Well, this is probably my last (non-project) analytical post of the semester. I will probably publish more trivial comments and posts later this week, but it is clear that our class is rapdily moving to a close. How can someone come up with words that will summarize so many digital questions. While I will talk about these issues in more depth when our group’s video file is posted, I want to get into one of the greatest digital social divides in this post: the division between technological optimism and technological pessimism.
This idea has its roots in many of the Internet debates that I have been reading about on other sites like Digital Liberation Front. The best encapsulation of this divide can be found here (scroll down for the table). Ultimately, as they describe, the debate consists of issues of personalization, “learning & culture,” and “experts & amateurs.”
The first problem (the problem of personalization) is less difficult to grapple with than we might initially presume. Several people (myself included) noted that the new “Long Tail” model of entertainment production might ultimately destroy the common language — the common cultural artifacts — that united us as a nation. Thinking back to that conversation, I can now see that my reasoning was pretty flawed. Ultimately, forces that provide individuals with a superficial sense of cohesion — the entire nation gearing up for the final episode fo Lost — ignores the costs that media scarcity imposed on earlier people. The pursuit of culture — the pursuit of art and intellectual fufillment — is one of the most important aspects of fufillment, and art that speaks to an individual can uplift their soul in a way that group identity never can. The idea that we should oppose personalization and media fragmentation simply to preserve the nation’s ability to make small stop is absurd, as we would rarely prioritze moderately improved social cohesion over artistic fufillment in our own lives. Would many of us really stop pursuing our artistic interests if we found that few of our classmates shared them?
Concerns about learning and culture are harder to dismiss. We may say that automation, greater media access, and democratization are great, but what about the professional? My group’s video project highlights the absurdity of keeping amateurs from greater digital access, and I stand behind the premise of that idea. Denying individuals a role in the creative sphere so that arbitrarily defined professionals can remain powerful is absurd from both a progressive and a libertarian standpoint. But consider what happened when automation took over our nation’s culinary pursuits and “democratized” cuisine by allowing anyone to eat a wider variety of options. Ultimately, that change was for the better, but many commentators have mourned the loss of our food culture. Ultimately, the idea of a “home cooked meal” preserved much of our nation’s shared ideas of “dinnertime,” and increasing choice has actually turned eating into a decentralized affair. Media critics now fear the same eventual outcome in the digital sphere. Eventually, the argument goes, too many users claim to be “filmmakers” on YouTube and destroy the very respect that our culture has instilled in the digital artist.
These fears are not unfounded. Too much noise in a system — too much bad fan fiction or too much useless information — can destroy a community, even a community that is as large as our current artistic community. To be frank, the changes that occur will not be as severe as many techno-pessimists claim, but who would defend the status quo by saying that it only somewhat debased artistic culture? We need a new model, which brings me to Apple.
As you may have noticed, Apple has recently come under increased criticism due to their percieved role as a “closed” provider of entertainment and information. I understand why people have this opposition: why should Apple stand between individuals and access to their content? My own opposition to these practices is based on WHO is guarding the closed system, as few individuals would seriously argue that Apple provides enough transparency in their decisions. Ultimately, however, I think we should adopt the Apple model of “closing” content — for creating spaces where only certain content is featured — but implement these spaces in a community-driven fashion.
“What,” you reply indignantly, “are you suggesting that we should censor content online?” I am not suggesting anything in the slightest; I am simply arguing that we need online resources that direct users toward content that has been carefully managed. My ideal would be the Open Directory systems that proliferated the Internet in the earlier ’90s, providing users with links to content in specific categories. This sort of editor-driven process in which content is voted up or down is now too time intensive for the modern Internet, so I propose combining the best elements of Open Directory with a radically new tool designed to browse the Web.
Web browsers have traditionally be designed like televisions, directing users toward whatever content they are interested in. Already, however, web browers have started to step away from directing users to other content, with many browsers providing users with supplementary information about web materials. In addition, a variety of tools like StumbleUpon are designed to direct users toward content that the community has found interesting, and Google can use its information about your web browsing to help predict what content you would be interested in browsing. Eventually, for the Internet to deal with its ever-expanding library of content, all three of these tools must be combined, with “New Media” interfaces being designed to curate content by looking at an individual’s browing history, comparing it to other user data, and then directing users to specific content through supplementary information that would be presented on every web page. (The system would be open-source and would be run by a non-profit group to get over user concern about privacy). By implementing this sort of technology, we can have the best elements of our current system (democratic access and unlimited content) while preserving an ethic that understands that not all content is of equal quality, validity, or interest.
What do you think about this idea?