The best minds of my generation have been destroyed by the madness of contriving ways to get people to click on ads, conforming to a conceptual framework of disruption in which ruptures take the form of optimizing commercial capitalism. As the hot air of “technology” and “social” fill up the bubble once more, food for Cacophony fills the streets, the airways and the wires of the Network. The time is ripe for more weird fun from The Cacophony Society.
The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. We are the punctuation at the end of hypothetical sentences, words in the prose of technological satire, grammarians of absurdist syntax and our numbers are prominent in the flat edge of a curve. You may already be a member!
Dress like you always do. Do what you normally do.
Object of the event: See if you can pick out the other participants. This was a really big event last year. Let’s see if we can do it again!
Sponsored by: The Bureau of Objective Reality
Last Gasp of San Francisco has published “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society.” This new instruction manual and historical document is cornucopia of cacophony and should prove to be an inspiration to a new generation about to be chained to the “promise” of Google Glass.
Saturday, Sept. 5 8:00 p.m.
Meet: At the N.E. corner of Judah and 7th Ave.
Bring: Recently or about-to-be deceased animal bodies or parts (please no “roadkill”)
Wear: Something you won’t mind getting indelible stains on
Dr. X and The Other One
For the scholars of Cacophony, and the future generation of pranksters, the holy historical documents (Rough Draft) and other ephemera are being housed in the virtual halls of the Cacophony Society Section of the Internet Archive. The youth of the world have an indispensable new resource in their pursuit of a renaissance of cacophony.
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?
Those who’ve never been humbled believe there’s a rational explanation for this fact. In the world of technology vendor sports, Google has had numerous product failures, but it’s never really been humbled. Apple was on the verge of closing its doors. It was only an investment by Bill Gates’s Microsoft that kept the company alive. Microsoft itself lost an anti-trust case and was shackled for years. Facebook’s IPO has proved a humbling experience to the most recent master of the universe.
It was Microsoft’s reaching for the stars, it’s total domination of computer operating systems and office automation software that provided the model of what could be done. Given the size and scope of the known computing universe, their domination seemed to be total and everlasting. Of course, we know now that the universe continued to expand. The distances connecting the various functions of computing were distributed across the network of networks. Text became hypertext and the glyphs themselves were used to encode any media type for transmission across the Network. Suddenly, it was a whole new ball game.
Google claims as its mission the task of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. To some extent, Google accomplished this with its search engine product. The product has entered the common parlance, and now we talk of ‘Googling’ something. Google means search, and search is its big driver of revenues and profits. The funding for all its other products rests on the back of search. This allows them to enter established markets without the burden of turning a profit. Microsoft used this tactic when it launched the Internet Explorer web browser as a free product. Suddenly there was no such thing as a ‘web browser’ business.
One of the interesting characteristics of Google is that it doesn’t partner well. In the end, as a corporate philosophy, it believes that anything you can do, it can do better. It buys companies rather than partner with them. Google’s commitment to the open web and open source computing is the one area where they do create partnerships. Although these partnerships can’t be said to exist on an equal basis. Even in these open partnerships Google dominates.
In Geoffrey B. West’s talk for the Long Now Foundation, called “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster” he addresses the issue of the lifespan of a corporation. As they become more regular in structure, they become more brittle. If we look at a listing of the current S&P 500, we find a startling fact:
The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University.
In the age of the ecological thought, we should ask whether the empire building dreams of the old Microsoft are a reasonable corporate mission. Is it still possible for any corporation really dominate the technical universe on its own? Apple, one the world’s biggest corporations, has arrived at its current position through carefully negotiated partnerships with the carriers, the music industry, the film industry and software application and game developers. Apple’s more humble approach to partnerships seemed to start when a partnership saved its life.
“Apple doesn’t have to lose for Microsoft to Win. Microsoft doesn’t have to lose for Apple to win”
- Steve Jobs
Even Microsoft doesn’t believe in the old Microsoft. For example, they now offer Linux on Windows Azure. They’ve been very friendly to the JQuery and Drupal open source projects. It appears they’ve learned something about coexistence. Interestingly, the one area where Microsoft always had partners was in hardware. With announcement of Surface, that dynamic is going to change.
