There’s a story that movie stars often tell about the trajectory of a popular actor’s career. It goes like this:
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
“Get me Hugh O’Brian.”
“Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.”
“Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.”
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
The “Mad Men” television episode was called “Lady Lazarus” after a poem by Sylvia Plath. In this episode the ongoing theme of the emergence of 60s rock and roll and its relationship with advertising is explored. In earlier episodes, the ad men had tried to sign the Rolling Stones to do music for a commercial. In this episode, a client wants the Beatles, or something that sounds like the Beatles. In the trajectory of the movie star’s career this is the “Get me a Beatles type” phase.
The client wants the Beatles-type sound for his ad because he feels that the Beatles are in touch with, and even driving, what’s going on in current culture. Those lovable mop-tops running from adoring fans in “A Hard Day’s Night” have really struck a chord. And if you can’t get the real thing, then a close copy will do. This is when the counter-culture was being sterilized and injected into the mainline culture. In the moment depicted, the two cultural streams are quite far apart. In fact that’s the conceit of the episode. The 60s, as a cultural phenomenon, is about to explode into the world of Mad Men. As viewers, we know something that Don Draper doesn’t know about what popular music will mean to this generation.
In the end, getting a Beatles-type sound turned out to be both possible and profitable. Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider were able to construct “The Monkees” with the help of Don Kirshner, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. Advertising no longer needed to appropriate popular culture, it produced popular culture.
With the advent of social media, we’re in a very similar place. The means of production are in everyone’s hands—including corporations. The paper towel you use to wipe a spill on the counter now wants to be your friend. Won’t you “like” it with a public gesture so that all your other friends will know about your new relationship? One thing was “like” another thing. Now the two things swim together in the same stream.
With this story, Mad Men had painted itself into a corner. The song the ad executives come up with, the one that’s supposed to sound like the Beatles, sounds nothing like the Beatles. Now the show itself had to deliver, not for the client, but for the audience. And not something that sounded like the Beatles, or some other artist doing a Beatles song. Here we become highly attuned to the difference between the original and the copy. The series creator, and writer of this episode, Matthew Weiner, working on multiple levels of signification, does a beautiful thing . The Beatles song he delivers is “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The song plays as Don Draper sits back in a chair in his perfectly-designed Manhattan apartment.
Instead of a song that perfectly captures that moment in the culture, we hear a song that is utterly alien. No client of an ad agency would want this song playing over an image of their product. This song explores the vast internal landscape inside every person. The material world of products and social status is dissolved, but don’t be afraid the song says, “it is not dying.” Even the title of the song tells us that things are changing and the future is uncertain. The overlay of the song on the image of a sitting Don Draper doesn’t create the feeling of harmony. Instead we feel a profound dissonance. This song isn’t just out of sync with the image, it wants to blow up the whole material world and release the listener into the infinite interior in all of us. Sometimes music can be dynamite.
In the spirit of things that are like other things, here’s my favorite version of the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a live rendition by a band called 801.
Spending two weeks in Paris, I was immersed in the past. Architecture of bygone times poking through from a dozen historical eras as I walked the streets. There’s a kind of sublimity that’s the experience of being overpowered by the object of contemplation. The size, scale and beauty of the cathedrals and chateaus take the breath away.
I was never so conscious of being born and raised in a country that never had Kings, a country that was never dominated by the Church. These monuments left by Kings and Cardinals just aren’t the kind of things that could exist in my country. We’ve had our industrialists and captains of industry, but the power of capital simply isn’t at the same level.
Stewart Brand wrote a book about how buildings learn; even these monuments created to glorify royalty or the institution of the church have adapted to the new environment of the Republic. We preserve the sublime without regard to its origin. We experience its beauty and turn a deaf ear to the raw power responsible for its being.
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.
The technical systems we build have perfect memories. They keep account of everything. The ones are the ones, and the zeros are the zeros. We network the systems together and even account for things across multiple domains. While on the one hand we talk about economies of abundance and prices of many things converging on free—we know the score.
When Jacques Derrida talks about forgiveness, he cuts to the chase. To forgive is to forgive what is unforgivable. It’s an act of transformation, and by definition impossible. Forgiveness without cost isn’t forgiveness. Forgiveness costs everything. A forgiveness that translates the debt from one domain to another isn’t forgiveness. To forgive is to break all the rules of the system.
David Graeber, in discussing his work “5,000 Years of Debt” talks about how morality and monetary debt have always been intertwined.
In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word. Much of the language of the great religious movements – reckoning, redemption, karmic accounting and the like – are drawn from the language of ancient finance. But that language is always found wanting and inadequate and twisted around into something completely different. It’s as if the great prophets and religious teachers had no choice but to start with that kind of language because it’s the language that existed at the time, but they only adopted it so as to turn it into its opposite: as a way of saying debts are not sacred, but forgiveness of debt, or the ability to wipe out debt, or to realize that debts aren’t real – these are the acts that are truly sacred.
