UNDER ‘COVER’: This month’s special SIFF Cinema screening of Lynn Shelton’s $5 Cover: Seattle (a series of music and drama shorts made for MTV.com) has a $12-$15 cover. In other news, the cinema is a world of make believe.
HUMMING ‘TAPS’: The Chinese backed out of a takeover deal, so GM plans to shut down Hummer. The NYT says the brand sold only 265 vehicles in January.
Without the vehicle that most blatantly iconified Bush-era macho posturing and material waste, what will the Pike/Pine hipsters use as an all-purpose symbol of ridicule against the hated evil Mainstream America?
Oh yeah, there’s still Wal-Mart. For now.
THE NEW NORMAL?: In a recent issue of The Atlantic magazine, Don Peck ponders what could happen if high unemployment for the non-rich sticks around for years to come.
I’m old enough to have seen that very thing around here, during the Boeing slump of the early ’70s.
What happened was a lot of emotional depression, a lot of moving away (Seattle proper lost about 10 percent of its population), a lot of depressed home values, and, eventually, a lot of entrepreneurism, as desperate folks got up and tried to rebuild their lives with or without a paternalistic big employer.
THE RACE IS ON, SERIOUSLY: You already know about the hit blog/book Stuff White People Like. It’s a gentle satire on the ways and mores of the upscale NPR/Starbucks/REI subculture.
One guy named “Macon D” has taken the same premise, cut out the funny business, and created a serious examination of modern ethnic attitudes.
As he explains, “I’m a white guy, trying to find out what that means. Especially the ‘“white’ part.”
His site: Stuff White People DO (stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com).
Entries include: “force people of color to bring along racial baggage during vacations,” “think of ‘hot’ women as white women,” “wonder why there’s no ‘white history month,’” and “seek authenticity.”
THINGS I’VE LEARNED FROM THE OLYMPICS:
• Curling really is the greatest game of all time.
• Belltown’s own Apolo Anton Ohno is in line to replace the disgraced Tiger Woods as the champion all-around ad spokesman for everything. This does not, however, mean very many people will care about short-track speed skating between now and the next Winter Games.
• I can see why the Intl. Olympic Committee chose to add more “x-treme-y” events and not to add women’s ski jumping, even though I disagree with the decision. Why simply stick on an extension to a legacy Olympic sport when you can instead grow your young, hip, edgy, more marketable side?
• The whole thang’s a fiscal disaster for the Vancouver and B.C. governments. But the province’s zeal in attracting the Games is understandable if you know how that place works. Over recent decades, successive provincial leaders have staked their political careers on “megaprojects,” big govt.-subsidized development schemes that invariably funnel money from the taxpayers to politically-connected landowners and construction firms. The Olympics are simply the biggest, costliest megaproject of them all.
• NBC’s coverage sucks because the network’s stuck in a coverage model invented decades ago by ABC sports exec Roone Arledge. He operated from the premise that too few Americans intrinsically cared about these sports, so instead he’d put on a drama serial. Pretaped profile pieces turned these athletes into instant celebrities (even if, in real life, they were often bland workaholics). Armies of videotape editors would slice-n’-dice the competition footage into “shows,” carefully timed to draw and keep the biggest possible mass audience for the longest possible viewing time. But we’re not in the three-network era anymore. In the age of cable + Internet, audiences are fragmented into little pieces based on shared intense interest—such as those who are intensely interested in winter sports. The more you care about any of these events, the more you’re disgusted by what NBC does to them.
I LIKE TO THINK I’M MORE OF A WIDGET, MYSELF: There’s this guy named Jaron Lanier. He was part of some of the earliest virtual reality research, as he’ll repeatedly tell you.
Now he’s rebranded himself as a cyber-skeptic. While he insists he’s no Luddite, he sure talks as if he thinks everything wrong with modern society could be traced to the Internet, to its imperfect technologies, and to its even more imperfect business models.
He’s compiled some of these screeds into a book, You Are Not a Gadget.
It’s subtitled “A Manifesto,” but it’s less of a single structured argument and more of a package of rewritten magazine essays.
In them, Lanier blames the collapse of just about all old-media businesses on the Web’s inability to command a price for content.
He blames what he calls the sameness of modern pop music on the bad influence of discrete synths and samplers.
He blames lousy software on open-source collectives that just can’t innovate the way individuals and strong-leader groups can.
He blames 2008’s economic collapse on inscrutably arcane “investment products” that could only have been devised with the aid of advanced computer technology.
He blames what he calls a devaluing of the individual in today’s world on Web 2.0 sites’ obsession with collective anonymity, with turning humans into abstracted collections of likes and associations.
I’m not convinced.
Yes, the legacy ephemeral-media businesses (broadcast TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and so on) are in huge trouble. But the whole concept of the mass audience, upon which these businesses had relied, has cracked, probably irreversably. The Web has only some of the blame/credit for this.
Apple, Amazon, and others have proven people will pay for content delivered as electronic bits, under the proper circumstances. I believe the iPad and machines like it will only help commercial e-media grow.
Meanwhile, the decaying remnants of the big record companies (there are only four of them left, none US-owned and only one (Sony) still tethered to a major corporation) continually try to stuff the musical genie back into the broken mass-market bottle. They promote decreasingly distinctive works, issued under the names of professional gossip-mag celebrities. In the 1980s, folks such as Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt predicted corporate music would end up in a recursive death cycle. It’s happened, and it ain’t pretty, but it was inevitable.
Open source software didn’t grow out of mistaken techno-hippie idealism, as Lanier claims, but out of mainframe-era computing administrators who shared pieces of code as a professional courtesy. From the start, it was all about insider geeks helping find better ways to solve existing problems. So it gives us insider-geek tools like LINUX and better-mousetrap stuff like the Firefox browser. If the truly innovative tech stuff always comes from individuals and top-down groups, as Lanier alleges, it’s because that’s where the make-a-name-for-yourself incentive is.
As for the financial bubble, Lanier’s closer to where I believe the mark is, but still misses it. The fatal link to the reckless speculators wasn’t from Internet technologies, but Internet business models. A decade after the first dot-coms arose, large swaths of business and most of finance had adopted dot-com mindsets. Enron was only the first prominent example. We can make millions, billions, fast! Not by old slowpoke return-on-investment models, but by devising really clever schemes and then selling them as hard as humanly possible—no, even harder. The whole of the global economy was wrested by the same smirky tall white guys who’d given us such surefire success stories as Flooz.com, Kozmo.com, and MyLackey.com.
And then comes what I see as Lanier’s most important allegation, that being online is degrading what it means to be human. No. It’s really the marketing business that wants to either lump us all into an undifferentiated mass or to wall us off from one another on the basis of demographics and buying habits. Social media, at their best, help humans reconnect to one another on other bases—political/social organizing, religious/spiritual questing, shared cultural memories, or just being alive and having something to say.