Archive for November, 2005

Remote viewing and rescued by the webcam. Presence and absence and remote relations.

Friday, November 18th, 2005

A woman is saved… By a relative thousands of miles away who’s dropped by on her webcam and seen her motionless on the floor. A perfect case study for Marshall McLuhan’s work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In this case in particular, the extended family. Immediate family extended. Connected? Not if it’s one way, but connected yes because a filial relation exists, and filial is as connected as it gets. Extensions of man? A woman seen on webcam has not extended her vision, but the viewer has extended his. Her presence has been extended, drawn into, her son’s visual field. What virtual presence is this, when McLuhan’s subtitle must be inverted to make any sense? Not only to see farther (webam as telescopy) but to be seen from farther away….
It occurred to me last night that while connective technologies increase our ability to express, to speak, to participate anytime and from anyplace, eradicating the material constraints of presence, asynchronous technologies stretch out, defer, and delay the return/response. It takes only the return of a glance to indicate whether or not one’s communication has been taken up, and how (accepted/rejected to use Luhmann’s terminology; understood, agreed upon, to use Habermas, Austin). But when the technology permits us to speak better than it provides us with the other’s feedback (think email, message boards, asychronous… IM, chat, are near synchronous, though we’re still limited there to what can be put in text form), we get an asymmetrical relation of presence. Talking at, not talking to.
He saw her prone and her stillness provided him the correct observation that something was wrong.
Is there something wrong if I talk and I can’t see how you like it? I must wait to find out.

Not Fade Away? Of news and its decay

Friday, November 11th, 2005

This from a 2001 book project of mine…

The value of any bit of information may be subject to decay, that is, its value is determined by two factors, either of which lose value over time. These two factors in fact conflate into one. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll consider them first individually. The message value can be derived from its intrinsic statement value, or the value of what it says. The meaning of any bit of news information, for example, decays over time as it becomes obsolete. This is a truism particular to news: news is a kind of information whose value is defined by its currency, or “newness.” News has value based in how new it is. The second factor is value attributed to the act of sharing. I am more inclined to share a bit of information or news if it seems valuable to me that I share it. This means, simply, that I have to feel that it’s worth passing this news along to somebody else for me to do it. These two factors conflate into one insofar as I am always the one who determines the value of a bit of information, both in terms of its intrinsic meaning/value and in terms of the value obtained in sharing it. My decision not to share something with others implies that I no longer think it is that important, and hence there’s no compelling reason to share it. Neither news nor other information has value outside or independently of the population in which it circulates or proliferates. To put it another way, there is no such thing as value without subjective interpretation.
The implication of this is surprisingly far-reaching. It means that in a society whose economics are defined ever increasingly by information, and in which the primary role of an ever growing part of the population is information management, and in which virtually no living citizen can negotiate daily life without some level of mastery of a mind-bogglingly complex set of facts and figures, information decay is beyond the control of its authors and consumers. Nothing, virtually nothing, anybody says, regardless of how authoritative s/he might be, holds its value. Nothing that is said continues to mean what it meant to the first speaker and listener once it has entered a network of proliferation. This is in part why markets today behave the way that they do: with a high degree of volatility. Some observers may call it psychology, but in fact it’s more than that. The networks by which information proliferates today make information highly susceptible to changes in interpretation on the part of information consumers. A statement taken to be true one day is discredited and valueless the next. Pundits can never be wrong one day, the next their proselytizing falls on deaf ears. The moment a network of individuals begins to interpret a statement or event differently (yesterday with a hooray, today with a shrug, and vice versa of course), information ceases to proliferate. Messages with the opposite meaning will proliferate instead. The net effect? Volatility.

An angry mob is an angry mob

Thursday, November 10th, 2005

Seems that my tongue in cheek comment on smart mobs and angry mobs was unintentionally ironic. The Times is reporting that French blogs and cell phones have been used to propagate “inflammatory” messages after all.

