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The Virtual Revolution Episode 1: Some Notes

In Coming to terms with the Web, The Web and democracy on October 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Last week I watched the first episode of a doco about the Web, The Virtual Revolution (SBS, 8.30pm Tuesdays). This episode is called The Great Levelling? It’s presented by Aleks Krotoski, an academic and technology journalist for the Guardian.  The producers of the doco have evidently decided that she’s a bit like Simon Schama: an approachable intellectual. Accordingly, she’s often in front of the camera, wearing a thoughtful frown, a choppy ‘do and a flattering outfit. She strolls in fields, drives a convertible, and looks stylishly windswept on a ferry.

Nonetheless, if you can ignore the endless posing and  shameless Apple promotion (Krotoski often needs to whip out the Mac to better appreciate her exotic surrounds), it’s a thought-provoking 50-odd minutes. I thought I’d summarise some of its main points and link to some of the people, including technology writers and Web luminaries, who featured.

As the title suggests, Krotoski is trying to come to terms with the ‘democracy’ of the Web. Is it really the great leveller it’s made out to be?

 

The computer Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the Web

The Web, she notes, espoused the culture of sharing from the beginning. Frustrated at the lack of interconnectivity the Internet provided, Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir) created the Web, then gave it away. Its first users were, to use Krotoski’s wording, social misfits, and the first bloggers were those who ‘had no voice’. She posits that the Web was (is?) a virtual continuation of doomed sixties libertarianism.

 

One guest was musician John Perry Barlow from The Grateful Dead. He was an enthusiastic early adopter of the Web and promoter of Web equality; in 1996 he even wrote a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. It begins:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Barlow was also one of the first celebrities to be mobbed by internet-savvy music geeks in a chatroom, in this case the historic Web institution, The Well. Never heard of it? I hadn’t neither, but it’s been around since 1985. It’s the original social networking site, and its still a lot more basic than Facebook et al. It distinguishes itself by asking that members use their real names and by banning advertising, formal or otherwise – now that’s idealistic.

Krotoski enthuses that the Web ‘blows open access to knowledge’,  and points to the crowdsourcing phenomenon that is Wikipedia, but she’s not afraid to canvass a few dissenting voices. One of these is Lee Siegel, cultural commentator and author of a book Against the Machine. Check out this interview with Siegel in New York Books, in which he trashes another of the doco’s interviewees, cyberculture expert Douglas Rushkoff. Siegel hates Wikipedia and other internet phenomonena, but is nonetheless drawn to them – like the rest of us.

Unsurprisingly, Stephen Fry makes an appearance. He lopes to the Web’s defence, hailing it ‘the best source of perfectly acceptable knowledge’. Talk about a back-handed compliment – perhaps he’s read too much Wilde.

Krotoski wheels out more celebs – Al Gore observes, optimistically but not especially originally, that the Web facilitates the discussion of ideas, which in turn can lead to better ideas; we also meet Bill Gates, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (reminiscing, with no apparent sense of irony, about the times when software piracy was just sort of funny),  Napster creator Shawn Fanning (who admits to being amazed by how quickly he managed to destroy the old music distribution model and the industry itself), and the founders of You Tube and Wikipedia.

We also learn that Tim Berners-Lee frets about the Web’s future, and how it might come under central control – he notes that in some countries, it already has.

Following this thread, Krotoski describes the battle between the philosophy of sharing which characterised the early Web, and colonisation by major corporations, and seems to come to the conclusion that the capitalists have won. One commentator notes that it’s strange how now there is one dominant social networking site, one online bookshop, and one search engine. To the terrifying thought that the Web’s inequality merely reflects that of the real world, Korotski counters that the Web may be more than a reflection of the world, as the technology is endlessly reinventing itself. Once a monopoly has asserted itself, the technology presents an alternative (or, in the case of Internet Explorer, competition laws re-level the playing field).

