We all create for one another. And our creations assume a life of their own.

Higher education

February 18th, 2014
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I believe a strength of our democracy has been the widespread study of liberal arts at colleges, even by non-liberal arts majors. Whatever the cause, the drastic decline of those who understand basic political science, literature, and the arts hurts our ability to function as a working republic. I would argue this also hurts our economy as we need creative individuals who can synthesize and invent at all levels. Why do we increasingly seek to emulate third world educational systems?

MOOC’s present a legitimate educational avenue to control costs and increase reach. Yet they cannot (yet) truly emulate the classroom experience, and the value of reaching adulthood among your peers in an academically stimulating environment. As many have pointed out, MOOC’s are excellent *supplements*, especially in a continuing ed role.

So what’s the real problem MOOC’s or any other novel approach seeks to solve? It seems to me the answer is cost, rather than declining quality. Maybe I’m naive, but I think the innovation we need in our higher educational system involves better approaches to financing a university education.

For instance, why do financial institutions provide student loans? By deferring payment, these huge debt burdens serve to drive up costs. Why not cut out the middle-man? A university could defer tuition payments over a period of time. This would emulate loan payments for students, but theoretically at less usurious rates. Now the interests of student and university are better aligned: the future credit-worthiness of graduates becomes very important to university administration.

Federal and state governments could offer no interest loans to universities to compensate for hit to short-term funding. Over time, universities that produce good earning, reliable graduates would thrive. Those that do not would fail.

End of the Novel(ist)

March 22nd, 2010
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I thought it was Leslie Fiedler who first wrote that the “novel is dead,” though my decision engine brings me to this attribution to Naipaul.  Of course whomever made that statement knew full well that novels will keep getting written; the argument regards the art-form rather than the creative artifact.  Ah, for the days of life as a student of literature, where I could spend productive time considering these questions.

Now I’m grown up, and must spend my time considering less important things.  Luckily, I can exercise my right to blog.  And surf the Web.  And find neat articles on the crisis facing all creative writing, such as this NY Times gem.

I’ve noticed an uptick in this sort of argument, that mashups trample copyright, that creative writers have lost control of their product, that the economics of the profession are being turned on their head.  The uptick tracks, ironically, to recent books coming out on the subject.  The NY Times article references some such works, such as “You Are Not a Gadget.”  I haven’t read it, though references to the book keep popping up.  It must be good.

The theme of such discourse has deep roots.  Perhaps Plato’s famed quote about the tyranny of democracy serves as the best example in the Western world of the basic concept that mob rule naturally persecutes minorities and leads to a mindless homogeneity ripe for the rise of the tyrant.  Hence the value of representative democracy: of elected officials working in a system to filter the worst impulses of the mob, to apply reasoned judgement to the problems of the day, and to protect the interests of the minority. 

Apply the principle to the novel, whose best examples criticize and even alter the societies upon which they comment.  Is there a more esteemed personage than the novelist?  The “(wo)man of letters?” 

We witness the unfolding of the impact to journalism caused by Web 2.0.  The unfettered attack on the economics of an entire industry.  The dissolution of the 4th estate precisely because the mob doesn’t value it enough to pay for its product.  Certainly, the music industry is taking its lumps too.  At least musicians can tour and sell merchandise.  But a novelist?  Good luck.

The Kindle and iPad presage a new era of digital literature.  Beyond the disruptive nature of the medium lurks (ugh, cliched prose — can someone please turn a better phrase for me?), I say, lurks the specter of the inevitable unravelling of any DRM system to protect the content.  Soon any published work will need to be digitized to sell, and any digital copy will be pirated mercilessly. 

Mashupers will rejoice in their ability to change endings, to excise the bits of Huck Finn’s last third we all hate, to lop off the last chapter of Crime and Punishment, creating a new work with one fell swoop (IMHO, a better one).  Then they will jump on a new work of creative fiction the day it hits the wire, launching a feeding frenzy of “I was here first to make my mark,” to twist and mangle until a consumer cannot even trust the claim of the integrity of the original. 

Thus ends the creative and economic model driving our rich, if mostly vapid, publishing industry.  Professional authorship loses meaning.  What has happened to journalism gets repeated, and the novel finally dies its predicted death as an art-form, and the practice of novelism dies its death as a vocation.  Prepare yourself for the birth of the “iVocation,” sold online at iTunes.

