In 1839, Louis Daguerre invented the first practical technology for producing what we would call "photographs." Appropriately enough, they were called "daguerreotypes." The process was complicated and expensive, and the field was thus limited to professionals and a few zealous and wealthy amateurs. (There was even an American Daguerre Association that helped regulate the industry, as do all such associations, by keeping competition down so as to keep prices up.) Yet despite high prices, the demand for daguerreotypes was strong.
This pushed inventors to find simpler and cheaper ways to make "automatic pictures." William Talbot soon discovered a process for making "negatives." But because the negatives were glass, and had to be kept wet, the process still remained expensive and cumbersome. In the 1870s, dry plates were developed, making it easier to separate the taking of a picture from its developing. These were still plates of glass, and thus it was still not a process within reach of most amateurs.
The technological change that made mass photography possible didn't happen until 1888, and was the creation of a single man. George Eastman, himself an amateur photographer, was frustrated by the technology of photographs made with plates. In a flash of insight (so to speak), Eastman saw that if the film could be made to be flexible, it could be held on a single spindle. That roll could then be sent to a developer, driving the costs of photography down substantially. By lowering the costs, Eastman expected he could dramatically broaden the population of photographers.
Eastman developed flexible, emulsion-coated paper film and placed rolls of it in small, simple cameras: the Kodak. The device was marketed on the basis of its simplicity. "You press the button and we do the rest."
As he described in The Kodak Primer:
The principle of the Kodak system is the separation of the work that any person whomsoever can do in making a photograph, from the work that only an expert can do....We furnish anybody, man, woman or child, who has sufficient intelligence to point a box straight and press a button, with an instrument which altogether removes from the practice of photography the necessity for exceptional facilities or, in fact, any special knowledge of the art. It can be employed without preliminary study, without a darkroom and without chemicals.
For $25, anyone could make pictures. The camera came preloaded with film, and when it had been used, the camera was returned to an Eastman factory, where the film was developed. Over time, of course, the cost of the camera and the ease with which it could be used both improved. Roll film thus became the basis for the explosive growth of popular photography. Eastman's camera first went on sale in 1888; one year later, Kodak was printing more than six thousand negatives a day. From 1888 through 1909, while industrial production was rising by 4.7 percent, photographic equipment and material sales increased by 11 percent. Eastman Kodak's sales during the same period experienced an average annual increase of over 17 percent.
The real significance of Eastman's invention, however, was not economic. It was social. Professional photography gave individuals a glimpse of places they would never otherwise see. Amateur photography gave them the ability to record their own lives in a way they had never been able to do before. As author Brian Coe notes, "For the first time the snapshot album provided the man on the street with a permanent record of his family and its activities. ...For the first time in history there exists an authentic visual record of the appearance and activities of the common man made without [literary] interpretation or bias."
In this way, the Kodak camera and film were technologies of expression. The pencil or paintbrush was also a technology of expression, of course. But it took years of training before they could be deployed by amateurs in any useful or effective way. With the Kodak, expression was possible much sooner and more simply. The barrier to expression was lowered. Snobs would sneer at its "quality"; professionals would discount it as irrelevant. But watch a child study how best to frame a picture and you get a sense of the experience of creativity that the Kodak enabled. Democratic tools gave ordinary people a way to express themselves more easily than any tools could have before.
What was required for this technology to flourish? Obviously, Eastman's genius was an important part. But also important was the legal environment within which Eastman's invention grew. For early in the history of photography, there was a series of judicial decisions that could well have changed the course of photography substantially. Courts were asked whether the photographer, amateur or professional, required permission before he could capture and print whatever image he wanted. Their answer was no.
The arguments in favor of requiring permission will sound surprisingly familiar. The photographer was "taking" something from the person or building whose photograph he shot--pirating something of value. Some even thought he was taking the target's soul. Just as Disney was not free to take the pencils that his animators used to draw Mickey, so, too, should these photographers not be free to take images that they thought valuable.
On the other side was an argument that should be familiar, as well. Sure, there may be something of value being used. But citizens should have the right to capture at least those images that stand in public view. (Louis Brandeis, who would become a Supreme Court Justice, thought the rule should be different for images from private spaces.) It may be that this means that the photographer gets something for nothing. Just as Disney could take inspiration from Steamboat Bill, Jr. or the Brothers Grimm, the photographer should be free to capture an image without compensating the source.
