internet technology Uncategorized

Always absent

Glass, Google’s nascent wearable computing platform, endures its fair share of ridicule. The device looks clunky and awkward, even when embedded in traditional prescription eyewear.

But future versions of Glass will make the technology more attractive. I’m not worried about fashion faux pas; I’m more worried about human presence.

We’re already hyper-distracted. Our smartphones stave off boredom everywhere we go: on the subway, in line, on the toilet. Even when we’re with our loved ones, we can’t resist the temptation to sneak hits from our glowing pocket rectangles. Our propensity to be “present but absent” has led to some ingenious new social rules governing when to ignore your iPhone.

But what happens when you can’t ignore that screen? Google Glass’ heads-up-display rules your peripheral vision. When it’s turned on, your field of view includes a constant stream of Twitter @replies, text messages, and app notifications. With that visual cacophany scrolling by, can you ever really be present with those around you? And if your everyday eyewear accommodates Glass, such that you can’t take it off, don’t you risk normalizing a state of constant distraction? Aren’t you training your brain to crave distraction—to flit from snippet to snippet, from topic to topic? In a culture where literacy continues to erode, doesn’t Google Glass threaten to accelerate the decline of your endangered attention span?

Meanwhile, wearing Google Glass retrains your friends and family, too. Companions can’t tell if you’re really with them or not. They come to resent your spacey, not-quite-focused stare. After all, the dongle hanging from your face serves as a depressing reminder: you don’t find them interesting enough to occupy your full attention.

internet technology Uncategorized

The iPad as a dedicated content-creation device

Since the iPad’s 2010 debut, detractors have dismissed it as a “content consumption” device. Sure (they say with a sneer), it’s great for watching movies, reading books, and playing games. But you can’t make anything with a tablet. The iPad only reinforces our culture’s addiction to media.

Until I owned an iPad, I didn’t realize how wrong-headed these critiques are.

Honestly, I have other devices better-suited for content consumption. For reading in bed, I grab my smartphone. Holding the iPad takes both hands, leaving my arms trapped outside the covers. For watching movies, we prefer the TV. The big screen’s easy to see from anywhere in the living room, and you don’t have to balance it on your lap. Finally, although I’m not much of a gamer, I’d rather play games on my PC or a dedicated console than on the iPad. Touchscreen controls just can’t compete with a keyboard and mouse or a gamepad.

If anything, the iPad serves as my dedicated content-creation device. If I want to pound out a blog post, the iPad provides a minimalist, distraction-free writing environment. For sketches, I reach for the iPad; it’s cleaner than pencil and paper, and my Wacom tablet chains me to my desk. When I’m making music, the iPad serves as sheet-music reader and recording studio, all in one.1

The iPad is a luxury device. If you already own a smartphone, a PC and a TV, you probably don’t need a tablet. But buying one doesn’t necessarily make you consumption-obsessed. You may find that the iPad’s biggest “luxury” is that it makes you want to create cool stuff.

  1. Worth noting: each of these activities requires accessories. Without creative tools, the iPad feels less useful. For example, if you hate typing long-form media on a touchscreen (like me), you’ll need a Bluetooth keyboard. Finger-painting is fun, but it’s hard to draw anything precise without a capacitive stylus. And you can’t cut a decent recording with with the iPad’s built-in microphone. 

    Still, it’s the iPad that makes the creative activity possible. Its strength is versatility; each accessory (and app) transforms the iPad into a different artistic workstation.

internet TV Uncategorized

Netflix, our hero!

The telcos are doubly damned.

On the one hand, American telecommunications companies continue to hold back TV’s natural evolution. Television service hasn’t improved for decades. To watch your favorite programs, you still have to buy overpriced packages of channels you hate. Even now, when pervasive broadband invites infinite distribution alternatives, the telcos ruthlessly stymie innovation and strong-arm content providers into antiquated deals.[1]

On the other hand, the telcos seem intent on breaking the Internet. Verizon recently won a court case against the FCC, invalidating rules that prevented ISPs from discriminating against traffic. Net neutrality—so key to free speech and healthy competition—is now on death watch. And because telcos own local monopolies in so many markets, Americans may have no choice but to accept it. We’ll pay whatever the ISP demands, accept whatever speeds are available, and put up with whatever crippled version of the Internet they deign to offer.

One company is uniquely impacted by both telco sins. Netflix, the one-time DVD-by-mail startup and current king of streaming video, has a stake in both TV’s evolution and net neutrality.

On the one hand, Netflix represents the future of television. Watch what you want, when you want it, at one low price. Give your customer a simple, intuitive interface, available on any device, anywhere in the world. Just compare Netflix’s clean design to your cable box’s tangled, unresponsive, janky mess of a menu.

Of course, Netflix depends on content providers who sit under the telcos’ thumb. At any time, the streaming service could lose its content deals, leaving behind a wasteland of straight-to-DVD movies and outdated TV shows.

