The best minds of my generation have been destroyed by the madness of contriving ways to get people to click on ads, conforming to a conceptual framework of disruption in which ruptures take the form of optimizing commercial capitalism. As the hot air of “technology” and “social” fill up the bubble once more, food for Cacophony fills the streets, the airways and the wires of the Network. The time is ripe for more weird fun from The Cacophony Society.
The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. We are the punctuation at the end of hypothetical sentences, words in the prose of technological satire, grammarians of absurdist syntax and our numbers are prominent in the flat edge of a curve. You may already be a member!
Dress like you always do. Do what you normally do.
Object of the event: See if you can pick out the other participants. This was a really big event last year. Let’s see if we can do it again!
Sponsored by: The Bureau of Objective Reality
Last Gasp of San Francisco has published “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society.” This new instruction manual and historical document is cornucopia of cacophony and should prove to be an inspiration to a new generation about to be chained to the “promise” of Google Glass.
Saturday, Sept. 5 8:00 p.m.
Meet: At the N.E. corner of Judah and 7th Ave.
Bring: Recently or about-to-be deceased animal bodies or parts (please no “roadkill”)
Wear: Something you won’t mind getting indelible stains on
Dr. X and The Other One
For the scholars of Cacophony, and the future generation of pranksters, the holy historical documents (Rough Draft) and other ephemera are being housed in the virtual halls of the Cacophony Society Section of the Internet Archive. The youth of the world have an indispensable new resource in their pursuit of a renaissance of cacophony.
Something must be missing. That’s the only possible explanation. Otherwise we humans would naturally live for ever and approach a much higher level of consciousness. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. And while each of us is different, the thing each of us is missing is always imagined as a single common ingredient. It’s a special commodity that once discovered can be sold or given to the entire human race in a transformational act that will fundamentally change the course of human history.
It might be water from a particular fountain or some kind of plant seed from deep in the darkest jungle. The first step is eternal life. Then with time and mortality taken out of the picture we can get down to the business of some kind of perfection. That moment will mark the beginning of the end of our quest.
In the age of networked cloud-based technical solutions, we see this missing piece as coming from computation. Wireless mobile computing puts vast amounts of information at our command or at least within reach. But this is an augmentation, not a filling in of a lack. In the religion of the singularity, it’s the body itself that functions as the flaw. Once the immaterial intelligence (our infinite internal space) is uploaded into an eternally existing industrial cloud computing complex, the fun gets started. The parts that wear out can now be replaced, and replaced with newer and better parts ad infinitum.
Between now and eternal life, there will no doubt be some interim steps. For instance before the body can be confidently discarded and replaced with electronic machinery, it’s likely that we’ll keep our bodies and use ever more sophisticated robots on the side. Even now the replacement of all types of workers with robotic processes is accelerating. We can easily imagine all types of work will soon be replaced with advanced robotics plus big data computation.
Imagine. At birth we’ll be given our first robot. The robot will be assigned to do whatever labor we might have had to do in the past. Credits will be deposited in our account as compensation for the robot’s labor. Everyone will receive a base model robot. Those with more means will be able to augment their robots to do more advanced and highly compensated tasks. And of course, this being the land of the free and the home of the brave, any robot has the potential to be augmented in such a way that it could do the job of President of the United States for somebody. In the eyes of God and law, all robots are created equal. The key political moment was when it was decided that every single person was to be given a robot as a basic right. Initially there was an objection based on the cost. But once robots were building robots from materials obtained and processed by robots, the cost of robots began to approach zero. There were plenty of robots to go around.
And then a day arrives, and we leave our robots behind. Our bodies stop functioning optimally and we agree that it’s time to upload ourselves into that big computer in the sky. At first people held out as long as possible, waiting until they were quite elderly before uploading. More recently, as soon as the bloom of youth is off, an upload may be considered. Our robots can then be reconditioned and assigned to the new people being born into the world. Recycling is so important.
Some people will resist this final exit from the material plane. They’ll spread nasty rumors that the reason robots have been able to replace every possible human job is that they’re actually powered by uploaded souls. The uploaded souls that we think were talking to are really just simulations based on a person’s historical tendencies as encoded in a big database. An actual soul is required to make a robot fully operational for any human capacity, whereas people living in the material world are easily fooled by a simulation of a human. Once the Turing Test was routinely cracked, it wasn’t hard to create satisfactory simulations for each of us. Even the simulations can’t tell simulations from the real thing.
