Saturday, December 16, 2006You...and you...and you...and by extension, me, are TIME's 2006 Person of the Year:
...[L]ook at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.I couldn't agree more. In a way aren't the hundreds or thousands of little digital fingerprints behind a genuine "Second Life" (separate from the wildly popular self-contained virtual universe/game of the same name)? A second DNA?
The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together (15 years ago, according to Wikipedia) as a way for scientists to share research. It's not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it's really a revolution. [keep reading]
Maybe all our cached Internet presences aren't "second lives" but extensions of our current ones. I've often joked here and with "meatspace" friends that "Google is forever," but in a way it's true: our electronic traces, fragile as they are when a blog post or office document "disappears," are in other ways doggedly hard to expunge and will likely exist beyond our mortal lifetimes in many cases. The technology is new and undergoing rapid change, but there will come a time when massive amounts of archived information will exist as historical artifacts. Our digital presences will outlive us, replicated and re-replicated every time someone downloads, saves or views a piece of who we were.
Consider the case of Malachi Ritschler, the Chicago artist and political activist who died in early November in an act of self-immolation as protest. Ironically, if there were no Internet, outside of his circle of family and friends, word of Ritschler's actions would certainly stopped when the mainstream media stopped their coverage. His final story would be a microfiched newspaper archive. With the Internet, not only did Ritschler's story attain a life of its own through his publication of a pre-demise auto-obituary, but those who saw the significance of his actions have utilized the Internet to spread the word. In a small way he has achieved immortality, although he is not physically present to experience it.
However, in some ways the Web is not all that conceptually different from older means of communication; at its core it is merely physical "mail" transmitted by wire (or wirelessly), differing only in the fact that the information that once traveled by mail (letters, books, movies, photos, recordings, etc.) had been translated into numerical existence. The quantum leap (and some would argue, the threat to conventional intellectual property) the Internet affords is speed of transmission and nearly unlimited - viral - replicability of digital commodities. What many find disturbing is that we ourselves - translating and extending our identities into digital existence - are becoming one with the commodity.
Developing a rational and workable understanding of "property," "commerce," and even "identity" within the new rules of the Internet age is in its infancy, hence the horrible mishmash of electronic frontier laws and jerry-rigged web filters governments around the world are using to try to block the Internet - in part, or in totality.
Increasingly, the Internet is precisely what the world is: kaleidoscopic, perpetually changing, hopeful, chaotic, constructive and destructive. The Internet is amoral, in the sense that without external intervention it is only a neutral conduit for human interaction; it is no more moral or immoral that the people who inhabit it.
One thing that needs to happen to genuinely fulfill the web's promise is greater global access to the Web, although political and business interests threaten to decrease access through economic (Net Neutrality) or ideological (censorship) barriers.
We need to step back and look at what the Internet age truly means. It means we are beginning to live in a fundamentally different world, one in which the old strictures only marginally apply. The physics of human relations have been shattered into bits and recombined - we have the never-before dreamed capability to represent (or misrepresent) ourselves at will behind an electronic wall almost instantaneously beyond the boundaries of space.
For centuries we have dreamed of traversing oceans and continents in the blink of an eye. We have dreamed of shape-shifting, and of invisibility. What magic proved incapable of bestowing upon us in fleshly form, the magic of the digital age has made possible. On the Web we can become fledgling creatures of pure data, without bodies to restrain us.
Perhaps it would help to think of the Internet and its recent "You"-revolution as a freshly-minted "Sixth Sense," one we are only beginning to learn how to control. As a global electronic society we will need years, if not decades, to master these exploded boundaries and reconfigure our identities and politics, as well as our responsibilities and moralities, into this open space of possibility.