Toward a new medievalism?

June 28, 2009 at 3:45 pm | In business, comments, futurismo, ideas, media, social_critique, web | Comments Off

I just left this comment on avc.com. It’s me going off on a typical theory bender, but the idea of Twitter’s Suggested User List (SUL) sparked another “here come the Middle Ages” image/moment for me. (As I note in the comment, they’ve been popping up for me since the late 1970s: my first one happened in the south of France, in a literally medieval town on a street with lots of commerce: pop!, a vision of what we could go back to – and I didn’t like the distinctly anti-modernist feel of it.)

That’s an interesting exchange between you and John Battelle, Fred. Now I’m going to go totally off-topic here and get all abstract, but I have to say that to my mind there’s something Medieval in some of the emerging business models and how they’re changing the nature of markets.

In the feudal Middle Ages, powerful patrons – either the Church or the Feudal lords – determined the markets. Markets weren’t free, they weren’t determined by market forces (as we think we understand them since the various emancipations) or really shaped by the “little people” (who in the modern period developed into powerful consumers).

When I read (as per transcript): “…if you think about what businesses and celebrities and brands need on Twitter and what they’re not getting today, there’s a whole set of premium services that are there,” I’m *understanding* something that reminds me of feudal medievalism where markets are determined by the needs of powerful patrons (church and/or lords). (John Battelle repeats the point further down when he says, “You said something about brands on Twitter, sort of like celebrities having the ability to sort of build an official presence.”)

I didn’t understand recent controversies about Twitter’s Suggested User List (SUL). I saw Dave Winer’s tweets about the SUL, but didn’t understand why he questioned the concept. Maybe I do now – albeit in my own weird way (Dave probably would roll his eyes at my interpretation…).

The SUL concept nudges markets back into a feudal framework where forces other than actual market forces determine the market landscape.

Maybe I’m crazy – I’ve had occasional bad dreams for nearly 30 years now about how feudal Medievalism is clawing back bits of Modernity. (Blame Umberto Eco, whose writings encompass Modernity and the Middle Ages.) The idea comes to me in pictures, which is maybe why I struggle so much to get the words right (the anti-icons, the iconoclastics). Me no likey what I see with SUL-type aspects of the business model and how it has the potential to alter markets.

I love the internet and all the great stuff out there, I plunge right in, sound off, play along. I love pictures and emblems and icons, but at heart I’m a daughter of the Enlightenment (words, words, words). Pictures, specifically icons, are Medieval. Yet in the new world that we’re making, even words – such as passed links – are turned into image, into something that’s consumed like an image (in a glance, or uncritically). Exegesis – trying to understand and interpret words – is still important it seems, as per the comment that reading the transcript of the video is better than watching the moving image…! But you could chalk that up to Medievalism, too. They did a lot of exegesis back then. ;-)

Ok, I’m generalizing (wildly?), and I’m going off into my own little theory-land here. But as you said yourself, “Social media together is going to be bigger than Google.” Google and the internet certainly changed our thinking about everything, including thinking about thinking itself. Tell me it’s not rewiring our brains – of course it is. Now social media are poised to rewire the market. I just happen to think that bits of it are kind of medieval, and every time the notion of the tribe (certainly an important idea in the new market place) is celebrated without critical reflection, something in me dies a little bit.

If my favorite enlightened Marxist, Groucho, were still alive, I wonder how he would position himself, market-wise, in the social media landscape, and if he would want to be on the SUL? ;-)

Originally posted as a comment by Yule Heibel on A VC using Disqus.

Reblogged to here as mnemonic / string around the finger.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

June 28, 2009 at 2:28 am | In links | Comments Off

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Reblogging Johnson St. Bridge conversation

June 27, 2009 at 4:37 pm | In heritage, johnson street bridge, local_not_global, politics, victoria | 6 Comments

The conversation on Vibrant Victoria’s forum about the Johnson Street Bridge continues, brilliantly. See pages 22 and 23.

This morning, forumer DesignStyles wrote the following:

After reading the outrageous comments on here, I thought I would put my two cents in. I really don’t understand why some of you latch on to saving this beast.

It’s ugly. So what it’s designed by the same guy who designed the Golden Gate. Not all designers do their best 100% of the time. Many residents of Victoria think it’s garbage. Sure, it looks great in those night photos but anything looks good in low light.

It’s unsafe going through that stupid chicane on the West side, and it’s terribly unsafe to ride the bridge on your bicycle. I’m looking forward to a new bridge that is safe to cross and feel like I’m not taking my life in my own hands every day.

It’s not a landmark, you’re trying to make it one. I do not recall anyone, anytime saying the blue bridge is an attraction before this whole controversy started. Sorry, you can’t just create it now. People come to Victoria for oh 1000 reasons other than the blue bridge.

If heritage people had their way, we’d still be living in caves. Lighten up, it’s not some controversy over partisan politics, or some other self-serving thing. I’ll take the new bridge and Millions of dollars saved from a retrofit so that money can go into social programs and the like. People won’t come for the blue bridge if they have to wade through all the homeless that sit around it.

Ok, that last comment is a bit of a stretch but I think you get my drift.

