Wednesday, 25 April 2007

The Question of Our Culture

Prologue Number 1: Recently I was talking with some friends about how Manchester is being reinvented as a city. As someone who grew up in its red-light, inner city I have that residual chemistry, that encoded empathy with the place. It is something that I would call a fellowship, a comradeship with its people and pavements. I would not call it love. It is more a deep-seated knowledge, perhaps a friendship.

Today, the place is moving on apace. Things are happening. Policies are bearing fruit. The city wears new clothes and though its problems and shortcomings are many, it seems to possess a more confident presence on the world-stage. And so it should; this is a seat of great innovation, of great learning.

“Nonetheless,” I said to my friends, “though it may merit a place in the first tier of world cities, it is some way from belonging in the upper echelons of that first tier.” This proved to be the controversial point. I defended myself by reference to the Lonely Planet Guide to Cities, and then said, “the greatest cities bring emotions to you…. like the ability of Paris to kindle romance, Florence to cause unexpected reflection on the places of Man and God … New York to transubstantiate the dreams of the lost and the poor.”

Rightly enough, they had none of it.

Prologue Number 2
: One issue that recurs frequently when discussing the development of Web 2.0 is the issue of trust. How can we trust it when anonymity is granted so cheaply? How can we trust any given article, when we know so little of the background and beliefs of the author? One initial reaction is to observe that these are also peculiar times for trust and the traditional, mass media; take, for example, our friendly household brands like GMTV, Richard and Judy, Blue Peter and Terry Wogan. Indeed, more deeply and widely, the whole history of the mass media has been concerned with propaganda, sophistry, domination and instruction. That’s not to say that great cultural beacons have not arisen from within its cauldron. I am not predicting the end of the BBC, The Times, the New York Times and so forth.

To Come to the Point: The Mancunian Bryan Appleyard wrote in The Sunday Times about Andrew Keen’s book “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy.” I have written nice things about Appleyard before, for I consider him to be an able provocateur, gifted in conjuring both the familiar and the odd so that they reside awhile in the reader’s consciousness. I have not yet read Keen, so the rest of this piece is probably premature.

Let's stay with this issue of trust. It is unusual that at this point in human history we invest our trust in brands. We do, or do not, place our trust in Mercedes, Hotpoint, Bosch, The Times, Al Jazeera, Audi, Skoda, Google, Microsoft etc., often with very little actual empirical evidence at our disposal. This is historically unusual, neither of my grandmothers did much of it. For my maternal grandmother, the BBC and the Daily Telegraph were worthy, the latter only because my Uncle, her son, had a role in it. All other brands were either a horror or a foggy mystery. My other Babcia had no concern for the exterior world of brands at all; her horizons extended only to the well-being of her family and then leapt to lifetime recollections of the relative merits of different nationalities (‘Polish’, ‘English’, ‘Russian’ and ‘German’ all being a kind of brand, I suppose). My mother-in-law is another case in point. She is a child of Kinvara, Europe’s last idyll before America. For her, in her village life, she would talk of so and so, a particular person, who “always had great news.” Another might be “not to be trusted.” A third might be “in with the Clergy.” She has watched Coronation Street for years but I doubt that she has more than a vague, functional knowledge that it is on ITV. I am sure she doesn’t care. The corporate brand-builders at ITV might try and move her, but trust, for her, can only be sewn into a fellow human being.

So, will Web 2.0 kill our culture? The short answer is no. It will disrupt and shake it, hurting some, but letting other flowers bloom. It won’t kill it. Shakespeare will still be Shakespeare. Faced with a more turbulent, dynamic tide of new ideas, we might even place increased emphasis on the roles of arbiters, examination boards, and standards-setters. People were communal before we had the internet. They were communal before we had the mass media, and before we had the printing press. The great theatres of Greek and Roman civilization arose out of our desires to be communal, rather than vice versa.

So, our wish to commune, to enter common experiences and to share in common arenas will remain. It would be preposterous to say that it won’t. It is like suggesting that future Olympic games will be run on a basis where the runners decide individually when to start the race, and how long to run. It is not going to happen. The desire for the shared metre will remain. We want to compete, to compare, to share.

