Homo homini rodentius est

The Grid (Koyaanisqatsi)

It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. – Godfrey Reggio

One of the wonders of [Hulu] is that it allows you to view and share full-length features. I’ve wanted to share the segment called “The Grid” from Reggio’s 1982 classic Koyaanisqatsi for as long as I’ve been writing this blog and now I can. Albeit with the risk of commercial interruption… Even still, if you’ve never seen the movie you’ll get a sense of one of the most amazing cinematic experiences ever committed to film.

Koyaanisqatsi carries the rap of “message movie”, decrying modern technology — an overlong music video whine — but it’s much more subtle. Reggio himself refused to label it as anything beyond a meditation on technology. Sure, there are some digs at the regimentation of life that tech imposes (keep an eye out for the unsubtle visual metaphors using snack foods…), but I can’t help watching this and not being amazed at the beauty of man-made forms and rhythms. The scene of commuters rolling off the old PATH escalators at the World Trade Center in waves is an astonishing blend of nature and technology.

And if you have good speakers attached to your computer, crank the volume — Philip Glass’s amazing score will make your head fly off. In a good way.

There Will Always Be an A-list

bullhorn

All is not well in the Web 2.0 world. There’s a basic tension in the world of people who write online that has been brewing for awhile and has bubbled up once again. Until very recently, publication was a relatively limited option for most people who sought an audience for their writing primarily because of the costs involved. With barriers to entry high, the probability of being offered the opportunity to reach an audience was slim — but, if successful, was rewarded with a fair probability of being read. The internet promised to change that formula, and has. On the one hand, technology has reduced the cost of publication to near zero, which allows just about anyone to self-publish and seek an audience. On the other hand, somewhat ironically, the increased number of competitors for reading attention has effectively reduced the probability of any particular writer collecting a significant audience to near zero. What Web 2.0 offers with one hand it takes away with the other: the democratic, hierarchy-flattening promise of technology leads not to a Commons where all voices are equally considered, but rather a cacophony of voices, above which only a few are heard clearly.

Chris Anderson’s theory of [The Long Tail] could be seen as an article of the Commons faith — as with any other consumable, with technology providing even residents of the long tail of the consumption distribution access to readers, one could still hope to find at least a niche audience. But [recent work] out of Harvard suggests that the web actually acts to flatten the long tail and magnify the impact of the short tail. For those who are frustrated by the apparent inequities of the online publishing world, this will not come as good news.

For bloggers, the short tail is embodied in the “A-List” — whether in the tech or political worlds — the celebrity bloggers, like Robert Scoble and Arianna Huffington, who collect the most readers and who exert extraordinary influence over the public conversation. One regularly reads impassioned essays such as [this one] by Jim Kukral declaring war on the idea of the A-List or even, as in Krukal’s case, wishing it away entirely by decree. But there are reasons A-Lists exist that can’t be wished away. The principal one is: they provide value. A-List bloggers gain their authority because they enjoy advantages that most writers do not, primarily access. By dint of geographic location and professional history they are directly connected to sources of news and product information that are highly valued by their readers. Their connections make them valuable to their readers who, in turn, make them popular, more influential and better connected, hence, more valuable. It’s a “virtuous cycle” that benefits the A-List bloggers and their readers but not, alas, the millions of other bloggers scrambling to gain attention for their work.

Those who are unhappy about the elite status of certain writers need to be clear about who they are really unhappy with and why. The “who” is other readers, like themselves. The “why” I’ll leave to them to figure out.

Apple faithful line up for iPhone, oblivious to impending doom

Godzilla and the iPhone faithful
Hundreds of iPhone fans stand sweltering in 90° heat, oblivious to impending disaster.

Unless you spent the day on the Moon you’re aware that today was the day Apple rolled out the new iPhone 3Gs. Alas, the launch wasn’t quite ready for prime time and the faithful, who began queuing up early in the morning, spent most of the day struggling with failed activation servers and even credit card approval crashes. I walked over to the big new Apple Store in the Meatpacking District to find — even at this hour (4pm) — hundreds of people in a line that ran down 14th Street. Standing under black Apple branded heat collectors… er, umbrellas that were handed out by the store, they were quiet and a bit somber. As is only appropriate for religious pilgrims on their way to the shrine.

