Non-Human High Fidelity: I Want to Take you Higher
Resolved: it’s an article of faith that higher resolutions are better. I want to take you higher. The way to get a higher resolution is to start with the density of pixels or the sampling rate. Sound and vision. The more information packed into each unit of measure, the higher the resolution of the image. Clarity and “realistic-ness” are the qualities we attribute to high resolution images. The image was so clear, it was just like the real thing. I couldn’t tell the difference. Was that live or a recording?
McLuhan talked about hot and cool media. Hot media is high definition in the sense that the viewer can’t get a word in edgewise. The media, and its content, is projected toward the senses filling up all the space, there is little or no room for the viewer to fill in the gaps. The interpretive faculties are overwhelmed and retreat. Cool media leaves spaces for the viewer to project herself into the stream. When the viewer fills in the gaps a different kind of richness, or density, is created. Each strategy absorbs the viewer in a different way.
“Big Data” is another form of high definition. More data points, bigger sample sizes bring more statistical clarity. Meta-figures emerge from Big Data that aren’t available from the perspective of the civilian on the ground. These meta-figures provide probabilities of future outcomes and are reliable to such an extent that corporate strategies are based on them. In the light of high def big data your future possibility space has become both visible and has had probabilities assigned to each vector.
There are two uncanny moments when it comes to the experience of high def. The first is the well-known idea of the uncanny valley. That’s the creepy feeling we get when a simulation of a person is just a little off, just short of perfection. We are both attracted and repelled, the experience is close enough to the real that we’d could be easily sucked in. But we’re creeped out by the idea of being sucked into a simulation — in the sense that it isn’t alive and real, but an illusion of life created out of dead matter.
The second uncanny moment is more subtle. When Steve Jobs was standing on stage selling the benefits of high-definition retina screens, he made the argument that these new screens matched the capability of the human eye to perceive visual data. For humans, the retina screen is the finest viewing experience available. This also happens with audio recordings. When designing codecs and compression strategies, the science of the human ear and the process of hearing is taken into account. The idea behind MP3 compression is to remove the sound that is unhearable by humans resulting in a smaller file size. What you don’t hear, you won’t miss.
This means that as we move toward higher and higher resolutions we reach the end of the capabilities of our perceptual apparatus. Our senses begin to fail us. We keep adding visual information to the picture, but the picture doesn’t change. All the instruments agree that the resolution is getting better. The unaided eye and ear face the uncanny moment when invisible change begins to occur. The picture gets better and better, but for whom is it getting better?
It’s in the world of recorded audio that we see the most passion when it comes to the ability to hear beyond the capacity of humans to hear. Audiophiles purchase stereo equipment and special recordings that reproduce both hearable and unhearable sound. It’s an invisible material difference that’s measurable, yet imperceptible. This non-human form of high-fidelity recording technology no longer uses humans as a reference point. Audiophiles claim that humans can hear the difference and to settle for less is a moral failing in the commercial market for audio recordings.
On the road to higher definition visuals, the state of the art appears to be High Frame Rate 3-D. Peter Jackson released a version of his film of “The Hobbit” in the highest-definition visual recording technology yet created. The purpose of this technology is to get even closer to reality — to show how it really is with seeing. At 48 frames per second, HFR is well within the upper bound of 55 fps for human seeing. So at this point, there is no unseeable information in the image.
In comparisons between the HFR 3D and standard 2D versions of the film we get an object lesson in McLuhan’s hot and cool media. Many viewers coming to the film for the first time had trouble following the details of the story in HFR 3D. Peter Jackson, who knows the story on a frame-by-frame basis, prefers to watch the HFR 3D version. Jackson believes the HFR 3D version provides a more “immersive” experience. For an average audience member, the HFR 3D version leaves no gaps. For the director there are plenty of gaps between what’s on the screen and how he imagined the film.
As our technologies are able to provide higher and higher resolution reproductions to our senses our own finitude is exposed. Historically resolution has been limited by cost. Higher resolution cost more and therefore wasn’t widely used. As cost becomes less of an issue, aesthetic judgement moves to the foreground. If you make your home movies in HFR 3D will that preserve a record of how it really was? Is it live or is it Memorex?
