Is it going to manage us or are we going to manage it?’”

A few months ago, a little boy stumbled into the Regional Assembly of Text with his mother. He sat down on the couch at the front of the shop and began to tap on the resident typewriter. Stunned at the words forming on the page in front of him, he announced with glee:

“Mom, the letters go right onto the paper!”

Maybe what we need is a little bit more of that.

The Joy of (Fake) Polaroids

I never had a Polaroid camera. In fact, I have no recollection of ever pushing my little trigger finger into the big red button of someone else’s Polaroid camera, though I’m sure I did. Or at least I must have watched someone else do it and heard that whizzing sound as it spit out a photo waiting to be shook. Polaroid was nothing short of magical. And still, at 28, I don’t have the magic.

But I do have a smartphone. I am steering through the new millennium with a phone that that is “smart,” though never as smart as when I’m using it. And smart as I am, I know a bit of magic when I see it. Magic that was once only available via toy camera. Magic in the form of an app that takes Polaroids. Sort of.

I don’t have an iPhone, but that’s where it started. At my daughter’s first birthday, I tinkered with Hipstamatic on a friend’s iPhone. Hipstamatic is an app that takes digital photos that look analog, like those from Polaroid and toy cameras. I spent the late moments of the party with a phone in front of my face, carefully framing and snapping photos, and then ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the results.

To be honest, I was in my own little world, and it was great. Though I’m an amateur photographer, I take it pretty seriously. But something about that little phone app brought me a different kind of joy, a new kind of satisfaction that I wasn’t used to. So I downloaded FX Camera, a comparable app for my Droid, and thus began the obsession with snapping camera-phone Polaroids.

Concurrent to ’Roid Week on Flickr, I gave my DSLR the week off and took my daily photos with my phone. A lot of photos. Probably more than I should admit. I couldn’t stop pulling my phone out and snapping fake Polaroids – of a street sign, of my daughter, of a football practice at the school around the corner. They look aged and worn. Heck, they just look cool.

I know it’s not the same as using a real Polaroid camera. There’s no whizzing, no waiting, no holding the corner and flapping the developing shot. But I am an adult who doesn’t have a Polaroid camera. And though that could change at any time, the amount of delight I’ve gotten from this silly little smartphone app is worth its weight in instant film.

Human Trafficking, Craigslist, and Kijiji

We are motoring away from Kwadjokrom in a red dugout boat and I have stopped crying. In the heat of the sun I smell like the road, the fine dust gritty between my teeth as I clench and unclench my jaw, trying to work out my shame at my outburst on the road from Kijiji.

Kijiji is a market just beyond the Western bank of Ghana’s Lake Volta, on whose waters thousands of slave children labor. At three or four years old, just weaned from their mothers’ breasts, they come to a lonely life of work and hunger. The fishermen who buy them are often child slaves themselves, grown up on the lake, set free at seventeen or eighteen years old to fend for themselves. At Kijiji, the masters’ wives sell the fish from the children’s nets, and this afternoon we walked in the sun among those market baskets, their mouths full to overflowing.

I am in Ghana on behalf of a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that partners with Ghanaian anti-trafficking leaders to rescue these children. One of my Ghanaian colleagues is sitting at the helm of the red dugout boat, calling to the boatman who guides our craft through the clutter of Kwadjokrom’s shore-docked fishing boats. The boats are shaped like thin moons, each end tipped up, and their wooden flanks are painted with David and Goliath, the Good Shepherd, and the Rainbow and the Dove. We are on our way from Kijiji to a fishing island, where a fisherman has promised to give up a little boy he keeps.

Yet as we push out, my thoughts are of Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, black map dots that rise in my mind with the rhythm of a dull heartbeat. I have no reason to think of those cities while I am here in Ghana, except that they mark for me the trafficking route of a friend, and I have seen Kijiji.

It does not make sense. It did not make sense half an hour ago on the road from Kijiji, when the old man sitting behind me in our rickety trotro asked, through an acquaintance’s translation, why was I so angry?

I did not realize that I was shrieking in the trotro’s cramped cab, holding forth in a language that only three of my traveling companions could fully comprehend.

“Using Craigslist is like buying a coach class ticket on the upper deck of a slave ship,” I think I yelled. The old man was perplexed. “They sell thousands of kids in sex trafficking and prostitution and they could care less!” He did not get that either. “Everyone who buys a used couch knows what’s happening in the ‘adult services’ section and doesn’t care!”

At this point, one of my English-speaking companions yelled back, in near-equal force, that I should zip it. He was right. I turned in my seat to face the front of the bus and the rutted, dusty road leading up to the lake. I was crying now, less from the reprimand and more from the map of the cities I had remembered. I brought my handkerchief up to wipe my forehead and nose and then I held it to my mouth.

It was nearly five years ago that I met the woman whose life is in that map of Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. I was newly married and newly arrived in the third of four cities my husband and I would call home that year. I was teaching literature at a university, but I wanted to keep a hand in the anti-trafficking community, so I signed on for the first meet-up of Polaris Project’s Seattle chapter. When I arrived at the meet-up, she was there, too.

I know what it means to be lonely. I know the delicate aspect it brings to a person’s face and the white cast it brings to the eyes and skin. I know less well how to bear up under my own loneliness, whenever and why-ever it arrives. When I see the kind of fortitude that I lack alive in someone else, I mark it. I know I will need that memory.

 

When she was fourteen, her father left. Her mother followed. Improbably, she was left alone in blue-collar suburban Seattle, where she was found by an older boyfriend-cum-savior-cum-pimp. She was beaten, raped, and sold on the streets and on the Internet. She was cut, branded, and thrown out of moving cars. The West Coast circuit – Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles – was her pimp’s bread-and-butter. When she became pregnant by him with a second child, she took her two-year-old daughter and fled.

It is hard to befriend a woman who grew up in the rigged world of a “stable” – a slang term for the women that a pimp owns, exploits, and uses to exploit each other. A woman who has known this life wants to love and to be loved, but she does not believe that love can be given freely.

When my husband and I moved to Washington, D.C., my friend and I kept in touch for a while. Once when I called her apartment, I got a drunken woman who told me that my friend and her daughters had been kicked out. I begged for another number and the woman gave me the line for a motel room, where my friend answered once and a man, whose voice I did not trust, answered a second and final time.

These days, Facebook cuts short the romanticism of myriad lost loves and lost friendships, sometimes for the better. I looked for my friend on Facebook last year, sometime in the wake of the Boston Craigslist murders, when the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Polaris Project, and several U.S. Attorney Generals rallied – and ultimately lost their battle – to stop human trafficking via the Craigslist erotic services (now “adult services”) section.

In the midst of the brouhaha, I found my friend. Her Facebook profile was meager and her wall was a strange slate of auto-generated messages, but this seemed in some way fitting for all the abuse she had experienced in the world of mid-nineties Internet.

Knowing what she had overcome, I understood what my friends and colleagues were after in their campaign to clean up Craigslist. I was not sure that attempting to reform an online kingpin, especially one who had no natural impetus to do so, was the best way to do it.

I stumbled on to Kijiji – www.kijiji.com of eBay, rather than Kijiji of the Kwadjokrom overbank, the red dust road, and the market where women sell fish caught by slave children – sometime during those months. I talked to a few colleagues about what it might look like to stage a kijiji.com “other-cott” and steer like-minded friends toward an online classifieds site that chooses, of its own accord, to entirely prohibit the “adult services” ads that make Craigslist a haven for human traffickers.

But the other-cott did not go anywhere. Or, to rephrase, I did not take it anywhere. I do not know why.

What I do know is that today on the road from Kijiji, someone mentioned Craigslist. I was thinking of my friend, I remembered how many thousands of boys, girls, women, and men like her had been sex trafficked on Craigslist, and without counting the cost, I began shrieking incoherently and obnoxiously about slave ships and sins of omission.

I would like to laugh about the incident, but it occurred while I was on the clock – and besides the inquisitive old man, our trotro ferried half of our Ghanaian partner staff, a former White House economic development expert, and one of Touch A Life Foundation’s most faithful and generous supporters.

It was a bad moment.

I have apologized sincerely to the person at whom I shrieked the loudest. I will apologize tomorrow morning to the other shriek-ee, who was in fearfully close-range. If I can find the old man, I promise that I will apologize to him, too.

I figure that since I have nothing left to lose, I might as well go all out.

I want you – my colleagues, friends, family, random people I went to high school with – to know that Craigslist’s convenience is not worth its price.

If you want to stop human trafficking, stop using Craigslist and use kijiji.com. Tell your friends to do it, too. The more, the merrier, and the better the second-hand shopping selection.

And if you think of it, please pray for my friend and pray for me, that in every way that our lives intersect, I would love her well.

For more information, check out:

Kijiji: www.kijiji.com

Kijiji Rules of Use

Polaris Project’s Letter to Craigslist CEO

Polaris Project’s Quick stats & Client Service Reflections re: Craigslist

Craiglist complies with some of its critics’ requests, but human trafficking persists.

Get involved:

Join the Facebook group.

Sign the Change.org Petition

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at the author’s blog, and is reprinted by permission.

Paper Gives Peace

Sengoku is not a place you would find in any usual Tokyo guidebook. The nondescript metro stop is crammed with commuters passing through to Sugamo. But take exit A2, turn right, and walk ten minutes in a straight line, and you will find the Paper Nao shop, opened by owner Naoaki Sakamoto in 1984. Much of the initial stock was given as a gift, and in his book about paper, Sakamoto recounts the generosity of three paper makers who allowed him to take a lot of initial stock on good faith.

In a city where buildings seem to change as often as fashion, the shop is one example of attention to detail designed to last. The inside shelves and stairwell are handmade by a craftsman from Nagano. There are papers of many sizes, colors, and textures gathered from across Japan. Often traveling extensively to remote regions of Asia and the world, Sakamoto san has a deep knowledge and appreciation for the craft of paper. His answer when asked why he is in the paper business is succinct and genuine: “Paper gives me peace.”

Photo: Hideyuki Kamon

I wonder how many businesspeople can say the same thing about goods they sell. The separation of the maker and the receiver, or even the maker and the mediator, is something that is no longer strange. Yet we often want to know the origins of our purchases, or at the very least what they stand for as a brand. Ours is a post-industrial world with an inherited attachment to objects; as the twinges of economic recession pinch, people are returning to the desire to buy things that have been made with more than a buck in mind.

There is a longing for the human touch, for authenticity and affordable utility.This balance was celebrated just over 80 years ago by the champion of the Japanese folk movement, Yanagi Soetsu (Muneyoshi). His definition of folk craft, known as the Mingei theory, declared the best examples of craft to be those that were anonymous. The less the personality was there, the more the true beauty could be seen. Folk artists were categorized according to how little known they were, producing affordable and available functional items from specific regions. By this definition of craft, the paper-makers selling at Paper Nao are a dying breed. They work using ancient techniques and often remain anonymous. People buy their goods because of their quality, but the techniques they use require extensive knowledge and are not fast.

