Me++

William J. Mitchell‘s new book ME++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City is an extremely useful survey and discussion of new technologies, but (how do I put this) not an inspiring one. The book makes a powerful and exhaustive inventory of new network technologies, particularly wireless ones, and discusses how these technologies are changing everything from our sense of self to the way power works in our society. Mitchell is careful not to get too carried away, in the manner of so many futurologists: the devices and techniques he is writing about are not all commonly available yet today, but they are all grounded in current practices. That is to say, Mitchell extrapolates only to the extent that he describes the situation in which today’s bleeding-edge technology has become the norm, an everyday experience within the price range and technical know-how of the average consumer. (By this, he seems to mean anyone at the economic level of the inhabitants of North America, Western Europe, and Japan).
What’s especially good about Mitchell’s account is the way that he embeds his accounts of cell-phone texting or RFID chips or GPS systems in the history of human culture, technology, and architecture. Goggles that display hyperlinked data are not anything radically new, so much as they are continuous with a whole series of inventions, or of human tweakings of the environment, from the mastery of fire, to various forms of clothing, various means of writing (making symbolic marks), and various architectural programs. New technology is thereby demystified, and even its “virtual,” delocalizing components are grounded in a dialectic between the body and its surroundings. Mitchell is also frank and thoughtful about the dangers, as well as the advantages, of the new wireless digital technologies: he spends as much time talking about their potentials for surveillance and control, as he does about the new forms of freedom that they might open up. Rejecting both utopian fantasies and dystopian prophecies, Mitchell offers instead a sober calculus of possibilities and dangers.
Why, then, am I ultimately disappointed with this book (which is what I meant when I said I didn’t find it inspiring)? I think it is because Mitchell remains on the level of the catalogue, or listing of separate observations. He fails to do (and probably has no interest in doing) what Deleuze and Guattari define as the task of the philosopher, theorist, or intellectual: to create new concepts. He shows us how new conditions and new forms of life are emerging, conditions and forms for which our current patterns of thought are no longer adequate; but he doesn’t take cognizance of this inadequacy (not even in his own language) and he doesn’t even begin to think about how it might be remedied. The result is a kind of enforced blandness. I suppose that is better than your typical “gee-whiz” celebratory attitude, but it leaves me dissatisfied. Mitchell avoids corporate hucksterism over the effects of new media and new technologies, but only at the price of substituting a kind of bureaucratic, policy-wonk mentality.

William J. Mitchell‘s new book ME++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City is an extremely useful survey and discussion of new technologies, but (how do I put this) not an inspiring one. The book makes a powerful and exhaustive inventory of new network technologies, particularly wireless ones, and discusses how these technologies are changing everything from our sense of self to the way power works in our society. Mitchell is careful not to get too carried away, in the manner of so many futurologists: the devices and techniques he is writing about are not all commonly available yet today, but they are all grounded in current practices. That is to say, Mitchell extrapolates only to the extent that he describes the situation in which today’s bleeding-edge technology has become the norm, an everyday experience within the price range and technical know-how of the average consumer. (By this, he seems to mean anyone at the economic level of the inhabitants of North America, Western Europe, and Japan).
What’s especially good about Mitchell’s account is the way that he embeds his accounts of cell-phone texting or RFID chips or GPS systems in the history of human culture, technology, and architecture. Goggles that display hyperlinked data are not anything radically new, so much as they are continuous with a whole series of inventions, or of human tweakings of the environment, from the mastery of fire, to various forms of clothing, various means of writing (making symbolic marks), and various architectural programs. New technology is thereby demystified, and even its “virtual,” delocalizing components are grounded in a dialectic between the body and its surroundings. Mitchell is also frank and thoughtful about the dangers, as well as the advantages, of the new wireless digital technologies: he spends as much time talking about their potentials for surveillance and control, as he does about the new forms of freedom that they might open up. Rejecting both utopian fantasies and dystopian prophecies, Mitchell offers instead a sober calculus of possibilities and dangers.
Why, then, am I ultimately disappointed with this book (which is what I meant when I said I didn’t find it inspiring)? I think it is because Mitchell remains on the level of the catalogue, or listing of separate observations. He fails to do (and probably has no interest in doing) what Deleuze and Guattari define as the task of the philosopher, theorist, or intellectual: to create new concepts. He shows us how new conditions and new forms of life are emerging, conditions and forms for which our current patterns of thought are no longer adequate; but he doesn’t take cognizance of this inadequacy (not even in his own language) and he doesn’t even begin to think about how it might be remedied. The result is a kind of enforced blandness. I suppose that is better than your typical “gee-whiz” celebratory attitude, but it leaves me dissatisfied. Mitchell avoids corporate hucksterism over the effects of new media and new technologies, but only at the price of substituting a kind of bureaucratic, policy-wonk mentality.

