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June 23, 2016

No more rockstars

Leigh Honeywell [twitter: @hypatiadotca] has posted an important essay — No More Rockstars — written by her, Valerie Aurora (@vaurorapub), and Mary Gardiner (@me_gardiner). There’s a lot in it, and it’s clear and well-written, so it does not need summarizing by me, except to let you know why I think you should read it: It addresses the power imbalance implicit in a conceptual framework that thinks some industry leaders are special and therefore not subject to the same rules as the rest of us. The post analytically describes the phenomenon and suggests ways to avoid the dangers.

Lexi Gill writes a follow-on piece about one particular way that the rockstar culture leads to inequities:

… rock stars are often unofficial gatekeepers to an entire community or industry. They not only get to decide who’s “in” and who’s “out,” but have privileged access to an endless stream of new victims to choose from. Once “in,” the rock star also has special power to manipulate a newcomer’s experience, role and relationships within the community.

Having worked for many people and having observed many more, I can say that for me the best leaders are people whose joy comes from helping people flourish, that is, to discover and become who they are, even if that means developing away from the organization. Those are the women and men who have made the biggest difference in my professional life. I thank them for it.

…All part of the privilege of being a man.

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June 12, 2016

Beyond bricolage

In 1962, Claude Levi-Strauss brought the concept of bricolage into the anthropological and philosophical lexicons. It has to do with thinking with one’s hands, putting together new things by repurposing old things. It has since been applied to the Internet (including, apparently, by me, thanks to a tip from Rageboy). The term “bricolage” uncovers something important about the Net, but it also covers up something fundamental about the Net that has been growing even more important.

In The Savage Mind (relevant excerpt), CLS argued against the prevailing view that “primitive” peoples were unable to form abstract concepts. After showing that they often in have extensive sets of concepts for flora and fauna, he maintains that these concepts go beyond what they pragmatically need to know:

…animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known.

It may be objected that science of this kind can scarcely be of much practical effect. The answer to this is that its main purpose is not a practical one. It meets intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs.

It meets, in short, a “demand for order.”

CLS wants us to see the mythopoeic world as being as rich, complex, and detailed as the modern scientific world, while still drawing the relevant distinctions. He uses bricolage as a bridge for our understanding. A bricoleur scavenges the environment for items that can be reused, getting their heft, trying them out, fitting them together and then giving them a twist. The mythopoeic mind engages in this bricolage rather than in the scientific or engineering enterprise of letting a desired project assemble the “raw materials.” A bricoleur has what s/he has and shapes projects around that. And what the bricoleur has generally has been fashioned for some other purpose.

Bricolage is a very useful concept for understanding the Internet’s mashup culture, its culture of re-use. It expresses the way in which one thing inspires another, and the power of re-contextualization. It evokes the sense of invention and play that is dominant on so much of the Net. While the Engineer is King (and, all too rarely, Queen) of this age, the bricoleurs have kept the Net weird, and bless them for it.

But there are at least two ways in which this metaphor is inapt.

First, traditional bricoleurs don’t have search engines that let them in a single glance look across the universe for what they need. Search engines let materials assemble around projects, rather than projects be shaped by the available materials. (Yes, this distinction is too strong. Yes, it’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s some truth to it.)

Second, we have been moving with some consistency toward a Net that at its topmost layers replicates the interoperability of its lower layers. Those low levels specify the rules — protocols — by which networks can join together to move data packets to their destinations. Those packets are designed so they can be correctly interpreted as data by any recipient applications. As you move up the stack, you start to lose this interoperability: Microsoft Word can’t make sense of the data output by Pages, and a graphics program may not be able to make sense of the layer information output by Photoshop.

But, over time, we’re getting better at this:

Applications add import and export services as the market requires. More consequentially, more and richer standards for interoperability continue to emerge, as they have from the very beginning: FTP, HTML, XML, Dublin Core, Schema.org, the many Semantic Web vocabularies, ontologies, and schema, etc.

