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Lest We Forget: The Internet is a Series of Tubes

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Dec 7th, 2008

Thank you NJDG for pointing out my lapse into the mythology of an etherial Internet. We can never forget that the Internet is a series of tubes that require huge amounts of capital and largely unseen infrastructure. Indeed, the rising use of high-bandwidth streaming video and web apps is responsible for a serious evolution in electricity use. Behind every Google search, YouTube video, and Blogger post is a network of data centers that require the same amount of energy as a small city and the coolant systems akin to those of a nuclear power plant. The global nature of the Internet allows western users to enjoy the results of this processing power without having to build new coal-fired power plants in their own backyards.


Google's new, top-secret data center on the Columbia River

Google's top-secret data center on the Columbia River

Moreover, utopian claims about the democratic and intellectual potential of the Internet frequently gloss over the capital interests invested in our favorite sites and causes (Online organizing on Facebook, brought to you by CIA-backed venture capital, social-networking pioneers behind Obama’s $750m online fundraising juggernaut). This is why we need to keep theorizing the relationships between speech, politics and capital on the Internet.


My last post was talking about blogging from the perspective of a writer seeking to published his thoughts, along the lines of Andrew Sullivan’s piece. Thus, I was glossing over these issues of capital because for the aspiring (or successful) writer, the issue is about getting people to read your ideas. From this perspective, free web publishing tools (like wordpress) do free writers from some of their direct dependence on capital as it relates to the content of their thoughts. For example, I highly doubt that this would reach anyone outside of the SciLi bathrooms without the help of those tubes.

BLogic at

Category : Uncategorized · (1) Comment · by Dec 4th, 2008

Last night I was reading Andrew Sullivan’s piece on blogging as a literary form in the current Atlantic (in the dead tree edition no less, a format I now use almost exclusively in the bathroom). “Andrew” argues that blogging is to writing as jazz is to music: an improvisational form that at its best is a conversation moderated and organized by the blogger. His vision is utopic, to say the least, but I think that works; the piece is not trying to be a dispassionate analysis of the place of blogging in cultural production. It’s an explanation from someone who not only drank the Kool-Aid, but is mixing it. For anyone who has ever blogged, it’s obvious that linking is what really makes the medium unique. Hyperlinks add an additional dimension to writing that situate your piece as a nodal point in a rhizomatic mediascape. (This has also started to seep into “print” writing to great effect, I’m thinking of Frank Rich).


But writing in this new form is a collective enterprise as much as it is an individual one—and the connections between bloggers are as important as the content on the blogs. The links not only drive conversation, they drive readers. The more you link, the more others will link to you, and the more traffic and readers you will get. The zero-sum game of old media—in which Time benefits from Newsweek’s decline and vice versa—becomes win-win. It’s great for Time to be linked to by Newsweek and the other way round. One of the most prized statistics in the blogosphere is therefore not the total number of readers or page views, but the “authority” you get by being linked to by other blogs. It’s an indication of how central you are to the online conversation of humankind.

  In the age of Google the proprietary algorithm holds (arguably the most) significant epistemological power, there is a radically different relationship between media sources. At its best, this new mediascape is network-based rather than supported by an infrastructure of capital (printing presses, distribution networks, exclusive access). The transition from the zero-sum game of dead tree media to the systematic connectivity of new media is a novel logic. That’s why I was really interested this morning to see the newest feature since TimesPeople (which I don’t think anyone I know uses): Times Extra. Enabling this feature puts a dynamically-updated list of links to other sources below each headline. 


NYT Extra

NYT Extra



Seeing links to WSJ coverage on the NYT homepage is an example of how I think we can talk of a new logic. I’m under no illusions that little features like this will save newspapers, but they’re certainly not going to survive unless they understand the new rules of information. No paper can be an island.

