| At the Corner of Technology and Culture

The Ineffable Whatsit

This spring, I went to Anna Bolena by Donizetti, the last opera of the COC’s season. Sondra Radvanovsky was honestly astonishing in the title role. Beyond the obvious – her voice, her acting – there was something hard to put your finger on going on there. It’s a cliché, but I actually did have chills. Tears came to my eyes. I’ve seen a lot of operas over the last 20 years, but this was something I’d never experienced before. A sort of transcendence that was beyond the story, or the character, or even the music.

It made me wonder if I would have felt that way just listening to or watching a recording of the same performance, and whether there might be some artistic or virtuosic performances that can’t actually be captured by recording media (bear with me. I know this sounds a little ‘woo woo’).

For example, there’s the concept of duende in flamenco, that dark, intense emotionality that I’ve heard some compare to a sort of haunting.

The excellent podcast, Cocaine and Rhinestones, about the history of country music, has an episode about The Louvin Brothers, much of which deals with their freaky, close harmonies (“blood harmony” it’s called, for the intimate way voices from the same family meld). In it, they talk about the tradition of Spirit Harp singing, where communities of people get together and sing a capella, all facing each other, with a single family in the centre of the circle. According to the podcast, Charlie Louvin maintained that there was something in Sacred Harp singing that could never be recorded with a microphone.

Good News (and an exciting challenge)

Recently, I joined the External Advisory Committee for Nuit Blanche Toronto. It’s been a fascinating look at the long range planning, considerations, and questions that go into pulling together an event like this (plus a good excuse to walk into our iconic City Hall).

This year’s theme is You Are Here, an invitation to reflect on what it means to live in a place like Toronto, a city in constant flux. I’ve long been fascinated by how we create a sense of place and home, so I’m excited to see the work, and how this year’s curators, Alyssa Fearon, Karen Alexander, and Tairone Bastien, bring their perspectives to bear.

The other really cool thing is that this year is the inaugural Nuit Blanche exhibition in Scarborough, unfolding at Scarborough Civic Centre, Scarborough Town Centre, and the surrounding area.

I’m really honoured to be asked to be on the committee, and looking forward to lots of learning.

Body as Technology

Nun_HandsRecently, I interviewed Jeremy Stolow, a media historian at Concordia University who specializes in media, technology and religion. One of the points that I had to cut down for time was Jeremy’s idea that we can think of religious technologies as including not only things like religious books, or incense burners – the physical tools that accompany religious practice – but also our bodies themselves. In particular:

If we think about the way in which our gestures or our bodily movements can be organized and made to work in a machine-like function, for lack of another term, we can start to think of even human activities like breathing, and gesturing, and reciting, and other kinds of activities such as meditation, [then they] might themselves be thought of as, certainly techniques, and to that extent, maybe they belong in the larger family of ‘technology’.

I asked him about this partly because of my own life experience. I (and I’m not alone in this) think of yoga practice – and meditation in particular – as technologies. I hadn’t thought before about the idea of the performing body as a kind of technology, though. We tend to think of technologies as things external to the body, things that extend the body, but the idea of the body as a tool in the service of another goal makes total sense. We see this in sports, of course. We talk about the bodies of elite athletes as “machines,” think of food as “fuel,” but I’d mostly thought of this in a negative way, in the sense that we tend to objectify the body rather than just inhabit it. Or the way we’re taught from a young age to control the body and natural impulses. And yet, there’s not only a beauty in this (think of the athlete again), there’s a kind of freedom.

The Body and Responsive Tech

Bianchi_Bike Going in, I admit that this is entirely speculative, possibly inane, and I am not a UX person, ‘kay?

