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.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Birches in the Snow

Last week I had a few spare hours in Hamburg and spent the time in the Kunsthalle.

Amongst the more famous residents, there was also the beautiful Birken im Schnee. Not one of Emil Nolde's most famous works, but incredibly beautiful.

A scene that by most artists would have been painted overwhelmingly in white, is created in Nolde's trademark bright colours while managing not to lose any subtlety; incredible.

Picture Curtesy of BernieCB

Monday, 16 April 2012

'Like' Loneliness

There's a great article over at The Atlantic looking at if Facebook changes the way we interact with people.

While some of the studies show interesting correlations between social behaviour and the way people use Facebook, none can demonstrate causation, which is always much more difficult. It still invites an interesting question; is there something in the mechanics of social networks that encourages shallow relationships over deeper ones?

The main feature of Facebook (or any similar social network) that I think might lead to more, but shallower, friendships is the 'Like' button. There's a phenomenon known as Operant Conditioning, where an individual changes their own behaviour in response to positive on negative reinforcement of that behaviour. If you are rewarded you do it more, if you are punished you do it less.

This is used a lot in computer games to make you keep playing. Just increase one more level, just another 100 gold, just get one more experience point. In many cases it's very lazy games design, but because it's so effective many games use it as a cheap way of keeping you playing. It doesn't matter if it's Farmville of World of Warcraft. Extra Credits has, as always, a great explanation in relation to games design and the use of these Skinner Box techniques.

The Like button probably works in a similar way. We try, how ever much we may deny it, to create updates that attract as many likes they can. The more likes we get, the more popular and loved we think we feel; the ultimate Skinner box reward.

Crucially what this can do is turn affection into a numbers game. If you're trying to get the most likes, then you're not trying to affect any one person deeply, you're trying to get as many people as possible over their like threshold and no more.

Traditionally the rewards of a closer friendship are learning more about the other person, hearing their private worries and being able to do the same in return. Making yourself vulnerable by revealing, unedited, more about yourself, while knowing that your friend won't take advantage of you, gives you confidence as you know you're being accepted for who you are. This doesn't require many friends to do, just a few close ones, and this relationship takes time to build, but the rewards are intrinsic to the relationship. There's no intimacy counter somewhere going up or down.

Instead if you're using that time to get as many likes as possible, you can't build as many deep relationships. You're building your sense of self worth not on your most honest personality, but on the one which gets the most likes.

There are many downsides to this, but two stand out in my mind. The first is that within any social circle it reinforces groupthink, no-one feels they can reveal their divergent opinion. Instead they have to go with the group consensus, even if no-one really agrees, but dare not reveal this to anyone. Or the group has lost touch with reality, but there is no input to ground them. Groupthink is very dangerous.

Second, the biggest worry though is that people will mistake many likes, which require no effort to generate, for deeper friendships than they are. Then in a moment when you really need friends, and think you have many, you discover that they vanish like smoke. They didn't desert you, they were never there. In a dark moment when you really need someone, that could be a crushing blow.

Different people use social networks in different ways, and the above is a worst case. I know many people who use Facebook more like a live address book or a replacement Christmas card list. As long as you make the additional effort for close friends this is fine. But that little counter is a tempting, quantitative indicator and we have to be aware of how little it can mean.