Monthly Archives: May, 2013

Taking Stock of Stock: Assessing Alternatives to Some Stock Android Apps

Galaxy S4 Nexus Experience

“Stock” Android on a Galaxy S4

“Stock” Android has become increasingly functional, reliable, and consistent after getting a facelift with 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and then 4.1 Jelly Bean. The evolution of its current unified “flat” aesthetic has arisen from Google’s renewed focus on, well, everything, and in its wake it has opened up a gulf between itself and the looser, anything-goes aesthetics of Android 2.3 and earlier. As such, Google’s vision of “stock Android” can often clash with the design of many 3rd-party apps, even as many of them have risen to the challenge and issued their own Holo-designed apps. Commercially, stock Android is a dud: even LG, after the heartening success of the Nexus 4 (which in the Samsung-dominated Android world is victory enough, for now), is no longer going to be bothering with Nexus manufacturing.

So what’s the point of Holo and the whole “stock” experience? Well: I think it has its merits, if only because it weeds out crapware and bloat and gives users a quality experience due to its reliance on Google’s mostly great apps and services (even if you don’t use G+, the app itself is still a beautiful thing, for example). But it still has lots of shortcomings, like its blatant disregard for entire categories like podcasting or good video playback, and the increasing sprawl of Google apps and services – now that Google wants to stick its fingers in every pot, how long until the Android install image is itself so large and bloat that it won’t be much of a relief from the overloaded ones that come with the Samsung Galaxy S4  or many other bloatware-stuffed phones?

Since it’s unlikely that stock Android will ever be a blockbluster, it’s basically left behind for nitpicking types like me to nit and pick it apart, so with that, let’s look at some of the most important stock Android apps, and the available alternatives. These lists aren’t totally comprehensive, for the sake of conserving space more than anything. I apologize in advance if I’ve left out a key app(s): let me know in comments.

Web Browsing

Stock Option: Chrome

Major Alternatives: Dolphin (w/Jetpack), Firefox, Opera, Next Browser

Chrome is a capable WebKit-based browser, but so is Dolphin, and thanks to Dolphin’s Jetpack add-on, the latter’s speed can often outstrip even Google’s own browser. But speed isn’t everything. Dolphin’s tab interface is straight out of Android 2.3 and feels like a desktop app that has been scaled-down for mobile. Chrome, by contrast, feels mobile-first and has a nice stacked window interface. It also keeps in sync with Chrome on other devices.

Firefox is a good alternative to either of the above. It also keeps in sync with your other instances of Firefox and is decently fast. Firefox also does a better job of respecting privacy, by letting you enable Do Not Track and install ad-blocking add-ons.

Opera is now Webkit-based, too, and it features a neat “offroad” mode which lets you get better speeds even on slower connections.

The one worthy challenger, however, is Next Browser. Built by the team behind the GO Launcher, Next is a speedy, sleekly designed browser that I now use as my default.

Photo Gallery

Stock option: Gallery

Major alternatives: QuickPic

This is a tough one. Gallery has a slick scrolling interface (one of the only instances of satisfactory Android scrolling, sadly) and keeps in sync with your Picasa/G+ albums. It also has filters, if for some reason you didn’t get your fair share from Instagram, Snapseed, Flickr, Pixlr Express…

QuickPic, however, is, well, quicker. And it weeds out those Web albums by default, making for a simplified photo browsing experience.

Email

Stock Options: Email, Gmail

Major Alternatives: K-9 Mail, MailDroid Pro

Email clients are a wasteland on Android. Gmail for Android, with its swipe gestures, quick actions from notifications, and compatibility with Dashclock Widget and Google Now, is so good that it discourages competition. The stock Email client has a similar interface, sans swipe gestures or quick actions, and can be made compatible with Dashclock via the handy Any Dash Pro app.

K-9 Mail is my favorite of the non-stock options: it has a ton of functionality and customization built-in, along with a handy Dashclock extension, although its interface is reminiscent of the 2.3 era, with lots of options tucked away in the menu.

MailDroid Pro is a completely built-from-scratch client that is either ad-supported or ridiculously expensive (or maybe not, given the difficulty of building good email clients), neither of which make it an easy buy unless you’re looking to experiment.

