Tag Archives: technology

Technology Doesn’t Cause Change

If you’ve read nearly any technology news site or blog in the last 15 years, you’ve probably encountered articles that told you how the Internet has “changed everything,” or how technology is forcing you to be ruder, or that technology, god bless it, is relentlessly making certain things obsolete. Yet there is still something deeply weird about all of the statements above: the agent is not a human being, but rather a nebulous concept like “the Internet” or “technology,” i.e., things that are either useless without human maintenance and input (“technology”), or theoretical concepts that are created mostly by a small group of programmers, journalists, and speakers who see said concept as a coherent system to be either written about, sanctimoniously defended, and/or milked for cash (“the Internet”).

I mean, just look at RealClearTechnology‘s homepage today. Apparently, “Big Data” can make one do something, and “the Internet” was kind enough to save marriage for us humans:

RCT

Big Data and the Internet: finally taking some initiative.

Despite its seemingly obvious level of ridiculousness, these sorts of constructions perhaps can’t be appreciated unless one tries in out in other contexts, like saying “My shirt is revolutionizing how I dress,” or “The umbrella is disrupting the reaction to rainstorms.” In both cases, the object itself isn’t revolutionizing/disrupting/doing anything; a person is, and the object is just a tool. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote something scarily prescient about agency and object-worship in his novel, The Black Book, speaking through the writings of a trouble character:

“In the beginning it was I who created the eye. My aim: I created it, of course, so that it could see me, watch me. I had no desire to escape its gaze. It was under its gaze that I made myself–made myself in its image–and I basked happily in its warm glow. It was because I was under the eye’s constant surveillance that I knew I existed. If the eye didn’t see me, I would cease to exist at all! This seemed so clear to me that I soon forgot I was the one who had created the eye in the first place and began to thank it for allowing me to exist.”

Indeed, it seems that much of the tech press and punditry is now in the position of thanking and/or blaming certain technologies and companies (rather than living persons) for the state of the world.

I’m hardly a pioneer in bemoaning how inanimate and manmade objects have taken on the traits of real, human agents in technology journalism. Leo Marx has written a great essay about the “hazardous” category of technology, and Evgeny Morozov has written several books about the fallacy of seeing “the Internet” as a singular, sacred creation with a coherent set of tools and concepts under its umbrella. To the latter point, it does seem silly that “the Internet” (as Morozov likes to label it) is often spoken of as if it is itself a living being with some unassailable set of laws and principles that protect and govern it, despite it being by and large a subjective creation that is driven by easily manipulatable, biased, and self-interested forces like Google or the whims of certain programmers and developers.

“The Internet is changing how…” no! “The Internet” isn’t changing anything; the persons who use the Internet are changing things, and by ignoring them as the true agents, we’re not assigning proper responsibility or moral assessment to societal changes. When musicians begin struggling to make money off of their catalogues, we’re probably tempted to say that “well, that’s just the way technology goes…iTunes, Spotify, blah blah blah,” without realizing that of course Spotify or any other tool would be useless if no one signed up for them and manually used them to listen to music. The users are driving the change, not the technology, but by saying that “Spotify is making it difficult for musicians to make money” we treat Spotify (in this case) as an active, unstoppable force of nature, when in fact it is just a human creation made by humans with certain interests.

Ignoring this fact makes it easy to in turn overlook the fact that Spotify’s creators (like iTunes’ creators) stood to make a lot of money themselves off of this “revolution” in music distribution, which sort of takes some of the luster out of the idyllic (and ridiculous, yet widespread) narrative that the change was instead incited by some disinterested, neutral, relentless natural force of “disruption” or “innovation,” which emerged to its chroniclers in the same way that, say, gravity emerged to Isaac Newton.

