Category Archives: Culture

Good People & Bad Things

It is popular to assume that nefarious forces are at work when our government does things that we strongly disagree with. This conviction holds true across the spectrum of political ideologies. But I’m convinced that most people in government have good intentions. Which brings to mind an old saying, something about how the road to hell was paved…

Anyway, things like government are almost always more complicated than most people seem to realize. So perhaps those who critique the size of our government have a point. Maybe we live in a world where things have gotten too complex for us to grasp the big picture, or even a smaller component part of it.

But I never believed that one must be evil in order to do evil things.

 

Data Visualization: For the People

Data visualization is a fascinating thing. It can enhance our understanding of reality by modeling incredibly complicated things in a manner that makes them “touchable” or “graspable”.poltical_breakdown-825x1024
There are different types of data visualization, a fact that corresponds precisely to one of my favorite themes:

1) reality is an incredibly complicated thing, and faceted like a gemstone;

2) we are only able to apprehend/comprehend one facet at any given moment of awareness;

3) if we make the effort to understand all of the various facets, one by one, that we can begin to have an intuitve grasp of the larger and more complex structures of meaning and connection that lay underneath the surface of our day-to-day realities.

I’ve proferred a simplistic model, to be sure, but this article does a very nice job of showing how data visualization is being used to understand 3-dimensional levels of complexity that are almost too much for our brains to handle. I like it when we use our IT tools to understand the facts better, rather than distort and lie and sell crap to people who aren’t paying proper attention.

New World, Not So Brave

Alexia Tsotsis is co-editor at TechCrunch, a silicon-centric web-zine. And she’s a damn fine writer. I  re-post an excerpt from a recent article on the New Gilded Era:

“Silicon Valley is suffering from an acute fallacy of composition: Just because it does some good doesn’t mean the whole is good. Tech isn’t above harming society. Just because change (i.e. Disruption) is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s always welcome.

Machine guns were innovation. They Disrupted muskets. They also Disrupted a lot of human bodies in World War II. Pharmaceuticals save lives. But they also let people numb emotional pain rather than face it, quiet their children rather than teach them. Social games can be seen as entertainment and relaxation. They can also be seen as dehumanizing thieves of our time and attention.

The tech sector is particularly ill-suited to address its own footprint, staving off its rich guilt with the misguided belief that it lives in a meritocracy. Hell, even the people who blog about it are rich.

Like the problem of technology replacing jobs, there is no solution to technology’s feigned innocence. As nerds and underdogs, we will always believe we have the best intentions. That doesn’t negate the problem: Even though we’re not Washington D.C., we are still an industry with absurd amounts of power, attention and money. And plenty of intentional and unintentional opportunities to abuse it.”

A few points:

Technology empowers us. Sometimes, technology frees us. Questions remain: what do we do with that power, and with that freedom? How do we spend our time, those of us lucky enough to live in a society where much of the nasty stuff was abstracted away before we were born? How are we empowered, and how much? Who is more empowered, and who less? And perhaps most importantly: how free are we, really?

George Orwell wrote of a possible future that seemed plausible at the time, and there are certainly pockets of the human world where the overt surveillance and routine brutality of totalitarian control are the norm. However, though Orwell was the perhaps the better writer,  Aldous Huxley was the more prescient imaginer. “Brave New World” was a distant early warning for anyone who has ever watched more than a few hours of TV per week, or taken prescription mood-altering medications, or slowly drowned in a bottomless glass of booze. I’ll let a better writer say it. From Neil Postman:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Postman added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. InBrave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

Glory Days

I was born in 1970. That was an odd time to be born, I think, what with the Culture Wars and the Vietnam War and earth-tones and Ranch-style houses all being such a big deal.

All the bits and pieces of culture that we reflexively associate with that time were not then cartoonish and laughable: the hair, the clothes, the shape of automobiles, the look of so many modernist buildings, they were a part of the fabric of our daily lives.