Google’s Android is the direct analog to Microsoft’s Windows. The difference being that Google subsidizes Android; it’s generally provided for free to its partners. Although if you’ve read anything about gift economies, you know that something given for free creates an obligation of a different sort.
When you look at the scope of Google’s products, it becomes clear that organizing the world’s information actually requires them to mediate every human contact with the world. The world itself becomes an unbundled, chaotic swirl of qualities. It’s just color and light, textures and shapes, never resolving into objects. To get an understanding of how Google sees itself mediating and rendering the world, making it accessible and useful, take a look at their new television commercial for the Nexus 7. A father and son, camping in nature—what could possibly come between them?
It could be that Google is the harbinger of a new era of philosopher kings, or perhaps we should call them engineer kings. And perhaps a king who has never been humbled can rule with humanity and wisdom. On the other hand, Google’s harmartia may lie in its belief that there’s a rational explanation for why it’s never been humbled.
Privacy, Difference and Redemption: Somewhere on the Network
We usually think about privacy as the ability to restrict the circulation of personal information. Non-public information stays non-public. In the era of the Network, the personal exhaust we leave as traces on various systems, even if it’s meant to be anonymous, identifies us publicly. Given enough pieces of the puzzle, the full picture of a person can be put together.
Our identity and the identifiers are linked as indexical signs. The foot leaves a footprint in the sand. The last few footprints point to where the next few footsteps will land. Collect enough footprints and the future can be predicted with a high degree of certainty. Implied in this formula is something about both the character and durability of the link between the signifier and the signified.
This idea implies a particular relationship between the acts and the actor—the actor is nothing more than his acts in a positive and un-ironic sense. Past is prolog. And this is where we turn to the question of redemption. The first few lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” tell us something about the meaning of time present and time past.
Burnt Norton By T.S. Eliot
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present. read more…
“If time future is contained in time past, all time is eternally present, and therefore unredeemable.” As we try to come to terms with the Network, this becomes the crux of the privacy issue. One half of privacy is the ability to keep a set of facts about one’s self hidden. The other side of privacy is the ability to selectively reveal oneself, and that also means to not be, to not choose, to not do what one’s past has predicted. Not as “abstract speculation,” but as a non-linear act in the real world. In any given moment, the character of the facts could change through the exercise of free will.
The predictive and persuasive power of the big data platforms depends on the idea that the system generates the current and future actions of the individual based on recordings of previous actions. All time becomes unredeemable. The bad restaurant will always be a bad restaurant. The drunkard will aways be a drunkard. The successful businessman will always be a successful businessman. The sinner will always be a sinner. The cogs in the machine will always be cogs in a machine.
The moment of redemption, of radical change, is unpredictable, yet perfectly possible for each and every one of us at any time. For no reason. Somewhere.
In the aftermath of the Facebook initial public offering, there were numerous postmortems about what went wrong. The one that interested me the most was by Bill Hambrecht (full disclosure, I used to work for Bill). Hambrecht advocates the use of a modified Dutch auction to find the right price and allocation for a new equity offering. His version of the auction process is called OpenIPO; Google used a version of it in their public offering. But it was his assessment of Facebook as a business that I found most interesting. He called it a “co-op,” and this is because without the participation of the users, Facebook has no value. Facebook is a co-op in the sense that the users voluntarily cooperate within its platform, although the distribution of benefits is heavily skewed toward the platform’s owners.
Out of this idea comes an interesting way of comparing Google and Facebook. Facebook is alive, it’s made of living things. Without those lives within the digital communications platform, there is no Facebook. On the other hand, Google is dead. Google operates on the traces left by living things, but not on the entities themselves. It’s the footprints in the sand that Google uses to predict the next set of footprints in the sand.
