TechKnow: The Year in Review

To blog or not to blog?
’tis the question of the year. According to one meta-blog, The Blog Herald.com, the answer is a resounding yes for over 100 million bloggers worldwide in 2005. Blog is Miriam Webster’s word of the year, defined as “a website that contains an online personal journal with reflections comments and often hyperlinks.” Amid floods, earthquakes, terrorist bombings and countless lives lost, in the year we might have thought the world could not get any worse, the bloggers became both eyewitness and commentator, making their voices increasingly relevant. For example see these blogs on the Pakistan Earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina.

The term ‘blog’ was coined by Jorn Barger in 1997 at the time when around 25 blogs were known on the Internet. This was a time when every website created was a joy for the online community. These pages were listed on James Garrett’s ‘pages of only weblogs’ and later by Brigette Eaton on the Eatonweb Portal. The number of blogs increased rapidly, with the phenomenon exploding in 1999 with the advent of blogging software; most notably Blogger by Pyra (now owned by Google).

Previous to such software being available, blogs were created by those who new how to code HTML, usually experts who would search the web, filtering information with links and their commentary. One of the first blogs was written by Tim Berners-Lee of CERN in 1992 (founder of the World Wide Web), and Justin Hall is recognised as one of the earliest bloggers who started writing his blog while at college in 1994. Since their modest conception, blogs have infiltrated the Internet scene, being used to explain, explore, examine and criticise. They have gained credibility as valuable sources for disseminating news, bringing to the fore opinions unrepresented in corporate media.

Greg Ruggiero, author of Microradio and Democracy (Seven Stories Press, 1999) is quoted as saying “media is a corporate possession . . . you cannot participate in the media. Bringing that into the foreground is the first step. The second step is to define the difference between public and audience. An audience is passive, a public is participatory. We need a definition of media that is public in its orientation.”

Blogs facilitate the public participation in media. They break from the traditional notion of news being something fed to us by news corporations and allow each of us to be a reporter in the world in which we live. Through our daily bombardment with data, blogs give us a chance to reflect, form opinions, highlight discrepancies, and deconstruct what we see to our fellow ‘net-beings.

Mainstream media appear to regard blogging as a threat to their information hegemony, fearing they allow power to sift from media big business to the individual. The nightmare being that your daily visit to the BBC news website may now be replaced by visits to your favourite blogs. Realising the potential power of blogging, it is not uncommon to find traditional news sites hosting reader forums or inviting reader contribution in an attempt to co-opt the blogging phenomenon rather than compete with it. It’s even becoming increasingly common to find blogs created by politicians, lobby groups, and corporations that want to be seen as ‘on-trend’ while harnessing the blog phenomenon as a marketing and propaganda tool.

By it’s virtue, the Web lends itself to self-publishing. Prior to the Web’s arrival it was nearly impossible to have an audience for material without going through traditional channels. Publishing books required a literary agent and a friendly publisher; releasing music required a manager and selling your soul to the record company. From day one the Web has been capable of finding an audience for all of your creative endeavours, yet very few took advantage of it. Blogging looks set to become the first mainstream phenomenon to fully exploit the free, uncensored publishing ability of the World Wide Web.

Rebecca Blood, author of The Weblog Handbook (Perseus Books Group, 2002), sums it up well “We are being pummelled by a deluge of data and unless we create time and spaces in which to reflect, we will be left with only our reactions. I strongly believe in the power of weblogs to transform both writers and readings from ‘audience’ to ‘public’ and from ‘consumer’ to ‘creator’. Weblogs are no panacea for the crippling effects of a media-saturated culture but I believe they are one antidote.”
Yusuf Osman

Can someone do a podcast about Adam Curry’s hair?
In 1982, my hometown (Grand Rapids, Michigan) was a test market city for a new television channel called MTV. Today, I live outside the US, out of the range of American radio waves and my beloved public and community radio shows. In 2005, while casting about to get my fix for such programming, I stumbled upon podcasting. Key to both MTV’s and podcasting’s beginning stages, Adam Curry was there. He was one of the original MTV VJs in the ’80s, and today claims to have invented podcasting. Given his consistent media presence, I feel justified in asking for someone to explain the evolution of his hair from the lush, dark curly ‘fro of the ’80s (Curry at far right) to the blond, undulating fields of wheat that I see all over the web today. While someone’s explaining that, I’ll just note that podcasting is, at this point, a mixed bag. Podcasts are, basically, radio broadcasts that anyone can create (with the right, relatively cheap equipment) and on the listener end, anyone can download to an MP3 player or computer.

