For brands which champion female authenticity and naturalness, Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film Black Swan would be the stuff of nightmares.
The film follows popular ballet mythology in showing the fetishistic self-mutilation that lies behind the perfection of classical dance. Dancers force their feet into their shoes, criss-crossing the ribbons and tying the knot tight. They continuously stitch and re-stitch their costumes. And they starve and scar themselves in mysterious and barely conscious rituals of self-harm.
All these processes – suturing, binding, scarring – apply beyond ballet to symbolise the wider ways people cut themselves to fit the pattern of their social and economic ‘roles’. Despite the recent vogue for celebrating whole and authentic expression, Black Swan shows that the very possibility of social identity is founded upon painful artifice and elaborate construction.
The film also turns on the radical split that characterises classical ballet in popular mythology. On stage, all is perfect – ‘so pretty, so pink’ to quote a line from the script. But behind the scenes all is carnage: poisonous rivalries, vomiting in the toilet, drugs, sexual abuse, and bleeding feet.
It’s this very narcissistic divide between light and dark, ‘white swan’ and ‘black swan’, that authenticity-focused brands like Dove try to heal. By challenging the desired on-stage perfection of feminine identity, they seek to tidy up the back-stage mess too.
But the film attacks this split in a completely different way. It collapses the whole distinction between ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’, fiction and reality, into a generalised hallucination – the darkness of the ‘black swan’ breaking out of the dressing room and taking over the entirety of the film’s theatrical and psychic architecture.
So, in the end, all that binding and sewing, cutting and starving, comes to nothing. In fact, it achieves the opposite effect, triggering the complete breakdown of the stage set of subjectivity, and destroying the boundaries that separate illusion from reality.
In a way, it’s another take on the familiar idea of the ‘return of the repressed’. When the bondage of culture reaches an intolerable extremity, all hell breaks loose. But the film also plays with the boundaries between nature and culture in a more unusual way – staging a deliberate and conscious exacerbation of cultural artifice in order to unleash an explosion of natural energy.
Mainstream Western philosophy has usually claimed that nature lies somewhere outside culture – often before, as its pre-existing foundation. But Black Swan suggests that maybe nature lies at culture’s outer limit – and that we have to go to an extreme point of artifice, ritual and restraint in order to find it. So, in the film, the dancer turns classical mimesis into shamanic metamorphosis, using extreme classical perfection to invoke nature – and to call in the black swan in its physical reality.
With this idea, the film joins more marginal philosophical traditions spanning East and West, Indian tantric practice and European sado-masochism offering two key examples.
A ballet film, the tantric tradition and de Sade may sound like an unlikely nexus. But all involve using elaborate ritual and artifice – culture at its most extreme – to break through to the other side.
It was the best fake Twitter account ever, deftly satirizing Rahm Emanuel, and elevating the Tweet and the f-word to the level of literature. But the mystery writer was never revealed – until now.
There were many storylines in Rahm Emanuel’s romp to the Chicago mayor’s office: a powerful presidential aide leaves the White House; a mayor’s race without a Daley or even an incumbent; a candidate with a hazy claim on residency; the meltdown of former senator Carol Moseley Braun; the terrible voter turnout; and more.
But for networked Chicagoans and political insiders across the country, the performance and identity of @MayorEmanuel, a fake Twitter account, captured the imagination nearly as much as the real politics.
Caricaturing the notoriously dirty-mouthed former White House chief of staff, the Twitter account was a sensation as the election came to a close last week. @MayorEmanuel wrote nearly 2000 tweets in five months and collected several times as many followers as Rahm Emanuel’s real account. Since its last — and apparently final — update on Thursday night, some 1500 Tweets have been issued about the fake account . Daxid Axelrod himself, a frequent character in the stream, responded to a tweet Friday asking whether he missed the account, “You’re freakin’ A right I do.”
The real Rahm Emanuel offered to donate $5,000 to the charity of the anonymous Tweeter’s choice if the creator of the account would out himself (Update: even now, the offer still stands). The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board begged the account not to stop, saying, “The fun is just beginning,” and comparing the mystery of the account’s author to the “intrigue surrounding the identity of “Anonymous,” the author of the 1996 novel “Primary Colors,” a devastating insider take on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
If that seems like a lot of fuss over a Twitter account, you probably haven’t been following @MayorEmanuel. The profane, brilliant stream of tweets not only may be the most entertaining feed ever created, but it pushed the boundaries of the medium, making Twitter feel less like a humble platform for updating your status and more like a place where literature could happen. Never deviating too far from the reality of the race itself, @MayorEmanuel wove deep, hilarious stories. It was next-level digital political satire and caricature, but over the months the account ran, it became much more. By the end, the stream resembled an epic, allusive ode to the city of Chicago itself, yearning and lyrical.
For weeks, journalists and insiders have urged the person behind @MayorEmanuel to reveal himself, but he (or she) demurred. Until now. After a protracted email negotiation, the author has outed himself to The Atlantic. He’s receiving no compensation.
The genius behind @MayorEmanuel is Dan Sinker, who has a heart made out of Chicago and balls of punk rock.
Sinker is the founder of Punk Planet, a legendary zine that ran from 1994 until 2007. Sinker and his tiny staff put out 80 issues during that time and created a punk rock tent big enough happily include Black Flag and filmmaker Miranda July. Punk Planet wasn’t just a music magazine. It was the distillation of a punk rock worldview in magazine form. “Using punk’s antagonist spirit as a guiding principle, Punk Planet transcended stereotypes to chronicle the progressive underground community, from thoughtful band interviews to exceptionally thorough investigative features,” the Onion’s AV club wrote in its eulogy for the publication.
Sinker described the punk rock mindset in his introduction to a 2001 book that collected interviews from the zine. “[Punk] is about looking at the world around you and asking, ‘Why are things as fucked up as they are?’” he wrote. “And then it’s about looking inwards at yourself and asking, “Why aren’t I doing anything about this?”
And in some sense, the glory of @MayorEmanuel was that it exposed the dark humor that political operatives know and love, mixed with the drunken idealism that tends to drive the politicos. Politics is desperate and raw and exhausting, yet on TV it looks so polished and prim. It’s a knock-down, drag-out war in which everyone has to fight in their Sunday best. @MayorEmanuel looked at that state of affairs and started cussing, not unlike what a lot of us do when we look at our politics. This take on politics would not be airbrushed, edited, or watered down. All the things public politics downplays, this feed would expand and celebrate. This feed would be festooned with anger and the drive for power and the f-word. It was the inverse of the real Emanuel campaign, or as the Tribune called it a “brilliantly imagined and unrestrained counter-script.”
After Punk Planet’s sad demise — mostly due to distribution problems, Sinker says — Sinker received a Knight Fellowship in Journalism at Stanford. He used the time to study how to deliver journalism in a world of mobile device ubiquity. In 2009, he launched CellStories.net, which puts out one story per day exclusively for mobile devices. And he landed a gig teaching journalism at Columbia College in downtown Chicago.
As a professor, Sinker focuses on entrepreneurial journalism and independent media. A student in one of his classes described him as down-to-earth, knowledgeable, and interesting. She said he encouraged his students to build businesses around their work, helping underserved groups find places to congregate online. “He’s DIY,” she said and “big on building communities.” Most importantly, in a journalism world drenched in negativity, she said Sinker inspired students because he’s actually positive about the future of media.
