Archive for ‘Culture’

Good Girls Don’t Blog

By , 27 July, 2008, No Comment

The blogosphere is all abuzz because of an article in the New York Times about a conference of female bloggers called BlogHer. The article looks at the conference as a sign of a glass ceiling in the blog world where women tend to blog as a hobby, while a lot of men have been able to make their blogs a full time, and highly lucrative, job. Maybe, the piece muses, that’s because women don’t want to be blogger-executives. Or maybe it’s because they can’t get venture capitalists and advertisers to support them.

The feminist blogs are up in arms that the article confirms stereotypes of women. Because the piece focuses on blogs about fashion and family, it implicitly suggests that women don’t blog about anything else. And because it’s in the SundayStyles section, it confirms that women bloggers aren’t real entrepreneurs, who would get profiled in the Business section. Simply by devoting two pages to discussing gender difference, some of these bloggers say, the article has helped to create them.

The piece has a lot of problems, but they would certainly not be solved by treating BlogHer as an ordinary business conference and ignoring the presence of gender altogether. Rather, instead of simply stating that women blog differently or get less funding, the reporter–Kara Jesella–needed to spend more time probing those inequities. This article should have been longer on cultural criticism and shorter on fluffy prose. By spending several paragraphs, for example, on the atmosphere inside a ladies’ restroom, Jesella leaves no room for analysis.

She drops bombs like “women are taught not to be aggressive and analytical in the way that the political blogosphere demands, and are more likely to receive blog comments on how they look, rather than what they say,” then doesn’t explain her point. The feminist blogs had a field day with this statement, because it seems as though Jesella is endorsing this image of women as non-confrontational and appearance-conscious.

What she could have, should have, added was that even though women bloggers aren’t passive airheads, enough media moguls think of them this way that they might have a hard time raising money. Big advertisers might be confident of the success of an angry man’s blog (think of Arrington, Jarvis, or Drudge) and fearful of an opinionated woman. The article really wasn’t about who female bloggers are, but the struggles they face as a result of the way they are perceived. It strikes me as an attempt to expose sexism that falls flat because it’s badly written, not (as the bloggers contend) because its author (a woman, by the way) is a sexist herself.

The whole point of the BlogHer conference is for women to network with one another to get around these kinds of impasses by DISCUSSING gender issues. To somehow cover the conference without talking about the difference between male and female bloggers is just naive, and hardly a productive feminist approach.

Free Culture 2.0?

By , 10 July, 2008, 1 Comment

So I’m not a believer in all that free culture anarchism, at least not the way it was articulated in the mid-1990s as some kind of communitarian alternative to the capitalist economy. Artists were supposed to produce for the joy of it, and do something else (teach, sell coffee) to pay the rent. Art for money was not art. Writing licensed computer code for Microsoft was sinful. Etc.

The result is the old record companies arguing for REGULATING the internet as the capitalism-friendly model (which is weird, given all that stuff I learned in econ class about free markets…) and the artists/college students protesting for “free culture as both free from regulation and cost-free.

But now digital media has become mainstream, rather than a geek toy, and the 1990s GenX radicals have given way to GenY entrepreneurs. Artists are finally coming forward to say that free access to the Internet as a technology is and should be compatible with maintaining ownership and rights to content: artists need to make a buck from their work, but they can’t do that if they can’t get to market, and the Internet is now the market, not the product.

That’s the idea behind a new CD that brings mainstream artists (ex: Wilco, on the Warner Music Group’s Nonesuch label) with independents (ex: Aimee Mann) to raise money and awareness for this new middle ground, called “Net Neutrality.” The record, from indie label Thirsty Ear, is out on July 29, and the big surprise is a new song (I kid you not) from the Wrens!

Meanwhile last.fm is moving from free downloads to a model that remunerates artists for their work. AND the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, the proposed revision to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, is back in circulation on the Hill.

Together, those three incidents tell me that the old binary might be breaking down.

Pixar Nails It, Again

By , 2 July, 2008, No Comment


I saw WALL-E last night and completely fell in love. There are many film critics better qualified than I to wax eloquent about the animation and the soundtrack. But what got me about the film was its approach to technology and industrialization.

