The world is shrinking, but humans are growing apart: final thoughts on Virilio

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eye

“Eye Lust”

First let me just say that I feel quite accomplished; I consider actually finishing Paul Virilio‘s Open Sky to be a great feat, especially since all of the physics he incorporates was just as incomprehensible to me as Chinese. But…on to my final thoughts.

At the conclusion of Open Sky, we are left with a paradox: that, at least in Virilio’s view, virtuality has diminished the  vastness of the world while simultaneously forging a greater distance between humans. These two oppositional forces manifest/will manifest themselves in a couple of different ways:

  • Eye lust – the obsession of researchers with optics and controlling, enhancing, and incorporating technological prostheses into our organs of vision demonstrates how sight is no longer a limiting factor in perception. In other words, technology enables us to see things far beyond our range of vision, thus eliminating the distance from point A to point B and making the world considerably smaller.
  • Sexual diversion – conversely to “eye lust,” which promotes the shrinkage of distance, cybersex, by its very nature, promotes the distancing of human beings. Indeed, it depends entirely upon geographically isolated partners. Virilio attributes the human attraction to such an impersonal sex to this very distancing; the sex partner doesn’t share one’s tangible space and so can’t rearrange one’s home or be in the way when one is trying to get ready for work in the morning. Although I still believe that mankind will NEVER ultimately favor cybersex to actual sexual intercourse, I think Virilio’s theory explains why many people, especially those in committed relationships, turn to pornography and webcam sex in moments of lust; they feel they can “get off” without having to deal with the rest of the ups-and-downs that come with a real life relationship. To many, again especially to many who are in committed relationships, a web session is impersonal, so it’s “not the same” as cheating. This sort of attitude certainly DOES promote a divide in society.

All in all, I think Virilio is right to call into question the motives behind our rush to be the most wired people in history. But I don’t see our fundamental humanity – our desires, our motivations, and our actions – as being in the sort of cataclysmic danger Virilio supposes them to be in. We will still travel, we will still work, we will still get off of our sofas, and, yes, we will still have sex until our race is nonexistent. Yes, technology has influenced HOW we do all of those things, but not in entirely negative ways. It’s important to balance the positive and negative, something I don’t think Virilio does very well.

Discussion

  1. How do you interpret Virilio’s comparison (in the final chapter) of our supposed fate to Buzz Aldrin’s commission to a psychiatric ward?
  2. Virilio ultimately believes that real time is superseding real space? Do you agree? Is this a complete supersession? Is this a necessarily bad thing?

A few thoughts on copyright in the digital age

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books on shelfWith the Internet enabling instantaneous publication of any piece of writing, song, photograph, or video by nearly anyone with a stable connection to the World Wide Web, it is no wonder that questions of privacy, honesty, and fair ownership proliferate in the media world. Brian Carroll discusses in great length the components to and implications of privacy laws, libel cases, and copyright and fair use guidelines. Countless factors play into determining to what/whom protection is provided and average Internet users can’t be reasonably expected to have the laws memorized. But the bottom line for bloggers, citizen journalists, and even recreational writers, artists, photographers, videographers, singers, songwriters, etc. is that a basic understanding of copyright law is essential to practicing one’s creative art.

Copyright – Friend or Foe?

There are differing schools of thought as to to what purposes copyrights serve. I personally don’t think they do or should exist solely as a reward for an artist’s (using the term generally here) “hard work.” I believe in the ease of access to information and in the broad dissemination of ideas. But I also believe in giving credit to a person whose brilliance of mind results in the formulation of a great idea or creative work. I find copyrights to thus be proper acknowledgements towards creators (or to those entities to which creators may choose to sell their creations – publishers and the like) that, by providing due credit and protection, should then result in the ultimate spread and sharing of the creative work to which they apply.

To this end–that of encouraging creativity through guaranteed acknowledgement of original creation–I applaud that provision of U.S. copyright law which automatically considers original works copyrighted without requiring artists to specifically submit for a copyright. So what does this means for writers?

© (Your Name Here) – The Copyrighted Writer

Every writer is a copyrighted writer. To an extent, thanks to digital publishing through blogs and eBook formats, every writer also has the ability to be published. This should be a great encouragement to those who, like me, aspire to be writers-by-trade; although it often takes many years and hundreds of pages of writing to become commercially successful, you can begin the process of getting your thoughts and ideas out there–published digitally with the chance of an editor or publishing agent coming across them–without the fear of having your work ripped off. Every single thing you or I write is copyrighted. I think that’s pretty cool!

