The Medium Picture Has a Home

I recently got an email celebrating the 21st anniversary of my long-abandoned LiveJournal account. I looked back at my six entries from 2002 and found the seeds of a book: my earliest research in media theory, a note on Brian Eno’s edge culture, the claustrophobia I felt from working on computer screens.

That was supposed to be my first book. I started outlining it in 2001, worked with an agent on it for a few years, and—after a decade of research and revision—I originally signed a contract for it in 2011. The book then went through several publishing shuffles, during which I went on to finish several other projects. I worked on it off and on in the meantime and am happy to finally have it on the way out of my head and into your hands.

My mock cover for The Medium Picture.

To that end, I am proud to announce that the University of Georgia Press has deigned to publish The Medium Picture. To wit, I was born in Georgia, and I attended UGA briefly during my first attempt at grad school. This project is very close to my heart, and I am stoked to have the UGA Press putting it out.

Here is a brief overview:

The ever-evolving ways that we interact with each other, our world, and our selves through technology is a topic as worn as the devices we clutch and carry everyday. How did we get here? Drawing from the disciplines of media ecology and media archaeology, as well as bringing fresh perspectives from subcultures of music and skateboarding, The Medium Picture illuminates aspects of technological mediation that have been overlooked along the way. With a Foreword by Andrew McLuhan, it shows how immersion in unmoored technologies of connectivity finds us in a world of pure media and redefines who we are, how we are, and what we will be.

The book uses ideas from Marshall McLuhan, Brian Eno, and Mark Fisher, examples from Fugazi, Radiohead, Gang of Four, and Run the Jewels, and artists like Christian Marclay, Richard Long, and Laurie Anderson. It’s post-punk media-theory!

Here’s what some nice people are saying about it:

“Exactly the sort of contemporary cultural analysis to yield unnerving flashes of the future.” — William Gibson

“Like a skateboarder repurposing the utilitarian textures of the urban terrain for sport, Roy Christopher reclaims the content and technologies of the media environment as a landscape to be navigated and explored. The Medium Picture is both a highly personal yet revelatory chronicle of a decades-long encounter with mediated popular culture.” — Douglas Rushkoff

“A synthesis of theory and thesis, research and personal recollection, The Medium Picture is a work of rangy intelligence and wandering curiosity. Thought-provoking and a pleasure to read.” — Charles Yu

“Immersed in the contemporary digital culture he grew up with as a teenager, Roy Christopher is old enough to recall vinyl, punk, and zines — social media before TikTok and smartphones. The Medium Picture deftly illuminates the connections between post-punk music critique, the increasing virtualization of culture, the history of formal media theory, the liminal zones of analog vs digital, pop vs high culture, capitalism vs anarchy. It’s the kind of book that makes you stop and think and scribble in the margins.” — Howard Rheingold

I have a bunch of things planned for the rollout, but first…

After all of this time and all of the rejections, it feels really good to announce that The Medium Picture will be out next fall from the University of Georgia Press.

Jenny Toomey: Fits and Starts

In November 1993, a few months after I first moved to Seattle, I went to see Washington, DC’s Tsunami at the late, legendary RKCNDY. It was a magical time in a magical place, and I was marveling as the names on record sleeves and magazine pages emerged in the flesh. At the merch table, I met Fontaine Toupes of Versus (who signed my Versus 7” “Seattle ain’t shit!”), my friend and collaborator to this day Tae Won Yu, as well as Kristen Thompson and Jenny Toomey of Tsunami and Simple Machine Records.

Toomey is a towering figure in 1990s punk rock, playing in bands, running a record label, and so much more. She and Kristen Thompson, put out The Introductory Mechanic’s Guide to Putting Out Records, Cassettes, and CDs [.pdf link], which was repeatedly updated with new and better resources over four editions throughout the 1990s. After releasing nearly 80 records, Simple Machines ceased operations in 1998.

   

In the meantime, Toomey has continued quietly trying to figure out how technology can serve music and musicians. She was the founding executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, and she worked in various roles at the Ford Foundation. She’s also working on a book about all of this stuff. In her recent op-ed piece for Fast Company, she recognizes a pattern repeating. Likening generative AI to the file-sharing wave of the early 2000s, she writes,

The potential bait and switch of the tech world today is worryingly reminiscent of the early 2000s. While new technology always promises a flashy quantum leap into utopia, it instead regularly delivers opaque systems that streamline mistakes from the past. Throughout 2023’s frenzied AI debates, my feelings of déjà vu have become undeniable.

After years working behind the scenes, Jenny Toomey is thankfully emerging again.


Roy Christopher: When the impact of the internet started to dismantle the music industry as we knew it, many touted it as a new DIY revolution, returning the means of production to the people. What did you see?

Jenny Toomey: I didn’t see it flatly that way. In the same way that I didn’t feel like punk rock solved the problem of consolidated corporate media. I mean, if you look back at the hippie movements, you can criticize some of the hippies as being sort of just hedonist utopic people in denial about the systems in the world and just rejecting them (drop out), and then you can think of other ones as pragmatic utopian people who say that if we’re going to live a different way, we have to model how to live that different way which is more “drop in” or Whole Earth Catalog or Our Bodies Ourselves or eventually DIY punk.

That’s the element of counter culture and punk that I really liked. Not the flashy nihilism of tearing the old down, but rather the joyful enthusiasm of building the new. Asking that increasingly unasked question, “Why are we consenting to so many things we don’t agree with? And what would it look like if we tried to build different systems to give us more and better choices?” So, putting out your own records is a piece of it. A nice piece… nothing wrong at all with putting out your own records, but it’s not going to solve the problem of highly concentrated corporate media systems in late-stage capitalism. It does offer you a way to not completely condone what you abhor. Simple Machines was very much about that… grasping at, or rebuilding a small patch of agency. 

With Future of Music, it was a little bit more trying to bridge those two things, saying we’re actually at an inflection moment where the systems are going to change, and if we could model more open systems, more transparent systems, systems that artists had more say in the design of and more benefit from, then we might get both things. We might get to avoid the systems we hate while actually contributing to building new systems that we could love.

And for me, there was an idealism to it that came out of coming from DC and a kind of can-do quality, that kids that were my age that grew up in DC felt empowered—to DIY, to make your own thing. But we were also practical and pragmatic, because we’d done some of this before. When we put out The Guide to Putting Out Records, and we saw that it took on both of those problems at the same time. First, the guide let novices get on third base and be in charge of their own punk-rock destiny and put out their own records because we spelled out the recipe. But the advice and guidance in the guide wasn’t neutral, it embodied certain values. It looked across the scene and modeled better behavior and therefore it influenced how the scenes functioned. So, if a pressing plant was using bad vinyl, we wouldn’t recommend them, and if a distributor wasn’t paying independent labels, we would take them out of our recommended list of distributors, and if somebody like Barefoot Press was doing great work, we would enthusiastically promote them. It was a way of putting our thumb on the scale to amplify the kinds of behaviors and values and relationships and systems we wanted built.