This being said, I think the most significant observation in the doco was that the Web helps people, musicians for example, promote themselves within the existing system. Yes, new online frontiers are constantly opening up, and there might be the illusion that the Web is consistently able to slip out of corporate control, but all of this was brought about, and most of it is still happening within, the biosphere of capitalism.

Did anyone else catch this doco? Any thoughts?

Photo by Robert Scoble from Half Moon Bay, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Homogeneity, the Web, and liking stuff

In Coming to terms with the Web, Uncategorized on October 16, 2010 at 7:40 am

Looking back over my posts, I realised I hadn’t delivered on my promise to discuss the Web and homogeneity. It’s lucky, then, that over the break I discovered Stuff White People Like. For the uninitiated… oh, just go to the site and read it. Then report back here and tell me how many of the items on the list describe you. I’m at about 12, but I won’t say which ones – until you do. (Incidentally, as the author pointed out in a recent ABC interview, the site could well be called ‘Stuff the Middle Class Like’, or even ‘Stuff  Wealthy People Like’, but then would it be as funny?)

Anyway, what’s the point here? Well, other than finding out just how absurdly unoriginal I am in at least 12 ways, I discovered that David Sedaris is on the list. Rather than throw out the two Sedaris books I’d just bought (visit the Book Grocer for some bargains), over the weekend I read Naked, and made a start on Sedaris’ Christmas story collection, Holidays on Ice.  And what did I find but the icon of bland, homogenous whiteness himself picking on homogeneity. One Christmas Sedaris worked as a Macy’s Christmas elf, and was often designated the Santa Elf. When adults have their chance with Santa, he observes, they all

…ask for a Gold Card or a BMW and they rock with laughter, thinking they are the first person brazen enough to request such pleasures.

Santa says, “I’ll see what I can do.”

Couples over the age of fifty all say, “I don’t want to sit on your lap, Santa, I’m afraid I might break it!”

How do you break a lap? How did so many people get the idea to say the exact same thing?

All of us take pleasure in the fact that we are unique, but I’m afraid that when all is said and done the police are right: it all comes down to fingerprints.

It looks those that even those who observe homogeneity  shouldn’t think themselves too unique.  But does this pervasive sameness matter?

Well yes, it could do. My partner and I were listening to a radio program about the fall of communism in East Germany the other day, and were pondering whether fascism could rise again in a country such as Germany, or even in Australia. He opined that he thought our improved access to information – and thus enlightenment? – would tend to militate against that. I pointed to the homogeneity of thought that’s evident in any society, giving as an example the anti-foreign feeling that seems to be sweeping our country (or that you’d think is doing so, given the way our politicians are behaving). Greater access to ‘information’ may well reinforce that (see this blog post by Clay Shirky about power laws).

Homogeneity seems to be timeless, and sometimes it’s dangerous, but perhaps our shared culture isn’t always a source of shame? I’m thinking about popular culture. Reading the Jenkins article on cultural jammers and poachers, it occurred to me that there is a potentially illuminating lesson here: instead of railing against the homogenous consumerism and corporatisation that has suckered itself onto popular culture, as the jammers do, we can make like a poacher and subvert this blandness from within, thus assauging our guilt about liking the same things everyone else does. After all, we all have the same delightfully post-modern take on it. Oh dear…

Now excuse me, I’m off to my favourite breakfast place with my Moleskine diary (please note that I am upwardly mobile: at some stage I’ll start shelling out tens of dollars for Moleskine notebooks, too), after which I think I’ll pick up a coffee.

 

 

Image by Zedlik [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL] on Wikimedia Commons

10 things I googled over the break

In Fun things, Uncategorized on October 9, 2010 at 11:55 am

 

An example of a British-style crossword puzzle.

Image via Wikipedia

 

Freed from focusing on an actual topic for a few weeks, I found myself googling with far more enjoyment than I have for a while.  I hesitate to call the following list a top ten, and some of the items, it’s true, arose organically during a stream-of-consciousness-type surf than from a search, per se: a search implies purpose. Please enjoy, and don’t feel bad if you are so entertained and distracted by these links that you don’t come back. I’ll never know.

