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Archive for March 2010

Cameron: From Saving Pandora to Saving Ourselves

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Over the past weekend I listened to two really great interviews conducted by film critic Elvis Mitchell, host of KCRW’s The Treatment. The first one, with director Guy Ritchie, I’ll get into in another post. It’s the second one I want to get into first.

Elvis and Avatar director James Cameron had a roughly 40 minute talk about the role film can play in reforging our connection to the natural world. Actually, it was about a lot of things, but that was one of the main themes I came away with. Here’s what is unarguably my favorite quote from Cameron that night:

We’ve got some major, major challenges ahead of us as a civilization. But you know, we’re a smart, resourceful people. We’ve… we’ve survived amazing things throughout history. We’re going to figure this out.

This is something I felt compelled to share, because I’ve been on what might seem to the neophilie crowd as a real Luddite bender. Which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Cameron essentially goes on to say that people are drawing the wrong message from Avatar if they think he is advocating a Rousseauian back-t0-nature solution. For one, he succinctly points out, we wouldn’t know how to live that way. (The first episode of James Burke’s Connections illustrates that issue brilliantly.)

When I get up on this soap box every week or so and start launching broadsides at the status quo of our culture it’s out of a deep seated belief that we can be doing better. Technology is the physical manifestation of Humanity’s ability to think up creative solutions to problems.

As far as problems go, we’ve got some doozys right about now.

Written by njnelson

March 17, 2010 at 10:27 am

Posted in PhilosophyGuy

An Inconvenience Truth

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Musing on the Irrationality of Rationalization

The other night I pulled up to a local, non-chain gas station when the needle headed towards empty. I wasn’t going to have that kind of night. I hopped out of the car and slid my debit card into the pump’s reader. Punched in my PIN and waited. After a few seconds the pump informed me that if I wanted to pay I was going to have to head inside and see the attendant. I grimaced, I grunted, and I marched myself inside the gas station proper where- thankfully- there wasn’t any line.

The attendant asked “Debit or credit?” and knowing that the damnable card companies make more money off a credit transaction I smiled “Debit”. She handed me the card reader. I slid my card in (again) and punched in the code (again) and then waited (yup, again). Listened to the sound of the station modem dialing up the bank. Waited. Seconds ticking away. My blood pressure beginning to rise. The digital display still reading “Contacting bank for authorization”. Time dilating out until every heartbeat was like the exquisite tortures reserved for the most profane of sinners. The modem chirping. The display pleading for patience in it’s indirect way. Heat rising along my spine and…

Hold on.

Step back.

Our ancestors had to survive by subsistence farming with an ox driven plow. Here I am getting pissed off about the whole extra three minutes it was going to take to get fuel into my imported automobile for a night on the town? What the hell is wrong with me? With us? Because admit it- you’ve felt it too- that electric rush of frustration when the technological miracle that is modern society dares to not live up to the marketing copy on the packaging.

And that, ladies and gentlemen is the physical manifestation of the “irrationality of rationalization”.

The concept, which I first encountered in George Ritzer’s McDonaldization of Society breaks down like this: the more efficient and convenient our technology becomes, the greater our demand for an even faster and more convenient technology gets. It’s not enough to have fast food- we want it in our kitchens. It’s not enough that it takes ten minutes to cook dinner using the microwave- we want it in three.

There is a deep, intractable irony at work here. All of the technology- gadgets, workflows, jumbo jets- that are supposed to make us happier somehow manage to piss us off instead. On a daily basis. Our expectations of instantaneous gratification keep getting raised with every technological advancement. We seem to be caught in a cybernetic loop with this mania. What I fear is that our ability to see the power of technology and design to actually make our lives better is being clouded by the red rage of WHY WON’T MY XBOX TURN ON!?!?!?

Instead of focusing on the quality of a user interface experience or the largest possible benefit for the greatest number of people- a Greatest Common Dividend as opposed to a Lowest Common Denominator if you will- the powers that be still seem to be myopically focused on bigger, faster, cheaper, more. The cheaper is the real kicker, since those cut corners and hidden costs start to work their way into the fabric of our being. They become the static of our lives.

It doesn’t help when the designs are boneheaded. This handy infographic Boing Boing featured last month illustrates how all those anti-piracy warnings and crappy direct-to-DVD trailers give the advantage of the movie watching experience to pirated films. Yet at the same time, would it kill us to take the time “wasted” by those ads to, I dunno, go make a sandwich? Is the inconvenience such a high crime that we have to “pirate the hell outta that shit”?

Not that what we might call “PB&J Time” axiom is a reason to accept bad design. Disabling the “DVD Menu” button so you have to sit through the trailers is a dick move by the studios, and we should all bitch about it until they stop that. (Quit it! Stop that!) It just seems that undermining the economic support structure that brought you the entertainment you are trying to enjoy seems like a bit of a hissy fit.

So the next time you find yourself on the brink and ready to reach out and choke someone, step back. Chill. If you’re reading this I guarantee you that you’re great-great-grandfather never had it this good. Unless you’re descended from royalty. Then I am probably wrong. For the rest of us peasants it’s a simple observation, really. It is all too easy to slide into the “irrationality of rationalization” trap. If anything, it might just be our primary cultural mania. The factor that prevents us from seeing the world for what it is, an amazing miracle that is hampered by some big problems.