By avoiding assigning any agency to the service’s creators, we underserve our own interests and livelihoods since we don’t realize why a certain app or service or product became popular, namely, that it was designed and promoted by humans and then used by other humans. Regarding the agent of change as instead some unstoppable technological force, we thin become less sympathetic (even if unconsciously so) to the real humans who suffer from this change because, as the story goes, there’s nothing that can be done anyway. You would think that this sequence of events would be obvious and discernible, but instead it remains hidden under layers about how technology is forcing helpless humans to use certain devices or apps.

It’s time to stop and realize that technology itself is a tool and not a self-starting, self-sustaining force:

-Your smartphone isn’t making you ruder. You’re becoming ruder because you’re opting into a communications system designed by other human beings for maximum profit.

-The Internet isn’t making you sad. Comparing yourself to other human being is making you sad; the Internet is just the medium, one that you voluntarily chose to operate.

-Technology is not causing political upheaval in your country (though saying so is a good way to incite ridicule from some great satirical Twitter accounts). Technology is simply the medium; the message would exist with or without it.

The Internet isn’t changing concepts about copyright. It is only exacerbating the tendency of many humans to be cheap and not pay creators for their work: that couldn’t be pulled-off as easily in the past, prior to Web pioneers creating tools like Napster or BitTorrent to serve their own interests (those tools were not inevitable or unstoppable forces in any way).

Google Glass isn’t changing how privacy and decorum are regarded. It is simply an instrument that indulges many persons’ tendencies to keep up competitively with others and ignore unpleasantries in their midst.

We should take responsibility for our world and realize that we are its chief actors, rather than the “technology” that we often vest with such curious power and agency.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Should Google Make its Own Hardware?

Android and Me has a post up about the need for Google to build its own Nexus hardware. The argument goes: since the company’s complete control over the Chromebook Pixel, Nexus Q, and Google Glass resulted in outstanding products, the company should just go all-in on hardware.

I don’t think I agree. Of the three products cited, I would only really be proud of the Pixel, which, while expensive, has top-class features and could spearhead more disruption for the Windows PC market in particular. But body-wise, it’s still something that couldn’t have existed without the MacBook Pro as an antecedent, and its touchscreen, like the touchscreen in any Win8 ultrabook, suffers from odd performance but more broadly from a “what’s this good for?” syndrome, whereby touch is applied to ancient desktop metaphors rather than to touch-first/touch-only ones. The Nexus Q didn’t even make it to sale. And Google Glass? Well, I think it’s mostly hype, driven by a tech press that has yet to realize that categorical disruptions like the iPhone and the iPad and even the Android OS itself are the exception rather than the rule, and are usually organic and unpredictable rather than forced like Glass is. And then there’s the myriad privacy issues that Glass will only exacerbate.

Google’s current slew of Nexus hardware – the 4, 7, and 10 – are OEM products that are by and large fantastic. Perhaps they’re not ground-shaking innovations (although the Nexus 4 is arguably the first Android phone whose full experience is on par with the iPhone’s), but they’re beautiful and functional. So where does this desire for Google-branded Nexus hardware come from?

As much as it pains me to say it: Apple envy. But Google cannot easily be like Apple (this is not a normative statement, but a simple descriptive one). Apple makes its money in transparent, conventional ways: it sells products to end-users. For all of the bluster about Apple representing everything that’s closed and proprietary, Apple is straightforward when it comes to sales numbers, because that’s what Apple does: sell items to anyone would will buy them. Google, on the other hand, makes money in ways that most people on the street probably don’t understand, such as taking money from advertisers and promoters. Whereas Apple users have almost always directly paid Apple for their devices and services, someone could go about using most Google services without ever paying Google anything and instead paying hidden fees in the terms of opening themselves up to advertisers and data collection

Why does this difference matter? It means that, as currently constituted, hardware and integrated user experiences are not central to Google’s DNA, because Google doesn’t care that much about the end-user. The end-user is not Google’s customer; the advertiser is. This could change, sure. But I doubt it will change that soon, given that Google has gone all-in on making top-shelf iOS apps in order to monetize (via ads and data collection) what it must realize is the much more monetizable iOS user base. Google just wants its services (Maps, Gmail, YouTube, etc.) to be used by as many people on as many platforms as possible. Accordingly, it doesn’t have any existential drive or need to create a completely vertically integrated experience like Apple has done. Even when it has tried, such as with the Chromebook Pixel, the result is still a low-selling niche device whose capabilities likely won’t please the same broad range of persons who are sated by any iOS/OS X device.

