Friday, January 30, 2015

retro-quotes # 939939393

retro-quotes: a series of germane remarks, by others, plucked from all over the place, and from all over the time # 939939393

Tell me what you see vanishing and I

Will tell you who you are

                                                            -  W.S. Merwin, "For Now"

Saturday, January 24, 2015

decadent innovation

Nicholas Carr asks a great question: "does innovation arc towards decadence?"

The proposition: as civilisations get more complex and sophisticated, once they have more or less mastered Nature and the physical environment, what happens is that an increasingly large proportion of any society's innovation-drive is directed towards the domain of pleasure / leisure, lifestyle enhancement and self-development.

The piece expands upon an earlier one that Carr wrote titled “The Hierarchy of Innovation,” "which argued, speculatively, that the focus of innovation has followed Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, beginning with Technologies of Survival and now concentrating on Technologies of the Self." 

That piece was itself responding to an opinion piece by Justin Fox for Wired called "When Will This Low-Innovation Internet Era End?" and mentions a bunch of other similar laments which I've linked to before myself (Neal Stephenson's worries about lack of  visionary goals and s.f.'s possible role in stirring up a hunger for Giant Steps; Tyler Cowen's argument about "innovation stagnation"; Peter Thiel's  conviction that . large-scale innovation has gone dormant).  

Carr says the original  gloomy-gus, however,  was economist Robert J. Gordon, who in 2000 published “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?. In Carr's words, Gordon's argument was that "the conditions of life changed utterly between 1890 and 1950," what with the internal combustion engine, electric lightbulb, electric transformer, steam turbine, electric railroad, automobile, telephone, movie camera, phonograph, linotype, roll film (for cameras), dictaphone, cash register, vaccines, reinforced concrete, flush toilets, the typewriter, punch-card tabulator, airplanes, radio, air conditioning, the vacuum tube, jet aircraft, television, refrigerators....  as well as all kinds of Giant Steps in warfare, atomic energy etc. But nothing like this 60 year surge of limits-on-life-lifting breakthroughs had occurred from between 1950 and 2000.  
Reviewing various explanations for this apparent decline in inventiveness, Carr then proposes "an alternative explanation... There has been no decline in innovation; there has just been a shift in its focus. We’re as creative as ever, but we’ve funneled our creativity into areas that produce smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less visible breakthroughs. And we’ve done that for entirely rational reasons. We’re getting precisely the kind of innovation that we desire – and that we deserve."

He uses Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as the basis for a Hierarchy of innovation, arguing that "the tools we invent would move through the hierarchy of needs, from tools that help safeguard our bodies on up to tools that allow us to modify our internal states, from tools of survival to tools of the self."
hierarchy of innovation.jpg

"As we move to the top level of the innovation hierarchy, the inventions have less visible, less transformative effects. We’re no longer changing the shape of the physical world or even of society, as it manifests itself in the physical world. We’re altering internal states, transforming the invisible self. Not surprisingly, when you step back and take a broad view, it looks like stagnation – it looks like nothing is changing very much.... If the current state of progress disappoints you, don’t blame innovation. Blame yourself."

This is actually an idea addressed in Retromania: that most of the innovations of the last 20 years have been in personal communications and entertainment/leisure (games getting ever more complex, social media, apps, GPS, smartphones, monstrous increases in personal portable computing power etc). 

Like Carr with his "blame yourself" / "the kind of innovation... we deserve" tone of admonishment and indictment, I also flirt in Retromania with the notion of  "decadence", asking whether this concept (controversial/questionable as it is) is the accurate term to characterisee a civilisation obsessed with clothes, food, interior decor - essentially comforts and treats. Is this culinary-isation of culture (to use Breton's term) a sign of  "the recline and fall of the West"? 

The source for this stuff in Retromania comes from a 2007 piece I did for Salon, that used the book Daniel H. Wilson's “Where's My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived.” as a launchpad for musings on how: 

"Our expectations of the “futuristic” have undergone an insidious scaling down in recent decades. Mostly, “the future” seems to infiltrate our lives in a low-key, subtle fashion. In their own way, the miniaturization of communications technology (cellphones, BlackBerrys, etc.) and the compression of information (iPods, MP3s, YouTube, downloadable movies, etc.) are just as mind-blowing as the space stations and robots once pictured as the everyday scenery of 21st century life. Macro simply looks way more impressive than micro".

Monday, January 19, 2015

the king of retro

Or perhaps the prince of retro, would be nearer the mark....

Why, "Uptown Funk" is as good as The Time!

