Weighing the Web

Two Broken Pencil staff members debate the benefits of the Internet as a cultural tool

By Hal Niedzviecki and Derek Winkler

Hal Niedzviecki

Billions of words have been spilled on, in and about the Internet. We can summarize as follows: vast potential to challenge the monopolistic conglomerates that dominate mediated cultural exchange, somehow keeps failing to live up to its promise.

Take Second Life, the much-touted virtual world that allows you to, theoretically, be any person or creature you want to be. But turning your virtual self into a burly otter or a supermodel comes with its own set of problems including high rents, sexual harassment and rampant consumerism (on Second Life you can buy anything you buy in the real world including an array of corporate branded goods, a baby, and painless plastic surgery to animate your virtual genitalia). True, I’ve met people on Second Life who have created art galleries, radio stations, and entire underwater island tributes to their deceased parents. But the radio stations play dance hits and the art galleries and islands end up sitting empty because everybody wants to be an art gallery owner, not an artist.

So what’s alternative about Second Life? Basically it’s a first life do-over, letting you try things you may have had the inclination or desire to do in ‘real’ but never could for various complicated overlapping reasons (including the fact that you were born short and pudgy, not tall and lean). It’s an alternative to first life, but not necessarily all that different from first life.

Online, that’s increasingly the meaning of alternative: parallel paths leading to the same place. Things are different, but basically, functionally, the same.

Blogs let people be who they think they should be as opposed to who they are, a semantic difference since, most of the time, life–which can be defined here as both first and second life playing out in tandem–remains the same regardless. Similarly the site du jour, Facebook (yeah I’m on it and yeah you can be my Facebook friend), only serves to reaffirm your you-ness: the fact that you exist, you are interesting and more people deserve to know how interesting you are. It’s like sending a store-bought greeting card to all your friends and acquaintances every single day.

Online, that’s increasingly the meaning of alternative: parallel paths leading to the same place. Things are different, but basically, functionally, the same.

File sharing repeats the pattern of parallel paths that seem to lead inevitably to the same place. Consider the file sharing system of torrents that connects millions around the world, allowing us to anonymously disperse large files of cultural material to random strangers. Though you could theoretically post/seed anything to a torrent site, just about everything you find on them is corporate material: Hollywood movies, episodes of House, the new Britney Spears album, expensive software packages made by Microsoft. Theoretically torrent sites like Pirate Bay are underground networks dedicated to the free unfettered transfer of cultural information. Practically, torrents, like blogs, Facebook and Second Life, are path that leads to the same place: the same movie playing in the theatre, the same TV show showing in the same living room, the same series of pre-determined, pre-programmed choices.

YouTube and the hundreds of other video upload sites are another example of populist driven file sharing. These sites host a lot of material that seems alternative but on second glance turn out to be more of the same. Car crashes, school yard fights, dog attacks, celebrities embarrassing themselves, commercials that never aired because they were just a bit too risque for a suddenly jittery company–this is material that deepens our relationship to the so-called mainstream. It seems alternative, it feels underground, but it doesn’t meet the test: it offers nothing in the way of new options to pursue. It’s just the flotsam and jetsam of a commercial society beguiled by spectacle and unable to think beyond the next exciting moment which, by the way, you’ve just got to see because you won’t believe how fucked up it is.

It’s easy to point to the many blogs, video posts, podcasts and websites that feature truly “alternative” ideas and content. That material is out there, no question. But is there more of that material out there now than there was before the rise of the web? I’d argue that the proportions are the same–a tiny sliver of material that is truly “alternative” competing for attention with giant conglomerates only too happy to be seen as alternative if that helps them sell more underarm deodorant or five-disc box sets.