The digital, they say, has a cost that approaches zero. Once the digital copying mechanism becomes a sunk cost, the cost per copy asymptotically swoops toward zero. This does a strange thing to value and price. The ink-on-paper media has had to come to terms with the fact that the Network is a vastly less expensive surface on which to inscribe their messages. The digital, in its short history, has yet to find its own level. It’s largely been priced as a discount to its analog counterpart. The news media is starting to understand that its identity lies in the ink rather than the paper.
The digital media can only feed on the corpse of the analog media for so long. We seem to have finally arrived at the point where digital media is beginning to establish its value, and therefore its price. Paywalls are starting to work, some digital editions are starting generate significant advertising revenue, and independent blogs are able to survive by subscription. We pay, not for more, but for less. Fewer things, better quality.
The banks of the river of news have overflowed, the medium has overheated and begun a McLuhanesque reversal. No one wants ‘all the news’. At a certain level of quantity the news can no longer be consumed and processed, it just flows through at the level of headlines. Marshal McLuhan noticed that information overload forces the information consumer into mode of pattern recognition. We now try to employ machines to process the torrent and pick out the patterns for us. But now even this pattern recognition mode has overheated. This happens the moment we aren’t satisfied by knowing something ‘like’ the news, but have no familiarity with the actual news itself. We’ve arrived at the uncanny valley of news.
In the era of so-called ‘Big Data’ even your Network identity is a pattern. You aren’t you, you’re someone ‘like’ you. The formula breaks when the pattern no longer predicts the future. The non-conformist breaks into the conversation and says just doing what the pattern predicts is behaving like a machine—and that’s boring. Take a look at this instead…
Woody Allen once observed that “ninety percent of life is just showing up.” But in 1948, Bing Crosby convinced the ABC radio network that “showing up” wasn’t actually necessary. That was the year he launched the first pre-recorded weekly radio broadcast. The previous year he’d made the same request of NBC, but they’d refused. For NBC, by definition radio programming was live with the exception of a few commercials.
The new ABC network, formed out of the sale of the old NBC Blue network in 1943 to Edward Noble, the “Lifesaver King,” was willing to break the tradition. It would pay Crosby $30,000 per week to produce a recorded show every Wednesday sponsored by Philco. He would also get $40,000 from 400 independent stations for the rights to broadcast the 60-minute show that was sent to them every Monday on three 16-inch aluminum discs that played 10 minutes per side at 33-1/3 rpm.
Eventually Crosby buys the first two Ampex 200A tape recorders, serial #1 and #2, to record his show. This allows him to control microphone placement and do multiple takes to get the best performance possible. As a film actor, Crosby had been used to this kind of production process. After hearing the tape of Crosby’s demo, ABC ordered 12 of the Ampex recorders and that was the beginning of the end of the broadcast of live radio programming.
By not showing up and instead creating the first pre-recorded radio broadcast, Bing Crosby set the pattern for all modern “broadcast” media. (He also pioneered microphone technique for vocalists.) Perhaps it never occurred to anyone that the audience would one day assert the same privilege that Crosby did in 1948. We are all Bing Crosby now, and there’s very little that we need to actually show up for in the world of broadcast media.
Now there’s only sports and news programming enveloping the earth in a new real-time synchronization of time that knows neither day nor night. As Richard Nixon sings in John Adams’s opera Nixon in China: “News has a kind of mystery.”
The heads of programming at the Networks used to decide when a particular recording would be played over their syndicate of local stations. Now that power rests with the audience. What’s “new” is what’s new to you; and the quality of material in the vast library of pre-recorded media far outstrips whatever is being presented live in real time right now. Like Crosby, we the audience, don’t bother showing up for the broadcast. We’ll choose the time and place for the performance to occur.
Time present is the sequencing of the recordings of time past. Time future is what is yet to be recorded, an appointment for our DVRs. If all time is pre-recorded, all time is unredeemable. Nothing need be missed, there is no possibility of that. Everything is just a matter of priority in the great queue of items awaiting our future consumption.
When we mortals are presented with seemingly infinite banquets aimed at our appetites, the discussion quickly turns to the seven deadly sins; and in particular, gluttony. While we can now consume anything at anytime and practically any place— what is it that we should be consuming? What asserts control over our potentially infinite appetites? Is it the rational “I” who decides while basking in the luxury of its individual freedom? Does our access to the infinite buffet transform us into a mature adult who can keep, not only its ego, but its id in check? Or do we end up joining the rest of the gluttons in Dante’s third circle of the inferno?
