All Talk?

I drive a lot,  both for demands of the day job, and for personal obligations. Because I drive a lot, my iPod is my best friend on most days, breaking the silence with music, and podcasts. I always have a good podcast ready, nearly for every day of the week, at least. When traveling by car for a longer distance, Karen and I also make audiobooks a habit. Its not that I don’t love music…quite the opposite. I’m a passionate advocate of variety in musical taste. Sometimes, though, you want to hear good conversations or ideas or commentary. Or fiction.

And there’s something very satisfying about knowing that you’re smarter after finishing that two-hour drive during which you might otherwise have been wasting your time. Its even nicer to know you’ve finished that book you’ve been wanting to read.

The thought occurred to me last week, during one of my regular podcasts, that audio is as important a medium for me as video is to many others. I’ve heard other people voice a similar preference, and some even state openly that audio is really the only way that they read lately.

Initially, of course, this gives me pause. As a writer, I want to climb onto a soapbox to proclaim the inviolable necessity of the written word. I want to talk about how ideas and knowledge are circulated primarily through the written word, whether by books or blogs or other mediums, and that audio can never replace this.

Except, when I think about it, I still refer to listening to an audiobook as reading.

Its difficult to put into perspective at times that the written word has not always been man’s primary method of passing on knowledge, wisdom, and tradition. In the Eastern origins of civilization, most cultures were, in fact, oral cultures, in which storytellers and teachers verbally passed on important stories, knowledge, and wisdom from generation to generation. Remarkably, this was not similar to the game “telephone” you might remember playing as a child, because these oral histories survived intact and unaltered in any significant way for generations, until the written word usurped oral tradition as the primary method of communication. At that point, these oral traditions were placed into written form.  Thus, most ancient histories of which we have written documents today were originally adept at passing on their histories and what we would call important “texts” orally.

I wonder if the popularity of listening to the printed word as a (for some) mainstay to “read” the material is a nod to these oral traditions, perhaps an involuntary recognition that they were in some way superior. I don’t for a second think that, barring some cataclysmic, apocalyptic event, the written word will die (although it may survive as a text-messaged shell of its original glory), but I do think that oral transmission has more than proven its durability as a primary medium of communication. Podcasts and audiobooks were preceded by radio, which has been a mainstay for distributing important news and information in recent human history, particularly during war times. And radio was preceded by town criers, and so on back through history to the oral traditions.

If I recall my history correctly, ancient philosophers expressed fear that a transition from oral tradition to the written word would corrupt history. What we can see today is that, frequently, the written word places an emphasis of exact, denotative meaning, whereas oral transmission of a message can be more open to the connotative meaning, perhaps giving more flexibility to interpret the actual substance of the message.  Of course, the argument can also be made that historical mis-use of authority by those who were able to read over the illiterate in society could have been curbed if oral communication were more widely recognized as a viable tool for communication.

Remember the ending of the Book of Eli? After what was supposed to the be the physical book that he was guarding with his life was taken from him, the viewer discovers that the protagonist has preserved the text of the King James Bible, one of the most important compilations in human history, by memorizing it to the letter. He sits and instructs the scribe to write exactly what he says, and begins reciting the entire Bible, word for word.

I say all of this to say that oral communication is just as important a medium of conveying our thoughts, records, and knowledge as the written word. I’m not sure that I can claim one to be superior over the other…that, I think, would be fallacious. I can say with some certainty, though, that, despite the dominance of the written word and how it contributes to the precise nature of politics, law, and history, that hearing instead of visually reading has proven itself just as important a medium of communication by its continued reliability and use. I think that our affinity for listening to podcasts, and talk radio, and news, and even literature, proves this most ancient of communication methods to still be of the highest importance to our (post)modern culture.

Photo Attribution: CarbonNYC

A Review of “I Am Number Four”

I Am Number Four  I Am Number Four was one that got away from me during its theatrical run. That is, I immediately knew from the preview that this was the kind of movie that looked as though it would fit my interest in new and innovative science fiction. But, I missed it. Not sure how…probably traveling or had other big commitments, but, ultimately, I didn’t catch it in theatres.

So, through the magic of Netflix (how did we live without that), I saw it just before writing this.