We’ve become very sophisticated in creating instruments of debt and even derivatives on those instruments. Our systems of forgiveness, however, have been left behind. Debt and forgiveness of debt historically were linked. Forgiveness allows a system reset, the negative numbers are zeroed out. The moral judgement that comes along with monetary debt is wiped away. What by definition shouldn’t be forgiven is forgiven.
As the economies of the world are gripped by a debt crisis, the call for austerity measures come down from on high. From within the system, there’s only one kind of solution that’s rational. Austerity is the proper solution on both an economic and a moral level. Only moral weakness and foolishness would cause a person or a country to borrow more than they could repay. A good dose of austerity will put them back on the straight and narrow.
Of course, as Graeber points out, there’s a certain rationality for breaking the rules of the system at particular moments in time:
The first markets form on the fringes of these complexes and appear to operate largely on credit, using the temples’ units of account. But this gave the merchants and temple administrators and other well-off types the opportunity to make consumer loans to farmers, and then, if say the harvest was bad, everybody would start falling into debt-traps.
This was the great social evil of antiquity – families would have to start pawning off their flocks, fields and before long, their wives and children would be taken off into debt peonage. Often people would start abandoning the cities entirely, joining semi-nomadic bands, threatening to come back in force and overturn the existing order entirely. Rulers would regularly conclude the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or ‘washing of the tablets,’ they’d cancel all consumer debt and just start over. In fact, the first recorded word for ‘freedom’ in any human language is the Sumerian amargi, a word for debt-freedom, and by extension freedom more generally, which literally means ‘return to mother,’ since when they declared a clean slate, all the debt peons would get to go home.
As our societies become more rational, secular and technical we become less able to do the impossible, to forgive what is unforgivable. It just doesn’t make sense, it’s not a part of the algorithm. Something like a Jubilee seems like the superstition of a primitive people. In the systems that we’re building, is there a set of events that will cause the system to reset itself? Or do we think we’ve somehow evolved into a system of systems that never needs to be rebooted?
Well shake it up now Sugaree, I’ll meet you at the jubilee
And if that jubilee don’t come maybe I’ll meet you on the run
Just one thing I ask of you, just one thing for me
Please forget you know my name, my darling Sugaree
In taking note of a shift in tone, we must immediately acknowledge that it will not be the new, new thing. It’s not the hint, the vague scent, that turns out to be the key to the next Network-scale technological advance. It’s not the thing everybody must have; it’s not the ticket that wins the lottery for its owner. Nor is it the hit song that will be playing in the background of everyone’s thoughts as the Summer ends and Autumn opens before us.
The pattern is larger than this, but there were two moments that signaled a change. One of these moments was Catarina Fake’s blog post “Make Things.” In this post she describes a more humble approach to making tools for people. Her thoughts are set in the background of an overheated venture capital environment where liquidity events are plotted prior to thinking about useful products. Deployment of, and return on, capital seems to have superseded the passion to build, explore and make things. Companies become just another fungible asset class, a tool for capital’s replication and growth. Fake asks the potential entrepreneur to take a step back and ask whether capital is subordinate to, and serving a passion (as a means) or whether the passion to make things has been securitized and sold to the highest bidder (as an end).
For Fake, capital isn’t the wellspring of inspiration, instead it’s the creativity of people making things:
…I have been inspired in my work by stuff that people make. I fell in love with zines and independent radio when I was an isolated teenager living in the suburbs. Then BBSs, people’s personal web sites, Usenet, Entropy8, online zines (holy crap, the old Bitch magazine site is now a porn portal! And Maxi is squatted!), blogs, Excel, online communities, Amazon, Salon, eBay, O’Reilly books, Google, Friendster, Alamut, NQPAOFU, Metafilter, board games, Blogger, paper games, 1000 blank cards, The Mirror Project, 1000 journals, Moveable Type, 20 things, Google Maps, Flickr, Gmail, last.fm, iPhone, NaNoWriMo, McSweeney’s, Kingdom of Loathing, muxtape, vimeo, Etsy, iPad, Kickstarter …the people who make these things are my leaders.
Putting ‘cool’ before ‘capital’ is certainly a commendable reordering of priorities, but somehow it doesn’t go far enough. On one end of the spectrum, passion must fend off the temptations of subordinating itself to capital; on the other end, it faces a kind of commoditization that has forced pricing expectations toward zero.
This leads us to the second moment in this shift in tone. Jaron Lanier recently published an interview and essay called, “The Local-Global Flip.” In it he examines the Network as a local and global economic platform. When we think about making tools for people, just what kind of tools are we thinking of?
Everyone’s into Internet things, and yet we have this huge global economic trouble. If you had talked to anyone involved in it twenty years ago, everyone would have said that the ability for people to inexpensively have access to a tremendous global computation and networking facility ought to create wealth. This ought to create well being; this ought to create this incredible expansion in just people living decently, and in personal liberty. And indeed, some of that’s happened. Yet if you look at the big picture, it obviously isn’t happening enough, if it’s happening at all.
