[joho] JOHO - May 2, 2005

  • From: David Weinberger <self@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 03 May 2005 10:27:57 -0400

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization
May 2, 2005
by David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
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  | CONTENTS                                    |
  |                                             |
  | CONNECT: We shouldn't be too quick to       |
  | compromise.                                 |
  |                                             |
  | WALKING THE WALK: The Beeb rulz             |
  |                                             |
  | COOL TOOL: At last, multi-page faxing in    |
  | Windows! Woohoo!                            |
  |                                             |
  | WHAT I'M PLAYING: Half Life 2 is the        |
  | greatest game ever.                         |
  |                                             |
  | Johnson's new book finds the value in pop   |
  | culture                                     |
  | IT'S A JOHO WORLD AFTER ALL                 |
  |                                             |
  | The big news for me is that, after 1.5      |
  | years of work, I've sent my book proposal   |
  | out to publishers. It's called Everything   |
  | Is Miscellaneous and it'll take 2-3 weeks to|
  | find out if any want to publish it. A few   |
  | have expressed interest -- good, but        |
  | interest is cheap -- to my agent.           |
  | Fingers crossed. (Of course, if a           |
  | publisher accepts it, I'll actually have to |
  | write the damn book. Hmm, I hadn't thought  |
  | of that...)                                 |
  |                                             |
  | In other news, I did a couple of "What's    |
  | New in the Blogs?" segments for MSNBC, but  |
  | it didn't work out [1]. And I've been on the|
  | road way too much, mainly talking about     |
  | the topic of my potential, putative,        |
  | hypothetical book.                          |
  |                                             |
  | Also, my fellowship at the Harvard Berkman  |
  | Center has been renewed for a year. Yay!    |
  |                                             |
  |[1] www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/003925.html


David Isenberg's Freedom to Connect [1] conference last
month brought together a bunch of telco rebels and
cultural observers for two days of talk about how we
can keep the world of Big Control from slamming the
window shut on us. I gave the wrap-up keynote.
Unsure what to say, I blurted for a continuous 20
minutes. This is something like what I said:

I'm confused. On the one hand, I'm a raving Tony
Robbins optimist. On the other hand, I'm a Lessig-ian
pessimist. The other day I figured out how I can
contain such a contradiction. It's very simple.

In terms of human nature, I'm sunny. I think we're
fundamentally good. More exactly, we humans are
fundamentally social, and sociality is the source of
goodness. Obviously we do bad things and our circles
of sympathy are never wide enough -- some sociopaths
can't get past their own fingertips -- but basically
we care about one another.

In terms of the unfolding of time, I'm pessimistic.
I think we're going to lose the important battles
over the Internet and there are going to be strong
controls over "private" use. The forces arrayed
against us are monumental.

So, I want to invigorate Isenberg's phrase and say
that the freeom to connect is based on a *right* to
connect. There's a big difference. Freedoms are
granted. Rights are things we can demand. And we
need to be demanding them in public places at the
top of our lungs.

Rights and duties traditionally go together: if I
have a right, then there's someone I can demand it
of. That isn't how it was initially, in our culture,
though, because God and kings had rights and the
rest of us only saw the duty end of the stick. But
eventually we came up with the idea that we the
people were endowed with rights simply because we're
we the people: life, liberty, property, even the
pursuit of happiness. And in 1948, the world, via
the United Nations, decided that maybe education,
healthcare and education might be services we have
the right to demand from our governments: Freedom of
speech doesn't mean too much if flies are climbing
in and out of your kids' mouths.

Beneath the architecture of rights, though, is our
insane, pervasive, ubiquitous sociality. Rights only
make sense within a social context, unless you're
Job arguing with God, and even then the fairness he
was demanding had to do with his place in the social
fabric. We have rights only because we are

But what is this connection? You know what it is.
But let me point to three elements:

We're aware of others.

We care about those others.

We can see what they see.

Obviously, not all connection is good. People are
using the Net to coordinate horrific attacks. Of
course. But connection is an a priori good,
something that one needs a special reason to refuse
but not a special reason to grant. Connection should
be the default. And given how important connection
is to what it means to be human -- not to mention
that it underlies the accepted human rights --
connection should be a right, something we can

The Japanese blogger and international man of
goodness, Joi Ito [2], blogged on March 24 about a
conference he was at in India:

         Later, an elderly man stood up and said that all
         knowledge should be available to everyone and
         that he didn't think we should compromise on the
         copyright issues. He then said that the people
         are ready to fight and march in the streets and
         turn over the monopolies and we didn't need to
         sit around and wait for government. It turns out
         he used to live with Mahatma Gandhi's at his

I'm not saying that man has the tactics down. But
he's right that it's a good time to state what we
believe. So, here are three truths that I think are
(sort of) self-evident:

1. Free music is awesome. That doesn't mean all
file-sharing is ok or artists should work for free.
Not at all. But in the debate over the new business
model, we should remember that having access to the
world's music is an unimaginable boon that should
weigh heavily in the balance.

