Friday, 22 February 2008

What is reason?

I don't know. Read on..!

Monday, 18 February 2008

Apple sells magic

I don't know why I never thought of it before.

Apple lovers and haters alike understand that there is a certain unmeasurable “cool factor” to Apple products that is the main reason why people buy them over other similar (and perhaps better) products. I think it's clear that this cool factor has a lot to do with Apple's Advanced Marketing Techniques. (There are other disputed factors, of course. Among them quality, design, vision, and market savvy.) The people at Apple (along with their marketing team) know how to make the most of products that may not be revolutionary, but which certainly appear that way to the average person. That's the magic. (And so you know, I'm using “magic” in a value-neutral sense here.)

Celebrated science fiction author and physicist Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I'm not sure if he has considered the effect of marketing on this so-called “law”. I think Apple has, if only tacitly. You see, Apple does not develop exceptionally advanced technologies. They are, however, quite good at using current advances, and putting them in fancy packages. The thing is, most existing pre- or near-market technology is far beyond what the average person understands. (Despite constantly increasing usage of technology, I'm certain that most people actually have little understanding of how their gadgets work.) And when that fact is combined with a futuristic design, the result can be startling to the lay person. Basically, with their marketing Apple takes advantage of the knowledge gap between us and their products, which makes them seem more advanced than they actually are. It appears that a sufficiently advanced marketing strategy can make a moderately advanced technology seem like magic.

I have no idea why it took the MacBook Air (MBA) for me to recognize this. I guess it's because unlike recent Apple products like the iPhone and Apple TV, the MBA stands out for what it doesn't have rather than what it does. That is, with the iPhone, Apple combined several still burgeoning technologies (Wi-Fi, portable web-surfing and video, touch screen), with the lifestyle standards of the day (digital music playback and mobile telephony), and added their unique software and design flair, thus creating the new must-have cross-generational lifestyle device—nearly superseding their own iPod (they even redesigned the latter product to match it). All of these technologies exist separately, but Apple put them together and created what appeared to be an highly advanced device that has no peer in the North American and European markets. The MBA on the other hand is a product that already exists—a laptop—and it's functionally inferior to other laptops on the market. Still—and this is crucial—it speaks to the future of the laptop and of personal computing generally. Apple has tried a similar formula as they did with the iPhone: they've taken several upcoming technologies (solid-state “flash” hard disk memory, wireless data transmission*, “multi-touch gestures”, embedded video recording), but then they've actually removed certain standard features in the hope of appearing more advanced and cornering a new lifestyle standard—ultra-portability (the computer has no CD or DVD drive and only the barest minimum of ports). But they've made it seem shockingly thin, and this, Apple is betting, is the main feature that will make this laptop appear sufficiently advanced for us simple people to see it as magic. And importantly, they've done it before anybody else. (Other companies have developed ultra-portable devices, but had you heard of any of them before the MacBook Air? Maybe you geeks had, but I bet the average consumer had not.)

I see through you now Apple! Not that I believed that the fanaticism around Apple wasn't half marketing, but now I understand better what constitutes that “cool factor”: simple magic!

Very clever. But will it work?

*Of course, we have been able to transmit data wirelessly for decades (not including by voice!), but you all understand that I'm talking about current mainstream computer technology. Read on..!

Friday, 8 February 2008

Manufactured Landscapes

Here is the final draft version of my review of the Edward Burtynsky documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” for AND Magazine, issue 1, June 2007.

May I begin by asking what is the difference between natural and artificial, anyway? Then, can we just drop the pretense and acknowledge that we don’t know? Artificial, manufactured; these are words that signify things made or conceived by humans. Natural, by nature or God. But surely I’m not the only one who recognizes that all things come from nature, and no matter if humans form them and put them together, they never belong to us. In other words, the very distinction between nature and artifice is artificial. We made it up! Just like we made up words, beauty, cars, art, TV, politics, countries, objectivity, and coincidence.