And as we more fully become Bing Crosby, do we engage over our real-time social networks by playing pre-recorded snippets for the purpose of constructing an ideal projection of ourselves as the narrator of our lives? Walter Benjamin regrets our loss of the “aura” in a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Are these new networks we’ve constructed even capable of transmitting “aura” across their tangle of wires? And if they are, are we capable of telling the difference? Through the recording arts, Crosby was able to create a technically better performance. He accomplished this through deferring the moment of transmission. The message is worked and re-worked at a distance from the performance date. The medium itself has deferral and distance built into it. As an audience we now re-wire broadcasting to take advantage of these qualities.
What Crosby removes from the encounter is the element of chance, the possibility that something unexpected could happen. Crosby pre-rolls the dice and presents the best outcomes for your enjoyment. There’s a presupposition in this approach that enjoyment is increased when all error is absent and the moments of spontaneity are pre-auditioned and arrives with the appropriate imprimatur. What we miss is the moment when the wrong note suddenly becomes right. Herbie Hancock describes such a moment while playing with Miles Davis:
“And just as Miles was about to start his solo for ‘So What,’ at the peak of the concert, I hit a note that was so wrong I thought I had crumbled the show down like a falling tent,” he recalled.
“And Miles took a breath, and played some notes that made my note right. It took me years to understand that Miles didn’t judge what I played. He worked with it. That lesson wasn’t just about music. It was about life.”
Bing changed our relationship with time. And while it may seem like we’ll manage to avoid error and present a photoshopped version of ourselves to the world, we simply encode our errors at another level. The unexpected unexpected emerges despite the best laid plans.
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.
A few year-end thoughts about the Network have been rattling around my skull. This is probably a continuation of the exploration of the ‘finite shapes of growth.’ The real-time social messaging space seems to have reached a saturation point, and therefore the upper end of the sigmoidal growth curve. The big single-index real-time systems have exerted their dominance and are largely engaged in enabling features that increase the density of connections within the territory they’ve already marked out. The second-tier systems will struggle and many will fall to the wayside. A few will stand waiting in the wings for the possible moment when a first-tier player stumbles.
After walking around the block several times, pulling on all the doors, trying to find a way into this exploration, I ended up with the word: “medium.” Medium, as in the physical channel through which messages are passed; and medium as in a culture medium used to grow micro-organisms or cells. Medium can also be understood as the time/space aspect of an object, its identity/variability. When we consider ‘big data’ on the Network, we seem to be talking about creating and maintaining a medium where higher-level statistical objects can be grown. These meta-patterns are made visible through feats of data collection and statistical computation. It’s analogous to cataloging weather events and other data to model climate change. “Climate” as a dynamic entity only becomes visible through the deployment of a large network of sensors hooked up to computers updating a model in real time. Weather is visible as the raindrops that keep falling on your head, climate is visible only through a complex computational sensing system to which only a few people have access.
The business model of harvesting these higher-level patterns has generally involved slicing up the data into the groups of people who create these patterns. Lists of these target audiences are rented to commercial interests, and recently so is the messaging apparatus and the communications medium. A well-targeted message should show increased effectiveness in confirmed delivery and lead to net positive transactions. If you think about it, all of these new real-time social media companies are in the television business. Television is transformed into a container that holds a message stream of condensed multiple media types on the Network. This medium is designed to grow various audiences (meta-patterns) to harvest and take to market. Once a certain scale is achieved this set up becomes a cash machine. The energy to grow the crop is largely supplied by the participants using the system. The users of the system gain access to a simple real-time content management system along with a flat view of a subscription stream. The valuable patterns are reserved for exploitation by the owners of the system.
When you look at the imposition of the real-time social media model on to the corporate enterprise, you’ll see the same model. The valuable patterns are reserved for management. The corporate enterprise will spend a lot of money attempting to absorb this new model of television in the coming year. It will allow each corporation to become its own media company. It should be noted that a person is not ‘social’ when using corporate social media behind a firewall. An employee is a human resource to be profitably deployed, not a person. The idea isn’t to empower people, it’s to provide data to management. The pattern data belongs to the central management structure and it will be used to create and refine the workings of a well-oiled machine–of which the employee will be a replaceable part. The entire benefit accrues to the survival, growth and sustainability of the corporation, not to the individual person. Can you imagine a social media revolution within a corporation that drives the current C-level executives from power? The power structure within the corporate enterprise will use the system to maintain and refine their power, all the while, selling the use of the system as a democratization. For instance, it’s unlikely that unions would be allowed to use a real-time corporate social media system to organize workers and collect violations of work rules.
