Archive for November, 2009

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Phone Gender: It’s Aphrodite In A Mini-Skirt


Driving across town the other day, I heard a Droid phone ad on the radio. The ad compared Droid’s capabilities to that of a relentless robot that accomplished tasks with power, speed and an implied ruthless inhuman amorality. And then there was a line that revealed a little more than was probably intended. Although in this day and age, it seems impossible that an unconscious thought could slip through in an advertisement. The radio ad states that the Droid isn’t:

Aphrodite in a miniskirt

For those of you keeping score at home, in Greek mythology, Aphrodite is the Goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture. The phrase in the commercial is obviously referencing Apple’s iPhone. It appears that the gender of the iPhone is decidedly female.

In Greek mythology, Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture. According to Hesiod, she was born when Uranus (the father of the gods) was castrated by his son Cronus. Cronus threw the severed genitals into the ocean which began to churn and foam about them. From the aphros (“sea foam”) arose Aphrodite, and the sea carried her to either Cyprus or Cythera. Hence she is often referred to as Kypris and Cytherea. Homer calls her a daughter of Zeus and Dione.

After her birth, Zeus was afraid that the gods would fight over Aphrodite’s hand in marriage so he married her off to the smith god Hephaestus, the steadiest of the gods. He could hardly believe his good luck and used all his skills to make the most lavish jewels for her. He made her a girdle of finely wrought gold and wove magic into the filigree work. That was not very wise of him, for when she wore her magic girdle no one could resist her, and she was all too irresistible already. She loved gaiety and glamour and was not at all pleased at being the wife of sooty, hard-working Hephaestus.

Apparently, compared to the Droid, the iPhone could be considered pretty, sexy even, but not very serious or useful. The iPhone is merely a decorative female. In the myth the Droid might be compared to Hephaestus, the husband selected for Aphrodite by Zeus. Although Hephaestus had emotions, and the Droid, as a robot, lacks them. A cursory glance at the communications sheath surrounding the Droid pegs it squarely as a teenage boy infatuated with science fiction. Due to his inexperience with the female of the species, Droid manufactures a fantasy that assigns the female a particular role within the science fiction narrative it inhabits.

In a follow up commercial, the iPhone is described as a:

Tiara-wearing, digitally clueless, beauty pageant queen

At this point, it’s fairly clear that Droid doesn’t have a date to the school prom and feels contempt for the social set. Droid will show the world that geeks are cool, that math and science rule. That being popular shouldn’t be based on how you look, how many friends you have or your sense of style— but rather on how many mechanical pencils you can fit into your pocket protector.



Now, take a look at Google and Apple and think about what this narrative says about the respective companies. Apple has spent a long time developing its corporate messaging. Google has never had to. The Droid ads are an interesting view into the unconscious wishes of the Google corporation. In an age where becoming an adult is optional, Google could embrace this awkward teenage geeky science fiction persona for a good long time.


But deep down, the Google Droid is using all its powers to search for that potion that will turn the Nutty Professor into Buddy Love. And then thanks to science (fiction), that mini-skirt wearing Aphrodite beauty queen will find him irresistible.

Richard Foreman: The Presentation of Real Time


MARIE: Oh, Idiot Savant— why stuff that provocative dental instrument into your mouth—impeding all possible “human speech”? (He takes it out. Pause)—Thank God, you’ve removed it.

IDIOT SAVANT: As a result, dear lady—am I no longer capable of saving us from magic words?

MARIE: But they occur very infrequently.

IDIOT SAVANT: Are we under attack, Madame?

MARIE: What makes chosen words— magic?

IDIOT SAVANT: Who among us is prepared for an explanation?

MARIE: (Pause, thinks) Me?


It always pains me to miss any production by Richard Foreman. Unfortunately, this happens all too often as I am based in San Francisco, and he’s based in New York City. Whenever I plan to be in New York, one of the first things I do is check whether Foreman has something going on.

I orginally learned about Foreman’s work through the pages of a journal edited by Michael Kirby called The Drama Review. I still occasionally return to the December 1975 issue on New Performance & Manifestos which contains Foreman’s Third Manifesto for the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. It’s taken intensive reading and re-reading over many years to finally feel as though I can stand under the meaning of the manifesto.

