North Wind And Sun

Amherst Bytes: An App Store Named Desire

Posted in Amherst Bytes by Ricardo Bilton on 10-December-2009

Originally published in the Amherst Student on 9 December 2009

The surety of success is often measured by the certainty of numbers. Every once in a while, Apple’s iPhone App Store reaches a new threshold, and Apple, the proud frontrunner in all things App, takes each new numerical achievement and runs with it. The most recent milestone is 100,000 – a number that succinctly captures how far the App store has come since its inception last summer.

But 100,000 means different things to different people. For Apple, it means the company can more effectively position the App Store as the standard, increasing the legitimacy of the iPhone brand by forcing other smart phones to exist in eternal comparison to it. For consumers, 100,000 means choice in the most capitalistic form of the word  –  choice between a virtual zipper or a virtual stapler, a virtual beer-counter or a virtual baby shaker. For the more diligent of consumers, 100,000 means sifting through that same mire, finding the gems within the muck that are worth the price attached to them. 100,000 also evokes a certain sense of impossibility. It would cost about $32,000 for one to purchase every single iPhone app; even then, the iPhone can only house 148 apps concurrently, so the impossibility is twofold. 100,000, it would seem, lacks the universality that its status as a number might lead us to suggest.

Indeed, the now famous (and popularly maligned) quip, “There’s an app for that,” gets closer and closer every day to becoming a truism. There is an iPhone app that tracks Swine Flu cases, an app that aims to help people get over their fear of flying, and even an app that helps men track the menstrual cycles of their girlfriends. Many with attention spans greater than my own have espoused the wonders of the niche iPhone app, so I’ll spare you the drudgery. But I will say this: the iPhone app store functions by filling voids that you didn’t know you had.

That is not to say that this is particularly unique. The whole of capitalism operates in much the same vein. Vendors function and sustain themselves via convincing consumers that a certain product, just by its sheer novelty, will change their lives, ostensibly for the better. Technology seems particularly prone to this tendency. It’s one marked by jargon, buzzwords and gloss. A new computer is a new opportunity, each successive iteration filling in the gaps left by its predecessor, each a chance for manufacturers to deliver on their perpetual promises. It’s founded on engineered obsolescence, of both the systemic and stylistic kind.

At the risk of undermining my own integrity, let’s consider The Onion’s Dec. 3 coverage of the release of a “new device.” Nearly reading as a template for the release of any new gadget  –  seriously, plug in iPhone wherever “device” appears  – the article manages to capture, in less than 600 words, the crux of technological fetishism. Spokespeople, consumers and authors alike indifferently rattle off the features of the “new device.” The consumers, in particular, elicit the most chagrin: “The new device brings me satisfaction” said one interviewee, and it is at this point that we realize the problem with the article, the point where its satire strikes the reader most soundly, is in the realization that these consumers don’t sound like people at all. Instead they sound programmed, not too far removed from the devices themselves.

It’s hard to argue that any one consumer operates in a mode where they see their endless streams of purchases as a limitless pursuit of desires  – but in a certain sense that is exactly what is happening. Web sites like Gizmodo and Engadget feel at points almost pornographic; in reading these sites, it’s rarely long before you witness the word “sexy” applied to the latest Apple release. Moments like that make me cringe. We at times seem to be caught in a loop of new devices breeding new desires, points where our desires cross and become muddled. Some notable journalist, whose name has since been lost to the voids of time and my memory, once compared the Xbox 360’s distinctive curvature to that of the average female. There was, he thought, something beautiful, even sexy, in the elegance of the Xbox 360’s shape, evidence of design mimicking life.

The comparison is evocative of a certain kind of juxtaposition popular among adolescent boys with unfettered access to the Internet. It’s achieved by taking a woman, stripping her of her clothing, and covering up any and all nether regions with video game components  – controllers, consoles, games. Something compelling is created in this combination, an indescribable satisfaction obtained via the substitution of nudity with technology, one fetish taking the place of another. It’s confounding, fascinating and, on some level, disturbing. Where sex meets technology we find uncertain ground, a place that challenges our distinction between our definition of desire and the devices we direct it at. That new iPhone may be sexy, but it certainly doesn’t know it.

