“Great cultural changes occurred in the West when it was possible to fix time as something that happens between two points”
McLuhan, Understanding Media
Once it’s typed…
What follows is a project undertaken by the visionary designer J. Christopher Jones in the early 70s. Described as an experiment with new technologies of Xerox and microfiche, he wrote about it under the heading ‘Once it’s typed it’s published‘ (now part of Dexter Sinisters excellent serving library), and in doing so produced the most succinct and far-sighted premonition of the short circuiting of the production and distribution cycle that was to come. The project, in essence, involved him writing typescripts, and at any given point you could contact him and buy a book, compiled from a selection of his writings that you as reader would choose. He would then create a copy in whatever state it was in at that point, bind it, and send it to you. In a single step it cut out the lengthy and laborious elements of book production involved in finding a publisher, finding a printer, pre-financing its production and establishing a distribution network. Jones elaborates on the motivation and implications; “…eventually anyone may write what anyone may read, and the term ‘writer’ will come to mean, not that one has written a commercially published book, but that one can write at all, that one is literate, in touch.” The project, and more importantly the idea, pre-empted the publish-then-edit online cultures that would subsequently emerge, and while not fully social in its production, it embodied the idea that a ‘thing’ could have multiple iterations of itself, and directly ties to more recent endeavours with RSS feeds, processing and generative software as a means of deliberately ‘incomplete’ or evolving states of production.
With creation, publication and distribution no longer distinct activities, interesting opportunities arise for public creativity. With specific reference to networks like Central Station, it is equally possible to see potential in the (web)site as a place for creation, not just connection and distribution, a continuation of some of the work of net-art pioneers and protagonists such as Anton Vidokle. The web can perhaps lay claim to being a primary location for ‘public art’ if we accept, as Seth Price suggests, that “collective experience is now based (as much) on simultaneous private experiences, distributed across the field of media culture”. In this sense, if a popular mp3 could be regarded as a more ‘successful’ incidence of ‘public art’ than a civic sculpture or intervention, the web opens up some contentious debates as a tool and a vehicle.
What is also interesting is that as well as compressing creation and publication, it reduces the distance between production and criticism and/or reappropriation. The chance to critically engage with the medium is another latent layer of potential, engaging with some of the issues Geert Lovink and others embrace via research centres like the Institute for Network Cultures. Far from the sunny utopia envisaged by California’s first wave of cyber-hippies, the web has emerged full of conflicts and contradictions and it’s important to tackle these head-on. As Lovink notes, “at best the net will be a mirror of the societies, countries and cultures which use it not the sweet and innocent, sleepy global village but a vibrant crawling and crashing bunch of complexities, as chaotic and unfinished as the world we live in”
RSS will feed itself
We need to then think about how effective the tools we have to hand are at realising these potentials. A common sensation associated with web 2.0 is that of ‘information glut’ – a level of noise and static that at times almost overwhelms the signal. It would be possible to write this off as the natural flip-side of ‘free information‘. But as this tide of information increases, so does our ability to sift it. The issue is mainly one of literacy, and several interesting projects have started to think critically about how we ‘create’ within this hyper-linked environment, not least Limited Langauage, a web/book project engaging with critical writing on design in a feedback culture.
The endism is nigh: against newness
Wired magazine’s latest breathless pronouncement is that the ‘web is dead‘ (though as a caveat they claim that the internet will go from strength to strength, via ‘apps’, services etc.). It’s the oldest trick in the book, neatly dissected by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid who view technology (and technologists) as being ‘obsessed’ with an unrelenting desire to see everything new as the death of what went before. In reality what emerges is a layered environment, subtly shifting practices, each layer augmenting what went before.
In the same way that tweets, as an abbreviated form of messaging, have a robust and healthy lineage via text messaging through telegrams to the advent of the telegraph and beyond, so the activity in networked creative communities is not new, it is just provided with new platforms and technologies on which to operate. The interesting question is not whether the technologies, in and of themselves, are any good, but whether they bring anything new or useful to these pre-existing communities. We then need to ask whether this, in a chicken-or-egg sense, may in turn cultivate new activities and modes of production. Text-based messaging, between the telegram and SMS messaging, may not have advanced much in that they were built on a similar social model of one-to-one or one-to-few communication across distance, but Twitter creates a much bigger shift by planting the short message in the social realm for all to consume. So the networks that operate on Central Station and other platforms are made visible, and in the process more open to interactions, input and chance encounters.
Post-production: sample culture
It’s a slightly glib way of putting it, but author Matt Ridley suggests that we’re on the cusp of really seeing what happens when ‘ideas have sex‘, because of the way ideas circulate online. We may also be able to put to bed the myth of the lone creative genius in the ivory tower. Historically, this myth seems to have some resilience. But whether via Bourriaud and his ideas around ‘post-production‘ or Sara de Bondt and her collaborative projects to unearth more nuanced (and realistic) versions of design history, there are interesting and taxing issues about ‘ownership’ and ‘ideas’ which online networks bring to the fore. In this sense the value of the network is increased as both a channel for production and distribution, but with the potential for parallel debate about the issues involved. But how open is this discussion? The lawyer and prolific writer Lawrence Lessig asks many critical questions about the future of ideas, our culture in ‘read-write’ terms, how our laws are badly out of step with behaviour online, and the potential benefits of a creative commons. To this end, we’re always teetering somewhere between open and closed networks, and an inbuilt conflict between the online masses and those who control the cables and connections.
