Category Archives: journalism

The truth and publishing: Beyond the Writing

Photo 81

Brooklyn Reading Works at The Old Stone House presents The Truth and Publishing, a panel discussion about the future of books, publishers, authors, agents and readers, curated by John Guidry.

Thursday, January 17, 2012
8:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Refreshments provided
$5 suggested donation

OLD STONE HOUSE
5th Avenue in Brooklyn
b/t 3rd and 4th Streets at JJ Byrne Park
718.768.3195
info@theoldstonehouse.org

We often think of writing as a lone pursuit, a lone artist or dedicated journalist pursuing the craft with every ounce of dedication they can muster. If we think in the plural, it’s usually in pairs. Yet behind the work of writers is a larger cast of professionals every bit as dedicated to the written word and concerned about its future. They include editors, agents, publishers, critics, and others whose work helps make the printed word possible. On this panel, we will meet editors, publishers and agents who will share their perspective on the process behind the written word and what lies in store for those in the publishing industry during these changing times.

Panelists include Amy Hundley, Tamson Weston, Josh Rolnick, Rob Spillman, Jonathan Lyons, and Renee Zuckerbrot.

AMY HUNDLEY is subsidiary rights director and editor at Grove/Atlantic, where she has worked in various editorial capacities for fifteen years. As a fiction editor, she has worked with authors such as Jim Harrison, Anne Enright (Winner of the Man Booker Prize), Barry Hannah, Porochista Khakpour, Ryan Boudinot, G. Willow Wilson, Mo Hayder, and Aminatta Forna. She also works with many of Grove’s authors in translation, including Pascal Mercier, Catherine Millet, Nedjma, Kenzaburo Oe, and Jose Manuel Prieto. Her nonfiction list includes Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and How to DJ Right by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton and The Deserter’s Tale, a memoir by an American deserter from Iraq. As director of subsidiary rights, she is responsible for selling foreign and domestic rights in Grove/Atlantic titles. She has attended international publishing fellowships sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and French-American Foundation; the Frankfurt Book Fair; the Polish Book Institute; the Jerusalem Book Fair; and the Turin International Book Fair. Born and raised in Chicago, Amy Hundley attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

TAMSON WESTON is a published children’s book author, founder of Tamson Weston Books, and an editor with over 15 years experience. She has worked on many acclaimed and award-winning books for children of all ages at several prestigious publishing houses including HarperCollins, Houghton Miffling Harcourt and Disney Hyperion. When she doesn’t have her nose in a book, Tamson likes to run, bike, swim, lift heavy things and, most of all, hang out with my family in Brooklyn, NY.  Visit her online at www.tamsonweston.com.

JOSH ROLNICK’S debut collection, “Pulp and Paper,” won the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, selected by Yiyun Li. His short stories have also won the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Choice Prize. They have been published in Harvard Review, Western Humanities Review, Bellingham Review, and Gulf Coast, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. Josh holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and an MA in Writing from The Johns Hopkins University. He is working on a novel.

In a journalism and writing career spanning two decades, he served as a fiction editor at the Iowa Review, creative writing teacher at the University of Iowa, an editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review and Moment magazine, a newsman for the Associated Press, and a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and the News Tribune of Woodbridge, N.J. He currently serves as fiction editor of the literary journal Unstuck, and publisher of Sh’ma, a journal of Jewish ideas.

Josh grew up in Highland Park, N.J. He spent summers fishing for fluke and riding the giant slide at Hartman’s Amusement Park in Long Beach Island, N.J., and camping in a Jayco pop-up trailer across the Adirondacks, returning again and again to Buck Pond, where he caught his first bullhead. He holds a BA from Rutgers University, an MA in International History from London School of Economics and a visiting graduate certificate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has lived in Jerusalem, London, Philadelphia, Iowa City, Washington, D.C., and Menlo Park, California. He lives with his wife and three sons, dividing his time between Akron, Ohio, and Brooklyn, New York.

ROB SPILLMAN is Editor and co-founder of Tin House, a fourteen-year-old bi-coastal (Brooklyn, New York and Portland, Oregon) literary magazine. Tin House has been honored in Best American Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, O’Henry Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize Anthology and numerous other anthologies, and was nominated for the 2010 Utne Magazine Independent Press Award for Best Writing. He is also the Executive Editor of Tin House Books and co-founder of the Tin House Literary Festival, now in its tenth year. His writing has appeared in BookForum, the Boston Review, Connoisseur, Details, GQ, Nerve, the New York Times Book Review, Real Simple, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Worth, among other magazines, newspapers, and essay collections. He is also the editor of Gods and Soldiers: the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, which was published in 2009.