Mobile Blog

A few months ago, I started a WAPblog — accessible via net-enabled mobile phone — but I haven’t written much for it.The entries are still available, but I haven’t written anything new for it in quite some time.
Now I am going to try again. This time, I will make the entries from this blog available via net-enabled mobile phone, using Winksite (I learned about all this from Abe).
Just point your mobile phone browser to http://winksite.com/shaviro/pinocchio.

A few months ago, I started a WAPblog — accessible via net-enabled mobile phone — but I haven’t written much for it.The entries are still available, but I haven’t written anything new for it in quite some time.
Now I am going to try again. This time, I will make the entries from this blog available via net-enabled mobile phone, using Winksite (I learned about all this from Abe).
Just point your mobile phone browser to http://winksite.com/shaviro/pinocchio.

Spam

Things are really getting out of hand. My service provider’s spam filter caught 676 spam messages in the last 24 hours, a new record. There were 2 legitimate messages that the filter wrongly tagged as spam. Plus there were an additional 10 or 20 (I didn’t count) spam messages that got through the filter and made it to my email client (which caught about half of them, the rest I had to delete one by one). I’m not sure whether to be amazed more by the efficiency of the spam filter, or by the sheer volume of spam that I get sent; I suppose the two are correlative phenomena of ferocious Darwinian competition – an evolutionary arms race – on the Net (something I am also thinking about because it is a major theme of Peter Watts’ SF novel Maelstrom, which I am almost finished reading and will report on shortly). The filter makes it a minor annoyance instead of a major headache, but still. A year ago I was receiving 150 pieces of spam a day, and thought that was a lot….

Things are really getting out of hand. My service provider’s spam filter caught 676 spam messages in the last 24 hours, a new record. There were 2 legitimate messages that the filter wrongly tagged as spam. Plus there were an additional 10 or 20 (I didn’t count) spam messages that got through the filter and made it to my email client (which caught about half of them, the rest I had to delete one by one). I’m not sure whether to be amazed more by the efficiency of the spam filter, or by the sheer volume of spam that I get sent; I suppose the two are correlative phenomena of ferocious Darwinian competition – an evolutionary arms race – on the Net (something I am also thinking about because it is a major theme of Peter Watts’ SF novel Maelstrom, which I am almost finished reading and will report on shortly). The filter makes it a minor annoyance instead of a major headache, but still. A year ago I was receiving 150 pieces of spam a day, and thought that was a lot….

