The Paperclip and the Chain

Can you show me where on the paperclip he touched you?

Few cartoon characters are more hated than Clippy, the pesky “assistant” who prowled the mean streets of Microsoft Word in the 1990s.  (“You look like you’re writing a letter.” NO I’M NOT FUCK YOU DUDE.)  Clippy is like the Comic Sans of cartoons.  He’s like the primitive ancestor of Siri cross-bred with the Noid. (By the way, I apologize for gender-stereotyping, but I always assumed Clippy was a guy.  Why this is the case—and why iconic portrayals of later digital assistants like Siri or the operating system in the film Her were presented as female—is a subject for rich speculation.) Anyway, even if Clippy no longer haunts our lives, the paperclip remains part of the iconography of … [Read more...]

New Adventures in Lo-Fi: Bootleg Histories in Lucas Hilderbrand’s “Inherent Vice”


Scholars in recent years have studied a variety of different media to challenge the ever-present notion of technological determinism, identifying ways that listeners, readers, and viewers shape both the technologies of communication and the creative expression conveyed by them.  Much attention has focused on the possibilities of digital media, such as personal computers and the Internet, to open up new arenas for individual participation through blogs, file-sharing, and online video.  Some studies, such as Lisa Gitelman’s work on the early phonograph, have searched for the origins of a participatory media culture beyond the very recent past; however, much remains to be said about the ways … [Read more...]

OK Go and the Revival of Music Video Culture

Busby Berkeley dreams

It was late on a Friday, and I was hanging out with my parents in Gastonia, NC.  They asked me I had seen the zero-gravity video on the plane. I had indeed seen reports of OK Go’s latest viral clip in my Facebook feed and other online news sources—having seen a few of their quite clever setpieces before I figured the new video would probably have a cool gimmick all its own, but I had not bothered to check it out (much as I heard roiling, boiling controversy about Bey and Kendrick the same week without actually seeing what caused all the ruckus). But it was kind of cool to sit with my mom and stepdad and see them enthused about new music—and more than that, to see an utterly daring, … [Read more...]

I Listened to the New U2 Album So You Don’t Have to


I, like millions of other Apple users, woke up to find that Tim Cook had bought me an album. Incredibly, the tech giant had decided to (sort of) download a new U2 record into everyone’s iTunes library for free. The publicity stunt prompted speculation about what the move meant for the music industry—the decline of the album as a format vs. streaming/piracy, and the way U2, whose sales have been declining for years, benefited from Apple's mass distribution in order to promote its more-lucrative tours. Not to mention the fact that, more than a decade after the launch of the iTunes store, it was Apple that seemed to be running the show, not labels or artists. To me, the U2 move called to … [Read more...]

The Fragrance of Sensory Studies

fragrance 1

In a previous post I suggested that a handful of important books (mostly published within the past decade) offer a productive entry into the leading concerns of sensory history. Few have done more to promote that kind of history by way of their role as pioneers in the wider interdisciplinary field of Sensory Studies than two Canada-based scholars – the anthropologist David Howes and cultural historian Constance Classen. They’ve just collaborated on a new hit, Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (2014) that puts us in mind of the relationship between art, history, and the senses. Howes, who directs the ambitious programs of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia … [Read more...]

Sensory History: A Primer


Everyone loves lists. The editors of Tropics of Meta have shown how much fun lists of scholarly books can be. Alex Cummings identifies ten books crucial to the study of media history, and Ryan Reft adds nineteen that explore U.S. military history (war and society). Both lists provide a pleasant introduction to excellent scholarship in important but sometimes misunderstood fields.In the same spirit, here’s a gentle invitation to ease your way into another fascinating but somewhat mysterious field, sensory history. Although there is nothing new about the explicit study of the five human senses (Aristotle shaped basic ideas about the role, meaning, and uses of the senses that still pervade the … [Read more...]

Ten of the Greatest Books on Media History

Mixtape salesman from owen's VV article

Historians have always had a tough time writing about media. The danger of technological determinism tends to loom over any discussion of technologies such as television or the Internet—the risk of arguing that a particular medium or device causes people to behave or think a certain way. That fear has been present since the earliest days of media studies, when the War of the Worlds and the pioneering audience research of Paul Lazarsfeld and the Bureau of Applied Social Research in the 1930s raised questions about the “effects” that mass media had on people, both as individuals and groups. Meanwhile, the power of Hitler’s megaphone implied that people as a mass were pliant, susceptible to a … [Read more...]

From Bauhaus to Your Mouse: Fred Turner’s Brilliant New Book on the Origins and Politics of Interactive Media

glimpses of USA

Democracy is a funny word.  In the strictest sense, it means “government by the people,” with decisions made by direct choice of those governed (in the classic Athenian or New Englandian sense) or by elected representatives. “Democratic” can mean inclusive; it can mean egalitarian.  It can mean diverse, in the sense that a democracy includes multiple voices, even if some end up prevailing over others.  It can also be a cultural sensibility—blue jeans, sloppy joes, and general unostentatiousness. “I know you like to line-dance, with everything so democratic and cool,” David Berman sang sixteen years ago, “but baby there’s no guidance when random rules…” The classic Silver Jews tune makes … [Read more...]

The Lego Movie and the Gospel of the Creative Class


Any parent who has ever stepped on one of the wonderful Danish bricks known as Legos might find their faith in karma reaffirmed by The Lego Movie. Indeed, a reasonable observer could not be blamed for doubting that a film adaptation of a toy could be hailed by critics as “the first fantastic movie of 2014,” or as “wickedly smart” with “a joyous wit.”  Yet this is what the Lego company—and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller—have given us as payback for all those hurt feet: a fresh, dizzying, and audacious animated film about interlocking blocks and anonymous minifigurines. Of course, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies gave us plenty of reason to doubt the premise of toy-as-movie, … [Read more...]

When the Netflix Bingestrution Model Goes Wrong, or Why did Everyone Stop Talking about Orange is the New Black


When Orange is the New Black first became available on Netflix, one could almost feel the wave of deserved critical praise that washed over podcasts for months afterward. It was like riding the Tidal Wave roller coaster at Six Flags Great America--exhilarating, breathtaking, and then, over.   Most critics felt obliged, rightly so, to only address the first couple episodes lest they ruin anything for those of us struggling to play catch up. “Orange burns with the kind of laughter that usually only comes after tears; it's audacious, shocking, intimate, and intense,” applauded Grantland’s TV critic Andy Greenwald. Normally a curmudgeon on the topic of the Netflix bingestrution model, … [Read more...]