The new, weird Web

March 23, 2013

Music critic Greil Marcus coined the phrase “old, weird America” to describe a strain of music that appeared before songs were big business, when records were ephemeral objects that no one kept for long.

In particular, Marcus was referring to the Anthology of American Folk Music, a compilation of field recordings, blues numbers, gospel singing and more from the late 1920s and early 1930s gathered by Harry Smith, a filmmaker and all-around weirdo who died in 1991. Smith had held onto his records, 78 rpm slabs that safeguarded for posterity ditties such as “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” and “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room,” in addition to songs by pillars of American music like the Carter Family and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Clocking in at more than four hours, Smith’s anthology was released in 1952. It’s accepted wisdom that it played a prominent role in sparking the renaissance of folk music that occurred during that decade and the next. It also preserved a treasury of flawed, human recordings that provide insight into the varied cultures that existed in the nooks and crannies of the United States at the time.

What we hear and how we hear it informs our perceptions. It is now possible for the cultivated ear to discern production quality among recordings. An aficionado may call a song “overproduced,” and a band may use low-fidelity recording techniques to achieve a certain atmosphere or as an act of rebellion. Those are the wages of sophistication.

The same applies to other types of information.

Even as the Internet expands daily, it becomes a smaller, more catered experience for many users. According to Quantcast, a San Francisco-based web-analytics company, the top five most visited websites in the United States include heavy-hitters whose dominance should surprise no one.

Twitter is No. 5 with 94 million visitors each month. At No. 4 is, operated by Microsoft, with about 117 million, and Facebook is at No. 3 with 131 million visitors. YouTube comes in at No. 2 with 189 million visitors, and YouTube’s parent company, Google, is No. 1 with 209 million visitors, about two-thirds of the U.S. population.

Google, the 800-pound gorilla, is at the forefront of targeted content, delivering information to users based on their previous searches, their connections on social networks, the contents of their emails and sundry other personal data. This can have an echo-chamber effect, leading, say, a Vegemite enthusiast or a person of a certain political bent to receive news, philosophy and commercial offers that confirm their particular worldview.

In a way, it’s a situation similar to that of the musicians of nearly a hundred years ago whose recordings Smith preserved. Separated from each other by accident of geography, they cultivated their own sounds and beliefs. Today, one can achieve a narrow outlook through willfulness and with the aid of sophisticated algorithms.

This idea becomes more curious when one accounts for another of Google’s passions, wearable computing. Google and several other companies are developing networked glasses that will provide users with augmented reality software that can overlay their visual field with movies, data about their surroundings, whatever the user and his corporate sponsors desire.

At the moment, wearable computing is a bit clunky, but it will become sleeker and less conspicuous. Perhaps someday soon, you literally will see the world differently than your neighbor.

Dave Penn is a copy editor for the Observer-Reporter. Contact him at



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