Tuesday, July 29, 2008

mwesch's Digital Ethnography Introduction to YouTube

(above: screenshot from MadV's "One World" campaign, via the wikiwiki)

One of my personal favorite thinkers working with emergent technology and culture right now, Professor Michael Wesch, has posted a new video on his YouTube account. He has previously tackled topics such as the meaning of Web 2.0 and technology's role in involving students in learning. His work inspired me to do my final senior thesis on Web 2.0 in secondary education (I can post that if there is an interest...).

And now Professor Wesch has released a new video, over here. This lecture and accompanying video presentation is intended to be an overview or introduction to the community that YouTube supports and has created. It makes sense, the video seems to be saying, that if YouTube is a community, anthropologists should be able to examine and think about this community. Thus, Prof. Wesch and his digital ethnography group tackled this task, and the result is summed up in the video. It's an hour long, but it's one hell of an hour.

The video also references some other fascinating user generated content in its exploration of YouTube as a culture and community. Some of the best examples are a cut-up tribute to remix and DIY culture set to a Regina Spektor song, a compilation video of various YouTubers displaying their distilled philosophies and mantras on the palms of their hands, and a particularly touching message from a community member that has found support within this community in a time of hardship, a time soon after the death of his infant child.

These examples are touching, life-affirming and often brilliant. The things that I love about YouTube are summed up in Prof. Wesch's talk on the community.

I offer one final entry to the overwhelming bestiary that is the multitude of flavors of community-building on YouTube: the Vlog Brothers. In a subsequent entry, I will talk more in depth about these guys, but here is one example. In this video, over here, writer John Green geeks out over "The Catcher in the Rye" and calls for an English-lesson-style online book club to talk about it. Not just an "I like it / I don't like it" discussion, but a literary analysis.

What is amazing about the video is not that John Green has the audacity to suggest that a group of people do a non-mandatory summer reading project on a classic book, but that people, as indicated in these video responses, will actually do it. People are looking forward to it.

So even Professor Michael Wesch can't begin to imagine the ongoing effects of our emergent technologies becoming our culture. That's why it's so fascinating; none of us can imagine it, but it's happening anyway, it's making a difference in how people live.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

New Radiohead Video Claims It Uses No Cameras, But...

(Above: a shot from Radiohead's new "House of Cards" video)

Radiohead claim their new video for "House of Cards," available here, uses no cameras. Let's first recap what cameras are, then talk about their process, and, if it still seems necessary after both of those discussions, talk about why "no cameras" may not have been the best choice of words.

A camera is a device that collects reflected light, then structures the collected information into a two dimensional portrayal of three dimensional space.

The device used for Radiohead's video, as explained in the behind the scenes clip here, is a device that collects reflected light (in this case an array of lasers), then structures the collected information (using computers) into a three dimensional-seeming two dimensional portrayal of three dimensional space.

So in other words, the "non-camera" used here is still basically a camera, but saying "a music video made with no cameras" sounds better than "a music video that uses fancy new and complicated cameras."

The whole thing also reminds me of this Polyphonic Spree video, a music video made with "no video whatsoever." In actuallity, it's just succesive still images shown quickly one after another to create the illusion of motion. Or, wait, that actually sounds a lot like the definition of motion pictures.

In both cases, the processes are noteworthy for being creative approaches to film, the former reaching forward to 3-d imaging and the latter reaching backward to the early days of film, but both using different types of cameras, despite being hyped as camera-less. Another lesson in never believing the hype, I suppose.

Don't get me wrong, both come out looking pretty cool.

But here's the fascinating part about Radiohead's video: granted the whole thing had to be created from a giant data set, one that could be used for many possible applications and visualizations. As a result, over at Google Code, Radiohead have released their entire data set from which their video is constructed. The data set is available for free, and now anyone can use the data to construct their own version of the 3-d imaging video. Best part is, people are actually doing it!

NOTE: Stereogum brought this video and its circumstances to my attention.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Philosophy of the Possible: Why "Solaris" Succeeds

Above: an image from "Solaris"
A quick warning: this review contains no major spoilers, but it does contain minor ones.

I finally saw Steven Soderbergh's version of "Solaris," my first exposure to this story. While many critics saw the film as succeeding or failing in various degrees, many agreed that the film was essentially a space-bound love story. But for those of you that felt the love story was rather undeveloped or that the ideas in the film seemed more complex and interesting than the plot let on, I can assure you that you are not alone.

The story is simple enough science fiction: a new planet dubbed "Solaris" has been discovered, but something strange is happening to those researching it. The something strange, in this case, is that people who are important to those researchers begin appearing in the flesh on the research satellite above the mysterious planet. In George Clooney's case, it's his long-dead wife. For another researcher, it's his still-alive but earthbound son. And for some, it's far more complex.

