The Null Device

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They call me Wayne Kerr, and if there's one thing I hate… it's records that are available only on LP with a download code; with no CD, and no option to buy just the download.

On one hand, this is an improvement on the previous state of affairs: records being available only on vinyl, with no downloads or digital copies whatsoever, so if you were the kind of weirdo computer-nerd to whom the words “download” and “MP3” meant something, your options would be to rig up one of those USB turntables, play your newly-bought record through them, recording to a WAV file, trim it to the separate tracks and do your best to EQ out the inherent suckiness of vinyl so you'd have something approximating what a hypothetical digital copy would sound like. Or if you don't have a USB turntable or reasonable Audacity skills, you would illegally pirate the digital copy from someone who does. At least with download codes, there is an audio file which hasn't been through the vinyl-transfer wringer. On the other hand, though, you can't have it without also accepting the slab of vinyl it comes with, because Authenticity.

The existence of the download code mockingly acknowledges the shift in ways of listening to music, the fact that not everybody owns a turntable or is willing to partake in the vinyl ceremony (taking the record gingerly out of its anti-static sleeve, placing it reverently in the middle of the vinyl shrine, sitting down cross-legged exactly between the two speakers and, for the 22 minute duration of a side, reverently contemplating the gatefold artwork with a joint in one hand, as one's forebears did in the prelapsarian Sixeventies, when love was free, weed was good and rock was the real thing), and that, with the rise of digital audio and portable sound players, the vinyl record has metamorphosed from the humble, utilitarian carrier of most convenience it was in the age of the teenager's Dansette into a fetish object; one part collectible trophy, one part quasi-religious totem of Authenticity. The denial of downloads on their own affirms the primacy of the cult of vinyl: you will take the vinyl record, it dictates, and you will regard it with quasi-religious reverence, as it is a sacred relic, a splinter of the True Cross, in which is embodied Authenticity.

The cult of vinyl-as-ark-of-Authenticity is a sort of conservative (with a small 'c') reaction to, and attempted brake on, the hurtling pace of technological and social change, which, in less than a lifetime, has rendered ways of engaging with music obsolete. The way people consume music has changed as the amount of music has increased and the price has plummeted; consequently, one has considerably more music at one's disposal than one's parents (or even one's younger self) would have, saving up for a few months to get the new LP by their favourite band and then listening the hell out of it. (A few years ago, Jarvis Cocker said that music has become something like a scented candle; something consumed casually in the background, without one's full rapt attention. Of course, Cocker's reaction to this phenomenon is coloured by the contrast with his own formative experiences in the early 1980s, which in terms of the culture of music consumption, were an extension of the Sixeventies.) Meanwhile, with the world's rising population (there are roughly twice as many people alive today as in 1970) and urban gentrification, the size of the typical residence (i.e., one affordable to one of ordinary means) has shrunk; as such, a nontrivial collection of music in physical format is increasingly becoming a luxury only wealthy eccentrics and rural hermits can afford; and this goes doubly so for space-inefficient formats such as vinyl records. The upshot is that each piece of recorded music in one's collection can expect both less attention and less physical space than might have once been the case. Which is why digital files come in handy. But, of course, that wouldn't be Authentic; when you listen to an MP3, you're not really listening to the recording and having the authentic experience of the music; you're a ghost, alienated from your own music-listening life, listening to a ghost of the music, having a ghost experience that doesn't really exist, not in the way that your dad's experience of the Stone Roses did. Or so the narrative of the vinyl mandate goes. Which is why we are stuck buying a slab of vinyl, opening the package, pulling out the card with the download code, and then putting the actual slab of vinyl in the gap behind the IKEA BILLY bookcase with all the other votive icons of Authenticity, its grooves doomed to never be touched by a gramophone needle. Time goes on and the mass of reluctantly adopted household gods grows.

