Sunday, February 26, 2012

Manual Google

Are you looking through a broken pair of eyes? Are you ill-equipped to hear me?"

"Are you one of the cogs

Too busy probing the pleasure centres of dogs to get near me?

- Kevin Godley, Lol Creme| Random Brainwave, 1979

What happens when human curiosity is reduced to an engineering exercise?

Some major efficiencies happen like instant road maps and opt-in spell checkers. Who would ever want to predate a world devoid of "did you mean...?" But whether we meant to or not Google has assigned a demand-side value to the answers it provides and the way it provides them. That is a powerful and compromising brokerage.

Our passions and concerns are channeled into a need for certainty that only seems to increase with the lack of closure. We are not just hard-coded for self-containing narratives of a self-concluding nature. We will skip ahead and miss the good bits because we'll be too stressed out to appreciate them if it all turns out for naught. Such behaviors turn out well for Google. We're addicted to answers. Google is not a vehicle. It is the verb. It does not own the road. It stores the potholes below the crevices of its membranes. To deny that is to take away free advertising for a search media giant and our own self-expression in the same bated breath.

The problem is not that Google and the self-proclaimed 'beauty' of its new privacy policy is big brother in a barely disguisable ruse: "[A] simple, intuitive user experience across Google." If anything Google is big bystander. Google doesn't want to crawl inside our heads and decode our inner confessionals -- that last veil of hesitation that tells us not to visit our untested assumptions on inscrutable Google. They want to bucket our articulations: (1) First into IP addresses, and then, (2) into groupings of indulgences and shadowings of flash-points. Just the very products of our experience that cause us to take notice and give money. They don't call us users for nothing:

Google: "We never sell personal information."
Subtext: "We always sell impersonal information."

Okay, you're thinking. So I'm a consumer. They package me up and send me off as a nameless aggregate into the awaiting clutches of their material witnesses: The Procters and Gambles, the seasonal influenza indices, the local pizzerias ... all riding on the outcome of my reflexive back and forth with Google. I got my toppings, and my meds, and my brand name discount. Just pay the man and move on, right?

Less Why for the Ware

The problem is not spyware but literally why-ware -- the analytical nature of motivation. These are temperments, not transactions. These are the understandings reached through interconnecting events, inwardly wired impulses, and group + personal dynamics that factor into our actions and rationale for the outcomes they deliver. There is no GPS on God's green Google Earth that reconciles these complexities with our circumstances, decisions, and their consequences.

Google would be the first search media giant to tell you they are not in the business of telling us what to do. But what they trademark behind that steel trap of engineers and lawyers is the newly franchisable power of suggestion. That means that a post millennial tween who straps on her Google glasses will be free to experience that mediated tunnel of contraption-induced toolbars and pulldown menus that jog along-side the shoulders of these driverless thoroughfares. She will have no need for prior knowledge or personal experience or the need to remember her impressions or with whom she chooses to share them. As the latest FAQ on Google's new privacy policy intones:

Google: "We can treat you as a single user across all our products."

Yes, that is intended to be a consoling message to us memory-challenged users. Perhaps the real threat would have been to caveat that emptor:

Subtext: "We can treat you as a multiple product across all our customer segments."

Birth of a Pathology

The biggest eyebrow raising to date is that Google's bid at reality augmentation is what stoners in the seventies used to say about their sober counterparts:

1975: "Reality is for people who can't face drugs."
2015: "Hiding publicly behind an interface is like viewing the world through Google-colored glasses."  

Us ivory-towered elites can't have that. We retreat to our own 20th century safety zones. We condemn this intervention! It is a container devoid of serendipitous discovery! It is way too interesting for our kids to tune us back in again. We are so gone.

It is also the shortest distance between points she'll no longer be capable of making -- mostly why did she climb in her Google car and where did it drop her? That's assuming the passenger will have the curbside capacity to reboot the override.