Fortunately for Mr. Eastman, and for photography in general, these early decisions went in favor of the pirates. In general, no permission would be required before an image could be captured and shared with others. Instead, permission was presumed. Freedom was the default. (The law would eventually craft an exception for famous people: commercial photographers who snap pictures of famous people for commercial purposes have more restrictions than the rest of us. But in the ordinary case, the image can be captured without clearing the rights to do the capturing.)
We can only speculate about how photography would have developed had the law gone the other way. If the presumption had been against the photographer, then the photographer would have had to demonstrate permission. Perhaps Eastman Kodak would have had to demonstrate permission, too, before it developed the film upon which images were captured. After all, if permission were not granted, then Eastman Kodak would be benefiting from the "theft" committed by the photographer. Just as Napster benefited from the copyright infringements committed by Napster users, Kodak would be benefiting from the "image-right" infringement of its photographers. We could imagine the law then requiring that some form of permission be demonstrated before a company developed pictures. We could imagine a system developing to demonstrate that permission.
But though we could imagine this system of permission, it would be very hard to see how photography could have flourished as it did if the requirement for permission had been built into the rules that govern it. Photography would have existed. It would have grown in importance over time. Professionals would have continued to use the technology as they did--since professionals could have more easily borne the burdens of the permission system. But the spread of photography to ordinary people would not have occurred. Nothing like that growth would have been realized. And certainly, nothing like that growth in a democratic technology of expression would have been realized.
If you drive through San Francisco's Presidio, you might see two gaudy yellow school buses painted over with colorful and striking images, and the logo "Just Think!" in place of the name of a school. But there's little that's "just" cerebral in the projects that these busses enable. These buses are filled with technologies that teach kids to tinker with film. Not the film of Eastman. Not even the film of your VCR.
Rather the "film" of digital cameras. Just Think! is a project that enables kids to make films, as a way to understand and critique the filmed culture that they find all around them. Each year, these busses travel to more than thirty schools and enable three hundred to five hundred children to learn something about media by doing something with media. By doing, they think. By tinkering, they learn.
These buses are not cheap, but the technology they carry is increasingly so. The cost of a high-quality digital video system has fallen dramatically. As one analyst puts it, "Five years ago, a good real-time digital video editing system cost $25,000. Today you can get professional quality for $595." These buses are filled with technology that would have cost hundreds of thousands just ten years ago. And it is now feasible to imagine not just buses like this, but classrooms across the country where kids are learning more and more of something teachers call "media literacy."
"Media literacy," as Dave Yanofsky, the executive director of Just Think!, puts it, "is the ability ... to understand, analyze, and deconstruct media images. Its aim is to make [kids] literate about the way media works, the way it's constructed, the way it's delivered, and the way people access it."
This may seem like an odd way to think about "literacy." For most people, literacy is about reading and writing. Faulkner and Hemingway and noticing split infinitives are the things that "literate" people know about.
Maybe. But in a world where children see on average 390 hours of television commercials per year, or between 20,000 and 45,000 commercials generally, it is increasingly important to understand the "grammar" of media. For just as there is a grammar for the written word, so, too, is there one for media. And just as kids learn how to write by writing lots of terrible prose, kids learn how to write media by constructing lots of (at least at first) terrible media.
A growing field of academics and activists sees this form of literacy as crucial to the next generation of culture. For though anyone who has written understands how difficult writing is--how difficult it is to sequence the story, to keep a reader's attention, to craft language to be understandable--few of us have any real sense of how difficult media is. Or more fundamentally, few of us have a sense of how media works, how it holds an audience or leads it through a story, how it triggers emotion or builds suspense.
It took filmmaking a generation before it could do these things well. But even then, the knowledge was in the filming, not in writing about the film. The skill came from experiencing the making of a film, not from reading a book about it. One learns to write by writing and then reflecting upon what one has written. One learns to write with images by making them and then reflecting upon what one has created.
