Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fake parks (17 July 2006)

I was touched by this Economist article and its report that some dreamers (you might call them money-grubbing, ecology hating real-estate developers, but I call them dreamers) have decided to sink millions in building surfing parks in landlocked cities and ski slopes in places whose thermometers never see the south side of the freezing point. While waterparks might be the “hottest artificial experience in the United States” according to the amusement park industry spokesperson the article cites, I'm more touched by those people who feel the need to go even further than building a roof over fake whirlpools and waterslides in their attempts to negate nature. And I also find nothing to impugn in the seemingly malapropist notion of "artificial experience." Real experience is somewhat mundane, available to anyone simply by waking up. Whereas artificial experience, preferably in impossible man-made landscapes, is a testimony to humankind's epic discontent with the given world and its restless efforts to alter it, even at the flimsiest prod of the possibility of more amusement. It's easy enough to find pleasure in nature as given -- to enjoy a sublime landscape or a clear-running stream or a majestic ridge of mountains or whatever. But the desire to "beat mother nature" as Cleveland indoor-mountain-biking entrepreneur Ray Petro claims to have done, produces something of Promethean grandeur.

Criticizing "artificial experience" has the taint of class warfare about it -- after all, as the positional goods of authentically natural leisure in genuinely recherché locales become more scarce, they become more the province of only the rich, and talking up the regality of such experiences serves to enhance their usefulness in creating distinction. Meanwhile the non-positional manufactured forms of leisure --engineering marvels in their own right -- become contemptible because of the plebeian taint they take on. I'm not usually one to champion the so-called democracy of mass entertainment and see something inherently cheering in whatever forms of leisure become popular. I wasn't particularly enthralled by Disney World or its totalitarian approach to leisure, whereby attempts are made to control everything, including the patrons themselves. But there is something seductive about nature minus Nature, about nature reconceived as serving the sole purpose of pleasing us -- rather than, say, destroying our forests with insects or our towns with floods. Of course, our own efforts may have turned Nature largely against us, but this only strengthens the allure of a fantasy that foregrounds our complete mastery over it.

The Economist writer snarkily opines, "Nature, clearly, is too inconvenient to fit the modern lifestyle," and an insane and aberrently unquenchable desire for convenience may be behind some of these au rebours projects. Certainly there is the appeal of sheer decadence, as well, the implied luxury that comes from the Las Vegas-style idea that anything can be brought to you to serve your leisure. But the pleasure of simulation itself should not be underestimated -- people don't choose to visit these parks or Las Vegas or other man-made monstrosities because nature is inaccessible to them. These parks are intriguing precisely because they are human products, not in spite of it; they fire the atheistic dream of a world without any creator other than humankind itself, and that we can produce anything we want to, given the proper incentives and capital.

Rooting against fashion (16 July 2006)

When I see an article like this one from BusinessWeek about Urban Outfitters' recent struggles, my initial reaction is a delight akin to schadenfreude. but I'm beginning to question why I have any sort of emotional reaction whatsoever. Yes, Urban Outfitters is one of the more annoying upscale downmarket retailers that sell commodified cool to the 12-to-24-year-old demographic.

But their flounderings doesn't mean what I initially assume in my blush of delight -- it doesn't mean that fashionability itself has become any less important to people. Instead, it simply means that fashion has proven once again its unreasonably powerful and inevitable fickleness, creating more economic losers (not to mention the few poor chumps who dropped the cash on clothes suddenly made uncool by forces beyond their control). And some new company, Zara or H&M or whoever, is picking up the slack for Urban Outfitters; the game has simply moved as it was being played, to paraphrase X. So I'm really just delighting in an increase of human misery, with no compensation anywhere in terms of the greater good -- there are new winners and losers, but their proportion remains unchanged.

This realization leaves me one step away from conceding that in rooting against the promulgation of fashion, I'm rooting against prosperity in general, which is the essential condition for fashion to matter at the scale of mass-market retailing. This point of view assumes that the natural result of prosperity is the individual being empowered to pursue some kind of distinction, to express himself more publicly and thoroughly, with fashion-related goods being one of the main ways this can be pursued. But that seems true only because our society labors to link goods with social recognition and communication -- we have a massive discourse-generating machine of ads and entertainment and so forth that imbues goods with connotations, with meanings. But meaning might reside elsewhere, in a different sort of (utopian?) society. I'm still holding out; I still stubbornly believe that there's a better use for prosperity than peasant skirts and drainpipe jeans.

Beyond the profit motive (15 June 2006)

A few months ago, on a tip from BoingBoing probably, I downloaded a pdf of Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, which in the spirit of its subject, open-source "social production," was being offered for free by the author as if it were software source code. I never got around to reading it, in part because a 350-plus page pdf is a little unwieldy, and tying up the printer with a document that big would attract unwanted attention even at my laid-back workplace. So I forgot all about why I was interested in it in the first place until I read Paul Duguid's review in the TLS. Duguid frames his assessment around a Microsoft origin legend, in which Bill Gates stops tinkering with software as a hobby and seeks to make it proprietary, declaring in a letter to a computer club that no quality software will be written if no one can make money by doing it. Gates was voicing a principle that animates mainstream economics back to The Wealth of Nations, namely that the profit motive and market-organized competition are necessary to motivate people to take risks, innovate, and produce what people want -- to make "quality". Without the exercise of self-interest, enlightened or not, one's efforts will be dilettantish, personally satisfying perhaps but not socially productive.

Benkler, as his play on Adam Smith suggests, wants to refute that, and offer open-source collaboration as an alternative mode of social production to the invisible hand -- open-source projects seems to develop through a similar form of spontaneous order, only they are not guided by the hope for profit but for a different kind of capital perhaps -- recognition, influence, potlatch destruction of one's own efforts, display of one's skill, etc. Does this form of social production create an different kind of economy, based on the gift rather than exploitation for profit? That question is what intrigues me, because it promises a different model for human interaction and ethics than the "virtuous" selfishness that often seems to power capitalism. At the risk of sounding like a naive flower child, I'll venture the uncharacteristically optimistic proposition that at least as many people need to adapt themselves to the cutthroat expectations of economic efficiency as find such selfishness natural; a single-minded focus on getting every last bit of utility you can at the margin often seems to run against human nature in a way that cooperation doesn't. One of my operating assumptions (derived in part from Galbraith, in part from Frankfurt School theory) is that capitalist society must expend a great deal of effort naturalizing selfishness at the expense of collaboration and cooperation and the satisfactions of community; so those natural pleasures that tend to isolate us or focus our attentions on ourselves and the significance and importance of our individuality -- that posit our uniqueness as a joy in its own right --are championed in our culture, and collective pleasures are suppressed, trivialized, or marginalized to "exceptional" occasions of holidays and festivals. One of the most off-putting aspects of conservative ideology is the low esteem it holds human nature, which it presumes to be base and selfish and Hobbesean at all turns, restrained only in spite of itself by the operation of the market and ruthless competition, the grim view of human nature expressed in Fredrick Douglass's observation (which I'm plucking from the end of a BusinessWeek article on spyware): "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them." Hayek's Road to Serfdom is full of similar "realism", that it's hopelessly naive to assume that the pursuit of individual power could ever be hemmed in by a feeling of social responsibility. And looking at the world, it's hard not to believe that this is so. But when you contemplate the huge amount of trouble people are willing to go to to make the fruits of their labor available for free in open-source scenarios, whether they are writing extensions for Firefox or rewriting and correcting Wikipedia entries or providing free left-wing news analysis or preparing their rare unencoded albums for sharing on MP3 blogs, you get an injection of hope that there really is some utopian alternative just over the horizon.

As someone who studied Bakhtin and did a lot of fruitless thinking about the dialogic nature of texts, Wikipedia, which stages the struggles among different registers of discourse and the different agendas behind them in a text that is permanently unfinished and always changing, seems to offer a way out of the tendency toward doctrinal official versions, illustrating instead how culture can become more actively democratic at the granular level of texts themselves, whose uncertain status demands a more active participation from users. Of course, not everyone wants to be active and skeptical all the time, one of the attractive things about books, and cultural industry product in general, is that we could surrender to them and wallow in responsibility free passivity. This is one of the reasons, probably, why prepackaged culture so quickly obliterated folk traditions of communities and families making there own entertainment. After all, anyone can make pop music -- anyone does, as demonstrated by the untrained musicians who write their own tunes and make up the bulk of popular music creation. We outsource that sort of creativity because it simplifies things, makes entertainment something that's off-the-rack, ready-to-wear. We don't have to stage a private theatrical like at Mansfield Park every time we want diversion. We don't have to have pencil in hand, making disputational notes while we read whatever we read, with a mind to correct it.

And as Duguid stresses, not everyone is qualified to be producing culture that other people should have to acknowledge. Open source systems work for software production, he argues, because there are already filters in place that get rid of the folks who will do more harm than good -- namely, you have to know how to program and want to. But he wonders who will want to consume DIY culture instead of Hollywood quality. But he misses a crucial point -- the entertainment comes not from consuming but from producing the music, the film, the texts, whatever -- from working collaboratively with friends to make something. DIY culture is about the doing it, not about the enjoying it as a product later. Duguid assumes that consumers are only and merely consumers, that they by definition can only find pleasure through consumption; technology that allows intervention into existing media product allows us to become producers, to derive pleasure from activity rather than absorption.

