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Wednesday, Jul 12, 2006

Wouldn’t it be a better world if we could pretend that this writer was joking? She is joking, right? The New York Times is doing a little edgy satire in their Modern Love column. I know narcissism is the coin of the Modern Love realm, but consider how poorly written this column is. Clearly this is parodic:


My life goes like this: Every morning, before I brush my teeth, I sign in to my Instant Messenger to let everyone know I’m awake. I check for new e-mail, messages or views, bulletins, invitations, friend requests, comments on my blog or mentions of me or my blog on my friends’ blogs.
Next I flip open my phone and check for last night’s Dodgeball messages. Dodgeball is the most intimate and invasive network I belong to. It links my online community to my cellphone, so when I send a text message to 36343 (Dodge), the program pings out a message with my location to all the people in my Dodgeball network. Acceptance into another person’s Dodgeball network is a very personal way to say you want to hang out.
I scroll through the messages to see where my friends went last night, and when, tracking their progress through various bars and noting the crossed paths. I check the Google map that displays their locations and proximity to one another. I note how close Christopher and Tom were last night, only a block away, but see that they never met up.
I log on to my Friendster, Facebook, MySpace and Nerve accounts to make sure the mail bars are rising with new friend requests, messages and testimonials.
I am obsessed with testimonials and solicit them incessantly. They are the ultimate social currency, public declarations of the intimacy status of a relationship. “I miss running around like crazy w/you in the AM and sneaking away to grab caffeine and gossip,” Kathleen commented on my MySpace for all to see. Often someone will write, “I just posted to say I love you.”
I click through the profiles of my friends to the profiles of their friends (and their friends of friends, and so on), always aware of the little bar at the top of each profile indicating my multiple connections. A girl I know from college is friends with my friend from college’s best friend from Minnesota. They met at camp in seventh grade. The boyfriend of my friend from work is friends with one of my friends from high school. I note the connections and remind myself to IM them later. On Facebook, I skip from profile to profile by clicking on the faces of posted pictures. I find a picture of my sister and her boyfriend, click on his face and jump right to his page.


It’s juvenile on purpose. Every paragraph starts with the word I because she’s mocking the self-centeredness of her generation and it’s supposed obsession with me-media, isn’t she? She laughing at the fact that teens today have become an entire generation of glorified ham-radio operators.


I wish I could believe she was joking. But I think NYT published this precisely because she’s serious, and because it would alarm people like me and bait us into reactionary declarations of a generational crisis. See, the article brays, you can’t possibly hope to understand the youth of today; they’re invested in things you wouldn’t care about even if you knew they existed. And that’s true. I don’t have a cell phone, let alone a network of cell-phone-obsessed friends who ping me with every mundane detail of their lives. I’ve never sent a text message through a phone, and frankly can’t understand why you would, especially when they often cost more than talking through it. So I don’t consider the cell phone I don’t have to be my companion, as Nokia hopes I will. I don’t want my friends to make public declarations of their fealty to me on my profile pages and I don’t want a running count of people who are willing to associate themselves with me. I don’t need to expand my friendship roll the way I seem to need to expand my iTunes library. I don’t want my idea of “friend” to be so cheapened that I can have thousands of them. Friends aren’t little counters I use to measure my potential reach in a word-of-mouth marketing campaign; they aren’t things I amass to keep track of my own greatness. I don’t need a computer to rank my friends or score our level of intimacy. I don’t need to throttle their access to me the way Netflix throttles how many DVDs I can get a month. I don’t want to have friends to justify being able to use technology, rather than have technology enhance the few friendships that matter to me. And I don’t crave the feeling of belonging so much that I’ll join whatever Web group is out there to join. The column seems to mask its desperate need to belong in bravado, with a reverse-psychology-style embrace of technological dependence and pride in self-regarding shallowness, in presence for its own sake. (It is probably not coincidental that as social networks grow, actual friendship has receded to the point where “Nearly a quarter of people surveyed said they had ‘zero’ close friends with whom to discuss personal matters.”)