The fantasy of immortality has found various forms over the years. The singularity is just the most recent concoction. But the replacement of labor by robots / machines is a definite reality. One can think of each of the major appliances in an American home as the equivalent of a servant. Labor continues to be displaced by machines, which is a good thing until a majority of people can’t afford to buy a machine of their own.
Of course television isn’t what it used to be. Nothing is, that’s how it goes with “time” and its “it was”. The number of channels has expanded from three to infinity. With weekly magazines Life, Look, Time, Newsweek no longer consolidate a view for the entire country. There were some very bad things about such a narrow window. A lot of voices couldn’t find a national platform or any platform. But when something strange happened, everyone knew about it.
There was a very interesting moment in the late 60s and early 70s when rock music started to break through on national television. It started showing up in our living rooms pretty much full strength. Not the pre-fabricated kind, the stuff that was constructed as a simulation of rock — music but without the rebellion, sex and drugs. The simulation had to be revolutionary and at the same time not threaten consumers. They needed to feel hip when they made their next purchase. But this was the real stuff coming through the tube; the stuff that seemed to actually threaten the status quo. It’s hard to imagine a popular music that could do that these days.
Rock music was a mode of communication among the youth culture. Coded messages, visions and entire ways of life were transmitted through short pop songs. The disruption was starting to take hold when the whole thing was shut down. Any number of events could serve as the signal of the backlash, the one that struck me was the firing of the Smother’s Brothers and the cancellation of their television show by CBS in 1969.
Some technologists like to think the torch was passed from the rock generation of the 60s to the computerists of recent days. They point to technology as a force for radical disruption. When we use the word ‘disruption’ to describe a new monopoly taking over for an old monopoly, we really miss the ‘rupture’ in disruption. In the technology business some like to talk about disrupting things and changing the world. But really they’re just talking about market share, revenue and stock price. It’s disruption that doesn’t overturn the apple cart. It just moves some apples from the bottom to the top. The world isn’t really changed at all.
In a television interview with Dick Cavett, Janis Joplin talks about getting to the bottom of the music. It’s the same shock that Elvis generated with his first television appearance. The bottom of the music was suddenly being broadcast directly into the living rooms of middle class families — and without filters into the minds and dreams of the children watching those shows.
These days those moments are rare. But I had a small shiver of recognition watching Brittany Howard play electric guitar on television the other night. Even if you were to turn the sound off, you could see that she was getting to the bottom of the music. In that image, worlds of possibility were transmitted.
Privacy, Difference and Redemption: Somewhere on the Network
We usually think about privacy as the ability to restrict the circulation of personal information. Non-public information stays non-public. In the era of the Network, the personal exhaust we leave as traces on various systems, even if it’s meant to be anonymous, identifies us publicly. Given enough pieces of the puzzle, the full picture of a person can be put together.
Our identity and the identifiers are linked as indexical signs. The foot leaves a footprint in the sand. The last few footprints point to where the next few footsteps will land. Collect enough footprints and the future can be predicted with a high degree of certainty. Implied in this formula is something about both the character and durability of the link between the signifier and the signified.
This idea implies a particular relationship between the acts and the actor—the actor is nothing more than his acts in a positive and un-ironic sense. Past is prolog. And this is where we turn to the question of redemption. The first few lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” tell us something about the meaning of time present and time past.
Burnt Norton By T.S. Eliot
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present. read more…
“If time future is contained in time past, all time is eternally present, and therefore unredeemable.” As we try to come to terms with the Network, this becomes the crux of the privacy issue. One half of privacy is the ability to keep a set of facts about one’s self hidden. The other side of privacy is the ability to selectively reveal oneself, and that also means to not be, to not choose, to not do what one’s past has predicted. Not as “abstract speculation,” but as a non-linear act in the real world. In any given moment, the character of the facts could change through the exercise of free will.
