Bryan Behrenshausen's public notebook

Review of The Void

(Originally published in Private Suite magazine, issue 6)

Book review: The Void, by Isaiah Laing

The Void is the story you'd get when the kids from "Stranger Things" grow up, start dating, land jobs, and acquire prescription narcotics. Isaiah Laing's novel tracks nine principal characters (mostly 20-somethings) whose lives crisscross in all-too-convenient ways, each flung from a relatively undifferentiated middle-class existence by the insidious machinations of some imperceptible evil. Unfolding like a VHS supercut of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the book shifts perspectives in two- or three-page beats, whipping readers readers from encounters with the vaguely zombified and sickly tentacled to descriptions of botched hookups and stilted mealtime conversation with blinding speed (Laing positions the work "somewhere between a diary dump and a work of fiction," and it reads as such). It's long on premise but short on resolution—though that's a description of the art that vaporwave fans in particular might expect, even appreciate.

Laing's world is clearly contemporary (everyone's got a mobile phone), but the mise-en-scène is oddly late-80s Spielbergian: brown-on-tan suburban landscapes populated with tube TVs and skateboards and record players. Characters spend their time in their parents' basements, abandoned apartment stores, claustrophobic house parties, fluorescent-flickering laundromats, Japanese-style video arcades, ceramic-tiled pool rooms, glitzy nightclubs, overbright gas stations, dilapidated diners, and even a mansion of "mostly straight lines and rectangular shapes, glossy white walls and massive windows." Roughly half the book reads in the second-person as a text-based adventure game. The kids have grown up, but apparently they're content with 30 years of arrested technological and cultural development.

Laing's prose slipslides unsettlingly between the literal and the metaphorical. Sometimes it's fascinating. Other times it's simply frustrating. The book's eponymous void, however, functions both those ways.

It's as much a space as anything lacking concrete coordinates can be: a ground that's "mirror-flat, a strange neon fuchsia" upon which "thin silver lines cross to make large squares on the floor" beneath an atmosphere "of black, speckled with bright white dots," its only inhabitants "palm trees" and "a strange crackling noise filling the air." The void is a vaporwave vacuum, the materialization of a sonorial sensibility in which "time [doesn't] work properly." It's actually the kind of place vaporwave die-hards would revel in. But in this void, nothing good ever happens to anyone.

It's also, however, the most apt descriptor of what sits inside each of the novel's characters—a personal, emotional vacuity that no one can seem to dislodge. Everyone is missing something (even if by the end of the novel that something is each other). Some lose their minds. Some lose their bodies. Some lose their lives. The novel presents it all so flatly; like the scenes it describes, its affect is muted, distanciated. Characters cry (so much crying), and the text simply says as much. Laing's occasionally plodding descriptions read like a classic mallsoft anthem: thinned out, shallow, monophonic.

So surprising, then, is the heroes' ability to vanquish their foe through a kind of emotional heatstroke. In The Void, victorious are those who can cut through the miasma of isolation, loneliness, longing, ennui, and cathode rays to just feel something.

Vaporwave fans will get it.


(Originally published in Private Suite magazine, issue 5)

Album Review: PLASTIC WHATEVER, by Desired (Neon City Records)

Desired's PLASTIC WHATEVER is a meditation on the hyperkinetic but dispassionate life, a synthetic hodgepodge of lollipop hooks and frenetic drops precisely engineered to keep us moving, two steps ahead of a blunt and crushing reality.

The tableau is a pleasingly garish one. Tracks like "Plastic Life," "Neon Maze," and "Distorted Silhouette" make Side A a swirl of pink house lights and teal bubblegum—essential ingredients in this cocktail meant to overload the sensorium. Bring sunglasses. Side B is much more wistful, as the final hours before last call tend to be. "Fairy Tale" is full of longing for someone special but no one in particular. "Floor 25" is the location of an after party where you hate everyone but stay anyway, because the drinks are free and functional. "Moment of Summer" is a precious bit of reverie amid the sex, drugs, high-pile carpet, and numbing loneliness.

