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'Roll Review #4: This Is Really Happening

My family is fond of describing me as a child as "4 going on 40." That was a product of my growing up surrounded by adults, I guess. However, I've since grown out of that description, not least of all because I'm rapidly approaching 40.

But one of my friends, Josh, has always seemed sage beyond his years, and his perspective, timeless. He's as comfortable discussing philosophy and Russian literature as he is the Web. The thing is, his opinion on them all is worth hearing.

We worked for a time together in textbook publishing, sharing an office wall between us, and grew disenchanted with its outdated model at about the same time. Common interests in media, technology, and culture keep us in touch. We don't always agree: he'd probably say I put too much stock in technology's hold over humans, while I'd likely say he's a little too optimistic about our ability to control media environments and use them for good. Regardless, I really look forward to our bullshit sessions. His half-full attitude always refreshes my half-empty one.

I encourage you to dip into his personal and professional blogs for similar refreshment. As one who's all too ready to point out a problem, I take comfort knowing someone like Josh is out there looking for solutions.


Art is a Conversation

When Kristin Hersh released her latest solo album in January 2007, some critics and fans took its title, Learn to Sing Like a Star, as ironic. Turns out she may have really meant it.

This artist, who has had a hand in shaping alternative rock for more than 20 years, is now trying to redefine the recording industry. Earlier this week Hersh launched CASH Music, an acronym that stands for Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders. Through this venture, she has committed to writing and recording a new song each month for digital release. A donation is asked for but not required. However, the prospect of cheap or free good music is not the project's most exciting part.

Hersh sees music, both its makers and listeners, as a community with equal shares at stake. Therefore, she's releasing her music files openly under a Creative Commons license. I'll let her tell the best part.

Art is by nature a conversation. I'd like us to make it a community. Think about what you have to offer. Read-only culture is not enough anymore. We'd like you to treat this stuff as read-write. I'd also like to hear your comments on the songs I post each month. I'll read them all and reply too.

What does read-write mean? Maybe as you're listening to "Slippershell", you're inspired to DO something: paint a picture, write an essay, make a video, remix, or even re-record the song. Please do so. And share your work with me and the rest of the CASH community by uploading it somewhere and sending me a link. I'm offering my Pro Tools mix stems to make it easy to work with my recorded material. We will review all the links submitted, I promise. At some point, I'll release the songs I post here in the form of a CD. It's my intention that the CD release should also include lots of the stuff you send me. I think that would be incredible.

What we're doing today is just the beginning. It is in the nature of a share and share alike community to grow. Gradually, over the next weeks and months CASH Music will be revealing it's "real" self. Other artists will be involved, the final and fully-capable site will be launched and new features will be added—all incorporating your input and creativity. CASH is a community that in the end will be defined by itself.
Check out the rest of her statement here—it's worth reading.

She gets a little Web 2.0 with the read-write rhetoric, but the most important—the most beautiful—part of her statement is "Art is by nature a conversation." That is what makes this venture so human and, consequently, so sustainable. CASH Music is a great example of how technology used well can put control back where it matters. It's about people, not product. It's about community, not consumption.

Congratulations on your vision, Kristin. And the rest of you take her up on her offer: download, donate, create, and share.


Kindling, part 3

The third reason Kindle will fail is because it's not paper.

According to research covered by William Powers in "Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal," paper holds "intrinsic properties," or affordances, that enable us to perform certain tasks better. He acknowledges that electronic media are much more powerful in specific ways: digital text, for example, is fully searchable and enables more efficient nonlinear cross-referencing. But what's most intriguing about paper is its power lies in its limitations.

It seems we are cognitively wired to interact with paper. Because paper is a three-dimensional physical object with limited space for text and images, it encourages cognitive immersion. It simply focuses our minds better than a screen can, which should be no surprise to anyone whose attention has been eroded by email. Furthermore, the physical presence of papers or a book communicates with us spatially. By holding a book in our hands and turning pages with our fingers we engage our brains with an input other than our eyes and enact fine motors skills—neither of which digital text and hypertext can do. We hold in our hands a physical representation of what's going on in our minds.

