Monday, July 25, 2016

Obsessing over Ghosts: Pokémon Go and Twitter

Twitter has recently been in the news as people have been demanding "something" be done about harassment due to terrible things people have been tweeting about Leslie Jones. All of this is happening against the background of the sudden appearance of Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality mobile game. It launched a few weeks ago and had the desired effect: Nintendo's stock soared, and for a time made it more valuable than Sony.

The game is an astute combination of 90s nostalgia (if you're under 35, you probably really cared about Pokémon at some point), mobile phones, and the increasingly mainstream elements of virtual goods and virtual and augmented reality.

As might be expected from a highly-targeted mobile game, people are behaving badly. They're looking for imaginary creatures at inappropriate locations. They're not watching where they're going. They're doing obviously dumb things. And in our current world, not everyone can be wandering around in unusual locations without attracting attention. We haven't seen any violence associated with the game yet, but it's really just a matter of time. Much like distracted drivers, people are so intent on finding these electronic ghosts they're putting their actual lives (or at least dignity) at risk.

In the early 2000s, I did some product design work for a company that was going to sell virtual goods for avatars. It felt too early (and it was) but not long after that, young people quickly accepted the concept of virtual goods. And not long after that, somewhat predictably, people started committing crimes to get virtual goods. Some of these were 100% online scams, some were old tricks with some new twists, and a few were straight-up beatings until the user gave up their password. The Korean government had to ban trades of virtual goods for real money.

The surprising part is people are investing such effort into things exist only as ideas and bits on servers. None of it is real.


Twitter is [mostly] stupid

Lifting A Dreamer
(a.k.a. Twitter Fail Whale)
by Yiying Lu
Twitter is (mostly) stupid. This is not a particularly new thing to note -- others have said this before. I've said it before. But it bears repeating and dissecting.

There is nothing special about Twitter. It is a website. An email list. Instant messaging. Twitter creates no content of its own. It offers no unique functionality. Its product design is janky and impenetrable.

Even its much-tauted "community" is a mirage, or perhaps most accurately, many mirages. Who uses Twitter and for what has changed over time, both as the company pushes for larger audience and acceptance and the early adopters leave for more interesting and useful tools. 

The hashtag is a prime example of the cultural workarounds required to "use" Twitter. You know it's bad design, a racket, or both when there are entire consulting industries built on helping educate you on how to properly #DoItRight and not be a #Loser.

Worse is when normal writing is broken into a series of bite-sized chunks, posted sequentially. Reading them is akin to listening to someone give a speech after they've run a marathon, or while they're drinking half a glass of water after every sentence. It's tedious, breaks the flow of language, and is a kind of textual hand held up that says "don't interrupt, I'm not finished yet".

Twitter's 140 character limitations aren't some sort of artistic liberation. They force everyone to write in a pared-down way that strips language of nuance and style. It fosters a sophistication and pithiness on par with a bumper sticker. Then again, plenty of people think bumper stickers are funny and insightful.

When I read Twitter, I see an endless stream of "LOOK AT ME!" That's really all Twitter is: people wanting someone to pay attention to them, to acknowledge their clever quote or their clever repetition of someone else's quote.

Even my own tweets fall into this trap. I think it's a fundamental part of the form. You can't write, you can just scribble short notes.

I remain amazed that Twitter has, through sheer force of corporate will, become a place people care about. There are people (including some people I greatly respect) who take Twitter seriously, and post there regularly. There are people who feel Twitter has enabled strong cultural movements and helped revolutions. I find that scary and sad.

It's a corporate website, and not a particularly successful one. Twitter's feed of writing from the people you follow mixes in advertising, which has the effect of turning everything -- including those important messages from your cultural movement and revolution -- into grist for selling whatever stuff Twitter is monetizing. You might be fighting The Man, but if you're using Twitter, you're literally working for The Man.


Fear of Ghosts

I ain't afraid of no ghosts.
It is said Twitter has a harassment problem: it's easy to create anonymous accounts and send horrible things to people, or write horrible things about people that "everyone" can read.

