Internet Futures and Glamour

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Now I realize they used these words to capitalize on their expiration date, their nebulousness and their opacity to anyone not encountering them that day, in that year, or that decade. I have assembled these items in hopes they will become equally misunderstood—for better or for worse—as soon as possible. They were gathered around October 18, 2013, and reflect a very personal worldview—but by the time you see this, they will all be post-recent. -Lumi Tan, Post-Recently

I recently learned about the post recent from the above blog, and if you want to really get worked over I suggest you check out the Joyce-challenging artspeak produced by Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo’s “The New Sleep: Stasis and the Image-Bound Environment“. Dating from fall of 1985, it’s a perfect internet K-Hole, and feels like a Tumblr. Lumi Tan’s wish that these things would all be buried, unearthed, and confounded is apt in its reflection on the blaze of images both in the article itself and in contemporary life, even for those not internet-enabled. The aesthetic-acceleration of contemporary life begs for a comparison, and NY Mag writer Ann Friedman has an interesting comparison:

Again, perhaps we can take a cue from teenage girls. They’re quite aware that they’re seen as frivolous and self-absorbed, but on a deeper level they know they’re engaged in an important project: figuring out who they are and what they want to be. If we took our Instagrams and Snapchats and reblogs half as seriously as they do, perhaps we’d reach some new insight about our adult selves, too. -Ann Friedman, Our Tumblrs, Our Teenage Selves

This sounds pretty legitimate, if not just apt, but the reality is that “the millennials” are among the groups of people who, perhaps as “natives” more readily see the pitfalls of these image-cycling platforms:

The “Intel Innovation Barometer” reveals millennials globally show a stark contrast to their reputation as digital natives who can’t get enough technology in their lives. A majority of millennials agree that technology makes people less human and that society relies on technology too much. –The Future of Technology May be Determined By….

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Intel seems surprised by this, but anyone with a keen sense of observation of people under the age of 25 knows this already. Instead, the main supporters, and users of social technologies and associated issues were wealthier, not necessarily younger: “The research revealed that individuals with high incomes are the most willing to anonymously share personal data, such as results of lab tests and travel information. They are also the most likely to own technology devices and engage with technology on a regular basis.” This is the associated glamour of the internet. The ever-sharp Autumn Whitefield-Madrano at  The Beheld describes the way objects perceived as glamorous work:

We may perceive glamorous objects as an entrée into that world (hence the desire for that shade of lipstick, that style of ring, that color on the soles of our shoes), but it’s not the object we want so much as the life it promises. “But glamour only works when it can tap preexisting discontent, giving otherwise inchoate longings an object of focus.” -Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, The Power of Glamour

Not to say that some teens don’t wan’t to emulate the silicon-valley lifestyle, but many just use them as tools to pursue their own visions, glamorous or otherwise, while still maintaining a keen sense for what it does to their selves, their self-perception and their projected image. In this they are different than many who are wealthy who by actively (over)participating in social media, want to get some of the apple-cum-facebook, instagrammed sheen. Over and over again, wealth seeks youth as a source of glamour, and what can be more so than the promise of a world not tied down to specific places, especially when the function of place, in a pre-globalized sense of the world, is mediated by the great equalizer so many try to fight, time. Matthew Battles says it better:

Time is the internet’s too-cheap-to-meter cultural resource, and it’s only just begun burning through it, generating a storm of atemporal media traces that pile up before us as our wings beat furiously. -Matthew Battles, The Past Will Not be Flat

But the kids, per usual, are alright, and they know this better than those seeking wealth. They might be plastering their walls and tumblrs with images, but they’re not looking for the glamour of platforms, they seek glamour in content, and project it back out into the post-current world at a rate Lumi Tan would appreciate as being post-recent:

Finally (but never finally), this: history is not another country, not the not-even-past, not even that which we are condemned to repeat. History is everywhere, rather; you’re soaking in it. And yet we’re not angels: our faces are turned away, and we’re trailing history in our wakes. -Matthew Battles, The Past Will Not be Flat

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Luxury and Book Places

Harajda says that the future of publishing could lie in producing more artistic works that that aren’t readily available to download on a Kindle. “The library becomes a fashionable thing,” said Harajda. “[We’re] convinced that people [will] read books like they’re collectible art pieces.” -Gillian Mahoney, Pavleye(s) on Prague

