John McCann

Archive for the ‘Human nature’ Category

Importance of communities

In Culture & society, Human nature, Video on March 30, 2006 at 1:54 pm

As evidenced in an earlier post, I have discovered the writing of Henry Jenkins and I will be writing more posts about his research, including this one. In a Technology Review article titled “Taking Media in Our Own Hands,” Jenkins focuses on the importance of supportive communities in spurring innovations by amateurs.

He uses an example of the filmmakers who use a Pixelvision camera that was marketed by Fisher-Price from 1987 to 1989, a $100 camcorder that was created as a toy for children. Although Fisher-Price abandoned the camera, it has become a tool for use by amateurs and avant garde filmmakers who use it. It seems to produce unique images that may only appeal to a small niche, but one that seems to be very enthusiastic. More information about the camera is available on the Internet, including this site.

Jenkins tells us how the Pixelvision camcorder provides a window into the grassroot communities that spring up around such tools.

Andrea McCarty, a graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, is studying the Pixelvision movement to better understand how grassroots creativity works. She told me: "Pixelvision's endurance and popularity prove that it was not a failed technology. The fascination with Pixelvision belies its obsolescence; collectors are seeking the cameras, artists are creating with them, technology fans are modifying them and fans are watching the films at the PXL THIS festival."

This is what a lot of us had hoped would happen in the digital age: the technology would put low-cost, easy-to-use tools for creative expression into the hands of average people. Lower the barriers of participation, provide new channels for publicity and distribution, and people would create remarkable things.

Think of these subcultures as aesthetic petri dishes. Seed them and see what grows. In most, nothing really interesting will happen. We can pretty much count on Sturgeon's law holding for amateur cultural creation: 90 percent of everything is bad. But if you expand the number of people participating in the making of art, you may expand the amount of really interesting works that emerge.

I have never heard of Sturgeon's law but I find it appealing because it rings true based upon my own exposure to the work of amateurs. If such amateurs work alone and in isolation from others doing similar work, they can easily become discouraged when others react negatively to their work, perhaps with comments such as "Who would want to watch THAT?"

And people working alone tend to encounter technical difficulties with their digital tools and have a major problem overcoming such obstacles. Jenkins provides insight into the importance of a community of people dong similar work with similar tools.

Amateur artists do best when they operate within supportive communities, struggling with the same creative problems and building on each others successes. Amateur creativity should be valued on its own terms, judged by the criteria of the subcultures within which these works get produced and circulated.

Such supportive communities were once limited to geographical hotbeds of activity. Today a community can form on the Internet and use its communication capabilities to provide support to other participants.


Creating common experiences

In Culture & society, Early Predictions, Human nature on March 21, 2006 at 9:08 pm

Almost 10 years ago (October 22, 1996), Bill Machrone wrote an article for PC Week titled “The End of Common Experience”

“We don’t sit out on the front stoop any more. We don’t watch the first 15 minutes of Carson before we hit the sack so we can laugh together at work the next day. We don’t all watch the Ed Sullivan show on Sunday night. Our local newspaper is beleaguered by the pressures of steadily decreasing readership, higher costs, and less advertising. We don’t even work in the office any more. Between telecommuting, time on the road, and staying in hotels, the once-reliable office routine is a vanishing reality for more and more Americans. Dozens of other common experiences have disappeared from our lives, but I’ll focus on the changes driven by technology. The advent of 50 or more channels on cable has completely stratified our television viewing experience. Our community is defined as never before by our age and our interests, not by our physical location. The evening newspaper is extinct, and the televised evening news may be on the endangered list, supplanted by all-news channels. As people begin to turn to the Internet for news or to future sophisticated hybrids of television and the Internet, the advent of personal pages and customized views makes any commonality of experience even less likely.”

I find this situation to be worse today than it was in 1996 with the advent of new media, the continual decline in newspaper reading, the increasing number of cable TV channels, etc. I really like his statement that “Our community is defined as never before by our age and our interests, not by our physical location.” I pursue most of my interests on the web, rather than in conversation with my friends because I do not share their interests.

