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20 May 2013

A democracy of writing: Twitter criticism, Tumblr’s sale and deep thoughts from Robert Silvers

(image via the New York Review of Books, credit: Dominique Nabokov)

In the past three months I’ve been to Australia and Brazil and Quebec and Los Angeles, touched Tasmanian soil and wandered endlessly around São Paulo. On these travels, I’ve sponged up a wide variety of local color and remained hellbent on encountering the people available to me only in those specific physical spaces. While I’ve appreciated the time away from the cold New York winter, I’ll admit it’s felt like an overtraveled season.

But it wasn’t the travel that’s been overwhelming, really. It’s been the return.

All the movement and physical stimulus has made my time at home feel mostly like a return to the internet, the medium (the place?) to which I’m balled & chained. It’s not that the physical life and culture of New York City no longer interests me; it’s that when I return here, I’m confronted with a river of prose* that’s piled up in various mailboxes, physical and digital, in my absence. [Regarding that * I have more to say about “prose” in a footnote at the end of this post. – ed] To return to the sponge metaphor, I’m confronted with a flooded mess. I don’t so much absorb it, as try valiantly to sop up what I can.

After my latest triage session with the paper pile, the article that stuck with me most was this New York Magazine interview with Robert Silvers, long-time editor of the New York Review of Books. The excerpt I’ll share with you was unexpected. Silvers is a man often photographed as if beset by an affliction of paper piles.

In this interview, however, his most interesting thoughts are devoted to the conundrum of digital writing. He begins triangulating a viewpoint that mirrors my own — that the rise of a (seemingly) limitless well of internet “content” presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Pick your metaphor: Pearls among swine. Flowers in the dustbin. Needles in haystacks. He’s optimistic that there must be signs of life amidst the digital ash heaps. The real problem is that no one has quite figured out how to properly nurture the new digital organisms, organisms growing like mushrooms on burnt treestumps, thriving in the rain.

(image via Google Image Search and Sabrina & Company)

An excerpt of a Q and Silvers’s A:

To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.
And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

(Photo via Facebook, credit: Annie Schlechter)

If you disagree with Silvers — that there is a future in digital commentary — consider one of the biggest media stories of this past weekend. A rapidly emerging social network for digital content, Tumblr, was purchased by Yahoo for one-point-one-billion dollars (aka $1,100,000,000).

Tumblr has rightfully been likened to a curatorial exercise. On my own Tumblr — which is devoted to (my) photos and live music (by others) — I use the About page  to highlight two views of curation in the digital age. First a sketchily attributed quote from David Foster Wallace:

“In 1996, David Foster Wallace described the Internet as a place where ‘there are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide. So it’s very clear, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers… . Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95 percent of our time body-surfing through shit.'”

Second, a thought from the Canadian rapper Drake which directly addresses Tumblr’s place in surfing the digital tide:

“I’m really scared for my generation, you know. The thing that scares me most is Tumblr. I hate what Tumblr has become. Because it like, it reminds me of those clique-y girls in high school that used to make fun of everyone and define what was cool, but in five years, when you all graduate, that shit doesn’t matter. No one gives a fuck about that shit. Instead of kids going out and making their own moments, they’re just taking these images and living vicariously through other people’s moments. It just kills me. Then you’ll meet them and they’re just the biggest turkey in the world. They don’t actually embody any of those things. They just emulate. It’s scary man, simulation life that we’re living. It scares me.”

It’s interesting that among this very heterogeneous assortment of humans, Silvers is the least pessimistic about this new medium. There is a recognizable distance between Drake’s assessment (“It scares me”) and DFW’s (“surfing through shit”) and that of Silvers (“these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism”).

Can we agree it’s interesting to interact with a medium in which finding useful information entails a bit of drowning? Can we agree that the frontier is always filled with both danger and adventure? Read the whole interview with Silvers, or feel free to stop with my excerpt. I like to think that my blog fulfills some kind of editorial function.

* = Maybe “prose” is no longer the best way to discuss writing built of sentences. Maybe writing is no longer built out of sentences. What we’re arriving at, what we’re debating, is something larger than ink vs pixels. How do you explain a swarm? How do we acknowledge that we’re living in a democracy of writing? Maybe we need to start by using terms of reference shared by both the physical and digital worlds of letters. i.e. The words. The pages. Hmmm…better.

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18 March 2013

Aaron Swartz: 1986-2013

I find it strange how I’m constantly pulled to this internet website for the purpose of obituaries, meditations on peoples’ passings. Maybe the online world really is a kind of death?

