The Inexorable March of Convenience

Picture me pouring the coffee. I’m working from home today. The pup is sprawled out on the floor; she’s working on her Cong which I’ve filled to the brim with peanut butter. She either thinks she’s died and gone to pup-heaven, or that this will happen every day for ever more. The cat is doing her Rear Window thing. Today, though, her watching will be rewarded. I expect both beasts to absolutely flip out when a large truck arrives sometime around ten and from it spring around thirty goats who will invade our back yard. Their mission is to eat everything. Especially the ivies — the Wisteria, the Kudzu, the English Ivy, and the Poison. Their owner is confident that they’ll clear their “plate” by the end of the day. After that, our mission will be to cover the rebooted land with that enormous mulch pile I mentioned a few weeks ago and begin construction of a chicken coop. Apparently, we’re those people: One foot striding toward the future, the other digging its heel in the past. ;) Inside we’re very much entangled with the network. Outside, it’s looking more and more Amish every day. Kevin Kelly would be proud ;) It’s 8 AM on Tuesday morning. I’m wearing a jacket inside because Nest is used to no humans being at home at this time and has auto-adjusted the climate accordingly to “Tundra.” Future shock.

I’m a huge podcast fan. Without exaggeration, I can say that I spend more time listening to podcasts than I do listening to music (at least, not ambiently) or watching TV. If I’m running, or working out at the gym, or driving, I’m probably listening to a podcast. So check this out: A couple of weeks ago, I was talking a bit about how self-driving cars will have a huge impact on entertainment, at least initially. In the long-term, autonomous vehicles will change how roads are designed, and then even entire cities. But in the short-term, commutes themselves won’t change as fast as the technology of commuting will, which means that self-driving cars will give us our attention back before they give us much else. In other words, as passengers — no longer drivers — we’ll have a lot of time to fill watching other things besides the road. The car, after all, is already connected; safety forbids us taking full advantage of it as long as we’re the ones driving. Once we’re “liberated” from worrying about safety, Big TV will be there. In the meantime, though, we have podcasts. Kevin Roose, writing for New York Magazine — though somewhat quaint on the subject, but more on that in a moment — explains why that matters. His answer to “What’s Behind the Great Podcast Renaissance?” is cars. The author writes:

“…cars are going online. Both Google and Apple have rolled out connected-car platforms, and most new cars sold in the U.S. these days come with the ability to play smartphone audio over the car’s speakers, either through Bluetooth connectivity or through a USB or auxiliary plug. One industry group, GMSA, estimates that 50% of all cars sold in 2015 will be internet-connected, and 100% by 2025. Connected cars are a boon for the entire streaming audio industry, but they’re especially exciting for podcast makers, whose shows are perfectly suited to in-car listening. Just as TV watchers can now choose Netflix or Amazon streams over surfing channels, radio listeners will soon have a bevy of on-demand options at their disposal.”

Absolutely! Although, this is already true. I’d venture to guess that for the segment of our population responsible for this podcastaissance — people you’d have to call “early adopters” if this article is right about the popular trajectory of podcasts — podcasts are already a central part of their commutes, whether they are walking, biking, riding public transportation, or driving. They’re like me. That, per Roose’s point, is because of mp3 players (like the iPod!) — or, more likely the case these days, smartphones. So, right now, you don’t need a “connected” car to enjoy a podcast on the road. You just need a car with an audio system (i.e. any car). Most cars produced over the last decade either have a line-in or a USB input, making the smartphone the car’s better radio. But even longer ago, you could do the same thing with a portable radio tuner that drew power from a car’s cigarette lighter (those were the days) or tape deck accessory, either of which basically let you run anything with a headphone jack into the system. In high school, my friends and I did that with a Discman. A couple of years later, I did it with a Minidisc player. And not too long after that, with an iPod Shuffle (I loved those things). So contrary to the article’s point of view, it’s not that this is happening now — all of the sudden — it’s just that it has gotten much easier lately. This is a great thing. But I’m not sure it makes for a podcastaissance. Maybe I’m being picky, but a renaissance is a rebirth, and as far as I can tell, the podcast never died. Roose says that “sometime around 2009 or 2010, the podcast scene seemed to wither,” but doesn’t say how specifically and I’m going to just be blunt and say that’s because he’s completely wrong on this point. It never withered. He just wasn’t listening. So sure, it’s his little renaissance. But for the rest of us, this is just the steady climb we’ve been watching for years. Viva la podcast!

