Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Apples and Oranges

There have been some truly ludicrous claims made in terms of the potential of new technology. Much of it having to do with the next stage in evolution for the human species, bionic eyes, bio-reading and the like. Though the ‘audio-book’ distributor audible have gone too far. In a recent advert for their tawdry services, a stooge of the advertising company running the glorified lie stated that ‘listening is the new reading.’ Let that sit for a moment because I had to, just to untangle all the various ways in which it was incorrect. Primary among these being that even if one did strongly prefer one over the other, any sort of quantifiable superiority is impossible, the acts of reading and listening being based on entirely different senses. Ergo, they are entire incomparable and to imply that they are, let alone are in some sort of competition demonstrates a woeful ignorance and/or reckless disregard for the very essentials of human sensory biology.  

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Among the Digital Natives

There is an idea that the more things change, the more they really stay the same. That even in the context of innovation, there is only so far one can go in a futurist direction. Nowhere is this more true, the the surprise and consternation of many, than with technology. Despite the wails and forelock pulling that regularly occurs around the poor little ones and what technology is doing to their impressionable little minds. The solution to this query being very much the same as it has always been. More or less what happened to the minds of previous generations as a result of what they were doing. It is truly startling how quickly and thoroughly the elders of a society can forget what it is to be young. A particular irony in the present context, the “gap” between children and parents being smaller than at any other point in human history. Much of this is due to a basic shift in culture that occurred near the end of the 20th century. 

The late 1980s essentially saw the end of the classic linear narrative, seen in everything from children’s picture books to televised news reports. That this shift coincide with the dawn of the ‘Computer Age” is in no way a coincidence. Not only did the newly formed, non-linear, some would say fractured, mode of communication persist into the 21st century, many of the technologies now used are based on those developed at the very beginnings of mass digital communication. ‘Twitter’, from a programming perspective, is really little more than extremely terse, publicly viewable version of instant messaging with elements of email. Both of which have existed in the public domain since the mid-1990s. In the most charitable terms this could be considered an ‘improvement’ over what already existed, though even this is somewhat debatable. Others do not even make the effort to change anything, so-called ‘forums’ being ‘chat-rooms’, formerly known as ‘community rooms’ by another name. A mode of mass communications which has existed, essentially 
unchanged since the early-1980s. 

There has also been a good deal of consternation surrounding the amount of time younger people spend with digital technology. While  there certainly can be a degree of addiction present in such behaviour, the answer is usually much more innocuous. It is the norm. Douglas Rushkoff was in no way exaggerating when he made reference to ‘Digital Natives.’ There is an entire generation of children who have known nothing else but the digital media paradigm to which the generations before them had to adjust. Just as those born in the 1980s were in no way phased by the existence of television, it being a technology developed a good two decades before them. Though let us not forget the response of concerned parents and ‘experts’ at this time, epitomized by Neil Postman’s amusingly alarmist 1985 screed Amusing Ourselves to Death. Whilst it has yet to get to this point in terms of digital technology, though Mari Swingle’s iMinds comes close, one would do well to remember the lessons of the past and realize that those around for the beginning of the current digital media paradigm have an important part to play in the present. Particularly as it applies to helping the younger generations navigate their way through the tangled but exciting 21st century cultural landscape.  

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Good Fences

“Segregation”. A word possessed of a complicated history about which many have very strong, usually rather negative feelings. Which only stands to reason, given its associations in the minds of many with both racially and gender-based discrimination. In terms of functional meaning, however, “segregation” means little more than an established separation, be it it physical, such as in The Republic of South Africa until the mid-1990s or metaphorical/legal. 

It can be difficult for many to imagine, or even recall, now but in the very early days of the Internet things were somewhat limited, as well as extremely organized and for the most part, separate. There was competition to be sure, but this was most,y between providers for subscribers and innovators to be the first to bring about the promised future. In terms of the sites themselves, things tended to remain essentially ‘on message’, to use the modern parlance. There were sites for nearly every interest under the sun, each kept separate from the other, both in terms of servers and understood use of the platform. A call-back to the origins of the World Wide Web as a closed system of communications for academic institutions before it went public. A pattern which would be echoed nearly twenty years later by the inception of social media popularizer ‘Facebook’ at Harvard University, initial membership being limited to those with a Harvard student number. 

