"When arts die, they turn into hobbies."


Author Michael Lind weighs in with this thought-provoking essay about what happens when an art form shrinks to a niche market. Using literature and architecture as examples, he organizes major and minor arts horizontally, based on audience size: Read the rest

In praise of "crap" technology

I visited my little brother, a dedicated minimalist, last month. In general, I think of myself as not particularly consumerist-y. But hanging out with somebody who is sooo much better at not consuming pointlessly has left me with a lot to think about.

Gadgets are one of the biggest things I've been pondering. This is not, especially, my area of weakness when it comes to consumerism. (That would be landscaping plants, furniture, and kitchenware.) But I did recently get my first smart phone. I have been, lately, complaining about the weight of my old MacBook. And I have been contemplating a new MP3 player. In other words, I'm at a potential buying stage in my slow-moving gadget cycle. Do I need to be, though? And if there is a reason to buy some new stuff, how should I make those choices?

That's probably why Thomas Hayden's essay In Praise of Crap Technology struck a chord with me. In it, Hayden waxes poetic about his $19.99 Coby MP3 player. It's a product that's supposed to suck. It's something you buy reluctantly, when you can't afford an iPod. But, apparently, nobody bothered to let the Coby know about that. It's boring. It's ugly. It doesn't have the latest features. But, as Hayden points out, it's also durable, inexpensive, inherently theft-deterrent, and reliable. It also does exactly what he needs it to do. No less. And no more.

My portable audio technology needs are simple. A few hundred well-chosen—by me, dammit—songs and a half-dozen episodes of the WTF podcast and I’m good to go.

Read the rest

Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century

Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century, my second essay collection, is now officially available from Tachyon Books, and in finer bookstores everywhere. It features an introduction by the estimable Tim O'Reilly, as well as a walloping 44 essays that were previously published in various magazines, newspapers and websites. As with my other books, the whole text is available as a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA download for your remixing pleasure. I'm also in search of libraries and school that would like free copies of the book sent to them by donors.

From Tim's introduction:

Edwin Schlossberg once said “The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.” And oh, how we need that skill today!

In times of transition and upheaval, we are literally “off the map” of past experience that is our normal guide to what to expect and how to think about it. It’s at times like these that we need context-setters to shape how we understand and think about the changes facing us.

It was clear from the first that Cory Doctorow is one of the great context-setters of our generation, helping us all to understand the implications of the technology being unleashed around us. We are fortunate that unlike many who practice this trade, who look backward at recent changes, or forward only a year or two, Cory uses the power of story to frame what is going on in larger terms.

Read the rest

Science museums are failing grown-ups

Last month, Armando Herrera Corral was wounded when a package delivered to his office at Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education turned out to be a bomb. Nobody knows who sent the package. But someone posted a manifesto online, taking credit for the attack and explaining why they targeted Corral.

The terrorists, by their own account, acted out of fear—of “grey goo,” the sci-fi scenario where sentient nanotech robots replicate themselves to the point that they devour everything on Earth. If you believe that threat is imminent, you have no choice but to defend humanity. Even if that means trying to kill people like Corral, director of a technology transfer center at the Monterrey Institute.

But how does somebody’s perception of science, and scientists, get so screwed up?

This isn’t that hard to understand. In fact, if you think about how little time most adults have spent actively learning accurate information about science and scientists, it’s a little amazing that more people aren’t equally confused. Read the rest