The best minds of my generation have been destroyed by the madness of contriving ways to get people to click on ads, conforming to a conceptual framework of disruption in which ruptures take the form of optimizing commercial capitalism. As the hot air of “technology” and “social” fill up the bubble once more, food for Cacophony fills the streets, the airways and the wires of the Network. The time is ripe for more weird fun from The Cacophony Society.
The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. We are the punctuation at the end of hypothetical sentences, words in the prose of technological satire, grammarians of absurdist syntax and our numbers are prominent in the flat edge of a curve. You may already be a member!
Dress like you always do. Do what you normally do.
Object of the event: See if you can pick out the other participants. This was a really big event last year. Let’s see if we can do it again!
Sponsored by: The Bureau of Objective Reality
Last Gasp of San Francisco has published “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society.” This new instruction manual and historical document is cornucopia of cacophony and should prove to be an inspiration to a new generation about to be chained to the “promise” of Google Glass.
Saturday, Sept. 5 8:00 p.m.
Meet: At the N.E. corner of Judah and 7th Ave.
Bring: Recently or about-to-be deceased animal bodies or parts (please no “roadkill”)
Wear: Something you won’t mind getting indelible stains on
Dr. X and The Other One
For the scholars of Cacophony, and the future generation of pranksters, the holy historical documents (Rough Draft) and other ephemera are being housed in the virtual halls of the Cacophony Society Section of the Internet Archive. The youth of the world have an indispensable new resource in their pursuit of a renaissance of cacophony.
At first it just seemed to be missing. Missing in the way that you’d say a person or a thing isn’t really gone, but just misplaced for the moment. But I’m finally convinced it’s not coming back. The systems that furnish and replenish my local environment with objects have written this product out of the distribution algorithms.
When I first started shaving my face as a young man, I decided to use a shaving brush and a cake of shaving soap. I’m a fan of simple solutions. Shaving soap seemed to solve the problem of shaving lather. The product innovations in this area haven’t seemed much like real improvements. The exotic flavors, textures and delivery methods of lather and foam seem more like narratives of advertising than a solution to the problem of shaving one’s face.
Fancy shaving soaps are available in all the places you’d expect. But the one that’s gone missing is called “Williams Shaving Soap.” It’s a serviceable shave soap, you might even call it ordinary. But “Williams” was available everywhere, at all the local grocery and drug stores. It was the remaining shaving soap, it held down a humble spot on the store shelves. Its disappearance from the local stores marks a significant event in the arc of this product’s existence. The soap was created in 1840 by James B. Williams. It was the first shaving soap created for use in mugs.
It’s clearly the case that “Williams” is available for order on the Network, and it may still be available on store shelves in other parts of the country. But in San Francisco, it’s vanished. A young man today, about to make some decisions about how he might want to go about shaving his face, peering at the shelves of the supermarket, won’t notice what’s missing. If that young man were to come across a cake of “Williams”, it would be in the context of a nostalgic experience. Its circulation would have no currency, it would float on the alternate currents of wet shaving “traditionalism.” We tend to think that physical presence has become less important in the era of the Network, but if you’ve never seen something, how will you know to submit a query to look for it?
Once another generation passes and this object shifts just over the horizon, it’s only a brief distance to becoming time out of mind. Even now I only experience it as an absence on a store shelf. Wet shaving and getting up a lather has its adherents, but in the era of the shave gel and the five-blade razor, will we ever recognize how the shaving technology industry is over-serving our whiskers?
The elegies for Steven Paul Jobs come pouring forth. The traditional elements of an elegy correspond to the stages of loss. Grief and sorrow are expressed through a lament; the life of the departed is idealized through admiration and praise; and then comes solace and consolation. As we find ourselves more than midway on life’s journey, the poetic form of the elegy reveals itself as a palpable presence. It’s not a form whose outlines are traced from a recipe extracted from a book, there’s a direct physical encounter with its contours as we stop for a moment, and look across the grain of time.
Businessmen, technologists, and tech bloggers have focused on different aspects of the Jobs legacy. I’d like to turn the spotlight to some of the language used to talk about what made Jobs different: visionary, genius, magic, and of course, crazy. These are words we use to describe something on the other side of the line, something well beyond ordinary grasp. From the stance of the technologist, the business person or the engineer, these are not qualities that can be captured in an algorithm, a spreadsheet or a mechanical device. Jobs appears to be an anomaly, the impossible exception—we shake our heads and say, ” we won’t see his like again.”
