You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘thinking’ category.

The solstice has passed.  Daylight is creeping back.  The new year is almost here.

Tunnel, Coastal Trail, Anchorage
Tunnel, Coastal Trail, Anchorage

2011 has been a pretty good and eventful year, with some big highs (graduating from planning school, moving to Alaska, meeting someone awesome) and a couple lows (mainly, driving my car into a ditch and expensively ruining it).

And reflecting on that (highs and lows) got me thinking about Alaska itself, a place with some pretty serious extremes:  extreme light in the summer and darkness in the winter, extreme cold, extreme distance within its borders and from everything else, and a variety of living things (human and otherwise) that adapt to live in these extremes.  I’m already adapting some coping strategies – vitamin D supplements and a “happy” light!

Things are pretty good right now, but I feel worn out by the end of this year.  Working a lot, eating a lot, missing the sun a lot, woefully behind on things I want to do and keep up with regularly (like this blog).  So call it a resolution if you like, I’d like to focus on achieving better balance in 2012.

Bike Rack, Coastal Trail, Anchorage

Bike Rack, Coastal Trail, Anchorage

At work, this means continuing to be mindful of time management among projects, and to make some time to keep up with those things which languish without good maintenance.  It also means taking some time off work regularly, planning a few awesome vacations (whether or not I actually leave the city limits).

Along with keeping some boundaries around work and play, I would like to balance my time with more hours for photography, blogging, and general creative activity.

It also means balancing “inside” and “outside” time – taking more walks, in all weather … well, most weather.  Maybe learning a new winter activity.

And finally, better balancing my relations with others.  Making sure to spend some quality time alone, more quality time with J, to make time for new friends, and of course to make time to keep up with old friends (even if they are far away).

In general, I’d like to be more intentional about my time and how I use it, so I can stop feeling like I’m constantly fighting against the feeling that it slips away. I’d also like to have a better balance in terms of health – eat better, move better, exist better.

I won’t elaborate on the many profound thoughts one can find on the subject of balance,  but here’s a nice one:

Order is not pressure which is imposed on society from without, but an equilibrium which is set up from within. ~ Adam Cummings

Happy New Year!

Night Falls on the Park Strip, Anchorage

Night Falls on the Park Strip, Anchorage

Advertisements

Modern life is keeping one foot elsewhere, a hand in the ether and an ear in the cloud.

As all things government-spending-related become topics of general debate rather than just policy wonks’ geek-out of choice, the activities of that government move into the spotlight.  And as our cities get more popular and our problems of modern living more complicated, the field of planning (land use, environment, transportation, housing, economy, other) has been lauded as the solution or attacked as part of the problem.

There’s no easy way to characterize and dissect American attitudes toward planning, and certainly no one solution to the “right” kind of planning and at what cost.  Generally speaking, though, people in my generation (finished school, starting their first job or three, married or not, moving to a new place in the city, enjoying “urban” amenities like coffee shops and parks and concert series, walking or biking to work) seem to generally view urban planning as a positive thing, where older generations tend to be more skeptical.

While recognizing this is itself a generalization, I wondered if I could explain it with another generalization:  people my age tend not to be property owners, and those older (who tend to be skeptics) are.  To them, “planning” is not about finding an affordable apartment or having a bike lane or community garden, but about how much their property taxes are, who is telling them whether they’re allowed to put an addition on their house, and whether installing a roundabout in their area will increase traffic along their street.  Not to mention homeowners’ focus on the quality of their schools, since much of the district’s expenses come directly out of their property taxes and since, if they have children, they may have made the decision to live where they do based on the schools.

No wonder they may gripe about planning!  If all they ever see of urban planning is the Board of Zoning Appeals and their water bill and annual or tri-annual tax assessment, and maybe a road improvement which increases traffic congestion or impacts their parking spot at work, no wonder they complain.  They don’t take the bus, so a new route isn’t too exciting; they spend a lot of time working on their house or in their own backyard, so they don’t go to a public park except maybe for the Fourth of July fireworks; and they’re busy living their own lives and aren’t generally called on to articulate the long-term vision for their community.  They care about paying the large bills (mortgage, utilities, taxes, school and children, car payment) they have to worry about.

