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by Rob Horning

3 Oct 2008

On his blog a few weeks ago, Kevin Kelly celebrates what I complained about in this recent column: the growing ability to monitor and measure everything. I argued that fashioning databases of ourselves reduces our capacity for selfhood and enslaves us to quantitative ways of evaluating our experiences; Kelly, however, sees all this “metering” as an opportunity to create shareholder value.

In the long run, there is nothing that cannot be made more valuable by metering it. (And in this recursive world, even metering is not too cheap to meter, so metering the meters is a good strategy as well.) We are rapidly inventing new sensors to cheaply, accurately, and continuously measure all things in all dimensions: geo-graphical location, speed, consumption, health, fitness, repairablity, connection, performance, rest, charge, and a million other vectors.

It’s true that you can’t profit from what you can’t measure. But it still seems short-sighted to celebrate everything being metered, and to promote the incursion of measurement further into the private lives of individuals, as if they are being measured for their own benefit. It’s instead the final obliteration of idea that any part of life takes place outside of the commercial nexus. To this vision of the future, everything of any significance, any piece of self-knowledge or self-enhancement will come filtered through the valves and gauges of the commercial machine. Outside of that, we don’t actually exist; unmeasured we are ghosts. It won’t be impossible to be a ghost in this future, but it will be a difficult choice to stick to; it will be hard to be content with merely haunting the lives of others, who will most likely not have made the same choice, since the blandishments of the measured life are not negligible.

What are these blandishments? Kelly points to the “freeconomy” our data streams support: “Cheaply metering data, in fact, is what propels the free economy. Metering is a type of attention. Products and services will be given away in exchange for the meta data about their use. Data about the free is now more valuable than the free thing itself.” On the surface that sounds like nonsense: If the thing is free, than it has no economic value to anyone. But the stuff is not truly free. Kelly continually labels goods and services as “free” even when the payment is being extracted as surveillance: “I can get free email, free storage, free photo manipulation tools, free genealogical sharing, free phone service, free twittering, free .. well almost free anything ... knowing that the hosts are monitoring (metering) my usage.” Being watched is the cost, and for most people it is negligible, because they are online exhibitionists. (Social networking, as I was trying to argue here, invites us all to become online exhibitionists, an attractive appeal because the public forum—where our behavior can be “metered”—is the primary place to establish our selfhood, which, in a mediated world, derives from being observed and judged.) But nonetheless it can be very costly, as the information is used to construct filters around us, affecting the choice architecture we confront and subtly changing just what it is that we are “free” to do, online and elsewhere. The more data we generated, the more we become confined by the preferences it predicts for us. The field in which we can discover spontaneity, or experience serendipity, shrinks. Perhaps in the future we will look back and see that these qualities were worth surrendering, that spontaneity was overrated. But chances are that the impossibility of spontaneity will make the promise of spontaneity a very powerful marketing tool.

Of course, there is the alternate possibility that the avalanche of data will create a new field for accidental discoveries and serendipitous linkages. If metering is as recursive as Kelly predicts, with metering itself being metered, and so on, the infinite flow of information will become even more unmanageable. With an infinite pool to draw from, “usefulness” and meaning can be extracted with the same arbitrarity that allows astrology to derive useful information from the stars. It requires only a clever manipulator of data to proclaim a significance to a pattern in the miasma. Rhetorical skill trumps statistical analysis when there are always more and more statistics to draw from and present as truth. Objective truth recedes even further from access as the data tide rises. The more data there is, the easier it is to lose sight of the correlations that truly signify—whatever that means. As Kelly himself notes, “The skills to parse and divine meaningful patterns out of this new environment will become paramount and eagerly sought.  Those who control the gateways to this metered information will be kings.” “Divine” is an apt choice of words. But controlling the gateway will be less important than having the unscrupulous facility to manipulate the information that is flowing. This is the mettle from which kings of the information age are made—demagoguery.

Measuring everything merely intensifies the need for trustworthy filters, which makes the service Google provides more necessary. “Google and web 2.0 companies realize this,” Kelly writes of the looming information treasure trove. “They meter everything they can because the data about things is more valuable than the thing itself.” At face value, this can’t be true. Metadata is derivative of the “thing”; without the thing that people are primarily interested in knowing about, there is no metadata from which to extract value. It’s like arguing that the credit-default-swap market can continue to expand without any underlying loans to insure. (Arguably the credit crisis exploded in part because investors lost sight of the relevance of those underlying loans to those swaps and began trading CDS contracts as though they were independent assets.)