Apple has had a flurry of patents over the past two years for such things as multi-touch screens, two-sided dual-screen devices, and motion sensors. It's conceivable these functions could potentially replace a book's three-dimensional advantage by, for instance, being combined in a device that scrolled text or turned a page every time the user flipped the device to the screen on the other side. However, no such device yet exists.

Meanwhile, the focus seems to be on creating "digital ink" and "e-paper." As Powers writes on page 62 of his report:

Paper is all around us, quietly doing the same work it's been doing for centuries. Indeed, what's most remarkable about the quest for e-paper is the standard by which we measure its progress. Paper itself is the inescapable metaphor, the paradigm, the tantalizing goal. The new medium will be deemed a success if and when it is no longer just an imitation of paper, but the real thing—when it becomes paper.
Perhaps the new medium will actually succeed when it is truly conceived of as new and not simply the best representation of the old medium. Perhaps when someone dreams and designs an object that focuses our attention like paper, enhances our need to engage in three-dimensions like a book, and delivers the functional promise of digital interactivity—perhaps then books will become kindling.


Kindling, part 2

Though it's more ideological than consumerist, the second reason Kindle will fail is environmental.

Since the dawn of electronic document technology, futurists have been touting the positive environmental impact of the paperless office. Think of all the trees we'll save! Can we please kill that fallacy once and for all?

First, trees are a renewable resource. At issue is whether we renew that resource at a rate that meets our consumption, not the resource itself. Second, paper is recyclable. Reuse what's already been manufactured. Third, paper is biodegradable. True, as it rots it releases methane, a greenhouse gas several times more potent than carbon dioxide. But such emissions can easily be mitigated by recycling and offset by planting trees to replace the ones we've pulped. Besides, despite methane's potency, the declining number of readers compared to the increasing number of cars in the U.S. suggests that carbon dioxide is the real problem.

Now imagine the tens or hundreds of thousands (we don't know because Amazon won't release sales figures) of Kindles out there that we'll break or get bored of and throw out in a few years. Think of that petroleum-based plastic breaking down and leaching into the soil. Imagine the lead and silicon used in its chips oozing into the ground water.

Better yet, imagine all those discarded Kindles being shipped to our real Island of Misfit Toys. Do we still wonder why our pet food is poisoned and our babies' toys are full of lead?


Kindling, part 1

Amazon made a lot of noise lately with the release of their wireless reading device, Kindle. Is its name intended to evoke book burning? Doesn't matter. There are three reasons I know it'll fail, without ever picking up the device. Today let's look at the first and most practical: price.

We know that the Kindle currently costs $400. We then must purchase each title for $10. We also know that, on average, a digital device's useful life is two years, after which it either breaks or the owner trades it in for a new device.

Most readers get books from several sources, including used book stores and libraries, and in several forms, ranging from mass market paperbacks to trade paperbacks to hardcover books. The average per-read cost is probably $15—and that's being generous. Therefore, a Kindle owner would have to read 80 books within the device's probable two-year lifespan to break even. That's a substantial number for all but the most avid reader. Furthermore, the Kindle currently rules out all consumer cost-saving options, such as second-hand book buying, library lending, or borrowing a book from a friend.

The Kindle seems to have addressed many issues that earlier generation digital reading devices suffered from, such as the light on v. light through reading experience problem. And it will probably sell fairly well at first just for its novelty. However, it costs too much and offers the consumer too little flexibility when compared with the thing it's trying to replace.


More Angsty Bits

Elsewhere on yesterday's New York Times op-ed page, Jaron Lanier demands, Pay Me for My Content.


No because context is king.

No because the whole is nearly always greater than the parts, and I wouldn't have paid for your parts.