But here’s a very nice article from Hendrik Hertzberg on being a young Newsweek reporter in San Francisco in the late-60’s, a period that bled seamlessly but traumatically into the time of my childhood. I especially liked this bit:

Newsweek finally got around to doing a cover story on hippies some nine months later, for the issue of October 30, 1967….My surmise was that some of the sons and daughters of some of the editors of my former magazine had turned on, tuned in, and made it their mission to drop out. In any case, the headline on the cover was ‘TROUBLE IN HIPPIELAND.'”

It’s shocking how naive the major movers of that scene really were. Well, Bill Graham wasn’t naive. But a lot of the folks who played in bands or who danced in front of the stage at the Fillmore that year were very naive, back in 1966, when the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were still local celebrities unknown outside the Bay Area, and it was still a rather exclusive club of people gyrating deep into Friday night, all of them convinced that there was something IMPORTANT happening, and not just right in front of them, but IN them, as the LSD sizzled across their synapses and the pulsing light shows reflected off the walls.

Life had gotten complicated in America by then. I remember it well. I was just a child, but it seemed to me that each individual’s naivete and confusion about who they were and where they were going was all bound up in everybody being naive and confused about who we were and where we were going, as if the whole country was experiencing a collective adolescence. Now, whenever I see mention of Ronald Reagan in an article, I always think to myself: whatever else he might have been, whether real or pretend, for the people who voted for him he was an honest effort to un-complicate their lives, to feel sure of something again.

I wonder what happened to all those dancers.

How Did Everything Get So Flat? – Part 1

Some of my favorite memories are of hearing a popular song for the first time.

Take Prince’s “When Doves Cry”, for instance. It was the summer of 1984. I was 14, living in a small town in South Carolina. I was doing yard work for a neighbor down the street. It was a beautiful summer day. I was wearing a Walkman clipped to my belt, tuned to a pop station out of Columbia, the little black foam headphones over my ears.  As I walked towards the street carrying a cardboard box full of clippings to dump on the curb, the song started: out of nowhere, all by itself, an electric guitar started pealing off that ripping torrent of notes; followed soon thereafter by that drum machine pattern with the weird, pulsing kick drum; then a strange, filtered, moaning vocal sound; and finally those minimalist syncopated keyboards.

Right around the point where Prince started singing, I sat down, involuntarily, right in the middle of the yard, with the sun shining on the green grass and on the leaves of the trees and on top of my head. I just plopped down on the ground with my box of clippings in my lap, and I listened to that song. I think my mouth was hanging open a little bit.

For anyone who knows anything about the history of computers in music, the Linn LM-1 looms large. It was the first drum machine to use digital samples of real drums. It had individual analog outs for each sound, and each sound was individually tunable and mixable. It also had a built-in digital sequencer, which included Roger Linn’s now-legendary “swing” function. And you could swap out the memory chips, for a price, giving the machine a whole new set of sounds. All of this was quite revolutionary, and very expensive: $4,995.00, or around $14,000.00 in today’s dollars. Only 500-700 were made, and they were quickly snapped up by leading names in the recording industry, artists and musicians and studio engineers with the money to spare on such cutting-edge gear.

Linn LM-1

Prince used his LM-1 a lot back in those days, but “When Doves Cry” was singular. The sheer weirdness of the song is due in great part to the way he used the drum machine, sending the drum sounds (from their individual outputs, remember) through various guitar effects pedals on their way to the tape machine. The effect was one of pulsing, undulating cycles, round and round, with no release from the tension of the groove.

Again, at the time that the first digital audio gear came to market, only wealthy people could afford it. And the wealthy people interested in such products tended to be musicians who had already enjoyed a measure of success, ones who were prone to adventurousness in their artistic pursuits: people like Prince, or Peter Gabriel.

Here, let me show you adventurous:

The Flower

That’s Peter Gabriel during his time in the prog-rock band Genesis. He started wearing outlandish costumes because his singing couldn’t be heard above the band during their early gigs. He soon realized that the costumes helped to further the narrative preoccupations he was trying to address in his lyrics.

Hey, it was the ’70s.