The predictive and persuasive power of the big data platforms depends on the idea that the system generates the current and future actions of the individual based on recordings of previous actions. All time becomes unredeemable. The bad restaurant will always be a bad restaurant. The drunkard will aways be a drunkard. The successful businessman will always be a successful businessman. The sinner will always be a sinner. The cogs in the machine will always be cogs in a machine.
The moment of redemption, of radical change, is unpredictable, yet perfectly possible for each and every one of us at any time. For no reason. Somewhere.
Among the world’s best bars, there’s Tosca Cafe; and across the street, stands one of the world’s best bookstores, City Lights. Earlier this week, they teamed up to present a reading by Ellen Ullman of her new novel “By Blood.” It’s difficult to explain the kind of perfection this event captured. The literary history of San Francisco welled up in the room and presented the kind of event, anyone will tell you, never happens any more.
On floor 3b of the Mechanic’s Institute Library, there’s a section tucked around a corner that shelves the books of Marshall McLuhan. I’d been reading a lot of McLuhan and was scanning the section for new candidates for my reading list. My eyes passed over a title of a small book, “Close To The Machine.” I’d come and gone from that section three or four times before I finally picked up the volume. The title alone read like a poem. It was already inside something I’d been giving a lot of thought: our intimacy with the Network. Ellen Ullman wrote the book in 1997, long before the Network reached critical mass. She writes about technology with a facility and intimacy that’s very rare. Ullman is a programmer, critic and novelist with a view of the long arc of the culture of technology and the technology of culture.
Ullman’s second book was a novel called “The Bug,” and it continued to explore the world of computer programming and technology. At the reading, I asked her about the new book, “By Blood.” How and why did she decide to leave writing about technology behind? She answered that if she continued to write within the boundaries of technology, her work might stray off into the world of science fiction. Ullman’s work isn’t about the machine, it’s about being close to the machine, deep inside it, the strange intimacy we have with our technology. She said that she would continue to write essays about technology, but that her fiction would no longer be bounded by it. I look forward to both.
It was Aron Michalski who turned me on to David Byrne’s thoughts on the effect of architecture on music. The gist of the idea is that popular music is composed to be performed in certain kinds of venues. When rock music moved from clubs and theaters to arenas and stadiums the music had to change to accommodate the space.
My first real experience of this phenomenon was hearing The Who perform at one of Bill Graham’s Day on the Green concerts at the stadium in Oakland. Pete Townsend’s windmill electric guitar chords rang out filling and shaking the stadium. It was shock and awe, a form of the Burkean sublime. In my memory, the figures on the stage seemed like giants.
At the same time there was a withdrawal of music from physical space exemplified by The Beatles retreating to the studio to create music they would never perform in an arena, stadium or any where else for that matter. This direction was solidified by Brian Eno in his writings about the recording studio as compositional tool. Eno compares the advent of purely recorded music to the split between theater and film into separate art forms. Film, like constructed and recorded music, can create an experience in playback that can’t be produced in live performance. The medium shifts from the room to the playback of music in some domestic space or perhaps even in the mental space of headphones. The new medium for music becomes its transmission over wires and broadcast to an endpoint.
And just as with popular music’s adaptation to the vast open spaces of the sports stadium, music changes to accommodate the contours of the Network. A higher percentage of music becomes music for playback. The number of bands that can fill a stadium with both music and fans—always a small number, shrinks even further. And among the new acts climbing the charts, fewer set their sites on the stadium as the ultimate venue.
When I saw the headline about Best Buy slowing going out of business, I didn’t immediately make the connection to arena rock. But there’s a sense in which the progress of retail mirrors that of popular music; moving to larger and larger venues—packing in both the people and the product. And just as with music, there’s a virtual channel that has been able to treat the retail space as an endlessly plastic medium that can be mixed and remixed into a seemingly infinite variety of shopping experiences. Here also the medium changed from a physical space to bits coming over a wire and broadcast on to a screen. And just as with arena and stadium rock, the number of acts who can fill those big boxes is shrinking in number.