It’s a passage that aastra refuted within the span of hours:

The weakest point in this whole debate is the one that goes “you weren’t defending it before it was threatened, so therefore it must not be valuable”. It’s an incredibly bogus argument because:

1) people take things for granted, like the famous bridge that (in the city’s words) would “always be there”, or historic buildings at the Jubilee Hospital, or the Coho, or fine old trees in the park right in your own neighbourhood (or the Campbell Building, or the Permanent Loan Building, etc. etc. etc.)

2) nobody was going on about how the bridge was a notorious wreck and an esthetic eyesore that should be dismantled immediately EITHER. I can show you countless pictures of the bridge taken by residents and tourists, I can show you products named after it, I can show you blurbs in tourism guides and books. So how come a sudden decision to trash something is perfectly valid and requires no context whatsoever whereas there’s this impossible burden of proof put upon the folks who want to protect it?

Quote:
I do not recall anyone, anytime saying the blue bridge is an attraction before this whole controversy started.

This is incorrect and has been demonstrated as such many times on this very thread. Just because you don’t recall it doesn’t mean it never happened.

Some people seem to want to reduce this issue to liking/disliking the bridge. Folks, history (the non-Wikipedia variety) doesn’t come down to a popular vote. The bridge is what it is. The equivalent bridge is a prized piece of history in San Francisco, Toronto, Ohio, Tennessee, Connecticut, etc. Nobody has yet offered any explanation as to why it’s not a prized piece of history in Victoria. Are we suggesting that we know more than those saps in those other places? Or are we merely ignorant and unwilling to admit it?

Heritage preservation in Victoria has been politically compromised beyond all recognition. Most of us were well aware of that fact many years before this bridge issue came up. The bridge issue is just the most extreme example that we’ve encountered so far.

People who are rooting for replacing the bridge because they think it serves as some sort of challenge to the stuck-in-the-mud crowd should make note of the fact that the stuck-in-the-mud crowd is BEHIND this. It’s their project. The folks who oppose everything and who made everything so darned difficult during the little 21st-century building boom that we’ve just enjoyed are the very same folks who want to ditch the bridge.

So you aren’t challenging them by rooting for the bridge’s demise. You’re arm in arm with them. Will you be arm in arm with them when they scream about a midrise condo proposal on a parking lot? Or when they flip about modifications to the interior of the Rogers’ Chocolates store? Or when they oppose a downtown art gallery or performing arts centre?

Also, the turn on the Vic West side is a lazy turn by any standard. Can we please drop that lemon? Crikey, on the one hand we’re claiming we’re progressive hipsters boldly rolling forward over our collective past, and on the other hand we’re fretting because our unsteady hands can’t negotiate any road that isn’t absolutely straight?

That just about sums it up, it seems to me.

There’s another interesting aspect here, too, which relates to “the silence of the heritage lambs” on the matter of the bridge.  As forumer jklymak pointed out, we’re proceeding on potentially skewed assumptions – skewed by a professional group bent on replacement:

^ Of course Victoria will build down. Aside from red herrings like the turn at the bottom of the hill (which has nothing to do with the bridge) the cost comparison made by tear-down proponents is between restoration of a beautiful bridge and building a new generic bridge. Lets see an actual quote on refurbishing the bridge, rather than a back-of-the-envelope estimate, and lets see the design and a real quote for the new bridge. Until then, we are just trusting the word of a single engineering study, which Ms B. has pointed out was undertaken by a company likely to bid on building a new bridge.

So why don’t we hear the heritage lambs on this one? My theory is that the bridge question is utterly beyond their scope. All they’ve ever saved to date were houses and relatively small buildings – and it’s on record that they’ve lost large buildings like the Permanent Loan and the Campbell Buildings, both on Douglas Street, and the market buildings/ old firehall (now Centennial Square). Admittedly, these structures were lost before heritage advocates were sufficiently organized here, but I can’t help wondering why it is that the only objects they’ve concentrated on have been relatively small buildings. (There are some exceptions that prove the rule, notably St. Ann’s Academy, but overall their focus has been mostly on single-family homes or relatively small buildings.)

Maybe it’s because it’s easy enough to do – Martha Stewart can show you how. And it’s easy enough to understand, too – because we all live in buildings or houses, so we have a sense of what’s entailed.

But a bridge! And an old one with old technology! This isn’t cottage-style anymore…

So what has the city done? They’ve solicited expert advice, in the first instance their own engineering department. The department doesn’t come across as a hotbed of innovation, though. It doesn’t seem like a department that’s interested in new approaches …or in saving things. It seems to like building new stuff, and that’s naturally how they’re going to slant the advice they give city council. Furthermore, the department has compounded the bias against restoration by hiring a consultancy (Delcan) that’s in the business of building only new bridges, not fixing old ones.

So, big d’uh that their advice is “the sky is falling, we must replace the bridge now.” The problem is that as far as anyone knows, that’s the only advice the city has actually solicited.

The city can’t get advice from the self-identified heritage advocates because something like the Johnson Street Bridge is totally and utterly beyond their ken.

Heck, the thing scares me to death, and I’m in favor of keeping it. The thought of actually tackling a restoration is scary. Yet of course it can be done.