The other day, riding my bike through the Don Valley park system, it occurred to me that the bike is an amazing technology, not just for enabling different types of activity (leisure cycling, commuting in traffic, racing, training) but also for supporting different types of attention. When I’m riding in traffic, the bike allows for hyper-vigilant focus: quick stops, bell-ringing, etc. When I’m riding through the valley, my activity is different, but my attention is also different. I can ‘zone out’ in that meditative way that you do when you’re cycling for an hour or two. I pedal in a regular fashion, rarely stopping. Turns are gentle and don’t require much pausing. The bike is so wedded to the physical activity of the user, that there’s a very natural flow as my activity and attention change. This is no surprise, of course, because the bike is essentially an extension of my body. Some bikes are purpose-built to support one type of activity, and are at best poorly suited for other types of cycling. You wouldn’t want to race on a Penny-farthing bicycle for instance. But a good general purpose bike slips comfortably from one purpose to another.

It strikes me that this is, by analogy, what we need to get closer to with our digital devices: that effortless slide between functions and also between modes of attention. The bicycle is, of course, a mature technology. Earlier examples, like the Penny-farthing, didn’t allow for this. It’s also a technology of the body, rather than a technology of poking fingertips, like our digitech. What future interfaces might approach that fluid attentional support?

Lift Off for Wearables?

On my CBC show Spark this week, we’re doing a piece on wearable computing, what with all the buzz about Google Glass, Apple’s rumoured smart watch, and the success of personal trackers like the FitBit. I talked to the most excellent Kate Hartman about what it might take for wearables to take off in a mainstream way.

As personal tracking takes off, I wonder how much of it is going to be done with purpose-built, single function devices, compared to simply using apps on our phones. It’s the ‘universal remote‘ question for this decade. On one hand, I think people have got used to the convenience of having everything they need on the device they always naturally have with them. As I asked Kate, are people really going to want to remember to load up with their numerous wearables as well as having to remember house keys and a wallet? I sometimes forget my phone as it is.

So far, I think the Nike Fuel Band is a good example of a wearable that succeeds as jewelry (not to mention succeeding as talking point, since the people I’ve seen wearing them tend to really like to talk about it!). At least some of the excitement about the Pebble smart watch is that it’s actually a really good looking watch.

Still, I can’t help but think ‘implantables’ is the next horizon. The self-tracking movement has seen a very quick move from tracking for serious athletes and people with medical conditions, to tracking as a sort of everyday hobby. Could implantable monitors and nano-devices be far behind? I had a conversation with a woman who works at Chapters recently. She told me that on more than one occasion, when she’s asked younger customers for their loyalty cards, she’s been met with a sort of Homerian “isn’t-there-anything-faster-than-a-microwave” reaction. In an era where things are virtual, producing an actual card seems like having to carry a tree branch around with you all the time. More than that, she told me, these customers have said ‘can’t you just put a chip in me?’ They were joking(?), but I think it speaks to how close we are to the domestication of our cyborg selves.

On the Google Glass tip, my colleague, Dan, pointed me to this excellent post.

Book Details: Launch, Tour and Such!

The Virtual Self cover


UPDATE: I’m very excited that the Third Tuesday Social Media series is bringing me to four of their upcoming events in cities around the country! Third Tuesday events bring together people – mostly in media, communications, and marketing, but also those just interested in social media – to meet up and stay on top of changes in the 21st century media landscape (and of course, socialize). Big thanks to Third Tuesday co-founder, Joseph Thornley for inviting me. I’ll be in Vancouver on June 19th, Calgary on June 20th (details to follow), in Toronto on June 25th, and in Ottawa on June 27th. Tickets include a copy of the book, and students can attend for free! Come get a free copy of the book, and say hi if you do!

I’ll also be at the fabulous Eden Mills Writers’ Festival on September 16th, Word on the Street Toronto on Sept 23rd, at the wonderful International Festival of Authors in Toronto in October, and LitFest, Edmonton’s unique non-fiction festival, Sept 28th and 29th (details to follow).


My first book, The Virtual Self, came out this week. I spoke at the Communitech Tech Leaders’ conference on the day it came out, and signed my first copies! Much as self-promotion makes me uncomfortable, I have to say, it’s pretty exciting!

