A link to the past

Part of the return to the 90s web driven by the likes of the Fediverse is the re-introduction of the shared link page. While not a full-blown DMOZ revival, I think there is some value in it, for pages that still exist.

The Links page for the implausi.blog is here.

Obviously, there’s not much there at the moment. I’ll be adding to it with info and relevant links as we go, taking stuff out of bookmarks and back on to the public web.

Consider this a work in progress.

Cellphone, (2004), Paul Levinson

Currently on the reading pile, for some upcoming work, and this one is kinda interesting, especially coming at it in (early) 2024.

Because this book was published in 2004, twenty years ago, and the entire history of the smartphone hadn’t even happened yet.

This is a history of the cellphone, the ubiquitous pocket device, as it appeared in the era of Y2K and The Matrix movies. Of Nokia bricks, and flip phones and Razrs and maybe even a Blackberry or 3.

And it’s fascinating because of it.

I can’t go into too much detail about the current project, but the short version is that it’s about what changed with the arrival of the iPhone, and how our culture shifted.

But in order to figure that out, we need to know what it was like in the before times. And here Paul Levinson’s book does a wonderful job.

The most interesting part (for me) is Chapter 11, Future Calls, the speculative chapter about where the cellphone might be headed. But even in doing so, he shows how much of the current use of the phone showed up as early as 19`14, in various texts and comics, and it was only through some historical accidents that we didn’t get videophone development until much later. The picturephone has been floating around as an idea for nearly 100 years, even though now we take it for granted.

Much of the reason for the lack of development was the lack of interest: people couldn’t imagine them using it, and feared being seen on camera. It took half a century of television as passive entertainment, and the audience being accustomed to talking naturally on the phone to being comfortable with talking “face-to-face” as well.

So, I think this is a keeper, and I might have to track down a personal copy. This one was a serendipitous find at the local public library, and I grabbed a few others I’ll need to talk about soon too.


Levinson, P. (2004). Cellphone: The story of the world’s most mobile medium and how it has transformed everything! New York, N.Y. : Palgrave Macmillan.

Échanger

(This was originally released as Implausipod Episode 25, on January 2, 2024)

https://www.implausipod.com/1935232/14232183-implausipod-e0025-echanger


Échanger

Bonjour. J’ai une question à vous poser. Voulez vous échanger avec moi? Really? Are you sure? That’s fantastic! Because sometimes the English language doesn’t have the right word that does exactly what you need it to do, that expresses the entirety of what you’re looking for. And in this case, that word, échanger, is what we’re going to use when we’re talking about automation.

I’ll explain more in this episode of The Implausipod.

Welcome to The Implausipod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible. And in this episode, we’re going to take a look at part three of our two part series on the sphere in Las Vegas. Yeah, things got out of hand. And follow through on an observation that dominated the discourse in 2023 and serves to be at the forefront of our discussion about technology in 2024 and beyond.

And that concept is échanger.

So I mentioned this the other episode when we were looking at the Sphere in Las Vegas and how it had a lot of workers that were doing fairly regular rote tasks, like holding up signs and directing traffic. And as they funneled everybody into the entrance of the Sphere, into the first floor of that massive auditorium, We met the robots, the auras, that were doing almost exactly the same thing:

responding to the crowd, answering questions of the audience, and directing them. But responding to them personally. And it struck me at the time, especially as we were kind of going through and looking at five different Auras, the sisters, that were explaining what we saw in each of these stations, that each of them could do the job of the others, their human chaperones, without too much more training.

It was job replacement made real. And this is where I started to look for a term that can kind of encompass that. Now, it’s something that’s been discussed a whole lot, that idea of job loss through automation, and it’s accelerated in the last year since the release of ChatGPT and the other AI assisted art tools or large language models, as people are worried that that’s going to directly lead to job loss.

But that’s only one part of the story, as there’s also things like the development of the Boston Dynamics robots, and other robotic assisted tools that are taking the roles of persons, and dogs, and mules within various environments. And so we have this assemblage of different things that are all connected to this job loss.

And in order to encompass these factors, I found myself stumbling for a word. I recalled back to some of my training in grad school where we were looking at the idea of actor network theory and the author Michael Callon. In 1986, he came up with the idea of interessement, And obviously he was French, but in his work titled Some Elements of the Sociology of Translation, he was talking about that shift that took place, and he was using the French language to describe it, a specific instance.

So I thought I’d reach out and draw on that inspiration, and see if perhaps a verb in French could encompass what we are seeing within the world at large. Hence, Échanger. And I like it. It works. I know there’s been some other authors who have used other verbs to describe different processes within the tech sphere lately, and sometimes those will get caught by language filters and sometimes they won’t, but I think Échanger, with all its multiplicity of meanings, adequately captures the breadth of what we’re looking for here when we’re talking about automation, agentrification via AI tools, and virtualization,

and what they might mean for workers that are working alongside machines that will replace them. That’s what the term means, or what it means now in the context of this episode, and in my reference to technological replacement. And speaking from a personal perspective, I have more than just an academic interest in echange.

