Confession: I watched the Apple event yesterday, and I’ve watched at least part of every product announcement for the last several years. Apple announcements are the opposite of a guilty pleasure; they are a burden that I take on with pride. They are insipid and represent everything that is wrong with Silicon Valley and yet I feel obliged to watch them because they let me stare deeply into this heaving morass of Cronenbergian lust for technology. It always feels like we’re one year away from Phil Schiller offing himself with an iGun after screaming “LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH!” When I watch Silicon Valley spread out on the Moscone Center stage I feel prideful (to a fault perhaps) that these events just seem so… transparent. They’re so easy to read and so easy to critique they amount to social science target practice. (more…)
An early strategy for making new technology feel familiar
I was thinking this morning about two subjects that don’t usually go together, skeuomorphs and morality.
A skeuomorph is a design element applied to a product that looks as if it’s functional but really isn’t. Its real purpose is to evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort. The literary critic N. Katherine Hayles cites as an example the dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which is made of synthetic plastic molded to look as if it’s stitched fabric.
Software designers use lots of skeuomorphs for their user interfaces; examples include the “pages” that seem to “turn” in e-readers and word processing programs. Hayles calls skeuomorphs “threshold devices.” They “stitch together past and future,” she says, “reassuring us that even as some things change, others persist.” (more…)
In an earlier post, I wrote about the intersections of gender, technology, and economy using Apple’s “personal assistant” Siri as an example. With the recent release of the Japanese version of Siri, I thought I would provide an update on the available languages and their use of a default masculine or feminine voice.
It’s a notable coincidence that Steve Job died exactly two decades after Neil Stephenson completed Snowcrash, arguably, the last great Cyberpunk novel. Stephenson and Jobs’ work exemplified two alternative visions of humans’ relationship with technology in the Digital Age. Snowcrash offers a gritty, dystopian vision of a world where technology works against human progress as much as it works on behalf of it. Strong individuals must assert themselves against technological slavery, though ironically, they rely on technology and their technological prowess to do so.
Apple, on the other hand, tells us that the future is now, offering lifestyle devices that are slick (some might say, sterile). Despite being mass produced, these devices are supposed to bolster our individuality by communicating our superior aesthetic standards. Above all, Apple offers a world where technology is user-friendly and requires little technical competency. We need not liberate ourselves from technology; there’s an app for that.
Values and style are inextricably linked (as Marshal McLuhan famously preached). So, unsurprisingly, the differences between Apple’s view of the future and that of Cyberpunk authors such as Stephenson run far deeper. The Cyberpunk genre has a critical mood that is antithetical to Apple’s mission of pushing its products into the hands of as many consumers as possible. The clean, minimalist styling of Apple devices makes a superficial statement about the progressive nature of the company, while the intuitive interface makes us feel that Apple had us in mind when designing the product—that human experience is valued, that they care. Of course, this is all a gimmick. Apple invokes style to “enchant” its products with an aura of mystery and wonderment while simultaneously deflecting questions about how the thing actually works (as discussed in Nathan Jurgenson & Zeynep Tufekci’s recent “Digital Dialogue” presentation on the iPad). Apple isn’t selling a product, it’s selling an illusion. And to enjoy it (as I described in a recent essay), we must suspend disbelief and simply trust in the”Mac Geniuses”—just as we must allow ourselves to believe in an illusionist if we hope to enjoy a magic show. Thus, the values coded into Apple products are passivity and consumerism; it is at this level where it is most distinct from the Cyberpunk movement. (more…)
Siri on iPhone 4S lets you use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more. Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk. Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you’ll keep finding more and more ways to use it.
The paragraph above is taken directly from the Apple iPhone homepage. It is a description of Siri, one of the most talked about features of the new iPhone 4S. I argue here that Siri is rich with cultural meanings, and that these cultural meanings reside at the intersection of gender, market economy, and technology. (more…)
Pear Tree in a Walled Garden by Samuel Palmer, c. 1829
While our collective imagination has been gripped with the images of downtrodden folks in other parts of the world uprising in seemingly spontaneous acts of defiance, here at home, we late industrial consumers continue doing what we do best: passively and uncritically absorbing whatever is in front of us. In our zeal to dive into the next hot thing that the market offers us, we seldom have occasion to question what is absent—what is quietly being denied us—and what social costs are obscured by the price tag of a commodity.