Beyond editor and professor, Sinker has been active in leftist politics for almost 20 years. In his Punk Planet days, Sinker interviewed figures on the left, including Noam Chomsky and the program director of the Ruckus Society, which trains protestors in some of the more radical activist techniques. In 2000, he was in the streets for the protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington.
More recently, Sinker created the Chicago Mayoral Scorecard to track the race for mayor via links, news, and social media. That put him smack in the middle of all the news about the race, big and small.
Add it up:
Punk Rock Attitude + Deep Feel for Chicago + New Media Storytelling Chops + Day-to-Day Political News Watcher = @MayorEmanuel.
This man was made to write this feed.
What’s stunning is that Sinker managed to preside over @MayorEmanuel without ever getting caught. Or at least outed. His secret was known only by his wife, a small circle of friends, and one Chicago Public Schools teacher, Seth Lavin, who figured out Sinker’s identity when Sinker used his personal bit.ly account to shorten a link that @MayorEmanuel later tweeted. Lavin kept it mum. Others came close to identifying him, Sinker said. An intern at the Wall Street Journal was onto him early, as was a reporter at Crain’s Chicago Business. But no one could muster any proof.
As the weeks went by, the pressure began to take a toll on Sinker’s psyche. “The train rides became totally paranoia-inducing by the end. I would think, ‘Is anybody watching this? Why is that guy looking at my phone? Who is this?’ he said. “Your brain starts going a little crazy. I’m looking forward to my brain not feeling so crazy.”
However it feels now to have be @MayorEmanuel, Sinker says it didn’t feel momentous when he sent that first tweet from his living room.
“My wife has asked me,’Why did you actually start tweeting?’ And for the life of me I can’t remember,” Sinker said. “I remember I was at home. I think everyone had gone to bed. And I remembered, ‘Oh, I have that account. This might be kind of funny.’”
From the start, the account began to take off. After three tweets, Sinker himself retweeted a message and @MayorEmanuel had a few hundred followers in just a few hours. Within two days, it had 1,000 followers, largely on the quality of its industrial-strength swearing. “At the beginning, a lot of the mental amusement was putting two words together, one of them is profanity and maybe the other one is also profanity and it’s kind of weird,” he recalled.
But that started to change around Halloween, during a particularly excellent hallucination brought on my eating too much candy corn. “I started to think, I can really tell a story about this,” Sinker said. “And Halloween probably also marks the beginning of the end of creative profanity.”
From then on, the swearing becomes merely a feature in a more lyrical and narrative romp through Chicago. “I was never really making fun of the guy,” Sinker said. “I was making fun with the guy.” The fun began to deepen.
The sequences began to outgrow the boundaries Sinker imposed during the first month, when he’d mostly tweeted mini-stories during his commute to work or after he put his 5-year-old to bed. Sinker is a longtime storyteller and he couldn’t help beginning to build an arc for this character, couldn’t help making @MayorEmanuel more emotionally resonant than a fake Twitter feed has any right to be.
At the start, Sinker said, the joke was that his character knew he was going to be the next mayor of Chicago, so the whole election was solely a gigantic pain in his ass. “I’d seen the polling,” Sinker said.
“But the character transforms. He even announces it on Halloween. He’s reborn and from that point on, he starts evolving into this person who, after achieving the thing he wanted to achieve, sacrifices himself for the good of the city. Even unintentionally, that’s a pretty good character arc,” Sinker said.
Sinker’s favorite moment from his epic poem comes near the end, when @MayorEmanuel and Mayor Daley are on the roof of City Hall. Below, we took the liberty of combining several tweets into the story that surrounds Sinker’s favorite tweet. (Celery salt is one of the distinctive ingredients in Chicago’s famous take on the hot dog.)
And Daley’s gesturing for me to follow him, and suddenly we’re out a window and heading up a motherfucking fire escape. We’re on the roof of City Hall. The wind is fucking strong and the snow stings when it hits my face. Daley heads into a glass dome. It’s so warm and beautiful in the dome–green everywhere–and the air is pungent with the smell of… is that fucking celery? Daley fucking plucks a stalk. “Care for these. Let flowers bloom. Dry them. Harvest the seeds. Grind them. Mix with salt.” He hands me a small pinch of powder and the sharp taste of celery salt crosses my lips. “Our legacy,” he says, and points to the stalks.
The idea of Emanuel and Daley together on the roof in a celery garden occurred to him in the early going as a key piece of the climax of his performance about “the pulsating heart of Chicago” and it stuck with him until the end.
“I love that little image, the sacred ritual. Yet it’s ridiculous and really kind of beautiful,” Sinker said.
By the end, @MayorEmanuel had become a story that could generate potent emotion. It was something. But what?
There is no doubt that it is a cultural work of some kind. And at 1,942 tweets and probably 30,000 words, it’s a piece of writing with some heft and depth.
The plot is simple: @MayorEmanuel is running to be mayor of Chicago. His adventures sometimes overlap with the campaign activities of the real-life Rahm, like when the latter visits Groupon or does a 50-ward tour or watches the Bears. But a lot of the time @MayorEmanuel’s adventures occur in an alternate reality. He has wild dinners at his brother Ari’s house in Los Angeles. He moves into the crawlspace of Emanuel’s rented house in Chicago, and later into an igloo. He gets stuck in the sewers underneath City Hall and kidnapped by current Mayor Richard M. Daley. During that last adventure, he realizes that two Mayor Emanuels can’t coexist and goes through a time vortex, ending the story (for now).
@MayorEmanuel is sometimes accompanied by political advisor David Axelrod and a cast of imaginary characters: Carl the Intern, Hambone (a dog), and Quaxelrod (a duck with a moustache).
It’s as weird as it sounds, at times even reaching the Pynchonian realm of highbrow slapstick.
Get a taste for yourself, if you haven’t already. Here are several episodes, including the wonderful climax laid out for your inspection. If you’re already well-acquainted, feel free to skip this embed.
@MayorEmanuel is a new genre that is native to Twitter. When you try to turn his adventures into traditional short stories or poems, they lose the crucial element of time. The episode where the mayor gets stuck in the sewer pipes of City Hall just does not work when the 15 tweets aren’t spaced out over 7 hours. It’s all over too fast to be satisfying. There’s no suspense.
This is also a piece of fiction that could interact with reality *in real-time*. So, when right-wing Michelle Malkin lauded @MayorEmanuel, he could tell her to eff-off. The character could be right there with you when the Bears (or the Democrats) lost or when snow blew in or as Rahm visited Google. He created fiction both out of what was happening and out of what you, yourself, were living. And he did it for five months. It was serialization in a sense, but alive.
Whatever we end up calling @MayorEmanuel, the feed shares some characteristics with the picaresque novel. In the picaresque, adventures tend to happen in episodes. There’s usually some sort of (anti-)hero bopping around and you don’t necessarily expect one adventure to logically lead to the next. With reference to the traditional Spanish genre which emerged in the 17th century, scholars even like to talk about the fragmentation of the picaresque as indicative of a “refusal (or inability) to conceal the labour or process of writing.” Writing happens in fits and starts, so the finished product should look that way, too. And that’s the thing, with a Twitter narrative, your lines come stamped with a time and the kind of software used to send the message. You can’t conceal the process of writing, so you have to learn to love that transparency.