I’ve been automated out of jobs on at least a couple different occasions over the last 30 years, and I’ve experienced outsourcing from a worker perspective on a couple occasions as well. And in some cases, both at the same time. For example, in one of those instances, I was working for a local tech company that was manufacturing phone handsets.

And there was seven people working on the assembly line, and after a few months, they brought in one machine that could replace the role of one of the persons on the line. And our duty was to feed material into the machine. And then after that was tested and worked out, within a month, they brought in another one.

And slowly, that team of seven was whittled down to two, as we’d just really need somebody at the front end to load the parts, and at the back end to take out the manufactured ones and test them. And it ran pretty much 24 7. And after they had fine tuned that, they packed up the whole factory and shipped it down to Mexico.

So we had both replacement, échanger, and outsourcing happening within the same instance. Now, obviously, this isn’t anything new, it’s been happening for years. The term technological unemployment was originally proposed by Keynes and included in his Essays in Persuasion from 1931, and has been returned to many times since, including by Nobel Prize winner Wassily Leontief in his paper titled Is Technological Unemployment Inevitable?

Daniel Suskind writes in his 2020 book, A World Without Work, that there can be two kinds of technological unemployment, frictional and structural. Frictional tech unemployment is that kind that is imposed by switching costs and not all workers being able to transition to the new jobs available in the changed economy.

The friction prevents the workers from moving as freely as needed. And this is what was happening in my experience with the jobs where échanger occurred. I want to be clear, a lot of those jobs that I was automated out of were not great. It was hard, demanding work, or physical work that was replaced by labor saving devices, in this case, machines.

But it still meant a job loss, and there was one less role, or entry level role, for a high school student, or college student, or casual worker, or whatever I was at the time.

Échanger. (part 2)

And that’s part of the problem. On March 27th, 2023, the Economics Research Department at Goldman Sachs released a report titled The Potentially Large Effects of Artificial Intelligence on Economic Growth, otherwise known as the Briggs-Kodnani Report. The report was published several months after the release of ChatGPT4 to the general public and captures the fear that was seen during its initial wave of use.

The report focuses on the economic impacts of generative AI and its ability to create content that is, quote, indistinguishable from human created outputs and breaks down communication barriers, end quote, and speculates what the macroeconomic effects of a large scale rollout of such technology would be.

Now, the authors state that this large scale introduction of AI tools would be, or Could be a significant disruption to the labor market. The authors take a look at occupational tasks on jobs, and using standard industry classifications, they find that approximately two thirds of current jobs are exposed to some degree of AI automation.

And the generated AI could, quote, substitute up to one fourth of current work. Now, if you take those estimates, like they did, it means it could expose something like 300 million full time jobs to automation through AI, or what I like to call agentrification. And that’s over a 10 year period. This would create an incredible amount of churn in the workforce, and whenever we hear about churn, we need to consider the human costs behind those terms.

A lot of people will lose their jobs, and well, the Schumpeterian creative destruction generally means that people get new jobs, or that old workers that haven’t moved become more productive, as a study by David Autor and others from 2022 found when they looked at U. S. census data from 1940 to 2018. and found that 60 percent of workers in 2018 were working at jobs that did not exist in 1940, and that most of this growth is fueled by technology driven job creation.

But there’s usually a lag between the two, between losing one job and having tech create new positions, the frictional tech unemployment we mentioned earlier. But there could also be more, the second kind mentioned above, structural technological unemployment. As stated by Briggs and Kodnani, there could very well be just some permanent job losses, and that can be a challenge for us to address as a society.

Now, with the productivity growth, Briggs and Kodnani argue we could see a 1. 5 percent growth over a 10 year period following widespread adoption, so the timing for all of this is actually quite distant. Everybody’s thinking everything’s going to end immediately, and that’s not necessarily the case. But it sure can feel like it’s coming around the corner right away.

The authors also estimated that GDP globally could increase by 7%, but that would depend on a whole lot of factors, so I’d like to bracket off that prediction, as there’s too many variables involved. The two things I really found interesting about their report was a, the timescale that they’re looking at this and B, the specific jobs that they’re looking at.

So, as I said, the ability to predict the specific GDP on something as large scale as this across the economy on a 10 year timeframe is just like, let’s not do that. It’s just. There, you can put numbers into it, but I think there’s just far too much speculation involved in actually being able to get to that level of precision with anything.

The interesting thing in the paper was their estimate of the work tasks that could be automated in the industries that could be more significantly affected. There’s two key charts for this. It’s Exhibit 5, which is the share of industry employment exposed to automation, and Exhibit 8, which is the share of industry employment by relative exposure to automation by AI.

