Browsing the blog archives for February, 2009.


One True Random Thing

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me in a tutu, c. 1972, originally uploaded by Julian.

And now, finally, lest it be said that I am too caught up in wisecrack and critique to respond to the essentially open-hearted social gesture that is a Facebook 25 Random Things About Me tagging, I give you this one true thing and the photographic evidence that confirms it:

1. I wore a tutu to school one day when I was in the third grade.

Which besides being true has the additional virtue of being truly random, as I cannot for the life of me remember why I did this or think how to fit this moment into the narrative of my life. Judging from the other boys’ attire, it wasn’t any kind of dress-up day, nor did I make a habit of cr0ss-dressing or grow up anything but straight.

On the other hand, that’s not to say that my “progressive” Southern California public elementary school wasn’t the sort of place that might encourage this sort of thing. My third-grade teacher, in particular, a wonderful woman named Billie Vincent, pretty much let us each design our own curriculums, and I’d always assumed there was some high-flying educational theory behind that, which I suppose there was. But I’m guessing now that one of the most valuable things I took away from that third-grade year was a taste for randomness.

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Random Things, Revisited

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I was kind of hoping last week’s 25 Random Things About Me spoof would be my last expenditure of mental energy on that life-sucking Facebook phenomenon. But then along came Slate with their epidemiological analysis of the 25 Random Things outbreak and I, being the sucker for semi-rigorous sub-Gladwellian pop-social-science-of-the-everyday that I am, found myself obliged to contemplate the damn thing some more. In particular, I was reminded that it’s de rigueur nowadays to think of things like 25 Random Things not as glorified fads and chain letters but as memes, with all the bioscientific conceptual baggage that entails. Whence I was led, in turn, to realize that my substitution of 25 random pop-song lyrics for 25 actual self-revelations was not, in fact, a passive-aggressive attempt to play nice with my tag-happy Facebook friends while at the same time still sort of being a smart-assed dick about it but, rather, an act of memetic engineering — an antiviral intervention aimed at slowing the original meme’s contagion by splicing in junk DNA.

Alas, the delusion was short-lived. What I’d found most interesting about Slate’s analysis was its tracking of the meme’s mutation through various numerical configurations — from 16 Random Things to 15, 17, 35, 100, and finally 25, at which point the meme, presumably having reached its evolutionarily optimal size, went viral. But as I watched my own re-engineered virus drift from host to host, I realized how little that particular variable really explained about the meme’s trajectory. My variant was a list of 25 things, too, but it was immediately obvious it would never spread fast enough to crowd out the original meme. In a way, of course, the problem remains one of simple math: While just about everybody has 25 little personal facts that maybe 25 personal acquaintances will have sufficient personal interest in to click through to and read, there are only so many Random-Things-ready pop-song lyrics to go around. More to the point, though: The key variables here aren’t essentially quantitative or even, strictly speaking, objective, but woven into the web of relationships and meanings that constitutes the life of cultures. And that’s not something you’re ultimately going to make sense of with tools built for understanding the origin of species.

In saying so I am echoing much of what the media scholar Henry Jenkins had to say on his own blog last week, in a long and lucid post that blasted “the idea of the meme and the media virus, of self-replicating ideas hidden in attractive, catchy content we are helpless to resist” as “a problematic way to understand cultural practices,” proposing instead to found the study of memes on the distinctly non-genetic principle that “that these materials travel through the web because they are meaningful to the people who spread them.”  I’m not sure I’ll be heeding Jenkins’s call to replace the term “viral media” with “spreadable media” (I’ll take something that sounds less like it goes on a bagel, thanks), but I’m otherwise down with the program. And whatever life-sucking Web phenomenon next enters my Facebook feed or my Twitter stream or my email inbox, I will try not to let my inevitable ambivalence about it tempt me to believe it’s anything but the most human sort of artifact there is: A token of our need to fashion meaning from a world of random things.

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25 Random Things About Me

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  1. I shot a man in Reno.
  2. I’m too sexy for Milan.
  3. I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose.
  4. I am everyday people.
  5. I’m every woman.
  6. I’m the tax man.
  7. I am the walrus.
  8. I want to know what love is.
  9. I want to run naked in a rainstorm.
  10. I’d like to teach the world to sing.
  11. My hips don’t lie.
  12. I remember when rock was young.
  13. I’m special. So special.
  14. I can’t go for that.
  15. There is always something there to remind me.
  16. I’ve been alive forever, and I wrote the very first song.
  17. I’m Rob Base, and I came to get down.
  18. Regrets? I’ve had a few.
  19. I believe the children are our future.
  20. I believe I can fly.
  21. I know what boys like.
  22. I’ve been working in a coal mine.
  23. I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.
  24. I’m on the top of the world, looking down on creation.
  25. I am a lineman for the county.
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Mind in the Cloud

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New Scientist the other week reviewed a book called Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark. I want it.

Not that I have the time or even, frankly, the money to spend on $30, 320-page slabs of hardcore cognitive philosophy. I just think it would be nice to have on my shelves a book that legitimizes once and for all my natural inclination to think of search engines, wikis, blogs, and other online repositories of knowledge as literal extensions of the human minds that engage with and create them. I admit I’m a little embarrassed by this inclination. Bolder supporters of the notion that mind is bigger than brain — that it’s “immanent,” as Gregory Bateson wrote, “not only in the body… [but] also in pathways and messages outside the body” — always seem to end up teetering on the brink of New Age pantheistic cheese (“there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem,” added Bateson) if not falling straight in. And while I’m also aware that the perfectly respectable fields of social and cultural psychology seem to make regular use of theories of distributed cognition without going up in a metaphysical haze, I can’t help guessing their claims are a little more provisional than the cyborg fantasies that haunt my thinking about the online data-cloud.

Clark’s claims, however, appear to be both strong and grounded, if this choice quote selected by reviewer Owen Flanagan is anything to go by:

To unravel the workings of these embodied, embedded, sometimes extended minds, requires an unusual mix of neuroscience, computational, dynamical, and informational-theoretic understandings, ‘brute’ physiology, ecological sensitivity, and attention to the stacked designer cocoons in which we grow, work, think, and act.

There is, on the one hand, nothing airily rhetorical about the research project here proposed nor, on the other, any sense that Clark shies away from insisting his “extended” cognition is indeed just what we talk about when we talk about mind. Flanagan doesn’t say whether Clark makes the obvious metaphorical leap from “cocoons” to the Web, but he says enough to make it clear that for mainstream cognitive philosophy these days, the leap is hardly out of bounds — or even merely metaphorical. Hell, even Sergey Brin’s famous claim that Google, perfected, would be “like the mind of God” seems wimpy in comparison. In Clark’s formulation, it appears, Google already is the mind of humanity — a part of that mind, at least, and in a manner that is no less complicated than humanity itself, but without the need to wait for perfection or rely on simile. And that is more than enough to satisfy my cyborg fantasies.

I want this book.

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