Richard Foreman’s latest, and perhaps last, work for the theater is currently running at The Public Theater through December 20th and is called “Idiot Savant.” I’ve only experienced this work through the text of periodicals that have chosen to cover the event. This morning I finally got around to reading the New Yorker’s coverage. When the mainstream press writes about Foreman they have to budget at least half of the designated column inches to explain who Foreman is, what he does, and why it’s important and kind of entertaining. Without the establishment of a makeshift frame, a preface to the words describing the performance, the text that describes the performance would simply appear to be a recitation of a random flow of inner states and thoughts that occurred simultaneously with the performance of Foreman’s work.

Hilton Als, in his preface to his published thoughts on “Idiot Savant” quotes Foreman’s introduction to his 1989 play “Lava.”

“There are writers who despair that a gap exists between the self and the words that come, but for me that gap is the field of all creativity— it’s an ecstatic field rather than a field of despair…It’s the unfathomable from which every pours forth.”

The writer indemnifies himself with the construction of a frame within which to view and share the performance. The words of his text will need to cross a large gap, and in the end will not be a true representation of the events that unfolded on the stage on that particular night. The difficulty in trying to represent Foreman’s work is that Foreman’s performances don’t represent anything. They are the thing itself. There is no third thing about which both the performance and the writing about the performance can refer.

Foreman explains his approach in his Third Manifesto:

Most theatre, on the other hand, is dedicated to creating an “experience.” Sometimes that experience is thought of as an avenue to understanding. (For instance, an experience in a politically oriented play, which is designed to help one “understand” why workers do such and such, and the managers do such and such, etc.)

But an “experiencing” does not lead to the radical “understanding” I am concerned with. Here’s why. Experience of any sort is “recognizing.” I would not deny that anything called “art” has to end up in the thing called “spectator” as some kind of experience. But there is a difference between this last fact and the always misguided attempt to make the art experience be isomorphic with an OTHER experience-event.

We experience what we recognize—what we know. Even if the experience is the experience of “not-knowing” or “being confused” or anything else to which we can give a name. The task of art is to serve understanding… by trying to create a field which is isomorphic with what stands-under experience— which is not experience itself.

Now, what stands-under experience cannot be experienced, experience is not the mode by which we can know it.

What stands-under experience are the laws (processes) of perception and other laws-of-configuration of the universe.

My task is to make work, the structure of which is isomorphic with those laws. Then I will be standing-under experience.

Foreman’s work attempts to be present in the real-time moment. The gestures don’t refer to some other fictional reality, they are gestures that are happening right now. And to create something that can genuinely be perceived as new, the performance charts a course outside of the grooves of our comfortable, traditional, cultural narratives. Returning again to the Third Manifesto, Foreman contemplates the implications of physicist Paul Dirac’s work as it relates to the creation of performance works:

For instance: Dirac, Paul. His 1931 theory— (for me, the most useful MANTRA of our time). In which he postulates—

Space isn’t empty. It’s filled with a bottomless sea of electrons with negative mass (& negative energy). All available locations in space, filled with minus energy electrons, not interaction, no manifestation of their existence!

On occasion, a high-energy cosmic ray hits one of these “ghost” electrons and imparts its energy to it. So the ghost electron is then bumped out of the sea of non-existence and becomes a normal electron with positive energy and mass.

But that leaves a “hole” in the sea where it had been. The hole is a negation of negative mass, so is positive mass (also positive change). This hole (DIRAC predicts in ’31) would be a new kind of particle, having mass equal to and charge opposite to a normal electron (which is +mass and -charged.) An anti-electron.

But (he predicts) the anti-electron will be very short lived because a normal electron will soon be attracted to the “hole,” fall into it, and the two oppositionally charged electrons will immediately annihilate each other.

Most of the writing about Foreman’s work notes that the “subject” of the work hasn’t changed over the years, it’s always “about” the same thing. Of course, this is because it isn’t “about” anything, it “is” that thing itself— and since it isn’t a story, it’s not recognizable as one.

