Insufficient Terms

At the beginning of our April Hemispheric News on One Prime Plus, Andrew discussed the issue of web apps and their user experience (or lack thereof); I share his opinion. Andrew raised a great point that many people may not know or care about the difference between web and native apps, as an equivalent tool within a browser may offer all the functionality that they need.

Although we’ve been living with digital technologies for decades, many of the issues and misunderstandings that people experience are due to insufficient language. In the world of computers, terms can be either overly complicated or too simple. Consider the common problem of terms and conditions when you register for an online service like a web app or social network: included privacy policies are presented with endless, impenetrable jargon, even for those who are comfortable with technology; and companies that try to do the right thing by providing a shorter alternative version of their terms may oversimplify the document to the point that the text is condescending or no longer accurate.

It’s said that lawmakers struggle to keep up with technological changes and that by the time they’ve adapted policies to fit them, they’re either weak or things have moved on. Again, I blame insufficient language and I propose that the following term is the worst offender for insufficiency and ambiguity and the most controversial web app: social media.

Social media, for all of their power in enabling global communication and positive connection, continue to cause harm online and discombobulate policymakers. What if all the issues in dealing social media come down to the fact that the term is insufficient and meaningless, failing to describe the relevant services at all?

Let’s break things down. Looking at the Australian Government’s Be Connected resources on its eSafety website, the following definition of social media is given:

Social media is a collective term used to describe any website or smart device app that can be used to share (or socialise) information.

That information can be made up of text, pictures, sound or video (different types of media), and it can be sent from your computer or device to one or more other people by using a special website or app.

There are many different types of social media websites and apps that are owned by big companies, including some of the best known: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Addressing the term ‘media’ first, media ecologists such as Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman argued that media and technology are synonymous: any tool that enhances a human’s ability to achieve something is a medium, which could include anything from a spoon to a traffic light to a website, or even natural phenomena such as light. A medium contains or facilitates (and influences) content. Looking at the definition above, the term ‘special website’ is vague and ridiculous, and it could be argued that a website in its general sense could be a form of social media, as it presents information that is made up of text, pictures, sound or video. When you make a website or add something to an existing one, you are sharing (or socialising) information with others.

Now, let’s turn to the word ‘social’. I argue that in this context, the word is tautological. Anything that a human does in conveying information may be regarded as social; when you communicate something, whether orally, in written form or through facial expressions, either to a seen or invisible audience, you are committing a social act. With regard to media (or technology), is the term ‘social’ even new? What other kinds of social media might have existed before digital technology? Consider the following:

  • letters — maintaining a friendship with a pen pal by exchanging written messages;
  • phone calls — using the medium of the telephone to be social using only your voice;
  • television, radio and cinema — gathering with friends, family and even strangers around a screen or speaker, whether at home or elsewhere, to enjoy a specific medium and its content; and
  • theatrical and musical performances — gathering with others, as above, but hearing and seeing the socialised information of actors or musicians live on a stage.

I could go on… all of these are media are social, both in the transmission and reception of information and in the interactive sharing of it with others. If people try to use a term such as ‘social network’ for these services instead, isn’t that even more ridiculous? Wouldn’t a social network consist of everyone you’ve ever met in your life, rather than one digital tool? ‘Social networking’ is what it means to be a human being.

Many people describe ‘social media’ (in the digital sense) as things that are new. They also assert that only young people get them innately and grow up as ‘digital natives’—understanding their use and potential before or more deeply than older generations. Both of these points are false. While ‘social media’ may be new, they are only relatively new. Facebook, for example, is almost 20 years old. People who first used it as children then are adults now. On the matter of younger people as ‘digital natives’, while they may adapt more quickly to navigating digital interfaces, they often fail to realise the implications of their technological use and how their personal information may be handled.

If we were to focus on teaching digital media literacy and arming ourselves with more powerful and descriptive terminology, rather than submitting to a kind of euphemistic Newspeak, global understanding of technology may be enhanced.

What could be an alternative term for ‘social media’? Given their reliance on data and algorithms over anything that’s qualitatively human or social, how about one of the following suggestions?

  • Human-fed data communication banks
  • Algorithmically-driven advertorial networks
  • Personally-targeted publishing companies

They’re not the prettiest terms but they give you a much better idea of what’s going on than ‘social media’ does. How would people think about the information that they add to these web apps and services if they were labelled differently?

I offer this article not as a negative piece about social media—I enjoy using them—but to emphasise that our inability to define them is what hinders our ability to moderate them.

This post was originally written in April 2022 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.

