Archive for the ‘Coming to terms with the Web’ Category

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 (], 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

Being in control

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


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.


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.

Is this what it is like?

In Coming to terms with the Web on July 31, 2010 at 1:53 pm
Family watching television, c. 1958

Image via Wikipedia

I was reading Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam the other day. I found it hard to relate to any of the characters, but this passage did resonate.  Clive, a renowned composer, is on his way to the country. He passes through the outskirts of London, and is staring dismally at the landscape:

In his corner of west London, and in his self-preoccupied daily round, it was easy for Clive to think of civilisation as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine and the like. But now it appeared that this was what it really was – square miles of meagre modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions… It looked like a raucous dinner part the morning after. No one would have wished it this way, but no one had been asked…

Clive was in a pretty dark mood, but when it comes to the internet, I feel like this most of the time. When surfing, I find zillions of these houses and factories, the purpose of which is unclear, or at least somewhat trivial, to me. I find it overwhelming, but not necessarily in a positive way. This is the marketplace of ideas, but who regulates the quality of the ideas? Of course, no-one can (and, perhaps, nor should they) and I just have to get used to this.

Clive also hints at the inward-looking nature of this sprawl: for him, at least at this moment, all human endeavour comes back to television (or, more accurately, consumerism). As overwhelming the spread of ideas (aka URLS, websites)  is, more alarming is that they might be serving an unworthy end. Let’s hope that this is not the case.

My apologies for such a pessmistic post. Just trying to come to terms with my ambivalence to the web.

Any comments?

Hello world!

In Coming to terms with the Web on July 27, 2010 at 8:29 am

Now, my wireless keyboard is set up (it and the receiver have made amends), I’m used to the new, heavier mouse, and my browser seems to be staying open when I ask to edit a post. Ahem! Hello world! For the past 24 hours I’ve been pondering the themes I’d like to explore here. At the moment, I have:


Quality, and lack thereof


Attention, and lack thereof


Found myself buying a bottle of water this morning, something I usually try to avoid.  Like this school. Earlier, carrying my KeepCup, I felt far more cutting-edge. Not many of those about, yet. Tonight, thinking I’d like to follow the theme of homogeneity (group think, etc), I recalled an article I read in Good Weekend magazine a year or so ago, about how easy it is to identify groups of people who dress the same way. They weren’t just talking about goths, or teenagers, or even about people with bad taste. I could easily identify my category. Anyway, I went searching for this article (‘people who look the same’, ‘people who dress the same’, ‘Good Weekend archive’, etc), and after a few minutes gave up. Not very impressive for someone who has braved foreign libraries in search of obscure music scores. But that was then, this is now. My skittish mind then recalled another article, ‘Is google making us stupid?‘. It’s hard not to agree: in fact, why read the article at all? We already know, don’t we? While I was googling ‘Is google making’ google itself suggested ‘stupid’. Nice one, google. It’s all so self-referential I hardly know what to pay attention to anymore.

Attention deficit…

I try to tell myself that as I get paid to pay attention, close attention, every day, I’m entitled to some down time when I get home. Right?

Well I think so.

Until next time.