Thursday, July 04, 2013

Glass on the Fourth of July

I wore Google Glass, the cyborg accessory of the future, to Lewisburg Pennsylvania's (Population 5,610) July 4th parade.

This lasted all of 15 minutes.

The idea sounded fine in theory, it was a public event after all, exactly the sort of use case where using something like Glass seems the least problematic. No one really expects privacy at a parade.

It wasn't the surveillance aspect that got me, mostly, though the acceleration of the transformation of the public of small town Pennsylvania (Castells' "Space of Places") into the public of YouTube/Google (Castells' "Space of Flows") by me, unilaterally, by wearing this surveillance rig around on my head was pretty uncomfortable.

Instead, what was most unnerving was the sense that, by displaying this $1500 piece of titanium and plastic on my brow I was somehow wearing a sort of uniform. Claiming my allegiance to a corporate-technocratic order, a Google nation, rather than the town I was standing in, or the nation-state (however problematic, as the lines of military re-enactors and equipment reminded me) it was celebrating.

This was, in all too many ways, an uncomfortable reflection of an unflattering truth. One that simply removing the device from my head could not undo.

I went home sheepishly and removed the Glass, and returned to the parade with my DSLR. Now I appeared to be just taking pictures like everyone else. 

Friday, May 10, 2013


Midnight, Addison Texas. The low haze that swept in after sunset is all alight now, bouncing back the city like the sky is enclosed in a single mercury bulb. The lights of the bank offices and insurance companies north of the belt line float in it, outlines of their buildings obscured by bright haze.

This has been my quotidian, my every day, for two years now. This little two meter square balcony. The skyview that has been my most constant companion. I am grateful for it, I would have lost my mind down here without it.

I never wanted to come South. Spent my 20s proudly remaining above the Mason-Dixon even as everyone else my age seemed to migrate to the sunbelt for work. Eventually, the migration caught up with me, and brought me first to Atlanta, and then here to Dallas. They became my quotidian. Okra in the supermarket. Sweet tea everywhere. Sky glow. In Atlanta I could only glimpse it through the canopy but here...

I am looking out at Addison, right now, and the sky is all alight, brighter than any star, horizon to horizon. The only lights you can see are planes, sometimes 5 or 6 at once when traffic is stacked up over DFW. Down here, in the urban south, there is a starless quotidian.

Which I hated, for a long time. But it came to me to seem vibrant, alive. The glow of a place filled with furious human activity. Of a place people wanted to be.

And now that I'm going back North, to a sleepy Pennsylvania college town where the nearest city's population peaked in 1940 and is now half its former size, I think I'll miss that. The youth. The glow.

Still. I'll have the stars again, at least.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013


If this front doesn't break soon, I will. 83 and muggy in April is just uncalled for. Uncalled for, Dallas.

I'm going to sit and watch the skyglow for a bit and see if the rain starts. Its an activity that calls for whiskey, but I'm out of calories for the day so I'll have to stick to sparkling water.

I love useless moments like this, waiting on the rain and listening to the hum of the highway. They are so far and few between these days. So threatened by our constant productivity. My latest theory project is trying to find some framework for articulating this love. I tried Marcuse, but he was no help. Sartre everyone told me to stay away from. Right now, Agamben seems like my best hope? Dunno, hard to say.

Somehow, I need to figure through a way to argue that the useless is not useless. That it is, in fact, crucial. Human. That it's availability, and its shape, should not be left to the whims of market aristocrats. That we need a democratic uselessness.

Anyway, that will be for another day. Right now, gonna see if this front breaks.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

If you only read on explanation of the Marxist concept of "commodity fetishism" today, make it this solid summary of the idea and how its misuse in contemporary scholarship by Gavin of Unfashionably Late.

Gavin is also one of the under-appreciated stars of Marxist-Leninist weird twitter.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The problem with "the future"

Bruce Sterling's 2013 SXSW benediction has been talked about over the course of the last month or so, as is usually the case with his contributions to the conference. Cory Doctorow clearly got a kick out of it.

I thought it was great, thought-provoking stuff. The piece still hasn't been transcribed anywhere, so I ended up listening to it on my phone while I took a walk around the neighborhood. This made his discussion of the disruption of long form text by short form always-on media all the more cogent.