This is all to say that the manufactured—the man-made—can be equally as beautiful as the natural; even those things that, when we hear about them in the news, we click our tongues and shake our heads at. And we have no objectivity; that is why when faced with something we disapprove of, we can have an entirely different reaction than if we only hear about it.

Edward Burtynsky is a photographer who can show us these confusing elements of the human being, and make them okay. He can make us find things we think atrocities of human excess to be the height of beauty, and it’s okay. At least that has been my experience of Burtynsky’s work. The documentary film, “Manufactured Landscapes,” directed by Jennifer Baichwal, is much the same. It explores Burtynsky’s work from the beginning of his Manufactured Landscapes period, starting with the brilliant orange-red veins of runoff from nickel mining set against dark earth in Sudbury, Ontario, and the immense empty footprint and incredible classical and abstract formations of stone quarries in Vermont, Italy, and India; she looks at fields of fractalized scrap metals and the great hulking shapes of gigantic oil tankers cut into bits in Bangladesh. From there she quickly moves to the film’s main focus: China and the radical changes taking place there due to industrialization and urbanization unprecedented in human history. It is a country where development is undeniable and unquestionable, and our Western, first world, moral arguments are out of place, irrelevant. Perhaps the perfect location for Burtynsky's neutral lens. The Three Gorges dam project, for example, has displaced over a million people in more than a dozen cities, many of whom were subsequently hired to demolish their own homes and neighbourhoods; but it will provide electricity (to the tune of 84.7 TWh per year by 2009) and facilitate the transportation of goods for the next generation of Chinese. Old, 20th century houses and quarters in Shanghai are torn down to make way for high-rises—condos we call them in Canada— their family tenants forced to move to more distant, cheaper homes, to make way for the next generation of economy-driving Chinese. Nearly unimaginably large factories, manufacturing plants, dominate vast tracts of land and house innumerable interchangeable labourers making products for who knows who now. Seas of coal sit waiting to heat the next generation of nuclear power plants.

This is where the documentary diverges from Burtynsky’s own project. Looking through Baichwal’s film lens, following Burtynsky on his unusual tour of China as he speaks with Chinese of the old and new economies, it is hard not to fall into judgments about the changes taking place there. While watching, I wanted to think that it’s wrong what we’re doing to the earth with our gross exploitation of its resources; it’s wrong to displace such a great amount of people no matter what perceived benefits; it’s backwards to think in such simple, short-sighted, and inefficient terms; et c. And surely there’s nothing wrong with thinking those things. If nobody ever did, there might not be human rights or environmental movements. But there are always at least two sides to a judgment: my side and the “other” side, and if there were not another side, we would have nothing to judge. I might look at these images and see atrocities, or I might see progress, and as soon as I pick one or the other, I create someone with whom I do not and often cannot agree: an enemy.

Burtynsky’s own works—his grand, silent, still images—don’t encourage such judgments with the same urgency. They merely present what’s there, and while perhaps we, as humans, cannot help but to judge one way or the other, I find these images at least initially give pause—a brief moment of freedom, a glimpse of objectivity. And in that moment I find I can choose whether to judge or not: whether to see what’s there—the bare beauty—or to see through a veil of judgment—the ugly, wrong, corrupt, immoral. The neutrality of this moment, this meeting with barefaced reality, is a position from which we can re-envision beauty and progress and most, if not all, of our moral concerns. Maybe beauty can sometimes look like ugliness, and the world can be beautiful just the way it is, with all the trouble and suffering that we cannot avoid; and maybe progress, too, can look ugly, but still be progress, and maybe it does here in the west as well. These ideas don't need to be attached to a single ideology or moral framework. My “right” doesn't have to be my enemy’s “wrong”, and indeed, our disagreement doesn't have to make us enemies. For I don’t know what's right or wrong or good or bad, and when I’m presented with images like those in the film, I don’t especially care. I'm simply ecstatic that somebody is taking the time and risk to capture these moments.