1. Bulgarian currency (googled to answer a crossword clue): it’s the lev. This means I must have misunderstood the key word in this particular clue. Damn. Double damn as I’ve already thrown out the crossword. Though the Web can give me instant responses to such crossword queries, I don’t use it for this much at all: in fact crossword-doing, a gravely important part of my morning routine, is performed during one of the few computer-free times of my day, the commute. This being said, once the crossword is done, I’ve taken to reading the daily publishing news from the British site The Bookseller on my mobile, tiny and unsatisfactory as it is.  In fact, that’s where I found

2. This article, about the end of the beginning, middle and end in books. Nothing I read here particularly surprised me, but it did prompt me to check out

3. Stephen Fry’s new e-book which, of course, I haven’t bought, being far too used to having free Fry. BTW, did anyone watch his Opera House show on ABC the other night? And did anyone notice how much traditional story-telling the show consisted of? Perhaps narrative isn’t the dinosaur we think it is.

4. Next, the Tippex ad. It’s great, though the writers show an unfortunate misunderstanding of grammatical subjects and objects.  (If you haven’t tried this, clearly you haven’t been watching

5. Gruen (nobody hip – that is, nobody on the show – calls it ‘The Gruen Transfer’ anymore). I never seem to manage to watch it at the time it’s on (whenever that is). Spent a lazy weekend morning watching the Gruen Sessions, in-depth discussions on advertising themes like making ads for charity.)

Anyway, after I had giggled about the Tippex ad for a full 20 minutes, my partner, noting my liking of interactive Web stuff, directed me to

6. This ‘choose your own adventure’ Zombie-pizza-delivery movie/ advertisement, shot by one of his NZ acquaintances. While I was there, I checked out

7. How to make a grand piano out of an upright. It’s good to know this stuff, but I’d especially like to  know if it’s possible to have, and play, a real piano, grand or otherwise, in a duplex.

8. One day, I was observing pigeons on a railway platform, and noticed that while they bob their heads when they walk, other birds don’t.  I found out why here. After that, my curiosity about avian head-bobbing was spent.

9. Somewhere (can’t remember where) I heard of Stephen Colbert’s roasting of G. W. Bush. Here’s the transcript.

I was shocked, upon visiting

10. Stuff White People Like, to find that liking Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart mark me out as white (and so do half a dozen other things evident in this post alone).

You’ve still here?  Wow. Okay, so…

How about you – did you find anything great online during the break, and more importantly, is it greater than any of the above? If so, please share!

Clicks/Bricks: the Kogan/Norman controversy

In The Web and advertising, The Web and democracy, Uncategorized on September 14, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I’VE decided to renege on my promise of a photo extravaganza (see last week’s post), because something more intriguing – and pertinent to the theme of this blog – has caught my eye this week.

ON last week’s highest rating episode of the Gruen Transfer (Season 3, Episode 9), the panel discussed the battle between the new online TV retailer Ruslan Kogan and Harvey Norman. Somehow, I’d managed to miss the whole shemozzle (perhaps because I get my news from ABC News Breakfast and Jon Stewart rather than Today Tonight). For those of you who are similarly behind on the news, and don’t have time to watch the Gruen episode (the Kogan segment starts around 23 minutes in, but why would you watch just part of the show?), here’s a summary from blogger Renai LeMay on Delimiter.

The Lowdown

IF you refused to be distracted by the link minefield I’ve just laid, the battle between the Kogan CEO Ruslan Kogan, and Gerry Harvey (no introduction necessary) made it on Gruen Transfer because of a cheeky ad Kogan had made in the style of those insistent and eminently lampoonable Harvey Norman ads. The Gruen panel, especially Todd, were glowing in their praise of the parvenu’s advertising strategy, and pointed to the fact Kogan has saved a packet on advertising, relying on the viral spread of the advertisement instigated in part by the story that Channel 7, a longtime partner of Harvey Norman, refused to show the ad during the Ben Cousins documentary (Kogan announced in advance that he’d booked the spot). Russell used a great term to describe the contest between the internet-based business model over the mass-market franchise model Gerry has thrived on for so many years: clicks versus bricks.

