Culture of infinite ideas

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I was passed this link  by a colleague to a NY Times review of "You Are Not A Gadget" by Jaron Lanier, and it looks like a very interesting read. I will be putting it on the old reading list, that is assuming a Kindle version comes out (just checked: ironically there is a Kindle version).

There are a couple points which make this look interesting to me. The central thesis of the book deals with the crumbling of the 'old regime' of media distribution, from the standpoint that this is a bad thing, and seems to be in direct contrast to the ideas espoused in Weinberger's "Everything is Miscellaneous". Put another way, we are in danger of losing our culture because of the sheer amount of crap that comes from empowering billions with publishing tools formerly reserved for the elite. (Weinberger would argue that although there is alot of crap produced, it is irrelevant because we are no longer restricted by the limitations of physical media, and hence the ability to search and sort and discern becomes what's important.)

From the article: "Mr. Lanier sensibly notes that the "wisdom of crowds" is a tool that should be used selectively, not glorified for its own sake. Of Wikipedia he writes that "it's great that we now enjoy a cooperative pop culture concordance" but argues that the site's ethos ratifies the notion that the individual voice -- even the voice of an expert -- is eminently dispensable, and "the idea that the collective is closer to the truth." He complains that Wikipedia suppresses the sound of individual voices, and similarly contends that the rigid format of Facebook turns individuals into "multiple-choice identities.""

It seems that Lanier is concerned that the old superstar mythos, where one man, against all odds, produces a masterwork of song, or a brilliant painting, or a powerful new invention is threatened by the wisdom of the collective, where the unenlightened amateur dares to add her voice to the cacophony of the mundane, drowning out and killing the hardworking artiste before he can even pen said masterwork. Worse, the people have turned on the artiste, and would rather, nay, actually enjoy (enjoy!) the pedestrian works of the collective (assuming they can wade into the crapflow enough to actually find something worth consuming).

OK, that was a bit snarky, and I understand what the author is getting at.

"While this development might sound like a good thing for consumers -- so much free stuff! -- it makes it difficult for people to discern the source, point of view and spin factor of any particular fragment they happen across on the Web, while at the same time encouraging content producers, in Mr. Lanier's words, "to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind."".

On the surface, this sounds like a bad thing, but to me, not having read the book, it sounds like the author is worried that the new paradigm is going to demand more of the consumer of culture; that we can no longer be passive consumers, we must actively question ideas and can no longer take information presented to us at face value, but rather everything must be thought about critically.

I can imagine that this idea would be scary to someone not used to thinking in this way, but I would also argue that it was never really any different. This is a hallmark of the Constructivist viewpoint. We take our prior experience, and build on it through our social interactions, and thus form a malleable model of how we think the world works (aka learning). If this viewpoint is valid, then I would argue that the world that Lanier fears has always existed. The thing that has changed is that we now have the ability to voice our opinion, worldwide, to anyone who cares to listen, and others can do the same. I would argue that we should have always been taking every bit of information with a helping of salt, and the wisdom of the collective EXISTS as a tool for us to verify our mental model of the world.

Put another way, the truth is there never was a superstar that didn't build on the ideas of those that came before him, and relied on the wisdom of others to verify and confirm "his" masterwork. Every artist in history had influences, and most if not all inventors had teams of people working in their labs, if not to come up with the invention, than at least to develop it to the point where it becomes useful to society (and hence sellable). Everything that suggests otherwise is just clever marketing.

Lanier's further argument seems to be that there can be no new production of culture in a culture of remix after a certain point, because eventually all the pre-paradigm ideas will be remixed and there will be nothing new to draw from. While I agree that there is an inevitable impending death of the 'old media' (and let's be honest, this really means 'old media distribution models that are built on the myth of the superstar'), to say that this will ultimately lead to the death of a culture both  ignores the value of the remix itself (demonstrable via its own consumption), and underestimates and discounts the value of the shift from a culture of pure consumption to a culture where production is as important as consumption, but available in infinite proportions.

Like I said, this looks like an interesting read, and I would like to explore Lanier's ideas further.

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