4/30/2013 3:20:23 PM
Harnessing the power of collaborative
learning and DIY science, California’s
Maker Faire aims to combat throwaway culture by giving young people the tools
and inspiration to invent.
This article originally appeared at Shareable.
Since 2006, Maker Faire has
provided a space for inventors, tinkerers, builders, crafters, and
wannabe-scientists to showcase their creations with the intent of encouraging
others to dabble in inventing something themselves. With large-scale kinetic
sculptures racing and roaming the grounds, science experiments with electronics
and activities like clothing and apparel re-purposing stations on site,
participants are encouraged to touch, ask questions, and take what they learn
into their own workshops for some fun experimentation outside of the Maker
Faires' big top.
Sherry Huss, vice president of Maker Media, doesn't look the role of a
lab-coat wearing mad scientist that one might expect to be a Maker Faire organizer.
There are no beakers popping up and bubbling over in her office. She wears no
tool belt as she navigates the work spaces of Maker Media's headquarters in Sonoma County, California.
Yet, as anyone who has attended a Maker Faire may believe, Huss has the stuff
that genius is made of. Every year, she meets with her small planning team and
formulates the clever uses of time and space for what is referred to in their
tag line as “The Greatest Show and Tell on Earth.”
“We do it the old fashioned way,
with post-it notes and lay them out. And it somehow always magically works
out,” says Huss. “You have to get your head into it because everything that is
happening on site is intentional. There are very few things that just come
together,” she added.
And what comes together for
roughly 100,000 visitors after months of tireless planning is quite brilliant.
In addition to seeing a nearly
40 percent increase in new exhibitors each year, the contagious spirit of Maker
Faire continues to spread from the Maker's Bay Area headquarters to the rest of
the world. With annual events in San Mateo and New York, and
over 100 mini-Faires or satellite events internationally (including Rome, UK and a rotating country Maker Faire Africa, among others),
Maker Faire has an accessible, inclusive vibe that leads many to start
tinkering with or concocting projects of their own.
“Making is all over. It’s not
just the Bay Area,” says Huss. “We don't own the license on it...there are
Space is free for makers, and
event organizers only charge a small fee if an exhibitor plans to offer items
for sale. Maker is also careful with the selection process, focusing on
non-commercial exhibitors and ensuring that all of Maker Faire's inventive
action is family-friendly and safe. Especially with so much
up-close-and-personal, hands-on DIY participation.
“People are there showing their
projects and sharing how they made them,” says Huss. “Our goal is to make
Makers. People who come to the Faire get the confidence to become a Maker.””
Based on feedback from previous
years' attendees, demos and hands-on craft projects and exchanging ideas have
been the biggest draw. Naturally, organizers continue to foster the
collaborative learning that happens at the annual events that span two days. This
year's theme is Maker Spaces, which is sure to be a huge hit among DIY
enthusiasts. Similar to model homes and the nifty kitchen design displays at
big box stores, Maker Faire will showcase these Maker Spaces to plant seeds of
empowerment in the minds of aspiring makers from all walks of life. What
defines these spaces, however, is not simply the presence of tools and a simple
tool bench, but the act of making itself.
“Just look at Mister Jalopy, chronicling the decline
of the work bench in the garage,” says Huss. “Garages now are mostly just
storage places. They used to have a work bench. The toaster broke, you didn't
get a new one; you took it out and fixed it. I am hoping that this movement
will swing it back that way.”
Although the days of dad
tinkering with old radios and small appliances on his work bench in the garage
were often solitary escapes, the makers and fixers of today tend to have a more
collaborative focus. In addition to crews of several hundred helping hands,
sponsors and organizations collaborate to ensure that the festivities go on
without a hitch. In Detroit,
they collaborated with The Henry Ford
Museum and Research Center. In Kansas
City, they had help from the Kauffman Foundation. Portland partnered with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
Huss isn't directly involved in
programming for all of the Faires outside of New York and the Bay Area, but she
provides training opportunities for those interested in setting up their own
events, ensuring that the infectious Maker spirit spreads to the garages and
minds of the aspiring tinkerer in all of us. After all, Maker is not just a
one-time event. More than anything, Maker is a way of life that brings together
communities in a too-often competitive culture, and encourages--above all
else--collaboration, innovation, and fun.
“I think there is a lot of
(interest) with continuing education and the Maker Space community,” says Huss.
“Like the old grange where people came together; usually around food. It is so
cool for people to come together to make things,” she concludes.
Image by Bridgette
Vanderlaan, Maker Faire.
2/7/2013 3:18:40 PM
That's me and my OpenROV co-founder Eric Stackpole working on a prototype underwater robot.
This post originally appeared at Shareable.
Don't get me wrong, I like collaborative consumption. I think Airbnb makes the world a more interesting place, allowing people have more authentic travel experiences. I love TaskRabbit. I use it all the time for errands. I've written about tool libraries for MAKE Magazine. I get it. Access is certainly more appealing that ownership. For my lifestyle, at least.
