well that’s a bit personal

I signed up for LivingSocial a while ago thinking I’d get maybe a few discount vouchers.

I didn’t think I’d get, um, free psychoanalysis.

Feels a little presumptuous, but hey, I suppose it’s at least a different way to market spa treatments.

Why not unclog your pores AND your mother issues?

Just goes to show the power of honesty, even when it’s all a bit TMI, to cut through all the marketing bullshit.

Honest ads, eh? Now THAT’s an interesting thought.

the twits

Does anyone remember The Twits?

Mr and Mrs Twit, I mean, from the Roald Dahl story published sometime in the eighties. “Mr. Twit was a twit. He was born a twit. And now at the age of sixty, he was a bigger twit than ever.” Ditto Mrs Twit.

They’re basically a nasty pair of seniors who spend their lives playing disgusting tricks on each other and their long-suffering pets, the Roly-Poly birds and the Muggle-Wump monkeys.

If you wanted to psychoanalyse them, you’d probably say that they’re pathologically lacking in empathy.

Their crime is a total lack of imagination.

Which is why I keep thinking about them when I think about Twitter.

I’ve been grappling with Twitter for a while. I signed up ages ago. Then, like most people, I burbled out a few tweets about Not Knowing What To Say, realised I was pretty shit at being witty in 140 characters, then got bored and forgot all about my account.

But I’ve been persisting. Now that I’ve got an iPhone – a device that makes Tweeting much less effortful, being naturally more immediate and intimate and convenient than a computer – I think I’m starting to get it.

Twitter’s not about narcissim (sic); it’s about empathy.

It’s not about me – it’s about you.

According to Fast Company, Twitter, in fact, causes the brain to flood itself with oxytocin – the ‘cuddle chemical’ responsible for bonding mother and baby, close friends, and partners. “E -connection,” says neuro-economist Paul Zak, “is processed in the brain like an in-person connection.”

I definitely felt this when, after Tweeting for months and months, I got my first retweets, and direct responses, from followers. And that in turn prompted me to plunge deeper into the conversation myself.

Yup, cuddles all round.

But the thing I really love about Twitter is that you get to pick and choose which brains you’re gonna cuddle. You’ve probably never met them, but despite the anonymity there’s a good chance you’ll catch the edge of a thought that’s interesting, inspiring, maybe even brilliant.

It’s like an idea-transfusion, drip-fed direct from a series of foreign brains into your own:

That’s why, when I think of Twitter, I think of the Twits.

Especially how, at the end of Dahl’s story, stuck fast by Hugtite Glue to their upside-down chairs, The Twits collapse in on themselves, “until there is nothing left of them but their clothes.”

Because I’ve been finding that whenever I feel like I’m gonna implode like that – stuck fast in my own subjectivity, maybe bogged with something for work or just scrambling to muster the oomph to actually write something – the best solution is checking out some other, radically different species of subjectivity.

Subjectivities about kids and biz(@deemadigan), “architectural conjecture” (@bldgblog), everyday twenty-something-ness (@marksdodds) and just plain hilarious drollness (@thesulk) are like the antidote to misanthropy.

@RoaldDahl, can you hear me? I think what the Twits really needed was a Twitter account.

 

rage against the screen

Anyone else feel sort of trapped by technology?

For me, having owned an iPhone for only a couple of months now, the honeymoon is pretty much over. My phone goes everywhere with me, sort of like a newborn or an extremely demanding puppy. Even at home or at work, I drag it around from room to room, to the kitchen on the TV. To the bathroom, too, at times. Is that weird? If it’s not weird, it should be.

I feel like if my phone broke, I would just die.

But it’d also, I suspect, prove kind of cathartic.

Recently, in San Francisco, the artist Michael Tompert exhibited a series of photographs of destroyed Apple products. There’s an iPhone 3G blown apart with a Heckler & Koch handgun. There’s an iPad boiled from the inside with a soldering iron. There’s a series of lolly-coloured iPod Nanos carefully placed on a railway track and crunched beneath a goods train.

Seeing these made me swoon.

And whether or not you agree that the photographs are artistically meritorious (and there’s plenty of angry debate about it online), it’s hard to argue that they’re not powerful.