And there’s some of these that are, you’re not going to see any automation improvements in. Some industries are just not really going to take a hit. But some of them could have AI as a complement, and some of them will have AI as a replacement. And this is in Exhibit 8, and I think this is probably the most interesting thing in the whole article.

The thing the Briggs and Kodnani report captures is a lot of the public’s initial impressions of OpenAI, and of ChatGPT as well. This drove some of the furor because as people were able to access the tool and use it, one of the things they’d naturally do is go, Well, does this help me? Can I use this for my own job?

And B, how well does this do my own job? So a lot of the initial uproar and the impacts from ChatGPT was people using it to see how it would do their job and being concerned with what they saw. So I think a lot of their concerns and fears are well founded. If you’re doing basic coding tasks, and the tool is able to replicate some of those tasks fairly simply, you’re like, oh my god, what’s going on?

If you’re doing copywriting or any of those roles that receive a significant amount of replacement, as in the Table 8 on the Report, like office and administrative support, and legal, you know, traditionally one of those things we didn’t really think would be automated, you’re going to have some serious concerns.

Martin Ford’s book, The Rise of the Robot, talks about that white collar replacement, where we’re seeing job loss and automation in roles that traditionally hadn’t seen it before. When we think of échanger. When we think of automation, we think of it as, like, large industrial machinery. We’re thinking of things like factory machines, being able to produce something that a craftsman might have had to work at for long hours, but able to do that at an industrial scale

or rapid scale. And this change has us going all the way back to the era of the Luddites in the early industrial revolution in England. Now, when ChatGPT launched, we’re starting to see the process of what I like to call agentrification, tech replacement through AI tools. And basically, we’re having automation of white collar work in things like the legal field.

I mean, this might fly under the radar for a lot of academic analysis, but if you’re paying attention to what gets advertised, there were signs. Tools like LegalZoom were continually advertised on the Jim Rome sports talk show over a decade ago, and we note that being able to be centralized and outsourcing that work would indicate that there’s, you know, some risks of échanger involved in those particular fields.

Now, there’s other fields where this white collar work is at the risk of echangér as well. The Hollywood Strikes of 2023 had similar motivations. Though their industries were moving quicker to roll out the tools, being on the forefront of their use, the Actors Guild and the Writers Guild were much more proactive against the tools because they saw the role that would take place in their replacement.

Given the role of the cultural industries, like movie production, being at the leading edge of soft innovation, we were already seeing digital de-aging tech and reinsertion in major motion pictures, notably from Disney properties like Star Wars with both Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher, whose likenesses were used in films after they had passed away, and the de aging of Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones 5.

This leads to an interesting question. Can Échanger lead to a replacement of you with your younger self? I don’t know. Let’s explore that a bit more, next.

Échanger (part 3)

On December 2nd, 2023, the rock band KISS played their final show at Madison Square Gardens. Now, this may have not been newsworthy, as they had been doing Last show ever since late last century, but as the members were now in their 70s, there was a feeling that they really meant it this time. However, at the end of the show, they revealed that they weren’t quite done just yet, and they unveiled their quote unquote immortal digital avatars that will represent the band on stage in the future.

Now, KISS aren’t the first in doing this by any means. The Swedish pop band ABBA has been doing this for a while, and Kiss contacted the same company, Pop House Entertainment, to work on their avatars. Now, Bloomberg News reports that the ABBA shows are pulling in 2 million a week. Yes, you heard that correctly.

Clearly, I’m in the wrong business. But this trend to virtual entertainers has been happening for a while. When a hologram Tupac appeared with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre at Coachella in 2012, it was something that had already been in the works. Bands like Gorillaz and Death Clock had long used virtual or animated avatars, and within countries like South Korea, virtual avatars are growing in popularity as well, like M.A.V.E., the four member virtual K pop group that’s been moving up the charts in 2023. We noted a few episodes ago that one of the challenges for 21st century entertainment complexes like the Sphere is providing enough continuous content, and virtualized groups like this may well be able to fill that role and allow the Sphere to provide content worldwide by having virtual avatars that can fill the entire space in ways that Bono and the Edge on a small stage in front of a massive screen can’t quite do. And more than just this, the shift to remote that’s happened as part of the pandemic response could mean this technology could be rolled out in education and other fields as well.

So we’re just seeing the thin edge of the wedge of this virtualization component of Échanger. With large companies like Apple and Meta continually pushing the Metaverse, we’re going to see more and more of it in the coming years. So 2024 may well be the year of virtualization. We’ll dive further into virtualization and the Metaverse in upcoming weeks here on the Implausipod.

Why échanger? (part 4)

Well, basically it covers three things. We’ve kind of discovered it covers automation, which is the industrial process that we’ve been seeing for centuries now. It covers virtualization, the shift to digital in entertainment, education, conferences, and distribution. And the third thing it covers is agentrification, the replacement of workers or roles or jobs by AI.

