Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

2 Nov 2011

I know that for some unfathomable reason, many people don’t take advantage of RSS capabilities—presumably such people don’t read blogs with any regularity, because I don’t know how you would do it without an RSS reader. And I know also that some ridiculously small percentage of Google’s customers use Google Reader, and an even smaller percentage used the sharing functions that were embedded within it up until a few days ago. So it’s completely fruitless to complain about the elimination of those functions. Google could care less, and most people probably won’t even know what I am talking about.

Nevertheless I will proceed undeterred, because Google Reader’s model of sharing was one I could get behind, unlike the ideal of “frictionless sharing” Facebook is trying to push on its users. In Reader, all you could share was other blog posts, glossed with a comment if you chose. And if you followed someone’s shared items, they appeared seamlessly among the content you are already using Reader to gather and access. This sort of sharing didn’t exactly make reading social, and it didn’t make me feel like reading blog posts was supposed to be a performative social activity—where I felt obliged to share cool things to try to impress anyone who was following me. It didn’t turn the space of Google Reader into something I imagined as crowded with other people, the way I visualize entering the Twittersphere; instead I felt sequestered with the stuff I was trying to read (or, too often, simply process), only there would be these additional items that wouldn’t have ordinarily been there that I’d generally appreciate. I got to read the best of many blogs I don’t follow, and I learned about many new blogs to start following. It suited my idea of the contemporary public sphere: an exchange of the best pieces of writing about the issues and current events worth deliberating over.

by Rob Horning

2 Nov 2011

The continuing economic slump has brought some heretofore heterodox economic ideas about how to manage central banks and the money supply increasing attention. One of those gaining increasingly high-profile endorsement is NGDP targeting: the idea that the Federal Reserve should use nominal GDP as the benchmark in making monetary policy rather than targeting the rate of inflation. Steve Waldman has many links here to economists championing the idea; I found this National Affairs article by Scott Sumner, a longtime apostle for NGDP targeting, to be the best exposition of the pro argument.

Sumner presents NGDP targeting as an approach that might appease Fed critics on the left, who want central bankers to do more to curb unemployment, and the right, who want to protect their rentier-class patrons from inflation, which reduces the value of their wealth. Sumner notes that has become politically unfeasible for the Fed to deliberately stoke a rise in inflation, which can stimulate growth and generate jobs: “Americans view inflation as a process that reduces their living standards, because they take their own nominal incomes as a given when thinking about the impact of higher prices.” (This raises the question of what has led Americans to have this view, which well suits the interests of the creditor classes but often masquerades as a matter of common sense or human instinct.)

by Rob Horning

28 Oct 2011

It’s been obvious for years now that digital media has forced the music industry to restructure. Some, like Toure in this Salon essay, believe this is sad, depriving us of the pleasures of monoculture, such as they were. I naively hoped that a crippled culture industry might diminish the significance of music as an identity signifier. At one point I thought a decentralized music business might lead to local scenes thriving again and perhaps more people making music instead of consuming it. I’m less optimistic about that now. It appears that success in pop music is still structured by the same forces—the labels, the press, radio stations, concert promoters; with the dynamics of power among them always shifting. And social media seem to have made the use of music as an identity token more ubiquitous. In some instances, such appropriation leads to proximate acts of creativity by consumers—ingenious playlists or remixes, homemade videos, etc. The possibility that anyone can commandeer an audience raises the stakes on cultural consumption, at once breeding both innovation and alienation from the act of listening itself.

The existence of social media has also made online self-promotion a more or less fundamental aspect of forming a band, no matter how modest its ambitions may be. This initially played out as bands becoming weirdly continuous with their MySpace pages. The site Hipster Runoff has served as a more or less continuous commentary on how indie bands are obliged to play online media as one of their instruments, suggesting that their music is basically by-product, subordinate to the real performance: the band’s orchestration of online image and hype. The subversive implication of HRO, I think, is that most bands are better enjoyed as Barnumesque image mongers. The multimedia identity spectacle they manage is a newer, more comprehensive kind of art. In fact, this is the sort of art that the logic of social media would inspire us all to enjoy and to make ourselves—the managing of different audiences and leaks of information to project a fluid yet coherent self as a masterwork. Any of us can be just as much of a microcelebrity as a band is. (This Rhizome essay about camgirls is suggestive on that front, how monitoring the flux of online attention can become a medium, an art.)