Will they resume the itinerary on the driver's side? That's assuming they can drive a manual as well as read one. That's insinuating she can trick the Google car into telling her what she need to know and not what the car is programmed to disclose. That will be a hard truth from our user and a soft landing disclosed by Google. That's assuming one can take this all in. They seem to be talking over one another.

And down will come civilization, cradle and all.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Big 5-0

"My life is not that interesting ... The work ... is a fascination." - Janis Ian

I turned fifty today.

I'm not ashamed and I'm not proud. But I sure am grateful.

And I'm an open-faced baby book. I'm vulnerable enough to be scammed by the velvet-skinned Ukrainian at the tawdry mall in Tampa. She sells me dead sea cream for my parched and soapy crows feet on the correct assumption that I look "42." That's her unaided answer. And it's topped off with the credible validation that "my eyes look older." That qualifier kicked in once she was trying to sell me the eye treatment on top of the skin lotion. I paid for one performance and she tossed in the catsup-like ointment samples with the limited time discount card.

Like I said, sure am grateful.

I can drive a mile of happiness around the same city block of my daily business. I don't covet more stuff or more love. I don't engender a love of stuff. I'm not hurting for novelty. And I still welcome new experience -- especially ones that fight the insatiable hunger that consumes most mortals exposed to the advertising of a Western-style deity. That's the life cut short routine based on too much salt, smoke, sucrose, sun and bodily fluids for which no tonic can chase them out or flush them down.

Leaving a lifeless body on earth means leaving a lively body of work as well. That's where the fifty-plus birthday sizes flip the tables over on the inducements of our disease strains. Capturing the teaching of timeless lessons increases the shelf life of our outputs. More importantly, every striving towards each achievement is cheating on the indiscriminate death that looks us in the eye whether we choose to stare back or check our messages.

So hello fifty. Hello AARP discount card offers. Hello reading glasses, and lowering registers, and thinning toenails, and saturated bladders. The road home is shorter than the journey-defining ambitions that have risen to meet that road. And as I focus on the responsibility to my survival skills, I accept those birthday gifts with a vow to: (a) use them and, (b) not fixate on the sheet I'm throwing over on these changes -for-keeps.

I will maintain one version of the same story that I recount to strangers, ex-spouses, colleagues, and lasses working the kiosks of downscale malls. It is the key to a moral hygiene necessary to honor the ownership of the gift. It is not the fear of God but the light of wisdom that tells us straight:

Honesty -- no matter how self-evident - is not bland.

Diplomacy -- no matter how delicate -- is not a foreign tongue to the trained ear.

Being accountable for one's life experience is to gain fluency in a resurgent dialect we now call transparency. Some of us even see technology as a force for good in a network that regards control as a problem to work around.

Even in an offline state there is a lightness to the shedding of youth. This is the liberation of self-restraint. It is no more limiting to experience than buffering our impulses with forethought is a threat to self-expression. Past ages have chiseled notebooks to grapple with ashes and dust. We've gone digital to the cloud and immortality  is still about the ideas and the work -- not the vessels who burnish them into books.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Time and Space Curriculum

I was taking a walk through the old neighborhood and out spilled Jimm's bouquet of albums released between early October 1979 and early October 1980:

  • David Bowie: Scary Monsters

  • The B-52's: Wild Planet

  • The Boomtown Rats: The Fine Art Of Surfacing

  • The Clash: London Calling

  • Elvis Costello: Get Happy | Taking Liberties (only the 9 songs not released prior to Oct. 1979)

  • The English Beat: I Just Can't Stop It

  • Marianne Faithful: Broken English

  • The Police: Reggatta De Blanc | Zenyatta Mondatta

  • The Pretenders: The Pretenders (first album)

  • Paul Simon: One-Trick Pony (one of his best, though nobody but me thinks so)

  • The Specials: The Specials (first album)

  • Squeeze: Argybargy

  • Talking Heads: Remain In Light

  • X: Los Angeles (first album)

  • XTC: Black Sea

This block party rocked with a resonance that made all the other musical enclaves wish they could move to this neighborhood. OK. At least bid up the price of the late nineties tribute album in some discovered exurban-gated-ghetto league.

