Open Web Van talk (& where it’s leading)

So far this summer I’ve made some progress on my comps (not as much as I’d hoped, but close), but more importantly I’ve had a bit of mental breathing space available to reflect and assess some of the monumental changes in communication and media over the past 10 years. Since Napster, that is. In 1999 the practical reality of some of the ideas we’re now contemplating would have been laughed off the stage. Then, we were obsessed with Postman’s despair about the internet, Castells’ somewhat overwrought Network Society, steampunk, cyborgs, the digital divide, and klunky tech concepts like Virtual Reality, Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol and Digital PCS Cellular Telephone Service. Subjects that (should) get laughed offstage now, or at least get appreciated in terms of their historical context. Getting out the crystal ball is bound to prompt the laugh track before the punchline is delivered, anticipating the endless stream of junk to fall out of the closet as in some 70s sitcom that’s run out of gags. But here goes.

I gave this talk at Open Web Vancouver, as I warned you a couple weeks ago. Here’s the PDF, which doesn’t really visually string all the ideas together perfectly. The synopsis is: issues of intellectual property, privacy, affordable network access, network neutrality and democratic participation in an era of mobile digital media and pervasive data are inextricably linked. As such, our policy framework (currently under review by various bodies and public consultation processes) ought to recognize this and adopt an integrated approach to updating our laws in ways that enhance our democracy, our creative sphere, and our overall well-being – and by “our” I mean everybody.

The implications of this approach are manifold, but some issues that need resolving are: what guarantees of privacy or anonymity are we willing to extend ourselves, and in what exceptional circumstances are we willing to suspend those guarantees for some; if an expanded public domain and relaxed rules about copyright and recognition of a creative commons is to be adopted, what are the implications for use of images (and other media) of individuals photographed in public spaces; and many others.

So the talk was very much about policy and developing guidelines for rewriting our currently outdated legislation in Canada (e.g., Broadcasting Act? make sense to anyone anymore?). An early morning talk, only about a dozen people attended in person, but the discussion that ensued assured me that they were a very well-informed and articulate dozen. The guy in the next room had a salmon costume, so I guess 8:30 AM hangover logic determined the turnout distribution in this case…if I were hungover, I’d have surely followed the salmon guy over the policy wonk.

But beyond the talk – getting back to where I started here – I’ve been reflective of late on not just policy, but what implications our radically transformed media environment holds for our consciousness. It is well known that human cultures other than ours (those descended from European-Judeo-Christian cultures and exported willy-nilly around the globe) have had different conceptions of self and community – conceptions that do not emphasize individual freedoms, rights, and responsibilities as against collective rights and responsibilities in the same way or to the same degree that we do (see corporate family structures in traditional rural India, even collectivism as expressed in Maoist China and Bolshevik Russia, though there are many more lesser known examples).

Values of collective rights and responsibilities are of course no stranger to Westerners historically, but under industrial and postindustrial capitalism they have been undermined, masked, bracketed out. Amidst the “social media” arena, there does exist some collective sensibility – that is at least strong enough to sustain Firefox and Wikipedia (among many other notable examples) for now, and pop communications literature of late abounds with pundits arguing the case that our business models must change to adopt this sensibility, too.

But to the point, in an era where the (1) ideas are seen as the evolving products of a collective (rather than as things which are owned by experts who can trade in them) (2) social projects and business models are increasingly being conducted (successfully) using volunteerism and distributed organization (rather than relying on paid labour and hierarchical organization), and (3) privacy and anonymity are becoming things that are difficult to obtain and maintain (rather than the default condition in the West, which was that it was relatively simple to stay sequestered in our atomic family homes, equipped with no such ubiquitous sous/surveillance technologies as we are now), are our values changing? Are we thinking more about other people’s perspectives than we used to do when we make decisions? And are we thinking more about the long term consequences for future generations? Or is all this social media and open source stuff just feelgood bunk?

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