The Virtual Self is about the growing phenomenon of ‘self-tracking’ – how we are increasingly documenting the everyday statistical details of our lives. We track where we go, how we move, what we think, feel, see, and do. It’s the era of Facebook Timeline, after all. The Virtual Self looks at why we do this: the historical roots of self-tracking and also what it is about the digital life that makes self-tracking so compelling. I also look at what that information can be used for in the aggregate, and why we need a different approach to privacy if all that data is to be used for good.

The official book launch is on Tuesday, April 24th, at the Dora Keogh, 141 Danforth, Toronto, starting at 6:30. Please come. I’m pretty sure we’ll have big fun! I’m thrilled that CBC’s Mike Wise has agreed to do an on-stage (or is that in-pub?) interview.

Here are some more events coming up:

*The Frye Festival in Moncton, NB, on Friday April 27th
*The Ottawa International Writers’ Festival on Sunday, April 29th
*The Women in Biz Network conference in Toronto on Friday June 1st
*The Thin Air Literary Festival in Winnipeg (my old stomping grounds)

It’s been a long road getting the book from grain-of-an-idea to the finish line. I’ve had tons of support and I’m hugely grateful for all the conversations on Twitter and elsewhere that have helped spread the word about the book. Plus, I plan on enjoying this while it lasts! I hope you’ll come and say hi if any of these events are in your town. OK this ends the self promotion. W00t!

The Waning of the Uncanny Valley

I’ll freely admit to having a bit of an obsession with the not-quite-human. I’m fascinated by celebrity cosmetic surgery, for instance, with the way it turns beautiful, ageing people into glossy, puffy, simulacra. And then, of course, there are the robots. It’s in equal measures fascinating and creepy to look at humanoid robots, parsing what it is about them that looks not quite right, when everything about them, looked at individually, seems, well, human.

Equally interesting is our response to robotic animals. For the most part, they’re made to be cute, like Aibo the dog (though in the above case, I’m with the cat!) When we see the workings of the machine in combination with the animalistic, though, our reactions may be quite different. I remember, for instance, the first time I saw a video of Boston Dynamics‘ Big Dog project:

I mean, it’s amazing, right? And yet also creepy. The mirroring of an animal’s gait combined with the headless mechanical creature is spooky.

Fast forward a few years, and New Scientist has the story of Boston Dynamics releasing a new video of a cheetah-like robot able to run 30 km/hour:

It’s equally amazing, and yet not creepy, not for me, at least. Is it something about the design or the setting that makes it seem more normal, or is it the waning of the Uncanny Valley? Perhaps we’re getting so used to the not-quite-animate in everything from video games, to hyper-realistic animated movies, to the way we anthropomorphize our Roombas, to cosmetic surgery, that we’re bridging that Uncanny Valley. We’re not waiting until the tech gets realistic enough that we can’t distinguish it from the natural; we’re just more comfortable with the natural-unnatural hybrid.

The Clock: Art in the Digital Age

photo of very old building with weeds
On a recent visit to Ottawa, I went to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock at The National Gallery. Very basically, The Clock is a 24-hour film, comprised of short clips of movies and TV shows, each of which shows or refers to the time: a character looks at a watch, we see a clock on the wall, etc. The clips are culled from all eras of film, and from multiple genres. The achievement is, of course, amazing enough in its obsessive sourcing of material, but the astonishing thing is that the time displayed in each of the clips is the same time as it is in the actual world. I have to admit up front, I only watched about 40 minutes of The Clock. We would have stayed longer, but we were expected at dinner, and returned to Toronto the next day. I would happily have sat there for hours longer, though, it was so captivating. Occasionally (at least if you happened to be watching when I was, between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m.) it’s quite funny.