Dominance at Network scale allows the major players to generate mountains of cash by charging a small vig on every transaction and transfer of data. Not just the long tail, it’s the whole hog. It’s a big data model that requires volume and an unlimited scaling infrastructure. The promise of cloud computing is that if you actually won the lottery, your infrastructure could scale up to handle it. The reality is there’s not much room at the total-Network-dominance table. The corporations flirting with the cloud have a lot in common with McSweeny’s writer, Pat Stansik’s friend who just upgraded to a Vimeo Plus account.
Hey, I know we haven’t talked in a while but I just wanted to let you know that I upgraded to a Vimeo Plus account. It costs $59.95 a year, which might sound expensive, but after doing some research I decided that it’s a good investment. You’re probably wondering why I would spend money on something I can already do for free but trust me; this is going to be a big step in my filmmaking career.
Economist, Tyler Cowen, in his book “The Great Stagnation” notes that these Network-scale technology businesses don’t actually employ many people. Their success is picking low-hanging fruit and doesn’t translate into success for our society or our country. And Lanier observes that while the Network promises efficiency, freedom and empowerment, if you look closely you see that it isn’t actually designed to deliver on that promise.
…I’ll often get a lot of pushback and they’ll say, “No, no, no. There are all these people who are being empowered by all this stuff on the Internet that’s free”, and I’ll say, “Well, show me. Where’s all the wealth? Where’s the new middle class of people who are doing this?” They don’t exist. They just aren’t there. We’re losing the middle class, and we should be saving it. We should be strengthening it.
If we used to be a bell curve society, we’re ending up as a U-shaped society, turning into what Brazil used to be, or something like that, that’s where America is going. You can see the Apple model, and it’s not just Apple, but this notion of the elite-controlled thing serving the upper horn of the U, and you can see the Google model, which is like the seedy pawn shop and cash store kind of approach to the Internet where, “Oh, we’ll give you coupons, and we’ll sell advertising to you, and it’s free, free, free, free, free.” That attaches itself to the lower horn of the U.
The Network has the potential to make the local into the global, and it’s in this possibility that Lanier puts his finger on one of the key issues of our time. When the local player becomes global, but still plays by the rules of locality, an unsustainable economy is created.
The network effects can be so powerful that you cease being a local player. An example of this is Wal-Mart removing so many jobs from their own customers that they start to lose profitability, and suddenly upscale players, like Target, are doing better. Wal-Mart impoverished its own customer base. Google is facing exactly the same issue long-term, although not yet. The finance industry kept on thinking they could eject waste out into the general system, but they became the system. You become global instead of local so that the system breaks. Insurance companies in America, by trying to only insure people who didn’t need insurance, ejected risk into the general system away from themselves, but they became so big that they were no longer local players, and there wasn’t some giant vastness to absorb this risk that they’d ejected, and so therefore the system breaks. You see this again and again and again. It’s not sustainable.
And so we spin back around to Catarina Fake’s post about a humble approach to building tools for people. Are the tools we’re adding to the Network ones that allow adults to make a living, or do they just promise more non-negotiable social reputation points. The economics of these tools need to work for more than the rich or teenagers living under their parent’s roofs. Again, here’s Lanier:
There is this huge increase in efficiency, but the interesting thing is that increasing efficiency by itself doesn’t employ people. There is a difference between saving and making money when you’re unemployed. Once you’re already rich, saving money and making money is the same thing, but for people who are on the bottom or even in the middle classes, saving money doesn’t help you if you don’t have the money to save in the first place.
The choice isn’t necessarily a simple one between capital and passion, it may be necessary to put our concept of economics on completely different footing. E.F. Schumacher’s Buddhist Economics provides a framework for rethinking and de-centering our preconceptions about economics. What if we were to “make things,” create useful tools that were meaningful in the framework of Buddhist economics? How would those tools look different from the ones we make today? Here’s Schumacher:
Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from “metaphysics” or “values” as the law of gravitation. We need not, however, get involved in arguments of methodology. Instead, let us take some fundamentals and see what they look like when viewed by a modern economist and a Buddhist economist.
It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.
Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity, taking the factors of production—and, labour, and capital—as the means. The former, in short, tries to maximise human satisfactions by the optimal pattern of consumption, while the latter tries to maximise consumption by the optimal pattern of productive effort. It is easy to see that the effort needed to sustain a way of life which seeks to attain the optimal pattern of consumption is likely to be much smaller than the effort needed to sustain a drive for maximum consumption. We need not be surprised, therefore, that the pressure and strain of living is very much less in say, Burma, than it is in the United States, in spite of the fact that the amount of labour-saving machinery used in the former country is only a minute fraction of the amount used in the latter.
It’s a shift in the tone of the normal flow of the conversation. Things that solidly had one well-known meaning suddenly have an unsettling ambiguity. Now we ask not what we can do for the Network, but rather what the Network can do for us. For a brief moment, a slight crack is visible in the veneer of Network of bread and circuses. And no, it’s not the new new thing. It’s something else entirely. It starts by asking about who the economics of “free” really benefits.