Tompert apparently got the idea after getting his two sons an iPod touch for Christmas. He said the boys fought over one of the devices, which had a certain game on it. Fed up, Tompert said he grabbed one of the iPods and smashed it on the ground.

“It was supposed to make them happy but it didn’t,” said Tompert. “I wanted to show them it was a just a thing…”

Thingness is what technology, by and large, aims to overcome. It allows us to deny the limitations of physics and speak face to face, for example, with a family member thousands of kilometres away, or create endlessly reproducible images of a single scene, or navigate confidently through a place we have never before visited.

Things are physical; technology is not. As Tompert found, many of the Apple products are “practically indestructible.” It’s easy to cause them to malfunction, maybe – this, after all, is one of the things that makes us mad – but physically, technology seems to exist on a higher plane than all the other everyday things that surround us – a chair, a pen, a brick, a leaf.

Hence such awesome satisfaction in smashing it all up.

Apparently, one of the significant social impulses in the coming months (thanks JWT’s Trend Report) will be “de-teching” – “the attempt to re-engage in the offline present”. I definitely get this.The whole idea of an offline world set in opposition to the shimmering promise of total connectivity is one which feels both intuitively correct and dramatically (think The Social Network) fruitful.

I’m reminded of the ‘Will It Blend?’ web videos from Blendtec. Such a simple idea: let’s see if an unexpected object can be turned into a smoothie.  And the most compelling episodes, I think, are those that blend something electronic – a laser pointer or a camera or, indeed, an iPad – tapping into that tension between the function and the form, between the software and the cadmium-and-aluminium hardware that makes it all work.

One day, when my phone dies, I am going to try to transform it back from tech to thing.

Maybe I will turn a crème brulee torch on it, or mash it with a brick, or fillet it with a steak knife.

Blend it, possibly?

Or turn into into an artwork?

What would be the best, most satisfying way to destroy a phone?

iPhones, and the loss of lostness

For the last few weeks, I have been wandering around Melbourne clutching my GPS-phone like a blanky.

Every few paces I gaze at it lovingly, thumbing at the ‘Map’ icon to watch the glowing blue dot creep its corresponding way across the frame.

The other day, I was so focused on the screen that I walked into a pole.

I took this is a wake-up call (and a bruise).

Because it struck me (yes, literally) that navigating through a place with an iPhone is fundamentally different to finding your way the old way, with just a plain old hippocampus and an inner ear.

The old way, you stumbled. ‘Lostness’ was a default. And ‘location’, such as you could define it, pervaded an area hazily.

‘Place’ used to be a cloud.

But the new way is linear, defined in terms of the shortest path between two points – a path generally mapped out for you beforehand by that supreme machine of urban domesticity, the car.

St Kilda. Apparently. Or it may just be a map.

Facebook Places and Foursquare and Gowalla define place as a conjunction of co-ordinates: you go to a place, not through it. You ‘Check In’ somewhere or ‘stamp’ your ‘passport’– metaphors of tourism, interestingly, borrowed from the bureaucractic world of airlines and hotels – without ever really thinking about the constructedness of that “where.”

And that’s strange, because really, maps are selective, and partial.

I’ve been wandering around St Kilda, and most of what I see isn’t in my Map icon.

Like lamp-posts. A chip packet. A leaf on the pavement. A leak from someone’s garden hose. A shadow. A bird.

None of this is there.

Another map. I think.

I suppose the weird thing about navigating with an iPhone is that it sort of sucks the world into it, flattening reality in the process.

Your focus fixes on the map, not the world it claims to represent, which makes things tricky because at that point it can become a bit unclear which place is real and which is symbolic…

I want to know: if you zoomed in far enough, to a scale of 1:1, would the map become the real world?

And would the real world suddenly become the map of the map?

It all reminds me of something I read in a book I found the other day (a lush, strange book – look), titled Atlas of the Remote Islands, by someone named Judith Schalansky:

The two dimensional world map strikes a compromise somewhere between impertinently simplifying abstraction and an aesthetic approximation of the world. In the end, it is simply about grasping the extent of the earth, orienting it towards the north and being able to gaze down on it like a god…

Oh, yes.

