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by Rob Horning

9 Aug 2008

In a riposte to tech pessimists like Nicholas Carr, media blogger Jeff Jarvis argues that “the myth of the creative class” is in the process of being extinguished by the internet.

The internet doesn’t make us more creative, I don’t think. But it does enable what we create to be seen, heard, and used. It enables every creator to find a public, the public he or she merits. And that takes creation out of the proprietary hands of the supposed creative class.

Pretty to think so. This is internet ideology at its most inspirational: the Web allows us to be individuals rather than part of a mass addressed by media monoliths, and it allows meritocracy to at last become a reality, and no one will be any more famous than he or she deserves.

The playing field is flat and to stand out one must now do so on merit - as defined by the public rather than the priests - which will be rewarded with links and attention. This is our link economy, our culture of links. It is a meritocracy, only now there are many definitions of merit and each must be earned.

A look back at the history of internet fads makes one skeptical though. And it seems that the power networks of the offline media replicate themselves online—the commercial media has a more vested interest in drumming up traffic and integrating content production with advertising support, so they invest money and effort accordingly, with the effect of reproducing the offline mode of production online. Independent bloggers are adopted by national publications, and their content is branded by the big media companies, and the power of branding to confer authority begins to exert itself over the once-wide-open sphere of communication. It becomes harder to be some random person with a blogger account and still get discovered and linked to—it can happen, but then so could my letter to the editor be published as a column on the NYT opinion page. It’s just not very likely.

As Jarvis would have it, Web space has replaced the hip urban centers celebrated by Richard Florida as the site where inspired minds congregate to inspire one another.

This link ecology does potentially change the nature of creativity. It makes it more collaborative, not just in the act but in the inspiration. Coelho’s Witch of Portobello is the spark that leads to a movie made by its readers. Same with Stern, LonelyGirl, Colbert. Perhaps the role of the creative class is not so much to make finished products but to inspire more to be made. It is the flint of creativity. It’s the internet - Google, Flickr, YouTube, and old, mass media as their accessories - that bring flint and spark together.

This sort of thing plays out as the much heralded “remix culture”—consumers become producers by using digital cultural products as a language for their own creative expressions. This undermines the old allegiances that paved the way for subcultures anchored in various nexuses of music and fashion and zines and so on, and introduces a more motley pastiche form of culture that is at the same time more homogeneous than ever. The internet—the link economy, the amateur parodies and homages of culture industry product, etc.—becomes a hegemonic form for cultural expression even as it become more heterogeneous in its composite parts. You might make a steampunk rap video with snippets of sitcoms mixed in, but it will still be posted on YouTube in the end. It has become so much easier to publish samizdat that samizdat now no longer has any meaning as a form.

I’m not sure this more democratic access to the means of distribution ultimately frees up an abundance of heretofore suppressed talent or shifts anything away from the established creative class—the anointed ones who shape the culture that consumers remix. Yes, the internet provides uncolonized space for cultural activity, a space that is ever expanding. You never reach the Western shore. There is always more room for “creative” pioneers to stake claims. But the majority of cultural consumers aren’t interested in lighting out for the territories, and the creative class continues to run what is recognized socially as the civilized portion of that vast online space, and it is slowly expanding its control assimilating the more promising outliers. This seems no different from how things have always worked in the culture industries; if anything the dependence on the law-giving creative class strengthens with so much chaos lurking at the fringes.

by tjmHolden

9 Aug 2008

The bang and boom having receded—the flare of fireworks, the wash of color, the bold pageantry, the synchronization of thousands of bodies in motion. Yes, Beijing 2008 has officially begun. And for most of us, all we know of Beijing 2008 is what we witness via the TV feed.

For me, Beijing 2008 is summed up in two lay-overs in capital airport this past fortnight; a total of eight hours strolling through one of the most spacious, spotless, sparkling-est airports our world currently knows.

If you haven’t been there—and especially to the newly-opened Terminal 3—it might be worth trolling around below the jump for a few minutes, to give it a visual canvas.