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Amherst Bytes: How to Make a Rabbit Disappear (and Appear Again) in a Digital World

Posted in Amherst Bytes by Ricardo Bilton on 7-December-2009

Originally published 2 December 2009 in The Amherst Student

Back in August, “Wired” writer Evan Ritliff undertook what is likely to be one of the more surprising and engaging endeavors in recent memory: wondering what it would take to disappear in a world of constant digital breadcrumbs, Ratliff decided to attempt the impossible  – or at least the exceedingly difficult  – task of doing just that. On the evening of Aug. 19, with just his car, a handful of cash and a new, F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired pseudonym, Ratliff disappeared into the San Francisco sunset.

The rest is well-documented history. Ratliff’s disappearance wasn’t as quiet of a slip-into-the-shadows vanishing as the notion of a spontaneous disappearance might suggest. Instead, his calculated withdrawal from society was engineered with thoughts of pursuit in mind. Ratliff didn’t particularly want to disappear –  he was in fact very much interested in getting caught – but his undertaking was imbued with the implications of what that nabbing meant.

I’ll spoil the story for you: he gets nabbed. With an army of very intent and dedicated amateur sleuths at his heels, it was only inevitable. It happens in New Orleans. Ratliff is sporting a bald head and fedora. Ratliff, who had remained a mere few steps ahead of his pursuers throughout the whole process, hid beneath the veil of digital anonymity, shedding his previous exterior in favor of his new, constructed one. He had a Twitter account (username @jdgatz) a Facebook profile and his own business. The whole process, which ended just over a month after it began, proved that, with enough determination and cash, one could, theoretically, disappear.

But the tale likewise lends itself to another conclusion, one that Ratliff himself points out in the concluding paragraphs to his article in the December issue of “Wired”: the brunt of the detective work was performed by legions of organized detectives and pieced together via components that were already there –  IP addresses, phone call records, surveillance camera footage and, yes, even Google search results.

The existence of the latter, of course, points to an obvious truth. Google, which prides itself on doing an admirable job of organizing the world’s information, naturally does a good job of organizing your information. These are your online traces, your bits, the supposedly private digital traces of your digital and not-so-digital life. Nowadays, that distinction is moot. One wonders, sometimes out loud, oftentimes not so much, what it would take to de-Google, to return to stage one with a completely blank e-slate with just a name and no paginated strings attached.

Some venture to find out, albeit in slightly different way. Rupert Murdoch, prominent owner of all things old-fashioned, not too long ago, and in between incoherent cries of “get off my lawn,” argued that Google was the source of the newspaper industry’s travails. Those damn kids, Murdoch noted, his breath smelling conspicuously of prune, aren’t paying for our content. Murdoch, likely thinking louder than he would have liked, then threatened that if Google didn’t pay News Corp. for indexing its work, the corporation’s content would not appear in Google search results. While Murdoch’s threats were predictably empty, and revealed an expected ignorance of the robots tag, recent rumors seem to lend them some veracity. Some Internet speculators have suggested that Microsoft may enter the fray by paying News Corp. to remove its search results from Google and instead allow the company to list its content exclusively on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. This, our venerable Internet oracles suggest, would offer newspapers a significant stream of revenue, and, to Microsoft’s delight, violently pluck feathers from Google’s otherwise unblemished plumage.

And perhaps it is here that we can draw our connection. Unlike the great majority of us, Murdoch has enough clout that he can effectively twist’s Google’s arm, offering a somewhat cockamamie ultimatum to one of the most influential companies of all time. Just imagine if we could do the same. If the key to securing our digital traces is to remove them from those parties that harvest them, perhaps staking our claim is all that we can do. Hell, it would be icing on the cake if Microsoft paid us to do it.

Of course, there are two parts to this. One, it’s just as likely that we can do more to protect our sensitive information by just not putting it out there in the first place. Many of our online mistakes enter our consciousnesses via indiscriminate Facebook tagging, not to mention poorly-executed (and potentially alcohol-induced) tweets and status updates. It’s obvious how this can be curtailed.

The second half of the equation is more or less out of our control. As more and more of our daily functions become more and more digitized, it’s inevitable that there will be breaches of trust, leaks of information. Information is the commodity of the 21st century. Controlling it, harvesting it and selling it are rapidly becoming more and more important than perhaps, you might say, even matters of life and death.