And, I suggest, the issue of identity is often overstated. It is certainly true that all of these anonymous blogs can annoy and frustrate. Who are you? Why do you conceal? And yet, the concealment of identity has a long, sometimes troubled but also sometimes proud history in media and literature. See my comments on epistolary literature as an example. Even today, can I pass a kind-of Waterstones’ test and be sure that each book on the shelf is by who it says it is by? No. I cannot be sure. For that matter, am I sure that Appleyard is Appleyard? By virtue of his relative longeivity in the media, his reassuring photo and, yes, The Sunday Times brand, I take it that he is. But I have never met him. Were it ever to transpire that he is not who he says he is, I suppose I would take comfort in the fact that it never really mattered anyway. It was the ideas that counted, not who said them. And so it is for Web 2.0.

But for the future, those that seek a reputation in the environment of Web 2.0, will have to offer up some kind of convincing human identity. I thus draw a distinction between those for whom the web is a form of the football terrace from where chants, hoots and curses may be uttered without account, and those for whom it is more like a theatre-stage, however large or small. Anonymity is all right if you just want to be part of the crowd. Anonymity is all right if you are trying to blend in, or to scupper and disrupt. However, if you are trying to build reputation and to prosper, you will need to offer some convincing view of yourself. Even in cyberspace, your audience is human. Even in cyberspace your audience is skilled at reading your face, your intonation, the deftness of your argument, your favoured line of wit. It may not be quite the same in terms of human richness as an evening chat on the quayside in Kinvara, but it draws on the same sensory mechanisms. Trust will be withheld from some, given to others and held in abeyance for many. So, does your Web 2.0 presence pass the Kinvara-test?

Professionals and Amateurs. For George Bernard Shaw, all professions were a conspiracy against the laity. Society having given ‘professionalism’ its golden age in the 20th Century, one can certainly build a powerful thesis about the limits of a professional model of social government. Evidence could be found in every quarter: from dis-satisfaction in politics, the post-war planning of British cities, the rise of Management Accounting, perhaps the role of the MBA, and through to the particularly uncomfortable individual cases of Enron, Sir Roy Meadow, controversy over MMR and even, if we look more widely, Ben Johnson. Even so, professionalism is not on trial. It is not, of itself, as a concept, under threat. But I suggest that its limits are being found, and that society’s coming conversations will blur its edges. As any GP will tell you, the professional can no longer rely on deference. As the best GP’s will tell you, that is not necessarily a bad thing. As the consumer discards deference, he or she also, inter alia, also takes on an increased share of responsibility.

It seems that Keen’s book misses the mood and moment on amateurism. If amateurism is a ‘cult’, then it is the most productive cult in human history. It has infected the arts, the sciences, politics and business with its enthusiasms. Amateurs run every family on the planet. There is no professional qualification required for being a parent. As, Ian Kendrick is fond of pointing out, the roots of the word ‘amateur’ are traced to the Latin 'lover of' and is related to the concept of 'virtuoso'. Love is a powerful motivation for excellence. We will revisit this later when we talk of 'open-source'.

So What Is Really Important (1)? I think it is better to understand the Web, and Web 2.0 in particular, in the language of ‘Disruptive Technology’, popularised by Clayton Christensen. It is all very well wishing the web away, but in doing so you risk running a barge-company just as the railway is born. Economically, organisationally, the web allows innovative business models and encourages new practices.

Another lens is provided by Michael Porter’s canonical Five Forces model. Under this light, we see that principally that the Web lowers the barriers to entry to markets of many sorts but, and perhaps especially in the case of Web 2.0, media markets. If we understand this, then we can begin to speculate on its outcomes, and how it will challenge the status quo. There will be more entrants, less patronage, more competition, more turbulence but, conversely, an elevation of some organising forces (examination boards, curricula etc). People will still want the shared metre.

So, focusing on Porter, if five talented kids newly graduated from film school wish to set up in business together, it is easier to do so. If we have a group of Trinity graduates in Dublin who seek to build a niche media company, the web is their friend. Maybe we have a group of talented people across the globe with a bold plan to build a new icon, a new New York Times; again they start on the web. And if you are an inner-city community group keen to influence thinking on a topic that concerns you, again, the web opens gates.