The thread uniting these apparitions is that the resurrected individuals are among the most important in the lives of those to whom they appear. They also remember their lives as their counterparts remember it, whether that memory is accurate or not.

With the current position of scientific discovery in mind, there are many right answers (and many wrong answers) to the question of how these beings actually appear. Even a little scientific forecasting can give us an interesting story about Higgs bosons and Higgs fields holding these new creatures together (this is the route the film goes, in fact). But eventually that science can be proven wrong or right. Eventually the science becomes no more than MacGuffin, nothing more than the "Higgs field" holding the movie together. And finally, as science catches up to science fiction, something remains beyond those predictable scientific explanations, something more lasting and more intriguing.

That remaining something in "Solaris" is a series of questions, some about humanity and some about things above and beyond what humanity can see or figure out.

Regarding the former, the obviously captivating question is whether these apparitions are "life," are "human." The film asks whether these newly-created individuals, whose experiences are limited to those remembered by other people, are actually people themselves. Sure they are facsimiles of the dead or departed, but are they just new copies? What does it mean to kill them? What does it mean to love them?

But even while these provocative questions about memory, loss, guilt, humanity and psychology drive the film's narrative, an even more fascinating question from the second category hangs just behind the veil of the space opera: What are these people? How are they formed, apparently, out of something so ephemeral as memories? And why do they pop into existence in this place alone?

In short, the driving question, the question that drags "Solaris" out of pulp sci-fi territory, even out of psychological thriller territory, and into the philosophy of the possible, is Why?

The location and mechanisms of the apparition phenomenon implies that the planet, Solaris, is creating them. The planet is apparently receiving something from the people studying it from above, decoding it, and sending back something else, something it has encoded. In short, Solaris is trying to communicate.

And that is what fascinates me most about "Solaris." While some science fiction amounts essentially to stories told in space, great science fiction proposes fundamental questions about the world and ourselves and then ventures a guess as to how they might, or might not, be answered. "Contact" did this in a similar manner. "2001" did, too. Even "Sunshine," while not universal loved, attempted this kind of ideological exploration.

In one telling exchange, George Clooney's character asks one of the apparitions what Solaris wants. The film recognizes the inherent human bias in expecting any intelligence to want something from us, and the apparition responds, "why do you think it has to want something?" "Solaris" is willing to get past the trappings of conventional science fiction and ask this difficult question, among a plethora of other equally interesting questions.

This kind of fundamental exploration of what it means to be alive, this kind of casting off of our human biases in favor of something inexplicable, is what makes "Solaris" a truly lasting, truly invigorating science fiction movie.

NOTES: Stanislaw Lem, author of the original novel from which "Solaris" is adapted, has also expressed concern at calling the film a "love story." The ideas he discusses in this article serve to underscore just what makes "Solaris" far more interesting than your average pulp science fiction story.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"Stuff White People Like" in a Special Feature Called "Stuff Stephen Dislikes"

Above: the McDonald sandwich, at one point the Most Expensive Sandwich.

You know what white people love nowadays? They love "Stuff White People Like."

Here's some background. This website has been gaining popularity over the course of almost a year now. It purports to chronicle the things that every white person likes. This includes fancy sandwiches, graduate degrees, and girls with bangs. The site has been emailed around from white person to white person, each one laughing more than the last. The site's popularity culminated with the release of a book by the same name early this month.

But something is wrong. Sure, the site has become more and more popular, but a vast majority of white people have probably never heard of it. For instance, a portion of the white community doesn't even have internet access in their homes. An even larger portion can't afford "fancy sandwiches." In fact, the number one thing that white people like is not "outdoor performance clothes" like "North Face." It's probably NASCAR.

It's true, the white people that send funny emails to each other and spend most of their days on the internet and drink Starbucks love the things that "Stuff White People Like" tells them they love. But the white people who live in small towns and know how to care for cows and can't afford a latte every day wouldn't even understand the appeal of "Stuff White People Like."

Maybe the site is just misnamed. Maybe it means "Stuff Upper Middle Class / Yuppie White People Like," but that also might prove to be untrue. But I think the problem goes to something deeper, something more human than just the name the creators chose.

The problem comes from another thing that a lot of people, white or not, like: a lot of people like oversimplifying things. A lot of people like categorizing each other. They like other races to be homogenized, separate. They like stereotypes.

And nowhere is this more evident than on "Stuff White People Like." The site even mentions the white person's apparently hypocritical love of diversity, saying that white people think having easy access to multinational restaurants is the height of diversity. This article explains the tendency to view other cultures as something to "Experience," something definable, something purchasable. But the site's very premise is to oversimplify the white population in a similar manner, reducing the individual to a stereotype.

