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September 18, 2016

Lewis Carroll: Technodeterminist

From Sylvie and Bruno (1889) by Lewis Carroll:

“If Steam has done nothing else, it has at least added a whole new Species to English Literature!”

“No doubt of it,” I echoed. “The true origin of all our medical books—and all our cookery-books—”

“No, no!” she broke in merrily. “I didn’t mean our Literature! We are quite abnormal. But the booklets—the little thrilling romances, where the Murder comes at page fifteen, and the Wedding at page forty—surely they are due to Steam?”

“And when we travel by Electricity if I may venture to develop your theory we shall have leaflets instead of booklets, and the Murder and the Wedding will come on the same page.”

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July 1, 2016

Will blockchain kill culture?

Peter Brantley [@naypinya] has posted an important and succinct warning about the effect blockchain technology may have on culture: by making the mechanism of trust cheap, transparent, and more reliable, blockchain could destroy the ambiguity that culture needs in order to thrive. Peter’s post is clearly thought and powerfully put.

Pardon me while I agree with him, including about blockchain’s positive promise.

Culture is the ultimate analog phenomenon, even when it’s communicated digitally, for it is only culture to the extent to which people—we—make it our own. We understand our lives and our world through culture. If we can’t appropriate it, re-express it, and re-use it, culture simply dies.

As Peter says, blockchain could perfect the system of tracking and control, leading us further into the tragic error of thinking that ideas and culture are property. Property has boundaries and borders that can be precisely demarcated and can be defended. Culture by definition does not. Blockchain technology can further the illusion that culture is property.

While blockchain will have a positive, transformative effect on systems where trust is valuable and expensive, it almost inevitably will also be used to impose restrictions on the appropriation of culture that lets culture thrive. If so, I expect we’ll see the same sort of response that we’ve already seen to the Internet’s inherent transparency—the transparency that has simultaneously made it the liberator of culture and the surveillor’s wet dream: We will route around it with some degree of success. And we will—I hope— continue to encourage an ethos of sharing in which creators explicitly exempt their works from the system of copyright totalitarianism.

The license you adopt will be your uniform in the coming culture wars. It already is.

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July 29, 2015

Reddit is not a community. But there’s a little more to say.

Dennis Tenen has an excellent post reminding people that calling Reddit a community is at best sloppy. I have committed this sloppiness, although at times I do try to be more careful, because I fundamentally agree with Dennis on this. In fact, I resist calling anything on the Net a community because it’s a word worth preserving, although I’m afraid it has already slipped its moorings and has floated away from its original meaning.

I think of communities in their traditional sense as being people who care about each other more than they have to. Even so, Adrienne Debigare [twitter:adbigare] and I recently wrote about Reddit at, and we use the word “community” 32 times. We do, however, try to clarify our sloppiness toward the beginning:

[Reddit] is often talked about as a community, but its scale—169M unique visitors a month—stretches that term. Rather, it’s helpful to think of it not just as a community but as a culture that springs from a set of values and a form of discourse.

Adrienne and I also did a Radio Berkman podcast on this topic, and may have been much sloppier.

Dennis does a more precise job. He notes that a community typically: [1] is a social entity, [2] that occupies some contiguous stretch of real or virtual space, and [3] will usually “share a value system, which in turn manifests itself in specific customs, norms, and modes of governance.”

The pedant in me wants to fiddle with that, but Dennis isn’t arguing about the application of a term. He’s pointing out that it’s a mistake to think that Reddit is a single community, a single culture, a single set of people who share the same values, or whatever terms we want to use. Reddit “can be better described as a platform that facilitates a range of activities: some communal in nature, some commercial, and other simply private.”

Dennis is right.

But I think there are some weak ways in which it make sense to talk about a Reddit culture, even while recognizing that there is nothing one can say about values, discourse, or content that would be true of each of Reddit’s tens of thousands of subreddits. But there are at least four reasons to talk about the “Reddit culture” in the singular.

First, Reddit the Company makes a decision about what the default subreddits are on the front page, and I imagine that some very high percentage of users don’t customize that page. The company therefore has made a decision about what topics, values, and forms of discourse will stand for Reddit.