SMS (Non-OTT)

Stock Option: Messaging

Major Alternatives: Sliding Messaging Pro, Go SMS Pro, Chomp SMS

SMS seems to be on the ropes outside of the US, where unlimited text/talk plans are rare. Even in the US, it is under siege from OTT (over the top) services like WhatsApp and Line (see below). All the same, SMS is still important for many users since it sidesteps many of the requirements (like two-way clients) that OTT services have.

Sliding Messasing Pro is an immaculate, super customizable SMS client with MMS support and a buttery sliding UI. Highly recommended. Go SMS Pro is packed with features, but is also in-your-face and a little too eager to have access to your phone so that it can begin spamming you with offers to join its own messaging network. Chomp SMS is fine but a little strange: it hasn’t worked out its notifications such that it doesn’t duplicate the stock app’s SMS notifications.

Video Playback

Stock Options: Gallery/Google Play Movies & TV

Major Alternatives: MX Player Pro

Android doesn’t do video playback so well natively: it sends the video to Gallery, doesn’t offer many options, and doesn’t support all formats. MX Player Pro has nice acceleration options, pinch-to-zoom, and support for virtually all video formats.

Feed/RSS/News Readers

Stock option: Google Currents

Major alternatives: gReader, Feedly, Press

The demise of Google Reader leaves behind a strange RSS landscape on Android. Google Currents is Google’s own alternative: it can integrate RSS feeds, as well as pretty “editions” of many popular websites and blogs. I wrote about it here. However, it’s a bit unstable and gummy at times. You’re likely better off sticking with its editions when possible and limiting its RSS feeds to just a few favorites.

Feedly is a popular alternative that updates promptly and has lots of sharing and sorting options. It perhaps isn’t ideal for huge feed collections, which is where rival gReader can excel. While gReader doesn’t have the slick interface of either Currents or Feedly, it is a bit more feature-rich, and one hopes that it’ll keep its word and remain functional past July 1.

Press is a minimalistic, subtly designed RSS client with Dashclock Support that also promises to remain operational after July 1. Its my weapon of choice if I use RSS on mobile, which isn’t that often.

Weather

Stock option: News and Weather

Major alternatives: Eye in Sky, Beautiful Widgets Pro, WeatherBug Elite

The stock News and Weather app is pretty bare-bones, but it’s weather and uses common weather data, so you’re not going to find a revelatory alternative. Accordingly, assessing weather apps is more about style and bells/whistles.

Eye in Sky has a good widget and lots of customization options for its colors and icons. Beautiful Widgets is true to its name, letting you setup sophisticated widgets on your screens that display date and weather; it also has a neat Daydream/screensaver. And WeatherBug Elite is a more traditional, fewer-frills weather app that receives frequent updates. Like Eye in Sky, it can also pin a temperature read-out to your task bar.

Lockscreen Widget

Stock Option: Clock widget

Major Alternative: Dashclock Widget

This is one of the easiest ways to upgrade your Android experience (on Android 4.2 and later, anyway). Simply download the free Dashclock Widget, add it to your lockscreen, and remove the default clock widget. You can then begin adding all sorts of custom extensions and data to your lockscreen.

Music

Stock Option: Google Play Music

Major Alternatives: Rdio, Spotify, Pandora, Last.fm

Music apps are a dime a dozen, and despite their number I don’t think they vary all that music in their quality. Most of them have licenses for the same catalogues, so differentiation comes down to interface, price, and, probably, whatever service you began using.

Google Play Music offers a music store, a locker to which you can upload up to 20,000 songs, and access to album/song streams and custom radio stations. It covers almost every base, and it’s cheap, too (for now – signing up before the end of June can lock you into a lower $7.99 monthly rate). But it doesn’t have a desktop app, works only on Android/Web, and has a relatively minimalist aesthetic (in keeping with stock Android).

Spotify works on nearly any platform, but its app design is wonky and often unstable, especially on Android, where sometimes I have to go back and reenter a search query for it to register. Since I’m already entrenched in Spotify, making the switch to near-duplicates like Rdio or Last.fm is pretty much out of the question, but the prospect of integrating a streaming collection with my 8k song library in my Google Play Music library is also enticing (Google Play Music displays both locker-stored albums, store purchases, and streaming albums/songs in the same location, unlike Spotify, which separates them).