Neither as good as

earlier thoughts on Bruno Mars, who I don't mind at all really, indeed this song might have been my favorite radio thing of its year

i suppose he's a  21st Century Lenny Kravitz (racially indeterminate pop star, racially inbetween pop) except actually hugely successful

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

retro-quotes #7773992042999

retro-quotes: a series of germane remarks, by others, plucked from all over the place, and from all over the time

"Anyone born between the early 60s and the early 70s is at risk from the past in some ways - being the generation who were raised in one kind of Britain (a cosy-but-progressive social democracy, where the arts were valued and thought was encouraged) and then came of age in another, there's a sort of dissonance and suppressed fury there which makes our nostalgia deeper and more painful than it should be. That sense of an inheritance having been snatched away, of being a motherless child..... I always thought of the Ghost Box stuff, for instance, as a howl of separation anxiety. The problem is, when you immerse yourself too deeply in that world - which is easy to do - it's hard to clamber out into the chilly light of the 21st century, where evil has gone overground, and "society" is only understood in terms of combat" 

-- Taylor Parkes, from a work-in-progress.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

hey, citizen-archivist!

interesting article by Jesse Jarnow at Wondering Sound on the future of recorded-music collecting, deploying the the notion of the "citizen archivist" (that's you and me, bub), and heralding a new frontier for collectors with the ephemeral, quickly-lost realm of online and digital music (as streaming increasingly eclipses the ownership of MP3s).

".... The difference between listening to music from the cloud and listening to a music that’s saved on a hard-drive is, in large part, that one cared enough to get the music onto the hard-drive in the first place. It is that assignation of value that makes collecting a distinct activity from clicking. Streaming rates aside, collected music has a different kind of fidelity. For those overwhelmed by the deluge of music, the act of collecting functions as a way to make sense of it. Collections “make public events private,” the scholar Susan Pearce once suggested, “and move history into the personal sphere, giving each person a purchase on what would otherwise be impersonal and bewildering experiences.

"And while physical media is slowly becoming a thing of the past, there still remains plenty to collect. There’s a vast musical world that falls beyond Spotify’s officially licensed purview, and even outside the realm of established retailers like Amazon and iTunes. It may not have the allure of tracking down rare LPs, but it’s a good bet that the Bob Abrahamians and Patrick Lundborgs of the future will be stalking digital music: the Bandcamp albums that appeared for two weeks, Soundcloud mixes zapped by record companies, vanished YouTube covers, ProTools sessions stored on unsupported peripherals, old MySpace pages, out-of-print LPs lost in the Megaupload purge. A few years ago, the songwriter Aaron Freeman — formerly known as Gene Ween — posted a large batch of recordings to his Soundcloud account, including some of his most experimental and personal material in years. Within a few months, he deleted nearly all of them. All of which raises the question, if there’s music you care about and you don’t save it, who will?

Digital is different from analog recordings,” says Butch Lazorchak, a digital archivist in the Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. “It’s a little more ephemeral.” The earliest MySpace accounts and ProTools versions have begun a swift slide into inaccessible obsolescence, and preserving them is far more complicated than, say, maintaining a reel-to-reel. For those who value music made at the turn of this century and beyond, collectors — especially collectors of digital ephemera — are more necessary than ever.

Step up the citizen-archivist, filling the vacuum where institutions fail to reach...

Institutions have always relied on collectors to collect,” says Lazorchak. “But people and organizations have to start collecting these [digital objects] earlier in their lifecycle. In the past, we could wait for a collector to collect over decades, and then acquire those materials, because they were in a format that was still understandable.” To help combat the loss of years of recorded material, the Library is engaged in a variety of outreach programs, advocating for file standardizations, staging events (like this summer’s three-day Digital Preservation 2014 summit and accompanying CURATEcamp “unconference” and maintaining an unofficial blog, the Signal, as a clearinghouse for digital preservation news. Above all, the Library wants to encourage an uprising of what Lazorchak and others call citizen archivists.

The idea of the citizen archivist isn’t new,” says Lazorchak. Citizen archivists are “the first responders of history,” he has written, “arriving early on the scene to gather, capture, describe and preserve ephemeral artifacts of interest and helping to ensure they survive over time to share with the future.” He cites local Washington, D.C., hardcore hero Ian MacKaye and the extensive Dischord vault of master recordings, live tapes, countless demos by other bands and show flyers as a sterling example of the practice.

UbuWeb also figures in the piece a prime example of a non-temporary autonomous zone of amateur (but professional-looking) curation - an assembly of citizen archivists pooling their treasure for the common good. 

"... UbuWeb is defiantly anti-institutional. [Kenneth] Goldsmith bristles at the formal practices of the Library of Congress, and the idea that a “real” archivist must keep scrupulous backups. “There are many levels [of collecting],” he says. “A kid with an mp3 blog is an archivist just as much as these guys are.” 

Back on the subject of immaterial-music reclamation projects, in this piece on the monumentalist box-set boom, I imagined that soon - especially as the physical-music seam (vinyl, cassettes,  the developing world, pre-WW2 78s, etc) gets tapped out, the barrel scraped bare and barren, we will see the curatorially-inclined turning in earnest to the early lo-fi ephemera of  MP3s, podcasts, etc, with citizen archivists scooping up:

" the shitty-sound-quality tracks thronging and teeming through the infosphere as YouTube remixes, pirate radio sets, Soundcloud mixes, phone-to-phone swapped MP3s,  etc -  the ceaseless and promiscuous outflow of urban dance cultures like North of England’s jackin’ house, Los Angeles ratchet rap, and the innumerable ghetto dance sounds of the developing world.....    Expect grime, screw, and crunk salvage to begin in earnest soon. These future antiquarians will hunt down fugitive MP3s and resurrect long-ago dried-up streams. They will annotate their conditions of making, auterise their makers, and assemble their findings into archives that may be physical and exclusively priced,  or immaterial and freely public."