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    The web cultural revolution


    Genius means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.
    (William James)

    I do hope the Genius of Peter Greenaway will forgive me for creating this comparison, but “Prospero Books” reminded me of the web.
    If you haven’t seen the movie, I suggest you take the time and watch it. That is, if the Internet hasn’t ruined your capacity for long and at times tedious visual phantasmagoria.

    Yesterday night I watched again this most excellent and quite obscure film by this outstanding director, and though I was entranced by the movie’s sheer exuberance my mind kept wandering back to the web.
    Because watching this carnival of images and references, naked bodies and fluorescent speeches (by the incomparable John Gielgud) made me understand an important aspect of life online.

    Greenaway uses the cinematic medium to create in the beholder a certain hypnotic like state, a state not unlike the one we experience when zipping across the immense landscape of the infoverse.
    That is where I find the comparison to the web most striking. For the main impression that one is left with after watching the movie is:” its not about you, its about everything”.
    Same can be said about the web, with a slight twitch: “ its not about you, its about everything & everybody”.

    Let me correct that.
    The web is about everything, and everybody, and every moment and also about you.
    All and everything, all the time; But then so is culture.

    And have no doubt; the web is, in a certain sense, hypnotic and highly addictive to the individual. And then again, so is culture.
    And yet there is a big difference between the two, for whilst a cinematic experience is inherently passive, the web is fundamentally interactive.

    The above quote by William James is definitely applicable to Greenaway, however in the case of the web, the quote should be rephrased as: “ the genius of the web is its ability to pressure us into unhabitual ways of perception”
    The new mode of perception demanded of us by the web, can be looked upon as a technological evolutionary pressure in the process of re-inventing us, as selves, as a civilization, as a culture.

    “Most social scientists today view culture as consisting primarily of the symbolic, ideational, and intangible aspects of human societies. The essence of a culture is not its artifacts, tools, or other tangible cultural elements but how the members of the group interpret, use, and perceive them. It is the values, symbols, interpretations, and perspectives that distinguish one people from another in modernized societies; it is not material objects and other tangible aspects of human societies. People within a culture usually interpret the meaning of symbols, artifacts, and behaviors in the same or in similar ways.”

    Banks, J.A., Banks, & McGee, C. A. (1989). Multicultural education. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

    I suggest we initiate by discarding the notion that culture is a monolithic structure and engage the ‘eliminate immunity to revision’ switch.
    These two steps are the necessary conditions, for understanding what is happening on the web.
    The reason is simple, without revising our fundamental notions about culture, the actual event that is taking place as we speak, the Cultural Revolution on the net, will not be understood.
    Culture is a broad term used to designate the complex coming together of ways of life. Some, like C.Geertz , desire to see culture as a “ System of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms.” Others prefer to see culture as “ An abstraction; an abstraction that cannot actually be seen or touched.” (H. Ned Seeyle).
    Though I deeply resonate with these pronouncements, I favor the view that culture is a continuous event, a very special process of interactivity between humans; A process born, as the primary adaptive mechanism of humans to humans, and evolving in tandem with technology.

    Culture evolves; there is no doubt about that. The very usage of the term ‘evolution’ outside the context of biology is proof of this. In fact, language, being one of the fundamental requisites of cultural transmission, has evolved in such a fashion, as to allow us, a movement between contexts. The motion between contexts, via the usage of language, allows our minds a coherency of representation, which may be said to be at the heart of all culture.

    And yet, this coherency of representation, our ‘cultural mind’, if you like, when approached from the context of the web, seems to break down.
    Well, not so much break down, as challenged. Our cultural mind, habituated in the ways of old, is being challenged on the web. Challenged by the immense amount of information that rushes at us and challenged by the manner same information is organized.
    The web, being an emergent phenomenon, organizes information in a fashion that is different from our old orders.
    In a way, that phenomenon is very similar to the manner by which Greenaway masters his audio-visual information cornucopia in “Prospero Books”.

