Friday, February 18, 2011

Smart Devices

What an incredibly exciting time to be alive! Well, OK so I'm especially excited because my daughter just learned that she can go to Yale Law School if she wants, or she can accept a scholarship to the University of Chicago, or a few other not-so-shabby choices. It's also nice to think that maybe she was accepted at least in part because of her evident devotion - proven by track record - to public service and not just self-promotion.

But that's all just backdrop to my effusive mood for the day. Among my hobbies is to follow the developments of Information Technologies. Careful readers will understand that I consider the term "information" highly problematic in this construction. Having occasion to read a bit of Marshall McLuhan again, I'm struck by how much more expansive his rhetoric is than would be possible now these few short decades later. And he was the guru then about what's happening now!

As much as we can be better informed, we can also be distracted by the sheer volume of what's out there. Here in the vicinity of LA now, I am awash each day with movie news leading up to the Oscars (how many more contests along the way?) The coverage is dense enough that I can also learn of the small-audience indie movies being produced, some on incredibly important and interesting subjects.

But it's hard to avoid the imperative to catch the drift about the blockbusters. And with only so much time in any given day to read or watch or otherwise digest the news from the global village, it would be hard not to conclude that the blockbusterish information pretty much crowds out almost everything else.

My mind simply can't either catalog or remember which of those indie movies I'd wanted to see, and they're not really all that likely to be offered on pay-per-view or at the local theater.

Ditto re reading material, although in that case at least the "mass market" is a bit more refined, and so I worry less that the Big Books will crowd out the interesting stuff. While I might waste my time watching good entertainment in the theater, I'm not all that likely to waste reading time on something Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck wrote, regardless of whether I agree with them or not. Plus, I have to spend real time re-learning to read Chinese now that I might be employed again. And overall there's so much good stuff so easy to find.

I confess I do enjoy having a "smartphone." Truthfully, I can't even imagine being without it now. Remember when the answering machine solved a big problem with staying in touch, but then each day coming home from work you'd have to be sure to check it? And then there's that call screening function. Or planning ahead and leaving phone numbers, and having to apologize for being stuck in traffic after the fact. Now I have a traffic monitoring GPS. Or Internet in the park!

Sure, it commands my attention in ways that could be annoying socially if I were to let it (sometimes, I confess, I do). And it probably keeps me from paying attention to those complicated thoughts I really have to get to work on.

But, you know, that problem will be solved by having a job, or could be solved by having a discipline within which to work. Except for my sense that these darned over-elaborated disciplines are part of the problem. Each one now has its technical vocabulary and cultural norms which envelope an entire professional life-time and pretty much rule out the kind of overarching thinking accomplished by the likes of McLuhan. No wonder we still don't know what to do with what he wrote.

Sure there are public geniuses, people we like to read or watch up on TED, but I sense that they all elaborate on one big overarching metaphor, drawn from a discipline where they have established cred. There's no room for unauthorized new thinking from the bleachers. We have spotlights. We have superstars. The world is trivialized thereby.

But that's life in the village, global or local, and it's the overarching galaxy which is the most important. The shape of things. Here, I think, microcosm is as elaborated as macrocosm, and the superstars as shallow, ulitmately, as that guy with a toupee who MCs at your local high-school when the road show comes to town.

Now back down to that micro-ecology where the smartphone sits. I find it incredibly exciting, really!, that there remains quite a variety of Operating Systems for the hardware on which they float. There's Google's Android and Apple's iOS of course, but there's also Windows Phone 7, and the new WebOS from HP, and Blackberry and the fading Symbian and Palm and that nameless one I've still got.

Their competition drives the hardware now, to where the screens are rich and readable in any light. They respond with alacrity to touch, and inside these tiny boxes are two-way radios for voice and data, including WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and in the case of my phone even FM for music and NPR!!

Where's the satellite radio? What about TV? Well, you know, eventually, it will all come down to packet data, and whatever ways there are to get it. As news outlets now rediscover ways to charge for their mediation of "information," I suspect that access to the web will approach a cost of something like nil. Which could mean that we start paying full price for hardware as well as content. Which could get interesting.

