Silicon Valley, I’ll Pass

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” – Hunter S. Thompson

It’s rare that an industry can make the dying music business appear almost reputable. The lack of diversity in the tech sector shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of the industry. The rampant sexism is deplorable. However, I’d argue that these characteristics are reflective of an industry that has (at best) a barely functioning moral compass. The need to restructure and reevaluate ethics/business practices appears long overdue.

In the short term, the need to diversify employment is a must. Current hiring trends are not reflective of our society’s makeup with coveted jobs going to the privileged — disproportionately white, male and upper class. However, I don’t think simply changing the demographics of the tech industry to more accurately reflect our pluralistic society is enough. There needs to be a massive restructuring — a place where women can go to work and the all-consuming dollar doesn’t supersede their right to be treated fairly; to a place where workers aren’t 1099 contractors but employees with benefits and rights. I don’t think it’ll happen. The sort of cutthroat capitalism Silicon Valley prides itself on — the “creative destruction” of capitalism — appears to be a smokescreen for the atomizing effects it instills in workers and the acceptance of profits over people, to the point where sexual harassment is condoned because it wouldn’t make any economic sense to stop it. (I’d further argue that from a business standpoint, empowering workers into a more cooperative unit would improve productivity and morale. In addition to the rampant sexism at Uber, Susan Fowler mentions the lack of group cohesion and self-promotion at all costs to be a real productivity killer.)

Furthermore, women need better role models in the tech world. Two articles mention former HP CEO Carly Fiorina  and Meg Whitman (ex-CEO of eBay). While their ascents to the top of the tech industry are admirable, Fiorina’s attacks on Planned Parenthood are inexcusable; ditto Meg Whitman’s support of Prop 8 in California which sought to overturn gay marriage in the state. (While I understand these articles were written before these events took place, it nevertheless underscores the fact that women are just as capable of setting social progress back forty years, as well as internalizing the regressive values of the hegemonic culture they’re supposedly subverting.)

The article on Tristan Walker was enjoyable to read. It was also (as far as I can tell) the only one that made any sort of nebulous mention of economic class. Walker came from the wrong side of the tracks. But he was lifted out of his inferred hopeless milieu and was enrolled in the prestigious Hotchkiss prep school. There, he was exposed to all the privileges the white economic elite took for granted. But I can’t help but wonder — what happened to all of those he left behind in Queens? Shamefully, once he did make himself known in the tech world, Walker found himself without any support from his Caucasian counterparts. Again, a restructuring seems long overdue…

It may surprise some readers to find out that my mother dropped out of high school. Like most kids from broken homes, I only have a loose idea on where she’s currently living. My father was the first person in his family to finish high school, although the PTSD he picked up lugging an M60 machine gun around Vietnam didn’t really improve his job prospects. Being a cabinetmaker, tech meant nothing to him. And it wasn’t until I was eighteen in 2000 that I obtained a computer, many year after most of my classmates. I was the first person in my family to step foot inside a college classroom. Don’t believe me? Here’s a random 1998 autobiography I had to do for tenth-grade English that’s amazingly survived. Half of it was composed on a typewriter, the other half written in pen. The reason? The ink ribbon ran out. Computers were still exotic instruments for folks from poor stock in the late ’90s. 

typewriter

Does a young, female teenager in Gary, Indiana,  or Flint, Michigan, have the same chances at getting a good job in tech as her counterparts in San Francisco or Austin? This question, of course, is much larger than tech, but I feel it’s a missing piece of the puzzle. Tech is the future. It’s where the money is at. People like me — who, in retrospect, should have never even been allowed into college — with a family lined with GM auto plant workers (Van Nuys plant that was shutdown in ’92), truck drivers (grandfather drove truck for Consolidated Freightways, proud member of the Teamsters) and cabinet makers/sometimes mechanics (me and my father) — we’re the past. We’re the maligned members of society. However, what’s happening in tech — specifically, job outsourcing — is what happened to my people back in the 1980s. Optimistically, the recent rush to make bodegas obsolete by a tech startup — to put another group of vulnerable business owners out of work — was greeted with derision. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the closing of the American Axle plant in Hamtramck, represented by the UAW, one of the most progressive unions around. Watch this meeting and note the diversity of the union leadership and the workers they represent. Tech has a lot to learn…)