A spokesman for Skyblog, the blogging service on which so many French youths have apparently turned up the heat, was quoted thusly: “You can imagine from what is happening in the suburbs that if someone finds out that we deleted their blog, it could mean a bullet in the head.”

Things get complicated when a medium of expression serves also as a medium of communication and coordination.

What should the legal constraints on this be? If any? The State doesn’t and shouldn’t control speech, expression, or its distribution and circulation. The State could be in real trouble…

Where there’s smoke there’s fire…

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

“That’s not the fire alarm! It’s the burglar alarm!”
“Well how would we know? It sounds like the fire alarm.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Yes it does.”
“No, it doesn’t! It’s a semitone higher!”

I think that’s how it goes, more or less. The Germans episode of Cleese’s Fawlty Towers could be a short course in comparitive semiotics and linguistics. It’s got a burglar alarm without burglars, a fire drill that’s mistakenly read by hotel guests as a break-in, followed by a real drill that’s not followed, then a fire for which there is no fire alarm but only a weakened Cleese yelping the words “Fire! F-f-f-f-fire!” And then, Germans speaking German, Germans speaking English, Cleese, suffering a concussion, mistaking the Germans’ lunch orders (“H’ordouvres, which must be obeyed at all time!”), the notorious Sieg Heil walk, oh, and a talking Moose from Canada that the elderly Major believes must be from Japan…. A greater semiotic caper there never was. That show has it all.

The British raised self-deprecation to an art form in the works of Monty Python—Fawlty Towers included. By unfolding criticism on a roll fitting script and toilet, discursively baroque and visually burlesque, the troupe quite nailed it, their insights creating pitch-perfect humor on matters that were at times totally unfunny.

I was thinking of them, and of the Germans episode in particular, when the news came on, showing the burning vehicles of France in recent days. Where there’s smoke there generally is fire. There is always fire, in fact (smoke is an indexical sign.. it doesnt just refer to its signified, it’s produced by it). Interesting that the vehicle of the message is a vehicle… I had written in my last post that the language of violence was speaking. The language is more than that, as the burning of vehicles is a symbolic act of violence, not a violent act of revenge (war).

Cleese: “That’s not the fire alarm, it’s the burglar alarm!”
Chirac: “Are there burglars?”

Cleese: “Well, this isn’t the drill! I only sounded it so you’d all know what it sounds like when we have the drill!”
Chirac: “This is not a drill…”


The comedian Mitch Hedberg once joked that he agreed with picket lines but he didn’t know how to show it.

They say that French youths are motivated less by social inequality than by social isolation. Given that they dont have cars to drive, I suppose it only makes sense to send a message with burning vehicle instead. Sometimes smoke signals work.

Oh, this is bad… If French youths had smart mobs technology, would they still need to send smoke signals?

‘It won’t end until two police are dead’

Monday, November 7th, 2005

Violence. A language that can only be spoken.

Youths in France declared their motivation, or one of them at least. The death of two policemen, as revenge for the deaths of two of their own. The law of equivalence is spoken in other languages as well, most notably in the economy of capitalism. Capitalist exchange, however, uses a third medium—money—as a means of creating equivalence. This transfers value from one domain into another, more stable domain. And from there, money can handle transactions at a remove. In linguistic terms, form and content are held separate; utterance and uttered are separate. A car is not traded for a car, but for the amount of money the car is worth. That money is spent in any facility that can facilitate the purchase of the car (including online). An abstracted transaction medium, based on equivalence, has greater possibilities of resolving any kind of information than one that requires direct expression, immediacy, and for which there is not a symbolic transference.

Violence, in other words, can only speak itself. By the rioters’ own admission, only the deaths of two policemen will conclude the violence sparked by the deaths of two youths (in fact, it’s the killing of two youths/policemen, not just their deaths: the act of killing is the point here). And that makes violence a grammar that can only produce meaning when it is expressed in acts. Acts of violence are a conflict’s utterances. What is uttered, is uttered in the act itself. A violent event can only proceed until it has exhausted itself. It cannot be spoken elsewhere, otherwise.