Does this sort of production-as-pleasure move us beyond the profit motive (which seems to require passive consumers as part of the circuit of capital) in any meaningful way? Will this always be a isolated realm of exchange, far down the long tail, as Chris Anderson speculates? Maybe I should actually read Benkler's book for some ideas.

The video-store clerk as icon (13 July 2006)

One of the first jobs I ever had was as a video store clerk, so perhaps I should be sad that video stores are in danger of becoming extinct. But this post by Tim Cavanaugh from the libertarian journal Reason's blog reminded me that there's nothing positive you can say about them -- they inhibit choice, they are inconvenient, they sometimes surreptitiously edit what you see, they subject you to the scorn of clerks (like the young me) judging your choices in entertainment (adult or otherwise). Cavanaugh writes to refute the idea floated on the Boston Globe Ideas page that indie video stores were like indie bookstores, places where nonmainstream folks could share their tastes, and with their disappearance we lose another place for"underground empire" impresarios to hang out. But as Cavanaugh points out, any tips you might have yielded from the video store, you can get online much easier, with the extra bonus automated efficiency. And the things video stores process -- the videocassette or DVD -- aren't romanticized. No one will ever rhapsodize over the feel of having a DVD in the palm of one's hand, the way some revel in the objecthood of books. There's nothing about the medium itself that lends itself to preservation; no one makes coffee-table tomes of video box art they way do with album covers (Though Cavanaugh points out that video-box blurbs constitute a poetic genre all their own, with its own unique relation to truth.) The video store for many people is a place associated with decision-making paralysis and relationship tension -- Netflix makes such choices faits accomplis.

What we will lose is the video-store clerk as icon. Video store clerks, for some reason, held a special place in shorthand language of film, where it was a convenient job to assign to the character who was meant to be a hipster nerd (as in Scream or Nicole Holofcener's Walking and Talking or even Egoyan's Speaking Parts). It gives movies a chance to be self-referential, which seemed an irresistible trend. Glamorizing the video-store clerk was a way to glorify the idea of knowing a lot about films -- it was good publicity for the industry as a whole to suggest that encyclopedic knowledge of movies was a way to build meaningful cultural capital. (I think this a main reason why the culture industry went postmodern in the 1990s; maybe if I ever finish reading Jameson's book, I'll know for sure.)

My time as a independent-video-store clerk was decidedly less glamorous then the Boston Globe or 1990s films make it out to be. In my patch of suburbs, there wasn't much underground empire culture; the store's foriegn-film section consisted of maybe 35 titles, some of which were American films set in foreign locations. I was a nerd, for sure, but not a respected or knowledgeable one (unless you count my thorough knowledge of dialogue from such films as Stripes, Just One of the Guys and Fast Times at Ridgemont High as knowledge). There were no rap sessions with customers about Godard and Trauffaut; no discoveries of obscure Asian directors or exploitative genre films; no script writing with my clever clerk pals. Instead, much time was spent figuring out how to get away with watching movies in the store that had profanity and nudity in them and answering questions from irate customers about why all the copies of Dirty Dancing were always already checked out. I remember fighting with coworkers about who got to take which movie posters home: I really wanted Room with a View -- that's the kind of nerd I was -- but ended up with a choice between Romancing the Stone and Fright Night. This seems somehow representative of my entire experience of youth.

Communication breakdown (12 July 2006)

In my blind rush to hyperbole in the previous entry I probably didn't put enough emphasis on technology's capability to enhance and facilitate friendship. I don't mean to imply that friendship mediated through technology is inherently inauthentic; it's probably the opposite considering how it vastly expands the pool of like-minded people who are accessible to one another. (And, after all, many friendships in the real world are plenty inauthentic as it is without any assistance from the Internet.) It's absolutely right, too, as Autumn pointed out in the previous post's comments, that social networks don't necessarily create snobs and narcissists, they just give them another stage to perform on. Certainly the majority of online social activity never reaches the threshold of the Sunday Styles section -- it's not orchestrated for the sake of fashionability, it's just the playing out of ordinary routines of camaraderie. We all can use more of that, online or on the job or on the street or at cafes or wherever. That's not what the writer in the Times seems to be doing though. It's the boastful triumphalism and the grandstanding in the NYT piece that's so disturbing -- as if having friends was something you do to seem cool rather than something that is its own reward. What is important is the way you have friends, not who they are. It suggests how "cool" seeks to cannibalize everything and how using technological novelties to annex fields of behavior is one of its methods. As Nate, another commenter, points out, here is where modes of friendship are made to mimic modes of disenfranchisement -- when "real" friendship requires not only the coolness aura from MySpace, etc., but also the authentication and verification that databanks on past online behavior and reputation management technology could provide, those who can't afford to be online will be banished to a kind of outlaw realm, unqualified for polite society or good jobs.

My primary fear, though, is about the deleterious effects quantification can sometimes have on things, how priorities can get shifted by the analytical tools at our disposal. Of course, measuring tools are one small part of the potentiality communications technology brings to sociability. And not all of mediated sociability will be filtered through commercial culture and be harvested by advertisers and such for ad targeting. But the availability of statistical information can sometimes be irresistible, and it can change how we perceive things -- it can bring a Moneyball effect to our social lives, where instead of trusting our instincts and our senses, we believe the numbers. I used to examine the information about the hits this blog received, but then that info started to paralyze me, making me question whom I should be trying to reach, what they might expect, how to boost my numbers, etc. Those numbers without question tell an accurate story about what (little) this blog accomplishes, but that's not the only story and it wasn't one that helped me. It wouldn't help me by the same token to be able to evaluate friendships that way -- I think I'm too insecure for that. But when my friend group shifts online, someone at some point will be able to market that data to me, I'm afraid, and in a moment of weakness I'll find out more than I want to know.

In fact, communications technology may carry with it the danger of exacerbating neediness; it can potentially bring out the borderline personality in all of us -- if a friend could have called, then why didn't he? Why doesn't he pick up when I call his cell phone? If she saw I was online, then why didn't she IM me? Why is it taking her so long to reply to my last IM? Is she IMing with someone else right now? Is that person more important than me? If I have so much access to everyone, then why do I feel ignored? I admit, it takes special breed of paranoia to go down that avenue, but inciting insecurity has been a commercial strategy since the advent of advertising -- ads are always quick to remind us of how bad our breath smells and how bad our hair looks and what a bad impression our suit gives off and so on. I don't think it's beyond the realm of possibility for the communications industry to want to induce that paranoia about our friends, for so many cents a minute, so many cents a text message. Not that we'll ever have friends merely for the sake of Verizon, but could we, by virtue of hype pieces about new ways to have friends and on the strength of our own experiences of convenience that these new tools give us, be guided toward having relationships mainly on Verizon's terms, on the terms of pervasive telecom surveillance and hypermediated communication? In the meantime, while I mull that over, I'll keep paying my broadband bill.

Database identity and the joy of being processed (12 July 2006)

Wouldn't it be a better world if we could pretend that this writer was joking? She is joking, right? The New York Times is doing a little edgy satire in their Modern Love column. I know narcissism is the coin of the Modern Love realm, but consider how poorly written this column is. Clearly this is parodic:

My life goes like this: Every morning, before I brush my teeth, I sign in to my Instant Messenger to let everyone know I'm awake. I check for new e-mail, messages or views, bulletins, invitations, friend requests, comments on my blog or mentions of me or my blog on my friends' blogs.
Next I flip open my phone and check for last night's Dodgeball messages. Dodgeball is the most intimate and invasive network I belong to. It links my online community to my cellphone, so when I send a text message to 36343 (Dodge), the program pings out a message with my location to all the people in my Dodgeball network. Acceptance into another person's Dodgeball network is a very personal way to say you want to hang out.
I scroll through the messages to see where my friends went last night, and when, tracking their progress through various bars and noting the crossed paths. I check the Google map that displays their locations and proximity to one another. I note how close Christopher and Tom were last night, only a block away, but see that they never met up.
I log on to my Friendster, Facebook, MySpace and Nerve accounts to make sure the mail bars are rising with new friend requests, messages and testimonials.
I am obsessed with testimonials and solicit them incessantly. They are the ultimate social currency, public declarations of the intimacy status of a relationship. "I miss running around like crazy w/you in the AM and sneaking away to grab caffeine and gossip," Kathleen commented on my MySpace for all to see. Often someone will write, "I just posted to say I love you."
I click through the profiles of my friends to the profiles of their friends (and their friends of friends, and so on), always aware of the little bar at the top of each profile indicating my multiple connections. A girl I know from college is friends with my friend from college's best friend from Minnesota. They met at camp in seventh grade. The boyfriend of my friend from work is friends with one of my friends from high school. I note the connections and remind myself to IM them later. On Facebook, I skip from profile to profile by clicking on the faces of posted pictures. I find a picture of my sister and her boyfriend, click on his face and jump right to his page.

It's juvenile on purpose. Every paragraph starts with the word I because she's mocking the self-centeredness of her generation and it's supposed obsession with me-media, isn't she? She laughing at the fact that teens today have become an entire generation of glorified ham-radio operators.

