Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Future Already Exists

Borges in Central Park,
New York, 1969 by Diane Arbus
Video Artist Bill Viola described electricity, in a lecture in 2009 at  Otis College of Art and Design (13:30-18:30), as a "gift from the sky." Electricity, remarked Viola, brought movement to images through video. It made the digital medium possible and it gave us all the power to send messages around the globe at the speed of light. Viola saw the combination of science, technology and art made possible by the digital medium as culminating in cultural change on the scale of the Renaissance. The digital medium, he predicted, will break down barriers between disciplines making knowledge universal and accessible to everyone. On the Web, all time and all knowledge coexist in ways Jorge Lois Borges described his 1941 story, The Garden of Forking Paths. Borges describes the work of a fictional  poet, calligrapher and governor named Ts'ui Pen who leaves everything behind to "compose a book and a maze" with the aim to "construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost." To new media scholars, Borges description of Ts'ui Pen's maze relates to the hypertext of the World Wide Web. The long process of conceiving, understanding and fully utilizing the tool of the Web may no doubt take centuries to fully work out. As Viola wrote in his essay Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?(1982): "Applications of tools are only reflections of the users--chopsticks may be a simple eating utensil or a weapon, depending on who uses them."

With the recent use of Web 2.0 social media to share information about the regime in Egypt, we see the Web's function beyond selling shoes and booking travel. Tim Berner-Lee and his CERN colleagues refrained form describing the political possibilities of the Web in their article titled The World-Wide Web (1994). "The World-Wide Web (W3) was developed to be a pool of human knowledge, which would allow collaborators in remote sites to share their ideas and all aspects of a common project" they wrote. Commerce may have outpaced knowledge-sharing with the development of entrepreneurial projects from Amazon to Facebook, but users ultimately use and sometimes subvert the tool. Through Web 2.0, artists can today avoid the traditional gate keepers of culture (e.g. art fairs, galleries, museums, publications) by building their own audiences by putting their work on sites ranging from Etsy to TuneCore to their own blogs where ideas as well as commodities are exchanged. FaceBook and Twitter are being used by even established gallery artists to share information on their projects and processes. The artistic process may be less mysterious than it used to be, but it is also accessible to audiences perhaps searching for familiar voices edged out of the mainstream. Meanwhile, Berners-Lee urges users to share "unadulterated raw data" by posting it on the Web to break down  barriers between people and disciplines.
Tim Berners-Lee in 1994 unleashing the Web