MIT5: creativity, ownership, and collaboration in the digital age

I really enjoy coming the MIT conferences housed by the Comparative Studies Program at MIT because it is less institutionalized, less formal, less crowded (though the number of participants are increasing each time). In addition, it brings together a variety of people from academia, big names and graduate students alike, in addition to artists, and business man. This means that media producers and consumers, and those who take a critical approach towards media are all under one roof for three days. In other words, you really get a taste of everything to do with media, and, as such, it presents a less “stiff” and more “vibrant” environment than, say, NCA, ICA, or the like.

Now having said that, I noticed some interesting things about the conference this time, and perhaps about my approach towards new media and technologies. Not sure if it is because I matured in my research within the last three years or MIT conferences started to develop in a different direction than they were initially intended. I must admit that I can’t take the entire credit for the following observations, but rather, these conclusions were arrived at collectively as a result of our collective intelligence. As I talked to people, attended sessions, listened to plenaries I jotted down interesting ideas that came along the way. This method, I must add, is very appropriate to the spirit of the conference in which convergence, transmedial narratives, collective intelligence, grassroot production were extensively discussed in all shapes and forms.

As I came out of the last plenary that summarized the entire conference and aimed to discuss what we have learned and accomplished and where we are to go from here, I realized that the critical approach that marked one of the last sessions and the plenary was mostly lacking throughout the conference. Or at least mostly lacking in the sessions that I attended (but they all provided useful insights into the subject matter at hand). And I am not the only one who observed this; there are several others who noticed our naive intoxication with Web 2.0 technologies, YouTube, Second Life, user empowerment, and the like. This is almost reminiscent of the Web 1.0 hype that yanked the carpet under of our feet… It is shiny, it is new, why talk about the dark side and spoil a good buzz? The last sessions I attended addressed exactly that.

As we were discussing what the theme of our next conference should be Thomas Pettitt, a scholar of late-medieval and early modern literature and theatre, suggested that we should name the conference theme “What went wrong?” because surely we are unable to use what the have learned in print era (and ages prior to that) to shed critical light on what we are experiencing in the era media convergence. He had kicked off the conference with a neat little diagram where he used a set of parenthesis (which he wittily called the Gutenberg parenthesis) to designate the print age and discussed whether this age is really clearly separated from other eras or not. David Thornburn, who had kicked off the conference by claiming that we still have a lot to learn from Don Quixote (which I must admit, a novel dear to my heart) argued in the closing plenary that even if print age were a parenthesis, it was a glorious parenthesis that should not be forgotten and we should use it gain a deeper insight to new technologies.

So, why wait two more years to discuss what went wrong? Why not discuss what is wrong now? Are we able to reflect on Web 2.0 technologies with a critical eye, or we downright intoxicated with the seeming empowerment? In other words, did we end up perpetuating the very same beast we were trying to kill. Again, I wish I were able to take full credit for all these observations, but it was indeed the collective intelligence at work. And I am not sure if everyone reached these conclusions, as other people went to different sessions, and talked to different people, had different conversations.

One of the critism was voiced by Siva Vaidhyanathan. His comments unveiled our intoxication with Web 2.0 technologies that we use on a daily basis and talked about throughout the conference. Among other things, he challenged the notion of Web 2.0 being free. Are these “free” Web 2.0 technologies, such as Flickr, Facebook, Second Life, YouTube, MySpace, Blogger really free? In other words, what are we really giving up to use these so-called free services? Well, we are giving up our content for starters. We produce bunch of stuff for corporations who are using our labor. Moreover, we freely gave up information about ourselves. Where we work, what we like, who we date, what we teach, what kind of music we listen to are all public property now. It’s all well and good until FBI comes knocking on Google’s door with a subpoena asking them to release all this information. I willingly surrendered all this information to major corporations by using their “free” services and therefore I am at their mercy. David Thornburn astutely observed that when we buy a computer, we are in reality signing our souls up to big corporations. I for one, having bought this brand new laptop last December, already prostituted myself to Microsoft. For all intents and purposes, Microsoft owns me, so does a lot of other corporations. Thornburn observed that when creativity is handed down by major corporations, they get to decide on the nature of creativity, meaning, they decide on what I can produce, how I can produce it, or if I can produce it at all. And as users, we gladly accept this state of servitude. It is not a matter of deciding to be free, but a matter of choosing your master.

I guess free doesn’t really mean free when you upload your information and content to other people’s servers. In other words, your world, your imagination isn’t really my world, my imagination; it is the world that Linden Lab permits me to imagine. Terms of Service stands above us like the Damocles’ sword waiting to come down. We, as Second Life residents, are quickly becoming aware of that. Project Open Letter submitted to Linden Lab is but a minor attempt to negotiate these terms.

The second plenary: Collaboration and Collective Intelligence, Mimi Ito, Cory Andrejka, and Trebor Scholz:

• One argument made in this panel regarding the addictive nature of Web 2.0 technologies: Sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Second Life are rather difficult to leave for users because they uploaded so much content to these sites and formulated a network of friends. This argument was made by all of the presenters. I, however, would like to make Second Life an exception. While it is easy to learn and use Facebook and MySpace and therefore get acquainted with the technology fairly quickly and form social networks within a short amount of time, Second Life has an outstandingly steep learning curve and therefore alienates its users very quickly. I know a lot new users who never make it through the first month because they don’t know what they are supposed to do in there or how to do it. This means that there are a lot of accounts that don’t get used much.

Culture 2.0: Mary Madden, Travers Scott, David Silver, Chuck Tyron

Interesting ideas came up in the Culture 2.0 session moderated by David Silver. The several panelists observed that the term Web 2.0 was merely a marketing gimmick to sell the idea of Web 2.0 itself. It is merely designed to enhance the consumption of the idea of Web 2.0.

Silver observed the hypocritical approach taken by the US Military in their use of Web 2.0 technologies. His argument was that the military shows an unusual eagerness to use Web 2.0 technologies to recruit people. For instance, they have promotional videos online but the comments are turned off. Well, the conversation that the comments elicit put the 2.0 into Web 2.0. Or the military opens up a MySpace page, but as soon as people try to be added as their friends, they change the page’s outlook to reflect an African-American girl from UK. It seems, as Silver noted, the military is missing the point of what it means to use Web 2.0 technologies. He also noted that this tension came from using an organic, fluid technology to perpetuate a top-to-bottom approach.

Another good idea that emerged from this panel is a serious critique of the definition of Web 2.0. Let’s face it, when we, as scholars, talk about the use of Web 2.0, we implicitly resign to the fact that we are mainly talking about Northern American and European users. As it is near impossible to get an account in Asian or even maybe in Middle Eastern sites or, even if we access it, most of us don’t even understand the language. We generalize what we see in Western sites and assume that the Eastern half is using the Web 2.0 technologies the same way as we do. In other words, as Kimberly Kristen noted, we are effectively erasing the other. The way North Korea or China use Web 2.0 technologies do not even enter the discourse at all.

Another criticism leveled by Silver that we are all guilty of is that we as American bloggers are egocentric in that all we do is talk about ourselves and not others. And I think all of us are guilty of this sin, including myself.

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