Thursday, September 30, 2010

Small Change we can believe in

I'm following the internet kerfuffle about Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in the New Yorker about what he considers the false promise of net-activism. It follows his standard model (one that I really enjoy, btw) of a)introducing an exceptional anecdote, followed by b) presenting a seemingly-plausible theory and then c) taking it apart by using some sort of social or behavioral science. In this case A is played by the civil rights movement, B is the optimistic outlook on social media as sold by Clay Shirky et al, and C is the sociology of movements. Gladwell is perfectly justified in pointing out that twitter does not make a revolution, but he overreaches at times.

I think there are a couple of useful takeaways from the article+discussion, most of which I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that people already knew:

1-Techno-utopianism, like any other utopianism, needs to be taken in very measured doses to be practically useful. Just because there's new potential for change doesn't mean it's guaranteed to turn out that way, especially if people naively assume the latter.
2-'lazy activism,' whether by donations, magazines, or new media, is no substitute for personal investment in a cause and face-to-face direct action, but can be useful when taken on its own terms. I've taken this as a given this ever since reading "Bowling Alone."

These things seem obvious to me, and maybe not enough to hang an article on, but they are valid points.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

by hand

If you're surrounded by things you don't understand and can't affect, you're going to feel unhappy, or at least less happy than you would be if otherwise. Most people would agree with this, and yet there's a tremendous amount of disconnection between people and the thousands of objects, systems, and and in/conveniences of everyday life. This isn't a new thing; the 60s counterculture and the subsequent "Back to the Land" movement testify to alienation over the past generation at least. But I think people are beginning to adopt a more pragmatic approach. Rather than chucking all of modern civilization out and starting from scratch, we're trying to make everything around us more transparent and open to modification. This is reflected strongly in how we look at food and cooking, but also in more technical realms.

Love on a Wire

This past Sunday, as part of Vienna's Paraflows Conference this year on digital reconceptions of mind and matter, my girlfriend and I gave a talk on the technology and strategies of long-distance relationships. That we were able to jointly give the talk despite the fact that she was in New York at the time is just one more indicator of the futuristic present in which we live.

I'm not going to reiterate the content of the talk here (that can wait for when we write the paper), but based on the comments we got, it presented a good balance of the technical, media-theoretical, and poetic dimensions, just as talk on Long-Distance Relationships ought to. Johannes Grenzfurthner, one of the organizers of the conference (and partner in a LDR himself)  thought it systematized neatly a lot of the observations and stresses he had experienced in his own relationship.

I think it went really well, considering the number of possible technical failures that can happen when you hook up speakers and a projector to carry a skype video call through a netbook. Kudos to the organizers who had apparently upgraded the bandwidth after a failure of that sort of thing last year.

If you're interested in the basic content of the talk, our outline is available at

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A post for today

I'm in Vienna, preparing for a talk on the technology of Long-Distance Relationships at the Paraflows conference (powered by monochrom). It's great brain-candy to go to a bunch of talks where interesting people present interesting things. Day One included talks by Heather Kelley and Kyle Machulis on new directions in game design (for one, using your own vital signs as game inputs--stuff like mindball, or taking your heartbeat as the meter for a rhythm game). It's very cool stuff, all stuff that I'm deeply interested in.

But given today's date and the attendant craziness we've been feeling as a country lately, I feel compelled to step a bit outside the normal run of topics. So, that post I'm cooking about games-that-teach will have to wait. Instead, I'm going to give you words from a man from long ago, words worth remembering. 

First, Here's his thoughts about discrimination against immigrants or believers in strange religions:

At one time I promoted five men for gallantry on the field of battle. Afterward in making some inquiries about them I found that two of them were Protestants, two Catholic, and one a Jew. One Protestant came from Germany and one was born in Ireland. I did not promote them because of their religion. It just happened that way. If all five of them had been Jews I would have promoted them, or if all five of them had been Protestants I would have promoted them; or if they had been Catholics. In that regiment I had a man born in Italy who distinguished himself by gallantry; there was another young fellow, a son of Polish parents, and another who came here when he was a child from Bohemia, who likewise distinguished themselves; and friends, I assure you, that I was incapable of considering any question whatever, but the worth of each individual as a fighting man. If he was a good fighting man, then I saw that Uncle Sam got the benefit of it. That is all.
I make the same appeal to our citizenship. I ask in our civic life that we in the same way pay heed only to the man's quality of citizenship, to repudiate as the worst enemy that we can have whoever tries to get us to discriminate for or against any man because of his creed or birthplace. [italics mine]