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Monday, Dec 19, 2005

This paper by economist David Zetland explores the “negative externalities” of Google (which is econospeak for the bad things about Google that do nothing to prevent its becoming more and more popular). He points to two in particular: First, the loss of opporutnities to innovate, since Google delivers so much information ready-made. There is no need to think through something to reach your own conclusions; Google skiips you over to the many possible conclusions that have already been produced along the same lines. It prempts deductive thinking, encourages assocative grouping via searches based on a few pithily chosen phrases. Jst recombine the key terms of what you are thinking about, and see what’s out there, rather than undergo the hard work of connecting those terms by the strictures and rigor of your own personal logic. There is a real sense that there are no new ideas that anyone could come up with, and the best thing to do is to continue to link to other things already out there (much as I and millions of other bloggers do—linking to each other or scanning stuff in). There is no sense in trying to add value, all the value is already in the Internet, and we can only ladle out a tasty scoop—that is the most we can take credit for. Obviously this attitude is bad for innovation and the future of thought. But it’s great for cataloging cool stuff like old paperback novel covers and photos of sexy 60s actresses and so on. There’s a Flickr photo set already out there for anything that has ever been thought to be cool; you just have to hope it’s not a private one. Still, this fact would seem to discourage one from creating their own Flickr set of cool scans, but that may underestimate the degree to which one’s narcissistic sense of individuality and egoistic need to express it trumps the Internet’s irrefutable proof that one is never original. (I’m sorry; I’m wafflng back and forth a bit.) Writes Zetland:“Google (and other Internet sources) have not affected our generation of new knowledge very much now, since there are still old things being uploaded, not everyone is connected, and the meshing of cultures (`a la Cowen) is still occurring, but the next stage can include a decrease in overall generation of new material (as old material is downloaded as sufficient) as well as the appropriate reduction in capacity that would follow.” At some point, people will accept that everything worth uploading is there already, and things will dry up (theoretically, anyway). And then where will I get my fix of downloadable thrift-store albums?

Second, Zetland points out the loss of local communities of shared knowledge, i.e. the knowledge equivalent of destruction of local music scenes, which feed on their cloistered ignorance of what is happening in the rest of the world. Google gives immediate access to what the world has to offer on every subject imaginable, so ideas need no longer incubate separately in isolated communities, and those communities need no longer form. Even when local communities try to use what they know particularly to bar outsiders, Google militates against that, allowing anyone to snoop in and immediately disseminate local secrets. It even seems to be trying to organize local knowledge and make it immediately available via its annotated maps. Zetland thinks this could help preserve local culture, but it seems to be it reifies it into prepackaged boxes imported from the outside. And things like craigslist are certainly useful to community, but it supplants the functions of physical community space where who knows what might have happened had people been forced to rub shoulders with each other. (See my paean to public transport above.)

Zetland sees in the future “the one-size-fits-all ideal that management consultants, international aid organizations, fast-food franchises and other purveyors of commodities in the global marketplace often implement—with poor results” taking over everything—homogenous solutions available in a package through the Internet will obviate the local development of solutions to local problems, and the idea that there are even local problems, unique to a particular place, may gradually disappear. This has already happened in the sphere of music: Since we can all hear the best performances now, “As a result, I claim, amateur or idiosyncratic voices can have a harder time being heard because their audience has defected, reducing demand. Supply fails when local creators (of music, ideas, etc.) build an expectation that their contributions will be superseded by superior outside sources and do not even bother to try. The spring of their inspiration can dry up, as the ethos defining their culture falls into disuse.” There, in a nutshell, is why local music scenes have died. Local musicians may conclude that they must either try to succeed on a national scale or accept utter anonymity and be a drop in the vast ocean of Internet-distributed music.

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Friday, Dec 16, 2005

Mass transit is one of the main reasons I live in New York City. Mass transit is one of the main things that makes me believe modern life is not a complete mistake. It is one of the last vestiges of shared public space, shared consciousness. The degree to which a city has dismantled its mass transit system is the degree to which they’ve regressed from society’s peak. Then you are left with what a city like Tucson has, a bus system that is a physical manifestation of the class structure—if you ride the bus you are poor, a second-class citizen whose time doesn’t matter and who has no choice but to tolerate inefficiency in public transportation system that has become a kind of de facto charity, or a food-stamps program.

Public transit throws open unexpected possibilities (good or bad), is a launching point not just for your commute but for your imagination. Almost all of my good ideas come to me on the train—something about being around strangers and considering the reality of their existence helps me concentrate, turns my mind in unexpected directions. I like the character in Repo Man who does all his best thinking on a bus and thinks owning a car therefore makes you stupid.

So the thought of a transit strike upsets my whole reason for being. In my mind I have wanted to side with the union in this, but I’m finding it harder and harder, and not merely because the reporting is so biased against them. I haven’t read much about the nitty-gritty of the stand-off, but I find myself asking questions like there:Does a union exist to wish away technological innovation (the replacement of conductors with robots)? Does it exist to extort more taxpayer money (as the MTA is not a for-profit company—it’s not Wal-Mart, but a government entity)? Unions should protect the welfare of its future members, and they are right not to let the MTA divide the union against itself by having a two-tiered benefit structure—I understand that. But the idea that they have the right to strand 7 million people is a bit unacceptable to me.

