Category Archives: media

Some uncomfortable home truths

I read a lot of ‘long form’ journalism, mostly in the several periodicals I subscribe to and via RSS feeds that tempt me with links to articles, but I never gave much thought to where the texts come from, or under what conditions they are produced. I suppose I thought that writers (“journalists”) wrote them, editors acquired them and put them into publications, and readers like me read them and pointed other like-minded people to them, and so over time those texts became bricks in structures of what people thought and knew… which is a rather lovely but quite naïve/Pollyannish cartoon of a more complex reality.

James Pogue’s They made a movie out of it: the decline of nonfiction in the IP era, in the Jan-Feb 2020 issue of The Baffler, is an arresting corrective to the simplistic naïveté sketched above, and brings me abruptly into some of the grim realities of 2020.

It all has to do with “the rights” that attach to purchase of an item of Intellectual Property. Here’s what I didn’t know:

We are now in the mature stage of a book-to-film boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories… Almost all written works that achieve prominence today (and many more that don’t) will be optioned… The emergence of streaming services from Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Disney, and even Walmart has driven a demand for writing on a bulk commodity scale at a time when the business of publishing—especially but not only in the world of magazines—has largely abdicated its responsibility for paying writers an amount that would secure a decent life.

Still more insidious:

…the book-to-film complex is bolstered by two imperatives that now govern our nonfiction almost without exception: foreground story as an ultimate good, ahead of deep personal insight, literary style, investigative reporting, or almost any other consideration that goes into the shaping of written work; and do not question too closely the aristocracy of tech and capital that looms over us, the same people who subsidize the system that produces America’s writing.

We live in a time when our writing finds its audience not through the publishers and journalistic outlets that commission writing, but through a handful of unregulated monopolies that siphon off most of the revenue this work produces and that are almost entirely in control of its delivery to its eventual readers…

…clicks and shares—today’s true determinants of the value of a piece of writing…

Hollywood has begun to morph into a business designed to develop content that fits easily into delivery systems designed by Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and Google, and that it was their entry into the market for IP that kicked off the book-to-film buying frenzy. They run the market, and from my desk, it looks like it is the same people who wrecked American writing—by colonizing the ad dollars, by seizing control of how books get delivered, by deliberately designing highly addictive devices and streaming services that pulled our attention away from writing and toward phones and forgettable, mass-produced Netflix shows—whose tastes and desire for palatable content I now get told my writing ought to be serving.

All this makes me more cynical about how “it” all works, but probably won’t diminish my use of Netflix and Amazon as (re)sources in the gratification of desires and the feeding of my appetites for textual and visual material.

Perhaps what ‘all this’ should do is encourage me to make more conscious and systematic use of what I read and see, via blog-form rediffusion and other forms of reflective writing. I’m experimenting with a reading log (essentially a daybook to keep track of texts I spend more than cursory time upon) and looking back through the last year of RSS feed stuff noted via Zotero (but mostly just marked as notable and not generally followed up).

fingers on the pulse of the Zeitgeist

I seem to be running into more and more instances of eloquent now-just-hold-on criticism of technological triumphalism, indeed seeing them wherever I turn: the finishing a few days ago of Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life [really cheap ($2.51) as a Kindle ebook…], an article in The Guardian recently on the decline of retail jobs (End of the checkout line: the looming crisis for American cashiers), and then via my RSS feed from O’Reilly, Fredrik deBoer’s post Study of the Week: Of Course Virtual K-12 Schools Don’t Work. All of these have the same basic caveats about the smoke and mirrors of the digital world, and similar warnings about trafficking with the ogres who lurk behind the curtain.

Another instance, via long-form journalism in the [unfortunately paywalled] London Review of Books 17 August issue, is John Lanchester’s You Are The Product, which reviews three books (Wu’s The Attention Merchants, Garcia Martinez’ Chaos Monkeys, and Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things), and is mostly concerned with the evolution of Facebook. An especially trenchant bit:

…even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens… its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.

My years as a librarian and early adopter of emergent technologies more or less ended when I retired in 2005, and I’ve been pretty choosy about entanglement with the subsequent social media silos—no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. Flickr yes, because it offered an easy means to store and distribute photographic images (but one dreads what Verizon might do with the product). And I’ve been blogging since before instantiation of the term ‘blog’ (I called them ‘logfiles’ and used them to keep track of and distribute my various projects). I like to control and manage my own digital real estate, and pretty much everything I’ve done in the last 20+ years is tucked away somewhere at http://oook.info/, including the self-hosted WordPress blog in which I’ve been tracking my doings [somewhat fitfully] for 13+ years.

