The phrase that dominates this post's title is one that gets used frequently when we discuss historical periods. What's it's meaning? What does it have to do with us today? Here's a video I made today posing those and other questions. Hope you enjoy it. Please let me know what you think.
Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society led a task force that reported its results today. A key finding is already stirring controversy:
But the report concluded that the problem of bullying among children, both online and offline, poses a far more serious challenge than the sexual solicitation of minors by adults.
Here's a link to the NY Times piece. Here is the just released report.
John Maeda is the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). RISD is one of the pre-eminent design schools in America and Maeda is...well...a polymath. If you've got 7 or so minutes to spare (!) check out this video.
We all know that we live within what might be called a "continuum of intimacy." Some of our relationships are very intimate in regard to certain areas and less so in regard to others (think about co-workers who know your daily office habits well but have never seen you in your fuzzy slippers.)
On line, we're finding ourselves relating in a similar fashion. I had a couple of experiences yesterday that brought home the different value to be gained from different kinds of online "relationships," and talked about them in this video. I'd be interested in your experiences of these various kinds of relationships.
What does the next decade hold? Mobile tools will certainly change the
landscape, open spectrum will unleash the kind of creativity we've seen
on the wired internet, and of course there will be many more
YouTube/Facebook-class applications. But the underlying change was the
basic tools of the internet. The job of the next decade is mostly going
to be taking the raw revolutionary capability that's now apparent and
really seeing what we can do with it.
I especially like the part about the next decade being about using the whiz bang stuff we've been creating. Ever since reading this brilliant blog by Kevin Kelly, William Gibson's idea of the unevenly distributed future has been rattling around in my head. Shirky's idea is a variant: we don't really need new technical tools; we already have at our disposal what we need to create amazing, powerful services. As usual, the limiting factor is our own imaginations.
One of the more interesting issues that video blogging raises for those who engage in it has to do with the degree of "authenticity" presented by the vlogger. I'm not talking about LonelyGirl15 kind of fictionalization but the trickier issues of explicit (or implicit) persona shaping. We wonder if what we're seeing is "the real person" or not.
The other day, I was looking through Rembrandt's Eyes, an amazing work of biography and art criticism by historian rock star Simon Schama. He was writing about this early (1629) painting known as, Self-Portrait in a Gorget.
Here's what Schama had to say about Rembrandt's perceptiveness:
So, it suited Rembrandt to get himself up as a military person. Of course, a "person" in he seventeenth century meant a personae; a guise or role assumed by an actor. Rembrandt was playing his part, and the deep shadow and rough handling of his face complicate the mask, suggest the struggling fit between the role and the man. No painter would ever understand the theatricality of social life as well as Rembrandt. He saw the actors in men and the men in the actors. Western art's first images of stage life—the dressing room and the wardrobe—came from his hand.
[Snip] For Rembrandt as for Shakespeare, all the world was indeed a stage, and he knew in exhaustive detail the tactics of its performance: the strutting and mincing; the flutter of hands and the roll of the eyes; the belly laugh and the half-stifled sob. He knew what it looked like to seduce, to intimidate, to wheedle, and to console; to strike a pose or preach a sermon; to shake a fist or uncover a breast; how to sin and how to atone; how to commit murder and how to commit suicide. No artist had ever been so fascinated by the fashioning of personae, beginning with his own. No painter ever looked with such unsparing intelligence or such bottomless compassion at our entrances and our exits and the whole rowdy show in between.
I'm taking the extraordinary step of reprinting Taylor's answer here in its entirety because I don't want any of you who are here now not to read it immediately. You can follow the links later.
Culture changes everything because culture contains everything, in the sense of things that can be named, and so what can be conceived. Wittgenstein implied that what cannot be said cannot be thought. He meant by this that language relies on a series of prior agreements. Such grammar has been shown by anthropologists to underpin the idea of any on-going community, not just its language, but its broader categories, its institutions, its metaphysics. And the same paradox is presented: how can anything new ever happen? If by 'happen' we only think of personal and historical events, we miss the most crucial novelty—the way that new things, new physical objects, devices and techniques, insinuate themselves into our lives. They have new names which we must learn, and new, revolutionary effects.
It does not always work like that. Resistance is common. Paradoxically, the creative force of culture also tries to keep everything the same. Ernest Gellner said that humans, taken as a whole, present the most extensive behavioural variation of any species while every particular cultural community is characterized by powerful norms. These are ways of being that, often through appeals to some apparently natural order, are not just mildly claimed as quintessentially human, but lethally enforced at a local level, in a variety of more or less public ways. Out groups (whether a different ethnicity, class, sexuality, creed, whether being one of twins, an albino, someone disabled or an unusually talented individual) are suspect and challenging in their abnormality. Categories of special difference are typical foci for sacrifice, banishment, and ridicule through which the in-group becomes not just the in-group but, indeed, a distinctly perceptible group, confident, refreshed and culturally reproductive. This makes some sense: aberrance subverts the grammar of culture.
The level at which change can be tolerated varies greatly across social formations, but there is always a point beyond which things become intolerably incoherent. We may rightly label the most unprecedented behaviour mad because, whatever relativization might be invoked to explain it, it is, by definition, strategically doomed: we seek to ignore it. Yet the routine expulsion of difference, apparently critical in the here and now, becomes maladaptive in any longer-term perspective. Clearly, it is change that has created our species' resilience and success, creating the vast inter- (not intra-) cultural diversity that Gellner noted. So how does change happen?
Major change often comes stealthily. Its revolutionary effect may often reside in the very fact that we do not recognize what it is doing to our behaviour, and so cannot resist it. Often we lack to words to articulate resistance as the invention is a new noun whose verbal effect lags in its wake. Such major change operates far more effectively through things than directly through people, not brought about by the mad, but rather by 'mad scientists', whose inventions can be forgiven their inventors.
Unsurprisingly then, the societies that tolerate the least behavioural deviance are the most science-averse. Science, in the broadest sense of effective material invention, challenges quotidian existence. The Amish (a quaint static ripple whose way of life will never uncover the simplest new technological fix for the unfolding hazards of a dynamic universe) have long recognized that material culture embodies weird inspirations, challenging us, as eventual consumers, not with 'copy what I do', but a far, far more subversive 'try me.'
Material culture is the thing that makes us human, driving human evolution from the outset with its continually modifying power. Our species' particular dilemma is that in order to safeguard what we have, we have continually to change. The culture of things—invention and technology—is ever changing under the tide of words and routines whose role is to image fixity and agreement when, in reality, none exists. This form of change is no trivial thing because it is essential to our longer term survival. At least, the longer term survival of anything we may be proud to call universally human.