Second, contributors to those default subreddits, and to others, sometimes express a sense of identity, as Dennis notes. You can be a redditor. You can be a good redditor or a bad one. Of course this identity is fluid and not uniformly shared. But it exists. It has something to do with participating generously, accepting some norms of behavior (will the OP deliver?), and appreciating particular values that are assumed to be Reddit’s. These values include things like: valuing what is perceived as free and open speech, responding to challenges with some type of reasoned answer rather than mere assertions or hostility, etc. I’m not saying that Reddit lives up to these; there are deeply troubling gender issues, for example. But to say that someone is a true Redditor is to say something.

Third, the company has expressed political opinions, and has engaged with the “community” directly, responsively, and as equals-in-culture. (Clearly, that’s not been the case in the recent brouhaha.) That is, the company has expressed itself as a culture.

Fourth, the software itself enacts a set of values. Of course it can be used in ways contrary to those values, but it tends toward certain values. For example, it promotes unfiltered speech or speech filtered by the community and its mods; it gives every user equal upvotes or downvotes; it enables digressions from a thread without cost; it encourages linking out to the Web rather than assuming everything interesting is within its boundaries; it generally respects the user by not plastering itself with ads; it encourages pseudonymous speech; it assumes that the “community” will decide for itself which topics are interesting enough to merit creating a new subreddit; it is open source code.

None of these warrant us calling Reddit a single culture, much less a community. I agree with Dennis. I just want to leave room for also talking about Reddit as a culture, or at least as having something like a dominant culture, even as we always append Dennis’ caveats. As he writes, since “Reddit is not a community, then there is no reason for us to expect a uniform set of responses or behaviors from it as a whole. ” That is definitely a mistake we would be wise not to commit.


July 2, 2015

Beatles’ Revolver 49 years later: A Review

In the 1980s, I stopped listening to music for no particular reason. It was only in the early 1990s as I was commuting every week to my mother’s death bed (don’t smoke, kids!) that I started again. Thank you Mssrs. Bach, Gould, and Goldberg.

I have not listened to a Beatles album since before my 1980s quiet period. Let’s say about 35 years. I listen to other groups from that period, some of whom hold up amazingly well. But not the Beatles.

Why? They mean so much to me that there are no occasions that deserve them.

I know that’s nuts. I listen to Bach in utter awe and don’t think to myself, “Well, sure, but too bad George Martin wasn’t around then to help him out.” I do understand than my feelings about the Beatles are inextricably mixed with the growing distance from my youth.

So, it’s embarrassingly symbolic—the sort of thing that would make you stop reading a novel—that I listened to the Beatles on a run this morning while my wife and I are awaiting word that, God willing, we’ve become grandparents. (I don’t have words to talk about that now.)

So, here’s a review of Revolver (the UK version).

Overall: A+. Solid gold. 49 years young.

Track by track:

Taxman. This was not a favorite of mine, catchy though it is. I remember it as being too derivative, too genre-based. And an awkward protest song for the rich. On re-hearing it: It is a genre song with typical Beatles’ inventiveness. Great guitar work. Witty call-back to the Batman theme. Totally enjoyable.

Eleanor Rigby. It’s really hard to write fiction. For me this song doesn’t capture how Eleanor Rigby seems to herself. Yeah, lots people are lonely. But I’d like this song better if it ended with “All the lonely people, where do we all belong?” Not that I’m saying I could have done a better job of it. I’m just saying it’s a little immature and a tad condescending. On the other hand, a song like this is not what you’d expect from a rock band in the ’60s, unless they were the Beatles. It’s the Beatles stretching themselves. The melody is obviously great. The backing vocals are amazing. As always.

I’m Only Sleeping. Q: What sort of song is this? A: A Beatles song. Everything about it is unpredictable: the topic, the minor-major shifts, the harmonies, the bridge, the instrumentation and arrangement. Catchy, too. Try to get John out of bed and you get a tuneful, brilliantly original song. How about leaving a little talent for the rest of us, John, ok?

Love You To. It opens with a sitar. We don’t know where it’s going. We’re not even sure what scale it’s going to be using. And then it turns out that it’s a riff-driven song not unlike Taxman. The melody mixes the West and the East and is pretty minimal. But clearly this is George’s, reflecting his eclecticism and intended to educate us toward Indian music. The Beatles stretching themselves again.