I’ve been told to see such an event as an opporuntity, as a chance to shake up routines and learn lessons about what we take for granted. No thanks. Having tried to imagine the dystopia life would become under the city’s contingency plan—biking through freezing rain, lining up for hours for a LIRR train, or standing in a slug line at a designated carpool point/refugee camp—I think I’d rather leave those lessons unlearned.

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Thursday, Dec 15, 2005

Dittothis post from Tyler Cowen at the blog Marginal Revolution.

For some reason (psychoanalyze me if you wish), I find this one especially awful:
“For her 17th wedding anniversay Jeanette Yarborough wanted to do something special for her husband. In addition to planning a hotel getaway for the weekend, Ms. Yarborough paid a surgeon $5,000 to reattach her hymen, making her appear to be a virgin again.
‘It’s the ultimate gift for the man who has everything,’ says Ms. Yarborough…”
This is reported to be one of the plastic surgery industry’s fastest-growing segments, and yes that is in the United States. The article is from the 15 December Wall Street Journal, p.A1.

If this is a gift that impresses you, I’m pretty sure you have nothing, not everything. And while I’m sure someone out there would make the argument that women who elect to have this surgery are post-feminist pleasure-seekers expressing their “freedom” just like sex workers and strippers allegedly are, I’ll go on the record and say that these women are insane to subject themselves to this (as insane as men who attempt to enlarge their penises with stretching machines or surgical enhancements). The depressing encroachment of the anxieties of the marketplace into the realm of our genitalia is emblematic of the commercialization of sex in general and typifies the way capitalism seeks to transform everything into a occasion for exploitation, producing misery that is then “cured” by some ersatz solution for sale.

Once we were all innocent of these sorts of ruses, but the worst thing about them is that when ideas like these spread (and I’m not helping things by reporting it here) they are impossible to efface from the realm of the possible; they are already in some senses, naturalized. And unfortunately, no surgery can repair our culture and restore its virginal state once these horrors are common knowledge, once they have assumed their place as yet another positional good, another distinctive commodity to posess.

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Thursday, Dec 15, 2005

Tis the season to reflect back on the year, make resolutions and remember all the good and bad things that happened in the last 300 or so days.  As part of that, I’m doing my annual round-up for, covering the best music writing of the year.  I have a pretty good list so far but I thought I’d poll the blogsphere (great word) to find out if there’s any that I need to know about.  If you want to nominate yourself, don’t be bashful or modest.  Feel free to post your favorites here to share with the online world or you can give me a shout directly at

I’m also gathering thoughts about the state of music journalism in this age of declining print readership, circulation scandals, lay-off’s, etc..  Not a pretty picture, needless to say.  One thing’s for sure- media is changing rapidly now because of online innovations and it’s impossible to turn back from that now.  A lot of hand wringing is going on as well as fretting and guessing about the future.  There are definitely going to be more hard times to come but there will also be opportunities that spring up.

What I’m still wondering about is where the media itself is heading and what’s driving it there.  Music journalism isn’t disconnected from the rest of the scribing world by any means so this is something important that’s gonna shape the future of the field.  To be continued…

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Wednesday, Dec 14, 2005

First, the war on Christmas. Now, courtesy of, comes this report of dollmaker American Girl’s attempts to “save childhood.”, the centerpiece of American Girl’s campaign, opens with this mini-manifesto: “Save unicorns. Save dreams. Save rainbows. Save girlhood.” It includes faux testimonials—“By 2010, only 2% of girls will dot their i’s with smiley face”—as well as suggestions for games, tips on dealing with bullies and body image and links to buy merchandise. The copy on the page reads, “The way we see it, girls are growing up too fast. From every angle, today’s girls are bombarded by influences pushing them toward womanhood at too early an age—at the expense of their innocence, their playfulness, their imagination.”

Because we all know women have no imagination. Very thoughtful of the company to include fake accounts of how their product helps children remain childish, too. And the links to buy stuff, well, that’s what being a girl is all about. “Parents know ‘the American Girl products are something they can really do for their daughters versus just another thing they can get,’ said a spokeswoman for American Girl.” Yes, rather than merely burying them underneath an avalanche of toys, you can “do” a gender straitjacket for them by getting toys that prescribe traditional (and subservient) behavior patterns. May as well buy them a copy of Fascinating Womanhood as well.

If corporations weren’t around to tell our children how they should behave, what their youth should be like and what memories they should have, they would really be lost; childhood after all is best defined by the marketeers who seek to exploit it. And if children grow up too fast, if they escape their age bracket before corporations have fully taken advantage of them at that stage and sold them all the expected junk, then “childhood” will truly be dead. We need marketers to enforce the age groups and their product-specific behaviors lest these concepts slip through our fingers. We wouldn’t want our children to have grown up with fewer toys then they might have had otherwise right? How would we face ourselves as parents, if we couldn’t at least fill a moving van with all the useless crap we bought for our kids once they are grown.

What’s really disturbing about this is how the campaign is directed at parents who want to “protect” their kids from the hassles and ambiguities of growing up. It sells childhood as a prison, where your offspring can remain a compliant little treasure to be admired forever. It encourages parents to force their own childhood on their children, so they can later grow up with the same disappointments.

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