So imagine if the city got one or two of the right people – engineers with the right background and experience – on the job to consult and advise and help? The conversation might be entirely different.

Keeping the Johnson Street Bridge

June 27, 2009 at 12:25 am | In heritage, leadership, local_not_global, politics, scandal, victoria | 20 Comments

Reading and watching the Vibrant Victoria forum thread on Victoria’s famous Johnson Street Bridge – also known as The Blue Bridge – is keeping me up at night.

It wrenches my heart (and my head) to know that our city leaders, “incentivized” by engineers and the possibility of getting some Federal infrastructure grants, are benighted enough to plan tearing down a bridge that people around the world recognize as a heritage-worthy and unique signifier in Victoria’s urban landscape.

Take a look at these photos, and marvel at the “ugly” bridge that’s supposed to be replaced by a slab of concrete:
Johnson Street Bridge, taken by

Vibrant Victoria forumer “gumgum” took this photo while approaching the bridge in his canoe.

Here are two more:
Johnson Street Bridge by VV forumer

and

Johnson Street Bridge, in

(See the rest here.)

I wrote about the bridge in the current June issue of Focus (read the article, Blue Bridge Blues) and I’ve blogged about the impending disaster of tearing the bridge down (here, here, and here). And now I just joined two Facebook groups, formed to Save and Keep the Blue Bridge.

The whole issue is complicated by the fact that the usual spokespeople for heritage preservation (often enough a NIMBY and anti-development crowd to boot) are NDP stalwarts (even at the Federal level – ex-Victoria City Councilor), and since plans to tear this bridge down were proposed by our reigning NDP mayor, who has an NDP majority on council (including the alleged heritage advocate, Councilor Pam Madoff), the partisans have all closed ranks and decided to just not say anything at all …which is very curious indeed.

The only explanation that comes to my mind is that it’s all about partisanship, which infects and clouds local politics in the worst way. I would like to say to the partisans: for once, forget about party affiliation and just do the right thing already. If the BC Liberals had proposed tearing the bridge down – no matter how good the reasons – the heritage preservation crowd and every NDP-inflected City Councilor would be on the barricades.

Instead, we get this:

Victoria City Councilors (allegorically)
But this (the image ^ above) shouldn’t be a civic leader’s inspiration.

It also creeps me out that our leaders are listening quite hard to the City’s engineering department, which (from what I gleaned at an April committee of the whole meeting) seems intent on building a new bridge (boys will be boys, and these boys want to build something new). City engineering furthermore hired a consultant (to assess the condition of the old bridge), but this consultancy is in the business of building only new bridges, so why wouldn’t they furnish the City with a report that recommends building a new bridge?

Add to all this the galling fact that most Victorians are blissfully unaware that the bridge is even in danger – and that worst of all, they have no idea what they, what we, stand to lose here.

Here’s where Vibrant Victoria’s forumers are keeping me up at night… Forumer “aastra” has diligently compiled the numerous examples of other North American cities – some much smaller and poorer than allegedly “quainte” and oh-so-cash-strapped Victoria – that not only celebrate the value of trunnion or bascule bridges from this era, but that actually spend significant piles of dough in refurbishing them and then in addition have the audacity to express civic pride in their preservation.

Incroyable, you say? Well, it’s not unbelievable. Take a gander at these, courtesy of “aastra”:
3rd Street Bridge, San Francisco
This is a photo of an almost identical Strauss-built bridge in San Francisco – restored and preserved. (See source.)

Next, there’s this image, of the same bridge:Third Street/ Lefty O'Doul Bridge, San Francisco

Same bridge, different photographer (source).

Toronto also has a Joseph Strauss designed trunnion bridge, and they restored theirs and are keeping it, while we plan to nuke ours. aastra wrote:

So did we all know about the Cherry Street Trunnion Bridge in Toronto? Built in 1931 by some bozo named Strauss.

Quote:
…designated under the Ontario Heritage Act by the City of Toronto in 1992 as Architectural Historical.

That’s the problem with Toronto. It’s such an impersonal big city that’s lost all connection with its past.


(The bridge is green. Good call by Torontonians. If it were another colour it would probably be gone by now.)

The sarcasm and his last sentence expresses frustration over earlier banter about whether our bridge was always blue and whether it was always famous, or famously blue. His point was that the color hardly matters. It’s like saying it matters whether ivy or roses clamber up the Empress Hotel on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

aastra finds another bascule bridge – preserved, not torn down (and it’s even blue!):

Quote:
The Ashtabula lift bridge (also known as the West Fifth Street bridge) is a Strauss bascule bridge that spans the Ashtabula River in the harbor of Ashtabula, Ohio. Built in 1925, it is one of only two of its type that remain in service in the state of Ohio. In 1985 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was restored in 1986, and was also closed from March to December 2008 for repairs and repainting.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashtabula_lift_bridge

In Ohio it’s history. Something to be proud of. In Victoria it’s junk. Hallmark Society, where are you?


http://www.flickr.com/photos/83132978@N00/1364138744/

The really amazing thing is that it’s blue and yet they still decided not to replace it.