So, this is different than outsourcing, as outsourcing may work in conjunction with some of the above, as noted in my own personal experience earlier, and these are all metaprocesses of the trends towards technological unemployment. If we look at any of these, automation, Virtualization and agentification, they’re all metaprocesses of translation.

Now, the work I mentioned earlier by Michel Callon, in Some Elements Towards the Sociology of Translation from 1986, is basically talking about that, describing what we call a flat ontology. An ontology, in this case, is a way of describing the world. And what a flat ontology does is it treats the actors in the world as similar.

So, normally, when we talk about an ontology, we’re talking about like with like, right? We’re talking about people, or we’re talking about things, or we’re talking about institutions, firms, we’re looking at things on the same level. When we flatten the ontology, we treat all the actors or agents in the system equally, and we can look at the power relations between them.

We use the same terms for the actors, so in this case, it would mean human and non human actors are treated in the same way. We treat the things the same as the people. That doesn’t necessarily mean we treat the people as things, but we say that everything here has to be described with the same terms when it comes to their agency.

This is what interessment means. That’s the agency. In between state, the interposition, when Michel Callon is talking about translation between asymmetrical actors, it’s that moment where we connect dissimilar things. And so this is where we come into the idea of échanger as a metaprocess for these three trends of replacement.

And that’s why we chose échanger for this process of translation as well. Échanger is a process of translation of a different kind. Échanger is the metaprocess of having something different do the job or being a replacement for the task. So if échanger means in French, literally a trade and exchange, a swap, then we’re extending or exapting the term a little bit in this case, where to us échanger means replacement in place.

So if we return to our example from the Sphere in Las Vegas, we can see this happening with the Auras and the workers. The role is similar, but it’s a different agent, different actor that is taking that place. This is what we see with virtualization as well, or automation, the agentrification that’s taking place due to AI.

And sometimes those machines, those tools, those devices, means the job of many can be done by one. But it also means that the one still occupies the same place within the network of tasks and associations within the process around it. Think of those machines embedded in the assembly line I mentioned earlier.

Where the staff went down from 7 to 2 and the production line was turned into a black box with inputs and outputs. But what’s actually going on in that black box? We can have some questions. With some automated processes, we can tell. But with AI tools, we don’t necessarily know. And that can be a significant problem. Especially when we’re facing Échanger.


Bibliography:

Autor, D., Chin, C., Salomons, A. M., & Seegmiller, B. (2022). New Frontiers: The Origins and Content of New Work, 1940–2018 (Working Paper 30389). National Bureau of Economic Research. https://doi.org/10.3386/w30389

Hatzius, J. et al. (2023)The Potentially Large Effects of Artificial Intelligence on Economic Growth . (Briggs/Kodnani). Retrieved December 5, 2023, 

Ford, M. (2016). The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment. Oneworld Publications.

Leontief, W. (1979). Is Technological Unemployment Inevitable? Challenge, 22(4), 48–50.

Susskind, D. (2020). A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond. Metropolitan Books.

They’re not human? AI-powered K-pop girl group Mave: eye global success. (2023, March 17). South China Morning Post.

Tupac Coachella hologram: Behind the technology – CBS News. (2012, November 9). 

Swift Studies

A recent article on an academic conference devoted to Taylor Swift prompted some discussion online. The article by Emily Yahr was posted on Dec 26, 2023, here:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/2023/12/26/taylor-swift-eras-conference-academic/

My response was as follows:

I felt similarly perhaps 15-20 years ago when a college offered a semester length course on the topic of Lady Gaga, and I was aghast, but then I kinda got out of it.
Taylor Swift is no different in this regard, though I think the Swifties are more of a force than the Monster ever were.
But that’s the thing: the fact that both of them have a fanbase large enough to be a) identified by name and b) make an impact beyond the pop music sphere warrants the study.

And it’s not like pop-culture focused conferences are a new thing. From the article:
“One academic told her that, after speaking at events focused on Bob Dylan, Nirvana and the Beatles, they were thrilled to discuss a prominent female artist.”
… so there is this, at least, with expanding the scope of artists that can be discussed.

I think that’s pretty swell.

(And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve presented on pop-culture related topics academically at the PCA before, as well as several Games Studies and Film Studies conferences before.)

I think there’s value in the conference though. The budget is usually pretty minimal, relatively speaking, from my experience with a couple organizing committees. It let’s the researchers get some reps in too, which honestly can be invaluable.

And obviously there is *something* going on with the Swift and her fanbase, so a bit of scrutiny isn’t a bad thing, even if I’m not on board with Lacanian interpretations of Swift’s Folklore either.

(Or anything Lacanian,tbh.)

When it comes to the utility of examining, pop-culture, I’ll grab a quote by Bruce Sterling from a couple decades past:

“The most fertile ground for analyzing motives is pop culture – not because pop culture is deep, but because it’s so shallow. It’s where those wishes and longings are most nakedly evident” (Sterling , 2002, pxii-xiii).