There’s a retrenchment of thing-ness and place-ness out there if you’re aware of it. Locally grown food and hand-made goods are part of the Brooklynification of the rest of the world. Weirdly, there’s an echo between a pop-up store selling a single book as an art object (and the library as a unique aesthetic-experience place), and the quote below:

So maybe publishers should treat indies like showrooms, and send their books to indies on consignment. That means that only if and when a book sells is money paid to the publisher. The books in the store shouldn’t be the focus of the revenue. Instead, the revenue might come from membership fees, book rentals, and referral fees for drop shipped new copies or ebook sales. –Book Places in the Digital Age

Both the pop-up and the proposed bookstore model cut both ways: The emphasis on thing-ness and place-ness have the possibility of limiting the potential audience reached through any “public awareness raising.” To that end, I’d like to cite someone with choice words for the methods used in internet to reach people:

The more targeted that advertising is, the less effective that it is. Internet technology can be more efficient at targeting, but the closer it gets to perfectly tracking users, the less profitable it has to become.

The profits are in advertising that informs, entertains, or creates a spectacle—because that’s what sends a signal. Targeting is a dead end. Maybe “Do Not Track” will save online advertising from itself. -Don Marti, Perfectly Target Advertising Would Be Perfectly Useless

In the sliding of Facebook’s IPO and the annoyance of being scrutinized as a person and a consumer, the goal of informing, entertaining or creating a spectacle is more important to any “place-focused” entity than being able to precisely tailor or advertising to a perceived taste. So why mention luxury in the first place? Luxury is based on scarcity, and limiting the spectacle, information or entertainment to a particular place (online or physical), producing different levels of scarcity. To that end, the local/handmade/scarcity model that is trending relies on similar methods. If they are to succeed, then the effort put into the relationship by the patron has to be met or exceeded by the other party (bookseller or library in our case). If we want to follow this model, following the trends online won’t work because it only produces noise. As Don Marti suggests, we need to prove to people that through being place-focused we can get them something of greater value: a signal. The trick is, don’t take it too far.

the internet, the desert, and new theories of libraries.

It’s populated, but every time some side of the internet becomes constructed, the internet finds a new desert for itself.

But when we do the internet, we are not servants, we are doing something that is not really professional. That is exactly why it is powerful.

Mitos Manetas

Because to me, doing a magazine is still very artificial, I sometimes wake up and say to myself, why do I do that? Who cares?

With the internet, I imediately connect to a community of younger people who actually are sharing something with me.

Olivier Zahm

It’s worth watching this video. It has space and solemnity, but it is also a conversation. The points that Manetas and Zahm make are, in my mind, foundational to a new understanding of what any library should be. It’s contradictory to say “I want a desert” and “I want conversation,” but it speaks to our most human impulses: to want time to ourselves as well as with others. In a recent(ish) blog post, Christine Madsen writes that:

Prior to the Victorian Era most academic libraries were what Matthew Battles might characterize as “Parnassan” – small, well focused institutions where what mattered was not the quantity of the collections, but the quality.

The goal of any new theory of library must of course accommodate the increasing needs in research and scholarship for large quantities of information, but should not preface quantity of information over all else. As important as the information itself, is providing and supporting an environment that allows for the transformation of that information into new knowledge

Having all of this information is amazing, but noisy. There’s no reason to call for a library-throwback and get all nostalgic about not having access to amazing things, but the “Parnassan” value of focus and quality over quantity, as Madsen illustrates, is not highly regarded right now. Libraries need to be able to make a desert, a place people can focus, fill up, and explore for themselves outside of the crush of anything that distracts us, our professions and obligations included. By the same token, Madsen points out that we also need that space where we can interact with others. Manetas and Zahm are conversing. Libraries cannot be just a desert, and they cannot be just a conversation. They need to meet a complex, human need: they need to be both. As far as I can tell, the current model of libraries is failing to do just that.

Heritage = history+ innovation

As we rethink collections, I think we are seeing them more as assets in the sense I have discussed here, as investment is driven by a stronger sense of how they will be used to generate value in research and learning. Of course, some libraries have thought this way for longer: think of how a busy public library manages its collection. And of course, some libraries will continue to have a mission-driven responsibility to collect significant portions of the scholarly record, although we will probably see more collective approaches here.

