This article by Sean Michaels in the Guardian seems to suggest that Glastonbury is on borrowed time. Whether this is Eavis on a colossal, sob-strewn comedown now that Shangri-La has been packed up, a cheap attempt at publicity, or possesses a modicum of truth, it’s difficult to believe that an insanely large festival that this year sold out in two hours has anything to worry about. But it has got me thinking about why I had a good time and why the whole thing should be passed on to Emily Eavis before Michael locks himself in his farmhouse screaming and cackling about the cows he can now afford.
In many ways Glastonbury shouldn’t really work. It’s huge, it rains, it’s very difficult to get around and you only really get to see about 4 or 5 bands a day. It’s also a real work out. Dragging that mud-encrusted trolley across two miles of crowded, inhospitable terrain can quickly and easily elicit physical pangs of ‘what am I DOING’. Basic human functions start to become endurance tests and real world standards of cleanliness and hygiene begin to fade at an alarmingly swift rate.
But. And although this sounds slightly ridiculous, I think it’s within this arduousness that much of Glastonbury’s appeal lies. It feels like a struggle. But it feels like a rewarding struggle that pays off in kind. Sitting back in the sunshine and listening to Paul Simon is lent all the more pleasure via the short-term memories of how you got to this point (making pasta under a gazebo in the pissing rain the night before, for example).
To many humans, it’s natural to derive particular pleasure in things that have resulted from significant work. We like working as long as we are being rewarded as it seems to satisfy some fundamental, innate urge. And the supply chain which connects many of our ‘work’ to ‘reward’ patterns in everyday, modern life have become compromising complex. Putting in a day at the office doesn’t always result directly in a feeling of reward or fulfilment (this instead tends to take place on pay day).
Part of Glastonbury’s charm therefore exists in a collective simplification of this work/reward binary. The physical effort of dragging a heavy trolley means that you can create your temporary home. The greater effort you put in, the greater environment you are able to create for yourself. The greater this environment, the more pleasurable it is going to be. This explicit, simple cause and effect is inherently satisfying. Glastonbury is just as much about creation as it is about passive enjoyment.
So yes. I hope Eavis comes to his senses. I’ve got some more trolley-hauling to do before this is through.
I want to preface what I’m about to write by stating that I’ve only just started LA Noire and so far I’m mostly very impressed. Its attention to detail (as with pretty much all of Rockstar’s sandbox outings) is insane and the whole 1940s noir thing is perfect and very compelling. I also think there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on with the story telling (the slow-reveal flashbacks taking their cues from something like Mad Men) and the acting is - on the whole - pretty much TV show standard.
All that aside, I think I’m struggling to play this game properly by virtue of the fact that I’m a gamer. Let me explain.
LA Noire relies on the core mechanics of the Grand Theft Auto games. It (I assume) shares the GTA4 engine and it feels like GTA. You move around a 3D world, you get in cars that look and feel like 1940s GTA cars and you get out and pursue/shoot people. Initially, you undergo a constant barrage of instruction at the top left hand corner of the screen which introduces you to the basic skills you require to actually play the game. At this point the language or (if i’m being pretentious) discourse of this kind of experience slots into place in your brain. You slide into the groove of the familiar. The assumption that you will soon be driving cars around very fast and shooting people is naturally formed (and not totally off the mark).
The issue with LA Noire is that - even if it is based on the very code and structures of previous Rockstar games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption - its success relies on something completely different. It is a game about solving crimes, pondering clues, interrogating people and eventually getting the bad guy. Sure, there’s a large part of the game that is about pursuing said bad guy, but its most important mechanic is its narrative. In theory at least, the player must observe the nuance of the dialogue, the reaction of characters in cut scenes and the detail of their surroundings to further their progress.
My problem - at the moment at least - lies in the switch in pace and tone this creates. In one instance Detective Phelps might be dashing up a ladder and punching some guy in the face. In the next he might be slowly pointing at a vase, picking it up and then quietly saying it’s ‘incidental’. For all I know, this ebb and flow could accurately represent the working life of a 1940s detective. But in videogame terms it can be jarring because it is clouding the familiar and fast-paced mechanic of frenetic chaos-causing that I already know.
My point here is that - like reading a genre novel or watching a genre film - the feel of LA Noire is inherently generic. There are associations with this that I must unlearn before I can usefully watch cut scenes and pick up objects without impatiently wanting to get back to ramming someone’s car off the road. I need to start taking my time, get out of the ‘must progress as quickly as possible’ mindset of an arcade action game and into the observational state of the adventure game.