This isn’t to say that people my age don’t own cars or some form of property, or inherently care more about their community (some would argue they care less, being more transient) or automatically use these public resources.  They do, however, tend to be less burdened with taxes and possessions and are in a place where they’re more open to and able to try new things; have less money, so rely on things like renting an apartment or taking public transportation or spending time in free public spaces; and may use their free time to engage in civic projects like community gardens or social activism or environmental justice work or just spending time enjoying urban amenities.  As cities, and by extension planning as a field, become the next cool thing – even Scientific American got on the bandwagon and just had an issue celebrating cities – those who haven’t yet been burdened with the full costs of modern living seem to overlook the bureaucracy and focus on the bigger, more interesting picture.

So assuming all this speculation has identified a decently solid truth, I further wonder, is this the natural progression of generational attitudes toward planning?  Or will this enthusiasm “stick” as my generation buys property, settles down, has children who need schooling, and who will eventually get stuck with the bills?  There’s already mixed evidence about whether suburban living will continue to appeal to young families, but from my very limited and anecdotal evidence, it does seem that school-age children (and/or the desire for a more traditional household living situation) will drive some people out of city neighborhoods to somewhere more suburban, less complicated bureaucratically and planning-wise.  If young people will inevitably grow out of their love of urban living and support of greater institutional involvement of the life of a city, then we should worry (again) about our cities in the next few decades, if they will again enter a low period.

If the attitude is not simply related to age and level of responsibility, however, maybe we’re really in a larger period of change.  Maybe we still need to focus on convincing the homeowners and soon-to-retire generation (who after all, still have the power as property owners) that some changes with planning are a good thing.  But maybe we also have the larger shift in attitude on our side, in the long run.

And of course there’s one huge group I have not touched on:   the elderly.  Those who may or may not still own their own homes, and who are still paying those bills (though maybe not a mortgage) like their working counterparts.  Many of those people were also young when cities were rapidly growing in the US, however, and may see a city neighborhood in a more positive, perhaps more nostalgic way.  As they age, they become more dependent on others to get around, are less able or willing to drive everywhere, and they may or may not be interested in the housework associated with “aging in place” versus settling in a denser and more active community with other seniors.  As they interact less with planning bureaucracy but face more of the issues that planning addresses, will their attitudes also change for the better?  How do their attitudes now differ from younger generations?

As with any issue or question or field of work which relies on public discourse, planning needs to care about how it is perceived by the general population.  Ultimately, planners are only there to educate and advise the public about decisions it will make about its own community and future.  The underlying perceptions of planning have an effect on each individual project or debate, and the success of our field depends in part on our awareness of and ability to positively influence those perceptions of us and our work.

Drove Mom to the airport this evening (Ted Stevens Airport!) and drove back alone in the rain to the apartment.  Lonely at the moment, but the time had to come, and things will be okay.  It’s always weird when you’re really, finally in a new place and it’s up to you to take the next step.  Been there.

The rain clouds that rolled in this afternoon have at least made it like an actual night here!  Kinda nice to see the orange high-pressure sodium lights of city parking lots and streets again.  Probably won’t be quite as nice when that’s most of what you see in the winter.

Catching up on things with this computer, and doesn’t feel like 12:45 but I should get to bed.  Blogging will recommence for seriously this week – starting with Day 4 of our epic trip, and catching up to now.

So many photos to sort through.  Here is one.

Alaska Highway, Yukon

Alaska Highway, Yukon

And here is another (of Anchorage)

Anchorage and Cook Inlet, 10:30PM, from Flattop Trail

Anchorage and Cook Inlet, 10:30PM, from Flattop Trail

Good night!

