Create or be Created
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Create or be Created: How the Internet Cultural Renaissance is Turning Audience Members into Artists by William Butler O'Connor

The amazing ability of the Net to hurl text, images, and sound around the globe with tremendous speed, efficiency, and affordability--in combination with a wide range of powerful digital tools--is making it much easier for the average person to create, share, and experience culture.

Until now, most people tended to enjoy culture created by others--what I call "experienced" culture--rather than creating it themselves--i.e., "expressed culture." However, Internet is now dramatically shifting this ratio in favor of more "expressed" culture. Thus, the title of this essay--Created or Be Created--refers to the process of individuals declaring their "cultural independence" from "professional" culture creators, choosing instead to enjoy a blend of both expressed and experienced culture.

The move towards a more expressed culture will extinguish this traditionally dichotomous cultural landscape, inspire entirely new forms of and ideas about culture, and enrich the life of the so-called "average" person enormously. In short, what we might call the "Big Bang" of the Internet's birth is bringing into being an Internet Cultural Renaissance.


The Internet Cultural Renaissance: The Rise of Expressed Culture
How the Net is Changing the Dynamics of Culture Creation
How the "Average Person" Will Use These New Digital Capabilities
Expressed Culture on the Net: Glimpses of a Coming Revolution

The Internet Cultural Renaissance: The Rise of Expressed Culture

Anyone in the least bit informed about the Internet has no doubt read megabytes of impassioned prose about its potential to revolutionize ... well ... just about everything. Many of these excited ruminations have had to do with technical wizardry, bold entrepreneurialism, political and legal issues, and social ramifications. This essay, by contrast, is concerned with the Net's effect on culture. The amazing ability of the Net to hurl text, images, and sound around the globe with tremendous speed, efficiency, and affordability - in combination with a wide range of sophisticated digital tools - is making it much easier for the average person to create, share, and experience culture.

In the past, the difficulty of creating, distributing, and accessing culture has traditionally restricted the actual creation of culture to a tiny minority of the population. We call these people artists, or writers, or musicians, or playwrights - a special breed of person that devotes most of their time to expressing themselves creatively, while we, for the most part, sit on the cultural sidelines, experiencing and appreciating the fruits of their labors. Of this dynamic, we might justly say, "it has ever been thus" - but, as I intend to show in this essay, the Internet is loosing such forces as will extinguish this traditionally dichotomous cultural landscape, inspire entirely new forms of and ideas about culture, and enrich the lives of so called "average people" enormously. In short, what we might call the "Big Bang" of the Internet's birth is bringing into being an Internet Cultural Renaissance.

For the purposes of this essay, I will be using the term "experienced culture" as meaning creative work produced by "someone else other than you," and the term "expressed culture" as meaning creative work produced by "you," i.e., each individual person him or herself. When looked at in this manner - rather than through the well-worn lens of "high-culture" and "low-culture" - we quickly see that, for the average person, the expressed/experienced culture ratio is quite low - perhaps, on the average, hovering around the 10/90 level. Simply put, most people tend to enjoy culture created by others rather than creating it themselves. What I call the Internet Cultural Renaissance will dramatically shift this ratio in favor of expressed culture. Thus, the title of this essay - Created or Be Created - refers to individuals declaring their "cultural independence" from the world of "professional" culture creators, and choosing, rather, a blend of both expressed and experienced culture.

How the Net is Changing the Dynamics of Culture Creation

Culture: The Economic Dynamics of its Creation

To see from the bottom-up how all this is taking place, let's take a look at the mechanics of culture before the Internet. In the "old days," the relative cost and effort behind creating/distributing something a cultural creation was enormous. To publish a novel, for example, required the editorial skills to select and polish the proper manuscript, the means and expertise to print and bind it, the space to store it, the transportation costs to get it to distributors and bookstores across the country, and the logistical/accounting/ business skills to keep track of what has been shipped, what has been paid for, etc. In fields where the form of the art is significantly more cumbersome than mere text - for example, paintings, sculptures, or symphonies - the process was even more restrictive. In short, the whole enterprise set up a situation where, as they say, "many are called, but few are chosen."

