The networked computer offers an antidote to the junk culture of broadcasting. Why not choose the healthy option?
THINK of those fleeting moments when you look out of an aeroplane window and realise that, regardless of the indignities of commercial air travel, you are flying, higher than a bird, an Icarus safe from the sun. Now think of your laptop, thinner than a manila envelope, or your cellphone nestled in the palm of your hand. Take a moment or two to wonder at those marvels. You are the lucky inheritor of a dream come true.
The second half of the 20th century saw a collection of geniuses, warriors, pacifists, cranks, entrepreneurs and visionaries labour to create a fabulous machine that could function as a typewriter and printing press, studio and theatre, paintbrush and gallery, piano and radio, the mail as well as the mail carrier. Not only did they develop such a device but by the turn of the millennium they had also managed to embed it in a worldwide system accessed by billions of people every day.
The networked computer is an amazing device, the first media machine that serves as the mode of production (you can make stuff), means of distribution (you can upload stuff to the network), site of reception (you can download stuff and interact with it), and locus of praise and critique (you can talk about the stuff you have downloaded or uploaded). The computer is the 21st century's culture machine.
But for all the reasons there are to celebrate the computer, we must also tread with caution. This is because the networked computer has sparked a secret war between downloading and uploading - between passive consumption and active creation - whose outcome will shape our collective future in ways we can only begin to imagine. I call it a secret war for two reasons. First, most people do not realise that there are strong commercial agendas at work to keep them in passive consumption mode. Second, the majority of people who use networked computers to upload are not even aware of the significance of what they are doing.
All animals download, but only a few upload anything besides faeces and their own bodies. Beavers build dams, birds make nests and termites create mounds, yet for the most part, the animal kingdom moves through the world downloading. Humans are unique in their capacity to not only make tools but then turn around and use them to create superfluous material goods - paintings, sculpture and architecture - and superfluous experiences - music, literature, religion and philosophy. Of course, it is precisely these superfluous things that define human culture and ultimately what it is to be human. Downloading and consuming culture requires great skills, but failing to move beyond downloading is to strip oneself of a defining constituent of humanity.
For all the possibilities of our new culture machines, most people are still stuck in download mode. Even after the advent of widespread social media, a pyramid of production remains, with a small number of people uploading material, a slightly larger group commenting on or modifying that content, and a huge percentage remaining content to just consume. One reason for the persistence of this pyramid of production is that for the past half-century, much of the world's media culture has been defined by a single medium - television - and television is defined by downloading.
Television is a one-way spigot gushing into our homes. The hardest task that television asks of anyone is to turn the power off after they have turned it on. The networked computer offers the first chance in 50 years to reverse the flow, to encourage thoughtful downloading and, even more importantly, meaningful uploading.
What counts as meaningful uploading? My definition revolves around the concept of "stickiness" - creations and experiences to which others adhere. Tweets about celebrity gaffes are not sticky but rather little Teflon balls of meaninglessness. In contrast, applications like tumblr.com, which allow users to combine pictures, words and other media in creative ways and then share them, have the potential to add stickiness by amusing, entertaining and enlightening others - and engendering more of the same. The explosion of apps for mobile phones and tablets means that even people with limited programming skills can now create sticky things.
The challenge the computer mounts to television thus bears little similarity to one format being replaced by another in the manner of record players being replaced by CD players. It is far more profound than that, because it can bring about a radical break from the culture of television and a shift from a consumption model to a production model.
This is a historic opportunity. Fifty years of television dominance has given birth to an unhealthy culture. Created like fizzy drinks and burgers by multinational conglomerates, the junk culture of broadcasting has turned us into intellectual diabetics. The cure is now in our collective grasp. It involves controlling and rationing our intake, or downloading, and increasing our levels of activity - uploading. Not to break it down too much, watching is ingesting is downloading and making is exercising is uploading.
Of course people will still download. Nobody uploads more than a tiny percentage of the culture they consume. But the goal must be to establish a balance between consumption and production. Using the networked computer as a download-only device, or even a download-mainly device, is a wasted opportunity of historic proportions.