JONATHAN LYONS is a literary agent and Director of Translation Rights for Curtis Brown, LTD. Founded in 1914, Curtis Brown’s client list includes numerous bestselling and award-winners, such as Karen Armstrong, Po Bronson, Betty Friedan, Jane Dyer, Diana Gabaldon, Gail Carson Levine, Harold Kushner, Frances Mayes, Diana Palmer, Linda Sue Park, S.E. Hinton, A.A. Milne, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, W.H. Auden, Tony Hillerman, John Cheever, Lucille Clifton, and more. Previously Jonathan ran his own agency, Lyons Literary LLC, and has also overseen the subsidiary rights departments at both McIntosh & Otis and Folio Literary Management. His own client list is varied, including authors of mysteries and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, literary fiction, young adult and middle grade fiction, and nonfiction of all types. Jonathan is a member of the Authors Guild and is on the Contracts Committee of the Association of Author Representatives.

Jonathan is also an attorney with the boutique intellectual property law firm of Savur & Pellecchia. He has over ten years experience handling a variety of publishing and copyright related transactions on behalf of individuals and corporations, with an emphasis on print and digital publishing. His legal clients include authors, publishers, magazines, literary agents, distributors, and artists, among other publishing industry businesses and professionals. Jonathan regularly gives lectures and participates in panels regarding publishing law, including most recently at the Copyright Clearance Center’s On Copyright 2012 Conference, the NYSBA Entertainment and Sports Law 2012 panel “New Models of Publishing”, and the 2012 Self-Publishing Expo. Jonathan earned his law degree from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 2001, and his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He is admitted to the bar of New York.

RENEE ZUCKERBROT founded Renée Zuckerbrot Literary Agency after working as an editor at Doubleday and Franklin Square Press/Harper’s Magazine, following a short stint at Marly Rusoff & Associates. She is a member of the AAR and Authors Guild, and in 2008, Poets & Writers included her on their list of “Twenty-One Agents You Should Know.” represents a wide-ranging list that includes literary and commercial adult fiction, narrative non-fiction, and cookbooks. The agency represents writers at all stages of their careers, first-time and well-established authors alike, and the agency’s small, intimate scale fosters warm and long-lasting relationships with our clients. We believe that an agent should be the author’s greatest advocate and fan, and to that end we take a proactive role throughout the publishing process, offering crucial support in project development, editing, contracts, marketing, rights management, and career-planning over the short and long term.

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The truth and oral history: The Double Life of the Interview

BROOKLYN READING WORKS

org. Louise Crawford
guest curator John A. Guidry

THURSDAY, JANUARY 20, 2011
8:00 – 10:00 PM
Where: OLD STONE HOUSE at J. J. BYRNE PLAYGROUND
5th Avenue in Park Slope between 3rd and 4th Streets
(718) 768-3195

The idea

Stories do not tell themselves. Even once they are told and recorded, stories need some help to be heard and to live in the world. This month’s Brooklyn Reading Works will look at the processes by which people collect stories and use them to tell stories. We will have panelists who use oral history practices to document our world and the lives we lead, and the conversation will explore the work it takes to make stories interesting and give them legs to stand on, as it were. Panelists will represent and explore several different genres and styles of the oral historian’s craft, from traditional first-person historical storytelling to the mediations of photography, academic writing, marketing, multimedia, and social advocacy—as well as stories of how collecting stories ultimately affects oral historians as authors and curators of the human experience.

The panel

Brian Toynes and Luna Ortiz, with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who have developed innovative community-level interventions that use personal stories about change and resiliency. Luna is one of the few people documenting the “House and Ball” scene that came to general public prominence in the film, Paris is Burning, and in Madonna’s “Vogue – but which has also had a much more complex and international history over the last 100 years.

Michael Garofalo, a producer with StoryCorps, who will talk about the work of StoryCorps and the importance of collecting and listening to the stories we can tell each other about our lives.

Mary Marshall Clark, Director of the Columbia Oral History Office. Mary Marshall will concentrate on the stories of 9-11 that her team collected here in New York and the process of working with these kinds of interviews in order to create a tangible and personal history of these events.