For me, the epiphanic enabling technology was hypertext, and I’m still back somewhere in the 90s in terms of my sophistication with html. Basic html has served me well as a means to construct and distribute documents, to who-knows-what audiences. And, fact is, I don’t really care much about the scale and scope of Audience; the stuff is out there to be discovered via Google and Internet Archive, and linkable by me whenever I want to pass something along to one of those like-minded others. I’m content to be little-known.

Which is a long way of saying that I want nothing to do with thefacebook, with its fatuous likes and insidious back-end data mining. I won’t claim consistency in re: the latter, since I’m happy for Amazon to send me stuff I want via Prime, and to bewilder Google with off-the-wall searches that they can’t possibly monetize. But for Facebook, it’s the Nancy Reagan option: Just Say No.

Adobe and Amazon Hell

On May 7th I bought a 12-month subscription to Adobe InDesign via Amazon, at $16.99/month. I installed the software and had been using it for almost 2 months. On Sunday June 26th I exported a pdf of my current project. When I then tried to use InDesign I got a message from Adobe saying that my account was cancelled for non-payment of the monthly subscription fee. The Amazon page showed that the payment had been made and that my subscription was active.

What to do?

I called Adobe’s Customer Care and spent more than half an hour on the phone with an agent in India, who told me that my only option was to CANCEL the suspended subscription and buy a NEW subscription—the cancelled account could not be reinstated.

I contacted Amazon and was told that everything on their end was correct: I had an “active” subscription for the product. So I cancelled that subscription (they waived the “early cancellation” fee and refunded the last month paid) and bought a NEW subscription, at the NEW price of $19.99/month (Adobe had raised the price without telling me and apparently without informing Amazon, so that [I deduce] Amazon’s payment of my subscription fee was $3.00 less than Adobe expected, hence the cancellation by Adobe of my access to InDesign).

My account information page at Amazon shows that the new subscription is paid and active. The Amazon Licenses page has a button labelled “Access Product” but the link is broken (“Trying to find something? The page you specified could not be found.”). Evidently THAT link is supposed to authenticate my purchase to the Adobe server; without that authentication, Adobe has no record of my License.

I’ve talked with Amazon Customer Care people in Cape Town (twice, two different reps) and somewhere in the US, and have been assured that the Problem has been Escalated. I tried again to use InDesign this morning, got the same message, called Amazon, and actually achieved a three-way call (me, Cape Town, India) and am assured that the issue will be resolved in 24 or 48 hours. I’m not holding my breath.

All of the people I talked with were friendly, professional, helpful… but not really able to DO anything. The connection between Amazon and Adobe (who are after all business partners in this) seems to be defective or worse: the arrogance/greed of Adobe’s subscription model is surely part of the problem (I thought I had what amounted to a contract for a year, at $16.99/month), but it seems the quality control on Amazon’s Web page link management is at least as much of a problem.

To add one more annoyance, when I open LightRoom there’s now a message from Adobe saying that they have found a problem with my payment for the Creative Cloud Photography package (LightRoom and Photoshop), which I ALSO have via an Amazon subscription, and that if I don’t straighten it out in 13 days, my access to THOSE products will be cancelled. It develops that Adobe has raised the price for that package, again without telling me or, seemingly, informing Amazon: $9.99/month instead of $6.99. Amazon knows about the issue and, I’m told, has a Team working on it.

It’s not about the money. I NEED those products (they are, in effect, the Only Wheel In Town), so I’m over the barrel and I’ll pay them the additional 20-25%. It’s about the Service. And the complete absence of recourse. I’ve now lost 3 days on my project with InDesign, and spent several hours on the phone (mostly on hold) trying to straighten out a problem that I certainly didn’t cause myself. And I very much doubt that I’m the only person in the world with this problem.

tagging and filing

Just how to manage one’s own troves of Information is a perennial problem, and I’ve never managed to be consistent over time or systematic (let alone rigorous) with any organizing scheme. I have drawers full of manila folders, boxes of [essentially unreadable, so why the hell do I keep them?] floppy and semi-floppy disks, piles of data-packed CDs and DVDs sporting idiosyncratically named files and directories, a bunch of disk drives that are more or less current, a vast array of archived directories and files at oook.info, and vinyl records and CDs and MP3s and videotapes and DVDs galore. And negatives (partially digitized) and digital photography images (on drives and backed up on DVDs), and of course books (though they’re at least listed at LibraryThing). All of this stuff is more or less meaningful, some of it is in active use and a lot more might be… and some is simply dead storage. I pretty much know what’s where, but finding any particular remembered thing can take a while and there’s always the danger/joy of being diverted along the way by a shiny something else. And more keeps arriving.