I particularly liked the part where cranky old Bruce really lets fly about the state of things to his audience of boosters and entrepreneurs and tech wizards. "Everything is getting worse," he yells at them, almost to the point of his voice breaking. Despite all their talk of "making the world a better place" through "disruptive technology," the climate, politics, the economy, all are in decline. "Where's the betterness?" He asks.

Thus, I was a little confused by his ending, which sounded what seemed to be a triumphalist note. He encourages his argument to take responsibility for "killing the past" and then to "kill it and eat it" anyway. The future (I'm paraphrasing here because digging the exact language out of the audio in the clunky soundstream format the piece is being shared in is a pain) will be and must be built on the ruins of the past.

In retrospect, I think I understand what Sterling is going for. He wants to avoid what he perceives as a sort of guilt-laden retreat from movement and experimentation. The tendency that makes young people enamored of home-pickling and infatuated with the futile notion of returning to subsistence farming. An attempt to return to a romanticized past (as perhaps I am engaged in as I attempt to revive this blog in a weekend of manic posting!).

But the language of "The Future" and "The Past," so common to this sort of discourse, shifts Sterling's argument in a way that partially erases his careful critique of disruption-as-progress from only moments before. In a sense the language is similar to that used by RIP: A Remix Manifesto when it argues that the fight over Copyright is one in which "the past" (in the form of big media companies) attempts to control "the future"  (in the form of Girl Talk, mostly).

I would suggest that rather than exhorting people to take up the cause of building "The Future," despite the cost, we might more acutely need to focus on the idea (which Sterling motions to) of thinking about taking responsibility for the future we build. Given that creation is indeed, always creative destruction, shouldn't we make sure that what we build balances what has been lost?

And moreover, the discussion of a monolithic "Future" conceals the fact that that future will be experienced differently by different people. We have a responsibility to build our futures in a way that does not immiserate the futures of others. This is something that the young, rich, powerful future builders at places like SXSW seem increasingly blind to. We need a future for everyone, not just the best and brightest and most innovative.

To talk about "a future" rather than "the future" might at least move us in the direction of understanding that while future change is indeed inevitable, the direction of that change is not.

Elemental Dallas

One of my favorite undergraduate professors was a bit of a theory throwback. He still identified as a Freudian, long after trends had moved to continental philosophy. He taught the survey of methods in Literary Criticism course I took, which might explain why I'm not exactly a cutting edge theorist today.

Somewhere along the way, he worked in the idea of analyzing pieces based on the four classical elements. I have no idea where this came from. As scholarship, it seems doubtful, as a habit of mind I can't seem to shake it. Confronted with something new, I often find myself thinking: "Water, Earth, Air, or Fire?"

Atlanta, as a city, was clearly claimed by water. It rained in the sort of torrents I had only ever seen last an hour in other places for days on end. Even during a supposed drought, the summer was sticky and had you drenched in your own sweat in minutes.

Dallas, on the other hand, is a city that all but water seems to have a hold on. Earth, for the flat plains and endless dust. Fire for the baking sun. Air for the wind and the constant air traffic, and the open, cloudless sky.

In the end, though, I think this is a city of air. Seen from above, Dallas is a patchwork of uninterrupted light, since there are no trees tall enough to break line of sight to an airliner on final approach. The city is naked to the sky.

And that sky has been a source of endless fascination for me living here. There are aircraft aloft within view of my balcony more often than not. The airport to my north hosts quite a diverse set, long ezs, Beech Starships, the last flying B-29.

The birds are even more interesting than the planes. Falcons pushing flocks of starlings around the sky like sharks on shoals of herring. A few nights ago, I was sitting out before bed and heard a strange, rattling cry. I looked up and there was a checkmark of Egrets, white bellies lit orange in the streetlight, flying across the night sky in inverted silhouette.

Even here, in the suburbs of Dallas, the most domesticated and controlled place you could imagine, the sky is still wild. Just like the Firefly theme song said it would be :)  

Friday, April 05, 2013

Why I want you to read this blog

I'm going to ask you to indulge me for just a minute. 

Actually, I'm going to ask you to indulge me for just a minute, a couple times of week, for the foreseeable future. 