RC: That was just the beginning though, right?

JT: Yeah, that’s what we were trying to do initially, before we started the Future of Music Coalition. We were just trying to figure out the best path forward for our own catalog. Kristin Thomson from SMR and Tsunami and I started the work as a project we called “The Machine,” which was basically a blog on Insound’s website that allowed us to share whatever we were learning about the music/tech space in real time. We would just sort of reflect on all of the different music distribution systems that were reaching out to Simple Machines as potential partners because there were like dozens of different companies that were all starting up. They all had different business models. Some would buy your copyright outright, and some would license it, and some would encrypt your music, some would stream, some would download. We had no clear idea which of these options were better or worse. So, a lot of what we were doing was trying to understand the trade-offs and make our best recommendations based on guidance from different experts that we ran into in our travels. Very often, once we’d published something,  other experts would come forward and disagree with some aspects of what we’d written and that back-and-forth would allow us to refine our recommendations and make the information even better. 

We thought, let’s just do this until we can figure out what we want to do with our own catalog. Because we had like 80 releases and we had no idea what to do with them. Ultimately the music tech bubble began to burst, companies began merging and going out of business and getting sued by the major labels and we realized that that the emerging system wasn’t solid enough for us to recommend any of these companies. That’s when we knew we needed to set up an advocacy group. We couldn’t just recommend a good and trustworthy company, because that company would be out of business in a few months. Everything was in flux. Instead we realized we needed to advocate for a set of systems.

   

RC: That systems mindset is so important, zooming out enough to see the context of the changes you can and can’t influence.

JT: We believed that instead of just waiting around until everything was set in stone according to the desires of the most powerful companies, we could identify more artist-friendly systems we wanted to advocate for. That’s what it was about. And FMC served quite a useful purpose for a number of years, but then the bubble burst and the collapse of the marketplace put a lot of the idealists on their back foot and the concentration of control began to reestablish itself until it turned into the system we live with now.

It’s hard to remember the level of constant polarized propaganda that we live within now was once uncommon. Today controversial issues are sorted into a quick binary, and everybody finds themselves on one team or another in relation to most things. But that didn’t really exist back then. The internet started as a way to let a billion flowers bloom but ultimately played a starring role in fomenting that polarization. Just around the time that I left Future of Music. It felt like the copyright issues had become a total religious war. There was no discussion about the merits of the different opinions, and you were either on the team that were Luddites or you were artist-hating thieves. It was all caricatures, and in many cases the only ones who benefited from the public battles were the companies.

One of the main reasons I went to the Ford Foundation was to work on these questions at a systems level… I felt like we were not going to be able to build better systems if we were just focused on music. Music was the canary… It was the first industry where we could see the tech and society clashes, the trade-offs, the stakes. The systems that we were developing out of the music battles were on a path to impact all the other systems of journalism and publishing and film and democracy and everything else… as we’ve seen.

The systems that we were developing out of the music battles were on a path to impact all the other systems of journalism and publishing and film and democracy and everything else.

We forget that in the time before the internet there were public interest battles that led to rules that regulate newspapers, radio stations, TV…constraining the behavior of those who control the information pipelines. People fought to establish community-input requirements, ownership limits, and regulations to balance thought, constrain bias and propaganda. All sorts of rules and regulations existed for traditional media. But very few of those protections were extended clearly into the internet environment. Or if the rules did theoretically extend into this internet environment, it wasn’t clear how they would be enforced and by whom. So both the legacy media and the emerging tech companies went on the offensive and were able to use this moment of public disagreement and confusion as a fig leaf or fog behind which they successfully advocated for reduced regulation altogether. And that’s the world we’ve been growing accustomed to over the past 20 years. But it didn’t have to be this way.

Actually, the reason I started writing about music recently is because I feel like that same land-grab is happening all over again in the AI space. The optimism that I felt in the 90’s about the potential for the internet to transform society into a better place has disappeared and been subsumed into a kind of overwhelming powerlessness and pragmatic nihilism. An acceptance of how little protection we can expect from these surveillance and consumption systems that have basically threaded themselves through all of society. So, the piece I wrote for Fast Company was just trying to remind people of a time back when it was a smaller set of problems, focused on music. In retrospect it’s clear to me that we didn’t have to make the choices we made, and we shouldn’t have trusted the companies on either side to protect us because it’s now absolutely clear that they exploited us. And maybe we can learn something from that.

RC: Here’s hoping!

JT: I think part of this problem is now everybody is so dependent on the tech systems that validate them with likes and attention we’ve all come to think of ourselves as a brand, and everything’s intermediated in that way. There is so much time spent on navigation and optimization… that somehow if we do everything right, two-factor authentication and just the right amount of self-promotion and other bootstrappy bullshit, we can win the rigged casino game. It’s very strange to me, but we also just assume these bad systems are the best we can possibly have and that they are permanent. They don’t have to be, but we’ve lost the outrage and the imagination that we’d need to remake them.

RC: That’s one of the things you’ve been able to see very clearly, is that none of this is permanent. It’s going to change again.

JT: Right, right.

RC: There seems to be something fundamental about abandoning analog practices for their digital equivalents—or simulations thereof—that puts human authenticity in peril. Do you think that there’s a distinction there that’s meaningful?

JT: Yeah. The vertical integration of everything and the co-mingling and codependence of information, creativity, community, labor and the systems of delivery, commerce and connection all through a self-dealing commercial gateway mostly designed by technologists who never took a humanities class… It’s disgusting and it’s obviously tremendously dangerous. 

You and I are a bit older and technology was perceived in a completely different way when we were growing up. So, to give you a personal example, I very, very reluctantly took a typewriting class in junior high because I believed I was going to be a powerful woman who was never going to work as somebody else’s secretary. The association to typing back then was clerical. There was a status association to whether you did the “thinking work” or whether you did “technical work” supporting the thinkers. And in the 80’s women were still very often seen as the supporters and not the thinkers. So, as a feminist, I felt reluctant to even learn typing because typing was associated with a service role I didn’t see for myself.

When the internet came, that shifted dramatically. If you couldn’t type or understand the value of typing as the gateway into the internet you were gonna seem outdated and square. I remember my mother left a pretty powerful job running a large non-profit. When she was trying to get her next job she had grown fond of saying, “I don’t even know how to type.” It was a badge of honor… a marker of her status as the type of woman who isn’t a secretary but who has a secretary. And I remember saying to her, “If you want to get your next job please don’t ever say that out loud again.” In the space of maybe five years “up” became “down”… and that’s just one example of how dramatic the shift was and how opaque and slow the cultural catch-up was for so many people, particularly my generation and those who were older.

