William Gibson and the City: A Glitch in Time

Though he’s better known as the paragon of paraspace, in the Sprawl of his numerous novels, William Gibson has explored the future of cities as much as any urban theorist, expanding upon the topography of late 20th-century exurban development with astute accuracy. “The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby,” Gibson says in an interview in the Paris Review. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism.” While this might seem so statistically, Gibson’s visions of cities’ possible futures have come closer to reality than most others, and he regularly cites Tokyo as the human-made stone for sharpening his edge: “It’s hard to beat, these nameless neon streets swarming with every known form of electronic advertising, under a misting rain that softens the commercials playing on façade screens of quite surreal width and clarity. The Japanese know this about television: Make it big enough and anything looks cool.” In No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archeologies of the Future in William Gibson (Ropopi, 2011), Karin Hoepker attempts to canonize Gibson’s excursions into our future urbs.

The suburbs are much more dangerous because in the city someone might come up and take your money, but in the suburbs they’ll take your soul. — William Gibson

Hoepker’s book extracts Gibson’s urban theory from his many novels. First, she establishes what she calls an “Archeology of Future Spaces,” then contextualizes Gibson’s work within 1980s science fiction. Next, she explores the future urban landscapes of his books in turn, illustrating not only the impossibilities of mapping these spaces via traditional means, but the invisible politics thereof as well. The gerrymandering of space for political gain is as much a part of the postmodern condition as advertising on every available surface.

Gibson’s tendency toward Tokyo notwithstanding, Los Angeles is widely considered The City of the Future, “nearly unviewable save through the scrim of its mythologizers,” as Michael Sorkin put it. Its metro myth-makers include Gibson, Norman M. Klein, Mike Davis, James Howard Kunstler, Ridley Scott, and Philip K. Dick, among others. The built environment shapes our lives like the dreamscapes in Inception shaped its ontology, but unlike Nolan’s metropolitan mazes, Gibson’s city of bits is the one we have come to inhabit: cities that connect us and reflect us like the hives of insects. Sleepily stretching out in “a vast generic tumble,” our cities and their limbs divide us even as they bring us together (see Shepard, 2011). More and more, this paradox includes the expanding matrix of cyberspace, which didn’t yet exist when Gibson first wrote about it in the July, 1982 issue of Omni Magazine. “Gibson’s influence is evident in everything from the Matrix movies to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction,” writes Thomas Jones. Hoepker’s book exposes and explores Gibson’s continuing and consistent influence — on the blacktop rather than the laptop.

Exploring well beyond William Gibson, Miles Orvell and Jeffrey L. Meikle have put together a must-have compendium of of essays on urban spaces. Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture (Rodopi, 2009) is rife with observations and theories. The idea that public space in America is regarded as little more than a waste of resources resonates with the rejection of the commercialization of everything here, as well as with the projections of Gibson’s stories mentioned above. There is an entire piece on desire lines and public space in Chicago, a chapter on Starbucks’ shilling of so-called “public” space (i.e. the illusion thereof, a “Third Place” in Howard Schultz-speak), one on urban communities including a bit on bum-proof benches, and another on designed space vs. social space, among many other things.

Technologist David E. Nye chimes in on public space as transformed by New York blackouts, arguing that they’re not an instance of technological determinism, a topic Nye has explored in depth previously (See chapter 2 of his Technology Matters, 2006). His take seems to flip the script on one of William Gibson’s well-worn aphorisms: The street finds its own use for things. If the technological use is culturally determined, then the use finds its own street for things. The line between a glitch in the grid and a glitch in The Matrix is in your head. Nye writes,

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, blackouts were recognized as more than merely latent possibilities. They were unpredictable, but seemed certain to come. Breaks in the continuity of time and space, they opened up contradictory possibilities. From their shadows might emerge a unified communitas or a riot. The blackout shifted its meanings, and achieved new definitions with each repetition. For some, it remained a postmodern form of carnival, where they celebrated an enforced cessation of the city’s vast machinery (p. 382).

While architecture and urban planning are tangential to my usual topics of interest, smart and expansive writing like this, writing that uses the same strokes and colors as science fiction, reminds me why I find the cumulative concerns of the built environment so fascinating. I recommend seeking out these titles. Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention that these two books are entries in two series from Rodopi. No Maps for These Territories is #12 in one called “Spatial Practices: An Interdisciplinary Series in Cultural History, Geography, and Literature,” and Public Space… is #3 in the “Architecture, Technology, Culture” series. This small sampling bodes well for two rich veins of new spatial knowledge, speculative theory, and stimulating writing.

