A hot-button topic since the start of the digital age as we know it has been music sharing. We all remember when Napster went to court several years back, or even when we got that pesky email from ITS last week telling us to stop the illegal downloading. The issue is ownership over intellectual property—shouldn’t artists be receiving royalties on the music that is rightfully theirs?

I think that people who are the rightful owners of their intellectual property should definitely be compensated somehow; but I also believe that file sharing is an appropriate use of the internet and aids in the dissemination of information or media in ways that can only be helpful to aspiring music artists. I look at what some bands like Radiohead have done—they offered their album In Rainbows for download from their own website for a donation of the downloader’s choice—and I while I know that they can afford this because they are well-paid and famous—I think other artists could take a page from their book. Their impetus is to distribute their art to whoever wants it, regardless of privilege associated with the ability to afford a $9.99 album download from Itunes. After all, shouldn’t it ultimately be about the music and not the money?

A friend of mine who goes to SUNY Purchase is taking a class in Second Life! While I don’t know too much about it, he explained to me the basics: the class meets twice per week in a computer lab. They conduct some of the class as their avatars and some of the class in real life. Additionally, their coursework includes spending a certain amount of out-of-class time in Second Life observing the people there and participating (it is a Sociology class).

I did some more research on college classes in Second Life and found an interesting article about a Comparative Literature class at DeSales University in Schnecksville, PA. In their class the professor was able to recreate the setting of the book her class was reading, so it was like they were literally having class in the book.

To me, this seems to be getting the most utility possible out of a resource like Second Life. As their avatars, the students could experience the book as if they were characters—what a cool interactive experience!

This opens a lot of doors for other subjects. Chemistry students could potentially perform dangerous experiments with inaccessible chemicals in Second Life, or medical students could even practice procedures if the technology would allow them to (perhaps it already does; I don’t know).

Additionally, there is a forum for educators who want to utilize Second Life for the ultimate classroom experience. They can exchange information or bounce ideas around with fellow teachers and professors who are also becoming accustomed to this new and developing technology. As a graduation senior, I have to say that I am sad I will never have the chance to experience a college class in Second Life.

Reply to Gabrielle’s April 28th post:

I totally agree with you about our obsession with fame and I think there’s also something intriguing about the tangibility of these famous people. Especially in terms of celebrity gossip blogs, I think it’s not so much about being famous ourselves but about being close enough to the celebrities to know their personal secrets or vulnerabilities, to sort of demystify their fame—not necessarily with the intention of invalidating their fame, but with understanding it.

Personally, I enjoy reading blogs like Dlisted or PerezHilton because it allows me temporarily to escape from the daily grind and to catch up on popular culture. I don’t particularly care for the posts of Britney flashing her crotch to the paparazzi or of who’s-dating-who this week. But by browsing through them, I am if nothing else preparing myself for a week’s worth of cultural references (as you also note, Gabrielle).

And I do think that even subconsciously, we get a certain amount of pleasure out of knowing that people who have it so much “better” than we do, in a sense, are imperfect. In some sort of twisted way I think it dismantles a lot of the more “legitimate” forms of popular culture and reminds us that they aren’t real. If we see a flawless Kate Moss on the cover of Vogue, we’re not looking at the “real” Kate Moss. The photos of her, un-made-up and walking down the street with her kids, or even that somewhat upsetting shot of her snorting cocaine from a few years ago—those are the most authentic we can find.

I have been pretty interested in the idea of LAN parties lately. I guess what sparked my interest is that one day a few months ago (via some simple facebook stalking), I found out that a colleague of mine from high school was studying abroad in Europe last fall, and he traveled to DreamHack, the biggest LAN party in the world! I was checking it out and apparently there were over 10,000 people there. It’s kind of interesting how they’ve really created a festival around the celebration of computers and the digital age; it’s like the Woodstock of the tech world.