What does this dark future hold?  One thing seems certain, at least to me.  Novels will continue to be written.  Human creative impulse drives us too strongly.  Cave walls will be painted.  Yet the form will devolve into the fingers-of-both-hands exceptions, the mass-market hit-makers, the Dan Browns, and then the mass of the iVocationalists, writing in their spare time.  The Long Tail will be served, with the massive variety from the hump to the asymptotic extreme praised for its diversity, and loathed for its lack of quality.  And people won’t care because they have already lost their ability to appreciate the classics, and will rejoice in the muck because it is free.  Capitalism will flood us with supply, and we will demand nothing in return save a price tag of zero.

Why have I chosen to rehash arguments made, points well accepted, trite analysis?  To end up here.  This paragraph, in which I scratch beneath the surface of all this.  Discard mashup and DRM in favor of posing the real question, the interesting point.  First, I must extrapolate just a bit more.  For I have pointed out the glaringly obvious issues facing industries who rely on the creation of content (fiction, news, music, etc.).  What about other industries?  Is Etsy the first inkling that the economic contagion of amateurism may infect many areas, even manufacturing?  In other words, will the downward pressure on prices from globalization be amplified by local producers, by the amateurs I have dubbed iVocationalists?  What does this mean for our economic system?  Is it the harbinger of Marxism achieved through overabundance rather than 19th century Malthusian scarcity?  Or something else?  Maybe Kim Stanley Robinson’s notions of Martian economics brought to Earth?

These issues inevitably boil down to how we compensate each other for our products, our contributions to society.  How do we divide the pie?  The middlemen, historically the recipients of a disproportionate share, especially in free-market capitalism, have already seen a shift to new players, who in turn have reaped a spike in profitability (Amazon, eBay, Apple, Goldman Sachs).  What’s next?  A rebirth of the patronage model from the early Renaissance?  This model died, in part, through the nationalization of currency, and in part because it didn’t scale (which of course drove national currency adoption in a death-spiral for locally controlled economics).  The Radiohead model of seeking recompense through contribution?  Can you really see this sort of practice extending beyond a few notable examples, exceptions to the rule as it were?

What, then, will the new economic model be?  What replaces straight-up capitalism?  Or do we stick with the current system and accept that creativity benefits only the corporate middleman, that a creative artist and even an entrepreneur must make his mark in order to reap the reward of a corporate salary, complete with paid vacation and onsite gym? 

In the end, I must admit I do not know.  I am certain that some form of bundling will emerge, where artists form collectives and promote themselves as a “channel.”  Yet this feels marginal to me, much the way current cooperatives excite so much interest, yet make so little impact on our overall economy (sorry REI). 

One possibility can be glimpsed in places like Denmark, where the social contract continues to expand.  Free healthcare, long periods of compensated unemployment, other generous benefits.  Perhaps we will witness the core requirements to live and raise a family, things like food, housing, healthcare, education, clothing, transporation, and energy, become completely free, commodities provided by society.  This utopia allows its members to enter and exit the paying workforce.  The disruptive forces of computer artificial intelligence and general purpose, self-maintaining robotics make this science fiction vision a practical reality.  Not to mention the benefit of a completely fluid, dynamic workforce to companies.

And yet . . . I wonder . . . after all, modern technology allows us to easily maintain 1980-level productivity while working three days a week.  Ironically, we work more hours now than in 1980, and receive relatively less for our labor.  So innovation spurs us to work harder and longer for less.  This seems oxymoronic. 

In the end, we may be witnessing the Capitalist French Revolution.  You start with monarchy, devolve into disconnected tyranny, revolt into horrific mob rule, reinvent tyranny with a social compact to constrain it, then lapse into monarchy, before settling into a representative democracy that everyone hates, though they dread all alternatives even more.  Seems reasonable to me.  Marx was right in principle, he just mucked up the details.  What do you think?

Silly musing on American Idol

February 11th, 2010
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american idol
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Sure.  I’m a watcher.  An Idol fan.  Though I mostly avoid the audition shows. 

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I feel the need to write what’s perfectly obvious to me.  When Simon Cowell leaves the show after this season, the only logical replacement is Dick Cheney.  Right?


