Archive for September, 2015

Once You Can Fake Sincerity…

I hadn't been following the major recall of Volkswagen's cars very closely. Nearly a half million cars had been recalled, and I assumed it was some safety issue. When I sat down with my newspaper and cup of coffee this morning and read the details–I almost did a spit take.

Here's how the NY Times put it:

The Environmental Protection Agency accused the German automaker of using software to detect when the car is undergoing its periodic state emissions testing. Only during such tests are the cars' full emissions control systems turned on. During normal driving situations, the controls are turned off, allowing the cars to spew as much as 40 times as much pollution as allowed under the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. said.

There's your techno-utopia for you. It's a variation on the old saying, “once you can fake sincerity, you've really got it made.”

 

Reading Mont Blanc

There are a couple of reasons that writing has migrated toward the screen. The biggest reason is that it's cheaper. The production process migrated to the screen, and in the end, it seemed easier to skip the part where you turn digital files into plates, smear ink on them, and print the offset onto paper. Once lots of people had screens that could serve as readers, the economics of it gained traction.

The same thing happened in movies and television, photography, and music. The consumption device is just a simpler version of the machines, or set of machines, used to produce the work.

The flexibility and agility provided by digital production methods hasn't really translated into the artwork. There are a few experimental attempts, but nothing has broken through into the mass market. A few people are working on computational narrative outside of the video game context. Generative music has also been available at your local app store for a while.

These kind of generative and computational works take the form of software applications. Computing power and algorithms are a necessary element of the product. They sit in a kind of no man's land between traditional media and video games. For the most part, the digital publication has simply been a cheaper form of print. As the hypertext medium matures, we'll need to see something more than “cheap.” Eventually, the audience won't be impressed with “free” or “cheap.” Libraries are filled with “free” books, but it's not on that basis that a reader checks out a book.

I started down this train of thought because of a book I checked out of San Francisco's Mechanic's Library. It's a membership library located downtown. If you like chess, it houses a beautiful chess room. Motivated by reading Tim Morton's review in the “LA Review of Books” of Steven Shaviro's “The Universe of Things,” I became interested in reading the poem that resonates so strongly with the title of Shaviro's book.

The poem is called “Mont Blanc” and was written in 1816 by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem is available online through a number of sources. I own several volumes of Shelley's work that contain the poem. Whenever I'm in a used book store I look for unfamiliar editions of poetry by William Blake and Percy Shelley. While their poetry is widely available, most of the editions are not very readable–tiny type, horrible layout.

Book publishers still working with ink and paper have also succumbed to the trend of producing the cheapest product possible. And when it comes to so-called classics, the worst tendencies of cheapness converge. It's as though the publisher cynically believes that it's enough to say one owns the complete works of Shakespeare in a single volume. Of course, no one would waste their time actually reading the plays; so why bother making them a pleasure to read?

You've probably seen these kinds of books. Their unapproachability has nothing to do with their status as “high art.” It's just that the type is too small. They're technically readable, in that, all the words have been converted to ink on paper. This is perhaps where the saying “machine readable” comes from.

Back to the poem. I'd been reading Shelley's “Mont Blanc” every evening for several weeks. I find that I need to read a poem a number of times over an extended period before it begins to function as a poem. I'd been switching off between various books that contained the poem. And then recently, I happened to be in the Mechanic's Library looking for something else, and thought I should find out if they had a nice edition of Shelley's poetry.

When I got to the designated shelf, I recognized the dark green seven volume, hard bound set of “The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.” For some reason I'd always resisted it. I think I'd had a previous bad experience with an old edition of Coleridge's poems. Completely unreadable. I pulled down a volume and started paging through it. What a revelation.

This edition was published by Virtue & Company out of Boston in 1909. It's the library edition, and bears the number, 141 out of 1000. It has beautiful illustrations, and was edited by Nathan Haskell Dole. The volumes are simple, durable and luxurious.

Reading “Mont Blanc” in this beautiful edition, with excellent typography and a generous layout, was a qualitatively different experience. The poem has technically been printed in many books. All the words are there, and the lineation is correct, but not every printing of the poem actually does service to both the poem and the reader. The quality of the ink and the paper has something to do with it, but one also has the sense the publishers have a real understanding of what they're committing to paper. It's as though they knew in advance what it would be like to read these poems in this particular configuration.

Due to financial constraints, much of print publishing has lost its sense of usability. There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Web design has gone through the opposite problem. The “usability” profession killed design in the production of web sites. Some good principles were unearthed, but the usability specialists over-played their hand. We're only starting to see web sites (if there still is such a thing as a “web site”) wriggle out from under the boot of usability.

Reading the poem “Mont Blanc” online isn't a particularly pleasurable experience. The screen, and the vast network of interconnected pages behind it, seem to work against the flow of the poem. Rather than open the reader to the experience of the natural world flowing through the senses, as though one were a kind of Aeolian harp; the hypertext screen radiates the opposite polarity, and entices the reader to flow her attention through the connecting paths of the Network.

