Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Metaphors for the "participatory Internet"

In the wake of several court decisions on liability and Internet file-trading (sharing? stealing?) systems, a NYT article entitled Web Content by and for the Masses does a nice job of illustrating all of the different ways that people previously conceptualized as Web "audiences," "surfers," or "users" are today engaged in actually producing content:

From photo- and calendar-sharing services to "citizen journalist" sites and annotated satellite images, the Internet is morphing yet again. A remarkable array of software systems makes it simple to share anything instantly, and sometimes enhance it along the way. [...]

Indeed, the abundance of user-generated content - which includes online games, desktop video and citizen journalism sites - is reshaping the debate over file sharing. Many Internet industry executives think it poses a new kind of threat to Hollywood, the recording industry and other purveyors of proprietary content: not piracy of their work, but a compelling alternative.

The new services offer a bottom-up creative process that is shifting the flow of information away from a one-way broadcast or publishing model, giving rise to a wave of new business ventures and touching off a scramble by media and technology companies to respond. [...]

"The giant brain is us," said Peter Hirshberg, a former Apple Computer executive who recently joined Technorati, a service based in San Francisco that indexes more than 11 million Web logs. His reference is to the 1960's fear that computers would emerge as omniscient artificial intelligences that would control society. Instead, he said, the Internet is now making it possible to exploit collective intellectual power of Internet users efficiently and instantly.

I find all of this fascinating too, but I'm also surprised at the many descriptions and metaphors used in this article for user actions which, for me, essentially come down to sheer "labor". We apparently find it easy to talk about "ehancing," "annotating," and "sharing" information as if that were an easy, unproblematic process that we're all equally adept at. We talk about "user-generated content" but not about the sheer time and effort and training it takes to allow users -- certain users, privileged users -- to actually generate this content. We talk about the collectivity of active, producing Internet users as a "giant brain" with "collective intellectual power" (knowledge) but we don't think in terms of the collective time expenditure or value generated through this knowledge. And we talk about the "two way flow" or "interactive flow" of information without conceptualizing the differential risks borne, and rewards received, by each endpoint of this flow (eg. corporate media firms on one side, who are increasingly released from the obligation of producing, verifying, and remaining accountable for content quality, and media consumers on the other side, who are increasingly expected to have the knowledge and time and good will to freely create content for the rest of us).

Don't misunderstand me: I'm glad to have the power to labor through, and upon, the Web. I'm doing so right now, largely for free (though in some calculation of value, perhaps my in-between academic and popular writing here on this weblog works to shore up my salaried position as a university professor). And I'm doing so in recognition that labor is not merely an activity which produces value for use and exchange in a society, but which "produces" personal engagement with the world, personal identity as a valuable individual. But I'm also acutely aware that i'm doing so at the expense of other productive activities (like writing my next book) and other reproductive activities (like eating my breakfast). I'm doing so using tools and skills and knowledge gleaned from a long history of privilege in both the educational system and the corporate workforce. I'm doing so within a geographic and political-economic infrastructure of regularly-supplied electricity and broadband household communications. This "shared" labor that I'm performing through and for the Web -- labor that admittedly increasing numbers of similiarly-situated Net users are also willing and able to perform -- must still be contextualized and analyzed before it is naturalized and romanticized.

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