I feel like my iPhone lets me gaze godlike on a place without actually knowing what that place means.

It makes me a little bit giddy, really.

And I am much more comfortable being lost.

this website is actually in San Antonio

Isn’t it strange how everyone talks about the internet like it’s something abstract?

‘Cyberspace’ … ‘Hyperlinks’ … ‘Ethernet.’

Anyone would think that the web is metaphysical, ethereal even – like an emotion, or a force, or some pure platonic idea.

But weirdly, the information superhighway is more like, well, a really big highway, than anything angelic and otherworldly.

Right now, there’s a server somewhere that your computer is connected to, and it’s feeding you the data that makes up this website. It’s a shelf, basically, of modems. It probably looks something like this:

You can use this tool to find where the server is located for any URL or IP address.*

It all gets quite fascinating. Hotmail.com is on 164th Avenue in Redmond, Washington state. Itunes.com is somewhere near El Cerrito Rd, Cupertino, California. And interestingly, gumtree.com is in (somewhat elliptically) ‘Europe.’

There’s an interesting post here about the physical internet – basically, all that hard-core infrastructure, optical fibre and undersea cabling that underpins the soft-core web. It’s an interesting perspective on the geopolitical realities that determine, however crudely, the flow of information around the world:

… The redundancies of the submarine lines to North America and Europe have caused internet prices to plummet, which in turn has encouraged not only higher usage of internet but an active participation in the information world. Meanwhile, you can count the number of lines feeding Africa on one hand. As a result, prices are so high that even the lines that are already in place become meaningless, because of lack of use.

Conversely, other places become data hubs. Apparently, the village of Tarifa in Spain is one such location – its other notable attractions include wind-surfing and birdwatching – thanks to its position mid-way between the Atlantic and Mediterranean networks.

I love this idea of an “information harbour” – the notion that the physical attributes of a place can define it as a nexus, a data metropolis, regardless of how significant it is in any other political or economic respects. And I love the idea that a spine of cables connects so many countries through the Middle East and Central Asia, and that – for example – India is bound up, through data, with Pakistan.

In Australia, the recent debate around the mooted National Broadband Network has brought a bit of media attention to the question of internet infrastructure.

And yet oddly – am I the only one? – I’d never before really contemplated the internet as a thing.

(Excepting, of course, those occasions when my Vodafone plug-in wireless modem fails, and I’ve got to give it a bash or three on the desk to get it functional and effortless and ethereal once more.)

* I looked up this website, mindsurgery.wordpress.com, and discovered the server is located in San Antonio, Texas. So to everyone on Center Park Boulevard, howdy.

subways, cyberspace, synapses…

Recently back from Japan, I was struck by something the travel writer Pico Iyer said in an article in yesterday’s newspaper, about Tokyo:

It’s best to browse, to get lost, almost as if you were in some virtual reality; more than any city I know, the place is like a website, alight with odd links, hobbyists’ addenda, animated figures and racing graphics…

The analogy seems, to me, spot on.

Because here is a map of the Tokyo subway system:

And here is a map of the internet:

Similar?

The first map is published by Japan Rail, tracing the journeys of 6.3 million passengers per day.

The second, from the Opte Project (more info here), traces the movements of the c.2-billion browsers currently online.

Both are centreless, fractalline, nesting lines within lines and systems within systems.

In each, there are multiple possible routes between destinations, and the closest distance between two points isn’t always a straight line. More likely, it’s a curve – a swerve between two locations, a leap sideways and slant.

And perhaps most importantly, both networks – the abstracted internet at one extreme, and the tentacled topography of Tokyo, at the other – are intensely creative, generative places.

They seem to be very good at making weird, unexpected connections.

Like, for example, between pets and couture:

Or roadwork and, um, pinioned frogs:

Call me reductive, maybe, but it makes me think of another analogy, and it makes me want to tap Iyer on the shoulder and say: no, Tokyo is not so much a website as a brain.

Or rather, maybe the brain is a kind of Tokyo.

I don’t know much about network theory, but thinking about the Japanese subway in terms of neurons and hyperlinks, daydreaming and browsing makes me feel, at least, that all that time I spent wandering around confused wasn’t actually a bad thing.

See, I wasn’t lost – I was surfing.