The movie “You’ve Got Mail” is a interesting artifact of the rise of the big box bookstore. The film lifts its love story from Ernst Lubitch’s “The Shop Around the Corner.” In the zeitgeist of the time, it was all too clear that the small independent bookstore was doomed and would be driven out of existence by the book superstore with its huge inventory, low prices, cozy chairs and access to legal stimulants in the form of hot beverages. It wasn’t something to get mad about, it was just the way of the world—not personal, just business. So Meg Ryan’s carefully curated children’s bookstore ‘The Shop Around The Corner (named in tribute to its predecessor) is put out of business by Tom Hanks’s giant Fox Books. Now if we look at the landscape of booksellers today, we see a much different picture. The arena rock bookstores can’t sell enough tickets and are shutting down—their role is being filled by the plastic virtual bookseller. We’re sort of in the era of the headphone retailer.
I’ve always loved browsing in used book stores. The combination of lower price and serendipity is wonderfully entertaining. I don’t expect to find a complete set of books in print, instead the experience is more like a performance in a small space. I take in and appreciate the set of books that are here in the space right now. I know that next week, or the week after, I’ll see a largely new set of books. The used book store is an incredibly efficient filter for discovering what might be worth reading and what people in general are reading. These books have already experienced ‘use.’ It’s an interesting example of how a small space can provide much more value than a large space.
This rehabilitation of the small space is a trend that seems to working its way through music, retailing and even social networks. It may signal a return to intimacy. Kinda makes you wonder what it’d be like to shop at “The Shop Around the Corner’s” Matuschek and Company.
I’ve always thought the phrase ‘full-throated endorsement’ a bit odd. It pulls human physicality into the conversation as a kind of speaking done with the whole body. The ‘throat’ is called out, but as a metonym for the speaking body situated in a political-historical-ecological space. The speaker throws herself into the words, come what may.
The phrase also has a resonance with ‘singing in full voice.’ In rehearsal, opera singers will often sing in ‘half voice’ to spare themselves for the performance. When the curtain goes up, the singer must throw himself into the music, come what may. It’s in this sense that opera is a full-throated art form, the opera itself must also sing in full voice. It must match and fill the grand space of the opera house. As new operas are produced, they give voice to the deep currents flowing through our culture. And to make their mark, they mustn’t sing in half voice.
Mounting a production of a new opera is no small task, they are literally years in the making. Here’s San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley on creating “Heart of a Soldier”:
But popular subjects and heroic characters alone do not make good operas. In the end, is the music any good in its own right? In opera, music tells the story. The text provides the skeleton, music the flesh and blood. Twenty-five years after Adams’s ‘Nixon in China’ told the ‘back story’ of the Nixon/Kissinger visit to China in 1972, the opera has legs because of the composer’s brilliant score. Will ‘Heart of a Soldier’ be this successful? Who knows. The important thing is to get these pieces launched with fanfare and good attendance, and then they are on their own! For better or worse, my career as an opera producer has been punctuated with many of these launches. My work will be judged by the quality of the pieces I have midwifed, and in most cases I will be long gone before the jury renders its verdict
Reading Gockley’s note in the ‘Heart of a Soldier’ program earlier this year brought to mind Shelley’s ‘Defense of Poetry.’ Gockley clearly has the sense that these operas he midwifes are objects situated perennially in the future. We must create operas in the here-and-now, but with their initial performance we only see the tip of the shadow cast from their location in the future. Each time an opera is performed, we open that door to the future and attempt to apprehend the broadcast of new signals as they occupy and resonate with the present moment.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the book on the temporal state of the work of art. Here’s the conclusion of his ‘Defense of Poetry”:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.
At a recent performance of Philip Glass’s opera ‘Satyagraha’ at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a door was opened and the music filled the opera house and then overflowed into the plaza outside of the building. There it received another performance through the full-throated chorus of the human microphone. The composer, Philip Glass, lead the chorus in the closing lines of the opera which come from the ‘Bhagavad Gita’:
“When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.”
For the longest time, the tone of our public voice has been tinged with irony. But there seems to be a change in the weather. As Tim Morton is fond of to saying, ‘the Sincerity Fish ate the Irony Fish on the bumper sticker on the back of my car.’ Somehow the full-throated voice is more in tune with sincerity. But the reason irony came to rule the day is that there’s a real danger in sincerity. As Jean Giraudoux once said:
The secret to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
How do we tune ourselves to listen to full-throated sincerity? Heidegger addresses the issue in his translation of the poet Holderlin’s ‘Patmos’, saying:
But where danger is, grows the saving power also.