Jason Kerstenauthor of “The Art of Making Money,” a true-crime story of a young counterfeiter and his life. Jason’s interviews with Art and his family reveal a host of issues that a writer must confront when getting so close to the subject while trying to tell a true story that is compelling, informative, honest, and in the end protective of the subject’s own history and privacy.

John A. Guidry, who has used oral history and long-interviewing techniques in academic writing (community organizing and children’s rights in Brazil), community development research (all over the US), and public health promotion (HIV health and social marketing).

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Truth and Rocket Science – guest stenographer

Photograph courtesy of  Visual Stenographers: Atiba T. Edwards + Emma Raynor

The Scoop

Photographs from Truth and Rocket Science—some already published on this site and some from my archives—are now being featured on the blog “Visual Stenographers,” which is published by Atiba Edwards and Emma Raynor.  The photo above is one of theirs.  The blog is a delightful visual tour as much through the world as the minds of their photographers, and TRS is honored to be invited.  My photos will run for about two weeks, give or take, along with any others they are posting.  Do visit the site and while you are there, enjoy the archives.

The Stoop

This came about as a result as my involvement in the Brooklyn Blogfest, which I had been advertising along the sidebar of TRS (and still am even though it’s over).  The Fifth Annual Brooklyn Blogfest took place on June 8, 2010, at the Brooklyn Lyceum.  Absolut sponsored this year’s event as part of the launch of its limited edition “Absolut Brooklyn,” which they created in collaboration with Spike Lee, who spoke at the event.  It’s vodka with “an invigorating blend of red apple and ginger replete in a specially-designed bottle reminiscent of the ubiquitous ‘Brooklyn Stoop Life’.”  Okey dokey.

For the Blogfest itself, TRS was the “panel wrangler,” responsible for helping to ensure that the panelists would show up and do their thing.  The panelists this year were:

Faye Penn of Brokelyn

Jake Dobkin of Gothamist

Heather Johnston of So Good:  Food and Wine with Heather Johnston

Petra Simister of Bed Stuy Blog

Atiba Edwards of Visual Stenographers

The panel was moderated by Andrea Bernstein of WNYC.  A theme (among many) for the evening was Brooklyn’s capacity for conversation and discourse and the possibilty that blogs could take the dynamic of good old-fashioned stoop conversations and amplify, broadcast, hone, and narrowcast them across both time and space, in Brooklyn and beyond.

The Day After

Apparently, there has been some controversy in part of the blogging community here (i.e. Brooklyn) about Absolut’s sponsorship, provoking a bit of righteous ire across these stoops.  Heather, one of the panelists wound up having an extended exchange on Atlantic Yards Report, and another Brooklyn blog, Brownstoner, claimed the Blogfest had “sold out.”  As one who has been a community organizer in different places around the country and was happy to help with the Blogfest, I could run on with platitudes about getting up and doing something, and maybe this time Louise, Blogfest’s organizer, was trying something new, and so on and on and on.

Righteousness is like certain kinds of spicy foods that were wonderful in youth yet with age tend to bring on a bad feeling in the stomach and thereafter when consumed prodigiously.  Righteousness has its place, of course, but at this point in my life I rather like the way Heather Johnston put it, “I like Louise and what she does.”  Of course there was controversy, but there was also a really great event and some momentum for the future.  Perfect?  What is? It’s like they always say, If a tree falls in the forest …

Stomping Grounds and Old Haunts

So that is how I met Atiba, who shares with me not only the stomping grounds of good ole Brooklyn, but also the University of Michigan, as is obvious from the photograph of VS’s creators taken in front of the Graduate Library on the campus in Ann Arbor, our old haunt (and we have the paper to prove it).  At the Blogfest, Atiba suggested I send some photographs over to VS and here we are.  A very good idea.

Thanks

At the end of the day, thanks goes out to Louise Crawford, the force behind the Brooklyn Blogfest and keeper of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.  Louise’s dedication helps bloggers and writers of all stripes to become a community in spaces real and virtual, keeping both honest and focused on talking to each other.  Louise has been a cherished mentor and supporter of my own blogging, and I try to repay her with thanks in action, whether panel wrangling or curating sessions for another of her community-building projects, Brooklyn Reading Works, for which I organized “The Truth and Money” last April.  TRS will be curating another Brooklyn Reading Works event in January 2011 – The Truth and Oral History: The Double Life of the Interview.  Stay tuned …

art is … what unites us!

