Defending the Realness of the Unreal Self

Or, rather, if I had a chance or the time to rewrite it, that’s what I would have said. Something about the representation of self as ‘unreal’, but that’s why it’s so vital to defend from snooping. Or something.

Anyway, because I have nothing else to put on this blog right now, over at Hazlitt I consider a couple of things: if people (like Jonathan Safran Foer in the NYT) say that the virtual is unreal, and takes us away from what’s important, then why do we get so antsy about the idea that our ‘virtual lives’ might be surveilled? And more importantly, if our metaphors of ‘authentic living’ so often involve transparency and light – that we must ‘be seen as ourselves’ – do we need a different metaphor for the ‘authentic augmented cyborg self’? i.e. one that embraces opacity, obfuscation? Or is that just a coping mechanism?

But yeah, it’d be nice at some time to come back to this idea and think about whether privacy is actually more important for spaces of fantasy than it is for the usual normative behaviours we find online – and are arguably encouraged by the panoptic nature of social media.

Anyway, my editor seemed to suggest it was less stupid and less badly written than most of my drivel, so if you like, take a gander here.


Microsoft Surface RT Review (and some thoughts on the future of computing)

Surface; Cyan Touch Cover

I have, in the past, tried to wax philosophical about the Microsoft Surface. Given its interesting in-between position between laptop and tablet, I have been intrigued by not only its multi-functionality, but the idea of a device that changes ‘in nature’ depending on how you use it.

Having had one to test out for a few weeks, I think it’s safe to say that, in its current form at least, Microsoft’s first attempt at a tablet is not the perfect genre-bending product I had hoped it would be. That said, it is very interesting—which is saying something for a consumer tech product—and it’s also a lot better and more practical than a lot of the more negative reviews would have you believe. More to the point, though, the Surface almost succeeds at the impossible feat Microsoft had challenged itself with: forcing you to reconsider what you want from either a tablet or a laptop—or indeed, if you really need two separate devices.

At this point so long after its release, there seems little point over the well-worn details too much. The Surface RT runs a version of Windows 8 that only contains the Metro interface, with the exception of a fully functional Microsoft Office and more familiar desktop Internet Explorer. The build quality is excellent, and yes the kickstand is great. The battery lasts about 8-9 hours, which is good. The type cover, the touch-sensitive keyboard that doubles as a cover, works much better than you would expect it to, and careful, reasonably fast touch-typing is surprisingly an option. I know, I didn’t believe it either. The type cover, which has actual keys that depress is obviously better, though slightly thicker as a cover, and is almost as good as a regular laptop keyboard.

In fact, it’s that dimension of the Surface that I find most intriguing. Since the arrival of the iPad, Macbook Air and Ultrabook, we’ve come to accept a new orthodoxy in computing: tablets are good for reading and quick online experiences like email, banking etc etc. Small laptops are excellent for travelers, and Ultrabooks and Macbook Pros etc are versatile if expensive all-rounders. (As for desktops, though I still swear by them, for most people they are not terribly useful.)

The Surface, though, sits in this weird in between position. At first, all you notice is how it cannot do anything as well as an task-specific product. As a tablet, it’s significantly worse than an iPad. It has far less apps, is heavier, and simply has the wrong form factor; a widescreen tablet just doesn’t work for portrait reading. It certainly doesn’t help that it isn’t as fast, either. The apps thing will improve over time, but for there to be not one good Twitter or Facebook app tells you the lay of land as it stands now.

As a laptop, it is of course missing hundreds of thousands of Windows programs from the last decade, and is small and underpowered to boot. The kind of easy multifunctionality of, say, running Rdio in one window, a browser in another and Word and a Twitter client and so on is impossible. This is not a laptop replacement as it is (I do, however, have some thoughts about the potential benefits of this).

All that said, the inclusion of Office really does make it feel practical in a way that most tablets do not. It’s oddly refreshing to be able to take the thing you were just using to read on the couch and then type out ‘real work’ on it. And that sense of ‘huh, this is pretty practical’ actually grows on you over time. I’m typing this on it right now using the type cover, and even though I have a Bluetooth keyboard, I’d never dream of doing this on my iPad for the simple reason that complex websites are just bad on tablets you control only with your finger. I also have a wireless mouse plugged in which recognized instantly. The ability to cut and paste using a mouse—not to mention all those finicky clicks on a site like WordPress—just makes the Surface better at being productive than other tablets. For all its various flaws, the more you use it, the more its benefits become clear.

As, I’ve said, overall the product is far from perfect. At the same time, I can’t help but think that Surface has laid the ground for a very interesting shift. While for ‘core users’ its downsides may be too great, for many who simply want to read the news or check movie times on a tablet, and then occasionally surf and write with a laptop, the price, practicality  and portability of the Surface might actually be worth it, and if that’s not true now, it almost certainly will be in an updated model.