But I still think collaborative consumption is overrated compared to the other side of the sharing economy coin: collaborative creation. The true potential of a networked, peer-to-peer economy is just starting to show with the maker movement. And it's not just about what we can consume together, it's about what we can create together.
Sure, collaborative consumption can help you earn some side money, subsidize car ownership, or have a more human-centered vacation, but rarely can it help you learn new skills, build a small business, or drive a new industry. Collaborative creation is about building new forms of wealth, not just sharing it. Collaborative consumption isn’t designed to create high-skilled, meaningful livelihoods for users. From personal experience, I believe that the skill-building, job-creating potential of the maker movement is more important than a new way to consume. It can address one of society’s biggest problems -- high unemployment, especially among young adults like myself.
As Chris Anderson eloquently described in his new book, Makers, the Internet is the prototype, the model for how to create with wide participation. And now we're seeing the same surge of creativity with stuff, and it's changing the way we experience the objects in our lives. From 3D printing to makerspace communities, Etsy to Kickstarter, the maker infrastructure is maturing to a stage where literally anyone can make significant contributions.
I've had a front row seat to this emerging trend. I've been writing the Zero to Maker column for MAKE, chronicling my journey from total beginner to improving amateur. After losing my job in 2011, I felt I didn't have much of a choice. I knew I wanted to get out from behind the computer, but I also had zero technical experience. Luckily, I found the maker community to be friendly and empowering.
I started an open-source underwater robot project with my friend (and hero) Eric Stackpole. In the last year, OpenROV has grown from a conversation between me and Eric into an award winning open-source project as well as a fledgeling business. We're not making much money, but we're fine with that. We've found something much more valuable: a global community of collaborators who are working hand-in-hand to democratize ocean exploration. The experience is rich in community as well as what Eric and I refer to as "Return on Adventure."
The OpenROV underwater robot in action.
My Zero to Maker experience at TechShop has been a shining example of the true potential of the sharing economy - both collaborative creation and consumption. The tool-access afforded by the makerspace was critical in my development, because without the shared-resource model my plight would’ve been impossible. But the real value - the meat on the bones - was the way members and staff supported our project. OpenROV simply wouldn't exist without the communities that have supported us: TechShop, Kickstarter, and the larger maker community.
It’s the process of creation that instills meaning into the products we use. Consuming together can’t inject meaning in the products around us. Moving away from a culture of rampant over-consumption will take much more than changing our eating, driving, and buying habits. It’s going to take a whole suite of new values, technologies, and experiences. The maker movement is an opportunity to build that re-imagined future.
Perhaps the most encouraging news is that it's more accessible than ever to get involved. It seems that every maker I meet had a similarly warm welcome. Each feel a duty to pay it forward, which builds a culture of inclusion and possibility. The tools that seemed so intimidating when I got started, like 3D printers and CNC machines, each came with someone, either local or online, who did a great job teaching. Even something as crazy as an open-source underwater robot project was able to find a supportive home.
The experience has opened my eyes to the potential of collaborative creation. Lucky for you, anyone fluent in collaborative consumption already has many of the skills needed to thrive in the maker world. After all, they’re just two sides of the same movement.
David Lang is the co-founder of OpenROV as well as the author of the book-in-progress, Zero to Maker.
8/31/2012 9:25:57 AM
This post originally appeared at Shareable.net.
There used to be a time when, if you wanted money to create public
art, produce your invention, or start a company, you had to appeal to
higher authorities. Big banks, wealthy relatives, local governments--they had the green, and we the humble innovators had to prove we were worthy of it.
Thanks to the internet and the rise of collaborative consumption,
however, this bureaucratic bottle neck need no longer stifle our
entrepreneurial spirit. Ever heard of a little startup by the name of Kickstarter?
This online crowdfunding forum created a place for individuals to
showcase their ideas, and appeal to the masses for financial backing.
Turns out, there are millions of people willing to chip in a few dollars
to help bring fantastic concepts to market. Now Kickstarter is the
world's largest funding platform for creative projects, raising a total
of $327 million dollars and counting.
With this kind of success, it's only natural that different
iterations of Kickstarter would emerge. There have been many imitators,
some successful, some not. What's setting the latest crop of crowdfunding
platforms apart from the rest is a passionate focus on local projects.
Instead of looking for backers in all four corners of the world, these
hyper-local fundraising outlets are helping to connect local
entrepreneurs with their neighbors in an attempt to energize local
economies, and create lasting relationships between innovators and their
Unlike Kickstarter, which launches hundreds of campaigns a day, Lucky Ant
features only one project per week. Also unlike other crowdfunding
platforms, the projects chosen are all already established businesses.
Members list their neighborhood when signing up, and every week Lucky
Ant lets them know about a local business that needs to be funded. The
great part is, you get rewards and perks from the business in which you
invested, creating a lovely little reciprocal loop designed to keep you
coming back for more. Founded last year, Lucky Ant is currently
operating in Downtown New York City with plans to expand to more cities
Founded in the sunny little town of Fort Collins, Colo., this
crowdfunding platform is focused on finding and spotlighting projects in
the community that might otherwise be swept under the carpet. Among
other things, CommunityFunded supporters
recently prevented a two-screen, downtown movie theater from closing,
and helped a local designer realize her dream of having a storefront to
showcase her clothes. If you don't see a project that piques your
interest, there's also an open fund that helps CF provide a boost to
campaigns that need it.
