Monday, January 21, 2013

I'm So Sick of People Saying "Manifesto" But I Guess That's What This Is

After yet another very long haitus, I decided to start blogging again.  To make a long story short, I avoided it for a long time because I thought it would interfere with more important work.  Then it hit me that I really enjoy blogging and it's just not as energy intensive.  Also, giving up writing is depressing and I'm not sure why I'd punish myself like that.  So, back to this nonsense.

I figured I'd start off by giving the brief version of what I've been trying to accomplish with my work on Bricolrr in the past year.  There's still a lot to be done, and it's actually been stalling because there are a lot of questions that are just so unanswered in my head that I'm at a loss for what to aim for.  But what I can do at this moment is explain some of the general aesthetic ideas that have emerged throughout the past few years of my endeavors and now have a strong influence on what I'm aiming for.

The recommended background reading for this post is You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier, but it felt more like a confirmation of my existing biases than anything that wildly changed my perspective.  That's not to say that I didn't learn anything—he had a very coherent take on many issues regarding Web 2.0, "freedom of information" (cough BitTorrent), and the cultural and epistemic challenges posed by the rising hegemony of Big Data.

But there was something very particular I took from it, and I'm pretty sure this is not his words, but it has to do with the standardization, legibility, and interchangeability of the various niches of the internet.  Web 2.0 has slowly been making everything more legible according to a select set of codes through things like the Facebook Graph (for which there's an API for people who want to "socialize" their site according to digital Maoism—I confess that was really just me wanting to make bad puns) and the increasingly predictable blog-like layouts of new websites as well as the widespread use of apps.  A very good commentary on the specific effects of these sort of standardizations can be found on one of my favorite blogs, Ribbonfarm: The Gollum Effect.

Now, this isn't all bad.  To some degree, this is part of the cluster of processes that includes industrialization, globalization, institutionalization, and so forth.  Unsurprisingly enough, Mr. Ribbonfarm has a pretty good take on this as well: A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100.  To be honest, you'll probably be seeing a lot of links to his stuff because he's an author that I happen to read nearly religiously.  But to sum up his ideas in a sentence that makes what I'm saying clear, standardization is a necessary process to making things legible enough to be worked with, and this can be very clearly seen in the invention of things such as time zones, which helped synchronize the continental United States and usher in the industrial age.

But I think that there is a much darker side to this that isn't always taken into account.  We keep on wanting the internet to give us more information, connect faster, and give us more of what's "relevant".  The result has been things that have connected us much more tightly in superficial ways, such as social networks, have given us instantaneous access to a certain simple class of knowledge via the Google search engine, and has largely done so by standardizing the information that goes into the web so that it's becoming more and more based on simple combinatorics in which every "dimension" of the data is already accounted for and it's just a matter of setting criteria for each of these dimensions.

While this is great for some simple tasks—I like that I can keep in touch with old friends through Facebook and that I don't have to look through a library to find a single banal fact about something—it's causing information to increasingly lack any kind of depth.  Around a year and a half ago, I was working in startup that was trying to solve this problem by allowing users to filter content according to what's relevant to them, so that they were getting information based on the content rather than where it came from.  At the time it seemed like a good idea, but in hindsight it feels like the antithesis of the direction in which I'd like to take the digital world.

If this isn't coming off as a complete ramble (new to this blogging thing), then you might be wondering why I'd be against something like that.  The answer is that it seems to me that as information becomes increasingly accessible and convenient, it counter-intuitively becomes more noisy and more superficial.  Consider some of the archaic works that are still relevant to us: Herodotus, Tolstoy, Gibbon, Nietzche (could I get any more cliche here?).  All of them are messy narratives where you have to accept the whole package--none of it comes easily.  To make a comparison between two foods: it's the difference between a refined product meant to deliver a combination of salt, sugar, fat, and food additives as efficiently as possible to your taste buds and stomach versus a complex dish that you may or may not like but will nonetheless find to be novel, and hopefully nutritionally satisfying.  And for those who claim that I'm making a very biased analogy chock full of connotations, you're right, I am, but I hope the point is not lost on you.

Web 2.0 has too much legibility, and too little in the way of surprise or fractal richness.  It's so easy to say something and so easy to access something that's immediately satisfying that it just passes through one ear and out the other.  In addition, it offers less and less in the way of deep knowledge because the more that people's narratives are squeezed into simple combinatorial systems that allow them to be compared to other works according to a machine, the more narrative richness and fidelity they will lose.

To go back to fractals for a second--what makes fractals so rich is that fractals make their own rules.  That sounds a bit weird, but consider that the dimensions of a fractal cannot be comprehended by Cartesian coordinates; a fractal's shape is determined by the initial algorithm that seeds it and from there is path-dependent based on how it grew in previous iterations.  This happens because the fractal's logic is recursive--its rules at any given point in time are based on its rules from a previous point in time.  The result is (I think...) infinite complexity--but this complexity (at least if you ask me) is intractable only if we assume that we ought to be comprehending everything according to the Cartesian plane.

I defy you to predict what's going to happen next when you zoom in

To me, it's the difference between a mountain trail and a treadmill, between a home-cooked meal and packaged snack foods, artisinal wine and Budweiser (don't get me wrong, I like Budweiser on some occasions.)  That which is legible and completely comprehensible in terms of interchangeable parts will be limited in its complexity, and that which is limited in its complexity will ultimately deprive us of the type of information that makes being human an awesome thing.

My goal with Bricolrr is to take some step in going the other way; for information to come from messy and dynamic stories that aren't completely predictable and oftentimes downright frustrating.  My hope is that from this, people's views are inherently challenged, biased narratives engage with people's perspectives (this bullshit about how information should be "unbiased" makes me want to bonk someone with a shovel—since when does anything escape bias?), new ideas emerge from the darndest places, and things produced on the web stop being locked in according to a few platonic forms that have been decided upon by the lords of the Social Web.

It's still an interactive storytelling engine, but I see a lot of potential with it.  There's so much to narrow down in my goals, but if we can more easily tell real stories on the internet instead of pouring our hearts and souls into digital cookie cutters, then maybe we'll see some truly amazing experiences come out of it.