Windows and Mirrors

Windows and Mirrors : Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency, by Jay David Bolter and my former colleague Diane Gromala (who left the University of Washington, where I still teach, for Georgia Tech, at least in part because of UW’s stupidity and failure to give her the recognition she deserved) is a book about rethinking the philosophy of web design. It’s a theoretically informed book, but one that is aimed at an audience of Web designers rather than theorists, and hence is lucid and highly accessible. The book’s main thesis is that the value of “transparency” in Web and interface design has been greatly exaggerated. The interface should not simply disappear, as if it were just a window through which we see naked data. Rather, the interface should also be valued for itself; this is what makes “interactivity” possible, as well as being where aesthetic pleasure resides. Web design should be pleasurable, rather than just nakedly utilitarian in the way “usability” experts like Jakob Nielsen have recommended. A good interface is one that oscillates between usability and reflectivity, between being a “window” and being a “mirror.”
I don’t think that Bolter and Gromala’s thesis is new, at least among people who are familiar with theory. But rarely has this sort of argument been presented so elegantly and at the same time so accessibly (in doing both, the book practices what it preaches). Taking off from analyses of art works displayed at SIGGRAPH 2000, Windows and Mirrors shows how self-consciousness and self-reflection are intrinsic dimensions of digital media (indeed, of all media), and how trying (never successfully) to eliminate them in favor of a supposedly unmediated and direct experience has disastrous consequences. Along the way, they Bolter and Gromala affirm the importance of embodiment in digital or virtual experience, debunk totalizing notions of media “convergence,” and look further at the consequences of “remediation” (the way new media take up and alter older media — this was the title and subject of a previous book by Bolter, written in collaboration with Richard Grusin).
Web designers should definitely read this book. Anyone else with an interest in digital media should find it interesting and informative, if only for the clarity and focus it brings to its themes.

Windows and Mirrors : Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency, by Jay David Bolter and my former colleague Diane Gromala (who left the University of Washington, where I still teach, for Georgia Tech, at least in part because of UW’s stupidity and failure to give her the recognition she deserved) is a book about rethinking the philosophy of web design. It’s a theoretically informed book, but one that is aimed at an audience of Web designers rather than theorists, and hence is lucid and highly accessible. The book’s main thesis is that the value of “transparency” in Web and interface design has been greatly exaggerated. The interface should not simply disappear, as if it were just a window through which we see naked data. Rather, the interface should also be valued for itself; this is what makes “interactivity” possible, as well as being where aesthetic pleasure resides. Web design should be pleasurable, rather than just nakedly utilitarian in the way “usability” experts like Jakob Nielsen have recommended. A good interface is one that oscillates between usability and reflectivity, between being a “window” and being a “mirror.”
I don’t think that Bolter and Gromala’s thesis is new, at least among people who are familiar with theory. But rarely has this sort of argument been presented so elegantly and at the same time so accessibly (in doing both, the book practices what it preaches). Taking off from analyses of art works displayed at SIGGRAPH 2000, Windows and Mirrors shows how self-consciousness and self-reflection are intrinsic dimensions of digital media (indeed, of all media), and how trying (never successfully) to eliminate them in favor of a supposedly unmediated and direct experience has disastrous consequences. Along the way, they Bolter and Gromala affirm the importance of embodiment in digital or virtual experience, debunk totalizing notions of media “convergence,” and look further at the consequences of “remediation” (the way new media take up and alter older media — this was the title and subject of a previous book by Bolter, written in collaboration with Richard Grusin).
Web designers should definitely read this book. Anyone else with an interest in digital media should find it interesting and informative, if only for the clarity and focus it brings to its themes.

Re_Invigorate

Following the example of Jenny, I’ve decided to use Re_Invigorate to find out how many people are actually reading this blog. I suppose I could look at the raw data collected by my service provider, but I’m too lazy. I wonder what I will find out, and whether I really want to know…

Following the example of Jenny, I’ve decided to use Re_Invigorate to find out how many people are actually reading this blog. I suppose I could look at the raw data collected by my service provider, but I’m too lazy. I wonder what I will find out, and whether I really want to know…

A new twist on immortality

Quite wonderfully, the conceptual artist Jonathon Keats (great name) has copyrighted his brain, and now is selling futures contracts on his neurons (via Die, Puny Humans). Since copyright holds for 70 years after the death of the creator, Keats is offering the rights to use his neurons for any computational purpose the buyer may wish, during that extended period. You buy now, and cash in when Keats actually dies (which may not be for quite some time, as he is 32). (The actual text of the IPO is available here).
This is brilliant on so many levels. In terms of “intellectual property,” and the commodification of art and intellect; in terms of what personal identity might mean, after death; in terms of the expectations of artificial intelligence research and interfacing neurons with silicon chips. Keats poses all these issues in a quite hilarious and provocative way (even though, or rather precisely because, Keats insists that he wants to be taken seriously).

