Finding a Home

Anyone who’s ever spoken to me about the internets knows I’m a bit obsessed with the concept “n-1“. Lifted from the intro to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, the concept essentially represents an inversion of the Enlightenment analytic framework: rather than starting from a singular unit or object and building an understanding outward, one instead takes the always too-big multiple as a starting point and subtracts. The point is to not only foreground the numerous networks of relations that constitute the object, it also highlights the provisional nature of each analytic moment – that, in effect, the act of a reading is also an act of writing, a specific choice to arrange a system of relations in a certain way. In that act of arranging, one also must acknowledge the possibility of an alternative.

It works for so many things: for a kind of phenomenology of Twitter; the logic of the database; understanding how digital has changed the idea of “the collection”; and so on ad infinitum.

I’m wondering, though, if I haven’t reached a kind of limit in my personal embrace of n-1.

I only say this because of a feeling of dislocation lately. For years, I’ve spoken about immersing myself in the web’s ceaseless flow – of the glut of RSS feeds, the rushing stream of Twitter, or the never-ending cluster of tabs. Well-managed, that’s all and fine and good. It just takes a well-tuned ability to focus on what’s important to oneself, and quickly and efficiently cast off what is not.

But I now realize that, at least for someone like myself, that kind of decentred approach in which one is constantly left attempting to constitute a relationship to the sea of information – orienting oneself not only ideologically, but pragmatically in terms of ‘the attention economy’ – can be draining. It can be overwhelming. I’ve recently found myself paralyzed, partly because I’m always seeing so many different sides of things, but also because uttering an opinion – something I have to do to pay the bills – often takes the form of attempting to get all sides of an argument right. I find it leaves me stretched – as if I am writing as a mythical neutral character rather than myself.

It’s as if what I need is a centre – or something like a home.

A home is a space of self-definition, or a way to anchor oneself. It is a metaphor for an outlook, an ideological position, a social grouping, or an identity. It must, lest it descend into dogmatism or rigidity, be a porous concept. And for many, finding such a space specifically online would be unnecessary, because their lives are not lacking that belonging. Mine, however, happens to. And I realized that I was missing a home – a locus from which to speak outward, rather than constantly attempting to find my footing on a sand dune constantly slipping away from itself.

All of this is a very long-winded way to say that Snarkmarket, that bastion of optimism and smarts, is cranking up again, and has expanded beyond its core triumvirate of Tim Carmody, Robin Sloan, and Matt Thompson to include, oh, about 20 or 30 other members of the Snarkmatrix, including me. Already there’s a few fascinating posts up with very cool comment threads. The whole thing feels very retro and very pleasant, and I’ve been finding myself feeling not only more invigorated, but also just a bit calmer: as if what I needed wasn’t more organization, or more self-control, or less distraction – but simply to have a place or community in which I felt like I belonged.

Don would know what to do…

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After blitzing through season 5 recently, I was recently catching up on the latest episodes of Mad Men. Though the show always has lots to talk about, what struck  me was a tiny moment (spoiler!) in which Don needed the simplest of looks from Sylvia Rosen to know he should head back upstairs for another ‘romantic dalliance’. The reason it stood out? If I had been given that look, I would have nodded politely, headed off to work, and spent the rest of the day wondering what it meant.

In fact, my life has been a litany of missed and misunderstood romantic looks. There was the New Year’s Eve party in which repeated, prolonged glances from a woman only made me exasperatedly respond “What?!” There was the time I dropped off a coworker at 5AM and, when she cocked her head and asked me if I wanted to come in, I obliviously said “No, it’s late, I’m gonna’ go home and sleep.” I’ve even had a woman analyze my hopelessness at the end of an evening: “yeah, there were a couple of times that were perfect for you to kiss me… but you didn’t.”

It’s as if I were absent the day everyone else got their Romantic Moments 101 Handbook. Once during grad school, we had our last class at the professor’s house. There, over beer and talk of the sublime, I kept glancing at another student, who kept meeting my gaze in return and smiling. When class was done, we said farewell on the street and—while she stood next to her boyfriend, mind you—she looked intensely at me, with an expression you might describe as…. pleading? Apparently I was supposed to do or say something so that we could… what? Meet later so she could cheat on her boyfriend? I have precisely no idea.

