Monday, April 29, 2013

The death party

Originally posted at Overland

They took his body into the city in the evening of the 28th of April, but it was well past midnight by the time they passed all the roadblocks and reached the particular square they had chosen as their destination. There they unloaded all of the bodies – eighteen in total – and arranged them in the forecourt of the petrol station. Then they stood guard, waiting for the sun to rise.

All the photos we have of that grisly display are in black and white, but the scene that the platoon of partisans led by Walter Audisio (aka ‘Valerio’) was trying to recreate had been witnessed by another anti-Fascist, artist Aligi Sassu, who painted it in full colour.

This was the spectacle that the Fascists militias of the Repubblica Sociale, under orders from the local Nazi command, made of fifteen partisans killed by firing squad in Piazzale Loreto, Milan, in August of 1944, and left out in the sun so that they could abuse and deride them the entire day whilst preventing their families from recovering the bodies. Now Valerio and his men wanted to return the favour, so they chose the same site to lay out the bodies of Mussolini, of his lover Claretta Petacci (who had been killed whilst trying to shield the Duce’s body), and of the lieutenants and former ministers of the regime executed the day before in Dongo. To expose them to public anger and derision, just like their comrades had been at the hand of the repubblichini.

Dawn came, and with it the first civilians who noticed the truck and its cargo. The news spread quickly, and soon the partisans – who had made no arrangements to face what was surely inevitable – found themselves powerless to protect the bodies from the crowd that was assembling in the square. The dead were kicked and beaten and spat on. They were pelted with vegetables and brown bread. A woman fired five shots into Mussolini’s chest, one for each of the sons she lost in the war. Somebody urinated on Petacci. This was allowed to go on until mid-morning, when the partisans were able to restore some order with the help of a group of firemen, who also washed down the bodies. That’s when they decided to hang Mussolini and some of the others by their feet from the roof of the petrol station, so that everyone could see them without having to push their way through. And because one of the chosen was Petacci (but why?), whose panties someone had removed, they had to secure her skirt first with a pin, then with the trouser belt of the partisans’ chaplain, don Pollarolo.

This is the classic shot, the one that entered into the collective public memory of that day. Bombacci, Mussolini, Petacci, Pavolini, Starace. Four leaders and a courtesan, put on display in death so that the people could mark the passing of the regime that had shamed and ruined us. There were other pictures. One, of Mussolini and Petacci on the ground, taken early in the day, accompanied some of the reports in the foreign press. Others didn’t surface for years, including a horrifying set taken later that day at the morgue, before the Duce’s autopsy. There is one of these images in particular that I cannot forget. It’s a portrait of the two lovers, arranged with incongruous tenderness so that they are lying side by side, arm in arm. Petacci’s body looks like it might have once belonged to a person. Mussolini’s no longer has a face. That head of his, which had been so symbolic of the power of the state – his signature pout, that famous cranium – is reduced to a pulp scarcely bearing any recognisable human features.

You can look at the picture if you wish, although I strongly advise discretion. It is in colour, like Sassu’s painting. It’s also the crudest document I have come across of the events of that day.

This was a true death party. The spontaneous street celebrations that followed the death of Margaret Thatcher – pace the Daily Mail – are not worthy of so dramatic a name. This, and not those, featured displays of genuine hatred. This, and not those, was mired in historic ambiguity and prepared the grounds for the political amnesia to come, substituting the blows, the fury of that day for the effort to document and understand what Fascism had been, and who had been complicit in it, therefore how it was bound to survive under different guises once the blood was washed off the pavement of that petrol station forecourt in Piazzale Loreto.

Even so, I couldn’t unequivocally condemn those grotesque and misplaced acts of revenge, not even those committed by people who had discovered anti-Fascism that very morning, of which there were certainly some and possibly many. The country was due its moment of grim celebration. Some people and not others happened to be there, on hand. And some of them would have been genuine victims of the regime, or people who had fought to overthrow it. Amongst these, those who were in charge – Valerio and his men – thought that we should have a death party, and so that is now part of our history. For better or for worse.

It strikes me too that the leftists who have censured certain expressions of joy at the news of Thatcher’s death – some of whom are comrades, all of whom I respect – may just have been wishing for levels of restraint and decorum that don’t belong in the real world. Which reminds me in turn of the report on the events of that April 29 published on the newspaper of the liberal socialist Partito d’Azione. It read in part as follows:
Past the remains of those who had been most guilty of Italy’s ruin, in silent procession, files the crowd. It’s a crowd of men, of women, who for a moment – in the glacial atmosphere of death that hangs on the square of the Fifteen Martyrs – has ceased shouting and expressing its joy for the liberation. We didn’t witness a single rash gesture before the corpses of these men, who paid with their lives for their heinous crimes, but this certainty only: that the people’s justice had been served.
It was a noble nation indeed that reacted with such heroic composure when tested by history. It’s a pity it never existed.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The reader

In the future – that is to say, the present – if you’re reading a book and you pause too long to reflect on a passage, the book will time out, and the page will be replaced by a picture. Perhaps this one.