If the single central-index model has reached a saturation point, does that mean the Network has reached maturity and an end to its growth phase? The Network can accommodate other models and I expect we’ll see some rapid experimentation over the next few years. The key to these new models will involve pushing valuable meta-data patterns to the endpoints of the Network. Simple examples include mobile applications that function as commuter traffic data collectives. Members contribute reports of their own traffic data to a pool and in exchange they received a general picture of traffic conditions. This is similar to the dynamic of reporting weather data and receiving compiled climate reports in return. The key difference is that when data is contributed, access to meta-data patterns is guaranteed.
Clay Shirky uncovered a vast resource when he wrote about cognitive surplus. We can easily ask what might be accomplished should all those hours of passive television viewing be turned into two-way networked interactions. In a sense, this is the rediscovery of the Network as a commons. Not as a common natural resource for each to exploit, but as a common resource built by all the participants. Another untapped resource was uncovered by John Thackara in his book “In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World.” In our consumer society it’s a point of honor to keep up with the Jones’s. We each buy our own industrially-produced copy of the latest prescribed set of consumer objects. We accumulate and store them as quickly as we can. But as Thackara notes, we purchase and store, accumulating social capital. We are known as the kind of person who can, and did, buy that particular thing. We rarely use what we buy, its use-value remains untapped—it sits passively in the garage or the hall closet. eBay and Craigslist have emerged as the markets where this passive value is converted back into capital. Here’s Thackara on the eco-economics of the power tool:
Power tools are another example. The average consumer power tool is used for ten minutes in its entire life—but it takes hundreds of times its own weight to manufacture such an object. Why own one, if I can get ahold of one when I need it? A ‘product-service system’ provides me with access to the products, tools, opportunities, and capabilities I need to get the job done—namely, power tools for to use, but not own.
Service design is about arranging things so that people who need things done are connected to other people and equipment that get things done—on an as- and when-needed basis. The technical term, which comes from the logistics industry, is “dynamic resource allocation in real time.” Agricultural cooperatives that purchase tractors and sell their use-time to associates are well-known examples, but once one starts looking, examples spring up everywhere: a home delivery service for detergents in Italy, a mobile laboratory for industrial users of lubricants in Germany, dozens of car-sharing schemes, an organic vegetable subscription system in Holland. Industrial ecologists Francois Jegou and Ezio Manzini found enough examples to fill a book, ‘Sustainable Everyday: A Catalogue of Promising Solutions’, which is filled with novel daily life services that they discovered around the world. These are ‘planning activities whose objective is a system,’ Manzini told me. Hundreds of services suitable for a resource-limited, complex, and fluid world are being developed by grassroots innovators: those that enable people to take care of other people, work, study, move around, find food, eat, and share equipment.
Local systems that enable dynamic resource allocation in real time of local resources, which includes both data patterns and physical resources, would allow a kind of optimization of value by ordinary people that has previously been reserved for the corporation. Some nascent examples of this include, Phil Windley’sKynetx network scripting platform. Windley talks about a Kynetx script that runs on his browser while looking at the Amazon site. The script instantly tells him whether the book he’s looking at is available in his local library. One can easily imagine a similar scenario involving power tools or other kinds of durable resources. Mobile computing expands the purview of this kind of scripting from web pages on the Network to objects in the real world. This is sometimes called the internet of things. It’s not the point of connection, but rather the advent of scriptability that makes these things creatures of the Network.
Another example is Jon Udell’sElm City Project — a project to create networked data hubs and librarians of announcements of local community events. Solving the problem of translating and integrating the various methods in which calendar data is recorded is transformed into the production of a meta-data object that provides a wide view of the public events occurring in a locality. We don’t yet know the effect increased visibility of public events will have on a citizenry, but providing a higher-level view of the event life of a community feels like an entirely democratic endeavor. In times of peace and prosperity, an effort like this is non-controversial. In times of political strife, it attains the status of a public square and its commitment to openness will be tested.
