“The Wheel of the Devil”: On Vine, GIFs and the Power of the Loop
When Vine launched last week, a new format for looped media was born. While visual loops have been in existence for centuries, they have arguably enjoyed special attention over the last hundred years. In this essay I want to consider the purpose and power of the loop. I also intend to propose that the reign of the loop is greatly empowered by digital media, and that today loops have enriched culture while offering new perspectives on the nature of reality.
It is William George Horner, a 19th Century British mathematician, whom we may credit with the invention of the modern zoetrope. Horner described the mechanism inan article for the journal Philosophical Magazine in 1834. When spun by hand at a steady pace, a cylindrical tub with slits around the rim would produce a looping animation, usually of a person or animal. Horner called this device “the daedelum”, but it was known popularly as “The Wheel of the Devil.”
The thaumatrope, daedelum and later toy zoetropes of the Victorian period are in my opinion the original realisation of the idea of a visual loop. Shadow puppets, marionettes, automatons - all have long histories in both Western and Eastern culture, but the magic of the zoetrope was its perpetuity. Start the zoetrope spinning and suddenly a collection of static pictures begin an endless and mesmerizing dance. That metamorphosis of something stationary into a vivid display of repeated movement is surely what makes the otherwise crude drawings, of a clown falling over, or a horse galloping, so wonderful.
This pocket history of the visual loop is awesome. Read it.
2:55 pm • 3 February 2013 • 6 notes
More than three-quarters of the food consumed in the United States today is processed, packaged, shipped, stored, and sold under artificial refrigeration. The shiny, humming stainless steel box in your kitchen is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak—a tiny fragment of the vast global network of temperature-controlled storage and distribution warehouses cumulatively capable of hosting uncounted billions of cubic feet of chilled flesh, fish, or fruit. Add to that an equally vast and immeasurable volume of thermally controlled space in the form of shipping containers, wine cellars, floating fish factories, international seed banks, meat-aging lockers, and livestock semen storage, and it becomes clear that the evolving architecture of coldspace is as ubiquitous as it is varied, as essential as it is overlooked.
I love this essay on refrigeration by Nicola Twilley in Cabinet
(Photo: Kraft’s subterranean “cheese” cave, Springfield, Missouri. Photo Christoph Morlinghaus.)
9:31 pm • 3 January 2013 • 7 notes
The Banality of Gchat
I have been thinking about Gchat for days, but this is only because I’ve been thinking about suicide for days. Not the act of suicide or its history (No, I’m not depressed, nor am I morbidly curious about how people decide take their own lives), but a single act of desperation that took place on 2010 and led to a much-publicized criminal trial. I am talking about the suicide of Tyler Clementi.
I’ve been perusing the stacks of magazines from the past year that line my windowsill in search of selections for Mark Armstrong’s annual Longreads lists. I have an immutable love for magazines: when I moved from Washington, DC to New York in July, I packed a box full of well-thumbed issues of The Atlantic (where I had worked), The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other publications I’d gradually accrued during my time in DC. I’m not one to fetishize the analog world: my old colleague Alexis Madrigal will occasionally tease me on Twitter for my excitement to go home and assemble furniture, like my desire to escape from screens is some symptom of some conscious elevation of print media. I just prefer magazines for the way they fit with how I consume stories and ideas. My Pocket queue is often overflowing, my Twitter ‘favorites’ menu all but untouched, and my laptop, smartphone, and tablet uncomfortable in bed or on my roof. When the magazine industry finally collapses, I will rend my collected covers in mourning.
Leafing through a pile of New Yorkers, I stopped at the story of the suicide of Tyler Clementi by Ian Parker in the February 6 issue. Months later, it is still absolutely devastating. Upon discovering his roommate surreptitiously captured — and publicized — his liaisons with a man in their Rutgers dorm room, Clementi lept to his death from the George Washington Bridge. On March 16, 2012, a New York jury found Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s roommate, guilty on all 15 counts of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with evidence, witness tampering, and hindering apprehension or prosecution. Months later, Parker’s reporting is still incredibly thorough and horrifying as he documents the days and weeks leading up to Celementi’s death.
Part of the power of his report stems from, perhaps counter-intuitively, the extensive use of Instant Messanger conversations. At first glance, the presence of IM jargon in the New Yorker is like watching Lewis Lapham dance ‘Gangnam Style’: it’s hysterical but it feels totally fucking wrong. But once you move past the novelty, it’s incredible just how integral instant message, the preferred medium for office gossip, daytime flirtation, and the most banal of daily exchanges, was in the death of a young man.