But as copyrighted writers, we now have a few things to pay attention to:

  • Plagiarism. Writers must never plagiarize the works of other writers, no matter how obscure or unknown their authors. As I’ve just said, everyone is copyrighted. Therefore, claiming the words of someone else as your own is a direct violation of copyright law. The privilege of being a copyrighted writer also comes with the responsibility of respecting the copyrights of others.
  • Fair use. Writers should be aware of fair use guidelines, which help to counteract the tendencies of copyrights to act as monopolies over ideas or language. Allowing others to use your work can be mutually beneficial; it aids them by providing support for an argument or material for a project and it helps you gain necessary exposure. The more you share, the more you’ll become known. Remember: copyright is meant to be a protection against total intellectual theft, not a shield for timid artists to hide behind.

For How Many Years?

As much of a proponent of copyright law as I am, I do believe it should have its limits. As a prolific reader, I am somewhat obsessed with e-Reader devices (my device of choice is the Amazon Kindle). One of the things I love about my Kindle is the plethora of classical literature I can download for free…because it is all in the public domain. Think of how many more written works could be shared and, hence, talked about…how many more people could be reached…if more writing entered the public domain. In order for this to happen, though, the copyright limits would have to be shortened SIGNIFICANTLY.

Discussion

  1. What do you think about current copyright terms? Should works enter the public domain sooner than they currently do?
  2. Do you think fair use guidelines should allow larger portions of copyrighted works–say more than 30 seconds of a song–to be used for educational purposes?

Virilio asserts that technologies promote human inaction, but he fails to examine fully what it means to be human

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As I write this, I am iMessage-ing back and forth with a friend of mine currently studying in China. Is it merely coincidence that, as I reflect on Paul Virilio’s notions of tele-presence and what telecommunications technologies are doing to our universe, I am both present at Furman and tele-present with Annie in China? Or have I confirmed Virilio’s conviction that the ability to communicate via electromagnetic waves in “real-time” has obliterated the optical horizon and made “distance” a thing of the past?

What frustrates me about Virilio’s view of technology is that, for the most part, he takes out the human element. A few examples to illustrate what I mean:

  • Virilio asserts that, because we can see exotic places virtually, we will ultimately lose our will to travel; that virtual presence is a disincentive to exploration. I think few would deny, though, that no matter how high the definition, seeing Mt. Everest on a computer screen and seeing it person are hardly equal experiences. Whenever possible, I believe humans will see and do “the real thing.” When not possible, whether due to financial or other limitations, virtual travel offers a nice alternative to not seeing a place at all.
  • Virilio talks about the impending transplant revolution, in which humans will ingest artificial micro-organisms to extend the abilities of their bodily systems. I don’t deny that this is a distinct possibility. But what makes doing this any different than taking a narcotic, such as a steroid or antibiotic? And in both cases, it can’t be assumed that the majority of the population will simply jump on the bandwagon–that they will take the latest pill or ingest the latest miniature robot. As long as we have consciences, there will be both acceptance of and resistance towards innovation. Thus, the transplant revolution won’t be such that the entire world becomes part-robot.
  • Finally…for the time being, at least…there is the notion of cybersex. Again, I appeal to the human element referenced in my first example. Surely there are few who would elect virtual sex over physical sex if given the choice. If Virilio’s point in discussing cybersex is merely to illustrate how tele-technologies have infiltrated every realm of our existence, even the generally private sexual realm, then his point is well taken. But to go further and assert that virtual reality will make humans lazy even in their sexual pursuits I think is a vast underestimation of the human condition.

As in my previous post, these are just a few of my thoughts thus far. Even though I’ve read MUCH more of Mr. Virilio now, I still find him difficult to wrap my head around. Maybe it’s all the physics. Or maybe I’m taking the approach of “least effort.” Or maybe I just have more faith in mankind–that we will see our technologies as tools for connecting us when we absolutely cannot be together and not as permanent replacements for face-to-face interactions.

Discussion

  1. What are your thoughts on any or all of the points I address above?
  2. Virilio talks about a “grey ecology” and “dromospheric pollution.” Do you agree or disagree with his assertion that tele-optic technologies have reduced the world to almost nothing? If you agree, do you think this is necessarily a bad thing?