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Here’s a clip from Mark Neale’s William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories (2000) in which Gibson discusses our post-geographical, prosthetic nervous system [runtime: 2:02]:

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References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.) Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1982, July). Burning Chrome. Omni Magazine.

Gibson, William. (2001, September). My Own Private Tokyo. WIRED Magazine, 9.09.

Hoepker, Karin. (2011). No Maps for These Territories. New York: Rodopi.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Neale, Mark. (director). (2000). William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories [Motion picture]. London: Docurama.

Nye, David E. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Orvell, Miles & Meikle, Jeffrey L., editors. (2009). Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture. New York: Rodopi.

Shepard, Mark, editor. (2011). Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Sorkin, Michael. (1992). Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang.

Wallace-Wells, David (2011, Summer). William Gibson Interview: The Art of Fiction No. 211. The Paris Review, No. 197.

SF MusicTech Summit 2011: Discovery is Disruptive

In 1986, Tony James’ post-Generation X outfit Sigue Sigue Sputnik released a record that included advertisements between its songs (If you haven’t heard it, you probably should. It’s called Flaunt It). James explained the move saying, “Commercialism is rampant in society. Maybe we’re a little more honest than some groups I could mention… Our records sound like adverts anyway.” Though it was taken with the appropriate amount of irony twenty-five years ago, the idea was disruptive. Well, my good friend Dave Allen invited me to join him on a panel at SF MusicTech Summit this year where I heard someone propose — nay they had a business based on — the same idea as the Sigue Sigue Sputnik farce, designed for streaming online… The topic of our panel? The Lack of Disruption in Music Technology.

The "Lack of Disruption" Panel (l to r): Dave Allen, Roy Christopher, Corey Denis, David Ewald, Alex Ljung, and Jesse von Doom.

Audio streaming sites and services seem to be all the rage this year, and whenever he starts a new project with a client as Digital Strategist at NORTH, Dave always asks “What does it solve?” In our panel meetings we added “Who does it serve?” to that. Streaming services have become what Dave calls “the mechanics of consensus.” That is, they all use the same outmoded model (i.e., draw up business plan, acquire venture capital, launch service, place advertising on the free part, charge for premium service without advertising, etc.) as if it’s the only way to do things. This model follows and barely updates the broadcast radio model of the 1920s. As Dave says, “There’s nothing new in digital!” In his pre-talk post, “What happened to the Big Idea in music technology?” he points out that

…when FM radio became homogenized and the US radio stations formed into conglomerates such as Clear Channel, they neutered the DJ. When Wolfman Jack was programming his own rock shows in the USA, and across the Atlantic in London John Peel was exposing young people’s ears to music they’d never heard, they were just two examples of the extraordinary power DJs had on the music business. They were tastemakers, influencers, and filters of music culture. When the conglomerates did away with the role of the DJ in favor of automated playlists they ruined everything. The DJ was the voice of the station and he or she was considered dangerous to the bottom line if they were to offend their advertisers – they had to play nice, or go. The music streaming companies didn’t see the problem that needed solving – the lack of authentic DJs who programmed their own shows – because they thought “interactivity” was the answer.

The streams on these services are controlled by algorithms, and they’re similar on every service. If you like one Norwegian Black Metal band, you’re soon to be recommended every Norwegian Black Metal band. Discovery comes from difference, and these algorithms are based on similarities. They all serve up sameness. How about some Swedish Black Metal for a change? The DJs at KEXP (or whomever), as well as Wolfman Jack, or John Peel might keep you in a stable groove, but they also know when to yank you out of a rut. Dave says that getting up from his desk to flip over a record on the turntable is about as interactive an experience as he can imagine while at home listening to music. Either way: The human element cannot be replaced with playlists.

Dave wondering why he invited me.

RT @rebeccagates: read a comment from #sfmusictech about “need to make music more participatory”. uhhh…how about going to a live show?