I guess I am also fascinated with the social dynamics of LAN parties. While there are those like DreamHack that are full-on computer festivals, I don’t really get the point of everyone getting together in the same room to sit and play a computer game that they could play from their homes. Most LAN parties are obviously not the size of DreamHack; some can be as small as a few friends getting together to game (see photo below).

In these cases, I think the social aspects are interesting. The standard critique of gamers is that they isolate themselves and participate in sometimes violent, potentially brain-rotting activities when they should be getting out of the house and adopting some more socially acceptable hobby. But I tend to think that LAN parties provide a social setting for people who share a common interest to get together and do what they love. How is that different from a book club getting together, or a bunch of musicians getting together for a jam session?

Over January Term I took a book discussion class on the book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson. He made a somewhat compelling argument that video games actually bring people together rather than force them to isolate themselves. Additionally, video games definitely do require mental capacity; they’re not just activities for lazy people.

I personally think that events like DreamHack in Sweden sound pretty awesome. I’m definitely not a gamer (except perhaps in the case of the incredibly addictive bubble shooter), but I think the festival would be fun to attend to learn about computers and the digital age in general. I’m not sure Woodstock provided its guests with the same educational experience that DreamHack-goers receive. But maybe some people, while at DreamHack, could go to a music festival in Second Life?

Either way, does anyone think the Smith College conference fund would subsidize costs for a student who wanted to attend DreamHack? Or maybe a certain American Studies department could sponsor its Digital Ecology class on a field trip?? Just an idea.

Below is a panoramic photo from DreamHack. Pretty cool, right?

I recently read a very interesting blog post on boingboing.net about a new art exhibit opening on Second Life. But this isn’t just a regular art exhibit, it’s interactive art. In this exhibit, called Sheep Vortex, each art piece, which is more than just a digital painting hanging on a wall in a Second Life museum or gallery. Instead, it is a full on experience for the viewer in which he or she literally participates in the art. The Node Zero Gallery, which hosts the exhibit, features digital artist Spot Draves (known as Spot Schism in Second Life) in collaborations with Somatika Xiao (David Stumbaugh in Second Life). Additionally, seven new artists are also debuting digital art experiences.

One thing that really caught my mind was the description of the Node Art Gallery that blogger Lisa Rein offers: “The Node Zero Gallery art experience is like no other, and must be experienced to be truly understood. Some of its installations you can literally walk around inside of, bathing in the sights and sounds around you. While, others take you on little adventures, complete with hidden treasures and puzzles for you to find, explore, and work your way through.” It really made me want to participate in this “digital art experience” for myself! But sadly enough, only those who have a Second Life are able to “transport” into the Node Zero Gallery.

More than anything, though, this piece got me thinking about art in general. It is something we attempt to critique often in American Studies. We’re often asking ourselves “what is art?” or “what qualifies as art”? Does the creation of Second Life art indicate that someone who is simply a good computer programmer could be an established digital artist in Second Life? Is it only important what the artist is creating or who is it also important that the creator be considered an “artist”?

Forgive my scattered thoughts, but the question of art and authenticity is reminding me of a really excellent documentary I saw recently called My Kid Could Paint That. The film followed the whirlwind rise of 4-year-old Marla Olmstead’s art career and her family’s involvement. At first Marla was regarded as a child prodigy who produced incredible abstract canvasses. However, in a controversial turn of events, it seemed as if Marla’s parents may or may not have been guiding her or even doctoring her work to make it more sophisticated. While her parents vehemently denied the accusations, they were also unable to prove that Marla was the sole creator of the pieces. This was the central plot of the documentary, but I tend to wonder, if the pieces are beautiful, does learning that her parents may have aided her make them less beautiful? And also, even if this girl is the sole creator of the works, does the intent (or lack of intent) behind the works matter? It is evident from early on in the film, at least to me, that while she may be creating some beautiful stuff, to her it’s just pushing a bunch of paint around a canvas until the colors are aesthetically pleasing. I always sort of thought that the meaning behind a piece or art was as important as the piece itself. So I guess I wonder, is Marla’s work just “coincidental art”?

