From Google Goggles to Omni Science

in Pop Apocalypse, visual search revolution

Google has created an interesting new product for Android-based mobile devices called Google Goggles, which allows you to do visual searches based on images your phone’s camera captures.  Needless to say, this is just one more step on the long road to the visual search revolution, as described in Pop Apocalypse.  It’s all happening right on schedule, and each incremental step will seem — as this does! — real neat when it happens.

io9 on PA

in Pop Apocalypse

Lauren Davis over at io9 has written one of the most perceptive reviews of Pop Apocalypse I’ve seen yet out there in the mediasphere. Davis concludes:

Pop Apocalypse is a genuinely frightening book, not for its apocalyptic prophesies, but for its peek five minutes into the future. It’s suggestion that photo-tagging software could someday turn all of existence into the ultimate reality television show isn’t far-fetched in the least. One character comments that when you see how sausage gets made, you’ll want to become a vegetarian. And in Pop Apocalypse, we’re the sausage, and the whole world sees how we’re being made all the time.

She’s quite right about the apocalyptic framework of the book: it’s more of a way of thinking about the social, political, and economic problems of the present (and maybe the very near future) than it is a genuine Cassandraish forecast of planetary doom. I’m saving genuine planetary doom for future projects, in fact.

Also, I’m pleased she caught the sausage line. Check it out.

Listmania vs. Lake Woebegone

in Andrew Seal, Edmond Caldwell, Helen DeWitt, John Guillory, The Millions

X-posted at Plasma Pool.

There is an interesting emerging conversation about The Millions‘ recently published “Best [Books] of the Millennium” list on a number of blogs I follow. First, Edmond Caldwell over at Contra James Wood questions the whole premise of list-making, associating such lists with the predominantly corporate character of the imprints represented on the list: “the listing and ranking game goes on–and on and on–as if all sectors of society were afflicted with a kind of mass obsessive-compulsive disorder or species of autism. “If ordered lists like this must exist,” stipulates Andrew Seal – but why must they? Why should we submit to such fatalism? Where do these lists come from, whom do they benefit, and what ultimate ideological function do they serve?”

Andrew Seal, responding to Caldwell on his blog, (fatalistically?) argues that “I don’t really see how I’m going to stop them [literary lists]. They have a manifest utility for a number of different types of readers: they make well-read people feel good, both by allowing them to sneer at them and by allowing them to note what a great percentage of the list they’ve read; they allow younger (or less well-read) readers to get a feel for which books to allocate their temporal resources toward; they allow readers with well-defined tastes to pick attention-grabbing fights; they allow readers with no well-defined tastes an opportunity to pick up one. These lists don’t function as tools for generating a consensus which a critique can overturn or disrupt; they exist to attract a broad range of interests, many of which contradict one another.”

An interesting debate. My eyes sort of glazed over when I read The Millions list.

picture-millions.jpg

I bear none of these authors any animosity as individuals — though I am frankly not always fans of their books (except for those books I am a fan of!) — but The Millions list seems to me tediously predictable on a number of levels and in ways that I find it hard to articulate. I am left with a number of questions: What’s the matter with lists? If lists can be used as a bludgeon in a game of status-conscious warfare, aren’t lists also a convenient time-saving device, a way of getting started exploring some intellectual or cultural domain for non-initiates? If I wanted to learn more (to pick in an innocent example) about the history of Marxism, wouldn’t a list of the “best” books on the history of Marxism — organized by a trusted expert on the subject — be an excellent and useful thing? Indeed, isn’t a good list a way of getting started in a cultural domain, not the final word on that domain? Is there no practice of list-making which is ideologically neutral? John Guillory has a lot to say about the ideological function of the list in the canon debate in Cultural Capital, but Helen DeWitt gives what seems to me the most lucid answer I’ve found to some of my questions; explaining why she refused to submit her judgments to the listmakers, she writes that “[t]he only writers who stand any chance of making it into the top 20 are going to be writers a significant number of other contributors have also noticed – which means they are wildly unlikely to come from the undeservedly neglected. They will come from the pool of writers who got promoted, who won acclaim, in other words from the much smaller pool of writers many of us have happened to hear of.”