The point is that its capacity to function conveniently as both a consumption device and a productivity device is a model that, once refined and perfected, may seems as obvious and as natural as a laptop once did. After all, laptops once entailed serious compromises compared to the power and reliability of a desktop, a difference that has all but vanished now. What will be interesting to see is how the Surface evolves, and whether or not consumers at large will or will not embrace the idea that all you need is one, adaptable device. I for one was pleasantly surprised.

Technology That Says No

Over at Technology Review, the always-great John Pavlus has an interesting piece on the ‘virtual dumbphone‘. In the face of technology’s incredible capacity to distract us, he suggests ‘scorched earth’ approaches like abandoning a smartphone for a dumbphone is too drastic. Instead, he argues this:

What I need isn’t “freedom” from technology, but self control: the ability to choose when and where certain features of my gadgets are appropriate to use, and when they are not.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I think will become increasingly common. What started as Freedom will inevitably morph into digital objects that change in function dependent on the time of day, location, or proximity to other devices.

What intrigues me, though, is the doubled sense of self-control here: what I need is the ability to control when and where I cede control to technology. I’ve said this before, but digital technology seems to represent the pinnacle of tools that both create, and then satisfy, desire. When I cannot stop checking Twitter, my craving for a flow of novel information is inextricably linked to the structure through which I have become accustomed to receiving easily digestible chunks of stuff.

Pavlus argues that, given the multifunctional nature of the smartphone, it would be silly to simply cast aside all those features for the occasional need to do away with distraction, and it’s a compelling notion that appeals to a certain sort of pragmatism.

That said, I also think it’s worth thinking about the following idea: what does technology designed to refuse desire look like?

Both Pavlus’ argument and the entire pantheon of modern digital tech is aimed at maximizing functionality. While you could make the Tim Cook-esque argument that ‘hard decisions must be made’ regarding functionality, even the iPad – stripped of some of the functions of the computer – is meant to perform a dizzying array of tasks. All of it is an ever more efficient, concentrated conglomeration of machines that are now better at doing ‘that which we always wanted to’.

What’s perhaps more important, though, is that the ideology underpinning this tech is the satisfaction of desire. Even the stripped down, mono-functional device is praised for the way its efficiency lets one perform the task at hand, the desire for productivity and the fetish for the product becoming one and the same. Particularly when we consider modern digital tech as emblematic of modern techno-capitalism, the whole structure works at more and more efficiently satisfying particular needs, whether those we might argue are ‘given’, or those that, like, say, the ability to work from the road, are themselves products of late capitalism.

What I mean to say is that there is this enormous cultural inertia rooted in global economic practices that says “satisfy your desire”–even when your desire is simply to do more and better work–that works on ‘both ends’ of the consumer equation, the construction of needs and their satisfaction. Looked at this way, digital technology is not a solution to a pre-existing set of problems, but the logical extension of the supremacy of global capitalism. This is, no doubt, an oversimplification–my Skype chats with family in India, or pseudonymic activist mobilization through Twitter seem to be clear counterarguments–but it is still in some way true.

So what might it be like for the CEO of a large tech company to get up on stage and say “here is a product that does less”? Or: “Hey, listen, we here at Widgets Co. know what your life is like. We know that you are a creature utterly wrapped up in your own personal libidinal economy, and even though you know that watching that beautiful art film on Netflix will make you happier, you often watch Two and Half Men instead. So here is the new iThing–and it will refuse your desires. It will not simply cut off function, but tell you how to spend your time according to your pre-programmed parameters.”

Part of me believes this is what we really wanted Steve Jobs to tell us all along. We wanted to be told not only what technology can do, but what we should do with it. We wanted the Father to instruct us, to enforce the Law, to tell us how to behave against our instinctual push. Maybe this is why people like the idea of curation, or any other number of filtering services. Maybe the problem with the tyranny of choice is that the discourse and material networks that underpin it made us forget that what we really desire is tyrants.

Naturally, I’m getting a bit far-fetched. But what I do think is interesting is how, with various bits of software and technology now designed to direct and focus attention or time, we have reached a strange point in the development of capitalism in which we create products to deliberately not let us do things–or if we’re not quite there yet, that it will happen soon.

So what happens when Mrs. CEO gets up on stage and says “here is a product that does less” – and we respond by saying “My God. It’s brilliant.”? Is it then that, oh hope of hopes, that capitalism starts to eat itself? Is there a certain horizon or threshold at which, when the crystallization of massive networks of production meet, we arrive at a point where capitalism has produced a commodity that undercuts its own libidinal predication?