In the new operas we have given to the future, we allow both the danger and the saving power to cast their shadows. A door opens…
A Permanent Sense of Asymmetry: Watching the Non-Human Enter
Sitting in the audience at the California College of Arts, listening to Tim Morton’s talk “Enter the Non-Human,” I couldn’t help but think of a comment by Brian Eno. Eno had just finished producing the Talking Heads album “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” and he noted that the new album contained “more ideas per minute” than the first record. It’s my sense that the density of ideas in Morton’s talks is increasing as he pushes towards the “final” formulation of his book on Hyperobjects. As has been noted elsewhere, the ideas were streaming off the stage, washing over the audience. I experienced them like a Proustian sentence, holding an object out for our minds and then sketching it this way, then that way, then another, through a tumbling outpour of sub-clauses.
In the age of the Network, we often want things to be instantly consumable. If I don’t get it right off the bat, my attention moves to the next thing. The real-time stream and rest of the internet is just a click away. Morton traffics in philosophy, aesthetics and ecology; conversations on these topics aren’t easily digested. We have to chew on them a while. Sometimes we need to leave them and come back. Because of their difficulty, outside of the curriculum of an academic program, they tend to have limited circulation. This kind of learning is not achieved in a single transaction. The Book of Common Prayer suggests that as one encounters scripture, one must “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” Poetry and philosophy require a similar process. Watching Morton give this talk in person, my understanding rested on having heard recordings of other versions of the Hyperobjects talk and read his papers and books. But even with this foundation, I felt compelled to come back to the talk as a recording.
Several days later as the recording unfurled through my earbuds, I noticed some interesting differences between the microphone’s experience of the talk and my own. Morton’s voice was much more dynamic and intimate on the recording, in the room it was compelling, but much softer. Perhaps this is due to the earbuds and the recorded audio seeming to manifest inside my head, rather than coming from an outside source. The microphone, sitting in Morton’s shirt pocket, interacted with the fabric containing it while he moved about the stage. In the moment, only the microphone was aware of these subtle sounds of textiles. During the Q&A session after the talk, strange mechanical sounds emanating from the space above the auditorium intruded into the conversation space providing an appropriately non-human perspective. The microphone recorded barely a trace of these intrusions. The recording is there on my iPhone, waiting for me to give it a play and allow these thoughts a chance to sink in further.
Something about this experience feels like a new form of pedagogy. Certainly it’s spilled over the walls of the Academy and on to the the Network, but it’s form is the biggest difference. The playing field has fundamentally changed when one can to listen to multiple versions of a lecture, can loop back through the recorded lecture and focus on particular parts, and read versions of the idea as downloadable papers. Certainly nothing like that ever occurred in my years in the academy. Like a hyperobject, the lecture on hyperobjects is massively distributed in time and space.
One of the laugh lines in Morton’s talk is “anything you can do I can do meta.” The idea behind this quip is to characterize the move to “undermine,” or in Graham Harman’s phrase, to “overmine” an opponent’s position. Either some atom is the basic building block to which all things can be reduced; or some system is the foundation from which all things extend. Generally what is taught in the Academy are the particulars around these atoms and systems. In his talk, Morton reviews the historical progression of these “particulars” in an effort to get to the present ecological moment. The strange thing about Morton’s talk is that he’s not trying to lay out a new complex conceptual framework that wraps up everything that precedes it. Instead he brings up a series of examples of the rift between appearance and essence—the remainder that each of these conceptual transactions always generates as it tries to snugly fit around the contours of the real. For students trained in memorizing and recapitulating particulars, the process of discarding conceptual frameworks to see more clearly must seem counter intuitive. In a line of thought that operates in a space without a center or edges, sometimes it’s difficult to know when it’s arrived at it’s topic. And further, once there, what is the listener meant to take away? What kind of transaction is this?