It was informative when I was looking at the role of #ScienceFiction back in the early Double-Ohs. It’s still solid now.


This whole subject was on my to-do list for the podcast a couple episodes from now. Look for an episode titled “The Old Man and the River” in the new year. I’ll link back to this when it gets posted.

Implausipod E0020 – The Sphere Before and After

In the first of episode of a two-parter, we visit The Sphere, in Las Vegas Nevada with a before and after personal reflection of my first encounter with the site, and how my expectations meshed with the reality of the experience. We ponder the site both inside and out, and whether The Sphere is the future of filmmaking, or if it is just a one-shot globe in the dark. Also: Robots! What’s up with that. Join us and find out.

https://www.implausipod.com/1935232/14103307-implausipod-e0020-the-sphere-before-and-after

Transcript:

What matters more, form or content? The container or what’s inside? And if you take the goods out of the package, do you keep the wrappings? These are some of the questions we’re trying to address in our two part series on the Sphere in Las Vegas. This is part one, where we’ll be looking at the venue itself, the Sphere, whose bright screen has already changed the skyline of Vegas forever.

Let’s take a closer look on the inside and the outside. In this episode of The Implausipod.

Welcome to The Implausipod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible. And as stated, this episode is going to be about the Sphere, but the organization for this episode is going to be a little bit different than our normal one. We’re going to start with some background information, some historical information, as we like to do.

And then we have a brief interview with myself prior to actually visiting the sphere for the first time. Following that, there’s a post-visit interview, kind of like reflections or initial impressions. And then I just want to detail kind of like a critical view of the venue as stated also in the outset, we’re going to talk about the film Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard From Earth in another episode that follows. This episode focuses mostly on the facility itself.

So without further ado, a brief interview with Dr. Implausible. And just a quick editor’s note, there’s a little bit of background hum on the interview. I wasn’t quite able to take that all out, so hopefully it’s not too distracting, but it’s a brief interview, so hopefully it’ll be gone soon.

So, it is noon on Sunday, October 29th, and we’re about to go check out the Sphere, or at least in a couple hours, and here’s some initial thoughts.

So, How about that experience beforehand and then after? Well, since we came to Vegas earlier this year, the Sphere was already showing off stuff on the screen and it stood up like nothing else. Why did you come? Again, we were here earlier and we stayed at Vdara and you could see the Sphere from everywhere and it kind of lit up the night sky.

And so when we had the opportunity to come back, we knew we had to come in and see it. And so What I’m really curious about is I started writing a piece called The Topology of Cyberspace at the time to kind of get down my first impressions of it. Because the Sphere looks like nothing else. It doesn’t look natural in any way.

It looks like an alien ship kind of crash landed in the middle of the desert. And it has images going across it. A lot of times it’s just advertisements. Sometimes it’s like an emoji or something like that. I think the most interesting ones for me are when they put it into Windows screensaver mode. And just colors and patterns kind of undulate across the surface.

Right now there’s a boxing match being shown, but the more interesting stuff is the, just the pure images of light and color. Like right now, the blue in waves kind of just passes across it. And if the light catches it just right, you can see the structure underneath it, like a dome within a dome. But as I go, I think the most interesting thing to check out, oh, we’ve got blue ocean and humpback whales sailing by.

I think the most interesting thing is going to be the show inside, but there’s also like some robots and some other higher tech creations on the path in from the Venetian. So I really want to see the whole thing.

What was the perspective the first time and then what’s the perspective this time?

Okay, so the first time I was here, I saw it from the room in Vdara at night.

And there with Paris in the background and the link, Ferris wheel, it kind of looks otherworldly. And now I’m looking at it from Harrah’s from the back, kind of across the parking lots, and it’s still there. It looks a little bit more normal, mundane, but it’s still fascinating. It’s that pure curve that it carves against the blue sky with the mountains in the background.

And it’s, I don’t know, it’s, like I said, like cyberspace kind of made manifest in reality. It looks like nothing else, but then that’s kind of how Vegas always seems. I really like the look of it, but I’m wondering what the up close experience will be. I’ve seen lots of videos of it since, but I haven’t really seen anything quite like it close up.

So let me ask you a question. Sure. Have you ever, in all of your readings in science fiction, have you ever seen or, not seen, but read anything like that? Or in movies maybe? In science fiction?

In movies a little bit. In science fiction definitely. There’s the old idea of like the Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, and this is kind of like taking that to the ultimate conclusion that it’s so big that actually turns into a sphere. You can’t really see the individual tiles unless you’re close up. So a lot of times in science fiction it was visualized that this would be where people live. They’d live in domes on the surface of the moon or Mars, but in some of the more dystopian science fiction novels, it would be people would live in domes in the cities, because that’s where, you know, the safe air was, and it would be big enough that you could have, like, an environment within it.

So, it’s almost like a precursor to some of that stuff that we might be seeing more of in the future, but this one cost 2 billion dollars. Did it really? Yes. And I don’t know how much that was the original budget and the overruns. And of course, this one has the lights continually going and a lot of them didn’t.

