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In praise of "static" and "passive"

June 07, 2006

"It is an odd state of affairs," writes Lee Gomes in today's Wall Street Journal, "when books or movies need defending, especially when the replacement proffered by certain Web-oriented companies and their apologists is so dismally inferior: chunks and links and other bits of evidence of epidemic ADD. Reading some stray person's comment on the text I happen to be reading is about as appealing as hearing what the people in the row behind me are saying about the movie I'm watching."

He describes a visit to an internet company where he watched a demo of a new web service that allows people to create mashups of movies, combining scenes from various films. "Until now," his host blathers, "watching a movie has been an entirely passive experience." Gomes comments: "Watching a good movie is 'passive' in the same way that looking at a great painting is 'passive' - which is, not very; you're quite actively lost in thought. For my friend, though, the only activity that seemed 'active,' and thus worthwhile, was when a person sitting at a PC engaged in digital busy work of some kind."

Gomes hits on one of the more annoying characteristics of the web philistine-utopians: they're need to create false dichotomies about the products of creative work. In this case, the false dichotomy is between "passive" and "active." If you're not "actively" fiddling around with something, you're being "passive," and passive is, of course, bad. But as Gomes points out, there's nothing passive about reading a good book or watching a good movie or sitting down with a good newspaper. If someone feels that watching a good movie is a passive experience, that says more about his shortcomings than the work's.

The other popular false dichotomy is between "static" and "dynamic." A completed work of art or craft - a book, a painting, a movie, an encyclopedia entry - is "static," and static, like passive, is bad. A work is only "dynamic" if it's some kind of open-ended group production - art by committee. Again, though, these terms are fake. A good book is anything but static - it gives to the active reader a wealth of meanings and connections. It's the mashed-up products of committee culture that tend to feel static. The more a mob messes with something, the flatter, more one-dimensional it becomes. When it comes to creative work, the individual mind is more interesting - more dynamic - than the mob mind.

What's particularly sad, and dangerous, is that these false dichotomies are infecting mainstream thought and discourse. They're becoming an accepted way of looking at culture. A recent Library Journal featured an interview with Ben Vershbow, a fellow of the Institute for the Future of the Book, which is connected to the Annenberg Center for Communication and is funded in part by the MacArthur and Mellon foundations. Vershbow sees books as being static, and the reading of them as passive. He believes that the promise of books will only be fulfilled when they come to have "social lives." "Soon," he says, "books will literally have discussions inside of them, both live chats and asynchronous exchanges through comments and social annotation. You will be able to see who else out there is reading that book and be able to open up a dialog with them." The model is Wikipedia, which, Vershbow says, "is never static, always growing."

Vershbow looks forward to a future where books are replaced by "multimedia electronic texts": "People raised with high-quality electronic reading devices, using only multimedia electronic texts in school and forming little or no attachment to dead-tree media, may consider paper books at best fascinating antiquities, at worst, inert, useless things." It is, to echo Gomes, an odd state of affairs when the Institute for the Future of the Book is bent on the book's destruction.

Comments

A good book is anything but static - it gives to the active reader a wealth of meanings and connections. It's the mashed-up products of committee culture that tend to feel static. The more a mob messes with something, the flatter, more one-dimensional it becomes. When it comes to creative work, the individual mind is more interesting - more dynamic - than the mob mind.

We're back with Jaron Lanier and Digital Maoism, which for me sparked off these comments:

Academic conversations may present the appearance of a collective, but it's a collective where individual contributions are preserved and celebrated ("Building on Smith's celebrated critique of Jones, I would suggest that Smith's own analysis is vulnerable to the criticisms advanced by Evans in another context..."). That is, academic discourse looks like a conversation - which wikis certainly can do, although Wikipedia emphatically doesn't.

The problem isn't the technology, in other words: both wikis and tagging could be ways of making conversation visible, which inevitably means visualising debate and disagreement. The problem is the drive to efface any possibility of conflict, effectively repressing the appearance of debate in the interest of presenting an evolving consensus.

The problem isn't the technology. Which is why it's so hard to argue with wikipedians and folksonomists sometimes - making stuff-in-general more conversational is generally a good thing, but a lot of what these people have in mind when they talk about conversation and the wisdom of the crowds really isn't conversation at all - and making stuff-in-general more like Wikipedia is not necessarily a good thing.

Posted by: Phil [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2006 08:53 AM

Criticizing this book mash-up notion seems a lot like shooting fish in a barrel.

What I mean is, the whole notion of a book having "discussions inside of it, so you can talk with others reading it at the same time" sounds ... um ... awful. Who's really going to want to read The House of Mirth - now with MySpace integration!

