Tag Archives: ambient awareness

Tanned, rested and ready

Feels awful. And it works.

As my better half has pointed out to me on many occasions, men are the ultimate wusses when it comes to getting sick.  Even a mild cold – as it was my oh-so-grave misfortune to suffer over the past few days – is the tribulations of the damned.  What’s more ironic is that it has been ages since I’ve been struck down with a truly dreadful case of sniffles.  I’ve always had a pretty strong immunity; never have I been one to spend a week confined to bed, my head oozing snot from every orifice.  The occasional illness, every six months or so, is overcome within a matter of one or two days, if not hours.  The problem is that when one is accustomed to more or less perfect health, one loses the capacity to endure discomfort of any sort.  Hence the infrequent stuffy nose turning into a harbinger of the apocalypse.  In any case, I think I’ve hit upon a pretty reliable recipe for licking that pesky rhinovirus (at least, it works for me; this should IN NO WAY be misconstrued as any form of medical advice, as I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on television):  copious amounts of Vitamin C, orange juice and oregano tablets (bring on the spaghetti burps), washing the nasal cavity frequently with a neti pot and the kicker, the “cook it out” method:  basically, wrap yourself in as many sweaters and blankets as you can endure, dope yourself with NyQuil and go to bed, and let yourself sweat.  If you can stand it, the heat basically fries the virus out of your body and dramatically shortens your recuperation time.  The bad news is you have to go back to work that much sooner.  Anyway, I’m back and I’m ready to kick April’s cruel arse into May.

Nirvana at last.

As one of my many forays into the digital world, I’m on Foursquare, the social media platform where you earn points and virtual badges by “checking in” at different locations throughout the world (an expensive hobby if you travel frequently and don’t have a good roaming plan on your mobile).  One of my Foursquare contacts lives in San Francisco, another in Washington, and speaking of illnesses, I’m always struck with “square envy” when the cool places they’re visiting pop up on my notification board.  When friends are crisscrossing the continent checking in at places like embassies, monuments and concert halls, your long-held mayorship of the local grocery store doesn’t feel that impressive.  Call it a social media variant on the old “grass is always greener” saw; one of the drawbacks of this new phenomenon of ambient awareness, where everything everyone is posting as their status update seems a lot more profound than what’s going on in your ordinary life.  Then again, it’s all relative – something that seems unique to the first world is our ability to be dissatisfied with abundance, to see existential emptiness within the horn of plenty and to always crave more, or at the least, to crave the idea of not appearing boring to the others around us.  The Buddha was probably on to something with the whole concept of suffering being related to unfulfilled desire.  (Now how is that for a train of thought – from Foursquare to Buddhism in less than 200 words.  If that doesn’t qualify me for the “Downward Facing Dog” badge, I don’t know what does.)

One final random note for today – finally saw the Season 2 premiere of Game of Thrones and had forgotten that all the Men of the North and the Night’s Watch sound like they should be playing bass in 60’s Merseybeat bands.  I gather that since Sean Bean was cast first as patriarch Ned Stark, they needed to find actors with a similar Sheffield patois in their speech to reflect the idea that they are all from the same family.  Yet it’s interesting how the British accent (and its many regional and even neighborhood variations) seems ideally suited to the fantasy genre (the Lord of the Rings series being another prime example), and how actors speaking about kingdoms and dragons in American midwestern dialects yanks you out of the story faster than you can say “You betcha!”  Indeed, there is a conceit that any period piece, no matter where it is set, seems more genuine when the actors sound like they just graduated from RADA.  It was such an unusual choice of director Milos Forman, when making Amadeus, to allow the actors to speak in American accents, when the safer, more traditional bet would have been to go with the Queen’s.  The movie is set in Austria so British accents would be no more logical for the setting than say, Spanish ones, but still, something still feels a bit off in how people are speaking (then again, you couldn’t exactly have the genuine Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Mozart).  Of course, the champion of mishmashed dialects still has to be one of my personal favorite movies, The Hunt for Red October, where you have a crew of Soviet submariners captained by a Scot (whose character is actually supposed to be Lithuanian) and made up of Englishmen, New Zealanders, Germans, Swedes, Italians and Frenchmen, with one token Russian-born actor providing a lonely hint of verisimilitude – not that he has any lines in Russian, of course.  I guess what matters most is internal consistency, so if the entire cast of Game of Thrones was Icelandic it would make just as much sense as having them all hail from working-class Northern England.  Wonder if one of the Starks will have to warn the others that “one on’t crossbeams gone owt askew on treadle”?