The health of the Google system depends on having access to both the sand and the footprints. If the footprints and the sand move into a restricted access sandbox, like Facebook for instance, Google’s output (SERPs) starts to lose resolution. Facebook’s system is a gesture farm, and with the extension of the “like” button to the Web, it has no boundaries. For the farm workers, there is no “outside of Facebook.” The health of the Facebook system depends on the voluntary cooperation of the farm workers; they need to believe they’re getting sufficient benefit for what they’re giving up. But as a biological system, Facebook is also subject to disease and viruses. If the users decide they don’t want to work on Maggie’s Farm no more, Facebook is drained of its health and its life.
Google, observing the growth of these gesture farms, rightly recognizes that the Web is no longer enough. The Google+ project attempts to graft a living Network entity on to the footprint analyzing machine they already have in place. But does this move Google from the land of the dead to the land of the living? If Google is mostly dead, does it operate more like a zombie? Is it subject to disease and viruses? And if it’s not, is it really alive? After so many years of being dead, could Google really cope with being alive?
Computing lifts anchor and sets sail. The tide of mobility is upon us: everything is battery powered, small enough to carry in a pocket and always already jacked into the Network. When we think about mobile computing, it’s the combination of the small device and the available cloud of networked services that make the experience. The nodes looking at their displays are now out walking around in the midst of their daily life. Startled, they mutter ‘sorry’ as the bump into other nodes face down, absorbed a in small display, while their feet carry them forward.
What was a tool meant to increase productivity has become a technical interface for enjoying various forms of entertainment. If we were to do a breakdown of time spent on the different categories of computing activities, we’d find the slice of the pie chart that represents ‘working’ is shrinking, while the ‘non-working’ slice is growing in every direction. If you enjoy handicapping the fortunes of the various technology platforms, you need look no further than this ratio. In its IPO filing Facebook noted that users spend 10.5 billion minutes per day on its platform—and that doesn’t even include mobile usage.
Spending time on social networks has become a replacement for watching television. And just like television, when that much time is devoted to something, we begin to discuss addiction. To what degree do we choose to spend our time this way? Is there a point where sparking dopamine transmitters and well-worn neural pathways limit our selection set to the point where jacking into the Network seems like the only choice there is?
Once everyone is doing it, we see the early adopters begin to look uncomfortable. As Yogi Berra once said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” When everyone is a consumer, the only move a hipster has is to consume not consuming. A high-profile blog post on why you’re quitting Facebook usually does the trick. Abstinence, boycotting and unplugging are the moves that appear to give you the distance to glare cynically at the crowd. But there is no outside anymore. You can’t remove yourself from Google. You’ve always already been hacked. That computer virus that infected your computer has wormed its way into your DNA. As computing goes mobile, we suddenly discover we’re living inside the Network. The small device we take outside only serves to show us that there is no outside anymore.
The feeling of “mobile” has nothing to do with small computing devices and networked cloud services. It’s taking the mental state of being jacked into the Network for a walk. We can say it’s about productivity and efficiency, that somehow this combination of technologies allows us to make better choices about our time. But it’s really about the buzz. Much like a pharmaceutical, this set of technologies reliably invokes a specific mental state. And once you can produce that state at will, why would you want to chain it to a desk?
The seed of this series of thoughts occurred while listening to Tim Morton’s lecture on Thomas De Quincey, a writer during the romantic period of English literature. In particular, the phrase “portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle” struck me as an apt description of the current state of mobile computing. For De Quincey, opium dissolved in a tincture of alcohol (laudanum) was an inexpensive formula to invoke spiritual happiness and divine enjoyment. We prefer a technical formula, a tincture of simulacra in a small networked electronic device. It’s quite interesting to note the degree to which our attitudes with regard to mobile computing begin to mirror De Quincey’s entanglement with opium.
Arrived at my lodgings, it may be supposed that I lost not a moment in taking the quantity prescribed. I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium-taking, and what I took I took under every disadvantage. But I took it‚—in an hour—oh heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me‚—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea, a pharmakon for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle, and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach. But if I talk in this way the reader will think I am laughing, and I can assure him that nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium: its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion, and in his happiest state the opium-eater cannot present himself in the character of L’Allegro: even then he speaks and thinks as becomes Il Penseroso. Nevertheless, I have a very reprehensible way of jesting at times in the midst of my own misery; and unless when I am checked by some more powerful feelings, I am afraid I shall be guilty of this indecent practice even in these annals of suffering or enjoyment. The reader must allow a little to my infirm nature in this respect; and with a few indulgences of that sort I shall endeavour to be as grave, if not drowsy, as fits a theme like opium, so anti-mercurial as it really is, and so drowsy as it is falsely reputed.
