Digital dérive: the Streetview Cannonball Run

Paul Raven @ 08-06-2011

Via Nicolas Nova, here’s a sort of altermodernist-cum-Situationist take on the car-racing video game genre. Two dudes from Japan race across America by road without ever leaving Japan… or even their swivel chairs.

Apparently this is an entry in Google’s DemoSlam contest, and that’s about all I know. Nova’s highlighting of the game as a sort of digital dérive struck a chord… but rather than the “new and authentic” experience Guy Debord hoped the meatspace practice of dérive would create, this is perhaps a more Baudrillardian take on the idea. After all, sat in a darkened room in Japan, you have to trust in the authenticity of what Streetview is showing you… and even without wringing your hands over the possibility of Google massaging their mirror of reality for nefarious purposes, you can consider that Streetview consists of snapshots, a tunnel of temporal/spatial moments captured and stored somewhere in cyberspace. Which makes this dérive an act of time-travel, too… and given the way in which the Streetview images were captured, a linear journey in (virtual) space might actually result in you jumping between any number of different frozen temporal moments along the way…


Digital effects: death and the internet

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2011

Lots of people have been linking this New York Times piece about the things we leave behind when we die, which increasingly include a swathe of online material archived on blogs, social media and the other ill-defined platforms of the intertubes. Poignantly, the article uses the late Mac Tonnies – who, among many other things, was a columnist for this very blog – as its main example, documenting the work of his friends to collate and archive his online presence after his untimely and unexpected death back in October 2009.

Even before my father passed away I had an uneasy relationship with the traditional methods of mourning, which tend to focus on elevating the geographical location of the physical remains to the status of an emotionally sacred space. To be clear, I feel there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just never made much sense to me. I’ve not visited my father’s grave since the day of his funeral. I won’t find him there.

To be honest, I find I’m brought closer to him by some of the more mundane possessions of his I kept, some for sentiment, some for practicality. The thing that reminds me of him most is probably the aging 60s-vintage handbook of engineering constants and equations that sits among my non-fiction books, though there’s another sense of closeness I get when I use one of his old tools, worn by his hands over many years – tools I can remember watching him use.

All of which is to say that I feel closer to my father by considering the things he did and thought about than I do by, say, looking at a headstone with his name on it. The NYT piece is interesting to me because it seems to show a similar connection among Mac’s friends and family with the digital detritus he left behind, like a map of his mind captured – albeit imperfectly – in four dimensions. By returning to his writings, or even just the juxtaposed sets of photos he’d post from time to time, they can partake once again in the sort of person he really was, as opposed to the idealised gloss of a professional eulogy.

It’s not something I’m proud of, but I actively wanted to punch the priest who buried my father in the face; he chuntered out a list of mealy-mouthed one-size-fits-all platitudes that did nothing except demonstrate he’d never met the guy. I realise in hindsight that the old cliche is true, and that funerals are for the benefit of the living and not the deceased, but there was no comfort for me in hearing my father reduced to a series of vaguely pious middle class attitudes and interests. Like all of us, he was a flawed man, but what made him who he was were his efforts to balance those flaws with the demands of the world around him. To pass over that struggle, to replace it with a checklist of cheap virtues, felt like an attempt to erase the man who left the name behind him; it was more of a death than his dying, or so it felt to me.

Compare and contrast with the memorialisation of Mac, which seems to me to be something far more authentic and true to the person he really was:

This outpouring of digital grief, memorial-making, documentation and self-expression is unusual, maybe unique, for now, because of the kind of person Tonnies was and the kinds of friends he made online. But maybe, his friend Rita King suggests, his story is also a kind of early signal of one way that digital afterlives might play out. And she doesn’t just mean this in an abstract, scholarly way. “I find solace,” she told me, “in going to Mac’s Twitter feed.”

Finding solace in a Twitter feed may sound odd, but the idea that Tonnies’s friends would revisit and preserve such digital artifacts isn’t so different from keeping postcards or other physical ephemera of a deceased friend or loved one. In both instances, the value doesn’t come from the material itself but rather from those who extract meaning from, and give meaning to, all we leave behind: our survivors.