December 14th, 2009
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3d, Uncategorized, user experience
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When will we start seeing Wired headlines along the lines of “3D — the Next Multitouch” or some other such goofball thing.  Certainly, compute power is at the threshold of delivering compelling 3D applications, so this movement should be about more than just buzz.

So how will new graphics capabilties that allow rich, interactive three dimensional experiences look like?  More to the point, how will the positively improve use experience and provide functional capabilities beyond what’s currently possible?  Sure, 3D online maps are already surfacing.  What else?

How about being  able to us screen real estate better via the combination of touch screens and 3D?  Sure, bigger monitors keep getting cheaper.  There’s a limit, though, to how much screen size a human brain can actively process and use.  Allow pressure sensitive touches to push a window into the background or pull it forward and suddenly you can run many simultaneous applications that interact with one another.

More radical?  Maybe things like 3D object modeling for application design and development.  This sort of technology has long been part of design.  Now, with prices coming down, we should see all sorts of things of this nature.  Won’t that be interesting?


December 2nd, 2009
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New Media, social
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I attended my first Philly NetSquared Net Tuesday meetup.   NetSquared is a loose group, whose members share ideas on how to employ technology for social change.  There are chapters all over the world.  See if there’s a chapter near you.

Tonight, the Philly chapter departed from its usual presentational format and had a discussion on various books related to New Media.  I particularly liked the discussion of “Here Comes Everybody” and “Everything is Miscellaneous.”  The later seems like a good book to pair with one I’m reading now, “The Long Tail.”  “Miscellaneous” seems to deal more with the impact on society by breaking down the need to store and retrieve information in hierarchical structures limited by physical space.  “Tail”has much the same thesis, though it focuses on economic implications a bit more.

Here’s the full list of books (please be careful not to edit it):

Musical Mood Ring

November 30th, 2009
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apple, music, pandora
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Pandora does a nice job of creating playlists of music based on the prescribed music genome project.  It furnishes you with music based on your taste.  Apple does something similar with the iTunes Genius playlist, extrapolating like songs in your library from any given song.  It’s simple enough stuff, once you have the metadata.

I wonder, though, if anyone has created a system to recommend music not just based on taste, but also on mood.  I took a quick look around and found a 2003 study on how to ascribe a “mood value” to a give piece of music.  This sort of system could provide half the solution.

The second half would have to determine your mood at any given time.  This article on quantifying mood gets at that notion, pointing out a couple of studies on how to gather this information.  The approach of categorizing mood values and then allowing you to self-evaluate seems crude.  Why can’t there be physiological measures to diagnose mood?  Certainly this would make the prescription of psychogenic drugs more scientific (though that’s a subject for a different blog).  We need a music mood-ring attachment for our iPods.  Oh, and please make it Bluetooth capable.

Advanced Research Center — ARC

March 28th, 2008
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There’s a site out there dubbed the “Advanced Research Center.” It looks like a quasi-government agency site. Interestingly, a video player features prominently on the homepage. But the video gets interrupted and suddenly we’re hearing a chilling voice-over about “billions of lives being at stake.” Then we start to see video footage culled from surveillance cameras. It’s scary stuff. But is it real? Judge for yourself . . .


July 12th, 2007
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I have to admit, I’d never heard the term “crowdsourcing” until reading some articles in Wired dealing with a collaboration with Assignment Zero, describing a collaborative experiment in open-source journalism. This sort of collective approach to journalism underpins a project like Witness, which enlists everyone with the ability to record digital video (aka the “crowd source”) as a recorder of any abuse of human rights. It’s so very new media or media 2.0 to promote the ethic of capturing the power of the herd to create and inform one another. Yet there’s a darker side to this thought process, best explained in the fascinating interview in Wired with Douglas Rushkoff, “What Does Crowdsourcing Really Mean?”

I don’t intend to rehash Rushkoff’s thoughts here; I strongly encourage you to read the interview for yourself. One subtlety of this article triggered my blogging impulses, inspiring me to riff. Rushkoff comes at his thinking from the dual perspectives of open source software and new media, an oft mentioned and explored pairing of social phenomena, yet he pushes the shared ethos behind these movements into the realms of religion and economics. Now that’s really interesting. Essentially, he’s doing what Kim Stanley Robinson did in his wonderful Mars books: exploring the influence of a new environment on our core activities in life, and postulating how social building blocks such as worship of deity or exchange of currency may be altered.