The headline reads: “Introducing the Knowledge Graph: things, not strings.” The implication being, “strings” are bad and limited and “things” are good and what you really wanted all along. After all people don’t want strings of arbitrary alpha-numeric characters in response to their queries, they want the things they’re looking for. And as the advertising message at the end of the introduction says, because you’re getting “things and not strings” on your search result pages, you can spend more time doing the things you love. Who wouldn’t want to do that? The end result of this technological improvement is that your life now contains “more time”— like a toothpaste tube that contains 20% more toothpaste; and that time is filled with love. One might even recast this new product as a machine for filling the world with love.
What Google seems to be introducing is a new user interface to a faceted search. Nothing more. Faceted search acknowledges that the “word” (a single string of characters) isn’t the atom of meaning. Instead it uses the “phrase” in the context of some domain of meaning—a word can be a valid token in multiple systems of meaning. These domains, or facets of meaning, are surfaced and prioritized in search results. So, in addition to Page-ranked links, we get a prioritized set of contexts in which a particular word or phrase is a valid operator. The advance is in creating an index of sub-domains of meaning through analyzing the structure of text as it’s used on the visible Network. There’s no question that faceted search is superior to classic Page-ranked search, however the language used to describe this new product innovation seems to suggest some kind of transcendent experience.
Here’s a description of the vision that drives innovation in the search product at Google:
We’ve always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want
- Amit Singhal, SVP, Engineering at Google
But when I hear this kind of talk from engineers, their words are drowned out by the characters from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass“:
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’
We can propose the idea that Google has a search engine that “understands exactly what you mean.” And by this what we mean is that your query corresponds to a sub-domain in the index of facets Google has previously collected. The “meaning” doesn’t lie in the “you” that has the query, but rather in the sets of sub-domains contained in Google’s index. When a word does a lot of work in multiple sub-domains of meaning, they pay extra in compute time.
The claim that Google makes is that they’ve gone from “strings” to “things.” But the sub-domains of meaning that Google is collecting are made up of computable sets of strings, not things. The leap that Google is actually trying to make is from “strings” to “words, phrases and contexts.” But the use of the word “thing” is very revealing. Words are not things, they are indexes. They point at things, suggest things, or function in a play of difference within a system of meaning. When we say that we’ve gone from “strings” to “things” we’re actually making a kind of miraculous claim. We’ve gone from “word” to “thing.” The most prominent example of this algorithm can be found in the King James Bible, we see it in John 1.14:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
If we believe that Google’s knowledge graph provides “things” and not “strings,” we also believe something extraordinary about the power and capability of Google. Even if we take a step back and simply say that Google is merely indexing sub-domains—systems of meaning, we need to examine what this means. We could follow Wittgenstein and say that “meaning” can be described as a form of life. Therefore Google’s index produces a prioritized list of facets (forms of life) that connect to your form of life, given what they know about you. Popular forms of life that don’t currently connect to you serve as a method of discovery.
There are registers of meaning that Google’s approach will never capture. Their index will be filled with gaps and pools of darkness. In particular, only a very limited range of metaphor (cliches) will be caught in the net. Metaphor produces meaning through an algorithmic process (per @the_eco_thought, Tim Morton). Take a noun, take another noun from a different domain and place the word “is” between them. The coffee cup is a blue angel. The metaphor machine makes meaning. Not every metaphor is a good one, but it has some modicum of meaning and it does function as a metaphor.