The book has changed aspect. It has been reorganised. You may of course wake up your device and access it again in short order. But something has happened in the meantime. The device has reminded you of the need (its need) to save energy, and the need (your need) to read faster. The latest ebook devices can log information about this. Record how many pages of written materials you have read, and allow you to share this information on social media. Or measure your average reading speed, and use it to estimate how long it might take you to read your next book. As if all words weighed the same. As if every passage of similar length could (should) be consumed in the same amount of time.

I’m sure it has been said by many people, otherwise let me be the first: why do we call these machines readers? They are not the ones doing the reading. (Okay, some of them have a text-to-speech function, but it’s a minority and they’re all called readers regardless.) Perhaps what the reader reads is the user. Measure their reading speed. Record their reading history and apply sophisticated algorithms to their annotations. If you’re with Amazon, there may already be quite a lot of information against your profile, pertaining to all your searches and purchases on the site. Now they can add this information as well. Build a better, more accurate you. Other companies may not know as much about you to begin with, but the mechanism and the aims will be broadly similar.

If you live in some countries (not New Zealand, at present) and haven’t paid a premium to have the option disabled, your Kindle may come with ‘special offers’, which is a fancy way of saying: advertising. And so those idle screensavers that pop up when you put the reader down or take too long to turn to the next page will be ads for other books. I haven’t experienced this so I don’t know how disruptive it is. But the screensavers themselves intrigue me. I bought my first device last October, second-hand. It broke down in six months. It was the keyboard model, and its screensavers included an eclectic range of literary figures – mostly English and American authors, all of them dead – as well as a random Bibliodyssey-style collection of old book illustrations, including a page from an illuminated manuscript. I’ve collected the complete set here.

When my Kindle Keyboard broke down, I bought the new basic model. I’m getting a lot of use out of this thing, but it’s different from what I expected. Not new books from Italy, as I planned to – in no small part because the exasperating system of regional protections means I have no access to them through Amazon –– but much older ones in the public domain and blog posts and articles sent from my computer. Amazon is very good at this last thing. There’s a free Send to Kindle browser add-on that formats a webpage and sends it remotely to the machine. It’s quite possible that Amazon will help itself to the contents along the way to improve my reader profile – I haven’t read the fine print – but the feature is so convenient that I don’t really care either way.

Extracting texts from the web may seem like an odd thing to do but I was already doing it before I had a Kindle. Typically I’d create Word files to read on my laptop, more comfortably and without the ready distractions of a web browser. The Kindle’s much better at this however. Now when I set something aside to read later, I find that I actually do it. (Instapaper was my rubbish bin.) And it’s a less flashy text. No animations. No hyperlinks, especially if I’m out of the house. No embedded videos. It’s a less rich, less hyper- text, and not always in desirable ways. But I feel as if I had found a way to turn down the internet a bit. Set my own rhythm to it.

Conversely, whenever the screensaver pops up while I’m reading, I feel like it’s the Kindle that is trying to regulate my behaviour. And then there are the pictures themselves. This new set is more polished, more stylistically consistent. Gone is the gallery of classic authors, who might judge us if we happen to be reading trash, or porn. Gone are the uniform light grey backgrounds, perfect for showing the ghosting from the last page of text. Gone are the illustrations from old and ancient books. But not the incongruous nostalgia.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin coined a word, remediation, that they applied to things like the overt vestigial print-book features in early electronic text readers. The screensavers on the basic Kindle are all about the aesthetic of remediation. They luxuriate in the technologies that have been displaced. Fountain pens. Pencils. Old Remington typewriters. Grainy artisanal paper. Blocks of type. It is a gallery of hollow, banal, tacky melancholy. Here is the complete set in the original rotation sequence, save for the picture I used near the top of the post.

