An old but still relevant rant from Bruce Sterling

Recently, I found the text for an internally circulated article that I sent to some colleagues in the museum I was working in. It dates from March 2007, but some of the statements are still relevant today, so with a small amount of updating, I’m re-posting it here as maybe some of those new to this environment missed what Bruce had to say.

I remember being impressed by the amount of live web coverage coming from SXSW 2007 including a website full of content, papers online, podcasts, blogs, flickr sites and online videos.

Furthermore, I thought about what this means for us down here in Oz where we are soooo far away from all these hip conferences about new stuff. The web is finally making these far-away conferences and even some courses more accessible to us and it seems to still be mostly free. Those who truly understand what it is about also understand that to get the message out there, you don’t lock it away on pay-per-view sites or member only networks. You share it for free and maybe include some ads that hardly anyone ever clicks or views. At least that’s the way I see it and the whole new web culture of sharing, i.e. sharing valuable, new knowledge and even some wisdom, still amazes me.

So, later that day, in need of some inspiration, I listened to a keynote rant from a guy called Bruce Sterling who was then a Visionary in Residence at The podcast was already available on the SXSW website and while not all of it is directly relevant to the work of a cultural institution, some of it was and still is in a conceptual sense if we are to understand the world we are now part of (particularly given the large investment already in most museum websites). I knew that not many of my then colleagues would ever listen to the whole podcast (an hour long), so I jotted down these notes from it as I listened:

Bruce mentions RFID in the SXSW participant wrist bands, but doesn’t ever allude to what they really used RFID for apart from the obvious. (RFID tagging of items like conference delegates, triathletes and baggage at airports has moved on a lot since then, but that is a whole other story, so lets not go there now.) He then refers to “2007 – the year of video”. Sterling calls it a stoopid medium, especially in TV which really is a wasteland. And the vested interests from TV-land are trying to step on the net, but he says it isn’t going to happen.

New trend drivers are emerging.

Three in particular are worth discussing (Prof) Henry Jenkins and convergence culture; Yochai Benkler who wrote The Wealth of Networks; and Lev Manovich and his Soft Cinema – hybrid media. These blokes have cultural, legal and media studies backgrounds, but they talk the same language. They talk in an analytical policy vocabulary – about a new method or approach to increase peoples’ wealth.

On the web information is free and it wants to be free. You are charged nothing and don’t have to click the ads. It is available to anybody and it is incredibly powerful and growing right there in front of you. The first world is the global market – capitalism and the market world as we know it. The second world is all forms of government. The new third world is common-space peer production – not communism, not the state and not the market. It is really growing fast and having profound effects. We use ‘Google’ as a verb now. It is also about ‘Not-For-Profit’ stuff. The fourth world is disorder and where they don’t have any of this.

The new third world is more powerful than we give it credit for, but not necessarily a good thing yet. It is a new thing. Benkler’s and Jenkin’s arguments are fearsome, but the new networks may not be as fragile as they think – they are pretty resilient. Take for example Craigslist – he isn’t a business mogul, he is mild and low key guy from San Francisco and not really interested in business. He just wanted 200 million friends. But he has gutted the revenue streams of major newspapers (i.e. classifieds)! He has no business. (My comment: Some of these networks and start-ups are now being acquired by bigger predators though and will someone like Murdoch or Yahoo eventually acquire craigslist?)

Peer2Peer networks are turned on and they out-shift anything else ever built without a dime changing hands.’ This world is still vulnerable to charlatans and rip-off merchants. And there are down-sides to too much ‘fan involvement’ in art.

Mashups – of video & sound.

Are they really a tremendous source of creativity? They won’t last 10 years. They are novel (now) and have no staying power as music. They are not tremendously creative works. It is new and has an audience, but it isn’t a cultural advance.

Lev Manovich talks about soft cinema – digital tools are melting all media down into a kind of slum. It is all merging and distinctions go with powerful compositing tools. Effects are becoming the means of production. All pieces are sent to a compositor, like in Hollywood films. Different flavours come out of the same mixing machine. There are different windows to the same media. Does everything need to go through this ‘media blender’? It is a new capacity, but isn’t necessarily any better. Electronic art stinks. It is interesting, not great. Ease of production? E.g. deviantART. Sure it is folk culture, but it is for hicks! We need a new form of media criticism. Film media, literature, music are all just going away and there are new realities, but they are not that good.