Of course I like it this way.

A current problem: I’ve used Delicious and Zotero and Evernote to collect links to webstuff that I found interesting and thought I might want to get back to sometime. Each of those services offers organizing features –collections, folders, tagging– and I’ve used them with my usual idiosyncratic abandon. There’s an argybargy collection at Zotero, bibliomania tag at Delicious, and on and on. Just to extract a list of my collections or tags would be interesting/valuable/useful, but so far I haven’t been able to figure out any way to get Zotero or Delicious to spit out just those classifiers (some little voice in the back of my brain is muttering about grep and exporting xml files, but I’m ignoring it). Sure, I could do it by hand, and that’s probably the fastest way to find out just what I really have. Such a list would be a mapping of my kaleidoscopic interests, and might inspire some ringmastering that might result in better access.

So about an hour later here’s the Delicious tags and Zotero collection names I’m living with. What to do next?

addendum: …and it’s happening again with the new blog. I can tag each post with a category (or more than one –this one is geekery/media/rumination) and add new categories ad lib. The current set for the blog is

anthropology/ argybargy/ biblio/ cartography/ casting/ desiderata/ education/ entanglement/ ethno/ geekery/ geography/ H5N1/ images/ language/ libraries/ media/ metastuff/ musics/ photography/ pome/ quote/ rumination/ tempora/ Turkey/ uncategorized/ vernacular/ weather/ Zeitgeist/

but that will expand as I need new descriptors, and I can guarantee that they’ll be …erm… idiosyncratic.

Clay Shirky’s eloquence

If you are going to read or watch JUST ONE summary of sopa/pipa stuff, Clay Shirky’s TED talk is my current candidate. It’s 14 minutes, but (or, better, AND) you get the Backstory of the continuing machinations of the “content industries” … the point that WE SHARE STUFF is at the heart of his presentation. And The Mouse doesn’t like that.

Another good presentation: Khan Academy on YouTube

…and here’s another essential piece: Dan Gillmor’s commentary in The Guardian, which says that the proponents aren’t proceeding from ignorance, and in fact they understand the Internet quite well:

…the Protect IP Act (Pipa) – and a host of activities around the world – share a common goal. These “fixes” are designed to wrest control of these tools from the masses and recentralize what has promised to be the most open means of communication and collaboration ever invented… it’s fair to say that some individual members of Congress have demonstrated, via their public statements, a lack of attention to the technical details of how the net works. I assure you, however, that the staff members who have taken dictation from Hollywood and its allies know precisely what their measures would achieve, if enacted. And I assure you that Rupert Murdoch and his top staff are fully cognizant of the realities they fear and loathe.

This is developing into a much more interesting and important dispute than first met the eye and ear, and a number of commenters have pointed out that sopa/pipa is just another skirmish in the wars of “the copyright cartel and its allies” (in Gillmor’s words) against, well, us. Do I see 99% here? Gillmor again:

The people who want to protect “intellectual property” from all infringement have set up a binary choice. They tell us that if we do not agree to their absolute control, we are endorsing stealing. This is another lie, though it’s been an effective one until recently – when people began to realize what was at stake.

And there’s more, in fact so much more that I’m not sure what to leave out, but meanwhile take a look at NewLeftMedia’s 12-minute YouTube analysis, which provides some more valuable context.

These presentations will turn out to be really interesting examples of explanations, once we can see and analyse a broad range of them.

And while we’re exploring motivations and reactions, add this bit from John Battelle’s SearchBlog:

…Major Obama donors in Hollywood assumed they were buying their way into legislative protection of their threatened business models, and when the President didn’t do their bidding, they “leaked” their displeasure…

The Parenthesis

Here’s Dave Weinberger liveblogging Jeff Jarvis at the Berkman Center:

We’re going through a huge transition, he says. He refers to the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Before Gutenberg, knowledge was passed around, person to person. It was meant to honor and preserve ancient knowledge. After Gutenberg, knowledge became linear. There are beginnings and ends and boxes around things. It’s about product. There’s a clear sense of ownership. It honors current knowledge and its authors. Then you get to the other side of the parenthesis, and there are similarities. More passing it around, more remixing, less sense of ownership. The knowledge we revere starts to become the network itself. Our cognition of the world changes. The CTO of the Veterans Admin calls the Internet the Eighth Continent. “I used to think of the Internet as a medium,” but now he thinks of it more as a place, although there are problems with the place metaphor. (“All metaphors are wrong,” interjects Doc Searls. “That’s why they work.”) It was a hard transition into the parenthesis, and it’ll be hard coming out of it. It took 50 years after Gutenberg for books to come into their own, and 100 years to recognize the impact of books. We’re still looking at the Net using our the past as our analog.