PDF Viewing

Stock Option: QuickOffice Viewer, Google Play Books (kind of)

Major Alternatives: Adobe Reader, iAnnotate PDF, ezPDF Reader Pro

The default PDF viewer is stock Android is ungainly, with all of its option tucked away into the overflow button on 4.0+. You can load your PDFs into Google Play Books, but you’ll have to go to the Play site on your Mac/PC first.

Adobe Reader and iAnnotate PDF are both free and feature annotation tools, with iAnnotate having a slightly larger variety. But ezPDF Reader Pro is worth the price tag, since it has high-level features like PDF reflow, integration with cloud services, and a bookshelf UI.

Social Networking

Stock Option: Google+

Major Alternatives:  …just kidding

-The ScreenGrab Team

Advertisements

Dashclock Widget for Android (4.2+): 13 of the Best Extensions

Dashclock

A sample Dashclock Widget, with extensions for Eye in Sky Weather, Battery Widget Reborn, Logika Word of the Day, and inQuotes.

Dashclock Widget is a revelation. It has become so integrated into my daily workflow on my Nexus 4 that I forget that it isn’t an Android system app and that it is in fact a 3rd-party solution (albeit one developed by a former Googler, Roman Nurik). When an app reaches this level, at which it no longer requires any effort or second thought to use, then I know that its functionality and design have resonated not just with me but likely with thousands of other users, too. If you need a quick primer about Dashclock, I’ve written one here.

The best thing about Dashclock, however, is that it is an ecosystem unto itself, a mini OS that governs your Android 4.2+ lockscreen (seriously, Google should acquire this app). Many Android developers have now created extensions for Dashclock and diversified and enriched its functionality. Out of the “box,” Dashclock supports Gmail, SMS, missed calls, weather (from the stock Android weather app), Google Calendar, and Alarm/Clock. 3rd-party extensions typically add support for other apps (like Google Voice) or display their own curated sets of data (like quotes). Some topshelf Android apps have Dashclock support baked-in, meaning that you only have to add their extension in the Dashclock settings menu.

Here’s a roundup of 13 of my favorite Dashclock extensions (why 13? Because I’m feeling unlucky today, that’s why).

AnyDash Pro

As its name suggests, AnyDash Pro lets you add an extension for any currently installed Android app. Simply pick an app, and then pick an icon to go with it. You’ll have to grant AnyDash Pro the appropriate Accessibility permissions so that it can monitor your notifications. My favorite apps to pair with AnyDash Pro are Snapchat, stock Email client, Words With Friends, and Google Voice.

Battery Widget Reborn

This app is an all-star. It gives long-term charts and history about your battery usage and life, with nice charts and relevant statistics (e.g., “battery usually lasts [time]”). It can also put your phone into “Night Mode” (with mobile data, wifi, Bluetooth, and background sync all disabled) automatically during assigned time periods. Its Dashclock extension shows the predicted amount of battery life left, or, if the device is charging, how long you’ll have to wait until it’s fully charged.

Dashclock Custom Extension

As its name suggests, this extension lets you add an action, icon, and title/text of any kind to your Dashclock. Want to launch Chrome or toggle Bluetooth? You can do it with a simple tap.

Dashclock Facebook Extension

I’m not much of a Facebook user, but this extension is useful if you are: it shows counts
and extended text for global notifications as well as Facebook messages.

Dashclock inQuotes Extension

This is a simple extension that provides a thoughtful or inspirational (or sometimes depressing) quote from a famous person. You can customize the content areas you want the quotes to pertain to (tech, love, etc.), as well as the refresh frequency.

Dashclock Keep Extension

Do you like Google Keep? Me too! It’s the best way to get a stock Android experience while taking notes, making lists, and saving images. This handy extension gives you immediate access to Keep, and better yet, it lets you configure what action you trigger when you tap its Dashclock icon: you can browse notes, or go directly to creating a new note or new list.