The film begins with an attention-getting attack sequence in which someone (we don’t yet know who) is hunted down and killed by an alien on what appears to the the African continent. We quickly cut to the Florida Keys, and learn that the person who just died was Number 3, an alien among a group of aliens that are being systematically hunted down and killed by a race of alien predators because of their abilities. The protagonist of the movie, of course, is Number 4 (played by Alex Pettyfer), and is on the run as the rest of them are. Number 4, however, is also busy being a teenager and trying to fit in as his warrior guardian rushes him on the move when he manifests strange abilities, whisking them away form the tropics and into rural Ohio, whilst scrubbing any trace of Number 4 from the Internet. The issue is that Number 4 (who is now dubbed “John Doe” as a cover identity to make him “invisible”) is busy coming of age in his teenage years here on earth, complete with a love interest, played by Dianna Argon,  whom I am very happy to see in something other than the disaster that is Glee, and to appreciate her ability to actually do some substantive acting.

Thus, it was about thirty minutes into the movie when I began to be disappointed, feeling as though I was lost in a derivative of Smallville. This was supposed to be new and innovative science fiction, darnit, not another teenage “rescue the girl with my super powers” drama. Except, despite my disappointment, I was found myself continuing to watch with interest, cheering for the hero and unable to look away as the good vs. evil fight to survive escalated to a climax.

That was when I realized that I wasn’t disappointed at all, once I began to view the movie for what it is: the cinematic equivalent of a YA novel. This isn’t an adult film. There’s nothing new here as far as the plot, the character development is sufficient but not particularly erudite, and the movie as a whole isn’t complex in any way. The backstory is filled in during quick expositional dialogue between the characters, but somehow doesn’t leave the viewer wanting. We just understand that this is where we are coming into the narrative and keep rolling with the punches, because its the punches of the now (both emotional and supernatural) that matter most for this hour and 40-odd minutes.

I Am Number Four is not adult science fiction. It is YA science fiction, and it is very, very good YA science fiction.

Watch this expecting cool new near-future science fiction ideas along the lines of Push or Next, and you’ll be disappointed. Watch this expecting a coming of age, YA novel on film, and you’ll be very pleasantly surprised, because that’s exactly what this film is intended to be. The genre is fulfilled nicely: good vs. evil conflict, the hero growing up and standing for what is right at the expense of himself, the discovery that we cannot stand alone, and the pledge to always love the girl for whom he has inexplicably fallen for the rest of his life as he rides off into further adventures with a wide-open story arc that begs for a sequel (please, Hollywood, wait until you’re doing better than you have been with sequels as of late if you intend to give us one).

What’s particularly surprising is that the film is produced by Michael Bay. I say surprising because the action sequences are gripping and big in signature Bay style, but never once overwhelming (and, honestly, not even that big considering Bay’s usual fare). In fact, they compliment the narrative perfectly, and character development is never once overshadowed by the battles. The writers have inserted action sequences with excellent judgement, and the viewer never feels that they are there without good reason. That, from a fellow writer’s perspective, is a mark of good screen-writing.

Combined with this good judgement are excellent performances by all of the actors involved. You hate the bad guys and cheer for the good guys, but both are more complex and three-dimensional than that, and you feel as though you’ve come to know the characters through the actors’ performances by the time the credits roll. Further, the end is redemptive as Number 4 recognizes his calling, eschews his childish ways, and takes seriously his responsibility to live up to his gifting.

As I said before, the film does leave one a bit reminiscent of Smallville, and some of Number 6’s fight sequences smack of vintage Buffy the Vampire Slayer. None of this, though, happens in a bad way, and the movie honestly never attempts to do something new or daring. The goal here is to tell an excellent YA science fiction coming-of-age tale, one that will broaden the viewer’s horizons and leave you feeling the glow of redemptive positivity at the end. This is the sort of movie I hope my daughter enjoys when she is old enough to enjoy such storytelling.

I’m surprised that the film wasn’t billed for young adults, but I’ll just consider it a chance to find a hidden gem. I Am Number Four was as excellent as I had hoped, but in a different way than I had hoped. If this was one that got away from you in its theatrical run as it was for me, place it in your Netflix cue now. In fact, bump it to the top. This is just a basic, really good movie that you’ll  be glad you (and your children) watched.