From my perspective, Morton’s set of examples melded with, and transformed threads from my other reading, in particular with David Graeber’s book “Debt.” One of Graeber’s profound observations is on the origin of the exact transaction from which both parties can walk away from free and clear. While it’s the dominant model now, from a historical and anthropological point of view, the desire for “exactness” comes from events in which some harm has occurred and fair reparations must be calculated. The more normal transaction would be to always have some remainder on one side or the other, an ongoing debt–the idea is that there would always be a continuation of the relationship. The desire to walk away from a transaction free and clear with no debts on either side is born from anger.
When trying to imagine a just society, it’s hard not to evoke images of balance and symmetry, of elegant geometries where everything balances out.
As Morton points out, in the age of ecology there is no clean transaction you can walk away from. The fact that everything is connected isn’t something you can turn off when it’s inconvenient. There’s always something still owed, a remaining debt. Morton describes this as the viscous quality of the hyperobject, the more you know about it the more it sticks to you. And as Graeber shows, capital fails to capture the full extent of a transaction because it doesn’t fully represent the object. In the social context of the transaction, there’s always a remainder, the market never fully clears. At the level of capital and pricing, the numbers always add up, but the object of the transaction is broadcasting on multiple frequencies. And if you hold the concept of capital in abeyance for just a moment, you’ll find there were many more parties to the transaction than you had assumed, and if you listen closely, you can hear that the non-human has continued its relationship with you.
After the talk I was standing on a street corner in the darkness of the early evening discussing object-oriented ontology and Shelley with Morton. He said he thought the Romantic poets were very modern, that their poetry could have been written today. While I understood what he was saying on a basic level, I could see there was much more to it that was invisible to me. I had the sense of Shelley as a large tree that had grown up inside of Morton over many seasons. While no stranger to poetry, I’d only come to Shelley and his compatriots recently. Within myself, Shelley was no more than a small sapling.
The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us; visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled,
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
To sage or poet these responses given:
Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
Or music by the night-wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.
Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
Thou messenger of sympathies,
That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Depart not as thy shadow came,
Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard; I saw them not;
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming,
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!
I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
Of studious zeal or love’s delight
Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum’d my brow
Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.
The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past; there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Thus let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm, to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.
Listening to Terry Gross talk with Joe Henry about his new album, Reverie, I was struck by an aspect of his recording technique. As the price of recording technology has plummeted, many musicians have home studios. At one time that meant a custom facility similar in construction to a professional recording studio. Nowadays a recording studio might be an extra room in the house, the basement or the garage.
Even though it’s well known that every room has its own sound, the professional recording studio attempts to isolate musician-produced sound from its surroundings. As much as possible, the room should be invisible to the recording. And of course, we’re referring here to building a digital recording rather than the documentation of a live performance taking place in a particular room.
In the sessions for Reverie, Joe Henry recorded in his home studio. Rather than build a wall between the recording studio and the world outside, Henry decided to literally open the window. The world was invited on to the tracks. Cars might drive by, dogs might bark, perhaps that’s a freeway you can hear off in the distance. The kicker for me was this, Henry didn’t just open the window on to his recording session, he put a microphone at the window so that world would have its own track on the recordings. This also allowed the musicians to hear the world outside the window and respond to it in their playing. Think of it as a kind of playing live without a human audience.
The takeaway is an instruction that can be added to a personal set of oblique strategies: open the window and give it a dedicated microphone. In Joe Henry’s case, the result sounds real good.
We set up not only in the same room, but as close together as we could physically manage; the noise we each made spilling heavily into the space of the others, committing us to full performances and blurring the lines between us. Additionally, and perhaps in response to the frequent anxiety I shoulder regarding noise in the ‘hood when producing other artists in my own studio, I left all the windows open –inviting barking dogs, fighting birds and postal deliveries all to stand and be counted, to be heard as part of the fabric of the music –the way I always hear it around here. Though rarely autobiographical in nature, none of these songs, in fact, exist apart from my day-to-day life that allows them; and as such, there is no silence to be found on this record, only the outer world rising to speak as the songs descend.
Shop Windows And Tablets: Through The Looking Glass
In looking for lost house keys under the light of the street lamp, we put aside the fact that we lost them in the ditch at the other side of the road. It’s odd how we can move so swiftly in a particular direction without really knowing where we’re going. An incredible amount of ingenuity, resources and coordination has been applied to building tablet computers. There’s an unstated assumption that the post-pc era is defined by an evolution of the computer to a new human-computer interface model with a new form factor. And at a technical level, there’s some truth there; however at the level of the market for devices, there’s not enough truth.