RC: There are all of these invisible boundaries we find each other behind.

JT: When I went to Ford initially, that “othering” of tech was commonplace. Almost every single person who was recruited to run programs came from the academy, organizing, legal advocacy, policy advocacy—respected careers on the humanities side. Many of them carried with them bias-against, or incredulity or aversion-toward, tech as compared to the disciplines they studied and revered. This meant that they were incurious and had a gap in understanding just how thoroughly tech was transforming the landscape where they did their work. So, the smartest people, the ones with the power to stop it, sat back without contesting much of what the tech companies were doing till it was too late.

And it wasn’t until much, much later when I had a different role at Ford that we did research that allowed us to see that even the universities who were best prepared to graduate hybrid tech-experts, were actively siloing the tech away from the humanities. And we can all see how that turned out. So many of the clunky technical systems we are forced to use everyday (and live within) were designed by guys who were solving a technical problem on a deadline in a humanities-less void.

So, I think my major point is this one: We didn’t have to go into an environment where the internet was completely unregulated, because when you scratch the surface of the historic media rules—the rules that we have for telephones and the rules that we have for privacy and the rules that we have for equal opportunity and thousands of others—all of these rules should be enforced within the internet environment. But the advocates and the leaders who ran the nonprofits or the regulatory agencies that advocated for establishing and enforcing those historic rules were scared of tech, or functionally blind to tech. This meant that they functionally ceding enforcement. They back-burnered governance for long enough to normalize a digital world that lacks public protection. And while that was happening the tech companies became more powerful than the robber barons, and we all became complicit and dependent upon the systems they control.

RC: Is there a way out of that?

JT: There have been some moments of protest over the past 20 years, where artists have tried to demonstrate the value of their labor and their agency by saying, “I’m not going to be in your Spotify, or I’m going to build my own internet player that’s going to be artist controlled” or whatever. But in the meantime as the market becomes more streamlined and consolidated the stakes have become existential. The centralization of recommendation through the music players actually determines who can be seen as a legitimate artist and who is invisible. What’s worse, as the markets become integrated, how you are seen or “not seen” in those environments determines other things… whether you get enough attention to be paid any royalties whatsoever from Spotify… whether a venue will book your band without a certain number of likes or followers etc. We couldn’t even get a professional Spotify account for Tsunami if we didn’t have a Tsunami Instagram page to link it to. It’s way worse than I expected where all but the most powerful artists are forced to shop at the company store just to be in the game. And each post those artists reluctantly put out there to try to develop an audience is just more labor and content extracted to sell ads and train large language models, generating profits they will never share. So you go to Bandcamp to keep it real in the indie-sphere and that platform is actually owned by a Video game company and then they sell it… and you have to wait for the other shoe to drop… So, that just another reason to work with the largest companies that might not go away. Yuck.

I also wonder if that desire to be outsider and not self-promoting and secret is going to reestablish itself as a value in the same way that punk rockers said, I’m not going to look normal. I’m not going to sing pretty.

 

Tsunami: Jenny Toomey, John Pamer, Kristen Thompson, and Andrew Webster.
 
Kristen Thompson, who ran Simple Machines with me, shared an album where all the song titles were in Morse code, which of course makes it impossible for any of the algorithms to recommend their songs. There’s no way that this was an accidental choice, and that kind of decision does seem a little bit like an art project or as like a way of getting a different kind of attention because it’s so different from a word where constant self-promotion is just a precondition of being a creator or getting a next job or whatever we have at this moment.

So, I really don’t know how we disentangle those things. Maybe you don’t want to be on LinkedIn, but where do you get your next job? That’s where everyone’s looking. Maybe you don’t want to self-promote on social media, but if you’re going to try to do a tour, more and more often the clubs determine who they book based on numbers of followers.

RC: You’re speaking my language now. These are all problems I’ve been having.

JT: It’s that centralization of attention. I don’t think it has to be that way. We could have chosen a different way or built different kinds of technologies that would’ve allowed us to maintain agency, privacy and diversity… lots of smaller pockets of success coexisting… and we would’ve had more competition in those environments, and we would’ve had accountability because they’d be fighting for your business. It sucks that for the last 20 years, the people who were in charge ignored technology, and then—in my book I talk about it like the stages of grief. There was a very long period of denial and then, you know, bargaining and rage and negotiating, but so many of them still haven’t gotten to the place of acceptance. And when you’re in acceptance, you’re like, “Okay, the world we were in before, it’s over. My partner is dead now. I can’t have another vacation with them. It’s over,” you know? And now I’ve accepted this, and I am in my next life and it’s sad… but acceptance means I can begin to build a real life because anyone  that pretends we’re living in the previous world is in denial.

I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s certainly how I see it.

RC: Oh, it does… When I talked to Ian MacKaye, he mentioned the fact that punk was the last youth movement that used paper, which just struck me as such a brilliant insight that I’d never really thought about. He’s talking about zines and flyers and stuff. What do you think about that idea of paper being punk?

JT: I think paper contains the human gesture in a way that many forms of digital creativity does not. It almost always involves a greater level of scarcity. You could have the gesture of a human image or a human choice in someone who makes digital art, but it’s immediately replicable, you know? So, there’s not that scarcity in the same way—like people trying to create the artificial scarcity through the Bitcoin type stuff and those whatever they were called that everyone was talking about—

RC: NFTs?

JT: Yeah, but there’s something else about the pace of paper. It’s slower. Tsunami’s putting out a box set and Simple Machines putting out a box set with Numero, so I was forced to look at my archives. I have like 50 journals, and I had something like 17 suitcases packed with ephemera and letters—even before punk rock: I have a whole suitcase of all of my junior high school and high school correspondence, and it’s absolutely transformational.

RC: Absolutely.

JT: In almost all of the letters that I received in junior high school and high school people used fake silly names. They drew art on every envelope. They created collages. They were poets. There’s poems in there. There’s pictures in there. We were using every bit of our creativity to communicate with each other. And soooooo much time. These letters took hours. I can barely be bothered to write a full email these days or to listen to a voice message. Our level of attention is so fragile. It’s just destroyed. I had such deep attention, but everything is constantly distracting and pleasing us with little dopamine hits. We’re always jonesing now.

I also think that there was more of a barrier in some ways, too. There’s a privilege barrier. You had to have enough time to write all those letters, or the ability to cobble together a group house and enough part-time jobs that you had enough resources to be able to go on tour. So, when I think of how inexpensive it was to live when I was younger and how expensive it is now, it’s really shocking to me, but aside from that there was also a physical and time barrier to getting things out in the world. There were a lot of great bands that just didn’t have the work ethic to put the 30 to 50 postcards together to send them out to the clubs to try to get shows, because that’s how we got our shows. You wouldn’t waste money on a phone call. You sent a postcard to a club suggesting they might want to book your band without any ability to hear you at all.

