Predictive Keyboard Poetry

I just installed iOS 8. The keyboard predicts words while you type. One result:

He said he had to go back in time to do that for me.
A prose poem.

The fact I can get it right away with the best of the day before I get a follow from you would have to do with it is the only thing is that I have no idea I don’t know if how to do it all for you guys should have make up your phone in and around the world and I love you too and it is a great tool for a few years ago I and I love you too much for the rest is history a new one for me I have no idea clue who you think you’re so cute when he said he had to go back in time to do that for me I was in a while and I love you the most important thing is that it the same time as a result of result is a that you have can be a good day to be a good day for me to do with a new song and on the other side the same box and a new song on my way back in my top five minutes and then right back after I got finish my homework. 

Apple, U2, and the Problem with Gifts

 

Apple recently made a gift to all its iTunes subscribers of U2’s new album “Songs of Innocence.” (The iTunes banner reads “U2’s new album is exclusively on iTunes. And it’s a gift to you.”) This act has been widely commented on in media and on blogs, mainly in anger.

“U2 stuffed a locksmith card in your doorframe, which you’ve probably already tossed,” writes Sasha Frere-Jones for The New Yorker. “Seriously, WTF” is the TechCrunch headline for an article about the U2 album debacle. The common element of the reactions seemed to be that Apple’s “gift” needed to be freely offered and freely accepted, rather than pushed into user’s accounts without consent.

The feeling of “ickiness,” as one commentator put it, that Apple’s gift of music engendered is entirely valid. Apple’s actions bely a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of gift-giving as it has been understood in the past half century in anthropology and cultural criticism. What makes the angry users’ complaints valid is that a gift can in some circumstances be read as a form of violence.

There is a common assumption that we give gifts simply to be nice. Theorists have argued for decades, though, that gifts are part of a network or assemblage of cultural, economic, and political forces. “Being nice” is never the whole story with gifts. For example, contrast giving a gift with anonymously donating. The gift is given publicly, whereas the donation is private. A public gift always incurs some obligation on the part of the receiver; gifts are never free. If Apple had announced an anonymous donation of U2’s new album, that some music lover had donated enough money to cover the cost of 500 million copies of the album, I think the outrage at finding it in one’s music library would have been slightly diminished. The obviousness of Apple’s arrangement with the band and its extreme publicity when “giving the gift” only made the ethical problem of a breach of millions of private music collections more urgent.

And yet, rationally, no one should have complained. Apple was giving, not taking, and to have something extra in one’s possession can only be a positive, a boon. Rationally, something is always better than nothing. But people are not perfectly rational. It is possible to disdain a gift because of the manner in which it was given. And if you think about it, the way a gift is given can be central to its meaning.

Gifts can be destructive, and in some cases exertions of power. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In “The Gift of Freedom,” Kennan Ferguson argues that when the U.S. invaded in 2003, it was to give the gift of freedom to the Iraqi people. But for some reason (or, many reasons) the gratitude that was expected by the Bush administration was not forthcoming: “Americans are roundly reviled; Western journalists can no longer travel safely in much of the country; virtually no Iraqi political parties will admit to asking the Americans to stay. Each supposed demarcation toward the end of the uprising — the capture of the fugitive Hussein, the transfer of “sovereignty,” the holding of elections — has failed to end the violence or stabilize the country. And the Iraqi people overwhelmingly agree that the United States should leave Iraq as soon as possible.” (40) This was written in 2007. Now, in 2014, the U.S. is considering another foray into the country; the gift that keeps on giving. What’s the problem with a gift?

According to thinkers like Bataille and Derrida, a gift is always a kind of excessive gesture, one that doesn’t center on the thing being given but on the power relations between givers. As Ferguson sums it up, “At the heart of the gift, then, stands the act of giving, not the need or pleasure of receipt. In the annihilation of the thing, the subjugation of the other is all that remains.” (43) One can see immediately that in its apparently innocent attempt to extend the gift of freedom, the U.S. has imposed a great and terrible burden on Iraq. We can see the fruits of that burden even now, more than a decade later.

In the case of the Apple gift, what Tim Cook and the deal-makers who put this gift together fail to realize is that a gift which is imposed is no gift at all, but a rude imposition at best, a form of subjugation at worst. In Marcel Mauss’s famous book The Gift, he notes that for the Tlingit tribes (native American tribes from southeast Alaska), the potlatch, or gifting ceremony, was a “War Dance” in which the gift was given to a tribe who could not possibly reciprocate. This imbalance was justification for war.

There was no established framework of exchange that Apple’s gift fit into neatly, and hence no possibility of reciprocation. We all know, for example, that product discounts and coupons are not “gifts” from companies to customers. These are incentives, which fit neatly into an economy of supply, demand, profit, trade, and labor. If the U2 album had been available for purchase, but discounted to be free for any user, then it would not have been a gift, per se, but Apple could still have called it one. Really, we would all have known that it was a promotion, a coupon, and that someone was paying for the album, even if it wasn’t us. (This turns out to be true: U2 will be paid for its content, possibly up to $100 million.) Instead, we have been given a gift for which the only possible method of reciprocation is loving adoration or undying loyalty… and these are not things that can be conjured, but must be earned. It felt like a threat, then, to be given the U2 album. Like in the Tlingit potlatch, we were being put in the impossible position of possessing the excess of an entity ostensibly more powerful than ourselves, and we could only wait – in distress and discomfort – for the war that results from the imbalance.