Regardless of the prominence of its proponents, isn't this whole idea just a bunch of navel-gazing? I know it's a big meme right now (blame for this falls heavily on Kevin Kelly's silly New York Times Magazine article), but one thing I've noticed in "the age of the internet" is that memes tend to burn out much quicker.

The book industry is one that has always been given to chicken little pronouncements (e.g. the oft-proclaimed "death of the novel"). The mash-up idea strikes me as one more bit of irrelevant twitter.

Nick - keep the powder dry for things that actually need your ridicule! This one takes care of itself.

Posted by: finn [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2006 10:45 AM

Finn-

I hope you're right. Something about this issue gets me riled up — I truly fear for the future of quality content. Maybe it's the lawsuit between publishers and Google over scanning copyrighted works that has set me on edge. Google wants to tap books' value and not compensate publishers? Given Google's reputation for shrinking markets, some scary ideas emerge.

I don't worry about mashups as much as how the incentive for creating low quality content might be increasing at the expense of high quality content. Think of spam and splogs. The same forces driving them are also eating away at the incentive for quality content.

Posted by: Sid Steward [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2006 03:37 PM

Nicholas:

I am with you on the value of the original work, the original thinking and the original reading material. As I am sure you know, sometimes technologists perceive value in doing things that nobody else cares about.

But don't you also think there is an interesting new role to be played by users as innovators and originators of new commentary or new information or new entertainment?

If we set aside the mob-flattening (where I agree with you) are there not new valuable attributes of consumer-generated material?

Look at the 'bus uncle' video that is circling the world. Some 5 million downloads later, I think this shows that one person's random event in Hong Kong may prove to be part of the next person's information network.

Its a bizarre/interesting/funny video... and original. Take a look:


http://ondisruption.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/06/bus_uncle_signs.html

Mike
www.OnDisruption.com

Posted by: Michael Urlocker [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2006 04:09 PM

Phil said, "The problem is the drive to efface any possibility of conflict, effectively repressing the appearance of debate in the interest of presenting an evolving consensus."

According to the American Heritage Dictionary: evolution is a process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form, and consensus is an opinion or position reached by a group as a whole.

Under these definitions, I think we can agree that "evolving consensus" is a good thing. I think we can also agree that Wikipedia fails to reach its ambition of consensual improvement. Because Wikipedia is heralded as proof of concept for the Wiki engine, one could surmise that the Wiki engine also fails to achieve all of its goals, but that's where the extrapolation has to end. The Wiki engine is not representative of all possible collaborative technology. In fact, it is a very primitive piece of software that ignores any philosophy of human individuality. The Wiki engine has no method of reduction based on usefulness, nor does it even have any tools to indicate how useful various versions are to others. As a result, Wikis cannot exist without an artificial hierarchy of content control. The dictates of these hierarchies cannot be described as "positions reached by a group," nor do they succeed in consistently creating "more complex or better forms." Because Wikis lack a necessary component of evolution (a consensual reduction process), Wiki results are only the approved opinions of the few self-appointed people in charge.

Books, on the other hand, exist within a complete, albeit inefficient, evolutionary system. In the book publishing world, all three components of natural selection are present in sufficient magnitude to promote a system of evolving consensus. However, our current rate of scientific and technical reciprocation has made the speed of book publishing obsolete. By the time a useful paradigm shift is published in hardback, another one is already built on top of that foundation.

Web sites combined with an impartial search engine (read: Google) provide some of the basic components of an evolutionary system as well, but they lack the one aspect that writers avoid admitting is foremost in their minds: fair compensation.

From a standpoint of natural selection, fair compensation has a deeper meaning than money. Money is merely the Capitalist method for fulfillment of our evolutionary need to balance responsibility with an equal amount of control. Wikipedia attracts the contributions of tens of thousands of editors without money by promising direct control in proportion to the usefulness of their contributions. This is a promise that the Wiki engine cannot fulfill. It is not only possible to gain administrative control of the system without an equal amount of useful contributions to articles, spending most of one's time controlling or punishing other editors seems to be almost a prerequisite for administration at Wikipedia. This is not a failing of human nature, nor is it a failing of concept for technologically enabled evolving consensus. Rather, it is the natural result of using an engine so simple that it cannot produce an evolutionary system complete with a consensual reduction method.

Posted by: Zephram Stark [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2006 04:43 PM

Rereading my comment, I see it wanders away from the topic of mashed up content. The connection is that mashed content (and its feeders) shrinks the market for original content.

And following Nick's interesting point about false dichotomies, I'll offer my own: free vs. paid content. I'll throw a prediction in for free ;-) In the future, the digital divide will change. As original content becomes less accessible (more expensive and withheld from public indexing/mashing) the divide will seperate those who purchase content from those who rely on free material.

Posted by: Sid Steward [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2006 05:16 PM

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