But on the other hand, I participate in groups that have been created to bring together people with common interests. I have a fishing group that goes to the beach in the Spring and Fall and has lunch every other week; a Sunday School class that reads and discusses the same book; a movie club that sees and discusses the same movie; another couple who we visit weekly to watch and discuss an HBO show; I teach a course on technology because it gives me an opportunity to discuss one of my main passions with other interested people; I play cards once a month with friends as a way to “shoot the breeze” about topics of common interest; I hike with a group that meets every Saturday and goes on weekend outings every couple of months.

What’s the point? You can have a common experience in today’s world but you have to create or find the structures. They no longer occur naturally because there are simply too many choices in our lives. This seems particularly true as we get beyond our youth, a period when such groups seem to occur more naturally.

Create, share, consume

In Human nature on March 10, 2006 at 4:01 pm

Back in 2004, Robert Scoble wrote something about human nature that I find very profound.

“The impulse to create is strong. The impulse to share is strong. The impulse to consume is strong. These are the trends for the digital decade.”

Many of us want to create something new. Once we create it, we want to share it with others. And we want to consume (use, read, watch, listen, etc) the creations of other people. That seems to be the true nature of the Participation Age, as opposed to the mass age when we seemed to only have an impulse to consume.

When I look back at my professional life, I see that I have followed this path since I got out of college and started working as an R&D engineer at GE where I worked on the creation of new products for deep space flight, nuclear reactors, and gas centrifuges that separated the isotopes of uranium.

My academic career was all about creating and sharing. I created a couple of dozen different courses and then taught them to thousands of students. I wrote dozens of papers and several books which I shared through the publication process. I consulted with several dozen firms, sometimes creating new knowledge for them and always sharing what I knew as part of the consulting assignment

Consuming in the academic world involves reading the work of others and providing them with feedback. You do such reading continually, whether reading referred journals or working papers which are sent to you or conducting formal refereeing of papers submitted to journals.

I find it very interesting that the blogosphere has a culture that is similar to the academic one. Bloggers create something new in their compositions and share it via their blogs. They consume the blogs of other people and comment on blog posts in their own blog.

I also find it interesting that the desire to create, share and consume are the elements of human nature that are driving the Dawn of the Participation Age.

FUSE is a common activity

In Human nature, Uncategorized on March 9, 2006 at 9:17 pm

In an earlier post on a Participation Architecture, I wrote about Yahoo’s FUSE model. At the time I was writing this post, I was lukewarm about this model. But in preparing to talk about it in class, I found that is seems like a simple but powerful way to illustrate the difference between how we participate in mass culture and how we can participate in today’s evolving culture.

To review, FUSE refers to finding something, using it, sharing our experience with others and expanding human knowledge by this sharing.

In a mass culture, a few very talented people, working with considerable resources, create new things (products, movies, concepts, articles, books, songs, etc.) and we consume them (use, watch, read, listen, etc.). In this world, we repeatedly go through a version of the FUSE process.

Consider a movie is playing at a theater.

  • We find the movie by reading a movie guide in the paper or online.
  • We use the movie by going to see it in the theater.
  • We share our reactions and thoughts about the movie with friends.
  • We expand our own knowledge base and that of the friends we talk to.

We may go through this process many times a day, whether with a product, article, song, radio program, etc.

We are probably more likely to go through an abbreviated or truncated version of the FUSE model in which we only find and use something, without sharing it with others. Or we may just find new things without using them, such as what happens when you walk around a clothing store and look at the clothes being offered.

In the Participation Age, you would use the same model but with more emphasis on sharing and expanding. Your interest is not just to offer your thoughts and analysis to your friends; it is to offer them to the whole world. You want to participate in the world in the way that is similar to how journalists, script writers, disk jockeys, etc. participate. You want your voice to be able to be heard by anyone.

Perhaps it’s the difference between being a member of the consuming class versus the creative class.