Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The RIAA continues to cut off its own atrophied members

That's one of the nastier titles I've come up with for my blog posts...

For people into serious media analysis... stuff beyond the realm of content and editorial, and more on the level of changes in technology, attitudes, and forms... you might be interested in the RIAA seeking royalties from broadcast radio, and thus attempting to change a long-standing relationship between commercial enterprise, distribution, and music.

First impressions: this is just another sleazy move by the RIAA, which has been drifting down the dark hole of greed and desperation ever since Napster showed up on our monitors. There are much deeper implications here, though, because this change in policy reaches back through the history of broadcast and electronic media. If you dig into the current legal policies regarding royalties, you get a pretty complicated mess, established over the course of broadcast radio.

So for the sake of simplicity, let's look at some of the effects this will probably have.

1) The labels, and the artists, will most certainly get more money from the major distributors. Broadcast giants like ClearChannel will most certainly be able to pay these new royalties. Certain forces won't be threatened with dispersal, just because some new royalty requirements appear.

2) This will become a big, perhaps prohibitive, burden to some other radio stations, like the few remaining college radio stations. This has a multitude of further implications... online distribution, (what's left of) Internet Radio, and "sharing" (God no) might become one of the sole remaining forums for consumers to discover new artists.

These two, taken together, suggest a general narrowing of the musical market. This could be good for the RIAA in the short term (hey, they're the ones peddling the top-40 stuff that will stay in the fiscal filter), but something tells me it'll be bad for them in the long term, because it'll rip the diversity out of their market, and this is never good for the health of the media.

There's another effect this new arrangement will have:

3) The RIAA is going to damage a formerly positive relationship with radio stations and broadcasters. The broadcasters have probably been one of the last real allies of commercial record labels... now that relationship will be soured, and this could have any number of unpredictable effects on the music mass market.

Considering all these variables -- and I'd love to hear some more info, if anyone has it, because there are a LOT of variables here -- this push by the RIAA starts to look like a matter of short-sighted desperation. Both broadcast radio and the CD industry are dying slowly, drowning in the influence of new technologies, and as I see it, the RIAA, a bloated beast unable to adapt, is responding by cutting off its own atrophied appendages.

I don't think this is going to save it.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Jeff Han shows us the tactile future

Ever have the passing premonition that you just mastered your discipline and already it's about to become outdated? I don't suppose it happens very often... either you're going into a fresh field that's got a lot of rich territory to conquer (nanorobotics?) or you're entering something that's proven permanently useful (nursing). I guess we all hope our profession is some idealized combination of those two... so practical, and yet with so much room to grow. For me, that's graphic design: something we all need, as long as we have mass production and advertising, and something that gives vast room for new innovation and creative freedom.

But when I see something like this, Jeff Han's insane multi-touch technology, sometimes it gives me the fleeting sense that I just won't be able to keep up, no matter how attentive I am to design and aesthetics. This shit is going to change my industry, along with the whole meta-industry of information technology, and dozens of sub-disciplines that are affected by it.

This should excite me, and let me tell you, it does. I was excited about it back when I saw it in Minority Report, before I had any idea that it was really on the horizon. Now I can start to see what it's going to do for interface technology. Through college, and in my current job, I've been learning to design for a certain very specific gesture that the mouse is based on: hovering and clicking, or hunting and pecking. It's been all about hot-spots and discreet areas on-screen, making certain things look intuitively like buttons, or tabs, or handles: one focal point at all times. With the mouse, we're still searching, focusing, and working in a simple sequence.

The multi-touch screen is going to make our experience more truly tactile. Now, we're going to be working with both hands at a time, holding one thing while we press another, integrating depth (i.e. pressure) and relationships (i.e. between fingers). It's a bunch of new axes, and it's going to require a whole new way of thinking... probably less like pointing at a picture and more like playing an instrument. I'm not sure I'm prepared to design this way, and I have a feeling it's going to take over the things I've been specializing in.

Even so, the possibilities are amazing. The old discreet systems of keyboard (strict set number of symbols in memorized positions) and mouse (one point at a time, searching and focusing at one area of the screen) weren't really cut out for the new wave of digital production. Some of my friends have asked, "What makes this so great, anyway? I don't see any problem with my on-screen controls..." And if they're using MS Word and Internet Explorer, they're probably right.