The black population in America has worked long and hard to overcome society's pressure on them to fit into categories, to be simple and to be what we expect them to be. Their struggle is not over, and it remains one of America's lasting problems. But a problem like that cannot go away in a society that lets our desire to describe and simplify our world affect the way we see and treat each other.

I would like to think we live in a world that celebrates diversity, not makes a sham of it, not discourages it. Sure, "Stuff White People Like" is good for a laugh. But then again so were blackface minstrel shows back in the day. Does that make either one less damaging?

NOTE: for a much more well-thought-out article hitting on some of the same themes as this post, see here. Here's a quote: "The reason the phrase 'it's funny because it's true' has become a shorthand for things that are neither (a) funny nor (b) particularly true is because humor is rarely truly satirical when its targets also make up the bulk of its audience."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Commentary on Audio Fidelity in the Form of a Coldplay Review

Above: Coldplay's newest record.

I am a Coldplay fan. I am unashamed to admit it. I consider my "guilty pleasures" to simply be "pleasures," and Coldplay has been one of those pleasures for many years, dating back to early high school.

And whether you are a fan or not, it'd be hard for you to get through the months preceding a Coldplay record release without hearing about it. Mainstream media covers it, YouTube offers sneak peeks, posters go up, and eventually an epic Mac ad comes out featuring those doe-eyed british songsters.

This burst of market exposure, Coldplay-related or otherwise, is certainly a product of our times. Widely available media translates directly to widely available marketing planks. It also translates to widely available digital bootlegs and pre-release streamed copies of records. But another unfortunate side effect of the explosion of exposure space is the diminished fidelity of any audio this exposure brings us.

Let me illustrate this general principal with the specific case of Coldplay's newest record. The record was made available as a stream a few weeks before release, so many people got their first taste of the new material from a low-quality streaming music player on Coldplay's website. I personally got my first taste this way. Which is too bad.

After getting my CD copy of the record and taking some time to climb inside it and explore the space it creates, I found that Coldplay's songwriting abilities have not improved drastically since their inception. I found, instead, that this new record (entitled "Viva La Vida or Death and All of His Friends") was a sonicly complex and invigorating album.

From the opener, called "Life in Technicolor," the blippy synthesizer serves as a sort of beacon in the middle of a cavern of other sounds, the waves of other synthesizers crashing all around as the dulcimer-sounding rythmes and acoustic guitar push the song wider and wider.

The opening instrumental song is a macrocosm for the rest of the record as well. Every track finds a way to carve an interesting sonic territory and then proceeds to push to the edges of that territory. The Brian Eno production is no doubt to blame for most of this, but the band manages to provide some fascinating sounds and texture for Eno to work with. The songs are essentially as well-written as anything on "A Rush of Blood to the Head" and certainly better than almost all of "X&Y," but the febric of these songs is something new for Coldplay; the band is using the bricks of its arena-rock and adult contemporary image to build something more intricate, more expansive.

Now flash back to my first taste of the record. I was sitting in front of my computer, Coldplay.com widget loaded and mouse on the play button. The suspense was killing me. Then came my first audio taste of "Life in Technicolor."

What a dissapointment. Through that compressed audio stream, "Life in Technicolor" sounded like a muddled "X&Y" outtake. It flitted by, leaving little to no impression. And the rest of the album delivered nothing spectacular, with the wide expanse of "Lost!" sounding more like a drone and the punch of "Violet Hill" sounding like a listless, empty pop song.

Imagine my surprise when I finally got my hands on the full quality CD. The album came alive, expanding in size and scope. The songs were still a little bit of a dissapointment, but the sound and the structure revealed the sonic spelunking expedition the record actually was.

I'm not going to claim that my experience is typical of the average Coldplay listener. On the contrary, most people probably don't care what level of fidelity their music comes in, they just want the music. Good on those people. I just hope that this trend of low-quality YouTube videos and crappy record streams doesn't change the sound of my music any more than it already has.

NOTE: I had the same experience with Sigur Ros's new record, which I now believe is one of their finest. If anyone has had similar experiences, I would love to hear them.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Fine, Then Jack Kerouac Isn't a Writer Either

(image source: the Sports Oasis)

The Bissinger vs. Deadspin adventure is basically over, and Deadspin has marked the occasion with a level-headed email exchange with Mr. Bissinger. This one is not nearly as interesting as the video I posted about a few weeks ago, because a) there is not nearly as much swearing and yelling, and b) the two parties have already made their positions clear. But, as I told my friend Hudi (thanks for the link again, by the by), the email exchange serves the important purpose of showing that, even without the histrionics, Mr. Bissinger is no less wrong.

Check it out here.

Also note, Mr. Bissinger says that what bloggers do "isn't writing. That is just vomiting on the page." But great classic writer Truman Capote once said that Jack Kerouac's writing style in "On The Road" was not writing, just typing. Kerouac is now considered by some to be as entrenched a classic writer as Capote...