Review: Sancho (and a General Tribute to The Whitlams)

Back in August of 2018, I was motivated to write a brief blog post about what is probably my favourite album: Eternal Nightcap (1997), which is the third album by The Whitlams. I have wonderful memories associated with this album, as it played on repeat in the car during family road trips and to me, acted as a kind of cultural compass for life in Sydney and its surrounds. I was only in primary school at the time but I felt grown-up listening to it, as it featured wonderfully descriptive and cheeky lyrics, such as the following:

– ‘All my friends are fuck-ups but they’re fun to have around’ and ‘By the time she gets to Marrickville we’ll be masturbating’ from ‘You Sound Like Louis Burdett’;

– ‘She was one in a million so there’s five more just in New South Wales’ from ‘Up Against the Wall’; and

– ‘My mum’s got a new boyfriend and I like the man’ from ‘Love Is Everywhere’.

If you’re not from Australia, this album is a classic, with unparalleled storytelling through song—largely owed to founding (and the only original) member Tim Freedman. There’s also the fantastic ‘Charlie’ trilogy of songs, dealing with issues of mental health linked to substance abuse, the magnificent ‘No Aphrodisiac’, which won Triple J’s Hottest 100 back in the day, and a wondrous, toe-tapping cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. Although some of the lyrics have been rightly changed in recent live performances to fit shifting societal attitudes (e.g. the description of Kinky Renée in ’No Aphrodisiac’), the album remains a favourite and was even performed by the band in its entirety with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, along with other classic songs like ‘Blow Up the Pokies’.

Yet more wonderful albums followed, such as Love this City, a critique of Sydney in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympic Games, Torch the Moon, when the current band line-up was confirmed, and Little Cloud, which Freedman wrote when he lived in New York City, before returning to Australia. I could go on about the others but we don’t have time for that.

Little Cloud was The Whitlams’ last album, released in 2006. For years while touring, Freedman would joke that they were set to perform songs from their latest album; the audience would cackle in response, unfazed by the lack of new material and still thrilled to hear their favourite songs from an already enjoyable canon. I was one of those people, as I have seen the band perform and Freedman play solo a number of times.

In 2022, all of this changed. For the first time in 16 years, The Whitlams released a new album: Sancho. Upon hearing at a solo show early last year that new content would be coming out, I was seriously excited. But what prompted a new release from a band that had seemed content in playing its classic collection on repeat? The answer is a sad one… the album title ‘Sancho’ was the nickname of the band’s late tour manager, Greg Weaver, whose death sparked new songwriting. Thankfully, the band turned an untimely loss into a positive tribute.

As I claimed above, Freedman is unmatched in his storytelling, mixing catchy riffs and effortlessly precise piano with engaging, heartfelt narrative and often dry, quirky humour. Unexpectedly, the album begins with a cover of ‘Catherine Wheel’ (with the original by Washington) and includes an unpredictable track list that weaves in and out of moods and styles. Notably, two great story songs (at over six minutes in length) feature on the album: the title track, ‘Sancho’, which is a musical eulogy that captures the feelings of an exhausted band on the road with its manager; and ‘Ballad of Bertie Kidd’, a song based on the true story of robbers who were busted on the way to a bank heist, simply because they were spotted putting on their balaclavas too early while driving.

There’s also a lot of cheekiness, such as the catchy ‘(You’re Making Me Feel Like I’m) 50 Again’, which is particularly amusing to me, as back in 1997, Freedman sang in ‘No Aphrodisiac’ as a joke about (then) older lovers relative to himself: ‘Forty, shaved, sexy, wants to do it all day’.

There are songs of affection too, such as ‘Nobody Knows I Love You’ and ‘In the Last Life’, which I believe are exemplary of The Whitlams’ ability to write lyrics that perfectly balance the first and second person: you feel drawn into Freedman’s thoughts and emotions as lead vocalist, but also feel like he’s addressing you directly with his messages, even if those feelings aren’t intended for you.

With three songs exceeding five minutes, Sancho still manages to be digestible at 44 minutes in total duration. By the end, you’re left feeling satisfied, yet also wanting more; but as a fan of the band, you know that you shouldn’t wish for too much. This is quality rather than quantity. After all, Sancho is the first new work from the band in 16 years, and evidence of their continuing ability to produce top-notch content that is poetic, heart-breaking, uplifting and funny all at the same time.

Give Sancho a go.

This post was originally written in March 2022 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.

Nyrang

This post was originally written in February 2022 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.

2022 02 Nyrang Park Sky Jurassic Park

Those who follow me on Micro.blog may recognise the photo above, which I posted there recently, stating that the combination of canopy and sky reminded me of Jurassic Park. It was in fact taken in Nyrang Park (pronounced nai-rang), which is a beautiful natural reserve near our home in Wollongong.

