April 4, 2013

Burt Bacharach! Or What the Web Means

Filed under: nu media,writing — jrice @ 7:58 am

My two and a half year old son won’t stop saying “fuck.” Whatever he thinks this word means, he – like many other two and a half year olds – knows it’s something that he’s not supposed to say. In order to divert him from saying fuck, but keeping with the spirit of saying “bad words,” I’ve been trying to convince him to replace fuck with “Burt Bacharach.” When he says fuck, I reply, “Oh no. You mean Burt Bacharach.” Then he will yell, “Burt Bacharach!” This works with modest success. He does say Burt Bacharach a good deal, and even greeted me that way this morning when I cam home from the gym. But he also still says fuck.

The idea of conditioning children to certain meanings is not new. When Morgan Spurlock writes of his plans to punch his kid every time they pass a McDonald’s so that his kid associates pain with fast food, he speaks of such conditioning. And of course, the idea that language is ambiguous is not new. We all know the story of words having arbitrary meanings – whether we say fuck or Burt Bacharach. When Anil Dash writes in a recent (to me) post entitled “The Web We Lost,” that “we’re going to face a big challenge with re-educating a billion people about what the web means,” he, too, seems to be caught in the ambiguity of language. What the web means? Does the web mean something? Dash seems to believe it does. In this narrative, the web means 1. users control everything 2. commerce (which gives the users what to control) controls nothing. 3. Companies should not pursue “their agendas instead of collaborating in a way that would serve users.” All of these positions, of course, are the result of conditioning too – a conditioning that blankets practices under the generic term “capitalism” (always used as a pejorative) and treats what is current as our inability to recognize what we’v lost. As Dash says,”we’ve abandoned core values” with current web practices. Substitute “core values” for “family values” and you have basic conservative thought. Indeed, this kind of technology narrative is highly conservative in its understanding of the present as it relates to a supposed past.

We might call this meaning romanticism. Or wishful thinking. Or naivety. Or utopian visions. Or gatekeeping.  Or even conservatism. What it does, though, is attribute a meaning to a period (let’s say early Facebook or pre-Facebook) that was not there to begin with. That is, it assumes that what we are calling “the web” was always meant to be an altruistic space of sharing and giving and user generated content and…..but where is the evidence to support this narrative, a narrative that David Weinberger, too, seems to support? Mostly in memory. Commerce was with the web early on – even if not at the scale we see it today. And there is nothing in any constitution or declaration or anything that maintained early on that all content must be user generated and profits should be controlled and market control not allowed.

It’s not uncommon to attribute to past moments, technologies, experiences to this type of rearview mirror thinking. The narrative typically is: everything we have now is ok….but damnit, it is nowhere near as great as what we once had. And as Jameson pointed out, this is how pastiche functions. It hides history (even as Dash makes a claim for historical reflection).

Like my Burt Bacharach experiment, this process succeeds and fails simultaneously. My kid knows that Burt Bacharach (whatever that is) is not fuck. Fuck is better than Burt Bacharach. Burt Bacharach, for him, is merely another word to yell. He seems to doubt it having the power fuck has. On the other hand, he says fuck a bit less than he used to, and he says Burt Bacharach a bit more than he used to (since he wasn’t saying it at all). The rearview mirror approach does draw attention to contemporary problems (good), though its romanticism hides the previous problems (bad). The problem, as McLuhan said, is when rearview mirror thinking is all the thinking we have; our garden of edens dominate our vision, we are stuck in blind fields, and we ignore the power of the contemporary and recent. I will take CMS over .html pages any day. Updates and tweets have re-formulated the necessity of brevity and quick response. And while I am not supporter of dominant market forces stifling competition, the spin-off economies often associated with dominant entities – everything from Grantland to Facebook’s innovative usage of advertising – is fascinating and complex (as well as a space for further innovation).

Mosaic as the browser to cherish over Chrome? Flickr tags over Instagram creativity? Technorati’s slowness and inability to crawl everything as opposed to a Google cache? Do we remember the same history here or just the pastiche?



  1. It’s important to ask if people like Anil (and me) are painting a false picture of a golden past. And it’s hard to answer since he is talking about a single characteristic of that past — the fact that our experience of the Net was mainly via a Web based on open standards and protocols — and is not attempting to characterize everything about that time. The Net has obviously gotten far better in many ways since, say, 2000, but that’s not what he’s talking about. So, while I think you’re raising an important question in a powerful way, I don’t think you’re actually criticizing Anil’s position.

    For example, a key part of Anil’s talk was his calling out the arrogance of Open Webbers (like me) who thought the purity of our views would obviously win the day. In fact, the Zuckerbergs and the Instagrams have delivered far better products than we did. That’s why proprietary systems and apps have won. So, no, not “Flickr tags over Instagram creativity.” Instagram has won because of its strengths. Yet there is a price to pay for losing Flickr-like tagging. There is a price to pay for the social network being controlled by a commercial entity, even though it gained that control by being a great app.

    So, ultimately I don’t think Anil is guilty of the simple conservatism you imply (or perhaps I just infer). But I think you dodge the question of the price we’re paying when you characterize the effects of the “dominant entities” as “complex and fascinating.” Yes, they are! That’s why people like you, me, and Anil Dash spend time thinking about them. But the question Anil is raising is about the social desirability of this new complex and fascinating direction.

    I think Anil’s question is an important one, and I agree with his answer. How about you?

    Comment by David Weinberger — April 4, 2013 @ 8:39 am

  2. Hi David

    I think we’re all in the same conversation. But I really focused in on Anil’s issue of what the web means. It doesn’t mean anything. Or, think back to your own interests in folksonomies, it means what the meanings we bring to it mean: altruistic origins? New market for goods and service? Site of innovation? Site of the makers (following Anderson’s new book). The question regarding social desirability is important – but again, which social? Tech insiders? Or those who love Facebook and don’t carea about ads? I find myself in a number of social network-camps-ideologies. I understand what Anil is saying. And I’m not in favor of tech consolidation. On the other hand, Facebook doesn’t bother me and I like Instagram.

    Comment by jrice — April 4, 2013 @ 9:49 am

  3. But why do you think Anil (or I) need to be schooled in the problems of language? Of course he knows that language is ambiguous, and that meaning is dependent on multiple contexts. You’re reading him so unsympathetically and ungenerously that you’re not engaging him on the point he’s making about the social desirability of open vs closed architectures.

    And I think you’re still dodging the question by resorting to a fact that we all acknowledge: value judgments depend on context, circumstance etc. etc. etc. Yes they do! Of course!

    So, given your context, circumstances, etc. etc., do you think we’re losing anything as we move from open to closed architectures? Do you think the trade-off between wonderful apps and closed architecture is worth it? Perhaps more to the point, are you convinced that we couldn’t get those wonderful apps in an open environment? And if you think that the trade-off is a false one, would you do anything to try to preserve and spread the open architecture? For example, since you are (of course!) making value judgments as you raise your child, might you teach her/him to appreciate open, generative architectures?

    (And thanks for responding. And for taking up this issue.)

    Comment by David Weinberger — April 4, 2013 @ 10:07 am

  4. I guess it’s the statement still: What does the web mean? Dash or whoever is going to tell us what it means. What does it mean? It means what it is. I don’t know that it means open or closed (and, I’m not against open, of course). Who says that the web means open architecture? AOL and Compuserv were closed systems set up early in the web’s history. Should the web’s origins be closed? No of course not. These systems gave way to other systems. And current systems will give way. But the web doesn’t mean open or closed. I think all movement will result in some type of loss for somebody (all open means somebody makes no money).

    Comment by jrice — April 4, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

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