But I think it’s a neat way to conceptualize it. There’s a lot more going on with, like, the idea of, what’s it called? Arcology. Which…

What does that mean? An arcology is kind of like a self contained building where people would work and live and also, but it would have floors that were just like for hydroponics and plants. It’s interesting. And factories. It’s interesting that idea is coming back though. It’s coming back in because of population densities and the need to have more people living in, living close quarters together. So you see that like multi use space. So yeah, so it’s kind of again taking that to a nth degree rather than building out and stretching across the desert, you kind of concentrate your resources in one building so you can have, you know, you don’t necessarily need quite the power use would be similar, but you cut down on transportation and some of those issues.

So, yeah, it’s a really neat idea. There’s a lot of people that are opposed to it, but there’s buildings that you see and things like Chicago and New York and even in the Middle East now that are like that. So, yeah, it’s neat.

This is what I love about Vegas. It’s like adult Disneyland. Yeah, it’s, it’s kind of amazing that they’re kind of building the future, city block by city block out here.

So, what are the two shows that are happening at the Sphere currently? Okay. Well, there’s a concert with U2, where I think the cheap tickets are about 500 bucks each. And then there’s a movie, which is kind of a sci fi plus documentary by Darren Aronofsky, called Postcards from Earth, and that’s the one we’re going to see this afternoon.

So. I’m excited and I’m excited to get close to it. I mean, we’ve walked up kind of close when they were building it a month, two months ago, but it’s open. It’s been open for a month now. So I’m really excited to see what it’s like inside.

That’s right. I am really excited, and as hinted at earlier and kind of interspersed throughout that interview, here’s some of the basic facts about the Sphere.

What exactly is the Sphere? It seems odd to describe a mathematical object in the singular, but for now, it is kind of unique. It is the recently opened multimedia entertainment venue in Las Vegas, Nevada, just off the Strip located behind, or okay, East of, the Venetian and Palazzo resorts and south of the Winds golf course.

It’s curious that directions in Vegas are oriented in cardinality towards the Strip. Near or far, top or bottom, on or behind, but that speaks to the peculiar topographies of Vegas. The Sphere is a seven story theater and or auditorium that seats over 18,000 people. As such, it has more in common with a sporting venue than a traditional auditorium accustomed to orchestra or theater productions.

The inside is massive and converts that sense of verticality onto the audience as they begin their ascent after entering the theater. The ground floor has a number of unique exhibits, and there are several art pieces hanging from the rafters that convey the futuristic aesthetic of the place. Various shades of blues and teals are used for the internal trade dress and colors, and this ambient blue lighting helps the futuristic vibe of the place as well.

The theater itself is all focused on the central stage, and the massive screen that occupies the opposite wall just above it. This is mostly featureless, with a few arrays of something. on the ground below. But while the interior of the Sphere feels like a futuristic Vegas sized auditorium, it is the outside that is something else entirely, something unique that challenges the imagination and forces us to re evaluate our perspective.

Like the hologram advertisements from Japan that often get shown online, echoing the Jaws joke from Back to the Future 2. It strikes against the sky as something unnatural, yet still fitting within the Vegas skyline. The outside of the 112 meter high building is covered in LED panels, creating a display with 54,000 meters squared of display space.

The exterior dome, the exosphere, is like a scaffold that envelops the more traditional venue that houses the theater and when the light hits it, right, or if you’re close enough, the mesh-like structure of the exosphere can be seen through to show the endoskeleton holding it together. Construction of the sphere began in 2018 when ground was broken on the site.

It was a partnership between MSG, or Madison Square Garden Corporation, and the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, though ownership subsequently changed. With MSG being involved, I don’t know if that means they’re going to work their way through the platonic solids and we’ll get Madison Cube Garden by the year 3000, but, you know, stranger things have happened.

The Sphere, much like other unique cinema experiences of the past, often tied into an expo of the like, like the IBM exhibit from the 1964 World’s Fair, or the 1967 Expo in Montreal, which unveiled the first IMAX, tries to do a lot of unique things when it comes to the presentation of cinema, and that link to the IMAX is probably the most direct one.

I mean, the IMAX did start as part of the Montreal Expo project in 1967, showing Two films at the venue specifically constructed for it. And in 1971, the first permanent IMAX theater was built in Toronto. And this really jumpstarted the trend of super large cinema screens. Each and every one of these screens is trying to get closer and closer to that ideal of total cinema that Andre Bazin talked about. That idea that we can have a completely immersive simulation of reality. And we see that in a lot of the VR tools as well, which I think we’ll have to get deeper into in a few weeks time. And I think the best way to maybe talk about that right now is to take a look at what my experience was after entering the sphere.

