Seeing the Online World Through Metaphor and Memories

About a month ago, Sebastian Schmieg, a Berlin-based artist asked If I would write a piece and then record the audio for a project about online behavior. As he put it “I’ve been commissioned by an arts organization called ‘Abandon Normal Devices’ to produce a new online piece which will focus on the relationship between being online and offline, and how being online has become the ‘default mode’….” The writers on this project would be free to explore a range of ideas, but were encouraged to tell some of their stories.

Because I was limited to 700 words, I switched from writing about the details of my online behavior and, instead, wrote some quick sketches — leaving it up to the reader to make the connections.

The full project appears here.

Where have we been? Where are we going?

This could be just another tech story — isolated, weird… the kind where people say “wow, I can’t believe we used something so slow and simple.” After all, when you go back in time, that’s what you tend to get — things that were slower and simpler. We often don’t see the larger vision of the builder and take for granted the genius that it was at the time. But, if we look at our online experience in a larger framework of where we’ve been and where we’re going, it makes a lot more sense as we see the evolution of something amazing.

Music. Performance. Blending. The Bigger Sound. Individual vs Group Dynamics.

Age 7. First French Horn lesson. I knew that letters of the alphabet represented notes, so when Mr. Sadlier asked me what note I wanted to play first, I said “L” since that was the first letter in my name. He politely told me that was not a note, and of course, I asked “why not?” Kids have great imaginations. Later, I would learn that music was a metaphor for the connected world. You make your sound. You know immediately if it’s any good. It either blends or does not. When the band plays, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Yet, like the Silicon Valley employee who had ideas of his own, I couldn’t help feeling like a technician who was only allowed to execute. No interpretation. So, I conducted my own experiment while playing in a musical. I would intentionally delay hitting certain notes. To my amazement, this created a train wreck as the conductor altered his baton and everyone who was following him changed what they were doing. I stopped and smiled. It was just an experiment.

Going Online For the First Time

Mid 1980s. National Micro Systems. Sacramento, California. Just out of college, I worked as a marketing person. I was called into the room next to me, where the engineers and technicians built things. Someone said, “Lee, we want you to try this out.” A guy in Denver sent us an electronic message. It was right there, on the computer screen in green font. I sent a quick response. Cool! But, there wasn’t a lot of conversation about this. I went back to my office and continued to use the phone for communications. Years later, as a teacher, I would be introduced to email. Yet, we would typically default to talking about our emails in the hallways or in the bar across the street. Mid 1990s, I would go over to the English teacher’s room, where he would show me Netscape. Again, very cool, but no time to process all this. Too much paperwork, grading and lesson planning. No time for the big vision.

The Evolution of Something Amazing

We’re aware now. The power and the opportunity to be visionary and creative is right before us. We can do our own thinking and have people join us. The most hopeful changes I see have less to do with the tangible technology (great as it is) that is in front of us, and more to do with the underlying structures and philosophies. I can only describe these the same way a mathmetician describes a formula as elegant, or the way a musician hears a drum corps, all in a line, bells up, full volume, coming in step towards the screaming crowd. It is triumphant, simple and empowering. I am talking here about bottom-up, emergent behavior. Self-organizing systems. Rather than “executing notes on a page” or top-down spoon feeding of content to students or playing video games that everyone else is playing, we might use video game hours onine to fix real societal problems or, as students, start working on real problems to solve and building businesses or portfolios online.

Distributed Autonomous Organizations now give us the potential to create self-organizing systems which could provide opportunities to creative people and visionaries to be part of larger, like-minded groups. The words that Robin Williams spoke in the movie Dead Poets Society reappear in my head… “that you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”

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