To summarize, WALL-E lives on an Earth that is so covered with litter that it can’t sustain human life. His job is to clean up while the humans orbit the Earth in a space-station cum shopping mall and become fatter and lazier as they continue to buy, and throw away, more junk. But WALL-E also picks through the litter before he runs it through his compressor. He saves relics of human civilization that appeal to his sentimental side: tapes of “Hello, Dolly!,” a rubiks cube, a spork, some Twinkies for his pet cockroach, Christmas lights etc. All of these are the outgrowth, in one way or another, of the same technological and commercial trajectory that produced the mess WALL-E cleans. So, for that matter, is WALL-E.

In our current debates about globalization or climate change, we often talk as though there are two sides: humanitarian, environmentalist lefties who oppose technology and right-wing libertarians who believe it can do no wrong. Meanwhile debates about copyright or social media privacy controls often pit free culture radicals (who believe the Internet SHOULD be allowed to do everything it CAN do) against an old media establishment (who believe, the story goes, that the Internet should be allowed to do as little as possible).

WALL-E is a film that points out the middle ground in these binaries. Just because industrialization can pollute does not mean pollution is its necessary outcome. Nor does that destructive potential compel us to abandon its positive abilites, like making the computers that give us digital animation. Just because the Internet allows us to see everyone’s personal information and steal company secrets does not make those practices okay. Nor do the dangers of the digital world mean we ought to give up the convenience of the Google search.

Fitting, then, that WALL-E comes from Pixar, and thus from Steve Jobs, a titan of the digital age.

Too Much of a Good Thing

By , 14 June, 2008, No Comment

Whenever there’s a newfangled trend on the scene, the soothsayers are quick to decide it’s going to get out of hand and take over the world. Women’s suffrage had men worrying about domestic anarchy. Same-sex marriage has crazy cultural conservatives predicting the legalization of bestiality. TV had George Orwell all worried about Big Brother surveillance. And the first computers had a lot of sci-fi writers predicting the age of robots.

That’s not really how change works, of course. When Thomas Edison invented electricity, and offered to help Congress tally votes faster with an electric ballot box, they said no. Counting by hand gives them more time to schmooze, and schmoozing is essential to politics. TV didn’t kill radio, because for some things (like driving long distances) radio is still useful. And just because we CAN use computers and the Internet all the time, doesn’t mean we want to. Sometimes, the old-fashioned way is best.

Two stories today suggest I’m right about this. First, companies are finally starting to see that constant web access, first hailed as a productivity aid, is a problem if it means we’re all IM-ing our friends from work, or doing things piecemeal in little emails instead of actually having meetings. Second, university profs have figured out that Microsoft Word is great for notetaking, but students using laptops to play Minesweeper in class is not so useful. So the companies and the profs are experimenting with ways to regulate technology and channel it in exclusively positive directions.

Which means the soothsayers should calm down: Pens, paper and conference halls are not going anywhere as yet.

The Sun Never Sets

By , 28 May, 2008, No Comment

Some people have too much time on their hands. Like this kid at Trinity College, Dublin, who calculated the number of links it takes to get from any article to any other article on Wikipedia. But thanks to his procrastination project, I can confirm that the British Empire is alive and well.

See in today’s world, connectivity is power. There might be more Google searches for “food” or “sex” or “Barack Obama” than there are users signing online to learn about the United Kingdom. But the Wiki entry on the UK has more links to other articles, is more centrally located in the Wiki universe than any of its flashier competitors.

In its 19th century peak, the British Empire worked because England acted as a hub, a barely visible hand for protectorates and principalities that perceived themselves autonomous. London made out well not so much because people wanted to go there, but because they–and their resources–passed through London on the way to everywhere else.

Plus ça change, it seems, plus c’est la même chose.

1, 2, skip a few…

By , 12 May, 2008, No Comment

…99, 100.

That’s how I used to count to 100 when I was a kid and trying to be cheeky. In real life, you can rarely skip steps that easily, but sometimes, it works.

Last night I went to see the most charming movie about elderly folks who sing covers of classic and not-so-classic rock songs. It’s called Young@Heart and it reminded me a bit of Buena Vista Social Club set in Massachusetts. Both are movies worth seeing, and calling one’s grandparents immediately afterwards. A little cheesy, yes, but the music is pretty awesome and even a jaded Gen Yer like me can be inspired from time to time.

In one scene that really struck me, one of the singers, Bob Salvini, died of cardiac arrest just before a concert. He was meant to sing a duet of Coldplay’s Fix You with another very ill man, Fred Knittle. Suddenly, Fred has to sing the whole thing alone and doesn’t know Bob’s part.