Here’s a section when Ravi begins his online sleuthing into his new roommate — and shares his discoveries with a friend:
A little before midnight, Ravi began an I.M. exchange with Jason Tam, a high-school friend. Ravi had found some of Keybowvio’s posts on a Yahoo forum: something about fish tanks, Ravi told Tam, and something else “pertaining to violins.” If, with “pertaining,” Ravi was aiming for sly disdain, Tam struck a different note: “I’m calling it now. This guy is retarded.” Ravi showed Tam a link to a page on a health forum where, three years earlier, Keybowvio had asked why his asthma symptoms had suddenly worsened, noting that he had prescriptions for Advair and Singulair. Nobody had replied. There was just Keybowvio’s follow-up: “Anyone?” (“What a pussy,” Tam wrote.) Ravi and Tam also found questions about anti-virus software and contributions to a Web site of counter-revolutionary peevishness called Anythingbutipod. In these old posts, at least, Keybowvio—who was indeed Tyler Clementi—seemed worried or defensive about computing. Ravi mocked his roommate for “asking if he should boot linux everytime he surfs internet.”
Just before midnight, Ravi wrote to Tam: “FUCK MY LIFE / He’s gay.” He had found Keybowvio’s name on Justusboys, a gay-pornography site that also has discussion areas. Ravi sent Tam a link to a page that contained sex-tinged ads but was otherwise mundane. It was a conversation, from 2006, prompted by Keybowvio’s question about a problem with his computer’s hard drive. Keybowvio noted that his electronic folders were fastidiously organized; perhaps jokingly, he added, “i have ocd.”
In the next few minutes, Ravi wrote “wtf”—“what the fuck”—seven times. He posted a link to the Justusboys page on his Twitter account: “Found out my roommate is gay.”
Parker uses a latticework of instant messages to trace the developing atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that characterized the lead-up to Clementi’s suicide. It’s an interesting addition, to rely on instant messager, a medium usually associated with private distraction from something more important (like our day jobs) as a the primary mechanism for parsing the inevitable collision between Ravi and Clementi. The messages, publicly available as part of the prosecution’s case against Ravi, are casual, offhand, almost mundane, but they’re at the heart of the bias intimidation (hate crime) charges that were contentious legal point throughout the course of the trial (I found Kate Zernick’s excellent exposition of this topic to WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook especially illuminating, as I knew nothing of juridical logical surrounding hate crime legislation at the time. That American Constitutional Law seminar I took in college was, apparently, a waste of my tuition).
Ravi’s chats, compounded with the seriousness of Clementi’s suicide (not that suicide can ever be unserious), reinforce a simple idea: you are what you type. I’m reminded of this excellent n+1 essay “Cathexis” (also in my print pile) on the complexities of the online chat. Pondering the modern descendants of 17th- and 18th-century salons where “aristocratic women led male philosophes in polite and lively discussion,” the n+1 editors turn a keen eye to Internet jabber: “If talking is one thing, and conversation another, then what is chat?”
Our banalities are more shameful than any fantasy or confession. Gmail saves the histories of our chats, should we ever care to look. It turns out we use the internet to talk about what other people are talking about on the internet: “Oh god please look at what she just tweeted.” “Hang on I’ll find the link.” And then there are the tactical chats—“I guess I am not that in the mood for Thai food?”—that would be harmless enough on their own. Mixed in with the rest, and preserved for all eternity, they assemble further evidence of our gross mortal wastefulness. Time is misspent twice: we talk about life as thoughtlessly as we live it. And the server farms know this.
In contrast to chat rooms, where we talked to many people in public, in Gchat we talk to many people in private and simultaneously. (We could gather our friends together—Group Chat has been around since 2007—but mostly we don’t.) “As long as one is in society,” said 18th-century salon hostess Suzanne Necker, “one must occupy oneself with others, never keeping silent out of laziness or from distraction.” But distraction is endemic to daytime Gchatting, especially at work. The medium creates the illusion of intimacy—of giving and receiving undivided attention—when in fact our attention is quite literally divided, apportioned among up to six small boxes at a time. The boxes contain staccato, telegraphic exchanges, with which we are partially and intermittently engaged. Together the many chats divert us from work, speeding up time—yet look closely and you see time break down and stop. The clusters of text are followed by time-stamps, which Google inserts whenever the conversation lags. For David Hume, increased conversation between men and women corresponded to “an increase of humanity, from the very habit of conversing together.” But Hume didn’t know about Gchat, which offers us so many opportunities for conversation that conversation becomes impossible. We are distracted from chatting by chatting itself.
“Our banalities are more shameful than any fantasy or confession.” That’s the defining feature of Instant Message: most of the time, it’s uproariously mundane.