 

 

by Bill Gibron

8 Aug 2008

According to the reports, it was a rather surreal Comic-con for the members of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mythos. With almost everyone involved in the show participating in a panel discussion in association with the show’s 20th anniversary (and upcoming DVD releases from new distributor Shout! Factory), hope sprang eternal (and internal) that some major announcement would be made - perhaps a fan-mandated and prayed for coming together of the so-far divergent Cinematic Titanic/RiffTrax crews. On the one side is Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, larger than life talents who carried on the in-theater mockery motif long after others gave up on the concept. On the opposite end sits the CT crew - Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl, flush with success from their own self-promoted releases and collective critical acceptance.

Yet aside from Patton Oswalt’s genuine geekdom and some rather uncomfortable stares, it was clear that, at least for the time being, the geniuses behind the classic cowtown puppet show won’t be having a meeting of the minds anytime soon. Nelson et.al. seem content to add their smart alecky attacks to recent releases (via their audio only offerings) while Hodgson and his cohorts crank out original DVD titles in the old, silhouettes against the screen format. Prior to attending the notorious nerd herding in San Diego, the group even offered up a salvo for those desperate for more Cinematic Titanic goodness. Unlike the release of The Doomsday Machine, which took almost six months to materialize, their next effort, the Roger Corman retardation from 1959, The Wasp Woman, would be out in a matter of weeks. Sure enough, 8 August saw the release of the downloadable version of the project, and as usual, it’s another dose of daffy satiric goodness.

For those unfamiliar with the ultimate ‘b’ movie, Susan Cabot plays Janice Starling, the aging magnate of a major cosmetics firm. Where once she was the spry and youthful face of her product, her advancing years (she’s all of 38!) have meant a significant lag in sales. When a weirdly accented doctor named “Mr.” Eric Zintrop writes to her, explaining his rejuvenation techniques using the royal jelly from wasps, she’s instantly intrigued. She sets up a lab for the potential madman, and allows him to experiment on her. After nearly a month of no results, Janice takes matters into her own hands. She shoots up a significant amount of the bug enzyme, and sure enough, she becomes instantly younger. Of course, Zinthrop fails to fully inform his patient of the side effects. Apparently, along with headaches and occasional moodiness, Janice will intermittently turn into a giant insect - one that craves human flesh and plenty of it!

While previous Cinematic Titanic wonders like The Oozing Skull really delivered on the new series’ promise, Wasp Woman finally feels like home. As a matter of fact, if one closed their eyes, they could easily envision a late night rerun of a first year Comedy Channel episode of the old MST. With its barely there cast and certified Corman corner cutting, what starts out schlocky turns tacky in a matter of minutes. Cabot, whose career was cut short when her dwarf of a son bludgeoned her to death (no, we are not making this up), has to play dour and depressed for most of the movie, her fading beauty an evidently painful subject for the high powered and excessively rich CEO. Of course, since this is the ‘50s, our heroine must be surrounded by piggish chauvinists who smirk at her concern with crowsfeet over constantly puffing pipes and liquor laced breath.

Clearly influenced by the massive success of 1958’s The Fly, one has to give Wasp Woman credit for attempted ingenuity. Corman could have easily gone for the “man mutates” formula that made the Al Hedison horror show a hit. Instead, this narrative goes gaga for entomology, providing us with a precursory prologue where the benefits of royal jelly and all other bug butt extracts are explored. Zintrop even gives a little speech about respecting nature - of course, he’s addressing the insects he apparently confides in on a regular basis. As the story moves along to its standard spookshow sequences, we also see some patented Filmgroup falderal. Two obvious typing pool ‘broads’, whose names could be Mavis and Trixie for all their Brooklyn bar maid mannerisms, discuss their lagging love lives in a way that would make even the most desperate gent run in easy pickings paranoia.