Measuring everything is clearly valuable to Google, but not necessarily for us, who are interested in things in themselves and not profiting from ways to label and sort them. The value of metering is ultimately parasitical.

In fact, the obsession with metadata compromises our ability to enjoy the thing itself, sidetracking us into a preoccupation with quantitative aspects of our consuming experience rather than qualitative ones. The metadata is always other than the thing itself, but it makes it easier to think we’ve processed the thing itself without investing the time to experience it directly. Because so much more stuff is being thrust at us in digitized form, we begin to see our attention as a limited resource that should be budgeted to stretch it the farthest, which means applying it to derivatives (which can aggregate and condense information about many things) instead of things themselves and allow us to process more stuff superficially, with a sense of satisfaction that we have allowed our mind to touch on more things. We become maximizers, and as Barry Schwartz explained in The Paradox of Choice, this can be debilitating.

Our attention doesn’t need budgeting as long as it is fully engaged. Being engaged, truly and thoroughly, is all we reasonably should require of ourselves; consuming more stuff for the sake of quantity itself is fruitless; we’re always left with a feeling that we should have consumed more. Ubiquitous measurement serves only to intensify that feeling.

by Barry Lenser

2 Oct 2008

Paul McCartney has fondly remarked on the innocence of the Beatles’ early years, a time when they could perform a song that seemed keen on members of the male sex and not, as a result, inspire widespread idle chatter. The song, “Boys”, was in fact a noted crowd-pleaser and, judging by the glow of joy that their recorded version emits, also a favorite of the Beatles themselves.

Written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, “Boys” is a busy and rhythmically perky rock tune that features Ringo’s debut as a lead vocalist. Ringo isn’t a natural, polished singer but neither is he entirely dismissible. His technical limitations can serve the purposes of the right material, like on self-mocking songs such as “Act Naturally” and “With a Little Help from My Friends”. On “Boys”, his shouty vocal style brings a spark to the already jaunty song while the accompanying screams, “bop-shuops”, and “yeah yeah boys” from John, Paul, and George make for a boisterous back-up section. The call-and-response dynamic is infectiously spirited. Ringo even delivers a shout-out to a fellow Beatle – “Alright, George” – before the latter proceeds into a guitar solo (which, like his composition on “I Saw Her Standing There”, is strangely patchy and untuneful. I have negligible knowledge of the early history of pop guitar solos. I can’t comment with authority on why George’s guitar-work, circa 1962-1963, might be the way it is beyond the fact of his very unfinished maturation as a musician. Even so, I don’t feel I’m terribly amiss in regarding those two solos as mis-hits).

In adapting the lyric from a female group (the Shirelles, of whom John was a big fan), to four males, the Beatles changed the verses so that, when Ringo alludes to intimacy with his significant other, he sings of kissing “her lips”. Within those lines, a girl is clearly the object of his affection. But the chorus remains unaltered (based on what I’ve read. I couldn’t find the original lyrics), meaning that what follows the claim of a heterosexual relationship are apparent exclamations to the contrary – “Well I talk about boys/Don’t you know I mean boys…/What a bundle of joy”. The effect, from the perspective of a listener, is a confusion of orientations. First Ringo mentions his girl but later he’s convincingly enthusiastic about the subject of boys. Even the song’s opening line is curious in a way. Ringo sings, “I been told when a boy kiss a girl/Take a trip around the world”, almost suggesting that he himself didn’t have experience in kissing a woman. Perhaps he didn’t want any. Thus, someone else had to describe the experience to him.

It’s hard to resist this sort of line-by-line, excessively innuendo-seeking analysis even when it’s obviously overkill. According to their testimonies, the Beatles didn’t harbor any scandalous intentions with “Boys”. The gay connotations of their cover were just incidental to the song’s addictively exuberant quality that attracted them in the first place.

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2008

Awards Season keeps chugging away. However, many of the films in focus for 3 October will probably come away empty handed, beginning with:

Towelhead [rating: 1]

“Indeed, Towelhead‘s biggest crime remains the blasé belief that audiences want to see a 13 year old engage in well defined adult behaviors.”