2. Rules are the exception. We resort to rules when
everything fails. More often, we manage to live
together by granting each other leeway, through
forgiveness, by having a sense of humor. We should
be careful not to construct our new world by
starting with rules, even if the rules are fair.

3. Anonymity is liberating. Sure, bad people do bad
things under the cloak of anonymity. But anonymity
also lets dissidents escape some of the strictures
of their governments and let us all explore areas --
from health information to porn -- we do not want
others to know we care about. Anonymity isn't only,
or even primarily, for the guilty.

We need to speak plainly because conditions are too
dire to mute our opinions. Of course we can and will
compromise, but we should not start from compromised

We need to fight the enemies of connection. If
connection is a matter of awareness, caring, and
seeing, its enemies are ignorance, selfishness and
the lack of imagination. And the remedies for those
are education, emotion and art. Let's not be shy
about this. (Also, it'd be good to win a freaking
election already.)

We need to stand firm because: There is no freedom
without connection. There is no peace without
connection. There is no joy without connection.

Thank you and drive carefully.


Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon, my Berkman
buddies, have started a site that is turning out to
be a crucial daily read for me. Called Global
Voices [3], it aims at getting voices from around the
world heard. The daily GV summary is indispensible.

[1] http://www.isen.com/
[2] http://joi.ito.com/
[3] http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/globalvoices/

+----------------------+----------------------+ | WALKING THE WALK | COOL TOOL | | | | | My goodness but the | | | BBC is up to lots | | | of interesting | I'm not smart | | things! I don't | enough to figure | | even know where to | out how to send a | | start. Every | multi-page fax by | | episode of every | scanning in paper | | program is getting | using Windows XP's | | its own URL and | fax function. I can | | will be intensely | send them one at a | | metadated. An | time, but I don't | | experiment lets you | really want to make | | phone in to | a separate call for | | bookmark songs you | each page. There's | | hear on the radio. | got to be a better | | They're putting RSS | way! | | all over the place. | | | They're handing out | There is. It's | | video cameras to | called MightyFax [1] | | people who can't | -- be sure to | | afford them and | pick up the | | posting the | multi-page fax | | results. The BBC is | scanner attachment | | showing us what | -- and it'll cost | | mainstream media | you $20. It's not | | might be like if | elegant, but it | | its mandate were | works. | | simply to make our | | | lives better. | | +----------------------+----------------------+ | WHAT I'M PLAYING | | | | I just finished Half Life 2, the greatest | | video game in history. At least in its | | genre. The graphics are not only | | technically astounding, they're | | well-drawn. The characters are all stock | | but pretty well acted, which puts it above | | most Bruce Willis movies. The physics are | | phenomenal; in fact, I wish someone would | | use it to create a physics simulator for | | students to play with. But what makes it | | so much fun is that it's consistently | | imaginative and inventive. | | | | It is more fun than the type of movie it | | emulates. Those lines have crossed. | +----------------------+----------------------+ [1] http://www.rkssoftware.com/mightyfax/overview.html


I just finished Steve Johnson's [1] new book,
Everything Bad is Good for You [2]. It's going to be
a best-seller if there's any justice in the world.
[Hint: There isn't.]

I've been reading Steve's stuff for some time now
and I think I've discovered what makes his writing
style so good: He thinks well. He turns corners and
pulls you with him. It's the kind of unexpected
unfolding that makes narratives work, but Steve does
it purely in the realm of ideas. He writes so well
because he's so damn smart. (Also, he just writes so
damn well.)

This short new book has a strong and simple premise:
Pop culture is making us smarter. The bulk of the
book argues that pop culture is more complex than it
used to be and more than we usually give it credit
for. Look past the content of video games and TV,
Steve says, and you'll see that their structures are
far more complicated and demanding than ever before.
(Deadwood should be his new favorite example.) He
graphs the complexity of social relationships in
Dynasty and 24, for example, and shows that the
former is like a family while the latter is like a
village. He compares Hill Street Blues, the first
mainstream multi- storyline prime-time show, with
Starsky and Hutch before it and The Sopranos after
it. There is no doubt: We've gotten far better at
parsing interwoven plot lines and making sense of
plots that aren't laid out for us like mackerels.
Likewise, video games, he says, have gotten a bad
rap because of their content, while once again their
structure has been ignored. They teach us how to
make decisions in complex environments, he says.
Steve's quite wonderful at analyzing precisely the
ways in which games, tv shows, and, to a lesser
degree, movies demand more from us than before --
his examples of "multiple threading, flashing
arrows, and social networks," for example, are so
insightful they're funny

