Sunday, January 16, 2005

But, what about my XM Radio?

There are a lot of intriguing ideas hit upon in this article in The New Atlantis, entitled The Age of Egocasting by Christine Rosen. In it, Rosen traces the concepts control and choice in programming media exerted by the remote control for television to TiVo and the iPod. She writes:

What ties all these technologies together is the stroking of the ego. When cable television channels began to proliferate in the 1980s, a new type of broadcasting, called “narrowcasting,” emerged—with networks like MTV, CNN, and Court TV catering to specific interests. With the advent of TiVo and iPod, however, we have moved beyond narrowcasting into “egocasting”—a world where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear. We can consciously avoid ideas, sounds, and images that we don’t agree with or don’t enjoy.

And ends with this:

From the remote control to TiVo and iPod, we have crafted technologies that are superbly capable of giving us what we want. Our pleasure at exercising control over what we hear, what we see, and what we read is not intrinsically dangerous. But an unwillingness to recognize the potential excesses of this power—egocasting, fetishization, a vast cultural impatience, and the triumph of individual choice over all critical standards—is perilous indeed.

This is a fascinating essay. We've avoided the TiVo and iPods in our house for a variety of reasons. TiVo bothers me because A) we don't watch that much television in the first place and B) I don't like to contribute to the loss of privacy that TiVo supplies via it's recording of viewing habits and the targeted marketing that stems from it. iPods are a different matter in that they are too expensive for what they offer and their batteries are not easily replaced. As someone who for years has made his own mix tapes/discs and who has had a free form radio show and managed a college station with a free form format, I can certainly understand the appeal of the iPod, though I admit that, as Rosen expresses, seeing the multitudes of people here walking through the city with the white cords hanging from their ears, oblivious to the society around them is a bit unnerving. I feel the same way when I see individuals talking to microphones attached to their cell phones in all sorts of public spaces. My greater awareness of the cell phone issue, however, stems from the fact that we discarded our cell phones a few months back. To our surprise, not only did we live, but we rarely miss them. Neither of us felt as if we were out of touch without them and that probably stems from the fact that we didn't use them a lot in the first place.

We're not completely immune from this "egocasting". Yesterday, I installed into Shawn's truck an XM radio. She purchased it as an Xmas present with money from her father, Jim. The installation went smoothly and was completed in under 10 minutes. We hopped onto the internet to sign up for the broadcast feeds (120+ channels for $10 sign up fee plus $10 per month subscription) and within 30 minutes (it takes some time for the information to propagate through the computer systems and satellites) Shawn was receiving digital broadcasts from the feeds. It worked very well, though not perfect by any means. In our short trip to Renton, the broadcast dropped out twice, but quickly recovered, and it dropped out completely in the garage. Still the array of programming to take with you is awesome. We checked out the following formats: reggae, world dance music, African music, blues, jazz - contemporary and standards, cinema hits, 80s music, folk music, dance music, and a little hip hop. We did stop and listen to a little bit of the Discovery channel as well and we were able to get our local weather and traffic reports (only available in 30 cities at this time). However, we did not check out the other talk radio options.

Our impressions were favorable. I expect that we'll get the home adapter kit relatively soon as we do not receive FM broadcasts since we don't have an antenna on our roof (the only way we'd get such radio). Shawn wanted an XM receiver in part because of the lack of FM reception. Even if we had an antenna, however, there are only 3 stations that we ever listen to in the area and they are all public radio stations. Commercials drive us batty, like the remote control Rosen mentions, XM radio helps eliminate commercials. As with cable, it is narrowcasting in that the channels are broken down into formats that are narrowly defined. However, our saving grace is that A) we're both interested in a wide variety of music and therefore are going to listen to a great many of the stations and B) we are actually getting a greater variety of music and talk through XM than our current AM/FM broadcast market allows. These are both pluses in our book that, while possibly participating in egocasting also offer the opportunity for more.

I'd like to know what Rosen thinks of blogs and message boards communications as well. Readers here will note that I've often described the both experiences as somewhat "mental masturbation", which is another way of saying egocasting. The podcasting phenomenon can also be seen as an extension of egocasting, one that I think will go by the wayside, but it just as easily become the newest form of self publishing. I also wonder how Rosen sees DJ culture and sampling fit into this mix, since what we're seeing with the iPod is, in part, people becoming their personal DJs and taking samples of artist's work in order to combine it into their own "egocasting" format (which, of course, leads me back into thinking about the death of the album, of which I've already written about).

Anyone can be a DJ
Anyone can be a star
24 hours of fame
If only everyone knew how fabulous we are

This all feeds into my nascent notions of the artifice culture we're developing. It's a culture that extends not only into our social and entertainment habits, but also into our computing world. Only a culture focused on artifice would believe that a desktop search engine is a ground breaking product as opposed to something firm and real like food, clothes, and shelter (or even candles, furniture, and clocks). In our world data is considered a product. Marketing companies gather data and sell it as a product to other companies. Yet marketing data is often a bit like walking into someone's home, looking at their book collection, and announcing that you know this person and what she thinks and what she's like as if you really know her. Data is not information. Having more data can help fill in the puzzle, but it doesn't necessarily lead to understanding and therefore is not necessarily informative. We'd like to think it is and sometimes we guess correctly, but we're often wrong.

I've got much more to say, but it's all a jumble at the moment. I'll end my rambling and again, encourage you to read Rosen's essay.

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