PLASTIC WHATEVER is the soundtrack for a scenario that's by now quite familiar: another listless night in a neon-soaked city that's all sparkle and no substance, another aimless trek through a string of blindingly lustrous but forgettable clubs, another evening spent doing everything possible to keep the morning—with its inevitable dimension and demands—at bay. The true gift from Desired, however, is that PLASTIC WHATEVER ventures where other future funk and nu disco releases (including the artist's prior efforts) frequently don't. Its soundtrack constitutes a space between the clubs, so we experience both the excessively polished, glossy nightclubs and the grimy, rain-soaked alleys connecting them. With "Hotel 1987," we're wending through the streets with our hands stuffed in the pockets of a slippery, nylon trench coat, searching for more and better stimulation. "Android Shelter" guides us past that ugly place just out of sight, where the mecha go to die. "Commercial Break" reminds us who brought us the entire experience. Movement between the oversaturated and the crumbling, between the bright and the scummy, are central to Desired's efforts here.

Pried from its slick polymer blister pack, this album glints in the steam leaking from that vent in the sidewalk. It's an hypnotic collection of polycarbonate ephemera encapsulating the candy-coated nihilism of a life lived only for the next manufactured movement—the ideal backdrop to this incandescent (non)place completely devoid of meaning, this disposable dreamworld, this plastic whatever.

Review of Babbling Corpse

(Originally published in Private Suite magazine, issue 5)

Book review: Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, by Grafton Tanner

This isn't an especially pleasant moment to be living in the global West. It's fraught with trauma over rampant historical and geographic dislocation, obsession with humanity's imminent demise, anxiety about late capitalism's unfettered expansion, and a general suffusion of simulations upon simulations that feel like ghostly presences animating our otherwise soulless and recycled media objects.

For all this, author Grafton Tanner argues in Babbling Corpse, vaporwave serves as both looking glass and touchstone. More than a musical genre or an artistic aesthetic, vaporwave is for Tanner a "sensibility," a "desire to turn our fascinations and fantasies into more disquieting forms, to suggest that not all is perfectly well, to remind us that maybe we have not been liberated in the Internet Age." That's what the book is about—a culture of commodification, phantasmagoria, and existential malaise that makes vaporwave a salient, even desirable, impulse.

Babbling Corpse is its own kind of mall, each chapter a kiosk showcasing the latest and greatest in cultural critique. All the big brands—object-oriented ontology, accelerationism, hauntology—are in stock and on display. Shoppers can largely browse the storefronts in any order, popping in and out of the various analyses. But while each chapter addresses a different dimension of the cultural mélange Tanner constructs, vaporwave wafts throughout the entire book, the ever-present muzak of Tanner's critical analysis. As part of a broader exploration of sampled media's uncanniness (Chapter 1), for instance, vaporwave serves as an example of "music that comes from nowhere, that can be attributed to no one or at best a faceless moniker, and resists easy analysis." In an argument about the Western world's unsettling preoccupation with its own demise (or "anthrodecentric thought," as Tanner puts it in Chapter 2), vaporwave appears as "the sound of the outside world of things—electronic technology, mass-produced goods, non-places," an apotheosis of what the world feels like when "we are allowed access to everything all the time." Everywhere, Tanner finds vaporwave—the prism that refracts our mass-produced nostalgia and the soundtrack for our hollow and vacuous times.

Most compelling is Tanner's final chapter, a sustained rumination on consumer culture in a post-9/11 world. Numerous vaporwave artists and producers claim that horrific first day of the 21st Century as inspiration for their work (indeed, many as a zero point in the alternate timeline vaporwave continues to unspool), and Tanner seizes on that connection to underscore "just how commodified the ghosts of our past are." The September 11 attacks, he writes, "shocked us into a state of cultural regression," and we've "been living in that period ever since, plumbing the past for comforting sounds and songs, sounds from periphery and mundanity of daily life before the great unraveling at the start of this century." Vaporwave, then, is part traumatic expression, part coping mechanism, and part critique—a "jarring indictment of consumerist culture" that somehow simultaneously celebrates and mocks its varied source materials.

Tanner's claim to have discovered "what makes vaporwave unique as a new method of Internet-produced punk" sounds dubious, since several such movements would seem to function as critiques of late capitalism and "invite us to react emotionally to a genre of music that has subversive potential." Its loftier claims aside, however, Babbling Corpse is certainly valuable reading for fans of vaporwave (the music, the art, and the sensibility alike). It's accessible enough for readers without a background in critical theory—a consequence, perhaps, of Tanner's tendency to linger agonizingly on recapitulations of other critics' arguments at the expense of advancing his own—but also rewarding for anyone who's wondered what would happen if Zizek, Jameson, and Derrida started listening to Macintosh Plus, Midnight Television, or g h o s t i n g. And ultimately, the book serves as fruitful fodder for a cultural imaginary in desperate need of new directions and possibilities. "For now, we live in the mall," Tanner morosely concludes, "but I think it's closing soon."