That’s why it’s so important that Netflix develop its own content. House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Arrested Development aren’t just fun side-projects. They represent Netflix’s future and the future of TV. Let the telcos lock down traditional programming. It won’t matter, if you produce original shows that the viewers adore.

Netflix also stands to be victimized by the second ISP sin: hobbling the Internet. Netflix currently accounts for a huge chunk of U.S. Internet traffic. If the telcos target anyone for “traffic shaping,” they’ll target Netflix. Imagine a world where Verizon slows Netflix to a crawl (“Buffering… buffering…”), but lets its own streaming service scream through the pipes.

That’s why Netflix has already taken a preemptive, offensive stance against traffic shaping. Soon after the FCC lost its net neutrality case against Verizon, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted a strongly-worded letter to investors. He vowed to fight any attempt by the ISPs to slow down Internet video. In response, Hastings warned, Netflix would “vigorously protest and encourage our members to demand the open Internet.” Want to see someone get angry? Interrupt their Breaking Bad binge.

American telcos own the infrastructure that links us to the wider Internet. But they don’t own the Internet itself. They can’t hold back new TV business models forever. They can’t escape the fact that their customers just want a big, fat, wide-open connection to the wider network. Hopefully, the telcos accept their “dumb pipe” destiny quietly. But if they can’t (or won’t), let’s hope that Netflix flexes its muscles.

  1. And even when the content companies do stream online, they often require a cable or satellite subscription. In other words, they’re scared of losing their lucrative telco contracts.  ↩

internet Uncategorized

The suburban mall

Today’s thirty-somethings witnessed a revolution. During our teenager years, the world discovered the Internet, and everything changed.

Unlike younger millenials, I can remember my life, pre-Internet. Before text messaging, easy-access information, and Facebook friendships, we relied on another institution for our mindless wandering and cheap entertainment. We called it “the mall.”

As a pre-teen, I cherished every visit to that consumer mecca. My favorite Internet activities each had their own mall equivalent:

  • On the Internet, we play games. Mallrats visited the arcade. Even without cash, it could kill an hour; you didn’t need quarters to watch. For a video game nerd obsessed with the latest graphics, arcade consoles were cutting-edge stuff.
  • On the Internet, we read, bouncing between Wikipedia, blogs, and online news outlets. Malls let you read for free, too. Ask your parents about something called “bookstores.” You could slip into Waldenbooks, find a quiet aisle, and devour a few bound comic paperbacks. Or you could flip through your favorite magazines—if the store clerks didn’t catch you ripping the plastic seal.
  • The Internet has its bizarre, disturbing corners. Malls had Spencer’s Gifts, a one-stop-shop for the weird and wonderful. There, a pre-adolescent boy hovered between twin pleasures: grotesque trinkets and off-color, forbidden gifts.
  • Online, we lust after the latest gadgets. At the mall, wandering the toy store fulfilled the same passion. Did the Nintendo kiosk have any new games installed? What ninja turtle figurines had been released? What quirky doo-dads littered the front tables?
  • The Internet encourages day-long YouTube binges. The mall enabled its own share of gluttony. Scrape together a few coins, and you could gorge yourself. One-dollar hamburgers. Plastic baggies overloaded with gummy candy. Even if you were broke, you could eat; friendly Chinese fast-food kiosks often hawked free samples. With a little ingenuity, you could binge on media, too; sneaky teenagers spent rainy afternoons theater-hopping from one movie to the next.

Today, fewer and fewer bored teens ask to be dropped off at the food court. The mall is dying. Many local gallerias resemble post-apocalyptic ghost towns, and America hasn’t christened a new mall since 2006. Who needs overpriced boutiques, when Amazon exists? Why evade jaded bookstore clerks, when you can browse Reddit to your heart’s content? The Internet has supplanted the suburban mall for just about every consumer need.

But back in its heyday, there was nowhere better to waste a Sunday afternoon.

internet Life technology Uncategorized

Mountains cure iPhoneitis.

This video made the rounds this past week. It depicts a twenty-something woman, moving through her day sans smartphone. All around her, tiny glowing screens transfix her friends and family, leaving her to experience real life all alone. It’s an effective commentary on how consumer technology isolates us, even as it connects us virtually.

When we moved to West Virginia last year, we brought our brand new smartphones with us. We soon discovered (with disappointment) just how useless those gadgets are without decent cell service. We couldn’t make a phone call inside any local building. Data coverage was nearly non-existent; Tucker County lagged three generations behind the industry standard, and what connection we had rarely worked. Downloading an email took full minutes; photos were downright impossible.

But, as with many rural “inconveniences”, handicapping our smartphones also had its blessings. When we went out to dinner, we weren’t tempted to steal a peek at Facebook. No unwelcome calls interrupted our pleasant hikes through the mountains. When taking photos, the phone slipped quickly in and out of its pocket—with no long pause to Instagram the moment.