Now there are some 55 million blogs and some are good? Well, no actually. He would be quite surprised if any exist in 10 years. (And if it is true that blogs are that ephemeral, some cultural institutions like libraries and archives better start archiving those relevant to their collecting guidelines sometime soon!) They may be best as platforms for the development of something. ‘They are like watching yourself get beaten to death with croutons’ – and they’re not that potent a media. They’re also not fine art. The usual discourse is like three paras, an embedded video, some hyperlinks, flickr sets, Digg and social book-marking links, etc. Is it done well or badly? Is there any web design critique that could be applied to it to say whether it is done well or not? Sterling (a blogger himself) says it is an unstable media not aspiring to greatness. A word-of-mouth kind of culture.

Is it good to turn on the ‘information factory’ and leave the room? It is machine expression and needs to be understood as that. ‘Semiotic pollution’. The worst is spam. Gibberish. Imagine if that happened on TV or in a movie theatre!

Reed Hundt – a US intellectual and lawyer, who is very weary looking. Disenchanted by Federal Government, he is now in private practice. He was involved in auctioning spectrum (just like we are doing here in Oz). And he has a mad scheme to steal broadband and sell it (as gifts) to police, public safety authorities, etc. He wants to take it from broadband TV. Broadband TV is for shut-ins. Broadcast TV is a lower end evil medium. It was bad before American Idol, but now there is no budget to put on decent stuff. It is junk. He wants to put the net over TV as b-band Internet. It would reduce distinctions between the different media forms. There is no technical reason to not do it. It would change major stuff. It needed a ground swell of support and Hundt was trying to do it with public-safety and security services – cops, firemen, etc. The US would then leapfrog to the top of the national broadband rankings. He has a rather dull website and he used to run a blog.

Yochai Benkler – social networking and what it takes to build a third kind of production system that harnesses productivity, creativity. They need thoughtful engineering and some care. He puts forward a method for socially motivated common-space peer production:

  • divide up the work – there is a lot to do, suck helpers in
  • the work must be granular, modular (projects) and ‘integrate-able’ (all adds up to turn into one thing that really achieves something) – not seen much in other lines of work, not business, even government
  • be self-selective – people chose to join in (people come out of the wood-work)
  • have an in or out mechanism (like a two-way membrane)
  • have a communication platform to talk to each other, fast & efficient
  • humanisation??? (not further discussed)
  • include trust construction – has to be built, confidence building (very important)
  • someone has to think about what is normal, acceptable behaviour and create that
  • transparency – so motives are not questioned
  • monitoring (a police force of sorts to prevent someone attacking the system – hackers, thieves, etc. because the Internet is a savage world)
  • peer review (who is good at stuff?) – a motivator
  • discipline (an Achilles heel of all Internet efforts)
  • fairness (will ‘the intelligentsia exploit the helpless proletariat?’!) – Wikipedia and Digg don’t pay people! Things that were formerly professions are now falling apart on the net and are no longer business, they are melting like the Arctic
  • institutional sustainability – who knows how long it will last (e.g. Slashdot) – what is the legacy plan, what is needed? The hardware is radically unstable!

Benkler doesn’t talk about some unpleasant extremist forms which might appear to have all of this licked! We can all think of extremist organisations who might be doing much of the above, but perhaps without the transparency and with a different take on humanisation and fairness? Maybe they are proof of the potency of this form of organisation?

In order to make this work, Benkler says that we need to understand that computers are platforms for self-expression rather than well-behaved appliances. Computers really stink as appliances. They are painful to use, always in beta, etc. Well-behaved appliances kill self-expression and common space peer production. Something that barely works can become a common space peer production factory!

Benkler distributed his book (all 500+ pp!) in pdf format and then he opened a wiki for everyone to help him explore this issue, but there was nobody there. It isn’t easy to be as smart as he is! It was just a vast echo chamber. You can open stuff like that, but it doesn’t mean they come in and if they do it doesn’t mean they’ll be useful. Sterling says he could not help him. It is an interesting issue.

Sterling closed his rant with a poem about serenity and a sense of fulfilment. Perhaps it was about life not on the web? It was a bit of a stretch for me . . .

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