Train Station Music

Category : Uncategorized · (1) Comment · by Nov 22nd, 2008

I like train stations almost as much as I dislike the climate-controlled, fast food lubricated, homogeneous environment of Airport Land. There are some great things to recommend train stations:

  • Location: Because airports are unsightly, large and polluting, they are always found on the outskirts of a city surrounded by gas stations, long term parking lots, and bland airport hotels. If there is anything else around, it’s because things have sprawled out that far. In contrast, (most) train stations are in the middle of a city. Perhaps the only nice part of traveling through NYC’s Penn Station is emerging from the ground in the midst of the city.
  • Atmosphere: Airports are like holding tanks for people. No one wants to spend time in an airport if they can help it; anyone who has been there long enough to look around cannot still be in a good mood. The air is too dry, the food is too greasy, the seats are too uncomfortable, and the security announcements are more than sufficient to bring on serious insanity. Classic train stations are frequently among the most interesting and pleasant public spaces in a city (and frequently one of the only indoor places to go for free). Grand Central is so nice that the oyster bar downstairs is Zagat-rated. Even in small towns or cities past their prime, train stations are frequently quite classy.
  • Security: I hate the TSA; airport security always puts me in a bad mood, even when its managed by the Swiss, whose agents are fairly described friendy, efficient, and respectful. No one stops you in a train station. My bag stays packed. I can show up right before departure without having to stand in line for a useless charade.

If there is a punctum for me in any great train station, it is the departure board. As a child, I always loved the scene in front of the LIRR departure board in Penn Station. After work, everyone stands in front of the board waiting for their train’s platform to be posted. Businessmen are standing there sucking a 40 with straw, kids are slumped on the floor, and you never fail to see someone you know. In the moments before a train is posted, every-day commuters start inching towards their predicted platform. After the announcement, there’s a mad dash to the stairs that presents a real trampling risk.

What has always stuck with me the most, however, is the board’s sound. I love the sound of an analog Solari & C. Udine split-flap display flipping through the destinations and times. After a departure, there’s an avalanche of activity as the whole display is shifted up a line. I really missed the clicking sound when the MTA replaced the old LIRR board with a new digital one, I think about the sound every time I’m standing there waiting to (hopefully) flop down in a train seat.

Today I spent some time in Boston’s South Station, another beautiful 19th century relic, while going to and from the Boston Museum of Science.

Boston South Station

Boston South Station

I spent a lot of time in that station traveling to debate in high school, and I always looked forward to eating the blackened fish from Cajun Cajun, perusing Barbara’s Bestsellers, and hearing the split-flap clicks echo off the high ceilings.  The authorities there must have recently acquired a new digital sign, which they hung between the older MBTA and AMTRAK split-flap models. While the two older signs are frozen in place – there’s an 11.59 MBTA to Providence that’s still waiting to depart – the designers apparently didn’t want to sacrifice the sound. The new board has a speaker on the side that plays a recording of the classic clicks whenever something on the digital sign changes. It’s certainly not the same, but I appreciate the pastiche.

I Can't Wait for Barack Obama to be President

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Nov 18th, 2008

Last night I watched both sides of the pending transfer of power. First, I saw Jon Stewart’s take on Bush’s G-20 performance. Bush constructed some brilliant metaphors to explain his current thinking about free market fundamentalism.

Then I watched this:

I can’t wait for the Obamas to move in.

The bad really seems so much worse after I’ve watched Barack. It will take a while for this to get old, if it ever does.

PS: Don’t miss Andy Rooney’s closing thoughts on journalism, an impassioned plea to remember the irreplacable value of newspapers.

white supremacists' neuroses

Category : Uncategorized · (1) Comment · by Nov 16th, 2008

The conventional wisdom is always the most interesting when its totally counterintuitive. After months of fearing that middle America’s racism would prevent an Obama victory, liberals have quickly pivoted to embrace the anxiety of an assassination attempt. This is juxtaposed against (and encouraged) by an emerging narrative that white supremacists were rooting for Barack all along, hoping to use the moment to reinforce “race pride” and boost recruitment.

passing the torch to a new generation?

passing the torch to a new generation?

But there is more to this phenomenon than racist pamphlets and white supremacist server crashes. Reinvigorated white supremacy works on a more individual level; Althusser argues that racist ideology provides fuel for the unconscious, producing a much more powerful and insideous response:

the unconscious can exploit anything to its ends, but it still has to “find” something suitable to its ends. To say that the unconscious “functions with ideological imaginary” is thus to say that it “selects” in the ideological imaginary the forms, elements, or relations “suitable” to it. I have the impression that it is not by chance that certain ideological “situations” sustain certain defined unconscious structures marvelously well and that “affinities” exist between a specific form of neurosis, and even psychosis, with the result that a particular conjuncture “realizes” par excellence specific unconscious structures….