This is your brain on digital media

Arianna Huffington addresses the Toronto Digital Media Summit, photo by yours truly sitting four rows back.

Johnny Mnemonic features a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves as a “futuristic” (I put the quotes around futuristic because many of the movie’s concepts have grown quite out-of-date) courier whose packages of data are uploaded directly into his brain.  Eager to take on a high-paying job, Reeves’ character agrees to carry more information than his brain can handle.  I find myself in a similar situation after two days at Toronto’s 2012 Digital Media Summit, having assimilated the insights of dozens of expert speakers and panellists, including representatives from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft, on what this whole concept means and where they think it might be going.  The key word there is “think,” because digital media is progressing too fast for the majority of us to simply keep up, let alone predict.  Today’s phenomenon is tomorrow’s relic, and what seems like a ludicrous concept this morning might be a smash success this afternoon.  The statistics are cosmic in their scope:  2 billion people on the planet access the Internet as part of their daily lives.  52 billion pages indexed on Google, 1.3 million articles on Wikipedia, 100,000 years’ worth of YouTube video shared on Facebook in 2011 alone.  Futurist Michael Tchong, one of the featured speakers this past weekend, refers to it as an ubertrend, which he defines as “a major movement, pattern or wave emerging in the American lifestyle that ripples through society leaving many subtrends in its wake.”  Although opinions on how to harness these ripples are numerous, one fact that seems to be shared is the idea that all of this is fuelled by the human need for connection – and kinship.

Associated with that need for connection is the humorous acronym FOMO, that Tchong suggests is behind much of the social media explosion – Fear Of Missing Out.  When so much flies by at lightspeed, billions of times every nanosecond, we are terrified that we might not see all of it, whether it be the latest updates from our friends and family, infinite funny cat videos or actual breaking news.  Texting and driving, Tchong says, happens because some of us have decided that being in touch is more important than being alive.  Perhaps, if one can venture down the garden path of existentialism, for many people being in touch is being alive; this idea of ambient awareness that I have discussed before.  But it is far more than simply wanting to know what’s going on – it’s wanting to know.  Arianna Huffington, who gave the closing keynote address yesterday, referred to her early book The Fourth Instinct, which suggests that beyond the usual human needs for survival, sex and power, there is a hunger for spiritual fulfillment and meaning; to answer that fundamental question of Life, The Universe and Everything (yes, Douglas Adams fans, I know it’s 42, but stick with me here).  Digital media is a sublime leap towards the realization of this answer, because it brings people together in a grand unified search.  This is why I put no stock in the philosophy of every man for himself; the mere existence of the ubertrend under examination here suggests that we are inclined towards a sense of community, of belonging, and that the reason why the technology of information has been the fastest to progress (instead of jetpacks) is because it reflects what we want most as a species gifted with intellectual curiosity.

And as expected, many fear the undiscovered country it is leading us towards.  Misguided approaches to regulate digital media, such as SOPA, ACTA or the Vic Toews nonsense going on in Canada, are the last refuge of an old guard longing for the simplicity of the era when everything could be explained as God’s will.  Ironically, that fear comes from the very same place as the curiosity that drives the democratic exchange of ideas as exemplified by digital media.  When information rested only in the hands of a few, those few were respected and admired as learned leaders.  The more the truth spreads, the less those people are needed – the influence they have built for themselves, out of this same, basic longing for community, diminishes as others cease to listen to them, until they are finally left alone, and forgotten.