Quite wonderfully, the conceptual artist Jonathon Keats (great name) has copyrighted his brain, and now is selling futures contracts on his neurons (via Die, Puny Humans). Since copyright holds for 70 years after the death of the creator, Keats is offering the rights to use his neurons for any computational purpose the buyer may wish, during that extended period. You buy now, and cash in when Keats actually dies (which may not be for quite some time, as he is 32). (The actual text of the IPO is available here).
This is brilliant on so many levels. In terms of “intellectual property,” and the commodification of art and intellect; in terms of what personal identity might mean, after death; and in terms of the expectations of artificial intelligence research and interfacing neurons with silicon chips. Keats poses all these issues in a quite hilarious and provocative way (even though, or rather precisely because, Keats insists that he wants to be taken seriously).
Since it’s only $10 for a million neurons, I sent in a check, requesting neurons located in the artist’s anterior cingulate cortex

The Open Music Model

Shuman Ghosemajumder has a very sensible proposal for file sharing. Basically it comes down to unlimited downloads and sharing of music files for a flat monthly fee; the fee would compensate creators and copyright holders. This is more or less the model currently used by emusic, of which I am a subscriber. The emusic service is worth a lot more to me than the $10/month I pay as a subscriber; I can get albums I want easily, in unencrpyted mp3 format, without the annoying searches and problems of download times and falsely labeled files that I encounter on the services that the RIAA is trying to suppress. The sole problem with emusic is that it only carries music by certain (not all) independent labels. Shuman’s proposal would generalize this sort of model to all recorded music. I am inclined to think that the record companies would be better off in the long run if they adopted such a business model (together, perhaps, with a small tax on blank media such as already exists in Canada in return for the legalization of personal file copying). But the record industry will never do such a thing as long as they maintain their current gangster mentality (the current RIAA lawsuits are essentially shakedowns of people who can’t afford to pay; and I suspect that, if push came to shove, the industry would sacrifice profits in order to maintain absolute control over their “product”). I suppose we can only hope….

Shuman Ghosemajumder has a very sensible proposal for file sharing. Basically it comes down to unlimited downloads and sharing of music files for a flat monthly fee; the fee would compensate creators and copyright holders. This is more or less the model currently used by emusic, of which I am a subscriber. The emusic service is worth a lot more to me than the $10/month I pay as a subscriber; I can get albums I want easily, in unencrpyted mp3 format, without the annoying searches and problems of download times and falsely labeled files that I encounter on the services that the RIAA is trying to suppress. The sole problem with emusic is that it only carries music by certain (not all) independent labels. Shuman’s proposal would generalize this sort of model to all recorded music. I am inclined to think that the record companies would be better off in the long run if they adopted such a business model (together, perhaps, with a small tax on blank media such as already exists in Canada in return for the legalization of personal file copying). But the record industry will never do such a thing as long as they maintain their current gangster mentality (the current RIAA lawsuits are essentially shakedowns of people who can’t afford to pay; and I suspect that, if push came to shove, the industry would sacrifice profits in order to maintain absolute control over their “product”). I suppose we can only hope….

Behind the Blip

Matthew Fuller’s Behind the Blip; Essays on the Culture of Software (also available directly from Autonomedia) is not a very inviting read (its flashes of surrealism and delightful nastiness are not enough to redeem its clotted prose and its reified theoryspeak), but it raises important question about software, its meaning and its uses. What ideological assumptions, and what power relations, are built into the way programs work, and especially into their “interface” with the user? Fuller hammers away at this question, and convincingly argues that such things are never neutral. The book is less effective, however, at proposing any sort of alternative (isn’t that always the problem? it certainly is for me in my own writing). The things he does propose – free, open-source software on the one hand, and an interrogation, probably by artists, of the ideological underpinnings and hidden levels of code on the other – are not really satisfactory. Open source software, for one thing, tends still to be too demanding and difficult to be used by anyone who doesn’t already have a high level of technical skill; being able to read the source code doesn’t do me any good, since I can’t understand it; even the surface usage of such programs is difficult for computer users who (like my parents, for instance) have considerably less experience than even I do. As for Brechtian artistic strategies of unveiling the hidden substructures of code – one could include under this rubric the two software projects Fuller himself was involved in, and writes about, Web Stalker (an alternative browser) and Natural Selection (an alternative search engine) , as well as other celebrated web art projects like those of jodi.org, I can only say that the relatively meager results of such projects, compared with the theoretical sophistication that went into making them up in the first place, only suggests that our critical paradigms of demystification, alienation-effects, deconstruction, and so on, are far behind the times, because they were developed for print, or live performance, or other, older media, and simply do not work with the new (electronic, net-based) media we are experiencing today.

