The Symbolic Species, by Terence Deacon
Archive for July, 2003
A red dragonfly buzzes the ornamental pond. She lands on a stalk of bamboo, which leans perilously. She flies away.
It was a good meeting last weekend; we outlined what we think we’re doing and where we’re going. We answered questions in a circle, which meant that the people who usually talk more talked less and vice versa. We’re going to have membership which takes a higher level of organization, and will hopefully make it easier for more people to join and be active.
Then some people went home, and the folks who were left stayed out on the deck in to the evening, drinking beer and hanging out. Chip played the Zevon catalog on guitar, in sociably misanthropic and genially mournful manner. The sun set over the backyard meadow, which has clumps of cactus amid wildflowers. That’s a benefit of living in a rural area 45 minutes out of town; the backyard is a meadow not an eyesore. We watched the stars circle overhead.
We stayed at the not-quite-finished winter house of a neighbor. Plastic sheeting is tacked over the roof insulation, tarpaper peels off the walls. Electricity and running water, but no indoor plumbing or A/C. The neighbor across the street has statues of birds on the fence running to the house. The neighbors behind have cockfights. It’s a live as you please kind of neighborhood.
from a Slate article comparing the iTunes Top 100 with the Billboard Top 100:
“Billboard says that Apple, the most aggressive player in this market so far, is selling an average of 500,000 tracks a week. If that’s true, and it takes just 1,500 sales to be No. 1, then the variety of tracks that people are downloading must be extremely broad
The New York Times covers the trend toward using instant messaging and chat in lecture halls and conferences. Greg Elin doesn’t think we should consider this “virtual participation.”
My own contribution to this supposed conundrum of “real” v. “virtual” is that it is very hard that it may not really matter, at least not along the lines of “off line” v. “online.”
Let me explain. As we grow more accustomed to technologies, as they become more translucent and a part of everyday experience or a part of society’s infrastructure, we as humans simply integrate them into our overall social interactions. For example, I don’t think we consider something as familiar as a telephone conversation as “virtual.” It is just a telephone conversation.
Joi Ito writes: There is a lot of talk about identity these days. You MUST remember that identities are like names. You are NOT your identity. Your identity points to you. Everyone has multiple identities. Roger Clark describes this as the difference between entities and identities. You are an entity. Your name, your role in the company, your relationship with your child, they are different identities. Multiples identities isn’t just about having more than one email address or chat room nym. A multitude of identities is an essential component in protecting privacy and interacting in an exceedingly digital world.
Cory Doctorow is an amazingly fast writer. I’ve watched him blog conference talks and leave contrails. I wish he’d written this book a bit more slowly.
“Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” imagines a utopia where death has become obsolete — upon fatal injury, a new body can be cloned, and the mind restored from backup. Scarcity has been eliminated, and money has been replaced by “whuffie” — the sum of a person’s reputation.
The story cleverly explores the consequences of these premises. In the main story line, the protagonist seeks revenge for his own murder.
The absense of death and scarcity makes people free to devote their lives to art and fun. The story is aptly set in Disney, pinnacle of creativity and surface cheer. Yet the lifelong pursuit of entertainment and art doesn’t solve existential conflicts or give people the adversity they need to grow up. The reputation economy creates a culture in which people are excruciatingly politic and upbeat, even as they betray each other and commit dastardly deeds for the sake of whuffie.
I enjoyed the way the book dramatized the consequences of the premises. But the novel might have been richer, if the author had taken more time.
The Disney utopia wants a bright, shiny, eery atmosphere; a sort of pastel noir. The surgically constumed characters and mind-possessing rides could be really creepy. Too often, the book describes the effect without creating the feeling.
With its characters, too, the book tells more than it shows. The protagonist is a creative slacker who’s on his third adulthood — changing channels through wives and lives. This is how the book describes his feelings about dating a much younger woman: “my girlfriend was fifteen percent of my age, and I was old-fashioned enough that it bugged me…I was more than a century old, but there was still a kind of magic in having my arms around the warm, fine shoulders of a girl by midnight.. I’d been startled to know that she know the Beatles.” Maybe the book’s making the point that a century of entertainment hasn’t made the protagonist grow up. But there are subtler ways of portraying the age distance.
My favorite aspect of the book is the dramatization of contemporary, wired life.
Characters have brain implants that give them instant access to information about the world; and send silent messages to each other using a wireless brain interface. People’s lives depend on backing up their brain regularly, yet they’re still tempted to prioritize urgent deadlines over backups and system maintenance.
Cory’s captured the psychological effect of constant connection to Google, email and instant messaging, utter dependence on digital data, and the perilous personal consequences of system crash without backup.
Anyone who’s worked in a highly political organization will recognize the endless rounds of socialization required for decisions, and the cheerful delusion zealously maintained in the face of disaster.
In summary (for Peterme, who always asks if I liked the book), the book meets the criteria for a good sci-fi novel; exploring ideas by extrapolating them to a future extreme, while satirizing contemporary culture. The book could have been richer and deeper; I hope that Cory slows down a bit for the next one.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow
Gordon Mohr wants a Wifi Wiki Hifi “Imagine that a cafe has both wireless net access and a net-linked stereo. Just like a Wiki website lets visitors edit its pages, such a sound system would let walk-in visitors mix its audio playlist.”
Gordon brings up a small concern: “The only real impediment here is that if you want to get technical, such dynamic unlicensed music sharing and performance is illegal.”
Yes, but commercial venues already have license terms for recorded music they play for the crowd. It shouldn’t be impossible to work out a deal to extend the terms to digital mix and play.