Part of the fascination is obvious: you can hardly believe what you’re seeing, you wonder how long it must have taken to create, or indeed how it was created. Also, although there’s no ‘story’, there is a kind of internal rhythm to it, and a playfulness in the way the clips ‘talk’ to each other. For instance, we see a character look up, presumably towards a wall clock, and then we see a wall clock, but it’s a clock in a different scene. The way it plays with our own sense of time is fascinating. We’re all familiar with being at a movie and losing track of time, or being at a bad movie, where time seems to slow down. Here, in virtue of watching The Clock, we are ‘watching the clock’ – we’re aware of what time it is in the non-movie world. And yet, amazingly, it’s so compelling that even still, we lose track of time.

What I’ve been puzzling over, though, is what it is about The Clock that feels so digital, because there is something very much of our time about it.

I started thinking about this because some time ago, I interviewed the poetry critic and academic, Marjorie Perloff for my show, Spark. She argues that in poetry at least, we can talk about something she calls “unoriginal genius”, meaning that we can claim as art the skillful re-using of other source material in poetry. In the full, unedited interview (not online) she raised The Clock in the context of this kind of repurposing and remixing, and specifically in the context of a digital, internet-enabled era. Her observation about The Clock is that this is how we experience time now, in this same sort of collage way. For example, she noted, we move through time zones, we click on news stories that take place on the other side of the world, many hours ahead of us. We access information pulled from multiple points in time. Fascinating observations.

There’s clearly a more pedestrian, or practical sense in which it’s a digital work. It’s hard to imagine how you would make it in an analog era. I assume that at least Marclay had access to online databases of scripts to search for mentions of clocks/time. Certainly editing it digitally would have been less crazy-making a task than in an earlier era. But I can’t help feeling there’s something uncanny about The Clock that feels very much a piece with who we are now. It feels like something outside of nature, as though the very order of the natural world (the unfolding of linear time) is being played with. It’s like he’s created an alternate, virtual reality, running alongside our everyday reality. It’s a feeling that you don’t get from simply watching a film which takes you out of your everyday experience of the world to another place. This parallel reality feels, as I say, uncanny. Charming, but also a bit creepy. I wonder if there isn’t something in this that at least feels like what it means to be digital.

New Podcast: Trends in Agriculture and Info Flows

My podcasting pal, Cathi Bond and I have a new episode out. This time, Cathi continues her fascination with the re-invention of agriculture by looking at an intriguing project she found on Kickstarter. I continue to have an unhealthy interest in how we are learning to manage the enormous amount of information that we now have access to. We’re trying out new models that deliberately taper and tailor that information – and do it in a way that’s friendly. I look at two new spins on this: Little Printer and Feedair. Click to listen below, or visit the blog for the full show notes, with links to our stories.

More on Gamification

image of tiles with talking people
Technology Review has an article on how game mechanics are being used in conjunction with marketing. The idea is to create social or game-like spaces online that are also affiliated with a product. For instance, as TR puts it:

for the USA Network’s television show Psych, the startup Bunchball helped build Club Psych on the show’s official website. It rewards fans who sign in, browse though photo galleries, or play mini-games online. In those games they can earn points that can be spent on virtual items that make their “room” on the site resemble the main characters’ office, or on physical Psych-related merchandise. USA Network used Bunchball’s technology in a smart-phone app that is meant to be used while the show is broadcast, rewarding viewers with more points.

Expect to see more of this kind of thing as the trend towards gamification and social games continues. The article reminded me of a conversation about transmedia storytelling that I had with Steve Rubel for an upcoming episode of Spark. He talked about the way transmedia narrative can further the connection to shows, products or projects by creating more of an ongoing relationship with consumers. Of course, as he pointed out, all media are in competition for time and attention when there are so many entertainment and information options out there. I can’t help wondering if there’s going to be pushback from consumers, as time-consuming games and social networks gobble up more of our time. Personally, I want something that either offers me deep engagement, and so truly rewards my attention (such as listening to a niche podcast I really value) or is so lightweight that I can easily fold it into my day (such as Twitter). As content creators, we really have to think clearly about what offers genuine value to our communities.




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