These capabilities are actually a fundamental part of Twitter's design. The same things people are complaining about are part of why Twitter has grown into its current incarnation: It affords easy, quick, instantaneous communication across groups; and its limitations and social structure encourage people to be provocative and make big statements with the hope of getting followed, RT'ed, shared, noticed.

It should be no surprise that, like everywhere else on the Internet, anonymity + megaphone = terrible behavior.

Leslie Jones repeated some of the awful things people had written about her and identified the accounts that said these awful things, and then requested some action be taken. [Note: I think Leslie Jones is funny and talented; I have not seen the new "Ghostbusters" movie]

Harassment is not a new problem for Twitter. It's been an issue more or less since the platform launched. Why is the harassment of this one public figure (a comedic actor, no less, someone hardly unused to public abuse) such a big deal, and why now?

People have been writing awful things about other public figures on Twitter for a long time. People have been writing awful things about non-public figures, too. When you're a celebrity, part of the job is putting up with people being terrible and saying mean things. That doesn't make it hurt less (and in fact, for many celebrities, who have a deep need for affirmation, it can hurt more). However, it is indicative of Twitter's priorities and general maturity that they will take action to defend a famous person and not the ordinary people being harassed on a daily basis.

Twitter continues to have an arbitrary and weak policy regarding communications on its platform. One might argue that is OK. It's very dangerous for any communications technology to classify behavior or speech as "unacceptable". Everything is "unacceptable" to someone. You're not entitled to free speech in private venues, but Twitter is designed to feel like a public venue, and encourages people to think of it that way.

So you end up in a world where speech is curated and curtailed. "Please leave only positive feedback, or at least only say mean stuff about the people and things we don't like." With the "we" being whichever group is steering Twitter's culture at the moment. 

There's an evolution that happens quickly: groups who want to say offensive things begin speaking in code, and then the code is banned, too.

The step beyond that is getting banned from Twitter for things you said somewhere else...and then pre-emptively disallowed from joining (Should ISIS have a Twitter account? Monsanto? Fox News? Howard Stern? Rush Limbaugh? Noam Chomsky?). This sort of "bleed" and general enforcement of a corporate behavior and mindset is increasingly spreading. Say the wrong thing in the wrong place and you'll lose your job as well as your Twitter account.

I don't know how aggressively Twitter should police what its users are saying. It reminds me a little of a child's playground, where the kids keep running up to the teacher or parent and asking them to do something about the other kids being mean to them. Sometimes, that's just the way it is on the playground, and you either ignore the mean kids, fight back, or leave.

Appealing to The Man to fix it  feels strange and wrong. Worse, I think having that mindset and taking that kind of action is fundamentally disempowering -- it presupposes we cannot handle it ourselves, are not resilient, and must appeal to a "higher authority" -- and that higher authority is corporate. It is The Man. We've already lost, and lost more than the playground fight.

What seems like a better solution is what Twitter did: ban users who are being abusive. The sad thing here is the person they banned had been an abusive jerk for years. He was a legendary abusive jerk, and one whom Twitter had "verified' an account. So he was an official, verified, legendary abusive jerk. Until he made terrible racist comments about a black actress in a just-decent comedic remake of an old 80s movie. That was apparently over the line.

But everyone Twitter bans can create another account. Or have other people post their garbage. Or continue to write mean things on Tumblr or Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram or Reddit or whatever other internet service people use to communicate.

And of course, to hear the troll tell it, he was trying to prove a point, and Twitter took the bait.

Banning people for speaking their mind (as horrible as it is) means Twitter isn't a communications medium, it's just a community, and one that will enforce a mindset by exile. This is great news if you agree with how these bans happen. It's really bad news when governments, corporations, or other powerful public figures (Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton?) start demanding people get banned from Twitter for being unmutual.

It also raises questions about who gets to wield the banhammer and with what criteria. These questions have no good answers, particularly for private companies.