The second clip are my reflections later that afternoon, after having visited the sphere for the first time. Sadly, I can’t play it for you directly, as there’s too much background noise in the clip for it to be audible or legible on tape, no matter what I tried, but I’ll re record it here for you now, based on the audio that I was able to recover.

Reflections on the sphere. I you know, throw the lapel pin on here and then we’ll see how we go. Staring at it from our hotel room at the Harrah’s, we’re looking right at the sphere. And it’s still kind of fantastic. I think my initial impressions are pretty much the same. But I’m gonna go do a movie review for it, I think I’d like to separate that out. Because it’s interesting how it was done as a movie and I I think it could have been a little bit longer, but I’m not going to get into that now. It’s just, it feels kind of like the sci fi stuff was a wrapper for a BBC documentary, like a high res version of it.

And it’s the material elements, like the material elements of the film, the 18K and 4D, the wind and the feeling of it really kind of. Put the movie over the top. So some of those are tied intimately with the space, the way your whole field of vision is really encompassed by everything that’s on the screen in front of you is fantastic.

I think you could replicate the experience on a regular scheme. It’s just, it would lose. a lot, so much of the stuff that’s on the edges, it kind of disappears. But it’s still there in your peripheral vision, giving a sense of so much, something much larger than what you’d normally experience.

So seeing, the film on the sphere is something fantastic. You get the haptics in the seat coupled with the sound and it’s really impressive sound system. And then once they started adding in the 40 elements, it was just kind of that extra bit. So yeah, as an experience, definitely worth checking out. I’m glad we did.

There are some stage elements to it. Some of like the, parts that made it feel less like a true documentary and some of the rendered footage felt out of place, but again, that’s more tied to the film, and I know that they can do that with video games, but again, it’s not necessarily germane to what we’re seeing on screen.

The way that you’re all funneled into the Sphere itself, you’re waiting, there’s a long walk. I guess the, the Sphere seats 18, 000 or so, and it feels like there’s a sense of anticipation that’s built up by having, you know, this long walk and then this corridor and then everybody waiting. And then you come through, you pour through into the lobby once they finally open the doors and you’re greeted by these robots.

I mean, you walk through this fantastic art pieces and you’re kind of looking around this immaculately designed lobby space, and it just extends upwards to an immense degree, but they have these blue lights on these auras it’s like an Alexa with a animatronic Michikoid that’s kind of around it.

They’re not mobile at all. And they have these hologram. presentation elements next to them. And if you’ve seen any other reasonably high tech event at like a science center or something in the last five years, I don’t think it’s that special, it’s that unique. But they’re neat, and the responsiveness of the robots to the audience questions was also neat.

But there’s like a lot of manpower for lack of a better term in the sphere. It’s a lot of manpower here. They have people just holding like basic science, people that are, you know, in a uniform in some kind of stage dress that are helping people get accustomed to the new environment. It’s, it’s interesting that there’s this hand holding, so to speak, to allow people to experience it.

So there’s a lot of what we might call translation going on here, even though it isn’t translation and language, it’s translation and form like, okay, this is going to be a new place. You might not be used to it. Here’s where you got to go. Here’s how you have to interact. And the robots had handlers too.

And this and every one of these jobs is something that I think could probably be filled by these robots if they’re mobile, you know, it’s just like, here’s where you go, here’s how you interact, but because we’re not used to asking humanoid robots questions the same way some people are used to asking their personal spybots questions at home, again, Alexa, Alexa, Alexa, Alexa.

There’s some learning that needs to take place, and while the sphere is packing people in at 18, 000 people a time, it’s going to take a while before a lot more people are accustomed to it. Now, on the exterior, I think there’s also something that was really interesting, especially when you got close up.

The Sphere is at its most interesting when it’s not used as a billboard, right? Like sometimes it’ll have an advertisement for a UFC event or something else going on, but when it just has the general emojis and pumpkin faces and moons and like, it’s in that undulating windows screensaver mode, it’s interesting, but When it, you know, it just has some whimsy to it when it’s in business mode for lack of a better term it loses some of that.

It’s banal. It’s huge and it has a weird space but like the shape, the outline that it carves against the other buildings even in a dynamic place like Vegas. It It’s just another billboard, but if it has some whimsy to it, then it’s it’s a little bit more fun and you can Interact with it in a sense now Yeah, right as I was just as I was viewing that there was an advertising for some convention Apex and car stuff.

I think there was a convention going on in the Venetian or the Palazzo at the same time. So, but it’s like a YouTube video kind of thing, and it’s the whimsical non commodified stuff where it becomes interesting. It’s not necessarily art. It doesn’t feel art, but it doesn’t feel like it’s tied to commerce in the same way.

If it was all ads, 24 7, it would just be another big billboard, and that is, um, boring. The emojis and the whimsical stuff makes it unique and exciting. And when it moves, when there’s a high degree of motion on it, it seems somehow more fantastical. The resolution is impressive, but when you get close up to it, you can kind of see through it, and Again, it, it has that weird superstructure and that something obscured or hidden underneath and it, it, it feels a little, it almost feels unfinished when you get close up, but that’s just the nature of the structure.

