Thursday, 21 June 2007

Sewing and the cut and paste generation

Image from ibiblio

This week
Wired has been discussing the furore surrounding Andrew Keen’s new book and his attack on what he calls ‘the cut and paste generation.’ The basic premise of Keen’s argument is that kids are more likely to blindly cut and paste information these days because the internet makes it so easy to do so – which perhaps has some validity; indeed in The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it is “the power of context” that is the key motivating factor when it comes to school cheating.

But ‘school assignments’ are only one dimension of the cut and paste technique. It is in fact perhaps just an updated version of the way we have always treated language – as a recombinant entity. Oral culture for example has long been closely associated with the art of sewing. We stitch pre-fabricated parts together. The word ‘text’ is itself derived from the Latin word ‘textere’ meaning to ‘weave;’ and the word 'rhapsody' literally means ‘to stitch together’ in Greek. At some levels then, cutting and pasting is simply a new way of cutting and sewing – a recombinant process we’ve been using for generations. American storytelling for example is closely linked with
quilting – an art involving the stitching together of pieces of fabric.

I think the important point in all this however is the fluidity of meaning. The interesting bit of cutting and pasting (as with cutting and stitching) is how we join what we have together. Cutting and pasting, cutting and re-assembling allows us to create new meanings, discover hidden meanings and to weave elements together to form completely different texts – something literature has long been interested in.
William Burroughs was one of the first to experiment with this Technique in Naked Lunch. And more recently in Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, Grace rather significantly sits sewing as she recounts her version of the brutal murder of which she is accused, ultimately perhaps managing to convince those around her of her innocence. The narrative thread is very powerful thing – if we can claim to be “stitched-up” Atwood’s novel illustrates the power of re-stitching, of the way we can alter meaning simply by stitching pre-fabricated parts together in a different way.

The beauty of the digital arena is that it makes this process accessible. “I am a language costumier”
Jeanette Winterson tells us in The.Powerbook a novel about virtual worlds and the fluidity of meaning and identity. The same stories and words can be re-stitched into different forms night after night. Indeed arguably many of the “cut and paste generation” are highly aware of the fluidity of text and manipulative power of the narrative thread. Youtube is full of evidence of a generation wise to the fact that simply by weaving together the same words or ‘texts’ in a certain way can create completely new meanings – which may perhaps be one reason why we are beginning to hear about the so-called end of political spin on the web. Whilst some of the cut and paste generation maybe little more than digital kleptos, others have cottoned on to the fact that the way pieces of texts are stitched or pasted together is in fact of utmost importance and interest.

Monday, 18 June 2007

They do things differently there

Image from Wikipedia

It is often the case that many of the seemingly new features emerging in the digital world actually have their roots in literary techniques and movements of the last century. A case in point is the ‘mash-up.’ In her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf created a new novelistic structure in which her prose blurred the distinction between dream and reality and more importantly between the past and present. James Joyce had pioneered a similar narrative structure with Ulysses a few years earlier. As extreme as these narrative experiments seemed to the rest of the literary world, this is of course exactly how human beings actually function. “I tend to live in the past” Herb Caen once said “because most of my life is there.” We simultaneously flow from the conscious to the unconscious, from the fantastic to the real, and from memory to the present moment. Woolf’s prose was noted for its ability to flow seamlessly from one to the other, over-laying the past with the present – the very basis of the modern-day mash-up.

There is an over-whelming sense of loss and sadness that permeates Mrs. Dalloway. An irreparable gulf seems to erupt between the idealistic potential once held in the past moment and the banal, deadening reality of the present moment – interestingly a similar disconnect found in many of the mash-ups that now appear on Youtube. One of the most popular sub-genres of mash-up culture is a kind of childhood brand bashing – we mash figures and brands from the memories of our childhood with the darker grittiness of those we now meet in the present-day moment;
Thomas the Tank Engine meets 50 cent and Grand Theft Auto invades Lego City. Behind the humour there is in many of these mash-ups a similar disconnect to the one that Woolf attempted to capture – the unnerving gulf between an idealistic past when our lives were full of promise and innocence, and the present where a darker, harsher reality now pervades.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

What are you doing? Going to the dentist?

Image from Wikipedia

Twitter has caused a lot of interest recently. Just why on earth do we feel the need to tell everyone what we are doing? As Advertising Age reports, most of what appears on Twitter is for the large part mundane, an “inane, piecemeal and ultra fleeting" commentary on life.

Which may well be true. But Twitter is perhaps, more significantly, a product of a recent shift in our perception of our culture and therefore history. Alan Moore and Tomi T Ahonen have long argued that with the rise of the internet and Web 2.0 we have seen the rise (or return) of
folk culture. We have it would seem, repossessed culture, claiming it as our own collective creation. And if this is the case, then such a shift does of course impact not only popular culture but politics and history as well. If folk power is on the rise, then all areas of social study are bound to be affected – especially history. In 2001 for instance, SMS helped to bring down the Filipino President Joseph Estrada. Reports say that text messages accelerated the scandal-ridden Estrada's exit by two months to two years. Suddenly the power of a connected folk culture was immense.