This notion of a stroll around the time block rings more true than my first piece of direct AARP mail that came this week. The proximity of Jimm's dream list occupies the same cul-de-sac as a framework suggested to me by fellow Hampshirite Arthur Simons. The contextual underpinnings of Simons' theory lines: (1) his living room, (2) this post, and, (3) the brimming tidal pools of his flash brain floods.

Simons posits that a place visited in childhood lies between two locations. Our sense of adult place lies between the intersection of two or more memories. In essence the first path is commuter-induced bike, car, stroller, or transit travel. The other is memory-powered time travel whether your propulsion is via jet pack or propeller head.

A bunch of corollaries spring from this vantage:

  1. "Tiny" playgrounds we remember as major theme parks --
    Is that because we're physically larger or because the memories  never shrank but continued to satiate on these spongy vibes?

  2. The first legs of trips seeming to take twice as long as the returning trip --
    Is it that the certainty of the way back closes the perceived distance?

  3. We're all too aware of the flash forward effect of middle age that lends our earliest imaginings their engulfing stature --
    i.e. the advent of the web until now captures fewer cultural shifts than say the heyday Beatles between haircuts.

I arrive at three conclusions from these time bubbles of musical release formulas:

  1. The return trip is instantaneous while the slog up the '79-80 hill takes an eternity. ("It'll be alright.")

  2. That proximity of inspirations is as much a "place" as any physical landmark, (i.e. we frequented the same musical neighborhoods as teens and that is a basis for endless conjecture and jousting).

  3. Big memories take up lots of room -- the further the visitation distance, the bulkier they get.

The curbside appeal of clustering albums into timelines is boundless and reveals ...

  • What our musical heroes were listening to at the time -- jamming frequencies factor

  • What we were in the act of sweating through or celebrating at the time -- soundtrack of our lives appeal

  • What about our childhoods has swelled to larger-than-life stature and what deserves to shrivel and die -- always a roll of the musical dice we are willing to rock

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Release Party Push back

Garo however, was having none of this -- at least the part about appropriating our back yard vanity checks as signifying any real inflections, cultural shifts, or accumulated post collective event wisdom:

"I admit that as much I love wallowing in the filth of my own past, I generally try to steer clear of such list-o-mania. An excellent period it was (particularly in the sceptr'd isle), but of course we'd all think that; it's when we were paying the most attention. We bought albums the moment they arrived in stores, and we knew what it was up against. (Or as Dish used to put it: My God, it's Thursday! Isn't it time for a new Donna Summer album??)"

Garo equated the ubiquity of distribution with the commoditization of experience:

"Now  music arrives to (most of) us after it's been long-vetted by YouTube users, radio stations, Saturday Night Live bookers, and a topsoil of people much younger than us at least 20 feet deep. By the time we receive it, it's been out for months, maybe years; we're therefore no more able to connect it to a specific time and place and zeitgeist than we are to keep straight the various Justins and Selenas and hyphenated rapper sobriquets that buzz around us like lighters at a Blue Oyster Cult concert."

Me knowing that Garo never ran off to join any Blue Oyster cults allows me to duck behind my own naivete.

And whether we opt for Jimm's elevated lanes of memory or Garo's mania cross-offs, I still have appointments to keep. Increasingly the place and time are one because the place I'm headed IS that stitch in time. And that time is not waiting in line for next Thursday's Donna Summer or Ruby Tuesday's Edgar Winter. That all expenses paid vacation knows every rhyme and season. And that's the commiseration of the tunes in our heads and the songs that pulse to the hearts we've developed to contain and express those sounds.

The time-lines are a map. And the only thing more fun than plotting future trips is getting lost completely. Yesterday and tomorrow can move into my musical neighborhood any time they like.
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