Definitions: media, freedom, web.

January 31, 2011 § 3 Comments

I had a good conversation with John Udell the other day (thanks!). We were making a list of concepts people need to internalize if they want to think like the web. The next morning, a particular concept jumped to mind: Openendedness. The web is never finished. It’s built to be built on.

The idea of openendedness is a striking one when comparing the web to other media. Newspapers. Films. Books. Television. Comics. Long playing records. Every important medium since the printing press has organized itself around discrete objects that have a start and a finish. The web does not.

As I posted last week, I hope to spend a good chunk of 2011 exploring the openended nature of the web and the way it’s shaping other media. Riffing on last year’s Mozilla Drumbeat theme, I’m using the phrase media, freedom and the web as an umbrella to throw ideas and projects under. Given this, I figured it would be useful to unpack what these words mean to me. Let’s start with …

Freedom

The kind of freedom I am talking about: The openendedness of digital things. Bulding things we can build on.

Loosely, I’m talking about software freedom here. In 1986, Richard Stallman declared that software should have four freedoms. Paraphrased they are: the freedom to use, study, remix and share. While many people don’t buy into the four freedoms per se, the basic ideas are widely accepted. Some rough approximation of use / study / remix / share is what most people mean when they say ‘free’ or ‘open’ in relation to technology.

Freedom in this sense is useful conceptual frame that not only helps us understand the web but may also give us tools to reinvent the media of the past. It’s use / study / remix / share that make the web openended. The same frame offers a useful set of design tools as we start to reinvent media more widely.

Web.

My simple web definition: An infinite box of LEGO that lets anyone build (almost) anything.

Consciously and unconsciously, we have baked freedom and openendedness into the very fabric of the web. At the most literal level: huge parts of our internet culture and economy rest upon a foundation of free software (Google, Amazon, etc.). But the essence of these ideas reaches even further: web wouldn’t be what it is today without the ability to look under the hood, get your hands dirty, and fix what doesn’t work.

I find best way to explain this to most people is to talk about the LEGO that the web is built with. HTTP. HTML. CSS. JavaScript. Etc. At its core, the web is these building blocks. The wonderful, diverse (and occasionaly horrible) web that now spans the world is made up primarily of these things.

Importantly: we have this web because so many of us were able to use this LEGO to invent, build and bend things without asking permission from others. No one has to ask Tim Berners Lee less if they want to use HTML or Brendan Eich if they want to use Javascript. No one had to ask to view source. This is the very practical magic of the web.

Openendedness is central here. The network and the LEGO blocks are built to be built upon. They are built this way not only technically, but also culturally and conceptually. People steeped in the web — and many people who have grown up with it — don’t think about finishedness in the same way we their parents did. Iteration. Adaptation. Extension. These are the things they value, and that might benefit all media.

Media.

My simple definition for media: The things that connect us. The stories we tell. The people who tell them.

We all talk about media. But we talk about it differently. Some of us talk in the abstract sense that McLuhan meant: the material essence of a particular medium. Print. Film. Web. Others talk more tangibly about the stories we tell and how we tell them. Books. Movies. Social networks. Still others personify ‘the media’, talking about the people who make it. ‘The media is screwing up politics and democracy’ or ‘the media sucks’.

As the web era moves from disruption to reinvention, it’s important to contemplate what is happening with all of this. Things are changing at all levels. The material essence of what we used to call print or film. The ways we tell stories as books and movies. And, most dramatically, the people who make media (which we increasingly recognize to be ‘all of us’). All of these things are in play.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this reinvention is this question of finishedness vs. openendedness. Typesetting and the printed page were rigid and closed. The wiki and the web page are openended. We use them for seemingly similar purposes, but to very different effect.

As we reinvent and make choices, we have a chance to build the openended nature of the web into all media.

Why hop through these three concepts? Partly to map the terrain for a series of experiments. I’m hoping Mozilla Drumbeat can explore media, freedom and the web in some very practical ways during 2011.

However, McLuhan also urged us to ‘contemplate what is happening’ with media if we want to shape it. This requires a shared vocabulary, a broadly understood set of concepts. For me, the openended nature of the web is one of these concepts. Many more people need to understand that the web is built on freedom, even if we end up using different words.

In my next post, I want to do an old media / new media case study. I started out my career as a filmmaker, so it’s probably about how cinema might be reinvented on the web.

This is the first in a series of posts about media, freedom and the web.

§ 3 Responses to Definitions: media, freedom, web.

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