Margaret Kilgallen at work

A provocative article on Slate reviews Jaron Lanier’s latest book, You are Not a Gadget. Written by Slate senior editor Michael Agger, the essay digs into many of Lanier’s ideas and just says No. Lanier, one of the leaders in the early days of virtual reality and an respected Wired alum, is not a fan of Web 2.0, the hive mind, or where things are going in that online space. “He was the guy with the dreadlocks and the giant V.R. goggles perched on his forehead, the epitome of the hippie-shaman-guru strain in tech culture,” says Agger.

One of Lanier’s contentions is that creativity in music has suffered in the era of web access. It is all retro, says Lanier, and he challenges listeners to distinguish between music being made now and what was showing up 10 years ago. Although a somewhat distanced observer of that particular world, I feel he may have a point.

But this passage really caught me:

Lanier is a survivor and has good instincts: We need to be wary of joining in the wisdom of the crowds, of trusting that open collaboration always produces the best results…But his critique is ultimately just a particular brand of snobbery. Lanier is a Romantic snob. He believes in individual genius and creativity, whether it’s Steve Jobs driving a company to create the iPhone or a girl in a basement composing a song on an unusual musical instrument.

The problem is that the Web is much bigger now, and both Jobs and the bedroom oud player must, in their own ways, strive for attention from the hive mind.

Individual creativity vs the collective hive. The 19th century (and therefore outdated) “Romantic” notion of the artist as soloist, loner, isolate. The collaborative-heavy hegemony of the Web. These are just a few of the questions that are forming a new topology of creativity.

Pluralist to the core, I have always opted for “e) all of the above.” There are so many ways to make, create, invent, engender—who can say what’s sanctioned, what’s appropriate? But is that very idea an outdated notion as well?

I recently viewed the documentary, Beautiful Losers, by Aaron Rose. The film is a subtle and understated portrait of a group of (mostly) disaffected skateboarders, graffiti artists and musicians in the early 90’s who eventually turned to visual art. Brought together by a shared lack of pretension and the desire to just have fun, eventually they became their own art movement. Mostly self-taught and suspicious of the superficiality of the mainstream art world, they were committed to an extraordinarily fierce brand of self-expression. And while many went on to be very successful, that was not the driving intention.

There is a sweetness and uncomplicated quality about the film as well as many of the artists it features. It is an art underworld version of “build it and they will come”: The teeming audiences of kids that filled the ad hoc gallery shows in the early days found their way there without the aid of Facebook, Twitter or Gawk. Could it happen like that now? Probably not. The accelerated pace of the hive mind would make the slow, organic incubation that these folks enjoyed (and I would say, needed) less likely.

But then again, maybe these pervasive cybertechnologies will constellate a new kind of creative outpouring. We’re in the middle of watching this unfold, so it is hard to know for sure. But like I said, my tendency is always to go with e).

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