Category Archives: new media

Steal This Comic


h/t to @Knownhuman


From Writing to Personal Memory Device

h+ Magazine postulates a seemingly distant future where we all have “personal memory devices,” that record, index, and make available every second of our experiential lives:

In the near future, someone will decide to record every moment of a human life from birth to death in digital storage…It will mark the era of personal memory offloading, an adaptive memory technology that records and indexes every single moment of your life. Offloading personal memory begins with a personal memory device, or a PMD. The basic PMD would be no more complex than a small video and sound recorder that captures your every experience. A PMD could be easily fitted shortly after birth; the least invasive option would be like a Bluetooth headset worn over the ear connected wirelessly to a local device no larger than a cell phone. Once installed, the PMD would capture and upload all first-person memories to a centralized database for indexing, search, and recall.

To be clear, the author isn’t talking about embedding chips in our brains, or recording our innermost thoughts and feelings. The idea here is more like a video recorder that’s running all the time, like a playback of your avatar in SecondLife. It would capture “GPS, Google Maps, facial recognition, speech/text recognition, brainwave analysis and so on,” recording this all for posterity, and making it available for use later on:

Whatever you do will be captured by the PMD for later playback and recall. Your PMD will remember every place you visit, every person you meet, every conversation you have, every object you look at, every movie you watch, every meal you eat, every page you read, every email you write, everything.

It sounds like Big Brother. But isn’t a lot of this already happening?

Our calls and email messages today leave traces that the government can use to spy on us. Search engines track what we do online. Our browsers track what what we do as well. We post most of what goes on in our lives on social networking sites, while remaining clueless about how these sites protect — or don’t protect — our privacy. We post our location without thinking of the implications.

The technology behind a personal memory device isn’t all that far-fetched. It’s possible to stream video from wherever you are already. This dumped to a database, time-stamped and geo-located, would provide much of the basis of such a system. Or, even closer to the vision of h+’s futuristic article, here is the Sensecam — a device, available today, that helps people with Alzheimer’s and other memory disorders to remember:

The concept was simple: using digital pictures and audio to archive an experience like a weekend visit from the grandchildren, creating a summary of the resulting content by picking crucial images, and reviewing them periodically to awaken and strengthen the memory of the event.

The hardware is a little black box called the Sensecam, which contains a digital camera and an accelerometer to measure movement…For the elderly, though, it could herald a new kind of relationship between mind and machine: even as plaque gets deposited on the brain, everyday experience is deposited on silicon, then retrieved.

Admittidly, the personal memory device still does not exist today, but we are close. Rather than this being some shocking sci-fi, and maybe even dystopian vision, I think this is actually predictable.

Isn’t this, in fact, the logical conclusion to a path humans have been on since the invention of writing? A line that can be drawn, from pre-literate humans, to writing, to the dawn of the computer age, to today — it is a line that finds humans almost compulsively drawn to recording our existence.

As Walter Ong has explained, before writing, humans existed in a culture of orality. Phrases such as “take a note” or “look something up” had no meaning, because they are visual metaphors, rooted in literacy and writing. Before humans could write things down, we thought differently, we spoke differently. Thinking “long” thoughts required formulaic speeches and mnemonic tricks. But these tricks only went so far. Writing, by fixing thoughts into somewhat permanent media, allowed humans to think in much more complex terms.

Fast-forward to the age of computers (machines that are integrally tied to the concept of memory), and we have a world in which it is not only easy to record our thoughts, but, increasingly, pieces of ourselves exist only within media that, by design, records our presence. Humans are inseparable from our machines, but today’s machines are machines of inscription, digital recording devices, and when we use them we leave a trail of bits and bytes for others to follow: “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals…”

This is the central idea behind a paper I wrote as a grad student, where I described the group blog (Daily Kos, in particular) as a “space to create a collective memory, without which the blogger does not exist.” As we chat with our friends on Twitter, as we post pictures to Facebook, as we share our music preferences on Pandora, all these actions exist solely within the realm of the digital — there is no analog, biological counterpart to the “follow” on Twitter.

So we essentially have the technological basis today for the personal memory device; we already record what we do online. The only piece that is missing is a local database in which to record our digital selves. And we will get there — rather than this being a surprise, it is really just an expected step down a path humans started on a long time ago.