Cultural studies in the present tense

Fewer figures have been as prolific and influential in the intellectual project of American cultural studies than my doctoral advisor Lawrence Grossberg. And I've been fortunate enough not only to learn from him but also to work and write alongside him for several years—a brief blip in his decades-spanning career (one that cuts across several generations of similarly fortunate students), but one I will forever treasure.

So I was beyond delighted when incoming editor of the journal Cultural Studies, Ted Striphas, asked me to submit a small tribute to Larry for a collection of pieces dedicated to his work. I chose to write about cultural studies' relationship to "the present":

Cultural studies professed "radical contextualism" imbues the project with a particular orientation toward "the present," a consideration of "the current moment" as a configuration of forces shaping possibilities for politically engaged practice and affording concrete potentials for telling better stories. This essay elaborates these claims by way of tribute to Lawrence Grossberg. It is neither retrospective nor prospective. Instead—and in a manner more befitting a figure who continues to champion the political-intellectual practice of cultural studies here and now, in the present—this essay reflects on the author's experiences learning with and from Grossberg in order to explore the the temporality of the cultural studies project.

The section—featuring work from some of my favorite classmates, mentors, and academic fellow-travelers—contains (in running order):

At the moment, all the pieces are accessible without login credentials or an institutional subscription to the journal. As Taylor & Francis' largess is never guaranteed, and its extent or duration never predictable, I recommend downloading all the pieces as soon as possible.

This is shaping up to be the The Year of Grossberg, as the Cultural Studies Association has announced a workshop on Larry's intellectual legacy (spearheaded by even more of my favorite people) at its 2019 conference in New Orleans. I can think of no better spirit to carry us through the next twelve months.

A plain text penchant

Scott Nesbitt, proprietor of the excellent and indispensable Plain Text Project, has published an interview with me. We discuss my writing and editing habits, my tool preferences, and my plain-by-default workflow.

I'm aware of no other place on the web that would grant me such room to explain my plain-text writing penchant in crushing detail. But I'm sure glad it exists. And I'm glad Scott's running it.

On a related note: I suppose I should document here my current plain-text writing setup (since it's changed since the interview and will inevitably change again).

I recently rehabilitated my beloved ThinkPad X220 and have installed Fedora 29 Workstation on it. It's now my dedicated writing machine, and to that end I've customized it with the following software:

  • i3 (for window management)
  • nano (for general text editing)
  • ghostwriter (for markdown text editing)
  • wordgrinder (for all-purpose writing)
  • aiksaurus (for lightweight reference)
  • proselint (for editing help and inspiration)
  • w3m (for reading remote files with minimal interruption)

No environment is "distraction-free" (have you seen my desk?), but this gets me as close as I could hope to be.

Some open truisms

At Duke University this fall, I taught a course I named "Foundations of an Open Source World." That title is something of a misnomer given the themes I tried to stress during every class meeting. "Open" is a complex phenomenon—something with symbolic and material dimensions that have real effects on the way people live their lives—but even more important is the understanding that "open" is always shifting, fraught with tensions and contradictions that keep reshaping it. "Open," in other words, is always on the move, with no fixed or immutable essence, nothing "eternal" about it (though advocates of "correct" or "true" openness always attempt such "fixings" and short-term stabalizations for tactical purposes).

How, then, can we begin thinking through the foundations of this thing that's never fixed or settled?

My closing-day lecture attempted to answer this question with four "open truisms," which I'll reproduce here as fodder for future writing.

1. "Open" is more than a software development methodology.

This observation is by now rather trite, but it bears repeating (else whatever may follow becomes moot). Despite what particular adherents tend to stress, "open" pertains to much more than a single domain or pursuit. It's an ethos, an ethic—a collection of values and principles.

Certainly, at a particular moment in time (a particular point in history I outlined during our first two weeks of the course), software development crystallized this ethos in a specific and important way. But nearly all the guiding themes and ideas that occupied our attention throughout the term did not originate with software development, and they continue beyond it, out into wider social formations. Intersection and articulation with software development practices propelled and pushed them in new directions or new ways, to be sure, but open "spills over" into additional domains, and anyone simply attending to software development isn't getting the full story about how or why this is the case.

