Archive for January, 2009

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White Lily

It seems as though we’re always on the verge of being able to think about this particular moment as it unfolds and pulls us to the next…

White Lily
Laurie Anderson

What Fassbinder film is it?
The one-armed man walks into a flower shop
And says: What flower expresses
Days go by
And they just keep going by endlessly
Pulling you Into the future
Days go by
Endlessly pulling you
Into the future?
And the florist says: White Lily.

All of My Works are Full Length, Some are just Longer than Others

Socrates in the Agora

Peter Aspden and I were born in the same year. And when I read his columns in the Financial Times I find myself nodding as my eyes scan the page. We’ve been on the same wavelength for the last couple of months. I’ve recently been trying to come to terms with the idea of “faster” versus “realtime.” It may have been in the 50s when this idea of the velocity and acceleration of our daily lives took hold as a sign of our separation from the things that matter. As the Web moves relentlessly toward unfolding in real time, the chorus of shouts from Nicholas Carr and others rise up around us. In his latest column “iPod therefore I am,” Aspden lays out the complaint:

It is received wisdom that the velocity and superficiality of modern life have resulted in a deterioration in the quality of our thinking and means of expression. A combination of technology, social permissiveness and sheer fecklessness has wrecked our capacity to reflect calmly and lucidly on our common concerns, the argument runs: our cultural triumphs lie in the past, and a unlikely ever to be surpassed.

The chief culprit in the decline of Western Civilization? — a declining ability to fully immerse oneself in the great and engaging works of our culture. As Aspden points out, this kind of engagement implies a scholarly withdrawal from the hurlyburly of life.

First Witch: “When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
Second Witch: “When the hurlyburly’s done, / When the battle’s lost and won.”

Aspden’s column was triggered by listening to a podcast called Philosophy Bites featuring an interview with Don Cuppitt. It’s a program that I listen to also, and in much the same way he does. He listens on the subway while commuting to work. He describes the experience:

It took 15 minutes, the length of all Philosophy Bites interviews, and it stayed with me the whole day– a day typically filled with tedious chores and niggling lack of coherence. This was how I liked my philosophy, I decided: sprinkled in short doses as part of my lived life. It made me think of the agora or market place of ancient Athens, where you were as likely in your perambulations to pick up a Socratic quip as a kilo of lentils.

When we consider the deep and abiding issues and themes of our day, must we withdraw from our lived lives and retreat to an academy where time and space allow a full measure of perspective and retrospection? Philosophy in a podcast, an RSS feed or a Tweet with a link is the opposite of the normative historical practice. Aspden describes the flavor of this new practice:

This is a little like the world we live in now, fast-moving, interlinked and demanding of minds that can absorb new information quickly and uncomplainingly. The best of our culture reflects this: it is edgy, provocative, mired in ambiguity, and happily dispensible– pop-up art for popular times.

But it’s not speed (as in more beats per second) that’s the critical factor, it’s the reintegration of this practice of thought into our lives at the speed at which they are lived. The media conforms to the speed of life rather than the reverse. As we talk about the economics and fates of walled gardens in the commerical web, perhaps we don’t notice that the walled gardens of the academy have been breached as well. Those pursuits that could only exist in the specialized environment of the classroom have escaped and are now sitting on your iPod, among other places, ready for your engagement when you have a minute or two. Aspden concludes:

But think about it this way: the closer we come to a truly inclusive, all-embracing culture, art that unifies all of us, the less time we have for those rarefied, introspecitive meanderings that once passed for genius. Art and philosphy bite harder today. Get used to it.

There are those who say we get the culture we deserve, and point despairingly at all the usual places. But I’m reminded of the old story told by Nasrudin:

One night, a neighbor strolling by Nasrudin’s house found him outside under the street lamp brushing through the dust. “Have you lost something, my friend?” he asked. Nasrudin explained that he had lost his key and asked the neighbor to help him find it. After some minutes of searching and turning up nothing, the neighbor asked him, “Are you sure you lost the key here?” “No, I did not lose it here. I lost it inside the house,” Nasrudin answered. “If you lost the key in the house, Nasrudin, why are you looking for it out here?” “Well, there’s more light out here, of course,” Nasrudin replied.

Change is a funny thing. The culture that we’re creating today may start appearing in new forms on new networks– length or venue won’t be a determining factor. It’s the work’s ability to connect inline to the flow of our lives. As Samuel Beckett once replied to a criticism of his play “Breath,” — “All of my works are full length, some are just longer than others.”

The MicroCaster in Chief

Barack Obama, Community Organizer

Watching President Barack Obama work his way through the long, long inaugural day, I see a virtuoso. In each venue, at each moment, he’s broadcasting live across multiple streams of media. It’s live, well thought out, and in the moment. While the messages are carried by the major media networks, the voice speaks to the micro-community.

During the general election, Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin made the remark that “a mayor was like a community organizer, but with real responsibilities.” It was a line that drew thunderous applause from the assembled convention. It also revealed a fundamental difference in communication styles and strategies, a difference that made all the difference.

A community organizer is successful when he can connect with a small group– the microcommunity. It’s direct, it’s specific and it must be honest. The members of the community understand when they hear the ring of truth.

When Obama addresses the nation, he speaks as a microcaster directly to a host of microcommunities. He talks to you and asks you to talk to your neighbors, and to knock on doors to spread the word. It’s a political communications strategy that couldn’t possibly work. Ask any expert. Obama relied on the strong connections of the small group instead of the weak connections created by mass media. Small world theory was writ large. And it’s an approach that will move naturally from the campaign to governing.

When a great player improvises he’s not making things up out of thin air. He knows the scales, the changes, the modes, the melody, the rhythm and the audience. And from those raw materials he makes something both familiar and new.

Steve Gillmor keeps asking the question about the power of microcommunities. I think we’ve seen part of the answer today.

Patterns of Distribution: Re-routing the Signal

I was listening to Wolf Blitzer on CNN talking with the captain of the President’s plane, Air Force One. After 9/11, the airplane was fitted with videoconferencing equipment to allow the President to address the nation while in flight. The pilot described a process where the video signal could be sent to the major television networks for distribution to the nation and the world.

If you were designing that distribution pattern today, you’d send the video to YouTube first. Previously, only the the major television, radio and cable networks had the distribution power to reach the nation. To the extent that YouTube can accomodate realtime broadcast and provide an archive for timeshifting, it will become the primary distribution channel for political communication. The media networks will pick up the signal from YouTube for rebroadcast in realtime. They’ll provide context and analysis as a value add, but in that pursuit, they will be competing with a full range of microbroadcasters.

The dominant distribution pattern has been inverted; there were a few people who saw this historical change as it emerged over the last year. Obama, and his team, saw the possibilities of bottom up communication and executed on the insight beautifully. It will be interesting to see how this pattern becomes firmly woven into our culture over the next year.

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