On the practical end of things, I love being able to download public radio programs, key columns from magazines such as Slate and New Scientist, political positions from Illinois Senator Barack Obama, and Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, in addition to some random technobabble from around the world, and some less well-known ‘casts from Billy No-Mates with the microphone and laptop in Peoria. I can keep up with news, politics, and culture that I might otherwise miss. And to be honest, I got bored with the music on my MP3 player and continually fiddling with playlists, downloading music, and uploading CDs. Podcasting’s been this culture vulture’s personal Jesus: iTunes is my altar, the podcasts are my disciples spreading the alternative news gospel.

On the theoretical side, the turf wars and bickering might suck all the life out of a burgeoning media format. First, there’s the name “podcast”, which inextricably links the format with the Apple-Borg. That behemoth had nothing to do with the evolution or development of podcasts. Apple made my life easier with iTunes’ inclusion of a podcast directory and download functionality, but I fear that Apple’s encouragement of mainstream news and entertainment outlets to podcast will lead quickly to subscriber fees. Maybe I’m a hold-out, but I still balk at paying for content on the web.

The turf war has also extended to who gets credit for inventing podcasting. As mentioned the flaxen-haired Curry, in an Al Gore-like move, claims he did. Others give credit to software engineer and blog pioneer David Winer. Still others cite Technocrati principal engineer Kevin Marks as an early player in developing podcasting. It’s totally Handbags at Dawn in the Podcast Corral. I can’t be arsed to figure out who to thank for bringing podcasts into my life, but I’ll gladly buy a round at the pub for Marks, Winer, and even Curry (with his lady hair) if they’re ever in London.
Kimberly Springer

Do you PSP?
There has been a long-running war of the consoles with Nintendo being a modern-day pioneer. Every household’s companion — the Playstation — has been a market leader the last 10 years selling over 100 million units to date (not including Playstation2), although the Xbox is gaining ground. But there has only been one mainstream portable gaming console: the Nintendo Gameboy. In the many incarnations it has had, the Gameboy has consistently proved popular with no real competition.

This all changed with the release of the PSP. I’ve tried so many times to be a gamer but well, I just can’t play games. And, yet, even non-gamers like me lust after the PSP. The PSP’s super sexy, white casing oozes style, something that can never really be said about the Gameboy range, yet it isn’t a weasel when it comes to technological marvel. It has an amazing screen, wireless capabilities and of course, the kind of superb graphics that give the Gameboy sticky pyjamas.

The release of the PSP most certainly marks the next era of portable gaming. It allows the consumer the same at-home immersive gaming experience, but while on the move due to the excellent graphic capabilities, which are more ‘adult’ compared to the ‘child-like’ graphics of the Gameboy. Additionally, in a very short time the PSP has spawned it’s own ecosystem much like the other gizmo phenomenon of our time, the iPod. For example a 4Gb hard drive, speaker stands, and online stores dedicated to solely selling PSP merchandise, e.g. at PSPWorld.com.

One of the main flaws of the console is the proprietary, and sometimes-illogical methods that Sony uses to implement certain functions of the PSP. Additionally, the PSP’s short battery life can’t compete with any version of the Gameboy to date. Despite it’s shortcomings the PSP has proven in a short time, to be the hard-core gamers choice of portable console.

In a market where companies can’t rely on customer loyalty, it seems Nintendo is losing much ground. A quick check in London’s high street games stores and Nintendo barely has a presence. It has been a long time since Nintendo created a console that was well received by the market. Being that the PSP is the first portable console to be designed by Sony it’s miles ahead of Nintendo, and any gripes with it at the moment, one hopes will be ironed out.
Yusuf Osman

Wireless, Whine Less
I’m going to declare this the year of wireless. I finally got broadband at home, so I didn’t have to rely on DJ NotSoGreat in the flat above mine to have his connection open and unprotected. My MP3 playlists were optimized for every possible mood. That’s no small feat, for I am one moody bizzatch. I was ready to dance around my flat like Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30, laptop in hand while creating tailored music playlists on Pandora.com. That is until I actually hooked up the broadband, the computer, the printer, the USB hub, my preamp for podcasting, and my digital camera. Suddenly, I found myself in a labyrinth of cords and wires reminiscent of a wicked Grimm’s Fairytale Dark Forest. Help!!!