The vinyl mandate is the product of a Baby Boomer elite (and, to a lesser extent, the Generation X that followed it and absorbed some of its superstitions and prejudices), having aged into seniority and cultural power, staring into the abyss of its own mortality, feeling the chill of rapid change having made its own formative experiences obsolete, recoiling before the sublime terror of one's insignificance in the face of the march of time and desperately clutching for the conditions of its own long-gone youth and virility; since these involved listening to rock'n'roll from vinyl records, it is decreed that the way that they consumed music (record player, reverent contemplation, possible recreational substance use; definitely not with a pair of white earbuds at one's desk or in the gym, and absolutely not sacrilegiously shuffled with the rest of one's collection of music) is the one true, Authentic way of truly connecting and engaging with the music. Granted, many of the artists and label owners who enforce this mandate are too young to have invested in this myth first-hand; perhaps they are motivated by a Couplandian displaced nostalgia for the golden age of authenticity they weren't born in, or perhaps such is the power of cultural transmission that values get propagated beyond the rationale from which they sprang. In any case, the myth persists for now, and we're stuck with piles of vinyl records which will never be played, all for want of a download code.

As for physical artefacts: could they not be something more practical? Personally, if I'm at a merch stand, I'd rather buy a band T-shirt or button badge with a download code affixed to it than a vinyl record with one.

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Tom Ellard, formerly of industrial electropop combo Severed Heads and now an academic teaching the digital arts, takes the world of art and the vocation of the Artist to task in an essay titled Five Reasons Why I Am Not An ‘artist’. His targets include the various hierarchies, hypocritical masquerades and rituals enforced on those playing the role of Artist, from refraining from lowering oneself to doing anything too hands-on or technical (there are operators for that) to the politics and carefully circumscribed modes of relating to other people within the art world (a place seemingly as formalised as an 18th-century aristocratic court), to the somewhat less than inspiring reality facing an Artist who has Made It:

When I worked in advertising I was surprised to meet people who didn’t do anything. They are called ‘art directors’. People like myself that perform the actual tasks are called ‘operators’ and there is a strong class distinction which leads ‘art directors’ to cross their arms while speaking near any object that they may accidentally use*. I was employed to move text on a page for an irate person standing a few feet away from the means to do it. Apparently their pureness of thought would be sullied by contact with a mechanism.
I’ve said it too many times: the ideal of an artistic career is inertia. Innovate for a while. Find a practice, a style, a scheme that earns attention. Repeat it endlessly, never daring to step outside your persona because the system will need to bind you to an iconic representation of yourself. Do you reproduce famous paintings as slow motion videos? Or use a skateboard as your macguffin? Better stick to that. Keep on making action painting, or ‘industrial’ tape cut up until you die – which is your prime function, sealing off the quantity of your saleable work.
Artists that constrain themselves are recognised more quickly, they are funded, they are more acceptable to publications because they are easier to digest. They are the cheddar cheese of creativity, and when I am I told that ‘all the best work is happening over here’, I know the place to look is anywhere but there. Innovation is part of a continuing vitality, and confusedly being alive is more important than being neatly dead. We should never ever pre-organise ourselves into categories that fit nicely in museums, journals and repositories. That’s like pinning yourself into a display case.
What will we call ourselves? The Kraftwerk guys were onto something when they called themselves ‘music workers’. But I have another idea. In advertising the term ‘creative’ is a mixed signal, it seems to be a positive, but can be a polite substitute for ‘operator’. I’ve often heard somebody say, ‘we’ll get our creatives onto that’. It means ‘all slaves to the oars’. If so, perhaps we can claim ‘creative’ or ‘operator’ back. It can be our own swearword.

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Google engineer Steve Yegge wrote a rant on Google's institutional shortcomings with platforms and APIs (capsule summary: it doesn't get them), and, in particular, why it falls short of Facebook. The rant was intended for internal consumption at Google, but got shared to the whole world by accident (or perhaps, conspiracy theorists suggest, deliberately); here it is:

Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don't get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call. One of the team members marched in and told me about it when they launched, and I asked: "So is it the Stalker API?" She got all glum and said "Yeah." I mean, I was joking, but no... the only API call we offer is to get someone's stream. So I guess the joke was on me.
Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that's not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there's something there for everyone. Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: "Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let's go contract someone to, um, write some games for us." Do you begin to see how incredibly wrong that thinking is now? The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.
After you've marveled at the platform offerings of Microsoft and Amazon, and Facebook I guess (I didn't look because I didn't want to get too depressed), head over to and browse a little. Pretty big difference, eh? It's like what your fifth-grade nephew might mock up if he were doing an assignment to demonstrate what a big powerful platform company might be building if all they had, resource-wise, was one fifth grader.

