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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

At his blog (which is always useful when you need a blast of skepticism about the joyous culture of universal sharing the Internet is alleged to bring) Nicolas Carr, whom I referenced in a previous post for his concerns about “web sharecropping”,  discusses YouTube’s recent decision to set aside a group of contributors who will be paid for what they post with money from banner ads. He links to Om Malik, who calls this good news and sees this as an attempt by YouTube to become more like a TV network (with all the associated production tasks—mainly choosing the most commercial content and promoting it) and less like a generic portal. This will presumably strengthen the brand and inoculate it against threats from other video hosting services by assuring a certain quality level that can attracts repeat visitors who are not looking for something in particular. (I personally can’t imagine doing this—I usually think of something specific and look to see if someone else had the perspicacity to upload it. But presumably there are bored people who go to the site—rather than find links elsewhere—and see what’s popular.)

But this also seems like a rear-guard action against the idea that people might work for free, might suspend financial self-interest in favor of some collective goal. What is so striking is that users didn’t demand pay—it’s not they spontaneous formed a union; instead YouTube has preemptively offered to pay peopl who were content to work for nothing. This strikes me as suspicious. Carr’s belief is the Internet has not revolutionized cultural production; that instead we are merely waiting for a pricing system to catch up to the labor people perform when uploading clips or blogging or tagging posts and so on. He seems to reject out of hand that participants in this nascent labor market could be content to be paid in recognition or attention or vanity or the self-satisfied feeling of altruism or what have you. Here are the key graphs from his post:

YouTube itself doesn’t seem to be under any illusion that its community operates outside the price system. In announcing that it would begin rewarding its “most popular and prolific original content creators” with a bit of the green stuff, it happily dangled the carrot of compensation in front of the rest of its contributors: “So now that you’ve read this, you’re probably wondering, ‘How can I get in on the action?’ This is only available to the initial participants. But if you create original content, have built and maintained an audience on YouTube, and think you might qualify for this program based on what’s above, you can express interest on our partnership lead form. We hope that this program inspires people to keep creating original videos, building audiences and engaging with the YouTube community.” Translation: money talks.

Needless to say, I’m pretty sure that “talented people” will demand compensation (particularly when they see that a site owner - Google, in YouTube’s case - is making good money off their work). That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a lot of people that contribute their work for free (or for a pittance) to gain attention or feel part of a community or whatever. It just means that the price system will in most cases win, and that the exceptions - Wikipedia, notably - will be exceptions. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases even the masses of unpaid volunteers will work within the price system. While the stars make good money, the masses will simply donate the economic value of their work to the site owner. The reason they’ll do that is because, in isolation, their contributions have little economic value. For the successful site owner, however, all those tiny contributions, once aggregated, can turn into a large pile of cash.

Carr sees this as plainly beneficial to small-time proprietors of web content, giving them a chance to make some money from what they do. It also rationalizes the whole system of cultural production for money, as though making culture couldn’t possibly be motivated by any other concern and society owes money to artists in order to entice them to do such work. But the motive of money is also corrosive, it taints the intentions one has when one sets about making and sharing something and alters the process and the product that results. It may discourage some from participation altogether when the rewards they are used to are crowded out or invalidated by the presumption of cash payment, when how much you make doing something comes to popularly signify how important what you are doing is. (We all know, after all, that Spider-Man 3, having earned more money than any other movie, is the most important piece of American culture ever made.) In a more money-saturated climate, you may decide that you must be professional (in other words, become a hack) in order to be regarded seriously, and then you may not bother. Monetizing amateur content has a tendency to make selling out a prerequisite to legitimacy. This in turn rewards ambition as if it were synonymous with talent, and the merely talented vanish altogether, silenced by a culture that ridicules rather than supports their volunteer contributions.

Of course, when corporations inject real money into a certain corner of the online labor pool, people will professionalize in a hurry, and those professionalized will suddenly have an interest in discouraging those who do what they do for free. This discouraging also benefits the larger organizations, who want to control production and extract from it a regular profit. So they give some small fry a stake and get them to fight the corporation’s battles—a divide-and-conquer strategy. What this does also is sustain the hegemonic notion that work is something you must be bribed to do and that we shouldn’t expect it to be fulfilling as an activity. People doing what they enjoy for its own sake sets a bad precedent; it suggests people might want to spend less time working for wages and have more time off working at things they enjoy.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007
by Sam McManis [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

Silly me. I thought cable TV news was beyond mocking. After all, once you’ve watched Nancy Grace in action, parody and satire don’t seem to stand a chance.