I wish I could believe she was joking. But I think NYT published this precisely because she's serious, and because it would alarm people like me and bait us into reactionary declarations of a generational crisis. See, the article brays, you can't possibly hope to understand the youth of today; they're invested in things you wouldn't care about even if you knew they existed. And that's true. I don't have a cell phone, let alone a network of cell-phone-obsessed friends who ping me with every mundane detail of their lives. I've never sent a text message through a phone, and frankly can't understand why you would, especially when they often cost more than talking through it. So I don't consider the cell phone I don't have to be my companion, as Nokia hopes I will. I don't want my friends to make public declarations of their fealty to me on my profile pages and I don't want a running count of people who are willing to associate themselves with me. I don't need to expand my friendship roll the way I seem to need to expand my iTunes library. I don't want my idea of "friend" to be so cheapened that I can have thousands of them. Friends aren't little counters I use to measure my potential reach in a word-of-mouth marketing campaign; they aren't things I amass to keep track of my own greatness. I don't need a computer to rank my friends or score our level of intimacy. I don't need to throttle their access to me the way Netflix throttles how many DVDs I can get a month. I don't want to have friends to justify being able to use technology, rather than have technology enhance the few friendships that matter to me. And I don't crave the feeling of belonging so much that I'll join whatever Web group is out there to join. The column seems to mask its desperate need to belong in bravado, with a reverse-psychology-style embrace of technological dependence and pride in self-regarding shallowness, in presence for its own sake. (It is probably not coincidental that as social networks grow, actual friendship has receded to the point where "Nearly a quarter of people surveyed said they had 'zero' close friends with whom to discuss personal matters.")

What most leaves me on the far side of the generational gulf the NYT wants to evoke is my general desire not to want to conduct my friendships in a environment where they can be stored and scrutinized as data. The essence of friendship is its immeasurability, not its publicity. I don't want a database for an identity, nor do I want it for a community. I don't want to run statistics on my social life. I don't want Nielsen ratings for my friendships, I don't want to apply marketing tools to them to see how they might be tweaked, to see how I might reach a better demographic, socially. I don't want to meter the amount of attention I receive. All of that seems counterproductive, unless I decide to run my personal life like a firm and decide that I need to promote myself the way Proctor and Gamble promotes its toothpastes. But as the NYT column gleefully points out, "Every profile is a carefully planned media campaign." But people can't always live up to their online marketing campaigns for themselves. Perhaps the online existence of theoretical people who would make perfect friends leads to more social isolation; we end up rejecting the flawed friends we have in reality, where their inadequacies can't be concealed or filtered out. Meanwhile social networks serve to encourage us to continue to package and market ourselves, to reify ourselves as we reify others into raw numbers ready for accounting principles. We make ourselves into data so that the information-processing capacity of the consumer economy can be used to process us that much more efficiently, squeezing out of us whatever it most requires for its sustained growth. Articles like this aspire to teach us how to enjoy that feeling of being processed.

(Thanks to AdPulp for several of these links.)

Electric cars (11 July 2006)

The new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? prompted this contemptuous response from TCS Daily, an online business journal sponsored in part by GM. It's hard to argue with the facts here -- batteries don't allow cars to travel the range Americans expect or carry the load Americans occasionally carry, and the recharging time is prohibitive to a generation weaned on convenience. The writer, Ralph Kinney Bennett, explains, "I can drive my wife's big Lexus 55 miles on two gallons (about 16 pounds) of gasoline that cost me six bucks. An electric car like the one featured here could travel the same distance by exhausting its 1000-pound battery pack (lead-acid, costing $2000) which would then have to be recharged. The recharging would take about four hours. I could replace the two gallons of gasoline in about 30 seconds, but I wouldn't have to because my wife's car can easily go another 450 highway cruising miles on a tank of gas." But I don't understand why he feels more threatened by organic grocery stores and people who don't want to drive SUVs than he does by climate-driven catastrophe.

His attitude is right out of the red-blue culture war handbook; it's as though David Brooks was looking over his shoulder. He uses the classic libertarian argument that conservation inhibits personal freedom, and then he throws in the populist angle that no real Americans -- the ones raising kids and building additions on their houses, and tailgating at NASCAR races, etc. -- would regret a single carbon-spewing moment of their lives. He casts anyone who can't relate to this as an effete snob and secret totalitarian zealot who resents other people's ability to enjoy life.
These votaries of the EV religion get real heartburn when they see people barreling around in SUVs and pick up trucks that appear to be empty most of the time. They don't seem to grasp the fact that millions of motorists do not see their cars as spare and ascetic tools to get them from point A to point B. Like it or not, American motorists see their cars as full of potentialities and possibilities, some of which may seldom or never be fulfilled.
Yes, some of them may only make short trips from their townhouse to the organic food store or that global warming seminar at the university. But many, many more of them will more likely pick up a load of drywall at Home Depot or take the guys to a football game with all the impedimenta for a tailgate party piled in the back. They will drive 300 or so miles searching for an antique or a quaint place to eat. They will revel in the freedom of the road and the ineffable 'feel' of a big sedan or a rugged truck.

I guess what sums the blinkered short-sightedness up for me is this statement: "Like it or not, American motorists see their cars as full of potentialities and possibilities, some of which may seldom or never be fulfilled." Because some Americans need to consume their cars as dreams, as fantasies of the life they will never live, because they are so acclimated to living by proxy through inanimate objects and their ephemeral connotations, their grandchildren will likely get to enjoy a new ice age and half of Florida will be underwater. To the babies being born today, the Hummer driver says, "Screw you, my fantasy of being a quasi-militaristic macho man who is bigger than everyone else is far more important than your reality. I don't care how many species die out forever. I want my big-car 'feel' " The outside chance one might want to drive to Alaska and carry enough lumber to build a survival shack of one's own, or the flimsy pretense that a big tanklike Escalade is somehow safer to drive, is far more important than social virtues like consideration, moderation and conservation. Social virtues? Who needs them when we can dream bigger, dream harder, dream more wastefully, trapped in the solitary pretend world of our own ad-driven imagination. Far better to live in puerile fantasy, and for that let's thank the corporations who make our infantilism possible and plausible and justifiable to ourselves.

John Kenneth Galbraith, defending his much-derided theory of the producer's sovereignty in the economy in "Economics as a System of Belief," has some insight into what Bennett is up to here: "By emphasizing consumer sovereignty, economics makes itself a shield for the exercise of producer sovereignty by the automobile industry. For by making questions about too many automobiles an elitist and undemocratic interference with consumer choice, it effectively excludes questions about the power of the automobile industry to impose its preference. It gives scientific and moral sanction to social indifference."

Billmon, mulling over Al Gore's film about global warming, also explains Bennett's cretinism well: "But if extinction, or a return to the dark ages, is indeed our fate – or our grandchildren’s fate, anyway – I think it will be a Hobson’s choice as to which cultural tendency will bear the largest share of the blame: the arrogant empiricism that has made human society into an instrument of technological progress instead of the other way around, the ignorant prejudices of the masses, who are happy to consume the material benefits of the Enlightenment but unwilling to assume intellectual responsibility for them, or the cynical nihilism of corporate and political elites who are willing to play upon the latter in order to perpetuate the former, which is, after all is said and done, their ultimate claim to power."

Bennett is quick to protect the ignoble selfish dreams the SUV represents to its drivers, but he refuses to recognize the dreams and potentialities the electric car embodies for its devotees. Because that dream doesn't line the pockets of his journal's sponsors, apparently, it doesn't really count. The only sanctioned dreams for consumer goods are the ones that further individual isolation and status competition -- you can only dream about being better than someone else and rubbing their nose in your freedom.

Self as niche market (10 July 2006)

Chris Anderson's idea of the long tail -- the flat asymptotic line on the far end of the power-law-distribution curve that represents everything that's not a hit on a book publisher's list or a record company's back catalog -- has received blanket coverage in the business press lately. Anderson argues that the Internet removes the storage and distribution costs that make it prohibitive to maintain a large inventory of items that appeals to a very select few people, and companies can now make a profit selling small numbers of a great stock of things, rather than millions of a limited stock. No esoteric taste will go unserved, nothing will fade into total neglect and disappear entirely from culture. The good folks at Tunes are just as happy to sell you Justin Timberlake's new album track by track as they are to sell you songs by Fat Mattress and Fever Tree. And it doesn't hurt Netflix much to stock every documentary available on DVD even if some of them rent only once a year. Thus no one will be forced to consume entertainment hits, and non-conformists will be able to satisfy their taste for unpopular things much easier. Of course, for many of those people, the thrill of the hunt was a large part of the reason they became fascinated with obscurities. It wasn't so much that Lazy Smoke's album of John Lennon-inspired inanity was any good; it was more that it was so hard to actually find someone who had a copy and would let you hear it. The rarity of the physical object once lent fascination to otherwise mediocre relics. Long-tail marketing (which makes copies of ultra rare stuff available immediately to whoever hears of it -- which itself is easier through search engines and the Internet's harvest of links and filters) ultimately will destroy the significance of the content of collector's items; make them more like baseball cards or beanie babies -- objects with no relevant use value. As bigger companies begin to market to the niches, the small players who used to service that market -- little record stores and book stores and antique stores and so on; Dave Hickey's cherished cultural underground -- will be squeezed.

