Or, Towards a Universal Theory of Geekery
A meme cut an interesting path through my blog reader the other day.
First, I saw that the eminent historians and philosophers over at The Edge of the American West were worrying over a particularly stupid Amazon copy protection patent (shorter Amazon: changing words in e-books will help us stop pirates!). The gist of the comments was that the Amazon idea would destroy the experience for the reader, and make it impossible to do certain types of research and teaching; very much a response as consumers of texts — and not, for the most part, as producers. (Money quote: “It’s my understanding that historians always insert at least one subtle but distinctive misstatement of fact in each chapter…”)
That EotAW post tipped it’s hat to the blog of SF author John Scalzi — who was mainly annoyed, as an author, that Amazon would try and copy-protect his books by changing the words. (” Hard as it may be for Amazon to believe, I actually use the words I intend to use when I write.”)
He in turn linked to Slashdot, meme generator of old, which filed Amazon’s idiocy under more long-term complaints with copy protections, and the rush to claim prior art, etc. (Money quote from comments: “Yo dawg, I put a clock in your clock so I can sue you while you check the time.”)
(Also: Here’s Amazon’s actual patent)
So, two things. First, in all three places, one of the first comments was about how map makers supposedly insert small mistakes into their work to make it easy to track down copies. Memes within memes, folks.
1.) Shorter everyone else: Bzzzt! False, Amazon, false.
Image cite: fox.out22, “Burning fuckin’ Meta,” Flickr, CC License
Or, This is Why We Can’t Have Smart Things
I miss the days when books were written because an author simply had something to say and took her time to say it well.
May I propose a thought experiment to see whether Sullivan’s nostalgia is just lazy thinking or a justified use of the world-weary declension card? When was that golden age? When books were written by disinterested Serious People, for pure thought, seriously? Precisely, I mean. I’d like dates.
Perhaps Sullivan is referring to that one golden afternoon of September 25, 1965, or perhaps those madeleine-encrusted years between 1913 and 1927. But probably he dates the true end of the golden age to October 10, 2006, no?
Somehow, I doubt any precision will be forthcoming. One hears lots of talk about the dangers of scientific ignorance, but I think ignorance of historical thinking is a problem that goes to the highest levels, too. If even our paid thinkers don’t understand how to think historically, what then? Goodness me, wreck and ruin, I suppose.
Pointless nostalgia will out, though. Écrasez l’infâme!
Update: links fixed.
Image cite: cybertoad, “White Horse,” Flickr, CC License
Filed under: The Past is a Foreign...Something | Tags: camel, DeBow's, Emanuel Weiss, Opium
Or, Yes, This Was For Serious
Americans are competitive; they always have been. We’re obsessed with keeping score, outmaneuvering rivals.
This is especially true when it comes to making money. Just as today we’re concerned about whether or not China is winning the recession, so too in earlier times, competition with Eastern powers was on the menu.
The answer, obviously, was hells yes.
After all, argued Emanuel Weiss in the pages of the famed Southern journal of politics and business, DeBow’s Review, there was now evidence that Eastern fauna was a boon to the West, so why not flora?
Now that the usefulness of the camel on our south-western frontier has been acknowledged by government, the proposition to import in the same time some camels from Smyrna or Alexandria, along with the date palm, the fig, the olive, the sesame and the poppy seed, will, I expect, no more be scoffed at, as it was the case when I first started this idea…
Just when you think the 19th century can’t get weirder…
1.) Emanuel Weiss, “OPIUM–CAN WE COMPETE WITH THE EAST IN ITS PRODUCTION?” DeBow’s Review and Industrial Resources, Statistics, etc. Devoted to Commerce, Agriculture, Manufactures (New Orleans), January 1856, p. 60 et seq.
Image cite: squacco, “The face of evil,” Flickr, CC License
Or, Hells Yes We Make The Future
But then again, most geeks don’t do all that much document-based collaboration, by email or otherwise. Programming doesn’t require a whole lot of collaboration, beyond that provided by source control tools and bug tracking system. Being Robert Scoble probably doesn’t require you to spend days working on a specification document for some finicky aspect of project X, or at least not very often, and he’s probably not the one collating everyone’s suggested changes and resubmitting the document for further review.
In your average corporate environment, though, this happens all the time.
I really only bring it up to highlight something I hadn’t stressed before, which is that while both hackers (ok, in this instance “geeks,” but whatever) and humanists collaborate with other colleagues in their work, they don’t do it on every piece — in fact, the discrete unit of output is very much a personal affair (though I imagine this is more so in academia, several times over).
