Clay Shirky on new freedoms and old constraints

On Many to Many, Clay Shirky carries on a debate with Nick Carr and others about the relative merits of web culture. The argument there takes up the example of the disappearance of the LP and its replacement with the track. That’s Carr’s lament. It makes sense from only one perspective. If you view the LP as the "natural" or default way to experience music, then anything else would be likely be experienced as a loss of some kind. The point here is not really LP’s particular, of course, but rather the loss of certain historical moment of media production typified by LP’s, novels, literary magazines, newspapers, and analog cinema. I guess that would be the 50’s-70’s: the era of baby boomer youth.

However I am reminded of Geoffrey Sirc’s talk at Computer and Writing (my post on it) where he discusses the mix tape and the wonderful constraints the tape medium offered as one plotted out songs to fill the tape while also conveying are particular mood or message. And then I think about the dj mixing and scratching.  I also think about the modern/post-modern novel or poem with its collages, the film with its cutting room floor and montages. Like the LP, none of these are cohesive media. Like the LP, all are products of technical constraints that are historically and culturally contingent.

So what about the blog or the podcast or the iTunes "album"? Are these just bags of media lacking the clarity or unity of mid-century media?

Of course not. First off, as I’ve already suggested, these prior media have no integral clarity or unity. If there is an experience of unity or wholeness it comes in the networked interaction of media and user. Second, and more important, new media comes with its own set of technical constraints and aesthetic/rhetorical discourses. Look at this blog! And look at any dozen other blogs. Can anyone deny that there are a set of constraints under which we are operating? There are always constraints under which we operate. Some constraints we can break or bend. Others we cannot. Often we seek out constraints because they provide the meaningful context in which our audience can access our work. (E.g., in part my blog looks like a blog so that readers can read it as a blog.)

No doubt we are still trying to figure out the possibilities of these media, and perhaps even more challenging, the possibility of transmedia productions (another internal link). However, if you were going to say that the height of the LP was… what? Sgt Peppers’? Dark Side? Whatever, I’m guessing you’d saying something published between the late-sixties and late-seventies: 20-30 years after the LP format was invented (and realized in an art form that didn’t exist in 1948).

Convergent media networks will lead to the development of sophisticated transmedia productions. And those productions will be undertaken within a broad network of technical, financial, cultural, legal, rhetorical, aesthetic, and material constraints. They will also take advantage of new creative possibilities analogous to those realized by electric guitars and effects, synthesizers, multi-track recording, drug experimentation, increasing access to global cultural influences, and so on that informed the classic rock album.

So wax nostalgic for the past if you like. When I’m 50 or 60, perhaps I’ll wax nostalgic for Nirvana and Quentin Tarantino films, or maybe Radiohead and The Matrix. Or Douglas Coupland novels that simultaneously revel in such nostalgia and melt it down in a blast furnace of cynicism.

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