Tag Archive | Technology

Overcast

You know the little reel-to-reel symbol that indicates a voice message on many mobile phones? There must be an entire generation of people now using these devices whose members have no idea what that symbol refers to beyond voicemail. It should just be a cloud. And I still see sets of television listings accompanied by a little box with antennae sticking out the top. Who is using rabbit ears anymore? It should just be a cloud. Why is Twitter – or any service – using URLs at all to link people to content? The mish-mash of symbols and alphanumeric characters is really unbecoming; a blight on aesthetically interesting posts. Why don't they just display little clouds that whisk users off to the intended destinations? Map keys and Internet navigation buttons and children's picture books and freeway signs…all would benefit from clouds replacing current iconology. Much more elegant, and much more honest about exactly where our information and relationships live. My girlfriend is doodling in her notebook across the room. She should practice drawing clouds. But I'll bet she's not.

Flesh and blood hearts

When people sit in cafes with their laptops and other screened devices, sipping a poor excuse for amphetamine and chewing on invisible sugars, what percentage of that time do you think is spent floating around in the Wi-Fi ether? How much of “going to the coffee shop to work” is work, and how much is procrastination oscillating against distraction? Experience tells me that drift accounts for a significant portion of these sessions. My purely unscientific research puts the portion of effort spent disengaged in the task at hand at 63%. For college students, that number might jump up as high as 76%! We either don't really have enough to keep us productively occupied, or we just don't like to get to it. (Because getting to it means that “it” will inevitably be evaluated, and not starting down the path often seems easier than ending up at the other end of it. But that's a different topic.)

In their last issue, Willamette Week ran a story touting the ten best proletarian coffee shops in which to study. Their criteria for goodness included availability of fast Wi-Fi and an allowance to occupy a table for hours on end. The anti-virtuous locale in this exposé was Heart, on East Burnside and 22nd Avenue; the complaint being an abundance of wisdom about roasting, but too little warmth for the elite thinkers ostensibly invested in their labors. Given the figures in the non-study above, I applaud Heart for earning this distinction. They deserve even more kudos for something that Willamette Week didn't mention: they turn off their Wi-Fi on weekends.

Let me name my hypocrisy before someone else does. I love to sit in coffee shops for long stretches, doing very little that applies to my excuse for being there in the first place. All that science up above? That's all based on an estimate of my own historical habits. To wit: I've been sitting here, drinking iced coffee, surfing, and daydreaming for a couple of hours now under the pretense of composing this post. Guilty.

Still and all, my complaint about this pastime – and my concomitant admiration for Heart – is not really about lack of productivity. I actually believe that the circuitous route to a goal may often be the most fruitful. Mentally wandering around the periphery of an objective frequently builds associations that are impossible to see from the direct route. By all means, spend lots of time getting where you think you're going. It's merely that, if we are going to drift, then let's find venues that encourage us to drift together…live…in the flesh. I count ten of sixteen people in this present space living in relationship to a screen (yes, me, too). Some of them are sharing a table but living in entirely distinct virtual realms. Perhaps there are other people in other cafes on the other sides of all that Wi-Fi. Perhaps they are all over the world and indeed that's a miraculous thing that the Internet has done for us. But maintaining at least a little bit of live-and-in-person still holds value, and a lack of Wi-Fi may be a coffee shop's best attribute.

do re mi faaaaaaaaaaaaa

I don't have Siri. I have her younger and less glamorous sister, Prototype Gretchen, who came with my iPhone 4. I like the little wiki-doodle clinging to the cord of my Apple earbuds that allows me to talk to Gretchen. I like to command her to do tasks like “next (song)” and “call Steven Crabgrinder on mobile.” But there's one particular job that Gretchen can't – or won't – do, because there's no way to tell her how to do it. Interested as I am in the way the human voice wraps around words, I often find myself wanting to scan back several seconds, several times in order to hear a particular inflection or phrasing that just happened. I don't need the whole track over. Just the last few moments. There is no way I have figured out to express this desire to Gretchen. She's seems to be an all or nothing type of gal.

When the magicians at Apple address this (they may have already done so, but I don't know because, like I said, I'm no acquaintance of Siri's), I hope that they choose some method other than crass speech. Calling out fixed durations, like “repeat five seconds,” may be direct and efficient but it's also uninspired. More elegant, and publicly pleasing, would be for the listener to add her/his own voice as instruction to the world. So, for example, if one would like to plunge backwards into the present track twelve seconds: press the dangly-widget and sing out within a particular tonal range. Perhaps the lower the pitch, the faster in reverse you go; the higher the faster forward. Imagine the street scene, as our musical devices encourage a musical world. Because out of that insular feedback loop between human and machine, some song should spring.

Go forward

“Go back!” my friend, Nathan, and I used to scream with instantaneous delight, whenever something extra super funny happened while watching a pre-recorded show. “Ahhhhh! Oh my god, go back!” We’d back that bad boy up maybe have a dozen times before our glee was satisfied enough to go forward again.

More and more these days, I find myself engaged in some activity on my iPad while inning after inning of the baseball game unfolds, unwatched, in the background. Only when the commentators’ voices achieve a particular tenor do I look up at the screen. By that point the event is usually in its sunset, and I reach for the remote control to reverse all the little bodies and witness for myself what happened.