In the meantime, please enjoy all the photographs on Visual Stenographers and stop over for a look at Atiba’s other projects.  Check out FOKUS, an organization Atiba helped to found that uses “the arts as a tool for education, entertainment and empowerment.”  FOKUS publishes Insight, a quarterly magazine of interviews, articles, photography, poetry, and more.  Atiba’s work merges old fashioned community organizing and the technologies of our time to take community-building to a new level, both in scale and in accessibility.  As the FOKUS website puts it, “art is … what unites us.”

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The truth and the still

Parintins, Brasil 1993

The still photograph is not so still.  The photograph asks questions.  It suggests a story.  It presents an idea in a language without words.  It is even as it signifies. Video killed nothing, and the still photograph survives (even as the radio star carries on).  Unlike video, you can take the still photograph in.  You have a role in your experience of the photograph.  It speaks to you at a speed that you can handle, that doesn’t overwhelm, that invites your participation and imagination.  You can look into its nooks and crannies and seek out all it has to offer.  All this at your own pace, and for your own reasons.

Snow on Sterling Place, Brooklyn 2005

The still photograph is a water that runs deep.  If it seems to sit there, that’s its charm.  The still makes you active, because it’s impossible to just look.  Indeed, that’s the point, and all the while the still is not nearly inert.  It just moves differently, at a different pace, like a tree.

Detail of a rock on the beach, Long Island Sound, 2009

You fill the stillness with motion, the silence with voices.  You hear these people, feel the breeze come across the flowers, sympathize with a long face or smile with happy eyes.  Or you imagine the immediate suspension of all motion and noise and concentrate on only the image and the miracle of capturing time itself.

Intensity . . .Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2009

Video?  Its harsh, grating noise, the motion too fast to keep up with – video steals your ability to think about what you’re seeing and replaces your mind with its own images.  The difference between the still photograph and video is the difference between democracy and dictatorship.

Fixing the sidewalk, Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Brooklyn 2009

Notes and Credits

On December 15, 2009, I had the opportunity to hear two award-winning photographers, Lynsey Addario and Damon Winter, discuss their work at the Museum of the City of New York.  After the panel discussion, one member of audience asked them if they were experimenting with video, given the prominence of video on the Web and current developments in social media and journalism.  Of course they were interested, but they were still committed to the still photograph.  That’s what got them aroused in the first place, and the still continues to drive them today.  Moderater Kathy Ryan, photo editor for the NYT Magazine, chimed in that photos are still much more popular than videos on the Magazine’s website, perhaps because the photos allow the viewer to control what they are seeing.  So that got me thinking . . .

Sidewalk fixed, December 2009

All the photos featured in this post were taken by the author.  Go back and double-click them to see a larger view.  Enjoy.  If you want to see some interesting and incredible photos by others more talented and adept with shutters than I, check out the work of some friends at T’INGS, Chloe, and the No Words Daily Pix on Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.

Astor Place, New York 2009

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The Park Slope 100

truth and rocket science has been included on this year’s “Park Slope 100,” a list compiled by Louise Crawford on her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.”  Anyone from the neighborhood is familiar with Louise and her work, whether in her Smart Mom column in the weekly Brooklyn Paper, or the Brooklyn Reading Works, or the blog, or many other events.  Obviously, she can’t place herself on the list, but all of us in the nabe know that she makes it that much better for the rest of to do things of value around here.  A heartfelt thanks to Louise!  What an honor to be on a list with favorite blogs like Fucked in Park Slope and Brit in Brooklyn, and writers like Frank McCourt.

Oh, and speaking of the Brooklyn Reading Works . . . truth and rocket science will be curating the April 15, 2010, edition of Brooklyn Reading Works, on “The Truth and Money” . . . of which more later.  Keep tuned.

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The truth and change, 3a: From Life on Mars to Linden

The House of Tomorrow, 200x

The House of Tomorrow, now

The third post in this series, The truth and change, is split in two, 3a and 3b.  They provide different outcomes for the multi-part essay on change and the future that I began a month ago.  It wasn’t how I planned the posts, nor are these the only two ways things can work out.  They are, instead, the unintended surprises at the end of a long chain of lateral thinking that has also suggested a set of follow-up postings down the line.  It’s always nice to pile up things to do.