Put another way: what happens when, after two centuries of desperately saying yes, capitalism starts to produce products designed to say no?

Tranquil Windows

Windows 8, the newest, much-discussed operating system from Microsoft, is a fantastic mess. What’s immediately apparent is that when Microsoft sat down a few years ago and asked themselves “so, how do we tweak this thing used by a billion people?”, the answer they came up with was profoundly strange: they had to make something bad. Essentially the company had two choices: hope their Metro tile-based touch interface took off on its own strength; or force it upon people, knowing they’d be both baffled and annoyed, so as to radically change not only the idea of what an operating system it, but the idea of what a computer is, too. So here I am, typing away on this glorious riot of an operating system.

It is a rather fascinating, infuriating thing to use. On the one hand, it’s incredibly slick, clean and fluid; on the other, the existence of what are essentially two distinct systems in one – the same old desktop and the flashy new Metro design – can be a baffling thing to even the most experienced of users.

But beyond all the chatter about ‘how the market will react’ and ‘is the desktop dead?’, once you get used to the basic functionality of Windows 8’s Metro interface, something odd happens: you notice your behaviour changing. In their review of the OS, Gizmodo called Windows 8 ‘tranquil’–and strangely, it sorta’ is. Because apps either dominate the entire screen, or are paired with another one that only take up less than a third, your attention is often focused in a way quite different to how we usually use desktop OS’s.

Previously, on many an evening, I would settle in to watch something on Netflix. Though there is a TV and a console in the very same room as my desktop, I often chose to use my PC precisely because as the latest episode of Buffy played, I’d have Tweetdeck open, be checking and writing email, and would be catching up on the news of the day. I’d treat the screen of my desktop computer like, well, a desktop: a space on which I do multiple things, often nearly at once.

You can do all those things just the same as ever using Windows 8, simply by using the desktop mode. But the slick, fast apps of Metro (or whatever it’s called) appeal, and not just for aesthetic reasons. When Netflix takes up a screen, it… takes up the screen. You focus. There is only that one thing, and darting away to another app pauses the thing you were watching.  Similarly, news apps like the one for Globe and Mail dominate your attention because the only thing you’re scrolling through are more news stories. Rather than flitting back and forth between ten different things, even I, hyperactive and attention-deficient, tend to focus for just a little bit longer. Rather than just the frame of the screen, it’s the aesthetics that also hold my attention because it feels like that’s what they’re designed to do.

For a while now, I’ve had this lingering feeling that, because digital technology excels at giving us what we want, its most successful manifestations will, in contradistinction to the very core of capitalism, work by refusing our desires. That’s optimistic to be sure, but it seems there’s a very interesting thing to be poked at in the relationship between digital structures and attention. I mean, this is what we’ve been poking at forever, from Spreed to Robin Sloan’s Fish iPhone experiment.

But each of those have been respites from a broader structure: the OS. Whether a speed reading app on a smartphone or experiments in focus using grids from Salon or the NYT, they were always breaks. Windows 8 feels a bit different, even though the reasons behind its design (probably) have nothing to do with attention and everything to do with the technical limitations of tablets and touch as an input. If one ‘pretends’ desktop mode doesn’t exist, then the structure that serves as the interface for the web, your files, games etc., is built so as to focus your attention on one or two things at once.

This isn’t really that different from a tablet. But it’s been interesting the past couple of years to notice this radical difference between desktop and mobile–that strange feeling of freedom when you return to a PC that you can do nine things at once, a feeling that, for me anyway, is a bit like putting an alcoholic in front of an open bar. When I can open twenty tabs at once, my brain seems to cry “Moar information!”

It is thus intriguing to think about ‘deliberately deficient design’. To remove functionality as a way of dealing with a medium that excels at satisfying desire is incredibly interesting, and I think, arguably, Apple is already doing that somewhat (and now Microsoft are too). It’s also why, by the way, I believe the Law of the Father is still a very useful way to think about how we relate to Cupertino’s stuff. In the meantime, though, it is certainly pleasant to sit in front of the charmingly confused mess that is Windows 8.

I mean, beyond all the attention stuff, I’m still such a sucker for a pretty face.

Head Fake


I know precisely nothing about its genesis or anything else really, but this is very cool: tumblr Goldenfiddle has been collecting a series of images with titles like “Kristen Stewart – arrives at Comic Con in San Diego, California, 7.12.12″. When you click on that image, what you get is something like the above.

It’s very cool as an art project, but what makes it especially interesting is the way it uses form to deflate expectation. If you stumble across it while scrolling through a Tumblr dashboard or RSS feed, you click expecting one thing, and then get another. More than that, what you get is a thing reconfigured beyond recognition.

You know, just like your desire.

The rest can be found here at Goldenfiddle.