Anyhoo, the life of Aaron Swartz presents a mixed take on that notion. As much an activist as he was a programmer — and, to my mind, as much a kind of artist of the world — he committed suicide earlier this year, under duress from government prosecution and the machinations of his own mind. This posthumous profile by Wesley Yang — “The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz” — is well done, and filled with moments of deep thought & grace. It balances the necessity of depicting Swartz as a complicated person (probably problematic, certainly frustrating) without ever disrespecting his sensitive, probing, and justice-minded intellect. And you should read it both as a tribute to a 20something who died too young, and for insights into the emerging digital world.

Here are some key excerpts in which Yang traces Swartz’s thinking and how it derived from the hacker ethics…

Again and again, his friends made the point that Swartz’s open-access activism was merely the prologue to his truly immodest ambition to “hack the whole world,” and to realize his dream of “a world without any injustice or suffering of any kind.” His closest friends and family were keen to reject any effort to “pathologize” Swartz’s condition, though he had himself described it as a sickness. “Aaron was depressed because God is depressed,” said [Lawrence] Lessig at his funeral. “Look at this world and what we have done — who wouldn’t be depressed.”

In a blog post a few months later, Swartz engages in a brief philosophical inquiry into how a person can live a moral life. “The conclusion is inescapable: we must live our lives to promote the most overall good. And that would seem to mean helping those most in want — the world’s poorest people.” He would go on to specify which moral actors he found the most admirable. “Our rule demands one do everything they can to help the poorest — not just spending one’s wealth and one’s possessions, but breaking the law if that will help,” he wrote. “It seems like these criminals, not the average workaday law-abiding citizens, should be our moral exemplars.”

Steven Levy in his seminal book Hackers, neatly evoked the working principles that governed the hacker ethic: “Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems — about the world — from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things,” he wrote. “They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this…. Imperfect systems infuriate hackers, whose primal instinct is to debut them…In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt. Rules that prevent you from taking matters like that into your own hands are too ridiculous to even consider abiding by.”

Apologies for the lack of bridging material, or plot points in Swartz’s life story. You need to read the original piece to connect the dots — all the better reason for you to turn to the original source.

And if you’re willing to go deeper still, you can read the contentious comments section on Yang’s article or, a better suggestion, it might be nice for you to spend a few moments with Aaron’s still-extant social media presences — a nice record of a mind as focused on analysis of new sci-fi and comic book movies, and jokes about Parks & Recreation as he was with social justice. Some have called Swartz a martyr; it’s somehow comforting to read evidence that he also had a sense of humor and a sense of joy.



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2 March 2013

Four images about desire in the southern hemisphere

Small girl. Giant, hopping rat with pouch.

The 1% can now indulge in dolphin fucking on their high-priced sex tourism jaunts.

People are really fixated on North America.

Possible destination.

PS – Yes, I realize Dubai is not in the southern hemisphere.

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15 December 2010

The turkeys of Staten Island

Sometimes the urban jungle is more the latter than the former. And no, I’m not just talking about Staten Island because that borough stretches the word “urban” to it’s breaking point. But how can you argue with the ride from Rockaway Beach that passes through Broad Channel station and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge?

But I’ll leave you with the turkeys of Staten Island after the jump. Read more »

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4 January 2010

Todd Oldham and the Community Function


A nice brief quote about the working methods of lifestyle designer & style guru Todd Oldham‘s studio. (No relation to Will Oldham that I know of.)

    In a way, Oldham is creating an artistic commune, surrounding himself with like-minded enthusiasts, whether they be staffers or the artists whose work he promotes. “Anything or anyone or any effort that’s joyous is beautiful,” he says. “Everyone here is a really good artist totally on their own, and together we come up with stuff that’s better than any of us working alone. People coming together doing it better, that’s the way we work here.”

The piece is called The Pied Piper of Craft: Todd Oldham is creating art nerds, one kid at a time. What I liked about the piece is how Oldham — best known for his appearances in the 1990s as a segment host on MTV’s House of Style — has developed career in increasingly eclectic, less high profile ways, to the benefit of his vision albeit the detriment of his celebrity profile. This is the trend that that other Oldham was talking about in that quote I excerpted before the holiday break.

These days Todd Oldham is more likely to author & edit a monograph about Modernist children’s book illustrator Charley Harper than he is to hang out with Cindy Crawford. He even has a long, culty beard. Awesome.

(Photo at top of this post via New York Mag.)

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