One would thus have to “read” against the grain of the meaning all too often proposed, the “unleashing” of “instincts” under… racist ideology as a general and official (and thus public and permissive) distribution of that ideological “fuel” needed by certain perversions to “function” in the open air.

The white nationalism Palin unleashed (and implicitly condoned) at her rallies is more than deranged raving. It’s the psychoanalytic “working-through” of the unconsciouses of America’s most regressive, (formerly) pro-American people. The white supremacists are right: the best thing for their cause is a moment when the conservatives’ discourse on race emerges from the alibis of “crime reduction” and “welfare reform.” In this conjuncture, racism has emerged as an avowed part of the dominant ideology, unshielded by the usual mystification. Thus, the election must be (and the campaign certainly was) almost as satisfying a jouissance for the right as it is for the left.

This speaks right to the myth of a post-racial America. It’s not that we’ve collectively transcended racism; instead, the unleashed racist ideology allowed a release of pressure as our nation’s most destructive perversions emerged into the open air:

electoral emotions

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Nov 4th, 2008

I was glad to go food shopping this morning because it was great to be out in the world (as opposed to on campus) and see the “I Voted” stickers on everybody. There has been a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation among (nearly) everyone i’ve spoken to for the last week, but I think it’s hard to evade those feelings today. The Times has some great interactive features on its site, but its election day version of we feel fine is the perfect feature for today.

NYT Emotions Tracker
NYT Emotions Tracker

It will be interesting to watch this develop throughout the day. I’m definitely feeling a lot of those things in blue.

On the way to the store this morning I must have passed 5 polling places in this non-swing state. I wish those resources were deployed to a more important spot (Florida perhaps). I’m obviously not in favor of the conditions that force voters to wait in 6 hour long lines, but all the same it’s inspiring to see footage of people engaged in our democracy.

More to come throughout the day. I don’t know how I’m going to sit through class.

the new poll tax

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Nov 3rd, 2008

It’s rare to see the mainstream media’s pundits really demystify the hidden political motives behind “neutral,” technical, state decisions. Six-hour long voting queues in south Florida, which evoke images of a developing nation’s democracy, are not failures of preparation. They are class- and race-conscious attempts at disenfranchisement. Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s new post-Matthews counterpart to Kieth Olbermann, correctly identified these motives on her show last night:

This is an example of responsible journalism about an issue that can easily be supplied with an alibi. Here, Maddow reinscribes voting rights within the broader social context, reading the ideology behind these “technical choices.” Critiquing the alleged “objectivity” of the humble social servants at election boards nationwide is the only way to defend against the next Katherine Harris.

In his life-long project to read ideology, Althusser’s most powerful rhetorical moments are his exposures of ideology in the common features of our rythmes de vie. In Marx In His Limits, Althusser actively demystifies the motivations behind supposedly “technical decisions”:

Those who assist the ministers and government in coming to a decision that is ultimately taken by all the political personnel of the state make no bones about the fact that several different ‘technical solutions’ exist, but that a political choice always comes into play, so that only one solution wins out. It is then justified by bogus ‘technical’ arguments, notwithstanding its profoundly political nature…. Class struggle does not take place in the sky. It begins with exploitation… in matter. The matter of factory buildings, machines, energy, raw materials, the ‘working day’ the assembly line, work rhythms, and so on.

Assigning a specific (too-low) number of voting machines in a Florida library is neither a necessary nor a neutral decision. It should never be treated as one.

Yes We Can (stand in line)!

you can keep the vote off the internet, but you can't keep the internet out of the vote

Category : Uncategorized · (1) Comment · by Nov 2nd, 2008

After the last two presidential election fiascos, it’s hard to imagine what types of voter intimidation are too brazen and what barriers to access are too large for someone to attempt this time around. The electronic voting situation is rightly frightening. The problems with vote-switching are so rampant that Oprah made headlines discussing her electoral close-call. And even this important step, checking your vote, assumes that it’s counted by the shoddy technology!

For all of the cheapening of information begot by the Internet, there are some really intelligent, spontaneously developed organizations using new media to try to prevent the theft of the election. Video the Vote exploits voters’ digital cameras (or cell phones) to document fraud, intimidation, technological problems, and unreasonable waits at the nation’s polling places.