Is technology reversing industrialization?

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open skyI must begin this post with a disclaimer. Though I made every effort (including checking four library systems after placing an order on Amazon.com) to get a copy of Paul Virilio’s Open Sky long before now, due to its being out of print and apparently mostly out of the country, my copy just arrived this morning. As such, I have only begun to penetrate the surface of Virilio’s VERY deep philosophy of our culture consumed by interactive technology.

As limited as my reading has been, though, I have already been struck by Virilio’s notion that today’s tele-crazed global society has effected what is essentially a reversal of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century trend towards industrialization. Whereas our focus then was on building physical structures – roads, railroads, cities, factories, etc. – in order to facilitate transportation and mobilization, our focus now is on building virtual spaces which eliminate transportation as a step in getting somewhere or talking with someone. The irony in this is that, while we are able to communicate in ways that we never could before, we are drawn more and more into ourselves; we are less mobile in that because we don’t have to leave our homes to accomplish a task or see something, we don’t. The more we interact with and through devices, the less we physically interact with each other and the less of a need we have for all of the physical constructions of the past century.

Similarly interesting and particularly relevant to my life, Virilio also references impacts of technology on the lives of people with disabilities. In some ways, technology aids make those with disabilities almost as able-bodied as those without disabilities. But what does this say about technology? Where technology augments the ability of the disabled it can also hinder the ability of the abled. An automated task, such as a voice-activated light system in a home, is both a tool and an extravagance; it helps the disabled, but condones laziness among the abled.

As I said, I’ve only dipped my toes in the water with Virilio, but these are a few of my thoughts thus far.

Discussion

  1. When Virilio talks about the speed of light being a limit speed, is he saying that electronic communication transmission cannot ever surpass the speed of light and thus the goal of “real-time” transmission is to transmit at that speed?
  2. Does Virilio pay enough attention to the economic factors that influence the use of virtual travel rather than actual travel? In other words, do people not engage in face-to-face meetings as much now that we have technologies like Skype simply because they are lazy or “too busy” to travel or because transportation costs are so high?

Good web content is built mostly by user goals, not by designer desires

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It is rare that I assess a website purely on its aesthetic appeal. Certainly some of my favorite websites are beautifully laid out with lots of rich colors and content layers that glide in when called forth. But aesthetics aren’t everything. The best websites, as Janice Redish points out, are those which make accomplishing the specific tasks that compel web users to visit sites in the first place intuitive and expeditious. It is THIS element–the functionality element–that plays the weightiest role in my assessment of websites. Indeed, for any one website to not get lost among the thousands of sites on the Internet, it must appeal to its users to the extent that their goals are driving the development of its content.

Creating Personas and Writing Scenarios

Redish emphasizes the pertinence of understanding your audience when developing web content–who they are, what level of skill or knowledge they carry with them, and what tasks they wish to accomplish on your site, among other things. She recommends two planning techniques which are particularly relatable to writers:

  • Creating personas: Based on usability tests, market research, personal observations, and demographic data, web developers should create a few personas–people with names, backgrounds, and specific goals–to help serve as model “audiences” for their sites. This is very much akin to character development in writing. All writing has an intended audience. In order to make it relatable to that audience, characters are often most successful when they mirror or represent persons within it. Thus the creation of character-personas can help writers create characters who best appeal to readers in their intended audiences, just as personas can help web developers create web content that best appeals to their intended users.
  • Writng scenarios: Likewise, thinking of specific scenarios–stories web users might have which lead them to complete a specific task on a website–can help web developers design sites that cater to highly-individual situations, while still serving a wide range of visitors. Again, for writers, the scenarios they place their characters in must be accessible to their reading audiences. The development of multiple scenarios in both writing and web development can offer writers and web designers a more thorough perspective on what readers/users will ultimately find useful and appealing in their works.

Case Studies: the Good and the Bad

As I did in my last post, I thought I would share a couple of sites in order to point out some of the functional features which make for good home pages. The first is an example of a well-designed home page; the second is an example of a very poorly designed home page.

