Satisfactions

This post was originally written in September 2021 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.

Even if you’re not into media studies like I am, you might have heard of someone by the name of Marshall McLuhan. If you haven’t, then at the very least you may be familiar with some of the famous aphorisms and terms that he coined as a media scholar, such as the medium is the message and global village.

During the 1960s and 70s, Marshall McLuhan was an unusual kind of academic, in the sense that he didn’t really follow the academic tradition. He was (in)famous for it. Rather than keeping information within the institution, he made a point of talking directly to the public, sharing myriad ideas that enthralled audiences about media as environments and the effects of technology (or the ‘electric age’, as he called it) on society. He avoided making conclusions or holding convictions. Instead, he emphasised the importance of exploring, probing and being open and willing to change your mind.

Appearing on television and radio around the world, he was, in essence, a kind of academic rock star, the likes of which had never been seen before. It’s hard even to name a contemporary equivalent.

McLuhan died before the advent of the personal computer, and while some of his ideas have become outdated, most of them remain very relevant and some even seem prescient.

Recently, one such prescient idea came up in The Massage podcast by the McLuhan Institute, which is run by his grandson, Andrew McLuhan. The episode, titled ‘Marshall McLuhan on Environments and Advertisements with Barbara Walters (1966)’, featured an excerpt of Marshall McLuhan’s appearance on the Today Show with Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs. Around the beginning of the conversation, McLuhan makes this statement:

Advertising is really part of the information service industries and increasingly, the ad becomes a substitute for the product. … All the satisfactions now come from the ads, not the products.

At the time, this seemed odd to Walters and Downs: how could the ad be the product when it’s attempting to sell you the product? Ask most people today what they think about this and they will probably answer in a similar way to people from the 1960s: ‘Well, I don’t really care about the chocolate ad… I just want to buy and eat the chocolate’. Satisfaction comes from the taste of the chocolate, not the ad!

The thing is, McLuhan was actually right and it has only become a more obvious and powerful idea as we have pushed further and further into the age of digital information.

Perhaps the perfect example is the Apple keynote, along with all similar tech presentations that have copied its format. The keynote, like the many smaller product ads on TV and the Web, is a vehicle for making you enthusiastic about buying into new hardware, software and services, albeit extended. Increasingly, however, it has become an event and product in itself.

Last year, following Apple’s first-ever virtual WWDC, I wrote a piece on Lounge Ruminator that featured McLuhan’s tetrad for understanding media and their effects. The tetrad is a diagrammatic tool that asks you to think about what any given medium or technology enhancesretrievesobsolesces and reverses into as it enters an already mediated environment. Whether you’re thinking of a table, an audiobook, an iPhone or a fighter jet, you can apply the tetrad to to it. While I appreciated and traced the changes that came with a virtual (rather than live) presentation, what I had not considered until now is that the keynote is an Apple product, much like its hardware devices, apps and services.

The keynote, which is an advertisement, is advertised itself. Look at the website and you’ll see that following an announcement, the next big one is generally there, alongside priced products. People share the same enthusiasm for the keynote that they do for the products that follow the event. Bloggers, podcasters and news journalists pour over and review the experience, scripting and production value of the keynote and compare and contrast it with those of earlier years. These are product features. Furthermore, they are kept for on-demand entertainment in an archive, to be browsed and enjoyed as one would flick through a catalogue.

The second key point that McLuhan raises in the excerpt on the podcast, which brings all of this home, is the following:

The ones who read and pay attention to the ads are the ones who already own the products.

If we are already convinced of the quality of branded devices and therefore have chosen to buy and own them, then why do we anticipate and enjoy keynotes?

The answer: we unknowingly accept and use these advertisements as products and extensions of the branded ecosystem.

I love to watch Apple keynotes and generally, when I finish watching them, I feel positive and excited about what is on the horizon. Still, it’s important to remain critical, whether about product features, implications for user behaviour and privacy or potential effects on the natural environment.

As tech fans who happily watch these extended ads, which are just products that link to yet more to-be-released products, what does that say about us as consumers? Have we decided that we’re going to buy something before we even see or know what it is?

If the keynote is a product, then yes, we have already bought it.

A Photographic First-world ‘Non-problem’

This post was originally written in August 2021 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.

My poor wife Natasha often has to deal with my extended monologues at home, whether they’re about technology, social observations or stories from the past. One of the most recent things that I ranted about was met with this succinct (and probably correct) response:

Martin, that’s a ‘non-problem’.

My rant was all about how iOS has affected the maintenance of my photo library over the years. As I presume to be addressing a somewhat nerdy audience here, let’s see if you agree with what I have to say.

On the one hand, iOS and now more recently, iPadOS, have both revolutionised the way that we take photos. Where we once had to carry dedicated point-to-shoot cameras, we now have smart devices with amazing capabilities in computational photography, the possibility to share instantly with friends and family and the benefit of beautiful, large displays for enjoying thousands of locally- or cloud-accessible images on-the-go. I love that I can take crisp low-light images, cool HDR shots, amazing panoramas and smooth 4K video all with the iPhone in my pocket.