People loved @MayorEmanuel first and foremost because it was funny. Sure, there were the giggles and guffaws that come with inappropriate swearing. But I think the humor of the feed as a whole had deeper roots. Deep enough that we might need to bring in some Russian cultural criticism. Theorist Mikhail Bakhtin was obsessed with the Renaissance carnival’s wild sex and booze binges, and their contrast with the strict power structures of the time. He built an entire theory of the carnivalesque on the basis of its practices, beginning with the writing of Francois Rabelais. In the carnival, normal hierarchies are suspended. “People who in life are separated by impenetrable hierarchical barriers enter into free and familiar contact on the carnival square,” he wrote.
Twitter already fits that description. Fake and real twitter accounts talk. Politicians are a 140-characters away from constitutents. Movie stars retweet NASA robots traveling to Mars that are voiced by a public relations officer in Pasadena. But any good carnival needs a Lord of Misrule, who is the king’s double and presides over the festivities. @MayorEmanuel was that lord of misrule, which he signaled with his language, turning Rahm Emanuel’s private language of power (profanity) into a public joke.
With great cultural works, we like to recall how they began, their first lines. Call me Ishmael (Melville). A screaming comes across the sky (Pynchon). He’s in love with rock’n'roll, whoa (The Clash). On September 27, @MayorEmanuel was born with the following Tweet: “fuck you right in your fucking face-hole.” The carnival had begun.
After that first tweet, @MayorEmanuel blasted Politico, Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo, ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper, two local Chicago political websites, and @FakeDavidMamet. When that last account responded, “I Shuffle, You Cut,” @MayorEmanuel replied, “It’s only words, unless they’re motherfucking true.”
That moment was both when we caught the first glimmer of intelligence smoldering in the mayor. Not just anyone quotes Mamet’s American Buffalo back at FakeDavidMamet. And maybe that quote could be seen as the key to @MayorEmanuel’s twisted narrative. It’s only tweets, unless they’re motherfucking true.
Of course, nothing he said ever actually happened. But crazily enough, a fake account sputtering out 140-character jabs in the voice of a lampooned major political figure somehow tunneled to wherever it is that the realest reality is kept and pulled it out, soaked with beer, covered in celery salt, and laced with profanity. His tweets were true like a joke or a dream or a three-chord song about sniffing glue.
His followers became passionate. Check out a selection of the thousands of reactions to his final act, when as he said his final goodbye, the sky over Chicago opened up and let out a tremendous thunderclap as snow started to fall. And that part’s true.
@Henjealy: Anyone else get chills from the fact thunderstorm pops out of nowhere in mid-winter JUST as @MayorEmanuel gets sucked into a vortex?
@heldincontempt: Me too, man. Me, too. I am wiping tears away. RT @ourmaninchicago: I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who didn’t watch @MayorEmanuel unfold.
@emmalabizarre: goddamn it, I am not supposed to be crying over a fake Twitter account. @MayorEmanuel , you magnificent bastard. *salut*
@mominreallife: Dammit, Chicago has lost Fields, Sears, The Olympics, and Daley, but I think losing @MayorEmanuel will be hardest of all
@rachel_j: I can’t believe he’s gone. There’s a hole in my soul for @mayoremanuel
@rxdude94 I’m gonna call it right now, best thing about the 2011 Mayoral Race was the twitter feed of @MayorEmanuel
@juggernautco: it was a story about love all along, wadnit? Glorious motherfucking cross-species time-bending Chicago-style love.
Michael Honey is a historian and Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He is editor of All Labor Has Dignity and author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike: Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.
In light of the clash of wills in Wisconsin, we should remember the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of King’s slogans that we rarely hear is this one: “all labor has dignity.”
King spoke these words in Memphis on March 18, 1968, in the midst of a strike of 1,200 black sanitation workers that had lasted over a month. After rousing them to a fever pitch, King called for a general strike by all workers to shut the city down on behalf of the sanitation workers.
What was the demand of these workers? Improved wages and benefits, yes, but their key demand was that the City of Memphis grant collective bargaining rights and the collection of union dues, without which they knew they could not maintain their union.
These are the very two items that Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker wants to take away from public employees. He knows, as did Mayor Henry Loeb in Memphis, that if you can kill union bargaining rights and dues collection, you can kill the union.
Also like Loeb, Walker is a fiscal conservative. As he cuts taxes for business he raises costs for workers and says ending union power will benefit the fiscal health of the state. Walker wants to end the right of public employees to bargain collectively, even though the workers have accepted a tripling of their health-care costs and a wage cut to help offset the state’s fiscal crisis.
In nearby Ohio, Gov. John Kasich wants to take away the right to join a union for 14,000 state-financed child-care and home-care workers, among the most overworked and underpaid of public servants. In other states, Republicans want to adopt “right to work” (for less) laws that would take away the requirement that workers in unionized jobs pay union dues. This would undermine the unions while, in King’s words, providing “no rights and no work.”
Even in Midwest states that have been union strongholds, Republicans now have public-employee unions in their cross-hairs. This is the latest and potentially most deadly phase of government assault on unions. Ever since the Reagan counterrevolution, government policies joined with private sector profiteers have vastly worsened racial-economic inequalities, created a gambling casino on Wall Street and paved the way for the current economic crisis.
Conservatives rationalize their attacks on unions by saying unionized public workers are unfairly privileged. But they only look privileged by comparison to the rest of the working class, which is suffering economic catastrophe and has almost entirely lost the benefits of unionization. Yet class envy is an easy means to divide and rule.
In one stroke, by eliminating both bargaining rights and union dues, Republicans can insure that organized, dues-paying workers and particularly minorities and women will no longer provide a potent base for the Democratic Party. There will be few grassroots organizations left to counter the huge infusion of money into politics by the rich.
Workers in Wisconsin have agreed to make sacrifices to get state government out of its budgetary hole. But it would be a huge mistake for anyone to go beyond that and buy into attacks on public employee unions. Loss of unions will further decimate the spending power of working people, thereby intensifying the economic crisis while further removing the voice of workers from politics. That’s a downward spiral.
Republicans most especially wants to undermine the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Founded in Wisconsin, AFSCME flowered after King died in the fight for union rights in Memphis in 1968. AFSCME became one of the largest unions in the country, with King regarded as an honorary member and practically a founder of the union.
In King’s framework, killing public employees unions today would be immoral as well as foolish. He said the three evils facing humankind are war, racism and economic injustice, and that the purpose of a union is to overcome the latter evil. King said the civil-rights movement from 1954 to 1965 was “phase one,” to be followed by a second phase—the struggle for economic advancement. We are not doing very well in phase two, and unions remain essential to carry it out.
I’ve recently finished a new collection of King’s remarkable speeches, titled All Labor Has Dignity,which shows that throughout his life, King stood up for union rights. There is no more important time than the present for us all to follow his lead.
Beacon Press is committed to talking about African-American history year-round, but don't always hand out our books for free! For Black History Month, check out our recommended reading list and enter to win.