This grammar has changed as media has changed. When it was just film, as Elizabeth Daley, executive director of the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication and dean of the USC School of Cinema-Television, explained to me, the grammar was about "the placement of objects, color,...rhythm, pacing, and tex- ture." But as computers open up an interactive space where a story is "played" as well as experienced, that grammar changes. The simple control of narrative is lost, and so other techniques are necessary. Author Michael Crichton had mastered the narrative of science fiction. But when he tried to design a computer game based on one of his works, it was a new craft he had to learn. How to lead people through a game without their feeling they have been led was not obvious, even to a wildly successful author.
This skill is precisely the craft a filmmaker learns. As Daley describes, "people are very surprised about how they are led through a film. [I]t is perfectly constructed to keep you from seeing it, so you have no idea. If a filmmaker succeeds you do not know how you were led." If you know you were led through a film, the film has failed.
Yet the push for an expanded literacy--one that goes beyond text to include audio and visual elements--is not about making better film directors. The aim is not to improve the profession of filmmaking at all. Instead, as Daley explained,
From my perspective, probably the most important digital divide is not access to a box. It's the ability to be empowered with the language that that box works in. Otherwise only a very few people can write with this language, and all the rest of us are reduced to being read-only.
"Read-only." Passive recipients of culture produced elsewhere. Couch potatoes. Consumers. This is the world of media from the twentieth century.
The twenty-first century could be different. This is the crucial point: It could be both read and write. Or at least reading and better understanding the craft of writing. Or best, reading and understanding the tools that enable the writing to lead or mislead. The aim of any literacy, and this literacy in particular, is to "empower people to choose the appropriate language for what they need to create or express." It is to enable students "to communicate in the language of the twenty-first century."
As with any language, this language comes more easily to some than to others. It doesn't necessarily come more easily to those who excel in written language. Daley and Stephanie Barish, director of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the Annenberg Center, describe one particularly poignant example of a project they ran in a high school. The high school was a very poor inner-city Los Angeles school. In all the traditional measures of success, this school was a failure. But Daley and Barish ran a program that gave kids an opportunity to use film to express meaning about something the students know something about--gun violence.
The class was held on Friday afternoons, and it created a relatively new problem for the school. While the challenge in most classes was getting the kids to come, the challenge in this class was keeping them away. The "kids were showing up at 6 A.M. and leaving at 5 at night," said Barish. They were working harder than in any other class to do what education should be about--learning how to express themselves.
Using whatever "free web stuff they could find," and relatively simple tools to enable the kids to mix "image, sound, and text," Barish said this class produced a series of projects that showed something about gun violence that few would otherwise understand. This was an issue close to the lives of these students. The project "gave them a tool and empowered them to be able to both understand it and talk about it," Barish explained. That tool succeeded in creating expression--far more successfully and powerfully than could have been created using only text. "If you had said to these students, 'you have to do it in text,' they would've just thrown their hands up and gone and done something else," Barish described, in part, no doubt, because expressing themselves in text is not something these students can do well. Yet neither is text a form in which these ideas can be expressed well. The power of this message depended upon its connection to this form of expression.
"But isn't education about teaching kids to write?" I asked. In part, of course, it is. But why are we teaching kids to write? Education, Daley explained, is about giving students a way of "constructing meaning." To say that that means just writing is like saying teaching writing is only about teaching kids how to spell. Text is one part--and increasingly, not the most powerful part--of constructing meaning. As Daley explained in the most moving part of our interview,
What you want is to give these students ways of constructing meaning. If all you give them is text, they're not going to do it. Because they can't. You know, you've got Johnny who can look at a video, he can play a video game, he can do graffiti all over your walls, he can take your car apart, and he can do all sorts of other things. He just can't read your text. So Johnny comes to school and you say, "Johnny, you're illiterate. Nothing you can do matters." Well, Johnny then has two choices: He can dismiss you or he [can] dismiss himself. If his ego is healthy at all, he's going to dismiss you. [But i]nstead, if you say, "Well, with all these things that you can do, let's talk about this issue. Play for me music that you think reflects that, or show me images that you think reflect that, or draw for me something that reflects that." Not by giving a kid a video camera and . . . saying, "Let's go have fun with the video camera and make a little movie." But instead, really help you take these elements that you understand, that are your language, and construct meaning about the topic. . . .