While it is true that the cost of publishing the written word will always be cheaper in some digital format, the value of the work in many cases is diminished. In the last year, a few online publications have started to break the mold and create more reader-friendly screen publications. Perhaps as we read more and more online, we'll begin to realize the absolute poverty of the reading experience. It's not very good. When the economics of publication, whether for print or screen, tells us that we can't afford to do good work–that's when the whole thing really starts to fall apart. We've been facinated with the idea of commodity prices approaching zero. What we're learning (again) is that value tends to follow price as it moves toward zero.

Where is that revaluation of digital values that we've been waiting for?

 

Hamartia: American Anti-Poetics

At its point of origin, American poetry felt great anxiety about the influence of Europe. The roughness of early American life created the impression that the continent was devoid of grist for the mill of poetic thought. Dan Chiasson writing about Emerson in a recent “New Yorker” magazine in an essay entitled “Ecstasy of Influence,” gives us the lay of the poetic landscape.

Emerson was not the poet he had in mind in “The Poet.” In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had prophesied an American poetry free of “legendary lays,” “old traditions,” “supernatural beings,” masks, and personifications. Americans let “petty” and “insipid” lives, “crowded with paltry interests”: their lives were “anti-poetic.” The only subject possible for an American poet was humankind; luckily, as Tocqueville wrote, “the poet needs no more.” Emerson, who spent most of his life cultivating the aura of an elder, called for “a brood of Titans” who would “run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and love.”

The poet Emerson was looking for, of course, was Walt Whitman.

Chiasson's thesis is that if Emerson had been a better poet, somehow more in touch with his grief, emotion and vision–he would not have been looking for someone like Whitman. And without Emerson, it's possible that Whitman, and American poetry, would not have emerged in the same way.

But to me, the interesting part of Tocqueville's prophecy of American poetry is that it implies an empty landscape filled only with emigres struggling for survival. America was a wild place where everything needed to be built from scratch. You can almost hear a voice say, “when we got here, there was nothing.”

In this telling, authentic American poetry started in complete blindness, unable to see the surrounding new world. Oddly, this blindness was expressed as a freedom from the cultural traditions, legends and folklore of old Europe. The anxiety of influence created a hysterical blindness that set the foundation for the virgin birth of Titans that could hammer out an American poetry that owed nothing to its predecessors.

Since that time, American poetry (and most other aspects of being an American) has been a long coming-to-terms with the continent that was here all along. In attempting to escape the influence of old Europe, the European ideal of the heroic individual in a strange land was fully embraced and internalized. The European influence was boiled down to a concentrated elixir, smuggled in through the back door, and eventually emerged as our harmartia. We stood at the edge of a continent, hit the reset button, and declared that a new world had been discovered.

 

Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

There are many pursuits where it's wise not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But we've reached a point in technology, entertainment, apps and design where there are an abundance of “good” things. We've hit “peak good.”

Linda Holmes, writing for her NPR media blog reported that John Landgraf, CEO of the FX Network, has called a top in the TV business. We've reached peak television.

Landgraf predicted that 2015 or 2016 would represent what he called “peak television” in the United States in terms of sheer volume, followed by a period of contraction. And note well: He doesn't believe all the excess inventory comes from bad and mediocre shows. He says good shows are part of the problem, too: “There's just too much competition, so much so that I think the good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones.” (Do you hear that, people who make good shows? You're getting in the way of greatness.)

Entertainment networks now come in two flavors, realtime (old school), and random access catalog. Both have the same basic ingredients: one is a programmed stream of shows; the other is a set of options / suggestions to help you program your own stream. Both have a catalog of new and old material, while realtime networks include live sports and news.

Netflix, when it was the only game in town, seemed like a universal library of almost all the films and television shows you'd want to see. Once other players entered the space and began competing for “content,” the game changed. HBO, Netflix, Showtime, Starz, Hulu, Amazon, and Acorn are the new networks. And the realtime networks have adopted the catalog strategy as well by making their shows available via “on demand.” It's rumored that Apple will be joining the fray with its own original productions in the near future. (It'll be interesting to see how being a content producer changes a technology company that has traditionally been an intermediary with no skin in the game.)

With all the new and historical content now available through various contortions of cable, airplay, computer and app, it's still necessary to apply Sturgeon's Law. 90% of it is crap. In 2015 there will be around 400 scripted original English-language television series. Because we've grown the pie, the 10% that might be considered good is still too many. Most these new programs won't find an audience. Even the “good” ones. The audience has simply been over-served, which means the economics of production will work out for roughly the same number as in the past. The rest will be available to view on-demand from the back catalog.

In these so-called economies of abundance, it's important to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lots of entertainment, music, games, apps and social networks may be good, but that doesn't mean they're worth your time. Good isn't good enough anymore–it's the new baseline. It's the new “C” grade. As an audience member, these networks are competing for our attention (to sell memberships or sell to advertisers). When we deem something “good,” we need to acknowledge that the scale goes up from “good” to “very good” to “excellent.”

The bubble of “goodness” may be short lived as investors begin to experience losses, and the oversupply of new programs can't find audiences and advertisers to sustain them. This particular bubble has been inflated by the technology bubble. When there's a lot of money floating around, inevitably, rich guys are talked into investing in show business. It's a story as old as show business itself.