One winner will receive five books out of the list of recommended titles for Black History Month. Five winners will win one book. Only one entry per person. Entries will be accepted through February 28. Winners will be chosen on March 1.
Often applauded as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most incisive and eloquent book, Why We Can’t Wait recounts the Birmingham campaign in vivid detail, while underscoring why 1963 was such a crucial year for the civil rights movement. King examines the history of the civil rights struggle and the tasks that future generations must accomplish to bring about full equality. The book also includes the extraordinary “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which King wrote in April of 1963.
Letters from Black America: Intimate Portraits of the African American Experience
Letters from Black America presents the spectrum of African American experience in the most intimate way possible-through the heartfelt correspondence of those who lived through monumental changes and pivotal events, from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq, from slavery to the election of Obama.
"An extraordinary peek at what went on behind the closed doors of black America for nearly three hundred years." —James McBride, author of The Color of Water
Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game
From an award-winning writer, the first linked history of African Americans and Latinos in Major League Baseball.
“Rob Ruck serves up a seamless mix of sports and politics that educates and entertains in the way that great political writing—and great sports writing—aspires to do.”—Dave Zirin, author Bad Sports and A People’s History of Sports in the United States
Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence
"Considering the number of books written about President Obama, you would think we've heard enough. Not to say that I'm the decider of these things but my vote should count for something, and I think that Power in Wordsdissects the rhetoric of the president in unprecedented ways. A while back I began to see this movement the president is leading as a kind of cultural transformation, and in this book the stories behind the famous addresses come to life." —Bill Cosby
Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington
A dramatic account of the 1963 March on Washington--the demonstration that changed America.
"The March on Washington was a demand to make the Constitution of the United States work for black people.…Nobody Turn Me Around—Charles Euchner's superb book—brings it all back in vivid detail." —Roger Wilkins, author of Jefferson's Pillow
From a leading writer of the Black Arts Movement, poems of commemoration and loss for readers of all ages.
"Sonia Sanchez's latest book resonates as boldly as a jazz ensemble; clear and poignant, it is intransigent in her subject matter. Her impassioned reflections come in the loose form of the American haiku. . . . Sanchez's haiku is as simple and clear as breathing, but with everything that brings energy and vivacity to being alive." —Rain Taxi Review of Books
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
What must it have been like to be [Donald E.] Westlake's agent? You'd know you were going to get a manuscript to sell every nine months or so, and you'd know that it would never be less than a well-crafted piece of work . . . but that's about it. You'd hope, one assumes, for a Dortmunder novel or a Parker novel, but instead you might get, say, a Dortmunder novella, two novellas related to the film industry assembled into a single book, or a satire of the publishing industry. And those are just the ones I happened to read this week! —IBRL
II. Levi, on building a new drink for Chicago:
As research, I ordered a Manhattan. It’s smooth. So smooth. A broad Fifth Avenue of sophistication. It knows how to tie a bow tie. It tastes like all the best parts of bourbon and none of the parts that used to be so helpful in battlefield surgery. Did I mention its smoothness?
The Loop should not be like that. Here’s how The Loop should be. The first sip opens your eyes wide, so you look like one of those just-graduated-from-UW kids falling for the dude running the shell game on the “L.” The second sip makes you wonder whether your shoulders are broad enough that you can read Carl Sandburg’s three-volume biography of Lincoln. The third sip knows a guy who knows a guy who can get you seasonal work driving a snowplow at O’Hare. The fourth sip has you fishing in your wallet for a Big Jackson so you can get in on some of that shell game action. The fifth sip convinces you to take out papers to run for alderman. The sixth sip convinces you that it’s not even worth taking the trouble to go vote. No one has ever taken a seventh sip.
The Loop could come with a little blown-out umbrella.
One of those recordings that reaches far beyond itself. The way Sister W B Grate sings each phrase says to me that nothing ever repeats itself – that every moment matters. In 1967, when this was recorded. In 2066. Now. From the 3-CD set Fire In My Bones, “a small peek at the incredible diversity and power of post-war black gospel.”
Georges Perec is a writer who likes to play. He is also a writer that for one to enjoy has to be willing to go on the drive with him, and he is for sure the driver. Remarkable on many fronts, this book has super anxiety attached to it. The fear of asking money from your boss or head of your station at work is sweat stained existence for many. And Perec plays on those fears in a very playful way. "Everything needs to be simple" is a thought that runs through out this small book, but simple is often either complex or opens up other issues. Maybe way too many issues! Especially when one is planning "how" to approach the boss in asking for a raise. What will happen if he is not there at the time, or he's on the phone or..... The "or" is the part that can drive one mad, and Perec captures the irrationality that is basically in the workforce. But then therefore does that mean it only exists in the workforce?
I don't have this book anymore and it is one that I miss while looking at my library. For the past three or four years I have been obsessed with the film and its history. There is a good critique out by James Naremore, but also recommended is the fantastic Criterion edition of "Sweet Smell of Success." The DVD comes with a small book that has two short stories by Ernest Lehman that are the first appearance of the main characters in Sweet Smell of Success, that is really fascinating. Get it!
When I think of the well-designed magazine lay-out, the name Alexy Brodovitch comes to mind. He was consistently a man who understood the importance of how a visual makes a statement on paper. And in the context of a book or magazine as well. But here he focuses as a photographer (and book designer as well) on the subject matter of various ballet companies that performed in New York during the 40's. Personalities don't stand out, but the movement and energy of the performance comes off the page like a punch to the head. Dynamic, beautiful, and visually witty. The original edition is almost impossible to find. So what we have here is a book on the original edition of "Ballet." The original lay-out of its photographs, and its text by poet and dance critic Edwin Denby. Important and of course essential series
Security is a big problem. This year the National Trust tagged its snowdrops at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. I know people who have opened their gardens and had everything stolen. If I have something new, I keep quiet. I have pulled the heads off flowers to stop people recognising them. I don’t open my garden or nursery. I never let people in. I don’t even tell people where I am. I always give one bulb away to a friend for security so that I can start again if things go missing. But stealing snowdrops is like stealing a Van Gogh. If it’s rare, all the galanthophiles will know who propagated it and where it was stolen from. You could only ever sell it in an ad at the back of a newspaper, if that.
When I finished Jo Walton’s Among Othersthis afternoon, my first thought was: “Now I know how people who imprinted on mainstream comics feel about Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude.”
I loved Fortress of Solitude, but I was often aware while I read of references passing me by, or simply detonating with less force than they would have if the comics Dylan Ebdus pores over had been part of my mental adolescent landscape.
Whereas in Among Others, Jo Walton is loaded for bear and I am the bear. Robert Heinlein! J.R.R. Tolkien! Ursula K. LeGuin! Susan Cooper! Mary Renault! It’s as though she surveilled my bookshelves circa 1985.
And I know her protagonist Mor. There’s a particular sharply intelligent pragmatism, juxtaposed with utter dismissiveness about anything she doesn’t respect (such as social mores and pop music), that I’ve encountered numerous times in the sf/f community.
But it isn’t simply the shock of recognition that made me love the book, though it absolutely contributed. It’s the precision with which Walton evokes the way Mor experiences her world, and how she keeps just enough obscure and unstated for the reader to draw her own conclusions about certain events.