Aggregation around socially interesting “nodes” is perhaps an inevitable part of social life, but — as I’ve discussed elsewhere — such nodes are also deeply self-reinforcing. In artificial music markets where “consumers” can see the preferences of other “consumers,” initial consumer clustering (almost at random) around certain “seeds” has a powerful effect on subsequent consumer choice. That is, if you happen by chance to take an early lead in a competitive race in an open market, social clustering around apparent “winners” will create feedback loops. The popular become more popular, and the unpopular become less popular. (Moreover, this difference in popularity isn’t just a cynical consumerist copying of the tastes of the Joneses — it’s not all about status anxiety — but is arguably experienced sincerely as pleasure or disgust, though this is a secondary point.) In this context, if the form of the list has an ideological function, it is to reduce thought to a sort of cant, to give an illusion of superiority of one item in a field of more or less equally good (middling) products. Genuine superiority or inferiority is exceedingly rare. Experiments that construct artificial music markets in which consumer choices are genuinely independent — where you make your own choice and issue a rating independently of others — demonstrate in general that consumers have no particular preference for one artist or another, except at the tail ends of the distribution. If you stink, you won’t get very far; if you’re great, you’ll always do modestly better in your ratings. If you’re in the middle of the stack, your fate is a crap shoot.

If we accept this admittedly speculative analysis, and are willing to apply it to our conversation about books, what do these results portend for literary lists? It seems to me that all we can say about lists is that their popularity and consistency is a symptom of a highly stratified, hierarchical culture in which truly independent thought is incredibly hard to find. Eliminating lists will not eliminate this stratification or the social forces that drive us toward some canonized set of authors. To make an unjustly bold claim, given the sketchiness of my evidence: a just distribution of attention — attention allocated in a society where highly educated individuals made genuinely autonomous value assessments, independent of marketing and spin, under conditions free of coercion — would reveal the (arguably) fundamental sameness of most literary and artistic products or at least make constructing literary lists impossible, since the autonomous judgments of a hundred judges like DeWitt would not cluster around any nodes whatsoever. These lists would look like statistical noise to us. Some small set of artists might garner slightly more attention under such conditions, others a bit less, but most would — like the children of Lake Woebegone — be equally regarded as (slightly) above average, and we would be forced at last to love all our above-average children equally.

Inherent Vice

in Inherent Vice, Plasma Pool, Thomas Pynchon

Check out my microreview of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice over at Plasma Pool. And while you’re there, check out the rest of the site. They’re doing some interesting stuff.

Dissertation abstract

in postirony

I’ve been frantically copyediting my dissertation in anticipation of filing this coming Wednesday. One thing I’ve finally settled is the wording of my abstract, which took way longer than it should have. For those who’re interested, here’s the final text I’ve come reluctantly to accept:

“Wipe That Smirk off Your Face” examines a contemporary ethos of literary production I call “postirony” and relates this new artistic sensibility to longstanding critical debates about the value of irony. Starting in the late 1980s, postironic authors began critiquing the postmodernist fiction and poststructuralist theory they were exposed to in the academy while remaining committed to extending these traditions. Positioning themselves as a new type of counterculture or avant-garde, postironists claimed that the dominant culture had co-opted irony, thus robbing it of its critical power. My dissertation investigates the theoretical presuppositions underlying this claim and argues that both postmodern ironists and postironists rely on the same tacit theory of cultural politics, the notion that symbolic action can undermine the foundationally linguistic or symbolic apparatus through which the mainstream culture maintains its power. The authors I study all present literary models of ironic and postironic character as a means of resisting the hegemonic culture. My chapters therefore tell the story of irony’s decline through the analysis of three major countercultural figures who have noteworthy relationships to irony: the hipster, the believer, and the trendspotter.