Anyway, even in the traditional music industry, the need for bands to self-promote and build a “platform” has become institutionalized, which has to a degree crowdsourced the A&R function. This article from last week’s Economist gets at the dialectics of this shift:

A&R men used to be alchemists, discovering base talent and turning it into gold…. These days they are venture capitalists. Particularly at big labels such as Universal, A&R executives increasingly expect acts to have built a self-sustaining, if modest, business before they offer them a recording contract. Large numbers of Facebook friends and Twitter followers help show that a band has traction. But record labels have become wary of social-media indicators. They know that desperate bands may chatter about themselves or hire marketing firms to inflate their online metrics.

Bands are less artists than entrepreneurial startups, manipulating online social networks to gain leverage with potential investors. The product they sell doesn’t need to be good if the market for it can be posited, and the structure of the industry encourages musicians to focus their talents on that sort of market making. As certain social media metrics get corrupted, new ones will be established, because they serve as an essential proxy for the one metric that will never be perfected, the one that quantifies talent in the abstract.

by Rob Horning

27 Oct 2011

Today’s WSJ has a story by Scott Thurm about how Fair Isaac and the other surveillance companies that track people’s financial activity and collects data to create credit scores are hoping to expand its line and generate scores that can codify other behaviors. They want to posit scores that, for example, let doctors know a patient’s likelihood to obey prescriptions or let marketers know how likely one is to spend rather than save.

Many scores are built on the premise that people who pay their bills on time are likely to be accountable in other ways. “There’s a ‘responsibility’ thought lurking inside” many measures, said [Fair Isaac CEO] Mr. Greene…. Scoring-company executives say their products are fairer and more consistent than the subjective judgments they often replace. Though they concede their formulas aren’t perfect, they say credit-based scores increase economic efficiency, improving people’s access to loans and cheaper insurance.

The “premise” behind these scores need not be proved if it is economically efficient enough—such efficiency serves as a kind of proof of its own. If something generates more commerce, circulates ands valorizes more capital, then it works; it is true. And the market outcomes are presumably superior because they are not “subjective.” Whether the scores accurately depict people’s actual behavior isn’t really the point. It’s not even relevant as long as profit margins are sustained.

Also, fairness in this context is apparently a mere matter of objectivity—it appears more “fair” when a bank denies credit on the basis of one of these mystified scores rather than on the basis of the judgment of one of its employees empowered to make such decisions. Though the scores bear only a probabilistic relation at best to people’s actual character, they seem like neutral renderings of social facts. They reify social relations into a number that can be hung around an individual’s neck as if he earned it all by himself. That is what the Fair Isaac CEO is talking about when he says responsibility “lurks” inside his numbers. The numbers permit a transfer of responsibility in the shady attempt to quantify it in the abstract. The whole point of these scores is to allow companies to exercise various price-discrimination schemes and figure out how to extract the most profit from customers by adjusting how they are treated. This discrimination becomes the consumer’s responsibility. It’s one of many subtle ways capitalism has developed to make class seem like your own fault.

by Rob Horning

25 Oct 2011

One section in Roland Barthes’s remarkable book A Lover’s Discourse, a fragment called “The Informer,” may as well be a parable for the fate of intimacy in the age of social media. In fact, I like the original French title, informateur, better because it suggests a saboteur who works specifically through information. The fragment describes how well-meaning friends give information that destroys the lover’s image of the beloved, and how ambient information about a beloved can unintentionally wound the lover.

The first part of this fragment describes what we would all now recognize as a social network.

Gustave, Leon, and Richard form a group; Urbain, Claudius, Etienne, and Ursule, another; Abel, Gontran, Angele, and Hubert, still another… However, Leon happens to meet Urbain, who gets to know Angele, who knew Leon slightly anyway, etc. Thus is formed a constellation; each subject is called upon to enter into relations, one day or another, with the star remotest from him and to become involved with that particular star out of all the rest: everything ends by coinciding (this is the precise impulse of A la recherche du temps perdu which is, among other things, a tremendous intrigue, a farce network). Worldly friendship is epidemic: everyone catches it, like a disease.

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