• "i'm tired of feeling like i'm writing to 17 year olds when i write about games. if we can't accept a base level of validity to the thing we're talking about without having to constantly feel shame and prove and defend its existence, then i'm not interested in participating in discussions surrounding games. it's stupid and boring to have so much of the talk be constantly channeled through that. who cares what Roger Ebert or whoever else who never played a videogame thinks or has thought. games are games and they can do good or bad things depending on how they're used. they're only just one tool." Yes, all of this post, and this in particular. I like games; I also like books and films and art an all manner of things. Culture is culture, and I engage with it all in a pretty similar way. A nice piece of writing expressing that, though, and reminding us of the ways we _can_ engage with our cultures and media.

Coming to history anew

10 February 2011

The strangest affect of my possession of an iPad (I do not have an iPhone) is that I have become my own consumer. Each night after midnight when the daily page first announces itself I consult, somewhat furtively (even though alone), the Oracle that I have made. I am often surprised by pages made long ago and almost forgotten, as well as by the sometimes uncanny predictions they offer their maker.

The artist Tom Phillips on reading a book he made in app form. Or rather: reading the daily-page of A Humument, coming to it anew.

This isn’t about the technology of display – the Ipad. This is about the the way delivery changes the relationship a reader has with a text, be it one they wrote, or just one they’ve subscribed to.

And: having your own things returned to you, bit by bit, is always striking. See the Photojojo Time Capsule, or Twitshift, for examples of this in other media: your own history, trickling back to you.

  • "Nolan’s cities are iconless places. The Hong Kong sequence in The Dark Knight omits the harbour, the HSBC and Bank of China buildings, and that city’s famous apartment buildings, instead focussing on vertiginous aerial view of the masses of anonymous buildings in Central. Cobb and Mal’s ideal city four dreams deep in Inception is an infinity of curtain walled downtown, ordinary in the extreme and all the more unsettling because of it. In any case it will be interesting to see where Nolan takes Gotham city in its third outing, likely deeper into the fantastic generic." Interesting take on Christopher Nolan's nowhere-cities. Worth also noting that whilst Cobb and Ariadne build cities, Arthur's dreams tend towards interzones – airports and hotels. There's something on the Interzone and its relationship to that film to be said, too.
  • Straightforward guide to making bots work with OAuth.
  • "You could say that it’s tidal, but with the television schedules, rather than the moon."
  • "Economics has been defined as the science of distributing limited means among unlimited and competing ends. On 12th April, with the arrival of elements of the 30th U.S. Infantry Division, the ushering in of an age of plenty demonstrated the hypothesis that with infinite means economic organization and activity would be redundant, as every want could be satisfied without effort." Remarkable article; fascinating for its subject matter, when it was written, what it describes, and the patterns that hold up inside such a regimented economy. A must-read, really – can't believe it took me so long to get around to it.
  • "Our attempts to bridle the player's freedom of movement and force our meaning onto him are fruitless. Rather, it is a distinct transportative, transformative quality– the ability of the player to build his own personal meaning through immersion in the interactive fields of potential we provide– that is our unique strength, begging to be fully realized." Some great Steve Gaynor; reminds me of Mitch Resnick's "microworld construction kits" all over again.
  • "It's an easy, irresistible, almost childish pleasure: the ground meat dissolved into a dark blood-red sauce until they are one and the same; no hacking, slicing or cutting needed; a slurpy goodness; the oily bolognese hanging on to the slippery pasta; guaranteed joy in a world that's just ruled it out." Recipes for ragu.
  • "Suddenly, instead of Pong, Nolan Bushnell unleashes a stark, monochrome rescue challenge on the world. AVOID MISSING PRINCESS FOR HIGH SCORE burns itself into the brains of a generation. A couple of sequels expand the world of this strange new hero and, keen to bring its popularity to bear on the 2600, Atari execs strong-arm Warren Robinett into populating Adventure with mushroom monsters and making the green dragon friendly." Delightful alterna-history from Margaret in her Offworld column.
  • "Soon enough, amid the daily grind of his obsession, he would see in the game itself a way out of the bleak hole he had fallen into. He would take a clear-eyed, calculating look at what he and his fellow players had been doing all those months—at the countless hours they'd given over to the pursuit of purely virtual but implacably scarce commodities—and he would recognize it not just for the underexploited form of productivity it was but for the highly profitable commercial enterprise it might sustain." Fantastic article from Julian Dibbell on IGE, the massive real-money trading operation.
  • "We will both have to take responsibility for our consumption. A product that keeps working for longer uses less-resources in the end. The key ingredient to all this is quality. To make something well, you know, the best you can do. To go the extra mile that it takes to do that. Every stitch, every zip, every little feature considered. The weakest points made strong. Then, and only then, have we made something that will last the test of time. Guaranteed for a minimum 10 years. Each product will come with a hand me down contract. You will sign who you want to leave the product to. This is legally binding."
  • "Trust begins when I can see the design intention of an application." Great stuff from Rands on how sync should work – namely, in the dumbest way possible – and what building trust into application design looks like.
  • "Throughout most of the year, gaming is distraction and entertainment. November separates the proverbial patriarchs from their upstart offspring. In November, the Gamer! and the With Job! blur. I spend my ill-defined work hours thinking, talking and writing about games. And the time I'm playing games become a form of work – a struggle to keep up no less frenetic than that of the clock-manager in Metropolis." This year's November release schedule was crazier than most, too.
    (tags: games writing )
  • "the brains behind the siduhe bridge decided to ignore all those options and break another record instead. they attached the 3200ft cables to rockets and accurately fired them over the valley, becoming the first people to do so." Woah. The photographs are awesome.