For artists with a capital A, working in mediums defined as “neo-craft” (using techniques and materials that require skill, dexterity, and a lot of practice), the question becomes less one of function versus form, obscurity versus fame, and more about how the work speaks to a viewer. The recent show “Stitch by Stitch,” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Tein Art Museum, featured contemporary needlework pieces by Japanese artists that were both sensuous and intelligent. Materials were being explored to reveal something new, put together to not only delight our faculty for appreciation of decoration, but to get us questioning our expectations of gender roles and the notion of beauty. They simultaneously set up questions but could also be described as decorative. This is “craft” where the artist’s personality or ideas are not rejected, but celebrated.

As a student in Oxford, I used to love visiting the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers Museums. Glass cabinets were lined with exquisitely carved, painted, and sometimes strange objects whose functions seemed to belong as much to the world of mythology as to any contemporary world of daily use – relics of a former world. But these relics of today are things which have become irrelevant and disconnected. We reject them in favor of something new. And as the speed of new production increases, we exist in a space of dislocation.

William Morris, father of the British craft movement, deeply lamented the loss of the joy of creation, or as he writes, the “pleasure in labor.” This is what links a craftsman and an artist, and what has been taken away for many. In the U.K., an increasing number of artists are aligning themselves to the slow movement. The movement crosses boundaries – between farming, arts, conservation, and food consumption. Aiming to highlight the value of traditional techniques and local produce, its ethos nurtures a sense of connection between consumer and buyer. For the person making neo-craft, objects become a way to cause people to stop for a moment. Artist Amy Houghton, who specializes in animation and porcelain, participated in the touring show “Taking Time: Craft and the Slow Revolution,” curated by CRAFTSPACE and Helen Carnac. She writes that objects, specifically antiques:

…create a physical connection to the past, and because they are outside our sphere of objects that have a ‘use value,’ they offer a pause in the fast pace of contemporary life, as well as a connection to a different pace of time associated with a nostalgic past. Antiques can offer a connection to a feeling of reality in a culture of manipulated imagery.

Neo-craft work engages us with the object in a way that we easily forget when we “use” it. Handmade things require attention, and sometimes reverence – a reverence not only for the object, but also for the care that has been taken to make it. The slow movement as a whole seeks to highlight our tendency towards a habitual lack of attention.

But technology is not the enemy. Search the Internet and you will come across a new breed of D.I.Y. makers, independent designers who are selling pieces to shops and online. Deanne Tonkin – co-creator of online store Tokyomade – champions the clothes and wares of independent Tokyo-based designers. Deanne said in an interview that she was inspired to set up the web site after attending Tokyo’s Design Festa and seeing how many things the rest of the world didn’t have access to. Here, craft finds its feet in the technological world. It is a different facet of a worldwide awareness that consumerism cannot be sustained at its current levels.

In a multi-platform, cross-continent society, perhaps craft should not be only valued for its ability to preserve history, but also for its role in the mediation of relationships. Both Morris and Soetsu speak to us of the value of the characteristic of skill. Neo-craft can happily sit between labels and mediums as a bastion of the individual’s attempt not to impose a personal vision on an already-saturated world, but to rediscover the dignity of labor that is for love. It is an embodied art that slows us down and grounds us in what is. Let’s hope, as consumers of the arts as well as crafted objects, that we can do more than hoard. Let’s learn to see the process of exchange as an ongoing conversation with each other.

The Art of YouTube

The decade’s greatest entertainment innovation isn’t in the entertainment industry at all. It’s online.

Founded by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim – supposedly after Mr. Hurley and Mr. Chen had difficulty sharing videos that had been shot at a dinner party – YouTube was originally created as an easy way to upload and share personal videos with friends and family members online.

YouTube’s evolution as an artistic medium has been an unexpected but not entirely surprising development. Because videos uploaded to YouTube are publicly accessible, YouTube was at first a kind of web site version of America’s Funniest Home Videos – many enjoyed watching, but were nervous that posting their own videos would lead to commenter ridicule.

But instead – perhaps because of reality television – viewers began regarding posted videos more as clips that might be broadcast on TV, turned on or off depending on interest, than as a peephole into the lives of their friends and acquaintances. YouTube became more of an entertainment medium than a voyeuristic gossip site. Artists took advantage of this perception, and the world suddenly had access to scores of talented performers who might otherwise never have been seen.

Mainstream music, film, and television studios began to take notice of YouTube postings. In some cases, posting a video could actually lead to a recording contract, a network television appearance (such as Chris Crocker’s infamous “Leave Britney Alone!”), or even a role on Broadway. Josefina Scaglione, an Argentinean singer who was found on YouTube by musical theater legend Arthur Laurents, was cast as the lead in his Broadway revival of “West Side Story” for which Ms. Scaglione was nominated for a Tony Award.

But YouTube’s rise as a true entertainment medium – not just as another opportunity at reality stardom – came from the blending of “reality” and artistic craftsmanship. Lonelygirl15 shocked the world: though initially appearing to be the reality blog of a lonely, angst-ridden teenage girl and her friends, it was eventually revealed that Lonelygirl15 was in fact a carefully constructed, fictional show – the first widely known YouTube series.

Lonelygirl15 had taken the “homemade” quality and reality show elements inherent in YouTube as a medium and used them to create a unique form of entertainment, a kind of episodic series that had never been seen before. A new wave of documentary style film techniques emerged – for example, the intelligent and often elegant use of webcams previously only associated with professional film camera equipment.

Suddenly it wasn’t just singers and musicians that were getting noticed – young editors began experimenting with the medium and editing their own versions of movie trailers, often carefully crafting them to comment on the film or cinematic medium in general by apparently changing the genre of the film they were editing, such as “Scary Mary,” which reedited Mary Poppins to make it seem like a horror film, or “The Shining Recut,” which paints The Shining as a romantic family comedy.

But possibly the most famous example is the now infamous “Titanic: Two The Surface” trailer. Created by 25-year-old Robert Blankenheim, “Titanic: Two The Surface” uses clips from every Leonardo DeCaprio film to imagine a sequel to the classic James Cameron movie. Frozen in a block of ice after the Titanic sinking, Jack Dawson is thawed out, and, according to the trailer, “must live life all over again in an unfamiliar town, and in the future.” The trailer was featured on VH1’S “Best Week Ever” blog, and Mr. Blankenheim has been interviewed by media stations around the world.

Directors, designers, actors, and writers have all showcased their work via YouTube. Neil Cicierega is officially credited on Wikipedia as being the “creator of a genre of surrealist Flash animation known as ‘Animutation.’” His YouTube series, “Potter Puppet Pals,” is like a Punch-and-Judy puppet show that incorporates elements of pop culture, and showcases his writing, directing, editing, acting, and puppet-making skills and rocketed him to online stardom. It led to live Potter Puppet Pals performances at mainstream Harry Potter events. Mr. Cicierega was recently commissioned by Plymouth Rock studios to create the online series “New Kids on the Rock” because of his previous YouTube work.

In the recent past, complete web series have been developed purely for YouTube, incorporating elements of all the artistic innovation that has come before. Perhaps the pinnacle of this artistic achievement is the tremendously brilliant worldwide phenomenon, “The Hillywood Show.”

Starring Hillary (19) and Hannah (23) Hindi, the show was created when AOL hosted a contest for teens to create their own YouTube series (the show placed third out of 100,000 entries). The series follows the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow (Hilly) and Will Turner (Hannah) who, having gotten a hold of the Delorean from Back to the Future, find themselves in different movies all while trying to get back to Port Royal. This paves the way for the girls to parody everything from Sweeney Todd and The Terminator to Beetlejuice and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

But if you haven’t seen the Hindi sisters’ episodic series, no doubt you, or someone you know, have seen their more recent Twilight parody set to Katy Perry’s song “Hot and Cold.” Though the sisters have been producing their show for three years, and have always had quite a fan base, it wasn’t until they produced parodies of Twilight and The Dark Knight (of which they are the most proud) that they became stars. The girls recently hosted Twi/Tour and made appearances at Comicon, Megacon, Casting Call in Las Vegas, and the Twilight Chicago Convention.

The sisters not only play almost every role in their show themselves with great aplomb, but also do everything else on the production. (Hannah directs and does makeup; Hilly edits; both produce.) What makes this so extraordinary is that these two girls single-handedly rival the original films – and they are completely self-taught. The girls claim that the very nature of YouTube as a “do it yourself” low-budget medium has actually helped them create better work – work that wouldn’t be the same if created and developed by a mainstream network with unlimited resources. The girls say that “everything has been ‘hands on’ experience for us and it has forced us to learn at a faster pace.”

Some of YouTube’s rules to enforce copyright laws, which have proved a hindrance to many would-be YouTube artists, have actually inspired the Hindi sisters to do even more creative work.”The difficult part [of YouTube] is not having copyright music. That is why we remix music ourselves now.”

Add music editors to their resume.

 

The work currently being showcased on YouTube can’t help but remind us of the creative brilliance at the turn of the twentieth century, when film was a brand new medium. Once again passionate and talented amateurs are finding themselves with a camera, complete artistic freedom, and almost no resources – forcing them to invent solutions. It is this combination of passion, talent, and limitation that causes great innovative art to spring forth.

Time Capsule: The Last Ten Years

 

 

December 25th, 1999:

Six days from now, I will load my shotgun and retreat to the bunker I built out back. On January 1st, when Y2K hits and the chaos ensues, I will be one of the few who has a year’s worth of food and enough batteries to power my discman for five-plus years, making it possible to listen endlessly to the awesome new song “All Star” by Smash Mouth-surely the last great song ever to be written- providing me a glimmer of hope in our soon to be bleak world.

I will be my own dentist. I will mend my own wounds. I will make potable my urine, like in the recent movie Waterworld-a movie that was entirely underappreciated and will someday surely be recognized for its cinematic genius.

I have Tang. Lots and lots of Tang. I’m not sure why I chose Tang, but I chose it. And there’s no going back now, for society will soon fall apart, and all soft drinks will most likely be gone. And when that happens I will have three-dozen canisters of Tang and one canister of Nestle Quick strawberry milk mix, just to change it up every once and a while.

I have stocked up on plenty of gasoline, as the national average price is an extremely affordable $1.22. For that matter, most things are affordable, like homes and titanium and underground bunker kits. With the DOW hitting 11,000 for the first time ever, it makes sense that it’s all downhill from here.

With the incoming technological meltdown, my job as a web designer will be pointless, so I quit. The World Wide Web looked to be just another fad anyway. Too bad. America Online was so cool. The internet was such a beacon of truth, but I guess the truth is obsolete when jets are falling out of the air and people are running around looting soft drinks from convenient stores.

I have cashed out the majority of my bank accounts, taking half with me and using the other half to purchase stock in Lehman Brothers. Because if there is one thing that can sustain the blow of a technological meltdown it is our stalwart banking system.

