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.

The Audience Commodity, an overview

From posts made to Mastodon account as of 2023-07-04

With looming introduction of Threads and the subsequent integration with the fediverse I thought a quick summary of a key piece of economics literature is in order. Likely too late, but perhaps not.

Basically, what is the Facebook or Meta business model?

The production of the audience commodity

(This is from 1977, by Dallas W. Smythe, so some of it may seem obvious in retrospect. Please read it through. Also I’m posting as I go, so it might take a bit).

So what is the question Smythe is trying to answer when it comes to the audience commodity? Basically, “what economic functions for capital do mass communications systems serve?” (And Google and Facebook both fit in with the “mass” in mass communications here).

In order to figure out this function, you need to figure out what the commodity they produce actually is. You might think you know the whole “if you’re not paying, you’re the product” line. This is part of that.

Now if you’re asked “what does media produce” you might answer something like content or information or messages or entertainment.

This is understandable. This is what it looks like they do. You’re forgiven if you thought that’s how it worked. This is the trad, orthodox, “idealist” POV. This is held by everyone from Galbraith to Marx to Veblen to McLuhan

So there’s a lot of press on this idea. Smythe’s argument is that it misses the point.

4/ So if the trad, orthodox, normal economics view of mass communication gets it wrong, what do they produce? What is the commodity form of advertising sponsored (mass)communications under late capitalism ?

Audiences and readerships.

The audience commodity.

Here the work, the labour power of the workers is resold to the advertisers. This is nominally the “consciousness industry”.

Remember: TV stations and walled platforms on the internet are factories that produce audiences for advertisers

So that’s a lot of the overarching stuff. let’s get into the specifics. Smythe has 8 main points. We’ll cover these quickly then move on to how it connects to Facebook and the fediverse

Q1) What do the advertisers buy with their money?
A) The services of audiences in predictable numbers.

It’s a service economy and we’re the ones providing the service.

(We’re also the ones being served up. Ironic!)

The commodity is the collective.

Q2) How do advertisers know they’re getting what they paid for?
A) Various ratings agencies, bitd, and the analysis which has largely moved in-house for streaming and internet platforms. This would be the Nielsen’s and a whole host of stuff under the umbrella of “market research”.

Q3): What institutions produce the commodity that advertisers want?
A) Principally, and traditionally, it’s the owners of TV and radio stations, and newspaper and magazine publishers. You can add most web platforms to this nowadays. Of course, there’s a host of secondary producers, and industries that provide content for the principal market, obviously, but this is the main outlet.

Q4) what is the nature of content in economic terms under late capitalism ?
A) it’s an inducement. It’s the “free lunch” that attracts the audience in the door, and encourages them to stay.

This speaks nothing to cost, “quality”, or format. In fact, the cheaper this can be procured, the better. A free lunch isn’t free, obvs, but someone is providing the bread and meat.

If the users bring their own, even better.

Q5): “What is the nature of the service performed for the advertiser by members of the purchased audiences?
A): The audience commodity is “a non-durable producer’s good bought and used in the marketing of the advertiser’s product”. The work the audience does is to learn to buy and consume various brands of products, and spend their income accordingly. If they can develop brand loyalty while doing this, even better

(Almost done, honest.)

Q6) How does the management of demand relate to the notion of “free” or “leisure” time under the labour theory of value?
A) The goal under monopoly capitalism is for all non-sleeping time to be work time. (For most of the population. I’ll let you do the math on the missing percentage yourself). Free time and leisure time are turned into work time. (And in the 21st century even work time can do double duty.)

(Note: Smythe goes on for 4 pages in Q6, above. It’s his key point and there’s a lot to unpack.)

Q7): Does the audience commodity perform an essential #economic function?
A) it’s complicated. As noted above, orthodox theories didn’t really go into this, and mass media and brands were before Marx ‘s time, so he didn’t say much about them either.

Smythe turns to the Grundrisse to tease out an answer: “production produces consumption” (p.91-2; that whole paragraph).

So, yes: essential.

Q8) Why have Marxist economists been indifferent to the role of advertising and focused on content instead?
A) Shiny things, obviously. Remember, this is being published in 1977, a decade before authors like Noam Chomsky would publish Manufacturing Consent.