This past week I attended the San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, the work is comprised of four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdamerung. They tell the story of the twilight of the gods. When presented as The Ring, the four operas are presented within a single week and the total running time of the work is about 17 hours. It’s a massive work consisting of 2,092 pages of orchestra music, and this production requires the participation of 415 people and 12 animals. Mounting a production of the Ring Cycle is one of the most challenging things an opera company can attempt. Generally, three full cycles are performed. When a company with the stature of San Francisco Opera performs The Ring, it draws an audience from around the world. This was my third Ring Cycle. The Ring is too vast to address fully in a blog post, so instead I’ve decided to just string together some notes, some moments that stood out to me this time through. This was an American Ring, the tale begins with the California gold rush and ends in the near future.
* * *
The characters and narrative of The Ring are loosely derived from Norse mythology. But as new productions are mounted through the years, The Ring attracts the major threads of modern thought. The unconscious, capital, class, gender, power, sexuality, and race have all surfaced in one production or another. In director Francesca Zambello’s American Ring, ecology and the interconnectedness of things provides the environment in which the story unfolds. Here the canvas of the story isn’t a neutral backdrop, it’s affected by the actions and decisions of the characters. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Timothy Morton, so the idea that The Ring should address the ecological thought seems completely natural.
Alberich steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens and forsaking love, he fashions it into a ring of power. Wielding that power, he begins a massive gold mining operation, delving deep into the earth, he turns the magic power of the ring into the material power of gold. The stage pictures bring to mind Sebastiao Salgado’s photographs of gold mining in Brazil. Meanwhile in the world of the gods, Wotan has flipped the structure of the gold mine upwards toward the heavens and created a Valhalla of skyscrapers. But like so many in the recent mortgage crises, he’s purchased a Valhalla that he can’t afford. In order to avoid default on the fortress of the gods, Wotan resorts to crime. He must steal the gold from the thief Alberich—a little money laundering to cover up the stains on the foundation of the godhead.
In Zambello’s Ring, the concentration and exercise of power drains the earth of its life. Power is drawn from the environment, but the earth isn’t an infinite resource. As the operas unfold, the environment has been turned into a standing reserve– a battery, or a gas tank, to power the regime. At the beginning of the third act of Gotterdamerung, the Rhinemaidens are destitute, collecting trash in big garbage bags as their river has been choked with the flotsam and jetsam of the industrial wasteland surrounding them. The struggle for the Ring taking place in the foreground is interrupted by the background of the story. The river would like its gold back.
At the end of the Ring Cycle, Brunhilde has understood that the Ring must be returned to the river and that this will mean the end of the gods. The music registers the cataclysm of the fall of Valhalla and the cleansing power of the river to wash the sins from our hands. The end of the Cycle points to an ending as beginning. One door closes and another opens. Zambello is an optimist, the return of the Ring represents the possibility of renewal. Throughout the story we’ve seen the earth’s finitude, the director’s gesture in the very last stage picture indicates the damage is not beyond repair.
* * *
The Ring Cycle is so large that there’s no vantage point from which to take it all in. Well before the first notes, the experience begins to engulf you. There’s a review of the motifs with Deryck Cooke. Listening to favorite recordings, trying to get the sequence of events in the story lined up. Thinking about the singers cast in various roles and whether they’ll be up to the daunting task ahead.
Believe me, nobody has every composed in this manner. I think my music must be frightening. It is a morass of horrors and sublimities.
—Wagner to Liszt, January 1854
Once the performance begins you’re well into the middle of it. The opera is broadcasting on all frequencies and flooding the senses. In this experience of the Ring Cycle, I had the distinct impression that the music continued between performances of the individual operas. While there aren’t hummable tunes in the Ring, the motifs of the music seemed to detach themselves from the opera and emerge from the America that exists outside of the opera.
Even after the final end, the music continues to play, the cycle begins again. Once inside, there may be no outside.
* * *
Several years ago, the San Francisco Opera commissioned a work by John Adams called ‘Doctor Atomic.’ It’s the story of the creation of the atom bomb. The director of the premiere was Peter Sellars. In a talk he gave about the opera, he noted that the stage of the War Memorial Opera House directly faces City Hall, the seat of power for local government. The relationship between the buildings provided an avenue for art to speak to government.
Perhaps we no longer think that art has anything useful to say to government. But the two buildings sit across from each other, waiting for the moment when the conversation begins to flow in both directions. Like ‘Doctor Atomic,’ the Ring Cycle had something to say to government.
* * *
The curtain came down after the final act of Gotterdamerung and applause erupted. Then the curtain rose for Nina Stemme, the Brunehilde of this Cycle. A solo bow, in acknowledgement of her achievement. The crowd leapt to its feet applauding, shouting, whistling, in a unanimous ovation. It was a thrilling moment.