That was in February and I still haven’t managed to sort out all the cords. I tried one of those plastic cord control tubes, but merely managed to mangle my chattering class fingers in attempts to fit all the cords inside. I tried Velcro ties, but they kept getting caught on my sweater and hair. Finally, I just kicked the entire mess under the desk and now try to act like there aren’t several yards of electrical cord attempting to pull me like Euridyce into the Underworld.

So, while 2005 was my year of technology consumption, 2006 will be the year I go wireless. I bought a Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer on a lark and it’s my best purchase of the year. A receiver connects to the USB port of my laptop or desktop and the mouse is good to go! It has an optical sensor that’s deadly accurate in its tracking in any direction on the screen. It’s particularly useful for teaching or giving lectures without messing about with a trackpad. My only concern is that I’ll compromise the battery life by forgetting to snap the receiver into the bottom of the mouse when I’m finished using it. That said, wireless keyboard, speakers, and headphones are on my Amazon wishlist. Go buy ’em for me…and for yourself, too.
Kimberly Springer

Video killed the broadcaster
Mobile video, that is. Devices have long existed which have allowed you to view movie clips, record television shows, and encod DVDs while you’re off doing other things. Companies like Archos seem to have perfected a product, and one that I have considered purchasing. But portable video hasn’t grasped the mainstream consumer like the portable digital music revolution did, partly due to haphazard implementation by technology companies.

Yet, in what seems to be a risky pursuit, Apple has continued to push ahead with technology that consumers have yet to demand. Speculations regarding Apple releasing a video-capable iPod have been around for a long time, something which they kinda/sorta did earlier in 2005. The video iPod, or iPod with video, allows you to download video content from the iTunes Music Store and play them back on your iPod. The day after its announcement, an array of software was available to download which in a few simple steps enable you to re-encode DVDs or to optimise video on your hard drive to play on the iPod.

Although I don’t rate the iPod video as a technological achievement of 2005, the reason for its inclusion here is its significance to the future of portable video. Apple is a a market leader in portable players. By including video support on its current range of iPod, this implies its belief that the market is soon to be ready for portable video. Undoubtedly, other manufacturers are trying their best to release a product that they hope will be the leader in the portable video market before Apple does.

The reason for the iPod’s success lies in its simplicity as a portable music player. You upload your CDs to iTunes or purchase music online, and it’s transferred to your iPod, and away you go. The technical reason for portable video not being successful rests with the complexity of getting content on to the player. Apple, masters at providing simple all-in-one solutions, will likely apply that know-how to further video portability dilemmas.

Presently, if you own a portable video device you must encode your own video using software that isn’t all too intuitive at times. You can also record video from TV and transfer that to your device But there isn’t a set content delivery system for video, as there is for music with iTunes, nor is there set pricing structures. Although Apple’s inclusion of the current-show downloads feature for $1.99 may be successful at present, this is a fad that is sure to change. Despite TV companies rubbing their hands in glee over charging the user per episode watched, the average user in the long-sterm will not pay for each current show he wants on his portable video device – not when you can record for free from TV.

For video to be a market success, the process for the end user needs to be simplified. There will come a time in the not too distant future, where traditional broadcasting, i.e., a channel with set programme times, will come to an end. Rather, we will pay for the shows we want to watch, when we want to watch them, and they will be streamed to us via our super fast internet connections, which we can then transfer to our portable devices, if we wish. This kind of easy process will be what revolutionises TV and also bring about the success of portable video devices.