SmallKnot is a
crowdfunding platform designed exclusively for small,
independently-owned businesses. No franchises. No big box
stores. Smallknot aims to help local businesses connect with fans and
gain new customer by offering products or services in return for
providing financial support. For instance, making a small investment in
the Saucey Sauce Co. (actual name) will earn you a 3 pack of their newly
bottled Vietnamese dipping sauces, but a big investment earns you a
private dinner for four. "If you desire a neighborhood full of diverse
and independent businesses," write the SK founders, "you have the power
to step up and ensure your neighborhood stays that way."
Do you know of a hyper-local crowdfunding platform that belongs on this list? Share it in a comment!
Image by Jorge Barrios, in the public domain.
8/9/2012 4:04:14 PM
This article originally appeared in
(August 2, 2012), a weekly print publication with articles, reviews, classifieds, personals and happenings in Hartford, Connecticut, and surrounding communities.
I don't have a lot of money. It's not uncommon to hear of educated folks in their late 20s and early 30s living paycheck to paycheck because their jobs don't pay well and they have debts (the legal, credit-card and student-loan kind, not the knee-breaky, loan-sharky sort). We live in apartments with "character" in neighborhoods that would make our parents cringe if they had any clue. We eschew cable and the timely watching of our pop culture TV obsessions for Netflix and Hulu, and if we can swing it, we eat real food.
A Laundry Conundrum
Recently I was faced with a laundry conundrum after my roommate moved out and took his mini, apartment-sized washer and dryer with him. The apartment he and I moved into last year had no workable washer and dryer hookups in the basement, and after months of trudging to his mom's house to hang out and do our laundry, he bought the little machines. Yes, laundromats are an option, but not one I'm comfortable with in my neighborhood. Call me entitled, but I believe the option to wash my underwear in the comfort of my own home is part of the American Dream. Plus people keep getting shot outside the laundromats by my house. So, no thanks. With laundromats out of the question and being unable to afford to replace those machines, my search for cheaper alternatives led me to the Mobile Washer, a DIY washing machine you can use in the comfort of your own home.
Having the machines in our kitchen was a super convenience. No lugging uncomfortably balanced collections of unmentionables and jeans carrying three weeks of life around on them down to the basement via narrow stairwells. In the words of Michael Cera's character from Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, "I never wash my pants. I like to keep the night on them." It's gross, but whatever. No searching for quarters or waiting in line behind a houseful of people you're slightly acquainted with. It was great.
The Quest for an Alternative
After realizing I was potentially laundry-less once again, my first move was to start visiting my parents more often. Trips home mean free laundry, even if it's a 40-minute drive up to Old Lyme. Free laundry, free food, and quality time with our dogs, sisters to me, is not a bad tradeoff. But my car is quite old and my gas budget is small. Next I started browsing around the Internet for smaller, cheaper versions of the machines my old roommate had bought. Amazon has a handful of miniature, apartment-appropriate laundry options in addition to the tiny washer and dryer I was already familiar with. Unfortunately, most of it is priced out of my affordability range, or had bad reviews that made me nervous about making the investment: Everything from electric-powered washers and dryers to machines powered by good old elbow grease via a hand crank.
Then, lo and behold, I noticed the Breathing Mobile Washer. It looks like a toilet plunger. You use it in a sink, tub or bucket. It costs less than $30. I knew I'd found the one. I also bought a drying rack to use for the time being. I'm hoping to be able to afford an electric-powered centrifugal force dryer, like a salad spinner for clothes.
The Mobile Washer and drying rack arrived sooner than expected, erasing my fears of going a couple weeks without clean underwear. My initial concerns were that all of the glowing reviews were plants and I'd find the washer impossible to use as directed, and that my clothes would eventually dry to be stiff and crinkly because I didn't have any liquid fabric softener at the time. I imagined my attempts to do anything unfamiliar on my own resembling some hellish episode of "I Love Lucy." I braced myself for the possibility of destroying my bathroom and still having piles of dirty underwear.
Taking the Plunge
I purchased three of those orange, all-purpose five-gallon buckets from Home Depot and, after warning my new roommate that I would do all I could to avoid a disaster, I set up shop in my bathtub. I filled each bucket with about six inches of cold water and lined them up so that the one that should end up with the cleanest laundry and water was closest to the faucet. I threw three pairs of underwear and two tank tops into the first bucket, and added about two teaspoons of powder detergent.