And local culture, we noticed, adapted to fit this technological landscape. Scenes like those from the video above—so common in suburbia—were rare here. Neighbors, we realized, actually met your gaze as they passed on the sidewalk. Some (wonder of wonders!) even smiled and said “Hello.” After years in Boston and D.C., this friendliness felt both strange and welcome. The area’s lackluster cell coverage kept iPhoneitis at bay and preserved Tucker County as a small oasis—a bubble of hospitality and awareness.

That bubble just burst. In recent weeks, AT&T has upgraded its cell service in our little town. It’s not unusual to catch a whiff of 4G here and there. And that’s not all bad; improved wireless will link Tucker County to the wider world, help visitors find their way around, and encourage tech-minded professionals to move here. But even if we appreciate the advantages of ubiquitous connection, we’ve can also mourn what we’ve lost.

culture internet technology Uncategorized

Retraction: This American Life explains why they regret airing Mike Daisey’s (fictionalized) monologue

The original episode featured Daisey’s first-hand account of deplorable conditions at the factories of Apple’s Chinese suppliers.

internet Uncategorized

Embracing the Cheese

This commercial is so full of win, I can hardly stand it. Let’s talk about why.

Locally-produced commercials are infamously cheesy. Low-quality video sources, inadequate audio equipment, tasteless subtitles, and tragically unhip jingles mark the genre. Unfortunately, it takes cash to do a whiz-bang, slick ad–and cash is exactly what a small local business lacks. So… what to do? Claw and scratch your way out of mediocrity? Blow the budget on some marketing firm? Stick with old fashioned word of mouth?

Cullman Liquidation has a better idea: don’t hate the cheese; embrace it. This north-central Alabaman business doesn’t hide its low budget or amateur star power. And yet the ad works.

For example, the commercial’s cornball sound effects fit, somehow. The whip-crack tightens up the hard cut to the business’ dilapidated billboard. The cougar roar ensures that we don’t take the seductive, smoking salesgirl too seriously. The eagle scream? Well… it’s just bad-ass.

The antagonistic tone is spot on, too. Robert Lee doesn’t give a damn about getting your business. He doesn’t care whether you like his commercial or not. He and his crew even Braveheart-charge the camera near the ad’s end, as if to say, “Either buy a trailer, get out, or prepare to be liquidated, Cullman-style.”

Then there’s the closing shot, the odd mix of unrelated elements so common in local ads. We get both the American and the Alabaman flags (in case we forget where Cullman Liquidation is located?). We see the Cullman sign again, though it’s been oddly cropped into an off-angled sign shape–gloriously amateurish. And the screaming eagle makes an appearance–not as a sound effect but as a poorly-positioned piece of clip art, complete with unsightly transparency artifacts (click the image to zoom in). This shot is so bad, it’s good. It’s almost as if someone wanted to dump as many local ad clichés on the screen as he could.

And, for all the ad’s corniness and simplicity, there are other signs that this is well-crafted work. Desaturating the video and washing it in sepia fits the mock-serious tone. Creative angles and juicy close-ups mark the shots. Slow-mo and hard cuts are carefully selected and effectively used.

So what’s the deal? Is someone at Cullman Liquidation a closet filmmaker? Are they connoisseurs of the local ad genre? Not quite. Did you notice that two of Lee’s workmen seem somewhat out of place? The hipsters standing in the back row don’t work for Cullman. They’re internet entertainers (“Intertainers,” to use their term), who specialize in producing stereotypically cheesy (but self-consciously hip) commercials for real local businesses.

Does knowing this make the Cullman Liquidation spot less awesome? Yeah, a little. But I have to admit: I wish I could do what these “intertainers” do for a living.

culture internet Uncategorized

CAPITAL LETTERS: the unforgiveable Internet sin

Curse out someone’s grandmother. Threaten to burn down their house. Spew slurs that would get you arrested anywhere else. On the Internet, just about anything goes. But there’s one thing you cannot do. One thing that will earn you sworn enemies and get you banned from the crudest of forums. YOU CANNOT TYPE IN ALL CAPS.

By all means, use bold weight. Use italic styling. Use asterisks or /slashes/. But don’t use ALL CAPS, or you’re clearly a frothing, misanthropic maniac. “Stop screaming!” others snap, hands pressed to virtual ears. “My eyes!” they weep, hiding their faces.

Can’t we redeem the CAPS LOCK key? Bold, italic, and asterisks all require multiple, laborious keystrokes (“I have to hit ‘b’ AND ‘Control’?! Ugh!”). But good ol’ CAPS LOCK requires just one quick tap. Can’t we celebrate its gloriously convenient ability to EMPHASIZE and DECLARE?