This sounds strange, but I really want it to happen. I don’t know why, but it’s like that feeling when you rent a car on a business trip and you really just want to crash it, because, hey, it’s an expensive rental car, and it would be cooler to beat the hell out of it than to just drive it. That’s what it feels like. And I think a lot of people feel that way. Especially my neighbor who just bought a bunch of monkey blood that he’s going to keep in the freezer in his garage because he thinks it will be incredibly valuable in the New World Order.

So, to sum it all up: Merry Christmas? Yes, obviously. Happy New Year? I’m afraid not.

January 1st, 2000:

Here’s what’s convenient: I have a good sized bunker that I can now use for storage, an incredible water purifier, and a year’s worth of Tang. Glass. Half. Full.

Some years later…

October 25th, 2008:

Bunker = great investment. The DOW has dropped over 3,000 points over the last month and now eeeeeeverybody wants a bunker. We’ve got two wars and a global economic meltdown happening and now nobody seems to be laughing at “that Y2K freak with all the tang and toilet paper.” Well, well, well. Almost ten years later, after terrorism, hurricanes, global warming, and the disappearance of bees, it seems that nowadays, eeeeeeeverybody thinks a BUNKER might be a good idea. How ironic. Well, let me tell you: you snooze you lose. I’ve been waiting for the end of the world since I was born, my friend. I’m more prepared than a…

If there’s one thing I’m sure of it’s that this-is-it. This is the meltdown; the end of it all. As a self-proclaimed scholar of Nostradamus, I can tell you that all the signs are there. Go ahead, check it out. You can read all about it on the resurgent internet, which has once again become a beacon of truth for we End Timers.

It is game time. It’s going to be dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, and ever since I had gastric bypass surgery and took my family on Wife Swap I am feeling more fit than you could ever imagine. So here’s what I’m gonna do: I’m gonna get in my bunker. Have some tang. And emerge 14 months from now on December 25th, 2009, to receive the greatest Christmas gift of all: laughter! Laughter towards all you naysayers who thought “it’d all be ok soon enough.”

So when it all falls apart and you’re up to your elbows in ash and abandoned cars and debris and other images evoked in Tim LaHaye novels, don’t come knocking on my bunker door for help.

December 25th, 2009:

I have emerged. This is a little awkward.

WTF?

Balloon Boy. Sneezing Panda. Sleepwalking Dog.

There is a sort of warped existence in this world that controls much of the way we interpret humor and mystery. Plainly put, a large amount of things that are “weird” can be considered “funny,” and as a culture, we seem to be exploring this more frequently than ever before.

Technology, it could be said, is the defining feature of our current age, the sitting poster boy for technology being the internet and the new way we process the world: through the lens of a computer screen.

If one of technology’s main goals is to advance human flourishing through efficiency and knowledge by means of direct access to information, then one could rightly say that technology has brought certain combative elements to being efficient into our cultural sphere. In other words, too much information doesn’t necessarily mean more efficiency, mostly because we’re too fascinated by that which is warped and mysterious – so much so that we’ll watch a video of a dog sleepwalking and running into a wall ten times before it gets old. Why? Because it’s weird. And hilarious. And “cats doing funny things” has permeated our worldwide web of information to a point of warranting investigation.

A number of companies have capitalized on this fascination – the main one being, of course, YouTube, where one can click frantically through this world’s oddities for hours on end. But another source of constant entertainment has to be Yahoo! Odd News, a news page completely dedicated to the stories that evoke hilarity from the mystery.

Compiled of five “weird news” sources from around the globe, including Reuters and the AP (yes, apparently they have “weird news” divisions), Yahoo! Odd News has brought a journalistic sense to the weird, mixing the small town police blotter with Barnum’s American Museum.

If you haven’t seen the headlines on Yahoo! Odd News, you are missing out on a magical land of wonderment that will give you a good laugh and make you question the advancement of human evolution. Some headlines include “Burning bunnies keeps people warm and cozy,” “Texas man finds a rocket launcher on his property,” and “Lottery winner causes riot at Ohio coat store.” What?

The odd or otherwordly has always been newsworthy, but viral videos and citizen journalism has made it even more so. What’s interesting is that this content is not substantive, but strange. Instead of giving weight to a thought-out investigation, readers and viewers seem to be more interested in the inexplicable. In a post-enlightenment culture, where everything is weighed on the merits of scientific plausibility, this seems to be a universal interest of the masses that reason can’t trump.

On YouTube, you can while away the hours watching top viewed videos like “Baby Panda Sneezing,” “Charlie Bit My Finger,” and “Bizkit the Sleepwalking Dog.” All of these are out-of-the-ordinary acts in familiar contexts.

Why is this important? Because it takes up our time.

“Bizkit the Sleepwalking Dog” has had over 17 million views, if you add up all of his videos cumulatively. That’s nothing. “Charlie Bit My Finger” has a whopping 127.4 million views, or 242 years worth of viewing time for one video. The number of videos of babies doing weird/funny things has reached staggering proportions (a baby laughing an old man’s laugh – 95 million views, “Baby Laughing Devil Laugh”– 23 million views, “Snake Swallows Hippo”– over 12 million views combined, “Battle at Kruger”– 46 million views equaling 755 years of viewing time for that one video alone). “America’s Funniest Home Videos” would have a problem on their hands. We have such quick access to the technology that is imaging our world that our eyes can’t keep up with our brains. We are capturing too much to see. Moreover, we are capturing too much to explain.

It would be hard to imagine that the creators of YouTube started their video venture in an attempt to give voice to all those crazy things that animals and babies do. But that is largely what it has become. The weird, warped, and otherworldly aspects of this planet have always been around; we just now have a medium to readily view them. In other words, the world is not a stranger or more inexplicable place than it was 500 years ago – we’ve just come up with more ways to shine light on the fractured earth we live on. This begs the question: in its explanation of those things which we didn’t before understand, does technology also uncover the same amount of things we never knew existed? Is technology filling a hole by digging another hole?

Whether it is proof of a broken creation that a dog sleepwalks and runs into a wall can be debated. But even our highest sources for news can’t resist the temptation to put a camera on the bizarre. CNN’s coverage of the Balloon Boy has been widely satirized because the network gave it such weight. It was a story of epic proportions that ended in ordinary fashion. The major news channels couldn’t pass up the possibility that a boy might be flying,Flight of the Navigator style, in a saucer-shaped homemade dirigible. It was the potential for otherworldliness that caught the attention of the masses.

It is human nature to be inquisitive, to stand in wonder. Whether it’s a viral video or a journalistic account, these things provoke us to engage others in our fascination. But why do we feel the need to share this with others and insist that they be fascinated, too? This has become a significant cultural tool. If something can provoke a “you gotta see this” response, then people will follow.

Imagine if we had that same fascination about legislation. Every time a bill passed, would you email your friends after reading it, saying “OMG, you gotta see this amendment that blocks the G.O.P. effort against Rangel”? No. That would never happen on the level that YouTube has achieved. The old saying goes, “There are two things you never want to see being made: laws and sausages.”

Culture is shaped by what fascinates us, and according to our time spent watching the aforementioned videos, we’re attracted to the mystery in our world.

If comedy is truly the highest form of drama, then it is obvious that something isn’t quite right. It is this same instinct that makes us step back from our computers, chuckle in complete confusion, and ask: WTF?

Facts, Errors, and the Kindle

From More Intelligent Life: Facts, Errors, and the Kindle.

Nietzsche famously said that there are no such things as facts, only interpretations. Be that as it may, every writer knows that there are certainly such things as factual mistakes. Errors are common in all forms of media, but it is mistakes in the printed word that are perhaps the most pernicious. Once a “fact” has been pressed onto paper, it becomes a trusted source, and misinformation will multiply. The combination of human fallibility with Gutenberg’s invention of efficient printing in 1439 has, for all the revolutionary advantages of the latter, proved (in some respects) to be a toxic mixture.

Periodicals publish corrections in subsequent issues and some successful books are (expensively) reissued in new, improved editions. But in a better world, the book, magazine or newspaper in your hands would itself be updated when mistakes are discovered by its publisher. Thanks to the advent of electronic reading gadgets, like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, such magic is getting closer. Old-fashioned, uncorrectable books may never disappear. Only futurologists-that is, people who specialise in being wrong about the future instead of the present-would dare to predict their utter demise. Yet it is now possible that the tyranny of print will meet some powerful resistance, and that readers will benefit.

Facebook Exodus

From the New York Times: Facebook Exodus.

The exodus is not evident from the site’s overall numbers. According to comScore, Facebook attracted 87.7 million unique visitors in the United States in July. But while people are still joining Facebook and compulsively visiting the site, a small but noticeable group are fleeing – some of them ostentatiously.

Leif Harmsen, once a Facebook user, now crusades against it. Having dismissed his mother’s snap judgment of the site (“Facebook is the devil”), Harmsen now passionately agrees. He says, not entirely in jest, that he considers it a repressive regime akin to North Korea, and sells T-shirts with the words “Shut Your Facebook.” What especially galls him is the commercialization and corporate regulation of personal and social life. As Facebook endeavors to be the Web’s headquarters – to compete with Google, in other words, and to make money from the information it gathers – it’s inevitable that some people would come to view it as Big Brother.

An Interstate Book Club

Browsing through a used bookstore a few weeks ago, I [Rebecca] came across mysterious handwritten notes in Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk. These notes were written not in the margins, but between lines of text. Not only that, they weren’t about the book-they looked more like a poem. Had someone grabbed this book in the dark, thinking it was a notebook? Or, was the poem doing a duet with Annie Dillard?

Marks that readers leave behind them are cryptic signs of a solitary activity. Recently, through various web sites, readerly note-taking has become more communal. BookGlutton is one new manifestation, and Jenni and I decided to explore it. Here, we discuss our experience of reading the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters on BookGlutton.com (our respective online personas are “librarydork” and “jennilovesbooks“).

Jenni Simmons: Where did you hear about BookGlutton? Do you consider yourself a book glutton? (I am.) What piqued your interest in the web site?

Rebecca Tirrell Talbot: All Things Considered featured BookGlutton and since you can chat about books and leave public notes, it seemed the site would change one of my favorite activities from solitary to social. What fun!

I am absolutely a book glutton. A day that begins with coffee and reading is pure luxury. On the other hand, isn’t it odd that readers give themselves such self-deprecating nicknames-worm and glutton? Maybe we believe that books are so good, they transform worms and gluttons into noble things.

Rebecca: How do you generally go about reading a book? What changed when you began to read on BookGlutton? Was it the same as what you had anticipated?

Jenni: I make a cup of coffee or tea. I prefer reading in the soft armchair in my living room, or in bed (often too late at night). I will never need Prozac as long as I have good books. I’m not into dog-earing pages; I use one or two bookmarks. Lately, I’ve been disciplining myself to take notes in a Moleskine with my favorite pen. I like to read in peace and quiet, but my notes are a chaotic mess, so I’m relieved to strap shut the sleek black notebook.