But then along comes The Onion to prove that theory wrong. Those masters of subtle snark, who made their mark a decade ago by aping the inanities of newspapers and last year sent up radio news with a hilarious podcast, now are taking aim at CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

Easy targets, for sure.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

For a long time I’ve been interested in the relationship between reading, time, and interpretation.  Anyone who’s ever had a conversation with someone, especially while distracted, or read a book, has had the experience of having a fuller awareness of a passage’s meaning open up long after the conversation or book is ostensibly over.  Sometimes you haven’t read enough to fully grasp a book’s import, or you’re just too busy, or, you know, you just missed it. 

I’ve become *particularly* aware of this difficulty over the past year, as I’ve started reviewing books more frequently (some 40-odd books since August 4, 2006).  Generating a reasonable off-the-cuff reaction, one that won’t be wholly embarrassing six weeks later, is a tricky thing.  But, then again, free books . . . .

This problem has been kicking around my brain again, thanks to this Kenyon Review interview with Meghan O’Rourke, whose first book of poems, Halflife, came out last month with Norton.  David Baker is an excellent interviewer, and the conversation is unfailingly interesting.  One exchange in particular has stuck in my mind over the past week.  Baker asks, “Why read lyric poetry?,” to which O’Rourke replies:

A lyric poem delivers its payload efficiently. It doesn’t require an extraordinary investment of time on the reader’s part. So you can figure out quickly whether you like something. More important, the lyric poem is the most powerful embodiment of the paradoxes of life and art. Walter Pater once talked about “the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity,” a phrase I like because it contains both the unutterable depth of perception that living seems to contain and the peculiar corollary—that that depth, those perceptions, are unsustainable because we die. Poems have always seemed to me to be the most crystalline reflection of that sensation of privilege and loss. They mimic life, if you will.

This is a lovely answer, and, really, not enough people talk about Walter Pater on a day-to-day basis.  Having said that, O’Rourke here sounds a bit too optimistic about the investment of time required to read lyric poetry.  Clearly it’s the case that glancing over, say, this Kathryn Maris poem takes less time than does even the most cursory reading of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  But it’s also the case that lyric poetry requires a greater investment of attention than does a novel.  Anyone who’s taught knows this: It can be quite difficult to get students to read poems, because they demand more care than novels do.  (And since Pater’s on the table, this is surely one of his points in that “Conclusion”—that art metaphorically grants us more life by awakening our otherwise sluggish consciousness.)  We could even sharpen O’Rourke’s point a little and note that “that depth, those perceptions” that life offers are only possible “because we die,” and are not “unsustainable” only.

I have yet to figure out a way to recognize quickly whether I will like a book of poems.  (Reading aloud sometimes works, but not always in ways I can explain.)  That’s why I like reviewing them and try to be extraordinarily careful when doing so: Not because poems are more delicate, but the converse: Because they engage consciousness in such an oblique way that I grow less sure of myself as I write. 

How do you know whether you’ll like a book—poetry or anything else?


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Monday, May 7, 2007

There are a couple of noticeable trends this week, one of which is plainly obvious from the titles listed below. There are a lot of “and” pictures being released today, movies that attempt to use the bifurcating connective word as indicative of dichotomy, difference or dynamic. Unfortunately, they all don’t share a singular cinematic value. The other fad is more mercantile, and isn’t noticeable until you dig down deeper into the overall product list proper. For example, 8 May will see the release of a Dirty Dancing 20th Anniversary Special Edition, a Donnie Brasco Extended Version, and of all things, a director’s cut of Tom Hank’s That Thing You Do. Sure, this is all part of the notorious double dip, but the tactic here is also a little more subversive. By cleaning up the cutting room floor and affixing deleted content back into the print, the studio can claim it’s new and work their way into your wallet once again. So tread softly and choose wisely this tricky Tuesday – at least when considering anything other than our rock solid SE&L pick:

Deliver Us From Evil

It’s a shame that the situation with pedophilia and the priesthood has been reduced to a running gag amongst your bottom feeding stand-up comics. But the real crime remains in just how clandestine and conspiratorial the Church was in keeping these abominations from parishioners and potential underage targets. Case in point – Fr. Oliver O’Grady. At one time, he was a trusted and respected man of God. But deep down inside, he was a raging child rapist, a sick and twisted pervert who was a threat to all he came in contact with. Shockingly, he was protected, moved around from community to community to hide his horrible secret. As this scathing documentary indicates, organized religion thought it best to keep O’Grady safe, forgetting that the most important element here, the devastated victims, were the ones who really needed the help. Filmmaking doesn’t get any braver than this disturbing denouncement of everyone involved. Second only to An Inconvenient Truth in uncovering true fact-based horrors.

Other Titles of Interest

Breaking and Entering

It was supposed to be his return to certified Oscar fare after the commercial hit The Talented Mr. Ripley and the overblown dud Cold Mountain. But The English Patient‘s Anthony Minghella stumbled a bit with this class conscious offering about a London professional falling for an immigrant refugee. Based on his own screenplay, what could have been memorable ended up only middling.

Catch and Release

With what seems like unlimited commercial potential at her disposal, one has to wonder what made Jennifer Garner take on this quirky Indie romantic comedy. Must have been the chance to show her pure performance cred. First time filmmaker Susannah Grant (famed for writing Ever After and Erin Brockovich) even turned up the geek quotient by casting Kevin Smith as “the funny fat guy”. Audiences failed to respond.

David and Lisa

It has a premise that should only work in literary form (the film is based on a famous novel) – a young man afraid of being touched meets an equally unwell young woman who speaks in sing-song rhymes. Together, they try to forge a meaningful relationship. Thanks to the expressive performances by Kier Dullea and Janet Margolin, what could have been cloying has, instead, a fair amount of humanity. 

Music and Lyrics

Hugh Grant as a washed up ‘80s pop star? Drew Barrymore as a plucky lyricist who’s employed as his new writing partner? Era appropriate originals by Fountain of Wayne hit maker Adam Schlesinger? How could this miss? Apparently, writer/director Marc Two Weeks Notice Lawrence forgot to add anything fun…or memorable. Not even a Wham-esque Grant in full flashback mode was enough to save this stinker.

The Painted Veil

Representing the second period piece in a year for the otherwise thoroughly modern Edward Norton, this adaptation of the seminal W. Somerset Maugham book had a lot of healthy buzz come time for awards consideration. Then, for some inexplicable reason, it just vanished. The film has all the scope and splendor of a guaranteed critical hit, but somewhere between page and motion picture, it lost its way.

And Now for Something Completely Different

You’ve got to admire the marketing campaign currently running for this 1990 Tony Scott title. In big bold letters over a newly enhanced image of star Kevin Costner’s unshaved face, a quote from Quentin Tarantino proclaiming this movie as Scott’s “masterpiece”. It’s all but unavoidable. Whether or not this will mean anything significant to the QT contingency remains to be seen, but anyone who’s actually watched this romantic thriller gets the gist of what the Indie bad boy is talking about. Jim Harrison’s potboiler tome about infidelity and intrigue in the Mexican wilderness feels like a thick slice of South of the Border Gothic, and Scott’s stylized approach to narrative gives everything a slick, glossy glow. Costner is very good, as are the late Anthony Quinn and a radiant Madeline Stowe. While it has guilty pleasure written all over it, there is some seriously satisfying high drama to be found amongst the camp.


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Monday, May 7, 2007

Another music industry scapegoat

There’s a great article at CNET called The P2P mistake at Ohio University written by the head of BitTorrent, concerned a certain mid-west campus which has banned P2P (peer to peer) computer use on campus.  Granted that the author is bound to defend his own turf (BitTorrent being the P2P poster child) but he makes an impressive case of how Ohio U is throwing the baby out with the bath water by ignoring the promise and other uses of P2P other than illegal downloads.

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