Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Changes in the Communication Landscape - Part 1

I was debating in my head whether to put this here or elsewhere, but as a) it deals with issues introduced in the previous post, and b) concerns the "hyper"-fragmentation of the public sphere that one could say the Internet produced, I think this is the right place. In many ways, it's simply the extension of the last post and so the link isn't so important. I should also, then, warn you now that this is a post "to be continued..." There are a number of points that I want to take up, and I think it's only fair to break them up into several posts, rather than provide one extra-large one. As such, this one serves as an introduction, while the next few will pick out some more specific implications over the next few days (hopfully).

Discussion with David and a report describing Web2.0 as a "catch-all buzzword that people use to describe a wide range of online activities and applications" provided the initial impetus, nonetheless. I've also been reading some Baudrillard which has got me thinking along lines of simulation, replacement, power defining itself in terms of its own death, etc.

So the last post started getting into the attitude that accompanies a drive towards "revolution". Or, indeed, the attitude that is the struggle for re-invention that ends up being defined as "Web2.0" - and it's this hope for re-invention, this determination to detach "our"selves from the problems created over the past couple of decades, that confuses the issue of defining just what "Web2.0" is.

But now I wonder if the "problem"* of Web2.0 itself is larger even than that - larger than just creating a confusing border between "old" and "new". At this point, though, I don't believe it's a coincidence that the issue is emerging just at the same point in time that debate over both new forms of network neutrality and independent networks is reaching a potentially critical stage.

The fundamental thread that ties the two together - along with many other aspects of modern computing and networking - is that the Internet is maturing rapidly. It has reached a point of no-return in terms of usage, and in terms (more importantly) of dependence on it - and both Web2.0 and a move towards differentiated control recognise the fact that we need to find new ways of managing the sheer volume of "Net".

It is at this point that we need to consider the implications for what we hazily refer to as the "public sphere". For all the cries of its death and the bitter mutterings of web developers around the world (myself included ;), the technical "immaturity" of whatever Web1.0 was meant that it was hackable to the many. It could perhaps be said that the ability for browsers to display horrible, munged-up code meant that you didn't have to get too technical to get a web presence and, as such, 98% of those interested could knock something together in some sense. Simple web-hosting (often via an ISP) gave a bog-standard - and hence highly flexible - space for these creations to come to life. This amateurishness was one extreme of the "hyperfragmentation" of the public sphere mentioned above - the sudden possibility that anyone could publish whatever they liked, even if it looked crap and didn't parse. And it was this same sloppiness that led to many others (myself included) getting extremely excited about the possibilities this new technology could offer.

So now we need to compare that to the Internet we're creating today. The evolution and maturation developed from this initial slapdash approach has, in my view, led to an extremely different kind of participation. That's not to say it's any better or worse, but the fact that it's different may mean that we need to re-assess what we believe to be possible, and what we think is currently occuring. But I should emphasise that it's this maturation - not new technology - that we need to take as the context for this.

I think this is a good place for a break. I hope that the next couple of posts will deal (again ;) with the separation and expectations of Web1.0 and 2.0 in this context, as well as the control over the kind of communication we, as our "own" little spheres, engage in.

* "Problem" is one perspective, but in reality, "evolution" is probably a better, less-biased term.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tech Race against the Masses

(Hmm, the Blogger wysiwyg editor might have screwed the formatting on this one up a little. Will post and find out... ;)

David Wilcox has done a great job recently of explaining the importance of new social tools, and at the same time noting the confusion around "them". I put "them" in quotes as it really refers to a culture, or even a vision that draws a distinction and defines "a new sort of digital divide", as David puts it.

This got me thinking a bit about the role that "we" as techno-chasers have, and reminded me that Language is Power. Why do we define things as "Web2.0"? Why are we so keen to engage entire communities, nay entire populations with "radically" different concepts and technologies? Who do such definitions serve and, more importantly, what do they mean to everyone else?