No question Apple has the lock on hot hardware, but so far the cost differential hasn't reached Maserati vs. Volkswagen proportions. Or wait, maybe it has? VWs cost a pretty penny nowadays, and the outrageously priced cars somehow don't seem so utterly out of reach when ordinary folks have to pay at least a quarter of a $K to get a family car.

I like a keyboard, as you can see, and I don't much care about the rest of it. Sure if I would interact more by talking to people instead of writing to myself, I'd have a less cranky approach on things, but I have to say that it's only by interacting this way with what I read that I can make any sense of it. And for that I'm really really glad for cheap access to the Internet. For me, it's a two-way street, though yeah as you can tell I'm not much paying attention to who might care to pay attention to me.

Anyhow, HPs apparent strategy is to develop a software/hardware mixed infrastructure on which can ride all sorts of apps and devices which they sell. Their stable includes an incredible variety of medical instruments as well as enterprise-grade PC servers and consumer-grade entertainment PCs. On top of any of these there can  now be a WebOS sandbox in which to run their apps. Or for their apps to run their hardware. It's all a two-way street!

I can buy Google apps now which will run in Chrome, the browser. Shortly, I'll be able to buy an even cheaper but more alacritous laptop loaded with the Chrome OS! And presumably these apps will run across all their devices, or in their sandbox running on other devices. And of course, there's iTunes though it's still more of a store than a platform for the moment.

I'm still waiting for the day when I could conveniently use iTunes in sync with non-Apple hardware. Or I'd almost accept Microsoft getting a clue with Media Player and the way it integrates with my phone (not so well, sadly). I mean, I don't really care all that much about music, truthfully, mainly because it's too damned hard to drill down through the payola on the air and over the 'net and so for the moment I'm perfectly happy with Pandora's read of my genome. I can't retrieve my audiophile roots enough to care about fidelity, and I figured out how to trick my phone into accepting an ill-fitting version of Pandora's software which they officially don't make,

Sure, yeah, I'd like to be able to read my books on any and all devices, and not to have to care about which outlet I get them from. I come pretty close with my Kindle, but it won't handle Chinese without a hack. Maybe I'd like to have a bit more flexibility with movie watching, and maybe I'd like to be able to ignore the wide pricing swings from free-with-ads to $5 bucks per view to full ownership.

Ultimately, I'd like to "own" media, the way I do books on my Kindle, but retain the rights to lend them out. It seems DVD rental places might not have to pay royalties back to the content owners once they own the physical disks. Surely this will be a thing of the past? And maybe artists will retain rights to their physical works after they get sold if they get resold?

Or, you know, maybe I could "rent" new books on demand the way that I can borrow old books (the new ones always have an impenetrable queue) from the library, without having to pay so much up front. These things can all be worked out by IT.

But of course, the ecology of money would have to change in ways to upset the current monopoly plays orchestrated by the financial institutions.

We all learned from the recent sale of the New York Stock Exchange, that nobody trades in stocks anymore. Instead, it's all nano-microsecond trading in complex futures and derivatives, whatever those are. (I'm pretty sure it's all a conspiracy among newly conscious machines to preserve the advantage among those who already have it, who provide the luscious host for the viral growth of anti-human dangerous memes - out-of-control wealth provides the machines' and the machine-thought which they embody with their nutrient bath, in strange mockery of that movie Matrix.)

I'm warned that the cost of law school will inexorably whittle down my daughter's resolve not to go for the gold. That must be how the price is set. Some sort of guarantee for the ultimate triumph of machine-thought, now defined here as that thinking which rationalizes greed as though it were good for humanity.

But you know, there's hope. And for today, at least, I find it in the palm of my hand, among devices which have now brought down a dictator in Egypt and might yet defeat machine-memes a few more times. Life as it ever was. Down and dirty and difficult and uncertain, but humanity will prevail. If we care to.

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