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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

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!