ANYWAY, why might this all be of interest to us? Well, another strength the panel pointed to was Kogan’s online community building (over 2000 people ‘like’ Kogan on Facebook). I thought I’d look into Kogan a bit further, through their Web site.

The site

It’s not the prettiest of sites, but then perhaps we don’t want that in a bargain retailer. All the same, it’s not amateurish. In fact, it’s reassuringly average.

From kogan.com.au

It’s also roguishly militant, in its taunting of Gerry Harvey and Stephen Conroy’s internet filter (see Delimiter’s commentary on the latter); the company’s blog has the combination refreshing directness, quasi-diplomacy and insolence that characterises much Web 2.o communication.

And, along with all that swagger, it’s inclusive, encouraging readers to help name TVs and and take their own swings at Harvey, Conroy and big brands.

Also, though consumer reviews are not given prominence,  Kogan appears to be unafraid of what its customers might say:

My one big disapointment is the location of the page turn button. In my opinion, it’s a design flaw, especially if you read with the unit in it’s case. It also requires quite a bit of pressure to turn a page. Not good for repeated page turning.

(From customer review of the 6″ Kogan ebook Reader)

This, I believe, is called crowdsourcing.

IN SHORT, not only has Kogan embraced an efficient internet business model, its site seems to have tapped the Zeitgeist of Web 2.0 – or at least makes a damned good impression of doing so.

BUT once the novelty has worn off, will Kogan’s community suspect (/realise) that they are being manipulated just as the Gruen panel was, just as they are lured into Harvey Norman stores by those tantalisingly interest-free months? The curious and skeptical reader might look at the list of domains Kogan’s acquired and wonder whether they are just another unsuspecting gnat in a rapidly expanding corporate Web.

Now, I just have to make sure my partner doesn’t see Kogan’s site (or this post), otherwise I’m afraid we’ll see the unwieldy but perfectly fine CRT in our lounge room replaced with a Kogan whatchamecallit.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

More

Gerry Harvey takes Kogan’s bait in this SMH article: Go Harvey!

Mumbrella’s commentary on Gruen’s commentary: meta-meta-advertising moments

The skills of the fleetingly famous

In Web writing on September 8, 2010 at 8:44 pm

After reading about the success of Dijana’s blog on the WordPress Freshly Pressed page, I thought that I’d check out some of the other blogs there and, in the style of myself, pick some out and analyse why they may have attracted WordPress’s attention.

Hey, read this thing I read! And watch this thing I watched!

I was attracted immediately to the most ironic of the new Freshly Pressed posts: Hey, read this thing I read! And watch this thing I watched! by Madame Librarian. Through the words of novelist Jonathon Franzen, Mme Librarian reflects on the shallowness of social networking as a way of connecting with our true selves, and resolves to heed said novelist’s words. With its conversational style, pop-philosophy/psychology, and wry, apposite and bizarre YouTube clip, this contribution ticks the boxes of a readable blog post. One thing I do wonder, though, is why it elicited as many as 47 comments.  Sure, it’s good to show your appreciation, but weren’t these people listening to what she had to say?

Image courtesy freerupublic.com

Thunderstorms over Kansas City

I surprised myself by dipping into Thunderstorms over Kansas City next. Many of the Freshly Pressed blogs are cleverly assembled photo galleries, and this one’s no exception: written by a pilot/amateur photographer, it’s the sort of stuff you expect to find on the Web – that is, something you never knew you’d be interested in until now, in this case pictures of thunderstorms taken from the cockpit, and a first-hand account of how pilots manage poor weather conditions. Right, that’s it – next time I’m going to do a photo blog! (I’d be doing well to take better photos than pilot-blogger, though – check out his flickr gallery.)