RC: This is a whole other world.

JT: Part of what I really liked about working at Ford was we’re funding these brilliant visionaries who are getting the grants. They are the people who do the work, and they should have the platform and the attention to use their brilliant voices and it’s been a privilege to amplify those voices. But it also does mean that except in a few very specific forums, I’ve put my voice away for 16 years, and a part of that op-ed was also about beginning to think about, Well, what does Jenny’s voice sound like,16 years later?

RC: Exactly.

JT: That’s why I’m trying to write a book as well, but it’s really hard to write a book. I don’t know how you wrote nine books.

RC: Well, I’m glad to help in any way that I can.

JT: I mean, what I should be doing is not an interview with you but writing. I’m supposed to be writing every day, and I get to do it a couple days a week.

RC: You and me both!

That Which Rolls

I’ve been riding bicycles—what the pataphysician, playwright, and avid cyclist Alfred Jarry called “That Which Rolls”—almost as long as I’ve been walking. I haven’t had a car since 1998, so bicycles have been my primary mode of transportation as an adult. Just after I built a new Big-Boy Bike a few years ago, a young friend asked me for some bike-building advice. I found myself qualifying my advice more than actually giving him any. I was trying to explain that I grew up riding BMX bikes, so I approach other builds from that background.

Me and my Big-Boy Bike at Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia. [photo by my friend Peter Relic]
The friend in question was in his early twenties, and as I started explaining my involvement in BMX in the 1980s, I noticed his brow crinkling. He didn’t get it. The further I went, the more I realized that I was attempting to bridge a generation gap.

My bike-curious friend didn’t seem to believe that BMX could’ve been that big in my youth. During my competitive Freestyle (as BMX trick riding was called back then) days, I lived in Southeast Alabama. We had bike-shop-sponsored local contests every other weekend and regional ones monthly, as well as shows to do and the occasional national event thanks to the AFA (American Freestyle Association). From the early-to-mid-1980s to the early 1990s BMX was hectic: My age class in those national contests often boasted well over a hundred entrants. One thing I tried to explain to my friend was that though we played video games (e.g., Atari, Nintendo, arcade games, etc.), riding one’s bike was still way more exciting. Our hands were far more likely to be found on BMX grips than joysticks.

The author kicking a blurry backwards infinity roll sometime in the late 1980s.

Therein lies the first major difference: The experience of a BMXer today is much more likely to be mediated by technology than it was during any previous era. Given the proliferation of technology into every aspect of our lives, that’s not much of an insight, but in addition to the lack of distractingly immersive video games, the riders of thirty years ago were also missing out on the parks. There were like three ride-able skate parks in the whole country. Now there are at least that many in every city of any size whatsoever. Where the past was spent riding curb cuts, banks, walls, streets, and backyard ramps, today the terrain consists of those as well as many human-made options. It makes for different bikes, different riding, different tricks, and different values.

Flatland used to be one-half of Freestyle BMX. Now it is obscured out-of-sight in parking structures and flat driveways. Its intricate moves and flowing connections do not translate to television coverage. The pedestrian spectator nor the beginning rider are able to tell the difference between difficult and impossible (I covered this more thoroughly years ago in a story for ESPN). The same can be said for other kinds of riding: flow and style are less valued than the big trick. One huge trick at the X-Games can make a career.

Riders still go looking for street spots and terrain to tackle, but back in the day—aside from backyard raps and plywood propped up on bricks—that’s all there was. The spread of skateparks changed not only the scarcity of spots, but the spread of information about those spots. Having a central place to meet and exchange ideas changes the dynamics of a local scene thereby affecting overall progression of the sport.

With that said, nothing has changed the collective knowledge of BMXers more than mobile technologies. Before cellphones, cameraphones, iPhones, smaller and smaller digital cameras and video cameras, and even the web, riders relied on a handful of magazines and zines to keep up on what was happening: new companies and products, who was riding for whom, and—more importantly—who was doing what new tricks. An individual or crew in some remote enclave could be light years ahead of the overall curve of the sport and no one would know. For example, when Kevin Jones burst onto the flatland scene in the late 1980s, it was due in part to his appearances at national AFA contests which were covered by the major magazines, but knowledge of Kevin’s progression was largely spread through the mail by zines and videotapes. Hiding such talent is much more difficult now—even if you try. Can you imagine Mat Hoffman’s Highest Air Ever happening in total obscurity today?

Mat Hoffman high in the haze, 1991.

Mobile media can make one famous. Like the X-Games, one huge trick—or one huge crash—captured on camera and immediately distributed online might not make a career, but it can make someone an instant star.

Photocopy and Find Out

Skateboard and BMX zines defined my formative years. Those handmade, photocopied publications were our network of news, stories, interviews, events, art, and pictures. It’s very difficult to describe how an outmoded phenomena like that worked once such epochal technological change, one that uproots and supplants its cultural practices (i.e., the internet), has occurred. FREESTYLIN’ Magazine’s reunion book, Generation F (Endo Publishing, 2008; flip through it at the link), has a chapter called “The Xerox was Our X-Box,” and that title gets at the import of these things. As I said in that very chapter, “Making a zine was always having something to send someone that showed them what you could do, what you were up to, and what you were into. Ours was the pre-web BMX network.”

A small sample of my zines over the years.

At best, zines represent a hidden circuit of media, a grassroots exchange of information and ideas that slips through the cracks of popular culture. Zines are power in the hands of the fans. As Mark Lewman, editor of FREESTYLIN’ Magazine and head of Club Homeboy, as well as “Chariot of the Ninja” zine, points out, “The first zine I did once I moved to California was called ‘Homeboy’. I did one issue and some stickers, and it ballooned into a mail-order lifestyle company with 15,000 members, and became one of the first youth culture magazines, a pastiche of art and sport and randomness. So, the power of zines is pretty unlimited as far as I can tell.”

In spite of the proliferation of the internet, zines are not entirely a thing of the past. Every time we do something on our own instead of just taking what’s given to us, we strike a blow to the massive media machine that constantly shoves products and personality down our throats. Making your own zine is not only immeasurably rewarding (ask anyone who’s ever done one), but it gets your point of view out there and incites dialog between readers, riders and other zine-makers that wouldn’t necessarily take place.

Independent journalists wield the power to expose local underground talent as well. There were always obscure riders in sporadic locales ripping like top pros. There are always great bands no one has heard. The way to get them noticed was not to bug out about major magazines’ lack of attention, but to give the magazines a reason to pay attention. As ex-editor of Faction BMX Magazine John Paul Rogers puts it, “Quit bitching and get off your ass and do something about it.”