The directions that come with the Mobile Washer aren't exactly detailed or specific, so most of what I did was guesswork, trying to emulate the YouTube videos I'd watched as research. To get the Mobile Washer to do its thing, you simply push it down and up under the water, like you'd move a toilet plunger. It moves the water through the fabric of the clothes, instead of just sloshing them around in some soapy water, to get the dirt out. After a couple minutes of this, switching hands and grip positions a few times, I moved the clothes to the middle bucket to begin the rinsing process. Using the same technique and motion, I saw the clear rinse water slowly turning soapy. I've done a few loads of laundry with the Mobile Washer now, and I'm still not sure how long each "cycle" should be. It's guesswork until I get a better feel for it.
Watch Alison use her Mobile Washer
After rinsing, I moved the clothes to another bucket of clean water to ensure all the soap was gone. Having three buckets means I can designate one for soapy, washing water, and rotate the other two for rinsing, enabling me to keep rinsing between the two buckets until that water stays clear.
Now, What About a Dryer?
Wringing the clothes out is the hardest part. No matter how hard you squeeze and twist, it's still not enough. I did another load of a skirt, pair of pajama pants, leggings and another pair of underwear after the first one, and then hung everything up on the drying rack in my room. After a few minutes I realized that everything was dripping onto my floor, even though I'd squeezed and squeezed till my carpal tunnel screamed in protest. I threw a spare bath towel down under the rack and collapsed on my bed to rest. (Having used this method for laundry for a few weeks, I decided it was better to hang up my clean clothes in the kitchen, where the floor is linoleum, and therefore drippy clothes will not rot the floor.) Thankfully, my new roommate does not object.
I'm not gonna lie, washing clothes this way won't be easy. I ended up pretty sweaty, but that's not all the fault of the work required by the Mobile Washer. Third floor apartments are cauldrons this time of year. Still, the entire experience was quite rewarding. A small batch of my clothes were drying peacefully in my room as I admired my handiwork from my bed. I'd say the entire process probably took about 45 minutes, from dirty to drying. Clean-up was simple, as I just dumped the water into the tub, stacked the buckets and stuck the Mobile Washer in the top bucket. Boom, done.
Going Green Accidentally
In terms of the things we do to save money, switching to hand washing isn't the only accidentally green way we try to save some green. A quick poll of friends on Facebook and Twitter revealed that many have taken to walking to work due to the inability to afford a car, or have gotten rid of their cars entirely, or have taken to hanging (presumably machine-washed) laundry out to dry in the yard in the warmer months. All of these things come with some risks, as being carless puts you out and about on foot in New Haven, or wherever you live, more often. Hanging your clothes outside runs the risk of someone making off with your favorite t-shirt.
When I lived in a nicer part of town, I walked to work just because I could, and saved money on gas and car repair while losing a bit of weight in the process. "Going green" doesn't have to mean spending a zillion dollars to add solar panels to your house, or buying an expensive electric car, when those options are clearly out of the question due to lack of financial stability. Opting to wash my clothes this way will certainly lower my electric bill, which did jump up after we started using the mini appliances. Having a little extra money when you're stretched so thin financially is nice, and I may just be able to afford healthy groceries consistently with the money I'll save on electricity. Eating healthier will help me lose weight, which will ultimately help to use less gas when I drive my car, which means less pollution and less money spent at the pump.
Running a washer and dryer for a couple loads of laundry every week can cost a few hundred dollars a year—not to mention the cost of the machines. And the time spent at a laundromat is time you'll never get back. Washing my clothes by hand at home with a DIY washing machine eats into whatever "leisure time" I'd normally have while doing laundry, but the benefits far outweigh the loss of a couple hours of sittin' on my butt. I never thought a few pieces of plastic and a wooden handle could do so much.
Top image courtesy of moonlightbulb, licensed under Creative Commons
6/12/2012 8:58:30 AM
At first, there seems a discrepancy: we hear incessant talk of low job
growth and economic distress, but see people tapping expensive smartphones and
buying the latest social-mobile app. Indeed, the technology and design
industries seem unaffected by the recession, set to continue on the same course
of planned obsolescence they’ve been on for decades. But a second look reveals
that advances in these sectors are helping people adjust to life in a
pared-down economy, in a world where the environment has become a main concern.
Our recession isn’t happening in a vacuum, and advances in design and
technology, paired with an economy in flux, are changing the definition of both
work and the workplace.
From an architectural perspective, office layout has been changing since
before the recession, away from cubicles and toward flexible, open-plan
designs. Companies that depend on innovation have designed headquarters that
encourage play and serendipitous meetings. Pixar’s office drives foot traffic toward
a central area, encouraging impromptu idea sharing. Cisco, inspired by the
use of common space in universities, freed
its employees from traditional desks with wireless technology and
unassigned work stations. The shift encouraged collaboration, increased
employee satisfaction, and reduced infrastructure costs.
More recently, office designs have prioritized environmental efficiency. At Skype’s
headquarters, independent work spaces line the perimeter
of the LEED-certified
building, near natural light and away from noise. Like Pixar, meeting spaces
and break rooms are centralized, encouraging spontaneous collaboration. At
Google’s LEED-certified offices around the world, traditional cubicles and
meeting rooms have been replaced with playful spaces, from egg-shaped
pods to unassigned space-age
seating. Additionally, environmental, community, and employee
wellness are supported with bike-to-work incentives and
local, sustainably produced food in the cafeterias.