Gabriel was one of the lucky few who got their hands on a Fairlight CMI before any of the rest of us had even heard of sampling. He had already enjoyed a successful career with Genesis before going solo, and he had made some money, so he spent some of it on this:

The Fairlight CMI enjoyed a brief but beautiful (and influential) time in the musical sun. It was a full music workstation: it sampled, it synthesized, it sequenced, it even allowed you to alter the shape of waveforms by drawing on the screen with a “lightpen”. And it had a sound, a breathy, wispy quality that was, ironically, a side-effect of the programming the creators had done to deal with the limited processing power of the computer components available at the time. It cost $35,000.00 at the time (or $90,000.00, adjusted for inflation). That’s a lot of money. You can buy three cars for that kind of money.

So, again, only wealthy artists could afford one. But listen to what they did with it: Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey”, Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”, Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (hello, Trevor Horn). Something new and very exciting was happening in pop music.

Check out Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock putting Herbie’s new Fairlight through its paces, circa 1984:

What you’re witnessing in the video is two of the most talented musicians in the world getting really excited about something technologically extraordinary, but something that only wealthy people like themselves had access to. Just a few years later, that basic technology would become much less expensive and rather commonplace, available at any local music shop.

Today, you have only to open your laptop in order to have access to computer programs (and processing power) that make the LM-1 and the Fairlight seem quaint by comparison. The barriers to entry have fallen. And yet most people agree that pop music is not what is once was.

More on that in a bit.

Music as Experience, Music as a Means to an End

Here’s an interesting article on Madonna’s early career, and on the people who helped her make her first album and then present herself to the world for the first time:

Madonna’s Debut Album at Thirty: An Oral History | Music News | Rolling Stone.

I love getting a glimpse behind the curtain of the music business. I like getting a little taste of what it was like to be in the room while cultural/artistic/musical history was being made.

On that note, I heartily recommend the Classic Albums series of documentaries. You can get them on Amazon for cheap. They chronicle the making of some of the finest musical works of the 20th Century.

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dmovies-tv&field-keywords=classic+albums

Anyway, it’s amazing to hear iconic musical moments explained. It’s inspiring, it’s educative, and it’s titillating, all at the same time. And it helps to demystify things that were carefully crafted to be mystifying. I like that. It’s okay to enjoy the spectacle, I think, but it’s important to understand just how much work goes into making something so difficult seem so easy.

Madonna, by all accounts, worked really, really hard to make difficult things seem easy.

Back in the day, the barriers to entry were high. Just getting a song recorded was a challenge: the technology required to do even a decent job of it would fill a small room and cost a small fortune, never mind paying someone who knew how to use that technology.

And in order to get into that recording studio, in order to spend time there with people who knew what they were doing, you had to impress someone at a record company: they opened the doors, they provided the money, the connections and the access. And in order to impress the record company you had to have something they could sell, something they were willing to take a chance on, something that made them want to call every musician, producer, songwriter, stylist and photographer in their Rolodex.

According to everyone who was there at the time, Madonna had “Star Power”, and in spades. Nobody thought she was a great singer. She was only a pretty good dancer. She wasn’t quite gorgeous. But when she walked into a room, everyone turned and stared. She had presence. She was sexy. She was smart as a whip. And she maximized everything she had in the service of her ambitions. Nobody who met her doubted her.

What was she after? She charted a number of fine pop songs, but it’s difficult to make the case that her music demands careful attention, or even much respect, the obvious exception being some of her work with Nile Rodgers on the album Like a Virgin. Rather, music seems to have been a means to an end for her, a vehicle to carry her to fame and fortune. Fair enough. She earned it.

They say it’s impossible that we should ever again see the rise of a celebrity as huge as Madonna was in her heyday. That seems a safe bet: pop songs aren’t as clever or as catchy or as musical as they used to be; the record companies are shadows of their former selves, with only traces of the money and power and influence they used to wield; and our pop stars are smaller now, too, with less talent and less charisma.

But my point is this: Madonna’s primary talent was not musical, though she made (with a lot of help) some very good pop music. Madonna’s singular gift was for self-presentation.  And she exacted a profound influence on our culture, at a time when our culture was ripe for that sort of influence.

More on that in a bit.