Deathwatch of Our Daily Print

Next up, Deathwatch of Our Daily Print. Despite its catchy title, I must say I had trouble getting through this blog the first time. I’ve read many such articles, and was skimming for new news, so to speak. It seems I have no taste for anything even slightly redolent of redundancy any more, even when it’s well-expressed.

So, why has this blog succeeded? Well, here is MHO. For a start, the theme is highly topical (the death of print, and the paths journalists and photographers have to take to ensure their livings in the increasingly digitised publishing scene), and the blogger, ‘kkuukka’ has taken a highly personal approach to it. But perhaps more importantly, kkuukka seems to really listen to his audience. Many commenters are clearly in the industry, and contributed long, thoughtful responses – and kkuukka has responded in kind.

It’s interesting to note that he has also stopped short of saying everything he can on this topic. How can journalists and photographers keep ‘ahead of the curve’? He doesn’t say, but his ideas come out in the ensuing conversation. The now-familiar contention that newspapers are on their way out also draws a lot of comments, none of which, however, are snarky.

Kkuukka has clearly cultivated an atmosphere of measured, intelligent discussion on his blog – and also an atmosphere of inclusiveness (he’s Finnish, but writes in English and invites comments in a range of languages). In addition, he’s been smart enough to include a teaser about his next blog, on the iPad.

This blog is a sharp contrast to Sunday’s blog, with its brevity, and Monday’s blog, with its reliance on description and imagery: it’s fascinating to see just how many different approaches can work.

Now, stay tuned for my next post: the photo extravaganza!

Jen

The art process and the Web

In The Web and the arts on September 4, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Following on from one of the discussions in class the other night, when I also found out about the Brooklyn Museum and its wonderful interactivity, I’ve been pondering art a little, in particular visual art.

One of my favourite things about art is not just the beauty of it, but the wondering about how it is done. In particular, I’m always drawn to sketches and studies of works. Perhaps I have this interest because I did art at school and loved it. In fact, at the risk of sounding evangelistic, I think every child and teenager should be encouraged to create art, regardless of their talent for it. This exposure at the very least gives people some basis for assessing the aesthetic value of the art objects they encounter as an adult. It also makes people more open to different kinds of art – where the beauty of an object eludes you, at least you can try to understand the artistry that goes into it and/or the impulse behind it. In fact, this is the way I feel about many artworks. When I was in London around 2000 I was lucky enough to see a fantastic exhibition of Paul Klee. I didn’t find many of the works beautiful, but I loved trying to imagine, and follow their narrative. And, though it’s a cliché, I often find art does reflect life:

Klee, Paul: Twittering Machine (Die Zwitschermaschine) 1922

Image from artchive.

Read the rest of this entry »

Netspeak: What’s the problem?

In Web writing on August 24, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Having worked as an ESL teacher for a while, you’d think I’d be a bit of a language pedant. In some respects I am, but one thing you learn from teaching students struggling with your language, and battling through a foreign language yourself, is that while pedantry is important, it’s not all. Creativity, and a sense of playfulness with words, are just as vital. I noticed that students who showed a basic knowledge of the structure of English, but occasionally made up words that sounded sort of right, ended up far more articulate than those who dared not utter a word until they were sure they were word perfect. In keeping the dialogue going, my less fearful students eventually learnt the right words: they weren’t shamed into silence, like so many others, and they started to enjoy the process of learning, rather than endure it. I tried to follow the example of these students in my own language learning adventures, once improvising a half schoolgirl German and half Russian conversation with a bemused German-speaking Russian librarian.

