Satellite of Love

October 1, 2009

Where were you when you saw the World Trade Center towers fall? It’s a question that almost anyone in the United States can answer. On that bright September morning, I was late for work. Not a problem, I thought to myself, I’ll simply call ahead and let my boss know. Rushing around my apartment – coffee in one hand, phone in the other – something struck me as strange. A busy signal? I tried a few other numbers. But just kept getting busy signals. I felt cut off and confused. Something was very wrong.

Scott Rosenberg’s book “Say Everything” starts here, on 9/11, and goes on to explore the power and promise of blogs and blogging as a medium for two-way unfiltered communication. Unable to connect with love ones and overwhelmed by the horrific images of that day, many people turned to the Web. But 9/11 did not represent a breakthrough moment for blogging because of traffic. For many future bloggers, it was the only place where the raw impact of the moment felt real, where they could commune and connect.

Human communication – the need to share, tell stories, be understood or misunderstood – has been squeezed into tiny boxes that do not allow us to talk back. Rosenberg points out that 9/11 was a transformative moment for many future bloggers because it allowed people to communicate in the fullest sense of the word. But I would argue that it may have done more to hastened the end of traditional mass media by exposing its limits in a global, multi-layered and inter-connected world. The two are obviously linked but it’s a distinction that’s worth thinking about. The old boob tube had finally asked too much – please sit silently by while we show you, not one but two, architectural marvels crash to the ground slaughtering thousands of innocent victims. Mass media’s one-way fire hose of gory images only served to make that day all the more surreal.

Almost a decade has passed since those strange days so I thought I would check out what some of Mr. Rosenberg’s characters are up to now. Maybe Dave Weinberger just wanted to get some back cover copy love with this quote, “In weblogs, the web has become a mature medium.” But “mature”? Really? The Web’s maturity level strikes me as more tween than middle-aged. I did a little digging around and was surprised to read a recent blog post by Weinberger where he states, “We don’t know how to handle the new publicness of the Net … We can hear — and blog about — every nasty conversation held … We make the mistake of treating the Net as if it were a medium. But it’s more like a world than a medium.” OK, that sounds more like it.

In 2009, the Web still feels like a world where just about anything goes. And although this is one of the things that I love about it, the Justin Hall story of what happens when “the private voices goes public” seemed sort of obvious and silly at first glance. But when I looked him up on the Web I was intrigued by his current project. Video games! Nicco had just mentioned his own fascination with video games as a new and promising way to engage people with policy. Interactive games as a virtual problem solving tool – very cool. Hall argues in a recent post, “Why bother with games? Spend a long weekend with extended family and try earnestly expressing yourself the entire time. See if someone doesn’t suggest that trivia, property-trading, word hunting or card matching would be a better use of time.” This doesn’t mean that games are a quick fix for today’s chronic disengagement but it made me completely reevaluate the Hall story. What at first just sounded like the kooky antics of delayed adolescence (I should know, I’m still stuck there on most days) now strikes me as profound. Hall understood from the get-go the importance of play. He was putting everything out there, linking up, having a conversation with the world, being political and making it all fun.

Is it any wonder that as we get old we play less games? Maybe the less we play, the faster we die. If that’s the case, I’m in real trouble right now. For sure, play and human connection/communication seem linked in an important way that could use a lot more exploration. Hinduism seems to have figured this out a few thousand years ago. Take the classic Hindu epic Ramlila, for example. “Ramlila” literally means Ram’s play. And although it is just that, a theatrical play, it is also playful (interactive, dynamic and fun) in its presentation. In the streets of Ramnagar, India, the city of Ram’s birth, the story is played out over many days in a series of moving scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. Children play many of the key roles and the “audience” is invited to take part. At the end of each night’s performance, the line between audience and performer is mostly blurred.

In 2005, UNESCO added the Ramlila to an elite group of cultural traditions called the “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list. As the nice people at the UN explain:

“The Ramlila brings the whole population together, without distinction of caste, religion or age. All the villagers participate spontaneously, playing roles or taking part in a variety of related activities. However, the development of mass media, particularly television soap operas, is leading to a reduction in the audience of the Ramlila plays, which are therefore losing their principal role of bringing people and communities together.”

And herein lies the problem of all mass media – it is unable to fulfill the critical role of bringing people and communities together. I think the jury is still out on whether blogs and the Web can live up to that role but its democratic and interactive nature seems to offer some hope.

For more interesting thoughts along these lines (impact of new media on society and culture), check out Michael Wesch’s keynote presentation from the Personal Democracy Forum 2009. And for some additional thoughts (although somewhat less hopeful) on communities, audiences and scale, check out Clay Shirky’s interesting blog entry on said topic.

Ah yes, scale. What to do about the problem of scale and the inability of a single engaged community to grow past a certain size? Shirkey presents a good reality check:

“Though it is tempting to think that we can somehow do away with the effects of mass media with new technology, the difficulty of reaching millions or even tens of thousands of people one community at a time is as much about human wiring as it is about network wiring. No matter how community minded a media outlet is, needing to reach a large group of people creates asymmetry and disconnection among that group — turns them into an audience, in other words — and there is no easy technological fix for that problem.”

Duly noted.

Lastly, this cover of Satellite of Love seemed to fit in here somehow and also made me laugh. Enjoy!

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