From Life on Mars to Linden

Avatars are nothing new to the human species, from the caves of Lascaux to the virtual worlds of Second Life and other large web-based games.  These (brave?) new worlds carry out the same primeval urge that led people to create paintings of their daily lives 35,000 years ago.  What began in the caves has become a massive wall written on by millions of people, together, sharing a world that they have imagined out of the very world in which they live.

The House of Tomorrow, 35,000 BCE

The House of Tomorrow, 35,000 BCE

One of the interesting things about the virtual world is that it does create a “place” that didn’t exist before, uncovering new spaces in life that are hidden beneath the physical dimensions we take for granted.  In the world of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs, or MMOs) such as Second Life, people leave their organic beings and create virtual selves, societies, and places in cyberspace.  These worlds are a social version of the extra-dimensional physics of string theory, “brane worlds,” and high energy model building that physicist Lisa Randall has written and spoken about.  In MMOs, we are building new worlds in very small spaces inside the world of everyday experience.

The key thing about these virtual dimensions is their connectivity to real life, which engenders much greater imaginative potential than the escape to the “silver screen” that left the sad girl in David Bowie’s song wondering if there was “Life on Mars.”  Ours is now a world of both cultural production and absolute reflexivity, in which the virtual world is like a magnifying mirror we hold to our organic lives.

In a fascinating example of this reflexivity, organic journalist Marcia Stepanek reports on Second Life journalist Draxtor Despres, who himself reports on the goings-on of the organic world for the people of Second Life.  Their dialogue is like an 8-track tape, or a Möbius Strip in which one side is organic, the other side virtual, both surfaces effortlessly sliding into each other when they are attached in just the right way.

Stepanek has also profiled the work of Douglas Gayeton, a multimedia artist who “creates immersive story experiences for virtual worlds and social networks.”  Gayeton’s documentary, “Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey,” was the first documentary produced entirely in Second Life.  For a while it was the highest rated video on YouTube.  It’s been picked up by HBO and begins to make clear how “real” the virtual world really is.

Already, the virtual economy is derived from, reflects, and ultimately contributes to the organic economy.  In July of 2009, Second Life creator Philip Linden spoke to BOSL (Best of Second Life) Blog about how Linden Labs is creating various supports for crossover services involving both businesses and educators, who will use the SL platform to provide services in real life.  Within SL, “Linden Dollars” are the basis of a vast economy of virtual goods that can be converted, ultimately, into organic dollars.

The virtual world embraces an entire crossover economy.  Hermione Watanabe is a “virtual wealth coach” whose blog provides advice and information on the SL economy and how to grow income there and in the organic world.  Perhaps the most compelling confirmation of the virtual world’s “real” existence is that the Federal Government is thinking about how to tax virtual economic activity.

The crossover continues in the amateur machinima that is becoming an art form of its own, sprawling across YouTube, Vimeo, and other video networking sites.  Aenea Nori’s SL video for Kafka Dinzeo’s remix of Lily Allen’s “Littlest Things” brilliantly takes us through the wormholes that connect virtual dimensions to the organic and back again.

LauraMW12345 created an organic-virtual mix in which “Second Life Meets Real Life,” in which the green screen existed in SL and the “real world” had to be inserted as fictional background for the avatars. The video is set over the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner,” which was one of the early, pioneering events in remix history, on the borders of different dimensions of musical creation and imagination.

This sliding between organic and virtual lives has inevitably encompassed the most ubiquitous and equalizing of human emotions:  sex (and its correlate emotions).  Love is in the virtual air, as people in Second Life and other MMOs mix, mingle, fall for each other, become married (virtually, but quite really), pledge love, cheat, cry, break up, and try again.  For a while, people started to create real-world-like porn magazines on-line (in Second Life, Slustler was a phenomenon in 2005-07), but these have been displaced by other virtual services and games that better fit the medium, such as Red Light Center (which creates a very real organic economy for itself as well) and SL meeting places and adult parties.

Eventually, however, we come back to the connection between the virtual and organic worlds.  They cannot function without each other.  “If This is Second Life Why Is My Heart Breaking In Real Life?” is a machinima video created by Kirk Lancaster and Sandra Holyoke that explores the crossover of desire and heartache.  The relationships we create in other dimensions reverberate in the organic world and behind them all lie one, beating, very organic heart.