Virtual Memory paper

I’m happy to announce that a paper of mine was published, in The New School Psychology Bulletin, as part of a special issue on memory studies:


The following paper will explore the nature of memory in the digital age, proposing the blog as a model for a memory system. It will examine the blog’s position as both a medium and a social practice. Both are essential – without the medium, without the website itself, the blog’s community has no sense of place. Without conversational social relations, there is no basis for community. There is, in fact, an orality to blogging, an orality that recalls the manner in which non-literate cultures rely on speech for their existence. It is a form of speech, though, that is not ephemeral, but permanent and instantly retrievable, and, in this manner, the blog provides a space to create a collective memory, without which the blogger does not exist. This presents a new form of subjectivity, one rooted in bits and bytes, defined by a database, made accessible by a search engine. The blog becomes a technological prosthetic for its users: cyborg memory.

One idea in this paper I really like is the use of Walter Ong’s work on orality. While his use of “secondary orality” is somewhat now in fashion, I think the more important concept here is the juxtaposition of oral cultures, where writing is non-existent, with today’s digital age, where nearly every bit of communication is inscribed, and made permanent (or nearly so). For me, the “community blog” is the perfect model of communication today, both a media form and a social practice, permanent and retrievable.

As Ong wrote, “you know what you can recall,” and as everything we say and write online becomes part of the Internet’s vast machine, what we can recall becomes an infinitely large database with which we will need to contend.

The Materiality of Netflix

Netflix seems like magic. You click a few clicks on your web browser, and in a couple days, a movie appears in your mailbox.

Like Amazon, Zappos, and the other businesses thriving in the doc-com world, Netflix is a business that keeps hidden from its customers all the messy physicality fueled by our mouse clicks. Point and shoot retail.

Broadly speaking, in fact, the net — by design — hides the materiality of information. Terms like virtual communities, cloud computing, and software as a service are devices of obfuscation. Click the mouse, and things just happen.

But things actually just don’t happen in the world; they happen somewhere. Bits and bytes cannot remain hidden forever, and eventually reveal, or manifest, themselves. In the world of Web 2.0, this manifestation usually happens in a data center — a security-hardened, temperature-controlled facility filled with very few people, but many, many racks of computers. The Times recently foregrounded this largely unknown world of the data center, with an excellent piece on Microsoft’s computer storage facilities:

For companies like Google, Yahoo and, increasingly, Microsoft, the data center is the factory. What these companies produce are services. It was the increasing “viability of a service-based model,” as Ray Ozzie, now the chief software architect at Microsoft, put it in 2005 — portended primarily by Google and its own large-scale network of data centers — that set Microsoft on its huge data-center rollout: if people no longer needed desktop software, they would no longer need Microsoft. This realization brought new prominence to the humble infrastructure layer of the data center, an aspect of the business that at Microsoft, as at most tech companies, typically escaped notice…

Netflix, on the other hand, might be a service, but because they are not software-only like Microsoft or Google, there is a greater materiality at hand, contained in a factory-like setting of the Netflix warehouse. Only what is produced here is the packaging and repackaging of the same DVDs, over and over.

The process begins in an undisclosed location:

Its biggest secret remains the warehouses themselves…Indeed, one of the few things about the building that suggested it was not a meth lab was that, at sunrise, the parking lot was full — shifts begin at 3 a.m. The busiest time is around 7 a.m., but as I entered, the first thing I noticed was how silent it was. No one was chatting. The second thing I noticed was how, for a Web-based business, there were few computers — maybe seven in the building, which has towering white walls and a concrete floor. Every Netflix warehouse looks like every other Netflix warehouse, down to the same flat, bright wattage of its light bulbs. It’s not attractive, which might explain the hasty mismatch of promotional posters taped to its walls like college dorm decor — a poster for “Atonement” alongside a poster for the direct-to-video “Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief” alongside a horror flick poster.

There’s no there there, by design.

No computers — Netflix runs on manual work, with employees flipping through each DVD one by one:

…at the 28,500-square-foot warehouse, from which more than 60,000 discs are shipped daily in the Chicago area alone, cartons are placed at the feet of employees, who glance in two directions — down (to pick up an envelope) and up (to look at the disc), and that’s about it. This is the first, and least automated, stage of the process, performed mainly by women, including a seemingly disproportionate number of local grandparents; they have full medical benefits and a 40-hour workweek.

They inspect each returned disc. They rip open each envelope, toss it, pull the disc from its sleeve, check that the title matches the sleeve, inspect the disc for cracks or scratches, inspect the sleeve for stains or marks, clean the disc with a quick circular motion on a towel pulled tight across a square block of wood, insert the disc into its sleeve, and file the disc in one of two bins. The bin to the right is for acceptable discs, the bin to the left is for damaged discs or discs not in the proper sleeve.

