Category Archives: Computers/Tech

“emasculating”

Sergey Brin, in a recent discussion of Google Glass, noted that smartphones are “emasculating.”

Let’s look at a more or less standard definition of “emasculate”. (I generally hate arguments by pedantics who pull out dictionary definitions as a kind of proof text for an argument, but I think this is worth it).

1. Make (a person, idea, or piece of legislation) weaker or less effective.
2. Deprive (a man) of his male role or identity: “he feels emasculated because he cannot control his sons’ behavior”.
3. To deprive of virility, to castrate.

A few things jump out at me here–it’s not much of a stretch to tie this thought, at least implicitly, to a kind of subliminal misogyny, in which a fear of (social, technological) castration can be invoked in order to create buzz for male early adopters. This is the tech field we’re dealing with after all! I’m reminded of the semi-mythic recent rise of the “brogrammer”.

This is the same smug certainty of any early adopter-speak; to try to lure men into being more virile through, er, glasses (made by FOXCONN, let’s not forget) strapped to one’s face. Here’s a good example here of the breathlessness and pliancy of a mainstream tech-press organ framing this not in terms of information, but desire: YOU WILL WANT GOOGLE GLASS (I mean, seriously, this is almost a parody on the levels of the rock journalist going to Ozymandias’ palace in The Watchmen). But this righteousness is compounded by the product itself:

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

(source)

It’s the coolness of cyberpunk with all of the Gibsonian creepiness stripped out (or at least, they are trying to strip it out), coupled with the voyeurism of the X-ray goggles sold in the back of comic books in the 70s.

That glee of being able to see what others cannot see: THAT is what is “virility” for the brogrammer-esque adopters who want to have Google Glass.

To have a form of technognosis.

Indeed, it probably goes without saying this is a real sf’nal moment: a kind of dystopian, disruptive surveillance technology being unleashed not in the pages of Analog, but in press releases, SXSW and TED talks.

It’s a true cyberpunk moment very different from smart phones, because of the closeness of the interface. (In fact I’m sure that the idea for this had to have popped up first in a SF magazine decades ago, before the possibility of it could have been even dreamed of.)

When Gibson presented this “virility” in prose in the Sprawl stories–the diamond-cut sentences, the cockiness of the cyber-cowboys–this was hardly presented as a tableaux of joyful consumption, but rather one of deep alienation, suspicion (between the characters and each other, between the characters and corporations), and even decay, “lost under superstructures of muscle graft that their outlines weren’t really human.”

But, well, we are at a somewhat different juncture now. It’s hard to know where this is going. But when we as a society have been making incredibly slow progress in ridding ourselves of misogyny in the public sphere, Google Glass is kind of a platonic ideal of an adolescent male fantasy brought to life, an almost cartoonishly dehumanizing piece of technology that posits its users as literal super-users, upsetting a power-balance through the spectacle of “augmentation.”

The First Apps

A great article on 18th century almanacs as ur-iPhones:

By now, I hope you’ll forgive the ahistorical slip that led me to enlist the iPhone as a way of imagining just how resourceful an early almanac could be. It was so much more than a book. Comparing it to the iPhone helps expand our vision about how an almanac worked and what it could do for its buyers. It wasn’t simply a compendium of reading material. Just as an iPhone connects users to an outside world and provides a feast of tools designed to make our lives easier, the almanac held the same promise. More than that, it was central to early American life and culture because it had so little competition. There was nothing at the local book shop that could do all the things the almanac did.

I don’t mean to suggest that almanacs did not contain anything worth reading. After all, Benjamin Franklin’s most famous parable linking time and money first appeared in the 1758 edition of his Poor Richard’s Almanac. And even if Jeremy Belknap did not consider Dr. Ames’s poetry any good, almanac-makers routinely borrowed material from the great English poets to “decorate” their almanacs. Others, including Ames and Franklin, sprinkled the calendar pages with proverbs and aphorisms.

(via Steve Himmer)

The Literary Magazine, of the Future

Bruce Sterling’s essay on design, the potential of design, and the design of fiction, is something that anyone interested in those issues should read–moving away from the tired arguments of why science fiction is dying, why it’s not dying…anyway, I tend to get those two things confused. Of course the pulp era has left its imprint on where the field is today, and how it sees itself, in ways that most people take for granted (still!). The more telling question resides in the use of experiential technologies:

What truly interests me here is the limits of the imaginable. Clearly, the pulp infrastructure limited what its artists were able to think about. They wore blinders that they could not see and therefore could not transcend.

The typewriter limited writers. Magazine word counts limited writers. Even the implicit cultural bargain between author and reader introduced constraints on what could be thought, said, and understood in public. Those mechanisms of interaction-the letter columns, the fan mail, the bookstore appearances, the conventions-they were poorly understood as interaction. They were all emergent practices rather than designed experiences.

I would also argue that most literary magazines, collegiately based or otherwise, also fail basic marks on design. But that’s another story.

After reading this, I thought it would be interesting to do a thought experiment on what a new “magazine” design might look like. I use the word magazine very tenatively, because not only would the cross-fertilization come from the content of fiction (if we take the assumption that genre distinction are, at heart, arbitrary) but also the use of various technological platforms. To perhaps build something from the ground up that can itself augment and shape the reading experience of the fiction.

Premise: using a wiki-like and custom social networking platform, allow for the collaboration between various writers who are invited to the site for one-month stints as “fellows.”

Hope: that the “fiction research” premise leads to greater experimentation and surprise during the duration of a group of writers’ stay.

Features:

1. The typography must be strong. It can’t be jokey, white text on black background, or shoddy.

2. The application process for a group of fellows for a particular month must be open to anyone; with any luck there is a good mix of older and newer writers.