Wheat: Over There - Chaff: Over There

I like to call this principle the 1/99 Maxim: Meaning that, up until now, for every one person that would be selected to have their creative expression published/produced, there were another 99 that would not be chosen. In fact, we have many expressions that describe this situation: "it's almost impossible to make it in the arts," "there's a light for every broken heart on Broadway," "starving artist," "I'm a waiter but I really want to be an actor," and so on. All of these are linguistic pointers to the harsh reality that the supply and demand for culture are completely out of whack in our modern industrial societies. This rather brutal winnowing out of the creative pack leaves in its wake people who have been, for all intents and purposed, "creatively crushed." These failed artists - from every creative endeavor, not just fine arts per se - then usually turn to some less desirable, but more practical, career, and simply reminisce from time to time about their faded dream of spending their life creating in the field of their choice.

Computer as Mechanical Muse

If we accept the foregoing as largely the current situation, we must then ask the question: How can something as new and untested an the Internet change, a dynamic that has been with us since, literally, the dawn of time? Well, let's start with the creation of these works of expression. Even before the advent of the Net, computers had made it tremendously easy to create. For example, word processing programs made it easier for writers to write, revise, store, and retrieve their work, and also provided tools like spell checkers, dictionaries, and thesauri for their easy use. Many artists and design types fell in love with programs like PhotoShop, MacPaint, and Director, which allowed them to carry on their love affairs with shape, texture, and color in a whole new and exciting realm. Then take music: there are many groups for whom a Macintosh computer is their most important instrument; in the playing, recording, and live performance arenas, technical advances have greatly lowered the cost at time of creative musical expression. And the fields of film-making and video have benefited greatly via digital editing, not to mention the amazing special effects that are possible today. And there is every indication that the ingenuity of those creating this hardware and software that so facilitates the creation of culture will continue to ease the task of those who wish to express themselves creatively.

Art in Flight: The Net as Distribution Channel

Now let's turn to transmission: any artistic creation that can be digitized can also be rocketed around the world, often in a matter of seconds. In perhaps the simplest example, my short story can be sent via e-mail to the Chekhov Review in Moscow on Tuesday, and they can have comments back to me the same day; no worrying about the infamous Russian mail system, no anxious waiting as day after day after day goes by. An artist in Denver can scan images of her work - unless the actual work itself is digital, which saves a step - onto a simple Web site which allows a critic she's always admired to review her portfolio from the comfort of his den in his Manhattan brownstone - and to send her e-mail with any comments he might have. Musicians can send attached files with music on them, and create Web pages embedded with sound files, so that they, too, can display their wares to anyone with the proper equipment, anywhere in the world. Film and video capabilities on the Net are still developing, but most analysts feel that the incredible bandwidth growth rate will remove technical impediments in these areas as well.

Message Received: The World Arrives Over Cold, Steel Cables

The third element in this triptych is, of course, accessing the culture. This, too, has radically changed with the advent of the computer, and particularly of the Internet. As things currently stand, someone with a reasonable PC/modem set-up can access a bewildering array of cultural choices without moving from their chair. One need only look at Internet newbie favorite Yahoo! to see the gigantic number of sites that exist, waiting only for a click of the mouse before they display their wares. For those who say that forms of entertainment/culture such as music and film are still almost impossible to get - at any level of quality - over the Net, a bit of research into such issues as the growth of bandwidth and the history of Moore's Law should indicate clearly that, within a matter of years (at the most), the quality of film and music in the "convergence" medium (i.e., television fused with the Net in turn fused with hi-tech in turn fused with things we can't even imagine now) will match and surpass that which we now enjoy through television and radio. In fact, the Net will not only match and eventually surpass the quality of previous media, but, in fact, provide us with entirely new ways to create for and entertain ourselves and each other that have not previously existed. Real-time, interactive experiences; activities involving people over tremendous distances; virtual reality offerings; and many other whizbang capabilities promise to make the "old days" of simply conking one's head back on the couch and watching television - even cable! - seem like an incredibly limiting experience.