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The Times' Giles Coren (who's sort of like a more highbrow Jeremy Clarkson or something) has a terrific rant against the whole notion that, in times of economic hardship, what we need is low-brow escapism:

Escapism is an illusion. Escapism is what has got us into this mess. Buying on credit, from the tiddliest MasterCard lunch you couldn't really afford to billion-dollar leveraged buyouts, is, when you boil it down, just escapism - avoiding any sort of engagement with objective reality and doing something just because it feels good at the time. Like a child might do. Or a monkey.
If you had at least read a bit of Tolstoy, you might have expanded your mind a little. If, instead of watching all those reality shows, you had learnt Japanese, you would be in a better position to remain in work. And if, rather than calling radio phone-ins to say that Len Goodman is a spoilsport, you had learnt the French horn, you would, if nothing else, be able to play your children a bit of Mozart while they sit shivering round the last candle in the house.
I cannot tell you how furious I am with these people who seem to think they should be given back the money they spent on voting for John Sergeant. Anyone to whom a single pound represents a significant, useful quantity of money, and who spent it on a celebrity game show vote, should have his or her assets frozen immediately - under the counter-terrorism laws if need be. Their children should be taken into care. And they should have their credit cards melted and moulded into a stick with which they should be flogged until they bleed.
It was the fat years that made us lazy, dumbed us down, replaced great television with a series of reality shows and killed literature to make room for celebrity whingeing and kiddy books repackaged for adults. It is no coincidence that the publication cycle of Harry Potter, from the first book to the seventh, marked almost exactly the years of economic growth. It is a fat, lazy race that turns its brain off as a prelude to cultural engagement.
The original article was a response to a "scandal" to do with the voting on a BBC celebrity dancing programme, which came a few weeks after the BBC was involved in another scandal, to do with Russell Brand (a supposed comedian whose shtick seems to be "I'm a wild and crazy guy who thinks with his balls") leaving obscene messages on Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs' answering machine. Which does bring to mind the question of why is the BBC spending licence-payers' funds on putting out such drivel. Has the commercial media somehow failed at providing viewers with lowbrow junk food for the eyes, a failure which requires the intervention of an institution such as the BBC? Are its lofty Reithian principles of broadcasting as something to educate and elevate seen as too stodgy or snobbish or out of touch with the new democracy of the lowest common denominator? Has neo-Thatcherite everything-is-a-market fundamentalism and New Labour's image-driven culture redefined the BBC's mission in terms of competing for eyeballs with the Murdochs and lad mags in an orgy of sensationalism? Is there a secret compact between New Labour and News Corp. to let the public down gently, transforming a cherished and lofty institution through gradual neglect into just another peddler of celebrity scandal, so that the formerly unthinkable step of selling it off comes, the public, voting with their pocketbooks, will be all for it?

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Adbusters takes a hatchet to the "hipster" culture (think VICE Magazine/Nathan Barley/American Apparel/Kill Whitey/cocaine/MacBooks/fixed-gear bicycles/Lomography/Palestinian scarves), denouncing it as "The Rise of the Idiots Dead End Of Western Civilization", a culture whose more-ironic-than-thou detachment strips it of any potential for subversion or originality:

Lovers of apathy and irony, hipsters are connected through a global network of blogs and shops that push forth a global vision of fashion-informed aesthetics. Loosely associated with some form of creative output, they attend art parties, take lo-fi pictures with analog cameras, ride their bikes to night clubs and sweat it up at nouveau disco-coke parties. The hipster tends to religiously blog about their daily exploits, usually while leafing through generation-defining magazines like Vice, Another Magazine and Wallpaper. This cursory and stylized lifestyle has made the hipster almost universally loathed.
Punks wear their tattered threads and studded leather jackets with honor, priding themselves on their innovative and cheap methods of self-expression and rebellion. B-boys and b-girls announce themselves to anyone within earshot with baggy gear and boomboxes. But it is rare, if not impossible, to find an individual who will proclaim themself a proud hipster. It’s an odd dance of self-identity – adamantly denying your existence while wearing clearly defined symbols that proclaims it.
I suspect that that's because the term "hipster" (or, indeed, the Australian cognate, "coolsie") is often one used to describe one whom one considers more pretentious/less authentic than oneself. If one is a chav, bogan, redneck or similar individual, a hipster is probably anyone who listens to music one hasn't heard of, isn't into football or cars or whatever the acceptable things to be into are, and thus is probably gay and deserving of a beating. (Of course, since the people doing the categorising here are by definition not known for their sophisticated world-views, and, in fact, probably consider having sophisticated world-views with suspicion, they use terms interchangeably; in provincial towns in England, they may call them "goths" or "moshers", in Latin America, they're "emos" (or sometimes "pokemones"), whereas in 1980s Queensland being into music got you classified as a "new waver", as Greg Wadley will attest.) However, if one goes to art events in Shoreditch, Williamsburg, Fitzroy or your local equivalent, the word "hipster", used pejoratively, only refers to the more poseurish end of the continuum; the solipsistic-nihilistic fashion victims who are too busy being disaffected and "over" everything to care about anything. One oneself is never a hipster, though one may be a "hipster" (in that someone would call one that). Though hipsters, we are told, are fond of ironic quotes:
The dance floor at a hipster party looks like it should be surrounded by quotation marks. While punk, disco and hip hop all had immersive, intimate and energetic dance styles that liberated the dancer from his/her mental states – be it the head-spinning b-boy or violent thrashings of a live punk show – the hipster has more of a joke dance. A faux shrug shuffle that mocks the very idea of dancing or, at its best, illustrates a non-committal fear of expression typified in a weird twitch/ironic twist. The dancers are too self-aware to let themselves feel any form of liberation; they shuffle along, shrugging themselves into oblivion.
And it's all doom and gloom from here:
Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. But the moment a trend, band, sound, style or feeling gains too much exposure, it is suddenly looked upon with disdain. Hipsters cannot afford to maintain any cultural loyalties or affiliations for fear they will lose relevance.
An amalgamation of its own history, the youth of the West are left with consuming cool rather that creating it. The cultural zeitgeists of the past have always been sparked by furious indignation and are reactionary movements. But the hipster’s self-involved and isolated maintenance does nothing to feed cultural evolution. Western civilization’s well has run dry. The only way to avoid hitting the colossus of societal failure that looms over the horizon is for the kids to abandon this vain existence and start over.
There could be hope, with the folk trend among hipsters; when sleazy glamour and electro/fluoro fashion became thoroughly suburbanised and commodified, the hipster precincts became full of skinny young men with rustic-looking beards and girls in hand-sewn dresses. And a few of them apparently did take the folk message seriously, beyond plinking ukuleles into their MacBooks and singing tunelessly about their folkier-than-thouness; I recall a New York Times article a while ago about former Brooklyn hipsters now moving to the countryside and doing the hard yards of running farms (all organic, of course). Others, of course, put their woodsman beards and newly-acquired rootsy authenticity in ironic quotes, and the cycle began again.

Here is the Metafilter thread dissecting the article, which makes some interesting points, such as this one from "nasreddin":