Along North Avenue, from Chicago’s west side well into the suburbs, at several major intersections lone men stand on the median strip of concrete – or just on the pavement between the two centermost lanes – holding a stack of newspapers.  They start selling well before most people get in their cars to go to work, but remain there – in all weather – until late morning, when most commuters have already gone by.  They sell the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and possibly the Daily Herald out past the numbered avenues of Melrose Park.  Wearing mesh vests to stay more visible in the low morning light, they are an unusual sight on multi-lane arterial roads, standing in the middle of the street selling newspapers.

As a print subscriber to the New York Times, and previously the Tribune, I never had occasion to buy a paper, but always felt bad for the men on the median, especially on bitter cold Chicago mornings, or when piles of snow had turned to brown slush.  Sure, it’s a job – but surely not a good one.  I did see some people purchase papers while stopped by red lights, holding coins out through their cracked windows, and maybe they had a regular “newsman” at a particular corner.  Even if I hadn’t a subscriber, though, I probably would not have bought one – after all, when would I read it?

The big arguments about why newspaper circulation is declining – a lot – are the usual suspects:  the decline of reading and intellectual pursuit, the rise of the Internet and television news, general phasing out of newspapers as a respectable, reliable, and up-to-the-minute source of information.  These are all surely important, though definitely debatable, particularly the “dumbing of America” argument.  Nor is this a new phenomenon, according to the Washington Post:

“The decline [in circulation in 2005] continued a 20-year trend in the newspaper industry as people increasingly turn to other media such as the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks for information. Newspaper industry officials also blamed the National Do Not Call Registry, which has forced newspapers to rely less on telemarketing to secure subscribers, and a shift in strategy among major newspapers away from using short-term promotions to acquire new readers.” – Washington Post, 5-3-2005

Think about 20 years before 2005:  1985.  No Internet, cable news just starting (if it existed at all, really?), and a culture on the verge of massive media change – MTV launched in 1981, a critical milestone in TV culture.  If the decline in newspaper readership predates the Internet in its popular form by at least 10 years – and certainly more time than its current form – then maybe that’s not the main cause, or at least not the earliest cause.

Back to the newspaper sellers – they’re basically doing the same job that paperboys and others have done for decades, both on street corners in big cities and (in the case of home delivery) at suburban doorsteps.  They are also doing the same work as the coin-operated paper boxes in downtowns and city neighborhoods, where people on their way to the bus, train, or office can stop and buy the morning news.  The difference is, they’re delivering them to people in cars, not out on the sidewalk.  Even those who drop off the paper on the porch in the morning, are mostly doing so for people who will end up driving to work.  And the biggest population of adults who don’t go to work in the morning – the elderly – are also those who tend to still subscribe to the newspaper and read it regularly.

Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that maybe our large-scale shift in transportation behavior, i.e. commuting to work by car to perform primarily white-collar jobs, has heavily contributed to the decline of newspapers?

Sure, the Internet makes news easier to get, iPads and the like are seen as “killer devices” for paper media, and people watch more television than ever for information and entertainment.  But if you think of reading a newspaper as an action requiring time, inclination, and the information source itself, commuting by car (having to drive) eliminates a big chunk of time when the newspaper might otherwise be read – in the morning, when you’re waking up and getting ready for the day, not fully functioning but wanting to find out what’s going on.  Having to drive to work takes up most attention that transit users can give to other things like reading.

It is also significant that the phenomenon of “morning drive” talk shows, and other sources like NPR’s “morning edition,” get wide listenership no matter the actual quality of the show.  You’ve got a captive audience in the car, probably two peak listening times at the beginning and end of the work day, and they want to get at least some idea of what’s going on in the world before they get to where they need to be.

There used to be evening newspapers, to get what happened at the end of the day, and some studies have shown that people tend to spend most time reading on their iPads and Kindles in the early evening.  Perhaps they’ve simply displaced their reading time to be after work, but it also means they cannot read the newspaper (or any other device) on the way home either.