Apple is an interesting contradiction in consumer society because, on the hand, it seems endlessly capable of producing new devices that we never knew we needed; yet, when we pick them up, they seem almost magical, enabling us to do things we hardly imagined—or, rather, to consume things in ways we never imagined. In light of its continual innovation and its capacity to generate “cool,” Apple is often seen as progressive organization. On the other hand, Apple is notorious for placing authoritarian controls on its products. As the old quip goes: “Linux is great at letting you do what you want to do (if you are willing to stare for hours at line code), Apple is great at letting you do what they want you do, and Windows is great at crashing.” Of even greater concern, Apple remorselessly outsources it labor to China’s most offensive factories, some of which recently received attention because they had to install nets around the buildings to end a spate of highly-public suicides.
Two recent artworks highlight the underside of Apple’s pristine white carapace. (more…)
This is the first of a two-part series dedicated to answering the question “Do we need a new World’s Fair?” It is an honest question that I do not have an answer to. What I aim to do here is share my thoughts on the subject and present historical data on what these sorts of events have done in the past. In the first part, I explore what previous World Fairs have accomplished and what we must certainly avoid. The second part will investigate what a new 21st century fair might look like, and how it would help our economy. Part 1 is here.
Our Generation's Only Exposure to the Concept of the World's Fair. (Copyright Paramount Pictures and Marvel)
Yesterday we looked at the last few World Fairs that were held in the United States. Those 20th century fairs demonstrated technologies that today we take for granted as common-place. Everything from Juicy Fruit gum to fluorescent lighting has been introduced to the world through these massive fairs. World Expos still take place, but are now found in China, Japan and South Korea. The 2012 expo will be held in Seoul, South Korea. The latest World’s Fair, Expo 2010, was held in Shanghai, China and set historic records as the largest and most well-attended expo. But the success of the Shanghai Expo doesn’t quite translate to America’s shores. As The Atlantic’s Adam Minter wrote last year:
To American ears, the concept of a World’s Fair sounds archaic, and when applied to Shanghai, a contemporary symbol of all that is new, vibrant, and even threatening, it’s disconcerting. But in Shanghai, where the future is an obsession, this reported $46 billion hat-tip to the past makes perfect sense: just as New York once announced its global pre-eminence via World’s Fairs in 1939 and, again, in 1964, the organizers of Expo 2010 view the six month event as nothing less than Shanghai’s coronation as the next great world city. (more…)
The original work described in this post was done in collaboration with Audrey Bennett and Ron Eglash and funded by the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 grant-funded Triple Helix Program. You can read all of the dispatches from Ghana on the3Helix fellows’ blog.
Cell phone towers are a constant site in Kumasi, Ghana.
Alternate universes can be a lot of fun. We can make Superman land in the USSR, put goatees on normally clean-shaven cast members, and revisit moments in history and play the “what if” game. It is the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. But there is much more to be said about the various parallel universes that might exist. At least, that’s what a lot of social theory has us believe.
At the end of the 20th century social scientists released dozens of books and articles with the words “social construction” in the title. Social constructionism became a very useful tool for the post-modern author who wanted to deconstruct such difficult topics as organic chemistry or high-energy physics. Their premises were rather straightforward and were unceremoniously summarized and simplified by Ian Hacking in his book “The Social Construction of What?” (2000). Hacking writes:
Zizek writes this week in Inside Higher Ed about how cloud computing is a space dominated by two or three companies (read: Apple and Google). He states,
“cloud computing offers individual users an unprecedented wealth of choice — but is this freedom of choice not sustained by the initial choice of a provider, in respect to which we have less and less freedom? Partisans of openness like to criticize China for its attempt to control internet access — but are we not all becoming involved in something comparable, insofar as our “cloud” functions in a way not dissimilar to the Chinese state?”
Is a computing market dominated by a few private companies really similar to the “Great Firewall” (officially, the “Golden Shield”) of China?
Yes, even a CGI-filled big-budget glowing Disney spectacle can provide opportunity for theorization. Of the recent Internet-themed blockbusters – namely, Avatar (2009); The Social Network (2010) – Tron: Legacy (2010) best captures the essence of this blog: that the digital and the physical are enmeshed together into an augmented reality.
This seems surprising given that the film is premised on the existence of a separate digital world. Indeed, the first Tron (1982) is all about a strict physical-digital dualism and the sequel plays on the same theme: physical person gets trapped in a digital world and attempts to escape. However, Tron: Legacy explores the overlapping of the physical and digital. The story goes that Flynn, the hero from the 1982 film, develops a digital world that does not have the imperfections of its physical counterpart. His grand vision was to gloriously move humanity online. Simultaneously, the beings in the digital world want to export their perfection out of the digital world and to colonize the offline world, removing all of its imperfections (i.e., us). Flynn comes to realize that enforced perfection (read: Nazism) is unwanted. Instead of a highly controlled and orderly universe, what has to be appreciated is what emerges out of chaos. And it is here that the film makes at least two theoretical statements that are well ahead of most movies and popular conceptions of the digital.
First is the tension between (more…)