The Imaginative Universal

Studies in Virtual Phenomenology -- by @jamesashley, Kinect MVP and author

Gresham’s Law

mox_press

We were working with another consulting group at a client, recently, and to resolve a dispute one of the consultants at the rival firm pulled out his trump card – he had authored a book.  Of the various things that might impress a software developer – certifications, technical blogging, Microsoft ranking, article writing – book authorship is well at the top of the list.  Writing a technical book carries so much metal in part because everyone knows what an extraordinary accomplishment this is.  One not only must demonstrate mastery and facility with one topic, but must be able to maintain this level of loquacity over a dozen or so chapter topics and in the end pull it all together in a fluent manner.  This can be so difficult a feat that for each major Microsoft technology one may find only four or five books each year, each of which, unless it fails completely, becomes a sort of master reference for the topic at hand.

Upon returning to the office, we naturally looked up our friend the author on the Internet.  In researching his bona fides we discovered that he was in fact the thirteenth author on an obsolete Microsoft technology for a technical publisher that, trading on its good reputation, had almost thoroughly trashed its name a few years ago by flipping poorly edited tomes written by laundry lists of authors on hot topics in order to be the first to press.  This publisher at a certain point became notorious for awkwardly photoshopping portraits of the myriad authors of each of their books onto the book covers to give the impression that some of them had ever actually been in the same room together.

This is a shame because many of the early authors with this particular press have gone on to be thought-leaders in the Microsoft programming world and continue to publish important books through other publishers, among them Rocky Lhotka, Dino Esposito, Joe Mayo, Scott Guthrie and Scott Hanselman, to name a few.

This may be a prime example of Gresham’s Law.  Gresham’s Law is a 16th century economic theory concerning currency which states “Bad money drives out the good.”  The general idea is that if a certain currency is in circulation, for instance gold coins, and another is introduced with a lower real value but an equivalent exchange value, for instance copper coins, those with gold coins will end up hording their currency rather than using them to make purchases and consequently the gold coins will be removed from circulation.  For a fuller explanation you might consult the wiki.

I first came across the theory in a book by Albert Jay Nock called The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1942) in which the author uses it as the basis for a Rousseauvian theory of cultural decline and progress.  I found out about the book, in turn, from a list Louis Lapham published in Harper’s in the early nineties of his alternatives to the Great Books – Alan Bloom’s pop philosophy book on cultural malaise was a bestseller at the time --  a list which also included Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.  It took me another two years before I was able to track the book down to a small shop in Cambridge, MA where I was visiting my brother (in those times before Amazon.com and the Kindle when tracking down an obscure book was a true labor of love) and read it voraciously as a mimeograph produced for a small class at one of the local universities.

The book is a series of contrarian ruminations on the author’s life and his failure to accomplish anything of general value.  Rather than pursue the sorts of endeavors in public life by which he could have made a name for himself, Nock recounts a dilettantish private life guided by a desire to amuse himself rather than impress others – yet it was a career which left in its wake both a book on Thomas Jefferson as well as one on Rabelais, in addition to various books and essays on politics and pedagogy. 

I have owned two copies of Nock’s memoirs in my life and have managed to give them both away.  Besides the general tone of the book, I remember only two things with any clarity.  The first was Nock’s dismay when he was offered the chair of the newly founded English department of a distinguished university.  Nock regretted turning the position down but he simply found it a bit of a put on to try to teach a subject that anyone could learn by showing up at the public library. 

The second was his attitude towards his alma mater.  He lauded it as possibly the best sort of education any undergraduate could avail himself of – the sort that prepared him for everything and nothing at the same time.  As a sign of his respect for those who taught him, he never returned to his college.  He felt that his teachers would be insulted if, after preparing him to go out into world, he at some point returned to the nest.  Their job, after all, was to push their students forward, not welcome them back.  He consequently found odd the growing trend among his peers and on the part of universities to host sundry homecoming events year after year.

