david foster wallace and teaching theory


One of my standards is to crib from David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College, ever since I assigned the Best American Non-Required Reading a few years back. I thought I posted it here, but I think that the link was to a site that had a copyright request to take it down. It’s here, for now, in its entirety. I think that this is just a lovely way to introduce thinking about theory, and then head off into talking about The Cave, etc. In part:

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice.

ok go watch content


Three years ago, I admit that I watched my fair share of Ok Go’s catchy homespun video:

They were pretty successful, and made in my estimation an ok band into a bit of an internet sensation. And then there were follow-ups. But lately, it seems the band’s label has been giving them flack for their online content. This led to an interesting open letter on their website. Nothing too surprising, but a good introduction to what happens when hype-machine and capitalism don’t mesh so well and a band wants to make a career:

…But where are they gonna find money if no one buys music? One target is radio stations (there’s lots of articles out there. here’s one: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/20…ouse-senate.ars ). And another is our friend The Internutz. As you’ve no doubt noticed, sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Blahzayblahblah.cn run ads on copyrighted content. (…) The labels are hurting and they need every penny they can find, so they’ve demanded a piece of the action. They got all huffy a couple years ago and threatened all sorts of legal terror and eventually all four majors struck deals with YouTube which pay them tiny, tiny sums of money every time one of their videos gets played. Seems like a fair enough solution, right? YouTube gets to keep the content, and the labels get some income.

The catch: the software that pays out those tiny sums doesn’t pay if a video is embedded. This means our label doesn’t get their hard-won share of the pie if our video is played on your blog, so (surprise, surprise) they won’t let us be on your blog. (…)

Let’s take a wider view for a second. What we’re really talking about here is the shift in the way we think about music. We’re stuck between two worlds: the world of ten years ago, where music was privately owned in discreet little chunks (CDs), and a new one that seems to be emerging, where music is universally publicly accessible. The thing is, only one of these worlds has a (somewhat) stable system in place for funding music and all of its associated nuts-and-bolts logistics, and, even if it were possible, none of us would willingly return to that world. Aside from the smug assholes who ran labels, who’d want a system where a handful of corporate overlords shove crap down our throats? All the same, if music is going to be more than a hobby, someone, literally, has to pay the piper. So we’ve got this ridiculous situation where the machinery of the old system is frantically trying to contort and reshape and rewire itself to run without actually selling music. It’s like a car trying to figure out how to run without gas, or a fish trying to learn to breath air.

The end result? EMI won’t ‘let them let fans’ post their content. Hmpf.

journey to the middle of taste


That’s the subtitle of a book I just finished, Carl Wilson‘s Let’s Talk About Love: Journey to the End of Taste, which is the 57th in a series of books that center on and spin off of a single album by 33 1/3. This one is on Celene Dion, and was passed along to me last weekend. It is a tour de force, much like the album itself, as it swirls through cultural criticism, global hegemony, individual identification, class, etc. by relying upon Bourdieu, Adorno, Sennett, Duncan Watts, and Richard Peterson. It provides the most sociologists between the covers of a non-academic book outside of Malcolm Gladwell.

United States: Most Wanted Painting (Dishwasher Sized)

In order to explore why Dion can be so successful and yet is so hated, Wilson has a nice moment recounting Komar and Melamid’s ‘Most Wanted’ and ‘Least Wanted’ series, which surveyed the aesthetic likes and dislikes in a variety of countries and painted the results. It turns out that, on balance, Americans–and everyone else–like natural landscapes and the color blue. The look of aesthetic democracy looks likes the image to the left. (The ‘Worst’ and global comparisons are available here.)

Wilson then connects to Watts’ Music Lab 14,000-person study, which asked visitors to listen and rate songs from artists whom they had never heard of. There were two groups: One that saw the titles of the songs and the artists and some saw how many times a song was downloaded, and the other group could see how many people who were in their own ‘taste culture’ (i.e., those who express similar musical preferences). As he explains it in a 2007 New York Times Magazine article:

Duncan Watts, making me question my aesthetic taste when I wonder whether or not this is the coolest picture of a sociologist since Mills on a Motorcycle

This setup let us test the possibility of prediction in two very direct ways. First, if people know what they like regardless of what they think other people like, the most successful songs should draw about the same amount of the total market share in both the independent and social-influence conditions — that is, hits shouldn’t be any bigger just because the people downloading them know what other people downloaded. And second, the very same songs — the “best” ones — should become hits in all social-influence worlds.

What we found, however, was exactly the opposite. In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.

Watts et al. found that a song that is ranked in the top five in the ‘blind’ market has a 50 percent chance to achieve that rating in the second group.


Ok. So markets shape our tastes. To see the scholarly output of this project go to Matthew Salganik’s website.

Short story long, I cannot wait to teach this in a Culture class, as it is not only a great introduction to a diverse span of cultural theory and research, but lively writing that I think students would really engage with, even emulate. The fact that it is Celene Dion makes it all the better.

the breathtaking fall of old media & the rise of digital

media, tech

Print Newspaper Circulation, 1990-2009

The Rise of Digital Media

Update #1 (2/1/10): The New York Observer reports a little schadenfreude on New York’s Newsday‘s $4 million firewall to have subscribers pay for content. After three months, there were exactly 35 people who were willing to pay for online content. According to reports from reporters, the website is ‘an abomination’ and they are still sore about changes in the media landscape affecting their paper: “People are still mad about losing our national correspondents, our foreign bureaus and the prestige of working for a great newspaper. The last thing we had was a living wage, being one of the few papers where you’re paid well. And to have that last thing yanked from you? It’s made people so mad.”

And then there is Greg Kot’s new book, Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. The Nation‘s J. Gabriel Boylan writes:

Unlike the introduction of the compact disc, which was developed by major labels and music retailers, as well as Phillips and Sony, the current tumult was unplanned and unforeseen. Digital technology has put far more power in the hands of ordinary consumers to wrest music from its gatekeepers. But crashing the gates has caused the music economy to dip down between cheap and free; people are storing more music on their hard drives than they’re likely to listen to in the next decade, yet major labels, music retailers and even jukebox manufacturers are spiraling toward obsolescence. Offbeat and invaluable aspects of the mass music experience are slipping away as well, from the cranky exclusivity of the niche record shop to the tastemaking role of college radio to the music press itself.

Update #2 (8/7/10): The New York Times has a nice piece on the work of copyright enforcers.