From open-plan and environment-centered office design it’s a
short leap to another innovation: coworking. A dearth of steady jobs has
created a new league of freelancers, and the desire to reduce carbon footprints
has made telecommuting more appealing than ever. Sure, there’s the local coffee
shop, but coworking offers a way for freelancers and telecommuters to stay
local and tap in to the perks of an
office by sharing costs, space, and resources. Aside from the benefits of
sharing an eco-friendly printer, coworking offers potential for collaboration
and networking, and can lead to serendipitous partnerships. Shareable has compiled a list
of resources for tapping in to the movement.
Paul McFedries of IEEE
Spectrum reports that sharing is “the driving force behind a new economic
model called collaborative
consumption, where consumers use online or off-line tools to rent, share,
and trade goods and services.” Coworking can also be a manifestation of
collaborative production, found in projects like Longshot!, a magazine that
encourages contributors to work together in satellite offices. From this angle,
it looks like social, mobile, and local have gone way beyond smartphone
applications—they could be the way we work in the future.
Image: Zonaspace coworking in Saint Petersburg, Russia, by коворкинг-пространство Зона действия. Licensed under Creative Commons.
4/23/2012 2:58:03 PM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
I speak Spanish to God,
Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.
-- Emperor Charles V
But in which language does
one speak to a machine, and what can be expected by way of response? The
questions arise from the accelerating data-streams out of which we’ve learned
to draw the breath of life, posed in consultation with the equipment that scans
the flesh and tracks the spirit, cues the ATM, the GPS, and the EKG, arranges
the assignations on Match.com and the high-frequency trades at Goldman Sachs,
catalogs the pornography and drives the car, tells us how and when and where to
connect the dots and thus recognize ourselves as human beings.
Why then does it come to pass
that the more data we collect -- from Google, YouTube, and Facebook -- the less
likely we are to know what it means?
conundrum is in line with the late Marshall McLuhan’s noticing 50 years ago the
presence of “an acoustic world,” one with “no continuity, no homogeneity, no
connections, no stasis,” a new “information environment of which humanity has
no experience whatever.” He published Understanding Media in 1964,
proceeding from the premise that “we become what we behold,” that “we shape our
tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Media were to be understood
as “make-happen agents” rather than as “make-aware agents,” not as art or
philosophy but as systems comparable to roads and waterfalls and sewers.
Content follows form; new means of communication give rise to new structures of
feeling and thought.
To account for the
transference of the idioms of print to those of the electronic media, McLuhan
examined two technological revolutions that overturned the epistemological
status quo. First, in the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention
of moveable type, which deconstructed the illuminated wisdom preserved on
manuscript in monasteries, encouraged people to organize their perceptions of
the world along the straight lines of the printed page. Second, in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the applications of electricity (telegraph,
telephone, radio, movie camera, television screen, eventually the computer),
favored a sensibility that runs in circles, compressing or eliminating the
dimensions of space and time, narrative dissolving into montage, the word
replaced with the icon and the rebus.
Within a year of its
publication, Understanding Media acquired the standing of Holy
Scripture and made of its author the foremost oracle of the age. The New
York Herald Tribune proclaimed him “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin,
Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov.” Although never at a loss for Delphic aphorism --
“The electric light is pure information”; “In the electric age, we wear all
mankind as our skin” -- McLuhan assumed that he had done nothing more than look
into the window of the future at what was both obvious and certain.
Floating the Fiction
In 1964 I was slow to take
the point, possibly because I was working at the time in a medium that McLuhan
had listed as endangered -- writing, for The Saturday Evening Post,
inclined to think in sentences, accustomed to associating a cause with an
effect, a beginning with a middle and an end. Television news I construed as an
attempt to tell a story with an alphabet of brightly colored children’s blocks,
and when offered the chance to become a correspondent for NBC, I declined the
referral to what I regarded as a course in remedial reading.
The judgment was poorly
timed. Within five years The Saturday Evening Post had gone the way of
the great auk; news had become entertainment, entertainment news, the
distinctions between a fiction and a fact as irrelevant as they were
increasingly difficult to parse. Another 20 years and I understood what McLuhan
meant by the phrase, “The medium is the message,” when in the writing of a
television history of America’s foreign policy in the twentieth century, I was
allotted roughly 73 seconds in which to account for the origins of World War
II, while at the same time providing a voiceover transition between newsreel
footage of Jesse Owens running the hundred-yard dash at the Berlin Olympics in
the summer of 1936, and Adolf Hitler marching the Wehrmacht into Vienna in the
spring of 1938.