2022 02 Nyrang Park Apple Maps

Nestled behind suburban backyards, many people who drive by don’t even notice that it’s there, even with numerous eucalypts that tower over the houses that front the road. It’s easy to zoom past the entrance.

2022 02 Nyrang Park Sign

After the positive reaction that my Jurassic photo received on Micro.blog, I scrolled back through the Places function in my iCloud Photo Library, looking specifically at all the photos that I had taken in the park. What occurred to me, as I perused my collection, was this: Nyrang Park has become my sanctuary. It was Natasha who first showed me the park years ago, before we moved in together, as it is near her family’s home. At that point, I had no idea just how significant a role this park would play in my daily life.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, when the COVID-19 pandemic started and we were all sent to work at home, I knew that I would need to continue my lunchtime walking habit to preserve my physical and mental health. It’s easy to remain inside all day if you’re busy—particularly if you’re in your home with your own stuff and creature comforts. Nyrang Park became my regular walking place, through which I still frequent today, as I meander through the paths under the trees, spotting and listening to galahs, magpies, cockatoos and kookaburras, or even listening to a podcast as I observe the canopy and flowing creek. Passing through, I regularly stop to take in a scene, sometimes snapping it with my iPhone or even making the effort to take my Canon DSLR along sometimes. Whether it’s an early morning walk, a lunchtime stroll or a way to clear my head after work, the walk is always beautiful; occasionally I’ll visit the park multiple times in the day, just to enjoy the differences in light and colour. Here are further photo examples.

2022 02 Nyrang Park Path

2022 02 Nyrang Park Creek

2022 02 Nyrang Park Trees Portrait

2021 Nyrang Park Tree Roots

2021 Nyrang Park Eucalypt

On the point of listening to podcasts when I visit Nyrang Park, I’ve thought a lot about the role of technology as we walk through natural spaces. In this case, I’m wearing technology in the form of my AirPods Pro and controlling the podcast playback through Overcast on my Apple Watch. Depending on my mood, I may choose to augment the experience of my walk with audio through transparency mode, still hearing the running water and singing (or screeching) birds as I listen to my podcasts, or I may forgo audio entirely, seeking to escape technology and any potential distraction or notifications.

On the rarest of occasions, however, I’ve managed to fuse the experience of nature and technology into something meaningful and memorable. One time late in 2020, on a Friday afternoon when Natasha was out with her colleagues, I visited the park to wind down and put the working week behind myself. As I followed the central path and crossed over the creek into Nyrang Park’s clearing, I was struck by how vivid the sky was, with light, fluffy clouds sweeping gently overhead. I felt the need to stay for a while and enjoy the clarity and peacefulness of the moment. It was at that moment that I remembered that I had added a new album to my library: Ólafur Arnald’s Some Kind of Peace. Given his style of music and the album’s title, I thought that it would fit the scene.

2021 Nyrang Park Clearing

I proceeded to lie down right in the middle of the clearing, put in my earphones and start the album. From beginning to end, I remained on the ground, looking directly up at the sky as the clouds shifted gradually (seemingly to the music). It was the perfect combination of natural movement and personal technology, completely blocking out the existence of everyone and everything else on the planet for 40 minutes. This was enhanced by both noise cancellation and the fact that I couldn’t see anything other than the tops of eucalypts in my periperal vision. Time slowed down and I thought about the mass of the atmosphere between myself and the vast openness of space, the feeling of the grass beneath and around my body and how the colour of the sky shifted as the Sun began to set.

While that afternoon is stuck firmly in my mind, I have many other positive memories in the park since the birth of my son, Mac. During my parental leave, for example, Natasha and I would walk him in his pram or in a carrier through the park every day, exposing him to the sounds of the birds and the feeling of the natural light. (You can’t just keep a baby inside all the time!) It was a great way to stretch our legs and mitigate potential lockdown cabin fever. One day, we even discovered that a tomato vine had started growing next to the path at the park’s entrance, so upon each visit, we would pick some cherry tomatoes and I would enjoy their explosive juiciness as I strolled with my new family.

2021 Nyrang Park Cherry Tomato

2021 Nyrang Park Creek Martin with Mac

Now that he’s slightly older, Mac sits up in his stroller and Natasha points out the water dragons that dot the park, seeking sunshine, and he waves at them. My mum and sister even join us for walks there and Natasha’s parents enjoy time with Mac in a park that’s just around the corner—one that they’d never visited before. When life becomes busy, sometimes a new person or events kickstarts the the discovery of something new. I hope that in years to come, Mac will start to form his own positive memories of and associations with the place, whether with us or on his own.

2022 01 Nyrang Park Water Dragon