Hipster self-hatred is the return of the repressed appeal to authenticity. After all, hipsterdom incorporated into itself all of its predecessors. The self-hatred, then, is the condemnation of everything it stands for by the value systems it inherited--which provide the only semblance of a normative content hipsterdom can ever manifest. This means hipsterdom is constantly at odds with itself, unable to resolve the contradiction between its countercultural heritage and its thoroughly capitalized rejection of authenticity. Authenticity, within hipsterdom, is a zombie--dead, yet unkillable, and always threatening.
This contradiction lies behind the most familiar elements of hipster culture. Pabst, high-school sports T-shirts (until recently?), Bruce Springsteen, old vinyl, trucker hats--all these are the paraphernalia of a world where authenticity could be easily and unproblematically assumed, the earnest and unpretentious vanished world of the blue-collar male. Of course, this is ironic: in searching for authenticity hipsterdom once more encounters only its superficial, external expressions. (This was Derrida's point, in a way. The hipsters are looking for authenticity, "presence," but can only seem to reach it by constructing a "supplement," which seems like a pretty good facsimile of the real thing until you realize that it never resolves the aporia, the gap between the authentic and the fake, which made it necessary to begin with.)
And here is Momus' take on it. Not surprisingly, he disagrees, equating anti-hipsterism with a brutal anti-cultural atavism:
Haddow seriously seems to be suggesting that carrying rocks rather than cameras would make these kids better and more advanced, rather than worse and more neanderthal. Smashing things is apparently what we're put on the planet to do. "Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society." Oh really? Is that why we're still mostly wearing jeans and listening to rock music, just like people fifty years ago? Maybe this "smashing" has always been mostly gestural. Maybe it's a blood-red herring, and maybe glorifying it is a kind of pointless machismo.
Hip subcultures have come into existence, it seems to me, mostly for the purpose of creating art, and of getting the more creative kids in any generation laid (the geeky ones tend to be the ones who need to rely on culture rather than mere nature when it comes to luring attractive partners into bed).
Not only does Haddow fail to see that hip subculture is a big machine for creating sex and art, he fails to see that being hip can be a sort of code of honour, something sadly lacking in the cultural mainstream. The spiritual sloth Haddow accuses the hip subculture of is actually much more prevalent in the general population, which schlepps about in jeans and listens to shapeless, floppy music and sleepwalks through shapeless, floppy jobs. People in the hip subculture are more likely -- like chivalric aristocrats -- to pay attention to what they're wearing, to experiment, to innovate. As for the value of what they come up with, that brings us back to the hands-on prac crit the Adbusters article avoids, desperate to stay arm's-length.

(via MeFi) culture hipsters momus postmodernism rants 4


The Guardian fires off a robust rhodomontade at the phenomenon of knitting as a staple of alternative culture.

We've gone from screaming for anarchy, rocking against racism, storming the US Embassy and picketing recruiting offices, tuning in and dropping out and rutting like pigs on Viagra to taking up the favourite hobby of senile old grannies everywhere and declaring it radical. Which was hilarious for about five seconds about five years ago.
Nonetheless, the truth must be stated. Germaine Greer didn't articulate her disgust with women's oppression by knitting a lavender and yellow toilet-roll holder. Dr Martin Luther King Jr didn't say: "I have a dream ... set of place mats that I crocheted using a pattern I got from a magazine." Jimi Hendrix didn't take to the stage at Woodstock wearing a nice orange and puce cardigan (with a reindeer on it) that he made using a job-lot of wool he got at a jumble sale. And Sid Vicious didn't crotchet his own stupid mock-Tibetan hippy-dippy ear-flapped bobble hats. And neither should you. If you need a hobby, take up spitting.
They have a point, if one regards punk-as-macho-destructive-nihilism and ignores the DIY aspect of punk and post-punk alternative cultures. (Wasn't it Lydia Lunch who said that the problem with punk rock is the "rock" thing, i.e., that beneath the obvious stylistic novelty, it's still the same regressively macho alpha-male proving-ground as the greaser rock of two decades earlier?)

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Former Young Republican turned maker of really cool web comics Patrick Farley has posted in his LiveJournal a Garrison Keillor essay on what's wrong with the Republican Party:

The party of Lincoln and Liberty was transmogrified into the party of hairy-backed swamp developers and corporate shills, faith-based economists, fundamentalist bullies with Bibles, Christians of convenience, freelance racists, misanthropic frat boys, shrieking midgets of AM radio, tax cheats, nihilists in golf pants, brownshirts in pinstripes, sweatshop tycoons, hacks, fakirs, aggressive dorks, Lamborghini libertarians, people who believe Neil Armstrong's moonwalk was filmed in Roswell, New Mexico, little honkers out to diminish the rest of us, Newt's evil spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch president, a dull and rigid man suspicious of the free flow of information and of secular institutions, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk. Republicans: The No.1 reason the rest of the world thinks we're deaf, dumb and dangerous.
The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few is the death knell of democracy. No republic in the history of humanity has survived this. The election of 2004 will say something about what happens to ours. The omens are not good.

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