It’s not all about interactivity though. There is also a mounting wave of social-media fatigue — on both sides. TAG Strategic’s Corey Denis pointed out that some artists don’t want or like to engage with their fans. We often say that a 21st-century art inherently involves multimedia, and while that might be true more often than not, it doesn’t mean every artist wants or needs to tweet. There are as many kinds of artists, performers, and entertainers as there are arts, performances, and entertainment. Some of them don’t require status updates. Social media killed the video star. Where companies and consultants are still pursuing interactivity and engagement, Dave often pushes for more passivity. People are tired of engaging with you, and sometimes there’s just no reason for you to “be social.” From the other side of the fourth wall, my man Tim Baker just posted this piece at SYFFAL about how social media kills fandom. He writes,

As for artists, I can’t tell you how many have destroyed their legacies and turned me off to their works completely based soley on their Twitter accounts. Artists and Twitter should be a match made in heaven but time and time again it is used as a sounding off board for the most idiotic, self absorbed and generally dickish thoughts, or recaps of the minutiae that only someone on the autism spectrum would need to share. Additionally most artists are not smart in the sort of way that translates into short form quick bursts. It comes off much more as indulgent at best, and idiotic at worst. Gone are the days of artists being interesting because they were mysterious and unobtainable and here are the days where modern artists are overexposed and not even remotely interesting. It is sad really that the tool that when used sparringly is so effective, is abused to such a level.

David Ewald calls this phenomenon the “erosion of trust,” and it happens at every intersection: artists to labels, labels to radio, labels to technology, everyone to “social media experts,” fans to everyone, artists to everyone, etc. Why should they trust you with something they can do themselves? But also, why should they trust you with something that don’t want to do and don’t necessarily care about in the first place? Artists should concentrate on their art. As fans, we’ve bought and replaced every format out just trying to hear the artists we love. If the music is good, we will find it and support it. We don’t need your help. As a lifelong music fan and someone who doesn’t use any of the online services, I can honestly say that my experience with music is better right now than it ever has been. Anyway, by design our panel asked more questions than it answered — and definitely more than we could answer sufficiently in an hour. Here are my thoughts from SF MusicTech Summit, collected in web-ready, low-bandwidth blurbs:

  • Solve real problems and serve real people. Artists and fans are real people. We don’t care where your money comes from.
  • Discovery is disruptive. Discovery comes from difference. Stop seeking and serving sameness.
  • The human element cannot be replaced with playlists. Just because technology can curate doesn’t mean that it should or that it does it well.
  • Social media killed the video star. Be social when it makes sense. Shut up when it doesn’t.
  • Music will take care of itself. Stop acting like music needs you to save it. It doesn’t.

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Many thanks to Dave for inviting me, Lily for going with me, my fellow panelists for the great talk, and to Brian and Shoshana Zisk, Cass Philipps, and all at SF MusicTech Summit for putting this thing together. Also, props to Luke Williams for getting us stoked on this idea in the first place. Onward.

[photos by Lily Brewer]

Expanding Minds: Books on Hacking Your Head

Thinking about our own minds often seems so pataphysically impossible as to be useless and silly, but, to paraphrase Steven Johnson (again), trying to understand the brain is trying to understand ourselves. By contrast, trying to expand and enhance it seems much easier. You can expand your mind without really understanding how it happens. There are many ways to make your brain feel bigger, and these three new books provide many steps in that direction.

Upgrade your grey matter because one day it may matter.
— Deltron 3030

Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level by Ron Hale-Evans and Marty Hale-Evans (Wiley, 2011), the “unofficial sequel” to Ron’s previous book, Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain (O’Reilly, 2006; which I mentioned previously). From the sublime to the silly, extensive lists of mental activities, experiments, and games comprise these books, and they’re as fun as they are fertile.

Many of the hacks here take advantage of the fact that the way you see your mind and your world are often radically related, if not often the same thing. What I mean is that a lot of these are not just mental exercises, but tricks for productivity, ways to communicate better, hacks for breaking bad habits, tips for time management, and creative ways to be more creative. It’s not just about the hacks though. Mindhacker is also stocked with other (re)sources: Relevant URLs, books, and articles are listed on every page, along with the stories of the hacks’ origins, and the book’s website has even more, including pieces of code as well as complete programs.

Speaking of programs, Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Thinking and Learning (Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2008) tackles maximizing the mind from a programmer’s point of view, and it overlaps and complement’s the books mentioned above nicely. Maps, models, recipes, and other scripts and schedules are a part of Hunt’s push, but you don’t have to be code nerd to get plenty out of this book. It has helpful tips for everyone. Chapter four, “Get in Your Right Mind,” even suggests rock climbing, which I regularly use to clear my mind’s cache.