This mundanity actually seems to separate Gchat from the more pithy exchanges of public social networks. Now, I’ve never subscribed to the idea of “digital dualism”: that the digital world is “virtual” or inauthentic and the physical world “real” and therefore inherently more meaningful than the world of, say, status updates and funny links to cat pictures (or, by extension, one form of digital living is more or less authentic than the next). All social interaction is a farce at some level, really: in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman compared social life to the theater, arguing that the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would wear in front of a specific audience. On the Internet, we function on many different stages, with a wardrobe bursting with meticulously crafted costumes. Those costumes are still parts of who we are (you picked the materials, sewed the patterns, and the like), just often deployed to achieve a certain representation of self, an ongoing reinvention. To a certain extent, I’d argue that we’re still actors on a stage when we engage in real life, but our wardrobes are sparse, our scene changes shortened: we have to wear the costumes we’re used to wearing, the ones that are recognizable and consistent and easy to maintain. The signaling, without the luxury of composing the perfect Gchat or tweet or whatever, flows naturally. It’s not more or less authentic (authenticity is a dead term anyway, and the New York Times Sunday Review killed it) but its less structured, more organic.
But I have no doubt that Gchats, private, persistant, and unencumbered by the publicness of a Facebook wall or a Twitter feed, tell us more about who Dharun Ravi is (and likely, who we are) that most any other form of digital communication. You are not, as Jason Kottke might suggest, “who your last dozen tweets say you are” (although you are that, too): you’re more likely the sum of your chats, your furious rants about your asshole boss, your subtle flirtations with your boyfriends and girlfriends (and exes), and your deliberate, stony silences. The banality of Gchat, in the case of Dharun Ravi, was a window in the banality of hate.
Where letters and correspondence from centuries past are the primary sources for contemporary historians, Parker’s report is yet another reminder that our tweets and Facebook posts and Gchats will be fodder for future historians. I realize now that I can’t consume information or stories on a computer, or really do anything, without being a part of that perpetual act of historical production. Even with Facebook and Twitter, the dual channels of perpetual, focused reinvention, shut down for the evening, my daily search habits and private Gchats will circumscribe who I am. And I read through my Gchat histories and, devoid of context (or even in context), do not like what I see. Even searching for Parker’s New Yorker dispatch online leaves an imprint of what the Internet *thinks* I am. This isn’t to say that I’m not my search history or Pocket queue or my sassy Gchats to my coworkers: I said and did and searched for all those things, and they are me. But the structured behaviors we undertake online are slowly becoming so regular, so mundane, that the artifacts we craft online are no longer things we build deliberately, that we compose thoughtfully: they are merely extensions of ourselves, whether we like it or not.
Now that I think of it, this may actually be why I have so many magazines lying around my apartment, why I do try to unplug when I come home from work (other than the fact that I spend all day looking at screens and my eyes HURT, OK?! They hurt), and why I rarely tweet on the weekends (unless it’s 3AM and I suddenly have booze-soaked thoughts to share) and why I don’t live-tweet my reading list or every goddamn activity I participate in. I don’t go offline because the Internet isn’t real or meaningful, or because it is evil or making us lonely (for fuck’s sake). I go offline because the Internet, my networks, my points of contact, are perpetually aching to be filled with my banal everythings.
When I think of Gchat now, and even just the Internet in general, all I can think of is Leonardo DiCaprio, walking a wide-eyed Ellen Page through the dream logic of Inception: “You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream and fill it with their subconscious.”
(Image: Adriane Cloepfil/n+1)
11:36 pm • 4 December 2012 • 21 notes
Despite the efforts of industry bodies, government agencies, and industrial archaeologists, this vast, distributed artificial winter that has reshaped our entire food system remains, for the most part, unmapped. What’s more, the varied forms of these cold spaces remain a mystery to most. This guide provides an introduction to a handful of the strange spatial typologies found within the “cold chain,” that linked network of atmospheric regulation on which our entire way of life depends.
(Photo: Kraft’s subterranean “cheese” cave, Springfield, Missouri/Christoph Morlinghaus)
This salute to refrigeration is amazing. Read the whole thing at Cabinet
11:05 pm • 28 November 2012 • 2 notes
Microsoft staff photo from December 7, 1978. From left to right: Top: Steve Wood, Bob Wallace, Jim Lane. Middle: Bob O’Rear, Bob Greenberg, Marc McDonald, Gordon Letwin. Bottom: Bill Gates, Andrea Lewis, Marla Wood, Paul Allen. [via.]
7:36 pm • 28 November 2012 • 4 notes