    In both cases, what is demanded of us is a new approach of and to perception, an upgrade to our conceptions, of self, of others, of culture, of interaction.

    But, whilst a cultural icon such as Peter Greenaway’s masterpiece, requires awe and reverence, passivity even, the web demands no such attitude, ’au contraire’ the web demands interaction.
    A very special kind of interaction.
    An interaction that is larger than our own little selves, a dynamic and critical interactivity, an energetic kind of relationship, magnetic and fundamentally fertile.
    Not unlike “Jazz”. The web in fact, is and demands, “Jazz”.

    Defining the new culture emerging on the web is as difficult as defining Jazz, as Louis Armstrong so succinctly put it "Man, if you gotta ask you'll never know".

    Nevertheless, we have in our arsenal a few useful descriptive tools:

    1. Access: the web provides access to minds; other than our own, minds that until recently were for all practical purposes a complete unknown.
    2. Diversity: the web provides a playground for human expression, expressions other than our own, manifestation of ideas that until recently one had to dig for in obscure texts in forgotten libraries. The full extant of human civilization is now available online.
    3. Multiplicity: the web allows for multiple ways of access to multiple kinds of information, from videos to photos to music, to databases, to pure math texts, to direct tweets from space, to poetry, to visual stimulation, to news flashes, to whispers and rumors, to art.. (the list can go on to name every single artifact of human civilization).
    4. Dynamics: We are in the process of connecting everything to everything, our informational universe, the infoverse, is in motion. The web can be likened to a nervous system, continuously morphing and shaping both the transmitted information, the transmitter of information and the very meaning of the information transmitted.
    5. Openness: the web is open (in principle) to each and every one, with no inherent reference to age, creed or gender, political or social affiliation.
    6. Complexity: the web is complex in as much as it represents an entwined situation (from ‘complexus’ in Latin=twisted together) of closely knitted parts. Moreover, the web is complex in as much as it offers itself for description as the midpoint between chaos and order (depending on the level of representation)
    7. Distinct: the web permits a level of distinction, of self, of others, and of groups, to the extant that identification of specific components is possible and clear.
    8. Emergence: the web is emergent in as much as no single component reflects the character of the whole. Moreover the web carries emergent properties in as much as complex behavior arises out of seemingly simple interactions.
    9. Improvisation: the web allows for improvisation in as much as the actual behavior of the component minds is an on the spot reaction to stimuli provided by the continuous stream of the infoverse, the infoflow.

    Using the above terms lets us state then the following:

    Culture + Web = Cultural Revolution

    The Cultural Revolution on the web can be said to be the complex emergent event of human relation, interacting via hyperconnectivity. The new culture of the web emphasizes the unique properties of each and every individual in that our joint engagement provides access to previously inaccessible experience of the other.
    The Cultural Revolution on the web is intelligent and interesting, unpredictable and fun, fast paced and ultimately fertile.
    Novel in its approach to human connectivity, the hyper stream culture of the web, revolutionizes our perception of time and knowledge, identity and origination. The demand for immediacy on the web implies upon us the vigor of the ensemble of humanity, the beauty of being similar and the clarity of being different.

    We are in fact becoming, an interactive vigorous ensemble, an effervescence of spirit, if truth were told then, on the web, we are ‘Jazz’.

    Mid Note

    John Stuart Mill, the ultimate utilitarian, once said that: “A cultivated mind is one to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties”. It is my firm understanding, that we are only now able to transform ourselves into cultivated minds via the web, for the fountains of knowledge have indeed been opened. Moreover, the very kind of interaction we are performing as ‘Jazz’ makes artists and creators of all of us, this is the exercise of faculties to which Mill was referring. The stimulus the web provides us with is beyond mere impression and consumption, it is nothing short of a re-formulation of our mind sense thought procedures. By opening the obsolete Neolithic mind state we come from, into a multidimensional array of possible interpretations, the web has redefined the very meaning of the word culture.