The biggest exception to the newspaper decline seems to be the New York Times, probably the most well-known and respected newspaper in the U.S.  Coincidence that its primary readership, New York City and surrounding area, largely commutes by public transit if they work in the city?  And similarly with D.C.’s Washington Post?  And the Tribune and other papers publish variations on Chicago’s RedEye, a fluffy smaller-format paper that’s free and strategically placed in red boxes by train and bus stops.  It’s just enough information to get you up to speed on big national and local news, and includes some fun things to do that week and a crossword.  It’s free, quick to read, and as far as I can tell, popular with transit riders even if it’s mediocre quality.  It serves the morning-newspaper need.

So, it would be really difficult to actually determine a causal link between the rise in commuting by car and the decline of newspaper readership, and certainly the Internet, TV, and “instant gratification” attitude toward information play no small part in this trend.  But I think it’s worth considering how our land use and transportation decisions have affected other aspects of our lives, and what impact they have on our routines.  The newspaper sellers of North Avenue are a half-hearted attempt to bring the newspaper into our cars, since we cannot get out and get them on the sidewalk.  The problem is, we’ve eliminated the time in our day we used to have to actually sit down and read it.

It’s been a busy week – four days in Boston for the APA Conference, then home just in time for a short bout with stomach flu and off again for HPP (Historic Preservation and Planning program) Work Weekend!  Two out of the three of those were a great time.

South Boston

South Boston

For Work Weekend, our caravan of cars headed up to Medina Stone Farm, a 19th-century farmhouse and barn property now managed as a B&B and performance venue.  While we only had limited time and a semi-skilled crew, we were tasked with 1) stripping, re-glazing, and painting several historic windows purchased in Ithaca and brought up to be installed in the small barn; 2) preparing to repair an old stone-and-mortar fence by putting rocks into piles by size; 3) painting the exterior of the small barn; and 4) documenting the site through drawings, description, and photos.

Medina Stone Farm

Medina Stone Farm

We weren’t able to do the exterior painting because it rained all day on Saturday, but we did good work with the other three jobs, and met some interesting animals along the way (an orange cat, some horses, a couple mules, a couple goats, some sheep, several chickens, and two dogs).

My favorite job, and the one that really made me think, was the several-step process of restoring the old windows.  They came in various conditions, from ready to repaint and install, to missing panes and with significant wood damage.  Most had original glass, but needed to be re-glazed and repainted – meaning the lines of putty which hold each pane in the wooden frame needed to be scraped out, the frame re-sanded, and the glazing putty re-applied.  There wasn’t time to complete all the windows and install them in the barn, but we at least put new glazing in (I think I’m using the correct terms) and primed them for painting.

In addition to feeling great for doing some actual tangible work – in contrast to the mile-high stack of words I’ve been reading for the last two years – I really enjoyed learning more about how old windows work, and why taking the time and care to repair the elements of an old building is a good thing.

Windows are a critical part of any building:  they provide natural light and interesting views for the interior, if they open they help cool and circulate air in the rooms, and can be a major site of decorative detail.  While contemporary windows (not counting large glass-wall style windows like those in office buildings) are generally designed as one big energy-saving unit, but old windows are complex, multi-part technological systems in themselves.  Windows are often one of the big projects of building preservation because, unlike modern windows, they are a versatile and fully-repairable piece of building technology, whether damaged during bad weather or simply aging over prolonged exposure.