From the grounded to the grandiose, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark (Oxford University Press, 2011) stretches the mind in multiple manners, also blurring the line between the brain and the world. Clark’s extended mind thesis posits the mind beyond the body… Sometimes. That is, sometimes we perform a Dawkinsian flip, seeing the biosphere as an endless network of DNA regardless of organismal boundaries; sometimes our brains and the brains of others are emphatically embodied. It’s a simple but sizable distinction. Where we draw those lines changes everything about how we see the mind and the world.

Other than a few minor missteps (e.g., In his conclusion, Clark unfortunately defines the mind as a “mashup,” when really he just means that it’s extremely diverse, infinitely adaptable, and ultimately mysterious), Supersizing the Mind is one of the better books I’ve seen in the neurosciences in a while.

If you want a brain book that’s handy and fun, I definitely recommend Mindhacker and Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. Those two, along with Dan Pink‘s book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead, 2006), will get you a long way toward optimizing your cognitive output. If you want something a bit more theoretical, check out Supersizing the Mind. Either way, get to mining and minding your mind. It is still legal.

Party Down: Your Subtlety is Served

Upon the recommendation of my friend Chase, I decided to check out the Starz series Party Down. Unbeknownst to me, the show was created by many of the folks responsible for one of my favorite shows of all time, Veronica Mars. Realizing this, I blazed through the two seasons of Party Down in short order.

Party Down‘s namesake is the catering company for which the main characters work. Aside from the Team Leaders (Ron in Season 1 and Henry in Season 2), no one seems to care much about the job as they all have other more pressing concerns. Catering is the perfect slacker job for actors, comedians, and writers on their way up or on their way down, and Party Down is burdened and blessed with both. Each episode centers on an event they’re catering, a premise that allows the show to stay fresh even though its themes tend toward the familiar struggles of show business. Though there aren’t many changes, it also allows flexibility in the cast. Jennifer Coolidge and the inimitable Megan Mulally step in during seasons 1 and 2 respectively to cover Jane Lynch’s absence due to her Glee obligations. The show’s episodic nature also makes room for its many cameos and plot surprises.

The series casts Adam Scott as the failed actor Henry, Marin Starr as the condescending Sci-Fi writer-nerd Roman, Lizzy Caplan as the aspiring comedienne Casey (and Henry’s love-interest and impediment for most of the show), and Veronica Mars almuni Ryan Hansen as cool Hollywood bro Kyle, Ken Marino as bumbling bossman Ron, and Jane Lynch as aloof actress Constance. Other Mars regulars who make cameo appearances include Steve Guttenberg, Joey Lauren Adams, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, Martin Yu, Michael Kostroff, Alona Tal, Ed Begley, Jr., Daran Norris, Ryan Devlin, and Veronica herself, Kristen Bell.

Watching this show in conjunction with Veronica Mars highlights not only the strengths and differences of the cast but the writers as well. Rob Thomas, Jon Enbom, and Dan Etheridge had major hands in both, and the series each require a light touch in different ways. Party Down hovers around hearty issues but mostly deals in hilarity. Veronica Mars flirts with funny at times, but the overall focus is firmly serious.

While the entire cast is stellar, special mention is due of Ken Marino. His depiction of the smarmy Vincent Van Lowe in Veronica Mars was one of that show’s many great performances. In Party Down, he plays the insecure Team Leader, Ron Donald. The characters are as similar as they are different, and his shift from one to the other is remarkable. Whereas Vinnie was a cocksure, legend-in-his-own-mind P.I., Ron is chasing the dream of being his own boss by running a “Soup ‘R Crackers” restaurant franchise. The shift is worth mentioning because Marino pulls it off so effortlessly. The two characters are similar enough that a lesser actor could have played them both without much changing, but Marino plays them both with such subtlety that distinguishes the two with slight but noticeable differences.

All of this good stuff in another cancelled show… Will television ever allow shows of such cunning complexity to grow into their own?

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Here’s a clip in which Constance (Jane Lynch), Roman (Martin Starr), and Kyle (Ryan Hansen) discuss why Baretta was called “Baretta” [runtime: 1:33]:

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