On the other hand, this new world of possibility has also brought the power to pollute our photo libraries. While more limited, the earlier time of dedicated film and digital cameras was arguably more focused and deliberate. The issue to which I refer nowadays with iOS devices is the longstanding ability to save Web images and take screenshots.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love that I can save images and take screenshots easily on my iPhone and iPad. I use these features regularly to keep memories, mark up items for sharing or embed images in my own writing (as you’ll see in this very article). What has happened over time, however, is my Photos library—carrying over from the earlier iPhoto—has become littered with myriad images that can best be described as useless ephemera. They were important or made sense at the time, but they now serve no purpose other than to distract from the otherwise engaging photo narrative of my life, which the Photos app is meant to facilitate. Eventually, Apple introduced a Screenshots album in Photos across its platforms, in an attempt to offer some way of organising these images, but I find that it was too late and that it also doesn’t deal with the fact that these images persist in your own main library view. If taking a screenshot with iOS and iPadOS now, I try to make a point of ‘Saving to Files’ instead.

I’ve never saved as many of these images as I’ve seen done by others in my circle of family and friends, but it still annoys me. Over the last few months, I’ve set occasional pockets of time aside to review the earlier screenshot crap in my library and decide whether or not they serve a purpose or represent a valuable memory.

Consider the following examples that I screenshot recently (on my Mac) for this article.

In this screenshot, you can see screenshots of a purchase confirmation, a map and some earlier views of the Home screen and Twitter and ABC News app interfaces on iOS. These were kept so that I wouldn’t lose proof of an order and perhaps to remember what earlier interfaces looked like, but are they worthy of sitting alongside my family photos? Easy to delete!

In this example, you can see screenshots that I saved of an old Instagram account that I used to run, called The Martin Feld Retail Photo Collection (or @martinfeldretail). Essentially, I used to take photos of myself in bizarre retail situations for a laugh, and various friends loved it. I later grew tired of and unimpressed with Instagram, so I deleted the account but also took screenshots of the very uploaded images for posterity. These are easy to delete but first need to be moved to an iCloud Drive folder.

The more problematic images that I’ve encountered fall into the category of screenshots of photos and moments from messaging apps. When I used to enjoy Snapchat with friends and family, for instance, I would screenshot funny moments that now reside amongst my other family photos. Do these old Snapchat screenshots also rank as family photos, or should they be stored in a separate folder in iCloud Drive, as they are of lower quality and represent a different type of memory and/or communication?

I know that what I am arguing for is perhaps a very lofty, old-hat view of Apple’s earlier ‘digital hub’ strategy, where every photo fits the idea of a crisp marketing shot, however I do feel removed from the narrative when I stumble upon such images in my library. They either contain text or are saved in a noticeably lower resolution than my other photos.

You may disagree, and if you do, I’d love to hear what you think or how you approach this issue. Get in touch through one of our channels!

Until then, if you do think that this is a non-issue, I’ll leave you with this concluding thought about screenshot- and Web-image-saving behaviour:

While you may happily take screenshots and save images directly to your Photos library on your iPhone without much hesitation, would you ever willingly do the same thing on your Mac, or do they land on the desktop or in another destination folder?

For some reason, we have come to tolerate a photo-saving behaviour on our mobile devices that would seem downright wrong on the Mac.

By Hand

This post was originally written in July 2021 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.

Then something changed: I stopped handwriting.

Why is that? (You may ask…) I went to university.

I had been using computers throughout my time at primary and high school, however this occurred when I was either in a computer lab or at home completing longer assignments. Everything in general class-time was otherwise written with a pen.

At university, no one instructed me to use a pen, so I was free to use my MacBook or iPad to take notes during lectures and annotate slides and PDFs. As I had already learnt to touch-type in primary school, it felt much faster and more natural to apply my ideas onto a digital page, while keeping up with a presenter or racing to meet a deadline for an essay. As much as I enjoy handwriting, the thrill of hitting keys quickly is fantastic. Sometimes it feels as smooth as thinking the thoughts themselves.

This trend continued as I entered the working world—a world full of computers. When in the office, I often see people writing notes by hand, whether on post-it notes or larger pads or notebooks during meetings. I never do this. All of my writing is on a keyboard and quite often, over time, I’ve attracted funny looks during meetings when I’ve entered without a pen and paper. Rather than take notes during meetings or even sit behind a laptop, I speak and listen, then summarise the key points from my head digitally afterwards.

One thing that has appealed to me about handwriting more again, however, is using my Apple Pencil. I bought it with the intention to write more by hand, but instead have used it mainly for audio editing in Ferrite Recording Studio, including Hemispheric Views. It’s an excellent experience.

Now that so much of my work and my thinking is typed and filed neatly, to write by hand seems disruptive, as if it will break the system or slow me down. It feels fun, but it’s never as efficient or orderly.

All of this being said, even in an age when so much of our time is dominated by computers, I believe that handwriting is still a crucial skill. It’s important (at least sometimes) to express yourself in a way that is slower, more focused and more tactile. Imagine a visual society, such as ours, that were to lose the ability to make the shapes of its own language on a page. It’s a frightening possibility.

When my son, Mac, gets a bit older and goes to school, I would like him to enjoy handwriting and see the value in it as well. The concern is, however, how will he ever develop such a skill if his parents (or at least one of them) isn’t doing it actively in front of him every day? Why would he pick up a pen and write slowly on paper, when he only ever sees his dad typing on a keyboard? Could he be one of those future humans who knows his language only through the tapping of a keyboard?

Somehow, with the very little time that I make for myself already, I’m going to have to find a way to bring more handwriting back into my life.