Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading, by Peter Lunenfeld

The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading: Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine, by Peter Lunenfeld

This is a frighteningly bad and terribly inconsistent book. Lunenfeld’s point that the computer is dangerously close to replacing television as society’s idiot box is well taken, but his belief that a solution entails people creating as much content as they consume is ludicrous. “...the goal must be to establish a balance between consumption and production, and using the networked computer as a patio-potato enabler, download-only device, or even download-mainly device is a wasted opportunity of historic proportions.” Either he hasn’t seen what passes for content on YouTube these days or his wish is coming true in a wickedly ironic manner. Later he compares the Great Wall of China and the Greek myths to Wikipedia and Linux because they were all built with a communal effort. I wonder if the prisoners and soldiers that built the Wall often got into arguments over which brick went where?

While one one hand he demands people create and upload content, Lunenfeld is on the other offended at copyright laws and authors rights: “By holding on to Mickey [Mouse] ... [Disney] keeps the rest of us out of the storehouse of mutable materials for the creation of new, noncorporate culture.” He certainly didn’t give his book away for free without license. I imagine that M.I.T. (the book’s copyright holder) would frown on that as much as Disney would at someone posting Mickey porn on the Internet.

The author also bemoans the vanishing art of pen-on-paper illustration, calling it the “font of imagination.” He does go on to express hope that photo-realistic computer graphic special effects can be the new source of creative fantasy for the next generation. Sadly, the cover he chose for this book looks like a bad wipe from a 70’s TV show; a lost opportunity to encourage his dream. (While grumbling about the cover I might as well lodge another complaint about the dress: the book is printed almost entirely in boldface; only the sidebars are in a normal weight which makes them very welcome.)

I believe this statement summarizes everything I disliked about this book: “The computer allows the human creative spirit even more flexibility and greater potential than the printing press because it synthesizes so many other media forms.” On the surface this is a thoughtful sentence that draws an astute comparison. A deeper look causes you to realize the printing press didn’t nurture the human creative spirit at all, though, it simply made sharing and preserving content easier. The quiet pride we feel when viewing Rockwell’s Four Freedoms and the tears we shed hearing Elgar’s Nimrod movement in Enigma Variations, the wonder we find in Verne’s words and the rapture spawned by Astaire’s dance, the ingenuity of those that invented the printing press and computer, the love of our family and our quest for wisdom; these things feed our human spirit, not the machines themselves.

First Sentence:
First, we must define the terms of the struggle.

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