I’ve already mentioned Fortress of Solitude; it also reminded me a little of The Saskiad, another book with a protagonist who is deeply influenced by her reading.
I don’t know how Walton chose Among Others as a title, but one thing it makes me think of is a crowded bookshelf, where you can’t look at an individual title without also seeing nearby spines, each book always among others. I’m happy that Among Others will join my own crowded shelves.
Their living and dining rooms are lined with books, all of them nonfiction, all of them read. Mr. Barrett cannot remember the last time he read a novel, and when asked if he felt he was missing something, he said, “Nyah.” —NYT
Paging Ruben Ortiz-Torres. What would he say about this? Above, a nighttime shot of a pyramid in the tiny village of Ixcateopan, high in the sierra of Guerrero state, Mexico. As you can see from the people sitting on the steps, the pyramid is about 50 or 60 feet high. Atop is a dramatic statue of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor. This pyramid is not an...
There are other where blogs you can read more about this. The upshot is that OverDrive sent out a “State of OverDrive” letter which had some concerning news in it. The Librarian in Black outlines the primary issues. The big deal is that one publisher, Harper Collins, wants to dramatically change its ebook terms such that once you “buy” an ebook to be distributed via overdrive, it can circulate 26 times and then no more. Keep in mind that OverDrive is acceding to these requests, so I think we rightfully have a bone to pick with them as well. BoingBoing gives you some information on why this sort of DRM situation is bad for libraries, bad for people.
Now is really the time for us to step up and use our excellent collective buying power to say that this sort of thing is not at all okay. I am sorry if OverDrive is realizing that their revenue model isn’t as terrific as they maybe thought it would be, but this is overstepping what a decent vendor/library model should look like. I just get this weird feeling that in these tough economic times, OverDrive and book publishers, forgetting that libraries are some of their best and most enduring customers, have decided to see how they can get more money for fewer services. At the same time, they’re treating libraries as if we’re the ones responsible for publishers’ revenue problems. Shame on both Harper Collins for being tough guys and OverDrive for giving in to these demands.
Publishers and vendors: we will work with you to find ways to lend digital content. You need to not treat libraries as if they’re contributing to your demise.
I just sent a contribution to the Nathan Wolfson Trust. If you knew L.K. Madigan, if you were a fan of her work, that is a thing you could do as well.
I’m glad I had the chance to meet her through her friend and agent Jennifer Laughran, and glad, too, that we spent some time together in the warm community of Portland’s YA authors. If you didn’t know her work, here: read Flash Burnout and The Mermaid’s Mirror.
I keep going back to these lines she wrote. They’re posted at Paper Fort, but I’m selfishly reposting them here so they become part of my own archives.
“There are lots of books out there about writing. How to begin … how to keep going … how to plot … how to create memorable characters … there’s probably a book out there on how to write interesting website copy. I should have looked for it!
It’s good to read those books, but don’t feel guilty if your process is different than what they advise. The main thing is to WRITE. Some days it might be 2000 words. Some days you might tinker with two sentences until you get them just right. Both days belong in the writing life. Some days you may watch a “Doctor Who” marathon or become immersed a book that is so good you can’t stop reading. Some days you may be in love or in mourning. Those days belong in the writing life, too. Live them without guilt.” — L.K. Madigan
Tonight I’m trying to take Lisa’s advice — the no guilt part, but the WRITE part, too. The fact that her words are helping to console me is its own testimony.
When I think of candidates who are having great success on the academic job market, I have a considerable amount of empathy: it is not something that they can complain about to their less fortunate peers, but they potentially find themselves in a position somewhat like that of Kangaroo in Kipling's story (in the sense that it is not always as enjoyable as one might think to be "very truly sought after"...).
On the off chance that you are a Rochesterian (in terms of geography rather than primarily of literary preference), please consider coming to hear me talk about the relationship between Restoration theater and the eighteenth-century novel on Thursday, March 3 at 5pm!
Just got an email from Thijs Tel, giving me a heads-up on an unintentional glitch video, the best there are:
I was watching a few videos of this rollerblading competition that was featured on wired, and I came along this one on Vimeo. When playing in HD the video is normal, but when you switch HD off, its glitched. I don’t know if this was deliberate by the maker, or a bug in vimeo. But I thought you’d might be interested.
Thanks Thijs, you are a star to let me know about this - it worked with me when I tried it. It’s like a glitchy moving Warhol in places - really cool :)
When we heard that Google had unleashed a new algorithm in the United States to battle content farms, we were cautiously optimistic. Content farms, which bet they can make more money on any advertisements than they spend producing very low-quality stories, had come to dominate the Internet’s long tail.
But I’ve had my doubts that Google’s machines could weed out these content farms. What signals would allow them to distinguish between high- and low-quality writing? Especially considering that humans are only decent at it.
Luckily, Google has gifted us a chance to do some side-by-side comparisons because they’re rolling out the new-and-improved algorithm in the United States first. So, we did two searches for the phrase “drywall dust,” figuring it was just random enough. One we executed in the standard way, presumably using the new algorithm, and the other we routed through a proxy server that made it look like were coming from India, presumably using the old algorithm.
And I have to say: Wow, the new algorithm yielded far superior results.
Granted, this is just one search for “drywall dust,” but if this is even remotely indicative of how well the new algorithm works, we’re all going to be tremendously impressed. The search via India led to seven sites that were producing low-quality or aggregated content, a photo of someone covered in dust, and a blog about an individual’s remodel. The new algorithm search yielded very different results. Not only were there less content farms but two specialty sites and five fora made the list as well as a Centers for Disease Control page on the dangers of drywall dust. Having clicked through all 20 links, I can assure you that the information delivered by the new algorithm is much, much better.
Let us know if you have similar experience with other searches. We’ve been trying out other strings and the pattern appears to hold. We’re seeing less content farms and more fora and news websites. For example, check out: “is botox safe” with the old algorithm and the new algorithm. In the latter, I counted five pages from what most would call respectable news sources. In the former, only three made the cut.
The social networking company is slowly coming to terms with its role as a political organizing platform
Facebook took an active role in protecting Egyptian protesters’ pages, according to emails obtained by the Daily Beast. And the company’s director of policy for Europe, Richard Allan, has become a “crucial backchannel” between activists in the Middle East and North Africa and Facebook.
I think Mike Giglio’s story will be seen as important evidence that Facebook is slowly taking responsibility for its existence as a political organizing platform. The company, unlike Twitter, has been reluctant to insert itself into what are seen as “political” battles, but that’s becoming increasingly difficult as the site becomes actually important for activists.
“There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform,” a former Facebook employee told Giglio. “People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off.”
So, the company has developed workarounds. In one e-mail, Allan assured activists that Facebook had “put all the key pages into special protection,” though we do not know exactly what that means.
Activists have also long wanted to have pseudonymous profiles, which the company has fought. But the Beast article describes a workaround engineered by Allan that allowed pages like the influential “We Are All Khaled Said” to remain up. Allan wrote in an e-mail to a activist:
There is no discretion here as the creation of fake accounts threatens the integrity of our whole system. People must use the profile of a real person to admin the page or risk it being taken down at any time. It is not important to us who that real person is as long as their account appears genuine. So if they can offer a real person as admin then the page can be restored.