The Net Doesn't Free People: People Free People

If we can agree that the three-part process of creating, transmitting, and accessing culture is being substantially sped-up and improved, then the next question to ask is one that has puzzled and/or divided many critics of the Internet, namely, "what will people do with these dramatically increased capabilities?" And here it is that we leave the relatively safe conceptual ground of gigabytes and hard drives, of modem speeds and pixelation, and of cold, clear objective numbers and measurable technical prowess. For what you believe people will do with all this newfangled high-tech depends, to a great extent, to what your view of people is. Are people innately kind of lazy and passive, cultural philistines that will only be numbed into intellectual sloth more effectively by more realistic dinosaurs or 3-D holographic Freddie Krugers? Or are they, in a sense, slumbering giants, born with the desire and ability to be creative and shape their own worlds?

How the "Average Person" Will Use These New Digital Capabilities

Seeds of the Future in the Past and the Present

To address this crucial question, I'd like to draw on two distinct sources: a compelling series of hints from the past and present of the "old media" world, and developments that are just starting to evolve on in the "new media" of the Net. Using these two as jumping-off points, I think a strong case can be made for the argument that people, once given an enhanced capability to create their own culture, will embrace this brave new world of creation with the same enthusiasm and excitement as they now show for the culture created for them by professionals.

Shadows of the Past: The Artist/Child Asleep in All of Us

Great writers have always sensed the commensurate greatness sleeping in the rest of us, almost as if their highly-developed "genius" frequency is able to detect its kindred spirit even when buried under the sturdiest laborer or dullest paper-pusher.

William Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality speaks eloquently of the excitement and magic of a child's life, and of the tragic diminution of the joy that seems to be so present in the life of the young. In fact, Wordsworth's famous quote, "The child is the father of the man" also speaks to the fact that the ecstatic wildness of children has much to offer that the sober life of many typical adults does not. Clearly when he says, "That there hath past away a glory from the earth," he could be talking about this fading of some primal connection to life. After all, who among us does not believe that somehow, "trailing clouds of glory do we come"?

Ralph Waldo Emerson was another writer who sought to wake that which is best in his readers and listeners. Those familiar with essays such as The American Scholar and Self-Reliance will see the connection between the power of the Internet to give the average person expression and Emerson's impassioned pleas to "Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string." Even more relevant is his The American Scholar, in which he exhorts the Americans gathered before him to stop imitating Europe and Greece as fonts of high culture, and rather turn to their new country and themselves for inspiration.

Robert Pirsig's modern classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is another eloquent testament to the hidden creative power of people, and to the different ways it might be coaxed out of hiding. In one scene, the protagonist, Phaedrus, is teaching creative writing. One of his students has been described as a classic drone "without an ounce of creativity in her," and, in spite of this, Phaedrus is attempting to inspire her to write an essay. She starts out wanting to write "about the United States." Phaedrus is doubtful at the size of her topic, and sure enough, she comes to him in tears, saying that she "can't think of anything to say." It is only when he gets her to focus on a single building in their small town does she feel free enough to write what she wants to say, rather than some half-remembered phrases about the United States. She returns with a fresh, original, 5,000-word essay, and a look of complete surprise on her face. The point to the passage is that, even people that might seem completely dead creatively have something to say, if they can be convinced to rely on their own thoughts and convictions.

Finally, in further support of the idea that, once given the marvelous new capabilities offered by the Internet, people will move towards fulfilling their potential as creative beings, I'd like to offer a hypothetical scenario that briefly shows the progression from culture experiencer to culture expresser.