Using BookGlutton made reading less of an escape and more of a studious experience, which is not bad at all. Reading relaxes me, but I want to learn and grow as well. And I didn’t take the Spoon River Anthology to bed. I don’t have a Kindle (yet), and my MacBook is not the same light tactile experience as a well-worn paperback.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – I’ve never taken part in a book club, though I plan to start one soon. So at first I had public note-taking anxiety, but then I eased into it with confidence. I realized that although my note-taking is not a perfect art, my thoughts are valid, and brain fodder for my writing. And seeing your thoughts next to mine challenged and sharpened my perceptions of Masters’s poems.

Jenni: Do you normally take notes while reading? Do you write in a notebook, on the book’s pages, or elsewhere? Do you think note-taking helps you understand the book better? What about writers such as ourselves – should we always take notes? Is there a balance?

Rebecca: If I own the book, I take notes, bend the spine, fold corners, write cross-references and underline. Some might see this as desecration; I see it as my journey. I guess it’s like hiking-the more strenuous the journey, the more likely that future travelers will know I’ve been there. Notes are like my campfires and shelters, my machete paths through the brambles. Later on, I don’t always see the notes as helpful-my college books are full of observations like “awesome description” or (horror of horrors) random smiley-faces-but I do think that the process of taking notes helps me make a book my own.

Is it important for writers to take notes? That’s a great question. It’s essential for writers to understand and process what other writers are up to, but whether that involves carrying the work around in your head or desecrating pages is very personal.

Rebecca: What are your thoughts about making reading into a more social experience?

Jenni: Reading is somewhat like any art form: it begins with a person in solitude, taking in the words, their imagination creating the visuals. But I think it must become a social encounter – whether that means reading aloud to your spouse, joining or starting a book club, or more modern socializing through a venue such as BookGlutton. The web site flashes a phrase on the main page: “Books are conversations.” Just as the author converses with the reader through the book, we ought to further that conversation from reader to reader like wildfire.

Jenni: Have you ever led a book club, or read a book with another person? Does BookGlutton give enough of the true discussion experience – learning from each other’s insight, and so on?

Rebecca: My MFA program at Roosevelt University was a lively literary community and had a book club feel. Now that it’s over, a book club would enrich my life. BookGlutton might provide that. I learned a ton from your insight into Spoon River. If only BookGlutton could also provide wine and baked goods, it would be a perfect book club!

Rebecca: Who do you think this site is most suited for? Who would you recommend it to?

Jenni: Because using BookGlutton requires having a computer, it requires at least a little technical savvy to enjoy. It’s perfect for people like you and me who live in different states, but want to discuss books with each other. And it is great for friends who, even though they may live in the same city, have busy schedules. They could enjoy a book club of sorts on their lunch break, or while winding down at night in their home.

Jenni: Would you recommend BookGlutton to your students?

Rebecca: Yes! I plan to. It will give them a perfect learning community outside of class.

Jenni: Do you read a lot of books electronically? If so, which devices do you use? Did you enjoy reading the Spoon River Anthology on BookGlutton? Did you find it easy to navigate and take electronic notes?

Rebecca: Spoon River Anthology and The Autobiography of Saint Ignatius are the only books I’ve ever read online (the latter on Project Gutenberg). A clunky laptop is my only electronic reading device! Reading on BookGlutton wasn’t as relaxing as lazing about on the couch, but it made me feel like I was just doing some light reading even though Edgar Lee Masters’ poems are amazing and profound. It was so easy to keep clicking onto the next page! I’m guessing this feeling of “light reading” is something Travis Alber and Aaron Miller, BookGlutton’s creators, foster on purpose. Text is nicely sized with ample white space.

Rebecca: What suggestions do you have for BookGlutton when they move out of their beta version? What did you find most enjoyable about this version?

Jenni: I had to Google for background information to the Spoon River Anthology, so I recommend lengthy synopses and introductions to each book, to let users do all of their reading on the BookGlutton site. I hope they expand their selection soon – I hunted high and low for some of my favorite authors to no avail. It would be lovely to be able to edit my previously posted comments, too. Oh, and an iPhone app would make reading on BookGlutton easier and more portable.

Free books are very enjoyable to me. You hand me a good, free book, and I’m a happy gal. The flip side to a smaller selection of books on BookGlutton is that you and I discovered a literary masterpiece about which I didn’t know much. My favorite technical features are the ability to embed the book on a web site, and e-mail the book to another bibliophile. It’s kind of like a virtual library, except no late fees!

Jenni: I’ve never read this kind of “fictional poetry” genre such as Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Have you read anything like it? Did you end up liking this book? Who were some of your favorite voices from the grave in Spoon River, Illinois?

Rebecca: I know there are others out there and I should read them, because I love it when writers challenge the boundaries of genre. So, I guess that’s a clue that I liked Spoon River!

Favorite voices? Trainor, the Druggist, who commented on combustible relationships; Nellie Clark and Pauline Barrett, whose stories are devastating; Mrs. Williams, the milliner, who advises women that a nice hat has saved many a marriage; Lucinda Matlock, Masters’s fictionalized version of his grandmother.

Rebecca: In many ways, I found Spoon River Anthology to be a dark work: gritty to the point of being bleak, honest to the point where it was sometimes quite wrenching. Did you find the same thing? If so, did you also see aspects of it that were beautiful or even redemptive?

Jenni: Yes. Though Masters’s writing is beautiful and evocative, it was depressing to read too many poems in a row. I had to ingest them slowly due to the dark, bitter narratives. I literally craved redemption, forgiveness, and kindness in a small town of murders, broken marriages, and false accusations. But within their collective voice, lights do shine in the darkness, such as Emily Sparks praying for her student, Reuben Pantier, and writing him a letter “of the beautiful love of Christ.” Reading the Proverb-like contrast of epitaphs – both the wise and foolish – also got me to thinking: How do I live my life? What do I hope to say from my own grave to my spouse, my family, my neighbors?

As Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” The residents of the fictional Spoon River, Illinois are a literary reminder to live and love well, and be grateful for my life – for all I have been given.


To see Rebecca’s and Jenni’s notes on the Spoon River Anthology on BookGlutton, create an account and join the conversation.

Whither the Music Mag?

Few things get Quincy Jones riled up like death.

First, it was Michael Jackson’s. Then, it was Vibe‘s.

The monthly magazine covering black pop culture was shuttered suddenly last month 16 years after Jones co-founded it. The private equity firm that owned it failed to find a buyer. That was the only way to keep it solvent. The next day, after the news emerged, Jones vowed to revive it: “They just messed my magazine all up,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m’a take it online because print … is over.”

Perhaps he’s right. Maybe print is dead. Certainly, Vibe has company. It’s the latest music magazine to come to an end this decade: Blender, formerly owned by Dennis Publishing, which launched the lad mag craze of the 1990s, died last year. So did Harp, No Depression, and Resonance. Other glossies on life support include Rolling Stone (ad sales are down 21 percent), Spin (26 percent), and Sound & Vision (33 percent). Even Maxim, the Ur-lad mag of them all, is struggling. Ad sales there are down by nearly 35 percent (FHM and Stuff have already gone to Jesus).

Then there’s JazzTimes, the underdog under the radar. It folded in June, suddenly, and unlike Vibe, it did so without grabbing headlines. It never had a Quincy Jones backing it up. It never had Michael Jackson on its cover. But it, too, was looking for a buyer before it stopped printing, furloughed its staff, and sent its freelancers IOU’s.

Giving credence to Jones’s statement about print’s demise is the medium through which news of the magazine’s collapse emerged. It came from Jazz Beyond Jazz, a blog by Howard Mandel, the venerable jazz journalist. He confirmed a rumor and later noted that JazzTimes had joined Canada’s Coda (which ceased printing after 50 years), Mississippi Rag (35 years), and Britain’s Jazz Journal (30) in giving up the music-mag ghost. JazzTimes‘s official press release vowed a return after a sale was brokered. Mandel wasn’t holding his breath: “Resurrection is unlikely,” he wrote.

The problems facing newspapers right now have convinced some, like Jones, to think print is over. But what newspapers are facing seems categorically different from the current plight of music magazines. Significantly, newspapers haven’t had to deal with piracy, which over the past decade has reconfigured the entire recording industry and by extension reconfigured the landscape that music magazines cover. For newspapers, news is news, whether in print or online. Distribution is the problem, not the nature of journalism. For music magazines, the problem is existential. What is the purpose of a music magazine in light of the dramatic shifts of the past decade?

In 2000, CD sales, having survived Napster 1.0, continued their decline, but slowly. By the middle of the decade, they were in free fall. Just two years ago, estimates ranged from 1 to 2 billion illicit downloads a year. That figure is surely low now. The marketplace value of music has cratered. It’s expected to be free. Few really expect paid downloads to match, much less surpass, former profits. Most industry insiders, including musicians themselves, consider CDs to be a marketing device for live concerts. To have a hit record, furthermore, is almost meaningless when that means selling a few hundred thousand copies. Meanwhile, those able to top the charts are fewer and fewer in number. When people say Michael Jackson’s death signaled an end to an era, they in part mean there won’t be superstars like him ever again.

If there are fewer “hits,” and if there fewer people able to achieve “hit” status, that means there is less mass appeal and therefore less for a music magazine to cover. And if you are niched already, like Vibe (R&B and hip-hop) and Blender (top 40 rock) and Harp (indie rock) and JazzTimes (jazz and blues), the pool was already pretty shallow. If you are a music magazine trying to stay relevant with and ahead of its readers, you have a touch choice. Cover the pool that everyone else is covering and in the bargain make yourself just like your competitors, thus dilating your brand. Or you can cover people no one’s heard of before. It’s true that the Great Recession of 2008 has devastated ad sales for magazines across the board – even the mighty Conde Nast and its army of beauty and fashion glossies report ad pages down by 37 percent for September issues. But as far as music magazines are concerned, and as far as the effect of the dramatic shifts they have seen in the music industry for the past decade, perhaps the recession merely exposed ailments that were present all along.

The more music magazines scramble for the fruits of celebrity, the more irrelevant they may become. If so, they have incentive to stop the puff and do real journalism. A reasonable suggestion is imitating the best American music publication right now – National Public Radio. Its music website does what writers and critics should be doing. It sifts through the slush pile for the best in various styles. It offers in-depth interviews, features, and news on issues, trends, and people who are genuinely interesting (not just people like, say, the Jonas Brothers, who happen to be popular at Disney World). Perhaps tellingly, NPR doesn’t strive to brand itself according to a musical style. It just covers music, plain and simple. And its page brings readers what the web does best – live concerts, song samplers, and video. Its podcasts, particularly All Songs Considered, are among the most popular on the Internet.

Despite Mandel’s well-founded fears, JazzTimes is indeed rising from the dead. Earlier this month, it was acquired by Madavor Media, a Boston-based publisher of enthusiast periodicals on dolls, volleyball, figure skating, and golf. Whether it can remain solvent is an open question. According Mandel’s reporting on Jazz Beyond Jazz, Madavor says it will pay only half the promised compensation to contributors whose work has already been published. A resurrected JazzTimes, meanwhile, resumes next month, but over time, its critical integrity may be challenged by its new owner’s commitment to “enthusiasts,” a conflict with its own set of issues. A new owner was fine as a stopgap measure, but that doesn’t account for future headaches.