So what then, in a nutshell, could you say is the biggest takeaway from my massive data intake of the last two days?  Certainly enough thought to chew on for the conceivable future (and more than a few blog posts I’m sure), but above all else, reinforcement of the notion that a global community, a global family, is not just a pipe dream of a few starry-eyed prognosticators, it is a place we are going whether we like it or not.  Our existence as individuals in a population of 7 billion mirrors our tiny earth adrift in an incomprehensibly vast universe, and just as each of us longs to find meaning as part of a family, our entire race hungers for meaning within the endless dark.  Why are we here?  Maybe Cousin Phil has an idea – check his status update.  Connection, knowing that we are not alone, is tremendously liberating – it reassures and emboldens us to take the next step.  Host Rob Braide of Galaxie Radio kicked off the conference by invoking the analogy of a drunk who drops his keys on a dark street and wanders to the safety of a street light instead of looking for them straight away.  The connection provided by digital media is that light.  And the more light the better.

I tweet, therefore I am

thedesignwork.com

When Shakespeare’s Lord Polonius intoned “brevity is the soul of wit,” he could have well been talking about Twitter – a most grandiose leap given the 400 years separating the publication of Hamlet and the launch of the Internet’s most popular micro-blogging site.  The restrictions of Twitter are part of its charm, and a large part of why it continues to be successful.  It feeds our seemingly insatiable appetite for news, gossip and humour in the form of quick, easily digestible snacks in lieu of full word banquets.  For someone like myself who can tend towards long-windedness, it forces us to compress our thoughts down to the salient details – it mandates the economy of language favoured by Ernest Hemingway, particularly if one harbours as much (well-documented here) contempt for textspeak as I do.

Someone wiser than I opined that sending a tweet is like crying out into the darkness hoping that someone else will hear it and respond.  If one can forgive a foray into existentialism, that is more or less life in a nutshell, isn’t it?  Human beings are by nature solitary creatures craving community by any means necessary – at the most basic, genetic level, life must bond with life to create more life.  So must ideas be expressed and countered with other ideas to create new ideas, lest they stagnate and die off.  A social media concept of which I have recently become aware is ambient awareness; this is the idea that you can have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of what is going on in the life of a friend through periodic exchanges of short bursts of information, that is, texts and status updates, without ever sitting down for a full face-to-face conversation.  I have never met most of the people I follow on Twitter, but I have still developed a rudimentary sense of who they are through reading what they have to say, even in 140-character increments – I imagine some of those strangers who follow me may also have gleaned an awareness Graham from my shared thoughts and more-than-frequent smartass remarks (at least the followers who aren’t spambots trying to get me to click on dubious links with the promise of the glimpse of silicone breasts).

There is a purity to Twitter that Facebook doesn’t have, because Facebook is a closed, invitation-only club based on who you are and who you know (and all those pictures of your kids and status updates about their eating habits).  Twitter, by contrast, allows you to interact with anyone, regardless of their status, physical location or social strata, based only on your words.  It’s loquar ergo sum – I speak, therefore I am.  You are defined by what you say, how you say it and also, what you choose not to say or respond to.  In an age when it is increasingly difficult to separate art from our perceptions of the artist, Twitter’s constraints allow your words to stand on their own, on equal footing with people of renown and infamy.  I think of it as carving one’s thoughts upon the blank slate of the public consciousness.  It can be argued that by acting as a leveller of opinions, Twitter equates the statements of both the learned and the ignorant.  But the choice of the Twitter user of who to follow and who to ignore ensures that you are the one deciding who gets your attention – not some anonymous producer with ratings and ad revenue on his mind rather than the enhancement of our collective conversation.  It’s raw communication – and as multiple visits to Epcot’s Spaceship Earth have reminded me, finding new ways to communicate has been the epicentre of humanity’s greatest achievements.

Not bad for a little birdie.