In any case, both differ from the collaboration that happens in (for-profit and non-) corporate workspaces. Anecdotally, this rings very true: my academic self is consistently appalled by how much uncredited work sharing – for presentations! books even! – is de rigueur at my s.o.’s office.
Filed under: Uncategorized
It’s Friday, I’m dissertated out, so here’s some links:
- Tim Burke has some smart things to say about Google’s recent sketchy shenanigans, and fairly sums up, I think, the general consensus among the digerati humanists w/r/t the current state of the Google Books project: Do Not Want.
- He also has some fair gripes about the awful balkanized state of other textual databases. Welcome to my life: I got 99 UIs, but a completed search ain’t in one, folks.
- There’s a new episode of CHNM’s Digital Campus out. We learn that Google Wave is apparently great for discussing Google Wave, but otherwise distracting as hell. A very good, and useful episode, even in non-google aspects.
- Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing Technology, and the Future of the Academy is up, and has lots of interesting things to say about the future of publishing and peer review. Perhaps the best work on these subjects I’ve read (and I’m only halfway through!). Highly recommended.
- Finally, because every Friday post should end with some contemplation of past, present and future, here’s Thomas Cole’s most serious series of paintings exploring political economy (which I might get to see this weekend!).
Image cite: Krossbow, “Flotsam and Jetsam,” Flickr, CC License
Filed under: Uncategorized
Or, a bleg
Folks, I have a problem.
I’m trying to describe how American policy makers, as a group, moved from thinking and acting as if China was the (pre-1969) moon, to thinking and acting as if China were a real, reachable place where the U.S. had national interests and, importantly, the ability to protect or advance those interests in China.
(Analogous situations might include the climate change issue — where we are not quite yet at the turning point — or, indeed, the post-Sputnik shift in talking about landing on the moon.)
Here’s the problem: right now, all I can think to say is that China “became real” or China issues “became concrete.”
This is unacceptable — not just because those are ugly circumlocutions, but also because I’ve got a hunch that there is probably an actual (poli sci? soc?) term for this kind of phenomenon.
So I turn to you, dearest colleagues of the world wide interwebs. Any thoughts? Am I fretting over nothing?
Image Cite: Curious Expeditions, “Brains,” Flickr, CC License
Or, Everything New Under The Sun?
Naturally, my first thought was of antebellum New York.
Demand Media’s process works like this: the company has two algorithms that allow it to transform users search terms into specs for short evergreen videos or articles (think:“How to Tie Your Shoes” on YouTube), which they then bid out to a vast army of freelance copy editors and videographers at a few dollars per item. The resulting media is plugged into the conglomerate of websites DM owns (eHow.com is one), which then earns revenue from ads playing next to the video or text. Et voila! The demand and supply curves for new content are made to meet almost immediately, for the benefit of Demand Media’s shareholders.
By figuring out how to commoditize — or rather, commoditize further, as cheap evergreen stories have been around for hundreds of years — and mass produce the general content article and video, Demand Media has taken the structures of the new media environment to heart in an unprecedented way. But it’s also a classic case of using capital to replace labor (via technological automation); and it faces the classic trade-off of late-stage capitalist production: mass-production techniques produce low-quality goods.
Or, as the article’s enormous subtitle puts it:
“A fiendishly clever startup knows what we are googling – then churns out thousands of cheap videos and articles to meet our every whim and wish. Why the future of online content is fast, disposable, and profitable as hell.”
But content’s past is prologue, I would argue.
Over the last few years, there has been a small trend to look to the 17th and 18th centuries — when technologies of print really came into their own — as analogous to our own time of changes in information production, distribution and consumption, in order to understand how these shifts affected, or could affect, communities of discourse, and power relations. The somewhat tired, but oft-cited comparison of bloggers and pamphleteers, for example, or work on the information management strategies of the early modern French absolutist state (see David Bell’s recent piece in the New Republic, “The Colbert Report”), offer a couple of different takes on this theme.
In the case of the new production line that Demand Media has put together, the early modern era doesn’t really work. It lacks…steam. I think the better analogy is 1830s newspaper industry — specifically the creation of what is known as the “penny press” in antebellum New York City. Even the bio of Demand Media’s founder — seasoned huckster Richard Rosenblatt — reads an awful lot like that of some early 19th century millionaire (in Roth’s article, at least), especially the multiple early failures.