A modern, manufactured window must be replaced wholesale if any part of it is broken, its insulating vacuum seal infiltrated, or if it  or the frame eventually warps.  An historic wood window, however, can be taken apart and reconstructed by hand.  The wooden frame can be rebuilt, including the small dividers between window panes; the glass panes can be removed, cleaned, or replaced if broken; and the glazing can be pried out, sanded down, and reapplied.  This makes the window more versatile, generally longer-lasting, and over the span of several decades less costly than replacing it with a new one.  Because the windows in a wood-frame structure were also designed specifically for that building, historic preservationists also argue that it is better to keep original windows because they will fit better, shifting with the rest of the structure and providing a better seal against the elements than a retrofitted contemporary window of different materials.  Well-maintained older buildings tend to be energy efficient and structurally sound if their constituent elements are preserved, as they collectively represent a technological system which is meant to function in a certain way.

Working on Windows

Working on Windows

Working with these windows, some of which had their original panes and glazing from probably before 1900, made me really appreciate preservation as a means of saving technologies and putting it back to work.  When the average person thinks of preservation, the reason for saving something tends to be along the lines of historic sites like battlefields, or for aesthetic and architectural purposes, the classic phrase “an excellent example of early/mid/late ___ style.”  Where preservation is meant to keep a building functioning, however, the technological aspects of preservation come into play as well.  This view of preservation doesn’t seem to have much recognition outside the field, but as interest in sustainability and energy efficiency grows in the public discourse (including a session on the value of historic buildings at the APA conference), it seems important to highlight this aspect of preservation as part of why historic buildings (and other structures) should be kept.  Not only are they valuable from a real estate and economic development standpoint (in terms of maintaining land values and sense of place), they are also valuable technological systems which were designed by people wise enough to know about energy efficiency and recycling long before the “sustainability” buzzword came along.

Windows are a good thing!

Windows are a good thing!

This book is not planning related, but it’s an interesting read for anyone interested in race and ethnicity in American society!  Which, of course, all planners should be!

I was watching a DVD of old episodes of “You Bet Your Life,” the game show hosted by Groucho Marx in the 1950s.  The show featured a series of couples, usually a man and a woman, usually not related in any way and chosen by the audience, sometimes two men or two women.  The couple is given trivia questions in a category of their choosing, worth more according to difficulty (between $10 and 100); answering incorrectly costs half.  In later seasons, the couples also compete to answer a final question, whoever has won the most in their first round.  There was a bonus word, held by a duck on a string hidden from the players, that is “a common word you hear around the house” or similar (things like door, chair, head, etc.)  If a player happened to say the word they would get $100 to split.

In the episodes I’ve seen, there are many really interesting people – all living in southern California at the time.  Librarian, fruit vendor, wrestler, mayor of one of the suburbs (I forget which), military people, a forewoman for a manufacturing plant, etc.  Groucho does his usual mix of sarcasm and sketchy old-man flirting with the women when interviewing the players.  And of course the whole thing is (aggressively) sponsored by DeSoto, I think a branch of Chrysler at the time, with flanking ads and brand-name-dropping throughout the show.  (Here’s an example from 1955 and another from 1957).

One of the player-couples, Carl and Helen Doss, are a minister and wife from southern California.  Groucho talks to them a while about his church, but when he asks about the children, it comes out that they have 12 children – and all of different races:  Japanese, Blackfoot tribe, Indian, etc.  They explain that they can’t have children of their own, and when going through the process of adoption they found that mixed-race children were “classified unadoptable.”  When asked if race is an issue in their family, Helen tells a story that “the two oldest boys always play Cowboy and Indian, but the blond, blue-eyed boy always plays Indian, and the boy from India plays cowboy.”  She also refers to a book she’s written, The Family Nobody Wanted, published by Little Brown in 1954 (which means the episode must be from just after that, possibly early 1955).