This kind of decentralized news gathering should provide great evidence of what is actually happening at polling places around the country. If the media are supposed to act as a deterrent force against corruption and fraud, how will the panoptic recording of the vote affect what people (mostly on the right) are willing to do? If there are questions about the legitimacy of the election, what will the tolerance be of video of intimidation and lines preventing the foreclosed, the poor, and the nonwhite from voting? Will CNN’s iReports be able to keep up? How quickly will these videos make it into the mainstream media.

But proof after the fact can only do so much. Both parties maintain teams of lawyers ready to act quickly to prevent abuses from continuing. But this requires the kind of real time information that can make a difference during the day. A group of users at Twitter – the Internet sensation that remains the most foreign to me – put together Twitter Vote Report, a project that uses guerrilla informatics to monitor the election in real time. If the project works as deisgned, it is possible that we will hear about problems before the polls’ close locks in the decision.

But what does this mean for the media consumer? Though Election Night television is already the most must-see event of the year, this year’s mediascape will be more informed by digital citizens’ journalism than ever before. Indeed, dramatic news coverage will probably continue all day, replacing the constant replays of candidates voting with their spouses.

I can’t wait.

endorsement season

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Oct 25th, 2008

After mailing my absentee ballot, some reflection has left me totally confused as to how someone might still be undecided. With such stark differences between the candidates, it’s hard for me to imagine a state of mind that would result in being an undecided voter. Luckily, it doesn’t seem like we need to wait to find out on what side of the bed some undecided Ohioans wake up Nov. 4.

In case there’s an undecided voter out there who is going to choose based on the opinions pages of the NYT, WashPo, New Yorker, etc (I find it unlikely that there are many undecideds in the audiences of these papers) their editors have come out with their (un)surprising endorsements of Barack. But endorsement season doesn’t stop with the elite, liberal, America-hating media. Any loyal HuffPo reader has surely seen endorsements that range from poor attempts at humor to last minute ship jumping.

I don’t want to entirely minimize the importance of endorsements. Obama’s commanding lead (133-44 among print media) around the country should end the “discussion” about the sufficiency of his experience. I’d also be lying to suggest that I haven’t been following the endorsements closely. The last few weeks have seen some really moving, strongly worded statements of support laden with political and historical significance beyond the immediate choice. Colin Powell’s forceful eloquence on Meet The Press should reassure even conservative voters as to Obama’s capacity to keep the nation safe.

I was particularly impressed with his denouncement of the McCain/Palin/Right Wing attacks; I believe his argument was only stengthened by the obvious insanity of his post-endorsement skewering by racist right wing zealots. Though nothing can ever atone for Powell’s infamous argument for war at the UN, he’s using his immense credibility with the American people for a cause this time. It’s a start.

how do you say "schlep" in wasp?

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Oct 22nd, 2008

Today one of The Times‘ election blogs has an interesting post on viral design for the Obama campaign. Shepard Fairey’s designs have emerged as some of the most recognizable images of the two-year-long campaign, providing the visual style for a small industry of copycat productions. The culture gap between the two campaigns – in both meat- and cyber-space – is a result of the pro-Obama movement’s natural tap into the reservoir of decentralized production. When the most lively (i.e. youthful) pro-McCain online space is a production of the candidate’s own daughter, the right can hardly expect to keep up with the enthusiasm of a savvy, left-leaning generation’s first authentic political identification.

Not to take any credit from the geniuses behind the campaign’s sensational success, but the most memorable bits of campaign material came from fans, not staffers. Obama has certainly had to fight many kinds of cross-cutting prejudice in this election and the campaign has worked extraordinarily hard to familiarize the nation with That One. Last weekend, I saw a particularly jarring piece of campaign lit (that of course was produced by a state party and is not endorsed by any candidate or candidate’s committee) making this argument.

I know that this story can’t be told enough both for the cause of electoral success and to help guarantee Obama’s safety beyond the election, but I am quite glad that I didn’t have to stick that in Nashua’s doorjams. It’s straightlaced message is as easily distinguished as the lines in that white grandmother’s face. It’s definitely the northern New England version of Sarah Silverman’s Great Schlep PSA. I might be generationally biased, but I think the viral video is better.