Smythe published two versions of this, the peer-reviewed article I’ve been using, and again in 1981 in Dependency Road. Again, foundational. Critical for understanding what’s going on.

What does it mean for right now?

So just to link the above thread with some current events in social media:

Both Meta and Alphabet are well entrenched as advertising companies at this point. No surprises.

Also, it’s reasonably well known what’s going on, with the auction service being detailed in this explainer from @themarkup :

And follow the link in their article to the breakdown of market segmentation by Microsoft in their Xandr platform.

(Part 2 coming tomorrow!)

Foundational Books

What are the books that shape you?
…that influence your beliefs>
…that change your mind?
…that transform you into the person you are today?

I was looking for something on the bookshelf the other day and came across a book that I hadn’t looked at in quite some time (Saul’s The Doubter’s Companion, fwiw), and saw the notes and underlining, clearly made with intent, by some other me decades ago.

So I dug deeper into the bookshelf, and came up with a list:

  • John Ralston Saul, The Doubter’s Companion
  • John Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium
  • Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
  • Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, Creativity
  • G.M. Peter Swann, Common Innovation
  • Douglass Rushkoff, Program or be Programmed
  • Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
  • Raymond Williams, On Television
  • Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor
  • Dierdre McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics
  • Richard Lanham, Economics of Attention
  • Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
  • Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy
  • Eric Havelock, Origins of Western Literacy
  • Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity
  • Norbert Weiner, Cybernetics
  • Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late
  • Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality
  • Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike, The Practice of Programming

Now, a few words. This is a foundational list. But there are several things that it’s not, so we’ll define it by that. It’s not a top ten, and it’s not in any order, save for as they came to mind. (This may reveal the associations and linkages in my mind, but no more). And looking at it, it is necessarily incomplete; it’s a start.

They may not be the most notable or celebrated work by some of these authors (though in some cases they are), but they are the ones I bought, read, experienced, and retained, and through all of them I can find echoes of my current beliefs, attitudes and outlooks, so in echo of Borges’ Quixote, I’ll note them down so the path can be retraced.

I think a book a week is a good pace for a re-read. Let’s dive into the foundations of the bookshelf…

Guardians 3 or Rocket 1?

Let’s talk about this guy (Rocket Racoon) and how his origins relate to a sci-fi concept you might never heard of called the Uplift.

Spoilers ahead in (3..2..1..)

The reason why we wanna talk about Rocket is because GG3 (poster) can really be seen as Rocket Racoon 1 (with appearances by the Guardians of the Galaxy) (cover with overlay). And by making the movie about Rocket, we get one of the most impactful and introspective movies that Marvel has ever released, perhaps since the first two Captain America films.

Because the emotional core of the film, as well as the chief driver of the plot and narrative, is all Rocket. We are treated to his origin in the MCU, his backstory, his friends, and his primary antagonist, the High Evolutionary.

Now, the High Evolutionary originally appeared in the comics as a Thor villain, and had numerous other appearances in the MCU. It’s really a shame he’s a one-and-done villain here, as he had a long history, and could often be the driver of multiple stories in much the same way as Kang and Thanos have been. His focus is on advancing the development of humanity through forced evolution. He’s a super-eugenicist. He’s a tyrant, and more than a little bit of a control freak. Having him as the antagonist is critically important, which we’ll get to a little bit later.

The High Evolutionary isn’t really the villain of the first major Rocket storyline in the comics (which appeared back in 1985), but the villain(s) in that story had a bit of overlap in method, so we get that character agglomeration so common with media translations. (AGOT reference?)

Here we can see Teefs (his best bud), known then as his First Mate Wal Rus, as well as the fabulous Lylla, an otter (cue Denis Leary: “an otter”) and romantic interest

One of RR’s other companions was a turtle, Pyko, who we witness in the test chamber (twice!). We kinda hope this guy might show backup later. (well, I do anyways)

They’re all Uplifted animals. So what does that mean? What is the Uplift?

Well, the idea of anthropomorphic animals, that can talk and communicate with humans has long been a staple of sci-fi, going back to the HG Wells, and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).