McLuhan regarded the medium
of television as better suited to the sale of a product than to the expression
of a thought. The voice of the first person singular becomes incorporated into
the collective surges of emotion housed within an artificial kingdom of wish
and dream; the viewer’s participation in the insistent and ever-present promise
of paradise regained greatly strengthens what McLuhan identified as “the huge
educational enterprise that we call advertising.” By which he didn’t mean the
education of a competently democratic citizenry -- “Mosaic news is neither
narrative, nor point of view, nor explanation, nor comment” -- but rather as
“the gathering and processing of exploitable social data” by “Madison Avenue
frogmen of the mind” intent on retrieving the sunken subconscious treasure of
human credulity and desire.
McLuhan died on New Year’s
Eve 1979, 15 years before the weaving of the World Wide Web, but his concerns
over the dehumanized extensions of man (a society in which it is the machine
that thinks and the man who is reduced to the state of the thing) are
consistent with those more recently noted by computer scientist Jaron Lanier,
who suggests that the data-mining genius of the computer reduces individual
human expression to “a primitive, retrograde activity.” Among the framers of
the digital constitution, Lanier in the mid-1980s was a California computer engineer engaged in the
early programming of virtual reality.
In the same way that McLuhan
in his more optimistic projections of the electronic future had envisioned
unified networks of communication restoring mankind to a state of freedom not
unlike the one said to have existed in the Garden of Eden, so too Lanier had
entertained the hope of limitless good news. Writing in 2010 in his book You
Are Not a Gadget, he finds that the ideology promoting radical freedom on
the surface of the Web is “more for machines than people” -- machines that
place advertising at the “center of the human universe… the only form of
expression meriting general commercial protection in the new world to come. Any
other form of expression to be remashed, anonymized, and decontextualized to
the point of meaninglessness.”
The reduction of individual
human expression to a “primitive, retrograde activity” accounts for the product
currently being sold under the labels of “election” and “democracy.” The
candidates stand and serve as farm equipment meant to cultivate an opinion
poll, their value measured by the cost of their manufacture; the news media’s
expensive collection of talking heads bundles the derivatives into the
commodity of market share. The steadily higher cost of floating the fiction of
democracy -- the sale of political television advertising up from nearly $200
million in the presidential election of 1996 to $2 billion in the election of
2008 -- reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact.
Like the music in elevators,
the machine-made news comes and goes on a reassuringly familiar loop, the same
footage, the same spokespeople, the same commentaries, what was said last week
certain to be said this week, next week, and then again six weeks from now, the
sequence returning as surely as the sun, demanding little else from the
would-be citizen except devout observance. French Novelist Albert Camus in the
1950s already had remanded the predicament to an aphorism: “A single sentence
will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.”
Ritual becomes the form of
applied knowledge that both McLuhan and Lanier define as pattern recognition --
Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Miller beer is wet, Paris Hilton is not a golf
ball. The making of countless connections in the course of a morning’s
googling, an afternoon’s shopping, an evening’s tweeting constitutes the
guarantee of being in the know. Among people who worship the objects of their
own invention -- money, cloud computing, the Super Bowl -- the technology can
be understood, in Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s phrase, as “the knack of so
arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” Better to consume it,
best of all to buy it, and to the degree that information can be commodified
(as corporate logo, designer dress, politician custom-fitted to a super PAC)
the amassment of wealth and the acquisition of power follows from the labeling
of things rather than from the making of them.
The Voice of Money
Talking to Money
Never have so many labels
come so readily to hand, not only on Fox News and MSNBC, but also on the
Goodyear blimp and on the fence behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. The
achievement has been duly celebrated by the promoters of “innovative delivery
strategies” that broaden our horizons and brighten our lives with “quicker
access to valued customers.”
Maybe I miss the “key
performance indicators,” but I don’t know how a language meant to be disposable
enriches anybody’s life. I can understand why words construed as product
placement serve the interest of the corporation or the state, but they don’t “enhance”
or “empower” people who would find in their freedoms of thought and expression
a voice, and therefore a life, that they can somehow recognize as their own.
The regime change implicit in
the ascendant rule of signs funds the art of saying nothing. Meaning
evaporates, the historical perspective loses its depth of field, the vocabulary
contracts. George Orwell made the point in 1946, in his essay “Politics and the
English Language.” “The slovenliness of our language,” he said, “makes it
easier for us to have foolish thoughts. If one gets rid of these habits, one
can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward
Advertising isn’t interested
in political regeneration. The purpose is to nurture foolish thoughts, and the
laziness of mind suckled at the silicone breasts of CBS and Disney counts as a
consumer benefit. The postliterate sensibility is offended by anything that
isn’t television, views with suspicion the compound sentence, the subordinate
clause, words of more than three syllables. The home and studio audiences
become accustomed to hearing voices swept clean of improvised literary devices,
downsized into data points, degraded into industrial-waste product.
Ambiguity doesn’t sell the
shoes. Neither does taking time to think, or allowing too long a pause between
the subject and the predicate. In the synthetic America the Beautiful, everything
good is easy, anything difficult is bad, and the customer is always right. The
body politic divides into constituencies of one, separate states of wishful
thinking receding from one another at the speed of light.
