Archive for December, 2008

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Micro-Communities Work: If You Want It

There was a point at which John Lennon made a decision to become a media hacker. He boiled his Beatles following down to a concentrated audience that could hear what he was saying. And then he acted, he didn’t wait. He said ‘War is over. If you want it.’ Imagine yourself at that crossroads.

Out of Band Messages: Signaling Xmas

Music plays a large role in the Winter holidays, Christmas especially. As popular music turned to rock and roll, it was still part of the family. It played the role of the rebellious teenager— but it still resided well within the boundaries of the nuclear family. In 1963, the Beatles joined the family for Christmas with an out-of-band message delivered through the special channel of the fan club.

As ‘Rock and Roll’ lost its ‘Roll,’ left home and 1960s exploded, Christmas was left behind. The family holidays were left to the ‘family-oriented‘ music acts. As Rock music matured and started families, Christmas returned as a theme. But the new songs didn’t attempt to regain innocence; the real world and the politics of the times couldn’t be kept out of the sound. As we look back across the span of popular music, it’s interesting to observe which artists and styles of music intersect with the Christmas holidays.

Bing Crosby, White Christmas

The Beatles Christmas message made use of a very simple and direct technology. There seemed to be little more than a microphone, a tape recorder, the band and a loose script outline. This kind of casual production method was a far cry from the intense rehearsals and refined production methods of George Martin. The off-the-cuff nature of the message makes the communication all the more genuine; we don’t feel as though it’s constructed for our entertainment, but rather an actual message.

The sophistication of video and sound production has grown tremendously over the years. Its costs have skyrocketed, and then plummeted to an almost commodity level. By chaining together a Flip video camera, the Network and YouTube Christmas theatricals can be produced and distributed easily. The cost of the idea and the time to produce them far outweigh the cost of the technology.

Aimee Mann has left the recording industry cartel to become an independent microcaster. She records albums, tours with her band, and is one of the artists who has intersected with Christmas. Each year, for the last few, she’s put on a special Christmas show. Without the heavy machinery of the record labels, Mann has found ways of connecting with her audience using low-cost and no-cost technical tools. The production costs are low, but the communication/connection value is very high. This combination of high and low modes of production is a new model for all forms of mass media. Even newspapers have become broadcast networks, a printed paper is just one output of the content.

It’s a much more straightforward proposition for a performer to construct a persona for the highly produced recording. Like the transition from silent film to talkies, it’ll be interesting to see which performers still shine off-the-cuff and on-the-run. But mastery of low tech production modes is only one element of the equation. Video isn’t a one-way medium any longer. Messages can travel in both directions, and the best performers know how to listen.

Theatrical Self-Impersonation, Platonic Spirits and Heteronyms

Marilyn Monroe photographed by Richard Avedon

Earlier this month I was wandering through an exhibit of work collected by Philippe de Montebello for the Metropolitan Museum. I found myself in front of a photograph by Richard Avedon of Marilyn Monroe. The context of the photo was the idea of theatrical self-impersonation. As Avedon tells the story, there is no such person as Marilyn Monroe.

“Marilyn Monroe was someone Marilyn Monroe invented, like an author creates a character.” Recalling a session that took place at his studio on a May evening in 1957, he continued: “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.”

In the networked social space created by our new modes of communication and interaction we enact a similar form of theatrical self-impersonation. Most of who we are is hidden from view, each identity is constructed and by definition, incomplete. Shakespeare’s words ring true today as we signal to each through roles constructed and manipulated at a distance.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts

Monroe established an economics for her self-impersonation and her product was, and is, in high demand. We see a similar dynamic in the blogosphere where economic value is created through the theatrics of self-impersonation. Steve Gillmor has written an excellent post that gives us a backstage pass to the theatrical process Mike Arrington uses to write a Mike Arrington post. One might add, of course, there is no such person as “Mike Arrington.”

But we shouldn’t limit our exploration to the commercial sphere, there are other modes in which this idea of theatrical self impersonation can play out. One of the stories that Ray Ozzie has been telling lately to introduce himself to Microsoft and the world has to do with a online system called Plato. An experience Ozzie had 33 years ago on an online network captured the promise and depth of this new space of interaction.

By the mid-1970s, PLATO’s many features included email and an instant messaging feature dubbed “Talk-O-Matic.” Ozzie wrangled a job working on the project, and, while doing so, communicated online with a collaborator who worked remotely from off-campus. Ozzie was impressed by the eloquence and intelligence of his offsite workmate and the two quickly bonded. Ozzie’s only complaint was that when they sent instant messages to each other, his offsite colleague was a frustratingly slow typist.

After their joint project was completed, Ozzie met his remote partner in person for the first time during a party at the partner’s house in 1975. Only then did Ozzie discover that his colleague was a quadriplegic, bound to a wheelchair, whose slow typing was a result of having to interact with the keyboard using a stick held in his mouth.

The incident had a profound effect on Ozzie. He was struck by how the technology allowed them to connect so closely, despite physical constraints and without preconceived judgments. The two had met in a shared mental space that was uniquely enabled by networked technology.

While we sometimes think of this networked social space we’re exploring as new, in an era where innovation occurs at lightening speed, the roots of the basic interactions reach back to a time out of mind.

The visible artifacts of these theatrical creations become detached from their originators and float freely in a field of play– currency traded in our social dance. Paul Ricoeur talks about these artifacts as “oneself as other” (Soi-meme comme un autre). While some talk of a technology that will allow us to aggregate the disaggregated, scooping up all the disparate pieces of personal identity and weaving them into a whole, the element of time renders these attempts necessarily partial. Perhaps we’re due for an exploration into the polar opposite of the single whole identity. The poet Fernando Pessoa created the literary concept of the heteronym. A heteronym possesses distinct temperaments, philosophies, appearances and writing styles– Pessoa had more than 70. Would the words I write here be the same ones I’d exchange with you over coffee at a little cafe on the other side of town? I really couldn’t say…

The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act

He even fakes the pain

Of pain he feels in fact.

Pinter’s gone (pause) He’s well out of it now (silence)

Although in our later years we had some disagreements, there was a long period where I read everything he wrote. Devoured it, like a starving man. Harold Pinter was a towering figure in the literature of our theater.

– pause –

The plays are very difficult to do well. Many of the works are an exercise in game theory, in wordless competition. They unfold at the level of everyday speech and a strange and dangerous undercurrent of action.

– silence –

It’s as though in his works, language reveals its potential as a strange and cruel weapon. The words spoken have multiple meanings and very sharp corners. But it shouldn’t be over-thought, it’s more like a game of catch with a hand grenade. Usually only one of the game’s participants knows when the explosion will occur.

– pause –

Pinter’s writing was part of what attracted me to theater in the first place. The plays engaged the human situation at a fundamental level with energy and ferocity. Looking back, I now understand how rare a playwright he was. And as time passes, his work only grows in my estimation. His passing, and the time of year, brings to mind Auden’s poem in memory of Yeats. “The death of the poet was kept from his poems.”

In Memory of W.B. Yeats
by WH Auden

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

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