But then, that’s just the way my life is. When I walk into a bar or a party, I feel as if everyone is speaking a completely silent language made up of looks and gestures that only they understand. I think perhaps that’s why I find Mad Men so compelling: it’s full of people who all know how to interpret this mute world of meaning. And I guess that’s why Don Draper is the perfect anti-hero. You can tell he’s an awful person, but you’re still jealous of his prowess. He would have known what those looks meant, would have known the next move to make—and he would have done it, too.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the web…

I live in the suburbs now. We made an archway of these flowers, which would open each day, bright blue, turn darker through the afternoon, and then, by evening, die.

While I still maintain the fantasy that Scrawled in Wax will be resurrected after I finish my dissertation, these days I’m afraid I just don’t have the time – or, to be frank, inspiration or energy- to be blogging here. Except for the odd beer-fueled post, things will be very sparse here until at least early next year.

I am still occasionally writing elsewhere, though, and since I know quite a few of you don’t share my predilection for social networks, I thought I’d share a few odd things I’ve written elsewhere – regardless of whether or not they are any good:

  • In what is already starting to feel like my version of Al Bundy’s time in high school football, I wrote about Google’s Project Glass for TheAtlantic.com, mainly focusing on how tech is one of many ways in which we are stitched into reality.
  • Here’s my first real stab at something longform: 2500 words for new thing Hazlitt Mag about how the virtual self isn’t exactly new, but that the capacity to ‘exist’ in multiple places at once is. I ‘splain it all with literachure. This is essentially my second diss chapter, shortened and mainstreamified.
  • Another first is a bit of an attempt at writing video game criticism - specifically on side-scroller Rayman Origins. It bombed, though, and there are typos, so I think my own excitement about it was probably misplaced.
  • For those of you more into tech industry stuff, here’s something for Canadian Business on how Microsoft is (IMHO) becoming the cool new tech company. It’s from a while ago, but with Windows 8/WP8 etc. launching soon, it feels kinda-sorta relevant.

Apropos of nothing, I have also finally started watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which was probably mistake given that I’m already hooked and that it makes me miserable. All that friendship, romance and overcoming adversity! Who needs to be reminded of that?

In the meantime, I should mention that old standby friends of this blog are doing neat things. Tim Carmody is writing for The Verge, while Tim Maly is doing fine work at Wired‘s Design site. Joanne McNeil is now editor at the important and innovative Rhizome. Greg Smith continues to be  his interesting self, like here, where he’s talking about the project Lostalgia, which maps the plot of Lost. Robin Sloan, that unending fountain of creation, has a new novel out that people are raving about. Farrah Bostic is bubbling up ideas at the Difference Engine, and anyone who reads this blog will likely find Anshuman Idamsetty’s site fascinating. Meanwhile, Matthew Gangles, this blog’s first regular reader (who I knew of, anyway) is now working at acclaimed game developer Naughty Dog, which I think is very cool. Oh, I imagine Rex is doing something very cool, but most of time I’m still just fascinated by the rising building he lives next to.

I’m sure I’ve missed people – particularly those of you who I tend to connect with face-to-face more often – but I’m not even sure how this turned into a weird virtual community nostalgia post.

So… erm… as you were!

Valves, Grids and Soundproofed Condos

In the 1980s, James Burke hosted a BBC documentary series with the charmingly understated title The Day the Universe Changed. It was a look back at what Burke considered key moments in the ‘progression’ of ‘mankind’ – two words that, even a short 30 years later, one can hardly use without the scare quotes.

The clip above is typical, both in its bombastic rhetoric, but also in what might be its anachronism: it says the power that led to space travel is chief among humanity’s achievements, even more so than the microcomputer, a claim that might either not be very accurate – or perhaps be very prescient. The episodes all focus on one key insight, and hit all the things you’d expect for an unabashedly Eurocentric show: the Renaissance, the scientific method, Darwin, Einstein and so on.