The most remarkable set of connections to emerge from Tonnies’s digital afterlife isn’t among his online friends — it is between those friends and his parents, the previously computer-shunning Dana and Bob Tonnies. Dana, who told me that her husband now teases her about how much time she spends sending and answering e-mail (a good bit of it coming from her son’s online social circle), is presently going through Posthuman Blues, in order, from the beginning. “I still have a year to go,” she says. Reading it has been “amazing,” she continues — funny posts, personal posts, poetic posts, angry posts about the state of the world. I ask her if what she is reading seems like a different, or specifically narrow, version of her son. “Oh, no, it’s him,” she says. “I can hear him when I read it.”

My father was not given to introspection… or, if he was, he left no record of it. What would his Facebook page have looked like, I sometimes wonder; or his blog, had he written one? And what would people make of my own digital effects, were I to die suddenly like Mac did? Maudlin, certainly; narcissistic, quite possibly. But speaking as an atheist, I think the only immortality anyone can truly achieve is the impression we leave behind in the minds of those who knew us.

How social media will change the shape and depth of that impression remains to be seen: will it become easier or harder to idealise the dead when the digital ephemera of their true characters – flaws and bad days and irrational prejudices captured in real time, dropped with no thought to their permanence or lack thereof – can be collected and saved after they’ve died? And what responsibilities – if any – should social networks have for ensuring that these leavings are preserved or destroyed in accordance with their wishes, or those of their survivors?


My rejoinder to another rejoinder to Doctorow’s rejoinder

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2010

Serendipity striketh again, in the form of Helliene Lindvall’s response to Cory Doctorow’s response to her earlier piece  attacking advocates of free-content business models for creatives. The Guardian may be missing a trick, here; this could become some sort of central-court ideology-tennis match. Give ’em a slot each on alternating days, and see how long it runs!

(My money’s on it going the distance; I think the questions around artist business models are currently unanswerable because of the economic flux we’re surfing on. Which is why the debate is important; better to design and build a wall against the coming flood than to wait until the water arrives and provides you with precise design parameters.)

Hell, better yet: set up a video recorder, let ’em do a face-to-face debate, then put it out there for the people to see… right after a lengthy argument about whether to paywall it, natch. (I think there’s a certain subtle irony to Lindvall’s piece appearing in the staunchly free-to-air online version of The Guardian… )

Aaaaanyway, it’s a more reasonable piece than Lindvall’s first, despite a few scare quotes and caricatures (“media gurus”! – is it wrong that I conjure an image of a sadhu with a cellphone when I read that phrase?):

One argument against my stance was that there’s no point in trying to prevent copying, as it’s so easy to do – and is only getting easier. It is so easy to violate the artist’s choice, why bother respecting the rules that protect that choice? However, there are many things that are easy to do, yet are not legally or morally right – for instance, posting anonymous threats saying you’d like to kill someone.

I’m not sure exactly what the rhetorical classification of that riposte is, but I think it’s a little bit reductio ad Hitlerum; comparing the copying of digital media to sending death threats is not exactly proportional in ethical terms. An attention-grabbing way to begin, though, I’ll grant you.

Just because an illegal act is easier to commit on the web, in the comfort of an anonymous mob, than in the physical world where there is a greater likelihood of apprehension doesn’t mean that our laws and ethics should somehow be suspended.

The ease of duplication is little to do with the anonymity of the web, it’s a function of the infinitely reproducible and lossless nature of digital media. Thumb-drive  sneakernet party, anyone? Exactly the same problem arose from the proliferation of cassette tapes, albeit a slower and more lossy version thereof… and the music industry defeated that problem very neatly with the compact disc. Laws and ethics shouldn’t be suspended, no; nor should the need for businesses to innovate if they wish to stay profitable.

Producing a record – as opposed to writing most books – tends to be a team effort involving a producer (sometimes several of them) and songwriters who are not part of the act, studio engineers and a whole host of people who don’t earn money from merchandise and touring – people who no one would pay to make personal appearances.

I’m sure there’s a lot of editors, agents, proofreaders, copyeditors, cover artists, layout geeks and beta readers who’ll be astonished to realise that their contribution to the production of a novel is effectively negligible. But then they’re mostly busy trying to figure out how to make their careers survive the transition to digital, so perhaps we can forgive them that oversight.