To me, time will tell whether LA Noire’s seamless interplay of these two binaries actually works. I think I also need to calm the hell down.
As the online services we consume on a daily basis increase considerably, there’s a danger that the average user wishing to do something simple won’t know which way to turn. It’s therefore reassuring that some are attempting to unify this disparate landscape into various consumer-orientated hubs that possess a focus on simplicity and ease of use.
Launched on the 31st March, the Radioplayer represents the largest venture of this kind so far in the UK radio space. Created by a consortium which consists of the BBC, Global Radio, Absolute, The Guardian and Radio Centre, it sees competing companies collaborating in a similar way to those involved in the forthcoming YouView service. Radioplayer is a not-for-profit company and primarily represents an attempt at making web-radio a more holistic, intuitive and - ultimately - popular experience.
The player itself is pretty standard fare and is reminiscent of the windowed BBC iPlayer for radio. Its mix of BBC and commercial stations isn’t really new either, especially to those that use the likes of WunderRadio and Internet Radio Box on their smart phone or tablet device. Instead, what is most interesting about Radioplayer is its integrated search function and its fledgling attempts to change the way in which radio is consumed and explored.
Radioplayer essentially allows users to search by station, location, programme, presenter or interest. The search box takes pride of place on the company’s website and attempts to consolidate information from all its hosted stations into useful search words. There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, the yield of a search engine is only ever as good as the meta-data it’s plugging into. While the BBC seems to be making progress in this regard (many searches yielding BBC results) the other stations appear to be a little hit and miss. Secondly, the rights restrictions imposed on the radio shows available means that - at most - the content the Radioplayer is filtering is only around 7 days old. This means that if you’re using the search facility to look for - for example - a session by a certain band or artist, it’ll only come up if it’s happened fairly recently.
Rights really become the key to a service like this. An unrestricted, efficient, stable, searchable archive of radio content - all in one place - is something we could all get genuinely excited about. As it stands, Radioplayer is an interesting start and a significant step in the right direction. It could just be so much more.
In the swirling mass of endless information that is the Internet, we have grown to rely on certain touchstones that filter content into a manageable stream our brains can comprehend. Whether this is Twitter, Facebook, RSS or a trusted website of choice, we use these resources to guide us so we don’t start to completely freak out. While the eternal thought that we might be missing something never quite goes away, we can at least impose structure so as to meaningfully absorb information in a way that we feel is useful to us.
Nowhere is this idea more pertinent than in the way we now consume music. Spotify - for UK music listeners at least - is rapidly becoming a central hub through which music discovery and listening is filtered. For many - reliant for the last few years on blogs, bittorrent and friends with external hard drives as a means of servicing their music listening needs - Spotify is a return to the notion of actually paying for music in some way. While its free service (which just today got squeezed even further) represents more than some will ever need, it is Spotify Premium’s addition of a mobile application that truly starts to make holistic sense. While the simple idea of playlists and favourites seamlessly syncing between your computer and your phone is enough to make iTunes seem a little old fashioned, the inclusion of song-sending and playlist sharing has the potential to define the way we share music with one another.
Yet while Spotify’s premise of millions of songs is like the promised land for many music listeners, offering a user such seemingly limitless choice has its associated downsides. The main side effect here is that choice can sometimes lead to complete inaction and therefore the notion that we are not extracting value. When provided with quite so much content, there’s a pervasive thought that we’re only ever scratching the surface, that the bands we are listening to represent the tiniest fraction of what this service has to offer. We should be listening more widely and more diversely. We’re paying for this after all.
Now, while having lots of content is obviously never a bad thing, it does seem to follow that if someone is given everything then they really don’t value it as much. Of course, there’s also the problem that none of this belongs to us anyway. These sounds may magically propel themselves from our speakers whenever we want them to, but they have no tangible form. MP3s have this problem too, but they can still be copied, organised, burnt to CD and clutched very tightly to the chest.
Lack of true ownership and a huge amount of choice is therefore a ticket to a more passive kind of experience. If we are desperately trying to listen to as many things as possible without any real structure to do so, then there is a danger that we get overloaded and don’t really find what we truly want. This is where - I think - Spotify should (and undoubtedly will) look to the Facebooks and Twitters of this world. By pushing further the idea of integrated newsfeeds, groups and swapped tracks, Spotify can become an actual ecosystem. A place not only to listen to music but one where we are truly ‘delivered’ it in ways we’ve never really considered before.
