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Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Not since Bertelsmann pumped eight million dollars into Napster just before the P2P company got wiped out (though later reborn) have we seen a deal like this: Warner Bros. to Sell Movies and TV Shows on Internet.  Warner Bros is working hand-in-hand with Bit Torrent, a popular P2P site and popular boogey-man for Hollywood and the RIAA.  Embracing and innovating rather than throwing lawsuits everywhere isn’t the typical M.O. for these big entertainment companies but WB definitely has the right idea.  If it pays off and they get good returns for the deal, expect that other companies will follow suit (not law suit that is).  Good thinking there, boys…

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Tuesday, May 9, 2006

BusinessWeek leads the cheerleading for the upcoming McDonald’s redesign: such words as “cool” and “funky” and “Starbucks” are deployed—and of course it’s compared to the iPod. What else? The design halo for a successful product is so strong as to be hegemonic; the word iPod is like a talisman that is expected to automatically evoke state-of-the-art user-friendly fun, even though there is no meaningful way a restaurant’s design can mimic that of a hand-held music player. We all know iPods are of the moment, the objective correlative of up-to-dateness; McDonald’s “promises to be a forever young brand”; hence McDonald’s will be like iPods. Like Apple design, the new McDonald’s will be “simple” and “clean”—I wonder if there has ever been a redesign that wasn’t hailed as simple and clean—like “realism”, simplicity and cleanliness are always relative terms, their hallmarks changing over time to reflect novelty and trends. In other words, there is no Platonic ideal of simplicity, what is “simple” is always relative to what sort of complications a redesign is supposed to remedy.

In the case of McDonald’s upgrade, the complications involve jettisoning the “heavy plastic” look (which has been deemed dated and incompatible with the corporation’s new emphasis on selling healthiness) and incorporating a “linger zone.” In the past McDonald’s embraced the high capitalist ethic of efficiency, and sought to leverage the principles of motion studies and time management to maximize the numbers of burgers produced and consumed. The assembly line approach was “clean and simple” back in the ‘50s and ‘60s—no hassles like waiters to deal with, in fact, no waiting in general. From the godlike viewpoint of design, employees and customers were treated much the same, two sides of the same coin. Just as employees were limited in what they could do and given very little information to process and virtually no decision-making responsibility, so customers were offered a limited menu and were expected to accept food manufactured to pre-ordained specifications. Just as the work areas were designed to expunge loafing and shirking and talking and economize the motions of workers so that they could flip 14 burgers in 3.74 seconds and assemble 17 filets-o-fish in under a minute or whatever, so were the customers’ eating areas purposely designed to be uncomfortable so as to maximize turnover and discourage loitering by any undesirable deadbeats, who might sit there and talk to each other instead of cram cheeseburgers down their gullet. Thus the hard plastic unmovable chairs, the unappealing clown colors, the harsh lighting. Ideally you wouldn’t get out of your car at all, and you’d use the drive-through. It was the restaurant equivalent of the gas station, another evolving icon of post-war American culture, and I’m sure it struck Americans as clean and simple—you zip right through and get your standardized product and you’re comfortable in the knowledge that your service was no different than anyone else’s. Democracy in action.

Now democracy in action seems to mean providing movable chairs “for families”, a WiFi connection, plasma TVs for isolated, lonely eaters “to keep them company” and a few couches so that customers can “feel comfortable hanging out.” The old color scheme will be muted, and olive and terra cotta—Starbucks hues—will be introduced into the palette. Rather than process customers in a one-size-fits-all manner, the new McD’s offers three distinct zones for families, loiterers, and people in a hurry. Rather than express their contempt for you openly, that is, now they will conceal it behind some technological gimcracks and some upholstered chairs. So having abetted the atomization of American society, undermining traditional rituals of eating that once fostered polite society and turning food into on-the-go fuel, McDonald’s now wants to present the simulacrum of what it helped destroy, an ambiotronic environment in which the semblance of civility is exhibited for maximum marketing appeal. It wants to cater to the illusion that people have time to hang out, that people enjoy being in public with strangers, that its own food is something to be savored rather than inhaled on the run. The corporation can subsidize a few people hogging the comfy chairs and watching the TVs in order to give its bread-and-butter customers—the harried single people in a hurry—a warm, fuzzy feeling about what they are about to eat, as if a Big Mac can give them access to the laid-back linger-zone life by proxy. But most people, McDonald’s knows, don’t really want to linger. Rest assured, regardless of the redesign, the heart of McDonald’s will remain as hard a plastic as ever.