The pattern of creation described by Dirac describes both the activity and the subject of Foreman’s work. In Chapter 16 of Foreman’s text The Amateur Genius he writes:

The Amateur Genius was on a street where the brick surface of the wall confronting him did sparkle, desertd as the street was on the Sunday that it was; and The Amateur Genius tried to think about the brain roots that twisted into a very real antispace, spaced into the careful click that widened as idea on idea perfromed mutual erasure so that the writing The Amateur Genius did (and upon his very brain The Amateur Genius did write).

“—Write not the ideas,” spoke The Amateur Genius. “The ideas perform mutual erasure.”

“Write rather the brain-stem rush. So when that is written nothing is written. Or rather, the writing speaks so the weakened eye speaks a kind of internal stress and strain out of which pop the grapefruits of, dare I say it, a second world, a third world— (there are grapefruits that do thinking as well as other sweetness).”

Foreman toils endlessly to get to the present moment, the being of the act of creation, not a representation or a narrative about a thing, but the thing itself. The theatrical performance provides a rare opportunity to experiment with focused attention and the real-time moment. The work done by Foreman, Schechner, LeCompte, Breuer, Growtoski and others on the theory and  practice of presentational performance provides a rich ground for understanding our newly emergent networked media environment.

When Hilton Als attempts to write about a Richard Foreman performance, the difficulty of his task mirrors the difficulty traditional journalism faces with the real-time network. We’re used to media reports that represent a series of events. The quality of the report is based on the degree to which the text is isomorphic with the event. With the speed-up to real-time and the connectivity of the networked media environment, we become participants in the thing-itself as it unfolds in time. You can hear the critique of this state of affairs from the perspective of the traditional press: There’s no objectivity, the representations are not accurate, they don’t match the reported, and checked, facts.

We should have concerns about this new media environment, this new stage on which we stand, but they aren’t those of objectivity and representational accuracy. The participant can have no standing in either of those causes. The journalist who situates himself outside the event—within a field of objectivity—intends to be invisible, to withhold both his presence and influence on the event itself. He believes that only through this distance can he produce a text that is isomorphic with the event itself.  The journalist’s ethics have to do with accuracy of representation; the participant’s ethics have to do with what one chooses to do with an active or passive role in the action as it unfolds. Do you accelerate the action or oppose it? Do you ignore it or silently contemplate it. Do you route it to a private or public group? Do you produce a work in reaction to it? (Note how this is fundamentally different than the idea of the citizen journalist).

The common thread between Foreman’s performances and activity on the real-time network is that neither represents something else. They’re both the thing itself. It’s this shift from representation to presentation that opens a new world of possibilities (“dare I say it, a second world, a third world…”). Getting the hang of the new physics and economics of this space may take some time. The ethics of real-time mean that you’re a participant in an unfolding event— you aren’t invisible— and your actions (or lack of action) have consequences.

Untitled And Without Commercial Interruption


The strangest thing happened to me the other night. I went to see a movie entitled “Untitled.” It’s a comedy, a very dry comedy, about the avant-garde world of art and music. It was a slow night at the Bridge Theater and there were only a few of us there to see the film. My wife turned to me and said, “God, I hate previews. I hope there aren’t any previews.” I gave her a look and said, “Yeah, that’ll happen…”

After a moment, the lights started to dim and the “crowd” settled to get ready for the film. And then, the movie started. There were no previews, no commercials, no announcements. It was a shocking and delightful experience to go to the movies and get the movie without commercial interruption.


This experience made me think of some of the current chatter about Twitter. There seems to be a movement afoot to add commercial interruption to Twitter’s tweet stream. Various advocates are asking for a mailbox to be added to each tweet so it can be stuffed full of flyers. The engineering crowd calls this adding metadata, but it’s really just a ploy to interrupt, and create cubby holes for product placement in the program you tuned in to see. While they could easily just wrap the tweet stream up in their own application and stuff whatever flyers they chose into that sandwich, it would also require the effort of building a separate network. It’s a much easier task to ride on Twitter’s achievements, while simultaneously deriding them for not being open. Or at least open enough for the critics to implement their own business model on top of Twitter’s network. No number of promises about relevancy will make the interrupted Twitter into a pleasurable experience. One can only hope this wasn’t the absolutely fabulous monetization scheme that Dick Costolo was referring to at the RealTime Crunch Up.

