Where the Web Went Right

A Rant

The other day, I was catching up on some of my news podcasts which are always a day or two late for me (hey, how'd that election in Massachusetts turn out)?

One of my favorite podcasts is NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook, but my one big beef with his show is that in the interest of being 'fair and balanced' (now there's a loaded phrase), he often lets some pretty nutty folks say some pretty nutty things without too much challenge. I often wonder if they do this simply to prove that they don't have a liberal bias*.

The show I was listening to recently was one of those shows. In an episode titled "Where the Web Went Wrong", author Jaron Lanier was on the show promoting his book "You Art Not A Gadget**", the central thesis of this is that participatory communities online create a 'hive mind' in which we are sacrificing our creative energies in the service of companies to which we owe nothing.

In this discussion, he lambasts 'Web 2.0 proponents' as religious cultists who contribute their time and energy, not for their own personal gain, but in the interest of creating a god-like singularity of utopian participation. To me, this argument reeks of the conservative fear of the commons. I like to share my thoughts about art education with the greater community for my own personal interest, and all of a sudden I'm handing out flowers at airports and promoting a socialist agenda.

Well, I do live in China, after all. I can see how that could be confusing to some.

While some of the points that Lanier makes are just plain wrong and some just plain silly (and quite often both), some fall into the realm of the "wha...?" One of his most awkward points is that people feel free to "mash up" the creative efforts of others, but that the ads that regularly appear on the sides of the webpages that these mashups appear are somehow sacrosanct, and 'above' being modified for creative use. This idea is based on two false premises: (1) That ads are not mashed because we hold them with some sort of respect, and (b) there is anything useful in these ads to 'mash'. Sidebar ads aren't seen as 'holy', they aren't even seen as 'useful' for a creative endeavor. At most, I'd say they were seen as a minor inconvenience or annoyance. In fact, I'd argue that they aren't even seen at all. I don't have ads on this site and if you think back to the last site you were on, what were the ads for? Do you remember? I don't either.

Further, it shows a fundimental misunderstanding about the purpose of a mashup, which is to celebrate or satirize the derivative work in a way that creates something that we haven't seen before.

With a nod to the serendipity gods, I happened to find this wonderful Mashup of the movie UP over on the always fascinating Learning IT on the same day that I listened to this podcast.

I could just listen to that song all day.

If there is any doubt in your mind that mash-ups are somehow by definition 'less creative' than their derivative works, this video should dispel that notion. It also should dispel the notion that the creation of projects like this one are in service to some corporate monolith that feeds off of our creative juices. Pogo, the 21 year old creator of this mash up is now being wooed by corporations to make Mashup videos for them... the one above was commissioned by Pixar itself.

That is not to say that the commissioning of a work validates it above other creative works. Lanier is right in one way- that we should be compensated for our creative efforts and hard work. However, he is mistaken in thinking that everything that we do needs financial compensation. If before the internet, the quiet creative endeavors that we pursued resulted in only our own satisfaction, that was compensation enough. Now that everyone has the ability and opportunity to share the processes and products of our creative expression doesn't mean we all need to get a paycheck for everything we do.

"Web 2.0" (or whatever you want to call it) isn't where the web went wrong, its where the web went right. Before the concept of participatory media overtook online activity, the internet's main purpose was another in a long line of the one-to-many forms of media (h/t to Howard Rheingold) following radio, TV, and movies. Before web 2.0 tools put content creation in the hands of the masses, what was the internet? A place to buy all kinds of stuff and occasionally get entertained.

So basically, it was the mall... Without all the walking.

And that was just what we all needed, wasn't it? More shopping, less exercise.

*Good luck with that, Tom.
**Yeah, no. I'm not going to promote it here. You can find it with the google.


  1. frank said...
    i'm not writing to say thanks for the plug, but to say you made a good 'rant.'
    i've been meaning to email re: the film fest. something similar is being done here at a later timeline.
    perhaps the following year we (japan organisers) could get it to sync more.
    feel free to forward me any details. if not too 'demanding,' i'll see if i can help out now too.
    (i am swamped with work and other stuff, but when are we not?)
    dsgran said...
    Thanks Frank,
    We'd love to have some participation from our good friends in Japan at the Asia Student Film Festival. I'll add you to our list.

    ix625 said...
    Reading here at Valhalla (my daughter woke up early and wanted to come down here). The videos are blocked by the district's filter so I can't comment on that part but I do have to say I loved the passion in the post.

    Rant on, David!
    Girbino said...
    I thought the same thing David when I read similar comments in WSJ. These folks obviously have not participated in meaningful 2.0 stuff, or even taken the time to talk to professionals who use the resources, well, professionally! The "hive" mentality they refer to sounds like a test balloon for a book deal (I can see it now, "The Hive Mentality"). Anyway, I just taught a grad class this weekend about technology in the art room, and I credit ArtED 2.0 with inspiring me to create that curriculum. Plus, working like crazy on that Rotoball with my art club, something I never would of done without the "net".
    dsgran said...
    Thanks guys. I appreciate the feedback! This really seems to me to be a similar argument against anything public vs. private, whether you're talking about schools or health care... whatever. Some people just seem to think that if its free it therefore has no value, as if money is the only acceptable form of compensation for our time.

    The reality though, is that this has paid off immeasurably for me on both a professional and personal level. Interacting with other art teachers has given me all kinds of new perspective on my own teaching - not just in finding new lessons, but in thinking about new ways to engage the students and myself with new ideas and activities.

    Let me stop there, or its going to be another post.. . ;)

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