And there’s more… Chattanooga, Tennessee has one (slightly different design):

Market Street Bridge in Chattanooga, TN:

Quote:
The Market Street Bridge construction began in 1914. It is a bascular-type draw span bridge and is owned by the State of Tennessee. Because of its current condition, the bridge is currently undergoing a major structural renovation which will cost $13,060,428.85.
Quote:
Once construction is complete, travelers will enjoy sidewalks measuring three feet wider on either side of the thoroughfare making walking safe and easy. The bridge design will also provide architectural attributes and lighting in keeping with the historical significance of the Market Street Bridge. The renovated bridge will look much like the original – only stronger, safer, and ready to be put into use for another 90 years!

http://www.marketstbridge.com/facts.html

…As does Mystic, Connecticut:

Mystic, Connecticut:

Quote:
River Road – Running beside the Mystic River, this scenic road offers terrific water views of the ships of Mystic Seaport and Mystic’s famous Bascule Bridge.

http://www.mystic.org/landmark-trail.asp

Quote:
Not to be confused with Olde Mystic Village, this is the “real” downtown of Mystic – it includes the Mystic River Bascule Bridge, one of few operational bascule bridges in the country. For those of us who are unfamiliar with bascule bridges, this is a fancy drawbridge. Feel free to gawk either at the bridge itself or at the tourists gawking at the bridge.

http://www.starrmurphy.com/shopping.php

Quote:
Historic 1922 marvel delights bridge fans — its mechanical parts are all out in the open.

http://www.mystic.org/p/highlights-tour.asp

Mystic River Bascule Bridge (1922)

Meanwhile, Rob Randall, Chair of the Downtown Residents Association, added this comment:

I want to mention the importance of the bridge in relation to the time in which it was built–the 1920s–and the fact that this time coincided with the dawn of what some call “the Precisionist Movement” in American painting.

Some of America’s most famous artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Charles Sheeler tackled the subject of the industrial landscape, painting stunningly detailed pictures of factories, skyscrapers and yes, bridges–even ones designed by none other than JSB designer Joseph Strauss.

It would be fair to say they have influenced modern artists as well.

Our bridge is a real link to this vanishing historical age of engineering and artistic genius.


Elsie Driggs (1898 – 1992) Queensborough Bridge, 1927
Oil on Canvas, 401/2 x 30 ¼ inches
MAM Purchase: Lang Acquisition Fund 1969.4

So there you go, city leaders. But are they listening? According to forumer CharlieFoxtrot, they’re not and it’s already too late:

Word on the street is that various contracts have been awarded within the past few days – the replacement moves forward. Expect grunts in high-vis vests to be hanging around the JSB and starting the preliminary work soon, most likely ASAP.

Sadly, looming federal infrastructure funding dependant on fixed deadlines for completion (and these other things called “fish windows” with regards to construction) are Serious Things that wait for no one, or (apparently) little or no opposition…

I could go on to disparage Ken Kelly of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA), which apparently supports replacing the bridge because replacement will be less disruptive to traffic. Yes, you read that right. But I won’t right now, because this post is already too long and it’s getting quite lugubrious.

Just one last thing: if you’re a heritage/ history/ bridge/ industrial design buff, consider writing a letter to The Honourable James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, House of Commons Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6. There are Federal funds to preserve heritage like this bridge – the city should have applied for this, and applied for infrastructure grants to replace the Bay Street Bridge, not the Johnson Street Bridge.

Henry James Barcelona

June 24, 2009 at 11:10 pm | In arts, fashionable_life, ideas, writing | 4 Comments

I watched Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona recently. It was enjoyable and fun to watch – to a point. It had all the classic hallmarks of a Woody Allen story, as it revolved around the American (and now also European) upper-middle-class set – which made it watchable, but also made it annoying.

The acting was good – I thought Penélope Cruz was utterly enthralling, a delight to watch and impossible to anticipate – and the story was actually quite interesting. And the settings were gorgeous.

In fact, the settings were gorgeous to the point that I lost my ability to willingly suspend disbelief.

Where, in all that luxury and ease, was there any friction or resistance – any real life? Two young women go off to Europe – specifically, Barcelona – for a summer lark. Sure, it’s credible that two women like this could both be available at the same time to do this together, although my ex-academic mind was already calculating Vicky’s age – she’s doing a Master’s Thesis on Catalan culture, hm, she must be reaching her mid-20s?, and her friend Cristina is from her old college (pre-grad school) days, so presumably they’re the same age, in other words, they are two women around 23, 24, 25 years old who both happen to have time – and resources (that is: money) – to travel together for the whole summer? No boring jobs to pay the rent or pay back student loans?

Right there, zing!, one of the threads holding up the suspension of disbelief starts to fray.

But the rest get shredded even more quickly. Consider that Vicky happens to have American relatives in Barcelona who can house the two “girls” for the duration – and that this isn’t just any house, but an estate. Consider that the mansion’s owners are two ultra-conventional people who don’t seem to evince the slightest talent that would indicate how they came to live this life of luxury in good old Espagna.

Now, if that were my only complaint, one could say that I’m just envious of the rich. But my objections go deeper – to the absence of friction and resistance.

There are no servants or gardeners to be seen, nor any trace of their existence. Does the American housewife who presides over the manse do all her own housekeeping? Unlikely.

Wait, there’s more.

