Simplification

Digital Abstract Oil PaintingIn the context of social networks, I have found myself feeling feeling it as repressive – thus I have left them behind other than for broadcasting, really, and even that is debatable.

I’ve always been a proponent of simply creating content and allowing people to find it; I’m not sure shouting in the bazaar is useful when you don’t actually own the bazaar. It certainly doesn’t add to the appeal of the bazaar unless you love being shouted at by random people.

The Internet is my bazaar, not their social network. Their social networks are algorithmically cathedrals disguised as bazaars.

So, to simplify that part of my life, I am withdrawing. Even email has a new layer of obfuscation to protect me from the constant drivel of marketers and their marketing, of conversations with those who don’t want to have conversations but to shout at you as if your ear is their bazaar.

There is a poetic symmetry in randomly popping up in someone else’s bazaar and whispering, “Hey. I wrote something new.”

I have retreated to the Internet, the bizarre bazaar, the foundation upon which cathedrals disguised as bazaars are built. 

The Lost B Sides Of Our Lives

VINYLVinyl. Some audiophiles still say that it’s the best way to listen to music as they don their rubber gloves, pull their records out of the cardboard holders (plastic removed to avoid warping of the vinyl), carefully placing the record on the turntable, adjusting the speed for a 45 (single) or a 78 (album) post WW II, and 33 RPM later on for albums.

Today, the MP3 reigns supreme – a compressed version of the music where the frequencies are kept only to that which the average human ear hears. Yet there was a time before this, a time before the 8-track tapes and later cassettes and the then ubiquitous Walkman cassette players, before compact discs (CDs) (Hat tip to Valdis Krebs on his correction through LinkedIn).

In the house I grew up in, a Sansui amplifier and tuner was the core of the sound system – 2 Technics turntables, a reel-to-reel system, and a dual Technics cassette deck with Dolby recording and playback ability. When alone, the wooden floors vibrated as only speakers made in the 1970s would make them. Every Friday, Patrick and I would look over the Billboard Top 100 to watch the trends, and I would go off and buy some 45s at the local record store.

I learned early on that what I liked wasn’t always popular. With music slower to come by than it is today, I’d end up flipping the record over to hear the other single that came with the record. A great example of this was the B side of ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears: The Big Chair. A mixing dream, really.

I’d end up exploring the work of artists other than what was popular. Sometimes it was crap, something that the recording company chose out of their discography that didn’t even make it onto an album, and sometimes not.

We don’t do that anymore. I’m not even sure that many people did it in the first place, daring to spend the time to see if they liked the song, but I do know that at least some hit songs came from B-sides. You can read about some here, and some others here where you can listen to themThink songs like, “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) and “Revolution” (The Beatles).

In an odd sort of way, we were allowed to explore the music of artists through their detritus on the B-sides of albums – the stuff that publishers ‘threw away’, not wanting to give a free hit single away with another. And yet, some of their greatest mistakes are treasures – some popular, some not, the listener deciding what was good or not simply by flipping a record over and checking.

Fast forward to today.

The Internet brought us the ability to get music like never before. I’d like to think most of us legally buy music, I’m certain at least some of us download without paying some service or publishing company. Artists in some cases have bypassed the middlemen in this, allowing us to purchase directly from them through websites. Some even make their music available for free here and there.

But the services, just like yesteryear, are about maximizing profit. There are no more B-sides; we are bombarded with things that are algorithmically decided for us as we stream music. Just as on social networks our digital shadow – what we do online – is used to decide what we see, so it is with our music. Alternative – how can something be alternative when it becomes mainstream? – is even decided for us. We are less consumers now, maybe, than we were before the Internet in that there is no conversation (hat tip to the Cluetrain Manifesto), decisions about what we get are decided not even by other human beings but by statistical and heuristic analysis of our data. We are, in the eyes of algorithms, what we were, and not what we can be – never-mind what we should be.

Generations have passed having never flipped over a vinyl record, having never read something not decided for them…. we are become the algorithms of our algorithms, the ‘tools of our tools’ as Thoreau might write today.

Unless we find the B-sides of our lives.

Forest and Trees

why hello thereShifting focus is a necessary part of being human – to be able to see the forest and the tree in the forest as needed. Deciding when to do that is a sign of education, discipline and experience. It’s also something that truly creative people can do easily.

Some people see forests, some people see trees, few people see both. Few people can understand a singular tree, how it works even in the most basic of principles – photosynthesis is a rote answer, misunderstood, osmosis is a concept that only can be learned through a permeable membrane. Nutrients, soil types, root types… all are lost if they are not found, and so a person can be limited only to the patently obvious, the growth above the ground.

