Bored in the Library, Luxury of the Mind

Stop Trying to Fill Every Hour of Your Day: Ever wonder why you get most of your ideas in the shower? It’s because the shower is among the last sacred spaces where we aren’t distracted by colleagues or technology. Our ideas need time to ferment and connect with other ideas, and being bored allows our minds to accomplish this naturally. -Sean Blanda, Five “Good Habits” You Need to Unlearn

This is not about quiet, but the idea of quiet. Libraries have always been leaders in third space, as Montgomery and Miller argue that in times of fiscal constraint, the academic library fills that niche, and further, the library is a place of individual productivity during finals. Most importantly, the library:

(O)ffers a comfortable welcoming environment for informal gathering where people come and go at their leisure and “nobody plays host” (Oldenburg 1999). The relaxed atmosphere of the third place provides users with the chance to be around others where they are not restricted by time, nor are they compelled to be there. -Montgomery and Miller, The “Third Place”: The Libary as Collaborativeand Community Space in a Time of Fiscal Contraint

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The place we are trying to get away from is a noisy one. Stuart Sim puts forth the idea that the noise we are trying to get away from is integral to the business culture of the United States, where it functions as a way to get our increasingly divided attention (Manifesto for Silence). Pushing this one step further, John Stewart connects the noise of the consumer society to an even deeper place: our identities:

It seems the attitudes toward noise are being shaped and changed by consumer society…..It also means that many people do not know life without noise; if it were not there, a void would open up in their lives. They would notice the silence. They have become oblivious to the noise. Why Noise Matters, p.9-10

The “fear of silence” is so unsettling because without the noise, our attentions have no easy external focus, no desire drive spurned on, no object or idea with which to attach. The stuff brings the noise and brings our identity additives with it. This is the place where libraries get their power, both in terms of physical space, but also the space that an instruction librarian  can bring into the classroom. Shutting down the noise and unsettling that drive allows students to really connect ideas with other ideas. Blanda may think that is because they are bored, but perhaps that is exactly the point. He equates not having to deal with the hassles of life to boredom and specifically, a lack of noise. Being able to avoid the invasion of noise (corporate or otherwise) has always been the purview of the well-to-do, and is a key factor in defining a luxury product:

Luxury vehicles make a statement — but too often, you can’t hear it over the roar of their engines. So the makers of top-line craft are dummying up the decibels, with a technological silence that’s 24-karat golden. Indeed, keeping quiet has become a science of its own. -Alexander George, The Silence of Luxury

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Libraries provide that sacred third space of silence, both from sound and from other mental distraction, much the same as what Blanda finds in the shower, and what your average 1%-er finds in the comfort of the newest Learjet. What libraries excel at is keeping down the cost. Best of all, unlike the cluttered and loud identities that can be forged through the consumption of consumer goods, the library provides a quiet place, sometimes literally, but often figuratively.

Quote That:

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To summarize: the answer to underfunded, lower effectiveness primary and secondary education requires subsidizing a private, VC-funded bet made on a roulette wheel fashioned from the already precarious prospects of a disadvantaged population.

As TechCrunch’s gleefully apocalyptic article demonstrates, Silicon Valley culture loves to celebrate the end of institutions merely to bask in the spectacle of falling rubble. That works for summer popcorn flicks, but in the real world, eventually we have to live among that rubble. Or, I suppose, we have to be able to afford the cost of the private rubble-clearing services that would allow us to persist in their wake. -Ian Bogost, Inequality in American Education Will not be Solved Online

Library Branding and the Innovation Culture

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Tying your library to something like a 3D printer moves you in the wrong direction. It moves you towards manufacturing physical products. It leads you to the tangible – that’s not your job. It is the concept of the intangible that connects all the objects librarians have traditionally dealt with- books, records, photographs, magnetic tape and compact discs. It is this tradition of dealing with the intangible that makes librarianship such an exciting profession right now. -Hugh Rundle, Misson Creep: A 3D Printer Will Not Save Your Library

I really liked Hugh Rundle’s post on the “intangibles” which make up our professional bread and butter, where the tangible and intangible meet, but the heart of the thing is that libraries primarily provide access to the information, the creation of physical objects, however, is of very little import to Rundle. The proposition seems sensible, but David Lankes took issue with it:

Some librarian brought in the first game, and the first scroll, and the first illuminated manuscript. They did this to enhance access, yes, but also to expand the capabilities of the communities they served. They did so not because it was text and therefore OK, but because they were tools that could help. Help, not document the world, but to change it. -David Lankes, Beyond the Bullet Points: Missing the Point and 3D Printing

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The question I put to Lankes (and he graciously answered) was that at what point are those intangible things not tools? Ideas are some of the most powerful tools we have for Librarians change the world, as do many people, with texts and other tools. And yes, they loan and provide access to tools, but more importantly, they provide access to tools that not only help people participate in their communities, but also to escape or change their community and their circumstances, by evasion or critique. Language is one of the most powerful means we have of shaping and re-shaping our world, and libraries excel at helping people navigate language and its tools.

What struck me as the main issue is an underlying ethos of a “innovation” culture. I think it is central to Lankes’ mission, but as I’ve argued before, it also runs against the conservative grain of librarianship and community. While admirable, in the post-2008 world, I harbor a deep skepticism towards “innovation.” To that end:

“I think it’s great that some libraries are able to lend out items other than books, because it shows that they are responding to the needs of their particular community. But again, I do not see it as a desperate move to stay relevant…. We’ve got relevancy coming out of our ears.” -Jen Doll, Ask a Librarian About the Odd Things Happening at Libraries

There is a tension between “things” and “non-things” and how it affects our relevancy to our communities, but it really sidesteps a larger issue.  The “thingness” part is also tied up with “maker culture,” which to a large extent has been adopted by the culture at large, and has frankly commodified. The 3D printer, is arguably a different beast,  but the same culture promotes their use: without extensive software and hardware, there is no way to make anything with them, thus continuing to reify a digitally driven “innovation” culture, which may or may not have anything to do with one’s community. Lankes acknowledges the point about 3D printers not being the best fit, but his overall program of innovation comes from the 21st century mindset of constant innovation.

There are a lot of parallels to an ongoing discussion in the Digital Humanities community, where the creation of digital tools is see as an artisanal and constructivist practice:

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No matter the type, our tools had one thing in common: overwhelmingly, their own users had made ’em, and understood the continual and collective re-making of them, in response to various resistances encountered and discovered, as a natural part of the process of their use. In fact, this constructivist and responsive maker’s circle was so easily and unavoidably experienced as the new, collaborative hermeneutic of humanities computing, as the work itself that—within or beyond our small community—we too rarely bothered to say so.

“In the Middle Ages,” he tells us, in Art and Labor, “everything that man made was beautiful, just as everything that nature makes is always beautiful; and I must again impress upon you the fact that this was because they were made mainly for use, instead of mainly to be bought and sold… The beauty of the handicrafts of the Middle Ages came from this, that the workman had control over his material, tools, and time.” -Bethany Nowviskie, Resistance in the Materials

Nowviskie tries to separate the hand-coded tools of the digital humanist from their mundane  context of personal-computer drudgery and place them in the rarified air of the middle ages, ringing of individual craftsmanship that has little to do with the gross commodification of the 21st century. But the middle ages also were a place of tight guild control of production, a rigorous exclusivity of creation. In reality, there is a part of the digitally-fueled discursive regimes of code/space which still takes hold. In some ways, it feels like the digitally-driven innovation culture nudging its way into the branding of craftsmanship, much like the innovation culture is finding its way into community discourse. Neither of these are bad in-and-of themselves, but they are, effectively, branding operations to make one thing seem more like another.

Like Nowviskie, Lankes, and Rundle, we all participate in the discursive regimes of code/space, in some form or fashion.  But Rundle puts the brakes on the innovation culture which calls for continually promoting making and participating in community, because it can no longer uncritically be accepted as “good” for a community. Here’s a solid list of reasons not to innovate post by Gijs Van Wulfen, who is LinkedIn’s innovation expert:

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21 Situations when you should not innovate:

  1. When you are sure your market is not changing in the coming five years.
  2. When your clients are even more conservative than you are.
  3. When your old formulas are still giving great risk-free results for the coming years.
  4. When brand and line extensions bring you a lot of extra turnover and profits.
  5. When the urgency to innovate is completely absent.
  6. When you don’t receive enough money and manpower to do it.
  7. When your company is in a short-term crisis.
  8. When your organization is working at full capacity to meet the current huge demand.
  9. When everybody says: “Innovate!”, but no one wants to be responsible.
  10. When you´re clueless about what you´re looking for.
  11. When there is no real business need and it’s only nice to have.
  12. When you can’t form a capable harmonious team that really goes for it.
  13. When there is no support at the top.
  14. When the people in your organization are not (yet) prepared to break their habits.
  15. When people in your company are lazy; content to copy from others.
  16. When the organization doesn’t have any kind of vision about its future course.
  17. When long term planning means looking three months ahead.
  18. When everyone fears failure.
  19. When everyone will attack and ridicule the newness of an idea.
  20. When important stakeholders will block it at any time.
  21. When your latest innovations are so successful and still need further exploitation.

-Gijs Van Wulfen, When Should you NOT innovate?

I think Rundle sees libraries in a number of these points, and calling it out in the midst of an “innovation” culture will certainly raise some eyebrows.

Quote That: WHY I READ THEORY

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In other words, the theory and methods I discovered and then committed myself to offered ideas not to be applied to the work but rather inherent in it—or at least inherent to my understanding of it. In a sense, then, these ideas served to reaffirm, expand, and deepen my own hunches, legitimizing but also pressuring my burgeoning thinking, even as they offered a vast context to enter. -Johanna Burton, Outtakes from Another Conversation: Thoughts on Curating and Education.

NA: not an art movement, a fashion trend.

Originally published here: http://www.hellionmag.com/trends-gone-wild-the-new-aesthetic-takes-over-everything:

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Day-glo and cat videos, scantily clad girls and 8-bit, surveillance video and artificial intelligence. When piled into a blender, the result is something called The New Aesthetic (NA). The tumblr of the same name describes it as a “research project” by the indefatigable and lovably nerdy James Bridle. At its heart is the idea that machines and the “network” have personalities, beings trying to reach us as the digital spills into the physical world. Infatuated with the way computers say “hi,” it is clear that Bridle really, really loves these new beings. As a result, his twitter feed is made up of spambots. Beyond this earnest feeling that made us feel good while watching “Flight of the Navigator” are the same feelings that gave the pre-digital world the heebie-jeebies when they witnessed the bloodless brutality of “Tron.”

In  both cases, NA has armed many artists with a new vocabulary of images to draw on and use to comment on the world. Azealia Banks brought a lot of those elements together in her “Atlantis” video, drawing on backgrounds that look stolen from a ‘94 pirate videogame and a handful of “Jaws” references, set over stuttering beats. Brought to this level, NA seems like a rehashing stuff from the 80’s and 90’s in interesting ways.

Carla Gannis, a digital artist in her own right, wrote that “A movement cannot merely catalogue what currently exists, it is defined by the future(s) it envisions,” and maybe that is where she and many others start to miss the point. Just as those practitioners of the New Aesthetic understand the melding of life on- and off-line, they also don’t feel the need to respect the proper way to run an artistic movement. Ryan Trecartin’s artworks (video) and Code/Space (Academic Book) can sit comfortably beside Rihanna’s last SNL performance (music) and James Bridle’s “A Ship Adrift” (website) and all speak the same language. NA isn’t an art movement. More than anything, NA feels like a fashion trend that has taken over all parts of culture at the same time. The idea that the digital world is spilling over into the physical world is as old as computers, and it is now finding it’s way into everything.

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What does this ad up to? We all have no idea. Gannis wants a coherent statement of purpose, and she’ll never get one. Here’s why: the thing is everywhere, and there is no reigning it in. Of the New Aesthetic, as Bruce Sterling points out in his watershed essay on NA, “We’re surrounded by systems, devices and machineries generating heaps of raw graphic novelty. We built them, we programmed them, we set them loose for a variety of motives, but they do some unexpected and provocative things.” NA speaks to a lot of people because it is the reaction to a world intimately connected to the network. The whole thing can and never will be a “movement,” because it’s really a trend showing us how some people see the world we live in today.

For a generation of people raised on “Flight of the Navigator” all the way to those who grew up with “The Matrix,” the New Aesthetic Speaks their language. At it’s bit-driven heart, NA just wants to be liked, and it’ll keep popping up all over the place until it is.

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