There’s a storm coming, and parts of it have already hit shore. Being in touch with roughnecks, it’s getting ugly out there in manual labor land, where, as one of the articles noted, there’s been a switch from manufacturing to service industry work. Tech needs to incorporate a greater cross section of our society, employing people from different ethnic, racial, gender and class backgrounds. People know they’ve been left behind due to the simple lottery of birth. They’re confused and angry; they know something isn’t right. To paraphrase Joe Bageant, ignorance is the worst prison of all. If tech wants to be the future, it has to act like it. It needs to be responsible and accountable to people.

 

Drafting Still Pays a Living Wage

Drafting Board

This is my drafting board. My dad and I put it together in 2007. I purchased the stand and parallel rule from a Reseda, California, art store for roughly $250. We ripped/crosscut the 3/4″ prefinished maple plywood top and put the table together in about an hour. I’ve drawn more than $15 million dollars worth of cabinetry on this desk. (During busy periods, it wasn’t uncommon for me to work more than thirty-five days in a row.) That’s a pretty solid return on investment.

autoCAD 1

Here is my computer with the latest version of AutoCAD on it. The screen and large monitor cost just over $2,000 and AutoCAD charges $195 per month to use their software. I’m not a huge fan of AutoCAD and prefer manual drafting over it. Nevertheless, I spent a year learning the program and it does have its advantages.

The chapter selection from Everett M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations was refreshingly engaging and erudite. Rogers’ theory is illuminating, providing an understanding of how ideas and technologies spread and why they are accepted or rejected.

Background: I learned how to drive on a 1953 Ford truck (my first car) and I have over 1,000 vinyl records (and have released more than 20 LPs/45s on my own record label). I haven’t downloaded a song since the days of Napster and I’ve never owned an iPod. I also still draft almost entirely by hand. It isn’t a fear of technology that keeps me in the analog world; have you ever heard the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” So when asked to write about a technological innovation, AutoCAD came to mind. It’s one of the few specialized software programs I’m familiar with.

AutoCAD: As I mentioned in an earlier post, AutoCAD is actually a very old program. It was released the same year I was born (1982). Of course, it initially appeared as a DOS program and it did have some early adopters. But as I understand it, the hardware wasn’t advanced enough yet for the program to flourish. During the early-to-mid-’80s, less people were using computers (translating to a smaller market) and computers capable of running AutoCAD were much more expensive. It’s important to recall that the computers capable of running AutoCAD were, by today’s standards, underwhelming and under powered. (That said, even in 2017 if your computer isn’t powerful enough, AutoCAD will crash in 3D mode.) So, the relative advantage Rogers mentions didn’t really exist except for a handful of early adopters, who likely used the program simply because they enjoyed it. (And let’s keep in mind who was likely using AutoCAD during the waning days of the Soviet Union and the Iran-Contra Affair: engineers and industrial designers. AutoCAD likely made it through the early days because its demographic was highly educated and disproportionately computer literate).

Compatibility: People unfamiliar with AutoCAD think it’s a magical program. I’ve heard the most ridiculous things about AutoCAD from people who’ve never drafted. Mostly, it goes something like this, “You’re crazy for not using AutoCAD exclusively. You’d be able to bang out so much more work, so much quicker, and make a ton of money.” That’s entirely false. Having manually drafted for anywhere from 20 to 60 hours per week, 52 weeks out of the year (in the construction trades there are two things you don’t get: vacation and health insurance) I can honestly complete elevations as fast manually as I can using AutoCAD. When you draw as much as I do, a fluency develops. But to get back to the question of compatibility: If you don’t understand the concepts of drafting (be it architectural or engineering), you won’t be able to use AutoCAD. If you know how to draft, but are not computer literate and haven’t trained on AutoCAD, you won’t be able to use AutoCAD. AutoCAD is simply a computer drafting board. That’s it. There is absolutely nothing special about it. I repeat: nothing special.