The house is up on a hill, buccolic setting – and yet there’s never any difficulty in reaching the city center for restaurant hopping or an evening out. Country paths for bicycling, fields for picknicking, berry brambles for foraging: all instantly accessible, as easily reached as the downtown core and its exciting nightlife. From an urbanist perspective, this aspect of the fairytale was staggeringly surreal: it seems that in Woody Allen’s Barcelona, there is no congestion, there are no hassles in getting taxis (they just …appear!), everyone happily drives even after drinking the equivalent of a case of wine, and no one is ever stuck in traffic jams.  The space-time-continuum is collapsed: there is no energy lost in moving between the fantasy worlds of city and country …presumably because they’re both just that, fantasy.

No one works in Barcelona! Everyone either parties or gossips or ponders soulfully the meaning of life.

It’s all Old World charm and authenticity in Woody Allen’s Barcelona, and you know, deep, in a deeply un-American way, what with all those Europeans. And yet technology works seamlessly and without any friction or hassle. For example, American tourists have no problems with their American cellphones, which magically just work. Nor do they have any issues with paying for what must amount to staggering roaming charges – even though they’re currently unemployed travelers. Vicky is constantly receiving calls from her fiance in New York, nor does she hesitate to call him – actually, as soon as she and Cristina arrive in Barcelona and get a taxi, she pulls our her phone and calls him.

I know there are ways of getting around the mobile carrier issue in Europe, but it all invariably involves at least a bit of hassle. Not in the movies, though. Maybe the girls all had Skype enabled on their phones, and that’s why they could afford such liberal long distance use. But then again…

In Woody Allen’s Barcelona, artists aren’t starving, they’re boho-rich. In fact, our hero (Juan Antonio) isn’t just rich – he’s rich enough to drive a spiffy red sports car, pilot a borrowed plane (and have rich friends who have planes to pilot), live on a hill (living on hills seems to be important if you’re an important character in this movie), be able to support his penniless – but wildly gifted – ex-wife (Maria Elena, played by Penélope Cruz) and support his new mistress (Cristina), set Cristina up with a darkroom and all the papers and chemicals and lights and cameras necessary to practice her new-found art/hobby (not to mention that the darkroom appears to be installed in a single afternoon …gee, I wish I could get my home improvement projects done on that kind of schedule), dine out endlessly in attractive bodegas, and…

…And, as if that weren’t enough for one single inexplicably wealthy artist-painter: in addition he has a poor widowed papa who’s also an artist, who also lives on a hill in an immaculate and beautiful house (which also is bereft of groundskeepers or servants even though it’s a stretch to think that the old man could keep it up all by himself). And, this is the coup de grace, the father is a poet who writes the world’s most beautiful and moving poetry, which he then withholds from the world because of his lofty disdain for mankind. Na-na-na-boo-boo, as the kids might say.

As I said above: no friction, no resistance. Woody Allen gives a whole new dimension to the concept of “life of leisure” and “life of ease.”

Naturally, these people have to create inner dramas and turmoil for themselves, otherwise their upper-middle-class existence would become unbearable – as it does for the wife in the transplanted American couple with whom Vicky and Cristina set out to stay for the summer.

The fear of losing all that lucre keeps them mired in pretend affairs. I say pretend affairs because Cristina’s shallow desertion of Juan Antonio at the end of the film shows how artificial her interests in him were. She returns to the US with Vicky so she can continue to nurse her neurotic search for meaning and life’s “gifts.”  Vicky meanwhile resigns herself to marrying the idiot fiance so she can age into a desiccated replica of her relative, the expat American housewife in Barcelona.

I realize it sounds like I hated this film. I did and I didn’t. I enjoyed watching it – there’s so much eye-candy, so many beautiful people, gorgeous scenes, tantalizing situations. But it was actually the eye-candy that made me despise it, too: for me, it took away from the story, cheapening it instead of enriching it.

I came away from the experience of watching it as I do from trying to read Henry James‘s work. There’s something so arty and precious in James’s language that I literally fall asleep to save my sanity. Yes, it’s true: I’m a philistine, I cannot – literally cannot – read Henry James. (In fact, when I tried to watch a movie version of The Wings of the Dove, I promptly fell asleep there, too.) Granted, Vicky Cristina Barcelona didn’t put me to sleep, but give it a few years to reach the art status of James, and some day it, too, will reach that pinnacle. Revered, Allen’s obsessive focus on the (usually American) upper middle class, will be an object of adoration for many (and Vicky Cristina Barcelona its apogee), even as it puts some of us into snooze mode.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

June 21, 2009 at 2:28 am | In comments, links | Comments Off
  • Although not quite (yet) an example of cyber-stalking, I found Victoria Klassen’s description of an online-generated encounter with a person who feels entitled to finger-wag her for some perceived moral or behavioral shortcoming(s) noteworthy because it all happened locally. I’m not sure whether that makes it even creepier or somehow just cozier than being digitally accosted by someone a thousand miles away, but I’m certain it says something about the intersection of “real life” and social media at the local level. At any rate, I left a comment describing my own experiences with people like the “creep” she had to deal with.