Paradoxically, the vastly increased access to underground cultural goods may make the cultural underground itself disappear altogether, since people will need no longer such stores to buy these things, stores that also served as places to congregate and swap interests and develop networks that fostered the emotional support required to resist the mainstream. The Internet makes such resistance easy and trivial. It also isolates you in your rejection rather than unite you with like-minded malcontents. So rather than find an alternate society where people are more discriminating and demand more and bring more intellect and passion to the things that inspire and entertain them, you end up alone in front of your computer, gorging on loads of esoteric information suddenly made meaningless. You can turn around a blog about the cool, rare things you've discovered (obviously no longer an arduous process but a matter of a few idle clicks and maybe an ingenious search or two), but everyone else who might have been interested will be so busy writing their own blogs that they will never see yours. So the ubiquity of long-tail ephemera may disintegrate the fragile sense of community that once unified the resistance to hegemonic culture, and drive more people to the mainstream hits, as they long to participate in the few remaining chances to belong to something.

The shared culture, for better or worse, may not even include ads anymore, as they no longer blanket a population but are instead increasingly targeted to appropriately receptive audiences with surgical precision. (Funny how we use the same language for advertising and bombing -- companies at war with their consumers). An Economist survey notes that advertising itself benefits from long-tail logistics -- every niche can have its own ad tailored to it -- there are as many web pages available as there are angles one can come up with to sell whatever product to whatever customer. These ads cost next to nothing to maintain, and will cost little to generate once the ad can be mechanically made in response to the specific context that evokes it. Ads thus become less obtrusive and more useful to the individual who receives them, who feels more than ever that the ads are calling out to him specifically, acknowledging his uniqueness, making him aware of his ineffable individuality. MySpace profiles, etc. are really tailormade for this -- what you do when you define yourself publicly on one of these sites, you allow advertisers to craft ads precisely pertinent to your needs, your vulnerabilities. You become your own niche of one. The perfectly targeted ads won't even seem like ads anymore; it will seem like just-in-time information for the consumer.

Conceivably, as one's "online presence" becomes more integrated, the more things one does online, and the more well-defined and singular that niche of one will become. Some will be attracted by this, as it will seem to provide verifiable proof of one's individuality -- one can measure just how unique one is by seeing the niche develop -- you'll see the trail you leave grow richer with you-specific data. But this also means the ads directed toward you will become much more sophisticated, much harder to resist; you'll increasingly paint yourself into a corner with your own preferences until you are sealed in by them.

But with perfectly targetable near costfree ads (they will be priced into the product directly rather than indirectly), everything will be marketed -- ad budgets won't be restricted to hit products; everything can have its ad. So one won't be able to escape the sense that everything he wants has already been sold to him, that no desires originate from inside (if that's not already true). The illusion that you have resisted marketing by buying this instead of that will become even more untenable. Maybe this will end up pushing people out of the market for individuality and into the realm of actual activity. Once anyone can be a niche of one and be found out by the advertising world -- once there can be no illusions of "authentic shopping" -- we'll have to earn our sense of uniqueness by doing things rather than being a target for the sale of things. In his book, as The Economist notes in its review, Anderson suggests that the very end of the long tail will be made up of amateurs exchanging their self-made works outside of the monetary economy. If that world could be sealed off from the infiltration of ads, it may become the last refuge of authenticity.

Zoning friendship for commerce (7 July 2006)

The Consumerist has a link to this site, PayPerPost, which hopes to match companies with bloggers willing to shill for them for cash -- without anyone else needing to knowing about this arrangement, of course. (Media columnist Jon Fine wrote about this site in the July 10 BusinessWeek too.) God bless the Internet. How else would the people with no integrity be able to find each other? "You've been writing about Web sites, products, services and companies you love for years and you have yet to benefit from all the sales and traffic you have helped generate. That's about to change." Hell, why should professional editors at lifestyle magazines hoard all the benefits of belching out disguised advertorial copy? Everyone should be able to dirty their hands in the corporate slush pile. Perhaps people will be able to leverage their MySpace friend lists into earning better rates for doing a little word-of-mouth for whatever product needs pimping. "Hey friendz, just want 2 let u know this Raid roach spray is 2 die 4!!!!" According to the site advertisers should take advantage of money-hungry bloggers "to create buzz, build traffic, gain link backs for search engine ranking, syndicate content and much more." The image of bloggers on the site is worth a click-through -- a bunch of attractive young people hanging out, with a line pointing to one girl that reads "She wants to make money." (It's a glamorous life, blogging.) She's looking into the camera with an expression that seems to say, "Duh, can't you see I've got these chumps right where you want them?"

Maybe the new generation of young self-exploiters really does think of friends as nothing more than a marketable commodity, a deliverable demographic, but the whole premise behind this scheme seems off. I think most people don't want to turn their friends into bargaining chips. It's not as though people are out there writing screeds about their favorite TV shows or laundry detergents on spec, waiting for Madison Avenue to discover them and start paying them for their efforts. Promoting something one sincerely enjoys can feel like a gift one's giving to whoever will listen. You do it because having people finding out about something that's good is its own reward; you can believe (perhaps erroneously, but still sincerely) that you are making the world a better place by letting them know which stain removers have really worked for you. If there is any calculation about it, it's that the advice is a kind of currency exchanged in building up friendships, in building up trust. Introduce a cash incentive, and you invalidate this other currency. After all, the only reason what you might say about consumer goods would mean anything to anyone is that they know you are not getting paid to say it; and if people find out you're taking money to offer advice, they won't take that advice as sign of your good intentions and friendship (no matter how much you really mean it) but as an indication that you are eager to exploit your connections and that you have little use for people otherwise. It would be like selling a friend's contact information to direct marketers and timeshare brokers.

To say something because we actually feel it is becoming harder, ever more rare and valuable as ads infiltrate more and more of the available public space. People, I think, cherish the opportunity to have non-commercial exchanges more and more as ads become more and more invasive. In a consumer society some of this conversation will be about shopping, and products, but that doesn't mean we want to commercialize it. This lack of sincere discourse in society makes our earnest exposition of our preferences even more sacrosanct, even on blogs, which are ostensibly public domain but in most cases are a way of making a social group tangible, of carving out a space for a friend group to exist. Who would want to sully that space, make it just another place for sale, like the side of a bus shelter or a diner place mat? Because friendships are occurring in the seemingly manageable and controllable and numerically measurable space of Internet, companies are tempted to commercialize the entire process, make friendship a brandable product. This scheme is a small part of that larger cultural effort to let no refuge from the rationale of entrepreneurship and mutual exploitation for profit stand. The message: Why have friends if they don't help you earn anything? Have friends through whatever Internet-driven system you want to name and get paid for being friendly! The point is that you are always ever out for yourself, even in friendship, and this is how it should be -- it's what provides "happiness" and "freedom." This is what happens when unfettered individuality as a moral value is turned into an advertiser's hook.

Generation Porno (5 July 2006)

This Slate essay about Larry Clark's films attempts to knit together some inescapable trends -- teenage exhibitionism, reality TV, easily accessible pornography, widely distributed user-generated content, exploitation being synonymous with attention -- under the term Generation Porno. Of Clark's latest film, part of the omnibus film Destricted, critic Christopher Kelly writes, "In only 38 minutes, the director has powerfully illustrated all his grand themes: that modern teenagers' and twentysomethings' compulsion to expose themselves is boundless; that our culture has now wholly transformed sex into a purely consumerist commodity; that none of us can take our eyes off a train wreck, least of all when there are attractive naked bodies involved." These themes delineate what Kelly calls the "defining aesthetic of our time," which recognizes the "truth" that "the adult urge to consume that which is young and beautiful is ineradicable."

That seems an appropriate way to assess our current cultural climate. I'm not sure it stands as a universal truth that adults will always yearn to "consume" the sexuality of children, though. If anything, that seems a particular result of an unfortunate collision of technology making the self infinitely more marketable and widely distributable, and capitalist ideology celebrating such a shrewd move. Children learn to make themselves into products just as the law of planned obsolescence has come to seem given and immutable. Sexuality, now inextricably bound with the manipulations of marketing, becomes merely a medium of exchange in which the ultimate goal is not pleasure but social recognition -- which has been divorced from any civic ideals (impossible in the Hobbesean world fomented by fetishized individualism) and now amounts to measuring how many hits your MySpace page gets or how many seconds a stranger's leer locks on your body. Sex is an appeal rather than an activity; it's the one species of rhetoric that young people know they have the edge in -- it's what they are taught by virtually every representation of themselves in commercial media.

But despite all that, generation Porno is itself a media creation -- I wonder whether these are teenagers how adults secretly wish them to be, not how they actually are. That teenage lives take place in part on the Internet -- a disembodied, near-anonymous realm that enables one to take chances and inhabit fluid identities in a way one couldn't and wouldn't in real life -- makes it easy to search out and find extreme examples of teen lasciviousness that we can then document and tut-tut about. The cohort is enormous, yet we are still willing to shocked by anecdotes. Even though we insist they should (be careful what you say and do on the Internet! it could affect you in a job interview! it could lead to Identity Theft! etc, etc), teens probably don't take their online lives all that seriously or see them as indicative of their offline morality. What Generation Porno knows is not instrumentalized sexuality so much as the ephemeral nature of identity itself when it plays out in the operating system of a one giant interactive video game, which is what the social side of the Internet has essentially become.