This sort of extrapolation makes sense when you consider “media” is about the interaction of people. Certainly, most of us don’t consider a telephone conversation media, but maybe that’s because the conversation is transient and not memorialized in any way. This applied to email as well; even though email is stored electronically, it rarely becomes memorialized, and most often gets read and deleted or simply forgotten. Usenet? Blogging? Sure, I think of these mediums as media.

When I think of politics and media, newspapers, television, blogging, etc. all apply. After all, the 2008 US Elections have been dubbed the “YouTube Elections.” But if a political speech is considered media, why not a bill or a law? These are written documents meant to convey information, and also to be interpreted, possibly in very different ways by different legal authorities. Yet I don’t really think of a law as a piece of media. Maybe the key to deciphering this riddle lies back in the Rushkoff interview in Wired.

Rushkoff speaks of a novel he wrote about the DotCom era, which he then posted on the Web, soliciting readers to participate in the creation of annotation with each participant playing the role of an anthropologist 200 years in the future, trying to make sense of the books contents. Great idea, if I don’t say so myself.

What if we applied this notion to a law? Post a law on the Web and solicit interpretation from the crowd in the context of a legal challenge. You may scoff at this notion, but have you read any briefs of recent Supreme Court decisions? The bar is pretty low nowadays.

Reality Feedback Loop

June 19th, 2007
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MySpace has partnered with reality-TV maven Mark Burnett to produce “Independent,” a reality show with a political bent. The show will debut in early 2008, according to a Variety report. The concept is simple: run a virtual campaign with real candidates, shadowing the 2008 US presidential elections. According to the report, “Independent” will distinguish itself from a similar predecessor, “American Candidate,” by virtue of being hosted on a social media platform.

The goal of the show is to promote political awareness among youth. A noble notion indeed. Real issues will be debated, probably in a deeper and more meaningful way than the sound-bite filled general election for president (sort of like the youth G8 summit). The $1 million prize for “winning” the election must be donated to an independent candidate or a worthy political cause (I’m sure details are still being worked out here).

The idea of marrying social media with reality TV is nothing novel. In a way, even “American Idol” already does this through their text-message voting. But I think “Independent” will be a very different animal.

The 2008 presidential election has already been dubbed the “YouTube Election.” Everyone knows the Internet, and Internet Video in particular, will influence the outcome. “Independent” may not influence the outcome of the election, but it has a good chance of framing the issues on which the election will be decided.

An early indication of the power of the YouTube factor will be evidenced at the Citadel (yes, that Citadel) during a Democratic party debate, hosted by Anderson Cooper, with questions uploaded through YouTube. You can check it out on June 23rd.


May 8th, 2007
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I suppose it’s natural that bands are looking to user contests to find videos for their new releases. Especially after the treadmill thing exploded. It’s Music 2.0, baby.

I think the video for the Incubus song “Dig” is pretty noteworthy. Check it out: YouTube – Incubus_”Dig” (by kaamuz). I actually find the animation a bit stilted, though the style of the thing is neat. But the creativity is undeniable, and it ties into the song quite well.

Since this is a New Media blog, I can’t just stop with a mention of the video and a link, now, can I? What general and interesting statement can I make? That the video was done by a professional in an amateur’s contest? That the distinction between the two (professional and amateur) continues to blur? Naw, those points would be trite.

Here’s a thought. If contests like this rely on democratic voting, then we face what may be a tyranny of the masses. I think this significant to Media 2.0, one of whose fundamental tenants holds the Web up as a democratizing power, thus justifying and empowering all this Web 2.0 stuff. There are those who take the concept to the extreme, and use the democratizing power of the Web as a justification for copyright infringement and theft of intellectual property. But what does property matter in our brave new world? But I diverge from the main point here, don’t I?

My specific point here involves the intersection of creative art and mass appeal. I’d say most would agree that mass media often works against creativity in art. Isn’t it then natural to suppose mass voting, pure mob-rule democracy, may do the same? Sure, the majority of the people get what they want, but the majority by its very nature diminishes what the minority thinks, and squashes diversity as effectively as any record label executive could dream to do.

What we need are creative representatives. A mass vote to elect representatives to judge music video or any other contests or selection of creative materials. A Wikipolity of the Web. Constitutional Democracy 2.0. Food for thought.

That reminds me. It’s time for breakfast. See y’all later.

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