2. "Open" does not mean "formless" or "boundless."

"Becoming open" or "opening up" or "going open"—choose your verb form here—is not simply a matter of removing barriers and constraints, of obliterating rules. "Open" isn't formless chaos; it requires myriad rules and protocols—its own architectures, without which it just wouldn't exist (at least, not in the way it otherwise does). "Open," this is to say, requires persistent, ongoing work—the work of installing or instantiating it, the work policing it and maintaining it, the work of translating it into new contexts. In this sense, it's much less an end state than we like to pretend.

All that work is so very critical because it is through the work of "doing open" that open continues to exist. Without that work, without those practices and activities, it just wouldn't be a thing. "Open" is precisely a specific set of connections between people, ideas, and material artifacts. (Those connections are always changing, which is why "open"—the product of those very connections and nothing more—is always changing.)

3. "Open" is not a social, cultural, political, or economic panacea.

"Add open and stir" approaches to explaining "open's" supposed utility remain popular. They hinge on the notion that "open" is a universal answer to any problem we present to it. "Open" is indeed a way (a style, a manner) of responding to circumstances (like I said in my explanation of the first open truism, it's a spirit, a set of values that in-forms actions). But just as the identity or definition of "open" is never guaranteed, so too does "open" itself never guarantee anything.

Making something "open" doesn't immediately or automatically make it more equitable, more effective, more innovative. "Open" can be an answer to a problem, but it's also often it's own problem.

4. "Open" is never disinterested and always contested.

"Open" always operates in someone's interest. Just as important as the question "Is it open?" is the question "For whom is it open?" or "Open for what?"

Calling "open" a-political is a mistake. It's transpolitical. People see in it what they want (need) to see in it; they glimpse in it answers to all kinds of problems (hence the universalizing tendency that motivates the third open truism). Various actors with competing agendas will frequently take divergent approaches to tackling a problem—and each claim they're taking the "open approach" to doing so. Those divergences and disparities and what make "open" so interesting. It's always a site of struggle, an opening onto some kind of contentious field, not really a final answer or response.

So anyone interested in "open" should always be asking: What's the goal or point of being "open" in this particular instance (because, as we've already seen, "open" is not an end in itself)? In what ways and toward what ends do "open" and "openness" get picked up, deployed, utilized by various actors (individuals and institutions) with seemingly incommensurable agendas and intentions?

Every such deployment is a mechanism of power, each an attempt to influence what's possible. And each is constantly working in the interest of some and not others. Think of compulsory openness—demands for transparency mandated asymmetrically, demands for additional (frequently uncompensated) labor in the name of something like "community" or "meritocracy." Then ask again: "Open for whom?"

Perhaps those four truisms are more like four provocations. But they help me, at least, frame a method for thinking about "open" in context—a way of remaining open, as it were, to additional possibilities.

What is the open web?

The Open Education Consortium has declared this "The Year of Open" (sounds like a good theme for any year!). To celebrate, they're publishing long answers to straightforward questions on complex topics. I've contributed my own response to "What is the Open Web?" and it's now available:

The "open Web" is the idea that the World Wide Web should remain accessible to as many people as possible. It has both technical and cultural dimensions.

Technically speaking, the open Web is a series of technological standards and protocols that govern certain modes of interaction between humans and computers. We might think of "protocols" as sets of rules that define what's acceptable and expected (indeed, what's possible) when two or more of these agents attempt to interact.

Culturally speaking, the open Web is something more akin to a spirit or ethos—a belief that adhering to standards is not only welcome or desirable but fundamental to the continued operation and utility of the World Wide Web itself. It's a set of principles and practices that its advocates advance as the "right way" to organize, maintain, control, and grow the World Wide Web. This facet of the "open Web" concept usually manifests in discussions about Web etiquette and "best practices."

On Mother

My recent description of the Mother video game franchise represents my most significant attempt (to date) at describing precisely why I love the games so much. That shot at articulating the ineffable appears in the recently released 100 Greatest Video Game Franchises book from Rowan & Littlefield:

At a time when players and critics alike tend to laud video games for some ability to help players transcend or project or escape, Mother reminds us that we are always right here, entirely aware of our complex relationship to its quips and quirks, nowhere other than in the midst of the emotional miasma it spins. While seemingly similar games celebrate the spirit of the journey, the joy of striking out, the thrill of leaving behind, Mother recalls the importance of coming home.