My first chapter analyzes the ironic figure of the “hipster” in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963) and documents how cold war intellectuals celebrated the hipster for his powers of self-creation and ironic knowingness. In Invisible Man, Ellison joins this cold war consensus by positioning a hipster character (B.P. Rinehart) as the catalyst that awakens his protagonist to the ideological limitations of the Brotherhood, a thinly veiled version of the Communist Party USA. In contrast to social realist and protest fiction, postwar modernism was viewed as a potent anticommunist weapon, simultaneously an emblem of the freedom of the West and a bulwark against middlebrow American culture. A decade later, Pynchon invokes a post-Beat version of the hipster in V. as a means of finding a middle ground between postwar modernism and the emerging counterculture. Pynchon’s desire to court both sources of cultural legitimacy inflects the form of V., which is divided equally between a Beat narrative and a modernist narrative, each of which ironizes the other. Pynchon seeks to construct a higher-order critical irony above both modernism and hipness, and attempts to render this superior stance in the character of the African-American jazz saxophonist, McClintic Sphere.

In my second chapter, I turn to the “believer” in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). Wallace and Eggers regard the higher-order irony Pynchon helped invent as hopelessly corrupted and alienating, and seek to use postmodernist techniques toward sincere ends. Their postironic metafiction constructs a picture of the believer as a secular figure designed to resist the disenchantment many felt at the end of the cold war, when the market came to seem triumphant and invincible. Wallace uses metafictional form to cultivate reader belief and to short-circuit what he sees as the irony characteristic of American consumer culture. For Eggers, the believer finds re-enchantment in an aesthetic practice of “quirky” juxtaposition, the aggregation of unusual consumer products and offbeat experiences, the transformation of lifestyle into a work of art that inextricably links ethics and aesthetics. I conclude that the ethos of the postironic believer fails to neutralize irony and cynicism because these authors propose to solve institutional problems through individual activity. Even Eggers, who has built popular literary and philanthropic organizations that have adopted postirony as something like their house style, links re-enchantment to the atomizing logic of the competitive marketplace.

My third chapter studies the trendspotter, a female figure that combines functions associated with economic production and consumption, in Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl (2001) and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003). I relate these two novels, examples of a literary genre that Fredric Jameson has called “socioeconomic science fiction,” to an influential body of branding theory that tries to understand and manipulate the symbolic logic underlying consumer motivation. The Savage Girl imagines a satirical version of the present in which all values, including countercultural values, have been commodified. Shakar’s hip trendspotter characters forecast the rise of what they term “postirony,” a collective cultural backlash against postmodern irony, along the lines outlined in my second chapter. Shakar’s characters compete to define the word “postirony,” reproducing at the level of content the formal problems we face as readers of The Savage Girl. In Pattern Recognition, Gibson presents his protagonist, the trendspotter Cayce Pollard, as a model of how one might endure the marketing-saturated world of globalization. Gibson uses a brand-name-laden style as a means of creating for his reader “cognitive maps” of economic globalization. These maps, associated by Gibson with the figure of the trendspotter, are features of a postironic disposition inclined to link the intimidating complexity of real global supply chains to the glossy surface of the brand.

My conclusion analyzes aspects of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which skillfully presented the candidate as a human symbol able to neutralize voter apathy and cynicism and reinvigorate engagement with public life. I link the sophisticated marketing techniques of the campaign to Obama’s Dreams from My Father (1995), which I describe as a postironic Bildungsroman, suggesting that his presidential campaign should be understood as an extended paratext of his memoir. A postironic figure, “Brand Obama” was able to speak to different groups in different linguistic registers while maintaining a highly regimented, technologically savvy, and unified identity. His success may foretell the growing relevance of the postironic project to cultural life.

Well, I’ve settled on this version until I inevitably change my mind about this or that word or phrase five seconds before I submit. Who knew writing the abstract would be so hard? (I’ll semi-surreptitiously change the text of this abstract if and as I make any future changes, just so you’re warned. Down the memory hole!)

Return to Life

in dissertation, Pop Apocalypse, postirony

I’ve been woefully negligent as a blogger (and, I should say, as a fiction writer), too busy putting the finishing touches on my dissertation to do much else. My primary chapters are all done, and my introduction and conclusion are mostly written. Two-three more days — finishing the intro and conclusion and doing a global revision of the whole diss. — and it’ll be complete.