The weak assumed sales numbers for the Nexus 10 in particular reinforce all of these points. Google is more than happy to use Chrome, or Maps, or Gmail to create trojan horses on other platforms so that it can keep its ad money flowing in, so why does it have to focus on device manufacturing, design, and sale? If it wanted to make real block-blusters that pushed the envelope for design and innovation, it would have to change its fundamental corporate DNA, and I just don’t see that happening for a while yet, if ever.

The tone-deafness of Glass and Sergey Brin’s justification for it are exhibit one in how far Google has to go on the hardware front. Or, just look at Microsoft: it, too, is struggling to get into the hardware business, because the Microsoft of late is a company that makes money not so much from selling to end-users as to businesses and OEMs. Since Apple cares almost exclusively about end-users, it still occupies a position in hardware that both Microsoft and Google will struggle to duplicate.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Why I Don’t Care About Google Glass

Short version: this photo

Long version: For a field that so lionizes technical chops and scientific knowledge, tech is oddly fascinated with fantasy. The geekery of Google’s Project Glass and its computer-on-face ethos is perhaps the most obvious evidence for this phenomenon, but one can grasp it nearly any time that someone references the technology from Star Trek or Star Wars (or Blade Runner, or a cyborg movie) as an aspirational endpoint, or describes something as “the future.”

By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?

Maybe. I think that viewing “technology” as the product not simply of a linear progression of machinery but also of contemporaneous creative artistic visions (which don’t necessarily follow a similarly linear path) can elucidate those aspects which make devices, software, and services appealing to people. Most individuals don’t know that much (and don’t care) about specifications, and in many cases likely cannot notice a huge difference between one product generation and another. But despite this general lack of hairsplitting over spec bumps and generation-to-generation changes, people do gravitate toward general product categories while shying away from others. iPad vs Surface, or Android vs BlackBerry, are some examples. In other words, people have good sense in differentiating categories, if not technical details.

But what do some of those more attractive categories have in common? For one, they were not totally obvious when they debuted. The iPad was based on almost no market research and resurrected a category – tablet PCs – which had been abandoned by other companies marching along on their own paths of “progress,” and which completed a circle back to nigh-ancient means of human interface design and input. Android made a wonky Linux-based cellphone OS successful during an era when most computing was still done thru closed-source Windows. And the iPhone? Well “[S]ometimes you see a new innovation and it so upsets the world’s expectations, it’s such a brilliant non sequitur, that you can’t imagine the events that must have lead to such an invention. You wonder what the story was,” is how one man put it.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have too-obvious devices like touch-enabled ultrabooks, the Surface line, and basically everything BlackBerry has released in the wake of the iPhone 3G shattering its reason to exist. They don’t fit into coherent categories, don’t do any single thing well, and only exist to loudly announce that they’re The Future, without doing the work necessary to qualify as such.

Google Glass is obvious. It hasn’t even been released yet and it already has its own mythology, about how it is driving (despite not being widely available) us into the era of “wearable computing” and, more importantly, stealing the mantle of innovation from Apple, who still prefers to do quaint things like wait until a product is finished and salable before thrusting it upon the public. Heads-up displays may someday be a viable product category, but this specific product – Google Glass – is going to be a flop.

Now, I’m obviously no Apple apologist, but the tech press has just gone nuts searching for any sign of weakness at Apple, such that they’re willing to drape Samsung’s specs-loaded, capable but boring phones with the mantle of “innovation” and, now, they’re eager to deem Glass the next phase in computing. It is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the anti-Apple wave, as well as a great litmus test of just how nuts said wave has become: “look! this unreleased product is already disrupting the iPhone!”