Productivist bias (24 June 2006)

For a column about consumption, Rob Walker's "Consumed" in The New York Times Magazine has a quite a productivist bias. Generally Walker will identify some newly popular species of product on the American market -- Cafe Press tchotchkes, organic food, fur, catastrophe novelty items -- and then he'll interview the manufacturer of the product to find out more about it. rarely will he interview consumers of the product in question; it's as if they have said all that really matters, all they are competent to say, by buying it. This is generally the economic attitude toward consumer behavior -- it can be fickle, capricious but ultimately it is immaterial. If something gets bought, that's good. If something lingers in the inventory, that's bad. Otherwise consumer goods are morally neutral and consumers are sovereign -- no one judges their right to make whatever decision they want about how to dispose of their resources. If they want to eat cat food and drive a Hummer, so be it. That's freedom in action.

But the price they pay for this sovereignty is a certain neglect that Walker's column illustrates. Their point of view isn't taken seriously; they are always regarded as the prey in the warrior competition in the marketplace. There is never anything heroic and clever in their decisions, whereas ingenious entrepreneurial decisions to sell this or that object, or to try this or that distribution channel or advertising method are routinely lauded. Thus the active aspects of the consumer's decision -- as hedged and manipulated and circumscribed by the wiles of marketers as it may be -- get lost and the inventive uses to which they put goods are neglected in public discourse; that information remains a subject for private discourse, though perhaps blogging is changing that. It may be that because people's aims in consumption can vary vastly -- there are as many uses as there are subjective notions of pleasure -- writing about it becomes too diaristic, too personal and too specific. But there is always one single aim in production: profit. Everyone can understand that and everyone can understand how well that aim was accomplished in reading about it. Or it may be that we don't recognize something as production until it's done for profit rather than personal use or enjoyment. What makes you happy is your own affair; what makes money, that's something we all want to know about.

Fashion rocks (3 July 2006)

Every time I see punk celebrated somewhere I think about what a misleading cliche it is. Punk ended rock. I guess that's self-evident, considering that was its goal: no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones. And though it is championed as liberating pop from the dinosaurs and encouraging more people to get involved and make their own culture, it is actually pretty lame, the sad result of music becoming entirely subsidiary to the image a band presents. The music was purposely crude so that the fashion could stand out more starkly. When I think of the Sex Pistols getting their start in a fashion shop and how dogmatic punk scenes could be, and how much revolved around what hair cut you came up with and how many people you intentionally offended, it seems to me that punk was on the whole a pretty bad idea. (Lydon seemed to realize this and made three profoundly unfashionable records meant to alieneate and exclude everyone as a kind of atonement.)

We tend to celebrate punk now because some musicians transcended its framework, not because the framework itself was worthwhile. Everything that was good about punk rock was already epitomized by garage rock -- the relentless intensity, the DIY amateurism, the countercultural commitment to politicize teenage angst. Subtract garage from punk and you're left with a pseudo-subversive fashion show and empty, always already co-opted gestures against the mainstream. Far from fighting punk, the mainstream immediately embraced it, reporting on it eagerly at first and eventually making it the template for shallow, merchandise-centric youth culture -- it nicely channels teenage anger at the system into the system's very support mechanism -- the concern for image and identity, and how to express it through products. Greil Marcus, in Lipstick Traces seems to argue that punk was a explosion of subversive, situationist-style anarchy that disrupted the culture of spectacle; but that may be the same as saying that punk made pop a permanent spectacle and ended its usefulness as a popular art form, as a bridge to the kind of contemplation culture ideally inspires. Now, viewed from a distance, rock music is another arm of the fashion industry, mechanically revolving through styles in accordance to the collective efforts of culture workers with no aim other than making something different happen each season and having the bragging rights of being the one whose "innovation" has been adopted. Manufactured controversies abound.

Childish fun; or, Against kickball (28 June 2006)

Caution, what follows is pretty reactionary. But seriously, people. Grow up.

This Salon article about the puerile trend of playing elementary school sports as an adult is precisely why I hate when journalists invoke "fun" -- they tend to use "fun" to beat out the last remnants of intellect left in their readership and leave them malleable and imbecilic, ready to do whatever infantilizing thing is recommended to them. "Fun" equals "I'm sick of being critical" and "Go along, get along." But here's how Christopher Noxon evokes it to justify adult regression into childishness.

Remember fun? That's that engrossing, anarchic thing that began seeping out of most professional sports around the time of free agent drafts, merchandise tie-ins and doping scandals, the thing that comes so naturally to kids and that adults lost sight of the moment recreation became all about competition, self-improvement and status-accrual. After all, no matter how much money and meaning we invest in our tennis serve or whether the Patriots make the playoffs, we all know that none of it actually matters. All sports are ultimately ridiculous. The beauty of kid games is how they make a mockery of all attempts to take any of this shit too seriously.

You wouldn't want to take anything in life seriously, would you? That would make you silly and boring and old. Don't be a big stupid-head, all like boring and dumb and stuff. Come play kickball instead! And then we can watch Scooby-Doo! And maybe we can have some Scooter Pies for supper and top that off with a big glass of Hawaiian Punch!

One of the things about adulthood is that you have the rational capability to enjoy doing something that is also socially productive, and it is not necessary to pacify you with harmless preoccupations to keep you out of harm's way. You can be entrusted to keep yourself busy in your own way, and the expectation that you contribute something actually supplies the meaningful fulfillment that comes from helping the species. (This is what achieving what Marx somewhat cryptically calls species being is all about -- doing meaningful work, etc.) But consumer society would prefer that we all be children, entirely engrossed with frivolous distractions and preternaturally afraid of rational thought or skepticism or even the thought the work can be rewarding. The problem with adults is that they think. If adults can be led to believe they should act like children, they'll stop thinking and start shopping. Just as culture lionizes youthfulness as a moral value, it encourages us to fetishize our own childhood, because we can be induced to make purchase after purchase trying to recapture the one thing that is without question forever lost. But youth is not a moral state, and adults surrender childish things because the challenges of adult life yield exponentially greater rewards. But perhaps this most recent generation of shopping-mad, attention-starved juvenile wannabes is so accustomed to shallow instantaneous pleasures, that they can't be made to take an interest in anything sophisticated. They are so used to self-mythologizing and identity as public performance and "reality" as something created by TV cameras that they can't imagine anything more fascinating then reliving their own experience, even if that means eating Alpha Bits and playing four square.

Noxon may not like it, but status-accrual is recreation for most adults, and that's not because they have fled from childhood but because they've embraced it -- its shallowness, its acquisitiveness, its playground hierarchies. The luxury to play at childhood as an adult is an especially conspicuous signifier of the frivolousness Veblen identified as the leisure class's chief source of distinction. And it isn't a matter of taste; I'm not trying to impose some hierarchy on leisure activities. Playing tennis is different from playing kickball, because tennis is an activity you adopt as an adult and invest mental energy in mastering -- it allows you to grow, it makes living the next day relevant. Kickball is surrendering to the notion that your best day came somewhere around your eighth birthday. The alarming issue here is the unwillingness to go beyond the narrow horizons of nostalgia. It's probably good that these leagues of kickball players bring people together who are usually isolated, at home watching Nick at Nite or whatever, but to choose to relive the glories of fifth grade rather than discover and indulge new interests, to read Harry Potter books and get together with other fun-loving profligates on the flight from maturity to play tag rather than challenge yourself to make something or give something back to the world is kind of pathetic.

Pabst Blue Ribbon as hipster brand (28 June 2006)

It is tough to know what beer to drink when taste is not the guiding principle. The beer you drink says something more than "I'm itching to get drunk." Like your clothes or car, it shows exactly what kind of person you think you are. It's an occasion for you to communicate important facts about yourself to anyone who reads the label (never have it in a glass -- no one will know what it is and what would be the point of that?). And if you are cool, you should already be aware of this: Pabst Blue Ribbon is no longer cool. AdPulp cites another advertising blog, which broke the story.
Budweiser has been sinking millions into new logos and a big ad push for the last 18 months or so, as we noted here about a year ago. Here on the ground in Philly, we're starting to see it pay some dividends. This Memorial Day weekend, the King of Beers has tall boys sitting in coolers and pint glasses where one year ago you would have found Pabst Blue Ribbon. What happened to PBR, you ask? Some say they succumbed to the Acronym Rule, which states that as soon as your customers know you well enough to shorten your name to a few letters, things are nearly over. Others say they tried to cash in on their hipster status by sponsoring local bands and taking out cheesy ads in alt weeklies. Why couldn't the brand just sit still, shut up, and allow itself to continue to be discovered generation after generation? They took the short view, tried to cash in, and scared away the flighty trucker-hatted Strokes boys who hate, above all else, to feel like they're being sold to. And now solemn old Bud sopping up the macrobrew froth PBR left behind.

The AdPulp blogger doesn't believe the company should be blamed: "Maybe the 'trucker-hatted Strokes boys' are constantly in need of something new to define as cool. Maybe no brand need bother themselves with attempts to appeal to this group. Maybe PBR never did bother with this group, other than to acknowlege their 'flighty' existence."

