Posts Tagged ‘technology’

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Media technologies are additive

October 11, 2011

I’ve been watching the debate over Amazon’s e-book rental service, announced a few weeks ago. I can’t help but notice how it recapitulates the debate over streaming music.

Here’s a pretty normal day for me and music: I’ll listen to the radio in my car en route to work. I take my iPod, loaded with MP3s, to the gym. At my desk, I stream music via Spotify, or Last.fm, or by using ex.fm for MP3 links, or Hype Machine, or more. Or I stream more radio. On the way home, I listen to CDs (my car is too old to have an auxiliary input). I might stream Spotify to my phone as I walk out to meet friends for dinner. And I’ll put a vinyl record on when I come home.

Similarly, my office is full of text. Textbooks. Large-format coffee-table style books. My Kindle. Hand-bound copies of all of my theses. PDF e-books on my computer. Printouts of manuscripts to review. Bookmarks to online texts in my browser. Novels: hardbound, trade and pocket paperback. On my phone, Kindle and Instapaper.  Workbooks.

I recently downloaded a number of illustrations from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 book, Kunstformen der Natur, from the Wikimedia Commons. They first existed as sketches, then engravings, then the lithographs that went into the book. Someone scanned the pages and uploaded them as high-resolution images, which I downloaded, opened in image-editing software, converted to greyscale and resized, and then downloaded to serve as the screensavers on my Kindle.

It’s a fallacy to think that the existence of one technology supplants another. Sure, technologies become obsolete. But as a user and a lover of the content (the text, or the music, or the images), I’m not interested in hurrying up the process. Different technologies have different affordances, and my primary interest is in being able to reach for the most appropriate one for my purpose.

[photo: lost box of tapes! by Flickr user wayneandwax, used here under its Creative Commons license]

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Death and the Powers: a critique

April 6, 2011

This is a guest post by Irene Ros. Read more about Death and the Powers, the “robot opera,” here.

A few weeks ago, I attended one of the few Boston performances of Tod Machover’s opera, Death and the Powers. Needless to say, to me, any opera that manages to weave terms like “simulation’” “system” and “cables” into its narrative sounds like an exciting (and nerdy) experience. Enthralled by the display arrays and semi-autonomous robots, I was ready for an evening of fine music and a story that I can identify with. Sadly, I left the show far more disappointed than I thought one could be, given the subject matter.

In the opera, the main character, Simon, is a successful businessman who basks in the glory of the capitalism that made him who he is. But he’s also terminally ill, and he decides to use his hoards of money to migrate his being into the System, an infallible “place.” (Any resemblance of the System to the Singularity is, well, probably not coincidental.) As as I chuckled at Simon singing about his ‘big bucks,’ I started to feel some pangs of missed opportunity clawing at mind. Why pick (another) rich white guy as the protagonist?

Shortly after Simon’s transition to the System, we watched the two female characters in the opera compete for who could appear weaker. His wife Evvy literally loses her voice after Simon’s departure; her subsequent appearances on stage show her as practically unhinged, wandering around the stage wearing headphones to hear the voice of her sublimed husband: after his disappearance, she apparently has no reason to remain a human being with a personality of her own. While Nicholas, Simon’s son, immediately follows him into the System, his daughter Miranda is the only character in the opera who expresses unease. But Miranda’s anxiety is largely presented as how much she misses her father. Her reasoning is so well hidden behind a wall of fragile loneliness that the viewer can’t possibly focus on the legitimate questions she was (almost) asking.

In leaving reality for the System, and taking his wealth with him, Simon somehow crashed the world’s economy (sound familiar?). He resists the entreaties of earthbound organizations to do something to repair it, and the needs of the sick, poor and children then receive their 15 minutes of fame: I was left speechless as a band of what appeared to be zombies walked on stage and attacked Miranda. Why would the needy look like zombies? And were they planning on dancing to “Thriller? Portraying capitalism in such a glorified way, as the destroyer and savior all at once, is nothing short of shameful in my mind. I couldn’t imagine how the opera could get any farther from actually shedding light on our society.

There were so many opportunities missed in this opera to discuss not just the technology question, but also to comment on our social structure through the eyes of the future. While I am certain some would argue that it’s just an opera, and not necessarily the place and time to discuss the impact of capitalism, it would be hard to argue that the storyline didn’t glorify it, at the cost of devaluing anyone who isn’t rich (or male, or white).

Machover heads the Opera of the Future group at MIT’s Media Lab, and it’s past time for us technologists to stop separating our technology from its social context and its impact on society. Perhaps the opera is most successful at showing how technology, thoughtlessly applied, will only recapitulate the existing social and power structures. Where the digital and human merge, the ethical questions and possibilities for change extend far beyond the limited ones presented in Death and the Powers.

Irene Ros is an artist, musician and visualization research developer at the Visual Communication Lab of IBM Research, in Cambridge, MA. Learn more about her and her work at ireneros.com.

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Music Hack Day Boston: roundup

November 23, 2009

Right. So. The lights went out on my laptop this weekend. Literally, as it happened: the backlight on my screen died, and my plans to liveblog the Boston Music Hack Day died with it. So here’s a roundup instead.

Laptop or no, it was a great weekend, with three excellent panels and lots of hacking, including 30+ demos shown off on Sunday afternoon, and an amazing number of interesting conversations. Anthony Volodkin, a founder of Hype Machine, wrote a clear (and laudatory) summary here. You can also check out the PublicSpaces Lab post here, and there’s an annotated list of all the projects at Indie Music TechJen Nathan did a fun piece on NHPR’s Word of Mouth on the circuit bending contingent (more on that in the next post). If you prefer your reportage a little more à la minute, check out the Twitter hashtag #musichackday for observations and soundbites.

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Music Hack Day Boston, Nov 21

November 21, 2009

10 am: Saturday, November 21st:

I am a nerd imposter. Paul Lamere just announced that the primary activity for this weekend is hacking, and that everything else is optional. As someone who spends way more time doing experimentation and analysis than coding and soldering, I’m suddenly realizing that I’m the wrong kind of nerd.

I’m at Microsoft NERD’s sunny offices on the Charles River in Cambridge, in a room full of the right kind of nerd: people who are excited about spending the weekend creating at the intersection of music and technology. It’s still pretty early on Saturday morning, and the auditorium space is only about half-full (I guess the hackers are conserving their energy for some overnight hacking in the Echo Nest offices). Right now we’re listening to elevator pitches from companies like SoundCloud, SongKick, Collecta, Tapulous and more, all of whom are sharing their toys.

In a pleasant break from tradition, we ended the opening session twenty minutes early – let the hacking begin!

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