Recommendations for January 18, 2013

Kind of a long list this week: four article and three songs/videos. All good stuff.
Article: “A $1 Billion Project To Remake The Disney World Experience, Using RFID” by Mark Wilson
Disney has a plan to replace tickets to its amusement parks with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) wristbands (called, inevitably, “MagicBands”) which will not only get you into rides and attractions but serve as the key to your hotel room (assuming you stay in a Disney hotel) and allow you to make purchases by linking to a credit card account. This is one of those technology stories that strikes me as simultaneously very cool and very creepy. This would, indeed, be much more convenient than what we do now; at the same time, Disney will of course use the wrist band to track what you do in the park, allowing them both to analyze general patterns and offer you “personalized service”— a phrase that has become a euphemism for, essentially, stalking you with advertising. It makes me wonder how much of my reaction is simply reflexive, and how much is grounded in a legitimate concern. It’s not as if we really had “privacy” in any theme park before, and to go into one is essentially to voluntarily enter into an environment that is entirely oriented toward selling you things— be it objects and souvenirs or an “experience.” Moreover, what Disney does better than anybody else— what makes their parks as attractive as they are— is precisely their ability to effectively manage the whole experience, to never let you see the sipper in the costume. This seems entirely of a piece with that. And yet…  
Article: “The Power of Positive Publishing” by Boris Kachka
Kachka argues that “self-help” books have taken over publishing in America. He bases this claim on an expanded definition of “self-help” that includes things like Malcolm Gladwell; the argument is that more and more of the non-fiction titles that get published are oriented toward some kind of self-betterment— not just the squishy, purely emotive feel-betterism of things like Chicken Soup for the Soul, but also improving your “productivity,” “life hacks,” managing your attention, etc. On one level, this seems obviously true; I haven’t looked at numbers (and Kachka doesn’t provide any, really), but if you broaden the definition in this way it seems clear that, at least when it comes to the best-selling, most-hyped books, the shift he describes is readily visible. At the same time, though, I wonder if broadening the definition in this way doesn’t render the argument trivial, or at least shift the ground from what he thinks he is saying to something else altogether. It is not at all surprising that people today, feeling overwhelmed by an excess of information, want some kind of assurance that the book they are about to buy will have some degree of utility for them. The problem, then, is not really that people are buying books that are supposed to help them “improve” themselves in some way, but that we think of knowledge in these utilitarian terms.
Article: “For Amusement Only: The Life and Death of the American Arcade” by Laura June
Really interesting long piece about the history of the video arcade. Includes, among other interesting bits, the fact that pinball was banned in most cities in the U.S. from the 1940s through the 1970s— which means that the pinball skills of the Fonz on Happy Days actually did make him a rebel, since to get those skills he would have had to do something illegal pretty regularly. Also shows that the decline of the arcade really began BEFORE home console systems like the NES really become popular; the “golden age” was really only a couple of years, and the decline began because of public concern about the social effects of arcades and video games, as well as poor business sense on the part of video game companies and arcade owners. The early-90s fighting game era— which is what I think of when I think of playing arcade games— was really a sort of late-stage mini-renaissance that slowed, but did not stop, the arcade’s overall decline. Good stuff, and a really nice design/layout as well.  
Article: “Body Request: Give Me Back My Fitness Data” by Paul Miller
Paul Miller (who is spending a year without using the internet, and has written some really interesting pieces about that along the way) describes a problem with most of those fitness-tracker devices (Jawbone, Nike+, etc): they lock the data they track into proprietary silos, requiring you to log in to a website to view them and providing no way to get your data out, particularly in a format that you can make use of anywhere else. This touches on the broader problem of data portability and data ownership— many web-based services involve users inputting large amounts of information, to which they then may lose access, or even rights of ownership. This is a big problem for people concerned with privacy, and it’s also one that our legal system doesn’t really know how to deal with yet. But Miller’s complaints also make it clear that part f the problem here is standardization: even when you can get your data out of one of these systems, it is unreadable and unusable by anything else. There is no standard format for fitness data. And the companies who make these devices don’t really see it as being in their interest to take the time and money it would require to agree on such a standard, because for them the real money is not in selling you the device itself but precisely in keeping you locked in to their proprietary ecosystem. My point being that data portability and ownership also often require standardization, and so for the companies involved it isn’t just a matter of letting you access the data but collaborating with one another to make it useful to you— and that is a bigger hurdle.
Video: “Spectral Split” by Pantha Du Prince and the Bell Laboratory 
This is the centerpiece of the album Elements of Light, in which producer/composer Hendrik Weber (Pantha Du Prince) mixes his own minimal techno with a 2-ton bell carillon and live drums (you can read more about the album and how it was made here). It’s a great record, much less controlled and precise than most of his work, with many layers of sonic detail. 
Video: “Judge, Jury and Executioner” by Atoms for Peace
This is a song by “Thom Yorke’s other band.” They probably hate being referred to that way— or will come to— but it seems inevitable. Anyway, it sounds a bit like Thom Yorke’s solo work, but the bass, in particular, gives it a less chilly sensibility.
Video: “Chum” by Earl Sweatshirt
I am fairly ambivalent about the whole Odd Future thing; they have produced some great stuff and some crap, and it is often pretty gross as well. Earl Sweatshirt, famously, put out a record that his mother found so disturbing upon hearing it that she sent him off to a reform school or something in American Samoa (you can read more about that here, and I also recommend Kelefa Sanneh’s long New Yorker article about the whole affair, which is only online for subscribers). Point being, I wasn’t really expecting to like this as much as I do. You can find lots to complain about in the way they deal with it, but the kids in Odd Future have clearly been through some stuff; this song drops the desire to schock for the sake of shocking and talks honestly about some of that. I hope the rest of his forthcoming album is like this.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.