Nock felt himself to be a man out of his own time and, like many people in these circumstances, felt that it was the world that was out of kilter rather than himself.  Because the things valued by the world -- specifically America in the 20’s and 30’s -- were not the things he valued, he tended to see “progress” as a sort of fool’s errand.  The improvements people tried to make in education and government seemed, through his particular lens, to be merely making things worse and – if those things were the things deemed to be most valuable – then he was a superfluous man.

I lack the skill to evoke Gresham’s Law quite as artfully as Albert Jay Nock does.  I can only apply it in this small case of a particular technical press.  A publisher with a strong reputation, thanks to concerted efforts to cultivate the best young talent available, eventually squandered its capital by going after easy money.   Determining that they could be more successful if they only increased the volume of their output, they lowered the value of their currency by publishing low quality books written in a couple of months by a legion of authors.  In the process they discovered that quality holds its value better than quantity does.

Yet all is not lost.  There is a scene in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! in which Marlon Brando tries to save the Mexican economy by printing his own currency.  While the execution was not the best, the theory appears to be sound, and said publisher can revive its relevance by doing the same.  For instance, there is currently a growing industry of self-publishing on the Internet.  The publisher of the yellow and red technology books can lend its reputation to this trend by publishing the best efforts of would-be authors on Silverlight, Oslo, Azure or any of the other trendy new technologies.  Not only will this help the careers of these authors but, on the evolutionary principle that great things can be achieved given enough time and enough monkeys, something valuable may come of it.  To offset the cost of this effort, the publisher should charge its authors for the right to be published, thus producing a Covey-esque win-win situation.

Even better, said press could do away with the tedium of actually writing a book altogether and offer would-be authors the opportunity, for the right price, to simply have their names appended to the list of authors for one of the books in the back catalog.  After all, in that long list of superfluous authors, what harm would there be in adding just one more?

Twitter and Postmodernism

barthelme

That’s a pretty pretentious title. 

First, a word of clarification.  While most articles and even dissertations that use the snowclone “X and Postmodernism” attempt to explicate X through the prism of postmodernism, this post will move in the other direction and attempt to elucidate postmodernism with X.  By the end, I hope to convince you that not only is the title modest but that a more accurate title would have been something like “Twitter as the Fulfillment of the Postmodern Project.”

To accomplish this we just need to bring two Dons into juxtaposition: Don Browning and Don Barthelme.

 

Don Browning, an MCA architect and Director of Technology at Turner Broadcasting, made the following Tweet a few days ago:

“You know how people create books made up of blog posts, I want to put together a blog made up of tweets..”

It’s a fascinating idea.  The first successful instance of the blog-to-book genre I ever came across was Joel Spolsky’s Joel On Software book, which is the tree unfriendly version of his popular tech blog.  He quickly followed this up with – naturally enough – More Joel On Software.   Other exemplars of the genre include Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like and Jay Louis’s Hot Chicks with Douchebags.

Why would someone want to pay for articles they can already look at for free on the Internet?  And why would an author not feel dirty about repackaging his day-to-day musings and then charging for it?

Turning a blog into a book is a cultural uptrade.  A blog is a lowbrow version of the traditional book of essays. Being asked to convert one’s blog into a book is like being told that what one had been doing all that time one thought one was blogging was, in actuality, merely literary slumming in an alternative medium – one was always writing a book but just didn’t realize it.  The book form is the cultural recognition of this fact.

Cultural legitimacy comes at a price.  What makes a book a book and confers cultural legitimacy upon it is the not that trees were killed in its production but rather that people must pay money in order to own it.  A book is a commodity in a way that a blog is not.  People are used to paying for the privilege of reading something in their hands, while they resent paying for permission to read it on the Internet.  We all accept that we get what we pay for as well as the corollary that while there is value in a bargain, there is no ‘real’ value in something that is free.