There's no doubt in my mind that Steve is right that
pop culture is more complex than before. But does
that complexity make us smarter? Here he gets more
speculative, suggesting that the rise in the average
IQ might well be correlated with the way our culture
is training us to be more actively intelligent. The
causality is hard to prove, and Steve proceeds
properly tentatively. We certainly have gotten
smarter at following entertainments. Does that mean
that we've gotten smarter outside of watching TV and
playing video games? Or are we only better at
following the new rules of TV narrative and video
play? Common sense and intuition make me think that
Steve is right: The complexifying of pop culture is
making us smarter. But then I look at the election
results and wonder. We seem more impatient with
nuance than ever before in the political realm. Is
pop culture training us to be smarter about anything
except pop culture?

So, if it's a persuasive essay, am I persuaded?

1. That pop culture is getting more complex and
requires more involvement to understand? 100%.

2. That this is making us smarter outside of pop
culture? I lean that way but I'm not 100% convinced.
Steve acknowledges the difficulty of proving either
the fact or the causality.

3. That we should be more positive about pop
culture? Definitely. Even so, I think Steve
occasionally underplays the value of the old media
that competes for our time. Although he's careful to
say that he is not claiming books have less value
than games and TV, I think for rhetorical purposes
he doesn't give books their due. Despite an
hilarious few pages about how books would look if
video games had come first, books do something that
video games, TV, theater and films don't do very
well: Show us the world as it appears to someone
else. Those media let us view how people different
from us act in the world as it appears to them, but
only in books do we actually live in that world.
This, as Richard Rorty has pointed out, has moral
value. Steve refers to this quality of books briefly
at the end, but it struck me as ass-covering. And he
he misses the opportunity to talk about it while
developing his argument. For example, in Part One he

         Most video games take place in worlds that are
         deliberately fanciful in nature, and even the
         most realistic games can't compare to the vivid,
         detailed illusion of reality that novels or
         movies concoct for us. But our lives are not
         stories, at least in the present tense - we
         don't passively consume a narrative
         thread....Traditional narratives have much to
         teach us, of course: they can enhance our powers
         of communication, and our insight into the human
         psyche. But if you were designing a cultural
         form explicitly to train the cognitive muscles
         of the brain..." (p. 58 of the non-final bound

To my mind, that underplays the value of books and
narratives. Great novels reveal a world; calling
that an "illusion" denigrates their ability to show
the truth.

And, to my way of thinking, the most important
lesson of narratives isn't that they give insight
into our psyches or teach us how to communicate.
Instead, narratives show us that events unfold: The
end was contained in the beginning but not in a way
that we could have predicted. Narrative is about
ambiguity and emergence, as Steve, the Brown-
educated, lit-crit scholar and author of Emergence -
buy it today! - knows. Had he kept that aspect of
books in mind during the section on video games, for
example, his point about the complex hierarchy of
aims in the game Zelda would have been less
convincing. Sure, we make decisions in games based
on a nested stack of goals, and we learn the rules
of the virtual worlds we're exploring. But those
goals and rules are ultimately knowable and
completely expressible. Although Half Life 2 is, as
Steve points out, far more complex than the previous
generation's Pac-Man, for all its amazing physics
and integrated puzzles and pretty good pixelated
acting, HL2 gives us a toy world. The world of Emma
Bovary, on the other hand, doesn't resolve to rules
and puzzles. It's messy, ambiguous, and truly
complex. Of course Steve knows this, but he
underplays it when pointing out the hidden
complexity of video games.

Steve is not asking us to decide between books and
contemporary pop culture. He obviously loves books.
He defends pop culture by pointing out values in its
structure that we've missed as we've focused on its
often-offensive content. And this he does
brillliantly. And entertainingly. This book is so
much fun to read. All I'm saying is that in making
his case, he undervalues one aspect of the old
culture, which might otherwise have taken just a
couple of lumens off the buff-job he's done on the
new one.

But let me be unambiguous in my recommendation: Read
this book. It will change the way you view pop
culture. And you will enjoy every page and every
surprising turn of thought.


Steve this morning replied to some of his reviewers,
including me:


I've replied to his reply here:



Disclosure: The book comes out May 5. Steve sent me
bound galleys because we bonded at a conference last
year. I was a major fan of his well before that.

[1] http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/
[2] http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1573223077

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