Complexity: As previously mentioned, you need to know how to draft to use AutoCAD. If you’re an architectural draftsman, you need to know how cabinetry/buildings go together (as well as standards of design — things like center lines, symmetry and alignment) and a little bit about building codes (of course, there is a difference between an architectural draftsman and an architect). Once you’ve got that down, you need about 32 weeks or 100 hours of training to become an entry-level CAD drafter. Although AutoCAD will never compete with manual drafting as a visual art form, there’s a big difference between “good” and “bad” CAD. Good CAD implements a nice set of line weights and spacing, proper annotation, etc. Like I said, CAD is just a computer drafting board. What goes for good manual drafting goes for good AutoCAD.

Adaptability/Accessibility: Again, Rogers’ work is exceptional and his notion of trialability likely wasn’t lost on Autodesk, the creators of AutoCAD. AutoCAD used to be available for purchase outright up until a few years ago. The cost was steep — I think around the $4,000 mark. In the last couple of years, the program has only been sold on a one month or a year-long subscription basis. Almost all community colleges offer drafting/AutoCAD classes. Many people are introduced to AutoCAD there.

dwg 2

Pictured above is a drawing I did for a nurses’ station for a hospital. It took me about 40 minutes to draft both the elevation and section. It would have taken me the same amount of time to do the drawings in AutoCAD. Aesthetically, I would have received poorer results with the computer program. 

Conclusion: Some questions remain: “If you don’t like AutoCAD, why do you have the program and why did you take the time to learn it?” The simple answer is: I didn’t have a choice. Rogers mentions that workers in a bureaucracy are occasionally forced to adapt to a new technology whether they like it or not (he uses the example of email in an office setting, novel in the mid-’90s). Additionally, Rogers makes an important observation — if an innovation is perceived as superior (irrespective of whether it actually is) that’s a factor contributing to its adoption. A very small group of people — usually in lower-end residential or the commercial spectrum of construction — are accustomed to AutoCAD. It’s perceived as being a superior product to manual drafting. The fact of the matter is the best architect I’ve ever worked for still drafts manually. Don’t believe me? Here’s an art deco remodel (a house formerly owned by Cedric Gibbons) we worked on with him, likely featured in Architectural Digest or some similar magazine. I remember drawing the lower cabinets with the innovative pulls shown on the right…

Kevin

Conclusion Cont’d

“I still don’t buy it. You’re the cranky Marxist in this class interested in critical theory. Clearly, you don’t like anything.” That’s only partially true (the Marxist part). The fact of the matter is, AutoCAD has likely had detrimental effects on architecture. It’s “cut-and-paste” features have lead to rehashed styles employed endlessly to save time and money in the designing process (Benedikt, 2005). Overall, AutoCAD has increased the speed in which drawings can be completed. However, as Michael Bendedikt has noted these saving are passed onto the client, not the architect, so we’re left with a field with declining job prospects and lower pay. “So who is drawing by hand now and how many of you laggards (to use Rogers’ terminology) still exist?” The last part is hard to say. Going off what I’m seeing in the field as well as at the reprographics places, I’d say about 10-percent of us dinosaurs still draw by hand. I should also mention that at thirty-five I’m the youngest manual draftsman that I know of. The only people still drawing by hand are smaller operations — architectural/interior design firms with only two or three employees. As late as the mid-’00s there were bigger, typically very revered firms who valued manual drafting and held onto it for much longer, almost as part of their mission statement. They’re exceedingly rare at this point. “Okay, okay. So in your opinion are there ANY advantages to AutoCAD?” Absolutely. There are 3D options with AutoCAD that are amazing. It’s also very “portable” and sharing work with another drafter has been made so much easier. Drawing revisions are often quicker with AutoCAD. “So what’s the deal?” My problem with AutoCAD isn’t the program. It’s not inherently evil. Technology can be put to good or bad uses, and Rogers notes that not all innovations are desirable. My problem with AutoCAD is the hegemonic hold it has on drafting. The drafter should have the option of using the program or not, but the economics of architecture have left manual drafters to the margins — luckily in my field (high-end residential) the safest. Use AutoCAD if you want; knowledge of the program can only be a strength. But I’ve never met an architect who doesn’t understand or appreciate the value of good manual drafting.

