Self-portrait, made with Paik’s Zen for Film. Made with iPhone 12 Pro Max.

I recently saw the work of Nam June Paik, currently being exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MoMA.) 

If you are unfamiliar with him, Paik has been called the “father of video art.” He was born in 1932 in what is now South Korea, lived in Japan, Germany, and the United States. He died in 2006. I have only read about Paik in the magazines but never really experienced his work in person — a shame, considering how much of his work is at the core of modern visual and interactive post-Internet life. 

Take, for instance, his 1968 creation, The Electric Chair. The art piece comprises a CCTV camera pointing down at a chair with a television under the transparent seat. The TV displays the live video feed from the camera. Paik was pointing to a future where video would become a deeply enmeshed part of our lives in creating this work. Looking around, whether it is TikTok, Snap, or Zoom, the Electric Chair is all around us. 

The Chair is just one of the many pieces of work he created that pushed his core belief in an electronic superhighway. He translated that idea into an art installation “constructed of 336 televisions, 50 DVD players, 3,750 feet of cable, and 575 feet of multicolored neon tubing.” Sadly, this piece of art isn’t available for us to see here in San Francisco. For me, the standouts were The TV Cello and The TV Garden (which, according to MoMA, depicts “a futuristic landscape where technology would become an integral part of the natural world.”); However, my favorite is “Zen For Film.”

In “Zen for Film,” a blank 16mm film leader runs through a projector. He made sure the new blank film accumulated dust and scratches. He said, “When too perfect, Lieber Gott böse,” which translates to, “When too perfect, dear God angry.” Paik wanted the viewer to become part of the art and create an individual interpretation. 

The imperfection, starkness, and room for imagination (and participation) of the viewer are how I like to think of my work, so I am hardly surprised that I spent excessive time with this installation. I created a self-portrait as a remix of Paik’s original. (See above.)  

When walking out of the museum, I couldn’t help but think about the role artists, writers, and science fiction have played help shape technology and its future. The confluence of art and engineering has been part of technology’s evolution. This wild artistic imagination is the necessary spark to be hopeful about technology and its impact. Instead, one finds a narrative of despair and dystopia. I recently read an article that noted five books with technology (and big tech platforms) as villains. What we need is Paik’s of today to imagine a more exciting tomorrow. 

July 28, 2021. San Francisco.

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectible
Nothing is invincible

Synchronicity, The Police, 1983

Techmeme, reminded me that it has been ten years since the launch of Google+, the doomed-from-the-start social networking effort by Google, and a supposed competitor to Facebook. I was skeptical of the service at the launch, to put it mildly, but I totally understood why Google had to take a swing at it. Looking back, Google managed to deliver on the “why” of its goals, but not the “how.” 

Today, search is not just about pages, but also about people and the relevance of the information to them…Google needs to adapt, and getting social and location signals is important for the company. Search is now search relevant to you in the context of your world. 

My argument (even before the release of Google+) was that the only way for Google to beat Facebook was through Android, its mobile platform. Social networks were (and still are) all about communication, and communication tools are necessary for cementing relationships. Google, I thought, could create a platform of interactions that might give it a significant leg up on Facebook. 

To me, interactions are synchronous, are highly personal, are location-aware, and allow the sharing of experiences, whether it’s photographs, video streams or simply smiley faces. Interactions are supposed to mimic the feeling of actually being there. Interactions are about enmeshing the virtual with the physical.

Interactions were (and still are) a key part of what I have always thought to be what I called “alive web.” It was a shitty name, but it was getting at the idea that the network is all about “synchronicity.” We are moving ever closer to a “synchronous web.” Google’s original implementation of Hangouts had the makings of a platform that could enable constant interaction. Sadly, Google’s internal dysfunction relegated it to a dustbin of mediocrity.(The Verge has a good rundown of the mess that is Google’s communication strategy.)  It has been over a decade since I first talked about the “alive web.” The pervasive connectivity and increasing number of network connections excited me then (and still does). 

“Connectivity offers an opportunity to create a different kind of Internet experience that’s more immersive and interactive. And that persistent connection is what allows us to create and experience the Alive Web. I think Chatroulette was an early signal of the Alive Web, although the world instead focused on the vileness of its content. Seamless connectivity allows us to mimic many offline behaviors online, and interactions are part of that mega-trend.

On this new Alive Web, what we miss doesn’t matter. What matters is the connection and the interactions. We get online to socialize instead of posting status updates, just as we would when we would go to our favorite club or a neighborhood bar.

This new web is less about page views and it is more about engagement and the economics of attention, two topics I have written about in the past. As I start to look into the future, it is clear that services and apps need to optimize around attention.”

Long misunderstood for years, Snap is a good example of a company that is all about “interactions,” and that’s why it is remarkably different from its competitors. It is still not synchronous, but its core behavior revolves around communication between a small group. Standing in stark contrast, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are about “broadcasting” to the bigger world. 

Ten years later, it seems we are finally on the cusp of that communal, immediate, and synchronous web. In a podcast conversation (published today) with Stephen Robles of AppleInsider, I talked about why I am excited about SharePlay (and other such technologies.) The reason I keep going back to the real-time and synchronous internet is mostly because all great conversations happen in real-time. 

Clubhouse and all those who are cloning it are furthering the cause of this synchronous Internet. We used to like to watch TV together or listen to music. It was a communal experience. The Internet made it a solitary activity, and then social networks turned it into “media” that needed to be broadcast and monetized.

Thus, the current notion of the Internet is based on scale. But in a synchronous web, we don’t need megascale. Intimacy of the experience is a feature, and not a bug. This is about creating synchronized experiences.  So, when you have something like SharePlay, you can have a more personal, intimate experience. It becomes about friendships and family.  

Other services have offered such communal experiences, but the sheer scale of Apple’s ecosystem has a potential of turning Shareplay into a game-changer. This could eventually be a catalyst for needed change in social media, which is stuck in a traditional mode of broadcasting and monetizing through advertising. The long-term gift of the crypto (and blockchain) revolution is not going to be the amount of cash many will bank, but instead, it will allow for new internet (and network) behaviors to emerge. Monetization beyond advertising will lead to experimentation in enabling niche but dense community experiences. 

Looking back a decade ago, I was quite naive and optimistic about the emergence of the alive web. Perhaps, I am a bit over-optimistic still. But I don’t think so — the pandemic has exposed us to the magic of being together, both online and offline. We have started wanting more intimacy in our collaborative lives online. We have a generation that is visually native. Their communication default is something akin to FaceTime. And that’s good training for expecting a synchronous Internet.

I am dreaming of synchronicity because it is how we are meant to interact. Phone guys might not realize it, but synchronicity is the killer app of 5G (and beyond.)

June 29, 2021, San Francisco

Snap & Climate Change: Is there a link?

Snapchat announced that in 2018 an average of 3 billion snaps were sent every day. A single snap produces 0.1g of CO2 meaning that in just 24 hours Snapchat generates the carbon equivalent of 1 car driving for 54 years. This is, of course, microscopic in comparison to carbon emissions generated by the aviation industry or agriculture – but it’s not nothing. Joe Hearty, R/GA London Experience Design Director argues that we have underestimated the impact of digital on climate change and it is only going to increase. Check.