While the shared resource of a power tool seems like a simple thing, it implies some very complex social group dynamics. It’s only with the rise of the sociality of the Network along with the politics of the 99% that we may have the ground for learning how to share a larger set of resources with more diverse groups. David Graeber, in his book, “Debt“, describes what he calls baseline communism. By this he means the understanding that unless people consider themselves to be enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply. Here’s Graeber:
Baseline communism might be considered the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace. Still, in most circumstances, that minimal baseline is not enough. One always behaves in a spirit of solidarity more with some people than with others, and certain institutions are specifically based on principles of solidarity and mutual aid. First among these are those we love, with mothers being the paradigm of selfless love. Others include close relatives, wives and husbands, lovers, one’s closest friends. These are the people with whom we share everything, or at least to whom we know we can turn in need, which is the definition of a true friend everywhere. Such friendships may be formalized by a ritual as “bond-friends” or “blood brothers” who cannot refuse each other anything. As a result, any community could be seen as criss-crossed with relations of “individualistic communism,” one-to-one relations that operate, to varying intensities and degrees, on the basis of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”
This same logic can be, and is, extended within groups: not only cooperative work groups, but almost any in-group will define itself by creating its own sort of baseline communism. There will be certain things shared or made freely available within the group, others that anyone will be expected to provide for other members on request, that one would never share with or provide to outsiders: help in repairing one’s nets in an association of fisherman, stationery supplies in an office, certain sorts of information among commodity traders, and so forth. Also, certain categories of people we can always call on in certain situations, such as harvesting or moving house. Once could go on from here to various forms of sharing, pooling, who gets to call on whom for help with certain tasks: moving, or harvesting, or even, if one is in trouble, providing an interest-free loan. Finally, there are the different sorts of “commons,” the collective administration of common resource.
The sociology of everyday communism is a potentially enormous field, but one which, owing to our peculiar ideological blinkers, we have been unable to write about because we have been largely unable to see it.
While networked computational tools can assist us in expanding the scope and breadth of the sharing we do with groups and individuals, it’s our ability to navigate the new social customs and ceremonies of the Network that will determine how far all this spreads. It’s a counter-cultural idea, instead of placing the highest value on independence and individuality, it takes us down the path of interdependence and coexistence. And this brings us back to this idea of a growth medium. As the old year ends, and the new one begins, I’m imagining an as yet unpublished Whole Earth Catalog filled with tools and perspectives on how we might grow this new crop in the fields of the Network. It’s a thing that “is” what it describes.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
There’s some slang in the CB radio world, when you want to know if someone is listening, you ask if they have their ears on. As in, “How ’bout ya JB, got ya ears on?” For some reason this is the phrase that popped into my head when thinking about the possibility of an Apple-designed television set. In earlier thoughts about the future of television, my focus settled on HDMI inputs and clumsy switching between these inputs. In essence, the HDMI input becomes the inheritor of the idea of the channel.
When you look at the inputs and outputs of the big screen, the game is to dominate the primary input. Your cable or satellite programming provider doesn’t want you to ever switch to another HDMI input. If you can be that dominant, your external boxes can commandeer the control experience from the television itself. Anyone who’s hooked up a television to a cable systems has had the experience of being presented with two mutually exclusive proprietary control systems. This is the reason you can have 3 or 4 remote controls sitting on your coffee table. Each HDMI input has a separate control system and listens for control events with a separate set of ears.
Customer satisfaction surveys are a great friend to Apple. This is because customer satisfaction is usually just an accommodation to work-arounds. We’ve grown used to the way the television “works.” The work-around is the way it works, and after a while we don’t even notice the strangeness of it. And when we get that call, interrupting our dinner, asking us whether we’re happy with our television set up, we say, “sure, it’s great.” Of course, the reality is it’s a horrible mess we’ve aclimated ourselves to.
So let’s get back to that CB radio reference. Do you have your ears on? The problem with television sets is they don’t have their ears on. Or rather they’ve been trained to only listen to a single voice at a time. As a user of iOS devices, I’d like to be able to send programming to the big screen at any time via AirPlay. As things stand I can only do that when AppleTV2 is the designated input. An Apple-designed television would always be listening for AirPlay events.
