A couple of days ago, I attended a “Futures of the Internet” lecture at NYU. It brought together notable academics, practitioners, and artists, all attempting to describe where the future is headed. The discussion — and the audience — was informal, a bit raucous, and fun as hell. Here are some of my notes, apologize in advance for any thought-mangling…
Clay Shirky: Started by joking that as an academic, he’s smart enough to know never to predict the future. Better to let the future happen, and then explain why it did. Shirky believes we are in a “post-sitcom” era, as the sitcom was a major factor in transitioning our culture from the industrial age to today. He spoke a bit about the importance of social factors that make the Internet “work.” He sees “continued support for diverse surprises” on the net, and saw flexbility as its best feature.
Tim Wu: Sees the history of media as a pattern of decentralization to centralization, and the future is a collision between these two forces. So far, centralized media has always won out. He spoke of the “first YouTube era,” the early days of film, where something like 11 movies per day were being made. All media start this way, open, decentralized, and eventually they are co-opted and reigned it. So the central question is, will this happen to the Internet? Will it remain open, or will net neutrality fall? Will hard drives eventually get banned? Will the net turn into a “permissions-based” entity?
Lauren Cornell: She noted the art world’s economics have not really been threaten by the Internet; it’s still a curated system, based on scarcity. Rhizome started as a mailing-list community, and has grown from there, still retaining, though, that sense of community. “Artists and pornographers are always the ones to test new media.” She sees the newest generation of artists as using the web much more “intuitively” than others before them. Wonders if and how alternative economies for artists might develop in the future.
Jimmy Wales: Wonders how mass collaboration can be done with music, art, or video — on Wikipedia, since it’s text, it’s much easier. The tools may already be out there, but we just don’t have the social models for this type of collaboration. Global nature of the Internet is a major future trend — currently, about 1 billion people online, over the next 5-10 years will be the next billion (China, Africa). We will increasingly be in contact with new people. Concerned that free, open technologies may be closing, including a Chinese-style censorship model. (It’s not the firewall, which is actually quite porous; it’s the chilling effect.) An example of this closed model is the Facebook API, which is locking in developers to that platform.
Jonathan Zittrain: Sees three possible futures. First, “Rainbows and Buttercups” — the trippy, techno-utopian vision of freedom. A collective hallucination. Second, “Internet Meltdown” — openness of the net eaten away by reality: the ITU, the net becomes “enforceable and lockdown-able.” Third, “Not a Bang, But a Whimper” — pleasant but insidious, symbolized by the iPhone — a prison. Wants to see a “federated future,” one where everyone has some way to create “mischief,” outside of the “incumbents.” Need to be able to trust “everybody” (Shirky’s “everybody”), instead of just a few. Consumers need to come to realize they want a mischief box. Developers need to be more politically conscious.
After each of the above spoke, a lengthy discussion ensued, much of that around the idea of “community.” Shirky noted how most of today’s online collective action is “stop action” — protest. Not much is happening around “start action.” Shirky said we need a better way to address “groups” legally, as the only legal entity in this form today is the “corporation.” Wu added to that, noting that “community” has always been the great allure and great disappointment throughout history. Communities sometimes work so well, and other times not all at. We still haven’t figured out why, but it’s clear it’s not the technology, but the social factors that influences this.
There was also some time spent on the pros and cons of the OLPC program. Shirky questioned whether all that money is better spent funding students to attend schools, rather than this device. Most everyone agreed much of the technology inside the XO was on-target.
While my notes cannot really translate how engaging and insightful this discussion was, I hope it at least highlights what these folks are thinking about in terms of critical issues around Internet culture, and encourages anyone reading this to take a look at their work for more information.