Still – though these now seem equal parts obvious and worthy of critique, as a child I remember the thing that fascinated me most was there might be a day that changed the universe. In part, I dug it because it was reductive: it gave me simple things to hold on to and say “this one thing here changed history”. But what also set my mind-a-turnin’ (that was how we spoke in Essex in the 80s) was the idea that an entire swirl of historical change – a massive, overlapped network of consequence and upheaval – might be triggered by the events of one day. That the show never said it did was, I think, a bit too subtle for my kid brain to grapple with. I just dug the concept.

Of course now, as an adult, I can’t abide by that kind of reductionist approach because it just feels dishonest. Part of this has to do with the subjectivity of the choices involved in picking one thing. If the printing press was so crucial, it’s hard not to think of all the things that went into its creation. Who figured out how to refine iron? Who invented the cog? Or the roller? Or the pulley? Didn’t all these things count too? It all moves toward a kind of infinite regression.

But it does make me wonder if sometimes there aren’t small, obscure and overlooked inventions that allow for the things we now take for granted – some seemingly insignificant thing without which things like microcomputers or spaceships or genetic engineering couldn’t exist. What if the cog was the very core of what made us human?

The importance of small parts of larger networks is something I’ve wondered about in the past. For some reason while living in the Irish countryside, I spent a rather silly amount of time wondering about an ‘invention’ for use in green homes. A given house would have its own power generation like solar and wind, but at the point the house connected to the electric grid, there would be a box that would dynamically adjust the flow of incoming electricity. When a house was making enough, it would stop accepting power from outside, while on a cloudless, windless today (or whatever) it’d open ‘er up, so to speak. The mysterious device (‘box’ being the extent of the technical details of my imagining) would be this tiny yet crucial thing to help popularize green power, because it would make it easy and seamless to slowly switch.

Of course, something like that probably existed then. And I’m almost sure it exists now, though I don’t even know how to search for it (what would it even be called?*). But the only reason I remember it is because it was the start of me waking up to the idea that in the messy network of relations that is modern society, sometimes the things that help are those that control the flow of stuff between people and the social and economic structures they are a part of. You need valves for how you connect to things. Sometimes you want more, sometimes less; it’s the control the valve gives you that helps.

That issue is one that stuck with me. And it seems few areas are as in need of innovative solutions to help make sense and order out of chaos as cities. Among the plethora of challenges facing urban areas are how to solve a growing conflict between the luxuries of suburban living and a vision of sustainable urban life.

Now, to many people, the suburbs aren’t a ‘luxury’ at all; they are punishment, or a form of voluntary excommunication. But something urbanites often overlook is that much of the middle class suburban struggle is the fight to get your own space. Think about it: for so many, like immigrants and the working poor, the long march to ‘get a detached house in the ‘burbs’ is a dream because for years, ‘they’ (by which I actually mean ‘we’) have fought to move out of crowded, clustered living spaces in which others’ lives impinge on yours to finally have your own backyard and a house that can be as loud or as quite as one wants. The ‘emptiness’ of the suburbs is precisely the appeal because you have carved out a place for yourself where you an in more control of how much the overwhelming complexity of modern life affects you. You’ve found a valve for the flow of society into your life – and it’s one that isn’t tenable any more.

This is what you give up to live in the hustle and bustle of a city. You share space with people. You share their noise, you share their smells, their traffic, their activities. For some of us, this is a worthwhile sacrifice. But for many I know, it is not.

Which brings me to soundproofing. Yes, I know, that was rather circuitous, but here’s what I mean. For reasons of both economics (here’s a great interview with Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi on the subject) and sustainability, mass suburban living is no longer possible. As a result, we now need to figure out ways to mitigate the downsides of living in cramped, urban spaces like condos and apartments so that more and more people will want to live there.

So why are people not focusing on soundproofing? It seems innocuous, even silly; but the capacity to live one’s life freely of invasion by others’ sounds is a major part of what makes one feel in control of one’s space. Imagine how much less annoying condo life might be if you would never have the sounds of others’ lives invading your space, sleep and day-to-day existence.

