Saturday, December 30, 2006

User-Defined Realities

Time Magazine just named me Person of the Year, Nick is sitting on chairs, we're starting a radio show... and Borges is attempting a "Refutation of Time."

Granted, only three of these things are happening in the present and future. As a special advance notification to readers of Isoceleria, be on the lookout for two fresh and wonderful Web 2.0 new-new-economy user-created-contents. The first is "Palatial Beachfront Property," a podcast radio show dedicated to talking about the most important issues of our time. And if you're reading Isoceleria, you know what sort of things are considered "the most important issues of our time." The second, the ILSOC project, is a bit further from my personal sphere of influence, so I'll reserve commentary on it until more work is complete. Know that if nothing else, it's going to embody the ideals of the user-created content paradigm.

(I'm terribly sorry for having used the word "fresh" in that misguided context.)

Time Magazine wasn't faced with a particularly good slate of candidates this year for Person of the Year. George Bush? Oh, you mean the President of the United States is an important guy? I never would have come up with that one on my own. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Kim Jong-il? Both slightly crazy leaders of countries with powerful armies that threatened to develop nuclear weapons but couldn't quite back themselves up on it. I think their votes cancel. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Al Gore, and any other number of prominent politicians? The Democrats taking Congress was significant, no argument there. Let's wait and see what that means for the country before we start handing out Person of the Year like it's candy.

Except, wait, that's exactly what Time did.

As everyone has probably heard, you are Time's person of the year. Yep, you. Look on the cover of one of the magazines, and you'll magically see yourself! And if you don't know why you were selected, it's because you make content on the Internet. ("Wait, I've been making crappy websites for ten years now! Shouldn't that make me Person of the Year ten times over?" Yes, yes, it should.) That's what makes the Internet great in the first place: dynamic and interactive content generation. Ever posted to a message board or forum? Done something as simple as voted in a poll? Engaged in such foolish behavior as making a blog? Congratulations, sir or madam, you have helped make yourself person of the year.

But more than fora, polls, and blogs, the Time Person of the Year and the conventional wisdom behind it is enamored with YouTube. YouTube has its place; don't get me wrong. But I'm scared of it. A couple of years ago (and still to some extent today), the Internet rage was the Flash cartoon: the sort of garbage you could find on Albino Black Sheep or Ebaum's World. If you've seen Badger Badger Badger, then you're familiar with this sort of thing. (If not, you're probably better off for it.) It seemed like there was an almost weekly rush of "Look at this awesome Flash cartoon I found!" Except, of course, it wasn't really awesome. It was comedic drivel, the sort of junk that violates a central precept of comedy: in order for something to be funny, it must be funny for a reason. "Random" does not cut it. Back in the Flash Cartoon Age, we only had to deal with these sorts of abominations from a subset of Internet users: the ones with enough specialized technical knowledge to make a Flash animation and the time and willingness to sit down and do it.

That's not so for YouTube. It requires exactly two things: a video camera and a connection to the Internet, neither of which is exactly a rarity these days. And it's going to let an even bigger "Look at this awesome video I found" phenomenon flourish uncontested.

In A Personal Anthology, a book that includes many short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, and which after a year and a third of hostage status from Samantha I am finally getting around to reading, Borges attempts a "New Refutation of Time." And before you start thinking "Wait a second, he's using a temporal idea to refute time," he defends that in this prologue. Borges bases his central argument on Idealism, which he interprets to hold that the perception of an object is all that really exists, and adding a physical quantity called an object is superfluous. In other words, pretend you're looking at a leaf. The leaf's existence is then defined by your observation of it: what the leaf smells like, looks like, sounds like, feels like becomes the leaf to you. Then, because in your world, the leaf already has a definition and state of being, considering an actual "leaf" to exist in the universe is redundant because its existence has already been defined.

Borges extends this reasoning to deal with time. He argues that time is supposed to be a sequence of all events that have happened and will happen, but if the perception of an object is in effect the criterion for making an object real, why shouldn't the perception of an event be the criterion for making an event real? Frankly, that's a tough argument to buy, both the idealist basis and Borges's extension of it. It's difficult to know whether Borges's ideas about time were outgrowths of (or at least influenced by) his pre-relativity lifetime. Did Borges, through this "Refutation," reflect a prevailing philosophical opinion of that era, one that was less informed than current civilization about the nature of space-time? Or was his argument not scientific at all, and would he have made the same argument today given the nature of physical evidence that suggests the opposite?

The most interesting thing about Borges's essay is that it highlights the impact of temporal influence on modern thought. In discussing Borges's essay, for instance, I used the words "pre-," "lifetime," "era," "current," and "today." So this essay is valuable not exactly in proving that time doesn't exist but instead in that modern culture has a lot of preconceptions about time, most of which we've never actually examined.

And to make things even more interesting, quantum physics would argue that Borges, or at least his Idealist basis, is actually correct. After all, if you're not directly observing something, how can you empirically prove its existence? That tree crashing in the middle of the woods with nobody watching? Not only might it not make a sound, but it may not even exist.

Currently listening: Light Grenades, Incubus

1 comment: said...

Progress on ILSOC has been heavy the last few days. Looking to establish that foothold before completing radio show. You inspired a lot of thought about "users" and the YouTube thing... while webcoding last night at Blackbird Coffee, overheard several dudes saying, "No, no, you should check out this thing on YouTube," and describing it, and then another saying, "That sounds awesome! I saw this other thing on YouTube..." and the idea that "YouTube" is the source of the content, rather than the actual creator, is not pleasing. Fantastic article related to this, and something I plan to discuss on ILSOC, if that is what I decide to use it for.