And an unusual moment between the second and third acts as Donald Runnicles, the conductor, took his place. A spontaneous standing ovation for the orchestra. As a friend said during that intermission, “man, they’re just wailing.”?
* * *
Leafing through The Ring’s program, I noticed the names of the individual and corporate sponsors. Opera is an expensive business, and David Gockley, the general director of SF Opera, has made it clear that the company is in financial straights. The big donors to the opera are small in number and advanced in age. He openly wonders where the next generation of patrons will come from.
“In the late nineteenth century, as industrialization transformed the United States into a world power, artists and writers decried the nation’s meager collections of art. “I cannot tell you what I suffer for want of seeing a good picture,” Mary Cassatt complained from the confines of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, in June 1871. The twenty-seven year old artist had spent five years painting in Europe and longed to return. The novelist Henry James view the problem more broadly. Americans, he told his mother in 1869, seem to have “the elements of the modern man with with culture quite left out.” Ten years later, in writing about Hawthorne and famously listing the cultural assets missing from the United States in the early part of the century, James, who had himself decamped for England in the mid-1870s, conveyed his own sense of deprivation: “no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches, no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures.” Later, in 1906, when the British critic Roger Fry served as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he tallied the museum’s pictorial shortfall: “no Byzantine paintings, no Giotto, no Giottoesque, no Mantegna, no Botticelli, no Leonardo, no Rafael, no Michelangelo.”
The giants of industry, Henry Clay Frick, J. Pierpont Morgan, H.O. Havermeyer and Henry Gurdon Marquand, took an interest in redressing the imbalance of culture in the new world. The great fortunes amassed during this period were put into service for one of “history’s great migrations of art.”? It was an event that fundamentally changed the character of this country.
In this day and age, it’s something we take for granted. The museums are filled with pictures, the symphony hall with music, and the opera house with divas. Perhaps we think this high art is the province of the upper classes, the restricted playground for old money. It’s a living legacy and if the next generation doesn’t take it up, it could very easily disappear. The performing arts are in particular danger.
Donald Fisher, founder of The Gap, collected more than 1,000 contemporary paintings and eventually donated them to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But could it be that his is the last generation to have a real connection to the arts? The new generation of technology billionaires seems more interested in popular culture, sports and science. As I leafed through the program of the Ring Cycle, I didn’t see the names Google, Apple, Intel, Oracle, Cisco, Facebook or Microsoft. Rich technologist seem to prefer to put their money back into technology through venture capital investing.
I’m not sure what it would take to connect the Silicon Valley’s Techno-Elite to Opera. But if it were to happen the possibilities would be immense. San Francisco has a long history with opera. The gold rush of 1849 brought masses of people to Northern California. San Francisco’s first opera production was in 1851, Bellini’s ‘La Sonnambula.’ Morosco’s Grand Opera House held an audience of 4,000, including standees. A signal event in the rebirth of the City after the 1906 earthquake was the concert by the soprano Luisa Tettrazini in front of Lotta’s Fountain. It’s said that as many as 250,000 people attended. More recently the annual Opera in the Park and Opera in the Ballpark events draw enthusiastic crowds from all walks of life.
In the era of the 140-character communique it may seem counter-intuitive to yearn for the total theater of the opera, but opera performance actually delivers on what 3D HD movies promise. And strangely, at this moment in history with music, singers, musicians, technology and composers we could be at the cusp a of great new era of opera. Here are two examples of new operas that take up the current of our times. This Fall, San Francisco Opera will debut ‘Heart of a Soldier’ by Christopher Theofanidis, with libretto by Donna Di Novelli. It tells the story of Rick Rescorla, a man trained to be a consummate solider who gave up his life saving thousands during the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001.
And perhaps closer to the pulse of technology flowing through the Bay Area, the English National Opera recently debuted Nico Muhly’s ’Two Boys’ with libretto by Craig Lucas. Here’s a description from a Wall Street Journal review:
A prepubescent boy is stabbed, and a teenaged boy is caught leaving the scene on CCTV. But the middle-aged female detective in charge of the investigation, caught up in the intricacies of chat-rooms, user-names, apparent espionage and cybersex, comes to realize that she has to change her own mind-set if she is to understand the behavior of these children and the morality of the internet age.
We say that this technology we’re creating here in the Bay Area is changing everything. I wonder if we’ll every take it seriously enough to engage technology in a deep conversation with art and culture? The War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco could be the site of one of the great historical conversations about the times we live in. If only the right connections could be made…
Swiveling my flat screen television around and exposing the back side shows the physical limitations that currently define the new television networks. There used to be three major networks dominating the thirteen available VHF over-the-air transmission channels. The other channels were filled with snow and white noise. When the primary distribution method migrated from broadcast signal to coaxial cable, the boundaries defining a television network began to change.
When we turn the television wrong way round, we see the huge variety of potential connectors. A closer look reveals that many of them are vestigial appendages awaiting nostalgic connections from outmoded devices. It’s the HDMI connections that define the number high-definition inputs that can flow onto the big screen. Some sets have only two, but three, four and even 5 HDMI inputs are becoming much more common as the number of Networks competing for slots continues to grow. If the model of ‘three screens and a cloud’ still holds, television is evolving into the big screen, and the HDMI connector is the new channel selector.