These are easily politicized images that Burtynsky has created, and in the end, it’s impressive the amount of restraint that Baichwal shows in her own take on their story. She makes her opinion known without propagandizing and without making the viewer feel guilty or stupid. Nonetheless, and I admit that this may be my guilty conscience speaking, she seems to me to be saying that what is happening in the world is wrong, and we, the decadents, for various reasons, are to blame. My opinion is only that you would do well to see this film and the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, and enjoy being suspended between your judgments and awe.

For more information on the Three Gorges Dam:

Three Gorges Probe Fact Box
Chinese Government Official Web Portal - The Three Gorges Dam Project Read on..!

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Duelling identities, part 1

I'm not sure how much stock we should put in an article that claims “Youngsters not happy oldies going online”, from an Australian News Corp. affiliate, which I must assume is a tabloid, given this photo of Britney Spears on their front page (I recommend you don't follow the link). The piece cites no sources or even unscientific polls, though the author seems to have interviewed several “youngsters” and a “youth market researcher” from California. Is there in fact a trend—a spreading ageism or gerontophobia among the youth? Or is this article meant to reinforce the contemporary stereotype of lost kids in the digital age and to promote an “us vs them” attitude?

In any case, while the article may be a tabloid fluff piece, it does bring up some interesting talking points. In particular the Generation Gap, which for a while seemed to be growing wider as it coincided with the Technological Divide; Divergent Identities; privacy; the extension of adolescence; and the arrogance of youth.

According to the article, young persons - presumably those of university undergrad age and younger—are often displeased when their elders, particularly their parents and their parents’ friends, find and befriend them on social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace. Being online friends with these “oldies” causes alarm among young folk because it prevents them from communicating openly with their peers for fear of having their adolescent antics exposed.

Though it shows no clear bias—that is, it makes no explicit argument—the article is mostly rubbish. But I do find the idea of Secondary Identities very interesting. Underlying the emptiness of it all, the author (perhaps without knowing) points out that many people (certainly the young are not alone in this) do or say things online that they would not do or say in “real life”, and definitely not around their parents or other adult members of society. People post pictures of themselves and their friends doing things they would not do or discuss in polite company; they post inflammatory comments on web forums that they would be too frightened to say to someone’s face; they offer personal details that they might think twice about before mentioning aloud; all voluntarily, and apparently mostly without regret or fear of repercussion. In the process, regular internet users are creating secondary identities, without even realizing it. And these alternative identities don't seem to match our daily lives.

One might consider it positive that people are expressing themselves honestly through their online identities. That's fair; but why are we unable to reconcile our real and virtual lives? And is it really honest to say something in one place that we would not say elsewhere (particularly when that “one place” is the world wide web)? I don't think it's simply a question of public and private, though that certainly plays a part. Generally, my real public acts are the ones that I want to show others, or rather, they are the things I don't mind others discovering. These acts demonstrate the person that I want others to believe I am. Real private acts are the ones that perhaps more accurately represent my true or hidden character, such as binge drinking, drug taking, excess gambling, vandalism, passive aggression. Indeed, there is a grey area that includes those daily acts that I have no interest in making public, but which should cause little embarrassment if they did become generally known. These might be certain “small-v” vices (smoking tobacco, listening to Yanni, et c.), bedroom activities, or shopping habits. These are truly public acts, because I make no effort to hide them from anybody. The behaviour of my virtual personae should more or less line up with the real. The difference is that it is so much more difficult to keep things private on the internet. Public and private behaviour converge here.

Much has been made in the last couple of years of prospective or current employers discovering their candidates or employees engaged in undesirable behaviour (perhaps even while at work). And several schools have expelled students for inappropriate behaviour discovered on the web. The media tell us: “Your stellar résumé won't save you if there’s a video on YouTube of you throwing up on a stripper, even if it was your bachelor party.” (Unless you're a celebrity.) Actually, in the technological age, where many pray at the altar of celebrity, we seem to revel in playing a part and acting as both celebrities and paparazzi within our own private cliques. On the internet, we can be the stars of our own lives, emulating our favourites and showing off the pictures to prove it.

Stay tuned for part 2. Read on..!
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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.