    In the end, Victoria’s closing comment is the best answer to those people:
    QUOTE
    Bottom line: if you don’t like what I say you have two options: don’t read my stream or this blog, or join the conversation in the open, in the same way as the rest of us.
    UNQUOTE
    Right on.

    tags: comments, victoria_klassen, socialmedia, cyber_culture, stalking

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Continuing a conversation on avc

June 18, 2009 at 8:54 am | In media, web, writing | 3 Comments

Replying to a couple of comments on Fred Wilson, reblogging here:

Good points. In your blog you do, however, focus in on a specific area (as per your blog’s title, a VC). That makes it all hang together, and focuses your insights. Others might think out loud, but it’s unfocused (although in the aggregate, it can all cohere into a pattern).

Are you familiar with the term “bricolage” (in Levi-Strauss’ academic-structuralist sense)? The Bookman (blog) describes it as a “willingness to make do with whatever is at hand… The ostensible purpose of this activity is to make sense of the world in a non-scientific, non-abstract mode of knowledge by designing analogies between the social formation and the order of nature. As such, the term embraces any number of things, from what was once called anti-art to the punk movement’s reinvention of utlitarian objects as fashion vocabulary…”
http://thebookman.wordpress.com/2008/03/01/post…

I’m way too scientifically-minded to appreciate bricolage as any kind of ideal, and I’m definitely not saying that either one of us is a bricoleur, or that I want to be one and do bricolage (although it sometimes feels like that’s what I’m doing). But even when you’re just “thinking out loud,” I do think that your expertise lets you record your “rarely … completely baked thoughts” like ingredients in a recipe. And your readers know that they often enough add up to a movable feast: they cook your stuff in the comments board – to use a typically bricolage-y analogy.

On the other side of the coin, there’s the rock star blogger, someone so star-like s/he can blog about underwear and people read it. (In fact, people would probably read it *because* it’s about underwear…) I’d rather chew off my own leg than fill those boots, though. The pressure would kill me. ;-)

Originally posted as a comment by Yule Heibel on A VC using Disqus.

(See also my June 15 post, Fred Wilson Is:.)

Remember the milk (on working at home)

June 17, 2009 at 10:45 pm | In education, health, housekeeping, ideas, just_so, writing | 2 Comments

The other day Philip Greenspun wrote a provocative (that is, a typically iconoclastic) article, Universities and Economic Growth. It’s well-worth reading, so click through and take a look. (h/t @KathySierra)

I just want to use a small passage in that piece as a jumping off point for another observation that’s completely unrelated to Phil’s agenda. (In other words, this is a hijack.)

Apropos of universities, and of how today’s students use them, he wrote:

Focusing on homework has become much tougher. A modern dorm room has a television, Internet, youtube, instant messaging, email, phone, and video games. The students who get the most out of their four years in college are not those who are most able, but rather those with the best study habits.

No company would rely on this system for getting work done, despite the potential savings in having each employee work from home. Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day.

It’s that last sentence (“Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day.”) that really struck a nerve.

Readers of this blog know that I homeschooled my children. Today, I’m done with that – but until last summer, we were in the thick of it. For eight years, from 2000 until 2008, we – my son, my daughter, and I – worked at home (with field trips thrown in). Toward the end of that period, we did use BC Ministry of Education curricula, so it’s not the case that I had to invent unit studies for high school science or anything. But the homeschool culture (which basically means self-motivated work habits) continued.

That status quo changed last September when my then-17-year-old started his path on the B.Com program at UVic and my then-14-year-old started grade 12 at a neighborhood school (for the exotic experience). This coming September the now 18-year-old will enter his second year at UVic while the now 15-year-old will start her university studies at UBC. (Yes, you read that right, and no, I don’t want to hear any tut-tut-negative comments about radical acceleration. Tell it to someone else.)

About half a dozen years ago the spouse began working from home, too. So here we all were, 24/7/365, working at home – until last September, that is, when the kids went off to school. …Which left us grown-ups to continue the home-work slog.

Now that I’ve had ~10 months to decompress, at least from the intensity of being responsible for the day-to-day education of my children, the statement “Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day” really resonates with me.

People who commute and go to an office think that working at home in fuzzy slippers will be somehow liberating. Well, there’s a flip side to everything. Working at home all the time – not by yourself or just for yourself, but rather as part of a larger entity (say, a homeschooling family or a couple starting a business) – especially if it’s not very remunerative or lucrative (homeschooling is a financial drain, not a generator of income) can be really hard. I suppose it’s different if you make oodles of money and can get away from time to time. But if you don’t and you instead end up with more of the same (working at home), watch out: you can get to feeling stuck, and there’s nothing quite like that kind of stuckness.

Working at home isn’t like working in an office that you can leave behind. You don’t have tidy divisions between work and non-work, and sometimes the blurring lines get really blurry.

My dog won’t appreciate being left at home, but maybe I’ll try working in some third places this fall. On the other hand, if I use third places to do more work, it just means that I’m taking my work out of the home and into those other places, too.

My home (and homework) isn’t like a modern dorm room with “television, Internet, youtube, instant messaging, email, phone, and video games” as distractions. Over the last few years, my many home jobs have splintered into many more pieces, to the point that they themselves have become the distractions. In shepherding this machine that is the home and this project that was homeschooling and this partnership with my partner through years of home-work, it seems I have forgotten how to get my own work done.