What Are We Going to do Tonight, Google?

Pinky and the Brain, Vol. 1
When I was an undergrad, I moved off campus somewhere around my junior year. I used to make absolutely certain that I was home by 4:00 every evening, because the ultimate in escapism was awaiting as my reward. The thirty minute reprieve for which I longed as sweet relief from the stresses of undergraduate life? Animaniacs

One of my favorite refrains from this classic piece of animated history was the exchange between Pinky and the Brain (who would later move on to their own thirty minutes of stardom), which went like this: 

“What are we going to do tonight, Brain?”

“The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!!!”

Yes, that was good comedy.

I mention this because I couldn’t help but hear these gene-spliced lab mice discussing their evil machinations when I read over the weekend that Google is in talks to purchase Hulu. I understand that (unfortunately) where profit is to be made, corporate giants will play. I just wish that there was more of a focus on doing something well, rather than making millions upon millions by doing everything one can that happens to be closely related to what they do well.

What I mean is this: Google is synonymous with search. Search is what they’ve always done better than anyone else. Recently, as the trend of the information age has shifted to the cloud, Google has positioned themselves (arguably very well) to become  synonymous with cloud computing. What’s more, nearly everyone can access their web applications because these applications are free for the end user, supported by Google’s ad revenue. This is because ad placement is something else with which Google has attempted to make themselves synonymous. So, you see where I’m going with this? In one paragraph, I’ve counted three things that Google has positioned themselves to do better than anyone else. And I haven’t even discussed mapping, streetviews, geo-tagging, and book scanning and sales (some of which have resulted in some legal issues that are still playing out).

Now, obviously (as this blog is hosted where it is) I use Google. In fact, I live in my Google account for various daily functions, because its relatively simple, and Google makes it intentionally easy to export your data to other services whenever you so choose. Google also makes for the best email experience ever by general consensus. And, while I see the advantages of the cloud, its primary use in my life is in my role as a blogger. Otherwise, I use the cloud for basic data syncing, and often not even that (as a paranoid writer, I refuse to entrust pre-copyrighted manuscripts to cloud-based servers). I don’t even have much use for cloud-based music servers that are becoming all the rage, other than perhaps as a secondary back-up solution. Still, one has to recognize that the cloud offers enormous simplicity for many reasons, and, ultimately, more and more of our daily lives will find themselves migrating there simply because that’s the natural progression of our current technology.

Which leads me to my concern over Google.

There is much talk of Google’s corporate culture in the tech world. One of the corporations’s central values, apparently, is “Don’t be evil.” I scratched my head when Google bought YouTube. I deeply considered the Google Books project, but concluded that they were trying to do something for the greater good. If, however, Google purchases Hulu (a site that has replaced cable television for the tech-savvy…and did I mention that Google has a foray into the television world already?), I begin to suspect that they’re trying to take over the world. Well, the digital world, at least. If one digital provider assumes too much power, can we not legitimately hold some trepidation that absolute power will corrupt absolutely? Providing competition in the consumer technology sphere is admirable, but controlling an enormous number our everyday media outlets is a bit scary (one can make the ethical argument that any one source controlling the entirety of our media thus controls the thoughts of a culture…and its a short leap from there to search domination, as well).

Also at issue (as anyone who has struggled with time management will attest) is the fact that doing too many things results in doing none of them well. Google currently dominates search. They have the best mapping applications, both mobile and desktop. They created the mobile OS that is the only serious competitor to iOS. They own the largest video streaming site in the world, and are linking themselves to televisions in living rooms. They are valiantly attempting to make the world’s literature accessible to anyone with a web browser. They do chat, they do video calls, they do email, they do calendars. They do word processing. They do blogs. Is it possible to continue to do all of these well? We’ve already seen Google (arguably) fail with its attempt at micro-blogging, and only recently have they launched themselves into the social networking sphere.

I like Google. I use many of their cloud services, and I use them happily. No one can touch their search capability, and I like hosting this blog here. Honestly, however, there are some things for which I use other providers, based simply on the fact that I’m just paranoid enough to not want any one provider to have that much data about that much of my life. I wish that, instead of expanding into brave new worlds, Google would concentrate on the handful of things that they do better than anyone else.

