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Here’s an interesting dilemma about the Internet:

Inventions are about the idea and the sale – someone makes a new product or process and wants two things, recognition for the idea but also some profit from the sale of the idea.

On the Internet, in its ideal form at least, an idea is meant to be freely shared – blogs represent hours and hours of (mostly) free published content, open source software abounds, MP3s make their way onto some sharing site or another, and memes are effective because they are (presumably) good enough ideas to send around.

What about the sale of Internet-based ideas?

So far the results have been mixed.  Apple’s iTunes seems to flourish, but that’s less an idea than it is a different type of product, a commodity to be sold.  Newspapers have been discussing paid subscriptions and what those might look like, and some (WSJ) have already done it, but again the line between commodity and pure idea are not clear.  Some blogs and podcasts require paid subscription, but more often they rely on advertising revenue or other sponsorship.  Wikipedia works in part because it is completely free, relying only on (hefty) donations to keep the operation going.  Selling something (or rather, not a thing, but an idea) online may be seen as selling out.

Where it really shows up, it seems, is in the purchase of websites or other content by a large (usually corporate) entity.  On the one hand, an Internet entrepreneur wants their idea to pay off.  On the other hand, deals like the AOL acquisition of the Huffington Post happen, and onlookers squirm.  What are they really paying for?  How will that affect what’s posted?  (In the case of HuffPo, the general theme of the content is more or less already expected, but the question of proper influence arises nonetheless.)

We seem ambivalent about payment transactions for ideas in what is supposed to be a free and open forum.  But the longer-lived culture of entrepreneurial invention reminds us that we can’t pay the rent with ideas alone.  Can Internet culture support two forms of currency?  Does corporate sponsorship or pay-to-play content de-legitimize an idea (or its source) in an online forum?

(That’ll be 63 cents, please!  PayPal accepted.)

Update:  I was thinking this morning (Saturday) that this post is a bit of a ramble.  And I should have incorporated a piece on Net Neutrality, perhaps a tangent but certainly directly related to the presence of for-profit corporations (or any other entity with an agenda) on the Internet.

And perhaps one important part of online ideas vs. inventions for sale is the concept of the commons versus a scarce material resource.  Unlike the grassy field example, however, the online commons is not at all diminished by more people accessing or making a copy of the information; Wikimedia Commons is an example of this.  You can point out that digital information tends to degrade with more copies, but this is not a function of more people accessing it, only it being copied more times.  And of course server space and electricity are the scarce material resources on which the information depends, but the trend has been more and cheaper space, not less.

Thus it is more difficult to enforce ownership over an idea or online object, because unlike a produced item it can be copied and/or transformed with almost no effort.  While it is good form on the Internet to credit your original source, as it is in other realms, it does not necessarily restrict access from that source, nor does someone else really profit from it – the copier may, in fact, be showing tribute to the original idea by spreading it to more people.

Anyway, there’s a lot to sort out for this thought to really go anywhere, but there are a couple more pieces to consider.

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Omigosh.

William Hollingsworth (“Holly”) Whyte.

This will require further investigation, but I think I found one of my new favorite people.  A few words on the man, from a collection of his work, The Essential William H. Whyte (Fordham UP, 2000):

“William H. Whyte, known to friends and family as Holly, was a prophet of common sense.  He did not approach the city with a preconceived vision; he came to it as an observer, and he based his philosophy of open space, his prescription for the civilized way of making cities, on what he saw.  He was in every way an urban anthropologist, and he had the objectivity of a great scientist, prepared to gather the evidence and be guided by it.  He cared more than anything about how people used the spaces they were given, and he told us more than we had ever known about that.  Where architects and planners had been designing by intuition, Holly Whyte gave them facts.” (Foreword by Paul Goldberger)

“Whyte was an astute observer who reported how people actually behaved (rather than how we assume they behave).  A charitable critic with a real moral bent, Whyte was cheerful by nature, ever the optimist; even if his observations about postwar American life were laced with warnings, some of them quite ominous, Whyte was always thinking positively, and he was clearly a patriot.  His affable personality and the agreeableness of his prose permitted him to go further in his social criticism than was typical in the popular media of the day, and people listened.” (Introduction by Albert LaFarge)

I just picked up this book and will have to reflect more on his work at a later time – partly because I should actually be reflecting on it in my Physical Planning project.  But just browsing through “The Class of ’49” from The Organization Man, I realized that he describes an institutionalization of young male America as a result of military service in World War II – a desire for structure, hierarchical management, and stability in a large organization (e.g. AT&T) rather than the messy riskiness, and sometimes inefficiency, of small businesses.  This is interesting for so many reasons:

  • Profound influence of the experience of war, particularly of soldiers, on the structure of society
  • Changing social organizations and ideals and desires and goals
  • The (possible) fundamental shift in thought post WW2 in American culture
  • The desire for stability, commoditization, sameness, as a response to war
  • The rise of what we are currently dealing with, and its potential decline and/or change (that is, big corporations; widespread suburban developments; a culture of sameness; hierarchical vs. collaborative structures; dependence on certain resources; what it means to be a worker and contribute to society)
  • The physical/spatial implications of these values, and how we interact with where we live

Something to throw out there:  the Internet (with accompanying ideas of digital information, non-hierarchical or spatially-based networks, networks in general, new communication patterns, more fluid identities, information overload, etc etc etc) is on par with World War 2 in terms of its level of influence on our culture and society – how we value and organize our world and each other.

Whereas postwar American culture was built on the desire to rebuild a better society out of mass cultural hardship and trauma,

Contemporary culture is being built by our attempts to deal with a torrent of information we’ve created … but major ideological/value conflicts also need to fit in there somewhere … hmm.

Holy crap.

I need to think about this a lot more.

I’m so intellectually flipping out right now.