Here, There and Everywhere. An impossibly pretty genre song. A little cupcake of perfection. The little almost-discordant harmony on “Love never dies” kills me every time.

Yellow Submarine. Tell you what, let’s have Ringo throw in a classic kiddy song with enough complexity in the harmonies and arrangements that it’ll be great when you’re high. Anyone see where the Oreos got to?

She Said, She Said. Power rock beginning. Angry high notes. Fuzz guitar echo. Break the tempo on the last line of the verse. Killer harmonies. A bridge that comes out of nowhere (“When I was a boy…”). The whole thing threatening to come apart once you’re out of the safety of the verse, with Ringo doing some wonderful lord knows what. I love the Beatles.

Got to Get You into My Life. Weird tempo. Horns. Who arranged this, Herb Alpert? What sort of song is this? Oh yeah, a Beatles song. This is essentially a solo by Paul, with the horns doing the harmonies. George’s guitar enters late with its usual egolessness—a new melody that serves the song rather than wowing us with George’s originality.

For No One. A melody that just rolls on, taking turns you don’t foresee until afterwards. Rhythmic shifts from waltz to 4/4. A goddamn French horn. An unresolved ending that works melodically and thematically.

Good Day Sunshine. In the first measures you think it’s going to be somber. Instead it turns into something cheery although the genre is confounding. Broadway? Damn those harmonies! Then the stride piano. WTF. Who else could have done this? I’m not sure what it is, but everything about it is great.

And Your Bird Can Sing. Damn. Another one. Incredible guitar work by George. What’s the bird? I don’t care. I’m not saying this is a great song. But whatever you think the Beatles are like, listen to this and remember that the Beatles weren’t like anything.

Doctor Robert. Another riff-driven song, like Taxman. George’s guitar could not be better. Again. The harmonies are amazing. The bridge (“Well, well, well you’re feeling fine”) switches to a chorale that’s as rhythm-free as any bureaucracy. A rollicking good time.

I want to tell you. Everything about this song is weird and unexpected: the chord changes, the instrumentation, the harmonies, the genre shifts. “It’s alright” has a weird dissonant piano behind it. There’s some straight rock guitar work thrown in by George. Where did this song come from?

Tomorrow Never Knows.. The amazing book Revolution in the Head argues pretty fiercely that LSD did not help the Beatles be better at what they do, especially for John. This is a pretty good evidence of that. Even so.

I tell you, these young Beatles are going to be big! Big, I tell you!

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June 19, 2015

Spoilers and Time

I remember a 1971 National Lampoon article that gave away the endings of a hundred books and movies. Wikipedia and others think that article might have been the first use of the term “spoiler.” But “SPOILER ALERT” has only become a common signpost because of what the Internet has done to time, and in particular, to simultaneity.

In the old days of one-to-many, broadcast media, the events that shaped culture happened once and usually happened on schedule. So, it would make sense to bring up what was on the news broadcast last night, or to chuckle over that hilarious scene in this week’s Beverly Hillbillies. Now we watch on our own schedules, having common moments mainly around sports events and breaking news — games or tragedies. Perhaps this has contributed to our culture’s addiction to extremes.

We need SPOILER ALERT signposts because we watch when we want but the Net is so huge and unconstrained and cheap that it operates like a push medium — the opposite of why traditional broadcast was a push medium. Trying to avoid finding out what happened on Game of Thrones this week is like trying to avoid getting run over when crossing a highway, except that even seeing the approaching cars counts as getting run over.

Tom and Jerry
Game of Thrones spoiler

This change in temporality shows up in the phrase “real time.” We only distinguish one type of time as “real” because it is no longer the default. The default is asynchronous because that’s how most of our communications occur online. Real time increasingly feels like a deprivation. It requires you to drop what you’re doing to participate or you’re going to lose out. And that feels sub-optimal, or even unfair.

Without the requirement of simultaneity, we are more free to follow our interests. And that turns out to fragment our culture. Or liberate it. Or enrich it. Or all of the above.

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May 15, 2015

John Lennon: dreamer awake

I asked my mobile this morning to shuffle up Instant Karma – Save Dafur, a two-volume set of John Lennon covers. Great album. Big mistake.