As YouTube gets ready to launch a bunch of channels, I can’t help but think that “the channel” has reached the limit of its usefulness. When I ask Siri whether it’s going to snow today, I don’t need to switch the input to the Weather Channel to get an answer. When I ask my iTV whether there’s a Val Lewton movie on, I don’t want to have to know what channel it’s on. I want Siri to take care of searching my subscriptions and report back on what my options are. The effect of this would be to return control of the television to the television itself.
As things stand, Siri would have a limited domain of television programming services to search through. Although this isn’t too different from the current situation with the iPhone 4s. Eventually all television services will migrate toward television over IP. It’s happened in all other mass media, television will be no different. Even your DVR will just save pointers to stream locations in the cloud.
In an interview, Steve Jobs once said that these waves of technological innovation are slow and unfold over many years. The trick is to pick the right wave and position yourself to benefit from the natural current. We can easily say that today, Siri isn’t good enough (in the sense of an innovator’s dilemma). But it’s perfectly positioned to grow and benefit from a huge wave of cloud-based data/identity services. It’ll work the same way with iTV.
If you strip away all of the surface distractions and zoom in on the computing environment using your microscopic vision, you see bits moving back and forth across a wire. If you zoom back out to the macro level, you can see Hewlett Packard and Google making radical changes in strategy and multi-billion dollar bets on how the preponderance of those bits will travel.
Now step into the time machine and move back a few years. The personal computer has just become the business computer. Most of the bits are written and retrieved from local hard drives in the form of files. Files are moved via sneaker-net. Move forward a few years and files are moved over local networks and individual computers are linked together within a single location. Shared files find their way to file servers and now allow multiple users to access and add work product to these common-use files.
Concurrently, the message finds an electronic home in email. Initially email messages can only be transmitted within specific platforms. You need to be on the same network as the people you want to communicate with. Fast forward a few years and email is sent with a common protocol and the networks become a network of networks. Now you only need to know the name of the endpoint to send a message to anyone.
The growth vector of the file’s environment is the size of the hard disk. Larger hard disks in the computing device and on the local network define capacity. As time passes and more files accumulate, they require even more disk space. As computing power increases, file sizes increase as well. As more and more things are digitized, more kinds of things are stored on hard drives in digital form.
The personal computer connects to a local area network, a wide area network and a global network to create a new entity called the Network. Both message traffic and file creation are initiated through the personal computer and start to be pointed at the Network. As the speed of the Network increases, the length of the wire that file bits can workably traverse becomes global in nature. It’s at this point that the message and the file begin to converge. The functionality of the personal computer as a file processing machine begins to be sucked down the wire and reconstituted into the virtual space of the Network. Both the file and computing processes are remote controlled through a set of messages sent back and forth across the wires.
The technology dynasties that were built up around these different ways of treating bits have large investments in both the technical infrastructure and mental models of either files or messages. The roots of these patterns go deep into the corporate structures of these organizations. With the recent moves by HP and Google, we can see the can see that the message and messaging network infrastructure has finally tipped the balance away from the file. The file has become another kind of message for a signaling device pointed at a cloud messaging network. Google attempts to reach across from the cloud to gain a foothold on the device side. HP recognizes that rather than going from personal computer to signaling device, the move from personal computer to custom central computing platforms is a better fit.
It’s worth noting that the message infrastructure has backed off of its most radical formulation and returned to the competing large network platform environment. In the email messaging environment there was an impetus and energy to connect the disparate systems and endpoints so that any two endpoints could connect. The connections between the new era large messaging platforms are purely one-way, instead of the more common “read-only” capability, this is a “write-only” hook up. One has a sense of retreating from a democratic network back to a feudal system of large kingdoms.
There’s a maxim in investing that you should buy at the moment of maximum pessimism. The file, it seems, is on the ropes. The message, messaging networks and signaling devices seem to be firmly in control of the corporate agenda. That’s why it’s interesting that Apple, with its iCloud initiative, is investing in redefining the user’s relationship with the file. The file becomes non-local, it doesn’t travel across the wire, it’s simply wherever it’s needed. Or, at least, it appears that way. All the mechanics of syncing, versioning, reading and writing have been removed from the workflow. The creation device, the file and the file network may be perfectly ripe for rejuvenation as our obsession with the message reaches its peak.
