Episode 34: Ambient Connectivity
Patrick Feaster takes archaic graphical representations of sound, like 1850s phonautograms, and uses digital technologies to transcribe them to audio, sometimes for the first time. The results are often weirdly haunting, ghosts of hyperreal sounds that never existed. The album is on Bandcamp, and there’s a delightful introductory video on youtube. As a bonus for long time fans of this station, one of the recordings is of a theoretical piece done by Athanasius Kircher.
Announcement and Brief Procedural Note
First: This coming Tuesday, November 05, I am one of six weirdos giving a talk at Odd Salon at Public Works in San Francisco. The theme is "Hero", and I'm doing the history of the Antihero in comics in 10 minutes. If you are in the area, you should definitely come by. Regardless of the Me Factor, if you’re the sort of person who enjoys what I do here, you’ll probably enjoy Odd Salon in general. Our unofficial tag line is “Learn you something weird.” If I don’t know you already and you come by because of this, please come say hi, but not until intermission or post-event, because I am also the sound engineer and AV tech so will be only minimally intellectually present.
Second, more general question: I’m considering moving this newsletter to either Substack or Buttondown. Substack is where an increasing number of my colleagues are, because it allows one to have a paid and an unpaid newsletter. I don’t think I produce enough here to justify a second thing people pay for, but it’s something to keep in mind for the future. Buttondown I like because its whole thing is speaking native markdown, and the worst part of doing this in tinyletter is the time I’m about to take translating from markdown to the non-standard wysywig of tinyletter’s interface, and that is in all seriousness the main reason I want to stop using it.
Assuming I can do this without requiring any action on the part of you, the reader, any opinions? Suggestions? Thoughts?
Hello from the Fire Season in California, where we’re breathing atomized redwoods and our local power monopoly is randomly turning off sections of the grid because they spent all of their repair money on paying off shareholders, and if the Föhn wind coming down from the Berkeley hills picks up their busted-ass infrastructure is going start even more fires.
I’m interested to see how the terminology shifts as the former First World looks more like the former Third World.
I’m writing this on the tiny keyboard on my phone with the assumption that I’ll clean it up later. Partly as an experiment to see just how fast I can go with this and how much it’ll break. A second form of touch typing, I would not have expected when I first sat down at a typewriter (yes) that that would be a thing that would happen.
I wonder about the ways out muscle memories, both literal and metaphorical, flow to fit around tools. The fingers learn from Mavis and Typing Tutor, the pinkies only really get involved with emacs, the thumbs learn from Messenger and Facebook and Twitter. As does the mind.
The mind adapts to the information sources and outputs that becomes normalized dir it. You become used to the ambient availability of sound bytes and outrage and occasional useful information that comes from having twitter just… around. There’s that serotonin hit every time some new datum pops up, the subsequent disappointment that it’s just about another stupid thing the supposed ruling class did, and the scroll to try to find 280 characters that mean something.
But you know this. Other people have said this, like, a lot. What I’m thinking about more is the absences that occur when you take away those stimuli.
I have recently been on Twitter a lot less. It’s nothing intentional, no dramatic detox moment, not a holier-than-thou demonstration. I just got uninterested. I use tweetdeck and it allows me to view twitter lists as columns. So all I see by default are curated lists of either a professional nature (other writers, mostly), or people I’ve filtered because I want to see what they say as soon as possible (friends and especially information rich strangers). Every once in a while I look in to see how folks are doing, but honestly, aside from the personal connections… it’s fucking boring.
(Note that I am talking about twitter, not Facebook. I quit Facebook years ago over their “real name” policy that put queer people at danger and I have never looked back, and now that Facebook is actively destroying both democracy and critical thought I do in fact feel smugly superior about that one. I’m sure most that I say about Twitter applies to varying degrees there as well. )
So I close the tab or the app and work on something for a while. And I go back to find that serotonin hit and… eh. Much of it is the outrage cycle, spoiler alert it turns out that terrible people doing terrible things will tend to keep doing them. But also I feel like there’s a scaling thing. There’s no depth of attention possible on Twitter, and I crave that. Every time I want to open Twitter, I realize what I want more is to open a book. Or my RSS reader.