So in that vein, I think I would definitely consider the Second Life “digital art experiences” to be authentic art. The meaning behind the art is definitely there and the artists are doing something unquestionably innovative.

Believing, Forgetting, and Accepting

At this point I don’t think any of you would be taxed to believe that I make it a habit of reading several serious conspiracy theory blogs, and that I post on many of their affiliated message boards. I will often find myself several pages into a thread about, say…satanic ritual abuse (or H.A.A.R.P., or reptoids, or the illuminati), rapt with conviction. But every time I have the same moment where I realize that none of this is substantiated, and yet I’m so compelled to believe it.

Often I’ll be moving extremely fast through a series of hyperlinks, and get the sensation of physically traveling very fast. But time and again I find myself in the same physical space, at my desk, or in a chair. This occurs more bluntly in online game’s with complex GUIs,  but the sensation seems ruined by the literalness.

Similarly I’ll have countless tabs and windows open, and text or image pattern location software open checking and cross referencing page after page after page against each other and what were at one point flat pages of text now appear to me as a great grid of information.

Now, it would hardly be difficult to turn this into a discussion about honesty, truth, and how easily humans can convince themselves to feel a certain way, but I’d rather talk about why certain, often improbable sensations can seem so believable at times on the internet. What criteria do you consider when assessing someone’s image, “value”, and believability in online contexts? How do certain aspects of someone translate into the online world, out of a social networking context (which is all we can seem to talk about sometimes)? How is it that flat panes can become rich landscapes. Or, more thing to ponder is how we relate to the web as a whole, actual space, realized as a spatial, information rich, “world”.

More and more I see people submitting to what I like to call the “soft web”, that is, sites like digg, facebook, and wikipedia that aggregate, distribute, and democratize information. This is in contrast to the “hard web” that I grew up with and remains my stomping grounds; personal sites, minor message boards, information depositories. Are we quickly forgetting the hard web, where things are more nebulous but the information more diverse, in favor of a more democratized and smoothed over internet? What are we losing by doing this? What are we gaining?

What I’m trying to convey is that people discuss, to great lengths the way in which we realize ourselves on the internet. But again and again the conversations fall to myspace or facebook. I find this particularly dissatisfying because, as I see it, those technologies only cover a fraction of the available means of expression and feelings available on the internet. But what it really comes down to is the question of what the internet really is. obviously its different for everybody, but is it a database, a narrative, or a realized space? I think it is none of those specifically, but each are equally important. For the internet to be fully realized, I think it is up to the individuals who use it to embrace a multi-faceted existence on it. Myspace and facebook are obviously narratives, the great repositories of raw information are not lacking, and to an extent technologies like Second Life are providing a spatial quality to it all (although I think its metaphor is a bit thin), what is lacking is an understanding of how these three qualities work together to fill the virtual landscape. And the ultimate question, is it another world, or an extension of our own?

User-Interface

Since its inception and rise to popularity in the mid 80’s, what is largely understood as the “desktop metaphor” for interactive visual computer interfacing has barely so much as been challenged as the dominant form of computer interaction. Even with the rise of smart-phones and pocketable computers, the user-interfaces remain derivative of this metaphor.

It’s easy for us to translate the screen-scape as a desktop for several reasons. First, the PC largely implanted itself in the consciousness of humans via its rise to ubiquity in white collar workplaces, where it actually did replace the desktop. What was once a physical, three dimensional system of file drawers and “work” space was easily replaced by the two dimensional folders, and work/image processors. Second, it’s easy. By not radically shaking our understanding of data systems and workflow, it can be a quick transition to understanding the systems. But is easy necessarily right? is the goal of computer interface designers to make the easiest system, or the most natural, or the most logical?

What is your understanding of user interfaces? Do any of you use or have used alternative interfaces? Command line? Virtualization? Do you think it is important that interfaces change? Do you think it is strange that the speed and ability of computers has improved drastically in the past 20 years but the way we interact with them has largely remained unchanged?

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