In fact, I think I’ve forgotten what it was.

o_O

Sometimes someone will helpfully ask what I plan to do, now that the kids are heading out. It occurs to me that I have to remember something I forgot, not plan something I don’t know yet.

Fred Wilson is:

June 15, 2009 at 10:20 pm | In authenticity, ideas, innovation, media, web | 3 Comments

Holy cow, yet another great learning-and-thinking experience, courtesy of  Fred Wilson‘s recent post, What Drives Consumer Adoption of New Technologies?, and the many amazing people who comment there! Reading avc.com regularly is like participating in an interdisciplinary college seminar – and even though  you never know in advance what’s coming up on the syllabus, the conversation is bound to get really interesting several times a week.

Last week (on June 9) Fred asked What drives consumer adoption of new technologies? He had been invited by a major media company to participate in a panel discussion set to start at 10 a.m. that day. Without further ado he gave his readers a couple of hours to talk about the topic. And, boy, did he get a lot of great feedback. The online conversation continued well past the real life meeting, too.

In his post he observed that:

…consumers are driven to new experiences that are simple and useful and/or entertaining. It is not enough to be the first to market with a new technology. You have to be the first to market with a version of the technology that is simple and easy to use.

I was struck by some of the themes that commenters developed in response to this observation, especially when I thought about them in relation to one another. It seems late in the day to add to the original post’s comments thread, so I’ll spin this out here, instead.

One commenter, Jennifer Johnson of  Hashtag Media alluded to Kathy Sierra when she mentioned that great consumer products create passionate users (a reference that was picked up by another commenter, John Lewis).

Cue Twitter.

Kathy Sierra became a Twitter user with some initial reluctance, for she recognized that Twitter is “a near-perfect example of the psychological principle of intermittent variable reward, the key addictive element of slot machines.” Intermittent variable reward works to keep users coming back again and again:

…behavior reinforced intermittently (as opposed to consistently) is the most difficult to extinguish. In other words, intermittent rewards beat predictable rewards. It’s the basis of most animal training, but applies to humans as well… which is why slot machines are so appealing, and one needn’t be addicted to feel it. (more…)

With applications like Twitter, your brain also gets extremely rapid hits – and they are variable: not every visit or scan of the tweets is rewarding every time. But you know the tweets keep coming, and you know that often enough they’re studded with “hits” that provide pleasure. Addictiveness – including relatively easy access to getting those hits and rewards – is probably an ingredient in making successful consumer technology, particularly if it’s social media. (Fred Wilson himself refers to his Twitter habit as snacking… like those potato chips no one can eat just one of? Busted!)

So what about widgets and gadgets and things, and how they’re designed? Consider addictive qualities or “brain-state qualities” in relation to a comment made by Jules Pieri, the founder and CEO of Daily Grommet. She commented from the perspective of an industrial designer:

Here is the core truth about simplicity. When a product is pleasing to approach (which is created by a lot of qualities, foremost of which is simplicity) people get a psychological response to “engage”. It’s simple but unconscious stuff. “Hmm. I think I can do this. This is friendly.” The interesting part is that if you can elicit that response through UI, form factor and sheer disciplined editing of functionality down to its core essence, people will actually dig deeper, spend more time, and uncover MORE functionality from a simple product than from a more fully featured one. So they get more feature usage from a product with, objectively, less functionality. Designers understand this. Engineers usually struggle with it. (But not the best ones.) (link)

Now think about those insights in relation to Kathy Sierra’s observation on addictiveness (the quality that keeps you coming back). If you can design a product or UI with Jules Pieri’s insights in mind, and simultaneously channel Kathy Sierra in order to bake in the qualities of addiction/ gratification/ rapid pleasure, your product has a head start for sure.

The design has to be friction-free and unobtrusive to the point of disappearing. But if the item delivers (provides pleasure) once the user starts working with it – as the iPhone’s interface and shape does, for example – then the user-experience that speaks directly to brain-state can take over. It’s all about the brain – we’re in the age of neuroscience after all.

But where is all this taking us, and do we really care? To the Lotus Eaters all leaves gleam like brand new Apples, and when we ingest them they release their magic right into the brain. We seem to get “more” – but “more what”? More self-expression? Self-revelation? More information, and still more information?

Here’s where it could get heavy, dear reader. It’s hardly possible to let 20th century theory constrain something as disruptive as the web-based and neuroscience-based revolution we’re living through now …but that’s not to say older theory doesn’t have some intriguing insights worth thinking about!

Sure enough, another commenter, Shana (no profile info available yet), responded to a comment by John Dodds (also no profile available – yet) by referencing Michel Foucault. Dodds had written that “simplicity and purpose” drive consumers to adopt new technologies. Later he added that he had written purpose rather than utility

because that Benthamite concept [utility] seems to have been corrupted into relating to commercial productivity. Originally it was much more to do with being worthwhile by whatever criteria one chose to expend one’s credit – be that cash or time. Something entirely frivolous and trivial can have utility if you value those traits.” (link)

It was the introduction of Jeremy Bentham (the reference to Benthamite concept) that prompted Shana to bring up Foucault, whose book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was inspired by Bentham’s Panopticon. Wikipedia’s definition of the Panopticon is nicely succinct: “The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the ‘sentiment of an invisible omniscience.’” (source)

So Shana asked the following questions:

All of these products [consumer technologies] so far bring together community. A good number of them actually track behavior- should we be concerned? One thought that I have been having is that the power of searching leaves us vulnerable to the fact that we are currently in a system where we

a) are trying to attract the guard of the Panopticon’s attention
b) which leaves us vulnerable to the guy who isn’t. he can look on behalf on the guard, underneath, at our vulnerabilities.

