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The Undead and the Trailing Edge

Steampunk-laptop_2

The “meta” formation of the old saw of technology journalism is to say that “calling technology ‘X’ dead, is dead.” In its most entertaining usages, the “is dead” formulation refers to a disruptive change in the infrastructure of computer technology. It’s a way to tell the story of changing fortunes in the feudal kingdoms that have come to dominate our technology landscape. There’s a fierce battle for the tip of the spear. These kingdoms have variously been called platforms or technology ecosystems. And rather than the use of force, we see our personal stories rewritten such that it’s impossible to imagine living without the devices and services delivered, like clockwork, each day to the leading edge.

moocimage

Technologist and hands-on thinker, Jon Udell recently wrote about MOOCs on his blog. MOOCs attempt to impose a digital industrial model of production onto university education. An infinite number of uneducated young adults are dumped into a chute, a crank is turned, and some smaller, but still significant number, of educated adults are spewed into society through the other end. It’s a model where technology is used on students — Udell prefers his thinking to be hands on, he wants to see technology used by students. In support of this effort he’s made a key strategic decision, he’s retreated from the fierce battle for the leading edge. Here’s Udell on the value of the trailing edge:

And while I was often seen as an innovator, the truth is that much of my work happened on the trailing edge, not the leading edge. The Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) was already ancient when I was experimenting with ways to adapt it for intranet collaboration. Videos of software in action had been possible long before I demonstrated the power of what we now call screencasting. And iCalendar, the venerable standard at the heart of my current effort to bootstrap a calendar web, has been around forever too.

There’s a reason I keep finding novel uses for these trailing-edge technologies. I see them not as closed products and services, but rather as toolkits that invite their users to adapt and extend them. In Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel calls such things “user innovation toolkits” — products or services that, while being used for their intended purposes, also enable their users to express unanticipated intents and find ways to realize them.

No one is fighting for dominance of trailing edge technology. Yet the landscape is strewn with valuable technologies left behind by the big technology silos battling each other for monopoly position at the top of the hill. Modern digital computer technology moves so quickly that it’s often forgotten how slowly societies comprehend and incorporate new technologies. The telephone and the television have not been fully understood and digested by society. The VCR became obsolete well before the average person could program it to record a television show at an appointed time.

vcr

RSS is famously, dead. It’s been shouted from the mountaintops of every snarky technology blog around the valley. Clearly the RSS syndication format is no longer a potent weapon in the battle for the leading edge. But along with some of the other technologies Udell mentions, RSS has joined the undead. This makes it an excellent candidate for a “user innovation toolkit.” Undead technologies continue to function and roam the landscape despite being casualties of the war for technological dominance. The trailing edge of the undead is the most fertile ground for finding and creating non-violent technological solutions to the problems faced by ordinary people in their daily lives. More importantly, they are the means by which ordinary people can fashion their own solutions.

Technology is a kind of thinking with your hands. It’s something each of us does everyday. And despite what we read on our screens, most of it isn’t digital.

Inventing a Place to Perform: Guitar Pulls, Juke Joints and Midnight Rambles

muddy-waters

The first time I heard the phrase it was used to describe something that happened at Johnny Cash’s house in Hendersonville, Tennessee. As the story goes, it was February of 1969, the hour turned late and the party at Cash’s house turned into a guitar pull. Bob Dylan sings “Lay Lady Lay”, Joni Mitchell sings “Both Sides Now”, Graham Nash sings “Marrakesh Express” and Kris Kristofferson sings “Me and Bobby McGee.” There are no recordings of that evening, or none that have surfaced publicly. We only have the stories and memories of the people who pulled out a guitar and put across a song. Oh to be a fly on the wall.

The “guitar pull” is a tradition that comes from country music. Musicians sit around and take turns playing songs. The origin of the phrase has been lost, its first speakers are time out of mind. Some say that it refers to passing a single guitar around, everyone taking their turn. Not everyone owned a guitar, but everyone had a song to sing. People “took a turn” in the sense of pulling the guitar from someone’s hands so they could get their song out.

Musicians playing on a stage for an audience is the dominant configuration for live performance. Occasionally it’s done in the round, but usually music is presented from within a proscenium — musicians on one side and the audience seated in rows on the other. The guitar pull has a different shape. The musicians and the audience aren’t separate, they aren’t even that different. I imagine the shape as roughly circular — a presentation to each other. This is different from musicians sitting around in a recording studio performing for a microphone. No one’s trying to create the definitive version of a song that will go on to sell millions of copies. In a sense, the purpose of the guitar pull is to keep it going. One song brings another out of the group.