Dashclock SMS Extension

Dashclock can already display an SMS extension by default, but this 3rd-party extension
does a little more: it shows the actual unread count for your SMS/MMS, rather than the number of unread conversations. So if you have five new SMS from one person, it’ll show
that, rather than “1 Unread Conversation,” which wouldn’t give you a sense of how many
messages that person had really sent.

Dashclock Word of the Day

I used to use Dictionary.com’s app for a daily word of the day, but I eventually discarded
it due to the ugliness of its widget. This provides a much better solution: the word and its definition are shown in Dashclock, and can be clicked to take you to the Merriam-Webster page.

Eye in Sky Weather (Pro)

Eye in Sky is the greatest of all Android weather apps – it has a killer widget, lots of cool icon packs, and a persistent notification with hip language (“refreshingly cool,” e.g.) and a graphical preview of the rest of the day’s weather. It also supports Dashclock, with an icon to show the current condition, as well as read-out about the condition and temperature. There’s no reason not to ditch the stock weather extension for Eye in Sky’s version. And please, support the developer by upgrading to the Pro license (it removes the annoying in-notification adds, too).

Press

Press is snazzy RSS client that simplifies your reading experience and taps into Feedly Cloud, Feed Wrangler, and Feedbin, so that you’ll not need to fret Google Reader’s imminent demise.

PushBullet

This is a great app in its own right that lets you access links and files that you’ve pushed to your Android device using either the PushBullet website or the handy Chrome extension. Its Dashclock extension previews the content of the most recent push and shows you an applicable push count.

Robin

Robin is an amazing client for App.net (ADN), with some of the smoothness scrolling I’ve ever seen on an Android app and a rich set of features. Its Dashclock extension lets you preview any notifications.

Sound Search for DashClock

This nifty extension lets you perform a search on the current song playing and it lets you utilize Shazam, Sound Search for Google Play, or SoundHound.

BONUS!

Dashclock Stardate

If you’re a Star Trek nerd (like I am), this extension is a lot of fun. You can see the current Stardate, plus you can configure it according to whichever series/timeline you prefer (I use The Original Series). It clicks-thru to Google Calendar, too.

The Trek Episode Guide app is also a great resource if you’re a Trekkie.

Mailbox for Android: Will Anyone Care?

Popular iPhone mail client Mailbox is now available on iPad. An Android version appears to be on the horizon, too. Via Droid-Life:

“In a sitdown with Read Write, Mailbox’s founder Gentry Underwood said that a presence on Android is next on their list of things to do. He wouldn’t specify a time frame, only that it’s on their radar now that the iPad app is out. “

Mailbox flourishes on iOS for two reasons:

1. It’s Gmail-centric. It’s arguably a great Trojan horse for Google on iOS, despite not being made by Google. It gives users a way to prefer Gmail and override iOS’s own agnosticism to the relative merits of different email providers.

2. Its swipe gestures differentiate it from the iOS Mail app.

3. It’s more functional and stable than the Gmail iOS app, plus the latter is not preinstalled and hence doesn’t have much of an advantage or headstart.

These advantages do not exist on Android. To wit:

1. The Gmail app for Android not only supports swipe gestures, but it also supports quick replies and quick archiving directly from its drag-down notifications. Not enough? It also offers a shortcut via the essential Dashclock Widget, too. Mailbox would have to, at the very least, match all of these features that are already offered by an Android system app (Gmail.)

2. While the stock Android mail client does not support swipe gestures, its design language is clearly influenced by Gmail’s Holo aesthetic, such that I’m not sure that most users will notice/care that it doesn’t allow power-user workflows. Android users are not the same as iOS users: the number that spends money and operates as power-users is likely quite low.

3. In case you haven’t noticed, Google is interested in basically everything now. The entire second half of the endless I/O keynote was about Google’s increasingly walled garden, with Google+ at its center. Google’s aggregative services in Google Now and the complex identity service that it is building with Google+ all but require you to use as many of Google’s own services as possible, to the detriment of any third-party alternatives/developers. For Mailbox, which is an email service owned by cloud service provider Dropbox, this means taking on not only Gmail, but also Google Drive.