More important, we are now taking steps to make sure that what we create is available for re-use in ways we have not imagined. We do this by working within standards and protocols. We do it by putting our work into the sphere of reusable items, whether that’s by applying the Creative Commons license, putting our work into a public archive, , or even just paying attention to what will make our work more findable.

This is very different from the bricoleur’s world in which objects are designed for one use, and it takes the ingenuity of the bricoleur to find a new use for it.

This movement continues the initial work of the Internet. From the beginning the Net has been predicated on providing an environment with the fewest possible assumptions about how it will be used. The Net was designed to move anyone’s information no matter what it’s about, what it’s for, where it’s going, or who owns it. The higher levels of the stack are increasingly realizing that vision. The Net is thus more than ever becoming a universe of objects explicitly designed for reuse in unexpected ways. (An important corrective to this sunny point of view: Christian Sandvig’s brilliant description of how the Net has incrementally become designed for delivering video above all else.)

Insofar as we are explicitly creating works designed for unexpected reuse, the bricolage metaphor is flawed, as all metaphors are. It usefully highlights the “found” nature of so much of Internet culture. It puts into the shadows, however, the truly transformative movement we are now living through in which we are explicitly designing objects for uses that we cannot anticipate.

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June 5, 2016

Muhammed Ali

I was a fourteen year old, suburban white boy with zero interest in sports or boxing when Muhammed Ali beat Sonny Liston. But, Cassius Clay, as he was named then, knowingly defied every stereotype his culture tried to confine him to, suffered for his insistence on being more than his culture would tolerate, and thereby gave us a model of bravery that we have yet to live up to.

It began with his transcendence as an athlete. Here he is at 35 in an exhibition match against Michael Dokes, with his beautiful face — as he’d be the first to acknowledge — still unmarred by punches.

Muhammed Ali ‘s story will be told for generations. The generations will be better for it.

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May 30, 2016

Some iconic dream imagery

I know I am 27 million views late to the party, but this Coldplay video has imagery that reminds me of dreams that I have had since childhood.

In my dream, the sky is a reflection of the Earth. You look up and see the Earth as seen from space. I can neither explain its meaning nor convey the awe it engenders in me. For what it’s worth, the dream feels Jungian to me, not symbolic.

In any case, this music video is pretty great.

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May 19, 2016

Working in a co-working space

I’m in Talent Garden‘s largest branch, which is also its headquarters, in Milan. It’s a ridiculously large co-working space for startups, with an emphasis on openness. I’m enjoying sitting at a table with a few other people, none of whom I know and all of whom are speaking Italian.

I like co-working spaces enough that if I were looking for a place to work outside of my house, I’d consider joining one. It’s that or the local library. It depends on whether you find being around the young and the digital to be distracting, energizing, or both.

I find it energizing. Nevertheless, the segregation of the young from the old is a cultural and business loss.

talent garden open work space

Talent Garden ameliorates this by renting space to a handful of established companies (IBM, Cisco, and a bank, here in Milan) to provide mentoring, and so the old companies can get behind startups they find interesting. It’s a good model, although since I’m just here for the afternoon, I don’t know how much actual mingling occurs. Still, it’s a good idea.

I also like that Talent Garden explicitly tries to build community among its users. Not waving-in-the-hall community, but a community of shared space, shared events, and shared ideas. The American co-working space I’m most familiar with has public areas but assumes startups want to work in rooms with closed, solid doors. An open floor plan helps a startup culture to grow, which is perhaps more needed in Italy than in the US. Nevertheless, you can’t have too much community. Well, you can, but that’s easier to remediate than its opposite. (For a US shared space dedicated to building community, check out the treasured Civic Hall in NYC.)

(Note: Unlike the co-working space I’m most familiar with, TG does not provide a free, well-stocked kitchen. Just as well. Free kitchens cause my metabolism to think its faster than it is.)

