Archive for July, 2008

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Modern Hieroglyphics: Writing Fluidly in a Picture Language


What must the world be like in order for a person to understand what the phrase “copy and paste” means? As we look about us, we can distinguish between those things that can be “copied and pasted,” and those things that cannot. That bunch of flowers growing in the pot in my garden cannot be copied. I can grow similar flowers, but I can’t grow identical flowers.

While mechanical reproduction at the industrial level creates many seemingly identical products, the pen I write with, or the coffee mug from which I’m sipping– these things cannot be “copied and pasted.” As we continue to look about, our inclination would be to skip directly to the digital; for surely that’s the world from which “copy and paste” comes. But in our haste, we would be passing over vast continents.

“Copy and paste” makes sense to us because its most common usage is not digital. Its basis is in our language– both spoken and written. Language, words, can be quoted. I can copy a phrase, a prayer, a poem, a joke, a hint, an expression of emotion that I overhear somewhere and paste it into my speech. I can copy something identically, or I can make it my own by saying something similar. Our laws regarding copyright establish a legal and economic framework for the copying of language.

One of our primary activities as humans is to pass along news. “What’s going on in the world of politics today?” We scan through all the news we’ve consumed during the day– copying and pasting to create the story we want to tell. The filtering that takes place as we scan is both the discovery and creation of the value of information in the context of specific audiences.

As we turn to the digital, the obvious first stop is the editing program– the word processor. This tool augmented our ability to copy and paste text, to rearrange it, to treat it as a plastic medium. There’s a kind of flow to building and constructing that text editors make possible. Think about the much more mechanical process involved with using a fountain pen, typewriter, scissors and a glue pot.

The metaphor of editing has been extended to image, video and sound manipulation; and if we think about it, to the local file system itself. The desktop is an editor for pointers to files– here also, we copy, paste and delete. It’s with that editor that we’ve created ambiguity around the ownership status of digital media.

To preserve a particular economic algorithm, there’s an attempt to limit the file-system editor’s ability to “copy and paste” certain kinds of files. These kinds of limitations don’t exist with any other editor. Imagine a text editor that was prohibited from copying and pasting copyrighted material. Imagine a language that didn’t allow quotation.

When Ray Ozzie surfaced for a moment before being consumed by the organizational, political and directional turmoil of Microsoft, he developed and demo’d “copy and paste” at the level of the web. Live Clipboard was aimed at employing a simple metaphor for moving microformatted data from one place to another. Programs like Evernote allow me to copy sections of a web page with very loose HTML formatting, and paste them into my digital notebooks. In the world of social media we look at the social graph we’ve built and we’d like to copy it from this service and paste it into that service. Instead we find ourselves in the position of Medieval monk copying a manuscript with a quill pen.

We capture our thoughts and impressions through text, we scribble it in notebooks, we type it on sheets of paper and on to glowing screens. Our text becomes hypertext and the exoskeleton of structured markup encapsulates our language. Capturing sound, image and video used to be the province of professionals, but now most “telephones” can do this. Body language, gestures and intonation can now provide color to the messages we pass back and forth.

This is the point in time we need the pencil that Marc Canter created. Copy and paste are functions of an editor and they operate on pointers and abstractions to the world around us. We now have the Network and bandwidth to return to early days of multimedia and the toolsets that were developed for the production of CD-ROMs.

On the professional end, these tools have become more and more sophisticated. Apple has done a nice job providing tools for the consumer. Where Brian Eno had the insight that the recording studio could be a compositional tool, we now need a recording studio we can carry around with us and that resides on our (i)Phones. An initial model is the way the Flip Video Camera includes editing software on the hardware device. As we capture sound, narration, and still/moving images with our “telephones,” we need to be able to dash off a note in a picture/sound language. That device we carry around should be able to read, write and transmit over the Network. Actually, it already can. It already does. But there’s so much more.

Of course, literacy will always be an issue. But that’s why there are pirates:

The Guitar Makes Dreams Weep

Steinway Piano

Joan Nagano at the Piano

Joan Nagano and Kay Stern after the performance

It’s a distinct pleasure to see a musical performance of a very high level in the comfort of a home. Joan Nagano, piano, and Kay Stern, violin,  wanted to run through their program in front of an audience before performing at a chamber music festival in Tahoe. There were about 15 of us in this small preview audience. The program featured pieces by Boccherini, Paganini, Beethoven, Poulenc, Ben-Haim and Zarzycki.