In both cases, new audiences prompted a rethinking of the production process in response to new technology — search algorithms, rotary presses — which in turn changed the business model, and, not incidentally, how content was produced. By the end of it all, you have far different types of media production, distribution, and consumption than previously existed, all because of some tinkering with different links in the production chain.
Beginning with Benjamin Day’s penny daily The Sun, the 1830s saw the rise of cheap newspapers which featured content markedly different than the public documents, poetry, political rhetoric and commercial news that were the mainstays of the press across the country.
The key innovation of these papers, for our purposes, was that they figured out that new printing technologies would allow the targeting of a mass audience; and to reach and keep the attention of that audience, they began running stories and features that appealed to the masses, rather than political groups and commercial men. Papers were also distributed differently; rather than selling them as year-long subscriptions, they were sold in bulk, and at a discount (2/3rds of a cent) to street urchins (sorry, “newsies”) who then sold them on the streets — the so-called “London model.”
But content’s the key change. The main leaders in these papers were not political news or financial reports, but rather juicy, comical crime reports, scandalous society pages, and a new class of evergreen stories that looked at the individual lives in great metropolis — human interest stories. All grist quite similar to Demand Media’s videos in its interoperability, if not its dramatic arcs (I doubt many of DM’s videos feature ruined society heirs or drunken sailors). With their combination of the mundane and freakish, these papers were democratic in their spirit — salacious, populist — though not necessarily so in their politics (Horace Greeley’s Tribune, for example, strove for a respectable middle-class reformist tone).
To give you a sense of how different these papers were, it helps to know that prior to the 1830s, most newspapers, even those in major cities, were a losing proposition. To keep afloat, they were either produced as advertisements for larger printing businesses, or as political ventures — “party organs” in the term of the day — funded by a party, or through the patronage its members controlled (government printing contracts, mainly).
The new penny press papers, by contrast, were much more focused on the bottom line, with the newspaper itself serving as the main source of revenue. This increased focus on profit, unsurprisingly, had the effect of accelerating innovation in the industry (at least in particular directions). In addition to the new types of stories, many of the other structures we now identify as characteristic of the media — timeliness, wire services, foreign correspondents, objectivity — came out of the pressures and requirements of running a successful enterprise in what quickly became a highly competitive, but often highly profitable, sector. And it was out of these new institutions, over the course of the 19th century, that Benedict Anderson’s theory of newspapers and national identity really starts to come into play.
To come back to that aside about objectivity: one of the unintended results of the profitability of these papers is that they emerged as information distributors without clear financial ties to established political interests — a characteristic that some editors used to spin out new theories of the importance of an objective press. Over time, some of the editors of the penny press began to see themselves as tribunes of the people, important counterweights to established political — and sometimes economic — interests. One early penny press editor opined that “An editor must always be with the people — think with them — feel with them — and he need fear nothing, he will always be right — always be strong — always free“.
Philosophical bromides aside, the “objective” press — independent from political parties, not beholden (in theory at least) to political bosses — grew out of the creation of the new revenue streams the mass market allowed. It was the logic of capitalism, not Jacksonian ideology (though that helped), which led to the character of the modern news business — including its establishment as the “fourth estate.”
Thus did an important pillar of modern civic life develop, at least in part, out of attempts to sell disposable content fast, and profitably; which leads us back to Demand Media’s business model. What does it mean that consumers, in the aggregate, now set article topics? Is this going to make the available supply more mediocre, in the end? Or will this recent revolution develop along lines set during an the earlier revolution in industrial information production? Who knows. I wouldn’t hope for much; but as with so much in the historical analogy game, it at least suggests some possibilities.
PS: for the curious: I think some of these same issues — about the organizational forms that capitalism encourages, and their relation to democratic politics — are raised, albeit in a somewhat oblique way, in this awesome Orgtheory post about democracy and corporations.
1.) Daniel Roth, “The Answer Factory,” Wired 17.11 (Nov 2009).
2.) Seriously, the guy has been investigated for fraud multiple times, and, during his time at drkoop.com he sold patent medicines (“Dr. Koop’s Men’s Prostate Formula Pills”). And like every google-savvy serial entrepreneur, he is also the proud owner of a meticulously tended Wikipedia page.
3.) James Gordon Bennett, Courier and Enquirer, 12 November 1831, as quoted in Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940(NY, 1941), 232.
