How the Web Melts Distinctions

I finally got a chance to listen to Bruce Sterling’s rant for SXSW 2007 via podcast as I was driving between PA and NC last week.

There were a lot of great things in it. A number of people have taken great notes and posted them (here’s one example). It’s worth a listen either way — as are all of his talks. I like how Bruce is at a point where he’s allowed to just spin whatever comes to mind for an hour to a group of people. Not because all of it is gold — but because the dross is just as interesting as the gold, and just as necessary.

A lot of this year’s talk was on several books he’s reading, one of which is Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. It’s fascinating stuff — and makes me want to actually read this thing. (It’s available online for free — as are some excellent summaries of it, and a giant wiki he set up.)

In the midst of many great lines, one of the things Sterling said that stuck with me was this (likely a paraphrase):

“The distinctions just go away if you’re given powerful-enough compositing tools.”

He was talking about commons-based peer production — things like mashups and remixes, fan art, etc. and how the distinctions between various media (photography, painting, particular instruments, sculpture, etc) blur when you can just cram things together so easily. He said that it used to be you’d work in one medium or genre or another, but now “Digital tools are melting media down into a slum gully.”

First, I think he’s being a little too harsh here. There have always been amateurs who create stuff for and with their peers, and they all think it’s great in a way that has more to do with their own bubble of mutual appreciation than any “universal” measure of “greatness.” It just wasn’t available for everyone to see online across the globe. I’ve been in enough neighborhood writer’s circles and seen enough neighborhood art club “gallery shows” to know this. I’m sure he has too. This is stuff that gives a lot of people a great deal of satisfaction and joy (and drama, but what doesn’t?). It’s hard to fault it — it’s not like it’s going to really take over the world somehow.

I think his pique has more to do with how the “Wired Culture” at large (the SXSW-attending afficianados and pundits) seem to be enamored with it, lauding it as some kind of great democratizing force for creative freedom. But that’s just hype — so all you really have to do is say “we’ll get over it” and move on.

Second, though, is the larger implication: a blurring between long-standing assumptions and cultural norms in communities of creative and design practice. Until recently, media have changed so slowly in human history that we could take for granted the distinctions between photography, design, architecture, painting, writing, and even things like information science, human factors and programming.

But if you think of the Web as the most powerful “compositing tool” ever invented, it starts to be more clear why so many professions / practices / disciplines are struggling to maintain a sense of identity — of distinction between themselves and everyone else. It’s even happening in corporations, where Marketing, Technical Writing, Programming and these wacky start-up User-Experience Design people are all having to figure each other out. The Web is indeed a digital tool that is “melting” things down, but not just media.

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  • http://crosswiredmind.com David

    The whole melting distinctions, everything is miscelaneous, thing kinda bothers me.

    Just because distinctions change and categories change doesn’t mean they do not exist or should not exist.

    Human beings categorize and create distinctions all the time. Technology has always given us new categories.

    Just because we find ourselves at a moment in history where a whole lot of distinctions are blurring and categories are shifting does not mean that we will always be in this state of flux.

    Just some thoughts …