Sure is a lot to chew on in that paragraph.

Another from Open Source

Gardner and Alice, and Bryan too, know vastly more about film than I do, and so might find the recent Open Source program with Slavoj Žižek and Sophie Fiennes less entrancing than I did, but I was pretty continuously bugeyed by what I heard. The mp3 was the soundtrack to a brisk morning walk in which I seemed to see a photograph every few strides (and the camera at home on the kitchen table), but perhaps my reaction was a function of all that seaside oxygen. Clearly I hafta get my hands on the documentary, yclept The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema. These outtakes from the conversation may convey some of what riveted me:

choosing fiction over reality: The Matrix (0:40)
the true mystery of cinema (0:33)
Žižek on freedom (1:08)
Fiennes on psychic transvestitism (0:30)
Žižek on 300 (1:05)

Of Twitteration

In 23 years of entanglement with microcomputers (and 45 with computing in general) I’ve often been at the point of wondering “now what’s this going to do for/to me? How’s it going to fit into/transform what I do?”, and I’m there again, thinking about where Twitter fits in my digital evolution.

Twitter seems to assume that its users enjoy pervasive computing (with an extension to mobile appliances that I have no truck with), and a gaggle of like-minded friends. It also assumes (as does IM) that one can tolerate being “interrupt-driven”…

For me, Twitter offers a welcome level of granularity/resolution that fits into my use of the blogworld by offering instantaneous whazzup?, where blog postings are usually more carefully constructed –sort of a bitbucket, into which to tuck the passing thought or interest that I might want to be able to get back to, or eventually fit into an emerging chronotope.

Like Tagging, the primary use for me is as a tool to manage my OWN infoverse, and it’s only secondarily Social. It’s interesting to be able to look back at whatwhens (and I’ve experimented with a variety of them, currently including an autolog.txt Notepad doc on my desktop), to manage one’s own process, and perhaps to build, gradually, a Legacy …though for whom I’m not sure. All this seems a bit solopsistic: it’s for me, for my own appreciation and shifting purposes. If others happen to find it, or think it interesting to follow because they know/knew me in some sense, and have some interest in what I’m up to, so much the better.

There aren’t a lot of people I’m aware of being interested in following the microactivities of, and indeed one can only sustain such attention for a small number. Ron and Bryan are two I’m tracking now, but others might be added, just as I’ve added blogs to my RSS stable (and shed blogs too, of course).

In a few days I’ll be offline for a week-long yoga retreat, and it’ll be interesting to see if Twitter still seems to have resonance for me when I return.

In a deeper or maybe broader sense, as a Phenomenon and an act in the unfolding of Social Computing, danah boyd sees it more clearly than anybody else I’ve read so far:

You write whatever you damn well please and it spams all of the people who agreed to be your friends. The biggest strength AND weakness of Twitter is that it works through your IM client (or Twitterrific) as well as your phone. This means that all of the tech people who spend far too much time bored on their laptops are spamming people at a constant rate. Ah, procrastination devices. If you follow all of your friends on your mobile, you’re in for a hellish (and very expensive) experience.

…I think it’s funny to watch my tech geek friends adopt a social tech. They can’t imagine life without their fingers attached to a keyboard or where they didn’t have all-you-can-eat phone plans. More importantly, the vast majority of their friends are tech geeks too. And their social world is relatively structurally continuous. For most 20/30-somethings, this isn’t so. Work and social are generally separated and there are different friend groups that must be balanced in different ways.

…Like with bulletins, it’s pretty ostentatious to think that your notes are worth pushing to others en masse. It takes a certain kind of personality to think that this kind of spamming is socially appropriate and desirable. Sure, we all love to have a sense of what’s going on, but this is push technology at its most extreme. You’re pushing your views into the attention of others (until they turn it or you off).

(from apophenia)

Addendum: Kathy Sierra’s graph and TwitterVision are essential extensions of the discussion…