Maybe Quincy Jones, a former trumpeter for the legendary bandleader Lionel Hampton, is right. Maybe print is dead. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. If Jones is able to revive Vibe, and make it as relevant today as it was when he founded it in 1993, let’s hope he makes room for his first and enduring love: jazz.

Web-Based Patronage, Dollar by Dollar

From the New York Times: A Few Dollars at a Time, Patrons Support Artists on the Web.

Earl Scioneaux III is not a famous music producer like Quincy Jones. He is a simple audio engineer in New Orleans who mixes live albums of local jazz musicians by day and creates electronic music by night. He had long wanted to pursue his dream of making his own album that married jazz and electronica, but he had no easy way to raise the $4,000 he needed for production.

Then he heard about Kickstarter, a start-up based in Brooklyn that uses the Web to match aspiring da Vincis and Spielbergs with mini-Medicis who are willing to chip in a few dollars toward their projects. Unlike similar sites that simply solicit donations, patrons on Kickstarter get an insider’s access to the projects they finance, and in most cases, some tangible memento of their contribution. The artists and inventors, meanwhile, are able to gauge in real time the commercial appeal of their ideas before they invest a lot of effort – and cash.

Skype me?

From the New York Times Magazine: The Overextended Family.

Now, I like my parents. A lot. I really do. That’s why I make the 1,500-mile trip to visit them three or four times a year. I did not, however, spend the bulk of my adult life perfecting the fine art of establishing boundaries only to have them toppled by the click of a mouse. If I wanted them to have unfettered access to my life, I wouldn’t have put the “keep out” sign on my room at age 10. I would have lived at home through college. I would have bought the house next door to them in Minneapolis and made them an extra set of keys.

Upgrade Me:
Are We Getting Better, Or Just Newer?

A confession: a couple of Wednesdays ago, I brought my laptop to work with me for one purpose – to download the latest iPhone update. Apple issued an upgrade to its iPhone software that day, which added such long-awaited features as Copy, Cut and Paste, Spotlight search, multimedia messaging, and a plethora of other add-ons to the already excellent operating system.

(Yes, this is going to be a nerdy article.)

The iPhone 3.0 software got me thinking about the way we twenty-first century dwellers have become obsessed with the concept of upgrading. Think about it: the upgrade, though always associated with the computer, was a phenomenon that was once only available every few years or so. I remember very clearly the excitement my dad felt at the introduction of Windows 95 or the dawn of the Pentium chip. But both of these upgrades required a purchase: a new piece of software, or new hardware.

But today, the upgrade isn’t necessarily something we do as much as something that happens to us. Open up your web browser (assuming, and hoping, it’s Firefox), and every so often you will get a message that a new version is ready for download. Sometimes this new version carries with it features that will change the way you work, like tabbed browsing, and other times it simply has security patches that you didn’t know you needed.

Or, for instance, if somehow you didn’t know the iPhone was going to be upgraded on June 17, you may have plugged in on Wednesday to drop some new music on your handset and found a new version of the software, with a plethora of new features waiting for you, and for the low price of just fifteen minutes of waiting.

But constant updating is seen in a much more common place, as well. Think about any of the websites you visit on a regular basis. You likely check sites weekly or daily because the content will be fresh. The site will be updated. As a web developer, I am drawn to the ease of updating this medium. I know that if I make a mistake, or if the information I’ve transmitted becomes out of date, I can simply make a change, upload it, and refresh, and I will have fixed the problem.

I think upgrading is great. I upgrade as often as possible: phone software, websites, computer hardware, anything. But I’m very much aware that something important is lost in all of this frenzied upgrading – namely, permanence.

For instance: consider that website you visit frequently. Imagine that the design has changed, but you really liked the way it looked before. Too bad – it’s gone now. This certainly has been evident in the many new iterations of Facebook that have been released in the last few years. Every time that social networking site updates their look or the way certain features work, a group (the existence of which was, of course, an added feature to their previous platform) is created decrying the new look and feel.

We, as humans, long for change, for the chance to better ourselves and our surroundings and yet, almost as vehemently, we mourn the loss of what we had. Take for example, the graphic designer who decided to print out 437 “featured” Wikipedia articles, producing a book 5,000 pages long and 19 inches thick, to “make a comment on how everyone goes to the internet these days for information, yet it is very unreliable compared to what it has replaced.” No one, not even this “artist,” is even sure what is being replaced, but we’re sure we’ll miss it – that is, if we take the time to think about it long enough.

But do we pause to miss those lost things, or do we press on, ever eager to keep up with the next best thing? It seems that since the beginning of the modern era the pattern has been such that younger generations rush forward, making leaps and bounds that improve the human condition in the face of great concern from the older generations that hold to tradition as supreme. And then, eventually, that once-younger generation, in the face of the improvements of their progeny, hold fast to their once new and now old ways, decrying the infringement on tradition by the younger generation.

But this may not be the case any longer. I mentioned that my father eagerly anticipated the release of the newest version of Windows back in 1995. In truth, he was eager to see Windows 3.0 before that and XP years later. And I was right there with him. My dad got an iPhone before I did, and when he could no longer wait for the next iteration of the phone’s software, he jailbroke it so he could upgrade as often as he cared to. I’ve always been a step behind my father on the technological curve, so clearly I cannot remember him ever decrying the way things used to be. Who cares about tradition when there are new features to be had?

I’m not sure how we are supposed to feel about this. Should we celebrate our ability to update ourselves, now that even our elders enjoy the benefits of perpetual upgrade? Or have we lost something? Was there something about tradition, about permanence, that we will miss when it is gone, swept aside to make room for whatever’s next? Or, is this silly to worry about? Have we built into our upgrades legacy versions, ways to document and even eternalize the past?

I’m torn. As I sit writing this, I’m surrounded by shelves overflowing with books and more books in piles on every visible surface. I love books. But at the same time, I’m listening to music that is playing through my computer. The shelves of compact discs, which replaced my parents’ shelves of vinyl records, are no more. They have been digitized, saved, and transferred, and they live on this computer and three backup hard drives. They will come with me into the future, but they no longer physically exist.

I don’t own a Kindle. I’m not ready to convert my bookshelves into gigabytes – but why not? A practical consideration, maybe. Perhaps I really feel like e-book technology hasn’t quite arrived. But most likely, in the not too distant future, I will wonder what took me so long to succumb to the inevitable.

Not long ago I downloaded the Kindle application for my iPhone. Since its initial release it has been upgraded to make for a more pleasant reading experience. It’s still not a book. I’m still not a convinced. But a few more updates, and who knows?

The Danish Gambit or
How I Broke a Blood Vessel in My Brain

I’ve never thought of myself as having obsessive/compulsive/impulsive/addictive tendencies. Although, I listen to every sports podcast available on ESPN, watch any college basketball game the cable company will broadcast, buy shoes like most people buy coffee, and drink coffee like most people drink water. And forget the fact that I’m writing this column while glued to another season of American Idol, nursing a bottle of The Glenlivet 12 and comparing it to Dewars 12 and The Balvenie 15.

But if I wasn’t some kind of an “addict” before, I am now. I’d like to think that this addiction is actually good for me, in a way.

“Seriously, what sort of addiction,” you ask with a skepticism reserved for teenagers’ excuses for arriving home hours past curfew, or for politicians, “could possibly benefit you?” Besides being addicted to serving the poor or curing incurable diseases?

The answer is (drumroll, please) chess.

I am addicted to chess. Chess books. Chess boards. Chess tutorials. Chess websites. Chess openings. Chess tactics. Chess strategy. Win, lose, or draw; chess, chess, chess.

I play when watching TV, eating dinner, eating lunch, at work, at home, falling asleep in bed, on the subway, on the way to the subway, even (WARNING: TMI) in the bathroom. And though I may have broken a cranial blood vessel at some point in there, I assure you it was from concentrating too hard on mastering the risky – but rewarding – chess opening The Danish Gambit, and not from the digestive results of eating too many Danish . . . pastries.

You now wonder one of at least two things: 1) In the bathroom!! Really?!? Is there something wrong with this guy??, and 2) How does one play chess in the bathroom?

Well friends, here’s the secret: Chess With Friends for the iPhone.

There’s no shortage of electronic versions of this ancient classic, and many of them are created for the iPhone. But most of them suck (a sophomoric way of putting it, but that’s what sophomoric efforts at building iPhone apps deserve).

Chess With Friends (CWF) is anything but sophomoric.

Unlike those other apps, CWF was built not to teach one how to play chess, or what the four-move checkmate is, or even to match human vs. computer for practice purposes. It was built so that users can play against family, friends, and even strangers. It’s all about people vs. people, the way chess was meant to be, but instead of operating face-to-face, it is played over the vast and growing series of tubes and invisible waves that make up the iPhoniverse. (I have to say – as bad an idea as this is – what I enjoy most about playing against close friends and loved-ones, is beating my father-in-law over and over again. Good thing I helped produce an unbelievably cute grandson.)

Its purpose as a chess app is only one of the many reasons to fall in love – or in addiction – with CWF. Its piece/board design and rendering are also excellent. One of the most make-or-break aspects of any chess set, whether physical or virtual, is the design of the pieces, and especially in the virtual world, poor design and rendering are infuriating and confusing. Bad chess graphics result in an inability to “see” the enemy’s lines, strengths, and weaknesses, and open the door to making a poor move even worse.

The best case scenario for a virtual chess graphic interface is unnoticeability. You should see the positions of the pieces, their patterns and potential attacks and defenses, and the open squares – not “cool-looking” chess pieces.

CWF has given us a masterful chess GUI for iPhone – a particular challenge given the size and shape limitations of the display. It is simple and elegant. It gives each player the opportunity to “see” – if they can – the panoply of moves and their relative consequences. With bad apps in the past, it’s been easy to shift the blame for my incalculably low skill level to the interface. CWF leaves one without excuse for not seeing Black’s attack on a weak G2 square with his queen and rook.

The best addition to CWF 2.0 – not present in 1.0 – is the new chat function. No longer do I have to talk chess trash after church or work or over twitter: I can tell Tom, for example, “That exchange was so weak, it makes the 2009 NYSE look like the 2007 NYSE!”

I am even now playing five different games with various friends and family from around the country. Yes, one is against my father-in-law, and yes, I’m beating him again. In fact, at least a dozen times during the course of writing this column, I’ve stopped to check and see if there was a move played in any of my games. Thankfully not, or else I’d never have finished.

Unlike most apps, CWF is not about immediate and unending access to information, or constant communication, or any of the other hyperactive reasons people use the iPhone. Amidst the deafening noise of the iPhoniverse App Store, CWF brings a beautiful moment of stillness into the frazzle of instant everything.