We also saw it a lot in cartoons of various sorts, with various rabbits and mice (Bugs and Mickey), ducks (Daffy, Donald, Scrooge) and … cows or something (Goofy), so the idea isn’t that unfamiliar to us, but it was always a bit of a weird fit in the superhero comics world.

And yes, these appearances aren’t even counting the Stadel lion-man (from 32000 BCE) or the various deities of the ancient Egyptians, or the visions of Ezekiel, or all the other appearances. It’s a long, rich history, is what I’m saying, but we’re focused on the sci-fi and comic book appearances here.

Rocket showed up in the mid 70s, but he only was in a handful of issues before the 21st century, and aside from Jaxxon in the Marvel Star Wars comics, the most prominent animal was either a Private Duck (Howard) or an Aardvark barbarian. (You can figure out his stats for D&D). This isn’t a history of anthropomorphic animals though. Let’s get to the Uplift.

The Uplift was David Brin’s science fiction series where humanity has increased the intelligence in chimps and dolphins to the point where they are sentient and can communicate with humans. And then they discover that there are other inter-galactic civilizations that exist, and do the same. And they regard humanity as being barely evolved, so it’s only the sheer coincidence that humanity had Uplifted the other species that saves them from being a client bound to some other more powerful species.

The Uplift series started in 1980 with Sundiver, (and I’m sorry, but I only have the second book, 1983’s Startide Rising, on the bookshelf at the moment.) And because verbing weirds language, Uplift is now synonymous with the leveling up the intelligence of animals (and others) to human levels of sapience (or beyond). Series like the Planet of the Apes can be seen as an Uplift story (though not in that universe), even though it came out decades earlier. There’s also Wells’ work of course, which we mentioned earlier, and there’s also Olaf Stapledon’s classic Sirius and Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog” (both of which form parts of the inspiration for Cosmo in the GG as well).

When it comes to Uplifted racoons, like Rocket, well, he’s pretty unique, he’s one of the first. There’s another example in Bruce Sterling’s short story “Our Neural Chernobyl” from the Globalhead (1992) collection. Raccoons as a species get uplifted, and well, it doesn’t look like it’s going to go well for humanity.

What the Uplift series explores, and allows us to imagine collectively, is our interaction with the animals around us, and how we relate to them, it they were at our level of intelligence.

Now David Brin is a scientist by training, and he brings that hard science view to a lot of his fiction. His background is in astronomy, and he’s been a consultant to NASA, as well as a contributor to many science fiction projects aside from his own novels.

And all this lays the foundation to talk about what’s going on with Rocket Racoon and the animals in Guardians of the Galaxy 3, with the imprisonment, experimentation, exploitation, and disposal.

(And I want to be clear, that there are multiple interpretations to the story, and those may be valid too. But in presenting the broader historical picture, I hope to show you that interpretations tied to the issues of the moment may miss the scope of what’s being discussed.)

Rocket’s story, and the story of his animal companions is ultimately a human story, a trans-human story, about how we evolve and become post-human.

And so to help explain that story, let’s bring in a little philosophy, courtesy of Giorgio Agamben’s The Open (2002). Subtitled Man and Animal, the work is a side project spilling off of Agamben’s larger investigation of what it means to be human through examining historical instances of it at a minimum level, the Homo Sacer project, and his examination of rule by decree. Given the “interesting times” we’re living in in 2023, as we’re now living with COVID, the guy has some interesting views, not all of which I agree with.

The main ones we’re interested in right now are the relationship between human and animal, and in this his view are informed by Foucault’s conception of “biopolitics”. (we’re not doing a deep dive on Foucault here. Bientot.)

Biopower, at a high level can be seen as the regimes used for controlling and subjugating the bodies and populations that comprise a polity. Think of the health care system in the United States, as one example, or of the food production systems that shape and manage the animals that end up as meals on our tables.

Factory farming, in other words. For Agamben, following from Foucault, biopolitics is a source of control. Of managing the biosphere, the teeming millions (whatever species those millions may be, be it man, cow, dog, chicken… racoon).