3. The magazine must not be non-fiction (and theory) adverse. Whether this comes from blogging/microblogging tools embedded in the site, digressions and discussions, or whatever–there shouldn’t be a high wall between various forms of prose.

4. Serialization, as a nod to one of the hallmarks of the pulp era, will be encouraged. This might involve a mini-episodic arc of fiction within a given month, taking the reins of previous serializations from months past, and working with other writers to create shared worlds in unexpected ways.

5. Alumni of the magazine will be encouraged to participate in future months as readers, continuers of previous conversations, etc.

6. At the same time, the readership will be given all the necessary tools to find out how they would like to read the magazine–and by extension, how the magazine as an ongoing work should be written.

____

This is a first draft; any other suggestions would be appreciated. Of course, this is a thought experiment–I don’t really have the time of late to really implement this! Maybe some day.

On Furries

ON FURRIES

It is perhaps not surprising that the furry culture as we know it today sprung up in early virtual worlds (MOOs, Mucks, and Muds — these acronyms themselves hint at the wet dust of the first creations, paradise’s barnyard). Besides FurryMUCK, one of the most significant early furry spaces is the Swedish MUCK called Sociopolitical Ramifications:

“SPR’s main ‘city’ has a computer theme with different areas named after different parts of a computer’s hardware or architecture.”

Early test case of avatarism, relatively unchanged from furry communities in 3D graphic spaces such as Second Life and those virally trying to make the “metaverse” more palatable as a beach-head for transhumanism.

Gods and wizards create lycantrhopic bodies.

open questions with answers of “Yeah, maybe”

I wonder if it’s time for a speculative (or otherwise) ezine inhabiting myspace and myspace only.

I wonder if Hex is a better show than Buffy.

I’m really beginning to wonder about both of those.

Literature, Text, and Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality died in the House Commerce Committee. btw, these are the Democrats who voted to kill the Internet as we know it: Ed Towns of New York, Bobby Rush of Illinois, Al Wynn of Maryland, Gene Green of Texas and Charlie Gonzales of Texas. Thanks! You obviously know where your well-heeled bread is buttered.

So let’s just suppose that the telcoms and cable providers are going to keep chipping away at Net Neutrality over the next 10-20 years. Even if they don’t win this round–and there’s no reason to think that they can’t–they’re going to keep at it. Let’s say that they do succeed and they manage to act as supreme content-gatekeepers. What does this mean for online literature? It might make it more necessary than ever. A lot of what these telcoms want to broker is video-on-demand, higher-end applications, etc. You get the sense that they don’t really don’t care about unadorned text. Where’s the profit in that?

Two Internets might exist, then–one as it existed in, say, 1996 (with, however, a greater quantity of sheer content) and the bells-and-whistles pleasure palaces that the telcoms want to force-feed us. Literature, then–pure text–will be at a pivot point in this new, slightly distopian online landscape. But it has served us well for thousands of years, so I think we’ll be in good shape–to not only write poems and stories that entertain and delight, but also to subvert the very constraining conditions placed on the intellectual and literary landscape in the next 10 years. It’s not going to be a pretty time. But if we have to go back to the Lynx-compatible Web to change things, then so be it.

Update: To see what the Internet will look like in 2010 under our new overlords, check out the Firefox extension of a Lynx viewer tool!

myspace vs. friendster

This is a brilliant, brilliant essay by Danah Boyd about Friendster vs. MySpace, and about burgeoning “super publics”:

Online communities are more like nation-states than technological tools. There is a master behind the architecture, a master who controls the walls of the system and can wage war on her/his people at any point. People know this. They have to trust that the creators have their best intentions in mind. They invest a lot of time and energy into creating an identity in the system – they want to believe that it is worth it.

*

Portability of identity doesn’t matter. Easy-to-use interfaces don’t matter. Visual coherence doesn’t matter. Simple navigation doesn’t matter. Bugs don’t matter. Fancy new technologies don’t matter. Simple personalization doesn’t matter.

Before you scream “but it does to me!” let me acknowledge that you’re right. It does matter to you. The question is whether it matters to the masses. And it doesn’t. Especially for teens.

*

“Coolness” is about structural barriers, about the lack of universal accessibility or parsability. Structural hurdles mean people put in more effort to participate. It’s kinda like the adventure of tracking down the right parking lot to get the bus to go to the rave. The effort matters. Sure, it weeds some people out, but it makes those who participate feel all the more validated. Finding the easter egg, the cool little feature that no one knows about is exciting. Learning all of the nooks and crannies in a complex system is exhilarating. Figuring out how to hack things, having the “inside knowledge” is fabu.

Often, people don’t need simplicity – they want to feel proud of themselves for figuring something out; they want to feel the joy of exploration. This is the difference between tasks that people are required to do and social life. Social life isn’t about the easy way to do something – it’s about making meaning out of practice, about finding your own way.

Bugs make technologies seem alive, particularly if they’re acknowledged and fixed. They give texture to the environment and people are impressively patient with it if they feel like the architects are on it. It makes the architects look vulnerable which brings them back down to earth, making them real and fallible, but giving them the opportunity to do good. They let the benevolent dictator really serve the people.

Nobodies

I “love” the opening text for Blogads:

“You need to woo the early adopters that traditional media can’t reach. You need to engage 500,000 opinion makers, not pester 100,000,000 nobodies.”

translation:

“Non-non-poor people SUCK!”

Now that’s some good hipster talk there. Mirrorshades or death!

Graveyard

I love the relics of useless search engines.

Feel that tumbleweed.