Monthly Archives: January 2006

Stories of the Internet

The Internet is full of self-referential folk-lore, stories and jokes on how people have found in the Internet a whole new way of expressing themselves. Or, at least, expressing their frustration at not being able to work their computers as they would have liked to.

There are anecdotes from the frontlines of tech support, struggling to make sense of the inquiries of the users. There are lists of emails that people have sent to one another because of their humorous or thoughtful contents that nobody can remember who originally wrote them. And there are excerpts from discussions on on-line chat fora, people telling stories from their everyday life, joking and being bored together.

The last link is to Bash.org, also known as the Quote Database. All over the world, people are communicating through IRC chat channels, discussing all sorts of things. Usually, these conversations aren’t saved or remembered, but once in a while people will compose spur-of-the-moment witticism that deserve to last.
With the Quote Database, these people have a place to submit these quotes to. Imagine if in the course of all the conversations that you’ve ever had, any participant could have had the option of cutting a segment of that conversation out and saving it, otherwise out context, for posterity.

Even if you aren’t the new Oscar Wilde or Groucho Marx, you would still have enough material for a reasonable stand-up comic performance. I picked a few from Bash.org that I found quite funny (they have a ranking system, so you don’t necessarily have to wade through all the teenaged computer trash talk that is also submitted):

DaZE: at my school.. the cop from DARE passed around 3 joints to show everyone… and he said “if i dont get all three of these back this schools getting locked down and everyones getting searched till i find it..” and like 30 minutes later when everyone got to see ’em and they got passed back the cop had 4…

beser: Today my History class took a feild trip to the Museum of Tolerance. Its a museum showing kids not to be prejudice and all that good stuff.
beser: Anyways, one exhibit is two doors next to each other. One door has a sign hanging over it saying “Those with prejudice walk through this door” The other door’s sign said “Those without prejudice walk through this door”. Obviously the door for people without prejudice isn’t openable because as the tour guide says “Everyone has prejudice”.
beser: So, I start tugging on the door and say “What the hell is wrong with this damn door, did some damn Jew make this?” and the tour guide kicked me out and i had to sit in the bus for 15 minutes.

Being able to record folk-lore and word-of-mouth with such ease is really interesting, and new material is being generated and made available all the time. It is worth exploring, and often quite funny, too.

Digital Rhetorics: All done

Had my Digital Rhetorics presentation and exam yesterday with the rest of the group. We each did a presentation on the YourStories project which we had developed as common project.

The YourStories is meant to be a collective Mystory – an OurStory – a development of the term introduced by Internet theorist Greg Ulmer. It was part of the frame of the OurStory assignment that it had to be seeking social commitment from its readers or users. But that was just about all the limitations that we had to work with.

So we ended up with an idea connected to the Roskilde Festival, the biggest rock festival in Scandinavia. Each year, the festival seeks to combine new digital media to new effects, and each year, they also have a humanitarian theme to raise awareness and funds for a certain cause (last year it was anti-slavery).

So we sought to combine these two with the YourStories – a website where festival goers could send in text messages and images from their mobile phones to share their experiences at the festival. But not just that. Each of the four days at the festival had its own emotional theme – love, passion, courage and trust – to match four different humanitarian organisations. So that each day, a new dynamic collage was created with the images and impressions of that day. With each contribution, the sender donated a small amount to the cause, and received in turn a random message from one of the other contributors – shuffled through the automation of the website system itself without any direct human intentionality.

We even did a mockups of the website and a nice storyboard of how it was meant to work (NB: 8.2 mb .pdf file!) (oh, and the lovely people posing on the storyboard images are Lars and Pernille from my group).

Based on this design, we wrote a synopsis on which to base our presentation on the rhetorical elements of the YourStories project. I talked about how the YourStories was to function as a socially engaged community, raising awareness through the pathos of shared experience. And how the ethos of such a project is very fragile due to the important role played by the machine. Can you allow a machine to present the contributions of thousands of people without any human moral censorship? As one of the theorists says:

“Technologies don’t care, technologies can’t care, technologies can’t be made to care”
(Robert Silverstone)

This spreads the ethos of the project out to the individual contributors who have no way of editing the contributions of others than themselves. This raises interesting ethical questions of other processes that use this sort of random patterning with little or no human intentionality. Such as Google, Ten by Ten, Jamie Zawinski’s Web Collage, Chris Lightfoot’s Driftnet or the “43” web sites.

Gorilla Thinking

This morning, instead of studying for my Digital Rhetorics group exam this Thursday, I read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael in a self-indulgent attempt to stop my cold.

Ishmael is a strange sort of book. Very insisting and assertive. The story is actually most of all the socratic dialogue between the main character (who also narrates the story) and a 1000 pound gorilla named Ishmael. The narrator gets in touch with the gorilla through a personals ad asking:

Teacher seeks pupil. Must have earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

Thus the basic premise of the discussion: How to save the world – which naturally intrigued me. Ishmael, a sort of new age guru who, even though he chastises mankind for needing prophets to tell them what to do, tells the the rather dense narrator what needs to be done. But in the sort of “discover-it-for-yourself” kind of way that a proper dialogue offers.

So, I’m not happy with the form and the tone of the book, which is very much “holier than thou” (being preached to by a gorilla on the state of the planet!). But that said, some good points do emerge. Just like Jared Diamond, Ishmael argues that Western civilization and invention is based on agriculture. But he uses this point to state that Western civilisation used agriculture to initiate their obsession with growth. Constant growth, of population, of food supply, of technology.

This obsession continues today and will continue until we have complete control over every aspect of the planet and can secure our growth and dominance, or until we wreck the planet completely trying to obtain this total control.

Ishmael looks towards what we call “primitive cultures” for inspiration on how to live without a constant need for growth. He argues that if we live as if “man belongs to Earth” rather than “Earth belongs to man” – we will achieve sustainability. Of course, this will require that we to some degree accept acts of god – famines, earthquakes, locust swarms, tsunamis etc. – and accept that we cannot control our way out of these problems.
In short: we are too many people on the planet, and any attempts to keep this population alive or even let it grow, will only increase the problem.

In short, if we are to learn from primitive man, we should learn to live like him to some degree, and in order to that, we would have to accept that there’s going to be a lot fewer of us.

Relinquishing control would mean that we won’t do everything in our power to keep alive as many human beings as we can. That means giving up our Western ethics in order to accept that we cannot be all-powerful.

As Ishmael puts it. People could accept not being the centre of the universe, they could even accept having evolving from random prehistoric slime – but they won’t ever accept that they have to follow the same basic principle of life: That all life have equal rights to the planet. That all life depend on the variation of all the other species.

In short: To stop regarding mankind as the final step on the evolutionary ladder, where we in our own self-absorption have put ourselves, and accept that we are not really all that different from all the other forms of life on the planet. Only our self-centered thinking says otherwise.

It is an interesting argument, and it is one which cannot be rebutted without somehow arguing that mankind does deserve better than everybody else. That may well be the problem. Of course we feel that we deserve better. More and more growth. Even though only a fifth of the world’s population have central heating, iPods, Internet and fast food – everybody else are sure to be wanting it, too.

The global capitalist economy is based on continuous growth, based on unlimited natural resources. Resources which are obviously not unlimited. Ishmael states the problem plainly, but as so many others, he fails to bring any solutions. We need a change of consciousness, he says. But that won’t be enough. Everything about the way that we have organized ourselves, economically, culturally, socially and politically is centered on growth – you can’t change that easily. Not without a better solution than to let people starve.