That empowers enormously. And then what happens, of course, is eventually, as it has happened in all these classes, they bump up against the fact, "I need to explain this and I really need to write something." And as one of the teachers told Stephanie, they would rewrite a paragraph 5, 6, 7, 8 times, till they got it right.
Because they needed to. There was a reason for doing it. They needed to say something, as opposed to just jumping through your hoops. They actually needed to use a language that they didn't speak very well. But they had come to understand that they had a lot of power with this language."
When two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon, and a fourth into a Pennsylvania field, all media around the world shifted to this news. Every moment of just about every day for that week, and for weeks after, television in particular, and media generally, retold the story of the events we had just witnessed. The telling was a retelling, because we had seen the events that were described. The genius of this awful act of terrorism was that the delayed second attack was perfectly timed to assure that the whole world would be watching.
These retellings had an increasingly familiar feel. There was music scored for the intermissions, and fancy graphics that flashed across the screen. There was a formula to interviews. There was "balance," and seriousness. This was news choreographed in the way we have increasingly come to expect it, "news as entertainment," even if the entertainment is tragedy.
But in addition to this produced news about the "tragedy of September 11," those of us tied to the Internet came to see a very different production as well. The Internet was filled with accounts of the same events. Yet these Internet accounts had a very different flavor. Some people constructed photo pages that captured images from around the world and presented them as slide shows with text. Some offered open letters. There were sound recordings. There was anger and frustration. There were attempts to provide context. There was, in short, an extraordinary worldwide barn raising, in the sense Mike Godwin uses the term in his book Cyber Rights, around a news event that had captured the attention of the world. There was ABC and CBS, but there was also the Internet.
I don't mean simply to praise the Internet--though I do think the people who supported this form of speech should be praised. I mean instead to point to a significance in this form of speech. For like a Kodak, the Internet enables people to capture images. And like in a movie by a student on the "Just Think!" bus, the visual images could be mixed with sound or text.
But unlike any technology for simply capturing images, the Internet allows these creations to be shared with an extraordinary number of people, practically instantaneously. This is something new in our tradi- tion--not just that culture can be captured mechanically, and obviously not just that events are commented upon critically, but that this mix of captured images, sound, and commentary can be widely spread practically instantaneously.
September 11 was not an aberration. It was a beginning. Around the same time, a form of communication that has grown dramatically was just beginning to come into public consciousness: the Web-log, or blog. The blog is a kind of public diary, and within some cultures, such as in Japan, it functions very much like a diary. In those cultures, it records private facts in a public way--it's a kind of electronic Jerry Springer, available anywhere in the world.
But in the United States, blogs have taken on a very different character. There are some who use the space simply to talk about their private life. But there are many who use the space to engage in public discourse. Discussing matters of public import, criticizing others who are mistaken in their views, criticizing politicians about the decisions they make, offering solutions to problems we all see: blogs create the sense of a virtual public meeting, but one in which we don't all hope to be there at the same time and in which conversations are not necessarily linked. The best of the blog entries are relatively short; they point directly to words used by others, criticizing with or adding to them. They are arguably the most important form of unchoreographed public discourse that we have.
That's a strong statement. Yet it says as much about our democracy as it does about blogs. This is the part of America that is most difficult for those of us who love America to accept: Our democracy has atrophied. Of course we have elections, and most of the time the courts allow those elections to count. A relatively small number of people vote in those elections. The cycle of these elections has become totally professionalized and routinized. Most of us think this is democracy.
But democracy has never just been about elections. Democracy means rule by the people, but rule means something more than mere elections. In our tradition, it also means control through reasoned discourse. This was the idea that captured the imagination of Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French lawyer who wrote the most important account of early "Democracy in America." It wasn't popular elections that fascinated him--it was the jury, an institution that gave ordinary people the right to choose life or death for other citizens. And most fascinating for him was that the jury didn't just vote about the outcome they would impose. They deliberated. Members argued about the "right" result; they tried to persuade each other of the "right" result, and in criminal cases at least, they had to agree upon a unanimous result for the process to come to an end.