Many songwriters and producers I know have been excited about getting their songs recorded, only to see it given away as a free digital download by the artist or label. Though it may help promote the artist it does nothing to promote these writers and producers, as downloads don’t display any credits.

Surely that oversight is the fault of the label’s implementation of the free give-away, rather than the free give-away itself? The producer or writer chose to sign the contract that allowed the label to do it, right? Caveat creator; if you choose to go to bed with the money-men, you must live with the consequences. Likewise, if you make your own choices about whether to give your stuff away, you must sleep in the bed you made for yourself. Take responsibility for your own career, or don’t; simple choice, really.

Another argument used by proponents of the “free” business model is that record labels have mistreated artists for decades and so deserve to go out of business – so to them I guess two wrongs make a right.

Not sure I see where that second wrong is, here; in fact, it strikes me that the collapse of the record labels is a consequence of their own failure to act. No one is actively threatening the record label business model, it’s simply failing to adapt to a changing environment. Evolve or die. I’ll certainly cop to feeling a certain amount of schadenfreude over the demise of the big labels, but that’s probably because I’ve listened to sermons in the Church of Albini. Your karma just ran over your dogma; it’s not two wrongs making a right, it’s cause and effect. Lose public trust, lose your business.

I signed my first publishing deal almost 10 years ago with BMG, who ended up being bought by Universal. Sure, I’ve had my issues with them through the years. Yet I don’t regret signing with them as they provided me, an unproven songwriter, with the means to write music full time (I’m sure authors can relate) and develop my craft.

“I got a great deal out of my signing, therefore all signings are fair.” I refer the honourable lady once again to the Church of Albini. Perhaps his numbers there represent an equally rare but opposite polar extreme… but having spent most of my adult life around working and/or aspiring musicians, I rather suspect it isn’t.

They’ve even agreed to give the songs that haven’t yet been covered back to me – despite not having to, contractually.

Very rare, if I’m not mistaken, and a comparatively recent development; music history is littered with lawsuits by bands and songsmiths great and small who fought – often unsuccessfully – for the ownership of their own material (paging Jello Biafra). But bravo, BMG; perhaps this will become a blanket policy for all artists you sign, and all the artists you’ve signed before?

… others would argue that the principle of CC licensing is simply to give creative works away for free in what Lessig calls the “hybrid economy”. Giving away the works benefits the owners of the distribution platform, such as Flickr, YouTube or Google, not the individual creators licensing their works under Creative Commons.

And selling the works of musicians benefits the shareholders of the record companies – so where’s the difference? No one is forced to license their material as CC; no one is forced to use any particular platform to store and share their work… and there’s the difference. There’s a lot less choice once you’ve signed your contract with Sony BMG, I’m guessing. They get to make all those decisions on your behalf… and I’m sure they’ll have your best interests foremost in their minds as they do so.

And there are other issues. For instance: what constitutes “non-commercial”? Selling YouTube for $1.65bn? Selling Flickr for $35m?

“Web-based media sharing platforms in profit-making shock horror probe!” I’m pretty sure HMV and Tower Records and Amazon were always pretty interested in making a profit, too… but again, the artist didn’t get a choice about where their material ended up being sold (and, subsequently, who ended up getting a cut of the sales price). It’s a bit weird to argue for art as a commercial endeavour and then criticise proponents of a different model for using commercialised distribution channels… how shameful of them to compromise with the capitalist world around them in a way that lets their work be seen on their own terms! Hypocrites!

I believe a successful future for content creators consists of a combination of solutions, one of them being unlimited ISP music subscriptions bundled in with their broadband access deals.

I have some sympathy with this idea, as it happens, but it has all sorts of potential loopholes through which record labels can get themselves back to steady-income business-as-usual; I believe this is a process commonly referred to as “protectionism”. And hey, wait a minute – some of those ISPs are big profit-making businesses! So they’re exploitative middlemen in exactly the same way as YouTube and Flickr, are they not?