But the new wave of production specialists are going to be doing some amazing shit with this technology. In 3D graphics programs, we've traditionally been trying to translate three degrees of control into the two degrees available on-screen, and worse yet, we've been doing it with a one-dimensional mouse pointer. Now we can have the equivalent of three pointers on-screen at once, moving intuitively according to our gestures, and furthermore, we can use pressure to add another dimension. Controlling all those variables at once, what might the 3D artist of the future be able to do? Real-time modeling? What do you think: a 3DJ?

And speaking of DJ, how about video jockeys, those guys who do real-time video mixing along with music? That's another media space where keyboards often don't really cut it... you're working with dozens of factors, including frame-rate, hue and saturation, multiple clips and timelines, opacity, multiplication and repetition, and you're expected to do it all in response to the music you're listening to. It's hard to translate your listening habits into keyboard pokes, or (even worse) hunt-and-click mouse behavior... but with gestures, speed tracking, pressure sensitivity, point-to-point relationships, and all those other ridiculous variables that this technology allows, VJing could become more like dancing. This is a space for the artist of the future, hyper-complex and hyper-sensitive to all senses, to emerge and take over mass culture.

Don't discount the possibility that this will make your everyday tasks more intuitive, either. Replace the back-space key with a simple act of rubbing a word off the computer screen. Even more intuitive: watch that video to see Jeff Han group photos and organize images with his hands, like shuffling them around on an infinitely-large light table.

This is the future, people. It's some amazing shit.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry and Jean: The split ends of ideology

Celebrity deaths are a few among the many posting opportunities I missed recently... I never said anything about James Brown or Anna Nicole Smith, and I wish I had, because these were cultural icons worthy of note. Another one kicked it today, and I think I'm gonna take the opportunity to make up for lost time.

The man in question was Jerry Falwell. He was quite a shit-kicker in the political and social domain, a die-hard member of the "rude disrespectful uber-conservative" clique that also includes Fred Phelps, Jack Thompson, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter. He's gone through a whole spectrum of socially conservative beliefs... and I only characterize them as such because I'm a very level-headed critic. Most of my friends would call them "regressive," "patently indefensible," and/or "retarded." These positions include segregationism early in his career (he supposedly reformed this belief, probably when he realized racist legislation wasn't really going anywhere); dubious positions on Apartheid; that (in his own words) "AIDs is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals"; that secular education is tearing at the fabric of our society; and that 9/11 heralds the apocalypse.

Just today, Falwell died of sudden cardiac failure, or something like that.

Falwell doesn't really represent a noteworthy demographic, because I believe (with hope) that not enough people agree with him to call it a "demographic." However, he definitely represents a subsection of American popular culture, and a disproportionate amount of the American media consciousness. Even as Falwell discredited his own party, he probably always accomplished his goal: he shifted the public discourse back into a domain of "morality" and "social norms" and the need for God as a political icon.

This whole thing actually makes me think of another public figure, less public than Falwell, but much more influential in the intellectual world, and a worthy foil for the present discussion. That's Jean Baudrillard, who died this past March. Baudrillard was for the left what Falwell was the the right: a sort of ideological extremist, a man at the far limit of the attitudes he embodied. Baudrillard was famous for his analysis of simulacra and simulation, and for the idea that representation has taken over reality, and of the experience of it. Glance at his Wikipedia article. It's a surprisingly good discussion of such a complex thinker.

Where Falwell was a great institutionalist, believer in social, moral, and divine regulation of our thoughts, actions, and behaviors, Baudrillard was an institutional iconoclast, attacking (sometimes excessively) the foundations of our identities and beliefs. He saw all the totems of our belief structure -- truth and falsity, good and evil, gender, war, politics, and media -- as arbitrary inventions of a faceless society and an alien consciousness. Baudrillard referred to himself as a nihilist, meaning he saw every given and argued truth as a groundless representation of something we can never reach.

Where Falwell was a reactionary, Baudrillard was a radical. Where Falwell was an epitome of the narrow mind, devoid of any perspective on the world, Baudrillard was the epitome of a jaded postmodernist, a man without faith.