Recurring throughout is the requirement of talent. This will never be a pre-requisite for everything in Web 2.0, but it will be a requirement for everything that lasts in the new context that is set by it. Taking an example that I believe to be close to Appleyard’s heart, by what process will the next Bob Dylan prosper? Will he seek out the patronage of the major label? Or will he pursue an independent, viral path from website to worldwide audience? Again, surely, the Web is the iconoclast’s friend, and at least in the short-term, viral action will be the dominant strategy. Let’s stretch our imaginations still further and imagine that we are lucky enough to have a new Shakespeare in our midst. Will his verse attract interest on the website that he creates? Will the fragments of his plays stand out amidst the mass? Might even just a few, enlightened minds be drawn to the talent within, as the new Will struggles for recognition? And might the genius Will create video fragments that are darker, sparser and more compelling than his contemporaries? Might the virus start and squirm and prosper amidst the relative mediocrity of everything else?

So What Is Really Important (2)? Alongside the lowering of barriers to entry, I would set the ways in which the web supports collaborative, communal action. In this regard, the web is already cultural miracle. How else do we explain open-source? Strangely, this huge cultural phenomenon rarely features in the broadsheets and general media. When it does feature there, it is usually Linux that is set as the standard bearer. This is probably just, however it is important to understand that open-source is moving quickly. Some sectors of the market, for example Content Management Systems, seem to be dominated by it, and elsewhere there are examples of companies like SAP and Microsoft co-opting the volunteer effort of gifted programmers.

I am not sure that anyone accurately predicted the rise of open-source. In an age when western leaders take the market as a proxy for freedom, and everything is given a price, who foresaw that volunteer effort would become a norm in the software industry? Who foresaw that creative people would give their gifts for nothing? I did not. I thought people worked for money. How wrong I was.

Whilst I appreciate that there will be a plethora of reasons why people engage in open-source communities, I think that the dominant ones are the sheer rush, the thrill, gained by collective creativity, and alongside this the hard-headed realisation that we all gain by it. If the open-source model leaps to other industry sectors, then it will be something of a social revolution. For now, it is one reason why I recommend that people seeking to understand the web read a book that comfortably pre-dates it and never contemplates it: Lewis Hyde, ‘The Gift.’ The simple desire to create is the seed that germinates both the crummiest blog and the genius of open source. It will yet give rise to new talents whose natural environment will be this wonderful, weird world of the web.

Epilogue (1). Bryan Appleyard argues that the Web will have to develop an “identity-based discourse.” I agree, but additionally add (1) that this will happen as a matter of course, because of people's own interests in using the web for creative and commercial purposes. They need to earn the the trust of the reader and, unlike some of today's major brands, cannot take it for granted. (2) That the football terrace, anonymous web will remain. For many, in many circumstances, anonymity is no problem.

Epilogue (2) Writing of Manchester in ‘The Condition of the Working Class In England’, 1847, Frederick Engels found that many slum-dwellers “....must surely have reached the lowest stage of humanity." I expect that this was an accurate description of the misery he witnessed. It was not, however, a prescription of how things would develop. Engels encountered “measureless filth and stench” but even as a great social theorist, he could not project forward to the contribution Manchester was yet to make as a great centre of innovation and learning. He could not have seen today’s Manchester. That was not his business.

Likewise, as observations, I probably agree with many of Andrew Keen’s views of the content that inhabits the world of Web 2.0. I detest some of it. I mentioned earlier that I grew up in Manchester’s red-light zone. That was scary sometimes, but actually less sleazy an experience than it must be to grow up in reach of the web’s many hovels. But the point is that, like cities, the web is a dynamic, human project. It will be organised in some fashion, because we humans do organise. It is as simple as that. Even as we write and read, it changes. It will be different tomorrow. Many ills will be righted. Some frustrating wrongs will persist. It is never finished. There are new encounters ahead.

And, unlike cities, it changes very quickly.

I hope.

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