So, having become much more tolerant of improvisation with language (if not with weasel words and nouns that are made into verbs), I felt pained tonight to see yet another of those articles about how the English language is being belted around by the new generation. Though such articles inevitably repeat the same ideas, I always read them; if nothing else, it’s a way of expanding my vocab.This article has some new news, though, regarding the legal ramifications of not knowing internet jargon. In this article, I also learnt about Rickrolling. Although this is a word invented to explain a digital phenomenon, could there a better way to express the idea? Yes, it’s an in-joke, and pretty silly, but it is shared among millions, and, like much absurd humour, it’s catching. IMHO, if digital media are encouraging people to invent new words and acronyms, then all the better, even if those words never do quite make it into the OED (or the Macquarie). As the article notes, students are not turning in essays full of text speak – they are aware of genre – so where is the problem?

Quiz time

Now, for a quiz. The other day, I was inordinately proud of my re-purposing of the word ‘dollop’. As in its original use, my new ‘dollop’ is a noun. Here’s an example sentence, to help you guess the meaning: ‘He’s such a dollop!’

Any takers? Here’s another hint, if you want it.

Tuning in to a shift of power

In The Web and democracy on August 22, 2010 at 10:13 am

Today I’m writing  this with one eye on the television. Of course, nothing’s going to happen for a while, but here are some post-election (or post non-election) observations. ABC 24’s clumsy but amusing pastiches of campaign highlights have fired my cross-wired mind, and snippets of pollie speak are fusing with the reports some of my classmates have posted about the Jay Rosen lecture. In particular, Rosen’s observations about the shift of power from journalists to the audience is food for thought. Thanks, miss bec, for your thoughtful post on this topic, and also for the link to the Guardian MP expenses claims assessments. (Note the admission of error at the beginning of the article outlining the best discoveries ‘training’ was mistaken, hilariously for everyone but the MP in question, for ‘tanning’. The apology is unmissable, a little different from the corners reserved for corrections in print publications – it was probably a lot swifter, too.)

I wonder how tuned Tony Abbott is into the shift of power? He (rightly, in my opinion) poo-pooed the idea of climate change citizens’ assembly, but in typical Tony fashion he went too far: ‘We already have a citizens’ assembly – it’s a parliament.’ Abbott is indeed out of touch. This being said, in suggesting the assembly, Labor went too far. Perhaps fancying itself as fashionably democratic, as it did with the 2020 summit, it forgot that there is power in numbers. Randomly choosing 150 members of the public to offer their opinion on ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ does not earn our respect. While the concept of expertise has changed, we still understand that experts are necessary. I’d propose that what we want is experts, but their claims have to be tempered by the opinions of citizens, in the old-fashioned sense. Of course, when you ask everyone to contribute, you have to sift through a lot of rubbish, but the odds of coming across a good idea are far better, as the Guardian claims assessments showed. (The apparent reliability of Wikipedia also stems from this truism.)

On the topic of expertise, here’s Tony again, explaining his lack of knowledge of his flawed wireless/broadband scheme: ‘I’m not a tech-head’. Of course you’re not, Tony, and nobody expects you to be. But watching both candidates relatively competently canvas questions on myriad topics in the town hall-type meetings, this response was unconvincing. Abbott just doesn’t rate an NBN as a topic worth boning up on. Just as in Tony’s time a rounded education was probably a much coveted thing (he was a Rhodes Scholar and has an MA in politics and philosophy – a degree that would presumably cover a pretty broad range of topics), these days an interest in, and passing knowledge of, internet access and the means and speed with which it is obtained is simply general knowledge expected of any intelligent member of society. Although this moral ‘disconnect’ with younger voters, which in an ageing Australia probably makes no difference, given the lack of differentiation between the it is possible changing his NBN policy may have (definitively) won him the election, the only chance he’ll probably have. (The pundits on Insiders are now debating what factor/s lost Labor seats – I think they’ll move to this complementary topic soon.)

One final note: Wouldn’t it be lovely if the losing candidate takes this as an opportunity to stop the ‘dog-whistling’ and show some real compassion to refugees? One of the Gillard’s questioners on her Q & A appearance clearly agrees. The transcript reads:

TONY JONES: We’ve got a web question that’s come in from Dave Bathur in Erskineville: “I’m hoping/praying your initial missteps on asylum seekers were just to win over the marginal seats and in government you’ll revert to a more humane and sensible approach … If this is the case and you’re not allowed yet to admit it, just look at the camera and say, ‘Moving forward.’ I will know what you mean. Want to send a little coded signal?”