All that being said, the podcast obviously can only be as old as the device from which it gets it’s name — the iPod, created just 13 years ago. But the basic nature of the format — audio “broadcast” over the public internet — is about as old as, well, the public internet. I remember listening to all kinds of internet-native broadcasts in my dorm room in the late 90s. Back when Scully still grabbed clues from “THE INTERNET” and that seemed slick. Back then, I had huge libraries of shows that I downloaded, organized, and listened to using Winamp or Windows Media Player. Of course, that the iPod came out in 2001 was a wonderfully lucky coincidence for the guys who had figured out how to use RSS to automate delivery of audio that same year. I wonder: Was it the iPod that gave the podcast its first boost, or would podcasts have done just fine, even if we were all listening to them on our Diamond Rios or our Creative NOMADS? I suppose that doesn’t matter much but I’m still a bit unenthusiastic about declaring the podcast an Apple victory when the iPod was created purely as a trojan horse to get Apple into the music industry. On that, listen to Mr. Jobs himself. His first words are, “The choice we made was music.”

Of my 21 current podcast subscriptions, 11 are independent — meaning, they are not affiliated with or primarily broadcast over a radio station — and 10 are affiliated with public radio. One of them has been broadcasting since before the word “podcast” was even in use, another just celebrated its tenth anniversary, and a pretty long list of others date back to either 2005 or 2006. As far as I can tell, these are popular podcasts. Almost all of the independent ones have gone from being part-time hobbies for their creators to full-time jobs. (And no, none of them are podcasts about making podcasts.) Anecdotal as all of this may be, it certainly flies in the face of the so-called “withering” of the scene back in 2010. I think what Roose is observing is the format reaching a tipping point — where its potential (audio is an astonishingly expansive medium, in some ways more evocative and cognitively engaging than video) is finally being reached due to the wide availability of tools, the growing demand for eye-free information consumption, and the ubiquity of devices capable of delivering it. So is it the car? No, I don’t think so. That would be like saying that CNN is responsible for a newsaissance simply because it decided to make news available 24-7, even if that meant making stuff up. The car is going to give us more time to consume podcasts. But the credit should go to the RSS nerds, and to Steve Jobs (even though it was kind of an accident and Apple has continued to treat podcasts like their redheaded stepchild), and, honestly, to people like Ira Glass and Jad Abumrad for redefining what an audio broadcast can be and blowing everyone’s minds in the process.

Convenience-driven innovation puts technology out to pasture. It’s sad, but true. Recently on the webs there has been plenty of fuss made over Amazon’s latest landgrab: Amazon Prime Fresh. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Amazon is finally going after the one last store it hasn’t managed to replace — the grocery store. For $299 per year, you’ll have the privilege of clicking for kale. And if you live in Brooklyn (of course), you can try it out now! The $299 is just for the account, by the way. You’ll get same or next-day delivery, but you’ll still pay Amazon’s prices for individual items, just like Prime. Now, I heard this debated on the radio, and one insufferable spin doctor kept going on and on about how Americans are far too busy these days to spend their precious time pushing a cart up and down the aisles of a grocery store (like a Neanderthal!) and will be ready to hand Bezos a Nobel prize for liberating them of this slavery. The other guests were, as far as I’m concerned, appropriately aghast. The bemused host asked more than once, who are these people that hate grocery shopping so? and mentioned that the grocery store was one of the few places left where he can go and feel free of the screens and buzzing phones that rule every other moment in his life. And I was with him on that. The notion of shopping for food in the same way that I shop for an HDMI cable is absolutely unappealing to me, mostly because it would rob me of the pleasure that being in a good market offers. A bushel of kale can be a product definition, sure, but when I go to the store, I can pick that bushel of kale — the one I touch, the one I see isn’t wilted or rotten. On Amazon, it’s going to be this beautiful green JPEG, but what of the one that arrives wrapped in plastic and rattling around an oversized box sealed with Prime tape? Amaztopia-guy kept pushing the convenience angle. And fine, you can’t really argue with that, I suppose. If people want it, then someone’s going to give it to them. But what I question is whether people actually want it, or whether the bet here is that people can be made to want it.