So, a real person, Nadine Wahab, became the titular administrator of the group and then passed that login information to activists, so they could actually run the site.
Engineers love the idea of neutrality and objectivity. But when real situations involving real people and movements arise, it’s not so easy to stick with that value, or even to know what “neutrality” would look like.
The gymnastics of the Facebook’s recent dealing remind me of a 1995 paper written by science and technology studies scholar Melvin Kranzberg. He proposed a series of “laws” and this was the first:
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
Perhaps Facebook could have stayed neutral if it had been solely used by privileged college kids, but as its deployed around the world, local users are adapting it to meet their challenges, which are often larger than finding someone to make out with. Or as Kranzberg puts the case generally:
[T]echnical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.
Vote early, often (daily) for Pazzo @BostonPhoenix http://bit.ly/gOosGO while there, vote @cityfeed @Boomerangs @kupels #placesilike #
Next person who honks at someone parking on Centre is getting a beating #rightlaneisthelocaltrytheexpress #
Lots of great letterpress stuff for auction as Boston Municipal printshop closes, also a telephone booth http://bit.ly/ijF7CK #
Black Widow and The Avengers, #18 featuring the [...]
Google’s search improvement team announced that they’ve made a major change to the algorithm that shapes your Internet experience. While, as always, they won’t say specifically what they’ve come up with, they say the update will “reduce rankings for … sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.” It will also boost rankings for “sites with original content.”
I’m excited to see how the change plays out, and I hope that one day soon, some of the technical details will spill out. Because while humans are pretty good at detecting the basics of “quality,” machines haven’t been. As you’ll read in the excerpt from the announcement below, though, the humans and Google’s algorithm appear to be in pretty good agreement about what’s bad and what’s good.
Many of the changes we make are so subtle that very few people notice them. But in the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking–a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries–and we wanted to let people know what’s going on. This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites–sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites–sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on…
It’s worth noting that this update does not rely on the feedback we’ve received from the Personal Blocklist Chrome extension, which we launched last week. However, we did compare the Blocklist data we gathered with the sites identified by our algorithm, and we were very pleased that the preferences our users expressed by using the extension are well represented. If you take the top several dozen or so most-blocked domains from the Chrome extension, then this algorithmic change addresses 84% of them, which is strong independent confirmation of the user benefits.
The indie publication of Program or Be Programmed meant no reviews in the traditional publishing press journals (Kirkus, PW) but Library Journal has become a real friend to the book and its ideas. Here’s an interview they just did with me about how librarians should adapt to the needs of digital readers, and non-readers.
Q&A with Douglas Rushkoff, Media Theorist and Author of Program or Be Programmed Interview by Josh Hadro and Barbara Genco Feb 23, 2011
Ever feel like you’re a dandelion tuft on the Internet winds, floating in and out of Facebook and Twitter feeds to wherever those links might take you? Not to worry, just chalk up those hours on handhelds and laptops as time well spent—we’re current, we’re engaged, and we’re savvy to the ways of life on the web. But savvy this: what if we’re completely oblivious to the way the digital environment is actually shaping us as we attempt to take it all in?
That’s what worries media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff, the thought that we’re being caught unawares by software of our own design, that we may end up abdicating our agency as the reins on everyday technology slip from our grasp.
If this all sounds a bit dire, it is—in his new book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, Rushkoff says the stakes are as high as they come: “Before, failing meant surrendering our agency to a new elite. In a digital age, failure could mean relinquishing our nascent collective agency to the machines themselves. The Process appears to have already begun.”
So, how to stake a claim for individuality and expression against the digital crush of homogeneity? And how do libraries figure into humanity’s stand? LJ recently caught up with Rushkoff and asked.
LJ: You wrote, “every Google Search is-at least for most of us-a Hail Mary pass into the datasphere, requesting something from an opaque black box.” Much of what you describe in the book is a part of what librarians have been discussing in terms of information literacy for years. But the amount of library instruction most people receive in school and college pales in comparison to the conditioning they’re subject to in the rest of Internet culture. How do you break others out of the search box mold, so to speak?
Douglas Rushkoff: Well, I think it’s almost always pointless to try to “break out” where technology and behavior are concerned. Better to push through. My strategy would be to teach more about the search they’re actually doing. How does Boolean search work, how does Google’s algorithm work, and how is this kind of data mining biased? What sorts of results are possible, and what sorts are not? What is being hidden from view? What would be lost if everyone in the world could only find things out this way?
Those kinds of questions put the search box in the role of the authority, rather than the librarian or the teacher. You have to remember that the kids you’re working with now have been raised in a world with these technologies as given circumstances. They are more than primed to play the revolutionary. Be on their side in challenging the all-high-authority of search results.
LJ: And what’s the librarian’s role in that education, given the limited amount of contact they have with the public (not to mention that it’s also self-selected contact)?
DR: Tricky, especially when so many libraries are themselves being threatened with replacement by databases. The librarian has to remember that the stacks are both a real reference system and a metaphor for a way of organizing human thought. The first function is practical, while the second is theoretical, even spiritual. If I were a librarian and had any time at all with students, I’d be less concerned with teaching them the intricacies of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature (is that still around?) than offering them an immersive library experience. They need to be grounded in a single experience of wonder, enabled by the ability to make connections in physical space between resources.
So I’d give them an assignment like finding a single resource in any way they choose-computer search, Google, whatever. Something they really want to see or know about. And when they go to the shelf to get that thing, they have to look at everything else on that shelf and the one either above or below it. Just look at what’s there.
Nine out of ten of those kids will end up finding something else they really want to read, that they didn’t even know existed.
And when they come back, have a conversation about what was next to the book they wanted. Stuff they thought belonged there, or not? Was there any logic to what was next to the book? Whose logic was it?
LJ: What prompted these “ten commands”? Is there one “command” in particular that librarians might begin with?
DR: What prompted them was the realization that we are undergoing a shift as profound as the shift from oral to the literate society. Digital media are that different, and biased just as deeply. Just as the shift in the Axial age required us to contend with law, monotheism, ethics, accountability, and so on, the shift in the digital age will require us to contend with new sorts of collaboration, socialization, permanence, loss of privacy, change in our notions of individuality, and so on. The people of the Axial shift got Ten Commandments to help them contend with a world bound by written rules-laws. So I thought we all deserved ten commands to help us gain command over a world bound by programs.
As for where to start, I put them in order. Time seemed like the initial command to learn to use. But if there’s a single most important concept to get, it’s command #10, Program or Be Programmed. Just as the invention of language meant learning to speak as well as listen, and the invention of text meant learning to write as well as read, the invention of programming really does require some facility with programs if we want to maintain a modicum of agency in the new terrain.
We have to be able to look at a program or website and know what it does. Who made it? Who is the customer? Who does it serve? How does it work? If we don’t know what the programs we use are for, we can’t expect to know whether we are using them or they are using us.
LJ: Can you envision a future in which people have taken up the call to be less passive, and are more intentional in their relationships with technology? What does that look like? How does the library fit into that future?
DR: Well, it’s the same as a future in which humanity take up the call to be less passive and more intentional in their relationships with reality. Dewey foresaw a society in which people would be able to participate actively in democracy and other social institutions. Lippman thought that was a pipe dream. The jury is still out.