Every loss of language,
whether among the northern Inuit or the natives of the Jersey
Shore, the critic George Steiner
writes down as “an impoverishment in the ecology of the human psyche”
comparable to the depletion of species in California
The abundance of many languages (as many as 68 of them in Mexico), together
with the richness of their lexical and grammatical encoding (the many uses of the
subjunctive among certain tribes in Africa) stores, as do the trees in
Amazonia, a “boundless wealth of possibility” that cannot be replaced by the
machinery of the global market.
“The true catastrophe of Babel,” says Steiner, “is
not the scattering of tongues. It is the reduction of human speech to a handful
of planetary, ‘multinational’ tongues… Anglo-American standardized
vocabularies” and grammar shaped by “military technocratic megalomania” and
“the imperatives of commercial greed.”
Which is the voice of money
talking to money, in the currency that Toni Morrison, accepting the Nobel Prize
in Literature in 1993, denominates as “the language that drinks blood,” happy
to “admire its own paralysis,” possessed of “no desire or purpose other than
maintaining the free range of narcotic narcissism…dumb, predatory, sentimental.
Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing a shelter for despots.”
Language designed to “sanction ignorance and preserve privilege,” prioritized
to fit the needs of palsied bureaucracy, retrograde religion, or our own 2012
The vocabulary is limited but
long abiding. The aristocracy of ancient Rome
didn’t engage in dialog with slaves, a segment of the population classified by
the Roman agriculturalist Marcus Terentius Varro as “speaking tools,” animate
but otherwise equivalent to an iPhone app.
The sponsors of the Spanish
Inquisition, among them Charles V, possibly in consultation with his horse, ran
data-mining operations not unlike the ones conducted by Facebook. So did the
content aggregators otherwise known as the NKVD in Soviet Russia, as the
Gestapo in Nazi Germany. In South
Africa during most of the twentieth century
the policy of apartheid was dressed up in propaganda that novelist Breyten
Breytenbach likens to the sound of a “wooden tongue clacking away in the wooden
orifice in order to produce the wooden singsong praises to the big bang-bang
and the fluttering flag.”
The Internet equips the fear
of freedom with even more expansive and far-seeing means of surveillance than
were available to Tomás de Torquemada or Joseph Goebbels, provides our own
national security agencies with databanks that sift the email traffic for words
earmarked as subversive, among them “collective bargaining,” “occupy,” and
The hope and exercise of
freedom relies, in 2012 as in 1939, on what Breytenbach understood as the
keeping of “the word alive, or uncontaminated, or at least to allow it to have
a meaning, to be a conduit of awareness.” The force and power of the words
themselves, not their packaging or purchase price. Which is why when listening
to New York
publishers these days tell sad stories about the death of books in print, I
don’t find myself moved to tears. They confuse the container with the thing
contained, as did the fifteenth-century illuminati who saw in Gutenberg’s
printing press the mark and presence of the Devil. Filippo de Strata, a
Benedictine monk and a copier of manuscripts, deplored the triumph of
Through printing, tender boys
and gentle girls, chaste without foul stain,
take in whatever mars the purity of mind or body…
Writing indeed, which brings in gold for us,
should be respected and held to be nobler
than all goods, unless she has suffered
degradation in the brothel of the printing
presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a
harlot in print.
The humanist scholars across
Europe discerned the collapse of civilization, the apocalypse apparent to
Niccolò Perotti, teacher of poetry and rhetoric at the University
of Bologna, who was appalled by “a new
kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany… Anyone
is free to print whatever they wish… for the sake of entertainment, what would
best be forgotten, or, better still, erased from all books.”
McLuhan in 1964 ridiculed the
same sort of fear and trembling in Grub Street by observing that, in the
twentieth century as in the fifteenth, the literary man preferred “to ‘view
with alarm’ and ‘point with pride,’ while scrupulously ignoring what’s going on.”
He understood that the concerns had to do with the moving of the merchandise as
opposed to the making of it, where the new money was to be found, how to
collect what tolls on which shipments of the grammar and the syntax. Then as
now, the questions are neither visionary nor new. They accompanied the building
of the nation’s railroads and the stringing of its telephone poles, and as is
customary under the American definition of free enterprise, I expect them to be
resolved in favor of monopoly.
The more relevant questions
are political and epistemological. What counts as a claim to knowledge? How do
we know what we think we know? Which inputs prop up even one of the seven
pillars of wisdom? Without a human language holding a common store of human
value, how do we compose a society governed by a human form of politics?
The History of the
Every age is an age of
information, its worth and meaning always subject to change without much
notice. Whether shaped as ideograph or mathematical equation, as gesture,
encrypted code, or flower arrangement, the means of communication are as
restless as the movement of the sea, as numberless as the expressions that
drift across the surface of the human face.