Is the loudness of all the information of the internet getting in the way that someone with enough power can use it for harm?

Should we develop products that also encourage segmentation to amplify as well take away certain powers of the “Guard in the tower?”

Or in other words- should we develop products and systems on the internet that afford privacy as well as community at the same time? (link)

Great questions. As for answers – that’s a trickier proposition.

In an April 2004 post called C’mon, Confess about Foucault, art historians, and sex (not necessarily in that order), I wrote:

Understand this: whatever is translated into discourse is instrumentalized as social control. It is not the case that chatter about your sexuality or your neuroses or your deepest darkest secrets makes society a freer place. It instead makes it a more fully explored, more discursive place, which in turn contributes to mechanisms of control. People and their exposures are turning into social maps, we’re less multi-dimensional and increasingly flattened into a one-dimensional discursive space. At the same time, however, I would add an idealistic qualifier that probably wouldn’t sit too well with Foucault: while your confessions strengthen societal mapping (and hence control), there is the one-off/ one-in-a-million possibility that they just might liberate you, individually. It probably happens very rarely, but therein lies the dialectical rub. People might yet be capable of surprising others. (link)

That’s the Panopticon argument: everyone is watching everyone, which internalizes control even as individuals are free to reveal more about themselves than ever before.

I gave warning that this gets heavy, didn’t I? And I did wonder whether Foucault’s 20th century theory can be brought to bear (uncritically) on disruptive technologies such as the ones we’re seeing in the 21st century. And I’m much more critical these days of 20th century totalizing theories than I am of 21st century technology. Those theories still work insofar as we still worry about authenticity and about who we “really” are. So, if that’s a question you didn’t give up on when you turned 30 (or whatever), you’re in luck: there’s a massive body of theory to slake – but also feed – your anxieties. Measure your doses…

On the edge of “iffyness” we now have reality mining – which means there’s hardly anything that can’t become discursive, and if it’s discursive, it can become subject to Foucault’s critique. Reality mining is actually an interesting way to put it. In Pomo goes to market (December 2006) I wrote (again, apropos of Foucault):

The individual becomes the artist of his (her) own life, but the price is that we’re in charge of just a (relatively special) niche. Extinguishing the tutelage of authority in favor of a mastery of domain (the niche), we seem to have flattened the mountains and valleys of the past, exchanging them for a rupture-free landscape that somehow seems curiously the same, wherever we go. (link)

So is reality mining the strip mining of those mountains and valleys?

But all this “heaviness” aside, am I pessimistic? Not really. Either we are truly fucked or we’re living through an incredibly interesting revolution – and I’m hedging my bets that it’s the latter.

We’re learning so much about brain states and neurobiology – we might actually get a handle on addiction. If social media and new consumer technologies help us understand how that works, who’s to say that what they offer isn’t of great value? And is it any different than when people started using earlier (new) technologies to learn? People used to think books could be “harmful” because book-learnin’ was “unnatural” and a conduit for strange and dangerous ideas.

…Meanwhile, back once more to Fred Wilson’s post, to his blog and its amazing comments board. I’m going to suggest, cheekily, another analogy – one I hope Fred Wilson doesn’t mind, and which I make because of his ability to attract such an amazing community of users (that is, people who comment).

I’d suggest that his comments board itself becomes addictive, and that it actually shows the benefits of “addiction.” Users feel the need to check in frequently, to see who is adding to the conversation. The Disqus commenting system that avc.com uses has built-in features that enable tracking, as well as finding out more information about users, and that allows dissemination into other media like Twitter, Facebook, and so on. If you make a comment that someone else replies to, Disqus sends you a notification, so you feel compelled to go back, check again, read, think, perhaps respond. In this situation, you’re addicted to a conversation that enables the acquisition of more information, and also of learning.

And as to the title of this post, Fred Wilson Is:?  Listen again to Jules Pieri’s description of great industrial design:

When a product is pleasing to approach (which is created by a lot of qualities, foremost of which is simplicity) people get a psychological response to “engage”. It’s simple but unconscious stuff. “Hmm. I think I can do this. This is friendly.” The interesting part is that if you can elicit that response through UI, form factor and sheer disciplined editing of functionality down to its core essence, people will actually dig deeper…

What avc.com manages to achieve could be described as Fred Wilson Is: the friendly interface: deceptively “simple” (I mean that in the best sense) and usually laconic (which means cool, not hot). The coolness (vs a hotter, flame-ish environment) ensures that users/ readers aren’t intimidated, that they can participate freely. So Fred Wilson Is: cool, maybe even a cool brand, and, as Kathy Sierra might say, helps the user kick ass.

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