If only more companies would realize that they needn't bother marketing to hipsters, maybe hipsters would suddenly vanish. Their very fickleness will render them socially invisible. (In a sense, this is already true. No one will actually admit to being a hipster, so it's almost as though they don't exist.) When ads stop trying to appeal to you, you lose one of contemporary society's most power tools of self-recognition along with the primary source of social recognition. Suddenly no one is trying to integrate you into the spending machine; suddenly your dollar no longer seems a vote for the shape your cultural landscape will take.

But it seems as though hipsters are only too visible. But I tend to agree that marketing to hipsters scares them away. Hipsters tend to work by ironizing ads designed for others and trying to subordinate the brand's intended narrrative to the story of how cool and clever the hipster has proven himself to be. One must use a little reverse psychology to appeal to them -- make a really bad beer and market it to the permanent underclass, then the hipsters will come running. Act as though you, the advertiser, are in on the hipsters joke, and you will lose them. The hipster's most important brand is his self-image, so he can tolerate no other brand that seems to have anticipated that -- it feels like competition rather than marketing synergy. When PBR was outré, it provided synergy with the hipster's image of being a subversive. (Look, he takes products not made for him and uses them anyway!) When PBR tried to promote its capability for subversion, it competed with the hipster on his own turf. Budweiser's ads, by contrast, are still allowing the hipster to speak his own language and reappropriate Bud for his own purposes. That act of reappropriation to the hipster is a grand expression of creativity, and seeming creative is one of the hipster's prime directives. Budweiser's long tradition offers the hipster ample material for public acts of meaningless subversiveness.

Romantic comedy, including a review of The Lake House (27 June 2006)

By a strange turn of events, I ended up seeing the film The Lake House the other night -- we had bought tickets for Nacho Libre but as I was being led to the theater, I pulled up and could not be haltered. The thought of watching Jack Black prance around in tights while babbling in a Mexican accent was too much to confront. Like a drowning man I reached for anything that might save me -- and that was The Lake House playing in an adjacent theater and starting at roughly the same time. If you don't know (and I hope you don't) this film reunites Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, in hopes of conjuring again that chemistry that made Speed so magical, this time in a romantic comedy so hackneyed and incoherent, I'm not sure I can adequately summarize it without your assuming I'm kidding. In the film, Reeves, the son of a famous architect (played by Christopher Plummer, who's forced to intone such cliched "visionary artist" lines like "It's the light. Always the light!") moves into an absurdly inconvenient house his father built on stilts over a lake -- later the house becomes a leaden metaphor when Reeves discusses it with his brother (played by a bugged-eyed actor who looks like a cross between Andrew McCarthy and Miss Jane from The Beverly Hillbillies and who seemed to think he was in a different sort of film -- a serial-killer thriller maybe -- working on a gonzo, coked-out level of intensity and reading his lines with a loony overwroughtness -- think Pacino in Heat). Reeves explains that the house is about "containment and control" and points out how it's isolated. Really? It stands on stilts in the water in the middle of nowhere, I think we get the isolation. And when you feel the need to explain your visual metaphors to the filmgoing audience, you've pretty much telegraphed the fact that you think they are stupid and inattentive and you don't trust them to get anything. Some viewers probably respond to this with relief -- okay, now I can be as relaxingly stupid for the duration of the film as the producers think I am -- but others probably decide to stop paying attention altogether. I wanted to walk out at that juncture, but alas, was not at liberty to do so.

Anyway magic is afoot at the house, because he discovers that through the mailbox he can have exchange letters with a woman -- Bullock, who has the pasty blandness apparently deemed appropriate for romantic comedies; like Aniston, Zellweger, Meg Ryan and so on, she's bland enough not to threaten the women who these films are made for with any kind of real attractiveness (I found myself wincing during close-ups) -- who will become a future occupant of the house but who thinks he's the future occupant. This doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and in the pantheon of lovers separated by time, their two-year gap falls somewhat short of the cheeseball grandeur of Somewhere in Time, which is one of the films wildly misappropriated to make this movie.

Now, confronted with the ability to communicate with the future, Keanu doesn't immediately request a Wall Street Journal or information about who wins the Super Bowl or anything to make himself a millionaire, instead he does boring things like ask about her dog and draw her a map of his favorite sites in Chicago to look at buildings. We know already that they are supposed to fall in love, and we know that he's going to be run over by a bus, because this was foregrounded rather overtly in the first reel when Bullock, a doctor, fails to save the life of some victim whose face we are pointedly not shown. Anyway, the magic mailbox's powers seem to extend in incoherent ways -- suddenly the time-crossed lovers sit in Chicago diners having stichomythic exchanges with each other's ghost despite the fact the are supposed to be writing long letters to each other, not having IM exchanges. Maybe that's the mystical power of love at work; that all-purpose excuse can explain many a plot inconsistency or failure in continuity. And the sentiments they exchange are rote and lame even by romantic comedy standards, things along the lines of "I remember your gentle eyes" and a contrived scene where they are supposed to be having a lover's quarrel. Then the plot seems to borrow from any number of previous films -- Keanu dies but then doesn't die after Sandra marries the wrong man, but then doesn't, and the dog they both own through a wrinkle in time works assiduously to bring them together and make important coincidences occur. And of course, Keanu's father dies, and their troubled relationship is healed by Sandra's thoughtful consolations.

The formula must be pretty rigorous for these films -- the couple needs some quirky friends/parents to talk about the budding relationship with; they must have a phony fight or two, they have to have some contrived obstacle to surmount after a courtship full of whimsical selfless gestures and epiphanies about how much the lovers have in common. When these things becomes so predicable and so shallow, when the substance of their relationship is reduced to ultra-general signifiers of these formulaic signposts (do you like dogs? Wow, me too! We're perfect for each other!), the films end up making the whole project of "being in love" seem like an exhausted, outdated product. If love exists, you end up thinking, it is other than this tired routine. Still there are probably enough similar moments in the general course of real love that you can compare your own relationship to the pale imitation on the screen and feel convinced of how much more idiosyncratic and true your own love affair feels. This is probably pretty reassuring, if you are not busy vomiting at the soundtrack's sappy cues -- as when Reeves and Bullock do a little dance in the street while a saccharine song from McCartney's latest album plays.

To cleanse my mind of the horror, I watched Roman Holiday later on, to remind myself why romantic comedies ever were able to thrive. (The Lake House did itself no favors by showing scenes of the characters watching Notorious or reading aloud from Austen's Persuasion -- why invite comparisons of your horrible product with examples of romance that are far far more convincing? It just reminds the audience of everything that's missing -- charming actors, a compelling story, sympathetic characters, emotional investment -- I felt like I was supposed to care about Bullock/Reeves because the formula called for it, and the film did nothing to earn it. I was expected to make the effort to see past the woodenness, to inflate the gestures toward poignancy into something genuine. I ended envying the characters and resenting the filmmakers, wishing deeply that I was watching Notorious myself.) By contrast to Reeves and Bullock, Peck and Audrey Hepburn are extremely easy to watch, and they are appealing enough that their being together seems to matter not as a symbol of relationships in the abstract, but as a specific relationship -- it's pleasant to see these two attractive people interact with each other. The plot of the film, while wildly implasuble, is far less incoherent and cluttered, probably because it's not trying to absorb every successful romantic-movie plot line of the past 10 years. The conflict is efficiently drawn -- Peck is exploiting Hepburn to make some money but then develops real sympathy for her and must find a way to be honest with her so that his real feelings can also be expressed openly. This conflict seems much more compelling because it derives not from some arbitrary circumstance (the lovers are mysteriously living two years apart while falling in love; one of the lovers is unfortunately already dead; etc.) but from human weakness -- Peck's greed, Hepburn's vulnerability. But the nature of the love was very different -- it was clearly modeled on a father/daughter relationship rather than a relationship between putative equals. Part of this was militated by Hepburn's persona, no doubt -- she ended up doing a whole series of films with geriatric leading men (Grant, Astaire, Cooper, Bogart, etc.) But the paternalistic romance was probably much closer to culture's most pervasive notion of the ideal course of love then; an innocent girl is taken under the wing of a wise and protective man who guides her comfortably through her rite of passage to womanhood -- i.e. marriage and motherhood. Now romance movies seem to be about women balancing careers with relationships -- about being patient and finding the time to have relationships (even if that means dropping letters into a two-year time warp).

Private road (26 June 2006)

Nothing gets economists excited like a good road privatization. Privatization is usually in theory intended to create a market, and economists love their markets and their magical efficiency. Most noneconomists probably don't want to have to shop for roads to drive on (or shop for mail carriers or retirement services or electricity or water or what have you) because we like to think there is no room for competition in these services; they are simply provided or not provided. This is fiction, of course, but a useful one; if there is only one provider, no one can feel like they are getting second-rate service. (I know, that sounds like a justification for a Soviet system for universal inadequacy, but there must be nothing worse then to be aware you are getting a second-rate education or drinking second-rate water because you can afford better and your society doesn't give a damn about you.) The existence of several road companies forces me to make a choice that is likely to based on limited information and likely to induce unnecessary stress. Privatization enhances efficiency (theoretically) at the expense of the peace of mind of most customers, who suddenly have more burdens of choice to deal with in areas where they don't want it. Drivers don't want a market in roads, they just want a road to exist and be maintained.

