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Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Web 2.0 Visionaries vs. the Handyman
Not long ago, the University of Chicago Press published a fascinating book, "From Counterculture to Cyberculture," which offered historical and cultural context for a phenomenon that most of us take for granted: the fact that "conversations about computers so quickly turn into conversations about idealized societies," as the Berkman Center's Ethan Zuckerman puts it.
The book's author, Stanford communications professor Fred Turner, points out that until the mid-1960s, countercultural utopian dreamers were terrified of computers, which they feared would eventually organize social life in a logical -- but inhuman, remorseless, totalitarian -- fashion. (Dystopian fictions on this topic that leap to mind include: Godard's "Alphaville" (1965); Vonnegut's first novel, "Player Piano" (1952); Dick's first short story, "Stability" (1947); and a 1967 "Star Trek" episode titled "A Taste of Armageddon.") Yet thanks in large part to ex-Merry Prankster Stewart Brand, who popularized cybernetic metaphors in his communalist Whole Earth Catalog, and who cofounded the WELL, an influential early online community, today it seems natural and inevitable to talk about networked computers and radical social progress in the same breath. How often have you heard that Web 2.0 technologies will -- one way or another -- empower the individual, restore community, overcome prejudice, revitalize democracy, and make us smarter and richer?
In his excellent 1998 book "Techgnosis," independent scholar Erik Davis pointed out that computer networks have inspired media theorists and others to wax not merely utopian -- in 1969, for example, Marshall McLuhan told Playboy that computer networks held out the promise of creating "a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity" -- but apocalyptic. Not necessarily in a negative way: Davis suggests that apocalyptic thinking can "shatter the illusory sense that the world today is simply muddling on as it always has." Boston-based inventor and techno-visionary Ray Kurzweil, for example, is an apocalyptic thinker: He once told Ideas that human technological advancement follows the law of accelerating returns -- which means, among other things, that within the next few decades we'll be able to download our minds onto a computer, making us effectively immortal.
OK, perhaps that's going too far: But even us sober-minded observers of Web 2.0 (websites and technologies that combine user-created content, social networking, and new publishing technologies like blogging, podcasts, and wikis) tend to believe that -- nowadays -- those of us who can get online are uniquely able to "resonate with like minds across the planet, mine rich veins of unexpected information and images, and respond to the frazzled chaos of life with constructive communication and a plethora of points of view," as Davis puts it.
The only problem, for many of us, is... we don't know how to do these amazing things. We visit the Internet like we visit New York: cautiously, following the exact same route every time. Our homepages, if we have homepages, are lame; we don't know how to blog or podcast; our browsers are out-of-date, plagued with viruses and spyware, and slow. What to do? Forget the Web 2.0 visionaries -- they're no help. What we need is a Web 2.0 handyman, the online equivalent of an omnicompetent and friendly next-door neighbor who's always willing to lend a hand with a stalled engine or carpentry project. I was fortunate enough to stumble across just such an individual a decade ago: Mark Frauenfelder.
Originally a mechanical engineer and illustrator, in 1988 Frauenfelder cofounded an attractive futurist-pop culture zine called bOING bOING, which urged "happy mutants" to have fun with technology. It's one of my favorite zines ever. Frauenfelder's enthusiasm was contagious: He ended up doing much the same thing as an editor at Wired (he was the founding editor of Wired Online) and as a Playboy columnist for most of the '90s. In 2000, Frauenfelder and friends launched a group blog called Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things, which is now one of the most popular blogs in the world, and a must-read for anyone trying to stay abreast of what's happening online. (He's also the editor of the Popular Mechanics-for-hackers magazine Make, among other things.) Now, Frauenfelder has published a guide to doing "anything and everything on the Internet -- better, faster, easier." Hallelujah!
Frauenfelder's "Rule the Web" includes tips on: starting a blog, getting word-of-mouth publicity for it, and following other blogs with an RSS reader; setting up a private wiki, joining an online social network that's right for you, and sharing digital photos; browsing the Web free from viruses, ads, and spyware; shopping and selling online; downloading music and videos; using the Internet to become more productive at work and at play; protecting and tuning up your computer and software; and much more.
The book was published earlier this month, and instead of browsing through it, I've been carefully reading it from the first page forward. Thanks to Frauenfelder, I've finally figured out how to add a message board to any website (via QuickTopic), find photos online that I can use for free (via Open Photo, Flickr, and Creative Commons), edit and retouch photos online (via Snipshot), find unlisted phone numbers (via Zabasearch), and more -- and that was just the first two chapters. Phew!
So will "Rule the Web" help empower the individual, restore community, overcome prejudice, revitalize democracy, and make us smarter and richer? Let's put it this way: It's much more likely that these things will happen if everybody reads Frauenfelder's book than if they don't.
PS: Hotshot media theorist Douglas Rushkoff is also a fan of "Rule the Web."
UPDATE: Thanks, Quick Study, for the link.