Egyptians decided to become more active. Others decide to become more passive.
Librarians can help people to understand what they’re choosing, and that it’s a choice. It might be that we live in a civilization that chooses to stay passive-but we can at least help people understand that this is a choice, too. We are actively choosing to stay passive. I think librarians can also create an atmosphere of reassurance that permits people to experiment more. If we know you’re there collecting the results of what happens, holding down the fort, preventing the sum total of human knowledge from being lost, then the rest of us can venture out onto new territory without fear of not being able to find our way back.
That’s really more the librarians’ role in society than in an individual’s life, but it is just as important. You provide the foundation, the memory, the map home.
LJ: Where do ebooks fit as part of the conditioning idea of software you explore in your book? Are we confusing the container for the content?
DR: Containers do change. Scrolls became books, and now books are becoming ebooks. What ebooks do is force us to reconsider the length constrictions of printing-press era bound volumes. Did they end up this length for any reason other than form factor?
Ebooks aren’t primarily software, they are content. Where the idea of media biases comes in is more in the selection of device and interface. What is the real difference, if any, between reading on a Nook, a Kindle, or an iPad? How do the various buying options and online stores influence what we read and the way we do it? Do the shortened selections being made available for little bits of money have anything to do with the way we really want to engage with content? Or is the entirety of literature about to conform to the latest model of publishing business plan put out by media conglomerates looking for a growth industry? All in a decade?
LJ: Are you an ebook reader yourself? Do you borrow ebooks from the library? If so, where do you hold a library card?
DR: I haven’t done the ebook thing yet. I have too many regular books to read. The closest I get is when people send galleys as PDFs which I have to read on the computer. I am still not convinced the ereaders are good for the environment, and I won’t be until I see people buy one and keep it for a while before getting the next one.
I have a few library cards. I teach every couple of years in order to keep one from NYU or New School. I have a local one, too, but I haven’t achieved the same level of database access with it as I can get through NYU. And I’m not sure how far beyond our own county system I can go with interlibrary loan.
But I’m not a typical library user. I am writing non-fiction books and need weird stuff that nobody has looked at in a long time. I end up traveling to libraries, sometime.
My daughter is into our library, and has been making inter-library requests since she was four. She loves it when the librarian actually has a book waiting behind the counter with her name on it, that people procured for her. Even if it’s just the Sound of Music companion.
LJ: As an observer of digital publishing and an author yourself, what’s your take on the current state of affairs between libraries and publishers around ebook publishing? Is there a danger to libraries from this retail focus on direct-to-consumer ebook distribution and sales?
DR: I think you guys will be fine, especially if publishers go for these ebook borrowing services I’ve seen popping up. I want more libraries to buy my Program or Be Programmed book, but it was published by an independent (ORbooks) and most don’t know how to even purchase it. It’s possible that some of the ebook networks will make it available, though, through one of those systems where one person at a time is allowed to borrow and access the book in the library’s system.
I think that’s all good, and public libraries have to serve their primary public purpose-which is to make reading material available to the public for free. Once all this e-stuff is taken care of and a standard e-borrowing solution emerges, you can go back to the more fun work of maintaining a collection and building a community around high-touch reading experiences.
Antony Funnell: Hello, Antony Funnell here, welcome to the program.
Today, a conversation with influential media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who’s newly-released book is called Program, or be Programmed.
Douglas Rushkoff: The basic premise of it is that if people understood how to use the technologies on offer, they would get a lot more out of them and be much less likely to be used by them. Technologies that we’re using are embedded with purposes, you know, those are called programs, and if you’re not aware of that programming and capable of programming yourself, then you’re not really participating in this media. There are people who are participating in this media. A lot of them don’t really have your best interests at heart.
Antony Funnell: Douglas Rushkoff, our first guest on today’s Future Tense. Also, amid the predictions of a rise in natural disasters, Ian Townsend questions whether the safeguards we’re putting in place will actually make us more vulnerable in times to come. And Professor David Karoly on crowd-sourcing the weather.
David Karoly: What has been done with the climateprediction.net project so far is to run more than 100,000 different climate model simulations for more than 160 years each. So it’s really harnessing background time on volunteers who want to participate in this citizen science project.
Antony Funnell: David Karoly, from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne, coming up later.
Now, Douglas Rushkoff – we had him on the program last in 2009 and to be quite frank we were looking for an excuse to have him back. The release of his new book has given us that opportunity.
Mr Rushkoff is a leading media theorist, as I said earlier. He’s also a documentary maker and he teaches media studies at New York University and the New School University. In his latest offering he argues that many of us have become too unquestioning in the way we use and view technology. And he now says that it’s time for some re-education – a new approach to the way our children interact with modern media.
Douglas Rushkoff: I’m advocating that we raise people with some knowledge of programming, the same way we think of it as important for kids to know basic math and long division and those sorts of things. I think kids should also understand the very basics of programming, so that when they operate a computer, they don’t think of it like a TV set, they don’t think of the computer in terms of what it’s come packaged with, but they think of the computer also as a blank slate. It’s just like introducing kids to reading and writing, you know, you show them books, but you also give them blank pieces of paper where they can write their own words. Now I feel like those few schools that do teach computers, teach kids not really computers, they teach them Microsoft Office, which is great for creating the office worker of the 1990s, but not for creating the people who are going to build the 21st century.
Antony Funnell: Now you make the point in your writing that, Well that’s not happening in countries like the United States or Britain or Australia, it is happening in some countries isn’t it, India and China for instance?
Douglas Rushkoff: Yes, that’s happening in India and China and even better, in South Korea. I mean I’m not here to say their education systems are better than ours, but they are teaching programming in these places and not in most Western countries. And the US military is very concerned at this point that within a generation, we’ll lose a cyber technological superiority, you know, that we won’t have enough programmers to do the kinds of crypto protection required in a world where everyone is learning programming.
And I mean, with any case when a technology becomes inaccessible to the user, you have to ask Well is it becoming inaccessible because it makes it better somehow? And maybe you can argue that having computers in cars that you can’t really fix yourself, makes them better on some level. And that’s an argument that people should have, who understand about cars and how they work and whether it’s good or bad for us as consumers. But people don’t generally have the kind of awareness even with computers, and our computers have gotten much more – well they’ve gotten much easier to use on a certain level, but much harder to program, much harder to get back there and actually use the computer to its fullest. In other words, to alter it. You know, if you look at the difference between a Dos machine and an iPad, you know a DOS machine was a machine that basically you had to program to use, and you were in there with the program. And an iPad basically is Steve telling you how this device should be utilised, and if you try to change it or use it in a way that he wasn’t thinking, you’re going to hit up against a wall that he’s put there.
Antony Funnell: So is some of it a sleight-of-hand by those who control our technology? I mean do they give us enough to do by ourselves that we feel like we’re in more control than we actually are?
Douglas Rushkoff: Well they give us control over certain kinds of things. I mean you get many, many choices with these technologies, but very often those choices are limited in ways that you don’t quite realise at first. It’s like walking down the supermarket aisle and they’ve got 100 different detergents for you to use on your laundry, you know, all made by 30 companies and all containing the same phosphates and other ingredients. There’s one strategy there with 100 different bottles on it, you know. And I think the same thing when I watch people put the radio buttons on Facebook to say you know, what gender they are and what movies they write, as if these are the real colours that we could use to depict ourselves to the world around us.