 


 

I’m in Italy to participate in an Aspen Institute event in Venice over the weekend (poor poor me). I stopped in Milan to give a talk, which I internally have titled “Is the Internet Disappointed in Us?” It’s actually a monolog — no slides, no notes — about why my cohort thought the success of the Internet was inevitable, and why I am still optimistic about the Net. If you’re interested in having me in to speak with your group, let me know. Yeah, a plug.

And while I’m plugging, here’s some disclosure: Talent Garden is the venue for this talk, but no one is paying me for it.

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May 17, 2016

When the transgender bathroom debate will end

It’ll end when the Republicans have this conversation with their daughters:

“You see, precious, that’s really a woman who’s just pretending to be a man because, well, she’s what we call a ‘pervert.’ No, dear, she can’t use the men’s room because we passed a law to make sure that lady perverts have to use the lady’s room. Yes, dear, we also made a law that the male perverts have to use the men’s room dressed as ladies. Yes, dear, the lady perverts who look like men actually are lady homosexuals — why aren’t you precocious! — who lust after little girls, just like we’ve told you, but, well, …you won’t understand it when you grow up either.”

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April 28, 2016

Preferred applicants will have four decades of experience

Why do we never see job offerings that specify that applicants should have at least forty years of experience? Thirty years? Twenty years?

I understand that people can be qualified for a job with far less experience than one might think. We’ve all met people like that, damn them. But that’s why we couch some qualifications under the rubric “preferred.” So, do we think that having a lifetime of experience in a field is never preferred? Or even just a lifetime of experience of living and working?

(PS: If you hear of such a job in the Boston area, you know how to reach me.)

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April 4, 2016

Dance is America

My wife and I have been going to dance competitions and multi-troupe performances for the past few years because our son and his partner are in various dance companies. This puts us into environments where we do not belong. It’s pretty awesome.

Dance is big in Boston. There are tons of groups, and when they get together they fill large auditoriums; a competition this weekend had about fifteen groups performing in front of a standing-room-only crowd of over 1,500.

And what audiences! They are beyond enthusiastic. They cheer on the teams at an astounding number of whoos per minute.

The teams are remarkable, and not just because of the high level of performance and choreography:

They are diverse in every direction: gender, race, sexual and gender identity, body type.

The dances are often gender indifferent in their choreography, although there are tropes that remain: men lift and catch women more than vice versa. Still, the women hit as hard as the men.

They are dancing to some of America’s cultural gifts: hiphop, jazz, show, and their mashups.

They have worked hard on a shared project with occasional star turns — the guy who can windmill, the woman who excels at pop and locking — but without stars.

You can be the oldest people in the audience, as my wife and I usually are, and be forgiven for thinking that no matter how cynical this generation may be, they are dancing the American dream.

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March 26, 2016

My secret life as a gamer

David Wolinsky‘s Don’t Die is running a long interview with me this week about games, culture, and why I’m embarrassed to be a video game player.

It is a long form interview, and basically unedited: I did a little clean-up for clarity, but it’s still got conversational ambiguities, as well as some thematic inconsistencies because David was asking me questions I haven’t thought about.

In the interview I do talk a bit about why I’m embarrassed about being a gamer. “The first step is admitting just how much of a gamer I am”The first step is admitting just how much of a gamer I am. I’m pretty much of one, going back all the way to the original Colossal Cave adventure. I’ve tried most genres but seem to get the most enjoyment from various forms of first person shooters. I’m no good at platformers or other forms of twitch games. RPGs are too slow for me because I don’t get invested in the characters. Most online games are too hard for me, so I feel like I’m slowing down my teammates, although I’ve spent a lot of time in Left 4 Dead 2. Some other favorites: The Bioshock series. Portal 2. The original Doom and Wolfenstein. The Luxor games. Some pinball games. I enjoyed Dead Rising 3 and even Max Payne 3. Far Cry 4, too. I guess it takes at least three tries to get games right. Anyway, I’ve never had a systematic memory, so those are just the beans that fall out when I shake the ol’ pod, but they’re probably representative.