Despite the array of developer tools that Google unveiled at I/O, I still regard Android as increasingly hostile ground for third-party developers, due to Google’s unlimited ambition. This isn’t a critical problem yet, or at least for as long as Google makes quality apps and services that it doesn’t kill-off abruptly, but it will make life hard for the likes of Mailbox and Dropbox.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

It has been alleged that we are living in a golden age for creative artists. The argument goes: Kickstarter and its crowdsourced ilk have made it ever-easier for artists to obtain funding for their projects, which in other eras would have been shoved aside by various gatekeepers of taste and cost-control. This apparent sea-change has enabled niche hardware projects like the Pebble smartwatch to be funded, manufactured, and distributed, and it has also abetted the revival of the ancient adventure game genre – a genre which enjoyed a golden age back when software came in boxes, boxes that specified that the floppy-based game would only work on “color Macs.”

Of course, both projects benefit from the hyper-specific demographics that would be aware of their existence in the first place: people who use Kickstarter AND who want email on their watches AND/OR who were old enough/curious enough to have played classics like Quest for Glory IV. That’s a small, and dare I say élite, demographic. This isn’t so much democracy and it is aristocracy or oligarchy (depending on perspective and your interpretation of Greek roots) – it is a system that rewards individuals and organizations who are either already tied-into a specific demographic (as above), first/early-movers, or independently famous. It’s the same set of reasons that explains why there are so few true grassrootsily wealthy YouTube celebrities.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of music services (driven by “the internet,” natch) like Spotify, Rdio, and Google’s new Google Play Music All Access, the consolidation of the book world into Amazon’s ereader + distribution empire (in which objects are not sold but licensed, and in which alternative currencies serve to likely degrade the value of real money over time), and the centralization of “the internet”‘s apparently meager knowledge into the anonymity of Wikipedia has, as referenced in my previous entry, made it such that artists are given less reward for their work or contributions.

Coherent statements like albums or books once had the weight of momentous events: the object (and the importance of its physicality, as a disc or paperback or whatever, can’t be overstated) had an unambiguous provenance, it was something that belonged to the creator and to which others could only have access via payment or proximity (i.e., going to a concert or hearing it via radio), and, most importantly, it wasn’t consolidated and decontextualized by being forcibly folded into a stream of similar works.

The decontextualization of albums, for example, within the vast sea of Spotify is less an indictment of information overload than it is an indictment of the increasingly screwy economics of the music business. Record labels have had a rough century, having seen unbelievably profitable CD sales dry up in the face of the advent of iTunes, as well as the “open” access provided by Napster and its pirate descendants, but now they seem to be clawing back, slowly: they are the licensing gatekeepers for every streaming service (Spotify, Rdio, All Access), and those services all pay artists ever less money, meaning that the primary benefit of music being accessed (even randomly) no longer goes to the artist, but to the stream provider and to the label. As usual, the “progress” provided by the ease-of-use of these services disguises the rather harsh economic power-grabs by the persons who made them possible in the first place. “Progress,” despite all of its connotations, has no clear moral dimension.

So against this strange economic backdrop, we see odd artifacts like this:

RAM

A Random Access Memories poster in Chicago

An album poster with a label’s name (Columbia, in this case) so prominently featured feels like something from a different era: the 1970s, perhaps. The album it advertises – Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (hereafter “RAM”) – is already one of the biggest musical and cultural phenomena of the year, even prior to its proper release here in America next Tuesday (May 21). But the pizzaz and conscious rusticity of its marketing is hardly the sign of a sea-change in how the majority of artists either make or sell their music; rather, it’s a bright emblem of how, here at the end of the rainbow of technological “progress” (the democratization of music-making via software and of music-consumption via filesharing and broadband networking), we can see capitalistic inequality writ large (I guess I could use a “pot of gold” metaphor, which would fit with the rainbow theme, but we’ll just leave that alone). In other words, ironically, only artists as big and fiscally secure as Daft Punk could afford to indulge the older, more democratic, and more label-centric model (from the 1990s and earlier) of music’s economics (physical units sold for higher prices) that is under siege from those labels and technologists.