No because for the dollar yesterday's edition of the New York Times cost me, I get to chide you and David Brooks and bone up on my cocktail-party current events in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

No because subscription plans on the Internet have failed spectacularly.

No because the online edition of the very publication you ranted in yesterday decided on September 19 that the subscription model didn't work.

No because—though the timing of your, um, essay suggests you are weirdly but touchingly trying to align yourself with truly creative people—I can think of no better way to destroy what's left of art and culture on the Internet than to slap a subscription fee on it, after which it'll be relegated to that thing called The Dark Web, which I've heard of, never seen, and frankly makes me paranoid.

No because you are a code monkey who has worked for Microsoft, Linden Labs, and a Google acquisition, where you probably had a foosball table in your office and were falsely convinced that your every utterance is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

No because, contrary to what you say, people do not happily pay for virtual art and clothing on Second Life. They pay for large avatar penises with which to have virtual sex. Much like real people do in the real world, actually.

No because your I've-seen-the-light screed ends with, "We need to grow up," which is always written by those who think they know better and never do.


The Fragments Are Coming!

Today's New York Times op-ed pages are filled with cultural angst.

Columnist David Brooks tells us about a new curriculum, drawn by Bruce Springsteen's own Little Steven, to teach high schoolers American history through music. It seems that Van Zandt, like Brooks, is anxious about the fragmentation of American culture, particularly rock and/or roll. We are creating, apparently, a generation of new musicians who have no sense of musical history.

I have three initial reactions to Van Zandt's proposal. First, there is no quicker way to kill rock than to codify it in a high school classroom. Kids listen to music to get away from school, their parents, and any other authority figure who tells them what's good for them.

Second, when has anyone liked being told what they should know and should like? The only difference is now musicians and listeners don't have to rely on Top 40 radio and record labels to hear what they want. Technology has reasserted consumer control—at least until some company, probably one that names all its products beginning with a lower case i, figures out how to push their taste on them. Of course our tastes are more fragmented than ever as a result. Why is that bad?

Third, music is as near a primal force as humanity can create. We react viscerally to it. Just because a history of some style might be lost does not mean we will ever stop creating the music we want to play and hear. Besides, every new tradition emerges out of a break from an old one.

But what really got my anger-crank turning were the idiocies tossed off by Brooks. In one choice moment, he drivels, "there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2." That's because it's temporally impossible, Dave. New bands are, well, new. Posterity hasn't weighed in yet. We simply don't know which ones will survive fame, overdoses, and the ravages of age.

A few paragraphs later, Brooks states, "It's considered inappropriate or even immoral for white musicians to appropriate African-American styles." One: Eminem. Two: if you check with your good friend and rock historian, Little Steven, he might tell you that a lot of early 20th century black musicians died penniless, while others, mostly white guys, claimed copyright and profited from their songs. That's at least inappropriate, or even immoral, so black musicians might be excused for being a little touchy about their contribution to American culture.

Brooks pinpoints the "pivot moment" in musical history to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when "the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation." I think the real cultural pivot is his essay, in which the always buttoned-down Brooks aligns himself with an aging rocker who dresses like a gypsy.


Entrepreneurs, Entertainers, & Outlaws

On the Media replayed a great radio documentary this weekend on the Mexican border blaster radio stations.

Also known as X stations, because their call letters began with X, they skirted American law from the 1930s to the 1960s by broadcasting from south of the Mexican border, often at wattages exceeding ten times the legal U.S. federal limit of 50,000 watts. There are stories of birds being electrocuted while flying too close to the towers and of sailors in the South Pacific tuning in.

Infamous for selling goat-gonad implants to erectilely challenged men and other types of snake oil, the border blasters also launched many a bluegrass and country music legend. It's said that Johnny Cash first heard his future wife's act for the first time on an X station. We also have border blasters to thank for Wolfman Jack.

What's best about the border blaster story, though, is the living reminder it presents of how feeble laws are in the face of media. Just as businessmen back then used the Mexican government's willingness to look the other way to their radio broadcasting advantage, they now use offshore laws to launch gambling and porn Web sites.