Games are literally a pass-time for me: I tend to play them as a break from work. I would count programming as a hobby, not a pastime because it’s got an outcome, like a crossword puzzle that once you’re finished you can use for something. When programming, I feel like I’m doing something, even though mostly what I work on are utilities that cost me hundreds of hours and by the time I die will have saved me minutes. Games simply fill the gaps in my interest.

So, why is it embarrassing to me? For one thing, many games support values that I detest. The most obvious is violence, but I haven’t found that a lifetime of killing screen-based enemies has inured me to real violence or has led me to favor violence over peaceful solutions.

“The hypermasculinity of action games concerns me more”The hypermasculinity of action games concerns me more because few people are going to be convinced by games that shooting hordes of aliens is normal, but many will be further confirmed that men are the real heroes of life’s narratives. Although games have become less grossly misogynistic and homophobic (e.g., female action leads are now not uncommon), if you have any doubts that they still trade on harmful stereotypes and assumptions — and why would you? — Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant “Tropes vs. Women” videos will set you straight.

But I’m more embarrassed about playing games than I am about watching action movies about which those same criticisms can be made.

In part it’s because games are associated with children. In the Don’t Die interview, I point to games that are more sophisticated and adult, but many of the games I listed above are no more sophisticated emotionally or narratively than a very bad TV show. So, mainly because I’m interested, here’s what I find appealing about the games I’ve listed:

  • Left 4 Dead is beautifully designed to encourage genuine collaboration among four players.

  • The Bioshock series creates imaginative science fiction worlds that would be better termed “political fiction.”

  • Portal 2 is a great logic game — a few rules and ingenious problems. But it is also an hilarious social commentary with Pixar-quality touches of brilliance. Example: the singing sentry guns.

  • The original Doom was scary as hell.

  • The original Wolfenstein let you explore a maze with surprises.

  • Luxor is an arcade game that is at a good challenge level for me. Also, the balls make a reassuring sound. (I am particularly fond of Luxor Evolved, which is “trippy” and somehow appeals to my lizard-brain-on-acid.)

  • Max Payne 3 was dumb fun in a well-realized setting.

  • Dead Rising 3 mocks its genre while indulging in it. It does not require precise control, of which I am lacking.

When I think about it, almost all of these games share some traits. First, they are easy enough that I can succeed at them. Most games are not. Second, they tend to have pushed the graphic envelope when introduced. I remain in awe of what those computer dohickeys can do these days. Third, “many of them are meta about their genres, which is often just an excuse for being retrograde”many of them are meta about their genres, which is often just an excuse for being retrograde in their values. Apparently I fall for that.

I think it comes down to this: If embarrassment is the exposure of something private that doesn’t match one’s public persona, then clearly, the major reason I find gaming embarrassing is because I am publicly a thoughtful person. Or at least I try to be. Or at the least least, I pretend to be. Most of the games I play are not thoughtful. Sure, Portal 2 is. Going Home is. Bioshock is in its way. But Dead Rising is mindless…except for its meta-awareness of its tropes and its own ridiculousness; I completed large chunks of it while dressed in a tutu.

This is not what a semi-academic is supposed to be doing. Or so my embarrassment tells me.

 


 

PS: In the Don’t Die interview, the game I’m trying to remember that has the word “dust” in its title is “Spec Ops.” There is dust in the game, but not in the title.

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March 6, 2016

Reason #1,775 I'm going to miss President Obama

This is a tiny thing. A little gesture. It’s his response to a post about an Iranian boy boy who quietly gives away apricots from a bag he is carrying home.

Er, what I mean to say is: That father ought to lose his parent license! That’s not the art of the deal, that’s the art of the loser! I would have turned that bag of apricots into two luxurious apartment buildings and a golf course for white people!

Yeah, that’s the ticket. No, seriously, that very likely will be the head of the Republican ticket.

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