Given the unusual nature of their family for the time period (and really, 12 kids is a lot no matter who the kids are!) I decided to track down the book via the library, apparently reprinted by the Northeastern University Press in 2001.  It arrived this week by BorrowDirect!  I’ve only gotten through the introduction to the new edition, but it hints at the (former) popularity of this book.  For many years it was available through Scholastic-style book catalogs for children, and though hard to find cheaply on Amazon (in 1999 at least) the readers’ reviews were pretty uniformly positive about how sweet and interesting a story it is.  The editor’s analysis focuses more on the issues of adoption than the ethnic composition of the family, noting that the narrative challenges the still-dominant narrative that only a biologically-related child is a “full” child of a parent.  Doss writes of her family that they were meant to be this way and that they were fully hers and her husband’s, despite not being born to her, which the editor notes is not unique to the Doss family but certainly not the assume behind those who shy away from the option of adoption.  As she was a minister’s wife, it should also be interesting to see what Christian elements influence the narrative, beyond the usual tropes of past decades’ language.

I’ll be starting the book itself soon, but even before I get into it, I wanted to share this interesting little find.  In light of the recently published 2010 Census data, which has found that “minority” populations are growing in the U.S. and that there has been a significant increase in multi-racial children, taking a look at the country 60 years ago should be thought-provoking.

Helen Doss, The Family Nobody Wanted.  Mary Battenfeld, ed.  (Boston:  Northeastern University Press, 2001 [1954].

I’m taking an Organizational Behavior class this semester, and at the heart of the class is a series of tensions that all organizations face in deciding how to go about their work.  These tensions aren’t problems which can be solved, but basically a series of choices along a two-ended spectrum – for example, whether to focus on being profitable (exploitation) or innovative (exploration), or to structure themselves with formal or informal roles and processes.  Organizations don’t just do one or the other, but there are generally tradeoffs associated with each choice which may or may not work well for what the organization is trying to accomplish, and what other choices they’ve made.

This made me think of another tension which manifests in a variety of situations, one often on my mind (though not always in so many words) and certainly important to individual members of any group:

Is it more valuable to achieve an end, emphasizing the efficiency of completing the job, or have the process be valuable for those involved, emphasizing the agency of group members?

This is an open question, and a dilemma which gets at the heart of urban planning, among other things.  Sometimes the choice is clear.  A task needs to get done quickly and accurately, so a group delegates that task to the most competent person, or the leader takes on the task him/herself.  Or, a task is used as a learning experience for a new initiate or often a child, and it is more important that the doer gains experience than that the task is done in a particular way or to a certain standard.  In most situations, however, these two goals require very different means to reach the same end.  A project can be structured with decision making power concentrated in a few positions, a strictly-defined process emphasizing results and resource management over creativity, and division of labor according to who can already best complete the tasks.  Conversely, a project can have the same end result but be deliberated over by all equally-contributing members, leave the design of process to individuals or subgroups given targets to reach, and teams formed to emphasize members’ learning new skills or developing new processes.

Neither is better than the other, especially given the goals and constraints of an individual situation, but they have different underlying priorities.  Is it better to keep resources to a strict budget, or allow for some “waste” with the potential pay-off of new ideas or future savings?  Could time spent discussing a decision be better spent by instead giving everyone a specific role?  And perhaps most fundamentally, is the product of this project more important than the participants’ experience of completing it?

Debates about regulation and autonomy reflect this tension.  While those who advocate for the free market (versus centralized planning in the form of government regulation, land use controls, taxation, etc.) would argue that the system is more efficient because it responds more readily to changing resource conditions through supply and demand, in reality it is not clear (to me) that the free market always produces maximum efficiency.  The example which comes to mind is the privatization of city bus services in England, resulting in two bus systems running essentially the same routes in the town of Oxford, neither honoring the other’s ticket stubs.  A more consistent underlying assumption of the free market seems to be that regardless of their ends, rational beings are best left to act autonomously, and it is their pursuit of these ends rather than the ends themselves which will collectively create a functional system.  In terms of resource management, it may be more efficient to control and selectively allocate scarce resources, or to allow unilateral decision making rather than engaging in an endless democratic process, but these diminish the agency of individual participants, and may be less a problem of inefficiency than of “inautonomy.”