4.) Similarly, this is not the same story as that told in Jeffrey Pasley’s “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Pasley covers the explosion of political newspapers in the 1790s and thereabouts; by the 1830s, these were old hat, though given new life by the rebirth of intense partisan conflict in the election of 1832 and Jackson’s presidency more generally.
Image cite: Wallyg,”NYC – Civic Center: The Sun Clock,” Flickr, CC License.
Or, Found Historiography
What should I read to learn more about history?
That’s a question that all historians wrestle with — certainly one that I revisit anew every time I find I need to orient myself when the research trail leads to unfamiliar temporal territory. It’s also one that successful hacker-entrepreneur Paul Graham has pondered; it appears in the middle of his personal website. Graham’s answer, while intended to guide the enthusiastic amateur, hits quite close to how the pros do it:
The way to do it is piecemeal. You could just sit down and try reading Roberts’s History of the World cover to cover, but you’d probably lose interest. I think it’s a better plan to read books about specific topics, even if you don’t understand everything the first time through.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is basically how History Grad School Works, iteration one. For the full training regimen, the one that all the folks with extra letters after their names have done, you just rinse and repeat, staying in the same topical territory, until what was once unfamiliar now seems like family, complete with creepy uncle and dotty aunts.
I bring up Graham’s answer, not just because it gives away guild secrets for free, but because it suggests that the worlds of hacking and history are closer than they might appear. Now, as I may have mentioned before, my interest in this kind of comparison is long-standing, and possibly the result of unhealthy reading habits; but I think other areas of Graham’s writing lend credence to this idea if we consider both fields as realms of practice (and lest you think that Graham is an outlier as a hacker, note that the guy publishes with O’Reilly).
Look, for example, Graham’s advice on generating ideas for startups:
It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea.
The initial idea is just a starting point– not a blueprint, but a question.
Again, this comes remarkably close to how a historian — and perhaps any scholar — works. In fact, the whole apparatus of scholarly production, for all its faults, is set up to follow this procedure, albeit in a more formal way: ideas go from seminar papers to conference presentations to journal articles to books to reviews and back into seminars, sloughing off old accumulations through further refinement of questions.
So what I think Graham’s advice reveals is a similarity in approach, which I, along with C. Wright Mills, would characterize as craftsmanship. ‘Doing history’ is like ‘doing programming’ — an intellectual affair, one with few “material” results perhaps, but one that only becomes realized through iterative production, through a working and shaping of material, often collaboratively. It isn’t a science, it isn’t quite an art, but has aspects of both, and is deeply intertwined with a particular philosophical approach to work. It’s not quite Zen and the Art of Bibliographic Maintenance, but not too far off, either.
I think Graham’s (and Mills’s and Pirsig’s) thinking on how this work gets done represents a strong challenge to both C.P. Snow’s much-celebrated concept of “Two Cultures”, which represents the humanities and science as having had a major failure to communicate, as well as Matthew Crawford’s argument against white-collar work, especially scholarly — he was formerly a philosopher — as necessarily alienating.
If intellectual work is a craft (for meanings of “craft” that are continuous across fields) I think then we should rethink how bright the line separating each of these dualities — manual vs. intellectual, science vs. humanist, etc — really is. And at the very least, I think working as if one’s work is a “craft” is a far more productive way to approach labor, on both ends of the spectrum, not least because it makes incorporating new insights easier.
Of course, I may be drawing far too much out of Graham’s essays. It may be that programming, hacking, and computer science in general, is unique it how closely the mind set mirrors the methodology of the lesser humanist disciplines. Or perhaps that the mythos of hacker culture — however the work may actually be in real life — draws strongly from the mythos of university life, and that provides the (fictional) bridge.
*Not to be confused with History Hacker — Bre Pettis’s show does look pretty awesome, though it doesn’t appear to have made it past the pilot stage.
2. Partly as a result of a youth spent immersed in William Gibson et al., programmers are the folks I think of when I hear “knowledge worker” or “symbolic analyst”– not Richard Florida’s “creative class” of boho architects, nor the conspiracy-busting whiz-geezer of Dan Brown novel fame, nor the caricatured Foucauldians that nostalgic neoconservatives have in mind when pining tenderly for a time when untrammeled free markets and long hours of manual labor saved Real Men from self-alienation.
3. Mainly through hand-wringing and head waggling.
Image cite: bdu, “eniac,” Flickr, CC License