The New York Times summarized the current situation as such:

Of course, the intangible qualities of feel and vibe exalted by Daft Punk are out of reach for most of today’s young music makers, whose do-it-yourself dance tracks rely on the technology that propelled Daft Punk’s career in the ‘90s. A kid in a bedroom with a laptop and software can make records that sound like a million bucks. Making music the way Daft Punk has for “Random Access Memories” actually requires a million bucks, or more.

While it’s arguably true that DIY synths and setups have allowed thousands of persons to make high-quality dubstep and house music during the 2000s and 2010s, Daft Punk themselves were never particularly reliant on “technology” (here assigned the agency that I recently ruminated on and rejected) or a particular workmanlike ethos. Even their early work attracted much attention from labels, and Virgin Records ended up bankrolling their debut, Homework. The mid-1990s were a time of label largesse, when much money was spent to market expensive, elaborate records in genres that paradoxically both demanded and wouldn’t have existed as we knew them without such generosity – I’m thinking mainly of the widescreen drama of that era’s drum and bass (Goldie, Roni Size, et al) alternative rock (Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers), and the eventual refinement of early-90s rave and house (the type deftly reprised by Zomby on his original Where Were U in ’92; coincidentally, Zomby, now bankrolled by 4AD, is on the verge of releasing a grand double-album this summer, which is as a good an artifact of the current era as RAM) into the self-aware album-sized units created by the likes of, well, Daft Punk.

So it isn’t really “technology” that has led to the current dichotomy, in which we have DIY artists with dayjobs, technically simple music (whether bedroom dubstep or, perhaps most tellingly, the indie rock of Grizzly Bear, whose financial travails are detailed in great detail here), and anonymizing distribution channels like Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud on one side and wealthy artists who can afford to really explore the vagaries of “the album” and genre on the other. Rather, it’s that newfangled “technology” called money. The former category described above has had to work ever-harder and produce more and more music with ever-less reward, while the latter category has been able to bide its time and release grand artistic statements at intervals usually longer than two years. The elite, basically, now operate a model that used to be the default for everyone. The much-bemoaned death of the album is the product not of technological “progress,” but of economic disparity.

Daft Punk’s career is one long cliffs notes to the economic history of modern music. They’ve spent the last decade growing increasingly famous while “doing” basically nothing – prior to RAM, they’ve released only album, the widely panned Human After All (hereafter HAA), in the past decade, while dabbling in projects like the TRON: Legacy soundtrack. They were sampled by Kanye West and fetishized by LCD Soundsystem. Their fame accrued not via the release of material or frequent touring, but by their idolization by the music press and their fellow prominent artists. This tack recalls how America’s rich gain income via methods like carried interest, rather than the traditional, more optically pleasing means of income tied to work-hours and visible exertion.

So how should we understand RAM, eight years after HAA? There probably won’t be another album this year (other than perhaps the ever culturally-aware Vampire Weekend’s third album) that requires more backstory and context to digest. Basically, RAM is the next part of a conversation that began on HAA and maybe even partially on 2001’s strangely acclaimed Discovery (“strangely,” because opinion was so divided at first and only seemed to swell as the cultural hubbub around the band grew over the subsequent decade). HAA was described by its creators as “pure improvisation,” perhaps not the most intuitive (to listeners) terms in which to analyze an album marked by its almost robotic repetitiveness and overwhelming irony borne out in songs entitled “Emotion” and “The Prime Time of Your Life.”

But HAA was aesthetically raw, with tape hiss on songs like “Make Love” and prominent cheap-sounding 1970s guitars on “Robot Rock,” tied together by its almost comical but seemingly authentic love of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” It was a human effort, in terms of its ties to consciously “analog” sounds like guitars, uneven production/mastering, and occasional freakouts (the ending to “The Prime Time of Your Life”), but it used these relatively low budget techniques and approaches in the service of making a statement about the trends toward homogenization and automation in contemporaneous big-budget music (they were right: the likes of Drake, David Guetta, and Calvin Harris all dominate heavy-rotation radio formats with many of the same homogenization techniques and nods to electronica predicted on HAA, plus the latter two in particular have benfitted from the EDM festival circuit that Daft Punk brought to life after HAA). Now, with RAM, they’ve flipped the script by using expensive, painstaking production (often requiring theatrical effects) to inject humanity (artificially, it could be argued) into an overblown record whose clearest genre roots are in the infamously anti-human/anti-authenticity disco genre.