After three years of (more or less) continuous work, I am going to print the sucker off next week and give it to my committee for review, and then gleefully commit myself to the tedious but intellectually relaxing work of checking all my citations and the formatting of my Works Cited page. It’s a little bit hard for me to believe that I’m so close to the end, and in a sense I’ve only just begun the process of turning the dissertation into a book, but it’s finally happening.

But between frantic bouts of chapter writing and revision in the coming days, I will also be doing a reading from Pop Apocalypse at a fantastic science fiction/fantasy/horror speciality store on Valencia Street in San Francisco called Borderlands Books.

If you can, stop by tomorrow (Saturday, July 25, at 2 p.m.). It’ll be fun, though you may notice dark circles under my eyes.

More on Cultural Finance

in Pop Apocalypse, Reputations Exchange

I received an interesting response to my posting on SellaBand from someone who works for a related service, Slicethepie. Turns out Slicethepie has implemented some of the ideas I mentioned in my previous post.

Slicethepie “is a financing platform for the music industry that enables new and established Artists to raise money directly from Music Fans and Investors.” Shares in a band purchased through Slicethepie are transferrable — via their “Music Trading Exchange” — which makes this system functionally equivalent to a stock market, as far as I can tell, with all its attendant strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, SellaBand and Slicethepie are not the only places where what we could call Aspiring Celebrity Finance is happening. Way back in Jan. 2008, Josh Levin reported in Slate that Randy Newsom was holding a “self-IPO,” in which he sold shares of his future earnings to interested investors. Newsom explained that he would use his capitalization to improve himself as an athlete, but he could also have used it to position himself in the media and grow his reputation. And Newsom was, of course, only the first athlete in the U.S. to self-IPO. As Levin explains:

Football Players Funds Management, a Portugal-based hedge fund, helps pro soccer teams buy the contracts of promising youngsters in exchange for a percentage of the players’ future transfer fees. Top poker pros are often staked for tournaments by investors, and a golfer might get his start on tour with backing from a consortium of investors. There’s already a popular fantasy site, ProTrade, where fans can buy and sell virtual shares in their favorite players. And last May, Michael Lewis wrote a convincing piece for Portfolio arguing that it won’t be long before Americans will be able to invest in their favorite athletes.

Newsom’s experiment ended in failure, as Levin reported in an update:

Update, Feb. 2, 2008: I no longer own a professional baseball player. In an interview in Friday’s New York Times, Randy Newsom said he’ll return the $36,000 he earned from selling 1,800 shares—six to a Slate investment group—in his future major-league earnings. Newsom and his company, Real Sports Investments, neither registered their offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission nor sought approval from Major League Baseball before issuing the first-ever baseball player IPO. “We want to pause to hear everyone’s concerns,” Newsom told the Times. “This idea is not going away. This is assured by the amount of fan support, and the amount of players we talked to, that the support is there. The spirit of this idea will go on.”

The spirit of this idea will go on, I suspect. I’ve been meaning to read the science fiction novel, The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin, which projects a future in which everyone owns shares in everyone else, and the greatest freedom one can aspire to is a controlling stake in one’s own stock issue, the ultimate logical extension of the spirit of this idea. Pop Apocalypse stands somewhere on the middle ground, and posits a world where only reputations are associated with finance, and only celebrity or wannabe celebrity reputations at that.

The key difference between current real-world cultural financing schemes and the New York Reputations Exchange in Pop Apocalypse is that celebrities and wannabe celebrities who list their names in my novel are not linked to a particular industry or to a particular set of talents and abilities. This describes Eliot’s situation quite well: he has no particular talents, no special virtues. He is a celebrity who is famous for being famous in a world that is experiencing what could be described as an asset bubble in celebrity reputations.

In our world, I suspect that investors in a band or an athlete still have a mental attachment to the performance of persons or groups w/r/t their stated domains of expertise (music, athletics, etc.). But in fact, there’s no particular reason Paris Hilton couldn’t float an IPO on her name. What’s she talented at other than at being famous? Whatever innate talent you have, you can always also be turned into a brand. After all, you may be talented, but you won’t ever find people to recognize your talent if you can’t draw people to you in the first place.