All throughout the film, there are jokes about how the singers’ own musical tastes turn to opera or classical, except when they’re singing at Young@Heart. When the conductor gives them CDs of Sonic Youth or the Talking Heads, they can’t figure out which side goes up in the CD player.

But when Fred has to learn Fix You, he sits down at his Dell computer and pulls up this video from YouTube! to sing along to.

The result is heartbreakingly beautiful:

Web 2.0 technologies are reaching people for whom the big step is not from analog to digital, Ethernet to wireless, but from ink on paper to pixels on a screen. My grandmother, for example, cannot use a DVD player but she knows that “Google” is a verb and has an email account.

1, 2, skip a few…

Capitalism 2.0: If you really want to beat them, join them

By , 4 May, 2008, 2 Comments

I’m pretty skeptical of free culture political theory. The Free Culture radicals (people like Larry Lessig, McKenzie Wark and Richard Stallman) argue that the collaborative/non-proprietary ethos of online software production, and the YouTube!-Wikipedia-Napster world it’s unleashed, necessarily contribute to a communitarian model of society: that Web 2.0 technologies represent a shift away from classical economics.

Even after taking a media studies class in college where the professor, Mark Tribe, was something of an open source evangelist, I have my doubts about this technological determinism. But I can sometimes see where the radical theory comes from.

A recent move by Google is a case-in-point. Among the keys to the company’s success is their model for online advertising–using search technologies and consumer behavior online to target ads, and selling that capability to others. One of the very Web 2.0-esque features of that model is the fact that a small-time company has a decent chance to compete with the big shots, since it’s popularity with users (not corporate ad dollars paid in advance) that sends an advert to the top of Google’s lists. That’s one point for the radicals.

This week, Google decided to extend this model to television with Adwords TV. Anybody can make a video spot online (Google has tools to help you do it yourself), and use their crowd-sourcing model to pick a target audience/time slot to air it. You make all the decisions online, pay by credit card and Google does the leg work of getting your ad on TV. The DIY approach fits the collaborative utopia Lessig and Stallman envisage.

Today’s entrepreneurs sometimes argue that Web 2.0 technologies are “additive” not “competitive,” meaning that one new tech feature isn’t out to replace another. You can have a profile on MySpace AND Facebook. Where video may have killed the radio star, Google’ s new ad scheme suggests that Web 2.0 can coexist with the old-school small screen.

Warm and fuzzy as that sounds, however, it seems to me that Google’s philosophy is as old-school as TV itself. Recognizing that people still prefer watching the the Super Bowl on the couch with snacks to YouTube-ing by themselves, they’ve found a way to make online dollars from offline behavior. Google’s “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach sounds to me like a high tech version of age old game theory.

Globalization Karma

By , 30 April, 2008, No Comment

America’s imperial chickens are coming home to roost.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and perhaps even before then, we have been the world leader in exporting our values and our products to distant corners of the earth: the McDonalds-MTV factor, even more than military might or political clout, confirmed our status as a superpower.

But in the flat world of YouTube and Second Life, rising powers are finding ways to turn American cultural hegemony in their own economic favor. A fascinating story in this Sunday’s NY Times describes the rat race at Korean prep schools to get students into American universities. The Asian students I’ve met at Brown certainly came here familiar with the American system, more so than the students I’ve met from Europe or Latin America. These Asian schools can replicate the American high school easily because our curricula, our syllabi, our AP exams are available online. And the students have as clear an idea of the universities they’ll end up at (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, CalTech) as any American teen does: these are big international names.

Because American culture is so widely disseminated, the Korean schoolteachers have an easier time reproducing it than American educators have connecting to Asian culture. A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes the challenge of creating American universities in China–not because American culture is hard to translate, but because Americans find the local culture difficult to connect to. While the students may know all about McDonald’s, the professors have a hard time adjusting to bokchoy, rice and Internet censorship.

There’s a parallel in market research. Because American culture is all over television and film, Asian tech or auto or consumer electronics producers know enough about our market to make products Americans will be eager to buy. American manufacturers know next to nothing about Asian markets. While we can outsource our production to India and China (and we do), we can’t market products there. Meanwhile, the same factory owners who used to make cars for us are going independent and selling their own handiwork to Americans. Smarter still, Asian universities are capitalizing on our weakness: Hong Kong Polytechnic University has a design consultancy that helps global (mostly Western) companies adjust their products to an Asian market.

As Rudyard Kipling once said of imperialism, I now wonder of globalization: have we sought another’s profit to work their gain?