So, though they’re as much a part of the process anymore, I cannot overstate the importance of the experience of trading and making zines. There’s something to the physicality of the pages in your hand and the focus on those pages that pixels on screens don’t afford. As I said in FREESTYLIN’ Generation F, “Those first issues were the first steps on a path I still follow.”

Still true.

Portable Document Formats:

My Daniel Menche interview from wow&flutter.

If you’re interested, I scanned and uploaded a couple of my later zines as .pdfs. wow&flutter (1997) was an attempt to bring together experimental noise of all kinds and featured interviews with Daniel Menche, John Duncan, and a cover story about turntablism. It was intended as part of a series, but the second issue, attack&decay, featuring interviews with Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto and Warren Defever of His Name is Alive, among others, never made it to press. I still love the idea of noise and hip-hop coming together, and there are others who’ve merged them in the meantime better than I could have imagined (e.g., dälek, clipping., Ho99o9, Death Grips, Cloaks, Justin Broadrick and Kevin Martin, et al.)

A spread from HEADTUBE featuring Leif Valin. [layout by me.]

HEADTUBE (2001) was my attempt to return to BMX zine-making while maintaining my other, newfound interests in the early 00s. Though I maintained the website for years after, the zine ended up as another one-off print publication. It features interviews with Seattle ripper Steve Machuga, flatland guru Leif Valin, and the band Milemarker, as well as reviews of books, records, and other media. I still have a few copies of the print version. Let me know if you’re interested.

The pilot issue of discontents and the long-arm stapler: a zine-making essential.
Oh, and if you missed the pilot issue of discontents, the latest zine I worked on with my friends Patrick Barber and Craig Gates, we’re working on a proper debut issue. More on that soon!

2024 vs 1984

After looking back at the unified election map from 1984 and griping about advertising again, I arrived this week on their intersection: Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial introducing the Macintosh. It launched not only the home-computer revolution but also the Super Bowl advertising frenzy and phenomenon.

The commercial burned itself right into my brain and everyone else’s who saw it. It was something truly different during something completely routine, stark innovation cutting through the middle of tightly-held tradition. I wasn’t old enough to understand the Orwell references, including the concept of Big Brother, but I got the meaning immediately: The underdog was now armed with something more powerful than the establishment. Apple was going to help us win.

Apple has of course become the biggest company in the world in the past 40 years, but reclaiming the dominant metaphors of a given time is an act of magical resistance. Feigning immunity from advertising isn’t a solution, it provides a deeper diagnosis of the problem. Appropriating language, mining affordances, misusing technology and other cultural artifacts create the space for resistance not only to exist but to thrive. Aggressively defying the metaphors of control, the anarchist poet Hakim Bey termed the extreme version of these appropriations “poetic terrorism.” He wrote,

The audience reaction or aesthetic-shock produced by [poetic terrorism] ought to be at least as strong as the emotion of terror—powerful disgust, sexual arousal, superstitious awe, sudden intuitive breakthrough, dada-esque angst—no matter whether the [poetic terrorism] is aimed at one person or many, no matter whether it is “signed” or anonymous, if it does not change someone’s life (aside from the artist) it fails.

Echoing Bey, the artist Konrad Becker suggests that dominant metaphors are in place to maintain control, writing,

The development in electronic communication and digital media allows for a global telepresence of values and behavioral norms and provides increasing possibilities of controlling public opinion by accelerating the flow of persuasive communication. Information is increasingly indistinguishable from propaganda, defined as “the manipulation of symbols as a means of influencing attitudes.” Whoever controls the metaphors controls thought.

In a much broader sense, so-called “culture jamming,” is any attempt to reclaim the dominant metaphors from the media. Gareth Branwyn writes, “In our wired age, the media has become a great amplifier for acts of poetic terrorism and culture jamming. A well-crafted media hoax or report of a prank uploaded to the Internet can quickly gain a life of its own.” Culture jammers, using tactics as simple as modifying phrases on billboards and as extensive as impersonating leaders of industry on major media outlets, expose the ways in which corporate and political interests manipulate the masses via the media. In the spirit of the Situationists International, culture jammers employ any creative crime that can disrupt the dominant narrative of the spectacle and devalue its currency.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
— George Orwell, 1984

“It’s clearly an allegory. Most commercials aren’t allegorical,” OG Macintosh engineer Andy Hertzfeld says of Apple’s “1984” commercial. “I’ve always looked at each commercial as a film, as a little filmlet,” says the director Ridley Scott. Fresh off of directing Blade Runner, which is based on a book he infamously claims never to have read, he adds, “From a filmic point of view, it was terrific, and I knew exactly how to do a kind of pastiche on what 1984 maybe was like in dramatic terms rather than factual terms.”

David Hoffman once summarized Orwell’s 1984, writing that “during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” As the surveillance has expanded from mounted cameras to wireless taps (what Scott calls, “good dramatic bullshit”; cf. Orwell’s “Big Brother”), hackers have evolved from phone phreaking to secret leaking. It’s a ratcheting up of tactics and attacks on both sides. Andy Greenberg quotes Hunter S. Thompson, saying that the weird are turning pro. It’s a thought that evokes the last line of Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown which, after deftly chronicling the early history of computer hacker activity, investigation, and incarceration, states ominously, “It is the End of the Amateurs.”

These quips could be applied to either side.

The Hacker Ethic—as popularized by Steven Levy’s Hackers (Anchor, 1984)—states that access to computers “and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total” (p. 40). Hackers seek to understand, not to undermine. And they tolerate no constraints. Tactical media, so-called to avoid the semiotic baggage of related labels, exploits the asymmetry of knowledge gained via hacking. In a passage that reads like recent events, purveyor of the term, Geert Lovink writes, “Tactical networks are all about an imaginary exchange of concepts outbidding and overlaying each other. Necessary illusions. What circulates are models and rumors, arguments and experiences of how to organize cultural and political activities, get projects financed, infrastructure up and running and create informal networks of trust which make living in Babylon bearable.”

If you want a picture of the future now, imagine a sledgehammer shattering a screen—forever.

Following Matt Blaze, Neal Stephenson states “it’s best in the long run, for all concerned, if vulnerabilities are exposed in public.” Informal groups of information insurgents like the crews behind Wikileaks and Anonymous keep open tabs on the powers that would be. Again, hackers are easy to defend when they’re on your side. Wires may be wormholes, as Stephenson says, but that can be dangerous when they flow both ways. Once you get locked out of all your accounts and the contents of your hard drive end up on the wrong screen, hackers aren’t your friends anymore, academic or otherwise.

