Saturday, 28 April 2012

You Are Not a Gadget - All Mashed Up

A few months ago I read Jaron Lanier's 'You Are Not a Gadget'; self-described as a manifesto, it covers a range of ideas on the evolving nature of computing, the internet and the changes, for better or worse, it's bringing about in society. The writing and ideas presented are incredibly thought provoking and stand far above the usual level of internet navel gazing that happens on many sites.

The main ideas that struck me were the erosion of the human element in the internet; the over-simplification for the convenience of computers, not humans; and that we've hit a cultural stasis, where we are not generating new ideas or fashions.

Because it is brimming with so many different ideas, I suspect I'm going to end up writing a few posts around this book, but we'll see.

The biggest item I disagreed with was his opinion that we've hit a cultural stasis, that all that remains is a mash up of past ideas and nothing new or original is being created. Jaron identifies 'first-order' expressions; completely new ideas, and 'second-order' expressions; which are derivative works of a 'first-order' expression. He asserts that Web 2.0 is good at spitting out second-order expressions while stifling first-order ones.

I think there are probably as many first-order expressions being created as before, but two key things make this harder to spot. The first is that for past examples, the great defining work eclipses the evolutionary steps that came before and so it looks more like a unique, solo event than it really is. The other other is that the web encourages sharing, so we see more of the 'practice runs' as people are playing with the methods used to create new works than in the past, and revealing the obvious evolution which used to be hidden and make an expression appear more of a leap. This also results in  making the signal to noise ratio appear much higher than in the past.

Picasso is widely held up to be one of the most creative and original artists of the 20th century, which he is, and he was inspired and influenced by what was available to him. The cubist style which Picasso pioneered was directly influenced by aboriginal African art. These were being exhibited all through Paris at the time, being brought in from French and Belgium colonies and available for the first time for the general public to see. The same is true of Edvard Munch's The Scream, were the haunting face was inspired by Peruvian mummies on show.

The run up to those paintings would have involved hundreds of practice sketches and ideas that happened in private, revealed only perhaps to closer friends or visitors to the artist's studio. Now they would have appeared on his blog, on his DeviantArt sketches page or his Flickr profile; and most people would be able to see the evolution.

This then also reduces the amount of finished output compared to 'working' output. If you create one Les Demoiselles d'Avoignon and a hundred test sketches for all the see, then it would appear that there's very little first-order expressions being created, as all the evolving steps are on show as well. I don't think this reduces the impact and importance of the final piece.

The other problem to bare in mind is that with current evolutions, we have a much better understanding of the creator's surroundings, so perhaps the influences are easier to see. This is something that happens with age and experience. We can't do this with historical events which we didn't witness, or experience the surroundings of. History tends to record only the best few items, making them seem more unique than they may have been at the time.

What the internet also allows is us to more easily spot where something has come from. Knowledge of particular fashion, music or design is no longer the preserve of the expert view. In the past I think we regarded more things as new, only because they were new to us.

I'm always excited to see what people will discover or make next, what ideas will be ones that shape the future and which fall by the wayside. I'm optimistic enough to not believe that we've run out of original ideas quite yet.