A related way of organizing a performance is Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble. The ramble was a rent party in a barn that held about 200 people. Its purpose was to help save Levon’s house from his creditors and rehabilitate his voice after surgery for throat cancer. The audience brought casseroles for a pot luck dinner and music played late into the night. There’s a scene in Scorsese’s movie “The Last Waltz” where Helm tells a story about the origin of the midnight ramble.

“After the finale, they’d have the midnight ramble. The songs would get a little bit juicier. The jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times. A lot of the rock and roll duck walks and moves came from that.”

The shows in the barn in Woodstock weren’t really patterned on the midnight ramble so much as the house parties thrown by blues musicians. On Levon Helm’s website, Kay Cordtz writes about Muddy Waters and his pop-up juke joints.

When Muddy Waters was developing his blues style in the 1930s, he would sometimes play for fans and fellow musicians at his house on the Stovall Plantation, transformed into a juke joint of sorts. They’d move the beds outside so people could dance, sell moonshine and run craps tables out back. Muddy would try out new sounds, make a little money, and everybody would have a ball. People told of finding the place in the dark of the country night by the light of hanging coal oil lamps, and hearing the guitars and people hollering through the trees before you got there.

For musicians like Muddy Waters there was a lot of power in having a venue where he could play the music he wanted for a receptive audience. It’s a kind of control that musicians rarely enjoy. That’s what makes Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble a powerful disruption of the music business. And it’s a place that musicians who’ve scaled the heights of pop-music success always seem to be trying to get back to.

“We had to almost invent a place to perform.”

– Levon Helm

“It felt like the house was calling for musicians to come be a part of it.”

– Amy Helm

There’s a small trend emerging among musicians of trying to invent new places to perform. These new places have their roots in the guitar pulls, pop-up juke joints and midnight rambles. On the west coast, Bob Weir built TRI Studios to provide an intimate space to create and broadcast music. But the most surprising and delightful new space has to be Daryl’s House.

In an interview with Peter Lewis, Daryl Hall describes why he started “Live from Daryl’s House”, his monthly web-based music series.

“Well, for me it was sort of an obvious thing. I’ve been touring my whole adult life really and, you know, you can’t be everywhere. Nor do I want to be every-where at this point. I only like to spend so much time per year on the road. So I thought ‘Why don’t I just do something where anyone who wants to see me any-where in the world can?’
And, instead of doing the artist/audience performance-type thing, I wanted to deconstruct it and make the audience more of a fly-on-the wall kind of observer. You know, I actually like the added intimacy of having no audience in the room with us – just the musicians, myself and the crew hanging out, sitting around talking, rehearsing a song, and then just playing it.”

Daryl Hall has created that fly-on-the-wall view into a guitar pull — that view I wish had into Johnny Cash’s living room in February of 1969. Sure, in Hall’s version the arrangements have been worked out and there’s a little rehearsal. But it’s just enough so that talented musicians can pull it off at a pretty high level. It’s not a rote presentation, you can see the song being discovered as it’s being performed. And like a guitar pull, the music is performed for the musicians. As Hall says, there’s an “added intimacy.” The players don’t look at cameras or out at an audience, instead they look at each other. Daryl Hall has been around long enough to know there’s a different sound created in this kind of environment. It’s a sound that musicians love and one that’s really worth hearing.

Here’s Booker T. Jones on the experience of playing at Daryl’s House.

“One of the nicest things about performing on Live from Daryl’s House is that Daryl has surrounded himself with musicians who can ‘hear’ That is, each one has talent to the extent of being capable of performing as a soloist on his own, not needing to be told the proper notes to sing or play.”

Some believe that the future of popular music is Pandora, Spotify, iRadio and Rdio. These services appear to be cutting edge technology. But the reality of these streaming services is they’ve got a defective business model. They can’t afford to pay the musicians who provide 100% of their content. That means ultimately they’ll be serving up music in its last window of freshness. Once a musician has made as much as she can through every other avenue, then the songs can be sent to the streaming services. It’s the equivalent of waiting until a movie comes out on Netflix. Essentially these services are oldies stations.

The technology used to create “Live from Daryl’s House” seems much more cutting edge to me. Even if that consists of a single omni-directional microphone in the middle of the living room and a cable running down the hallway to a recording set up. Like Muddy Waters, many musicians are starting to invent new places to perform. If you want to know where music and technology is going, check out Daryl’s House.