Hackers of every kind behave as if they understand that “[p]ostmodernity is no longer a strategy or style, it is the natural condition of today’s network society,” as Lovink puts it. In a hyper-connected world, disconnection is power. The ability to become untraceable is the ability to become invisible. We need to unite and become hackers ourselves now more than ever against what Kevin DeLuca calls the acronyms of the apocalypse (e.g., WTO, NAFTA, GATT, etc.). The original Hacker Ethic isn’t enough. We need more of those nameless nerds, nodes in undulating networks of cyber disobedience. “Information moves, or we move to it,” writes Stephenson, like a hacker motto of “digital micro-politics.” Hackers need to appear, swarm, attack, and then disappear again into the dark fiber of the Deep Web.

Who was it that said Orwell was 40 years off? Lovink continues: “The world is crazy enough. There is not much reason to opt for the illusion.” It only takes a generation for the underdog to become the overlord. Sledgehammers and screens notwithstanding, we still need to watch the ones watching us.

 

The Gardening

Growing up watching cartoons and slapstick comedies made it seem like rare one-off events like getting stuck in quicksand, slipping on banana peels, and anvils falling from the sky were persistent problems in the world. Not only that, but primetime dramas made it seem like adults could get arrested for anything, and they might never even know the reason! The world seemed dangerous in ways that it really wasn’t.

Posited by George Gerbner in the early 1970s, cultivation theory states that among heavy television viewers, there is a tendency to view the world outside as similar to the world the way the television depicts it. That is, heavy media consumption tends to skew the general views of the media consumer.

Around the turn of the millennium there was a major push in certain underground circles to subvert consensus reality. The internet had connected people according to their esoteric interests (“find the others” as one popular site put it at the time), and it had evolved to a place where they could launch campaigns against the larger culture. Rabble-rousers came together in temporary autonomous zones to jam culture and pull pranks on the squares.

Josh Keyes, “Drift” (2020).

Since December 4, 2009, Google has been personalized for everyone. So when I had two friends this spring Google “BP,” one of them got a set of links that was about investment opportunities in BP. The other one got information about the oil spill. Presumably that was based on the kinds of searches that they had done in the past.

Combine Gerbner’s cultivation theory and Parser’s filter bubble, and you’ve got a simple recipe for media-enabled solipsism. “Participatory fiction. Choose your own adventure,” the conspiracy theory chronicler Robert Guffey writes. “Virtual reality, but with no goggles necessary.” False microrealities like the Deep State, PizzaGate, and QAnon come alive in this environment. A limited ecosystem produces limited results.

It’s not farming and it’s not agriculture, it’s gardening: each of us hoeing a row, working a plot to grow only the food we want, regardless of what everyone else is eating.

This fragmentation in the United States has never been more evident than during the last few presidential elections. Above is the electoral map from the last one. As the nightly network news spread out into 24-hour cable coverage, so did its audience and its intentions. In his book, After the Mass-Age, Chris Riley writes that instead of trying to get the majority to watch, each network preferred a dedicated minority: “Now you didn’t win the ratings war by being objective; you won by being subjective, by segmenting the audience, not uniting them.” And we met them in the middle, seeking out the news that presented the world more the way we wanted to see it than the way it really was. With the further splintering of social media, we choose the news that fits us best. If we’re all watching broadcast network news, we’re all seeing the same story. If we’re all on the same social network, no two of us are seeing the same thing.

Rewind: Above is the electoral map from the 1984 US presidential election. Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan carried 49 of the 50 states, while Walter Mondale pulled only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The year 1984 stands as the most united these states have ever been behind a president.

This map is the product of broadcast and print media: one-to-many, mass media like television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Over the past 40 years those platforms have divided and splintered further and further into unique, individual experiences. The 2020 map above is a product of the internet and social media: many-to-many, multiple sources and viewpoints, and fewer shared mediated experiences.

The medium is only the message at a certain scale, and that scale is diminished.

Reality doesn’t scale in the way that our media depicts it. Nietzsche once called any truth a “useful fiction.” Now that’s all we have, but a lot of them aren’t useful, and none of them are sustainable. A temporary autonomous zone is just that — temporary. There is no longer a consensus to subvert, but we need to know what everyone else is eating if we’re ever going to eat together again.

This is only one of the results of our media gardening. If we share fewer and fewer mediated experiences, some of those disconnections are going to have consequences. Tucked away in the alleys and valleys of our own interests, we stay entrenched in our own tribes, utterly outraged at any other tribe’s dis, disdain, or destruction of one of our own’s preciously held beliefs. The internet has exacerbated these conditions. Instead of more connection, there is a sense of more dis-connection. Where we are promised diversity, we get division. We burrow so deep in our own dirt that we can’t see the world as it really is: a spinning blue ball covered with tiny cells, passive plants, and dumb meat, each just trying to make its own way. Starting from such focus, we can find ourselves in a place. We can belong at a certain level. It just feels like now we never seem to zoom out far enough to see the whole. Instead of giving us the tools to see the bigger picture, the algorithmic biases of our media feed our own individual biases.

Retreat is not the answer, retreat is the problem. We need more connection, not less — real connection. We need to eat at the same table once in a while. We need to engage more with those who aren’t like us. Lift the little ones, help the ones who need it, and learn as much about each other as we can.

Understanding Mediocre

A new year typically brings renewal and hope. I will admit to struggling to find it in these first couple of weeks of 2024. There are too many things we need to get out from under first. Satisficing, the resigning oneself to the first workable option as sufficient (the word itself a workable but unwieldy portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice”), is often considered a good thing, saving one from the needless pursuit of an elusive better or optimal solution. Too much of this good thing leads to the same old thing.

After writing about unintended outcomes and technology not solving problems a few weeks ago, I seem to have closed something else off. Now those unintended outcomes are all I see. Greatness is never achieved through satisficing. The road to mediocrity is paved with just good enough. Now more than ever, we need more than that.

There’s a story under there somewhere, I think.
When you watch a video clip on YouTube, it is typically preceded (and often interrupted) by some sort of advertising. They give you a countdown clock to when the ad is over or to when you can click “skip” and get on with your initial purpose. The very existence of this click-clock indicates that the people at YouTube know that you don’t want to see the ad(s) on their site! They’ve been cracking down on plug-ins to block such ads, and they along with other such “services” offer premium packages where you can eschew all ads for an additional monthly fee (Gee, thanks!).

I mentioned direct mail in the preamble to my previous list, writing that a successful direct-mail advertising campaign has a response rate of 2% and what a waste that is for all involved (98%!). How much mail do you recycle compared to actual mail and written correspondence? Mail seems like an antiquated example, until you go online.