The slots in my rig are claimed by Comcast’s high-definition cable and DVR device, a local DVD Player and an Apple TV2. The nostalgic connectors are taken by a rarely used VCR and a cable that takes input when attached to a Flip cam. I can easily imagine other households where a gaming console would claim a slot. Apple has taken a slot that might have been occupied by Google, Roku, Hulu or Microsoft. These are the players forming the new big screen networks. One would expect a fair amount of M&A activity in this area as the networks stabilize their positions.
Tracing the trajectory of these lines, one can speculate on the evolution of the big screen device. The growth of HDMI will start to crowd out the nostalgic connectors. Channel switching, at the HDMI network level, will turn into a primary capability of remote controls. Navigation within the networks will become customized and a point of competition. The concept of associating big screen programming with a numbered channel will begin to fade away.
Live and recorded programming will make up the two top level categories. Recorded programming will be findable through search and preference algorithms. Live programming will become visible through tracking a social message stream (listening for events) and appointment calendars. Some of the HDMI connected devices will start to migrate into the body of the big screens, these will be the dominant new networks.
We take the On/Off power switch on the big screen for granted. Turn the television off! I’ve turned into a couch potato, turn the damn thing off! At the other end of the spectrum—If you’re good, we’ll turn the television on for a few hours tonight. The power switch can turn the television into an inert piece of furniture. Soon the power switch won’t be a part of the remote control. Just as with desktop, tablet and mobile computing devices, the big screen will be always on—it will either be in an active, screensaver or sleep mode.
A key battle among the new networks will center on owning the period of time that the television used to be powered off. Screensavers will evolve to show weather, stock market data, sports scores, news photography and many other kinds of ambient information streams. The dormant big screen will always be ready and waiting for streams pushed to it from mobile and tablet devices via AirPlay. One can also easily imagine transferring personal video calls to the big screen for group participation. Push messages will also make their way to the big screen, perhaps to remind you that your favorite show is on in ten minutes or that the baseball team you root for just won their game with a two-out, two-strike hit in the ninth inning.
In the story of three, or now four screens, and a cloud, we tend to focus on the screens. After all it’s the screens that provide us with something to look at. But as these new networks begin to form, it may be instructive to turn the cloud the wrong way round and look at the wiring coming out of the back.
The cloud looks like a large factory. If we followed the wiring diagram from the big screen, out through the HDMI connector to the AppleTV device, over the WIFI (802.11n) signal to the home router, through the wires of the internet, in most cases we’d end up at one of these industrial cloud complexes. This is what the other end of the real-time network looks like.
The idea that Google and Facebook are somehow competing with one another in the datacenter space may sound odd at first, given that most people are used to thinking of Google somewhat vaguely as an ad-supported software company. But as we’re fond of pointing out, Google is essentially a maker of very capital-intensive, full-custom, warehouse-scale computers—a “hardware company,” if you will. It monetizes those datacenters by keeping as many users as possible connected to them, and by serving ads to those users. To make this strategy work, it has to hire lots of software people, who can write the Internet-scale apps (search, mainly) that keep users connected and viewing ads. Since the price of Google ads is set largely independently of Google’s cost of delivery, every dollar of efficiency that Google can wring out of one of these large computers is a dollar that goes to the bottom line. Facebook now finds itself in a similar business.
While Stokes’s topic is competition at the level of datacenters, he exposes the fundamentals of the network business model. Cloud factories are monetized by keeping as many users as possible connected to them and serving ads to those users. Each user click on an ad causes a dollar to flow through the system. A click that rents a recorded television show does the same thing.
The cloud exists to deliver popular internet-scale programming—it’s the distribution business. Just a lot of big factories nestled into the landscape, nothing much to see, it’s content that’s king. Keep your eyes on the screen. But as Stokes points out, it’s the job of “content” to keep the number of users connected to the datacenter growing so that clicks can be turned into dollars.
Once the industrial cloud complex is running at optimal capacity, the balance of power shifts. What was once a couple of kids putting on a show in the barn, or four mop tops singing love songs for teenagers, becomes big business. Really big business. It’s also the moment when the Internet business turns into show business. The dream factory is reborn. And the film and pop stars are still working for the studio—haven’t we seen this movie before?
It’s interesting to think of banks as walled gardens. For example, on the Network, we might call Facebook, or aspects of Apple or Microsoft, a walled garden. The original America Online was the classic example. While most of us prefer to have walls, of some sort, around our gardens; the term is generally used to criticize a company for denying users open access, a lack of data portability and for censorship (pulling weeds). However when we consider our finances, we prefer there be a secure wall and a strong hand in the cultivation and tending of the garden. Context is everything.
More generally, a walled garden refers to a closed or exclusive set of information services provided for users. This is in contrast to providing consumers open access to the applications and content.