All was quiet and fairly peaceful on the digital front, until the Year of Her Majesty 2005 when a little-known, up-start ‘streaming’ site known as ‘YouTube’ disrupted the established order steering digital culture towards is current state of hullabloo. Born during the beginnings of ‘net democratization’, the platform did away not only with the ‘gatekeepers’ of olde but also the wisdom that held that there are some ideas that ought not share space. The popularity of the platform invariably begat other similar boundary breaking sites, becoming increasingly contentious with each iteration, the ‘photo-sharing’ site ‘Tumblr’ being one of the most egregious cases, spurring  what became a trend of arguments ‘online’ inspiring or at least influencing conflict, arguments and acts of physical violence, including man-slaughter, in the non-digital realm. Otherwise known as ‘reality’. 

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Blood Ties

Family, it has been oft observed, is among the most important connections in one’s existence. For better or for worse. It would seem that the majority of those residing in the colonies are optimists agreeing with the first sentiment. At least if the nigh on relentless adverts for so-called ‘genealogy apps’ are anything to go by. One can scarcely get through a televised Cricket match or a BBC News broadcast without being exposed to at least one grinning, oafishly affible so and so claiming to be well and truly gobsmacked by the results of a commercialized, and in no way flawed or vague, perish the thought, mail-order DNA test, which presents itself on their their mobile telephonic device. Watson and Crick would be so proud! 

It must work too, because to hear them tell it, everybody’s ancestor, throughout all history, have been ruddy swell characters, with nary a black spot between them. Even the ones who seem like they might be villains are not all that bad. Like the one right delusional sort who was chuffed to bits to discover that the original bearded of the family name had been a mite naughty during the time of Prohibition, boasting that it helped her find her sense of adventure. Nor do is there ever anyone who discovers that the one with whom they share blood and name was in some way connected to the North American, or indeed British, Slave Trade. One may say miraculously, considering that both chugged merrily along, with at least tacit 
government support for a few hundred years respectively but such is the power of an app. Apparently. 

And, of course, as would only be expected, everyone’s pedigree is close to impeccable as it is possible to get in these sad times, not a bore or a wastrel in to be found. They are all descended from monarchs, tycoons and inventors with nary a dog washer, tailor or chimney sweep in the lot. Or maybe that is just my family. 

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Of Aspirations and Expiration

It has oft been noted that nothing in this mortal existence is permanent. Least of all life itself (though there may be an argument to be made in the case of taxes). Never the less, those of a human persuasion have attempted to hold on to what they could over time. A desire for preservation which has served as  a catalyst for everything from written language to recorded sound to ‘vlogs’. An instinct which has only increased in recent years, though with rather counterintuitive effects. 

There was once a time, consult the historical documents if you doubt it, in which the majority of personal and cultural documents were in a tangible form. What is now referred to a ‘traditional’ or, ahem, ‘old’ media. It is unclear exactly  when the shift occurred but at some point in the early-2000s there  music and non-theatrical film releases went nearly entirely online and ‘old-school’ video boutiques and recorded music emporiums went under like Churchill doing ‘cannon balls’ at the aquatic centre. An advent which has precipitated the effective death of nostalgia for an entire generation. 

In the olden days of physical media, particularly in terms of music, there was a propensity to experience the same works numerous times. A circumstance born of both genuine affection and cold functionalism the prices on actual things being somewhat higher than that of an Internet connection and a pair of headphones. Because of this relative scarcity both in terms of available options due to budget as well as a much longer release schedule, the majority of acts putting out an album every two to three years, the roughly album-a-year output of The Pet Shop Boys (ask your mumma), being regarded as a paragon of a work ethic one tended to be more focused. The combination of bargain to free prices and an inundation of available content online has resulted in an overall decrease in attention and enthusiasm for any one instance. In the dusty days of artifacts, it was perfectly ordinary, nay, acceptable for an aficionado of a particular act or film to partake in a particular piece of work upwards of one hundred times. In this stage of the present epoch, the most ardent appreciators of a film, song or album will experience it a maximum of three times before moving on to something else. 

There is a notion that once something is on the internet it is there forever. This may be the case in the most technical sense but existence does not automatically translate to relevance. Simply ask your chums on MySpace. 

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

By The Numbers

It is in the nature of paradigms that they will shift. Often suddenly and of their own accord, giving little chance for preparation, seat-of-the-trousers adjustment and adaptation oft being the only recourse with which one is left. The true trick is that what can seem like a sudden change usually happens over a matter of years, with various indicators along the way that tend to missed, leading to the sensation of waking up in a different world with little notion as to how one got there. Something that has been referred to as the ‘Rip Van Winkle Effect’. 