Finally, banning people doesn't solve the problem. Because the problem isn't the offensive speech. The problem is the people and the particular mindset that produced the speech in the first place. You can make them virtually shut up and kick them out of the clubhouse. They'll go start their own clubhouse and simmer, and the culture in each clubhouse becomes a little more insular (and stable). Banning literally and metaphorically ends the conversation, and there are only a few directions for conflict to go when words stop.

Perhaps a better solution is simply this: Remind yourself that Twitter isn't real. It doesn't exist. It's not a real place. And whatever is scrawled there does not matter one bit. That also means the praise you get on social media is as insignificant and unimportant as the hate. 

Instead of valuing, fearing, and chasing electronic ghosts, perhaps we should focus more on what's real.


Some of you will point out that I have at least one Twitter account. This isn't because I think it's good. In my career as a digital media expert, I am required be aware of and understand things of significance on the internet. Twitter can be fun, like Pokemon Go, but I don't play it much..

Friday, July 01, 2016

Isao Tomita (1932 - 2016)


Isao Tomita was a remarkable musician. Inspired by Wendy Carlos' synthesized Bach success, Tomita took on more orchestral pieces with more elaborate arrangements and added his own aesthetic and attention to detail. His list of famous synthesized covers includes "Firebird", "The Planets", "Pictures at an Exhibition", and several of Debussy's pieces.

Today, "one-man bands" building entirely synthesized records in their own personal studios is commonplace, but back when this album came out, it was an incredible achievement. All the more so when you realize how primitive the equipment was, and how rich and detailed Tomita's sounds were. And of course, all of his synthesizers were monophonic, too.

His "Kosmos" was one of the first records I heard, and as the years have passed, I have come to realize it left a very deep impression on me.

"Kosmos" was released in 1978. I was 9 years old, and already a hyper-cerebral nerd.

I studied this massive gatefold record intensely. I noted the trompe l'oeil hinges on the spine of the gatefold. How the cover image was itself an image set onto the "steel" of the rest of the art.

The interior of the gatefold showed Tomita sitting in front of his massive Moog modular system, fading into a desert vista, showing you  how he saw sonic landscapes.

The record also featured fantastic liner notes, with Tomita explaining each of the pieces, why he had chosen them, and what they meant.

It also included a comprehensive and fantastic gear list. My mind was blown reading that this record had been made using things like the "Eventide Instant Phaser" and "Roland Dimention IV". Just reading the names of the equipment was exciting.

The record itself was fairly broad. Aside from the somewhat pandery/commercial "Star Wars" theme by John Williams, the album includes a wide range of composers: Bach (Ich Ruf;zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ/BWV 639, used for "Solaris"), Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries", Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question", a bit of Grieg's "Peer Gynt", and Rodrigo's "Aranjuez" (which Miles Davis had also transformed).

I was initially attracted to it because of the novelty of synthesizer sounds, and because it had a version of the "Star Wars" theme on it. But the mystery and emotion in all the other pieces made an impact as well, and nearly all of the pieces on the record ended up being discussed in my "history of 20th century music" class at TIP.

The record sounds both dated and timeless, a strange take on a strange selection of pieces that somehow fit together nicely...though these days I always skip "Star Wars".

Whether great or cheesy, this record became a part of my musical identity in fundamental ways: The sonic exploration, the love of "weird", the melodicism, the space (in every sense of the word). It was an explicit reference when I was working on my first few Captain Kirk records.

Thank you for the music, Tomita-san.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

My Prince Stories

1. In The Studio

I never met him, but I got very, very close.

In the early 90s, I had a job working at a big-deal top-flight recording studio in Los Angeles. It was a terrible job that amounted to being a glorifed go-fer taking a lot of abuse. Clean the studios and the bathrooms. Move cars. Fetch lunch. Coil cables. Get yelled at.

The benefits? You got to stand next to and occasionally touch some (then) incredibly expensive and rare gear, and if you stuck around long enough, you might get promoted to be a 2nd engineer assisting on a session, and eventually "engineer". (Dear reader, this did not happen for me.)