The recent financial crisis has presented what appears to be an opportunity to attack the market share of the big banks. Trust in these institutions is lower than normal and the very thing that made them appealing, their size, is now a questionable asset. The bigness of a bank in some ways describes the size of their private Network. On the consumer side, it’s their physical footprint with branches, or stores as some like to call them, and the extension of that footprint through their proprietary ATM network plus affiliated ATM networks. On the institutional side, there’s a matching infrastructure that represents the arteries, veins and capillaries that circulate money and abstractions of money around the country. Network is the medium of distribution. Once the platform of a big bank’s private network is in place, they endeavor to deliver the widest possible variety of product and services through these pipes. Citibank led the way in the financial supermarket space, now all the major players describe themselves as diversified financial services firms.
Every so often, in the life of the Network, the question of centralized versus distributed financial services comes up. Rather than buying a bundle of services from a single financial services supermarket, we wonder whether it’s possible to assemble best of breed services through a single online front-end. This envisions financial services firms providing complete APIs to aggregators so they can provide more friendly user interfaces and better analytics. Intuit/Mint has been the most successful with this model. It’s interesting to note that since the financial supermarkets are generally built through acquisition, under the covers, their infrastructures and systems of record are completely incompatible. So while the sales materials tout synergy, the funds to actually integrate systems go begging. The financial services supermarket in practice is aggregated, not integrated.
We’re starting to see the community banks and credit unions get more aggressive in their advertising— using a variation on the “small is beautiful” theme. For consumers, the difference in products, services and reach has started to narrow. By leveraging the Network, the small financial institution can be both small and big at the same time. In pre-Network history, being simultaneously small and big violated the laws of physics. In the era of the Network, any two points on the planet can be connected in near real time as long as Network infrastructure is present. An individual can have an international footprint. Of course, being both big and big allows a financial institution to take larger risks because, theoretically at least, it can absorb larger loses. We may see legislation from Congress that collars risk and puts limitations on the unlimited relationship between size and risk.
The Network seems to continually present opportunities for disintermediation of the dominant players in the financial services industry. Ten years ago, account aggregation via the Network seemed to be on the verge. But the model was never able to overcome its usability problems, which at bottom are really internet identity problems. We’re beginning to see a new wave of companies sprouting up to test whether a virtual distribution network through the internet can supplant the private physical networks of the established players. SmartyPig, Square and BankSimple present different takes on disintermediating the standard way we route and hold the bits that represent our money.
Once any Network endpoint can be transformed into a secure transaction environment, the advantage of the private network will have been largely neutralized. And while it hasn’t solved account aggregation’s internet identity problem yet, the mobile network device (some call it a telephone) has significantly changed the identity and network landscape. The walls around the garden represent security and engender trust. The traditional architecture of bank buildings reflect this concept. But the walled garden metaphor is built on top of the idea of carving out a private enclave from physical space. The latest round of disintermediation posits the idea that there’s a business in creating ad hoc secure transaction connections between any two Network endpoints. In this model, security and trust are earned by guaranteeing the transaction wherever it occurs.
There have always been alternative economies, transactions that occur outside of the walled gardens. In the world of leading-edge technology, we tend to look for disruption to break out in the rarefied enclaves of the early adopter. But when the margins of the urban environment grow larger than the traditional center, there’s a good chance that it’s in the improvisational economies of the favelas, shanty towns and slums that these new disruptive financial services will take root.
The voices from a certain segment of the developer classes cry out that the iPad has left out too much. That the simplicity of the device has cut them off from the toolsets with which they’ve become comfortable and productive. There’s no keyboard, no mouse, no windows, no multitasking, no hierarchical file system. Perhaps they state the obvious when they say it’s not the laptop they already have. The device, they say, is too simple to be useful. The computing environment is too vertical. Somehow this crowd imagines a linear incremental evolutionary development from personal computing as they’ve always known it to a simple tablet device. A simple device that includes all the complexity and clutter to which they’ve become accustomed. Of course we know the fate of the complex tablet device they’re describing— it never caught on. That wasn’t what they wanted either.
There’s another segment that says that this new iPad device won’t inspire the tinkerer, the maker. The person who, as a child growing up, reveled in taking apart things to see how they worked. There are no screws to let the user open up this device and have a peak inside. The device is both too simple and too complex. The integrated design and manufacture of the product is at such a high level that there’s not much for the tinkerer to play with. This crowd believes the iPad kills play. But tinkering and play is always a relative matter. With the iPad, tinkering is simply displaced— it moves up the stack to the level of web/cloud and native software. Tinkerers, if they are tinkerers, are not so easily dissuaded.
A third segment thinks that the iPad will re-incarcerate the audience. Social media and various crowd-sourced content sites have transformed the audience from passive observers to active participants. But, the iPad is deemed an evolutionary step backward, an evil plan by the incumbent media companies to preserve their dastardly business models. The device, they say, is purely for consumption of media— it’s a screen, much like a television. Because it lacks the traditional input tools, the keyboard and the mouse, it can’t and won’t enable the user to interact or create. Multi-touch is a gesture of consumption, not one of creation. Those making this argument defend the “new media of the internet” from the next generation of innovators and the kids who’ll learn to type on glass.