Like the theoretical one hundred monkeys typing in front of a hundred typewriters for a hundred years, the metaphor machines are constantly operating and feeding the Network with new meaning. Darius Kazemi (@tinysubversions) has created a machine called “Metaphor a Minute” that does just this. You can follow it on Twitter at @metaphorminute. Of course, because of Twitter’s rate limits, there’s actually a new metaphor published every two minutes.
“Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”
After thinking through Google’s new service and the language they’ve used to describe it, we discover that they are using the word “things” metaphorically. At first, we may assume that when engineers are describing the function of their new software, they’re making literal statements about what the machine they’ve constructed is doing. Instead, they’ve taken a two nouns from different domains and inserted the word “is” between them. Ironically, their use of the word “things” is of the type that their new service could not understand it. The narrow band of search engine results that are produced by this system is also being metaphorically called “knowledge.” In order to see these new products clearly, we need to be able to differentiate the rhetoric of hyperbole from the literal functioning of the machine. It also helps to become acquainted how metaphors mean…
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.
I like to feel the solid earth beneath my shoes. It allows me to participate in ancient cosmologies in support of my feeling of being right. As sure as I’m standing here before you, you can believe what I’m saying. Here at the center of all things.
It was a Woody Allen movie that put me on to this train of thought, but before we get into that here are some versions of the primal story:
Let’s start with Steven Hawking’s version in his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time.”
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
Then there’s the variation that appears in David Hume’s 1779 work “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.”
How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? Let us remember the story of the Indian philosopher and his elephant. It was never more applicable than to the present subject. If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.
When the modern cosmologist attempts to decenter the solid foundation of our footing, our proxy, the little old lady, restores it with an infinite regress of turtles that go all the way down. But in order to have a solid place to stand, we want some sort of final turtle, an unmoved mover where in the buck stops. This is why scientists like to tell this story about turtles, because an infinite regress violates the laws of logic. It implies that nothing set the chain of events in motion. Many scientists choose to believe there’s a “god particle” (the hypothetical elementary particle called the Higgs boson) at the bottom of it all.
Graham Harman gets into the game of infinite regress and turtles in his book “The Quadruple Object:”
And given that an object must inherently be a unity, its multitude of qualities can only arise from the plurality of its pieces. Thus there is no object without pieces, and an infinite regress occurs. Despite the easy and widespread mockery of the infinite regress, there are only two alternatives, and both are even worse. Instead of the infinite regress we can have a ‘finite regress,’ in which one ultimate element is the material of everything larger. Or we can have ‘no regress at all,’ in which there is no depth behind what appears to the human mind. Both options have already been critiqued as undermining and overmining, respectively. And if the infinite regress is often mocked as a theory of “turtles all the way down,” the finite regress merely worships a final Almighty Turtle, while the theory of no regress champions a world resting on a turtle shell without a turtle.
If it really is “turtles all the way down”, how do we locate ourselves in this infinite regress? And this is where we get back to Woody Allen. I recently watched his film “Midnight in Paris” for the second time. It’s the story of an American writer named Gil Pender who visits Paris. He’s in a state of uncertainty with regard to his pending marriage, his career as a screenwriter, the value of the novel he’s writing and where he should make his home (Malibu or Paris). His fiance has clearly identified a ‘final turtle’ and is quite certain about where things stand and where they should stand.
Pender, who worships the ex-patriot writers and artists of Paris in the 1920s, is magically transported back to that time. It’s here that he hopes to receive the clarity that will give him a solid direction for his life. In a twist, the woman he falls for in 20s Paris longs for the era of the Belle Epoque. When the two of them are transported back to the era of her dreams, they find the artists of that time longing for an earlier time.
This dream inside a dream inside a dream structure brought to mind Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception.” Pender, in ‘Midnight in Paris’ posits an infinite regress, and comes to the realization that there’s no final turtle. The certainty his character gains is from embracing the infinite regress, not from discovering a final unmoved mover. In Nolan’s film, the dream within a dream within a dream structure serves as the landscape for an action film. The conceit of the film is that if you can place a thought deep enough into the layers of dreams within dreams it will appear as a final turtle (inception). But there’s also the implication that the dreams within dreams within dreams are an infinite regress. In both of these films, the characters run into the limitation that as humans, we can’t count to infinity. We can only descend into the dreams within dreams within dreams so far before we lose our bearings. It’s not that the infinite regress isn’t there, it’s just that we can’t empirically experience its infinity.
