This is the liability of “processing” together. We are living in an age when thinking itself is no longer a personal activity but a collective one. We are immersed in media and swimming in the ideas of other people all the time. We do not come up with our thoughts by ourselves anymore, so it’s awfully hard to keep them to ourselves once we share them. Many young people I’ve encountered see this rather terrifying loss of privacy and agency over our data as part of a learning curve. They see the human species evolving toward a more collective awareness, and the net’s openness as a trial run for a biological reality where we all know each other’s thoughts through telepathy. Whether or not we are heading for shared consciousness, this “learning curve” should still be in effect. In short, we need to develop the manners and ethics that make living and working together under these conditions pleasant and productive for everyone.
This is the second installment in our book of the week, which we very strongly recommend for its clear writing and alerting us to conscious moral choices:
* Book: Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Douglas Rushkoff. OR Books, 2010.
Douglas calls for a new ethics of sharing, not mindless copying of everyone else’s creative work:
“Digital networks were built for the purpose of sharing computing resources by people who were themselves sharing resources, technologies, and credit in order to create it. This is why digital technology is biased in favor of openness and sharing. Because we are not used to operating in a realm with these biases, however, we oft en exploit the openness of others or end up exploited ourselves. By learning the difference between sharing and stealing, we can promote openness without succumbing to selfishness.
No matter how private and individual we try to make our computers, our programs, and even our files, they all slowly but surely become part of the cloud. Whether we simply back up a file by sending it to the server holding our email, or go so far as to create a website archive, we all eventually make use of computing resources we don’t actually own ourselves. And, eventually, someone or something else uses something of ours, too. It’s the natural tug of digital technology toward what may well be its most essential characteristic: sharing. From the CPU at the heart of a computer distributing calculations to various coprocessors, to the single mainframe at a university serving hundreds of separate terminals, computer and network architecture has always been based on sharing resources and distributing the burden. This is the way digital technology works, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the technologists building computers and networks learned to work in analogous ways.
Perhaps because they witnessed how effective distributed processing was for computers, the builders of the networks we use today based both their designs as well as their own working ethos on the principles of sharing and openness. Nodes on the Internet, for example, must be open to everyone’s traffic for the network to function. Each node keeps the packets that are addressed to it and passes on the others—allowing them to continue their journey toward their destination. Servers are constantly pinging one another, asking questions, getting directions, and receiving the help they need. This is what makes the Internet so powerful, and also part of what makes the Internet so vulnerable to attack: Pretty much everything has been designed to talk to strangers and off er assistance. This encouraged network developers to work in the same fashion. The net was built in a “gift economy” based more on sharing than profit. Everyone wanted a working network, everyone was fascinated by the development of new soft ware tools, so everyone just did what they could to build it. This work was still funded, if indirectly. Most of the programmers were either university professors or their students, free to work for credit or satisfaction beyond mere cash.
Pretty much everything we use on the Internet today—from email and the web to streaming media and videoconferencing—was developed by this nonprofit community, and released as what they called freeware or shareware. The thrill was building the network, seeing one’s own innovations accepted and extended by the rest of the community, and having one’s lab or school get the credit. The boost to one’s reputation could still bring financial reward in the form of job advancement or speaking fees, but the real motivator was fun and pride.
As the net became privatized and commercialized, its bias for openness and sharing remained. Only now it is oft en people and institutions exploiting this bias in order to steal or extract value from one another’s work. Digital technology’s architecture of shared resources, as well as the gift economy through which the net was developed, have engendered a bias toward openness. It’s as if our digital activity wants to be shared with others. As a culture and economy inexperienced in this sort of collaboration, however, we have great trouble distinguishing between sharing and stealing.
In many ways—most ways, perhaps—the net’s spirit of openness has successfully challenged a society too ready to lock down knowledge. Teachers, for example, used to base their authority on their exclusive access to the information their pupils wished to learn. Now that students can find out almost anything they need to online, the role of the teacher must change to that of a guide or coach—more of a partner in learning who helps the students evaluate and synthesize the data they find. Similarly, doctors and other professionals are encountering a more educated clientele. Sure, sometimes the questions people ask are silly ones, based on misleading ads from drug companies or credit agencies. Other times, however, clients demonstrate they are capable of making decisions with their professionals rather than surrendering their authority to them—oft en leading to better choices and better results.
The net’s bias toward collaboration has also yielded some terrific mass participatory projects, from technologies such as the Firefox browser and Linux operating system to resources like Wikipedia. As examples of collective activity, they demonstrate our ability to work together and share the burden in order to share yet again in the tool we have gained. For many, it is a political act and a personal triumph to participate in these noncommercial projects and to do so for reasons other than money.
These experiences and tools have, in turn, engendered an online aesthetic that is itself based in sharing and repurposing the output of others. As early as the 1920s, artists called the Dadaists began cutting up text and putting it together in new ways. In the 1960s, writers and artists such as William Burroughs and Brion Gysin were experimenting with the technique, physically cutting up a newspaper or other text object into many pieces and then recombining them into new forms. They saw it as a way to break through the hypnosis of traditional media and see beyond its false imagery to the real messages and commands its controllers were trying to transmit to us without our knowledge. Digital technology has turned this technique from a fringe art form to a dominant aesthetic.
From the record “scratching” of a deejay to the cut and paste functions of the text editor, our media is now characterized by co-opting, repurposing, remixing, and mashing-up. It’s not simply that a comic book becomes a movie that becomes a TV series, a game, and then a musical on which new comic books are based. Although slowly mutating, that’s still a single story or brand moving through different possible incarnations. What we’re in the midst of now is a mediaspace where every creation is fodder for every other one.
Kids repurpose the rendering engines in their video games to make movies, called “machinima,” starring the characters in the game. Movies and TV shows are re-edited by fans to tell new stories and then distributed on free servers. This work is fun, creative, and even inspiring. But sometimes it also seems to cross lines. Books are quoted at length or in decontextualized pieces only to be included as part of someone else’s work, and entire songs are repurposed to become the backing tracks of new ones. And almost none of the original creators—if that term still means anything—are credited for their work.
In the best light, this activity breaks through sacrosanct boundaries, challenging monopolies on culture held by institutions from the church to Walt Disney. Aft er all, if it’s out there, it’s everyone‘s. But what, if anything, is refused to the churn? Does committing a piece of work to the digital format mean turning it over to the hive mind to do with as it pleases? What does this mean for the work we have created? Do we have any authority over it, or the context in which it is used? We applaud the teenager who mashes up a cigarette commercial to expose the duplicity of a tobacco company.
But what about when a racist organization mashes up some video of your last speech to make a false point about white supremacy?
This is the liability of “processing” together. We are living in an age when thinking itself is no longer a personal activity but a collective one. We are immersed in media and swimming in the ideas of other people all the time. We do not come up with our thoughts by ourselves anymore, so it’s awfully hard to keep them to ourselves once we share them. Many young people I’ve encountered see this rather terrifying loss of privacy and agency over our data as part of a learning curve. They see the human species evolving toward a more collective awareness, and the net’s openness as a trial run for a biological reality where we all know each other’s thoughts through telepathy.
Whether or not we are heading for shared consciousness, this “learning curve” should still be in effect. In short, we need to develop the manners and ethics that make living and working together under these conditions pleasant and productive for everyone.”