Moreover, there is evidence that “objective” talent is sort of overrated when it comes to predicting the popularity of artists (though not so much in the case of athletes); seeing aggregate consumer behavior apparently substantially shapes how “good” people perceive a particular aesthetic experience to be (as does price). That is, people don’t just mindlessly agree with what the masses say but rather are more careful in giving attention to art that is prejudged to be good, and genuinely perceive this positively prejudged art to be better. Which means that in the competitive race to the top of the billboard charts, your media game can be as important as whatever you put on the page or on your CD.

Perversely, then, celebrity reputations markets will only achieve their full maturity when they detach themselves from this or that industry, this or that output, and find a way of allowing anyone who thinks they have the potential to hit it big in the mediasphere to connect with investors.

9 99 Boycott

in Uncategorized

Imagine my surprise when I visited Amazon’s page for the Kindle edition of Pop Apocalypse and saw that it had been marked with a tag called “9 99 boycott.” I initially thought that an uprising of angry readers had for reasons inscrutable to me decided to boycott my book — what a great and unexpected pleasure that would be!

But no. A bit of quick Web research (the only kind I seem to do anymore) turned up an explanation:

A loosely organized group of 250 customers has been labeling books in the Kindle Store with the tag “9 99 Boycott” due to its belief that the e-books should cost no more than $10. It’s a reasonable argument when you consider that most paperback books cost about $10 and are much more versatile than their e-book counterparts.

I am a high-volume consumer of books, so I obviously support cheaper electronic books. Indeed, if Kindle ebooks were cheaper the economics of my decision whether or not to buy a Kindle would change: that is, I’d buy one now rather than do what I’ve been doing, waiting till a cheaper better version arrives or some competitor creates an even better ebook reader.

But you’ve got to wonder why someone who doesn’t want to pay $9.99 per Kindle book would bother buying a Kindle in the first place. The clear alternative to Kindle texts is… book-based texts.

Why isn’t there a movement to tag physical books as overpriced? I suspect it has something to do with our strange intuitions about electronic content. If we pay $20 for a book, we are impressed by the presence of the book. We think the cost must be justified, because it took some effort on our part to procure the book. When we acquire an electronic text instantly we’re lulled into believing that the costs can’t possibly be justified. Getting this “nonmaterial” artifact was easy as pie1, so the associated costs must be trivial, ergo consumer boycott.

——

1. Though, really, how easy is pie?

Infinite Summer

in David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

For those who haven’t already heard, allow me to direct your attention to the launching post of Infinite Summer, an organized effort to read through Infinite Jest this summer, endnotes and all.

The irony for me is that I’m too bogged down finishing a dissertation chapter about Wallace (and Dave Eggers) to participate. Maybe after I get my dissertation in the can I can try to play catch-up.

SellaBand and the Reputations Exchange

in Pop Apocalypse, Reputations Exchange

Richard Florida blogs about a new Dutch music startup called SellaBand, a service that aims “[t]o unite Artists and Fans in an independent movement that aims to level the playing field in the global music industry.”

SellaBand tries to connect what they call “Believers” with aspiring musicians. As a Believer, you can invest money toward the costs of producing the first record of an aspiring band (either $50,000 or $100,000, depending on which tier the band is in). In return for this investment, Believers split the earnings of the albums they help finance 50/50 with the bands they help launch.

This service presents itself as a way of connecting fans to musicians without the mediation of big record labels, and to a degree it is just that. But with a few modifications it could become something very much like the model of the Reputations Exchange I describe in Pop Apocalypse.

After all, what you are doing here isn’t so much believing in your band as investing in them — though all finance is ultimately based on belief, that some version of the system will exist in the future, that some individual firm will pay dividends, whatever. Why not issue a share of band stock to every Believer? Why not allow that stock to be transferable or to become the core or basis for secondary markets? Why not turn SellaBand into something like an electronic band stock-market exchange?

Obviously, I present such schemes in a satirical light in my book — making fun of what I regard as the undeserved glamour of high finance, the absurdities inherent in its real-world shape — but the more I’ve gone around to book readings and had conversations with readers about these ideas, the more I am convinced that something like a stock market for reputations is inevitable, even in this era of burst bubbles and Wall Street (supposedly) in retreat.