The history of urban planning seems to symbolize this tension, particularly the division between large-scale planning projects such as urban renewal or Moses-style infrastructure building, and participatory planning projects like community development, constituent empowerment, and environmental justice.  While the outcome is not unimportant, it is the process which, time-consuming and open-ended, grants a sense of agency to the previously-disenfranchised and ultimately brings more people into the conversation.  Making all zoning decisions by local referendum is not efficient, but it (in theory) allows citizens to have a say in what happens in their community.  Rationing the town’s water supply or mandating total greywater recycling  would (in theory) diminish waste, but political implementation would be extremely difficult insofar as it impedes on individuals’ rights to use water on their own property.

This tension plays out even on a small scale in a group meeting.  Who sets the agenda?  How are decisions made and tasks delegated?  Is it more important to run through the to-do list to meet a deadline, or to allow people to choose their own tasks and decide how they will get them done?  What is the individual member’s experience of working in the group and feeling empowered, and how much does this matter?  How much does it matter that they are given an opportunity designed to let them learn something new?

I put to you the idea that this tension is present, though rarely explicit, in any situation in which a group must somehow make a decision and/or complete a project.  Furthermore, I suggest that many group conflicts, particularly between a group’s leader and its members, may be traced to some form of this tension.  Where two or more individuals have very different views about which takes priority, the dispute may instead surface about micromanaging, time wasted in roundabout discussions, dictatorial decision making, or being pigeonholed into a certain role.

It might therefore be helpful to also talk about a group conflict in these terms, something I haven’t tried yet in this context but which may get past the surface matter and at the assumptions behind it.  Worth a try!

Here’s an interesting dilemma about the Internet:

Inventions are about the idea and the sale – someone makes a new product or process and wants two things, recognition for the idea but also some profit from the sale of the idea.

On the Internet, in its ideal form at least, an idea is meant to be freely shared – blogs represent hours and hours of (mostly) free published content, open source software abounds, MP3s make their way onto some sharing site or another, and memes are effective because they are (presumably) good enough ideas to send around.

What about the sale of Internet-based ideas?

So far the results have been mixed.  Apple’s iTunes seems to flourish, but that’s less an idea than it is a different type of product, a commodity to be sold.  Newspapers have been discussing paid subscriptions and what those might look like, and some (WSJ) have already done it, but again the line between commodity and pure idea are not clear.  Some blogs and podcasts require paid subscription, but more often they rely on advertising revenue or other sponsorship.  Wikipedia works in part because it is completely free, relying only on (hefty) donations to keep the operation going.  Selling something (or rather, not a thing, but an idea) online may be seen as selling out.

Where it really shows up, it seems, is in the purchase of websites or other content by a large (usually corporate) entity.  On the one hand, an Internet entrepreneur wants their idea to pay off.  On the other hand, deals like the AOL acquisition of the Huffington Post happen, and onlookers squirm.  What are they really paying for?  How will that affect what’s posted?  (In the case of HuffPo, the general theme of the content is more or less already expected, but the question of proper influence arises nonetheless.)

We seem ambivalent about payment transactions for ideas in what is supposed to be a free and open forum.  But the longer-lived culture of entrepreneurial invention reminds us that we can’t pay the rent with ideas alone.  Can Internet culture support two forms of currency?  Does corporate sponsorship or pay-to-play content de-legitimize an idea (or its source) in an online forum?

(That’ll be 63 cents, please!  PayPal accepted.)

Update:  I was thinking this morning (Saturday) that this post is a bit of a ramble.  And I should have incorporated a piece on Net Neutrality, perhaps a tangent but certainly directly related to the presence of for-profit corporations (or any other entity with an agenda) on the Internet.

And perhaps one important part of online ideas vs. inventions for sale is the concept of the commons versus a scarce material resource.  Unlike the grassy field example, however, the online commons is not at all diminished by more people accessing or making a copy of the information; Wikimedia Commons is an example of this.  You can point out that digital information tends to degrade with more copies, but this is not a function of more people accessing it, only it being copied more times.  And of course server space and electricity are the scarce material resources on which the information depends, but the trend has been more and cheaper space, not less.

