Clay Shirky argues that the least creative act is making a LOL-cat, but that even making a LOL-cat is better than making nothing, and so the internet of LOL_cats is a net good compared to say a world of make-nothing consumption. One could make a similar argument that the least distinctive human achievement is a bad accident captured on YouTube, but that moment of uniqueness is better than no uniqueness at all, and so a world of YouTube extremities, improbabilities and superlatives is a net good.

☛ Kevin Kelly’s The Technium: “The Improbable is the New Normal” by Kevin Kelly, January 7, 2013.

Among (many) other things, Kevin Kelly is a former editor and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog and the co-founder of WIRED for wich he acts as Executive Editor from September 1992 to January 1999 (read more). His post received some attention when it was first published a few weeks ago (January 7, 2013) and quoted all over the place (that is, the Internet). The excerpt I quoted above is the very last paragraph of a rather short text. Here’s another part where he develops on the idea that we’re exposed to a high number of improbable or extraordinary things:

Cops, emergency room doctors, and insurance actuarists all know it. They realize how many crazy impossible things happen all the time. A burglar gets stuck in a chimney, a truck driver in a head on collision is thrown out the front window and lands on his feet, walks away; a wild antelope knocks a man off his bike; a candle at a wedding sets the bride’s hair on fire; someone fishing off a backyard dock catches a huge man-size shark. In former times these unlikely events would be private, known only as rumors, stories a friend of a friend told, easily doubted and not really believed.

But today they are on YouTube, and they fill our vision. You can see them yourself. Each of these weird freakish events just mentioned can be found on YouTube, seen by millions.

The improbable consists of more than just accidents. The internets are also brimming with improbable feats of performance — someone who can run up a side of a building, or slide down suburban roof tops, or stack up cups faster than you can blink. Not just humans, but pets open doors, ride scooters, and paint pictures. The improbable also includes extraordinary levels of super human achievements: people doing astonishing memory tasks, or imitating all the accents of the world. In these extreme feats we see the super in humans. (read the rest)

Kevin Kelly’s conclusion about all of this being a “net good” is somehow weak1. At the very least, it seems to me, it would have been more cautious to end with a problem. There was a time when very few people were able to actually see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa: they had to actually stand in front of it. Nowadays, many of us can look at it whenever we want: in a book or on an iPhone, in the bus or during breakfast. Is it better now? How does the experience differ? Standing in front of the actual painting must be quite something. How about looking at it on a screen monitor, is it extraordinary? This is something missing in Kelly’s essay: experiencing the “extraordinary” on YouTube is one thing. Experiencing it first hand is another.

Another problem has to do with the communicability of experience. While looking at “that moment of uniqueness” in our browser, what do we have to say about it? Hopefully, the answer doesn’t lie in YouTube’s comments section or in the number of “like” and “views”. Someone may point out that technology nowadays allow us to communicate more easily by “sharing” this experience. It surely does, even in a “frictionless” manner. But what’s the value of this new form of “communication”? And more importantly, what’s the value of an experience when most of the “sharing” process is done through a series of “clicks”?

An interesting way to get some perspective on this problem is to read again Walter Benjamin’s essay from 1933 titled “Experience and Poverty”. It’s also really short, although a bit longer than Kevin Kelly’s essay. Here are two excerpts. One will notice that Benjamin, like Kelly, also ends his essay with a “Well and good”. However, the verdict sounds somehow different, maybe more nuanced.

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty―their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty―that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the very opposite. They have “devoured” everything, both “culture and people,” and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them.[…]

We have become impoverished. We have given up one portion of the human heritage after another, and have often left it at the pawnbroker’s for a hundredth of its true value, in exchange for the small change of “the contemporary.” The economics crisis is at the door, and behind it is the shadow of the approaching war. Holding on to things has become the monopoly of a few powerful people, who, God knows, are no more human than the many; for the most part, they are more barbaric, but not in the good way. Everyone else has to adapt―beginning anew and with few resources. They rely on the men who have adopted the cause of the absolutely new and have founded it on insight and renunciation. In its buildings, pictures, and stories, mankind is preparing to outlive culture, if need be. And the main thing is that it does so with a laugh. This laughter may occasionally sound barbaric. Well and good. Let us hope that from time to time the individual will give a little humanity to the masses, who one day will repay him with compound interest. (Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1931-1934, tr. by Rodney Livingstone, Harvard University Press, 2005, pp. 734-735)

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Previously: Incommunicability: Kafka’s “On Parables”

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1.By saying that Kevin Kelly’s conclusion is weak, I do not argue for an opposite conclusion. That would be just as weak a conclusion as the one he offers: the aim here is certainly not to suggest that the Internet is boring (not extraordinary) or evil (not a “net good”). Those are reductionist claims based on technological determinism. It seem more interesting, instead, to argue for a problem where Kelly is offering a solution (a “net good”) and, yes, to make things a little more complicated then the way they are presented in his text. Therefor, one should understand that Benjamin is not quoted here against Kelly but rather beyond him. ↩︎︎


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