I keep telling myself I must get rid of these pictures. There are ways of doing this, although they are complex and may even invalidate the product warranty (blame the ad-supported version for this – Amazon needs to be able to control what you see). But why do they bother me much? Partly it’s that I like regular book covers. I wish the Kindle just used the cover of whatever you’re reading as the screensaver, if it happens to have one. But no. New Kindle ebooks in fact always open on page one, making you go back to page zero to even see what a cover looks like. It’s as if they wanted that art to be lost as quickly as possible. Which takes me to the other reason. I dislike those pictures so intensely because they reduce older technologies to objects of casual, dismissive contemplation. Weren’t blocks of types, wasn’t calligraphy cool? Well, they’re gone now. You may go back to selecting the size of your single universal font. It’s available in a choice of greys.

Monday, April 15, 2013

To Save Everything, Click Here

If you follow this blog you would have heard me talk about the urgent need for strong, popular and accessible critiques of internet ideology, even as I documented attempts that either misfired or proved far worse than the target. Now I’m almost entirely certain that he wouldn’t be flattered by the comparison, but I think that in Evgeny Morozov we may have finally found the Neil Postman for these troubled times of ours.

To Save Everything, Click Here is ambitious in its design: to expose the twin, intertwining ideologies of ‘Internet-centrism’ and ‘solutionism’ in the full range of their contemporary manifestations, and show not only how they’re neither natural nor necessary, but also that they're pernicious and dangerous. Simply put, 'Internet-centrism' (capitalised as per Morozov) is the idea that the broad array of technologies that are commonly grouped under the name of ‘the Internet’ (scare-quoted throughout the book) constitutes the defining feature of the epoch and that every issue – be it political, social or technical – should be put in a subservient relation to it. If one considers for instance the legal and social constructs of privacy and copyright, Internet-centrism holds it that they must be redesigned to suit the mythical preference of the internet (along the lines of: information wants to be free, everything about you must be shared and so forth). These are obvious enough examples, but as Morozov shows one could make many others, such as urban transportation or climate change. If ‘the internet’ is to be defining of our epoch then it must also be transformational and invest all aspects of life.

‘Solutionism’ is simply the corollary of Internet-centrism. In fact it may not even be necessary to distinguish between the two, except insofar as doing so makes it easier to (correctly) think of solutionism as pre-dating the latest epochal technology, making it the product of any x-centrism. Thus, solutionism is the belief that every human activity is potentially a problem crying out for the application of the dominant contemporary techne. An Internet-centrist would therefore seek to redesign every such activity in a way that makes the internet central to it, and regard everything that doesn’t have enough internet in it (say, the voting system or how people go about dieting) as ‘a problem’ whose self-evident solution is: more internet.

There are subtleties in Morozov’s deployment of the term that call for an extended quotation:
Solutionism […] is not just a fancy way of saying that for someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; it’s not just another riff on the inapplicability of “technological fixes” to “wicked problems” […]. It’s not only that many problems are not suited to the quick-and-easy solutionist tool kit. It’s also that what many solutionists presume to be “problems” in need of solving are not problems at all; a deeper investigation into the very nature of these “problems” would reveal that the inefficiency, ambiguity, and opacity—whether in politics or everyday life—that the newly empowered geeks and solutionists are rallying against are not in any sense problematic. Quite the opposite: these vices are often virtues in disguise. (6)

Morozov’s own approach is anti-epochal, possibly to a fault. He simply doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as the internet, or at least that the ‘real’ (and very narrowly defined) internet bears little resemblance to the ‘mythical’ internet dreamed up by its sales force. To help understand this point he makes the comparison with Pasteur and ‘Pasteur’: the former is the historical Louis Pasteur as he lived and breathed and worked; the latter is the mythical ‘Pasteur’ that became the index of an era and of an entire system of thought concerning hygiene and human progress. Morozov proposes that any serious history of science and society at the times of Pasteur would have to reject the mythical ‘Pasteur’ or at least heavily problematicise the use of the name for the purposes of metonymy. So too, he proposes, we should refrain from using the word ‘internet’, but talk instead of its constitutive technologies (each with their own particular genealogy) as a way of countering the arguments of the Internet-centrists.

I’m not sure this is in fact an entirely workable strategy. It’s a bit like saying we should reject dualism, which is certainly true but also very difficult in that dualism – and not since yesterday – has very effectively colonised the discourse about technology. Exposing its contradictions as they emerge may be the best one can do. I’m also not entirely convinced by Morozov’s contention that narratives concerning, for instance, surveillance and capitalism ‘have little to do with the [internet] infrastructure per se’. Having written about the internet as a technology of control I may in fact be one of Morozov’s villains, but I believe it’s important not to lose sight of the ways in which internet technologies sometimes do in fact operate in concert and exhibit common patterns. For instance, when one examines the use of sensors in different consumer devices and in particular those applications in which the output is shared on social media – as Morozov does in several chapters – well, that’s the internet. Trying to break it down or find other words for it may do nothing but blunt one’s critique. Besides, Morozov’s generous use of the ‘Wired we’ proves how difficult and occasionally self-defeating it can be not to use the language of the enemy.