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King knew this. King, using Gandhi, knew that by participating nonviolently in situations of conflict, violence would be confronted with itself, and would end when the motivation behind it was exhausted by the reflection of itself. Nightstick upon nightstick, beating upon beating, the acts of violence exhausted themselves as media projected the images of brutality until the public conscience could justify and legitimate them no longer. Freedom marches and sit-ins worked because they were acts. Acts that set up and encountered violence.

It doesn’t seem possible to translate violence into other languages. Capitalism is the most successful means of organizing society that we have, and we know that it survives only on the basis of a vast reservoir of cheap labor and resources. And while it does seem to social conflict, and satisfy (to some degree) individual wants and desires, it can do so only for a few. (And it requires political and judicial controls, including the police, to take care of the edges.)

No, once the language of violence is spoken, it is hard to silence.

All the news that’s fit to link

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

Libby’s indictment has been the topic of conversation for many journalists, not only because three of them were eyewitness to the crime (an extraordinary case, we are told), but also because the absence of a shield law exposes journalists in the future. A journalist’s sources are, after all, his/her asset value. But the scoop on Scooter that sent Judith Miller on a twelve week vacation behind bars (she bought her ticket) resonates elsewhere.

Bloggers have been a topic of conversation among many journalists recently for the potential threat they pose to conventional journalism. If the blogging world levels the playing field, and if the Web challenges the authority of print (read: and podcasting, radio; and iPods, TV?), then the natural response for journalists ought to be: protect your sources, guard your rolodex, and get those scoops!

Journalists are caught between a rock and a hard place. The internet has sped up the news. Speed shifts the value of news content from the argument to its arrival time, or timing. The internet has also affected authority, how it is earned, perceived, and where it counts. Look at your TV network news to see what’s happened to the authority of the news anchor. Funnily, even comedians have commented on the demise of a narrative joke, it’s having lost out to one-liners and observations.

Our media culture has gone from record to fast forward. There are so many voices talking that it’s not clear we can even call this conversation any longer. If the validity of reasoned argumentation loses to stylistics, or celebrity status, or memetic drive, then we could be in serious trouble. The legal system is supposed to represent a codification of a culture’s commonly-held values, and it’s testing one right now that involves talk, though not whether Libby committed the crime of outing an op, but of whether he perjured himself.

I feel like the Bill Joy of the blogosphere right now, because I feel as if we’re being overtaken by the public record of our own making. One day, not far away, there may not be a public sphere, because there won’t be a private sphere. “Have no fear, You can read it here.” ….

Alaskan lands: maps, oil, guardians and materialists

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

There’s an ironic twist in the relationship of territory and culture exposed by the battle over the Alaskan North Slope, where oil drilling may or may not disrupt the local ecology (!!).

Oil will bring money to local native communities (read: modernization), and some claim that the Caribou herds there are healthy as can be, and that the North Slope is not heavily populated by herds during the winter (when drilling would take place). Many environmentalists (and other locals) would beg to differ. Environmental damage, after all, is recorded not in weeks and months, but years, and what may be only minimally invasive today could prove to be far more serious tomorrow. Environments are complex systems, and changes recorded by one population can threaten an entire chain, or web, of plant and animal life.

I recently commented here on the irony of a missing map and lost territory, the loss of a map preceding the loss of a territory. Well, there’s further irony in the Alaskan oil episode. Watching the news a couple nights ago I saw a conversation between an Alaskan native and an environmentalist. It was the native who spoke for drilling, as it’s his community that will benefit financially. The environmentalist, of course, weighed short term gains against longer-term loss of ecological balance. And so on. It seems that it’s the foreigner here who sees the land through a lens of preservation, conceptual purity and naked beauty. It’s the native who sees it as soil, dirt, and pasture.

The environmentalist has the map to the land on which the native lives, and where the environmentalist is the poet, philosopher, and guardian of things natural, the native is the vulgar materialist…