Richard Posner and Gary Becker comment extensively on the recent sale of the Indiana toll-road to Spanish and Australian interests. (Ironic, considering many Interstates were originally built for national-security reasons, in imitation of Nazi autobahns.) Becker in particular is excited because he thinks this will inspire competition in road building and management, which should drive down costs and enhance services and perhaps relieve congestion. But customers are generally used to roads costing nothing and are willing to pay the price of sitting in traffic rather than see the highways become a class-ridden system where auto-aristocrats pay for private roads and the rest of us suffer on broken down public roads that no one has any incentive to fix, once the government washes its hands of the business. Roads will no longer be something we travel down together; they will become infected with connotations of status, like every other kind of positional good.

John Updike's fear of readers (24 June 2006)

John Updike has just discovered this crazy new thing called "the Internet" and it has him pretty pissed off. Apparently people who haven't been carefully groomed by the publishing industry can just go and write whatever they want and reach a public there. How dare they? And what's worse, people can browse the entire expense of textual information without having to set foot in book stores in Harvard Square or on 5th Avenue in New York, where they can be assessed by the gatekeepers of high culture and discouraged from touching the holy tomes with their grubby hands if they are not the right sort. Why, they can just type in what they are looking for into a "search engine" -- barbarous thing, engines -- and out pours a diarrheal rush of information, which they are obviously too stupid to sift through, which is sure to pollute their fragile eggshell minds with falsity. And readers, uppity with their ability to aggregate a wider supply of information, will become text processors, picking and choosing what parts of books they want to read and ignoring the author's manorial right to dictate to them the terms of their passivity. It's pretty horrible isn't it? Hopefully Congress will step in and put a stop to this "Internet" or at least put grownups like the cable and telecom companies in charge of what can be disseminated across its lines.

Does Updike realize what a reactionary he is? Stupid question -- of course he doesn't. But to romanticize the glories of wandering aimlessly through bookstores for inspiration and use that as evidence that the Internet should be stifled to preserve the magic of the book is just plain silly. It seems the kind of backward-looking conservative argument you make when you feel your own power and livelihood threatened. So you mount your pedestal and impugn the technology that threatens you, dub it "Marxist" in an ad hominem attack, accuse those working to forward the technology of short-sightedness and utopianism, call them the retrograde reactionaries. Yes, Kevin Kelly's article for the NYT Magazine about the possibility of a universal library was a bit overheated and rife with futuristic glee at what change technology promises. But Updike distorts it entirely to deduce that the only thing techology promises is the destruction of the author's right to hide himself away. "Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity as a summum bonum that an author's works, be they one volume or 50, serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform, or, since even that is somewhat hierarchical and aloof, a series of one-on-one orgies of personal access?" Updike pines for the days when simply being selected to be published was enough to assure your significance, and then you could sit back and bask in notoriety via your proxy, the books in the stores. You didn't need to promote it, because the means of production were onerous enough to eliminate competition. Publishing was essentially an oligopoly. But the Internet democratizes publishing, and makes the marketplace more contentious. It bruises tender Updike's sensibility, and he resents that he must face competition, that he must sully himself in the world to make his living. "As the author is gradually retired from his old responsibilities of vicarious confrontation and provocation, he has grown in importance as a kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book." That is, rather than having the aristocratic right of transcending the world of public affairs and commenting on them from some lofty, untouchable position, authors now actually have to be much more accountable. So to answer Updike's fatuous, pompous question: "In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another — of, in short, accountability and intimacy?" -- No. If he can possibly believe that the Internet with its explosion of social networks, journalling, blogging, instant messaging and e-mailing, is undermining communications and removing intimacy from public discourse, then he is more self-deluded than his navel-gazing (or penis-gazing, rather) fiction would lead you to believe. The Intenet brings dead texts like his own back to life by allowing people to work with them much more actively. But since Updike won't be allowed to control or profit from such manipulations, he'd rather not know about them. They hurt his tender authorial feelings. The very idea of it makes him think about having to go out in public and reassert his authority over his own work and bury it anew, safely in the narrow tomb of his own moribund opinion. The idea that his work could be subject to a community of perspectives is "ominous" to him -- he prefers to browbeat readers one at a time, so he can remain always master and the reader always the servant. This is why he fetishizes the lonely one-on-one relation of bookreader and author; it's the scenario that preserves his mastery and his reader's enfeeblement: "It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other's steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness." Yes, forgiveness is only so much blather; what's important is being forced to follow in the author's footsteps and guaranteeing the author be the only recourse to any questions that path inspires. If this is beyond a mere personal encounter, it's because it's been elevated in Updike's mind to something almost religious, the private relationship of a penitent reader confronting his God in the form of Updike. If Updike fears having his work contextualized in the greater sphere of other texts, perhaps its because his work can't bear the scrutiny. He fears his readers, allowed to communicate with each other as they read his puerile accounts of masculinity, will dismiss him altogether, reject the worn path his mind repeatedly lays out.

Anyway, the whole notion that the Internet reduces the significance of text is ludicrous -- what it does is force people to do more with it to earn a living by it while opening up more opportunities for people to earn such livings. It certainly doesn't threaten individuality, unless individuality can mean only isolation. (Updike's right when he refers to himself as a "surly hermit") And it doesn't dull the edge of ideas; if anything it reveals them in surprising places, sending them often to cut back against the grain the author intended. The seriousness with which a reader approaches a text doesn't depend on what surface the words are printed on. May as well decry the destruction of "intimacy" when readers stopped reading the handwritten papyri of scribes. Updike would probably concur with that though -- an ideal situation, where the limitations of textual reproduction kept the reading public to a size small enough where its every interpretation could be controlled.

Bus riders (22 June 2006)

Second class citizens no more? The other day The Wall Street Journal had a small item about increased bus ridership in the wake of recent gasoline-price increases. (Daniel Gross excerpts most of it here.) "Soaring gas prices have led a whole new group of drivers to park their cars and use public transportation. Many are professionals like Mrs. McDowra who never would have considered taking the bus before. But with prices at the pump almost doubling in the past three years, they have started to reconsider." So maybe financial incentives really can trump cultural mores and deeply ingrained prejudices, if the pressure is severe enough. Most people seem to reject public transportation because it seems to them inconvenient, unsafe or undignified, even though sitting in a traffic jam picking one's nose in the midst of drivers on tilt with road rage isn't very convenient, safe or dignified either. In its very wastefulness the car can communicate a callous sense of individual freedom; waste is not a byproduct, it's the basic appeal -- it's a good way to give the finger to the world and bask in the envy everyone is supposed to feel. It's a way to show that you scorn anything that's public; that you have no intention of sharing anything with anybody.

But the fact that women in Dallas can be priced into bus riding at least shows that there is some hope. Stigmas can swiftly be removed, shifted elsewhere at any rate. Certain bus lines would inevitably become prestigious and better maintained, and a second-class buses would merely become a subset rather than the entire service. But it's good to know that if the U.S. ever enacted a carbon tax that reflected the damage burning gasoline does to the environment and that driving does to society, the shift to public transportation could actually happen pretty swiftly. Too bad that will never happen in our lifetime.

Libertarian democrats (21 June 2006)

Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place. A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of established privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege. The essence of the liberal position, however, is the denial of all privilege, if privilege is understood in its proper and original meaning of the state granting and protecting rights to some which are not available on equal terms to others.

Those aren't the words of some wild-eyed leftist; they come from the 1956 preface to The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich Hayek, whose sober, gray eyes you see above. The book is trenchant defense of laissez-faire in the face of planned economies, offering a brusque reminder that we should never have a naive trust in the good faith of people who happen to find themselves empowered by bureaucracies to start making decisions regarding how a society's resources will be doled out. People who realize their power tend to make decisions in order to preserve or expand that power, regardless of how much of the public's welfare was entrusted to them. Hayek espoused a theory of spontaneous order, in which power is dispersed through society by the mechanism of the market and no particular group of special interests can monopolize the levers of control and thereby abuse them. To me this sounds reminiscent of Foucault's theory of surveillance being distributed throughout society in Discipline and Punish (according to Virginia Postrel's profile of Hayek from the Boston Globe Foucault gave lectures on Hayek toward the end of his life). Foucault seemed to regard this as an inescapable net of coercion -- as power multiplying itself at every point of contact and interceding in every aspect of the atomized individual's life via "experts in normality"; Hayek regards it as the only thing that prevents state oppression and permits an individual to exist. Sadly enough, it's both at once.