In his 1979 essay “The Studio as Compositional Tool“, Brian Eno works through the set of technical innovations that resulted in the odd occurrence of person who didn’t play any musical instrument particularly well, didn’t read or write music, nonetheless ending up as a composer. Eno lacked all the traditional tools of the trade. It was only when sound was mediated through recording that it became a plastic material that could be manipulated into song-like structures.
Here’s Eno on the transition from transmission to translation:
So, to tape recording: till about the late ’40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a “more faithful” transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone – like device. The accent was on the performance, and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that, through the cylinder and wax disc recording stages, until tape became the medium by which people were recording things.
The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t. It’s hard to do anything very interesting with a disc – all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can’t actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.
When we talk about a “more faithful” recording, the word “fidelity” enters the conversation. Fidelity is the quality of being loyal or faithful. Originally, it had the sense of taking an oath, as in swearing fealty to a monarch. Fidelity also has the sense of honoring oaths with regard to a spouse. A high-fidelity recording transports the original performance transparently—it is as though you are there. Poor fidelity dishonors the performance by leaving pieces of it behind or adding in artifacts that weren’t a part of the original. If we are a lover of a particular piece of music, we might charge a bad recording with infidelity.
In Eno’s recording studio, sounds become plastic. It’s only when a sound has been transformed into something that can itself be transformed that it becomes useful for constructing music. And this is the point where the sound no longer has fidelity to its source. The sound is only interesting to the extent of its potential infidelity. Transferring sound into a transformable recording media used to require a professional technical process. With digital recording, sound is directly sampled and encoded into a plastic media.
“I’d rather talk about the Plastic Eno Band, actually. It’s been in existence for a couple of years now. Over the past six years I’ve accumulated over 14 plastic musical instruments with a very wide gamut of sounds. And I’ve found that by slowing them down or speeding them up on tape, I can imitate any electric sound. With this in mind, I want to make a straight-forward rock record and then appear on ‘Top Of The Pops’ with a bunch of liggers playing these things. It would be an experiment in concrete music really as well as being an encouragement to all these kids who can’t afford their Vox amplifiers. There are so many things I want to do that will lose me so much money. . .”
As all media are slowly replaced with their digital equivalents, this shaky relationship with fidelity is true of more than just sound. Think about the camera and photography. How do we capture a scene with a camera? We see a moment we’d like to commemorate and we take aim with our camera. The flash from the camera floods the scene with enough light to get a good exposure. Here the process of recording essentially alters the source in the pursuit of fidelity. A skilled photographer may be able to light a scene for the camera such that when it’s processed, the photograph resembles the scene as it might have unfolded had no photograph been taken.
In the iPhone, the camera itself becomes a computerized photo studio and a compositional tool, in Eno’s sense. The photo itself is just the digital material that can be transformed with a set of filters. We don’t expect the snapshot to capture the mood; like the professional, we’ll fix it in post-production. We quickly apply a set of filters that more appropriately capture the mood of the scene and then flick the digital file into the stream of Twitter or Instagram. Is it the infidelity of the digital that enables another sort of fidelity? Or are we simply projecting the kind of scene we’d like others to imagine us playing a role within.
When we consider the picture being constructed of us through the data exhaust we emit in our online activities and our encounters with electronic and surveillance systems—does it make sense to talk about the fidelity, the truth, of the picture? Is the picture any more true because it’s constructed of largely unconscious digital moments? Is the ‘candid’ photo taken through a telephoto lens by a paparazzi of a movie star in their everyday life more true than the ‘glamour’ photograph constructed to create an image? When you apply for a job, do you present the candid or the glamour resume? How about applying for a loan at the bank, do you walk in the door with your candid or glamour finances?
In digital recording we have the production medium that is most open to transformation. In digital presentation, we have the consumption medium most open to transformation, both before we receive it, and after. Anyone with some form of computer has their own digital post-production facility. The blemishes can be removed, the wrong notes fixed and even the focal point of the image can be selected later.
If we were to imagine a medium that could somehow vouch for the fidelity of that which it recorded, it would be the opposite of the digital. This medium would capture the mark of the real and from that point forward it would be unalterable. In a strange way, in that moment, the mark would become more real than the real. The real itself would fade and change with time, but the mark would always have the vibrancy of the moment the impression was captured. In essence, this is the problem with using database models to stand in for real processes.