Ironically, all the material posing as “alternative” on the internet makes it more difficult to find the real stuff that’s out there. Blogs on reality TV, avatars in Second Life modeled after models, pirate downloads of Hollywood movies featuring heroes who buck the system — all this material feels ‘underground’, even genuine. But too many of these promising mazes seem to twist and turn back to the same old toxic waste-dump of a pop culture designed to turn us into passive, mindless consumers. All the promise of the Internet, and somehow we’re still being duped. Creating long lists of your favourite TV shows on FaceBook and filling your blogs with hilarious celebrity bloopers is equivalent to pulling on your $300 Nikes and heading downtown for a nose piercing.

Derek Winkler

When I started using the net in the early 1990s it was a geek toy and we liked it that way. Old-timers who had been around since the 1970s and 1980s used to complain every fall when a new crop of first-year students would get access through the university networks. The archetype was a beer-sucking fratboy named Biff, or B1FF as he would sign himself. He was a loud and annoying newbie with no respect for the commons or the culture.

The net was a culture of its own. It had a history that was more like a Genesis story. It had myths and legends. It had heroes and villains. It had its own signs and signifiers, its own shared references and inside jokes. To know and love all these things was to partake in net culture. B1FFs didn’t know or care. We wanted to protect our culture from the B1FFs.

There has never been so much of life documented by people who are independent of the professional culture machine. In accordance with Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of it is crap, but that’s okay. We’ve got the space.

It turns out we didn’t need to worry. The net took care of itself. It welcomed the B1FFs and absorbed them, just as it welcomes everyone and offers them a place. Thanks to the B1FFs, the net stopped being a geek toy and became the most important medium on the planet.

Today, the old guard of independent culture is in the same position as those old grey beards of the net: slack-jawed and aghast at the antics of the B1FFs. But they don’t need to worry. The net will take care of them too.

The net doesn’t just have a culture anymore; it has every culture. All culture is going to the net, and the process is much too far along to stop. Independent culture is not exempt from this transcendent, one-time-in-history event, and no one should regret that, least of all the makers of independent culture and those who seek it out. We should celebrate it. We are privileged to stand at this point in time and space. Ideas are slipping the shackles of physical media once and for all. Visual, audible or textual, bits are bits and the benefits are vast. Ideas on the net go from one mind to another with the minimum resistance our fleshy bodies will allow. It’s the closest thing we’ve got to telepathy.

The net is mostly full of B1FFs these days, mugging for the camera on YouTube and whining on Blogspot and poking their friends every ten minutes on Facebook. That’s just fine. The net is functionally infinite. There’s room for the B1FFs and independent culture too. In fact, all those B1FFs are responsible for the greatest boom in independent culture in history. There has never been so much of life documented by people who are independent of the professional culture machine. In accordance with Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of it is crap, but that’s okay. We’ve got the space. Ten percent of more-than-ever-before is still a whole lot of good stuff. All we need are better ways to find it.

Google has a ton of geniuses working on the problem, but why wait? Bloggers could do it if a few more of them remembered their roots. The word “blog” is short for “weblog.” The full name describes the original function: a log of interesting stuff you saw on the web. Picture a vast throng of independent people producing carefully groomed information feeds. Find someone whose taste you trust and ride along with their bookmarks. Your culture will be defined by the feeds you follow, just as your tribe is defined by the people in your inbox. It kinda-sorta works that way already. We just need to scale it up.

Going digital is the best thing that can happen to independent culture. Freed from physicality, ideas live practically forever and travel at very nearly the speed of light. Only object fetishists will mourn the passing of physicality: those who long for artificial scarcity because it increases the value of their own little hoard; those who want to capture an idea inside a group of atoms and seal it away where only a few can access it. Fuck them. Anyone who would want to go back to the days of rooting through record stores and bookshops to find that one last wrinkled copy of a zine or rare homemade cassette has got it exactly backwards. Those who value the idea above the packaging it comes in know the fetishists are at an evolutionary dead end. That’s the meaning of the old battlecry, “Information wants to be free.” It wants to be free of the limitations of atoms. Leave the transient atoms behind. Bits are eternal. Transcend.

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