I had a thing here which was an RSS Primer, but I cut it out and stuck in on the Blog because it became too much of a sidebar for this topic. The short form: RSS is a protocol that lets you have websites send updates to you. I have mine set up to grab updates from websites and some newsletters and some other things and put them in a nice package for me to read as I want. I get Damien being justifiably grumpy about ethics in AGI research (a newsletter) and Peter Watts being grumpy about Intelligence in general (a web page) in the same place, as a continuum, without having to pick through emails from work or a Twitter tab or anything else that demands my attention. I get to turn my attention where I want it, and still get new information.
(Late edit at press time: I’ve just come across some more examples of other folks arguing in favor of RSS. Warren made a list of some of his feeds. Snakes and Ladders made a post which mentioned it in passing, linking to a much more informative post by Alan Jacobs from 2018 which, in addition to having a lot of good links to other people talking usefully about RSS, includes the important idea that RSS is one of the last holdouts of an information feed that is not algorithmically steered for maximum outrage and monetization. Enjoy your rabbit hole.)
And I’ve noticed a shift in my psyche, and this is what I was talking about up top with the mind adapting to the tools. There are clear benefits, I feel like I’m eating informational meals instead of junk food, I feel calmer and more focused, all the things you would expect. But the one thing I miss is the sense of ambient connectivity. Twitter is like being in a room with a bunch of people all talking at once, and some of them are entities you care about, and even if what they’re saying is “look at my cat lol”, you can click the “Acknowledging Grunt” button and it’s like you’re saying “that’s cool, it’s not what I want to talk about right now, but hey, I’m still here with you.” It’s a form of community, honestly. We are social mammals, and part of that serotonin hit is just “yo, I’m a person distinct from you and I recognize you as a fellow person even if what you’re talking about is dumb and/or boring.”
RSS is unidirectional. The other day I got a post from M. John Harrison. Mike is one of my favorite writers, and we have the sort of relationship, based almost entirely on interactions via Twitter, wherein I will refer to him as Mike but with a slight discomfort that he might prefer I use Mr. Harrison but it hasn’t come up in conversation. I read what he wrote and thought, “Yes! That exactly! I have some relevant experience I would like to share!” And then realized I was reading on an interface that, by design, does not have a reply button. I went over to Twitter and sent him an @ that began “in re: your recent post”, and it felt awkward and he didn’t respond and I can’t blame him.
But this imposes a certain slowness, and potentially more depth, in response. I could have emailed him. That would have implied a certain amount of dedication on my part, a higher barrier to entry. And the choice of whether to respond would, of course, be a higher barrier of entry for him, so I would have to set my expectations accordingly. It would be like the old days of writing fan mails to authors. Maybe he’d not write me back at all, because he is a busy man, and I would have to respect that. Maybe I’d learn if he minds that I call him Mike, because an email has a different set of social cues around it than Send Tweet.
There is a large conversation going on, right now, about the nature of the way we communicate online, about silos and walled gardens and What Nazis Again I Thought We Sprayed For Those and federated platforms &c &c. One of the reasons I started looking at RSS again was this not-quite-manifesto from micro.blog, which seems to make the argument, obvious if you think about it for more than a few seconds, that the internet is already the social network. Or, speaking as someone who has been recently reading Latour (who btw has a new book out about climate change), I would say the network is inherently social. In other words, we had a perfectly good set of tools for communicating with one another in ways that are driven by individual desire, before capitalists started scraping a profit margin off of our eyeballs.
Depth and immediacy are, as of now, a trade-off. I think that it’s important that we think about this in terms of what we want, and what we are sacrificing, and make the choices that are healthiest for us as individuals. And if that means I don’t get to see Lol My Cats from authors I admire, then it just means I, and they, will need to renegotiate what types of engagement we want.
All of this makes me realize that maybe I need to be producing some RSS beyond this aperiodic ramble. Maybe I’ll do that.
Edit: I did.
As always, feedback or notes are welcome. If we’re going to start making the network social again, we’re going to have to get used to saying hi via email again. I’m not famous, you can even call me Mike if you want. Go ahead, you got something to say, hit reply.
You just read issue #37 of Fractal Interpolation. You can also browse the full archives of this newsletter.