But these – much as they speak to one of the book’s central concerns – are quibbles. What’s most impressive about To Save Everything is the breadth of the argumentation coupled with the patient recovery of the history of each of the solutionist projects. Gordon Bell’s lifelog project isn’t new. Neither are ideas about how to substitute technocracy for democracy, or ‘gamify’ chores or work processes to make them more efficient. Each chapter of the book is an object lesson on how to frame these projects critically and counter the arguments of the Shirkies and the Lessigs, the Kevin Kellys and the Steven Johnsons of this world. And while the polemical pages are undeniably the most lively and satisfying, what sets the book apart is the manner of that framing and the depth of the underlying research. These allow Morozov to steer a successful course between ‘the binary poles of Internet pessimism and Internet optimism’ through which Internet-centrism manages to ‘present (and eventually consume) any critique of itself as yet another manifestation of these two extremes’ (42).  Those, remember, were the rocks against which Carr and Lanier had perished.

The book’s final chapter is dedicated to some intriguing technologies – or are they art installations? – that seek to disrupt the myths of technological solutionism by foregrounding aspects, in particular around energy consumption, that are typically downplayed in consumer electronics. Household plants that are euthanised via the administration of vinegar if you exceed a certain energy use; lamps that dim by themselves over time and must be revived in order to keep working; an extension cord that writhes on the floor as if in pain when it’s attached to gadgets on stand-by: these aren’t energy-saving technologies that put modernity out of our minds by automatising the most virtuous behaviours, but rather technologies that dramatise the relationship between the user, the infrastructure and the resources that sustain both. Not just our best technologies but our most useful critiques, concludes Morozov, will have to do something of the sort.

Evgeny Morozov. To Save Everything, Click Here. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The space you take up

I’m not a big man. Not slim by any means, but not huge either. Therefore I fit the standard range of human-sized things. Clothes and cars and seats on trains and planes: I can get into those. My father was obese and I know a little bit of the everyday difficulties he faced, but it’s hard to know what it’s like without first-hand knowledge. The closest I’ve come is on long-haul flights.

Last January for instance I sat for twelve hours next to a very large gentleman. In such extreme prolonged proximity you cannot fail to observe. It’s not voyeurism. You notice above all the trouble with sitting, the fact that the person is wedged. (It’s only then you realise just how much room you have in the much maligned economy class to actually shuffle and change positions in your seat, and that you couldn’t do without an inch of that space.) Then it becomes obvious that everything about that little, minutely designed space is designed with a person of your size and under in mind. The position of the tray and the armrests, the size and location of the remote control. Everything has a very precise ergonomics. My seat looks just right. His looks very wrong. But of course it’s not the seat that looks to be the wrong fit. It’s the person.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is the concept of the future because anybody who travels has travelled at times when they feel like they have been paying for half of the passenger next to them … People are generally a little bit bigger, wider and taller than they were 40-50 years ago.

Thus the CEO of Samoa Air, the small commercial airline that for the last few months has been charging its customers on a by-weight basis as opposed to by seat. Of course I rather doubt that they stop taking passengers once they reach, say, 10 tons of cumulative passenger flesh. Surely they still fill the seats as discrete units and according to the maximum available number. But note how the passengers who pay more get the same size seats. At least earlier schemes which involved charging very large passengers for more than one seat had the benefit of netting the travellers in question more space. Whereas the calculation here seems to be based purely on fuel consumption. The more you weigh, the harder it is for us to fly this thing. We don’t know how much more literally to convey that you’re a drag on the entire operation.

The online consumption of such pieces of news require that some people write obnoxious comments below the reports whilst plain-spoken columnists declare the idea to be sensible and the fuss made disproportionate. Call it the internet waltz. My role in this dance would be to supply right-thinking blogger outrage, which is available in seething, reasoned but searing, comical/sarcastic, or fuchsia. However I’m having some difficulty because I’m stuck on that one thought: that it’s when you fly, and on far larger planes than Samoa Air’s, when you’re sitting in row after row with other battery humans, that the question of the space you take in relation to the economy and technology and how we think of one another articulates itself fully. This week’s plain-spoken columnist, cheerful intellectual(*) Kerre McIvor (née Woodham), turned into a nasty little revenge drama:

I'm sure some people support the higher charge for heavier passengers because it's a form of payback. Many people who have travelled, especially in the US, will know the misery of being crushed by a hugely overweight person who has spilled over into your seat.