Right now, the reason no developer really is pushing it is the obvious economic factor. But it seems like one of those ideas that could start in the luxury market and work its way down. It’s difficult to imagine it could add more than $10,000 to the price of a half million dollar condo to build in soundproofing material to the walls and floor. Push it, and make the windows and doors soundproof, and you might creep up to $15-20k. But even in 10 years, that’d surely halve, if not more. Moreover, costs could be signficantly reduced if the insulation currently used by builders were simply changed to one with soundproofing qualities.

We need to find a way to mitigate the downsides of urban living to make it more appealing to everyone. While I can already envision people who’d snarkily say something about the ‘sterility of boxes disconnected from the world’, it’s a naive view. In many places – especially somewhere like Toronto, that is seeing massive growth in downtown density and condo buildings – some solution is needed to make the inevitable difficulties of downtown living less inevitable. And maybe expanding the environmental, economic and social benefits of urbanization might be helped along by something as insignificant and unimportant as a bit of foam between walls.

*What would a box be called that ‘directs’ energy and was invented by me?… Why, The Navigator of course! Heyyo!

Banksy, Buying Fair-Trade at Walmart

Andrew Potter – the guy who wrote The Authenticity Hoax and The Rebel Sell – has a great post on the reaction to that Simpsons Banksy intro, one that puts forth what I think is actually a vital and necessary response to current North American leftism.

Writing about artistic rebellion against capitalism, Potter smartly and astutely points out that the kind of parodic, ironic critique exemplified by Banksy’s Simpsons intro relies on the idea that dissent ‘from within’ is important. But Potter argues that “dissent doesn’t threaten capitalism, because capitalism does not require the sort of conformity that the dissent purports to subvert”. To wit, contrarian reactions against capitalism are often assertions of individual freedom and intelligence more than anything else, and can easily be commodified: don’t buy this corrupted thing, but this organic, local, well-sourced thing instead.

But in something like Walmart’s recent announcement that it will start sourcing things from local farmers, anti-capitalists often respond by dismissing them out of hand because of a perception that moves perpetuated by market concerns cannot possibly be good. As Potter writes:

Capitalists absorb legitimate critiques in ways that actually make the world a better place. As I argue in this essay looking at No Logo ten years on, the mainstreaming of old critiques is a success story:
“From eco- to organic, fair trade to locally sourced, sweatshop safe to dolphin friendly, sales pitches that 10 years ago would have reeked of patchouli oil and set the red baiters on full alert are now thoroughly mainstream. Companies like Whole Foods (and its quarterly “5 Percent Day,” when each location donates 5 percent of its net sales to a nonprofit) or the Vermont-based Seventh Generation (a natural soap and detergent company devoted to all forms of sustainability, whose co-founder and executive chairman is known as the “inspired protagonist” of the firm) are massively successful operations.”

This is only a bad thing if you think that the point of dissent is not to change the system for the better, but to bring it down entirely.

That last line feels key to me, and is something that, until someone comes up with a better response than authoritarian socialism, needs to be repeated.

BUT – and it’s a big one – if Potter is arguing that capitalism’s capacity to absorb critique can make the world a better place (which I agree with) it is also that same capacity that simultaneously makes the world worse.

After all, if contemporary capitalism works by beckoning us to enjoy and feel good – whether that pleasure comes from fast food, a sex toy or ethical satisfaction at having bought fair trade – it means that capitalism’s capacity to ameliorate the world only works when those improvements have market value.

But the difficulty with capitalism is that issues or problems that cannot be incorporated into markets and have no to little cultural currency – say, the drudgery of factory work, health concerns of workers, the massive disparity between the ‘first world’ and the Global South, or the use of that disparity to fuel a manufacturing economy – then capitalism’s capacity to absorb critiques becomes a massive elision, this gaping hole into which the world’s misery is poured. To wit, the same capitalist process of enjoyment that allows for the useful incorporation of fair trade or local farming is the same process that allows for massive southern poverty, Western control of the IMF, or environmental abuses in places we’ve never heard of. The problem with relying on the market’s capacity to respond is that there is no necessary concordance between those ideas and issues with market value and those with ethical, environmental or cultural value.

So sure, celebrate when the markets react to make the world a better place. But also keep in mind that it’s the very same process that enables capitalism’s most egregious and aggressive moments of terror, suffering and deprivation.

Note: The animated Zizek video is so so so good.