Hayek himself was quick to differentiate his use of the word liberal and the "debased" usage it has fallen into: to refer to people in favor of government intervention intended to produce a fairer distribution of society's wealth. But the totalitarian tendencies of the current conservative regime in America has perhaps reminded the opposition of the liberalism's roots. Hayek's rousing rejection of conservatism above seems like it could serve as a rallying cry for a nascent movement among American liberals. The argument would be that the Republicans, using the cloak of religion and nationalism, have taken over government in order to protect the interests of the few at the expense of the many, uses state power to spy on its potential enemies, and presumes to curtail the freedoms of the citizenry based on its own moral whims. That Republicans are allowed to run the state in this manner with little complaint from the press or the people suggests we might already be far along the road to serfdom. So the unlikely fusion of Hayekian thought and democratic politics might have legs. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zúniga recently argued that the future of the Democratic party may lie with what he dubbed libertarian dems, citing gun-loving Montana governor Brian Schweitzer as an example. According to Kos, libertarian democrats reject the infringement of individual rights by government and corporations, and looks to balance these forces against each other while still appealing to the American fetish of unfettered individualism. Kos writes, "government isn't always the solution to the nation's problems. There are times when business-government partnerships can be extremely effective (such as job retraining efforts for displaced workers). There are times when government really should butt out (like a great deal of small-business regulation). Our first proposed solution to a problem facing our nation shouldn't be more regulation, more government programs, more bureaucracy. The key here isn't universal liberty from government intrusion, but policies that maximize individual freedom, and who can protect those individual freedoms best from those who would infringe."

I'm no knee-jerk supporter of individualism -- it often is selfish and blind and I don't think the invisible hand necessarily turns that blindness into spontaneous orderly good. It can often lead to waste and suffering and ingrained callousness. Hayek complains of generations enfeebled and stymied by welfare states; it seems that rugged individualist societies adrift in social Darwinism can inculcate an inhumanity that tolerates waste of life and potential and excuses inequality as just deserts for the already disadvantaged. But there seems to be a more coherent philosophy of progressivism in the notion of libertarian democrats than there is in the old program of identity politics. The problems that generated identity politics haven't gone away, but the political platform spawned by the language of identity politics often comes across as petulant and repugnant, intolerant rather than respectful of diversity. There may be a way to achieve that same platform in the more palatable language and the more straightforward logic of Hayekian libertarianism (stop using the State as a tool against those who work hard and play by the market's rules). Turning Republican slogans inside out, it conceives of progressivism as returning power to individuals rather than depriving them of it, which seems to empower the act of voting itself -- it becomes a duty to yourself rather than to something less tangible.

Kissing girls, "cuddle puddles" and attention seeking (21 June 2006)

I probably shouldn't mention this article at all, but just as with the New York story about "cuddle puddles," I can't resist taking the bait and getting annoyed. Apparently teenage girls have discovered that lesbianism is a great way to get boys' attention: This Salon article by Whitney Joiner has the shocking details. (This is a new phenomenon?) The idea is that girls can make themselves look "hotter" by kissing each other; it's the next thing to try when your clothes can't get any tighter, and you can't get away with exposing anymore flesh -- though I suspect this same article could be written about the startling new practice of girls taking off their shirts at parties. (I especially enjoyed this sentence: "Kissing girls started earlier for Alexandra, a 16-year-old high school junior in Bellingham, Wash., a town close to the Canadian border." Canada, that's where all this crazy lesbianism is coming from.)

Having just read the story, I have to say that it makes teenage girls seem like the stupidest, most craven and pathetic creatures on the face of the earth, so desperate for attention from teenage boys, who are depicted as Apollos of confidence and authority who can command sexual services at their whim. If this is true, then things have really changed since I was in high school, a time when awkward, passive zit-faced guys, buffeted by waves of hormones, were merely clueless counters in status games played by girls against other girls. Male attention is just the scoreboard on which popularity and notoriety are charted. Guys are not hard to have sex with; high-school guys even less so. In general no lesbian performances are necessary; all you have to do is ask them, and chances are they will be wondering what god has decided to smile on them. As a matter of fact, this whole trend of kissing girls for attention probably owes a lot to the fact that it's good way to avoid having to kiss (pimply, immature) guys for attention.

Joiner seems to want to indict internet pornography for creating a new paradigm of teenage sexuality, but the anecdotal evidence is kind of unconvincing. Guys have been paying attention to girls kissing -- and goading them into doing it -- long before they had Internet access. She also raises the welcome point that this whole kissing girls for attention thing appropriates lesbianism and passes it off as nothing more than a drunken stunt, as something no woman could do with any sincerity, which suggests that no girls could live without fighting for male attention. But then the article's very existence, sensationalizing girls kissing girls, seems to forward the idea that lesbianism is a game rather than refute it. So is that the point of articles such as these (beyond titillation): to issue forth fresh images of female subservience? To normalize the desperate pursuit of male attention?

Meta-listening (20 June 2006)

If you ever wanted to broadcast to the world the music you are listening to, Mog, a new social networking site, is just for you. It takes the "what I'm listening to now" feature from blogs and other social sites and makes it the premise for a whole network by automating the process of tranfering what you play in your media player to a text list you then associate with your profile. Add a coy photo of yourself doing something quirky, and voilà, you become a DJ without anyone having to actually sit through and listen to all the stuff you've played. Now we can just consume it instantaneously as a list and assess by its conformity with our own lists whether we can get any ideas from you about what we might want to hear. (It seems inevitable that this would mesh with Soulseek, so that recommendations derived from like-minded listeners can be immediately downloaded to your own machine -- in fact this sort of service would make more sense as a Soulseek plug in.) It's meta-listening; consuming and enjoying lists of music instead of music itself. It's perfect for when you've exhausted all the useless lists in Blender and Mojo and Spin and all those other music magazines. Now you can generate your own lists spontaneously, and pour over other people's like they're the I Ching,looking for a direction, a sign.

When I stumbled across this (again via BoingBoing; I've got very limited scope today) I thought about signing up, but then realized I probably didn't want strangers sifting through the dirty hamper of my Recently Played list. I don't think it would be of any use to anyone -- too random -- and I'm not sure I would want to automate the serendipitous process by which I tend to discover music now. Such a service implies there is a quota of new music one should discover on a regular basis, but if that's so, I've far exceeded it, I think. I set up a playlist in my iTunes of stuff I've never played, and it would take several solid days to listen to them all. At this point, all I can muster is meta-listening: I'm more impressed by the time statistics than the music itself. I'm excited by processing the songs like data, sorting it like spreadsheet figures. When I get my tags updated I'll be able to compile my collection of songs about love from 1967 and 1977 with a few mouse clicks. Then I could get a list of country songs with lonely, contemplate those results; then I could produce a list of all my songs that are under a minute, check that out. There's no end to the sorting, why bother listening when you can sort? Mog seems like yet another way to reduce music to manipulable data, but it takes it to the next level by adding the surveillance angle. It helps confirm that listening to pop music is now secondary to using the names of bands as a proxy for one's own personality in trying to bond with strangers online. It's still alluring to me, that easy way out of defining oneself by what one likes rather than what one does. But what am I doing lately? Fastidiously maintaining my music archive for the benefit of absolutely no one. Maybe I should sign up.

Robotic love (20 June 2006)

Here's one for the file of lascivious pseudo news stories designed not to inform but to provoke idle, lewd speculation. I'll take the bait. Via BoingBoing comes this article from the London Times, in which scientists fret about the possibility of humans having sex with robots. " 'People are going to be having sex with robots within five years,' [ethicist Henrik Christensen] said. So should limits be set on the appearance, for example, of such robotic sex toys? The greatest danger, however, is likely to lie with robots that are able to learn from their 'experiences'. As systems develop, robots are likely to have much more sophisticated self-learning mechanisms built into them and it may become impossible to predict exactly how they will behave." This stuck me as a bit cryptic and it took me a little while to figure out what the concern was -- that people will be having sex with robots that are designed to simulate children or something. That seems distasteful to say the least, but "sex with robots" still equals "masturbation" for all intents and purposes, so regulating what kind of robot you can use to get yourself off with seems essentially the same as regulating what kind of fantasies a person can have (which is itself a kind of perverse sexual fantasy, seizing control over what turns another person on). The implication also seems to be that robots will learn some frightening new behavior from having sex with humans -- perhaps they will learn to reject us, to disappear while we are still sleeping. (Then, of course, some owners would probably delight in such a robot partner; they might want their kicks spiked with real emotional pain. Some will probably want robots that resist and fight back when sex is forced upon them.)

Perhaps the first step toward robotic sex will come in the form of robot sex chat -- a computer-programmed erotic speech generator that can replace live phone-sex operators, an automated customer-service system on Viagra. Sexual imaginations aren't necessarily expansive. For fetishists, they can be marked by a regressive fixation on repetition, on continual replayings of very precise scenarios. So it wouldn't be surprising to be able to program a robot to enact such scenarios, to say the magic words in response to the appropriate cues. Take an ambiotronic Realdoll fitted with a system that can monitor a person's heartbeat and blood pressure and perhaps a penile plethysmograph and it is easy to see how robots can come to dominate the sexual-services industry, especially for people whose sexuality is wholly instrumental, goal-oriented. Of course the real problem for such an industry is that vast majority (I hope) of humans who actually delight in giving sexual pleasure and generally only experience such pleasure reciprocally. It seems unlikely they will ever be duped into feeling that the robot is experiencing real joy in response to anything one is doing to it. Some people might be encouraged into a more instrumental sexuality because of the convenience of robotic love, and perhaps sexual reciprocity will come to seem as quaint as land-line phones. Achieving the dream of being able to enjoy sex without feeling would make it that much more manageable, that much more like shopping. But if robots could draw off frustrated sexual energy, would innovation stop? Would sublimation come to a stand still? It seems that part of the fear of sex robots must stem from a belief that all forms of social energy are basically sexual -- they will sap us of our will to create, and leave us enfeebled and our world primed for the big robot takeover.