I agree with Guy English that wearable computing, for all the presumptive nods it gets in the tech media, is hardly a sure thing and possibly something that just won’t strike a chord with normals who don’t want to become cyborgs. As with the way-overblown demise of Google Reader, the tech press often forgets that it occupies a geeky echo-chamber fed by sites like The Verge and Reddit, in which reactions to things like the end-of-life of an RSS client and the impending release of a cyborg hat have much different currency and urgency than they do with the population at large. What I’m saying is: Google Glass is not a consumer product for average consumer.

It’s perfect for the geek loner/showoff. Accordingly, it has about the degree of decorum and respect for others’ privacy that one might expect from the CEO of the similarly “futuristic” product, Uber, or from Glass-happy Mark Zuckerberg, who will surely bring Facebook’s exhaustive, intrusive status updates to the device. Ok, ok: some point out that we used to be afraid of how cellphone cameras would end privacy and decorum, too. But most cellphones aren’t made by advertising companies who offer lots of “free” services in exchange for data collection, and who also make the 2nd-largest social network in the West. How easy will it be for a secretly captured Glass photo/film to “accidentally” make its way onto YouTube or G+?

Silver-lining: Google Glass, to the extent that anyone uses it, will team up with services like Facebook Home to accelerate social-network fatigue. There will be no escape from carrying your friends list and wall posts everywhere, to the extent that reality itself may end up as a sadder place. The current attitude, often described as solutionism, sees Google Glass a way to “fix” apparent issues like smartphones apparently not being immersive enough (you can turn them off and put them in your pocket very easily, after all, and it’s obvious when you are/are not paying attention to bystanders while using one). It even seems to attempt “fixing” the issue of paying for stuff – Glass doesn’t even allow app makers to charge for their Glass services, or serve any ads.

Google Glass (the specific product/preview) isn’t “the future.” It’s just the best evidence yet of Google’s insistence on force-feeding the world questionable solutions to “problems,” like privacy and smartphones, which aren’t real problems for anyone except for iteration-/sci-fi-minded executives. If someone says something is “the future,” don’t take his word for it – after all, age-old inventions like silverware, shoes, and restaurants (to quote some of Nassim Taleb’s favorite examples) have outlasted literally thousands of years of disruption, and even CDs are still going strong. What we see as “progress” is often nothing of the sort, and Google Glass is a good reminder of that.

The Knife & Shaking the Habitual: Bigger Than Europe

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

Full of Fire, from Shaking the Habitual

“Technology” is a problematic term. Like “problematic,” it has a specific Greek etymology that, when scrutinized (a pastime of mine), reveals it to be distressingly vague in its meaning. Anything that is artful or crafted (techné) can be “technological.” So why limit this blog to the “traditional” (I really should cut back on the scare-marks in this blog) space of gadgets and apps, when there’s a whole world out there waiting to come under the “technological” (oops) lens of scrutiny? And what better to analyze than The Knife’s long-awaited triple/double album, Shaking the Habitual? Since it comes in a handy 3xLP/2xCD package (in Europe, if you’re lucky), it even bridges the divide between the digital and analog worlds (even such “worlds” even exist) while unfurling over an hour and a half of new original content.

But it’s more fascinating as an artifact from a cutting-edge (heh) band who have tapped one of the hoariest formats of music’s yesteryear (the gatefold double album) to contend with and combat, if even unintentionally (as if intent matters, but whatever), the current business models of music, which gives less reward for more work. In doing so, they use their enormous, obvious effort (a double album! seven years in the making!) to highlight, both implicitly and explicitly, Europe’s own ongoing issues with labor and shared currency.

The Knife are (this British noun/verb agreement structure seems appropriate here) an enormously accomplished band, and, really, their success could hardly have been more surprising. Aesthetically, the Swedish twins traffic in a brand of frenzied yet strangely introverted techno. At its heart is Karin Dreijer Andersson’s protean voice and the way it floats unsettlingly over the duo’s electronic stew, which seems to occupy the precise boundary at which fairytale-grade Scandinavian forest meets (obscure) nightclub: earnestly rustic, yet hipster, too.