The book looks wonderful, and it's available now (along with its sister volume).

Mapping meritocracies

Of all the concepts that cluster loosely around this thing we call "openness," "meritocracy" has for me emerged as one of the most interesting.

Theoretically speaking, meritocracy gestures toward a rich constellation of ideas and tensions that are not necessarily unique to open source communities, but that open source communities are uniquely suited to help us explore. And practically speaking, meritocracy underwrites a considerable number of the more compelling technical and programmatic innovations occurring in forward-thinking organizations today. Those innovations—the shape they ultimately take—promise to teach us something critical about evolving strategies and tactics of governance, broadly defined, in multiple organizational contexts.

Today, Opensource.com published new writing on meritocracy from Brook Manville, Forbes contributor, consultant, friend, and author of the book A Company of Citizens. Having spoken to quite a few self-proclaimed practitioners of meritocracy, Brook came to the conclusion that (surprise!) no one can agree on what meritocracy actually is:

It all seems simple and logical enough: open up competition, let the best prevail and reap the benefits of getting great results. But putting meritocracy into practice is not as easy as it looks. [...] My interviews didn't attempt to do a full practice analysis across all examples, but I got a glimpse of a range of implementation challenges, and more than a little variety of how different companies simply understand the concept.

Rather than bemoan that state of affairs, however, Brook celebrates it; he latches onto the term's polysemy as an opportunity to prise open new directions and strategies for thinking about the political purchase of organizational systems predicated on something called "merit." The result is a truly compelling little treatise that proposes a model for pursuing a systematic study of meritocratic systems—not for the purpose of arriving at some unified definition, but more so in order to begin the work of actually mapping meritocracies, understanding their contours and dynamics, and describing their many variations so we get get a better sense of what they atually do.

"Meritocracy" betokens an incredibly dense problem-space that anyone interested in "open-style"organizations simply cannot sidestep. In fact, many "core" issues related to open organizational theory and practice—new relationships between leaders and the led, new models of authority, new questions about motivation and participation, dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, and more—crisscross it. At its heart, any discussion of meritocracy is a discussion of organizational governance and therefore a discussion of power relations.

I tried to express some of this in a response to Brook's piece, which Opensource.com also published today. For now, I'll shelve the question of whether that essay has any merit.

A year of robustness

I'm beginning to think my New Year's resolution is simply going to be some reformulation or specification of the robustness principle, Postel's Law, which in its original formulation, instructs us to:

Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

Seriously exhausted by an incredibly acrimonious election season, I'd hesitated to even consider anything buzzing with the kind of static electricity attached to words like "liberal" and "conservative." But I believe I think this gives me a nice way of articulating the general sense that I need to be more interoperable than ever this year.

Ported out of its original context, the principle might afford the following guideposts for 2017:

  • Act consistently, but be open to variance
  • Aim for simplicity, but be comfortable with complexity
  • Accept more, but demand less

Here's to a robust year.

From Durgapur with love

[Entry begins here]

Next week I'll speak at the DGPLUG's open source summer training on an invitation from buddy Kushal Das, the program's intrepid coordinator for years. I'm both thrilled and humbled to be part of an event with such a rich and storied history, but realized this weekend I've never actually done anything quite like this.

DGPLUG conducts its entire summer training program online, live, principally via IRC (the protocol's relatively low bandwidth requirements make it the preferred choice for attendees from remote locations in India and around the world). Attendees gather in #dgplug on freenode to hear speakers that appear solely as series of cascading text snippets, and employ a highly sophisticated, bot-driven Q&A mechanism for keeping interactions orderly and intelligible in a medium otherwise known for its, um, occasional pandemonium.

So this weekend I undertook a writing exercise rather new to me: Composing bite-sizes missives I can chain together in a copy/paste downpour—a neo-telegraphic script outlining Opensource.com, The Open Organization, and the open source way. (Basically, I just observed what the lovely and talented Trishna Guha did, and tried to copy that—not an easy act to follow, folks.)

I'll paste the notes below.

Hi everybody! I'm Bryan Behrenshausen (aka semioticrobotic), and I'm so thankful to kushal for letting me speak with you today.

I just finished my PhD in Communication, and now I live in Raleigh, North Carolina in the U.S., where I work for Red Hat on Opensource.com.

I've been a been a writer and editor at Opensource.com for the past six years. You can read more about what I do right here: (www.semioticrobotic.net)

Opensource.com is a place where people tell stories about the ways open source values can spark positive change everywhere—not just in the domain of computing.