In regards to digital media research, the methods used to conduct quantitative research with “old” media (newspapers, television, radio, etc.) do not necessarily transfer over to digital media. This appears largely due to the vastness of news websites. The authors Sjovaag and Stavelin recommend new approaches to researching digital media. Many of these approaches were geared toward filtering out redundant material (the same article published twice under different URL addresses) and fine-tuning coding methods. Additionally, when analyzing online new sources, they found some material selected wasn’t actually fitting the search parameters (found in the year 2009) they were pursuing — examples: articles written in 2008 but updated in 2009 were featured; articles published in 2009 but were updated in 2010 were not. The authors recommend taking the time to understand how an online news organization manages and categorizes its content to better analyze their site. Also, researchers need to carry a pilot study. Often, retroactive coding is necessary to omit further informational “garbage.”  Lastly, like all quantitative research analyses, you need to verify inter-coder agreement to get reliable data.

Benedikt, M. (2005) Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press

 

 

World War II and the Creation of Electronic Music

It’s interesting to read Dennis Baron’s 1999 article on the impact computers would have on literacy. Personally, I can build a parallel as a draftsman. Although competent with AutoCAD, I still do nearly all of my drawings manually. (I work for a high-end custom cabinet shop. When work gets slow, I wrench on cars from the 1950s.) Due to sheer repetition, over a decade of drafting, I can complete elevations and plan views as fast manually as I can on AutoCAD. Very few architects and interior designers can duplicate that kind of speed these days, and some are so out of practice (or simply adopted to AutoCAD at the start of their careers) that their manual drafting abilities have severely atrophied—a situation similar to what Baron has noted of his own writing ability with a pencil. (By the way, 2H pencils are the architectural standard for drafting. Any “harder” pencil—4H for example—and the lines are too light and hard to duplicate with scanners, but they do make for excellent “construction line” pencils. Any “softer”—HB—and you get the dreaded smearing of graphite, although in the days of actual “blue prints,” they were invaluable in darkening in walls. Thoreau would have used 2H pencils, likely by Turquois, or possibly transitioned to a Japanese-made Draftmatic .5mm mechanical pencil if he was willing to ante up the ten dollars to purchase one. Well worth the investment.) Baron is also correct about early technological pioneers. Again, getting back to AutoCAD: AutoCAD is a very old software program; it was introduced in late 1982 as a DOS program. It was used by only by a few people and it wasn’t until the 1990s, when the interface became “easier” to use (although still requiring about a year of training with the prerequisite computer literacy), that it started to catch on.

In terms of revolutionizing “writing,” Baron is correct about computers and word processing programs. They likely are as revolutionary as the pencil. Nevertheless, I’m with folks like Neil Postman who believe that they’ve had a detrimental effect on reading levels and texts. While anecdotal, I recall a conversation I had with an old professor at Cal State Northridge. She was younger—received her PhD in 2000 while still in her late twenties—and mentioned her mentoring professor believed that the quality of doctoral dissertations had generally dropped since the mainstream usage of computers. I’ve heard similar arguments with drafting, where new structures take on the “cut-and-paste” attributes of the AutoCAD program. Additionally, it’s been argued that the depth of knowledge is lost in the “brainstorming” stage of vellum and pencil drafting and that more mistakes are made with AutoCAD (although this could be attributable to the simple speed of AutoCAD. There’s no doubt its attributes—multiple people working on the same project being a major one—have sped up the drafting process considerably when working in a group setting.) The medium certainly is the message.