Matthew Fuller’s Behind the Blip; Essays on the Culture of Software (also available directly from Autonomedia) is not a very inviting read (its flashes of surrealism and delightful nastiness are not enough to redeem its clotted prose and its reified theoryspeak), but it raises important question about software, its meaning and its uses. What ideological assumptions, and what power relations, are built into the way programs work, and especially into their “interface” with the user? Fuller hammers away at this question, and convincingly argues that such things are never neutral. The book is less effective, however, at proposing any sort of alternative (isn’t that always the problem? it certainly is for me in my own writing). The things he does propose – free, open-source software on the one hand, and an interrogation, probably by artists, of the ideological underpinnings and hidden levels of code on the other – are not really satisfactory. Open source software, for one thing, tends still to be too demanding and difficult to be used by anyone who doesn’t already have a high level of technical skill; being able to read the source code doesn’t do me any good, since I can’t understand it; even the surface usage of such programs is difficult for computer users who (like my parents, for instance) have considerably less experience than even I do. As for Brechtian artistic strategies of unveiling the hidden substructures of code – one could include under this rubric the two software projects Fuller himself was involved in, and writes about, Web Stalker (an alternative browser) and Natural Selection (an alternative search engine) , as well as other celebrated web art projects like those of jodi.org, I can only say that the relatively meager results of such projects, compared with the theoretical sophistication that went into making them up in the first place, only suggests that our critical paradigms of demystification, alienation-effects, deconstruction, and so on, are far behind the times, because they were developed for print, or live performance, or other, older media, and simply do not work with the new (electronic, net-based) media we are experiencing today.

Mobile Phone Number Portability

According to Business Week (v ia Gizmodo):
“This Thanksgiving, America’s 147 million cell-phone users will indeed have something to be thankful for: On Nov. 24, we’ll all finally be allowed to switch carriers without having to change our phone number. It’s the chance consumers have been anticipating. Now, without any inconvenience, we finally will be able turn the table on wireless carriers that have been torturing us for years with dropped calls, inconsistent customer service, and complicated price plans that require an advanced degree in comparative analysis to comprehend. ”
I’ve never quite understood this reasoning. Because the biggest cost and difficulty in switching wireless providers is not having to change your number, but having to buy a new phone–since most mobile phones are locked to a single service provider. Buying unlocked phones is prohibitively expensive; while providers subsidize the cost of phones locked to their networks, usually only the cheapest models are provided actually for free. So it does cost more than it should to switch providers, even if the number stays the same.

According to Business Week (via Gizmodo):
“This Thanksgiving, America’s 147 million cell-phone users will indeed have something to be thankful for: On Nov. 24, we’ll all finally be allowed to switch carriers without having to change our phone number. It’s the chance consumers have been anticipating. Now, without any inconvenience, we finally will be able turn the table on wireless carriers that have been torturing us for years with dropped calls, inconsistent customer service, and complicated price plans that require an advanced degree in comparative analysis to comprehend. ”
I’ve never quite understood this reasoning. Because the biggest cost and difficulty in switching wireless providers is not having to change your number, but having to buy a new phone–since most mobile phones are locked to a single service provider. Buying unlocked phones is prohibitively expensive; while providers subsidize the cost of phones locked to their networks, usually only the cheapest models are provided actually for free. So it does cost more than it should to switch providers, even if the number stays the same.