An essential calculus to our contemporary technological culture is that convenience becomes need. That we go from being invited to want some new thing that promises to make our lives better — freeing us of some plebeian labor that is clearly beneath our station as 21st century digerati — to needing it, because the all-consuming fire of digital culture sucks up whatever free space was created there and fills it with another email or Tweet or video to watch. Which, of course, makes us ripe for another convenience pitch. Remember the guy who left Facebook, lamenting “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”? You couldn’t ask for a better sub-140-character indictment of the triviality of today’s technological discourse. And advertising makes a wonderful villain to blame. But underneath the advertising con is a more sinister force — the dark hand that pushes us forward on this inexorable march toward convenience. G.K. Chesterton once said something of interest here, I think. He said that the danger in people losing their faith is not that they’ll be left believing nothing, but that they’ll be vulnerable to believing anything. That sentiment has annoyed plenty of atheists, so, perhaps this is better put in secular terms: Nature abhors a vacuum. If convenience remains non-objective — simply convenience for convenience’s sake — then its every affordance will become yet another patch of fertile ground for the convenience salesman. After all, we’re doing a mighty fine job right now of squandering our cognitive surplus on cat GIFs and project management (oh man am I offending everyone right now). Why wouldn’t we expect more of the same when we don’t have to go grocery shopping anymore? It’d be a true shame to convenience ourselves all the way to a WALL-E future before it dawns upon us that work is the prevenient grace of embodiment.

Heavy Rotation: Somehow the recent Sound Opinions episode about Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and my interest in the Herbie Hancock Quintet record I mentioned last time, converged unexpectedly and led me to Birds of Fire, by The Mahavishnu Orchestra. I listened to them a bit as a teenager when I was just getting going with a prog fixation that lasted a good while, but I was always more of a Crimson fan. But now, digging back in, three immediate takeaways: (1) John McLaughlin is an amazing guitarist and should be considered as great as Jimmy Page or Dave Gilmour or Robert Fripp or whomever. (2) Billy Cobham is an amazing drummer and should be considered as great as John Bonham or Bill Bruford or Neil Peart or whomever. (3) That this was released in the same year as Larks Tongues in Aspic is amazing, and I can see (hear) so much more clearly now the line of influence from Mahavishnu to Crimson, not the other way around. Even way later in 1995, Crimson was still playing with stuff in THRAK that you can hear in Birds of Fire. I’m actually not that much of prog nerd these days, but I must say I was kind of blown away by how wacko and psychedelic this album is.

Recent Tabs: Watch this video from Honda called The Other Side. Aside from some pretty nicely done photography, it’s doing some really interesting things with parallel storytelling. Hit “R” and you’ll see what I mean. The always-brilliant Dan Hill on the impact of predictive analytics on cities. (Clockwork Pity gives way to Predictive City, and of course, adjective-du-jour, Responsive City. I’ll be happy when “responsive” is relegated to the Official List of Vestigial Descriptors, joining our old friends, “e-” and “digital.”) The Pioneering Women of Electronic Music, an interactive timeline. And speaking of electronic music, watch this clip of Death and the Powers, an opera developed at MIT’s Media Lab about a man who wants to reproduce his consciousness in a computer. This opera boasts a chorus of robots. Real ones. And on that note, here’s the first photograph of a human.

Alright. That’s more than enough for one post, wouldn’t you say? I’m finishing this up on the evening after our goat adventure (see: #goatselfie), and my dryer has just buzzed, loudly reminding me that I must go and fold every garment I own. Valley readers, I beg of you. Stop the feudal warfare and let the taxi drivers keep their industry. Disrupt laundry instead! Few things are as far beneath the station of this 21st century digerati than folding clothes, for goodness sake! Help me remain blissfully ignorant of the privilege inherent in having so many clothes to fold and evolve past the positively regressive thought that wisdom and character might be built in submitting to repetitive, mundane tasks! (Sarcasm, people.)

Seriously, though, thanks for spending your cognitive surplus on me!

Written by Christopher Butler on November 6, 2014,   In Essays

Next Entry
Hyper-local NIMBYism (and Other Easy Critiques) Picture me in the office alone last night when I wrote this. It was thoroughly November. The post-sunset blue light peering in through the windows
Previous Entry
21st Century Simulacra Picture me fussing around with some sketches of a product I need that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a bit half-baked at the moment, but it’s something

⌨ Keep up via Email or RSS
© Christopher Butler. All rights reserved