Ferguson, Kennan. “The Gift of Freedom”. Social Text 91, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer 2007. Pg. 39-52.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift; Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London : Cohen & West, 1966. http://archive.org/details/giftformsfunctio00maus.

 

NYPL Announces Recommendations in its Online Catalog

Related to my previous posts about the necessity of libraries to update digital search and research functions to fall more in line with the power of databases such as Amazon and Google Books, the New York Public Library announced that it will be partnering with a tech startup (Zola Books) to provide catalog users with Amazon-style recommendations. According to the Zola Books blog, the recommendations won’t be tied to user’s preferences or search histories, but will be generated by an algorithm that “matches users to books based on dozens of attributes and filters out irrelevant titles.” You can try the recommendation engine at http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/.

Related sources:

Zola Books Blog, “Books You Might Like!”

TheVerge.com, “The New York Public Library will now recommend similar books when searching”

 

aaaaarg.org and the Future of Libraries

Libraries used to be the repository of new media and technology. I remember back in the mid-90’s when the school or public library had the best Internet connection, the best desktop computers with CD-ROM and CD-RAM readers (the discs came in those clunky plastic cases that made them more like cartridges), and this amazing computerized database of all the library resources that replaced the card catalog. [Note: my mother is a school librarian, so I was more involved in library changes in the 80s and 90s than most people, probably.]

After the turn of the millennium, libraries seemed to lose their edge. Consumer technology became cheaper and cheaper, and the best tech was often at home or even in your pocket, not in the library. So the reasons I went to the library were the same after the tech explosion as they had been before: access to books and a peaceful atmosphere conducive to thinking, reading, and writing.

Most of the technological innovations that libraries benefitted from in the long-term were hidden from end users. That is, libraries suddenly became the repository not just of books, but of interactive, hyperlinked databases of information that wasn’t readily accessible from the open Internet. There are entire companies that make all their revenue by selling the database content libraries need to populate their computer systems. The side-effect of the new databases was the possibility of networking them together. This was especially popular among universities, since inter-library loan agreements benefited all students and faculty.

But inter-library loans and networked catalogs of materials are no longer as powerful as they once were relative to the newest consumer-facing technologies. There are two resources on the Internet that dwarf the scholarly usefulness of libraries, no matter how well-integrated into a loan system: digital book merchants, and pirated digital libraries.

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Invasion and Paranoia in “The Father-Thing” by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick’s fiction offers us a deeply psychological reading of the relationship between humans and objects, or between the notion “human” and the notion “thing”. PKD imagines the future, the present and the past in ways that make even normal scenes of everyday life – sitting down to dinner, playing in the backyard – seem alien and uncanny. “The Father-Thing” is an example of a story that can act as a kind of prototype for the science fictional “thing”. I will use Lacan’s mirror stage as well as some details from Dick’s text to show how “The Father-Thing” presents the Thing as a psychological force.

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World War Z and Ecological Disaster

Max Brooks’s novel World War Z, while hardly containing its neoliberal imperialist fervor, manages to evolve the zombie genre in the direction of ecological awareness. The text is a series of interviews with survivors of the worldwide zombie apocalypse. The lattice of locations – beach, rain forest, deep sea submarine, Arctic tundra, desert, Antarctic wasteland, mountains, swamps – creates a topology, a three dimensional representation of the globe. This is epitomized by an interview with an astronaut who spent his time during the “zombie wars” orbiting Earth inside the International Space Station, keeping GPS satellites in working order. He provides the reader with a God’s-eye view, the “view from above.” The novel’s narrative structure maps the globe.

World War Z by Max Brooks

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Cloudy With A Chance of Climate Change and Forced Migration

My wife was reading to our two year old son recently. I was washing the dishes, only half listening to the story, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. I realized that this peppy children’s book is a subversive allegory of over-consumption leading to drastic climate change and mass exodus, all wrapped in a delightfully goofy bedtime “story” whose ostensive purpose is to endear grandpa to the kids, and perhaps teach them a little something about the uses of visual metaphor.

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Hello again.

I spent a couple of years developing Wandering Academic into a sprawling website that housed international school data, scores of uneven posts about education and technology, some random bits and pieces. It never had any focus so I scrapped it.

The new incarnation of Wandering Academic is an academic blog to test out ideas on materials that I plan to use for research or materials that I include in courses and syllabuses. This site will end up representing my academic life, from 2013 onward. If you find an idea on this blog particularly useful or inspiring – however unlikely that case may be – please link back to or cite Wandering Academic where appropriate. I welcome comments or suggestions. I welcome personal emails too. Get in touch.

All the ideas and opinions herein are my own, as far as owning an idea is at all possible. Let’s say: they emanate from me and I take responsibility for them.

by Greg Clinton