When the iPad was first released, there was a lot of earnest discussion regarding its legitimacy as a ‘useful’ device. Sure, it was great at browsing the web with its big, sensitive touchscreen, snappy rendering and general form factor, but did we really need it? If I really wanted to do something useful, i’d use my laptop, right? Check Twitter? I’ll do that on my phone.
It’s no secret that for many the iPad fell awkwardly within our daily lives, servicing a need that we weren’t sure even existed. As it crowbar-ed itself between devices that still possessed a sheen of reinvention and novelty (the iPhone particularly), there was an inevitable period where Apple’s new tablet felt like pure excess. I remember getting home with mine and feeling a sense of indecision creep through me. Sitting down in my bedroom with my laptop, iPhone and iPad scattered within a few inches of each other, unsure which to pick up first. The sight of an email hitting three devices at once seemed a little, well, unnecessary. Suddenly it felt like the eternal quest for a true, do-it-all convergence device has resulted in three of the things littering my personal space.
As the months rolled by, my iPad literally began to gather dust and run out of battery power (which actually takes some doing). The appearance of the iPhone 4 with its identical A4 processor and appealing new form factor reignited my love affair with the smartphone. The retina display alone was enough to make going back to the iPad seem a step down. I mean it had visible pixels for god’s sake. Get it out of my sight.
Sure, there were some great applications and interesting new UI paradigms, but most tasks could still be performed adequately on a laptop (which had a keyboard) or a smartphone (which was easier and more comfortable to hold).
Meanwhile, news stories consistently spoke of huge sales and success, my parents both bought iPads and fell in love with them, while Samsung, RIM, Motorola and HP all started planning their routes into the market. Apple had ‘defined a new category’ and while I was sure I had at least got my head around what it was, I felt like I didn’t quite get it. Or it just wasn’t for me. In a life of movement or stasis, a device that sat somewhere between these two states didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense.
But then came the release of GarageBand. And the iPad - just like that - started making sense.
This sounds hyperbolic. But it’s true. And has made me realise something: As soon as a device becomes truly useful and uniquely helpful in achieving creative ends, it becomes meaningful. A laptop allows us to write, edit photos, make music. A smartphone allows us to talk to people we love, navigate around, interact with our environments. The iPad, from being a consumption device that I couldn’t even write on properly, became something which sparked the synapses of my brain. It suddenly felt tactile, satisfying, fun. It made me want to make things and share things because it was the perfect way to do it.
But how did GarageBand on the iPad inspire this? The central problem with a piece of music software is that - by very definition - it is very complex. The act of manipulating music has always been represented using a fairly alienating visual metaphor. Waveforms look complicated and when they’re layered up, cut up, and cut together: even more so. For the average user, music software on a computer has to be learnt. Actions like mouse clicks and key combinations correspond to physically unrelated functions. With the iPad, and with GarageBand in particular, Apple have developed a look and feel that is so homogenised and regimented that it is - at its best - both intuitive and weirdly familiar. Pinching equals zooming into tracks, swiping down will split a track and all the menu buttons map to familiar side bar space or pop up menus. There’s also a level of restriction and control to the UI which prevents the kind of endless menus that have put me off countless pieces of music software in the past. Instead, GarageBand harnesses what the average iPad user has learnt and applies it to a piece of music software. And, while simplistic and limited for some, for the most part it actually works very well as a sketchpad for music.
But there’s a broader point here that touch is simply more accessible, more functional than clicking. The user feels more invested, more in control. There is less separation between action and consequence. More meaning in the act of doing.
This slightly woolly point is best demonstrated by GarageBand’s software instruments. Regardless of what’s going on under the hood (tapping into the iPad’s accelerometer to achieve tactile dynamics for piano and drums for example), the existence of playable software instruments on a device like this is a big deal. They are fun to mess about with, but they’re also surprisingly useful and - importantly - musical. Sounds are restrictive and limited, but - like picking up a guitar or sitting behind a drum kit - they sound and feel good enough to actually want to create something. They reward musicality and creativity. And this is GarageBand’s greatest success.
So, just in time for my iPad to feel fat and inferior, i’m sold on the the promise of the tablet computer. It’s now making sense simply because i’ve used it for something unique.