There is a fine line between illustration and exploitation. Put another way, there’s a clear delineation between drama and dreck. Dress it up any way you want, but penetration turns the standard soft stuff into hardcore pornography thanks to the flagrant full view factor. Once it’s shown onscreen, the bloom is off that particular motion picture rose, to turn a phrase. So how does one defend the sexualization of children, especially when the elements of such an approach are plastered on a canvas 35mm wide? That’s the question one must confront when examining Alan Ball’s fetid follow-up to American Beauty. And in either form - Towelhead or Nothing is Private - the answers are disturbing and unwelcome.  read full review…


Appaloosa [rating: 7]

(I)n a movie of palpable pluses, Zellweger proves once again her resemblance to the mathematical null set. She singlehandedly turns something masterful into a well-meaning almost-miss.

When the Western died, it did so because of two distinct reasons. First, the media had so saturated the audience with as many warmed over oaters as possible that even fervent devotees screamed “enough”. In addition, the Europeans were deconstructing the genre, picking out its more operatic elements and leaving the spaghetti fed horseplay for another day. While filmmakers throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s tried to revive the cinematic category, it wasn’t until a further artistic reevaluation (begun with Clint Eastwood’s amazing Unforgiven) proved that post-modern sensibilities could merge with old school saddle sores. Actor turned filmmaker Ed Harris wants to go back to the days of simple sagebrush storytelling, and with one major exception, everything he does in his adaptation of the novel Appaloosa is nothing short of brilliant.  read full review…


Blindness [rating: 2]

Blindness delivers…30 minutes of basic bookend apocalypse followed by a middle 90 of nauseating repugnance.

Before Star Wars, serious science fiction survived on the allegorical. Take a typical situation, instill it with some sort of out of this world premise, and watch as humanity races toward its own prophetic self-destruction. Children of Men did it with infertility. Soylent Green offered up environmental catastrophe, food shortages, and roundabout cannibalism. And now comes Blindness, offering the title affliction as yet another way of undermining the social order and illustrating the standard dystopic notions of power corrupting basic moral principles. One expects more from City of God/The Constant Gardener filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, and the source material (from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago). Sadly, what we wind up with is a puerile, preachy mess.  read full review…


Religulous [rating: 8]

Maher’s bigger message is clearly one of critical thinking. He illustrates how most organized belief systems remove curiosity to claim divine intervention into any unexplainable situation..

There are certain unwinnable arguments in life, debates where no one side can claim clear victory. Argue over abortion, and see how staunch either position becomes. Discuss race and prejudice and the majority and minority never see eye to eye. While it’s always been a bit of a hot button, religion has become an even bigger sticking point over the last few decades. Call it the Moral Majority effect, the Neo-Con crusade, or the Islamic fundamentalist backlash, but Christians are chastising the non-believer and taking names - at least politically. Even in the face of clear First Amendment protections, the new faithful want Jesus and those who chronicled his life and time making policy.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2008

When the Western died, it did so because of two distinct reasons. First, the media had so saturated the audience with as many warmed over oaters as possible that even fervent devotees screamed “enough”. In addition, the Europeans were deconstructing the genre, picking out its more operatic elements and leaving the spaghetti fed horseplay for another day. While filmmakers throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s tried to revive the cinematic category, it wasn’t until a further artistic reevaluation (begun with Clint Eastwood’s amazing Unforgiven) proved that post-modern sensibilities could merge with old school saddle sores. Actor turned filmmaker Ed Harris wants to go back to the days of simple sagebrush storytelling, and with one major exception, everything he does in his adaptation of the novel Appaloosa is nothing short of brilliant.

The tiny Western town of Appaloosa is having a hard time with one of its more menacing citizens - ranch owner and troublemaker Randall Bragg. After killing their sheriff and his deputies, the city fathers see no other choice than to hire professional lawman Virgil Cole and his sharpshooter sidekick Everett Hitch. Within a very short time, the duo restores order and puts Bragg in his place. The arrival of pretty piano player Allison French changes everything once again. While Virgil is instantly smitten, Everett is suspect of her ways. Sure enough, she locks onto Cole, but lets her eye wander toward other men in town. When a witness is willing to testify that Bragg killed the previous sheriff, a trial is held. The arrival of hired guns Ring and Mackie Shelton suggest something is amiss. Sure enough, Bragg is convicted, and the mercenaries use Cole’s emotions to mandate his release. It’s up to the old partners to put things right, or ruin their reputation - and camaraderie - forever.

