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Trevor's Seminar Responses

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Trevor's Seminar Responses

This is hopefully a self-explanatory online repository for Trevor's seminar pieces.

Fall 2011

3 October

The Book on The Bookshelf, by Henry Petroski focuses on creating a historical narrative of linked events to discuss the changes in design and engineering of the titular objects, the book and the bookshelf. He jams the book full of anecdotal evidence, and my initial impressions as a reader are that it's both too full, and too anecdotal — I am overwhelmed by the amount of time and information he wants to imply in his arc of writing, and I am lost by it too. Petroski, for example, starts with his own bookshelves. Kind of. More on the conceptual end of things for them. Then he sort of moves into an abstracted sense of books (learning the word fore-edge is something I'm honestly grateful for from this piece, but i don't know if that suddenly makes this a masterpiece). From there the pendantic aspect of his scholarship starts to really come forward past the odd hybrid of lyrical statements ("every book a jammed town-house" being, admittedly, quite stirring) and technical know-how (I honestly never knew so much about sag and load levels as I will remember this week).

In other words, to Egypt! Except through the Greeks. And the Romans. At least now I know the word "biblion" and where "bibliophile" comes from? Yes, I recognize that his overall argument is something along the lines of the fact that the forms presented to us in reading form a complex relationship with how we both are as readers and what we can become (at least I hope so, otherwise I've wasted more time than I'd like reading about the number of different goddamn carrels this author has been in), but this doesn't make his approach to clear or compelling. The sort of half-scholarly, half-conversational tone that pervades it is, I think, indicative of this — everything is supported by anecdotes, or historical statistics (which are in and of themselves bolstered most often by analogies/imaging — the expansion problems of the Yale library thought of, for example, in terms of acreage) even when he's not exactly working in the smallest of fields (I know there's plenty of current academic work on book and bookshelf design, and the problems of acquisitions). That and Petroski really, really, really likes Dewey. More than I personally can really understand, actually. Dewey shows up everywhere, which further detracts from the overall momentum he builds in the early-to-middle part of the book for stepping through his history chronologically, before that approach mysteriously and in an unacknowledged manner slips away.

I'm hoping that seminar can help me comiserate about this a little bit, and then move on to what is workable about the book - I'd rather get my wtf response out of the way, and get back into what Petroski seems as interested as I am in — that oddly entrancing dynamic between books and everything it takes to present them.

18 October

Myths of Innovations seems, in my mind, to depend on some of the concepts which it tries most to refute, leaving the work in an awkward, if earnest, state. Basically, there's the issue of creatorship and the presentation of history. Berkun consistently argues to trouble the historical accounts of creators, quickly disproving (thanks, footnotes) the authorship of the Wright Brothers, Ford (Ford? Who even thought that Ford invented the automobile?), Edison and more. Yet, this rapidity and off-handedness (i.e. "yo, this is more complicated than you think" again and again) actually undermines the effect of this. I, as a reader, remain unswayed that common historical discourse isn't in someway dependent on these marvelous popularized individuals.

In fact, I actually started to enjoy watching a series Berkun references early in the book, and it acts as a great counterexample here. The television series "Connections", starring James Burke, focuses, episode by episode, on presenting "an alternate view of change" by treating each concept as divorced of the moment of epiphany Berkun (not Burke) cares so about. Rather, technology is, shockingly enough, constantly subjected to processes of dynamic change by Burke's presentation. So, yes, I concede that a 200-page book will end up covering less than a multi-season series of 45-minute television documentaries. But c'mon!!

Berkun falls short of his argued ambition, in my mind, and it is frustrating mainly because I do want to embrace it - I enjoyed the first chapters of the book, and the promise that a critique and complication of ideas would be presented is one I was relishing. I think we could do well with a spot of even Kuhnian historical analysis for the critiques of eReader technology we are trying to develop, and I am still hopefully that we can simultaneously divorce and communualize creators, innovators, consumers, and the technology that capitalism innundates us with. But you have to stop talking about the Palm Pilot like it was a goddamn miracle to do that, in my mind, and more of a conceptual development (ALONGSIDE OTHERS IN MASS DEVELOPMENT) that pushed the basis of what a user-experience vs. use-value should be within personal devices. Amongst other things. This said, glad we read this, hope we keep it in mind.

11 November

Sherry Turkle's Alone Together rests on a moving concept — with an increasing embrace of digital lives and connections, we are slowly growing more isolated, even as the narrative goes that we have more opportunities to share our lives with others than ever before.

She discusses the erosion of friendship as a social model in lieu of Facebook connections, the uniqueness of the human experience as irreplaceable by technological interventions, and the dangers of connected hermeticism. But, I feel that I disagree with her fundamental thesis, that advances in computer technology are the cause of reported increases in social alienation in upper-class Western societies. I think she is misplacing where the anxiety stems from. We've had centuries now of rapidly accelerating growth, and increasing demands placed on us to maintain arbitrary networks of relations mediated by market and trade. Alienation by capital is not alienation by technology; the attack and erasure of communualized experiences and resources isn't either.