So Agamben brings us into the idea of biopower, and that our relationship with the Animal is one of humanity separating itself from the natural world. And this is where our antagonist the High Evolutionary steps back in the equation.

As noted above, the High Evolutionary, in the comics and the MCU, is a super-eugenicist, a totalitarian dictator willing to destroy his creations in the hope of improvement, and freely experiment on animals. And while in the comics Counter-Earth is destroyed by Galactus, after High Evolutionary falters when attempting to protect it, here he destroys his planet of Ani-Men as the prospect of an improved denizen comes to fruition.

The High Evolutionary is after all, all about control. And this control, this mastery, is what links the dominion inherent in biopolitics with the atrocities he pursues as part of his quest to create a perfect species with which to populate his planet. This is ultimately a fascist project, which places the super-eugenicist precisely where he belongs in 2023. As Paul Virilio notes in Art and Fear, genetic engineering and the “transgenic practices” lead to biology as an expressionistic practice, which was occuring in the laboratories of various totalitarian regimes across the 20th century.

There too, the testing of animals was unabated, and the development of hybrids continued as well. Much like Rocket and his friends being transformed, uplifted, unwillingly, by the High Evolutionary, as “hybrids of modern science signal the complete control over the animality of man” (Pick 11). But in the process of this uplift, Rocket wakes up. Much like Neo in an earlier series, he becomes aware of his particular situation.

To quote Agamben: “[An animal] who has awakened from its captivation to its own captivation. This awakening of the living being to its own being-captivated, this anxious and resolute opening to a not-open, is the human.” (Agamben, 70).

Rocket “wakes up”, grows into his sentience and sapience, and realizes his captivity, and, trying to escape, realizes he is doubly-trapped. He goes through a process of becoming, and we as the audience, go through that journey with him, and we realize our own captivity much like his.

Such is the catharsis we feel as we witness Rocket attempt his escape. it is our own liberation,. He is humanity, he has been uplifted, he is awakened, and now he fights for freedom.

We’re all Rocket.

Epilogue: now, it’s hard to say how much of this is intentional on the part of James Gunn, if he’s read these (somewhat) obscure academic philosophers, if he’s well versed in the discourse on biopolitics, and the Open, the gap between animal and man.

Perhaps the extent that these themes ring out resoundingly from Rocket Raccoon 1 (sorry, GotG 3) speaks to the essential truths that they address, and film, and science fiction, by reflecting our reality back to us allow us to see clearly that which often lays hidden (and in terms of factory farming, animal testing, and concentration camps we often rely on that distancing to shield ourselves from the damage we inflict, in our living on the planet).

But that’s the power of this film in particular, a rare hit from Marvel that reaches beyond the superhero genre and speaks directly to us about the human condition.

As experienced by a procyon lotor, a common Raccoon.

A Thousand Plateaus (0/n)

“What is your ‘white whale’ book?” asked @schizophrenicreads on TikTok recently, and I knew the answer immediately: Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. It’s a book that I’ve bounced off several times, and in so doing always felt that I was somehow lacking in my understanding. When the subject(s) of the book are explained to me it always intuitively makes sense, but when I try and decipher the text I feel as though I’m trapped in Borges’ endless library reading something that’s just off by a dimension or two.

But I’m nothing if not persistent, so perhaps this time will be the charm.

I feel like it should be understandable. The later works of Deleuze that I’ve read (such as “Postscripts on a Control Society”) were straightforward and easy to grok. Perhaps there was a significant shift in Deleuze’s writing over time, becoming more refined, more focused. Or perhaps it’s a question of translation, ever a cause for academic inscrutability and undergraduate confusion. Maybe Immanuel Kant is an easy read in the original German? Perhaps, but I suspect this is still not the case…

However, I’m going to document and share my journey of trying to crack this Whale of a text, interstitially, with the other content on this feed as I make my way through. Perhaps it’ll help in making headway. To assist in the process, to ensure success, I’ve spoken with a friend and colleague who is somewhat of a Deleuzian scholar, and I’ve consumed a couple quick summaries, one of which I’ll link down below. To progress, and bringing in that White Whale. Arggh!