One of the more recent developments with a trajectory along these lines is the rapid increase in the popularity and use of not only dating sites, which are basically lonely heart’s sections moved from the printed page to the computer screen, but dating ‘apps’. Both of methods of keeping someone at a distance, perceived if not physical, during the early stages of the courtship process. It could even be argued, with a heavy heart, that the word ‘courtship’, in the truest sense, has become yet another funny reminder of a bygone era, like 'thee' and 'courtesy'. 

The stand-up comedian and all-around gadabout Russell Brand once quipped that he had the art of seduction down to a gesture. At roughly this same time, the programmers and marketers behind Tinder, Grinder and to a lesser extent OkCupid, were getting seduction and even courtship down to an science. Literally reducing the process finding a potential mate down to a mathematical equation. The problem with this notion, the flaw at the core of the hypothesis, is that people are not math equations and have more complexities, eccentricities and shades even on an individual level than can ever be captured, let alone calculated or understood by a data stream. No matter how many stats are collected or how powerful or exact the processor, there is still the matter of all those drated, irritating ‘emotions’ to deal with. Something humans have still barely learned how to manage after thousands of years of practice.  

Sunday, 25 February 2018

On Paper

The technological evolution of the past  four decades has brought society many things. Some of them good, some of them poor, as well as things that started with positive intentions that went beyond the motives of the creator. The online-based animation known as ‘Pepe’ comes to mind. It is also more than likely that the progenitors of Twitter did not have ‘hate mobs’ in mind when launching their communications platform. This is the core of the issue however. When it comes to the human animal, communication is of vital importance, as is the medium through which this is achieved. Marshall McLuhan may have somewhat overstated the case with his ‘the medium is the message’ but he was generally on point.

Interpersonal communication in ‘real time’ is, of course the primary mode, as well as the generally preferred, the written word not being far behind. A fact reflected in development of methods and mechanisms of communications technology thus far. Each iteration along being another attempt at mimicking while strengthening  two primary modes. Nowhere is this clearer than with the telephone. Despite the spectacular innovations achieved since its inception, the fundamental function and meaning of the telephone had remained the same since Bell first shouted to Watson for assistance, his call picked up by the then experimental transmitter. To allow people to speak to one another over great distance via the use of technology. Is it the same perhaps not but the verisimilitude can be striking. Similar to watching a live theatre production on television. It is worthy of note that while ‘landlines’ are a thing of the past, telephones and similar technologies not only still exist
but are at an all time high. If anything, platforms such as Skype are an improvement, not only allowing for auditory communication but visual, which can very closely mimic in person conversation when used correctly which is part of the reason shy consumers responded to it it so strongly.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the written word. What was once a primary mode of communication, even after the invention of more direct forms such as the aforementioned telephone, in a situation which was, ironically, the reverse of what we have now. Telephones were considered somewhat distant, while letters, and other such things sent by post, particularly hand written and signed ones, were thought of as personal, involving a tangible reminder of the sender. This is roughly still the case with print books, despite the change in printing manufacturing over the years phasing out features such imprinted text. In mass communication terms however, beginning with the early days of chatrooms in the early 1980s, there has been a slow erosion of personal connection. The core of the issue is not the people. It is the Internet itself, or rather its etherial nature. Not in terms of how content is created, at least not inherently, there still being involved in much of the content but how it is transmitted and contained. By and on machines with no permanence in reality. Words on a screen that disappear whenever the machine turns off, cannot get online or, heaven forfend, breaks behind mending. Paper, on the other hand, is more static, permanent, being desired as it is from the earth itself in the form of tree and hemp pulp. There ways to turn paper to nothing but tend to be a great deal more deliberate and short of burning, there is always the chance of recovery. At least more so than with a hard drive. Besides which, while writing on a screen applies to one sense, sight, text on paper can arouse up to three. Sight certainly, as well as touch and, sometimes smell depending on the type of paper, as well as giving allowance for the inclusion of scent such as perfume or cologne. Once a fairly common practice. It has, in fact, gotten to the point at which online based text platforms, at least in terms of interpersonal communication are used primarily as a preliminary. Phrases such as “please call” and “let’s talk on Skype”, having become a mark of seriousness in terms of online correspondence, whether it be in the context of potential employment or a potential amorous liaison.

While the depletion of the tree population is indeed cause for concern and it would be foolhardy to return entirely to paper, advancements in recycling techniques has made it possible to send a tangible missive with a somewhat clear conscience so, when it is important, one might well be advised to consider making an appeal to permanence.