What most leaves me on the far side of the generational gulf the NYT wants to evoke is my general desire not to want to conduct my friendships in a environment where they can be stored and scrutinized as data. The essence of friendship is its immeasurablility, not its publicity. I don’t want a database for an identity, nor do I want it for a community. I don’t want to run statistics on my social life. I don’t want Nielsen ratings for my friendships, I don’t want to apply marketing tools to them to see how they might be tweaked, to see how I might reach a better demographic, socially. I don’t want to meter the amount of attention I receive. All of that seems counterproductive, unless I decide to run my personal life like a firm and decide that I need to promote myself the way Proctor and Gamble promotes its toothpastes. But as the NYT column gleefully points out, “Every profile is a carefully planned media campaign.” But people can’t always live up to their online marketing campaigns for themselves. Perhaps the online existence of theoretical people who would make perfect friends leads to more social isolation; we end up rejecting the flawed friends we have in reality, where their inadequacies can’t be concealed or filtered out. Meanwhile social networks serve to encourage us to continue to package and market ourselves, to reify ourselves as we reify others into raw numbers ready for accounting principles.  We make ourselves into data so that the information-processing capacity of the consumer economy can be used to process us that much more efficiently, squeezing out of us whatever it most requires for its sustained growth. Articles like this aspire to teach us how to enjoy that feeling of being processed.


(Thanks to AdPulp for several of these links.)


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Wednesday, Jul 12, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


Cut Chemist
“The Garden” [MP3]
“Storm” [MP3]
multiple songs [MySpace]
video: Cut Chemist in Brazil [quicktime]
PopMatters review: The Audience’s Listening


PopVideo


A Terrifying Message from Al Gore - From the creators of Futurama comes a terrifying message from Al Gore. An Inconvenient Truth is now playing in theaters.


Silversun Pickups
“Well Thought Out Twinkles” [MP3]


Grandaddy
video “Elevate MySelf” [quicktime]


Cairo Gang
“Warning” [MP3]


Razorlight
“In the Morning” [MP3]


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Tuesday, Jul 11, 2006

The new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? prompted this contemptuous response from TCS Daily, an online business journal sponsored in part by GM. It’s hard to argue with the facts here—batteries don’t allow cars to travel the range Americans expect or carry the load Americans occasionally carry, and the recharging time is prohibitive to a generation weaned on convenience. The writer, Ralph Kinney Bennett, explains, “I can drive my wife’s big Lexus 55 miles on two gallons (about 16 pounds) of gasoline that cost me six bucks. An electric car like the one featured here could travel the same distance by exhausting its 1000-pound battery pack (lead-acid, costing $2000) which would then have to be recharged. The recharging would take about four hours. I could replace the two gallons of gasoline in about 30 seconds, but I wouldn’t have to because my wife’s car can easily go another 450 highway cruising miles on a tank of gas.” But I don’t understand why he feels more threatened by organic grocery stores and people who don’t want to drive SUVs than he does by climate-driven catastrophe. His attitude is right out of the red-blue culture war handbook; it’s as though David Brooks was looking over his shoulder. He uses the classic libertarian argument that conservation inhibits personal freedom, and then he throws in the populist angle that no real Americans—the ones raising kids and building additions on their houses, and tailgating at NASCAR races, etc.—would regret a single carbon-spewing moment of their lives. He casts anyone who can’t relate to this as an effete snob and secret totalitarian zealot who resents other people’s ability to enjoy life.


These votaries of the EV religion get real heartburn when they see people barreling around in SUVs and pick up trucks that appear to be empty most of the time. They don’t seem to grasp the fact that millions of motorists do not see their cars as spare and ascetic tools to get them from point A to point B. Like it or not, American motorists see their cars as full of potentialities and possibilities, some of which may seldom or never be fulfilled.
Yes, some of them may only make short trips from their townhouse to the organic food store or that global warming seminar at the university. But many, many more of them will more likely pick up a load of drywall at Home Depot or take the guys to a football game with all the impedimenta for a tailgate party piled in the back. They will drive 300 or so miles searching for an antique or a quaint place to eat. They will revel in the freedom of the road and the ineffable ‘feel’ of a big sedan or a rugged truck.