It’s such a shame that Appaloosa contains a massive, almost irredeemable flaw. It’s heroic and moving, a meditation on personal friendship and professional duty. It contains one of Viggo Mortensen’s most mesmerizing turns. We could follow his enigmatic Everett Hitch for a whole other movie. The way he dresses, the way he holds himself both in and out of conflict, the way he responds to Harris’ characters needs, its non-erotic male bonding at its best. At its core, Appaloosa is a buddy film, albeit one where the heroes are too tired to trade on their bravado. Instead, Hitch and Cole come into a locale, lay down their law, and wait for the bad guys to show off and step in it. A quick bit of gunplay later, and frontier justice is restored.

Some could complain that laidback lawman Cole is as big a problem as the film’s main mistake. He is a reluctant regulator, the kind of man who wears every kill on his worn and wrinkled face. Harris the director gives Harris the actor plenty of time to brood. Some may think it too much, but in a narrative that is trying to take on the mythos of how the West was won, it works wonderfully. Besides, Harris surrounds himself with such an amazing cast that we forgive his frequent indulgences. Jeremy Irons is so ornery and officious that his random acts of extreme violence seem perfectly suited to his stature. B-movie fave Lance Henrickson shows up an hour in as a hateful hired gun, and he rides his weather beaten ways directly to a sensational showdown. From Timothy Spall as a harried city official to Harris’ father Bob as a curmudgeonly judge, the supporting cast is excellent.

That’s why the sudden appearance of the strewn and superfluous Renee Zellweger almost ruins everything. Up until the moment she arrives in the title town, the film is following a standard pattern of standoffs and machismo. We anticipate the arrival of a love interest, a Claudia Cardinale type to bring a little lilac and lace to the proceedings. But with her Dr. 90210 expression and inability to properly position her little lady lost, the Oscar winner becomes a dead-end detriment. Whenever she is onscreen, we cringe at her spun sugar stereotyping. Then she starts throwing herself at anything in pants and the critical gloves come off. There is never an explainable motivation for what Allison French does. Mortensen tries, saying that maybe she just always “needs a man…any man”. By the time she’s trapped Cole and cavorts naked with Henriksen’s callous cowpoke, you start running through the remaining townsfolk, wondering who she’ll cling to next.

It’s not just the sexual speciousness that aids French’s undermining effect on the film. Zellweger’s character is the standard catalyst, someone that comes in and instantly destroys decades of friendship, professionalism, and purpose. Harris goes from cold eyed lawman to weepy school boy in the matter of a single scene, and before we know it, he’s forgotten everything that made him the highly respected lawman he is. Mortensen’s Hitch doesn’t dissuade him, since the soft touch of a non-whore is something quite rare in the Old West. So French is supposed to be something worth dying for, something worth wasting everything that came before to cling to and appreciate. And she shows her dowdy dedication by lunging at anything with a penis.

Some might say this is too harsh, that to blame the actress for Appaloosa‘s staid storytelling and ambitiously long sequences is grasping for easy excuses. But Harris does so many things right here that, with a different female lead, it would all end up a clear contemporary classic. Instead of drawing out the firefights like epic confrontations between able bodied men and ammunition, the gun blasts are quick and efficient. The politics of the town play as much a part in the confrontations with Bragg as the villains need for power. Hitch’s secret honor helps deliver us from many of the more mannered sequences, and when the truth is finally revealed, the matter of fact manner in which Harris treats the romantic treason is wonderful to watch.

Had an evocative foreign femme fatale been inserted into the Allison French role, an actress who could effectively sell modern promiscuity as some kind of clash of cultures, we’d celebrate the performance. But in a movie of palpable pluses, Zellweger proves once again her resemblance to the mathematical null set. She singlehandedly turns something masterful into a well-meaning almost-miss. 

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2008

Before Star Wars, serious science fiction survived on the allegorical. Take a typical situation, instill it with some sort of out of this world premise, and watch as humanity races toward its own prophetic self-destruction. Children of Men did it with infertility. Soylent Green offered up environmental catastrophe, food shortages, and roundabout cannibalism. And now comes Blindness, offering the title affliction as yet another way of undermining the social order and illustrating the standard dystopic notions of power corrupting basic moral principles. One expects more from City of God/The Constant Gardener filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, and the source material (from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago). Sadly, what we wind up with is a puerile, preachy mess. 