Chess is a challenging and intense, yet tranquil, game of war. It is both simple and unimaginably complex. It is ancient and contemporary. It is a game where luck factors not. There is only one player’s skill versus another’s. And while nothing replaces the physical game – the feeling of picking up a pawn, and the palpable concentration of opponents engaged in battle – Chess With Friends offers a rewarding and worthwhile outlet for chess addictions.

Buy it. Play it. Enjoy it. It’s as timeless as an app can be in our age of ephemerality.

photo by:

Tweenbots

A great project: Tweenbots.

In New York, we are very occupied with getting from one place to another. I wondered: could a human-like object traverse sidewalks and streets along with us, and in so doing, create a narrative about our relationship to space and our willingness to interact with what we find in it? More importantly, how could our actions be seen within a larger context of human connection that emerges from the complexity of the city itself? To answer these questions, I built robots.

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Anti-social media

From The Guardian: The joy of anti-social media.

Social media have undeniably changed the way many of us talk about books, and encouraged us to do it more. Whereas in the physical world there may be only certain contexts in which you’d dive into a deconstruction of Dostoevsky’s metaphors, the virtual world provides round-the-clock opportunity to indulge your literary mores. Personally, I have found this makes me form opinions about what I read more quickly and strongly, in the knowledge that I will be able to share them instantly, and have to defend them rigorously, online. This is both good – in the sharpening of my critical faculties and confidence in my beliefs – and bad, as I can find myself jumping to premature, self-consciously entertaining or harsh conclusions for the sake of a scrap or a soundbite.

Cheating? or Creativity?

From Prospect: Cut-and-paste writing.

I imagine some may consider this cheating: reducing the art of writing to an elaborate game of cut-and-paste. But authors have long written quotations on index cards. My system simply makes it easier to move virtual index cards around. The old techniques of pinning cards on a cork bulletin board, or shuffling them around on your desk, is just a crude way of getting the kind of elegant serendipitous thinking that such software allows.

Technology: good for poetry?

From the Telegraph: The Internet is causing a poetry boom.

Poetry reading groups – known as “series” – are becoming stronger thanks to the growth of online communities to back them up, he said.

“These reading series often have Facebook groups around them. The net is helping smaller networks get together across the country so there’s now more sense of solidarity between them.”

And rather than making poetry pamphlets “obsolete”, Mr Price said the internet had provided “a limitless shop window for a new generation of small presses and micro-publishers”.

Operation NICE:
A Reminder that Niceness Counts

Like so many of us, as a child I was taught to mind my manners. We called them P’s and Q’s, and to this day I still use them. I cover my mouth when I sneeze or yawn, try not to interrupt others when they are talking, hold the door open for the people, and say thank you.

But I have to admit it: I have a problem being nice.

The problem is that I sometimes feel like I’m the only one making an effort. People seem to get ruder and more self involved, and I somehow got it in my head that I should be a one-woman vigilante for manners. In doing so, I became blunt, forthright, and even rude to people who were rude to me. And when it occurred to me how contrary to my original intentions my behavior had become, I was embarrassed, to say the least. So, instead, I have tried to apply Gandhi’s philosophy: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

It’s difficult, but I try. Especially lately. Having made a commitment to myself to slow down and stop rushing through every moment, I have made being nice, kind, and caring a priority. A lot of my time and energy is devoted to thinking about this, so when I saw a badge on someone’s blog that said, “I’m Very Nice | OperationNice.com,” I was intrigued. I abandoned the blog reading to click the badge and stumbled into Operation NICE, the ambitious project blog of Melissa Morris Ivone, a 28-year-old graphic designer in the Philadelphia area.

Melissa is someone who believes in the power of kindness, especially after experiencing an unexpected friendly act on a bad day. “My day was completely turned around by a gentleman who performed the kind gesture of smiling and letting me enter the elevator first,” she recalls. “It was so minor and didn’t require any effort on the man’s part, yet it really brightened my day. So, I started thinking about what a different world we would live in, if only people were more mindful of being polite.” So began Operation NICE in July 2008.

Hoping to encourage people to be intentionally nice, Melissa fashioned ON into a blog that features stories of kindness from readers and around the world, products that promote the concept of kindness, websites with similar missions, and weekly assignments. Each entry is categorized into Nice Stuff, Nice Giveaway, Nice Testimonial, Nice Chit Chat, Nice Sites, and Nice Assignment. Stories range from the boss who paid for his employee’s flight home for her grandfather’s funeral to simple, effortless gestures like an unexpected compliment. The Nice Assignment, in particular, offers readers a weekly challenge to be nice by creating a mantra for the new year, giving flowers, making a gratitude list, paying someone a compliment, and (my favorite) leaving a note in an unexpected place. Also included on the site are Nice Downloads that include gratitude notes and nice signs to help readers spread the niceness.

Entries on the ON blog remind people that niceness counts, a reminder we all need as our society becomes increasingly self-focused and fragmented. Melissa agrees. “I believe our society forces us to live more selfishly than we should. Everything is goal driven. In order to achieve those goals, we need to be focused on our needs. But what about the needs of others?” Though these needs seem minor, kindness, caring, and niceness are essential to human life. Our actions impact others, and why not positively? ON calls to our attention that what we do counts, even in the tiniest of ways.

Though not overtly spiritual, ON echoes the call to love your neighbor and display the fruit of the spirit: kindness, patience, goodness, self-control. Being nice goes hand in hand with common decency and respect for others, whatever your religious beliefs. Melissa tries to limit any mention of religion on ON in order to keep it universal and applicable to all. The Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying, “My religion is kindness,” and for Melissa, “that sums it up.”

Reading back through the ON entries, it’s obvious Melissa isn’t the only one who is embracing niceness. ON has become more than just a blog – it’s a movement. In the past seven months, the number of hits to the ON blog has increased from about 50 visits daily to upwards of 400. People are catching the nice bug and jumping on board. And it thrills Melissa to receive emails that tell her that because of ON they did something nice. “To think that there are people out there who put Operation NICE into effect as they go through their day just blows my mind!” she says. “It’s exactly what I wanted to happen.”

So, what does the future hold for Melissa and ON? She isn’t sure yet. Perhaps she’ll end up with speaking engagements or holding workshops. Or maybe ON will turn into a nonprofit. All Melissa’s sure of is that ON isn’t going away any time soon. ON has changed Melissa’s life, giving her something meaningful and substantial to add to the world. She adds, “I feel like, for the first time, I’m making a difference.”

When she isn’t blogging about being nice, Melissa is busy designing. In addition to her graphic design work, she has a temporarily-on-hiatus craft shop called melissahead designs. Currently, she’s obsessed with Rock Band, Italian wedding soup, and lip gloss.

Financial Frenzy:
Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis


Don Delillo, Cosmopolis,
Scribner: New York, 2004.

Eric Parker is a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager who wakes up with one mission: to go across town for a haircut as he wagers his fortune in a daring financial bet. Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis describes Eric winding his way through Manhattan in a limo glittering with the latest technology – meeting with his advisers and encountering his young wife, exiting the limo for sexual encounters and food. He pops into a rave, stops for a funeral procession, and has his limo defaced in an anarchist protest. He feels the thrill of possible death as he sees assassinated titans on his limo’s TV screens, and rumors of his own assassin follow him.

The whole time, he is pouring millions away in his bet against the yen. As he sinks his fortune in the belief that the yen cannot go higher, the yen continues to climb and his millions dissipate. Finance tumbles along with his fortune.

The novel is about a suicidal, mad pursuit of knowledge – about the desire for immortality through information – and the crash that follows. It is one of those prescient books that resonates more today, with our own financial titans falling, than when it was written in 2003. The story is set in 2000 – pre 9/11 when New York seemed invincible – “all this optimism, all this booming and soaring,” as one character put it. When you add the shadow of 2008 to the shadow of 2001, Parker’s fall is even more spectacular.

Eric bets against the yen because he believes that he – with his financial omniscience that hasn’t failed him yet – can see a pattern that no one else can see. Deep beneath, beyond detection through analysis, there must be a pattern in the chaos – “a pattern latent in nature itself, a leap of pictorial language that went beyond the standard models of technical analysis and out-predicted even the arcane charting of his own followers in the field.”

“There’s an order at some deep level,” he tells his chief of finance. “A pattern that wants to be seen.” Eric seems to have a hyper-consciousness that sees the future in his security cameras seconds before it occurs. But even with this heightened sensitivity, the yen defies him. The yen can’t go higher, he tells his chief of finance. That’s right, she says: “Except it just did.”

Eric worships information. He and his chief of theory emerge from his limo to watch data roll by on the electronic tickers – too fast to read, too fast to absorb – and to genuflect in information’s glow: “We are not witnessing the flow of information as much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable.” It’s this hidden knowledge that Eric seeks. He wants to read the unreadable. Analyze what defies analysis. He believes that he knows – and if he really knows, he has to act.

So he acts, but financial forces act beyond his control. Knowledge is out of his reach and when he grasps for it he falls. His chief of theory tells him he may seek a pattern but he cannot control frenzied forces that act on their own:

You apply mathematics and other disciplines, yes. But in the end you’re dealing with a system that’s out of control. Hysteria at high speeds, day to day, minute to minute. People in free societies don’t have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over. The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It’s simply how we live.

This is where the novel resonates so deeply with our situation today. Suddenly this frenzy – these mass convulsions – are no longer barely noticeable. We finally feel the hysteria that drives the market forces and our helplessness to control it. The individual decisions of people – whether they happen to feel panic or confidence on a day – create mass convulsions. Stocks rise and fall. Hysteria swells and bubbles burst, and it all acts outside our authority.

Eric is exhilarated by his own destruction. Pouring money away lends a kind of euphoria – a way to feel his power to create his own convulsions. As his assassin tells him when they meet, “Even when you self-destruct, you want to fail more, lose more, die more than others.”

It’s the classic Faustian story: A man trades his humanity in a desperate thirst for knowledge because he believes that through information, he can somehow live forever. Eric’s chief of theory tells him, “People will not die. Isn’t this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information.” At the story’s end, as Eric faces his killer, he wishes he could “live outside the given limits, in a chip, on a disk, as data, in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from void.”

But then he realizes his prosaic humanity – the pain he feels in his wounded hand, the ache in his knee, the wart on his thigh – can’t transfer to a chip of data. His own bloody crash nears, and Eric realizes the impossibility of immortality through information.

Tech Top Ten

2008 was a busy year in technology – from new products appearing on the scene to old ones winning out over the competition (or not) to company rearrangement to (possibly) the end of the world. Here are ten of the most significant technology stories that hit the news in 2008.


The Apple iPhone 3G

iPhone 3G, App Store.
While the first-generation iPhone grabbed a greater-than-expected market share, it was the 3G version that truly catapulted the iPhone brand into prominence. A $199 price point made the device a palatable option for those accustomed to a free, subsidized LG or Samsung. The brand new app store created a revolutionary business model for developers, albeit a tightly-monitored one. A new era has arrived in the tech world: the iPhone has surpassed the Moto Razr in worldwide sales, challenging other manufacturers to respond with premium devices at affordable price points.