The written word emerges from
the spoken word, the radar screen from signal fires, compositions for full
orchestra and choir from the tapping of a solitary drum. The various currencies
of glyph and sign trade in concert and in competition with one another. Books
will perhaps become more expensive and less often seen, but clearly they are
not soon destined to vanish from the earth. Bowker’s Global Books in Print
accounts for the publication of 316,480 new titles in 2010, up from 247,777 in
1998. In the United States
in 2010, 751,729,000 books were sold, the revenue stream of $11.67 billion
defying the trend of economic downturn and the voyaging into cyberspace. The
book remains, and likely will remain, the primary store of human energy and
The times, like all others,
can be said to be the best of times and the worst of times. The Internet can be
perceived as a cesspool of misinformation, a phrase that frequently bubbles up
to a microphone in Congress or into the pages of the Wall Street Journal;
it also can be construed as a fountain of youth pouring out data streams in
directions heretofore unimaginable and unknown, allowing David Carr, media
columnist and critic for the New York Times, to believe that “someday,
I should be able to walk into a hotel in Kansas, tell the television who I am
and find everything I have bought and paid for, there for the consuming.”
Carr presumably knows whereof
he speaks, and I’m content to regard the Internet as the best and brightest
machine ever made by man, but nonetheless a machine with a tin ear and a wooden
tongue. It is one thing to browse the Internet; it is another thing to write
The author doesn’t speak to a
fellow human being, whether a Spaniard, a Frenchman, or a German. He or she
addresses an algorithm geared to accommodate keywords -- insurance, Steve Jobs,
Muammar Qaddafi, mortgage, Casey Anthony -- but is neither willing nor able to
wonder what the words might mean. It scans everything but hears nothing, as
tone-deaf as the filtering devices maintained by a search engine or the
Pentagon, processing words as lifeless objects, not as living subjects.
The strength of language
doesn’t consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out. “Word
work,” Toni Morrison said in Stockholm,
“is sublime because it is generative,” its felicity in its reach toward the
ineffable. “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do
language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Shakespeare shaped the same
thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer’s day, offering his
rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality: “So long as men can breathe or
eyes can see,/So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
Maybe our digital technology
is still too new. Writing first appears on clay tablets around 3000 BC; it’s
another 3,300 years before mankind invents the codex; from the codex to
moveable type, 1,150 years; from moveable type to the Internet, 532 years.
Forty years haven’t passed since the general introduction of the personal
computer; the World Wide Web has only been in place for 20.
We’re still playing with
toys. The Internet is blessed with undoubtedly miraculous applications, but
language is not yet one of them. Absent the force of the human imagination and
its powers of expression, our machines cannot accelerate the hope of political
and social change, which stems from language that induces a change of heart.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor
. Formerly editor of Harper’s
Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and
Class in America,
Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire.
The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair
has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared
him to Montaigne. This essay introduces "Means of Communication," the
Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
@TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Lewis H. Lapham
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Image by Ragesoss,
licensed under Creative
3/9/2012 2:30:42 PM
Soldiers march through the streets. The town square a dozen blocks away is full of young, idealistic protesters. Whispers of revolution begin to glide through social media websites. From the anonymous refuge of cyberspace, people call for earthly liberation. But then, inexplicable gunfire punctuates the pregnant night air. Something violent is happening, and internet access has been blacked out across the city.
Crackdowns on protest movements in the Middle East over the past two years, like the one in Egypt this winter, belie authoritarian regimes’ fear of social networks and the free flow of information. Large scale internet shutdowns somewhat effectively neutered the crowd-sourced angst of protestors, especially those depending on wireless communications and cell phones to mobilize and advocate. Seeing this increasingly popular trend, Liam Young of big ideas think tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today came up with a futuristic way to put the data stream back in the hands of the dissidents.
“Part nomadic infrastructure and part robotic swarm,” Young developed hatbox-sized, remotely-piloted aircraft that can hover above a crowd like a dragonfly and also serve as an ad hoc electronic network. In something of an ironic twist, Young’s “Electronic Countermeasures” use implements of Big Brother-esque citizen surveillance. Says Young: “We have built a flock GPS-enabled quadcopter drones from components that were originally intended for aerial reconnaissance and police surveillance.”
In his introduction to the project, he continues his description of the drones’ potential uses:
The public can upload files, photos and share data with one another as the drones float above the significant public spaces of the city. The swarm becomes a pirate broadcast network, a mobile infrastructure that passers-by can interact with. It is a site specific file sharing hub, a temporary, emergent online community where content and information is exchanged across the drone network. When on location, a visitor can log onto the drone network with their phones and laptops. When the audience interacts with the drones they glow with vibrant colours, they break formation, they are called over and their flight pattern becomes more dramatic and expressive. Impromptu augmented communities form around the glowing flock. Their aerial dance and dynamic glowing formations give visual expression to the digital communities of the city.
The techno-futuristic vision of Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today may allow the highbrow conceptual design of the swarm—with its “dynamic glowing formations” and “dramatic and expressive” flight pattern—to get in the way of functionality. In a life-and-death protest situation, I know I’d want my mobile internet infrastructure to blend in with the surroundings and stay in one place.
Of course, there’s just as much chance that Young’s technology will be more beneficial to those who fear neither guns nor gallows. My guess for the first place you’ll see one of these little multi-purpose digi-copters: a Flaming Lips concert.
Source: Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today
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