David mentions "Silicon Snakeoil", but I think the current trend encompasses more than mere snakeoil - I think a lot of the "new-tech" posturing comes about from a real desire to see change, an attitude and approach to politics from an extreme problem-solving point of view. That is, "we" define terms such as "Web2.0" and "e-citizen" to:

a) provide some continuity between the "old" and the "new" - the Web in one case, and what it is to be a citizen, in the other.

b) simultaneously set a "breakpoint" that declares a boundary, and claims that what we're doing right now is fundamentally "different" somehow and therefore "better". This is, of course, partly motivated by a keen desire to appear as "worth something" - an important point when getting paid...

But this suffers. For firstly, as David points out, it's very difficult to define exactly what we mean here - what is the difference between old and new? One could say, instead, that the difference is more hope than reality, more a teleological drive for a new country than an actual identification of a shift in how the world works. This, I think, is where the "hype" comes from.

Secondly, the terms are defined within a subculture. The biggest problem I see is that this "hope" is being exported into a "wider" culture that doesn't necessarily understand, or even need to understand the same point of view that the subculture sees. In other words, why should I become an e-citizen, rather than, say, simply a citizen that happens to use the technology around them. Do I care if my local council use "Web2.0" technologies when I didn't really realise there was a Web 1.0? Thus, by attributing a name to what we see as the "future", there's also some possibilty that people will be put off as well.

Capitalism has seen some considerable success in getting people accustomed to change - but onyl so long as they don't have to do anything. Buy, use, upgrade, repeat. So far, this has translated relatively well into one-line technologies (central servers make things easier, although areas such as firmware and security updates are still "slow" in comparison). But politics is about participation. As such, we should be asking whether enforcing rapid, radical change upon people in order for them to participate is necessary to "reclaiming" politics. In parallel, then, we should also be asking what effect on the non-subcultured, non-"2.0" populace we are having by declaring that everything's changed, and that we need to change in order to remain citizens.

That's not to say we should revert to some pre-internet Athenian-style form of debate, of course. It just seems, sometimes, that we can be so fixated upon clearing away the "old" (off-line discourse, and now Web 1.0)  and re-inventing the "new" from the ground up, that it's easy to forget that people will usually quite happily put up with defects in the mechanism if it lets them focus their energies on the issues that matter to them.

Where do we draw the line between improving the infrastructure, and getting some real work done? ;)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

And so it begins...

So this is my latest blog, "Sphereless". After some thought, the name came out of some work I was doing a few months ago for a Masters dissertation, which concentrated on Habermas' idea of the public sphere - one of the questions raised in particular was whether we are partaking in such a sphere, or whether a single domain has given way to a multitude of smaller, isolated sphere. Or, alternatively (there's always a third way) that sphere just doesn't exist at all.

Then I was reminded of a collection of Foucault speeches on parrhesia called "Fearless Speech". One spoonerism, and dropping the "Feech" bit, and "Sphereless" came about. It seemed to fit with the idea - or the question - that we need to reconsider what we consider the "public" in an age of personalised, yet networked technology, and indeed perhaps it should really be read as "Sphereless?", question mark and all.

So there's the name. What about content? Well, I finally decided to 'fork' out this theme - politics, the "public" and technology - as its own distinct "thread" for a few reasons. Firstly, as a place to focus, direct and explore my own thoughts and observations on it. This aspect is becoming, I think, increasingly more important as I head into a 3-year programme of studying such things (yay for Academic Bloggers). Secondly, I think there are some really important and, most of all, under-examined trends and progressions being made in this relatively fuzzy of areas. And by giving the subject its own "space", not only does it make it easier for others interested in the theme to follow, but perhaps it also lends an air of "gravity" to the whole field as well.

Oh, and thirdly, I wanted to play with Google's new beta blog stuff :) You'll have to forgive me this indulgence if you're viewing on browsers other than Firefox and IE - the beta Blogger homepage notes they're still working out some kinks. I'll hopefully give it a decent test in some non-standard browsers to see what's going on anyway (plus get round to changing the "out of the box" design at some point, too).

Anyway. That's an introduction. Posts to follow...