The future, it seems, is not out there in the world, some place distant in either time or space.  It’s in our minds, already, right now, and available for our scrutiny.  This isn’t the future I imagined as a youth, or even when I began writing these postings.  In this future, much of the world is simply brought to life from our own minds with the help of technologies that enable millions of minds to communicate in tandem, synced together to build a world that is every bit as real as the organic world even as it vanishes before us to live in our minds.

This brings me back to the Shetland Islands of the late 1940s, where Erving Goffman gathered observations and data for his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  It was published in 1959 and became a classic of American sociology; it’s still widely read and has never been thought out-of-date.

Immersing himself in the world of the Shetland Islanders, Goffmann looked at their everyday interactions through the lens of drama – people were actors in their own plays, as well as each other’s audiences.  “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare famously said, and Goffmann set out to prove it.  People work hard to create settings and situations in which they can enact a specific, intentional script.  They have certain behaviors for their audience, as well as an array of backstage behaviors.

Goffman’s point of view was revolutionary at the time and cemented the foundation of a whole school of social thought.  We construct our own worlds in the same way that we construct plays and dramas.  The representational activity that started in places like Lascaux and ends up in MMOs is pretty much the same.  The attractiveness of gaming and MMOs is clear:  it’s what we already do in regular life, only in the MMO we get a greater degree of control over what we hide backstage.

This begs a question.  Is the change we experience with this technology really anything more than a change in the venue (now virtual, created) for the same old desires we’ve always had?  A vanity of vanities in which there’s nothing new under the sun except for the bottles that are filled with old wine?  Does the virtual world of love and sex and desire change any of the fundamental emotions or relationships that constitute what it means to be human?  When and where does the virtual world go beyond reflections and extrapolations of the organic?

When is the virtual world for-itself?

Notes and Credits

The opening photo is from the Flikr site of rikomatic.  The photo shows a house for sale in Second Life, where participants engage in an extensive economy that has several dimensions – purely virtual, combined virtual and organic, and mainly oriented toward organic profit.  In Second Life, people create their own houses by using virtual money (Linden dollars) to purchase land and materials in the virtual world.

Much thanks to Marcia Stepanek for introducing me to the world of machinima in her writing on Cause Global and Pop!Tech.

The photo of the Lascaux cave paintings is from Prof. Saxx and can be seen at the Wikimedia commons.

Aenea Nori’s machinima for the “Littlest Things (remix)” carries us through many layers of time and space.  I would have embedded the video in the blog for people to see, except that WordPress (the free version, anyway) isn’t communicating with Vimeo.  You should go to her site, however, and check out her video work. There is no recent activity on the Vimeo site or on her blog (the last activity is September 2008), but perhaps she’ll be back.

Lily Allen uses a lot of mixing, overdubbing, and sampling to build her songs, which are themselves an aural hypertext calling forth a multitude of associations and images.  “Littlest Things” recalls Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” morphing time across 35 years of cultural production. Listening to Allen’s work is stimulating – and now Aenea Nori and Kafka Dinzeo transport the music and associated images into another world altogether, sliding along a “brane” between the virtual and organic worlds.

Regina Lynn has written in Wired about the growth of the virtual sex world found in MMOs all over the web, some of which are lucrative businesses. WebMD posted a balanced article on the advantages of cybersex and “teledildonics,” which include a safe place to try out new ideas (both in terms of disease and in terms of emotional control), as well as the problems – it can become addictive and affect real-life relationships.  The article quotes Regina Lynn, who brings the issue down to earth:  “Does your partner know, and does your partner consent? Lying is cheating.”  Over at True/Slant, Todd Essig writes about the cutting edge developments in the world of cyber sex – now, cyber-touch with lasers across world’s distances.

Taunt is a blog devoted to SL economics and SL sex life.  SL and other MMOs feature escort services and erotic parties to cater to every taste, including many that are all but impossible to enact in organic life.  “Second life guys can have it all, as long as they’re willing to pay,” according to Elle Kirshner, a Second Life designer and voiceover artist for Kirk Lancaster’s SL video, “Second Life Man.”

Overall, sex is actually the cutting edge of machinima and virtual reality.  Why?  Because it’s what we want so much in real life that our urges push the limits of technology so that we can pursue desire in every possible corner of existence, from dreams to waking life to virtual reality.