We’re so accustomed, in our technology-infused era, to exercising god-like power over time. Sometimes I wonder about the implications of that ability. It may be the difference between someone who drinks Shakespeare’s language as it is spoken, and someone who mentally gropes for the pause button just as Mercutio gets fired up. The difference between the person who looks forward to the next home run, and the one who finds a thrill in reliving the last home run from ten different angles. Puzzling though something by turning page after physical page forward, and puzzling though something by navigating backwards and forward through a strange continuum of web pages.

There is undisputed value in being able to contemplate images, events, and ideas slowly and repetitively. Exceptional knowledge has been borne of intense study into activities that used to arrive and evaporate in a veritable sensory blur. Yet has part of that transaction included a sacrifice of presence? Does each of us tend to be less attentive because we can always seemingly “go back?” And if we are each moving back and forth in our own disconnected presence, what does that mean for communion in time? The moments replayed and replayed and replayed some more by Nathan and I certainly used to bring us together. Yet that collective experience was an experience of only two. And more often than not it was an experience of one. Dominion over time has granted people great power and capacity. Unfortunately, it can be a very lonely reign.

Books are for lifting

Out of the hundreds of books on my shelves, I wonder which ones I’ll ever read again. Over the remainder of my life, will I re-read more pages cumulatively, or travel more miles with these books in boxes? Will I re-read entire books more frequently than I rearrange them in their cases? Damn, they’re so heavy. I have visions of slowly migrating every bound volume in this collection over to a light, mobile e-reader. One by one they will evaporate into weightless bits, and I shall gradually reclaim space in my small home from these leafy bricks. It’s tempting, and yet I’ll never actually do it.

I’m perfectly happy letting my music and movies reside in those remote data centers we affectionately call clouds. As with books, I’m tired of dragging various forms of media and packaging around with me from hovel to hovel. And I don’t want to keep up anymore with the latest devices to play these objects in, or all the components that attach to those objects. I’ve made a deal in which that stuff lives somewhere other than where I live, and I borrow it when I need it. I can’t feel the same about books. And it’s not all that hogwash that people spout when they say they need the tactility of the pages; when they talk about needing to hold this thing open in front of them. Do these people also miss washboards and shoeing their horses? No, the material object is immaterial. My reluctance to disappearing my books – and I grant how suspicious this sounds – is that I don’t want to be left without them if for whatever reason…under whatever circumstance…the invisible cord that connects me to the place where all knowledge resides is ever snipped. I don’t want to accidentally lose the ability to access them, and I certainly don’t want them intentionally taken hostage.

So the next time I move, my biceps will get another rare workout and my back will end up sore from improperly lifting dozens of boxes of thousands of pages. But at least I’ll be comforted knowing I can go back to them whenever I want, even if I never do.

Pre-movie Combat

My girlfriend and I enjoyed a rare outing last night to see a first-run movie. We arrived early enough to get good seats and settle in. Fifteen minutes before the concessions ads before the four previews before the movie we’d come to see, the screen and sound system fired up to show us a First Look. For those people smart enough to go to second-run theatres or watch their movies at home, First Look is a huge, flashy series of commercials. It advertises impending cultural and commercial detritus that the film and television industry thinks the present audience might be interested in. We were treated to trailers for 666 Park Avenue and yet another reimagingng of the rapidly tiring Spiderman story, an embarrassingly odd look at a Blue Lagoon remake for television, several car commercials, an insurance spot, and overly excited enticements for other miscellaneous products.

First Look is particularly annoying for two reasons. Sensorily speaking, the volume is downright rude. My girlfriend and I tried valiantly to share the events of our respective days, but First Look’s sound interrupted with the intensity and persistence of a supremely-caffeinated four-year old. Most annoying, however, was the financial reason. Nevermind the fact that we paid a total of $33.00 for two tickets, a water, and the smallest popcorn available. We nevertheless had to be subjected to a very loud barrage of things to consider spending more money on. I thought the primary incentive of paying for things like applications and television series was supposed to be the minimization of advertising. Instead, it felt like we had paid for the privilege of being begged to pay some more.

So here is my idea for a new smartphone app called Boycott. When you’re at the movie theatre and First Look comes on, you turn Boycott on. Maybe if you buy your tickets with your phone, you could even tell Boycott at that point to turn on automatically later. In any event, the application uses listening identification technology similar to Soundhound or Shazam to figure out what First Look is trying to sell you. First Look is loud enough that Boycott shouldn’t have any trouble hearing, even if your phone is tucked away in your pocket. It stores the vendors as a list of items in a database. After the movie, as you stroll though the real world, Boycott uses GPS location services to know where you are and what’s around you, matching your movements against movie and television listings, and the current time. It persistently compares all of that data against the list of First Look offerings that have been stored. Then Boycott sends you urgent notifications when it thinks you are in jeopardy of consuming anything that First Look showed you. This application could alternately be called ‘Take That, Evil First Look, You Purveyor of Conspicuous Consumerism’ or ‘No Thanks I Already Paid’.

If you have the software engineering skills to make this idea a reality, please feel free. The only compensation I ask is a complimentary copy of Boycott, ad free of course.