The Ill-Equipped: Blending Out of the Background

megyn-kelly-google-glass

“Technology is at its best when it gets out of the way. Good technology blends in.” Most of the top technology firms take these ideas as their credo. This is the way Apple talked about the iPad, and the way Google now talks about their augmented reality appliance, Google Glass. The fact that the highest aim of technological devices is to get out of the way is a clue to how broken technological interfaces and devices have been.

Take Heidegger’s favorite example of the hammer. The hammer blends in, it gets out of the way when we are successfully hammering in a nail. The hammer itself, as a tool, blends into the background of the hammering activity. It’s only when the hammer breaks that it juts back into our world of hammering with its brute physicality as a “hammer.”

Another example used by Heidegger is wearing corrective lenses in the form of glasses. While they appear to be the closest thing, literally resting on your nose — while they are in use, they are the farthest thing from us. They exist in another world entirely.

Google Glass takes an interesting path to the background. The example of the hammer shows us that any tool, whether it contains onboard network-connected computer processing or not, can become a part of the background. Heidegger’s discussion of eyewear tells us something about what is near or far in the context of the person engaged in a project in the midst of the world. Google Glass moves to the background by attempting to move into, or behind, our eyes. Like the example of eyewear, the eye itself is part of the background when it is merely seeing. This technology gets out of the way by positioning itself outside our field of vision and then superimposing augmentation layers on it.

xray-specs

Google’s augmented reality appliance attempts to erase its material presence. Its only trace is the data it projects onto the world. In this sense, it is an metaphysical idealist par excellence. Its camera claims to record the world from a unique subjective perspective. From outside of the world, as it were. Do you see what I see? Well, now you can. Click here.

Of course, while the position of Google’s Glass gets it out of the user’s way, it puts itself directly in everyone else’s way. “Glass” breaks your face for me. It’s no longer operating as a face, now it’s a camera and potentially it’s projecting augmented reality data on or over me. This is the problem with misunderstanding how backgrounds work. Being physically “out of the way” is not the same thing as blending into a background.

Technology yearns to recede into the background just at the moment when the background itself is broken. Global warming and other forms of pollution have resulted in the geological era known as the anthropocene. The combined force of human activity is now part of what we used to call the background. Extreme weather and other strange events jut out of the background and disrupt the status quo of our everyday world. What they’re telling us is that our everyday world has ended. The background is permanently broken. The narrator no longer inscribes his story on the backdrop (augmented reality); it’s the backdrop that inscribes its narrative onto the narrator. These strange weather events are an augmentation of reality from reality’s point of view.

Rather than tools that attempt to blend with background, perhaps we need tools that are partially broken. Tools that are a little weird and occasionally provide unexpected results. Tools that remind us of where they came from and the labor conditions under which they were produced. Tools that start a conversation from the tool-side of the divide. In his letters from the 1940s and 50s, Samuel Beckett writes about his decision to write in French rather than English. He points to:

“le besoin d’être mal armé” (“the need to be ill-equipped”)

Writing in English was starting to “knot him up”, it was a language he knew too well. It was this ill-equipped writer that would one day write “Ill Seen, Ill Said“. In addition to the necessity of using broken tools, Beckett also points another writer with his phrase: Stephane Mallarme. Mallarme was one of the first poets to bring the background into the body of the poem. In his poem “A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” the white space, the background of the text becomes part of the work. When philosopher Tim Morton talks about “environmental or ecological philosophy” he’s trying to get at just this. It’s not a philosophy that takes the environment or ecology as its topic, but rather a thinking that’s ill-equipped, a little broken, a little twisted, where shards of the background come jutting through.

Google’s Glass is signalling to us about backgrounds and our place in them. It’s a message we can only hear in the moments before we raise the appliance and attach it to our face.

witkiewicz-poster

A Dunbar Number for Objects

Speech-Bubble

The objects that accumulate around us remain silent and so eventually sink into the background. Once part of the background they are present but completely disappeared. Like fish in water, we swim in this sea of objects. We maintain some kind of interactive relationship with a set of these consumer objects, but due to our physical finitude we can only keep a small number of balls in the air.

The Internet of things is coming upon us faster than anyone could have imagined. From the large scale “Brilliant Machines” industrial project of General Electric to the personal clouds of SquareTags imagined by Phil Windley and others. It was in Bruce Sterling’s book called “Shaping Things” that I was first introduced to the concept. The little book seemed to call out to me from the shelves of the bookstore at the Cooper-Hewitt.

Things call to us in different ways. The Triangle Shirtwaste Factory fire called out to a generation about the role of labor conditions in the very clothing on their backs. The stitching told a story about conditions under which the stitching itself occurred. Instead of fading into the background, the threads become Brechtian actors employing the verfremdungseffekt.