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The truth and Twitter, part 3: The Swarm

bees-2

Act 1:  The buzzing of keyboards

The 140 Characters Conference was held at the New World Stages in New York on June 16-17, 2009.  The New World Stages are a large complex of five stages seating different audience sizes, up to about 500 people, along with lounges, lobbies, and galleries.  Much of it is underground – one who’s never been there is quite unprepared for what he or she will find once inside the doors and down the escalator.

In the theatres, the seats rise on a steep gradient.  Everything is painted black, and the lighting makes anything on stage come out into the setting, seeming to float in space, vividly in color.

During the conference, I was distracted by a low hum in the background: the sounds of fingers on keyboards.  At least half the audience had their laptops open and were tapping away at all kinds of messages, dozens of Tweets being unleashed as each speaker spoke about the world of Twitter and Tweeting from some different point of view.

The hum was distant and faraway, sounding as though it came from some hollowed out source not quite in the room.  It was enchanting, if in an industrial kind of way, bringing to my mind in a Proustian moment an incident that was altogether different and yet fundamentally similar.

Act 2:  One dog, one man, and thousands of bees

On a sunny spring day in April of 2008, I laid down with Duke under a gnarly, knotted, scrubby, runty tree.  There we rested for some time, children (including my own son) playing nearby, blue sky and warm yellow sunlight all around.

bee-tree

I noticed a bee flying just over me.  It wasn’t trying to touch me, though it came close.  As it buzzed off, I saw another coming down, slowly descending – then another, and another.  Suddenly, hundreds of bees reminded me of World War II photographs of paratroopers, but unlike paratroopers, no bees landed on us.  They came close and then flew off.

In the air above, I heard the low grade, ambient sound of buzzing.  Unlike anything I’d ever heard, it was assuredly distant, warm, and safe.  An aural blanket covering the scene, enchanting in a distinctly pre-industrial kind of way.

Act 3:  Enter the Queen

I sought a pattern in their behavior, and I soon found one.  Each bee – after buzzing around in an inert, hovering, apparently directionless state – slowly made its way to an extended branch of that knotted tree.  The swarm began packing itself on one part of the branch, growing from a small ball of bees to an enormous, undulating bulb.  A huddled, tired mass, to be sure.

Swarms like this occur when the Queen decides it’s time to move the whole the colony to a new home, or when a new Queen is born and leaves with part of the old colony – her brothers and sisters and not her offspring – in order to establish a new one.  Somewhere beneath the mass of bees above me was the Queen, who would be vulnerable until they built a new home.

Act 4:  Of the social organism

In the Queen, the insect colony becomes incarnate and we see that very magic trick that occurs again and again in nature:  the metaphysical made real.  To live or die as an individual bee makes sense only as a function of the Queen’s existence.  She alone carries the source, yet she cannot exist alone, without her offspring.  The social organism is a whole that has no physical being in itself, but is instead a thing greater than sum of its irreducible, individual parts, each of which will fight to the death to protect the Queen.

The social impulse, according to Donald Ingber, is something we can see in fractals throughout organic nature, beginning with bacteria, single-cell based colony creatures, cellular cooperation in larger organisms, insects, and possibly ourselves.

One group of Argentine ants may have broken the geographical barrier between kinship and colony.  These ants have created a kind of mega-colony that exists in North America, Europe, and Japan.  Even though they live across such vast distances, they behave like ants who live in one colony, refusing to fight each other and yet ruthlessly destroying non-kin ants they find in their way.  It is the “largest of its type ever known for any insect species, and could rival humans in the scale of its world domination.”  Interestingly, these ants were able to establish such distant colonies because people, however unwittingly, carried them there.

Human beings are the only large animal that has managed to populate the world in numbers and social structures that can be compared to the social insects – ants, bees, termites.  Our technologies – language, boats, smoke signals, printing presses, as well as the World Wide Web and Twitter – have enabled us to break the micro-social, hunter-gather barrier and form true social organisms.

Act 5:  Living in the land of ideas

Unlike ants or bees, however, we may be creating a new kind of meta-social being that relies on the very gap between the individual and social organisms.  In that gap, we remain as individuals happily, fruitfully, and contentedly human in the smallish communities that make our lives meaningful.  Exploring that gap was the whole point of the 140 Characters Conference, as it is of the plethora of commentary on Twitter and social media that one can find all over the Web, from those who damn Twitter for destroying thoughtful cultural production to those who celebrate and explain its benefits.