There will always be someone who'll figure out some way to make money, and technology will always be several steps ahead of the law.


'Roll Review #3: The Hub

YouTube has shown conclusively how powerfully user-generated video can operate within a culture. Low-production values, limited bandwidth, and small screens have proven to be no obstacles, as user participation has sent traditional media scrambling to figure out what this new broadcast method is and whether it's a threat.

Now the Hub is exploring a new aspect of that power. The Hub is a media-sharing site that focuses on human rights issues. It was launched by WITNESS, an activist group, founded in 1992 by Peter Gabriel and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, that "uses video and online technologies to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations." By opening a participatory channel for human rights stories, WITNESS makes good on the second part of their mission: to "empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change."

The opportunity the Hub provides for investigative, activist, or amateur journalism is limitless. Just think of all the missionary, Peace Corps, and AmeriCorps workers who now have an immediate link to the overdeveloped world and can affect change as it's needed. If we're lucky, major news outlets will begin monitoring the Hub for international leads, further increasing the site's impact. And I thought the Rodney King video was transformative.

Thanks to the GOOD Magazine blog for bringing the Hub to my attention.


The Empire Strikes Back

Looks as though the first and second most popular sites in America are trying to beat back the third and fifth ranked sites. If they're going to succeed, this is the plan to do it.

At least for now and the foreseeable future, people are comfortable communicating textually. Email is the most universally accepted online function. Text messaging remains the largest growth area in mobile phones. Both are widely accepted in business and social situations, and both are technologically appealing, because they don't demand a lot of memory or bandwidth.

Add in the vast repositories of personal data both Yahoo and Google have collected from their registered email users and you've got the foundations for an active digital social network. Plus, from their perspective, it's not an all-or-nothing game. MySpace and Facebook users will likely also use Google's and/or Yahoo's social functions, simply because they're available and attached to their email. MySpace and Facebook, however, do not yet have a native email component, so first-time social site users who start on Google or Yahoo are not likely to migrate to MySpace or Facebook.

If I had to place a bet on this fight, I'd put my money on Google. Not because they're the biggest and baddest right now, but because their stripped-down interfaces make them more conducive to textual communication and more portable to mobile devices. Yahoo's latest email redesign is an interactive disaster that takes far longer to get used to than most people have the patience for—and as limited as people's patience is for digital devices in general, it's even less for email. Also, Yahoo mail runs a lot slower than Google's, especially on older computers.

Favoring Yahoo is a general opt-in consumer approach. Yahoo tends to build tools that their users can either choose to use and integrate or not. Google tends to produce ready-made services that the user must discover how to opt out of. And that's Yahoo's wild card, because as we all know, people want to participate and they want to at least think they're in control.


Serendipity, or Is It Synchronicity?

In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.
—Louis Pasteur
No sooner did yesterday's intern spark bloggerous debates about privacy and the Internet than OCLC released its latest report, Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World, which is available as a free PDF download.

The report is based on responses from a little more than 6,500 people from six countries—Canada, US, Japan, France, Germany, and UK—who completed online surveys between December 7, 2006 and February 7, 2007. I'll leave you to parse it in greater detail, but there are two passages I'd like to share. The first is quite relevant to yesterday's post.
The builders of the social Web are comfortable and open. The Internet is now an everyday activity like making a phone call or watching TV. Internet activities are familiar and comfortable and, perhaps as a consequence, are not seen as particularly private. . . . [T]he more users participate on their favorite social and commercial sites, the more trust develops between the users and the sites. (p. 8-3)
Two things worth noting before I give the second passage: 382 respondents were identified as library directors; among all respondents, 28% had not visited a library building or library Web site in the previous year.
We see the social Web developing in an environment where users and librarians have dissimilar, perhaps conflicting, views on sharing and privacy. There is an imbalance. Librarians view their role as protectors of privacy; it is their professional obligation. They believe their users expect this of them. Users want privacy protection, but not for all services. They want the ability to control the protection, but not at the expense of participation. (p. 8-4)
That last sentence is so key. Librarians are trained to control. It's in the profession's terminology: access, distribution, controlled vocabulary, authority record. But in the current creator/consumer digital climate, the user wants to be in the driver seat.