If pay-as-you-weigh means these seathogs at least get hit in the pocket for the discomfort they inflict on innocent passengers, then that will be some small comfort as you hunt for your remote in the folds of the flesh of the person next to you.

Dear Kerre is not the only exponent of what I would like to call spiteful neoliberalism, but her views aren’t wholly unrepresentative. It starts in the mind of a technocrat with a rough calculation of the resources it takes to care for people of a particular mould – say, those that are considered by some standard or other to be overweight – and then the diffuse feeling of bitterness and misplaced envy that is so characteristic of the present moment takes over. Your commanding more resources than me makes me poorer. Your lack of health makes me poorer. Therefore who you are, the amount of space you take up, must be defined as a moral failing, typically the result of poor lifestyle choices. For which I shouldn’t have to pay.

There is no need for the calculation to be accurate or for the assumptions on which it is based to be true. It’s about finding worth and virtue in belonging to a norm – be it cultural, economic or of body size. Everything about the society we have constructed is best suited to these types. Everything has a very precise ergonomics. And if you don't quite fit then it isn’t the designer's fault. It’s yours.

(*)the excellent descriptor belongs to @kaupapa.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The painted library

Originally posted at Overland

I hold in my hands a cheap, ugly edition of every book in existence. At least that’s what it feels like. An ebook reader is like a portal, a word repository. It’s the world’s literature no longer bound by time and space. So when I finally got one, six months ago, I thought it might help me to make my reading more current, which is something I often tell myself I should aspire to. The particular secondhand model I bought has even got 3G, meaning I could impulse-buy the latest book releases wherever I happen to be. I’ll have no more excuses. But then as soon as I unwrapped my Kindle I started loading it up with public domain literature, mostly Italian books ranging from old to very old (including this). I expect I shall be working my way through these for quite some time.

I should have known. Not just because I can’t help myself, but also because on the internet – of which the Kindle is an extension – the rare and the obscure are just as available as what is popular and new, if not more so by virtue of being unencumbered by copyright. And so long as a book is digitally available in one copy, then it might as well come in an infinite number of copies. You’ll never go without.

At the same time, all of these books are flattened in the transition by the technology. Most if not all of their design features are erased, leaving behind only the words. Electronic books have no colour, are all of the same material and their size is measured mathematically, in kilobytes, as opposed to visually, by thickness or size. For these reasons, it’s hard for me to think of a digital library as an actual library, as opposed to a mere catalogue, a list of titles. Yet the difference is significant. A library is an architecture, a way of organising knowledge in space so that it can not only be accessed but also inhabited and understood in specific ways.

I wrote about this some time ago on this blog with reference to plans by the library of my university to eliminate or move into long-term storage a large proportion of its books in order to make room for more desks and computers – a plan I opposed. Not only would the physical removal from the library of a book like the collection of Gramsci’s prison letters be a culturally loaded gesture, I argued, but together all of those shelf-loads of books euphemistically marked for ‘deselection’ mapped their subjects in complex and meaningful ways.

Think of the act walking in an aisle of twentieth century political writing. Somebody has selected the books that surround you. For better or worse, it’s a canon, bearing traces of accumulated institutional practice. But together the books also constitute a series of arguments. Their adjacency means something. And by physically being there – as opposed to scrolling through keywords in a database – you can survey the topic, acquire a sense of its breadth. Notice what’s missing. Make discoveries. In other words, browsing the shelves of a university library is – or should be – an education ­in itself.

And so I asked in that post if and how a digital library, being comprised of books without physical dimensions, could ever replicate such an architecture. There may be other, better examples of what I’m about to show you, but this is the first one of its kind I have personally come across. A painted library.

These is the inside of the Victoria Square metro station in Bucharest, Romania, its walls covered with pictures of the spines of books and CDs. On each spine there’s a QR code which, if scanned, will initiate download of the book or CD onto your mobile device. The project is sponsored by Vodafone and publisher Humanitas, and only one of the titles is actually free in its entirety. So this is really more of a bookshop than a library, and a temporary one at that. But I’m sure you can see the possibilities.
I for one would be inclined to forgive the many limitations of electronic books – such as the fact they all look like the same cheap edition printed on dull grey paper – if digital libraries looked like this, and were this public. If you could roll them up into posters, or print them onto wallpaper. If you could paint them onto city walls, or fold them up and bring them to political gatherings or marches. We can glimpse a possible future here, not of the book but of books, one that could enrich, not impoverish, our imagination of cultural spaces.