The iCompetition: The HTC Touch Pro, the Sony XPERIA X1, and the Blackberry Bold.
And respond they did. This year’s crop of premium Windows Mobile devices, though innately hampered by their OS, trounced the iPhone’s feature set. The Bold, mixing classing Blackberry functionality in a sexy package, added its name to the list of potential rivals. It is unlikely that one of these devices will unseat the iPhone, but it’s a step in the right direction, and an indication that HTC and RIM will not sit idly by and let Apple raid their customer bases.


Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
and Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang

Microhoo/Yahoosoft.
On again, off again – this year’s most mercurial celebrity couple was Steve Ballmer and Jerry Yang. Yang declined a proposed takeover at $31/share, and again at $33, only to watch the stock plummet to single-digit lows. Only time will tell whether the as-yet-unannounced new Yahoo! CEO will try to resurrect merger talks, or whether the FTC would even allow any.

The T-Mobile G1.
Despite the inevitable shortfalls of a first-generation device (one bug reset the phone whenever the user typed “reboot”), the world’s first phone running Google’s open-source Android platform recorded solid sales and garnered a following in the gadget world. While the device operates more like a prototype than a finished product, it is only a matter of time before an inspired manufacturer taps into Android’s rich potential.

Blu-ray wins; nobody buys any Blu-rays.
February 19th saw Toshiba’s concession in the next-gen format war, essentially ending HD-DVD‘s bid to become the new standard. But despite the resulting coronation of Blu-ray, consumers failed to flock to the platform. Thus far, DVD has been just fine for most people, thank you – and with the proliferation of free, nearly-HD content from iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, it may be a long time before demand meets expectations.

The Netbook Revolution.
Once seen as delicate toys, these mini-laptops enjoyed a serious boom in 2008. Increased migration from desktop to browser based apps created a niche for an ultraportable, underpowered, underpriced alternative to traditional laptop systems. Expect to see more and more such diminutive devices in 2009.


The Nintendo Wii

The Wii‘s Domination.
At the end of 2007, Nintendo’s quirky console seemed like a short-lived fad. Surely gamers would turn back to high definition and lifelike blood splatter, right? Instead, a rapidly-expanding pool of soccer moms and grandparents become Wii devotees overnight. Nintendo has not only grabbed a huge piece of the pie, but made it bigger as well. The question in 2009 is whether they can actually sell software for their little white cash cow.

Bill Gates Retires.
While the head geek himself will certainly still figure in Microsoft’s business operations, his retirement was confirmation of the passing of the old guard in the tech industry. Fortunately, his newfound free time will not be wasted away on the golf course: In addition to running his billion dollar charity, Gates has quietly founded a mysterious “think tank” named bgC3. Watch this space.

Obama’s CTO.
A sign of the times: After securing a historic election victory with the help of a online fundraising arsenal, the president-elect is set to appoint the nation’s first-ever Chief Technology Officer. The brand-new “Tech Czar” will oversee issues from net neutrality to nationwide broadband, helping ensure that the U.S. remains at the forefront of innovation for years to come.


The Large Hadron Collider

Large Hadron Collider.
While critics lambasted the particle accelerator’s approximately $10 billion price tag and potential to collapse our solar system like a bag of chips in a campfire, the project was widely considered a success by scientists – that is, until it broke. Now we’ll have to wait until summer 2009 to collide microscopic proton beams at 99.999999% the speed of light.

Top Ten Reasons Real Books
Are Better Than e-Books

The Amazon Kindle and iPhone apps like Stanza are beginning to make inroads in the e-Book market. But nothing will ever really replace paper books. Why, you ask?

10. No need to wait until the pilot gives you permission to use personal electronic devices.
9. It’s OK if you forget to charge your real book.
8. Unwrapping a download is so anti-climactic.
7. Speaking of which, it’s hard to wrap a download.
6. Eye strain caused by too-small font is way better than eye strain caused by too-few pixels.
5. You’d look silly burying your head in your iPhone.
4. Real books give you tactile pleasure; e-Books give you carpel tunnel.
3. You can’t judge an e-Book by its cover (because it doesn’t have one)
2. A real book will dry out and still be functional if you accidentally drop it in the toilet.
1. Curling up with a cup of tea and your e-Book reader is completely uninviting.

Pandora Radio:
Rewarding Your Curiosity

In Greek mythology, the gods created the first woman – a “beautiful evil” – to spite Prometheus, who had stole fire from the god. They named her Pandora and gave her gifts of various kinds in order to make man’s life miserable. They also gave Pandora a box (or a jar, depending on who you’re talking to), which she opened – probably from curiosity, which wasn’t something the gods appreciated – and released all the evils of mankind into the world. Clearly, the Greeks weren’t keen on women, and clearly, the men were writing the mythology.

Whether or not Pandora released all evil on mankind, she did manage to lend her name to a much more worthy project – the Music Genome Project’s Pandora internet radio. The Project has been working for years on tagging and categorizing songs by their genre, rhythm, melody, composer, and many other fine-grained characteristics, and they’ve released these songs to the “musically curious”.

Imagine, for instance, that you’re having a party and want to play a variety of oldies, or soft jazz, or folk music, or metal. Simply go to Pandora’s website, “seed” a new station with the kind of song or artist you want it to play, and walk away. Pandora does a relatively good job of playing music in roughly the same category as the song you chose. Or, make a “QuickMix” from two or more already-existing radio stations. If you hear a song you don’t like or think should be in the mix, simply click the “thumbs down” to make sure you never hear it again.

Pandora is infinitely customizable, and it’s best to check it out on your own – it’s completely free. To get you started, check out the Pandora stations that some of our contributors have put together for your listening pleasure. Some are heavily seeded, some less stringently defined, but all of them are worth a try.

Sam Kho
Station Title: b. 1977- d. ???
Seeds: Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Iggy & the Stooges, Minor Threat, Sex Pistols, The Pretenders, The Ramones, Violent Femmes

Hooray for streaming radio. My first memory of radio was an analog knob thing with only AM, and my family got it from a yard sale – so it wasn’t even really mine. Now to have five radio stations of my very own! I like how Pandora proffers all the mind-expanding bands I could ever want, like Architecture in Helsinki. Talk about instant gratification!

Daniel Nayeri
Station Title: Tokyo Rose Radio
Seeds: Tokyo Rose, Fallout Boy, “Viva La Vida” (Coldplay)

This is my favorite station. The music is perfect for slamming into a port and cooking to. It gives the work some of the best aspects of video games, ballet, and a good old-fashioned knife fight (the ones where no one really gets cut and everyone goes to the malt shoppe after).

Rebecca Tirrell Talbot
Station Title: Neil Young Radio
Seeds: Destroyer, Iron & Wine, John Martyn, Magnolia Electric Co., Neil Young, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Band, Vic Chesnutt

When I am creating an assortment of music to listen to (or, having one created for me), usually the number one requirement is that I can listen to it while reading or writing. Enter Neil Young. I don’t know about you, but I never find Neil Young’s music lethargic or depressing – which is a rare find when you’re looking for music that isn’t jarring.

Jenni Simmons
Station Title: Band of Horses Radio
Seeds: Band of Horses

I gravitate to an eclectic array of music, and any definitive selection depends on my mood, the local weather, or even a song lodged in my brain, so choosing a favorite Pandora radio station is near impossible. However, the arrival of autumn had me playing Band of Horses radio quite often. I discovered this group via Pandora, actually, while listening to a different station. I was mesmerized by Bridwell’s vocals, the lush indie rock, and melodies that seem to mirror that particular autumn light. I tend to leave my MacBook open to Band of Horses radio (streaming the likes of My Morning Jacket, Radiohead, The Shins, Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith, Rilo Kiley, and Wilco) as I walk by with armloads of laundry, while doing dishes, or dusting various surfaces – I find that great music goes a long way with housework.

Annie Frisbie
Station Title: Sleater-Kinney Radio
Seeds: Sleater-Kinney

I like a “Subtle Use of Vocal Harmony” and “Electric Guitar Riffs” . . . at least when I’m listening to the Sleater Kinney station. It’s like my iPod, only I don’t know what’s on it, but I’m pretty sure that I’ll like it!

Christy Tennant
Station: Christy’s QuickMix
Seed: Sarah McLachlan, John Mayer

This is the music that inspires me and gets into my bones. Sometimes it’s because they say things I don’t have the words for, but I resound with. Sometimes it’s because they sing of romance that I’m not sure I believe in, but sure wish I did.

Alissa Wilkinson
Station Title: Pianissimo
Seeds: Goldberg Variations: “Aria” (J.S. Bach / Glenn Gould)

For me, this is hands-down the best station to put on when I’m trying to write. It’s made up entirely of classical solo piano, mostly Baroque, and is the perfect combination of soothing and stimulating. It also makes me want to drink tea.

When Bloggers Die

 

Book bloggers don’t hang out in the edgiest corners of the Internet, nor do we use the latest, fanciest technology. We don’t embed video or upload MP3s. We read books, we post our thoughts, we swap galleys with loose pages and paperbacks with broken spines. We flaunt our passions-for Thomas Pynchon, for Nora Roberts, for John Updike, for Stephen King.But what we, the nerdiest of the nerds, lack in panache we make up for in community. Apart from reading, there’s nothing a reader likes more than to talk with another reader about a book that both have read. We engage in crazy group activities like challenges to read long books, or old books, or books by authors we’ve never heard of, and sign up for a 24-hour Read-a-Thon.We lost one of our own this week, a blogger named Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf. I never met her in person, though we emailed a few times when I guest hosted a Bookworms Carnival. She commented a few times on my blog, and I on hers.Dewey passed away last week, having been sick and in pain for quite some time. None of us knew this about her. We knew her as an ebullient cheerleader for reading, with seemingly endless energy for coming up with ways for us to transcend geography and read together. I heard the news on Google Reader via a post by Dewey’s husband to her blog, and even now, a few days later, it’s still hitting me. How can a blogger be gone, just like that?I’ve been involved over the years in a number of conversations about whether or not things like Internet forums, or comments sections, or mailing lists can constitute community. I’ve always been inclined to think they’re missing some ineffable factor, the way that God comes in and moves among His children, whether they acknowledge him or not. The time we spend online is just a diversion. The Kingdom can’t be reduced to ones and zeroes.

But everyone who’s blogging about Dewey is talking about one thing – community. She helped build something that’s going to stand even though she’s gone. I have to believe that God can move in cyberspace as surely as He moves on the streets where I live. So I want to thank Dewey for creating a space for us to acknowledge the ties that bind us together, and I pray that God will show me where I’ll find the work He’s created for me.

Performance and The Odd Lamb

Costumes, wacky songs, a restless crowd. No, this is not about Halloween; on a Thursday evening this past September, I acted as performer-assistant at a show by The Odd Lamb, a name among many under which artist Jonathan Atchley records. For me, having been a visual artist, now a curator and sometime gallerist who maybe harbors rock star fantasies, the realm of performance art is still completely fair game. As a child, I got to be the go-to entertainment guy at family get-togethers. In college, there was my crucified-man bit, captured on video. And a mere five or so years ago, I took the stage at Fuller Theological Seminary and “interacted” with a banner-object labeled with semi-nonsense poetry.