Further distinguishing ourselves from social insects, each Twitterer and his or her followers constitute a kind of spontaneous swarm that exists only in cyberspace.  Unlike the swarm of bees that I witnessed overhead last year, one very busy bee in Twitter can be part of many swarms, in addition to being the Queen of his or her own.  These swarms are multiple, derivative, tumescent, and utterly human.

In the buzz of Twitter, our ideas themselves become protagonists.  As Jay Rosen, one of the more thoughtful mediators of the phenomenon puts it,“Twitter keeps me in touch with people who are friends of my ideas. I know about their projects and current obsessions; they know about mine.” Todd Chaffee, a digital media expert, goes so far as to call Twitterspace “the global mind.”  One blogging group, The Hive Mind, is comprised of 5 science writers who actively swarm around topics and blog their work.

William Saletan, Slate’s prolific blogger on science and the human condition, observes a migration going on between dual and overlapping worlds of physical experience and cybercommunication, as we “shift our mental attention and our comfort zone from the physical to the digitally enhanced environment.

He notes such people are “lost in invisible worlds,” but that’s not true.  They’re living in the spaces between very real and tangible worlds, seen and unseen, building swarms and with them the ethereal sounds of buzzing keyboards humming in the background of everyday life, as audible now to the rest of us as presumably the sounds of automobiles once were to our great-grandparents’ generation.

Dénouement

I doubt we’ll ever truly understand ourselves as a social organism.  We are biologically individual creatures, and we perceive the world through individual minds, even when our perception is helped along by the grand edifice of knowledge and social consciousness that helps us understand the world.

Yet solipsism isn’t what it used to be.

We needn’t be as depressed and desperate as Sartre or Morrissey, nor as arrogant as Richard Dawkins, in order to understand how the gap between self and other makes us who we are.  That gap is the place of creation:  of all art, science, technology, storytelling, representation, and myth-making.  Einstein, unicorns, cave paintings, and Twitter all come from the same urge to touch the whole, and in these bursts of creativity we see truth and beauty and all that makes our short time in the conscious world as good, or bad, as it can be.

Notes and credits

A special thanks goes to Marcia Stepanek, a friend and colleague whose Cause Global blog chronicles how new developments in technology and communications affect the worlds of philanthropy and cause-based action.  She invited me out to the 140 Characters conference which made my observations on Twitter possible.  You can also see her blog postings at Pop!Tech and the Stanford Innovation Review.

On the micro-social, hunter-gatherer societies:  For people, these are the smallish, tribal societies that were the basic form of human social organization for most of our history, say from the time we began living on savannahs until the advent of large, social agriculture.  This covered a time period of roughly a million years or more, depending on how you want to define human beings.  In the animal world, wolves, lions, elephants, wasps, and a few other animals still use this form of social organization.  Some of the writers I’ve read on this period of our history are Jared Diamond, in The Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs, and Steel, his blockbuster on technology and change in the social organization.  Also quite interesting is Colin Tudge, The Time Before History, which examines human history and the impact of people on the planet for the last 5 million years.  Tudge’s book is good fodder for thinking about global warming in a very long-vue sense.

William Saletan’s posting which I quote above was not about Twitter, but rather about Blackberry and cell phone usage.  Interestingly, a search of Saletan’s blog at Slate for “Twitter” brings back no results.  Full disclosure:  his blog, “Human Nature,” has been a source of inspiration for a number of years.

Chris Weingarten’s presentation at the 140 Characters Conference was one of the more raucous and interesting.  Among his provocations was this:  “Crowd sourcing kills art,” and I reference him above as a critic of Twitter, who is also a constructive, critical user of it.  At @1000TimesYes, Weingarten is reviewing 1000 CD’s on Twitter, even while he provides a very pointed view on the negative impact of Twitter on cultural production. Weingaretn’s blog is called Poisson d’Avril.  Here you can see the Twitter reviews and appreciate the minimalist form of review on your own, such as the review of one of my favorites, Green Day, “If the world ends tonight, Green Day made the album of the year.”  Or the more esoteric pan of someone whose music I have also enjoyed, Regina Spektor, “In New York, even our twee is meta.#4.5.”  Gonna have to find the album just to figure out what he means, though I have an idea.

Counterpoint:  Solipsism isn’t what it used to be, but for Chris Weingarten and lots of others, social media like Twitter have the ironic effect of increasing solipsism by creating flocks of people telling each other “all about me.”  It’s a topic I am thinking about.

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