But I think the most interesting thing was, well, I guess, my reaction to it, and then the robots, the, how they may end up replacing the jobs of the people that are currently involved in those positions. I want to go into that a little bit longer, but right now I have to hike down back through Bellagio to get to the hotel.

So thanks. We’ll talk to you soon. Bye.

So after having visited the Sphere, inside and out, I’m still enthusiastic about it. I still like it, and while I’m not lining up to get tickets for Phish when they start appearing in 2024, I’m keeping my eye out for new productions that might be showing on the Sphere, whether it’s in Las Vegas or another location.

I think, overall, the experience is unique and still marvelous, and I’d go back to even just try out Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth again. Give it one more view as again, I don’t necessarily know how much that translates, but we’ll think about that in a different episode here. We’ll talk about that later.

Thinking about the Sphere from a critical perspective, though, I just, I wonder how it’s going to spread that tie to IMAX where IMAX was a very singular and unique. many years before it started seeing widespread distribution is something we might see with the sphere as well, though if we look at the IMAX, which cost 4.5 million in 1967, would only be 39 million in 2023, and nowhere near the Two billion that was required for the construction of the sphere as a site in Las Vegas. Now, much of that has to do with the exterior, but is the exterior tied to the presentation, or is that just something that enables the audiences to kind of attract and draws the attention in?

The exterior of the sphere is almost a completely different thing and could fit well within Vegas and its skyline. The idea of the Sphere, the Sphere’s technologies residing within just a regular building, a regular venue, albeit large, in London or Dubai or Shanghai or anywhere else, It might seem a little bit more affordable and a little bit more possible for something like that to exist.

With the shifting cultural context of cities that are able to support the arts, we need to think about how that happens. Not every city has a Philharmonic, and even a number of them have shuttered them, even if they had them in the past. Baumol’s Cost Disease applies here as well as it does across so many of the performing arts.

There’s only so much productivity that can be gained from any one band member, and so you have to either raise ticket prices or find some other way to deal with it, which is why we see such exorbitant rates for concerts right now in the 2020s. But the idea of the theatre as a tourist site allows for a different model where it changes the use patterns for a super cinema.

We saw in recent years where Oppenheimer was able to drive people back to IMAX for viewing, but not all theaters can support that. Avatar was a driver of 3D adoption in cinemas as well, so occasionally it happens. And these films will also drive the Purchase of new home technologies as well. The way that Oppenheimer is driving Blu ray purchases, even though again, that’s rare as did avatar and the matrix before it.

So cultural artifacts can drive technological adoption, but most cinema is not like this. So we need to think about, again, what is the sphere really for? It may not be sustainable. With a hundred million dollar loss in its first year of operations, the sphere, even in a place with money to burn like Las Vegas, might not have a long existence.

It may have to adopt other forms or other models of revenue generation, in which case we can see advertising on the outside. But is that all it is? two billion dollar billboard? I don’t think so. There’s got to be other models for it. And maybe it’s just the necessity of it being the first one in which drove up the costs.

And if they could bring that down, perhaps we’ll see more of them in other places. If the sphere follows a similar adoption curve to IMAX, then it might take some time. But again, at least there’s a path that has been already carved out there. But the sphere has some other challenges as well. Part of that is lack of infrastructure.

I mean, Las Vegas is, you know, for all intents and purposes, a company town. And with 50 parking and no direct public transportation, there’s, you know, challenges at just accessing the site. You don’t quite have the ability to, you know, have the volume of people going through to it that it would need to sustain itself right now.

And then, lastly, we have the idea of The Auras. The robots, including their handlers, the animatronic full torso robots, not mobile, but at least, you know active and engaged with the audience. Like I mentioned in the commentary, it feels kind of like an Alexa connected to a Michicoid. But these are tools that could replace staff.

And, you know, potentially at some point in time. I guess the question is why they need handlers. But there’s some you know, and how deeply tied they are with the organization as well. It feels like those need an entirely different discussion. And perhaps we’ll look into this, this idea of replacement of change and what happens when we have robotic workers.

But as I stated, I think the most important thing for me is the idea that right now, the sphere at its best when viewed from outside provides. whimsy and something unusual, something we don’t necessarily expect within the skylines of our modern cityscapes. And for that, for at least providing a few moments of sublime beauty and my visits to Vegas, I’m a fan.

Thanks.

Stay tuned for part two of our review of The Sphere, where we take a closer look at the movie on screen. Darren Aronofsky’s postcard from earth and how that relates to cinema and documentary filmmaking. Once again, I’m your host, Dr. Implausible. Research, writing, editing, and recording has been by me. The podcast is licensed under a Creative Odd Commons 4.0 share like license. No AI has been used in the production of this podcast. And it’s been a pleasure to have you with me. Take care. We’ll talk to you soon.