It’s Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” that seems to show a small change in the zeitgeist—the infinite regress of turtles all the way down neither incites vertigo nor charges of absurdity. The dream where we’re falling without end has been transformed into a clear-eyed assessment of the infinite regress of dreams and what they can tell us about the dream we’re living in.
It was Aron Michalski who turned me on to David Byrne’s thoughts on the effect of architecture on music. The gist of the idea is that popular music is composed to be performed in certain kinds of venues. When rock music moved from clubs and theaters to arenas and stadiums the music had to change to accommodate the space.
My first real experience of this phenomenon was hearing The Who perform at one of Bill Graham’s Day on the Green concerts at the stadium in Oakland. Pete Townsend’s windmill electric guitar chords rang out filling and shaking the stadium. It was shock and awe, a form of the Burkean sublime. In my memory, the figures on the stage seemed like giants.
At the same time there was a withdrawal of music from physical space exemplified by The Beatles retreating to the studio to create music they would never perform in an arena, stadium or any where else for that matter. This direction was solidified by Brian Eno in his writings about the recording studio as compositional tool. Eno compares the advent of purely recorded music to the split between theater and film into separate art forms. Film, like constructed and recorded music, can create an experience in playback that can’t be produced in live performance. The medium shifts from the room to the playback of music in some domestic space or perhaps even in the mental space of headphones. The new medium for music becomes its transmission over wires and broadcast to an endpoint.
And just as with popular music’s adaptation to the vast open spaces of the sports stadium, music changes to accommodate the contours of the Network. A higher percentage of music becomes music for playback. The number of bands that can fill a stadium with both music and fans—always a small number, shrinks even further. And among the new acts climbing the charts, fewer set their sites on the stadium as the ultimate venue.
When I saw the headline about Best Buy slowing going out of business, I didn’t immediately make the connection to arena rock. But there’s a sense in which the progress of retail mirrors that of popular music; moving to larger and larger venues—packing in both the people and the product. And just as with music, there’s a virtual channel that has been able to treat the retail space as an endlessly plastic medium that can be mixed and remixed into a seemingly infinite variety of shopping experiences. Here also the medium changed from a physical space to bits coming over a wire and broadcast on to a screen. And just as with arena and stadium rock, the number of acts who can fill those big boxes is shrinking in number.
The movie “You’ve Got Mail” is a interesting artifact of the rise of the big box bookstore. The film lifts its love story from Ernst Lubitch’s “The Shop Around the Corner.” In the zeitgeist of the time, it was all too clear that the small independent bookstore was doomed and would be driven out of existence by the book superstore with its huge inventory, low prices, cozy chairs and access to legal stimulants in the form of hot beverages. It wasn’t something to get mad about, it was just the way of the world—not personal, just business. So Meg Ryan’s carefully curated children’s bookstore ‘The Shop Around The Corner (named in tribute to its predecessor) is put out of business by Tom Hanks’s giant Fox Books. Now if we look at the landscape of booksellers today, we see a much different picture. The arena rock bookstores can’t sell enough tickets and are shutting down—their role is being filled by the plastic virtual bookseller. We’re sort of in the era of the headphone retailer.
I’ve always loved browsing in used book stores. The combination of lower price and serendipity is wonderfully entertaining. I don’t expect to find a complete set of books in print, instead the experience is more like a performance in a small space. I take in and appreciate the set of books that are here in the space right now. I know that next week, or the week after, I’ll see a largely new set of books. The used book store is an incredibly efficient filter for discovering what might be worth reading and what people in general are reading. These books have already experienced ‘use.’ It’s an interesting example of how a small space can provide much more value than a large space.
This rehabilitation of the small space is a trend that seems to working its way through music, retailing and even social networks. It may signal a return to intimacy. Kinda makes you wonder what it’d be like to shop at “The Shop Around the Corner’s” Matuschek and Company.