To make sense of all this, let’s go back to a 1996 interview by Gary Wolf with Steve Jobs. Jobs was at NeXt and was gazing ahead at the future:
Wolf: What other opportunities are out there?
Jobs: Who do you think will be the main beneficiary of the Web? Who wins the most?
Wolf: People who have something -
Jobs: To sell!
Wolf: To share.
Jobs: To sell!
Wolf: You mean publishing?
Jobs: It’s more than publishing. It’s commerce. People are going to stop going to a lot of stores. And they’re going to buy stuff over the Web!
e-Commerce’s path to the Network was from the paper catalog to the electronic catalog. The Sears Catalog was one of the early prototypes for distance retailing. But what was the paper catalog? Why was it successful? The catalog was an evolution of the shop window in the arcade. And it was the shop window that enabled the romantic imagination of the consumer. Heather Marcelle Crickenberger talks about Walter Benjamin’s idea of the flâneur:
“Flâneur” is a word understood intuitively by the French to mean “stroller, idler, walker.” He has been portrayed in the past as a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century–a shopper with no intention to buy, an intellectual parasite of the arcade. Traditionally the traits that mark the flâneur are wealth, education, and idleness. He strolls to pass the time that his wealth affords him, treating the people who pass and the objects he sees as texts for his own pleasure. An anonymous face in the multitude, the flâneur is free to probe his surroundings for clues and hints that may go unnoticed by the others.
Today we call it window shopping. It’s an exercise of the imagination in the role of the consumer. What might I look like in that outfit, listening to that music, with those kitchen appliances? A large plate of glass opened a window on to the possibilities contained within the shop. The flâneur could stroll the arcade moving from this window to that, searching for something that might catch his fancy.
Timothy Morton discusses this performance of the consumer imagination in his essay on “The Beautiful Soul.”
These performative styles are outlined by myself (Morton) and Colin Campbell. One style stands out, and that is a kind of meta-style that Campbell calls bohemianism and I call Romantic consumerism. This kind of consumerism is at one remove from regular consumerism. It is “consumerism-ism” as it were, that has realized that the true object of desire is desire as such. In brief, Romantic consumerism is window- shopping, which is hugely enabled by plate glass, or as we now do, browsing on the internet, not consuming anything but wondering what we would be like if we did. Now in the Romantic period this kind of reflexive consumerism was limited to a few avant-garde types: the Romantics themselves. To this extent Wordsworth and De Quincey are only superficially different. Wordsworth figured out that he could stroll forever in the mountains; De Quincey figured out that you didn’t need mountains, if you could consume a drug that gave you the feeling of strolling in the mountains (sublime contemplative calm, and so on). Nowadays we are all De Quinceys, all flaneurs in the shopping mall of life. This performative role, this attitude, is all the more pervasive, leading me to believe that we haven’t really exited from the Romantic period—another sense in which “prehistory” isn’t quite right for what I’m describing, but extremely right in another sense, namely that we’re still caught in an attitude that we don’t fully understand or become aware of.
When we talk about what’s assumed to be a tablet computer, we’re actually talking about a plate of glass, a shop window. In a discussion with Nick Bilton of the New York Times about why all these tablets look similar, Ryan Block hit on the key, although he may not have realized it:
“We are talking about a screen, where the screen is the entire experience and it can only really look and act one way, and that is to look similar to the iPad,” Mr. Block explained in a phone interview Thursday. “At the end of the day, they are all going to look similar, because a tablet is just a piece of glass.”
The innovations of the post-pc era aren’t to the computing device, they’re to the shop window. The ability to transact as part of the performance and the transformation of the goods from material to digital such that they can be played within the same window are the key additions to the “piece of glass.”
If you view the recent crop of tablet computers through this lens, you’ll see what separates the Apple and Amazon products from the rest. We pass the empty shop window of the deserted store as we move on down the block to see what we might find next. Of course, it’s simple to see how a technologist might confuse a shop window with a flat computing device.