The Stanford Research Institute paper mentions a sort of Jetsons-meets-Mies-van-der-Rohe drafting automaton. What the authors are describing is basically a drafting software program called Revit that was introduced in 2000 (and subsequently purchased by Autodesk, the creators of AutoCAD). Its interface is more user friendly than AutoCAD’s and the ability to extract objects from the two-dimensional field to the three-dimensional one (without working on the Z-axis plane to initiate these changes) was one of the breakthroughs of Revit. It also allows you to make door and window schedules automatically based off drawings. It’s interactive: when you take a door or window out of a structure, its respective schedule instantly reflects these changes. It’s an amazing program which has a bigger following (as far as I can tell) among interior designers. (Don’t believe this careless Luddite. See below…)

As We May Think (1945) by Vannevar Bush has been the best selection I’ve read yet for this class. It combines the post-WWII optimism of a better future, squelched arguably during the late Nixon period of stagflation and the OPEC Oil Crisis (1973). Bush is still thinking in analog ways, but there are glimmers of the digital realm just ahead. It’s important to note that magnetic tape, first developed by Germany during the Third Reich, was something he was either benighted to or just learning about (the Allies took the technology home with them in 1945 where it was further developed by the 3M Corporation and, of all people, seeing Bing Crosby as a huge proponent). All multi-track recordings and early computers would use this technology; Bush references recording on “wax cylinders”—a soon-to-be archaic form of recording. It wasn’t until the dawn of the millennium that magnetic tape would be replaced by digital recording technology (read Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner for more). When Bush discusses sending tomes of information via microfilm, he’s essentially hitting on what would became the internet. I don’t think Bush is a prophet. I think he was a bright guy with unique access to this developing technology.

I was very pleased to see the vocoder mentioned. The vocoder was used to scramble Allied military communications during WWII so they would not be intercepted by Axis powers. It was developed by a man named Homer Dudley. Dudley could hardly envision its later usage by early electronic bands like Kraftwerk and funk artists Zapp (read How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop by Dave Tompkins for more).

Kraftwerk’s late ’70s vocoder. Thanks to Homer Dudley and Bell Labs, we have the album The Man-Machine (1978)

Doug Engelbart’s presentation of an early computer word processing program is stunning. Although I remain ambivalent about a lot of technological development (likely the only person in this class), these early pioneers—unfortunately, mostly male (this was very much a patriarchal industry and still is)—have a lot to be proud of. It would take decades for developers to catch up with their groundbreaking work.

I enjoyed reading your contribution, Dr. Royal, of the necessities of a practical (multimedia, coding, computer/software literacy, etc.) and theoretical approach to journalism programs. The consolidation/merger of media companies/sites referenced brought an unintentional smile to my face—News Corp buying Myspace for $580 million will never get old. Nevertheless, we need to come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that journalism is in freefall collapse, that the old advertising-supported business model is over with, and whatever “technological innovations” are cooked up will never make up for the massive losses (jobs and revenue) the industry has suffered over the past two decades. Craiglist is mentioned in the article. But the advent of Craigslist was undoubtedly a strong contributor to the demise of the print edition of the Village Voice, a weekly heavily reliant on its classified ad revenue. That loss is irreplaceable. I’ve interviewed more people than most—from prominent intellectuals to venerable musicians. I never learned how to actually interview people from a college. That skill was developed over years of learning on the job, working with editors with twenty years of experience, and a large amount of reading—specifically, people like Studs Terkel and Jon Savage. I dedicated my twenties and early thirties to journalism, mostly contributing to non-profits (but formerly to weeklies/national publications). There’s no money in it. None. If you’re doing good, critical work you will not make enough money to live on. PR is really controlling much of what gets covered today, especially in music journalism. Unfortunately, there is more money to be made in public relations, combing the skill advocated, than there is in journalism. The number of hats needed to be worn is attributable to dwindling financial resources. It’s important to note that there is no guarantee journalism will continue, at least in its traditional form—providing information to create an informed and engaged citizenry. Take Amy Goodman, likely America’s best working journalist. People of her talent are sadly becoming a rarity. So long as Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch can buy reputable newspapers for what they consider lunch money, we’re in trouble. After all, they’re the ones we should be reporting on.