There was a time when to call something ‘artificial’ was to confer the highest compliment. The ‘real’ was a low form of existence that lacked the trappings of civilization. It was something that hadn’t been ‘fixed’ in post-production. The digital era has enabled new levels of artifice. The ‘real’ and the ‘natural’ may have to make way for the artificial. To ease the transition, the real and the natural will be the first things we need to simulate. As the French dramatist Jean Giraudoux once said:
“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Goodman described the moment where Cooper and Gupta, embedded in the disaster zone of Japan, looked into the camera with an expression that said “what are we supposed to be doing?” Cooper is well known for showing up with cameras into scenes of chaos and disaster. It was a brief moment of silence on the cable network, the kind of silence that professional broadcasters are trained to never let happen.
Cooper is used to imposing his will on scenes of disaster. He turns the chaos into stories for the folks back home. Japan was different, it isn’t a third-world country, and it’s perfectly capable of telling its own story. Japan is the third largest economy in the world—this was more like looking directly in the mirror. Cooper had traveled halfway across the world to find that he was unable to establish a distance between himself and the scenes unfolding around him.
As usual, in a crisis, Cooper sits at the focal point of a vast array of real-time feeds. Reporters, invited experts, other news feeds, along with everything else on the Network is at his disposal. Historically, Cooper has had the best view of what’s going on right now. In Japan, he seemed behind the curve, he didn’t know where to focus or how to tell a story about what had happened. Cooper never seemed to find a vantage point high enough to create a narrative that scooped up the whole story.
What used to be called the audience also sits at the focal point of an array of real-time sources. “Viewers” can tell when Cooper is just thrashing around, muddying the waters rather than providing a clear view. Udell, listening to reports about radiation levels, was confused about the scale of the problem. He was able to ask Wolfram Alpha to translate the units discussed into the broadcast into a something that he could use to make a reasonable assessment of the situation. Cooper’s blankness caused the audience to start surfing the Network, building a picture from a variety of other sources.
It seemed like he’d done this a thousand times before, but here Cooper was confronted by the fact that this wasn’t a single event that could be isolated and characterized. An earthquake linked to a tsunami linked to a nuclear power plant disaster–and then more earthquakes. The mesh of events in Japan were not only linked to each other, but linked to things all over the world. The events raced through the network of the earth’s fault lines, through the wave forms and currents of the ocean, through the network of systems producing electric power, through the manufacturing systems with just-in-time global supply chains, through the global capital markets, through the network of luxury goods producers and retailers. Cooper was embedded in the middle of the wreckage of the tsunami monitoring the events at the nuclear power plant, but he could have been reporting from anywhere. The events were without a bounded human sense of locality, they were global and simultaneous.
It was in Cooper’s thrashing, that for a brief moment, the peer-to-peer nature of the broadcast was brought into view. His overall contribution to the real-time picture of unfolding events was substantially less than other nodes on the Network. And in the moment that Goodman describes, Cooper’s productive output of information approached zero, he stared, became blurry, unfocused—”What are we supposed to be doing?” Foreground and background exchanged places, the flow of information suddenly reversed direction. And in that moment of silence, the background surged forward and washed over the news anchors, and flowed out of screens all over the world. Another tsunami.
McLuhan Centenary: Joycean Patois On The Dick Cavett Show
In December of 1970, Dick Cavett hosted a conversation with Al Hirt, Gayle Sayers, Truman Capote and Marshall McLuhan on his television show. It’s difficult to imagine the crosscurrents of this discussion happening on television today. McLuhan’s probes draw each of the guests into his orbit, and he demonstrates how each participates in the theme of his new book, From Cliche to Archetype.
The cyclops, the motorcycle cop…
McLuhan describes himself as an outsider in the course of his appearance on the show. One has to wonder how he broke all the way through to the medium of popular television entertainment. Howard Gossage and Tom Wolfe had something to do with it, but it’s McLuhan’s love of exploration through dialogue that really shines through. It’s perfect for television.
Once the earth was within the surround of the satellite, Planet Polluto was in need of the attention of the ecologist…
In a letter McLuhan wrote: “I am not a ‘culture critic’ because I am not in any way interested in classifying cultural forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities.” The jazz musician, the professional football player, the novelist, the comedian and the metaphysician find a common ground within the probes McLuhan unleashes.