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Monday, May 8, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

“Calm” [MP3]
“Parade of Punk Rock T Shirts” [MP3]
multiple songs [MySpace]

“Jeez Louise” [MP3]

Starlight Mints
“Seventeen Devils” [MP3]

“Rubber Traits” [MP3]

Wooden Wand
“Eagle Claw” [MP3]

The Wowz
“Unbroken Chain” [MP3]

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Monday, May 8, 2006

I’d be lying if I said I cared about the latest plagiarism scandal, in which young Ivy Leaguer Kaavya Viswanathan stole sections of other books to turn out a chick-lit opus for a fiction-packaging firm. In the particular case of Viswanathan, the hysterical reaction is probably augmented by schadenfreude at a student from one of the “elite” schools being exposed as a fraud—it seems to shore up the suspicion that the Ivy League itself is huge cultural fraud. (Elite schools have nothing to do with merit in the sense of raw talent or ability, and everything to do with conserving perceived superiority for an already established overclass. In other words it is fundamentally a network for keeping “the wrong sort” out of the upper echelons of the academy at large, and in many cases, the media and politics. The structure of American society is loose enough to thwart that network and let exceptionally ambitious people circumvent the Ivy League screen; the less maniacally driven, less relentlessly self-promoting, however are more likely to be filtered out regardless of ability.)

In general, I think these plagiarism “scandals” are culture’s collective and reactionary way of resisting the way intellectual property is evolving under pressure of digitalization. Cultural productions are becoming more collective, at the industrial level (the way many hands are required to make big budget films) and the grass-roots level (the way knowledge and ability are pooled in cross-linked blogs). Economist Tyler Cowen lists a few observations about contemporary plagiarism here, noting that information technology (the digitalization of media, the usefulness of cut-and-paste functionality, vast searchable archives, ready access to diverse influential texts) makes plagiarism more tempting to commit and easier to catch at the same time. In Cowen’s opinion the ready access to the words of so many intellectual influences will make for more citations and possibly the diminishing of the aura of individual originality. The unmistakeably overt nature of influence will change perceptions of the individual genius. When information was more easily hoarded, pre-digitization, plagiarism was a viable aesthetic strategy—hidden influence could be passed off or received as originality as long as one’s borrowings could be concealed or were obscure. For example, Once artists had to travel to some aesthetic center like Rome or Paris to imbibe the influences of past artists, to discover techniques or approaches or concepts to work into their own efforts; this journey would theoretically give them an advantage over other artists, and it would be left to art historians to discover the pattern of influence decades later. And similarly, pop bands used to be able to exploit the obscuirity of their influences to come across as original—neo-garage bands in the 1980s come to mind. Now everyone has the same source material available to them at a few mouse clicks. In the publishing world of the 18th century, authors routinely borrowed portions of books they had the ingenuity to acquire and translate for miscellanies, and pirates simply took foreign books and changed their titles and claimed them for their own. When the work in question is ephemeral, it’s easier to get away with; when the audience doesn’t care who wrote something—which is generally the case, unless there is some prestige that might accrue to the reader from being familar with a specific author—then there is not much disincentive (beyond suits filed by aggreived authors you’ve stolen from) to slapping any old name on it. Thus developing a cult of personality is probably more important for a writer than turning out consistently good work.

Cowen suggests that the concept of originality will shift from a capacity to invention to a talent for filtering—editors who choose judiciously what to compile and present, and in what manner to present it—how to intigrate it in ingenious ways—will possibly garner the prestige once reserved for artists. For sure a good information filters are useful and more necessary than ever. But will anyone care to be known as a really good filter? Could these theoretical celebrity editors have as much incentive for developing a cult of personality as writers have? One could argue that remixing DJs who acquire a reputation exemplify this, though the way they recombine things can be seen as traditionally creative. Perhaps the radio station I mentioned in a previous post offers a better example of the celebrities of the future. The station’s random playlist was misperceived as the expression of an audacious guiding genius known as “the Guru” who acquired a coterie of adoring fans who used their own creativity to supply the non-existent logic for the sequences of songs the computer generated. Is creativity—once you strip away the red herring of originality—always a matter of an audience’s being able to intuit the logic for the choices it infers?

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Friday, May 5, 2006

There should be something profound to say about these purposely useless inventions, but that might be against the spirit of the unenterprise. Are these things emblems of hyperconsumerism or anticonsumerism? Never mind, I know. Both and.

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