It’s global, yet it’s local.
It’s the next thing in Social.
Hip-hop, rockin’, or microbloggin’ —
You get updates every time you log in.
So, come on in, we’re open,
And we’re hopin’ to rope in
All your Facebook friends and Twitter memories.
There’s a brand-new place for all of your frenemies.
You don’t really care about piracy or privacy.
You just want music and friends as far as the eye can see.
So, sign up, sign in, put in your information.
It’s the new online destination for a bored, boring nation.
Tell your friends, your sister, and your mom.
It’s time for justgoodenough.com

When you log into Instagram and check your notifications (or your other accounts or even your email), how many of them are from people you follow and how many are from spam accounts? Mine are fairly even. That is, I spend as much time on these platforms deleting junk as I do “interacting” with friends and colleagues. I’m sure you have similar experiences.

Where is the break boundary? Where is the point when enough of us have had enough to actually ditch these platforms? I abandon my accounts every other month. None of them are essential after all. YouTube and Instagram are toys at best, amusements for brains trained to seek such tiny nuggets of validation and entertainment, but these same inconvenient priorities spill over into things that do matter. All noise and very little signal. All soggy vegetables and very little pudding.

We’re starving, but… Everything is okay.

Everything is just okay. And it won’t get better until we all demand something else. It won’t get better until we stop satisficing and give each other more of what we want and less of what they want us to have.

Idea, Reality, Lesson: A Year-End List

Unintended outcomes are the furniture of our uncertain age. Decades of short-term thinking, election cycles, and bottom lines assessed quarterly have wound us into a loop we can’t unwind. In addition, our technologies have coopted our desires in ways we didn’t foresee. The internet promised us diversity and gave us division. Social media promised to bring us together, instead it fomented frustration and rage between friends and among family. We know the net result is bad, but we won’t abandon these poisonous platforms.

As straw-person an argument as it might be, direct mail is my favorite example. Successful direct-mail advertising has a return rate of 2%. That means that in a successful campaign, 98% of the effort is wasted. In any other field, if 98% of what you’re doing is ineffective, you would scrap it and start over.

I’ve been thinking about case studies of ineffective efforts and unintended outcomes, and I came up with five for your consideration — IRL: Idea, Reality, Lesson.

“Shadow Play,” Sharpie on paper, 2005.

Idea: AI as a tool for creativity.
Reality: Training large-language models (and the other software that currently pass as artificial intelligence) to be “creative” requires the unpaid labor of many writers and artists, potentially violating copyright laws, relegating the creative class to the service of the machines and the people who use them.
Lesson: Every leap in technology’s evolution has winners and losers.

Idea: Self-driving cars will solve our transportation problems.
Reality: Now you can be stuck in traffic without even having to drive.
Lesson: We don’t need more cars with fewer drivers. We need fewer cars with more people in them.

Idea: Put unused resources to use.
Reality: The underlying concept of companies like Uber and AirBnB—taking unused resources (e.g., vehicles, rooms, houses, etc.) and redistributing them to others in need—is brilliant and needed in our age of abundance and disparity. Instead of using what’s there, a boutique industry of rental car partnerships for ride-share drivers and homes bought specifically for use as AirBnB rentals sprung up around these app-enabled services. Those are fine, but they don’t solve the problem the original idea set out to leverage.
Lesson: You cannot disrupt capitalism. Ultimately, it eats everything.

Idea: Content is King.
Reality: When you can call yourself a “Digital Content Creator” just because you have a front-facing camera on your phone, then content is the lowest form. To stay with the analogy, Content is a peasant at best. Getting it out there is King. Getting and maintaining people’s attention is Queen.
Lesson: Distribution and Attention are the real monarchy.

Idea: Print is dead.
Reality: People have been claiming the death of print since the dawn of the web—over 30 years now—and it’s still patently untrue. Print is different, but it’s far from dead. Books abound! People who say this don’t read them anyway. Just because they want synopses and summaries instead of leisurely long reads doesn’t mean that everyone wants that.
Lesson: Never underestimate people’s appetite for excuses.

If more of what you’re doing is wasteful rather than effective, then you should rethink what you’re doing. Attitudes about technology are often incongruent with their realities, and the way we talk about its evolution matters. Moreover, while many recent innovations seem to be helping, there are adjacent problems they’re not solving. Don’t be dazzled by stopgap technologies that don’t actually solve real problems.

Artificial Articulation

No one reads. People say this all the time, and as a writer, it’s very hard to hear. If I’m ever forced to start a podcast, that will be the reason, and it might be the name. If no one reads, why are we outsourcing writing? According to a recent article on Futurism, sports magazine Sports Illustrated allegedly published reviews generated by artificial intelligence. Not only that, but the bylines on those articles belonged to writers who weren’t real either.

Drew Ortiz, a “Product Reviews Team Member” for Sports Illustrated.
Meet Drew Ortiz, a “neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes” (likely on purpose), and a “Product Reviews Team Member” for Sports Illustrated. One of Drew’s many articles for SI claims that volleyball “can be a little tricky to get into, especially without an actual ball to practice with.” True enough, Drew, but it’s also tricky to get into if you don’t have an actual body to practice with either.
Look, Drew is just like you and me.
Drew was eventually replaced briefly by Sora Tanaka, a “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.” Futurism also notes Jim Cramer’s TheStreet hosting articles by Domino Abrams, Nicole Merrifield, and Denise McNamera — all pseudonyms for AI-generated pseudoscribes.
Sora Tanaka, a “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.”
Given that this path was paved when we first outsourced our thinking to written language, it’s perhaps most fitting that what passes for artificial intelligence these days are large language models, none of which can play volleyball but can write about it. The computer scientists Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon defined thinking in just such terms, writing, “A physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for general intelligent action.” The externalization of human knowledge has largely been achieved through text — a physical symbol system. Cave paintings, scrolls, books, the internet. Even with the broadening of bandwidth enabling sound and video, all of these media are still heavily text-based.

In a paper from 1936 titled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing posited that humans compute by manipulating symbols that are external to the human brain and that computers do the same. The paper serves as the basis for his own Universal Turing Machine, algorithms, and the fields of computer science and AI.

I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence masters program midway through my first semester there in the late 1990s. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. As Al Burian sings on the Milemarker song “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth,” “We keep waiting for the robots to crush us from the sky. They sneak in through our fingertips and bleed our fingers dry.” If humans have indeed always been part technology, where do the machines end and we begin? As the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles told me years ago,

In the twenty-first century, text and materiality will be seen as inextricably entwined. Materiality and text, words and their physical embodiments, are always already a unity rather than a duality. Appreciating the complexities of that unity is the important task that lies before us.

“Manufacturing Dissent” multimedia on canvas by me, c. 2003.