In a nameless metropolis, random citizens begin to go blind. The government’s reaction is swift and uncompromising. While scientists gather to investigate the cause, the afflicted are rounded up and placed in an abandoned asylum. There, they must fend for themselves, creating their own sense of order and means of survival. In Ward One, an optometrist and his wife find themselves caring for a ragtag group of individuals. They have a secret from the others, however. She can still see. As civility devolves into chaos, the patients in Ward Three, led by a power mad bartender, begin demanding servitude from the others. At first, it’s financial. Soon, it’s sexual. As anarchy reigns, it is up to the only person with sight to strategize a way out of this living Hell. If she can’t there may be no hope for humanity after all.

There is a precise moment when Blindness goes wonky, a single sequence that shows how unrealistic Meirelles plans on playing with this metaphoric material. As the asylum slowly fills up, the director dissolves between a shot of a scruffy hallway, and a corridor riddled with urine, feces, and other types of human waste. It’s the before and after, the shocker that provides the first indication that this movie is not going to pussyfoot around the realities of the civilized losing their grip on the basics of being people. As unnamed characters wander in and through their own filth, the notion that all sense of hygiene and propriety would be lost is sledge-hammered over our head relentlessly. By the time a fat lady is shown lounging, pimply body bereft of a single stitch of clothing, we’re supposed to suspect the worse. This is how the world ends - in a river of offal.

And that’s exactly what Blindness delivers - 30 minutes of basic bookend apocalypse followed by a middle 90 of nauseating repugnance. Coping skills cranked down to zero and left to rot by a republic hellbent on playing concentration camp, all allusions are tossed aside for endless sequences of sleaze and self pity. Julianne Moore, relegated to a saint in sighted garb, does all the dimensional duty here, while cast mate Mark Ruffalo (as her eye doctor husband) gets to feel severely sorry for himself. Both Meirelles and author Saramago have stated that the title illness is not meant to be taken literally. Instead, thanks to its described milky whiteness, it’s supposed to suggest the loss of detail and definition, not a plunge into total darkness.

Yet that’s exactly what this movie does, time and time again. Desaturating the image to suggest the sterility of contemporary life as San Paolo steps in for Anywhere Earth, our director begins things with a criminal taking advantage of our first victim. Soon, a hooker is humiliated as her nakedness is ignored by those looking down on her profession. By the time we get to the loony bin, and Gael García Bernal has turned into Jack from Lord of the Flies, everything is dim and grimy. Even the mass rape scene, with the ward women submitting in return for promised food, is photographed in deep shadow - perhaps for ratings reasons, or to heighten the imagined horrors in the mind’s eye. Meirelles clearly wants the audience to experience what his characters are going through. Unlike the controlled artistry of Julian Schnabel’s similarly styled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, however, Blindness has no rationale for its scattered stylistic approach.

Indeed, the entire film reeks of the illogical. No one ever comes to the detainees’ defense. Their quarantine might as well be a human landfill. The rest of the world disappears so rapidly that you wonder why some nation didn’t just nuke everyone else as a precaution. When they finally escape, our refugees face little threat from the outside mayhem, as if only in the closed confines of their camp would power mad people try and control everyone else. And let’s not even discuss the moment when our heroine and her husband discover their home - clean, untouched, and capable of a certain level of creature comforts. You can tell Saramago had a lesson to teach with this material. Blindness may have been a screed against finding meaning through your eyes only. But Meirelles messes it up so badly, we can’t support the sophism.

In truth, it all becomes a matter of acceptance. There will be those who find this film as insightful about the human condition (and its easy of corruptibility) as anything since the aforementioned William Golding masterpiece. Others will sniff out its implausible pretensions and grow aggravated quickly. Perhaps a more subtle hand would have helped sell this literal lesson in the blind leading the blind. Maybe no adaptation could bring to life what Saramago suggested on the page. Whatever it is, Blindness cannot succeed as either entertainment or epiphany. Instead, it’s an unpleasant experience magnified by the arrogance inherent in its sense of self-importance. Currently, there is controversy over the depiction of the sightless in this film. Those who dismiss the claims forget one thing - the most reprehensible character in the entire third ward is someone who was actually born blind. That they ‘overlook’ such symbolism is par for this movie’s preachy, distasteful course.

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