The entire program was engaging and beautiful, but I want to focus on the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Poulenc. Before each piece, Kay Stern, who also serves as Concertmaster for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, provided some context for the music. Here’s the text she read:

Several of Poulenc’s earlier attempts at writing violin sonatas and string quartets ended in the sewers of Paris, and the only string music of this nature which finally passed the composer’s fastidious scrutiny were the Sonata for violin and piano, and the Sonata for cello and piano (1948). The violin sonata was the result of pressures from the young violinist Ginette Neveu to write a violin piece.

Written during the German occupation of France, this work was boldly dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca – a Spanish poet murdered by fascist troops because of his liberal opinions and homosexuality. Poulenc had set three Lorca poems as songs in 1937. The violin sonata was intended as a personal statement on the poet’s senseless death. The middle movement was meant to be “vaguely Spanish” – evoking the distant guitars and Moorish cantilena of Lorca’s Spain. The concluding Presto tragico is as violent and brusque as Lorca’s death.

The chamber music of Poulenc is known for its melody and accessibility, this piece was challenging both in its construction and its emotional territory. The three movements take you on a emotional journey through darkness and violence. Perhaps there’s something about witnessing music like this in a domestic setting that sharpens the connections. For the duration of the performance there was crystal clear visibility into the haunting, tragic story of the murder of the poet and the tumultuous landscape of war. It was only as the last note rang out that the double parlor of a flat somewhere in San Francisco slowly came back into focus, and the audience was returned to their seats.

The Guitar
makes dreams weep.
The sobbing of lost souls
escapes from its round mouth.
 And like the tarantula
it weaves a giant star
to capture sighs
that float in its black
cistern of wood. 

Federico García Lorca

Der Bingle

For some reason I keep thinking about Bing Crosby and the birth of the recorded “live” broadcast.

XMPP Tribes: Have You Ever Been Experienced?

Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles

As we start to gather in tribes across the real-time web, dimensions of the value that is created begin to surface. How can the tribe help the individual where The Google can’t? I’m starting to read Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, a book about behavioral economics. In the introduction of the book, they discuss the idea of Choice Architecture. And it was immediately apparent that this concept needs to be included in Vendor Relationship Management. There are many aspects to choice architecture, but I’d like to focus on a common false assumption:

…that almost all people, almost all of the the time, make choices that are in their best interest or at the very least are better than the choices that would be made by someone else.

Imagine yourself buying a digital camera, selecting a health plan or planning a diet. How much experience do you have in each of these areas? Do you have what it takes to make the optimal decision?

In many areas, ordinary consumers are novices, interacting in a world inhabited by experienced professionals trying to sell them things. More generally, how well people choose is an empirical question, one whose answer is likey to vary across domains. It seems reasonable to say that people make good choices in contexts in which they have experience, good information and prompt feedback–say, choices among ice cream flavors.

How can I augment my experience in any specific transaction context? My XMPP Tribe can help me right now, in real time, through my iPhone. So why is asking the tribe better than reading user reviews? Because the more you read online reviews, the less you know. If there are a large volume of reviews, you can be certain that almost every possible viewpoint will be represented. My real-time tribe can even help me properly filter anonymous reviewers.

The normal sales transaction context involves a high degree of information asymmetry. VRM attempts to turn the signaling context around. Rather than the vendor signaling the customer, the customer signals the vendor– but this does nothing with regard to the uneven distribution of experience within the transaction. VRM can’t just be about signaling and paying for what you like. It’s also about creating a consideration set and making a choice that leads to a transaction. And if domain experience is lacking, the real-time tribe makes up the difference and augments the customer’s knowledge– an instant injection of experience.

Have you ever been experienced? Well I have…

If you can just get your mind together
Uh-then come on across to me
We’ll hold hands and then we’ll watch the sunrise
From the bottom of the sea
But first, are you experienced? 
Uh-have you ever been experienced-uh? 
Well, I have
(well) I know, I know, youll probably scream and cry
That your little world won’t let you go
But who in your measly little world, (-uh)
Are you tryin’ to prove to that you’re
Made out of gold and-uh, can’t be sold
So-uh, are you experienced? 
Have you ever been experienced? (-uh)
Well, I have
Uh, let me prove it to you, yeah
Trumpets and violins I can-uh, hear in the distance
I think they’re callin our name
Maybe now you can’t hear them,
But you will, ha-ha, if you just
Take hold of my hand
Ohhh, but are you experienced? 
Have you ever been experienced? 
Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful

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