I believe it’s detrimental to suggest that creators should be defeatist and not participate in this evolution – that what they’ve created has no value so they may as well give it away.

While there’s a lot of ways to interpret Doctorow’s stance, suggesting that he’s telling creators to “not participate in [the] evolution” of the markets in which they wish to place their work is not one that I can reach with any logical train of thought; quite the opposite, in fact.

Indeed, I’d have thought that saying “leave it to the labels, the ISPs and the government to fix” was much closer to that doctrine… but hey, I give my work away on the internet, so I doubtless got brainwashed long ago. *shrug*

Y’all enjoy that new Girl Talk mash-up album, won’t you?


The story of ourselves

Paul Raven @ 17-11-2010

The New Scientist CultureLab blog is running an interesting set of pieces about storytelling in the (post-)modern world (for which there is, regrettably, no single unifying tag or category to which I can link you); it’s probably due to a global swelling of interest in such matters coinciding with my own self-education curve, but in the last few years it’s felt like everything has started to boil down to narratives – the stories we graft on to our experiences so that we can make sense of the world.

Of course, by the terms of the theory, that is a narrative in and of itself… but before we get caught in an infinite loop of meta, let’s skip to this article that wonders how the changing structure of the narratives we produce in our art and culture will affect the ones we produce in our heads.

Gazzaniga […] thinks that this left-hemisphere “interpreter” creates the unified feeling of an autobiographical, personal, unique self. “The interpreter sustains a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. The interpreter is the glue that keeps our story unified, and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent. To our bag of individual instincts it brings theories about our lives. These narratives of our past behaviour seep into our awareness and give us an autobiography,” he writes. The language areas of the left hemisphere are well placed to carry out these tasks. They draw on information in memory (amygdalo-hippocampal circuits, dorsolateral prefrontal cortices) and planning regions (orbitofrontal cortices). As neurologist Jeffrey Saver has shown, damage to these regions disrupts narration in a variety of ways, ranging from unbounded narration, in which a person generates narratives unconstrained by reality, to denarration, the inability to generate any narratives, external or internal.

[…]

If we create our selves through narratives, whether external or internal, they are traditional ones, with protagonists and antagonists and a prescribed relationship between narrators, characters and listeners. They have linear plots with a fixed past, a present built coherently on it, and a horizon of possibilities projected coherently into the future. Digital technologies, on the other hand, are producing narratives that stray from this classic structure. New communicative interfaces allow for novel narrative interactions and constructions. Multi-user domains (MUDs), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), hypertext and cybertext all loosen traditional narrative structure. Digital narratives, in their extremes, are co-creations of the authors, users and media. Multiple entry points into continuously developing narratives are available, often for multiple co-constructors.

These recent developments seem to make possible limitless narratives lacking the defining features of the traditional structures. What kinds of selves will digital narratives generate? Multi-linear? Non-fixed? Collaborative? Would such products still be the selves we’ve come to know and love?

As heady as these implications seem, we should not get carried away. From a literary perspective, digital narrative’s break with tradition will either be so radical that the products no longer count as narrative – and so no longer will be capable of generating narrative selves – or they will still incorporate basic narrative structure, perhaps attenuated, and continue to produce recognisable narrative selves.

Or, to put it another way, “we just don’t know, so we’ll have to wait and see”. But it’s fascinating stuff, if only for the tantalising offer of a place where literary theory, anthropology and hard neuroscience might one day all meet up… and that would be an awesome place to spend one’s life theorising, don’t you think? 🙂


Dead[media/drops]

Paul Raven @ 01-11-2010

Today I’m mostly decompressing after meeting a major deadline over the weekend (which may be of interest to readers and collectors of high quality limited edition genre fiction books, which I presume includes a few of you), and as such I’m struggling to do The Clever*.

So to tide you over until NEW FICTION later in the day (oh yes!), here’s a couple of items from my newsfeeds that chimed together:

At least a couple of story ideas and talking points in the collision of those two chunks of news, wouldn’t you say? So just for a change, I’ll shut the hell up and you lot can think out loud in the comments. Go on – it’s Monday, after all, and even your boss is probably slacking with a Halloween hangover…

[ * No change there, then. ]


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