The term Verfremdungseffekt is rooted in the Russian Formalist notion of the device of making strange (Russian: прием остранения priyom ostraneniya), which literary critic Viktor Shklovsky claims is the essence of all art. Lemon and Reis’s 1965 English translation of Shklovsky’s 1917 coinage as “defamiliarization”, combined with John Willett’s 1964 translation of Brecht’s 1935 coinage as “alienation effect”—and the canonization of both translations in Anglophone literary theory in the decades since—has served to obscure the close connections between the two terms. Not only is the root of both terms “strange” (stran- in Russian, fremd in German), but both terms are unusual in their respective languages: ostranenie is a neologism in Russian, while Verfremdung is a resuscitation of a long-obsolete term in German. In addition, according to some accounts Shklovsky’s Russian friend playwright Sergei Tretyakov taught Brecht Shklovsky’s term during Brecht’s visit to Moscow in the spring of 1935. For this reason, many scholars have recently taken to using estrangement to translate both terms: “the estrangement device” in Shklovsky, “the estrangement effect” in Brecht.

For this generation, the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh has radically changed the clothing hanging in our closets and folded in our chest of drawers. The stitching and the labels in these clothes now call out, they make themselves strange and unfamiliar. A piece of the background pricks our attention and wants to have a conversation. “Let me tell you about myself. I was born in Bangladesh in a factory like the one you read about the other day on your iPad.”

made-in-bangladesh

In the Internet of things, the number of things that could be transmitting data to a central store is limited only by practicality. In other words, it’s practically unlimited. Although, as Lisa Gitelman reminds us “Raw Data is an Oxymoron.” Data is a form of rhetoric based on exclusion. Deciding what counts as data is always already a form of cooking. Drawing conclusions from big data is not making an assessment of big pile of raw, natural artifacts. Data is always pre-cooked and can benefit from an analysis of our counter-transference toward it. And while the Internet of things seems to be mostly on the side of objects helping to manufacture themselves more efficiently, there’s another side to the conversation aspect of the objects surrounding us.

gefoods

Not too long ago it was our food that was calling out to us. “Ask me where I’m from. Let me tell you about how I was grown.” We’ve been through the whole cycle by now. At first we could hear the words “natural” and “organic” and know something about origins. Today highly-processed foods sport the labels natural and organic. A longer dialogue than can be printed on a container is called for. Now our clothes need to explain themselves. We need to be able to ask them about where they were stitched up, and they need to be able to tell us.

In Bruce Sterling’s “The Last Viridian Note” he makes the case for deaccessioning one’s collection. If we are all curators, defining ourselves by exhibiting our taste as consumers — what are we saying about ourselves? And in this era of the Internet of things, what will the things themselves be saying about us behind our backs?

In earlier, less technically advanced eras, this approach would have been far-fetched. Material goods were inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship. They were rare and precious. They were closely associated with social prestige. Without important material signifiers such as wedding china, family silver, portraits, a coach-house, a trousseau and so forth, you were advertising your lack of substance to your neighbors. If you failed to surround yourself with a thick material barrier, you were inviting social abuse and possible police suspicion. So it made pragmatic sense to cling to heirlooms, renew all major purchases promptly, and visibly keep up with the Joneses.

That era is dying. It’s not only dying, but the assumptions behind that form of material culture are very dangerous. These objects can no longer protect you from want, from humiliation – in fact they are causes of humiliation, as anyone with a McMansion crammed with Chinese-made goods and an unsellable SUV has now learned at great cost.

Furthermore, many of these objects can damage you personally. The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

It’s not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.

In the sphere of social networks, we talk about the Dunbar number. While electronic computerized networks theoretically allow people to connect with tens of thousands of other people, stable social relationships, according to Robin Dunbar, are limited to a much smaller number.

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.[2][3] Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

The globalization of the manufacture of household objects has put us in a situation similar to that of online social networks. Theoretically we can own as many things as we can afford. And if we can’t afford them, we can wait until they make their way to the deep discount stores and outlets and then buy them for below the cost of production. These things, by making themselves strange strangers — they raise their hands and step out from the background a stranger in our midst. But once our food and clothing becomes inscribed into our social space and wants to have a conversation about origins and process, can we really keep consuming at our current pace? Will the slots available in the cognitive limit of our Dunbar number now have to include all the objects that are waking up around us in this Internet of things?

We are waking up inside a world that is waking up to find us waking up inside of it.

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