It played these tracks in this heart-breaking order:

  1. Imagine [lyrics]
  2. God (I don’t believe) [lyrics]
  3. Beautiful Boy [lyrics]
  4. Grow old with me [lyrics]

I think I write about John Lennon every spring as I start to run and listen to music again. I’m pretty sure I say the same things every time.

So I’m not going to say anything about this mix except that it shows why inconsistency is the truth.


April 6, 2015

Culture is unfair

At Jonathan Zittrain‘s awesome lecture upon the occasion of his ascending to the Bemis Chair at Harvard Law (although shouldn’t you really descend into a chair?), he made the point that through devices like Microsoft Kinect, our TVs are on the verge of knowing how many people are in the room watching. After all, your camera (= phone) already can identify the faces in a photo.

This will inevitably lead to the claim that if five people are watching a for-pay movie on a TV, we ought to be paying 5x what a single person does. After all, it’s delivering five times the value. What are you, a bunch of pirates?

There is some fairness to that claim. We’d pay for five tickets if we saw it in a theater.

But it also feels wrong. Very wrong. And not just because it costs us more.

For example, I’m told that if you buy a subscription to the NY Times it comes with one license for online access. So, if you’re having the old roll o’ stories thrown onto your porch every morning, your spouse is free to read it too, but you’re going to have to buy a separate online subscription if s/he wants to read it online. That doesn’t feel right.

The pay-per-use argument may be fair but it flies in the face of how we all know culture works. Culture only exists if we share what matters to us. There is no culture without this. That’s why it’s so important I can share a physical book with you, or can send you a copy of a magazine article that I think you’ll like. Culture is the sharing of creative works and the conversations we have about them.

That’s why the creators of the US Constitution put a time limit on copyright. Yes, it feels unfair if after fourteen years (the original length of copyright protection) someone publishes my book without my permission and doesn’t give me any of the profits. Sure. But fairness is not the only criterion.

Culture cannot flourish or perhaps even exist when everything has a fair price.

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March 14, 2015

Pres. Obama’s speech songified


December 24, 2014

Fame. Web Fame. Mass Web Fame.

A weird thing happened yesterday. First I got a call from a Swedish journalist writing about a Danish kid who has become famous on the Net for nothing in particular and is now weighing his options as a possible recording star. Since I’ve written about Web fame (in Small Pieces Loosely Joined, in 2002) and talked about it (at the keynote of the first ROFLcon conference in 2008), he gave me a talk and we had a fun conversation.

That conversation prompted me to write a post about how Web fame has changed over the past few years. I was mostly through a first draft when I got a call from a journalist at a well-known US newspaper who is doing a story about Web fame, and wanted to talk with me about it. Huh?

Keep in mind that I hadn’t yet posted about the topic. He got to me totally independently of the Swedish journalist. And it’s not like I spend my mornings talking to the press. It’s just a completely weird coincidence.

Anyway, afterwards I posted what I had written. It’s at Medium. Here’s the beginning:

It’s a great time to be famous, at least if you’re interested in innovating new types of fame. If you’re instead looking for old-fashioned fame, you’re out of luck. We’re in a third epoch of fame, and this one is messier than any of the others. (Sure, that’s an oversimplification, but what isn’t?)

Before the Web there was Mass Fame, the fame bestowed upon lucky (?) individuals by the mass media. The famous were not like you and me. They were glamorous, had an aura, were smiled upon by the gods.

Fame back then was something that was done to the audience. We could accept or reject those thrust upon us by the the mass media, but since fame was defined as mass awareness of someone, the mass media were ultimately in control.

With the dawn of the Web there was Internet Fame. We made people famous…[more]

(Amanda Palmer, whom I use as a positive example of the new possibilities, facebooked the post, which makes me one degree from famous!)

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August 9, 2014

Saturday songify fun

I find this recycling of culture to be fascinating. Or, to be more precise, the recycling of culture is culture. No recycling, no culture. Anyway, I’m mainly blogging these because each is fun in its own way.

These are in chronological order, but you might want to start out by going backwards. [August 24 2014: Chrome decided to start autoplaying these. Ack! So I’ve replaced the embedded versions with links. Sorry!]

The original kid’s interview

The interview songified

The Gregory Brothers sing the songification

(I am a massive Gregory Brothers fan.)

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