In the conclusion, Turkle provides a succint example of her views on texting that is indicative of many of the problematic assumptions she makes. "The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy. We text each other at family dinners, while we jog, while we drive, as we push our children on swings in the park… When we misplace our mobile devices, we become anxious — impossible really." Turkle is arguing here that our fascination with the activity of texting, communicating with absent figures not present in our day-to-day "real" routines, as projected through our cells is a clear symptom of the malaise, ennui, and alienation that technology has wreaked upon communities.

Yet, this isn't what is happening in this example. Let's begin with the most simple contradiction of the quote. The Internet is not equivalent to texting. The activities, technological architecture, even grammatical categories the two concepts provide are different. But perhaps this is a common, inexperienced audience. Maybe it's okay slowball the target read, make these messy analogies and toss around the buzzwords that'll really sell home the book. In the conclusion of a near-300 page work crowning "15 years of research".

Let's leave this aside though. There is more happening in this yet. The activities that Turkle discusses, and even the possibility of the problems Turkle repeatedly discuss, emphasize a large narrative of heteronormative class divides. Turkle is analyzing the problems of the straight U.S. middle class through the lens of technology, yet fails to adequately address both the inherent bias necessary to do so, or the implications of following such a privileged group. If only alienation was merely produced through our problems with our newest innovated toy! The people Turkle returns to again and again are families with regular personal Internet access, individuals who are financially capable of spending 12 hours a day on a private computer and still support a commonly recognized, heteronormative family. Once again, the growing isolations placed here are resultant and indicative of the advance of capital, technology merely an extended symptom of tumorous growth. What isolates us away from community is not cell phones but their erasure. There is no community, beyond a mere projection useful in symbolic narrative, and that is the danger faced here. Suburban growth, gentrification, death of the rural, attacks on the homeless, sublimation of imperialism, corporate globalization, subversion of the nuclear family, a lowered overall happiness, monopolization of mass media, and displacement from both the source and results of labor are the problems being faced in the past half-century by the exact privileged audience Shelly Turkle both writes to and describes. None of these systemic, widespread issues are discussed as possible reasons for the increasingly common experienced alienations she attributes to technology (except through possible sideways suggestion that the roboticization of the work of the proletariat would kinda make rich people sad), yet all of those reasons are driving forces for how technology, and the digital world, has come to be currently.

Turkle has seriously misjudged where the problems of modern U.S. culture lie, and, resultantly, provides no convincing means of working through what is described throughout the book.

28 November

Trevor Van Dyke Week 9 Summative Seminar Paper

Ready Player One was a very apt work to end our reading list. Managing to bridge many of the themes we explored this quarter, the book set itself apart by casually furthering a variety of discussions developed throughout the syllabus as only a backdrop to the coming-of-age narrative Cline focuses in on. In this way, Cline is more successful than many of the authors in creating links to the most critical element of their central theses: that technology plays a critical role in our lives, but remains informed most by our own understanding of sociological developments and identities.

Cline sets his work in a not-too-distant future entirely dependent on developments he predicts have been set in motion currently (global warming, virtualization of MMO’s and market economies, collapse of real infrastructure, recession economics and end of the welfare state). By doing so, he successfully forecasts and illustrates how a paradigm shift towards the digital can happen — we are neither at the critical death of culture and alienation foreseen by some of our authors, nor are we at a simple “next step” in a line of aggregate innovations and discoveries as others argued; our increasingly interconnected world is rather a place that must face many of the same difficulties as before; loneliness, oppression, addiction, and exploitation exist outside of a digital context, yet also now inhabit this space.

The reader, as with all of us, is not in a position of acceptance or denial of these colossal technologic shifts, but rather, must make a decision of level of engagement and reciprocation. Where do (and which) digital communities become effective for the reader’s work? Is our work as readers changed within a digital environment? Cline does not address these issues. He is, at the end of the day, writing a young adult sci-fi book with what is now a long history of influence that crosses into the hacker community. This reads most strongly as a love letter to the past decade of work in sci-fi, particularly the ruminations and creative endeavors of blogger and novelist Cory Doctorow. This isn’t in anyway to dismiss what is presented, simply to situate in what becomes the most clearly articulated aesthetic.

Cline’s protagonist, Wade Watts (aka Parzival or Z), is a character who makes his devotion for OASIS clear. Trapped for years at a time on planets that he perceives have little to no value outside of being a part of the broader OASIS system, Watts maintains a keen interest in the world. It functions as an escape from, and reason for, his life. He is a “Gunter”, a person who is searching for a hidden treasure inside of OASIS that, when found, would make Watts incredibly rich. This is a yadayada, typical coming-of-age style story in which a love is found, lost, and reclaimed in the face of tyrannical evil (the IOI, which is a staggering number of puns put together quite poetically) as the hero comes to know himself. The plot is, in many ways, simply a vehicle to push us towards the implications of the world Cline has built.