Steven P. Jobs wasn’t a hardware engineer, he didn’t write software code, he wasn’t an industrial designer. He didn’t finish college, given his qualifications, he wouldn’t even be considered for the position he held. The common wisdom in the technology community is that great companies start with great engineers—then eventually the suits come in and ruin everything. The technology industry’s utopia is a world run by engineers. Yet, Jobs, who was not an engineer, is acknowledged as the industry’s great visionary.
If we were listening, Jobs told us what he was doing. He explicitly stated that “Apple’s goal is to stand at the intersection of technology and the humanities.” This maxim hasn’t been given due consideration. Jobs restated this idea many times and in different formulations. At the iPad2 launch, he said it this way:
“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.”
To the engineers in the crowd, this talk of “singing hearts” must seem like a lot of sentimental hogwash. It’s the nuts and bolts that really make the difference. Technology stands alone, it doesn’t need to marry anyone, or anything, to win the day. Talk of ‘singing hearts’ is just Jobs as salesman, some of that ‘reality distortion field’ stuff.
We strip rhetoric from logic, we limit design to the surface, we consider the humanities to be the frothy nonsense floating at the top of an education that should be devoted to hardcore business and science. It’s the ‘nice-to-have,’ but inessential item on the to-do list. As the center of thought moves further and further in that direction, we lose even the language to describe the kinds of things Jobs accomplished. And while we can’t articulate it, there’s no question that we hear its music.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d;
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Here’s Jobs talking about his approach in a Fortune magazine interview in 2000:
“We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing,” Mr. Jobs replied. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. … That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started.”
Here the humanities aren’t the thin layer of frosting spread on top of the core of technology to make it look nice. In a sense, technology is medium through which a fundamentally humanistic vision is expressed. Where the common wisdom is to start with the engineering and the technology, Jobs and the team at Apple start with an act of poetic imagination. The slogan “think different” encapsulates this idea. The ‘difference’ in this kind of thinking is that it starts with the humanities and technology as equal partners in the eventual expression of the product or service. Or as Jobs eloquently describes it, the kernel of the idea “expressing itself in successive outer layers.”
Of all the commentary, it was James B. Stewart’s piece in the New York Times that captured some of the unheard melody, the poetic thinking emanating from the office of the CEO.
“Most people underestimate his grandeur and his greatness,” Gadi Amit, founder and principal designer of New Deal Design in San Francisco, told me. “They think it’s about design. It’s beyond design. It’s completely holistic, and it’s dogmatic. Things need to be high quality; they have to have poetry and culture in each step. Steve was cut from completely different cloth from most business leaders. He was not a number-crunching guy; he was not a technologist. He was a cultural leader, and he drove Apple from that perspective. He started with culture; then followed with technology and design. No one seems to get that.”
It’s hard to find parallels. Braun and Olivetti in Europe had beautiful designs, but never had Apple’s success. Mr. Amit mentioned Italy’s Enzo Ferrari, the racecar driver and founder of the Ferrari sports car manufacturer. “Apple has the status that Ferrari has in Italy,” Ms. Antonelli said. “It’s a source of national pride and of pride for every employee. You get to that stature only if you created something so fundamental that everyone loves.”
Mr. Amit says he believes Mr. Jobs’s legacy will be “the blending of technology and poetry. It’s not about design per se; it’s the poetic aspect of the entire enterprise. Compared to Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, he’s in a different class. I think this is a revolutionary shift. Jobs is a revolutionary character. He shifted the industry and changed our lives through this amalgamation of culture and technology. If you’re looking for C.E.O.’s of this caliber, you have to look outside the engineering and business schools. That is truly revolutionary.”
When we lament that we won’t see another like Steven P. Jobs again, we need to acknowledge the cold, hard facts of the situation. We aren’t looking for people like Jobs to lead our greatest companies. In fact, we’re probably doing everything in our power to make sure that people like him don’t get anywhere near a leadership role. We’ve de-valued and de-funded the humanities, we’ve relegated poetic thinking to third class status.
In 1821 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “A Defense of Poetry.” Although he never wrote one, the work of Steven P. Jobs was a modern defense of poetry.