The other benefit? You were close to some very talented and creative people while they were working. During my relatively short tenure there, that list of talented and creative people included Seal (with Steve Lillywhite!), Guns N'Roses...and Prince.

Prince worked all the time. When he'd show up, he'd lock himself in the studio and work like crazy. A typical day, I'd get a phone call at the front desk and it would be his handler, who would say "Prince is coming in at 10 am." So we'd start hustling, organizing, getting flowers in place, getting the candles and lighting ready, all dialed in with the tape on the reels by 9.

10 passes. No Prince. Then 11. Then 12. Into the afternoon. No Prince. No lunch either, because he might show up. Finally, around 4 or 5, handler calls again. "Prince isn't coming in today." OK. Back in the room, snuff out the candles, clean up, take the tape down, get everything re-set for tomorrow.

I go home. Phone rings at like 10 PM. "Prince is on his way to the studio, he'll be there by 11 pm." Hop in the car, hustle back over, get everything set up again.

11 pm passes. No prince. Midnight. 1 am. Shortly after 2 am, Prince's custom-painted and -designed BMW rolls up to the coned-off area in front. His bodyguard comes in, checks that everything is clear between the front door and the studio door. Prince whooshes in, beelining for the studio. He's wearing a very typical Prince outfit. He stops at the studio door, and says "Everybody get out, I'm working alone tonight."

So then everyone leaves, me included. He literally works alone in the studio all night. We carted out more tapes of final mixes than I can count. Some of it has been released. Some of it hasn't.

2. The Guitar

As one of the new people on the team, I got assigned the graveyard shift. I was there, largely cleaning, tidying up, making sure everything was ready for the next day and that nobody breaks in.

Most of the time, Prince was not there. Nobody was there. It was boring, exhausting, and tedious, the hardest part of the job being staying up until dawn (and then hoping you didn't get double-shifted because the other runners partied too hard the night before while I was working).

So one night I'm sitting there, at like 3 am, and I realize that Prince's guitar -- you know the one, the "Cloud guitar" from Purple Rain -- is sitting in his studio, plugged in to his rig. I could go play it.

I walk into his studio, through the control room, and I see it is there, on a stand, lit in the recording room. His guitar. The peach one.

It's 3 AM. There's nobody else in this enormous building.

I reach out for the guitar, and I stop.

I am convinced that no matter how carefully I treat this instrument, no matter how I return it to the stand, Prince will just KNOW.

Like a fairy tale, he will walk in. His back will stiffen. He will say "Someone played my guitar last night."

And then, like the Terminator, he will sense it is me. And he will point his finger at me and say "it was him. He played my guitar." And that will be the end.

So I don't play it. I just stand there for a moment, as close to Prince as I'll ever get. And then I turn around and walk out, hoping that The Purple One doesn't sense it.

3. Seal

Prince happens to be working in one studio at the same time that Seal is working on his follow-up to his first album in another room.

Seal is a huge Prince fan. I mean that in every sense. Seal is a tall guy (6' 4"), and Prince relatively compact (5' 2"). Seal wanted to meet Prince, and I was tasked with finding out if this was "OK".

Of course, it was NOT OK. I was told that Prince was not going to meet Seal.

Seal was not to be deterred. The door to Seal's studio was right by the front door of the facility, and Prince had to walk right by it to leave. So Seal hides behind his studio door, peeking out, waiting.

Sure enough, at around 6 pm, Prince is getting ready to leave. Prince's bodyguard clears the hallway, and gives Prince the "all clear" sign. Prince starts walking briskly down the hallway, his bodyguard following close behind.

It's maybe 20' of walking. Right before he is able to exit, Seal bursts out of his studio, blocks the way, and says to Prince "I'm a huge fan, I just wanted to say hello and that I love your music."

Prince freezes, stares up at Seal, and says a clipped "thanks", as he tries to fumble past through the door while the bodyguard rapidly closes the distance and gives Seal a look between "I'll kill you" and "not cool, bro, not cool at all".

After Prince leaves, Seal is smiling and laughing.