Many of us linked to Clay Shirky’s great talk at Web 2.0 last week, where he described the “cognitive surplus” bound up in millions of man-hours spent watching TV. We read it, and nodded, and grudgingly admitted he was right. I mean, he has a point.

I’m somewhat envious of Chris’ slightly more considered reaction:

“I’m a bit shocked at the general protestant work ethic undercurrents. It’s not a cognitive surplus; it’s a way of coping. The real question is why these people are creating Wikipedia when they could be sleeping instead. We’re processing hundreds, if not thousands of times more information per day than previous humans – how are we meant to make sense of it all if we have no downtime?”

Envious in that some days, I wish I had the balls to say “hang on a sec“.

Chris makes a good point. He also got me thinking a bit about the issue. And I think it’s important to note than when Shirky says “television“, he has a very particular meaning of that word. He’s describing a combination of the medium itself and a particular use of that medium.

Specifically: he’s describing consumption without choice. So to all of you fans of The Wire worrying that he implicated you, don’t worry.

To my mind, Shirky is describing the (depressingly commonplace) reality wherein the television is not something you turn on, but something that is on.

I was talking to Alex about how much TV we watch a week, and whilst we thought it was quite high – six to seven hours, tops – I pointed out that most of that is television we have actively chosen to watch. This week, it’ll be Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Pulling, Peep Show, and of course, The Apprentice. But that’s about it. We rarely ever turn the TV on “just because”, and if we do, it’s usually me doing it – and the first thing I reach for is the EPG. On top of that, we probably won’t even watch that all in real time, but PVR it to watch when’s more convenient.

We are very much in control of our television watching.

We are not the kind of customers TV companies would like us to be. These days, TV is designed to be sticky; something you consistently choose not to turn off. Trails, stings, picture-in-picture; all are designed to stop us “touching that dial”. For a network or station, there’s no difference between changing the channel or turning the box off. Everything’s designed to keep you there.

This is how it’s been for decades, and why, in houses around the world, the TV is a constant presence; once you’ve turned it on, it entices you to keep it on, and so rather than making a choice of next action… you keep watching.

(Incidentally: whilst TV has always been a medium of choice for me, radio is something I often listen to “just because”. Radio’s incredibly sticky… and yet it’s less obssessive about being sticky, I guess because the likelihood that you’re already doing at least one other task – driving, working – is high. Radio’s always been designed to multi-task).

The thing that I have in common with the Wikipedia editors, when I sit down to watch an episode of Doctor Who is that I’ve chosen to do so. Wikipedia won’t edit itself, and you can’t just do it passively; have to actively decide: “I am going to edit some Wikipedia“. The truth of the web – something we can’t say for TV – is that it’s easier than ever to switch from the passive mode (“I’m just browsing some Wikipedia“) to the active mode (“that’s a mistake; I should change it“) – and even back again (“ooh, that link looks interesting“). There’s no possible passivity in creation, but it’s possible to return to a more active state having created.

And so the world Shirky describes as preferable to the constant passivity of TV is not one of constant production, constant creation, but one where “passive” and “engaged” are two ends of a sliding scale – and that it’s the inner of that scale, not the edges, that is most commonly inhabited.

“…the thing that makes participation valuable is that someone’s there to read it.”

And the more I think about this, the more reductive I think it is to describe the TV/not-TV perspective as being one of choice/not-choice. Indeed, most of us fall into neither the “hardcore” all-choice category – constantly running things and editing pages and creating stuff – nor the “totally passive category”; rather, we hover around the middle, scaling up and down to either end. That’s something that’s often forgotten in all the 70-20-10 discussions, where someone invariably flashes a pyramid up in their slide deck: the thing that makes participation valuable is that someone’s there to read it.

The thing that makes being a ten-percenter worthwhile is the seventy percent.

And we’re not all ten-precenters, all of the time; the ten-percenters are going to stop creating for a moment, and become part of their audience. I think that’s something we lose track of in all the “culture of participation“: when do we stop to take in all the things we’re participating in? Chris put this well:

“how are we meant to make sense of it all if we have no downtime?”

I don’t think we can.

This isn’t all to say that Shirky’s point is invalid, or that he’s incorrect – far from it. More the thinking that there are subtleties contained within his talk – and the ideas it stands for – that need to be considered sooner rather than later, before we all start parroting the same lines in our own presentations. By exploring what we understand our own work ethic to be – and examining the choices of how we spend our time – we can make better judgment and make better consideration of how other people spend theirs.

“Only once you can automate the boring processes and provide free time do people have to worry about what to do with their free time.”

The other interesting thing that came out of my chat with Alex was the importance of remembering what the pre-industrial society looked like. Alex pointed out that the Victorians essentially invented the concept of “personality“. Prior to then, shaping one’s individuality was harder simply because there was less free time; the rural lifestyle shapes the individual around the seasons, the environment, the wider group. Only once you can automate the boring processes and provide free time do people have to worry about what to do with their free time. Gin filled that niche for people who really didn’t know what they wanted to be, let alone do. TV is the same: it was progress, and at the time of creation, there were fewer more compelling alternatives.

It’s only recently that the barrier to creativity/productivity has been lowered to the point that it’s a viable alternative to watching TV. Compare the number of people with blogs to the number of people who published zines thirty years ago – a big part of the barrier to making a zine is the amount of time necessary to assemble it, photocopy it, and distribute it. Now, anyone can throw up a website in an evening and potentially have more readers than many of those zines. Since the 1970s, creating-for-pleasure has become much easier, and it’s worth remembering that when we try to illustrate the diversity of alternatives to passive staring at the TV…