Thursday, January 19, 2012

you may just have become a gadget

There will be a lot of digital ink spilled analyzing yesterday's SOPA/PIPA website blackout protests. I made my own opinion clear, I hope, in yesterday's posting.

As I take a quick look around the web this morning, I see prominent members of the free culture movement crowing about a great victory. People noticed we were gone; that means they agree with us!


I think the actual response will be far more nuanced and considered, and will be analyzed over a much longer period of time than half a day.... but that's me, a hopeless optimist for clear thinking.

Happy free culture commenters are already starting to think of January 18, 2012 as the day everything changed, the day new media permanently arm-wrestled control from old media - a sort of Emancipation Day.

If emancipation suddenly means that we all push the buttons we're told to push when we're told to push them, then I suppose those commenters are right. Wikipedia, Google, Reddit and a host of other "new media" powers told the world to jump yesterday, and a large part of the world asked "how high would you like us to jump, sirs?"

Me, I have always thought the old media/new media dichotomy was false.

The danger of so called "old" media was always that by its very structure it might act as a gatekeeper to real understanding. It might mistakenly or intentionally mislead, falsify or corrupt. Yesterday showed that so called "new" media carries the exact same danger.

The blackout was not about educating an uneducated public by giving them enough information so they could make up their own minds; it was about carefully curating the message (oh, Marshall McLuhan, where are you when we need you?), about directing people to one prescribed conclusion. Interestingly, while new media shuttered itself yesterday, they turned to old media to push their message. I heard many a technologist on radio and television last night repeating the standard buggy-whip talking points. That this curation of the message was run primarily by a supposedly neutral search engine and a supposedly neutral encyclopedia is, to me, deeply unsettling.

Newspapers and network television were never about mindlessly accepting what was presented to us without independent discussion, challenge and the hard work of making up our own minds. They could and sometimes they did drive opinion, but it was always up to us whether or not the media had the power to do so. Passive acceptance of the message is a choice.

It remains a choice even now, the day after that remarkable display of groupthink power that was Emancipation Day.

I don't think there's a sharper mind thinking about the Internet and the supposed old media/new media split than Jaron Lanier. Author of You are Not  a Gadget, inventor of virtual reality and researcher at Microsoft, Mr. Lanier walks his own path. He has alienated himself from many of his Silicon Valley friends by determinedly not drinking the Kool Aid (TM) of forced free culture.

In his op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, Lanier takes his friends to task. He argues that those who spread the false alarm about free speech yesterday regularly chill criticism and dissenting opinion within their own sector, and instead of fighting to secure a truly open Internet, they are actually fighting for the so called "free" territory they land-grabbed and intend to hold forever. The victory they are crowing about today is not a victory for you and me (especially if you clicked their links and made their threatening phone calls to legislators yesterday).

Mr. Lanier spoke in Toronto last year. That's him at the top of this posting, signing the print on paper book I bought from him. I recommend folks read You Are Not a Gadget.

Then read lots of other stuff, and make up your own minds. Or better yet, do whatever the hell you want to do. That's what real emancipation is all about.

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1 comment:

Sandy Crawley said...

Thanks John. I love the "land-grab" analogy. 15 years ago when I was volunteer president of ACTRA I circulated to staff a Lewis Lapham op-ed from Harper's, the mag he founded and ran back then. It was about the internet and his analog for the media barons of the mid nineties was "Mountain Men" in a domain that had no law. I do see the potential for abuse in the twin bills below the boarder but, I'll say it again - I agree the the intent: to discourage theft and promote respect for copyright. I only wish my fellow Canadians would get as much information, including opinion, about copyright law here, bill C-11.