Imagine a group of middle-aged five brothers who are all, say, backwoods laborers in a rural section of America. None of them would call himself "creative," "artistic," or even particularly literate. They watch television, read the daily papers, hang out at the local pub with their friends, and occasionally hunt and fish, for recreation. These brothers would be among the people that the media hotshots in the big cities might dismiss as "the masses," or "Joe Six-Pack": The people that they feel it is their job to cynically rope-in to their shows by any means necessary. And, as things currently exist, in many ways they are right: These guys aren't going to be winning any essay or sculpture contests any time soon.

But wait. Now consider these same brothers, but add one additional fact to what you know about them: That they lost a brother, the youngest, when they were all kids or young teenagers. He was out with them on a fishing trip with their Dad when he slipped overboard and smacked his head on the rocks in a shallow section of a river. His death took place more than 40 years ago, and yet, for most of the brothers, rarely does a day go by that they don't think of the little boy as he was when they, too, were young. One brother will think of a song he used to sing, while another will think of the time when he helped him home through the snow - each has his own set of private and shared memories of the little boy that they never got to watch grow up. And yet, they never talk about this with each other; it's so much easier to talk about the sports scores or watch the latest action adventure film down at the movie theater.

But now, add to this scene - where they might be least expected - some of the tools and technologies we've been considering up until this point: The word processor, the Internet, visual image programs, audio technologies. These modern miracles come to this sheltered world via the eldest brother's only son, who has been studying at a university in a nearby city and has fallen in love with all things digital. The son brings home a personal computer and some of these digital gadgets, and an idea starts to form in his head: He is going to create a document, a sort of multimedia tribute to the "Uncle" that he never got to know. The brothers don't quite get it at first, don't understand how they could possibly have anything to do with such a project. But the young man is persistent: He interviews each brother about the lost boy, typing in from taped interviews each of their memories and thoughts about him; souvenirs like a cap he used to wear or a card he made in second grade are scanned in; an audio tape of that favorite song is woven in, there to be played and remembered at the touch of a button. Finally, some sort of cohesive document begins to take shape, created by the son, his father and his four uncles. They even take a tape recorder to a neighboring state to interview their mother and father, who have touching, heart-wrenching words to say about the loss of their son. Finally, the wired youth concludes the project with a sort of ongoing journal, to which anyone can add ongoing thoughts and feelings to the project. With an almost stunned intensity and bittersweet pride, the brothers, each in turn (usually when no one else is there), sit with the document, reading the words, watching the images, and listening to sounds, all of which comprise the closest they will ever be able to get again to their missing brother. Staring, laughing, maybe even crying a little bit (again, when no one's around, of course), they feel some kind of inexplicable warmth and wonder that they have created something of their own, plucked from the very fabric of their lives and woven into a common document that can be shared with family and friends, added to and changed over time, and even passed on to future generations, that the boy might not be forgotten.

Either that, or maybe they'll just watch a little television. What do you think? End of article

Expressed Culture on the Net: Glimpses of a Coming Revolution

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The Fray

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Salon TableTalk

Electric Minds



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Digital Tribes




Addicted To Noise

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Oculus Magazine


The Onion






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The Author

William Butler O'Connor
is the Marketing Producer for CNET's NEWS.COM in San Francisco. He is also co-founder and Director of the San Francisco Web Professionals group. In his pre-Web existence, he sang lead and wrote songs for for an alternative rock band, wrote advertising copy for various travel and tech companies, and worked for the Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin. Post-Web gigs have included Creative Director of the Boston new media company Interactive Factory, Web site reviewer for CMP's NetGuide Live, and Managing Editor of I/PRO's CyberAtlas. He is currently developing a non-profit organization whose charter is the funding and nuturing of innovative Web sites and Net business models. Finally, he denies all connection to the following satirical online monthly column:

William Butler O'Connor
Voice: 415.395.7805 x5217

Copyright © 1997, First Monday

Create or be Created: How the Internet Cultural Renaissance is Turning Audience Members into Artists by William Butler O'Connor.
First Monday, Volume 2, Number 10 - 6 October 1997

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2018. ISSN 1396-0466.