To a casual observer, this all seems to happen in a single motion, a flurry of fingers.

The image of a Netflix worker, inspecting thousands of individual DVDs for scratches and cracks, dispels the utoptian notion of cyberspace, where all of our disembodied minds are floating around the net. In typical Web 2.0 rhetoric, our second lives leave our first lives behind; the truth is, though, even our second lives have to run somewhere.

There is a there there. Just no escaping it.

Kindle Broadsheet

Apparently this week, Amazon will release a new, larger Kindle, the first of a series of products that are supposed to save the newspaper industry:

…these new gadgets, with screens roughly the size of a standard sheet of paper, could present much of the editorial and advertising content of traditional periodicals in generally the same format as they appear in print. And they might be a way to get readers to pay for those periodicals — something they have been reluctant to do on the Web.

…But it is Amazon, maker of the Kindle, that appears to be first in line to try throwing an electronic life preserver to old-media companies. As early as this week, according to people briefed on the online retailer’s plans, Amazon will introduce a larger version of its Kindle wireless device tailored for displaying newspapers, magazines and perhaps textbooks.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but the reason I haven’t purchased a Kindle is not at all because it’s not big enough. It’s because the pricing model is ridiculous. Beyond the $350 need to buy the device, it’s the monthly subscription charges that really push it over into the “early adopter only” category. Or maybe it’s the “rich people” category.

Now, part of this is the conundrum facing the newspaper (and magazine) business — there are now so many places to the get “the news” for free, online, that paying $13.99 for the Times when you can read it online for free, just seems wrong. Granted, I pay for the paper-based Sunday edition, but here, I feel like I’m paying for the experience of reading the Times on a Sunday morning. The tactility of it all…

That aside, the pricing model just doesn’t make sense. I’ve found paperback books at Amazon that cost less than the Kindle version — huh? And to read blogs on the Kindle, you need to subscribe, at $.99 per month per blog. I currently have 256 feeds in my reader — even if you take 1/4 of that, that’s a lot of monthly cash to read blogs.

Another problem — and maybe a bigger problem — is spelled out in the Times article quoted above:

Subscribers get updates once a day over a cellular network.

Once a day?

That’s way out of place with the world in which we live today. Life is real-time.

(This, incidentally, is the main downside of the “reading the Times on Sunday morning” experience — I’ve read many of the articles already, some days earlier, as the NYT seems to start posting weekend articles as early as Wednesday…)

Finally, there’s another concern, one that’s the thesis of Jonathan Zittrain’s Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. I haven’t finished reading this book yet, but the short of it is, the more we buy into closed technology models like the Kindle, where one company acts as a gatekeeper of the technology (the iPhone is exactly this model as well), the more we are shutting out what Zittrain calls the “generative” qualities of digital media.

These are the concerns and problems with the Kindle. Somehow, the execs at Amazon seem to have convinced themselves the size of the device is a limitation. And if the newspaper industry is hanging its hopes on this particular electronic broadsheet, I say, good luck to that.

On The Internet, No One Knows You’re Boxee

Boxee has Hulu back, sort of, through Hulu’s RSS feeds. The key point, from Boxee’s blog:

while we don’t come from an entertainment or cable background, we are learning quickly. it is a complex business. our meetings with Hulu and their content providers reinforced that point. the fact that it’s becoming easy to consume Internet video on a TV brings into question many of the industry’s business models that developed before the web. that’s part of the reason why Hulu asked to be removed from boxee. our meetings over the past week weren’t able to change that. but the people in the industry “get it”. they are users. they read the blogs. they talk with users. they are trying to adjust to a new reality, but they need time.

users on the other hand, won’t wait. as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, users will take matters into their own hands to get the content they want. [Emphasis mine.]

Information wants to be free. Or, maybe: On The Internet, No One Knows You’re Boxee.

In other words, it’s ridiculous to think Hulu could prevent an application like Boxee from getting at content, because if a web browser can get to the content, than anything else can.

And since Hulu publishes their content in feeds, Boxee’s solution was to build in an RSS reader that’s optimized for video. Not as elegant as the straight Boxee interface, but it will work. Hulu has RSS feeds not only for things like “all new videos,” but for individual programs, too, making it easy to follow the programs you like.

Can’t wait to download it and give it a run.

Newspapers, Too, Are Parasitic

The latest piece from Paul Starr in The New Republic is well worth the read. Titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption),” Starr examines the “death of newspapers,” as the economic realities of both digital publishing (i.e., online journalism efforts such as HuffPost and TPM) and the reliance on a shrinking advertising revenue stream are putting newspapers out of business all over the country.