And then people will look at a forest, not understanding the complex interactions with the pollination vectors, the mycorrhizal networks,  the air flow and the concentrations of different gases during parts of the day when photosynthesis takes place – and when it doesn’t. How the shape of leaves can affect not just how much photosynthesis happens but how water flows through the forest before it even hits the ground. How just as cattle have the cattle egret to keep them clean, there are creatures that keep the plants safe – and then there are creatures that do not, little microcosms of life and death happening at any given moment, an awkward balance shifting in real time. A cycle. Alive in it’s own right, a body of systems, perhaps even a consciousness of sorts that we cannot understand. Religion and fiction have played with this subject.

So, when we look at a problem, we have to understand the tree – each tree. And we also have to understand the forest, the complex interactions between trees and the other flora and fauna around them.

To often we have specialists that do only one or the other; we need people who can do both.

Unfettered

the weakest linkAs reality sets in about my mother’s passing, I sit considering over my morning coffee how much I felt I could not write about – the unspokens – because I knew that my mother would read some things and think that they were about her, or that they would make her feel sad or even angry.

We censor ourselves – some of us, anyway – and with the understanding that anything on the Internet must exist in it’s own context, it’s difficult to predict how something will be read, if it is read at all.

There’s some humor there; the majority of my family do not read things much longer than a headline, status update or text message. My mother, on the other hand, would read everything and stew. She could be eerily good at reading intent, or reading underlying meaning – and denying things she was right about would be not only dishonest, but an insult. I come by it naturally.

Sitting here, I realize she was the last reason I censored anything. I did so for my father as well. Despite the grief and sorrow, I am unfettered. Free. A final gift from her, of sorts, an accidental good in a bad situation.

Suffering Tortured Networks

connectors twistedThe world twists us, with all the cultural inertia we inherit, with all the cultural inertia those within our spheres inherit, torturing our realities into what is sometimes hard to recognize. Social networks magnify this beyond our geographical familiarity, connecting us with those we would not otherwise interact with – an improbable thought for those who have grown up with this interconnected world, a sometimes nostalgic thought for those who existed before the Internet came into being. Algorithms control what we see, shoving us into the echo chambers of our choosing, dooming us to a perception of agreement.

This was all lauded at one time as a great democratization of information, of how it would change the world in ways that would be popular – and in this, it ended up being true where consensus will make fake news possible if only because people lack critical thinking skills that somehow escaped insertion in the indoctrination of formal education systems. Pieces of paper abound by people who followed a straight path and who did no more, who know nothing but what got them past batteries of multiple choice questions and glorified essays on topics graded sometimes with critical thought, sometimes not.

Processed like cheese, graduates come out homogenized and appropriately boring – perhaps, through good fortune, they become insightful in the areas they have studied in, but this does not translate to being insightful in the useful things in life because nobody seems to think life is important enough to talk about outside of the speakeasys of what social contact happens outside of formal systems.

We watch feeds of people arguing, jumping to conclusions, sharing things with catchy headlines that they did not deign to read the substance of. Reading to argue, emotion begets emotion and rationality is left behind. This scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately comes to mind:

Given a new tool for communication, we seem pretty intent with beating each other to death over differences of opinion, the meek becoming exactly what they hated in others and unable to see it in themselves. Good intentions abound, right actions are lost in reactions to reactions to reactions to reactions… so much so that no one actually remembers the actions that started it.

Our tortured social networks have a guided evolution this way, marketing wanting to sell people things that they want on pages that people are more likely to visit because they agree with. Fights are good business on the Internet; more advertising impressions.

And now we see that the democratization that the Internet brought us magnified our social faults more than our ability to affect positive change. Or is it not too late? Can we untwist these networks?

Perhaps we’re just not ready for our own technology.

Retirement Eclipse.

eclipseI’ve grown used to not worrying about things. It’s a comfortable way to live, like a hobbit in the Shire, having done my travels and having avoided coming how with any rings. I’m content, my health is better, and I sleep well at night – something that I’ve not been able to do since I was an infant. I may not live a life many people want but it is a life I have been content with. I’ve been writing a lot more. Some of it has even managed to slowly become something like a book.

I’d forgotten that I’d promised to attend the 13th Caribbean Internet Governance Forum at a local hub here in Trinidad and Tobago for at least one day. Flattery was tried to get me to go, and that almost never works because I don’t believe thinking highly of one’s self is of worth – knowing one’s value is. And in the end, it was the latter that got that promise out of me. From there, it was a simple matter of me keeping my word.