In each of these cases there’s a defense of an inconvenient complexity. The complexity must be preserved to extend the stability of the existing ecosystem. There’s even a moral edge to maintaining the status quo, as if embracing this new platform was a kind of degenerate act. And instead of the device that’s available today, a non-existent device of the future is peddled in its place. A device where choices don’t have to be made, where everything you want, everything you have, and everything you can imagine exist in a simple package. Of course, if you wait long enough, the thing you’re looking for might just come along. Either that or you’ll run out of heartbeats.
In the end, what the simplicity of the iPad allows is more participation by more people with real-time personal and social networked computing. By eliminating levels of complexity, the barriers to practical and emotional engagement with the device are reduced below a significant threshold. But we’re only in the year zero, as the platform expands and matures, as competitors flesh out variations of the theme, new levels of complexity will emerge.
In a recent post, Clay Shirky talks about The Collapse of Complex Business Models. In essence, the idea is that in the television business, you were able to support a high cost structure and complex production environment through massive distribution of the product through specialized video broadcasting services. While not sufficient, it was necessary to produce a high-quality product to achieve mass distribution, consumption and profit margins. Shirky’s point is that the same itch is now being scratched by non-commercial, low-quality product that also achieves mass-distribution over the Network. The question television executives face is: how do we compete with that?
This is reminiscent of the moment when the Coca-Cola corporation discovered that it wasn’t just competing with the Pepsi-Cola corporation for dominance of the cola-flavored beverage market, or the soda market in general. They were competing against water. Television executives are looking for their version of Coca-Cola’s Dasani— a bottled water product that delivers similar margins to their soft drinks. Although the attempt roll Dasani into the European markets exposed what most people already knew. Water was readily available from their taps as a utility.
Shirky’s focus is on the moment when complexity, and adding more complexity/quality to the mix, no longer delivers a positive revenue margin over expenses. And unlike the banks that make up our financial system, the big media corporations are not perceived as too big to fail. As the business models of the media giants are hollowed out, change will come. At the end of his post, Shirky makes some predictions:
When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.
While measuring the value of complexity in the equation of a business model may be one signal of an institution’s chances in the ongoing transformation of the media ecosystem, there’s an older Shirky post that should be brought into this context. The post is called “Gin, Television and Social Surplus.” In this post, he contemplates the 200 billion hours spent watching television each year in the United States. Should that energy be refocused in another direction, what might it unleash?
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.
When I linked these two ideas together, a changing media/technology ecosystem and a large cognitive surplus, and third pattern emerged that provided a distressing context. It’s interesting that when speaking of media and business models, we look blithely on at the destruction and upheaval occurring. We zero in on the inflexibility of institutions, the fact that they can’t adapt to change as the sad, but predictable, cause of their extinction. When Shirky adds together a socialized Network and a large cognitive surplus he comes up with experiments that ultimately are integrated into society and transform it. There’s a beautiful optimism implied there, one that imagines peaceful progress mimicking the periodic updates of web-based software over the Network.
The distressing context that emerged was that the contours of what Shirky describes begins to resemble the historical period before World War I. We’re living through an era of accelerating change in technology, communications, media, manufacturing and politics. The ecosystem of the dominant broadcast media is evolving into something else, and potentially unleashing billions of hours of human energy. In the forward to her book “The Proud Tower,” Barbara Tuchman writes:
The period of this book was above all the culmination of a century of the most accelerated rate of change in man’s record. Since the last explosion of a generalized belligerent will in the Napoleonic wars, the industrial and scientific revolutions had transformed the world. Man had entered the Nineteenth Century using only his own and animal power, supplemented by that of wind and water, much as he had entered the Thirteenth, or, for that matter, the First. He entered the Twentieth with his capacities in transportation, communication, production, manufacture and weaponry multiplied a thousandfold by the energy of machines. Industrial society gave man new powers and new scope while at the same time building up new pressures in prosperity and poverty, in growth of population and crowding in cities, in antagonisms of classes and groups, in separation from nature and from satisfaction in individual work.
and a little later:
…society at the turn of the century was not so much decaying as bursting with the new tensions and accumulated energies. Stefan Zweig who was thirty-three in 1914 believed that the outbreak of the war “had nothing to do with ideas and hardly even with frontiers. I cannot explain it otherwise than by this surplus force, a tragic consequence of the internal dynamism that had accumulated in forty years of peace and now sought violent release.”
While it’s unlikely that there will be a note-for-note replay of the fin de siècle era, there is a significant risk that what was multiplied a thousandfold by the energy of machines, will be multiplied by orders of magnitude and distributed to millions of nodes across the Network. The question we might ask is whether we have a strong enough central agreement about morality and civilization to curb our darker instincts. Can the center hold?