There’s one point made, though, that I think is worth examining a bit. Starr states that while markets generally “under-produce public goods because private incentives are insufficient” to fully pay for the benefit to everyone, because newspapers play the role of an intermediary, they “have been able to produce this particular public good–newsworthy information, necessary to hold government accountable–on a commercial basis.”

Today, this model has been uprooted completely, as blogs and wikis and other Web 2.0 platforms allow cheap publishing of information. Here, Starr discusses Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks“:

The non-market collaborative networks on the Web celebrated by Benkler represent an alternative way of producing information as a public good. Before Wikipedia was created, hardly anyone supposed it would work as well as it has. But it has severe limitations as a source of knowledge. Its entries, including news items, are re-written from other sources, and it does not purport to offer original research or original reporting. The blogosphere and the news aggregators are also largely parasitic: they feed off the conventional news media. Citizen journalists contribute reports from the scene of far-flung events, but the reports may just be the propaganda of self-interested parties.

Emphasis mine.

So this is what needs to be unpacked, because the above statement completely ignores the extent to which all media are parasitic. This is a point I’ve made before:

If bloggers are parasitic, then so are the opinion pundits, talk radio hosts, and television broadcasters. The latter, in fact, is quite common, or at least seems so. For example, recently The New York Times front-paged an article that took on Obama’s charge that McCain would be a Bush third term. Later that day, on CNN, here’s Wolf Blitzer:

Democrats say, if you vote for John McCain, you will really be voting for a third Bush term. So, how true is that? Mary Snow is looking at the similarities between the candidate and the president.


Any attribution to the NYT?

And newspapers aren’t exempt from this charge. Today, the Washington Post published a story about Obama’s not-SOTU last night — a story created by simply reproducing tweets from “media figures.”

No reporting. Just looking stuff up in Twitter and publishing it.

The Washington Post isn’t alone. When New York’s Governor Elliot Spitzer fell from grace, The New York Times wrote a piece solely comprised of comments from various blogs. The story is filled with attributions such as “the anonymous poster wrote…”

While it’s certainly true that much of the blogosphere is about linking, and commenting on previously-published articles from newspapers and other news media, there is original reporting that gets done. Jay Rosen’s 2007 L.A. Times op-ed has a decent list.

The point of all this is not to “prove” one form or medium or model is better than than the other. A free press is important to a democracy — the central point of Starr’s article — and when the State doesn’t have a check and balance in place, corruption ensues. Quite frankly, we need all the media we can get, and while there is certainly a tension that exists between new media and old, the users of these sources of information — the citizenry — are better off. (That said, people certainly need new literacy skills to take advantage of all this new media.)

But this point about the blogosphere being parasitic really sticks at me, and is an unfair charge.

Putting newspapers in a privileged position of “original” while blogs and wikipedia are “parasitic” can only be done by ignoring the realities of the news business today.

Hulu and Boxee Split

In a previous post, I discussed Boxee, a terrific new home media app. Today, Boxee announced that they would no longer provide access to content from Hulu, per Hulu’s request:

two weeks ago Hulu called and told us their content partners were asking them to remove Hulu from boxee. we tried (many times) to plead the case for keeping Hulu on boxee, but on Friday of this week, in good faith, we will be removing it. you can see their blog post about the issues they are facing.

Hulu has more:

Later this week, Hulu’s content will no longer be available through Boxee. While we never had a formal relationship with Boxee, we are under no illusions about the likely Boxee user response from this move. This has weighed heavily on the Hulu team, and we know it will weigh even more so on Boxee users.

Our content providers requested that we turn off access to our content via the Boxee product, and we are respecting their wishes. While we stubbornly believe in this brave new world of media convergence — bumps and all — we are also steadfast in our belief that the best way to achieve our ambitious, never-ending mission of making media easier for users is to work hand in hand with content owners. Without their content, none of what Hulu does would be possible, including providing you content via and our many distribution partner websites.

I don’t see any reason for this, other than Hulu’s content providers — television networks like NBC and Fox — don’t at all get what new media is all about. I think these groups see Boxee as a replacement for “television,” something that allows people to drop their cable companies and grab content off the web.

Of course, Boxee is that. Exactly that.

But that’s an argument for television networks to remove their content from the web, and not from one particular front-end that provides access. Why is a browser OK, but Boxee not OK?

Doesn’t make sense, other than the people making these decisions just don’t get it.