The difference between a picture of a soup can and Andy Warhol’s picture of a soup can is that someone will pay millions of dollars for the latter.  Andy Warhol’s soup can is “art” because it has a price.  It has cultural value -- rather than, say, use-value – because of its price tag.

soup

Without the price tag, what is the difference between a blog and the book version of that same blog?  The book version is less convenient to read while the content is basically the same.  The only justification for -- the only value added of -- paying for the book form of something one could read for free appears to be simply that: the privilege of paying for it.

This is, of course, also the strange world of Twitter, the plan for monetizing which is currently still in research, according to the official FAQ:

“Twitter has many appealing opportunities for generating revenue but we are holding off on implementation for now because we don't want to distract ourselves from the more important work at hand which is to create a compelling service and great user experience for millions of people around the world. While our business model is in a research phase, we spend more money than we make.”

Twitter is currently a mechanism for not generating revenue, though it is so good at this that there is a lot of buzz about its potential value. 

According to TechCrunch:

“Some analysts have suggested that Twitter has moved past and consumed RSS at the center of the information machine. As newspapers and other print vehicles appear to collapse, the common concerns expressed about the permanent loss and funding of the fourth estate ignore the rise of a superclass of information creation. What some call the fallow ego-driven spew of the Warholian elites is more likely to be seen in the rear view mirror as something more akin to body painting and ultimately jazz.”

. . .

“What’s exhilirating is that the vague assumptions, arrogant exploits, twinkling of an ephemeral joke, they all are being ratified in a swirl of innovation that is dazzling in its ability to masquerade as superficial and childish.” [sic]

The coming fourth estate, however, is made up of disjointed observations about what one had for lunch and, occasionally, the sorts of “inarticulate grunt or roar” that William Rehnquist would argue is not protected speech.

John Scalzi (who, by the way, published his first science fiction book online and has now been nominated for the 2009 Hugo Award) provides a good description of Twitter which, though not the first, has the distinction of at least being the latest:

“[I]t’s even better than blogging for quite a lot of people, because when you’re limited to 140 characters, you don’t have to feel bad about not having all that much to say.

“That most Twitter communication is aggressively banal should also not come as a huge surprise. First, news flash: people are banal. Yes, all of us, even you (and especially even me). Even the great minds of the world do not spend all their time locked in the contemplation of the mysteries of the universe; about 90% of their thoughts boil down to ‘I’m hungry,’ ‘I’m sleepy,’ ‘I need to poo,’ ‘Check out the [insert secondary sexual characteristics] on that [insert sex of preference], I’d really like to boink them,’ ‘I wonder what Jennifer Aniston is doing right now, John Mayer can no longer tell me on his Twitter feed’, and, of course, ‘Look! Kitty!’ That the vast majority of Twitter posts encompass pedestrian thoughts about common subjects like food, music, tech, jobs and cats is entirely unsurprising, because this is what people think about.”

One could have a lot of fun coming up with ways to describe the banality of Twitter but unfortunately we’re all already too good at doing it.  Thanks to Twitter, it is a private joke that is being shared with millions of your Twitter friends. 

The social experiment for which Twitter lays the groundwork is to see how we can collectively uptrade Twitter’s cultural status.  Can the acknowledged irrelevance of Twitter be made relevant?

Returning to Don Browning’s opening comment about aggregating individual tweets and presented them as a blog -- something like this has already been done by Don Barthelme, the postmodern literary figure, back in the sixties.  He developed a technique for amalgamating fragments of conversations into a literary form which he perfected in a 1969 short story called The Viennese Opera Ball:

“The judicial form contemplated in the agreement is that of a free trade zone to be transformed gradually into a customs union.  As Emile Myerson has said, ‘L’homme fait de la metaphysique comme il respire, sans le vouloir et surtout sans s’en douter la plupart du temps.’  No woman is worth more than 24 cattle, Pamela Odede B. A.’s father said.  With this album Abbey Lincoln’s stature as one of the great jazz singers of our time is confirmed, Laura La Plante said.  Widely used for motors, power tools, lighting, TV, etc.  Generator output: 3500 watts, 115/230 volt, 60 cy., AC, continuous duty.  Max 230 V capacitor motor, loaded on starting – 1/2 hp; unloaded on starting – 2 hp.  Control box mounts starting switch, duplex 115 V receptacle for standard or 3-conductor grounding plugs, tandem 230 V grounding receptacles, and wing nut battery terminals.  More than six hundred different kinds of forceps have been invented.  Let’s not talk about the lion, she said.  Wilson looked over at her without smiling and now she smiled at him.  This process uses a Lincoln submerged arc welding head to run both inside and outside beads automatically.  The rate of progress during the first stage will determine the program to be followed in the second stage.  The Glamour editor whose name was Tutti Beale ‘moved in.’  What’s your name girl?  she said coolly.  Carola Mitt, Carola Mitt said.  The Viennese Opera Ball continued.”

The story was published in a collection called Come Back, Dr. Caligari which you cannot buy on Amazon.com.  It was later republished in Flying to America: 45 More Stories which you can purchase for $10.85 plus shipping.  It has an Amazon sales rank of 76,601*.

Louis Menand, the Critic at Large for the New Yorker, recently wrote in his analysis of Donald Barthelme’s career that there are two senses of postmodernism.  According to the first, postmodernism is an acknowledgement that modernism was so successful that we are now all modernists.  Postmodernism, in this sense, means accepting that we are living in the age of modernism as initiated by James Joyce and Picasso (who, it is said, used to pay for his meals after he became famous by scrawling on napkins and handing them over in lieu of cash) and simply making sense of their linguistic and visual experiments. 

In the second, modernism was a failure and we are all now doing something else.  Instead of trying to make culture more erudite and less accessible, the goal of postmodernism is to remove the artificial boundaries between “high” and “low” art.  This can be accomplished in two ways: either by kicking high culture down or by kicking low culture up.

Kicking high culture downwards requires an unmasking.  Someone accomplishes the difficult task of being accepted into the vaunted ranks of culture and then proclaims that they were just faking it.  This is actually the easier of the two paths, and you’ll see that it happens quite often if you just look for it.

The second, kicking low culture upwards,  is the harder path and the holy grail for most postmodernists.  Making shit look interesting -- and then making a convincing case for it -- is harder than it looks.

Menand cites jazz as the epitome of this cultural upkick.  It fails to fulfill the postmodern project in two ways, however.  The first is a technicality – chronologically it developed before the postmodern movement was an inkling in anyone’s eye.  It lacks the ironical self-awareness of itself as a postmodern art form.  The second is a more substantial problem, though perhaps only in retrospect – despite its lowly and popular origins in clubs and bordellos, it has both visceral and intellectual merit.  The form lends itself both to the easily hummable tunes of Dave Brubeck as well as the challenging mathematical complexity of Thelonious Monk.  It was always potentially high art, in this sense, whether we realized it or not.

To fulfill the postmodern agenda, the low culture platform targeted for uptrade must lack these qualities.  It must be so clearly lowbrow that it survives transformation into a high culture artifact without anyone relinquishing this ironical awareness of its cultural banality.  If Twitter is the long anticipated postmodern medium, Twitter must succeed without losing the qualities that make it Twitter.

There are currently rumors of Google interest in purchasing access to the wealth of grunts and roars that is Twitter.  Twitter, in turn, has already turned down Face-book’s offer of half-a-billion dollars, and seems to be valuing itself at well over twice that. 

A billion dollars, of course, buys one a lot of cultural legitimacy.

 


* By way of comparison, Joel Spolsky’s book Joel On Software has a current Amazon sales rank of 22,865.  Hot Chicks with Douchebags ranks at 12,809.