But the swift ain’t one.

Written by njnelson

March 9, 2010 at 10:51 am

Posted in 1

Abstracting Ourselves To Death

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Social Networks, Derivatives, and the loss of self.

When the record labels first started touting CDs to the masses one of the big selling points was how digital copies were superior to analog ones. All kinds of distortion can come into play when you make an analog copy- even temperature can come into play when it comes to the fidelity of a copy on tape. The same problems just don’t exist with digital tech. It’s all ones and zeros. Sure a file can become corrupted, but bit for bit, generation for generation, the quality of an uncorrupted digital master is preserved.

The damage, such as it is, has already been done.

When I was a kid a short-lived and terribly controversial Saturday morning TV show called “Captain Power” posited a world where evil machines had taken over. Human survivors were hunted down by CGI androids whose most terrible power was the ability to “digitize” a person. An arm mounted energy beam could pixelate the atomic structure of a person and then vacuum it up like a DNA dust buster.

The effects are terrible by today’s standards, and the Mattel toy line was shoddy when compared to the other franchises of the day. Yet the themes- the series’ Executive Story Editor was future Oscar nominated screenwriter and genre perennial J. Michael Straczynski- were prescient.

Only we don’t have CGI eagle-men diving down from the sky, hunting us down and metabolizing our vital essences for some megalomanic’s DNA wikipedia. Instead our nearest and dearest deploy that most devastating of WMD’s- peer pressure- and we voluntarily digitize ourselves. First for Friendster, then MySpace, and then for the crown prince of social networks- the Book that must not be named. (Pat yourself on the back if you remember SixDegrees, which presaged them all. But not too vigorously, grandpa, digital geezerism is still a preexisting condition.)

Like the villains on that old Saturday morning show, social networks take a human identity and abstract it. Abstraction as a tool is not all bad. Abstraction allows for perspective- whether its in the form of a math equation or a metaphor. Abstractions allow that quite literally critical amount of distance from a given subject that makes that which is being considered, considerable. One of the impressive outcomes of the digital revolution has been the increased utility of our abstractions. Our reality simulators are getting so good that even our video games are changing the way athletes play professional sports.

Yet as we entangle our lives more and more intimately with our technology we risk not only mistaking the map for the territory, but abandoning non-digital measures of our self-worth. It’s belaboring the point to suggest that “friend counts” are replacing actual friendships measured for their quality, but anyone who has really gotten into a social network can attest to the thrill that comes with hitting a number with a lot of zeros after it.

This is the same kind of thinking that drives the banking industry, and it is there that we can begin to see the horrific outlines of a possible– let me repeat that already stressed word for emphasis- possible digital destiny. The current masters of abstraction are the hedge fund managers: slicing, dicing and spinning numbers like an unholy union of ninja and politician. The current financial crisis was brought on by the collapse of the derivatives market. Finance capitalism had long since left behind the pedestrian world of raising money for ventures that might make a tangible impact on people’s lives. The real money was to be made on the bets that those stocks would fail. To use a familiar gambling metaphor: it stopped mattering whether a given stock rose or fell, only if your broker had bet right on the spread.

Which is the logical destiny of unchecked abstraction in a nutshell. Real value ceases to have as much influence as perceived value. We start planning our futures around models of models. ‘Reality” is confined to what can be perceived in a prospectus or a press release. To a certain degree this is unavoidable. If abstraction wasn’t a powerful tool we wouldn’t use it so much, but the simple wisdom of not buying into our own bullshit seems to have been lost on an entire generation or three of Americans.

What is truly frightening is that this logical error has begun to seep into every aspect of our culture. Worse still, it appears to be self-reinforcing. The boy geniuses at the Book that shall not be named are raked over the coals by the social media press and their customers alike for altering the core experience of their service without notice. Forgetting that even their click-through data doesn’t tell them what their users are actually looking for. Clicking on, yes. Looking at, no way no how.

Google recently decided, with the disastrous rollout of Buzz- that the way to improve upon the current crop of social networking options was to take the human element out of the process. Who wouldn’t want to have everyone you ever had email contact with having instant access to reams of information about you? It’s all just bits and bytes, after all!

The “lords of the clouds”- to use virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier’s term- appear to have developed a blind spot for reality. They forget that our “online avatars” are very much the shadows of real people, taking real actions. From up on high only the crowd as a whole has a value. If you’ve ever looked at the way online advertising is billed you’d know this is true. Google and their ilk can’t make money by currying favor with individuals. Not with the business models they’ve chosen. They’re forced into seeing us in the aggregate only, their responsibility to their shareholders demands it. As we come to rely on what they build we risk adopting the same perspective.

We risk our worth as individuals.


You can find Noah J Nelson, professional hypocritic, every day on twitter in the guise of @areyouthatguy. He could use some more followers to bolster his self esteem.

Written by njnelson

March 2, 2010 at 10:15 am