Yet even this institution flags in American life today. And in its place, there is no systematic effort to enable citizen deliberation. Some are pushing to create just such an institution. And in some towns in New England, something close to deliberation remains. But for most of us for most of the time, there is no time or place for "democratic deliberation" to occur.
More bizarrely, there is generally not even permission for it to occur. We, the most powerful democracy in the world, have developed a strong norm against talking about politics. It's fine to talk about politics with people you agree with. But it is rude to argue about politics with people you disagree with. Political discourse becomes isolated, and isolated discourse becomes more extreme. We say what our friends want to hear, and hear very little beyond what our friends say.
Enter the blog. The blog's very architecture solves one part of this problem. People post when they want to post, and people read when they want to read. The most difficult time is synchronous time. Technologies that enable asynchronous communication, such as e-mail, increase the opportunity for communication. Blogs allow for public discourse without the public ever needing to gather in a single public place.
But beyond architecture, blogs also have solved the problem of norms. There's no norm (yet) in blog space not to talk about politics. Indeed, the space is filled with political speech, on both the right and the left. Some of the most popular sites are conservative or libertarian, but there are many of all political stripes. And even blogs that are not political cover political issues when the occasion merits.
The significance of these blogs is tiny now, though not so tiny. The name Howard Dean may well have faded from the 2004 presidential race but for blogs. Yet even if the number of readers is small, the reading is having an effect.
One direct effect is on stories that had a different life cycle in the mainstream media. The Trent Lott affair is an example. When Lott "misspoke" at a party for Senator Strom Thurmond, essentially praising Thurmond's segregationist policies, he calculated correctly that this story would disappear from the mainstream press within forty-eight hours. It did. But he didn't calculate its life cycle in blog space. The bloggers kept researching the story. Over time, more and more instances of the same "misspeaking" emerged. Finally, the story broke back into the mainstream press. In the end, Lott was forced to resign as senate majority leader.
This different cycle is possible because the same commercial pressures don't exist with blogs as with other ventures. Television and newspapers are commercial entities. They must work to keep attention. If they lose readers, they lose revenue. Like sharks, they must move on.
But bloggers don't have a similar constraint. They can obsess, they can focus, they can get serious. If a particular blogger writes a particularly interesting story, more and more people link to that story. And as the number of links to a particular story increases, it rises in the ranks of stories. People read what is popular; what is popular has been selected by a very democratic process of peer-generated rankings.
There's a second way, as well, in which blogs have a different cycle from the mainstream press. As Dave Winer, one of the fathers of this movement and a software author for many decades, told me, another difference is the absence of a financial "conflict of interest." "I think you have to take the conflict of interest" out of journalism, Winer told me. "An amateur journalist simply doesn't have a conflict of interest, or the conflict of interest is so easily disclosed that you know you can sort of get it out of the way."
These conflicts become more important as media becomes more concentrated (more on this below). A concentrated media can hide more from the public than an unconcentrated media can--as CNN admitted it did after the Iraq war because it was afraid of the consequences to its own employees. It also needs to sustain a more coherent account. (In the middle of the Iraq war, I read a post on the Internet from someone who was at that time listening to a satellite uplink with a reporter in Iraq. The New York headquarters was telling the reporter over and over that her account of the war was too bleak: She needed to offer a more optimistic story. When she told New York that wasn't warranted, they told her that they were writing "the story.")
Blog space gives amateurs a way to enter the debate--"amateur" not in the sense of inexperienced, but in the sense of an Olympic athlete, meaning not paid by anyone to give their reports. It allows for a much broader range of input into a story, as reporting on the Columbia disaster revealed, when hundreds from across the southwest United States turned to the Internet to retell what they had seen. And it drives readers to read across the range of accounts and "triangulate," as Winer puts it, the truth. Blogs, Winer says, are "communicating directly with our constituency, and the middle man is out of it"--with all the benefits, and costs, that might entail.
Winer is optimistic about the future of journalism infected with blogs. "It's going to become an essential skill," Winer predicts, for public figures and increasingly for private figures as well. It's not clear that "journalism" is happy about this--some journalists have been told to curtail their blogging. But it is clear that we are still in transition. "A lot of what we are doing now is warm-up exercises," Winer told me. There is a lot that must mature before this space has its mature effect. And as the inclusion of content in this space is the least infringing use of the Internet (meaning infringing on copyright), Winer said, "we will be the last thing that gets shut down."