Nice Wand

Whether this guy's actions were right or wrong is irrelevant. The appropriateness of his boss's reaction likewise is beside the point.

What matters is that the intern clearly did not think there would be any repercussions from his Facebook post. What matters is that his views about privacy are either skewed or nonexistent. What matters is that he is of voting age and, therefore, has some say in what my privacy rights are.

There's no doubt digital media alter our perception of the world, including our concept of privacy. It's the end of privacy as we know it. The best part? We're all compliant.


The Librarian's Dilemma

The recent buzz about the Google Phone, which is scheduled for release in the middle of next year, suggests that the evolution has begun. More pertinent to that argument, however, are the advancements in interactive design introduced by the Blackberry Pearl and iPhone and—most important—how the public has reacted to them. We are rapidly moving past the stage of early adopters and into the first phase of mainstream adoption. Before long, the chains binding us to our desktops and laptops will be severed.

This presents a whole new set of questions for librarians, many of whom still don't quite know what to make of changing desktop technology.

  • Do we integrate our existing digital services to accommodate mobile technology?
  • Do we build or buy new digital services that are made specifically to maximize mobile technology?
  • How will mobile technology affect our contracts with data vendors?
  • Do we allow patrons free use of their mobiles—including the its phone—in the library, or do we separate and police our spaces by function rather than content? (That context v. content question keeps coming up.)
  • Do we choose to ignore mobile technology entirely and define ourselves in other ways?
The technology is here. We have to deal with it. The way to deal with it is to decide precisely who we are, what we do, and what our role is in society.


The Sea Change in Scholarly Communication

As seminal as science and medicine have been to the advancement of digital publishing, the benefits of their efforts are largely confined to publishing in their disciplines. This makes sense when you consider that their approach to digital publishing has been process oriented. They are savvy technologists who collaborate on research that is well funded. The early incarnations of the Internet, for which their communities were primarily responsible, naturally fed into their behaviors.

That humanities and social science researchers were not a part of the vanguard is no surprise. Their work is driven by argument and interpretation, not empirical evidence. They tend to be more tribal and solitary in their research and operate within a field, rather than focus on a discipline. Above all, their research is, at best, sparsely funded, making initial outlays for technological infrastructures nearly impossible.

But an interesting thing is happening on the Internet: it's fundamental model is becoming more social and friendlier to the creator/consumer. It's also becoming cheaper and less dependent on a specific platform. And as I've discussed before, serious researchers—many of them humanities and social science specialists—are adopting the same information consumption behaviors on the Internet the rest of us are.

One key behavior change is that fewer of them are going directly to the library to conduct research, choosing instead to search and download from their homes and offices. The true change will come when they realize they can access information between the office and home—and get recommendations on new research from far-flung but like-minded academics. Then humanities and social science scholars will insist less on the bound volume and become eager participants in digital publishing.


The Narrative of Taxonomy

Taxonomies are organizational schemes. For that matter, so are folksonomies and even referral systems, such as's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" feature. The difference between them is in degree: strict imposed taxonomies are exact organizational schemes, while more bottom-up systems are ambiguous organizational schemes.

What makes either type of scheme useful, however, is the same: they must be iterative and interactive. We don't always know precisely what we're looking for all of the time. A good organizational scheme teaches us how to use it as we use it, because what we find now always influences how we search later. Good organizational schemes promote associative learning.

Associative learning is a kind of journey. Every journey has a tale—a narrative. Therefore, if we predict, uncover, or intuit the users' journeys, even if we're imposing the strictest taxonomy on them, we serve them well. There are narratives in every organizational scheme and in those narratives, meaning.