I'm asking you to read this blog. Blogging, which was for a brief moment a prime means for people to keep in touch, seems of late to have been mostly displaced by social networking, especially Facebook, which allows for more robust content than the ultra-concise Twitter. 

I've thought about leaving Facebook, especially given its increasingly worrisome ambitions. I'm not sure I want Facebook to become a general-purpose portal for digital content. I'm quite certain I don't want it to become a geo-political entity "on par with nations." Still, at this point choosing to exit Facebook seems like choosing to stop listening to my friends, colleagues and neighbors. Like ignoring their lives in a profoundly anti-social way. No, until such a time as we can migrate the network somewhere else, Facebook seems to be an evil we're stuck with. 

Still, there is something about the Facebook composition experience that leaves me feeling like something is missing. Something we had back in the moment of personal blogging. We seem to have lost the space of our own that blogs once provided. A space in between the more formal and controlled writing of published work (including work published on higher-profile, edited group blogs) and the constant rolling present of the social network. A space where a draft of a thought too big to fit in an update status can be hashed out over the course of a day. A space we control, and thus can navigate and retrieve thoughts from the archive more readily. 

Of course, we haven't really lost this space. This blog has still been here, unused, all these years. What we've lost are readers coming to the space. I can link to my blog, but doing that is asking an indulgence. Leave the stream of the rolling now for a few minutes and come pay attention just to me! Just dropping the link in the stream isn't enough to compel anybody to click on it (my Google analytics suggest).

So, I'm asking that indulgence, dear reader. Click the link. I could just keep posting stuff here and dropping links and hoping for the best, but writing is hard when you know no one is reading. Help me out. 

Here's what I'll promise you in return. If and when you revive your old blog, and start dropping links into the rolling present, I'll click on them :-)

A modest MOOC-posal

Proposition 1: Only the most excellent teachers can teach well enough to out-perform MOOCs

Proposition 2: MOOCs can teach the skills ordinary people need to become excellent

Conclusion: Run a MOOC to teach teaching and make MOOCs obsolete

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Turing Test

The first short story I ever wrote was called "Turing Test." It imagined a young man fooled into corresponding with a computer. The punchline was, the machine was in no way alive. It was just crudely recycling phrases from a linguistic database.

It wasn't a very strong story really. The way I conveyed the computer's patchwork prose was clunky and obvious and unconvincing. But the idea of it sticks with me. Especially as we're now hearing about machines that write news articles and grade student essays.

There are many valid criticisms of these sorts of efforts. At least one prominent young cultural critic has been on twitter all day laying into the idea that machines can think. Indeed, the firms behind these automated techniques have every reason to spin and hype their machines well beyond their actual capabilities.

Still, I think it is worth taking the idea that they might succeed seriously.

I guess I find the notion of an external machine automaton writing plausible because, for me, the experience of writing is one of being dependent on internal, biological automata. I don't always know exactly where the words come from or why they go together. They just show up, sort of, and I put them down on the page. Often, they emulate the voice of an author I've recently been reading. I sometimes think of the unconscious-me that serves up words as my "language engine."

This is why I sometimes struggle to teach writing. Because I, myself, am not always consciously aware of how it is that I come to write.

I'm pretty sure the science fiction author William Gibson is talking about a similar writing experience when he talks about writing as a process he carries out as a collaboration with his "subconscious" in the documentary No Maps For These Territories. So I'm guessing this isn't just me.

Thus, we are confronted with yet another specter: the spectre of the preconscious writing machine, which is the spectre of the final and ultimate unbundling: that of productive work and lived experience.

For even as authors may have lived with the language engines inside our heads for a very long time, we still felt to some degree coextensive with them. And in any event, we could not be separated, if you wanted it, you had to feed us. And our relationship with it felt so intimate, it was part of our everyday life, our identity, our expression. Every word to a loved one, every argument with a rival, it was embedded in it all.

So surely, we must have thought, this cannot be alienated. Long after the ditch digger and the line worker and even the musician have been automated out of existence, we will still be here. Surely language is the fundamental measure of the human. It is the core, after all, of the humanities.

But what if, what if, it isn't anymore, within our lifetimes? What if experience must face the world alone, shorn of productive value?

What then?