JULIA GILLARD: I can’t send any coded signals. I tried to lay out before the Australian people my whole view here. I think maybe some of it got through, some of it didn’t. Maybe some of that’s my fault. It’s a complex debate but I’ve tried to say to the Australian people let’s be clear about the size of what we’re dealing with here. I’ve specifically adopted Julian Burnside’s words, noted lawyer, that at current rate of arrivals it will take 20 years to fill the MCG. That’s true. So, you know, let’s get a sense of perspective, 20 years to fill the MCG. But even with that perspective, I don’t want to see people get on boats, risk their lives, pay people smugglers to get here. I want to have a better solution than that and that is why I’ve put forward the regional process in play.

With the unprecedented success of the Greens, it seems that some previously muted voices are being heard, particularly on the topic of climate change, but Dave Bathur’s plea underlines what a double-edged sword true democracy is: regardless of how easily we can make our voices heard now, some voices will still be louder.

What’s your take on the election, and Web-enhanced political debate?

Back to the future

In The Web and democracy, Web writing on August 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm

You might recall that I’m cynical about the quality of much online content (see Is this what it is like?) and, of course, I’m not unique in this respect. Now,  from my own, unfocused surfing,  links my classmates and others have given me, and my reflections on my history with the Web, I’m starting to feel a bit better, and a bit more ‘in control’ – if this makes me paranoid, then so be it.

This week’s readings have helped with this. One of the common threads in all of the readings was that concision is key. Why is this so reassuring? Well, for a start, there is nothing new about this advice. Remember Strunk? For the uninitiated, here is an extract from his 1918 treatise, Elements of Style (since updated).

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Many expressions in common use violate this principle:
the question as to whether whether (the question whether)
there is no doubt but that no doubt (doubtless)
used for fuel purposes used for fuel
he is a man who he
in a hasty manner hastily
this is a subject which this subject
His story is a strange one. His story is strange.

Second, there are many examples of this sort of writing on the Web, Catherine Caine’s article among them. I love decluttering text almost as much as I like throwing out household junk. My friends will tell you there’s nothing I love more than picking up cliches, tautologies and skips in semantic logic (mostly they find this amusing too, until I turn on them). On the topic of linguistic redundancy, no-one is better than Don Watson. He now has a website, quite a disappointing effort, but well worth a visit nonetheless. Better still, buy his books and devour them, or simply google him to find articles like this.

I also liked the advice regarding brevity. Roy Peter Clark’s idea that any topic can be tackled in 800 words is great. (The article is referenced in Jonathan Dube’s article, but the link doesn’t work, so here is the shortened version, abridged by Clark himself. How fitting! ) This too is not a particularly newfangled idea: remember the tiny essays you were asked to write as undergrads? Lecturers would insist that if you could distil your thoughts into, say, 1000 words, you had really come to understand your topic.

So why does this old-fashioned advice, common to all this week’s readings, reassure me? Well, it makes me believe there is some consensus about what good writing is. It indicates that despite the rubbish we’re faced with, many of us still have the critical faculty needed to weed it out.

On the other hand, something about this advice bothers me.

Do we all want to write like Hemingway?

We should be vigilant against tautologies and other redundancies, but I’m wary of  too much decluttering. After reading McEwan, an economical writer, a few weeks ago, I’m back to Thomas Hardy, one of my all-time favourites. I don’t think Hardy’s a great stylist: I don’t gasp over the beauty of his sentence construction. In fact, with his distinctive nineteenth-century punctuation, I’m often forced to re-read sentences to find the point. This being said, he can really tell a story. He’s a bit like the Stieg Larsson of the romantic period.