Yes, disco. Anyone even mildly interested in RAM has likely already heard “Get Lucky” played to death, likely on Spotify, where it broke all sorts of records. Jaron Lanier has posted some thoughts on the anonymization made possible by Spotify and similar services: that they have made it less easy to discern the source or author of certain material, due to the decontextualization made possible by “unlimited” music that taps into a bottomless pit of material. And, with “Get Lucky,” I got that feeling, since it really has almost nothing to identify it as a “Daft Punk” track, other than some robot voices near the end. Otherwise, it’s all Nile Rodgers disco guitar-plucking and Pharrell Williams’ libidinous come-ons. It’s catchy, but it’s just another serviceable track to throw into your Spotify stream. The Verge wondered if Daft Punk could bring back the album with RAM, and I think the answer is “probably not,” not for lack of trying, but because it has an internal identity crisis.

“Get Lucky” is the exception rather than the rule on an album marked mostly by long, mawkish nods to synthpop and disco. The endless “Giorgio by Moroder” is a monologue by the titular producer when ends in some gratuitous guitar noise, while “Game of Love” and “Within” have a studious sadness reminiscent of The Buggles, except more grating and boring. Pharrell’s other contribution, “Lose Yourself to Dance” and the return of Discovery star Todd Edwards on “Fragments of Time” contain the most obvious nods to the band’s past, particularly Discovery, which thanks to “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and “One More Time,” remains perhaps their most culturally prominent album. If the theme of HAA was a self-contained band making improvisational music, then RAM is the opposite, filled with guest stars who seem to be on different pages and who, at the same time and paradoxically, seem to lose some of their distinctiveness as they all sink back toward a common blandness and homogeneity. The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas appears on “Instant Crush,” which with its murky vocal filters and well-controlled Cars rhythm, is, well, basically a Strokes song. The orchestral “Touch” features Paul Williams but has a portentousness that doesn’t quite fit the album’s overall air-headed nature. It still grates, but in a different way from the rest of the tracks here.

The album seems best when it features only the core band. “Motherboard” is lushly reminiscent of P-Funk, and closer “Contact” deftly uses a sample of astronaut Eugene Cernan’s voice. Opener “Give Life Back to Music” is spritely and energetic, fusing the roboticness of HAA with the pop of Discovery; its title also seems to sum up the album’s credo.

But the band really already “gave life back to music” in their previous three albums, which (sequentially, from Homework to Discovery to HAA) excavated 1990s house, 1970s/1980s synthpop, and loose-limbed rock. They challenged (if only naively) the notion that there was a coherent “past,” “present,” and “future” in music by pitting Black Sabbath riffs against ProTools or Barry Manilow samples against sequencers. It all rose above mashup or hybrid, too. The band’s NYT interview reveals a noble goal for RAM: to achieve a brand of craftsmanship that disappeared from the mainstream after the advent of digital music with the CD, in turn perhaps showing that the alleged never-ending wave of technological “progress” has done little to enhance the emotional value of music.

Sadly, I’m not sure that they succeed in this project, not only due to the album’s scatterbrained musical palette and array of guests, but due to weaker tracks like “Doin’ It Right,” featuring the characteristically annoying/acquired-taste shout-chant vocals of Panda Bear, or palette-cleansers like “Within” and “Beyond” which seem to overstay their welcomes. There are, to be sure, tons of nice details in this music, from the scratchiness of its guitars, to the wind instruments on “Motherboard,” or the glittering opening of “Give Life Back to Music,” which for me recalls the very 1970s pomp (Eagles, Fleetwood Mac) that the band have cited as inspiration. But the album is caught in an odd no-man’s land, having neither the coherence and flow (and economy – something that 74-minute RAM lacks) of a would-be pre-CD model like Rumours or Hotel California, nor the feeling of novelty (however superficial – it is the in-the-moment sensation of newness that matters here, I think) that electronica has been able to provide, via technically sophisticated methods, for nearly 20 years now.