I’m going to suspect that they’re having another night in the lab planning their next grandiose scheme at world domination when they launch their own music store.

Oh, wait. They already have.

Social Media Voyeurism

I’ve a confession to make.

While “Inbox Zero” has been more than a bit elusive for me lately, I did manage to clear out my RSS feeds this morning. That means that, in addition to news, I read all manner of new blog posts, as well as old blog posts that I hadn’t quite gotten around to yet. Blogging, obviously, is very important to me. Yet, several posts into my reading this morning, I realized that I had only commented on two. And only one of those was substantive.

Moreover, what was missing from my feeds was further discussion on a comment chain in which I had engaged in some discussion a few days ago. I suppose I should consider that conversation dead now.

So, as much as I lament this issue in the blogosphere, I seem to have become a part of the problem on more than one occasion. You see, I’m troubled by how we read. By that, I don’t mean the distractibility that comes with jumping around with hyperlinks (a discussion in itself), but rather the idea that we “consume” our media. In fact, that is the phrase that is used to describe how we read and watch and listen in tech circles, as though the words of our authors, the conversation of our actors and hosts, and the  notes of our musicians are commodities that we somehow own simply because we’ve purchased them or pay some sort of subscription or access fee. Thus, we “consume” our media. This sounds like a gluttonous act, one that makes me envision some sort of over-filled, greedy eater shoveling more and more into his mouth in order to satiate an appetite that is without end.

The difference, I’ve talked about before, is between “consuming” media, and “engaging” media. The same is true of art. We can take it in, or we can stop to think about it, appreciate it. We can go out to coffee and talk about it later. All of that has to do with “engaging” the art. The same should be true of “engaging” our media.

But what does this have to do with the blogosphere?

Excuse me, because I know I’m reprising a theme here that I’ve already discussed on more than one occasion. However, permit me to point out the obvious that a conversation cannot occur if more than one person isn’t talking. If one person is speaking (or writing) and everyone else is simply listening (or reading), then that is public address, not conversation. When we “consume” media, we read and watch and listen, and then repeat as necessary, feeling proud of all of the information and great art that we’ve taken in recently. But we haven’t stopped to really permit it to impact us. Talking with others is part of how it impacts us. The entire premise behind the Web 2.0 phenomenon was that this was media created and produced by everyone, not just professionals. In blogging (which was originally thought of as journaling), that involves two steps: reading someone’s thoughts, and then entering into conversation with that person (and others) by commenting. Otherwise, we’re missing part of what this whole thing is about.

In recent conversations with friends, I’ve compared this to an audience going to a play, and refusing to respond. Part of what makes a play such a powerful experience is that each performance is unique due to an unrepeatable synergy that occurs between the cast and the audience. Hopefully, the audience will cheer, cry, gasp, and ultimately applaud. Imagine, though, a play that received no audience reaction at all?  Proverbial crickets chirping in the distance. Even an audience that booed would be preferable to that, because a silent audience brings an incomplete performance.

I would argue that the same is true of reading a book without discussing it with someone else during or after. Or, similarly, listening to music, seeing visual art…the list goes on. The important part of this process is the conversation, because that’s what makes it a complete event. Even when I don’t comment on other’s posts, I often end up discussing the ideas in that post with someone else. That’s better than silence.

Ironically, other social media platforms are experiencing similar losses of interactivity. How many “Twitter voyeurs” do you know that read what everyone else is saying without offering any words of their own? How many status updates do you actually comment on while perusing Facebook? In how many conversations do you participate on LinkedIn? We’re all to happy to watch everything go by us, somehow thinking we’re doing well to sit back and observe without actually contributing anything ourselves.

Certainly, not every post or video or update invites comment. Further, I’m not looking to place blame for this on one cultural phenomenon or the other, or to come across as whiny because I want people to comment here more (many of you do through one channel or another). The point is that we must, for the sake of ourselves and of our society, stop “consuming” media as we would any other product, because doing so cheapens it. When we “engage,” then everyone participating in the conversation is bettered by the dialogue.

That, I’m relatively certain, is the point.

Photo Attribution: gerlos