Of course, all of this is prime material for the CT staff, and they come up with one of their most satisfying slam dunks yet. Thematically, it’s all heroin and insect riffs, the quintet taking every opportunity to mock anthropods and ridicule those who ride the white horse. The quips get so intense that J. Elvis begins a kind of comedy withdraw, arguing that if he doesn’t come up with another smack joke soon, he’ll die. It’s brilliant stuff, as is the pun-demonium over the word “bee” (sadly, no shout out to everyone’s favorite ambiguously asexual music sprite fro years past). Frank even references the unusual way in which Cabot died, starting everything off with a strikingly off comment that had this critic running to Google for confirmation. Of course, finding the origin of a Joel or Trace take is part and parcel of the overall MST/CT experience.

Elsewhere, the series is really coming into its own, concept wise. The time tube, explained in more depth last time, gets its status reaffirmed again, while the notion of a backstory (living pods? plasma beds?) also receives a mention. As for skit or scripted material, Wasp Woman doesn’t really lend itself to easy associations. Still, Mary Jo grinds things to a halt so she can get a boardroom power fix, while Frank brings back his ‘controversial’ variety spot so he can showcase an abusive and belligerent Buddy Rich. One of the things that fans have argued over here is the lack of the old Mystery Science sketch comedy. Even the Rifftrax offshoot, The Film Crew, were less than successful in recapturing that retro humor magic. Part of the problem is that everyone involved in these new projects are playing themselves - not characters trapped in space or working in an underground lab. And second, budget restrictions limit the amount of material they can generate. No funds = no additional funny business. 

Still, with a schedule that promises a more robust release strategy, and a growing appreciation for their efforts (EZTakes, who provides the downloadable versions of the CT discs, typically find their website swamped with retail requests) it looks like this latest attempt to recapture the old Mystery magic will finally get the mainstream acceptance the TV show failed to find. Of course, everything could change tomorrow, what with Shout! Factory promising an aggressive model for their upcoming DVD releases of the original series. And with three viable reminders of all the talent pooled for these projects, only the most cynical fan would complain. Cinematic Titanic continues to put out the amazing attractions, and The Wasp Woman truly lives up to their standards.

by John G. Nettles

8 Aug 2008

One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life in the last few years was the day that I discovered I was no longer in love with Angelina Jolie. This may not seem like much to most people, but I was a full-on altar boy in the Church of Angie, back when she was disastrously married to Billy Bob Thornton, carrying his blood around with her and sharing her love of knife-play and backseat coitus with a tongue-clucking world, the very soul of dangerously hot. Then she had to go and trade up, and her tabloid life became all about baby bumps and real estate and imaginary feuds with Jennifer Aniston while making three lousy movies for every one good one. The dangerously hot Angie is now guarded and conservative and, well, ordinary. She’s become Julia Roberts with better lips and the occasional ability to act.

The point is that while we may crave security, home and hearth, such things carry with them a life sentence in Dullsville. Some of us are fine with that tradeoff, some of us chafe at it, and some of us reject it altogether. The last group are the ones we want to read about: the people who wade into the situations the rest of us only wish we had the balls to face, and then come back with the scars and prizes that make us green with envy. Because of this, Mike Edison is my new hero. Punk drummer, amateur wrestler, pothead and smut peddler, Edison is a wiseassed and wickedly funny road warrior whose memoir I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World (Faber & Faber, 2008) is some of the most fun reading I’ve had since Hunter Thompson capped himself.

Beginning with the moment in his dysfunctional teens when he scored his first joint and never looked back, Edison drags us along on the demented hayride of his life. While dropping out of NYU film school because they looked askance at his proposed zombie epic, Edison began to make his bones as a writer for third-tier pro wrestling magazines and hardcore porn publishers, learning his craft (and yes, good porn takes craft) and eking out a living while pursuing his other passion, very loud drumming. Over the years Edison pounded cans for his band Sharky’s Machine, the Lunachicks, the semi-legendary Raunch Hands, and the hardest-working punk band in Spain, the Pleasure Fuckers, all the while getting into all the alcohol- and drug-fueled hijinks a single boy with a screw-you attitude and a high tolerance for pain can encounter. Edison describes going on a Vegas drunk with Evel Knievel, opening for the Ramones, and barbecuing (!) with the late great GG Allin.