In other words, we believe "open" is something much broader than a methodology for developing the best software!

We actually like to talk more about the "open source way" (www.opensource.com/open-source-way) in order to stress that openness is a set of values and beliefs—something deeply cultural.

We believe that embracing certain values (like open exchange, community, sharing, and transparency) can help us change the world for the better.

So at Opensource.com we help people share their stories about the ways that living and working the open source way can make a difference in various areas of our lives, like government, education, business, and more.

We want it to be a place where people can share ideas about openness, share opinions on various ways to live and think openly, exchange tips for using open tools—and generally chat about anything related to the open source way.

At Opensource.com, I help support the community of our members who like talking about the ways that open values are changing organizational cultures: (www.opensource.com/open-organization)

Open source thinking is starting to alter the future of work, management, and leadership, and we're trying to track exactly how that's happening.

This particular community formed around a recent book by Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, called The Open Organization: (www.theopenorganizationbook.com/)

The book is really about all the management and leadership lessons Jim has learned since he became CEO of Red Hat.

He discovered that the way open source communities organize to make software can actually function as a model for running a business.

So every day, I collaborate with people who are writing and thinking and openness, edit their work, help them brainstorm ideas, put them in touch with other people in our networks, and more.

I also help host our #OpenOrgChat Twitter chats, run live webcasts, publish companion materials related to The Open Organization—lots of things, really! (www.opensource.com/open-organization/resources)

I'm happy to take your questions about Opensource.com, The Open Organization, the open source way—or anything else you'd like to ask! I'm sure I won't have all the answers, but I would love to explore ideas with you.

Who's first?

Update (2016-08-29): The session was full of such wonderful questions, and the transcript is now available.

Nineteen years of cathedrals and bazaars

Today Opensource.com published my reflection on The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which I wrote in honor of the document's 19th anniversary:

Whether Raymond's insights hold true—whether they "accurately" describe the contemporary political, social, and economic conditions for open source anything—are inconsequential in light of the way The Cathedral and the Bazaar actually functions today. Quite simply, what the book says is not nearly as important as what it does.

Cory Doctorow on bananas

[Entry begins here]

This week, I published an interview with Cory Doctorow as part of Opensource.com's ongoing coverage of the 14th annual Southern California Linux Expo, where Cory delivered a keynote. It's easily one of my favorite assignments from the past five years.

Cory is an extraordinarily busy person, but he graciously agreed to chat with me via telephone for 30 minutes. Realizing my constraints, I knew I needed to limit my questions to only the most pressing inquires. The most imperative matters. The indispensable material.

So I asked him about bananas.

And as I suspected, that bit of our conversation never found its way into the final piece. But I'm reproducing a transcript of it below for anyone as amused (albeit confused) as I was.

BB: One more question. And this probably won't get included in the article or the interview. It's just for my own personal curiosity, if you'll indulge me.

CD: Sure.

BB: I'm a regular Boing Boing reader, and I frequently see you post pictures of bananas with the caption "Just look at it."

CD: Yeah.

BB: What is that from? And why. I don't get the joke, and I would love to understand the joke.

CD: Uh, that's the joke.

BB: Okay. It's not a reference to something? It's not a line from something?

CD: No. One day, I looked at this thing that was like a lunchbox for your banana. It was like a plastic, form-fitting banana protector. [Ed—I think Cory's referencing the "banana bunker."] And first of all, it looked super porny. And second of all, it was just like "Oh my God. If you can think it, someone is injection molding it." It's like Rule 35. And so I showed it to my wife and I said, "Just look at this banana protector. Just look at it!" And then, yeah—

BB: —and thus it was born.

CD: And thus it was born. And of course, if that has a greater significance, it's that anything that you look at in detail, you find fractal details for in the age of the Internet. So once I started looking for weird, interesting things about bananas, I was finding many, many interesting things about bananas. Because everything interesting about everything is on the Internet somewhere. And so you get a lot of it. My favorite one, I think, of all time, is that there's an EU regulation specifying the characteristics of lawful banana curvature. And if there's one thing you're going to look at about bananas today, that's the thing you should look at.

BB: I will be Googling that presently.

CD: Yeah.

BB: Well, in all honestly, I think you're a pretty big part of that fractal now, because I did Google "banana, quote, just look at it, end quote," and I think you and Boing Boing are most of the top hits.