A medium is anything that extends the senses or the body of humans according to Marshall McLuhan in his classic Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). More specifically, McLuhan saw the “electronic media” of the time — radio, telephone, television — as extensions of our nervous system. Jussi Parikka writes that we must stop thinking about bodies as closed systems and realize that they are open and constituted by their environment, what Humberto Maturana and Francisco J. Varela call “structural coupling.” Our skin is not a boundary; it is a periphery: permeable, vulnerable, and fallibly open to external flows and forces through our senses. Parikka adds, “[W]e do not so much have media as we are media and of media; media are brains that contract forces of the cosmos, cast a plane over the chaos.” We can no longer do without, if we ever could.

Our extensions have coerced our attentions and intentions.
We are now the pathological appendages of our technological assemblages.

Desire is where our media and our bodies meet. It’s where our human wants blur with our technologies. It is the inertia of their meeting and their melding, whether that is inside our outside our bodies is less relevant than whether or not we want to involve ourselves in the first place. Think about the behaviors that our communication technology affords and the ones we find appropriate. They’re not the same. Access is the medium. Desire is the message.

Crash-testing intelligence [Sharpies and Photoshop by me, 2023].

The Turing Test, which is among Alan Turing’s other top contributions to the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence, is more accurately a test of the human who’s interacting with the machine. The test, as outlined in Turing’s 1950 article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” states that a machine is considered to be truly thinking like a human if it can fool a human into thinking it is (a.k.a. “The Imitation Game”). So, according to the language and the lore, artificial intelligence doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be convincing. Now that Drew Ortiz, Sora Tanaka, and the other machines can do these symbol-manipulation tasks for us, we’ve outsourced not only our knowledge via text but now the writing of that knowledge, not quite the thoughts themselves but the articulation thereof.

Weak Ties Gone Wild

One of the since-faded early concerns of the internet was “information overload.” The worry was that given the onset of abundant connectivity and content, we were being inundated with so much information that we’d never be able to process it all. Now we limit the flow in our feeds and find just what we need. The real danger of filter bubbles and echo chambers is a cultivated myopia: a limited view of a world of sameness and an inability to see beyond the barriers we’ve erected for ourselves. As Jay Ogilvy once said, “If it’s not different, it’s not information.”

My rendition of “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark Granovetter, (1973).

In the late 1960s, Mark Granovetter was studying how people found jobs. His 1973 article in the American Journal of Sociology, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” states that each person in a close social network is likely to have the same information as everyone else in that network. It’s the weak ties to other networks that lead to the new stuff. That is, weak ties are a more likely source of novel ideas and information—regarding jobs, mates, and other opportunities—than strong ones.

Granovetter says, “I put the theory of weak ties together from a number of things. I learned about hydrogen bonding in AP Chemistry in high school and that image always stuck with me—these weak hydrogen bonds were holding together huge molecules precisely because they were so weak. That was still in my head when I started thinking about networks.”

Like most of my research interests, I first noticed these thresholds in music. I was looking at the CDs I had on hand one day, and I noticed that most of my favorite bands didn’t fit into established genres. They tended to straddle the lines between genres. In nature, these interstitial spaces are called edge realms. In her book When Plants Dream (Watkins Media, 2019), Sophia Rokhlin describes them as follows:

The edge describes the place where two distinct ecosystems meet. These are places of tension and unfamiliarity, territories of confrontation, where different ecosystems overlap and merge. The edge is found where a grassland meets a forest, where oceans reach the shore, where wetlands mediate between river basins and fields. Edges are hot spots of biodiversity that invite innovation, intermingling, and new forms of cooperation from various species. Edge realms are thresholds of potential and fecundity.

Mutations inside Area X as seen in Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ (2018).

An edge realm is a wilderness, a mutant space ripe for new forms. In Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the mysterious Area X is just such a space. Its pollinations crossing well established boundaries, mixing into ever-new breeds and combinations. In his book about VanderMeer’s work, None of This is Normal (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), Ben Robertson writes,

Area X is something else, what has always already disrupted the processes by which by which borders are established between that and this, between one space or time and another space or time, between the human and whatever its other happens to be.

My pencil portrait of Brian Eno from ‘Follow for Now, Vol. 2’.

The fertile ground is in between the established crops of others. The new stuff happens at the edges, in between the codified categories. Any old boring story from history can be made more interesting by varying viewpoints. In his 1996 memoir, A Year with Swollen Appendices (faber & faber), Brian Eno proposes the idea of edge culture, which is based on the premise that

If you abandon the idea that culture has a single center, and imagine that there is instead a network of active nodes, which may or may not be included in a particular journey across the field, you also abandon the idea that those nodes have absolute value. Their value changes according to which story they’re included in, and how prominently.

Each of us tell our own stories, including the cultural artifacts relevant to the narrative we’ve chosen. The long tail is an ironic attempt to depict a big picture that no longer exists. With its emphasis on the individual narrative, edge culture more accurately illustrates the current, fragmented state of mediated culture, subcultures, and the way that edge realms and social networks define them.

My Sharpie sketch of a Boundary Object in use among 3 communities of practice.

The members and fans of subcultures—groups united by similar goals, practices, and vocabularies—represent what Etienne Wenger calls communities of practice. To translate differences and aid communication between these communities, they use what Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer (1989) called boundary objects. A boundary object can be a word, concept, metaphor, allusion, artifact, map, or other node around which communities organize their overlaps and interconnections. These connective terms emphasize groups’ similarities rather than their differences. Boundary objects between different communities of practice open borders once inaccessible, circulating ideas into new territories.

Allusions, references, quotations, metaphors, and other figurative expressions provide the points at which multiple texts, genres, and groups connect and collaborate. They are where textual communities compare notes. “What I see instead of there being one line, many lines,” Eno explains in a lecture from 1992, “lots of ways of looking at this field of objects that we call culture. Lines that we may individually choose to change every day.” Hunting and gathering, picking and choosing, we can each make our own individual mongrel culture.

Mark Granovetter conceived the edge realms of these cultural networks way before we were all connected online, but his insight is all the more relevant today. With our personal media, ubiquitous screens, and invisible, wireless networks, we live in a world of weak ties. You just have to reach out to find the new stuff.

Bibliography:

Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices, London: faber & faber, 1996, 328.
Brian Eno, “Perfume, Defense, and David Bowie’s Wedding,” in Christopher Scoates (ed.), Brian Eno: Visual Music (221-233), San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013, 223.
Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6 (May 1973), pp. 1360-1380.
Benjamin J. Robertson, None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 116.
Sophia Rokhlin & Daniel Pinchbeck, When Plants Dream, London: Watkins Media, 2019, 32.
Susan Leigh Star & James R. Griesemer, “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 19, No. 3 (August 1989), pp. 387-420.
Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.