Which leads me to why I decided to take on the role as The Odd Lamb’s assistant. This time, it wouldn’t be me carrying the show; I could merely share the spotlight by coat-tailing under someone else’s vision. But I found out how much fun the role could be. I became co-pilot in Jonathan Atchley’s Odd trip, and I found out there was no such thing as cruise-control in that universe. Veering off to new places is actually mandatory.

Rewind. I already had bought Jonathan’s CD, Multi-Mouth Runner, months before. Our first meeting in New York was funny, but ominous. I went over to shake his hand, and the next thing I know, Jonathan was on the floor with his legs wrapped around my ankles, trying to wrestle me down. Congratulations, I had just been “scissor-kicked”, Jonathan Atchley-style.


Photo: Braedon Flynn

Shenanigans aside, I enjoyed his CD. The cover art contains one of his drawings: black-and-white Cubistic explosions, combined with a riot of collaged eyes, mouths, etc. His visuals reflect the songs inside, which range from discordant (abrupt rhythm changes), to beat-driven and nostalgic (with sample of “Thundercats, ho!”), to endearing (singing children, acoustic guitar).

What got me more excited was where the show was to happen – his friend’s place, a skate-surf store called Active Ride Shop in a major Orange County shopping center. Finally, this was my chance to raise hell in the land of Mischa Barton! It was a misfit’s revenge on the Popular Crowd, high art gambit within explicit commercialism! To make it even more tantalizing, the show was inserted as part of store promotions in the middle of Orange County Fashion Week!

Past the glittering runway at Macy’s, along tall palm trees, on the way to California Pizza Kitchen or the Lexus-filled parking lot, unsuspecting teenagers were greeted (or accosted) by bubbly employees of Active Ride Shop. One clerk, a Keanu Reeves look-alike, paced around outside, with a large video screen across his chest. Free juice drinks and skate-brand accoutrements lured curious passerby, holding them captive at the store, if only for a moment. By this time, Jonathan and I had already carried in four armfuls of equipment which plugged into the store’s own PA system. We even had a pleasant sound guy named Luke. There was the scrambling for an extra table (which never materialized) and the nervous wait for showtime. The larger-than-life LRG (fashion brand) logo displayed behind the ceiling-to-floor window was soon carted off and replaced, incredibly enough, by a wall of sheet after sheet of Jonathan’s wacky marker drawings.


Photo: Braedon Flynn

Much of the show can be relived by typing “The Odd Lamb” into YouTube. Jonathan is in a plain white V-neck shirt, playing guitar or at the keyboards, crooning into his mic. And what was my part, you ask? I am seated behind a small table, dressed in a tie; looking the part of a regular office worker, I was armed with a suitcase full (literally) of props. With our run-throughs earlier that day and my two-paged sheet of directions always in front of me, I felt quite ready to make a fool of myself. One of the first songs, Mr. Skir, is a magical paper puppet show. About a boy’s mysterious encounter with a ghost, it easily charms the crowd. But for action buffs, it’s got to be the song I am Beast Bait Boy. Hear Me Get Eaten. In it, I pop out from beneath my table after hearing my cue in that song’s growling noise effects. As the Beast, complete with yarn-covered shirt, nose painted black, black socks for gloves, I proceed to have a somewhat choreographed fight with The Odd Lamb. Very thrilling. And while you’re on YouTube, don’t forget to check one of my favorites, the nicely-paced song Oh Ordained Epistemology.

The more mundane moments of the show had me pulling out tableware from my suitcase, cutting up a paperback copy of Fight Club, eating a small lunch, cutting out girls from GQ Magazine, doing office-looking busy work, and collaging a tree form. Don’t even ask me to interpret how that comes together. All I know was I went home highly fulfilled and happy that night. Jonathan later paid me the big compliment about my “masterful assistantmanship.” Maybe it looked like I knew what I was doing, but much of it was improvised, definitely veering off prepared ideas.

Besides YouTube, visit The Odd Lamb website or his MySpace page. Get on the mailing list, download his songs to your heart’s content, and then drop him some generous change. Upcoming for the artist will be “free-styled” recordings under Neenu Naanu, one of his side projects. Some of that new material will be played live on November 1, part of a one-evening art exhibition I organized at a warehouse (see www.100stewards.com for details). In the spirit of veering from prepared ideas, here is some additional wisdom from the mouth of Jonathan Atchley.


Photo: Braedon Flynn

Question: What are the biggest influences that went into recording Multi-Mouth Runner?

I had quit making music and art out of anxious frustration, because I was trying too hard to make something “good.” I’d say at that point I started on the path of not MAKING something take place but ALLOWING something to take place.

It’s important to note, too, that I wanted to say some huge things and so I dealt with themes that were in my head– just as much as what came from experiences. It was more experimental and theoretical in that way. Thus the title Multi-Mouth Runner. A lot came out of those explorations.

To have your own music studio is mindblowing! I really feel like I could make any sound I can imagine digitally . . . I was listening to Pinback, Sufjan Stevens, Half-Handed Cloud, Daniel Johnston, Dan Deacon, Animal Collective, Danielson, etc. Books I was reading were mostly the Bible, Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard, The Conspiracy of Art by Jean Baudrillard, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol, among others.

Question: As our nation is caught between negative campaigning and economic woes, may I ask you to name some of your pet peeves?

Sitting too much, bad food I have to eat, dust, when dogs lick me when I don’t want them to, rip-tides when I’m surfing, when I see my shadow while surfing a wave, cuts on top of my hands – that every time I put my hands in my pockets they get re-hurt, getting a piece of popcorn stuck between my gums and teeth, eyelashes that won’t get unstuck from my eyeball . . . that stuff is crappy.

Broken Windows and Internet Civility

Earlier this year, on my way to work, I opened the latest issue of the New Yorker and was drawn into an article entitled “Friend Game”, which covers the MySpace-related suicide of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier. You can read the full article here.

You probably read the story and were as outraged as everyone else; Megan was first wooed, then harassed by a fake sixteen-year-old boy whose MySpace profile was set up and maintained by neighbors, parents of a friend with whom she’d had a quarrel. The situation eventually came to a head, and Megan hung herself from a closet rod with a cloth belt. Months passed before the reprehensible details came out, and the community – and worldwide – reaction has been loud and clear, but the adults responsible for the harassment haven’t legally committed any crime and can’t really be prosecuted.

According to the article, Megan’s parents were very involved in her MySpace world. They approved friend requests and made sure they were in the room when she was on MySpace. The family lives in a “close-knit” neighborhood, but that closeness unfortunately devolved into cattiness. Two good things (parental involvement and community) that couldn’t prevent the sad occurrence.

There were two things brought up in the article, somewhat unrelated, that nevertheless made me think.

Firstly – the article characterizes MySpace in this way:

MySpace, with its cluttered layout, can suggest an online incarnation of the broken-windows theory-surface disorder begetting actual chaos. It works like this: a person signs up (all he needs is an e-mail address) and then constructs a profile by choosing text, songs, graphics, wallpaper, and video clips. Often, when you open a page, the music’s already thumping, as if you’d stumbled into a party in someone’s basement.

When I was reading this article, my husband was reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s book The Tipping Point, which mentions the broken-window theory in reference to the (successful) efforts to clean up New York City in the last couple decades. As I understand it, the broken-window theory posits that if a window is broken in a neighborhood, and it isn’t fixed, it will invite more broken windows. In other words, disorder breeds disorder. (Though the theory has occasionally been attacked by social scientists as incomplete, it holds up as a way to fight entropy, disorder, and chaos.)

One way this manifested in New York City was graffiti in subway cars. As the story goes, subway cars were covered in graffiti, sometimes elaborately drawn murals that would be worked on for days. I’m all for public art in moderation, but someone had a hunch that the graffiti, and the general feeling it engendered that one could do whatever one wanted on the subway, was contributing to subway violence.

So their solution was to paint entire cars every time they reached the end of the line. If the car wasn’t painted in time, it didn’t go back on the track until it was cleaned. Over time, this helped to contribute to the feeling that someone was actually in control in the subway cars; you could spend hours doing your mural, but it would be gone once it went into the last station. Someone was watching, and somebody cared.

Now, obviously, painting over graffiti didn’t solve all the problems in the New York subways. There were other contributing factors. But some old-timers will tell you that this was the first step toward subway safety. And today, when I read stories about subway violence (or see the trailer for that dismal Jodie Foster flick The Brave One), I can hardly believe it. The New York subways aren’t models of cleanliness, but the graffiti has mostly been reduced to scattered “scratchiti” on the windows, and the idea of a shooting or stabbing on the subway is downright shocking. I suspect you’re more likely to be injured or killed driving your car on a suburban highway than in the New York City subways.

This isn’t rocket science, but like many viable ideas, it stemmed from good, common sense. And so I wonder – if MySpace cleaned up its act more (and the New Yorker article goes on to elaborate a bit), would the general feeling around the place improve? Maybe this doesn’t translate to online venues, but consider for a moment the disparity between a standard MySpace layout and a standard Facebook page. Facebook exerts a bit more control over what you see – for instance, you can’t install customized stylesheets, and though individual “applications” may be flashy and ugly, they’re forced onto a profile tab, where a visitor would never have to see them. And as a result, you see more adults on Facebook; in theory, that may contribute to keeping it “safe”. I don’t have facts to back this up, but it seems reasonable to me.

I’m not sure what all to make of these ideas, but I have a hunch that the aesthetics of online space may contribute more to the friendliness and maturity level of a place than we suspect.

The other thing that caught my attention in the article was this statement:

“Pokin’s story threw first Dardenne Prairie and then everyone else-guidance counsellors, techies, First Amendment advocates, parents, bloggers, parenting bloggers-into paroxysms of recrimination. They were all certain that something sick, and distinctly modern, had happened, but no one could agree about whether its source was a culture that encouraged teen-agers to act too grownup or one that permitted grownups to behave like teen-agers.”

The more time I spend online, the more disgusted and/or saddened I am by the way people “act” online. I’m not convinced it’s the anonymity factor – after all, many people are comfortable revealing their name, occupation, educational details, and location, at least to a subset of their friends/readers. I’m fine with you having the information about me that you do.

But sometimes, especially now that political tensions are flying high, I wonder why we’re comfortable being sarcastic, angry, or just plain mean in our online dealings. Has the internet turned us this way (as some have suggested), or have we always been this way, but our sense of shame/propriety/social stigma has kept us from spreading it as far and wide as the Internet?

While we react to this story with a sense of outrage, what can we do to spread compassion, kindness, and just plain good manners around the internet? How might we “rehumanize” the internet by showing love, thoughtfulness, and civility, rather than snarkiness, arrogance, or hatred for those who are different from us?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m thinking about the question.


An earlier version of this article first appeared as a blog entry.