Open and closed
Talking in a TV interview in 1995, Neil Postman discussed what he saw as ‘cyberspace’s Faustian pact’ – embodied in the many trade-offs we encounter online daily; between privacy and the desire to connect, the benefits of ‘collective intelligence’ and (some would perhaps rightly argue) a misplaced desire to be identified as sole originators of our own ideas. ‘Open networks’ are of course not always exactly that, but sometimes a semi-closed environment also has benefits. Writing on the discussion board of one particular semi-hidden archive, a member suggests; “There’s a utility to being closed. It makes things possible. In this age of connectedness, places where small groups can meet, both online and off, are to be prized.”
Digital and analogue
Technology is shot through with numerous false dichotomies, and digital vs analogue and online vs ‘real world’ are two prime examples. To characterise online networks as digital would be to completely miss the point. More useful distinctions, if indeed they are needed at all, would be between networked and non-networked artifacts. Much of what is passed off as ‘interaction design’ is actually, as Daniel West observes, ‘interpassive‘ – limited to a restrictive set of human/machine sensory interactions. As soon as interaction design connects to a web or network (of other people) it suddenly enters another dimension. In the same sense that a book is a ‘linked object’ and therefore more interactive than, for example, a motion graphic sequence, people and ideas are the only thing that really matter. In the unlikely event that Wired magazine’s web-death predictions did transpire to be correct, the network will still exist and will always be able to find other platforms. Just as some of the more covert and clandestine archives and sharing networks that contribute to the web’s ‘share’ culture simply change their URLs when they get shut down, there is always ‘somewhere’ for the network to go.
Undisciplined and other boundaries
One of the most exciting features of online creative networks is that they kick, more persistently and more effectively, at the false silo-ing of creative disciplines, formal and informal education and petty sector-specific cultural turf wars, than any top-down or heavy-handed attempts at inter-multi-trans-cross-diciplinarity. Just as at the grassroots, in studio complexes, artists rub shoulders with designers, craftsmen with writers, model makers with architects, the online platform is equally unprejudiced (or at least relaxed) about ‘discipline’ and other distinctions such as educational background, geographical location, or professional or ‘amateur’ status, which weigh so heavily on funding bodies and state educational institutions. This ties into a wider emerging ecosystem, embodied in projects such as the Parallel School and Department 21, where the benefits of self-directed and augmented collective educational experiences are realised.
Network of networks: multiples and parallels
Therefore, an interesting future for Central Station could counter-intuitively be found in it supporting other networks, and thinking about whether it could devolve itself, de-brand itself, relocate itself. The future benefits of these platforms lie in their ability to ‘be nothing’, or at least morph and spawn in equal measures. The web is an environment of multiple realities and parallel worlds, where the same information can be accessed from numerous different angles and as parts of all sorts of different constellations. It is, fundamentally in its DNA, not either/or but both/more/extra/at the same time.
There are pressing issues of ownership, in the same way that all internet endeavours are inseparable from problems of openness and organisation, but it is possible to argue that one of the best things a government could do would be to fund, with as few strings attached as possible, this kind of platform (or multiple platforms), taking a joyously open-minded approach to many of its members being from outwith its geographical borders, and seeing the richness that brings. Richard Barnbrook and Andy Cameron, writing in Mute magazine in 1995 with some degree of foresight, suggest “… hypermedia in Europe should be developed as a hybrid of state intervention, capitalist entrepreneurship and DIY culture … once people can distribute as well as receive hypermedia, a flourishing of community media, niche markets and special interest groups will emerge. However, for all this to happen the state must play an active part.” In the spirit of connectivity, funding is connected to form, is connected to function.
The five-handed, thirteen-faceted Central Station clock, (whether deliberately or not), says something about McLuhan’s ideas on time and its measurement. While he was using the concept of a clock as an example, to suggest that society needed to find new analogies for its electronic networked existence, the two have ended up blending into one another, just as the physical network blends into, and is, the digital.
Featured in Central Station Book. The fee from this article has been donated to Telecom Sans Frontiers, www.tsfi.org
1. Once it’s typed it’s published, J. Christopher Jones, Reprinted in Portable Document Format by Dexter Sinister, published by Lukas & Sternberg, 2009, and available online in PDF format from the Dexter Sinister Library: http://www.dextersinister.org/library.html / http://www.dextersinister.org/library.html?id=160
2. See: Anton Vidokle, Produce, Distribute, Discuss, Repeat, published by Lukas & Sternberg, 2009, and http://www.e-flux.com/
3. Dispersion, Seth Price Reprinted in Portable Document Format by Dexter Sinister, published by Lukas & Sternberg, 2009, and available online in PDF format from the Dexter Sinister Library: http://www.dextersinister.org/library.html
5. Dark Fiber, Geert Lovink, MIT Press, 2002
7. The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, Harvard Business School Press, 2000
8. PostProduction, Nicholas Bourriaud, published by Lukas & Sternberg, 2002
10. The Future of Ideas, Lawrence Lessig, Vintage, 2002
12. Digital Blur, Ed. Rogers and Smyth, Libri, 2010
15. Proud to be Flesh, Ed. Josephine Berry Slater and Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Mute Publishing, 2009