-Lorcan Dempsey, “Collections Are Library Assets

It’s nice to see a nod to the meaningful in day-to-day library work, “a stronger sense of how they will be used to generate value in research and learning,” but it rings hollow. Dempsey even points out the negative reaction that business-speak engenders in the scholarly community, but he still employs it. My fear is that by doing so, we take a good idea and force it to the easiest way to understand “value,” which is money. It’s fine for Walmart, but if libraries are going to derive thought from the world of commerce, maybe we should look to places where commerce intersects with something besides cheap, disposable goods:

#36  Luxury is about subtracting the ordinary and adding the meaningful.

#13  If Luxury brands don’t incarnate a cultural truth, they become just empty, expensive products.

-Agenda Inc. “50 Thoughts on Luxury

Libraries cannot content themselves with being “value-positive” or “mission-driven.” Those things are merely ordinary to the everyday existence in today’s world. If we really intend to have meaningful libraries, then the goal should be to move services and collections beyond the expected. Libraries are already expensive, it’s good not to make them meaningless, too. I’ve heard of classes that aim to open doors to other worlds for their students. In light of that, we should aim higher than imitating corporate methods of thinking. Given the state of the world economy and its discontents, perhaps we should look to better analogies:

#33 Heritage = history+ innovation

Ereaders and Content: The New “It” Bag

Make them dumber! Yes, we want stuff that’s even dumber and more durable and more flexible. We want stuff we can plug into other stuff forever….I’d love a directory of these steadfast components. I feel like my Samsung TV (very dumb) might be a candidate. The 24″ Dell LCD I’ve had at home for five years would definitely go in that directory—I think these Dell monitors are widely recognized as the, like, basic black t-shirts of computer components at this point.

Robin Sloan takes up an excellent idea: that sustainability should be a key factor in the design and purchase of material goods. I particularly like the analogy of the “basic black t-shirt” as being a solid, unchanging, durable component in a wardrobe. He also links to L.L. Bean’s Signature Collection as an example of a place to find such classic sartorial components. While the black t-shirt is very much like a Dell LCD, the L.L. Bean Signature Collection is a different beast that ends at the same timeless result. You can buy a classic black t-shirt anywhere (although some might hold up better than others for the value), and they are designed, made and sold by many different sources. The L.L. Bean S.C. is the result of pulling “classics” out of their archives and remaking them with new fits and styles. The creative director at L.L. Bean S.C., Alex Carlton, describes the process this way:

The archives are like a time capsule of New England style, and that’s really what provides the flavor of L.L.Bean Signature. Exploring the archives is incredible – this is history made tangible. We’re inspired by all of it, not just clothes: there are photos from L.L.’s fishing trips, his journals, old catalog art. It illustrates the building of L.L.Bean, and it allows us to work in a very authentic way. We’re not designing in a vacuum.

When we started thinking about L.L.Bean Signature pieces we looked for archive items that seemed especially relevant today. Our initial approach was to reinterpret those items – putting new twists on vintage ideas. From there it grew into creating brand-new products, but we’re always using the archives for inspiration, even when we’re making things that are new.

Not even the classics are that simple. In this case, they are the product of one man’s interpretation of a second man’s brand, which basically is the commodification of New England style, generally of the rougher, outdoorsy sort. Black t-shirts are a solid component of very select wardrobes, but the constitution of a fashion basic is not just the utility, flexibility or durability of an item. It is also tied to the general acceptance that these items meet those criteria in the community that uses them. Chanel is legendarily the creator of the little black dress, but in reality, she can be credited with its refinement and popularization at most, likewise the L.L. Bean Signature Collection is a refinement of the popularization of a rough-hewn New England style. It works for many wardrobes, but not all.  “The basics” are part of a brand, designed to be part of a carefully controlled system of signs and signifiers. Chanel understood this in her black dress, Dell understands that in making cheap, durable monitors, and L.L. Bean understood this in making rugged outwear. They use the concept of “basic” as part of a brand that reaches to their community: the product is “dumb” but the designer is “smart” by keeping the cycle of production and demand in their favor.

Those products that are “smart” automate this process, keeping the consumer locked into a tighter cycle. At The New Inquiry, Rob Horning sees this play out in the potential world of ebooks and ereaders:

But perhaps more important, publishers will be able to draw from trends in this rich data for its editorial decision making, exploiting connections this information reveals among various demographics in the reading public, calibrating their lists to actual reader behavior with more precision that dumb sales data once allowed. Such rapid responsiveness can trigger a feedback loop that precludes the possibility of spontaneous, unexpected desires, fashioning a smoothly functioning market sealed off from vital disruptions. Readers will be sealed in the tombs of their revealed preferences. To capture the feeling of discovery and possibility again, they will have to look somewhere other than books.