So RAM is a defiantly anti-progressive work that tries to eschews the conventions of contemporary dance and electronica, but for the first time in Daft Punk’s career, it shows them breaking their usual agnosticism toward the flow of time (as described above): they too visibly give up the present to try and dredge up traces of disco, 70s AOR, and even of the careers of artists (Casabalancas, Pharrell) whose careers arguably peaked over a decade ago. RAM is nice retroist record, but it could have been more.

Ultimately, I think we have come to expect too much of this band and its abilities. We want their music to be some grand commentary on humans and robots, on emotion and automation, but I hope that I’ve succeeded here in pointing out that the most notable aspect of Daft Punk is not their music, but their cultural status and the ways in which musicians, writers, and listeners try to inject their own confusions about life from the 1990s forward.

What is the Internet?, Part 1

Over at The Awl, Maria Bustillos struggles to define and defend “the internet” in her review of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here:

“If the Internet were a world, Morozov blithely ignores whole continents, whole oceans, to make his criticisms of certain aspects of one small province—Silicon Valley—and then extrapolate from them to encompass the rest.”

This is a telling metaphor: it shows just how vaporous and indistinct the idea of a single, coherent “internet” really is, if the best description anyone can formulate is that it’s like a bunch of continents, among which Silicon Valley (itself hardly well-defined) is a province. However, the metaphor does prove the existence of “Internet-centrism”; what kind of person assigns the statehood and governmental responsibilities associated with a “province” to a bunch of California VCs and startups? But I do think that this is what many advocates of relentless technological “progress” want: their own country, their own rules, and the right to move “forward” without regard for general welfare or dissent.

A person living in the increasingly stratified, inequality-ravaged West should take note. The more one thinks about Bustillos’ (likely offhand) metaphor, the scarier it is: a world run not by democratic laws and the humane inefficiencies of the governments that make them, but by titans of industry focused not on public welfare or equality but on profits, masked as “efficiency” borne out of technological innovation. And their vehicle is “the internet,” spoken of in hushed terms as if it were an immutable force equivalent to “gravity,” when it is actually not even a physical space and not even remotely objective, with its primary inputs often coming from predominantly male demographics (Reddit, Wikipedia) or proprietary algorithms (Google).

Jaron Lanier has recently commented on the shortcomings of Internet-centrism (and for some reason earning a rebuke from like-minded Morozov), chiding it for decontextualizing information and acting as if truth can be dispensed from anonymous masses:

“I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.

So in practice you don’t know who the musician is. And I think that’s what could happen with writers. And this is what we celebrate in Wikipedia is pretending that there’s some absolute truth that can be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn’t matter. And if we start to see that with books in general – and I say if – if you look at the approach that Google has taken to the Google library project, they do have the tendency to want to move things together. You see the thing decontextualized.”

I touched upon some similar points in my piece about the inherent non-objectivity (subjectivity?) of “the internet,” and the various contingencies that make it what it is. I’ll just add that I find it unsurprising that both Silicon Valley and “the internet” would do little to promote the integrity of books, music, and creative arts, as well as the people who create them. For every success story of Kickstarter star, there’s someone who is struggling because creative work is now assigned value via cultural capital and “likes” or “+1s,” rather than actual money or employment. But, hey, it’s all in the name of “open access” and “openness,” so it must represent real “progress” for mankind, no? What can one do when “the internet,” despite not being a real agent/actor, is relentlessly changing everything, as they say?

Lanier talks about the help that the middle-class needs to maintain its status:

“I mean, one of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.”

These types of gatekeepers, protections, and institutions are exactly what many of the purveyors of technological “progress” want to destroy. Morozov himself has belabored this point using comparisons such as Uber (the quintessence of upper-crust Silicon Valley muscle eroding a purposefully inefficient public service in the name of “efficiency”) and taxis, and one can arguably see it even in seemingly populist drives like John McCain’s attempt to dismantle the bundled cable television package model (which actually saves money for consumers and gives them more choices without being priced out of the market), but I think an even better example is education.

Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker analysis of the effect of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on higher education is balanced, with a nuanced look at how, on the one hand, online learning could solve classroom space issues and propagate knowledge and, on the other, shrink the academic job market and centralize all academic thought and opinion. I’ll take a look at this later, when I write part two.