The Origins of the Internet and Web

The Internet: Behind the Web (2000) is a great primer on the history of the internet and the early days of the World Wide Web. It succinctly and clearly details the sociopolitical forces that spawned the internet, specifically the pivotal role the military and American university system played in its development. What’s often forgotten in the story of the internet is the public sector’s role in its formation. Communication companies in the 1970s, enjoying their hegemony of communication technologies/infrastructure and accompanying profits, wanted nothing to do with the internet in its germinal stage — in fact relishing the hardships early internet pioneers faced in developing their technology. The internet was arguably one of the biggest gifts the public sector ever gave to private industry, which illustrates the shallowness and hypocrisy of communication companies like Verizon and AT&T who continuously attempt to kill net neutrality in pursuit of growing profits. The majority of Americans, as well as World-Wide Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee and many early internet developers are strongly in favor of net neutrality. (Reading the excerpt from Berners-Lee’s Weaving the Web it’s apparent that a decentralized, democratic sphere was the bedrock of his Web design.) In terms of predicting the future of the internet, the films’ interviewees are very cognizant of its revolutionary and untapped potential. Nevertheless, the sort of wide-eyed naivete in the commercial sphere was washed away just a year later (2001) when the dot-com bubble burst, and Nasdaq’s composite-value index — the home of many pie-in-the-sky startups — sank like a lead balloon.

In regards to the internet quiz, I got nine out of 12 questions correct meaning I scored better than 90.2% of the public. That’s pretty mind blowing for someone who received his first smartphone (a gift, no less) in 2012 and has never (and will never) own an i-Pod (vinyl records and in a distant second CDs, thank you very much).

In terms of making a judgement call on the internet, it’s impossible. Like all technological innovations, there are both positive and negative aspects to it. (I liken it to the debate over the automobile. Left-leaning urban studies scholars — think Jane Jacobs and James Howard Kunstler — speak disparagingly of cars for their destructive impact on the environment and infrastructure. Of course, they’re correct. However, without semi-trucks your local grocery store would resemble its mid-’80s East German counterpart in no time.) I interviewed Matador Records co-owner Gerard Cosloy today and his feelings about the internet and its impact on the music business/creation of music/dwindling supply of erudite music criticism oscillated — in my opinion — from ambivalence to slightly negative. It mirrors my own feelings of the currently sad shape of journalism, as well as the near free-fall collapse of the music business (to be sure, one of the most unscrupulous industries around, from its genesis to the present day). Citizen journalism has its pros and cons. The internet has made the dissemination of information much easier, but has likely atomized us in a way Robert Putnam and Neil Postman warned us about.

In regards to Jayson DeMers’ article, it’s hard to take it seriously. The way he flippantly believes automation will “make a richer world” after some birthing pains was debunked just seven months later when superfluous workers — those long out of work due to deindustrialization; rudderless, unorganized and very conscious of their diminishing life prospects — unwittingly joined forces with their affluent, libertarian counterparts (Peter Thiel, anyone?) and revolted, electing the worst president of my lifetime. In the 19th century, Marx was acutely aware of the impacts technological developments would have on workers; Robert McChesney has recently written a book and given interviews highlighting this problem. DeMers’ class are the victors –they’ll be fine — but we’re finding a lot of people have been left behind, forced to attend third-rate schools with dim career prospects simply due to the lottery of birth. (Working in the construction trades and automotive repair, I know a lot of their luckier, employed counterparts.) Some buck the odds and succeed. Many living in deindustrialized cities like Gary, Indiana, as sociologist William Julius Wilson has demonstrated, do not. Technological development isn’t the problem per-se. A lack of preparation and unwillingness to deal with the fallout — to be “our brother’s keeper” if you will — appears to be the real challenge. An answer not resorting to banal neo-liberal “solutions” appears imperative. These are dark times.