As such, The Knife are a curious case-study for the notion of “technological progress,” since they simultaneously seem to excavate some indelibly vague set of older folk musics and notions of the album as a form (not to mention the work of Yoko Ono, whose work may now reasonably elicit a response of “She’s still alive?”) while also attracting the keen attention of the hyper-hip current music press and clubgoers alike. Other than the impending release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories next month, there probably won’t be a bigger event in “indie” music (i.e., covered by websites with fancy CSS) this year. And speaking of Daft Punk, Shaking the Habitual is very much The Knife’s answer to that band’s dense, intellectual Human After All.

But The Knife aren’t just aestheticians; they’re political activists, which raises the stakes that accompany each of their projects. Their Venetian masks, insistences of privacy, and reluctance to perform live are delightfully anachronistic, if one’s idea of “–chronism” is the  always-on/you have no privacy bullshit mantras of Eric Schmidt, Jeff Jarvis, and the general cult of Google (I love Google’s products – this is an Android blog, after all – but I don’t romanticize it as an organization). They’ve assaulted notions of gender via their approach to vocals, and they reprise their assault here in “Full of Fire,” which contains the Salt-N-Pepa referencing lyric “let’s talk about gender, baby / let’s talk about you and me.” And now, they’ve made a project bigger and more politically overwhelming than anything else in their repertoire, an album which uses both form and content to wedge itself uncomfortably against the political, musical, and social status quo.

Speaking of “bigger,” this is a huge album. Almost 100 minutes of new material. And to make it even harder to down than a rum-and-(Diet) Coke that was mixed, unfinished, and then rerefrigerated, it’s almost stridently idealistic in its politics. Translated, this means that it makes no compromises in terms of run times (tracks go upward of 10 minutes in length) and often broaches topics like the Euro’s slow-motion demise, as on “Stay Out There,” or the self-explanatory “Fracking Fluid Injection.” And is that PSY on the cover (probably not, but it would be topically appropriate)?

In their 1997 song “Bigger Than England,” Long Fin Killie bemoaned “waiting here for days, and still no hint of a thrill,” in the context of gently satirizing British rock music’s history of constantly changing genre labels (“let the post-punk dash left you behind…the morning dogs who protest retro rock n’ roll”). Shaking the Habitual, as its title suggests, takes a similar tack, that of a bored/skeptical onlooker who wants real change rather than the superficial changes and labels that surround them. It does this against the backdrop of major wealth redistribution thanks to the Euro and the proliferation of electronica into the awareness of average indie and pop listeners. “Bigger Than England”? Shaking the Habitual may as well be “Bigger Than Europe.”

Since many listeners now hear electronica simply by turning on any heavy rotation station, The Knife have reconfigured even their own already-abrasive musical language to be more far-out (and I mean that not simply generically, but with specific weight to the late 1960s music scene – more on that later). The stair-step synths from their 2004 masterpiece Deep Cuts and the murky atmospherics of Silent Shout anticipated the mainstreaming of indietronica and dubstep, respectively, so what’s next? Shaking the Habitual is a super-cohesive work: its songs share an homogenous sound that is shot-thru with cheap-sounding drum machines and synths. “Networking” recalls a more cynical Drexciya, while the Egyptian pipes of “Raging Lung” play like an elongated reprise of “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” from Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray solo album, while also mysteriously quoting Fugazi (“what a difference a little difference would make”). Nothing sounds like “the future” (and what does something that doesn’t exist yet sound like, anyway?), but I think that’s the point: the only way for The Knife to make a cutting point here is to dig into “the past,” for music presumed dead but which is actually very much still with us.