Well, it wasn’t a simple matter. The morning of, as I sipped my coffee and planned the day as I usually do, I realized just how much I didn’t want to go. For about 15 minutes, I toyed with the idea of saying I would come on the last day… but I had given my word, and I had written a day, so I could not do otherwise. Instead, I thought about why I didn’t want to go. Here’s what I came up with. I expected:

  1. The organization of the event to be done on the cheap, with glaring issues, and with inhibited participation.
  2. To hear much the same things I had heard before.
  3. To see more bureaucracy being created to try to change things, which is exceptional in that bureaucracy is created so things do not change. (Read James Gleick’s book, “Faster”).
  4. I would meet new people who would be thinking that these problems were all new and that we hadn’t been working on them.
  5. I would meet old people who had gotten so lost in the details that the larger picture was not as clear to them anymore (it happens; don’t protest too much).
  6. I would have to listen to bureaucratic doublespeak, something more tedious than Latin because Latin has the good sense to be accurate and does not tolerate ambiguity. Bureaucratese, on the other hand…
  7. I would end up involved since so few people are involved and engaged.

And, as it happens, I was exactly right. 

No Matter Where You Go

CavemanIt didn’t start this way.

It used to be that when you didn’t agree with the group, you’d wander off somewhere else on the planet and do your own thing. It could be about anything – if you saw more good in the risk of leaving the group than the bad of staying, you could wander off. Do your own thing, whatever it was, wherever you went. It was all pretty straightforward. If you got a group together that agreed on this, you’d have your own little starter tribe moving off to another part of the world.

No matter where you go…

The beauty of the world was that we hadn’t quite figured out that it was round, much less finite. It was all pretty infinite since we were using our feet back then. Then more you disagreed, the further you and your group walked. Maybe you were very angry but you find somewhere relatively near that was hospitable, and because of that you ended up closer than you probably should have to your original tribe. So you came up with a tree branch that you could whack other people with, or you figured out how to sharpen it. If you encountered people that you didn’t like, it was a simple matter of whacking them over the head or introducing them to your sharp and pointy stick. Eventually they would do the same.

Maybe you reconciled. Maybe you didn’t. At some point, you either ran out of people or one group moved further away than another. Things moved on. Nobody remembers Ug’s last stand where he was surrounded by pointy sticks, all begun because he believed in picking the fruits a little earlier than they did. Ug felt strongly enough to die for it. He’s not in your history books. Ug also had strong feelings about quantum mechanics, but we’ll never know.

If only Ug had wandered away, we might know.

And so diversity in thought came to the world as people moved just far enough away from each other to not get on each other’s nerves. They created little genetic pockets that caused a change in appearance, however small, even as they figured out how to make metal to chop down forests so that they could use that new invention, fertilizer. Populations grew, and soon the distance that was far enough some time ago was no longer far enough away for some. Wars were waged, walls were built, and conquerors decided that their way of life was so good that people wouldn’t mind a little violence to have their way of life.

As luck would have it, during that violence many people who disagreed with the invading way of life would be removed from the planet…. or the invading force who was convinced of how awesome their way of life was were removed. None of this was decided on merits. It was decided by technology, by aggression, and by strategy. There are some that say that this hasn’t changed very much since.

During all of this, one of the descendants of the folks that killed Ug – remember Ug? – figured out that things floated and, with a little work, they could make things that could take them over water. On a planet mainly covered in water, this was a pretty big deal though they didn’t know it at the time. Some guy would later be accused of proving the Earth was round the same year that the globe was invented, all because he was lost. He wasn’t the first, of course, but the people who wrote the history books wanted him to appear first – so he did. We know better now.

And so some people got to wander again, finding different lands where – surprise – they found different people who had been minding their own business and fighting with each other for as long as  they could remember. This was inconvenient, so after a while they conquered them if they didn’t slaughter them. Or, maybe it was time to have some slaves again – slave technology had been around for a long time and hadn’t changed much. For slave owners, who had the authority and power granted to them by themselves, sea faring meant being able to travel with the comforts of slavery to do things that they wanted to do without getting too dirty or sweaty. That these were other human beings didn’t mean too much to them. In fact, they denied it despite obvious indications that this was so.

Populations grew. There was no real place left to wander, and when you get enough people packed closely together for a long enough period of time, they find things to fight over. They did. World Wars came and went, bringing aircraft into the mix even as they started flying around. And so things went.

Meanwhile, with people all over occupying more and more land, there needed to be more effective ways to communicate. Before you know it, there were wires running and people tapping away in code to let other people know something that someone thought was important.

This evolved to the Internet, which you are likely using right now. Connecting the world that had been made of wanderers, it demonstrates how far apart people have grown more often than not.

…there you are.
– Confucius