The idea of the “it bag,” a closed and conspicuous market that drives its own demand is very much like device-specific content. Ponder the “it bag”:

Thus, cheap coated-canvas bags were converted into objects of consumer fetish with eye-grabbing adornments: denim and diamonds, graffiti, crystal beads, and, almost always, a prominent logo. “There was a stage when, however unappealing something was, if it had enough logos written all over it, somebody seemed to buy it,” Suzy Menkes, the fashion critic of the International Herald Tribune, says. Menkes calls the period “a worldwide aberration,” as if she were talking about the concomitant era of credit-default swaps and subprime-mortgage lending. -John Colapinto, “Just Have Less,” The New Yorker, January 3rd, 2001.

Stylistically, the it bag refers to itself: it is based on a bag from a brand, popularized by a celebrity, and then recycled in various forms with different adornments. There is no new creative injection, just the appearance of such. The phenomena moves from one company to another, each getting a turn at being “it,” a different look but the same function: it’s a purse, but more importantly, it turns everything into its own promotion. Anything that goes against that promotion is cut. Amazon’s pricing and enclosed media ecosystem works the same way: if you are not explicitly for it, you are against it. It bags and Amazon to say it as Horning does, entomb you in your preferences. They do this by being “smart,” and not allowing you to divorce the medium from the content.

It’s up to libraries to deal with these concerns in an environment where these kinds of intellectual closed circuits is what fuels the market. Aaron Schmidt quoted Katheryn Greenhill’s elegant blog post:

Or we could save our energy and find untapped sources of content created by our local users and work together to create a single publishing platform and rights-management tool to allow easy creation and access to local content.

That’s the excellent ending of Kathryn Greenhill’s answer to her own question: How do we force publishers to give us ebook content that includes works that our users want and that they find easy to download to their chosen device?

ANSWER: They will not.

We need to design it ourselves, but will its scarcity be it’s allure or its downfall? I’m going to go out on a limb and quote Agenda Inc.’s articles of faith about luxury brands: “We believe luxury is rarity. We believe that innovation – the pursuit of rarity – needs to be redoubled as a goal for all luxury brands.” In a world where the desired goal is to create enclosed information ecosystems, the creation of open-standards and local content is more rare than anything. Beyond that, however, is the idea of serendipity. Can we create a system that allows for the unexpected to infuse the normal? It goes back to the basic black t-shirt, a dumb component that works no matter what the content put into it. Local content makes it unique, but it does not widen its appeal, and it threatens to also create a closed off group where local things don’t have much interest to those outside of that locality. Libraries can’t force publishers to do anything, but our patrons (their customers) can.

New positivity from the fashion world.

I’m not the snazziest dresser. I wear a uniform. It’s a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, slacks, and dress shoes. I break barriers by wearing a sweater vest. It’s stunning. But I believe librarians should follow fashion, and not just by reading Vogue. Really, follow it. Look for the obscure corners of the fashion world that challenge you. Fashion is at the intersection of art and commerce. It is looking for ways forward while constantly recycling (honoring?) the past. It is aware of the greatness of small things and the smallness of great things. It is woven so tightly into our daily lives it is hard to notice. But we always do.

To start an irregular series of posts, I wanted to fire off a quote by Olivier Zahm from a March 2010 interview at Style.com:

To me, the Internet is just an extension of reality. It can’t replace reality. A show is a ceremony. It’s a religious ceremony with the people that really believe. You don’t go to a Comme des Garçons show if you don’t really believe in Comme des Garçons. If you don’t believe in it, you go to a baseball match, right? So it’s a ceremony. You need a ceremony, you need a master of ceremonies, and you need a few people to witness the ceremony. It’s not a dark, obscure, dangerous ceremony. But then, the Internet is just a way to expand it and open the ceremony to a lot of people who want to enter.

Libraries ought to be able to replace the word “show” with “libraries”. To make it in the 21st century, libraries have to get people to believe in the library. How do you do that? The library has to provide a special place that provides some kind of meaning. Otherwise, we just become a cheaper Amazon.com to which you must drive. We can do this, right?