From September 2005 to June 2006 a team of thirteen scholars at the The University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication explored how new and maturing networking technologies are transforming the way in which we interact with content, media sources, other individuals and groups, and the world that surrounds us.
This site documents the process and the results.
I asked economist and activist Harry Cleaver for his reaction to some of the issues raised at the conference. Here is what he had to say about networked culture, politics, and what Marx might make of MAKE magazine:
On machinma, anime remix, and World of Warcraft:
Well, with respect to machinma and anime remix, it's my impression that the availability of tools is giving more people access to such means of expression. However, two things: first, the tools are still complex and, from all we heard, terribly time consuming so that "access" means little at this point because very few people have either the skills or the time and energy to devote to such efforts; second, as a result, it seems that the result is only a very marginal contribution to "participatory culture" and that contribution takes more the form of creating and circulating artistic works than contributions to any kind of community interactivity.
With respect to the World of Warcraft, I didn't hear anything to suggest that there was any qualitative leap involved beyond what already exists in other on-line computer games and perhaps even less participation if, unlike say Quake, or Civilization (in its various incarnations), you can't reshape the world and share it with others. For years now there has been "participatory culture" - collective interaction and role/game playing among those in the on-line computer game world so what we saw presented: playing WoW with lots of guild-mates, and interactions among the humans behind the characters - including around out-of-game, off-line issues—is quite familiar.
Moreover, the rigidities of such on-line worlds combined with their ever-evolving, ever-enhanced content (based on continuous feed-back from players-customers) mostly reduces them to one more terrain of entertainment. In other words, "participation" is, for the most part, limited to participation in the game and whatever personal interactions may occur spinning off from such participation. Other than the media that isn't very different from lots of pre-existing game or sports situations, from board games to golf or soccer. After all, people have long interacted with each other around previous collective activities of game playing or sports - and I'm talking here about the players, not those who just passively (albeit emotionally engaged) observe. The internet may make it possible for a wider variety of people to interact over greater distances but the character of the interaction seems very similar (never underestimate the wide class differences among, say, members of a GO club).
From the point of view of politics on-line role playing games in worlds designed to be quite separate from the rest of the world (both off-line and on-line - given the political character of much of cyberspace) of war, torture, abuse, exploitation, genocide, alienation, social movements, etc., can, like earlier forms of entertainment serve either or both of two functions: first, diversion that serves, like so many other "cultural products"(many kinds of: poems, movies, books, sports, board games, card games, TV sit-coms or dramas), to provide momentary escape and relief from the tensions and stresses of the world of politics, or second, systematic and on-going distraction to keep people busy and dis-engaged from political action (on-line or off-line), just more forms of "soma" aimed, like so many "educational", "recreational" and "entertainment" activities to keep control over social evolution in the hands of manupulatory elites.
However, sometimes politics breaks through into such "separate" worlds and at least momentarily re-unites them with active politics. For example, after 9-11 the fantasy world of Ultima Online was pervaded with political discussion and debate. On the one hand, there were xenophobic,anti-"rag head" diatribes and artistic expressions (like using different colored pieces of cloth to make American flags in public places, or reconfiguring personal house construction to do something similar), on the other there were more nuanced, anti-jingoistic interventions and critiques of Bush administration policies. So many anti-Iraq invasion animal tamers were going around taming and renaming pigs "George Bush" or "Dick Chaney" that the game owners (Origin Systems, then Electronic Arts) moved to block the practice so that if you tamed a pig and tried to give it some such name you could not and received an automatic message "That's not very nice" such that you had to give it some other name. You get the picture. For the most part, though, there is relatively little of this and from conversations with other humans in the game there is something of a consensus that this is a world to which people escape to NOT think about lying administrations and their wars.
On the expansion of the political terrain:
I think it is quite obvious, at this point, that the Internet and many of its moments, from e-mail listservs and webpages to the "blogosphere" is contributing to a rapid expansion of political terrain and that what goes on in those cyberspacial parts of the "political landscape" is having an ever-increasing impact on other parts.
More and more people are recognizing the paucity of informative content of network "news" programs and turning to cyberspace for more complete and more indepth coverage of issues that interest them - fully cognizant of the diversity of views and biases expressed therein. The monopoly of corporate mass media on public knowledge and understanding has been breaking down and both citizens and corporations are well-aware of it - thus the current efforts by corporations to get control over the Internet in order to neutralize this political space that they can't control — just as they previously did with with radio and television.
Obviously the Internet with all its wildcat channels of communication is proving to be useful in the spread of satirical and biting political remixes of all kinds, from static images to dynamic gifs to video. These artistic political interventions are being circulated infinitely faster than earlier, pre-Internet, efforts and thus having a bigger impact and playing a more important role. Think about how fast and how widely the poster of Osama Ben Laden pointing his finger at the observer and saying "I want YOU to invade Iraq" circulated, was downloaded, printed out and posted here, there and yonder. Today a bloody handprint under the words "Stop the War!" is making a similar circuit. Even traditional political cartoons and comic strips are being given expanded life through rapid diffusion through the Internet.
On what Marx might say about MAKE magazine:
I suspect that Marx would query to what extent the magazine contributes to the liberation of people from passivity into self-directed activity (homo faber being at least one viable form of human self-realization) and to what extent is it merely the vehicle for one more capitalist co-optation of human creativity and imagination. After all, as he made abundantly clear in his analysis of the role of "living labor" within capitalism, the latter derives its dynamism from the former. Capitalism as such is merely dead-labor, the confinement of life within ever-repeating circuits whose pseudo-life is derived from the annexation of living-labor-and that living-labor includes creative and inventive power. Are the tools and created objects celebrated in "Make" the means and expression of free activity? To what degree will they, like so many other bright ideas and clever new things before them, be sucked into mere moments of profit-based commodity production that seeks to subject all human life to endless labor within those ever-repeating circuits? In the emerging post-Fordist world it is of relatively little importance to capital whether invention takes place in the office/lab or in the home/community as long as what is invented is quickly reduced to a saleable commodity and any anti-capitalist or self-valorizing role neutralized.
In this regard it is also worth remembering that for a long, long time capital has encouraged the very un-waged labor that goes into producing and reproducing its labor force. Home Depot and such stores are more than happy to make a profit selling the components necessary for such un-wagedlabor. Not only do they make a profit but when people do their own home repair/expansion/gardening lower wages are required to produce the same level of reproduction. So too do corporations like Radio Shack provide components for reproduction and/or inventions that may become something more than personal expressions of creativity: moments of the reproduction of the labor force, or potential objects of commodification. What's
needed here are studies of the history of personal or small group creativity of the sort celebrated in "Make" and earlier magazines like "Popular Mechanics" to discover to what degree such self-activity has been annexed by business and to what degree it has actually been able constitute practices that are either anti-corporate or which move beyond the capitalist organization of life.