I am unable to source it (lousy Google!), but a quote comes to mind that science fiction, as a genre, can be defined and/or found most easily as the fiction of ideas. That is, its fictional goals (what science fiction, as a whole, normally aims to evoke and make meaning of) do not rest in the inward burrowing of characters, setting, or emotion as perhaps other genres might. Rather, science fiction engages itself with crafting a narrative that centers around the innovations it proposes, whether they be scientific, socio-political, religious, technologic, etc. Ready Player One is certainly “ready”, so to speak, to fall into this category as it tracks the stunning consequences of a world that is taking the preparations to fall completely into, quite literally, what Baudrillard could possibly describe as the “hyper-real”. OASIS is a furtherance of capitalism, its innovation, representative more broadly of developments in digital technology with its paradoxical sweeping away of the concept of finite resources that it so clings to for its own continued profit.

If we choose to accept that he is writing a “fiction of ideas”, then Cline’s successes, or failures, cannot be judged simply on whether the characters connect with the reader, or if the plot entertains (I personally found moments of both during the novel, but again, not the point). Rather, a linking up of his work alongside the ideas evoked in our other texts this quarter (treating his work on a level of critique rather than on a level of entertainment) could be elucidating. I argue that Cline’s setting and premise engage with many of the fields of discussion that our literature has raised throughout the quarter.

Our first few books (Petroski, Manguel, and Striphas in particular) focused on countering, and recrafting, current narratives of our broad relationships with books and their related detritus and institutions: namely, libraries, bookshelves, and booksellers. More broadly though, these authors develop a history of the object, the book, and its subsumption into one of the most important consumer narratives of the past two hundred years is astounding. The work surrounding making the book a device that is constitutive of intellectual value, economic value, cultural value and the even more ephemeral value of “authenticity” is astounding, and Cline works alongside this. His work is engaged directly with trivia, feeding and driving off it, his characters shaped into who they are by what consumptive forces 50 years before them have done. Books, or, more broadly, personal media devices, are shown throughout Ready Player One, and, in an odd turn from the primary consumer object, they are generally free. In one scene that creates a fitting atmosphere of monkish zeal and odd consumer practice (by narrativized/normalized current standards), Watts is bragging, and illuminating, about the amount of media he has had to consume to be a proper ‘80s based treasure hunter. “The Almanac contained thousands of references to Halliday’s favorite books, TV shows, movies, songs, graphic novels, and videogames. Most of these items were over forty years old, and so free copies of them could be downloaded from the OASIS. If there was something I needed that wasn’t legally available for free, I could almost always get it by using Guntorrent, a file-sharing program used by Gunters around the world.”

WHAT?!! The largest economy in his contemporary world gives access to all forms of popular media simply if it was produced about forty years before?! As the person who’s been studying U.S. copyright this quarter, I’d really like to say that this is all at once slightly unbelievably wonderful and astounding; impossible and laughable; and a fairly astute assessment of current trends in U.S. culture in regards to our relationship with consumer objects by means of digital iteration. We are moving towards a place, more and more, in which a normativity allows for the dismissal of market exchange for consumer media, that is, for products which are deemed to be in some way representative of a creative non-physical force (a story, a song, a film... i’m overgeneralizing but hear me out). The ephemerality of these products has returned, in a sense, to the cultural commons from which they came - it’s unwieldy, at best, to attempt to create property out of every instance of a song being heard when your business rests and depends on interaction with it. And now there’s an author articulating an unspoken consensus we’re moving towards - that this isn’t commercialized, and can’t be. That our developments in technology better serve an interest in networks of unarbitrated distribution, rather than dancing around this with conceptualizations of intellectual property that seem to continue to fall flat in the face of what people perceive they can do with current tech limits. Cline invents little to nothing in terms of technological advancements for the next thirty years. They’re still using a torrent based system of distribution in a virtual world that is established through the internet. Cline is merely pushing forward the trends identified by himself, and his fellow authors of what the book, and other consumer objects, are being transformed into in the face of decapitalized technologies: communualized media.

This, fortunately, does nicely flow into the second grouping of books we’ve read this quarter, that dwell on the implications of our experiences as a society living through these large transitions toward a “digital age” (the authors of Switching Codes, Christian, and Turkle). What’s most resonant, for me, between what these authors ponder and what Cline is working on is their intersection in how technology change opens new paths towards reflections on ourselves. The Most Human Human’s premise, is, of course, obviously easy to push towards this view. But especially in Turkle’s work, and even in moments of Switching Codes, the authors linger on what technology lays bare about the interiority of our lives in a late-industrial society in nascent transition to who-knows-what (Cline has a fairly pessimistic prediction for this point, but that’s tangential here). We are lonely, we are isolated, we are disgusted with our selves as static identities and unescapable bodies. The most haunting image from Ready Player One, for me, is not the admittedly badass Ultraman vs. Mechagodzilla fight. Instead, it is Watts at his most depressed, alone in a self-imposed cell and waiting for the hour to pass in which he has to encounter the body he lives in. We are denied a corporeality because we are denied a reality. Turkle’s scene of parenting-with-texting is not a shock for this very reason - our relationships with each other are paralleling our relationships again with media. Technology has enabled to sublimate both into a totalizing matter of preference under an auspice, and unachievable ideal, of control over our lives in a destabilized age. Ready Player One ends on this exact mythos - Parzival enters a realm of deity-like power, achieving mastery of death and gets the girl. All thanks to the computer.