Karma (or nature, or fate, or whatever unconscious mechanism is running our universe) balances the scales of ideology, and once again, the cultural landscape is smoothed out, ever so slightly. I hope these two fuckers are having one hell of a conversation in whatever strange afterlife will take them both.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Like a cast shadow: Remind Me (Royksopp) and Agenda Suicide (The Faint)

Remember, not too long ago, I mentioned this term by Eco, “riding the same cultural wave?” It’s a concept I’ve appropriated and adapted more or less beyond recognition, but it continues to serve me well, because I’m always finding strange correlations between apparently unrelated art and entertainment design. Tonight, it’s music videos.

The videos: Agenda Suicide by The Faint and Remind Me byRoyksopp. Part of the point of the post: to draw attention to these two brilliant, beautiful music videos, so everyone can pause and appreciate the wonderful things you can do with an idea these days.

The similarities are rather obvious, but I’ll be happy to mention them real quick. One: an emphasis on lines and structure, and inspiration taken from geometric design… in Royksopp, it’s mostly schematic and instructional designs. There’s a schematic feeling to Agenda Suicide, too, but it’s mediated by the influence of Russian constructivism. Both focus on a single figure, simplified to an iconic rendering, moving through the weird personal environment that the video establishes.

The environment: that’s important. There’s an emphasis on everyday life, scenery, and especially transportation (“liminal space,” as my anthro professor called it). That has an important effect in these two videos: it sets up an enclosed life-world, networked by the subway and the elevators. This creates a sense of movement and circulation, but also of being embedded, even to the point of isolation (especially in The Faint). The stylizations contribute to this affect, too.

When I think back on my dreams, I notice that they never feel like a continuous environment to me. My dream-space is almost like a stage, or a movie set, artificially extended but essentially tiny and set aside from anything like a real world. Both of these videos make me feel that way, as well.

So they’re a lot alike… in stylization, in rhythm, in theme, in content, and in effect. But they end up with such different effects, it’s almost mind-boggling. Remind Me feels like a weird, sublime kind of inner fantasy, where the structure and the geometry of the world creates sort of a rupture. I think sublime is the right word: it’s so fast and over-stimulating that it overwhelms the stupid, brute physical emotions and creates a gap where the mind can just exist and appreciate everything.

In contrast, Agenda Suicide does an almost uncanny job of simulating a nightmare. Again, it’s because of the enclosed space and the uncontrollable dynamic (acoustic) movement of all the structural elements. In this case, though, it doesn’t have the continuous, rhythmic lull of Remind Me. Rather, it has a slow, ominous crescendo as the weird breaks and transgressions begin to multiply. First, it’s the obsessive repetition and textures. Then, at two minutes (exactly half-way through the song), an office-worker steps into the path of a train, and from there the visuals descend into chaos and fracture.

This moment is kind of important to the whole thing, actually… it’s conceivable that this is how nightmares actually work. At some point during a dream, something sets off the dreamer’s anxiety, and then the fear snowballs into the terror and confusion that drives the experience until we wake back up. That office worker jumping onto the tracks is treated as almost beneath notice, but it’s the first hint that the whole ominous fantasy is going to break open.You could see these videos as representing complimentary reactions to the post-industrial, post-social, post-human world. In both cases, there’s a sense of alienation, not only in the Marxist sense (neither of these videos give much positive press to the working world), but also in a way far beyond the Marxist “alienated from your labor” concept. In both cases, the world is so fast and interconnected that the individuals become alienated from their own ideas, bodies, and perceptions.

This loss of immediacy sends the videos to two different places: for the Faint, it’s self-destruction. For Royksopp, it’s transcendence.


Remind Me: disconnection from personal experience, so you can reflect on pure experience, a la The Phenomenologists? The final restitution of the self with the universal, impersonal universe, a la nirvana (the state of mind, not the band)?

Agenda Suicide: A Western critique of Western culture… thus fatalist, a la Baudrillard (RIP)? Structure, mechanization, and alienation as tools of the hegemony, as a full mind/body realization of ideology (thus the propaganda imagery)? Self-destruction as the final goal of human institutions?