This approach is most liberally pursued on “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized,” a 19-minute tone poem that stays true to its title by never really firing into action but instead lingering in the background, often inaudible. As the cynical exclamation on a difficult statement, it rivals The Mothers of Invention’s “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a similarly mysterious stretch of near-silence that capped their 1968 album We’re Only in it for the Money. The latter has often received epithets like “Most Lousy Song on a Great Album,” which I’m sure will be recycled in approaching “Old Dreams…” and how it fits into the otherwise fairly digestible Shaking the Habitual. Yes, for all of its difficulty, this album is a smooth listen, driven by Dreijer Andersson’s cheeky lyrics and androgynous vocals, not to mention more than a few vocal hooks, such as on “Raging Lung” and the delightfully droning “Cherry on the Top.”

The album’s surprising appeal – I’ve since spun it three more times – made me recall a recent missive from the musician Terre Thaemlitz. In the PDF liner notes to his unprecedented Soulnessless album (which I hope he won’t begrudge me quoting here) has written eloquently of how most high-profile projects inevitably surrender to prevalent norms about music:

Our obsession for career compliancy with the mechanisms of the marketplace, even when producing “culturally critical” projects, betrays an underlying aspiration to the status quo. It also exposes a crippling religious faith in our labor only gaining true audibility through dominant notions of audience and visibility. The marketplace demands that we develop products aspiring to universality and mass appeal, with no concern for the detrimental aspects of homogenization. And even in our most sincere attempts at non-compliance, we magically seem to comply.

The aforementioned homogenous sound of the album seems to indicate the same phenomenon occurring on Shaking the Habitual. But it complies in an odd way, by referencing the older double-album format (what is a “double album,” anyway, in an era in which so much music has no physical form?) and its various distinctive traits like very long tracks and short, palate-cleansing interludes, seen here in the Margaret Atwood-referencing “Oryx” and “Crake” songs, both of which clock in at under a minute. This plays more like The White Album, or one of The Mothers Of Invention’s more far-strung 1960s works (the double-disc Uncle Meat, for example) than any more recent double-album. In other words, The Knife are well-versed in the particular vocabulary of the album, and they have delivered a Big Statement of sorts by electing to release such a long-form work in an era defined by single-song downloads and streaming.

Or have they? Thaemlitz, in that same essay, also remarks:

The album, as a compositional formation derived from those media durations, is dead in the wake of infinite single-track downloads. While there is a desire to celebrate audio recording’s liberation from the arbitrary time restrictions of archaic media formats, technological and corporately devised limitations of the MP3 format make any such celebration premature. Throughout the CD era, record labels have come to demand audio producers make projects that fill the longer digital media capacities. So much so that consumers now feel disappointment and even trickery when purchasing shorter albums. Yet all the while labels are paying lower advances and royalties. ”

Paradoxically, the era of seemingly short attention spans and discrete individual tracks has also given rise to huge, never-ending albums, keeping the old format in rather rude health. The long, overstuffed Shaking the Habitual, as such, is an amazingly poignant work for 2013, and this poignancy makes its venom all the more potent. It appears to lash out against environmental abuse and the “short century” caused by the Euro crisis. It’s a work that has the residue of recent economic crises all over it, as evinced by the “End Extreme Wealth” mantra on the vinyl edition’s cover.

But it makes an even more subtle point simply by way it marries seemingly archaic form with a consistent knack for pop. Even Pitchfork, in reviewing the pair’s contributions to the Tomorrow, in a Year opera, said that The Knife have always been a pop band at heart. And it’s this pop sensibility that reveals the band seemingly grappling with how to make a difficult Big Statement (on politics, on art) while subconsciously “complying” (to use Thaemlitz’s terminology) with pop norms in a way that only they can. In 2004, on “Listen Now,” they declared: “We seek and we will find/Reason to stay alive/The price has never been this low.” In 2013, amidst shrinking musical royalties and increasing inequality in Europe and the West, they have made good on that promise, staying alive thru the sheer weight and power of Shaking the Habitual.

-The ScreenGrab Team