Taxonomy v. Folksonomy

A lot of ink has been spilled over the value of social tagging versus controlled vocabularies. Much of it has been couched in terms of cultural dominance, because taxonomies are imposed on a culture from the top-down by people somehow deemed experts, while folksonomies are created by the users of a system, thus emerging out of a culture from the bottom-up.

Proponents of taxonomies sometimes liken folksonomies to mob rule: chaotic, dangerous, and ultimately ineffective. Folksonomy evangelists counter that taxonomists exert cultural control by dictating how culture is labeled. Fair enough. How we name and organize information certainly affects the way in which it is understood. For proof, just notice my use of "proponents" and "evangelists."

The truth is that both methods taken to an extreme have serious shortcomings. Cultural stuff aside, taxonomies become sclerotic very quickly, because they require huge investments of labor to create and change. Meanwhile, pure folksonomies do tend to chaos unless they form around narrow topics. Most people are not exact enough in their use of language to recognize that a word with seven meanings might not make the best subject tag.

Therefore, taxonomies and folksonomies have much to learn from each other, and some blend of the two generally produce the most useful results. And it should always be about usefulness. That said, I think taxonomies will be more dominant than folksonomies, strictly from a practical perspective. Because when a folksonomy emerges that is so perfect that it gets wide use, what does it become at that moment if not a taxonomy?


'Roll Review #2: Planet Ham

Images correctly employed can evoke powerful emotion and communicate deep meaning. No blog features images better than Matt Phelan's Planet Ham.

Phelan received widespread attention as the illustrator of the "scrotum book," Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky. He didn't actually draw a scrotum, but was merely caught in the outrage of some parents afraid that if their children read the word, they'd have to have that talk.

Judging by his pictures, Phelan is far wiser and more in touch with what makes us human than those offended adults. To describe his illustrations is to wrestle with seeming contradictions. They are at once spare and emotive. They suggest great motion yet are calming. Bending the same basic strokes to his purpose, Phelan can evoke whimsy, innocence, or menace.

I would love one day to write a book for him to illustrate. I'd use powerful words like "scrotum," words capable of raising ire. And I'd rely on Phelan's drawings to soften my words and to show readers that they're only words—to show readers that what they're really outraged by and afraid of is themselves.


Rebellion Is Dead, Long Live Rebellion

Doing an Internet startup is like having a band—that's my basic theory. Everyone will have them because more than anything, it's fun.
Zaid Farooqui, founder & CEO of Cyquester Technologies,
as quoted in The Boston Globe
In a radio essay broadcast October 30 on NPR, Andrei Codrescu used the first sentence of Farooqui's quote as the launching point for a meditation on youthful rebellion in contemporary society. Codrescu notes that back in the day, poetry was the chosen vehicle for his and his friends' disdain for adults. He goes on to point out that later generations have turned to bands and stand-up comedy, respectively, as their forms of rebellion.

Today, he states, it's the Internet: "And it makes sense also that the Internet should follow both poetry and band because it envelops all media and returns rebellion to its source, pure information, unencumbered either by poetry's referentiality or comedy's complex messages."

But Codrescu sees a dark side to this latest manifestation of rebellion, because the Internet is not just a vehicle of pure information. It's not just free expression or an informed public sphere. It's also an engine of commerce, which makes it a tool of conformity.

And who wouldn't want to conform? At one end of the Net you've got Farooqui, who's 20, already at the helm of his own business, and likely to be a billionaire one day. At the other, you've got Internet-based shows that tell us the life of a blogger is cool and full of drama and meaning (thanks for the link, Vik). Both want your attention, because your attention makes them money.

Proving it's always good to have around an old guy who's survived an Eastern European communist dictatorship, Codrescu concludes: "We have come full circle: Poetry has become money. Rebellion is dead, but power has passed on to the children. It's up to the old to rebel now. Poetry is a pretty good tool."