Antony Funnell: So what would the world be like if people heeded your message?
Douglas Rushkoff: The world would be absolute utopia.
Antony Funnell: I thought you might say that!
Douglas Rushkoff: I known that since I was two, if we just all did as I said it would be fine. A world in which people understood programming and looked at the world through the lens of people who understand programming. You know, right now we’re Industrial Age people, we understand cause and effect and this plus this equals that. But we don’t really understand the world as a set of programs. We don’t think critically about government and traffic and health care and all these things, as formula, as paradigms, as programs that have been implemented by people with certain agendas at certain moments of history, and then they may not really work for us now, that they need to go back and fix them and re-work them, and reprogram them.
And I feel like a society of people who knew about programming, not just as a technological skill, I mean not everyone’s an engineer, but even just as a liberal art, you know, as the landscape on which human activity is taking place, which it is, that human society is happening on an operating system. And if we don’t understand the basic operating principles of that landscape, and I feel like we’re really incapable of orienting ourselves our directing our flight. But I think we could. I think if we knew this, we would have a society of people who experience a heck of a lot more agency than people have maybe forever.
Antony Funnell: Media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff, speaking to us today via Skype.
Now the subtitle of Mr Rushkoff’s book, Program or be Programmed is Ten Commands for a Digital Age, so let’s find out about those.
Douglas Rushkoff: There are ten commands, not commandments. In other words that these are supposed to be things that you do, that you use, not just orders from God to the population. I mean it’s meant to serve a similar purpose to the Ten Commandments, which I see as society with a new medium, with text now, negotiating a path to a very different world. I mean these commands are meant to help people negotiate a path through this next world, through this digital world.
Antony Funnell: And take more ownership, more individual ownership?
Douglas Rushkoff: Right. More individual, more personal ownership and to be able to strike balances between the sort of the biological organism and this new networked being that we’re forging together. So one of them is just ‘Do not be always on’. I looked at the basic bias of digital technology towards an asynchronous approach to time. It’s embedded in the way software works, it doesn’t really live in time, like people, it lives as a sequence, a line of code will wait until the input comes and it’ll wait for a minute, it’ll wait a day, it’ll wait a year, until you give it the next piece, it doesn’t really care.
The strength of early computing and early networking was when people went kind of with that bias, the great early bulletin board conversations on the internet, were kind of like chess by mail. You know, you’d look at the conversation with a 2400 bit modem. You would download it to your computer and read it, then you would decide over it a day or two how you were going to respond, and then you’d type a paragraph and then upload to the server and then wait and see what the other person said.
So on the net, you’ve ended up with more time to do things, and the ability to do things like email in your own time, rather than like with a telephone call or some light conversation where you had to be witty in a moment.
But then we take this great asynchronous technology and we attach it to our bodies in such a way that it vibrates with every tweet that comes in, as if now there’s this thing that’s supposedly happening in real time, that we have to catch up with. And it fries people’s nervous systems, I mean people get something called Phantom Vibration Syndrome, where they think their cell phone’s vibrating in their thigh, even though it’s not even on their person. You know, that’s not the symptom of an appropriate adaptation to technology, it’s a maladaptation.
Antony Funnell: Another one of the commands that you detail (and we’ll put the list up on our website) but another one that interested me was the idea of ‘Do not sell your friends’. Explain that to us.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yes well I was thinking a lot about Facebook, and how there’s a line kind of between the social world and this commercial world that is getting harder and harder for people to draw. I mean ‘do not sell your friends’ really comes from the idea that the net is a social medium, it’s always been a social medium, and that’s been the way that it’s thrown off everything that’s come its way, you know, originally it was supposed to be a kind of a Defence Department thing for scientists to talk to each other, and they used it to talk to each other about Star Trek and recipes, so the Defence Department said ‘We don’t even want this thing.’ They gave it to AT&T who didn’t want it either, so it became this kind of public utility.
And finally business comes in, they’re going to make it about this big .com boom and that comes for a while, and then no-one wants to buy that stuff, and that whole thing goes away too because the net is a social medium. And now we get this stuff called social media which is supposedly of the marketers understand it’s a social medium, and what are they doing? They’re trying to basically get us to sell our friendships, to sell our network identity, to sell the map of our relationships.
Now it goes so far as on Facebook now. They’re watching comments so that if you say something about ..Starbuck’s today, it becomes a sponsored story, you know, they advertised using your post as the content of the ad. You know, what does that do to your behaviour when you’re thinking, ‘Well if I say something good here?’ you know, what are you doing? In the end, what you’re doing is selling your social graph, you’re selling your relationships, whether you’re using one of those Zynga games that goes through your address book to get everybody else to play, or whether you’re even a company taking all the people that have signed the for its Twitter feed and using them as a mailing list. That’s selling on you friendship, that’s not socialising, that’s marketing.
Antony Funnell: Now as I say, we’ll put the list of the Ten Commands on our site, or the link to those commands. Just a final question before I let you go, I mean as somebody who’s been looking and thinking about the way our world has changed and the impact of online and digital technology on our world, for quite some time, for decades, are you surprised that we have turned out the way we have? That we have these problems that you identify?
Douglas Rushkoff: I’m surprised by the fact that just going online and using computers for the first time didn’t change people on a fundamental level. You know, for me it was a lightning experience, you know, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a read-write universe.’ And it changed the way I looked at everything. You know, I started to see my world as an open source proposition, and I see people go online and I guess because they’re so embedded inside within certain programs, ‘Oh I use this for eBay’ or ‘I use this for this’, they don’t quite see it, they don’t quite see the possibility for nothing short of a leap in human evolution. The thing that surprised me is with computers becoming as pervasive as I imagine in my wildest dreams, I’m amazed that we’re not even 1% towards where I thought that many viewer computers would have taken us.
Antony Funnell: And yet I mean a couple of years ago that idea of digital natives, that idea that the coming generation would somehow instinctively know the potential of the internet, of digital technology. I mean, as I say, that hasn’t worked that way, has it? I mean yes, they know to use it, but they don’t know how to achieve its potential, how to use it to achieve its potential.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yes it was funny. I mean I was the first I guess, but many other more sort of optimistic media theorists and cyber theorists really thought that kids as digital natives, would understand these technologies better than we do, because we’re just digital immigrants. Now you look at the experience of any immigrant family and it’s the kids who learn the language, and really move around like natives and the adults are kind of stuck behind not knowing what to do and really easy to fall.
And if you look at all the research, it turns out that kids are much worse at distinguishing between a valid and an invalid source of information online. They fall for scams, they understand the interfaces less, they understand the biases of these website a lot less than adults do. And it seems I guess that because they were raised in a world with computers as just a given circumstance, that these things were just here. They tend to look at the things on computers as pre-existing conditions. You know, the way things are. Rather than as creations of people and businesses with agendas.
Antony Funnell: Well Douglas Rushkoff, thank you very much for talking with us.
Douglas Rushkoff: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Antony Funnell: And the book is called Program or be Programmed. And what about that term, ‘Phantom Vibration Syndrome’? Never heard that one before. That’s going straight to the Future Tense online glossary.