NYT Continues to Carry Water for Google

NYT: You’ve got a friend…

One of the hallmarks of an effective PR operation is the ability to get outlets with high prestige to write well of your client. To my mind, there is no more effective public relations operation going than the one at Google. Not only do they have the good will of Silicon Valley’s heavy hitters and “influencers” in their corner, but also thousands, perhaps millions of bloggers and early adopters. Their magical touch extends well outside of Silicon Valley, as well, all the way to the ink-stained hallowed halls of major news outlets, including the New York Times.

There’s a piece today in the Times entitled, [“Google, Zen Master of the Market”]. The article describes Google’s growing power in the online economy, calling on academic sources to describe the “indirect network” effects of their dominance that act to inhibit competition. And yet, the full implications of that dominance are not developed — are, in fact, blunted. Parallels to Microsoft’s dominance in the PC market are invoked, but not, as one might expect to describe Google’s ad platform as the advertising “operating system” of the Net — rather, the writer takes pains to point out how the cases are different. Elsewhere in the article, serious questions about Google’s transparency and the ability of regulators to assess its behavior are raised and then, instead of seeking input from Google’s competitors or the advertisers who are constrained by the ad monopoly, the writer goes to Google for a summation in which we are told, “Google looks at what happened to Microsoft, and we’re going to follow the rules.” Whew! That’s reassuring. End of article.

The style of the writing seemed familiar so I checked and, sure enough, it was written by Steve Lohr the same writer who penned a Google [puff-piece] back in December entitled, “Google Gets Ready to Rumble with Microsoft”, in which every talking point that the Corp Comm folks in Mountain View were floating about their (non-existent) competition with Microsoft for the enterprise space was trotted out in the guise of reporting. In both cases, Lohr, either through ineptitude or something else, buries the real story: in the enterprise piece, whether Google is being led over a cliff by an Ahab-like Eric Schmidt seeking that one last go at his white whale and, in the current piece, whether the remedy to Google’s dominance of the ad market is to insist that it be opened up to competitors. In other words, if Google’s ad network is the de-facto operating system for search commerce, should it be “interoperable” and non-exclusive the way Windows was forced to be?

I would’ve enjoyed seeing Hal Varian’s response to that question.

Jesse Helms and his unintended legacy

Jesse Helms as Boogie Man
The boogie man.

Well I never would have believed it, but Jesse Helms ended up sharing a characteristic with Thomas Jefferson! They both died on Independence Day. Of course, down in Old Dixie, this means that for years to come July 4th will take on added gravity as a day of remembrance for a fallen son of the Old South — the antebellum South, that is. But it will also be marked in other places — as an additional reason to celebrate. And not just for the obvious reason that we are relieved of one of the most hateful men who ever held public office in this country, but for the not so obvious benefit that he provided to those he hated the most.

Helms’ reactionary policies and statements are legendary — loyal support for foreign fascists such as Pinochet and Ian Smith, unrelenting opposition to civil and reproductive rights in his own country, and, of course, virulent hatred of gay people. The man who once said, “I have tried at every point to seek God’s wisdom on the decisions I made, and I made it my business to speak up on behalf of the things God tells us are important to Him,” also said of gay people suffering from AIDS, “It’s their deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct that is responsible for the disease.” But his hatred went beyond mere condemnation. When he repeatedly opposed funding for the Ryan White Bill to fund AIDS research it was obvious that his intention was to assist what he considered to be God’s judgment in its deadly work.

And yet, ironically, his unmitigated enmity toward the gay community was one of the most effective galvanizing forces for a previously ghettoized and marginal population. There is a great virtue in having a clear enemy who acts as a locus around which opposition can cohere. In political struggles where radical change is needed the greatest danger comes from enemies that diffuse distinctions — which is why Jim Crow and its “separate but equal” sop was so effective for so long in delaying the conflagration that had to come to end American apartheid. It took a Bull Connor and his dogs and fire hoses to lay bare the face of racism and galvanize disparate groups of people to radical action. For gay people, Jesse Helms was our Bull Connor. I’m almost tempted to say we should thank him. Almost. I wonder if he was ever bewildered by the steady advance in civil rights that gay people have enjoyed since the AIDS crisis struck. I’ll bet he was.

The thought of it makes me happy.

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