Tag: culture


Rasmus Fleischer’s postdigital manifesto

August 9th, 2010 — 4:30pm

In his highly timely and readable 2009 book “The Postdigital Manifesto”, Swedish writer and historian Rasmus Fleischer discusses the effects of the digital on our relation to music and sets out his vision for how we can make music listening more meaningful. Fleischer is a prolific blogger (almost exclusively in Swedish) at Copyriot, and is probably best known for co-founding the Swedish think tank Piratbyran. As a side project, I am currently in the process of translating this book into English. It will be released in some form when it is done. The original work was released without copyright, so it is quite likely that some kind of PDF will simply be made available for download.

One of the central ideas of the manifesto is that our relation to music is dependent on physical presence and responsibility. Physical presence as opposed to the illusion that distances and places are made irrelevant by the internet and digital communications. Responsibility as opposed to the idea of mindlessly shuffling through a very large or infinite archive of recorded music. One of the ways in which music conveys something is when I choose music to play to somebody else, and I take responsibility for the effects of the music on that person or on a group of people.

Fleischer constructs the idea of a “postdigital situation” and holds it up as a model for how music is to be valued, critiqued, understood, and, essentially, how it is to take place, or come to matter. The postdigital situation is constrained by a physical space where music is being performed and listened to, where responsibility relations exist and evolve, and where bodies are set in motion. The digital world, the internet without boundaries, can be a means of gathering people in such a space and informing it, but it does not replace it. The “postdigital” goes beyond the naive idea of the digital, which ignores places and crowds.

Olle Olsson at SICS has also discussed this book in English. More to come!

3 comments » | Life, Philosophy

Deletion

July 4th, 2010 — 12:24pm

A characteristic of a naive approach to the digital world is the tendency to record and store everything. JustBecauseWeCan. Every photo, every e-mail, every song, every web site ever visited, every acquaintance who ever added you as a friend on some social network, every message you ever received. Somebody, probably an author, termed this the “database complex”, I think. A projection of a certain greedy tendency to gather and collect things. This does have certain benefits when coupled with a good search function. Every now and then I find myself having to use some information that only exists in an e-mail that I received 6 months ago or so.

A more advanced approach is selective forgetfulness. Humans cannot go on with their lives if they do not forget memories and experiences that are irrelevant and useless. They become unable to set and act on new targets. I think that a slightly less naive digital life would contain a measure of deletion. Deletion of files, old e-mails that have probably become useless, “friends” on social networks who are mere acquaintances or even less, and so on. Taking away the old makes space for the new. It can be especially powerful to see the number of files in your home directory reduced from 50 to 5. A lot of confusion and ambivalence is immediately removed.

Part of taking the next step step deeper into the digital age should be deciding, each for themselves, what one’s personal thresholds and principles of deletion are. What should be deleted, when and why? In our brains it has been managed by evolution for us. Now we must manage it by ourselves.

1 comment » | Life, Uncategorized

The aesthetics of technology

May 18th, 2010 — 11:20pm

Different technologies have different kinds of aesthetics, and they affect us in various ways, whether we are particularly fascinated with technology or not.

The easiest technologies to understand on an intuitive-emotional basis seem to be those that involve physical processes. Objects rotating, moving, being lifted and displaced, compressed, crushed. Gases and liquids being sent around in conduits, mediating force and energy. In short, the technology that has its foundation in classical mechanics.

If these are easy to get a feel for, it would probably be in part because an understanding of mechanical processes has been of use to us throughout history, and also before the advent of civilisation. An intuitive understanding of things such as momentum, acceleration, gravity has no doubt benefited mankind and its ancestors for a very long time.

It gets trickier when we get to the more recent technologies. Take electricity to be an arbitrary watershed. We have no intuitive idea of what electricity is, apart from the fact we might be afraid of thunder. Electricity has to be taught through the abstract idea of electrons flowing in conduits, a bit like water in pipes (to name one of many images being used).

And then there’s analog and digital electronics, integrated circuits, semiconductors and so on, where intuition has long ago been left behind. We are forced to approach these things in a purely abstract domain.

Yet, when our Mp3 players, game consoles, mobile phones and computers do things for us, we are left with a sense of wonder. Our minds, always looking for stories and explanations, want to associate the impressive effects produced by these devices with some stimuli. With a steam engine, it’s easy to associate the energy with pressure, heat and motion, all of which are well understood on a low level. With a mobile phone, not so much. A lot of very abstract stories have to be used in order to reach anything that resembles an explanation, and still it doesn’t reach the essence of the device, which might be in its interplay between radio transceivers, sound codec chips, a display with a user interface and software to drive it, a central CPU, and so on, together with, of course, the network of physical antennas and their connectivity with other such networks. Is it too much to suppose that the human mind often stops short of the true explanation here? That we associate the effects produced by the device with what we can touch, smell, see and hear?

