Predictably lolcats dominated Wednesday’s panel discussion Futures of the Internet at NYU, as both examples of the seemingly limitless human ability to waste time, and as a form of creative expression unique to the Internet. Moderated and organized by Elizabeth Stark, Harvard law student, and founder of the Harvard Free Culture group, panel members Lauren Cornell, Executive Director of Rhizome, Clay Shirky, author of The Power of Organizing without Organizations, Tim Wu, Columbia, Professor of Law, Jonathan Zittrain , Professor Oxford University, Visiting Professor NYU, and Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia, spoke about their vision of the future Internet.
Speaking to the human tendency to waste time, Shirky cited the emergence of the sitcom in the 1950′s as the most important cultural phenomenon of that century. Not only did it transition us from the industrial age to today, but, importantly, it marks the beginning of the couch potato. lolcats, Shirky suggests, are simply another result of this freed up time. No prediction for the future was made, on account of the self described role of the academic to reflect on what’s already happened and tell others what it means. Nobody took issue with this on account of the fact that none of us know what the Internet will look like 10 years from now. Also, everything that comes out of that man’s mouth sounds like truth, regardless of its actual merit, so it takes a bit to digest what he’s said. To be honest, I’m not sure he said that much. Certainly his thoughts on today’s larger net community, didn’t go too much past identifying what we already know.
Tim Wu felt a little bit more comfortable making predictions, and talked about the collision between the ideology of decentralization, and a much more centralized media stream. In other words, he felt net neutrality was the most important issue facing Internet users today. Between him and Clay Shirky there was a lot of talk about how much change the Internet had brought, which of course, hasn’t been the case for the art world. Lauren Cornell made this point, observing that the economics of the art world remain based on scarcity, a particular challenge to artists who work with freely circulating media files, software, etc. She also noted that many artists in this field work intuitively, a particularly salient point as applied to group bloggers (many of whom were in attendance). I didn’t have the sense anyone came out with a better idea of what net artists do, but given the general audience my feeling was that even the introduction to Rhizome was probably a good start. After all, even co-panelist Jimmy Wales, didn’t appear to be overly familiar with the organization, referring to Lauren Cornell, as “her” in his own talk.
Wales used the platform to speak further on the community aspect of the web, which, predictably, he felt was growing. Almost endless debate could go on regarding the effectiveness of these communities, and did, though the conversation is so familiar at this point I wasn’t overly interested. The most engaging idea he contributed to my mind, spoke to the fact that communications would soon be cheaper than food, which meant we might be hearing a few complaints from third world countries soon. I suspect the practicalities of making such a thing happen punch a few holes in the plausibility of this scenerio, but I’d at least like to entertain the thought that these nations might be given a voice, so I’ll leave that discussion where it is.
On a lighter note, the majority of the comic relief for the evening, came from Jonathan Zittrain, who coincidently ridiculed Clay Shirky early in the evening for his assertion that the sitcom was of such importance, before using it as a delivery model for his own ideas. Of course, I don’t think anyone would claim this action would necessarily challenge whatever Zittrain’s objection to Shirky’s ideas might be (he never said), but I did find the coincidence amusing.
Zittrain’s talk consisted of three possible futures, complete with nick names; “The Rainbows and Buttercups/HR Pufnstuf version, a happy happy joy joy collective utopic vision of freedom, a second, less optimistic proposal, titled “the Internet Meltdown”, in which the openness of the net is eaten away by reality, (ie the net becomes “enforceable and lockdown-able), and a lastly, the “Not a Bang, But a Whimper”/Leave it to Beaver”, possibility, a pleasant but insidious environment in which our choices are prescribed to us in the form of menu bars or the iphone. The panel seemed largely in agreement with Zittrain on the thought that we would have to fight to preserve our freedoms, his talk closing on a rather depressing note once citing Amazon Mechanical Turk, as website run with the primary objective of turning our brains into server space.
I suspect the majority of the audience agreed that the third scenario put forth was the most likely, so it seemed a bit of a shame that the panel was missing an activist like Nicholas Reville of Participatory Culture Foundation, who could speak to the practicalities involved in fighting against forces that remove some of our freedoms.
In the interest in keeping this post readable in length, I won’t bother summarizing the Q&A, except to say that Zittrain’s characterization of nerds and programmers [editors note: Slashdotters] as the Simpson’s personality Nelson, was perfect (Zittrain began this caricature with the disclaimer that it was only a generalization). Obviously, the I-know-better-than-you-and-will-only-help-if-I-have-to mentality is of limited value. I also found it interesting that one audience member described the Rhizome site as authoritative and institutional. Certainly there is truth to the statement, though I think some of the comment threads currently on the site create much more back and forth between the institution and the community than this comment suggests.