Seeing a film at a movie theater without commercial interruption was an entirely pleasurable experience. It’s not one that I anticipate being able to have again, although I would certainly enjoy it. And having had the experience once, I can see that the difference is substantial and important. If the experience is the product, should the question really be about how much water you can put in the whiskey before anyone notices?

The Source: Algorithmic Authority and Unsupervised Systems of Record


At the recent Real-Time Crunch Up, a number of interfaces presented themselves; many of them worth reading and writing into. But, I’d like to explore a turn of phrase that slipped out causally in the last panel. The other members of the panel simply nodded and moved with the flow of the thought, it was understood to reflect the state of affairs. Dan’l Lewin, of Microsoft, while discussing which of the companies we’d seen during the day might become dominant players in the real-time environment of the Network, used the phrase: “system of record.” Lewin was referring to Twitter and Facebook as new systems of record on the Network.

Wikipedia is a little light on its definition of systems of record:

A system of record (SOR) is an information storage system (commonly implemented on a computer system), which is the authoritative data source for a given data element or piece of information. The need to identify systems of record can become acute in organizations where management information systems have been built by taking output data from multiple source systems, re-processing this data, and then re-presenting the result for a new business use.

The key here is the phrase: “authoritative data source for a given data element or piece of information.” The data element Lewin was referring to is the public social graph in its unfolding as real-time, tick-by-tick, context data. If you look at Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo, the financial and medical institutions, etc. — none of the current big players on the Network have the social contract that allows them to serve as the system of record for the real-time social context data set.

Each has a system of record with some essential piece of the picture; they serve as the source of some authoritative piece of data. None of them can be authoritative for every aspect of a person. And generally, we like to be able to choose among a minimum of two providers (SORs) for each piece of our represented selves. Companies like Acxiom, Mint/Yodlee, and Equifax have begun the process of aggregating identity across key authoritative data silos, creating connections and drawing the broad outlines. In order for there to be an aggregation point, there has to be a set of authoritative systems of record.

As I began to think about the authority of these interconnected data elements — another connection placed itself in the frame. We sometimes speak of the newspaper of record. Another kind of authority presents itself:

The first type of newspaper of record (or newspaper of public record) is often formally defined by a statute or other official action of a governing body. Such a newspaper is supposed to be available to the public, and publication of notices in that newspaper is considered sufficient to comply with legal requirements for public notice.

The second type of “newspaper of record” is not defined by any formal criteria. The use of the term implies that a newspaper is a reliable institution that publishes trustworthy descriptions of events, but this assessment may be disputed. Major newspapers of record may be expected to have independent editorial policies, and to publish statements of opinion that are distinct from those of their proprietor or their government. They are more likely than other newspapers to be sold abroad and to be cited in scholarly publications.

Clay Shirky has become enmeshed in the discussions around the endgame for newspapers. I wouldn’t exactly call it a debate, because only mainstream journalists are interested in debating the point. Everyone else seems to have moved on. In his post, On the Idea of Algorithmic Authority, he explores what we mean when we talk about authoritative sources. In essence, he’s exploring the pragmatism of a kind of anarchy.

When we use the phrases “system of record” and “newspaper of record,” we’re trying to get to a similar level of authority. Newspapers of record supply the day-to-day transcription of important events. It’s the “availability to the public” of the newspaper and its broad distribution that makes up the public record. The authority of the newspaper rests in an editorial process that outputs “trustworthy descriptions of events.”

Shirky, in his book Here Comes Everybody, looks at organizing without organizations— and this idea is extended here to explore the level of authority that can be achieved by an unsupervised process. Typically we look for some kind of certification, an institutional process guaranteed by a professional in charge. The change that Shirky chronicles is the expansion of the kinds of processes that can produce authoritative output. When an unsupervised algorithmic process can produce an output that people respect as authoritative, the economics of supervised certified processes are disrupted. The ecosystem is enlarged and the economics irrevocably changed. In this case authority isn’t replaced, rather its sources are multiplied.

As our view of the ecosystems of record on the Network begins to come into focus, an emerging landscape starts to take shape. And what looked like a field with thousands of players is quickly reduced to a small number of authoritative systems.

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