Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Next Wave (Julia Stiles on the digital revolution)

This video showed up recently on YouTube, and it's pretty brilliant. The 12-year old Julia Stiles as a hacker prodigy, covering the digital underground for the school paper in Ghostwriter. .. forget Marshall McLuhan and Neo. This is the Internet messiah that we all overlooked.

(in case you can't understand the multi-jigawatt decibel oscillations of this Internet hyperstream, scroll down... I've done the best I can to make a transcript, and I put it at the end of this entry.)

Anyone remember 1993? Some bloggers probably don't, and even for me it's hardly more than a pair of tail-lights in the fog of memory. It was two years before Hackers, and the infamous Time Cyberporn article, both of which brought a seedy infamy to the circonicum tubes of the Interweb. It was before iPods and the Star Wars Kid and All Your Base, before wiki and blogs and Penny Arcade, before anyone had heard of the RIAA or thought of free Internet music, before CSS and Flash and VRML (okay, so that one never caught on).

Yes, sir, 1993 was the springtime of contemporary culture. The Internet was still a seedling, and do you remember how much hope we had for it? It was going to revolutionize our culture, create a new era of communication and literacy, and break down barriers of age, ethnicity, and ideology. The Internet was an atom bomb whose fuse had just been lit, and we were all right there with Julia Stiles, listening for the majesty of the blast.

The Internet delivered on some of its promises, and it stalled out on others. Is media more democratic? Absolutely, and the phenomenon is only increasing. Is the whole world wired up and spinning in a state of digitally-mediated peace? No, not exactly... like every utopian technology, the Internet was appropriated by the wealthy and privileged, and it hasn't managed to break down that division quite yet. Even so, our lives are vastly richer, and we're vastly more intelligent as a culture, as a result of the Internet.

Even so, it seems harder to commit to the digital age now than it was to be excited for it back at the beginning. The flowering of digital technology has gone hand in hand with a growth of cynicism, the natural by-product of a culture that's suddenly exposed to all its own highs and lows. Images like this "Special Olympics" announcement, and the coining of terms like Godwin's Law (that people just have to bring up Hitler every time they have a fucking debate) are indications of our distrust of Internet discussion. Bloggers spend a lot of time disparaging each other, like in this blogger's post, where he bitches about MySpace users while profoundly misinterpreting Ze Frank's brilliant (and truly optimistic) post on democratization of design. As the Internet's become part of our daily experience, we've also come up with an array of words for our digital pet peeves: spam, trolls, pop-ups, flame wars, and noobs.

Where did our excitement go? Is disenchantment a necessary by-product of experience? Did the Internet live up to our expectations, and if not, where did it fail, and where did WE fail? Is cyberspace still a frontier, or is it a cultural junkyard, like every frontier we try to colonize?

I'm not immune to Internet cynicism... I shake my head in dismay when people disrupt Wikipedia articles, and I'm thoroughly tired of reading arguments where people exaggerate my arguments so far out of proportion that they can compare me to Hitler. But every so often, I feel overcome with appreciation for the digital revolution that's connected me with a world beyond little suburbia. Bloggers like Ze Frank and William Gibson and Lawrence Lessig bring it out, and at those moments, I can relate to that young Julia Stiles, an explorer on a frontier that's still unconquered territory.

If I was that twelve-year old talking to Julia Stiles, you know what I'd say to her?

"Yeah, I've read Neuromancer. Twice."

And then, just before I fainted from the pressure of talking to a pretty girl, I'd manage to get one more thing out. I'd say, "Yeah, Julia, you're right. This is the place where I can say whatever I want, and be judged on my words, not on my wrinkled shirt. As long as we put our faith in those console cowboys... as long as we keep believing in cyberspace, and investing our time and energy into making it more intelligent... then we can also have faith that it'll change the world throughout, and far beyond, our own meager lifetimes."

*swoon* *faint* *Nurse's office*

[transcript of dialouge from YouTube video]

"Do you know anything about hackers? Have you jammed with the console cowboys in cyberspace?"


"Ever read Neuromancer?"


"Ever experienced the New Wave? Next Wave? Green wave? Or cyberpunk? I didn't think so. I'll handle the hacker stories."

"Yeah, I think you should. Where'd you learn about all this hacker stuff?"

[pointing to the computer] "In there. It's a world where you're judged by what you say and think... not by what you look like. A world where curiousity and imagination is a power. [pause to return to real life] We need that paper here, people! Work with me! Work with me!"

[end transcript]


David said...

I'm late to the party, but it never ends online, right?

Just wanted to chime in with: Great Post. Stiles is my daughter's age, and I was a grown-up when Gibson first blew my mind and changed the direction of my professional life forever, but I still remember that feeling, and still carry the torch for the potential of this medium - as unfashionable as that is in these cynical days.

symbot said...

Thanks for the encouragement, David. What medium is more deserving of our hope and emotional investment than the Internet, the meta-medium that ushered in the end of the twentieth century? Indeed, we're only going to get to see the very beginning.