MDA.org home page

A glimpse at the MDA home page

  • MDA – I do a lot of work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). MDA recently redid their website to provide for better navigation and a more clear purpose. A couple of things to note:
    • The logo in the upper-left provides excellent branding information. It includes both the abbreviated and spelled-out versions of the organization’s name and a tagline that summarizes what the association does in three words–MDA fights muscle disease
    • Several tasks-based features are placed prominently in the upper-right corners, including a search box, a “Find MDA in Your Community Box” (many clients and volunteers seek out the site in order to find the nearest office to them), and a “Give Now” link in the upper-right corner, making it so that donors can complete their task right from the homepage.
Judy Blume's home page

A glimpse at author Judy Blume’s home page

 

  • Author Judy Blume – As a kid, one of my favorite authors was Judy Blume. In fact, I still love her funny, quirky writing style. But her website is perhaps too quirky. The only mention of her name on the homepage is in a small, cluttered “logo” in the upper-left hand corner. Otherwise, there is virtually no information about Judy or her books directly on the home page. One has to follow navigation links to find out anything about her.

All in all, creating good web content is about achieving balance between the aesthetic and the functional. Sites should meet the users’ goals, not reflect the designer’s desires.

Discussion

  1. Redish talks about listening to and observing your users. How does a web designer developing a personal portfolio website obtain the same type of usability data without necessarily being able to ask his or her potential employers who will access the site? What are the unique challenges and opportunities of designing a personal portfolio site?
  2. If your site is aimed at selling something, is it appropriate to push that item on the home page? Or does a “product promotional” site lose credibility with readers? For example, an author may ultimately wish to see books through his or site. But should he or she place an option to buy the book dominantly on the home page?

The Write Life – Meet Upstate Writer George Singleton

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I was privileged to have the opportunity to sit down with short story master George Singleton. We talked about writing, Greenville, and why each is made for the other. This video captures the best of my time with George, including his comments on his writing process and what the Upstate environment means to him.

About George: George Singleton lives and writes in Greenville, SC. He teaches creative writing at the SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.

Music credit: “Les is More” by Brad Paisley, copyright 2008 Sony Music Entertainment

Web editor: part multimedia artist, part information designer, and part…WRITER

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USAToday.com

A screen shot of the newly-redesigned USAToday.com home page

The Internet culture is one of constant motion; Web users expect the latest and most accurate information at their fingertips, 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, this culture doesn’t lend itself well to the traditional journalistic “assembly line” approach to print editing, in which a story, from the moment it leaves a reporter’s desk to the moment it is printed, undergoes rigorous rounds of editing by multiple persons, each trained to focus on a single aspect of the editing process. With Web, the editing must be done far more quickly and must be a process in which the different aspects within it, including (but not limited to) style editing, copyediting, and graphics editing, occur simultaneously and, possibly, at the hand of a single editor.

Brian Carroll describes the web editor as one who has at least a little bit of expertise in a variety of media skills. The web editor is part:

  • Multimedia artist – he or she is able to work with audio and visual elements and knows how to best incorporate these elements into the overall narrative of a story
  • Information designer – he or she understands the importance of the placement of design elements on the page, as well the need to consider how each individual page will fit into the site’s overall navigational framework

The editor as writer

Most importantly (OK…maybe I am a little bit biased), the web editor is large part WRITER. Since text helps synthesize all of the elements in a multimedia narrative, the importance of well-written, concise chunks of information that are optimized for scanning cannot be overemphasized. Carroll writes that writing skills are at an absolute premium and that web editors MUST be good writers. I find this promising for those of us struggling creative writers who may be in need of a “day job.” 🙂

A couple of example websites

I thought I would share a couple of websites that have become favorites based on the user experience I have every time I visit them; no doubt, I owe much of my positive user experiences to good behind-the-scenes editors.

  • Retail: I do almost all of my online shopping on Amazon.com. Amazon has a very intuitive site. One of its more useful features is its auto-recommend system, which generates product recommendations related to those in your recent browsing history. This is likely the handiwork of a good content management system (CMS), which can automatically push similarly-grouped items from interior pages to the individual user’s home page.
  • News: Though the New York Times has been my favored news source, both online and in print, for some time now, USA Today recently redesigned their website and it is one of the most graphics-oriented and fluid sites I’ve visited in a long time. Clearly, they have some graphic design-minded editors working in their newsroom.

Discussion

  1. Though web editors should be able to do a little bit of everything, what areas of web editing (writing, web, HTML code, etc.) are most important for the one-person-editor to master?
  2. Do you think it is possible to separate web content creation from web editing or are the two interconnected and dependent upon each other?

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