Archive for September, 2004

On technology and culture shifts

I was inspired by “this discussion over at 2blowhards.com”:http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/001656.html to leave a very long comment, which I’ll repost here:

Michael B., I think that it will be a while before the mainstream press truly understands what’s going on in a way that they can write coherently about it. It’s one thing to notice that technology is creating a revolution. It’s another thing entirely to really embrace it, understand it, and use it to the fullest. Just in the last few weeks, my understanding of how to use technology has shifted dramatically. RSS, Gmail, Flickr, del.icio.us, and desktop Wikis have all caused me to rethink my options for collecting and managing information. I’ve said for years that we’re still in the dark ages when it comes to computers. I think we’re a long way from living in a mature world of computer and network technology, much less really understanding it. I’m not sure many people really can see where this is going.

For instance, I’m working on a new project. I’m attempting to create a new kind of online history book. I’m developing a wiki where the narrative and encyclopedic entries about characters and events will be developed simultaneously. I’m doing this on my own right now, but will soon open it up for others to contribute, much as Wikipedia has been built by the efforts of a large community. As I develop this project, I realize that there’s really no limit to what can be included in or linked to from this wiki. My long-term goal would be to have original source material for every aspect of the period I’m studying available online – a one-stop-shop, if you will, for people interested in this historical event.

Now, I’m not way out there on this. Others (like Michael Brooke, it seems) are working on similar “deep resource” projects. How will this impact culture? We’re going to move from the idea that knowledge is something filtered and parsed by individuals to something that is created and managed by the group. I think this core idea has always been true, yet the methods we’ve had to deliver content – books, radio, television, and so on – have mostly been filtered through the narrow perspective of one person or one organization. It hasn’t been practical in the past to develop and disseminate group-think. Once a book is printed, that’s it until the next edition, if there is one. Any mistakes remain; ideas aren’t reconsidered in the light of new evidence. Moreover, sources remain unavailable to the media consumer in many cases, so independent evaluation of an author’s conclusions are impossible.

However, group-reviewed, dynamically updatable resources are available now, the tools to create these are starting to mature, and more of these resources will come online when people start to see how powerful and useful they are. Libraries are starting to digitize content like Shakespeare’s quartos and Lewis Carroll’s scrapbook. The balance of power in cultural filtering is shifting. It’s as if gold went from being something only prospectors could locate in far-off locations to something anyone could create with their own personal alchemy machine.

(I’m also seeing a shift in the way we perceive top-down hierarchies in general. In business, for example, there are some who suggest that the wisdom of the group is more valuable and “right” in many cases than the wisdom of the manager or the CEO.)

Culture will change – back, perhaps – from something you consume to something you participate in. I’ve already seen a couple of wikis that attempt to facilitate group-created stories. More will follow.

Technologically speaking, we are in the midst of a mini-revolution in which computers move from being separate machines with discreet installations of data and programs (analogs of our personal experience) to “network appliances” connecting us to a world where applications data, and experience reside on the network and are easily shared. Everything will interconnect, and we will develop tools (like RSS readers) to help us manage the torrent of information. Experiences, expertise, and ideas will be shared freely.

Raymond: What can digital do? It can make all this possible. People won’t simply consume. Portability and interconnectivity will open humans up to a level of collaboration that was previously impossible. Wikis and social bookmark sites like del.icio.us are the tip of the iceberg. This isn’t a subtle shift. Once people start to grasp what’s possible in an interconnected world, the sky’s the limit. It’s no small thing, for instance, to consider digitizing the Library of Congress so that the information contained therein is available instantly and everywhere.

Perhaps I wax rhapsodic. I tend to believe that people will use new tools in the best, most culturally enhancing way possible. It’s just as likely, I suppose, that people won’t. However, I am optimistic that once the infrastructure and tools are built, creative people will be called upon to use them. Culture will grow, as it always has, in the proper medium and conditions, and I like to imagine that this new medium is fertile indeed.

Three Years Later

I was living in North Bend, Washington, a tiny town nestled in the foothills of the Cascades about 45 minutes east of Seattle. My friend Danielle was visiting. She lived in Queens. She was out here to reconnect with me and to see a part of the country she hadn’t seen before. We were driving in to Bellevue, where she was going to drop me at work and take my car. We turned on NPR, kind of randomly, clueless. That’s when we heard the news.

What strikes me is how long it took for my understanding of the situation to develop. I was at work, in a small office, in a small office building. The news came in drips and drabs. There was little sense of danger or threat at first, and I didn’t see the pictures of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, or see the smoking wreckage at the Pentagon until I got home that evening.

For a couple of days we sat glued to the television set – as, I gather, did most everyone else. We spoke on the phone with friends from all over the country. Danielle tried to find out if her friends in New York City were safe and sound (all accounted for, all unharmed, thank God). I spoke with friends and family about what this all meant. I recall how sharply life had changed on that day. My friends were all from the comedy world, and all of a sudden comedy seemed a very hard thing to contemplate or achieve. We didn’t know when, or if, anything would be funny again.

I visited the World Trade Center site last Christmas. It simply looked like a construction site, except for the tributes lining the fence. I don’t have any personal memory of the towers except for a glimpse of them in passing when I visited New York in 1989. It’s hard for me to fully understand what happened on that day. Life ended then, and life goes on. It goes on and we pause and remember and honor the victims and the heroes of that day and the remembering makes life more precious. My life has changed in so many ways since that day. I’m married now, and I’m going to go back to bed and lie next to my sleeping wife and hold her tight and thank God for the time we have together, and pray for the victims once more.