    Never Final

    I have started this essay meaning to answer a question a friend posed; namely:” Is the Internet killing culture". I do not know if I have managed to answer the question to his satisfaction, what I do know, however, is this: Not only is it not the case that the internet is killing culture, the internet re-invigorates culture to such an extant, that for all practical purposes, the net re-invents culture.

    They said that Jazz music is an indecent story syncopated that one need be trained to love and appreciate, if that is the case, same may be said about the web, the infoverse, the hyperstream, the infoflow, indeed about the new cultural beast emerging on the web.

    When we let our minds rest upon the pillow of the jazzing beast, our evolving Cyberculture, we allow ourselves to play a new game, a game, which by necessity will change us.

    Therein lies the beauty of it all.


    #As I was writing these lines, I simultaneously took part in a multithreaded and highly interesting debate on the subject of “free will” on twitter of all places, a philosophical debate in 140 characters or less. Fascinating to say the least, but the import here is the fact that previously impossible modes of communication have become ubiquitous, challenging our very notions of how minds interact in the modern cyber-culture, re-inventing the agora of old.

    # “On April 5, 1913, The Bulletin, published an article by Ernest J. Hopkins entitled "In Praise of 'Jazz,' a Futurist Word Which Has Just Joined the Language:

    ..A new word, like a new muscle, only comes into being when it has long been needed. This remarkable and satisfactory-sounding word, however, means something like life, vigor, energy, effervescence of spirit, joy, pep, magnetism, verve, virility ebulliency, courage, happiness—oh, what's the use?—JAZZ.”

    This essay has been kindly re-published with editorial revisions at the Arts and Culture Webzine - Escape Into Life

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    meika     Tue, May 26, 2009  Permanent link
    Goodness, I was thinking about 'The Tempest' and indeed Greenaway's Prospero's books version only yesterday. Never really came to any great point about it, but...

    I've returned to writing, but still no longer for humans, for they've crashed onto the island and so are human no more. The ship is broken up.

    I had waited until I was blue in the face, then in a kind of blue realisation, I see, "I should never have retreated to the island."

    The world came to me in a storm anyway. I think this might have been spacecollective itself.
    rene     Sat, May 30, 2009  Permanent link
    Jazz is such a great metaphor because it's about working together to make something much bigger than the sum of its parts. Jazz is about team work celebrating every individual involved; it's about improvisation, riffing, jamming; it's about pushing the boundaries of traditional forms, etc etc. I've always been impressed and inspired by Duke Ellington's creative m.o. to write jazz symphonies that were essentially musical vehicles inspired by the individual voices of the musicians in his band. Few forms of collaboration have been able to attain the heights of collaborative creativity as spectacularly as jazz groups, and it's organizational model has always motivated me to search for collaborators with matching sensibilities or for that matter expertise.

    That's how I sought out Peter Greenaway one day when I was exploring an early version of the high definition medium he was using for his film Prospero's Books. At the time the technology was still in its infancy and failed to create the intricate visuals Greenaway envisioned for his film. It was particularly traumatic since more than one hundred hi-def shots had to be composited in time for a screening at the Cannes film festival. So instead of using video I ended up helping him to put a number of old fashioned optical printers together that were manned by a team of old-time Hollywood compositing artists whose considerable photographic skills nevertheless resulted in a much less versatile aesthetic. It was a technical nightmare, aggravated by the fact that Greenaway had stylistically counted on the much greater fluency of the electronic compositing techniques for his film.

    Filmmaking often involves these kinds of traumas and the medium seldomly offers the improvisational spontaneity that is the essential creative ingredient of jazz. Because of that it often becomes just too painful to revisit the results of one's cinematic agony.

    It's good to see that what technically should have been a failure is mentioned here with so much appreciation. I can well imagine that in retrospect these old school imaging techniques may have by now acquired a special attraction of their own.

    Thanks for the great post.