One view of history is that great men and institutions cause great events and make great decisions. But another view is of course that history is little more than a series of random, chance acts, a view based largely on the chaos theory – the notion that major events are, contrary to perceived wisdom, actually triggered by completely random occurrences that our traditional, institutionalised and lineal view of history has not recorded. Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys plays around with this theme; history, Bennett seems to suggest is little more than a series of random accidents. According to
Nicholas Hytner, the play's original director, "it is the theory of history that says that if the Archduke Ferdinand had not gone to Sarajevo that day, the war would not have happened. The theory that if Halifax hadn't gone to the dentist, Churchill would not have become prime minister and we would have lost the war."

Which brings us back to Twitter where interestingly two of its most recent members are
presidential candidates updating us on their day to day lives. Could it be then, that Twitter is a kind of folk history tool? A record and map of butterfly flutters? Maybe in years to come we will look back to these updates as a resource to explain the possible random roots of a major event. Who knows what a seemingly innocuous trip to the dentist by one of these candidates may trigger in the following months?

With the rise of ‘folk culture,’ inevitably comes the rise of folk history – the notion that we are all somehow, without realising it, responsible for and part of major events. We are, after all, separated from each other by only
six other people. We have never lived in a time when we are so connected to each other. Even our smallest actions then, may well have knock on consequences that we can never fully know or appreciate. We are all butterflies in a chaotic world. Who knows which tiny flutters really trigger major events? Indeed, one of the first questions we tend to ask when it comes to recent history is what were you doing? and where were you when… For some reason we have an urge to locate ourselves, to weave ourselves into some incomprehensible web around events in the recent past. This overwhelming belief that we are all somehow connected in a chaotic web, is something currently being explored in other areas of popular culture; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s recent thriller Babel and Paul Haggis’ 2004 film Crash are both stories in which major events are triggered by little flutters, amplified by the chaotic and complex web of human actions. Literature has of course also long explored a similar notion: one way to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is to see the failure of Friar John to inform Juliet of her lover’s plan as the cause of the tragedy. The actions of Verona’s health officials lead to the tragic death of a pair of young lovers.

Twitter could then perhaps just as easily be called Flutter because it is in some respects a response to a chaotic, folk view of history; an attempt to somehow weave this web of human chaos that we all feel inextricably part of. It is after all, an application built on the very question “what are you doing?” It taps into this notion that somehow we are all part of the same complex human web and as such it comes as no surprise that not long after it began, Twitter updates began to include those from the
BBC and other major news broadcasters as well. As a result applications like Twittervision now map major events alongside mundane ones; butterfly flutters mapped alongside turbulent storms.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Computer (Idea) Viruses

Image from Evans US Army Hospital

A little while ago
Seth Godin proposed the fantastic model of the IdeaVirus; the notion that ideas are propagated through the population in much the same way as viruses. In 1976 Richard Dawkins also introduced us to the concept of the meme; one of its features being (as with a virus) the ability to mutate. With the advent of digital technology, this characteristic of ideaviruses and memes has perhaps become ever more pertinent. After all, according to William Gibson, “the remix is the very nature of the digital.” Mutation, in other words, is an integral part of digital culture. “Today,” Gibson notes “an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product.” Sites like Youtube are veritable breeding grounds for constantly mutating ideas.

Viruses mutate for a very important reason; to survive, viruses need a steady supply of fresh hosts. And in order to get around the problem of host immunity within a population, they mutate, changing their surface proteins (or antigens). The digital world allows ideaviruses or memes to do much the same thing very easily.

Viruses mutate in two basic ways:

1) Antigenic drift is the gradual mutation of surface antigens as the virus moves through the population. (The digital equivalent of this is ‘the remix.’) The virus is ‘recoated’ with different surface proteins – a process not dissimilar to the kind of remixing of tracks and commercials that we see in the digital world today. JAKAZiD’s remixing of the
Cillit Bang ad is a great example of this kind of antigenic drift – the virus, the message itself is still the same (Cillit Bang cleans the penny) but its outer surface, the packaging surrounding it, has mutated. And in doing so the message is then able to spread to a totally different segment of the population, normally largely immune to this virus or message. We see this too with music tracks – Youtube is full of examples of classic songs from the 80’s that have since been remixed and repackaged in order to appeal both to a new generation of the population and of course to re-infect those that once listened to the original tracks.

2) Antigenic shift is when two viruses from two different species mix to form a hybrid and a completely new virus. (The digital equivalent of this is ‘the mash-up.’) Trailer trashing is a great example of this kind of mutation, where two film trailers (or two genres of film at least) are meshed together to form a completely new idea or plot; like
Point Brokeback a mash-up of Point Break and Brokeback Mountain for instance, or Sleepless in Seattle the horror version, which fuses genre cues from films such as Fatal Attraction with the original trailer. These new, hybrid ideas then spread to a whole new population – or again, are able to ‘re-infect’ the same population they once did but in a new mutated form. Google Earth is another good example of an ideavirus that has been mashed with countless applications in order for hybrid strains of it to spread into different segments of the population. It is, as a result, now a virtually pandemic idea in many respects.

Mutation is a key part of viral longevity; Budweiser’s ‘Wassup’ virus for instance, still has sporadic,
mutated outbursts. Consumer-created content isn’t just about issues of customisation and consumer ownership. It is in fact a fundamental part of the ideavirus lifecycle in the digital world.