The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
In looking for lost house keys under the light of the street lamp, we put aside the fact that we lost them in the ditch at the other side of the road. It’s odd how we can move so swiftly in a particular direction without really knowing where we’re going. An incredible amount of ingenuity, resources and coordination has been applied to building tablet computers. There’s an unstated assumption that the post-pc era is defined by an evolution of the computer to a new human-computer interface model with a new form factor. And at a technical level, there’s some truth there; however at the level of the market for devices, there’s not enough truth.
To make sense of all this, let’s go back to a 1996 interview by Gary Wolf with Steve Jobs. Jobs was at NeXt and was gazing ahead at the future:
Wolf: What other opportunities are out there?
Jobs: Who do you think will be the main beneficiary of the Web? Who wins the most?
Wolf: People who have something –
Jobs: To sell!
Wolf: To share.
Jobs: To sell!
Wolf: You mean publishing?
Jobs: It’s more than publishing. It’s commerce. People are going to stop going to a lot of stores. And they’re going to buy stuff over the Web!
e-Commerce’s path to the Network was from the paper catalog to the electronic catalog. The Sears Catalog was one of the early prototypes for distance retailing. But what was the paper catalog? Why was it successful? The catalog was an evolution of the shop window in the arcade. And it was the shop window that enabled the romantic imagination of the consumer. Heather Marcelle Crickenberger talks about Walter Benjamin’s idea of the flâneur:
“Flâneur” is a word understood intuitively by the French to mean “stroller, idler, walker.” He has been portrayed in the past as a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century–a shopper with no intention to buy, an intellectual parasite of the arcade. Traditionally the traits that mark the flâneur are wealth, education, and idleness. He strolls to pass the time that his wealth affords him, treating the people who pass and the objects he sees as texts for his own pleasure. An anonymous face in the multitude, the flâneur is free to probe his surroundings for clues and hints that may go unnoticed by the others.
Today we call it window shopping. It’s an exercise of the imagination in the role of the consumer. What might I look like in that outfit, listening to that music, with those kitchen appliances? A large plate of glass opened a window on to the possibilities contained within the shop. The flâneur could stroll the arcade moving from this window to that, searching for something that might catch his fancy.
Timothy Morton discusses this performance of the consumer imagination in his essay on “The Beautiful Soul.”
These performative styles are outlined by myself (Morton) and Colin Campbell. One style stands out, and that is a kind of meta-style that Campbell calls bohemianism and I call Romantic consumerism. This kind of consumerism is at one remove from regular consumerism. It is “consumerism-ism” as it were, that has realized that the true object of desire is desire as such. In brief, Romantic consumerism is window- shopping, which is hugely enabled by plate glass, or as we now do, browsing on the internet, not consuming anything but wondering what we would be like if we did. Now in the Romantic period this kind of reflexive consumerism was limited to a few avant-garde types: the Romantics themselves. To this extent Wordsworth and De Quincey are only superficially different. Wordsworth figured out that he could stroll forever in the mountains; De Quincey figured out that you didn’t need mountains, if you could consume a drug that gave you the feeling of strolling in the mountains (sublime contemplative calm, and so on). Nowadays we are all De Quinceys, all flaneurs in the shopping mall of life. This performative role, this attitude, is all the more pervasive, leading me to believe that we haven’t really exited from the Romantic period—another sense in which “prehistory” isn’t quite right for what I’m describing, but extremely right in another sense, namely that we’re still caught in an attitude that we don’t fully understand or become aware of.
When we talk about what’s assumed to be a tablet computer, we’re actually talking about a plate of glass, a shop window. In a discussion with Nick Bilton of the New York Times about why all these tablets look similar, Ryan Block hit on the key, although he may not have realized it:
“We are talking about a screen, where the screen is the entire experience and it can only really look and act one way, and that is to look similar to the iPad,” Mr. Block explained in a phone interview Thursday. “At the end of the day, they are all going to look similar, because a tablet is just a piece of glass.”
The innovations of the post-pc era aren’t to the computing device, they’re to the shop window. The ability to transact as part of the performance and the transformation of the goods from material to digital such that they can be played within the same window are the key additions to the “piece of glass.”
If you view the recent crop of tablet computers through this lens, you’ll see what separates the Apple and Amazon products from the rest. We pass the empty shop window of the deserted store as we move on down the block to see what we might find next. Of course, it’s simple to see how a technologist might confuse a shop window with a flat computing device.