Thursday, June 24, 2010

As Much Chaos As We Can Stand

Cognitive Surplus:
Creativity and generosity in a connected age
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 2010
242 pgs.

I have finally finished reading Clay Shirky's phenomenal new book Cognitive Surplus and I have been blown away by it from beginning to end. Shirky, a professor at NYU, explores how the default settings inherent in social media software are driving not only how we connect with each other, but about the kinds of massive projects that we can create if we spend even just a modicum of our free time (time usually spent watching television) contributing to them.

The depth of this book is difficult to summarize, but let me give it a shot.

Each of us has an amount of time, thanks to the labor struggles of the twentieth century, with which we can do what we will (our cognitive surplus, i.e. leftover brain time). With the advent of television we slowly became consumers of a passive media environment, so much so that many of us watched enough television that it could be considered equivalent to having a part time job. This wasn't because we necessarily wanted to be couch potatoes, but this was the environment we had. It was a default pattern, not necessarily a desired state of being.

With the introduction of the internet we began developing a different pattern of social behavior toward our media. From the creation of ASCII art as a humble little creative endeavor in early emails we have progressed to an era where we can create our own original videos and share them with the entire world. Beyond even that we have also grown to the point where massive, globally shared projects, like Wikipedia are made possible by the dedicated efforts of millions of people spending time creating content instead of being a passive receptacle of pre-packaged media.

What drives us to create and share things like lolcats, fan fiction and YouTube videos, or to participate in large scale protests or create alternative news reporting outlets?

Shirky's answer: we have the means and opportunity to do so, for free, and the software that has been designed to support these structures promotes an environment of creating and sharing. These things have always been going on, but the ability to share our personal creative works, or to participate in a mutually creative and supportive environment has just not been available at this scale ever before. We all know people who wrote fan stories of their favorite television show, or who went to conventions and shared their hobbies with each other. Social media allows us to not only find those people who share our interests, however bizarre they may be, but to engage in them with an unprecedented level of speed and freedom, thus nurturing subcultures to greater heights.

Beyond the level of subcultures we have begun to develop massive multi-user created systems that have a great deal of civic value. Projects like developing open source software like Linux or Apache, creating articles for Wikipedia or reporting news on Ushahidi have become invaluable resources to society. These works could not have been done without the ability to connect disparate people who have a shared ethic, vision and need via social media.

The long term view of how the internet is shaping our society has yet to be seen, and the examples he provides of similar revolutions in communications show that one can never really predict where we will be fifty or a hundred years from now. What Shirky does provide however is a bit of a roadmap outlining what factors lead to successful social media environments, and an excellent review of how far we've come in just a few short years.

This was one of the most engrossing reads I've had in quite a long time. Fun, informative, and a great amount of positive speculation about the internet. I strongly recommend it, not just for people who have internet wonkery as an interest, but for pretty much anyone who has a deep love for culture. The stories are thought provoking, funny, scary and over all brilliant.

Check it out!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Anyone can make a record now. Yeah, most of us have heard this sentiment banging around musical circles and the blogosphere, but not a lot of people know what this means. First, a very brief history is required.

Magnetic tape recording began in 1949, which could record only one performance, all on the same tape. Multi-tracking was largely developed by jazz guitarist/inventor Les Paul, but was still in its infancy in the sixties. In the mid-sixties the true potential of stacking many tracks on top of each other came into bloom.

In 1966, the Beatles holed up for nearly half a year at 3 Abbey Road, St John's Wood, City of Westminster, London, England and created what most music magazines (including Rolling Stone) call the best album of all time. In creating Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles’ recording team used huge tape recorders precariously daisy-chained together, making it possible to overlap sounds, add lush layers of instruments, and finally painstakingly splice together a masterpiece of unprecedented extravagance. From that point forward, multi-tracking was established as the industry standard for making records. Then along comes digital…

Fast-forwarding through the eighties, nineties and the last decade, we find ourselves in quite a different audio climate. Once digital recording became the industry standard in professional studios, it wasn’t long before any musician with a laptop and a microphone can make a record (I’m not talking about vinyl here. Not yet, anyway). Amazingly, we are not talking about a low-fidelity garage record—clear, high-quality digital audio workstations became available on the consumer level more than ten years ago. A company named Digidesign came out with a computer program called Pro Tools, which quickly became the most popular program on the market. Now everyone I know has (at least) a mini-studio capable of recording thirty-two or more audio tracks and mix them down to a CD-quality digital version. Finally I arrive at the point of this rant: should the new Watha T. Daniel Library be outfitted with a recording rig?

I run a modest recording studio, mostly to mix records of bands I like and my band, which I also kinda like. I recently upgraded to an Intel Mac and set aside my G4 and Digidesign Digi 001 interface for something newer. Now my old rig is just sitting, gathering dust and looking lonely. I’m not going to throw away my old machine. Nobody will want a system that still runs Pro Tools 6.4. I was thinking of creating a program at the new building in which we write, record, and mix a song—the whole process from start to finish—but I have doubts about whether I could get enough participants. What do I do?

Remarkably, despite the arsenal of audio tools available, very few artists have really achieved the level of clarity and perfect orchestration as Sgt. Pepper’s. However, the new generations of young, computer-savvy musicians may be ready to tackle the challenge. At the very least I know they have tons of ideas, and often no way to get them out there. This recording program might help kick-start the process.
What do you think?