CD: Yeah. I think we own that one.

BB: Yep, yep. So that's your next monetization option if, you know, you ever want to leverage that.

CD: Yeah. Some day we'll link farm that tag, and use it for SEO.

So that's what happened that time I interviewed Cory Doctorow. Just look at it.

Meaning in the age of social media

The Communication Review recently published my review of Ganaele Langlois' Meaning in the Age of Social Media. The book really is one of the most sustained and provocative attempts at demonstrating the utility of Guattari's materialist semiotics for the study of computational media. I recommend it.

A likelihood better than chance

"Information is the currency of life," Christoph Adami recently told Quanta. "One definition of information is the ability to make predictions with a likelihood better than chance."

I've never heard anyone define information in quite that way before—as an "ability" or capacity. It's pithy and catchy as far as it goes, yet I'm not so sure I'd use it to characterize Claude Shannon's position on information (something Adami has done elsewhere).

Adami's "is" complicates the definition, for if information "is" (that is, "equals") an ability to make predictions, some readers might tend to localize this ability, to make it a matter of a singular actor's activity. (Of course, one must then ask: What does it mean "to information"?) And doing this would seriously misconstrue the nature of the problem the concept of information attempts to solve.

Rather, we might say information concerns choice; it simply isn't synonymous with some intentional or rationalistic activity (recall that Shannon's "choice" was a cryptographic term that referred to a certain degree of variability; he typically put the word in scare quotes when writing about it). "Information" names the relative degree of certainty a field affords. That doesn't necessarily roll off the tongue as easily as Adami's little ditty, but it does gesture more squarely to what I think is the most appropriate locus of information's problem-space: the milieu, the more-or-less arranged melange of symbols and/or materials that permit certain degrees of (un)certainty.

Yet for Adami information is "the currency of life"—some kind of possession or medium. The Quanta interview is a fascinating example of the ways "information" takes on various dimensions, referents, and capacities. For example, information performs a symbolic function ("Life is information stored in a symbolic language [...] Our DNA is an encyclopedia about the world we live in and how to survive in it"). It maintains its ethereality ("Information is substrate-independent") while demanding specificity ("A sequence is information in context").

Information inhabits the tension between immateriality and embeddedness in extraordinarily productive ways. It's "substrate-independent" to the extent that it pertains to something "outside" a body's material dimensions, but is irreducibly contextual insofar as it names something about particular material relations. By insisting that information remain contextual, Adami indicates something about its referentiality; information is always about something, and is therefore never entirely divorced from anything. (Roman Jakobson says this is true of any communicative phenomenon, by the way.)

Put another way: If "information" names a fact of repeatability or unrepeatability—if it signals some differentiation between certainty and uncertainty—then it indicates something about an organization of material relations that are always already context-specific. Asking the question of information would be impossible otherwise.

Fanatic life and symbolic death

Today marks the 43rd anniversary of Stewart Brand's "Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums," a piece that first appeared in Rolling Stone issue 123.

It's a delightful missive from an accelerating Information Age, both a simple a dispatch from the bowels of the computer lab and an elaborate pean to the hacker ethic. In typical breathless style, Brand reports on what's happening at campuses around the country:

"Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers' valuable computer time. Something basic is going on."

Brand's is one of my favorite expressions of a burgeoning fascination with both information and information technologies in late 20th century American popular culture. And his prose evokes one ethos of that era, too, in a familiar articulation of the values associated with information: unparalleled speed, the absence of friction, plentitude and abundance, unprecedented connection and, of course, disembodiment.

But the gamers "leaving their bodies behind" really refuse to go anywhere. Because despite the wistful descriptions, we can't help but read about throbbing fingers and drying eyes. Those bodies haunt Brand's "matrix" (yes, he uses the term), as does the litany of computer scientists and information theorists Brand invokes in the article's opening paragraphs. "Ready or not," he writes, "computers are coming to the people":

"That's good news, maybe the best since psychedelics. It's way off the track of the 'Computers - Threat or menace?['] school of liberal criticism but surprisingly in line with the romantic fantasies of the forefathers of the science such as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, J.C.R. Licklider, John von Neumann and Vannevar Bush."

For these thinkers, "information" wasn't really an immaterial phenomenon; it always implicated bodies, texts, discourses, affects, and material technologies, pulling them together in complex constellations with precise effects. Brand may have been the most romantic among them.