Thus it is more difficult to enforce ownership over an idea or online object, because unlike a produced item it can be copied and/or transformed with almost no effort.  While it is good form on the Internet to credit your original source, as it is in other realms, it does not necessarily restrict access from that source, nor does someone else really profit from it – the copier may, in fact, be showing tribute to the original idea by spreading it to more people.

Anyway, there’s a lot to sort out for this thought to really go anywhere, but there are a couple more pieces to consider.

I’m sidestepping planning for the moment to make some brief comments about Girl Talk’s album All Day.  (If you haven’t heard and are feeling up to the challenge, download here for free.)

Driving back from Ohio, I decided to use one of the (seven) hours to listen to the album.  I had tried before, but was pretty much overwhelmed by the first three minutes of the first track.  The second time, however, I made it through, and I’m listening to it again now in fact.

Here’s my take on the album, or more specifically its style of hyper-mashup:  it’s not so much music, a series of songs, as it is a 71-minute manipulation of the brain to experience music.

What I mean by this is, that it’s not original music in the traditional sense of composition and performance, it’s a collage, like other mashups.  What stood out to me in this work, however, was that unlike other mashups (which generally combine two songs, or take brief samples from a couple songs and other places) the entire thing is just a series of brief references mixed to sound like a comprehensible song.  This creation of “meta art” seems to be a more and more common form of work on the Internet, with mashup videos of all the times Don Draper says “what?” in Mad Men (sorry, it’s not up anymore) or the massive infographics of every kind of beer or the Batmobile.  The skill lies not in inventing something out of nothing, but clever manipulation of found materials, so to speak, by wading through a massive pile of already-known objects of pop culture.

For it to make sense, then, we (the reader, listener, viewer) must already know most, if not all, of its constituent parts – otherwise it’s just noise.  This is particularly true of All Day; if you don’t know most of the songs, it’s almost unlistenable because it just jumps from one short clip to another, chaotic with multiple layers of different genres, sometimes three or four songs at a time.  We enjoy it only because we’ve really heard it all before.

What’s going on, it seems, is that we may like listening to it because of its technical quality, the way seemingly incongruous songs fit together, etc., but we’re really enjoying it because it’s triggering a constant sense of nostalgia in our brains, hearing those songs we recognize instantly and probably know by heart.  Each small sample is enough to make us hear the rest of the song in our heads, making the experience of listening not one that engages with the song actually playing, but one in which we actively play all the songs over ourselves in memory.  The album is basically a rapid series of memory-triggers, and makes no sense unless we already have those memories (songs) stored away for easy reference.

That isn’t to say it’s not a fun experience, even if you don’t know all the songs (I certainly don’t).  It’s just a notably different experience that says something about where culture is going.  Now that it’s technically possible, it’s also artistically acceptable to build something out of a mass of existing data – not simply through influences or lyric references or homages, as has been done for centuries, but by actually constructing a new work solely with the pieces of others, on a scale which would have been imprecise and extremely time-consuming using non-digital methods.

It feeds into some larger questions I have about the Internet and where we’re headed:  Are we really stretching our minds to take in and process more information?  Will we eventually find single-stream information too boring?  What are we giving up in return?  Are we losing the ability to think deeply about one thing because we are pushed to constantly think about so many things?  What are the consequences of our speeding up and layering and augmenting of reality, the real-life equivalent of constant footnotes and marginalia and cross-references?

And, of course, there is a Girl Talk infographic explaining the whole thing.  Actually, there’s one from Fast Company, Wired, and a real-time sampling list from Travis McLeskey.  Not to mention all the people who have populated the album’s Wikipedia page.  Meta squared, if you will.

For a similarly interesting pop song mashup, check this out (via Urlesque).