I guess what sums the blinkered short-sightedness up for me is this statement: “Like it or not, American motorists see their cars as full of potentialities and possibilities, some of which may seldom or never be fulfilled.” Because some Americans need to consume their cars as dreams, as fantasies of the life they will never live, because they are so acclimated to living by proxy through inanimate objects and their ephemeral connotations, their grandchildren will likely get to enjoy a new ice age and half of Florida will be underwater. To the babies being born today, the Hummer driver says, “Screw you, my fantasy of being a quasi-militaristic macho man who is bigger than everyone else is far more important than your reality. I don’t care how many species die out forever. I want my big-car ‘feel’ ” The outside chance one might want to drive to Alaska and carry enough lumber to build a survival shack of one’s own, or the flimsy pretense that a big tanklike Escalade is somehow safer to drive, is far more important than social virtues like consideration, moderation and conservation. Social virtues? Who needs them when we can dream bigger, dream harder, dream more wastefully, trapped in the solitary pretend world of our own ad-driven imagination. Far better to live in puerile fantasy, and for that let’s thank the corporations who make our infantilism possible and plausible and justifiable to ourselves.


John Kenneth Galbraith, defending his much-derided theory of the producer’s sovereignty in the economy in “Economics as a System of Belief,” has some insight into what Bennett is up to here: “By emphasizing consumer sovereignty, economics makes itself a shield for the exercise of producer sovereignty by the automobile industry. For by making questions about too many automobiles an elitist and undemocratic interference with consumer choice, it effectively excludes questions about the power of the automobile industry to impose its preference. It gives scientific and moral sanction to social indifference.”


Billmon, mulling over Al Gore’s film about global warming, also explains Bennett’s cretinism well: “But if extinction, or a return to the dark ages, is indeed our fate – or our grandchildren’s fate, anyway – I think it will be a Hobson’s choice as to which cultural tendency will bear the largest share of the blame: the arrogant empiricism that has made human society into an instrument of technological progress instead of the other way around, the ignorant prejudices of the masses, who are happy to consume the material benefits of the Enlightenment but unwilling to assume intellectual responsibility for them, or the cynical nihilism of corporate and political elites who are willing to play upon the latter in order to perpetuate the former, which is, after all is said and done, their ultimate claim to power.”


Bennett is quick to protect the ignoble selfish dreams the SUV represents to its drivers, but he refuses to recognize the dreams and potentialities the electric car embodies for its devotees. Because that dream doesn’t line the pockets of his journal’s sponsors, apparently, it doesn’t really count. The only sanctioned dreams for consumer goods are the ones that further individual isolation and status competition—you can only dream about being better than someone else and rubbing their nose in your freedom.


 


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Tuesday, Jul 11, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


Cansei De Ser Sexy
“Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above” [MP3]
“This Month Day Ten” [MP3]
multiple songs [MySpace]
video: “Meeting Paris Hilton” (live) [quicktime]
video: “Metal” [quicktime]


Cansei de Ser Sexy - Alala


Shapes and Sizes
“Islands Gone Bad” [MP3]
“Wilderness” [MP3]
PopMatters review: Shapes and Sizes


Priestess
“Talk to Her” [MP3]


Oneida
“Up with People” [MP3]


Art Brut
“Moving to LA” (live) [MP3]


Jason Molina
“Get Out Get Out Get Out” [MP3]


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Monday, Jul 10, 2006

Chris Anderson’s idea of the long tail—the flat asymptotic line on the far end of the power-law-distribution curve that represents everything that’s not a hit on a book publisher’s list or a record company’s back catalog—has received blanket coverage in the business press lately. Anderson argues that the Internet removes the storage and distribution costs that make it prohibitive to maintain a large inventory of items that appeals to a very select few people, and companies can now make a profit selling small numbers of a great stock of things, rather than millions of a limited stock. No esoteric taste will go unserved, nothing will fade into total neglect and disappear entirely from culture. The good folks at Tunes are just as happy to sell you Justin Timberlake’s new album track by track as they are to sell you songs by Fat Mattress and Fever Tree. And it doesn’t hurt Netflix much to stock every documentary available on DVD even if some of them rent only once a year. Thus no one will be forced to consume entertainment hits, and non-conformists will be able to satisfy their taste for unpopular things much easier. Of course, for many of those people, the thrill of the hunt was a large part of the reason they became fascinated with obscurities. It wasn’t so much that Lazy Smoke’s album of John Lennon-inspired inanity was any good; it was more that it was so hard to actually find someone who had a copy and would let you hear it. The rarity of the physical object once lent fascination to otherwise mediocre relics. Long-tail marketing (which makes copies of ultra rare stuff available immediately to whoever hears of it—which itself is easier through search engines and the Internet’s harvest of links and filters) ultimately will destroy the significance of the content of collector’s items; make them more like baseball cards or beanie babies—objects with no relevant use value. As bigger companies begin to market to the niches, the small players who used to service that market—little record stores and book stores and antique stores and so on; Dave Hickey’s cherished cultural underground—will be squeezed.