Yes, Catherine, the impulse to shorten sentences and remove idle words should be encouraged, but not everyone wants to write like Hemingway, even if they can. Sometimes these short, sharp posts, with their one-sentence paragraphs and self-satisfied economy, simply annoy me. If the Web is truly democratic, perhaps we should all be looking to find our own way of expressing ourselves? (Of course, those looking to sell something on the Web would do well to heed her advice.)

Today’s musing brings me full circle: as much as I’d like to encounter only quality – a wish that is only going to result in my turning off the Web altogether – I’d much prefer to develop my own Web filter, and be happy in the fact that, however long and ungainly their sentences, and however vacuous their chatter, people are simply expressing themselves. Which I guess is the point of Web 2.0.

Being in control

In Coming to terms with the Web, The Web and the arts on August 7, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Greetings.

Well, another week is over, and I have a chance to get back to my Web re-education. This post is a little discursive, so please be patient (if you get bored, you can follow the fun links).

This morning, my partner and I were watching Rage.  Sometimes I like to do this: it gives me a chance to catch up on all the 80’s filmclips I missed because I was too busy doing other things during my idyllic childhood (learning embroidery, polishing up my French, playing sonatinas on the fortepiano…) Often I find I’ve missed the music, too. This occasional reorientation to my youth helps me participate in nostalgic conversations about a pop-culture I was only dimly aware of when it was happening, much as my current exploration of Web 2.0 helps me converse intelligently about Twitter (err… give me a few more weeks and I’ll understand it). Anyway, Prince’s Musicology came on, and we were arguing about when it came out. (We were discussing how the fancy lighting effects behind the stage were achieved, and said partner opined that they were remarkable, given how old the film clip must be – ie. pre-LCD).  The dispute was resolved after I challenged him to a google-duel. It turned out I was right: despite my woeful lack of pop-culture knowledge, I tend to be able to pinpoint when things happened (the album came out in 2004). We googled further, and read about Prince’s repudiation of the Internet.

The article I’ve just linked to is hardly worth your while visiting, but if you want to be distracted by it, feel free. For those more linear readers, the gist is: Prince is annoyed at having his music illegally downloaded, and sued YouTube and the like for copyright infringement (yes, I know this is old news, but there is some interesting commentary on the matter here. In particular, go to the comments).  Prince has also cancelled deals with iTunes and other legit distributors.   Oh, and he thinks the Internet is ‘over’  (does he mean the Web is over, perhaps?)

Prince looking schmick at 48. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Now when you’re famous,  whingeing is a great way to attract some column space (as did the free distribution of his latest album via The Mirror – see here for more whining, from rival paper The Guardian). Many have contended that illegal Web-based distribution of his work has only increased Prince’s renown.  Nonetheless, I think Prince’s anger is real. What’s more,  I can understand it – he is a man who lost control, after all, and however you might argue that this loss of control benefits him, he is entitled to the very human reaction to losing control: frustration and anger. Perhaps this is why he has lashed out against the Web in general, because it’s hard to argue, as he has, that it has had its day.

Anyway, Prince’s motivations, copyright law, and the death of the Web are all topics for another day. I’d like to link two other ideas my post has touched on: rounding up knowledge, and the lack of control people may feel when faced with the Web. What I’d really like to know is:

  • Do you feel a loss of control when confronted with the mass of information and opinions that is the Web? Do you feel like you have lost control of your self-identity? Or do you suspect that you have lost touch with what is important in your life? Are you unsure as to what is important, even?
  • How important is it to you to  ‘know’ something deeply, or are you happy having a finger in every pie?
  • Do you link deep knowledge or wide knowledge with power? Is there a balance we should have of both? How can the Web help with this?
  • Are you in control of the Web, or is it in control of you? And do you care either way?

This is fairly deep stuff – it’s not life, but metalife, which is why I’m going to go for a walk and clear my head.

Jen

NB I had found a YouTube clip of Musicology (well, just the music and Prince’s airbrushed visage) and linked to it, but then wussed out. Just thought I’d let you know it’s there, in case you want to reminisce.