Upon his return to America, burnt out and without a future, Edison discovered that he had somehow become an in-demand journalist on the below-the-radar magazine circuit, and after learning the business side of the publishing industry and renewing his ties with old connections, was hired as the publisher of High Times. Long a bastion of the ’60s counterculture and staffed by inveterate hippie holdovers, the place saw Edison bring a unique combination of business savvy and punk recalcitrance to the job, turning a perpetual punchline of a publication into a real magazine with edge and funk (and profit) by doing daily pitched battle with his employees. As Edison describes the Sisyphean task of trying to motivate a motley crew of pot casualties into doing their damn jobs, even Deadheads will feel the urge to kick the patchouli out of some of these people.

Edison’s book is brash, irreverent, funny as hell and beautifully written, proof positive that one can be both edgy and erudite, lowbrow and literate, and take joy in the unbridled pleasures of the id without sacrificing the higher mind. Mike Edison is my hero, and I’d love to send his book to Angelina. Maybe it’ll inspire her to scrub off the Brad Pitt stink and go back to being dangerously hot. She’s so much more interesting that way.

This article was originally published at Flagpole.

by Rob Horning

8 Aug 2008

A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research reports findings of research into the incredibly creepy phenomenon of priming and its relation to brand names. This is the abstract:

This article first examines whether brand exposure elicits automatic behavioral effects as does exposure to social primes. Results support the translation of these effects: participants primed with Apple logos behave more creatively than IBM primed and controls; Disney-primed participants behave more honestly than E!-primed participants and controls. Second, this article investigates the hypothesis that exposure to goal-relevant brands (i.e., those that represent a positively valenced characteristic) elicits behavior that is goal directed in nature. Three experiments demonstrate that the primed behavior showed typical goal-directed qualities, including increased performance postdelay, decreased performance postprogress, and moderation by motivation.

The implications are pretty clear: Brands do far more than affect what consumer decisions we make. They don’t simply lodge the name of a product in our minds. They have a wider sphere of influence, changing all sort of behavior: this is why it makes sense to talk of a consumer society defined by the level with which it is saturated by brands. Brands become associated with behavior and can then elicit that behavior subliminally, since, as the paper notes, “behavioral-priming effects are known to result from automatic processes, requiring no effort, intentionality, or awareness.” Resistance to behavioral branding is futile; we are affected by logos whether we want to be or not.

The paper theorizes that brands may trigger goals of self-fashioning and prompt behavior along those lines, efforts to achieve a desired ideal self.

Via associations with desired human qualities, goal-relevant brands may acquire the ability to trigger these ideal-self goals and shape behavior. For example, the athletic brand Nike is associated with traits such as ‘active’ and ‘confident.’ These characteristics are generally seen as positive in American culture, so Nike likely plays a motivational role for many people, symbolizing desirable future or alternative selves. In the case of Nike, then, we would expect that brand exposure could lead people to pursue goals to be confident and active.

A key question is how brands become associated with certain traits. If this is completely under marketers control, they have tremendous sway over our consequent behavior, possibly over our goals themselves. Logos may not always have the social meanings that their designers intended—they are open to determination by popular usage. But those meanings are more under the sway of commercial determination than other repositories of social meaning—more money is spent via marketing to control those meanings (they are not mere reflections of the public will or mood) and make the symbols more prominent in culture, crowding out other alternatives. The authors of the paper argue that “billboards, product placements, and celebrity endorsements all contribute to the relatively implicit construction of brand representations over time, and to the automatic association of brands with desirable human qualities. Given people’s lack of success at understanding and correcting for external influence (Nisbett and Wilson 1977; Wilson and Brekke 1994), we predict that these brand-trait associations – shaped over time and outside of conscious awareness – will impact behavior in a nonconscious fashion.”

In their research, the authors found that for brands to affect behavior, they need to be associated with behavior that the subjects already found desirable. So the secret to avoiding having brands manipulate us, perhaps, is to aspire to be no one.

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