Paradoxically, the vastly increased access to underground cultural goods may make the cultural underground itself disappear altogether, since people will need no longer such stores to buy these things, stores that also served as places to congregate and swap interests and develop networks that fostered the emotional support required to resist the mainstream. The Internet makes such resistance easy and trivial. It also isolates you in your rejection rather than unite you with like-minded malcontents. So rather than find an alternate society where people are more discriminating and demand more and bring more intellect and passion to the things that inspire and entertain them, you end up alone in front of your computer, gorging on loads of esoteric information suddenly made meaningless. You can turn around a blog about the cool, rare things you’ve discovered (obviously no longer an arduous process but a matter of a few idle clicks and maybe an ingenious search or two), but everyone else who might have been interested will be so busy writing their own blogs that they will never see yours. So the ubiquity of long-tail ephemera may disintegrate the fragile sense of community that once unified the resistance to hegemonic culture, and drive more people to the mainstream hits, as they long to participate in the few remaining chances to belong to something.


The shared culture, for better or worse, may not even include ads anymore, as they no longer blanket a population but are instead increasingly targeted to appropriately receptive audiences with surgical precision. (Funny how we use the same language for advertising and bombing—companies at war with their consumers). An Economist survey notes that advertising itself benefits from long-tail logistics—every niche can have its own ad tailored to it—there are as many web pages available as there are angles one can come up with to sell whatever product to whatever customer. These ads cost next to nothing to maintain, and will cost little to generate once the ad can be mechanically made in response to the specific context that evokes it. Ads thus become less obtrusive and more useful to the individual who recieves them, who feels more than ever that the ads are calling out to him specifically, acknowledging his uniqueness, making him aware of his ineffable individuality. MySpace profiles, etc. are really tailormade for this—what you do when you define yourself publically on one of these sites, you allow advertisers to craft ads precisely pertinient to your needs, your vulnerabilities. You become your own niche of one. The perfectly targeted ads won’t even seem like ads anymore; it will seem like just-in-time information for the consumer. Conceivably, as one’s “online presence” becomes more integrated, the more things one does online,  and the more well-defined and singular that niche of one will become. Some will be attracted by this, as it will seem to provide verifiable proof of one’s individuality—one can measure just how unique one is by seeing the niche develop—you’ll see the trail you leave grow richer with you-specific data. But this also means the ads directed toward you will become much more sophisticated, much harder to resist; you’ll increasingly paint yourself into a corner with your own preferences until you are sealed in by them.


But with perfectly targetable near costfree ads (they will be priced into the product directly rather than indirectly), everything will be marketed—ad budgets won’t be restricted to hit products; everything can have its ad. So one won’t be able to escape the sense that everything he wants has already been sold to him, that no desires originate from inside (if that’s not already true). The illusion that you have resisted marketing by buying this instead of that will become even more untenable. Maybe this will end up pushing people out of the market for individuality and into the realm of actual activity. Once anyone can be a niche of one and be found out by the advertising world—once there can be no illusions of “authentic shopping” —we’ll have to earn our sense of uniqueness by doing things rather than being a target for the sale of things. In his book, as The Economist notes in its review, Anderson suggests that the very end of the long tail will be made up of amateurs exchanging their self-made works outside of the monetary economy. If that world could be sealed off from the infiltration of ads, it may become the last refuge of authenticity.


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