Another inclusion in Apple’s release this year was FrontRow on the new iMacs; a sleek graphical interface to multimedia applications. With the inclusion of a remote control (which looks like an iPod shuffle), you get one-hand access to your video-on-demand, music, and DVD. FrontRow is an amazing piece of software but the release again, was noted for what seemed to be an incomplete solution from Apple without the inclusion of TV facilities Speculation is rife that FrontRow is a forerunner to the inclusion of television and fully-fledged one touch Tivo-style recording on your computer. Thus it’s a tough competitor battling with Windows Media Centre PCs.
Yusuf Osman

Richard Griffiths Goes Mobile-Postal!
How I wish I’d been there when stage, television, and film actor, Griffiths got all USA-style litigious on a woman whose mobile rang during a performance of Heroes in London’s West End. It was near the end of the play when the mobile (no doubt with some naff ringtone) went off for the third time that evening.

Now let’s be for real: the first time? Fine, she forgot to put her cell on ‘silent’, or better, just turn the damned thing off. The second time? Let’s speculate that she thought she put it on ‘silent’, but in fact only set it on ‘vibrate’ and ‘ring’. But three times deserves a can o’ Whoop Ass ™. However, this did happen in England, land of non-existent customer service and put up with the nonsense public. Thus, it was to my great delight that, reportedly, Griffiths said, from the stage, “Could the person whose mobile phone it is please leave? The 750 people here would be fully justified in suing you for ruining their afternoon.” Oh, yes, Daddy! He spoke for everyone who’s had a performance or lecture disrupted by polyphonic ringtones.
Kimberly Springer

ICANN’t Believe It’s Not Better!
One question that keeps coming up in commercial, academic, and general public conversations is, who owns the Internet? This is actually the wrong question, but I can see how, with the continued march of capitalism, we get stuck in a loop about ownership. Actually, at the end of 2005, questions of both economic and political control arose at the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) held at the end of November in Tunis.

As it stands now, anyone can host a website and there’s literally no limit to the topics available on the web (both the humane and the barbaric). Clearly, then, no one owns the web, but at issue is the standardization of the medium and who directs that standardization. While no one body or country ‘owns’ the Internet, there are certainly institutions that created and oversee the Internet. The US National Science Foundation funded initial research and implementation; the Internet Engineering Task Force is an international group of programmers, operators and researchers that concern themselves with Internet architecture and smooth operation; and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), oversees domain names and Internet mapping.

It’s with this last body, ICANN, that there’s been a recent international kerfuffle. The US government bought ICANN from an American inventor, thus explaining the American tantrum of, “It’s mine, mine, MINE!” Activists and other nations at the WSIS meeting contested US control over ICANN. Concerned parties fear US domination of a communications system so vast as the Internet. If we think about the Internet as a political tool — it was after all, like most technology, a military invention of Cold War thinking — there certainly is cause for concern.

Does control of ICANN give the US the power to dictate which nations can use the Internet and how? There are, for example, accusations that ICANN favors US business interests and that it’s been slow to implement multilingual, top-level domain names. Yet, there are very real concerns about whether developing nation’s have the resources and technical expertise to move forward with maintaining the Internet beyond commercial uses and interests. Separating issues of business, technical know-how, national self-interests, and the developing global village with this evolving resource will be a task for the interested public.
Kimberly Springer

“Heh-heh. You said, ‘rootkit,’ Beavis.”
Lordy. Could Sony BMG have f’ed up more than they did with their attempt to copy protect CDs by hacking consumers’ computers? That’s basically what they did when they content-protected several albums released in June. When PC users play a Sony BMG CD on their computers, a program allows for copying only twice (Linux and Mac users were unaffected.) Had I bought the Sony BMG title, This Is Niecy by Deniece Williams and found my computer hacked, I woulda been one upset sistah. Were I Amerie, one of the Sony BMG artists who subsequently had their CDs pulled from retail and online outlets, it’d be the one thing that had me trippin’!

Yes, Sony BMG has the right to protect their mice on the sinking ship known as the recording industry. However, they don’t have the right to install a software program in the nether regions of PC users’ computers, leaving them vulnerable to malicious viruses generated by pimply teens in New Jersey or Sweden. Though they did provide information on uninstalling the software and offer refunds for affected CDs (see this Sony article), they were completely unremorseful. This attitude is, I think, indicative of why the music industry will continue to see declining sales. Rather than attempting to adapt to how consumers now like to listen to music, Sony BMG and other recording industry dinosaurs continue to think that litigation and trickery are the way to keep us buying CDs at inflated prices. Silly mortals.
Kimberly Springer

Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers
APPLY APPLY