This is of course the point where many computer geeks worldwide start to feel a certain affection for the materials that make up the machines. Suppose that we are in the 1980’s. Green text on a black terminal background. A particular kind of fixed width font. The clicking of the keyboard. The dull grey plastic used to make the case. All of these things can acquire a lot of meaning that they don’t really have, because the users lack a window (physical and emotional) into the essence of the machine. The ultimate “disconnected machine”, to relate to my field, is software.

This brings up questions such as: how far can we as a species proceed with technology that we cannot understand instinctively, how can we teach such technology meaningfully and include it in democratic debate, and how can we use people’s tendencies to associate sensory stimuli with meaning and effects in a more meaningful way? – for instance, when we design hardware and software interfaces.

2 comments » | Philosophy, Software development

Power and rebellion in Marunouchi

December 14th, 2009 — 10:38pm

Buildings and nature outside the imperial palace

In the chilly yet sunny winter afternoon, I took a walk past the imperial palace in the centre of Tokyo. I find sunny winter days refreshing.

The palace is interesting to behold. It is fronted by lots of that most precious of Tokyo commodities, open space. Supposedly, during the height of the land bubble, the land on which the palace is built was worth more than the state of California. This is in turn surrounded by some of Tokyo’s most prestigious office buildings in the Marunouchi and Hibiya districts. Tokyo station is just a few minutes away on foot.

The scene is one of juxtapositions. Open space meets tightly packed high rise buildings. Traditional Japanese architecture counters sleek office buildings. Yet this  never feels contradictory, because there is an underlying theme of restraint and control.

As you might expect from a royal residence, the public courtyard is immaculate. The grass is so well cut and even as to resemble a golf course. The trees on the lawn are of uniform height, lushness and distance from each other. The gravel is supremely even.

The office buildings are similarly controlled: shades of grey and brown, a certain minimalism and homogeneity in design that is easier found here than in Europe, the sense that unnecessary detail has been removed.

There is a sense of power in all this; a will and a shared set of ideas that have been realized to a high degree. The homogenous, flat skyscraper with a grid of windows is the triumph of human, platonic ideas over the organic and the irregular. The palace garden is man’s will taming the uncontrolled vegetation we find in nature. Yet such control is always a question of scale. We can cut and prune the trees, but we cannot control the color of their leaves or the exact angle of every branch. And we can cut and prune the buildings, but generally, we cannot control the shape of the overall skyline in detail. Something organic manifests itself in the multitude, even as some parts are controlled.

Power and rebellion, in constant struggle and symbiosis.

Comment » | Philosophy

Abundance and the culture of thrift

November 12th, 2009 — 12:43am

Tiny fish

For a long time, the level of comfort allowed us by technology has risen persistently. This trend shows no signs of slowing down. One of two things would have to happen: either we reach some point where a fundamental barrier prevents us from extracting or converting certain natural resources beyond a certain rate, and this becomes a hard constraint on humanity for all time, or physical matter ends up being under our complete control. In this latter scenario, which I don’t view as unlikely, we’d be able to convert trash into useful things at our whim, for instance.

This scenario is sometimes referred to as an age of abundance. It may have a large intersection with the singularity, an idea first championed in 1993 by Vernor Vinge, or it may be a consequence or a necessary prerequisite of it. For now, let us focus on the economic aspect of abundance only.

If these things come to pass, one of the fundamental assumptions of classical economics – scarcity – would be contradicted. I would suggest that we are culturally unprepared for this kind of world.

As countries’ economic productivity increases, we are faced with the choice of whether to work less and enjoy the same standard of living, or work as much and enjoy a higher standard of living. My understanding is that people have always chosen the latter.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber puts forth the view that the development of capitalism in Europe was largely influenced by protestant values, particularly Calvinist ones. Even though many European peoples today consider themselves to be secular, it is clear that a Christian legacy has left a big mark on contemporary European culture. Simply put, many people only feel proud when they work and feel that they serve a useful purpose to their country. This is why they cannot choose to work less.

In an era of abundance, people would not be needed for the carrying out of most tasks. If they insisted on carrying out the tasks anyway, they would have to know that they were being costly and useless, thereby depriving them of enjoyment – unless we deluded them!

I see a few ways out of this situation.

  • Craftsmanship is considered a uniquely human and artistic activity, and people who turn to art and crafts can continue to feel that they are important.
  • Some work is fundamentally centered on human interaction and human meetings, for instance care, psychotherapy, hairdressing and leadership. These roles are unlikely to grow useless even as technology advances (purely materially).
  • Culture would have to change, allowing people to rest and feel valuable even without contributing to their society’s affluence. If this is possible or not is an open question.

I should point out that the contribution-as-pride mindset is a feature not just of European protestant cultures, but also seems to be one of Japan – though for different reasons. And probably one of many other countries as well.

Comment » | Philosophy

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