This speech affects democracy. Winer thinks that happens because "you don't have to work for somebody who controls, [for] a gatekeeper." That is true. But it affects democracy in another way as well. As more and more citizens express what they think, and defend it in writing, that will change the way people understand public issues. It is easy to be wrong and misguided in your head. It is harder when the product of your mind can be criticized by others. Of course, it is a rare human who admits that he has been persuaded that he is wrong. But it is even rarer for a human to ignore when he has been proven wrong. The writing of ideas, arguments, and criticism improves democracy. Today there are probably a couple of million blogs where such writing happens. When there are ten million, there will be something extraordinary to report.
John Seely Brown is the chief scientist of the Xerox Corporation. His work, as his Web site describes it, is "human learning and ...the creation of knowledge ecologies for creating ... innovation."
Brown thus looks at these technologies of digital creativity a bit differently from the perspectives I've sketched so far. I'm sure he would be excited about any technology that might improve democracy. But his real excitement comes from how these technologies affect learning.
As Brown believes, we learn by tinkering. When "a lot of us grew up," he explains, that tinkering was done "on motorcycle engines, lawnmower engines, automobiles, radios, and so on." But digital technologies enable a different kind of tinkering--with abstract ideas though in concrete form. The kids at Just Think! not only think about how acommercial portrays a politician; using digital technology, they can take the commercial apart and manipulate it, tinker with it to see how it does what it does. Digital technologies launch a kind of bricolage, or "free collage," as Brown calls it. Many get to add to or transform the tinkering of many others.
The best large-scale example of this kind of tinkering so far is free software or open-source software (FS/OSS). FS/OSS is software whose source code is shared. Anyone can download the technology that makes a FS/OSS program run. And anyone eager to learn how a particular bit of FS/OSS technology works can tinker with the code.
This opportunity creates a "completely new kind of learning platform," as Brown describes. "As soon as you start doing that, you . . . unleash a free collage on the community, so that other people can start looking at your code, tinkering with it, trying it out, seeing if they can improve it." Each effort is a kind of apprenticeship. "Open source becomes a major apprenticeship platform."
In this process, "the concrete things you tinker with are abstract. They are code." Kids are "shifting to the ability to tinker in the abstract, and this tinkering is no longer an isolated activity that you're doing in your garage. You are tinkering with a community platform You are tinkering with other people's stuff. The more you tinker the more you improve." The more you improve, the more you learn.
This same thing happens with content, too. And it happens in the same collaborative way when that content is part of the Web. As Brown puts it, "the Web [is] the first medium that truly honors multiple forms of intelligence." Earlier technologies, such as the typewriter or word processors, helped amplify text. But the Web amplifies much more than text. "The Web ...says if you are musical, if you are artistic, if you are visual, if you are interested in film ... [then] there is a lot you can start to do on this medium. [It] can now amplify and honor these multiple forms of intelligence."
Brown is talking about what Elizabeth Daley, Stephanie Barish, and Just Think! teach: that this tinkering with culture teaches as well as creates. It develops talents differently, and it builds a different kind of recognition.
Yet the freedom to tinker with these objects is not guaranteed. Indeed, as we'll see through the course of this book, that freedom is increasingly highly contested. While there's no doubt that your father had the right to tinker with the car engine, there's great doubt that your child will have the right to tinker with the images she finds all around. The law and, increasingly, technology interfere with a freedom that technology, and curiosity, would otherwise ensure.
These restrictions have become the focus of researchers and scholars. Professor Ed Felten of Princeton (whom we'll see more of in chapter 10) has developed a powerful argument in favor of the "right to tinker" as it applies to computer science and to knowledge in general. But Brown's concern is earlier, or younger, or more fundamental. It is about the learning that kids can do, or can't do, because of the law.
"This is where education in the twenty-first century is going," Brown explains. We need to "understand how kids who grow up digital think and want to learn."
"Yet," as Brown continued, and as the balance of this book will evince, "we are building a legal system that completely suppresses the natural tendencies of today's digital kids. ...We're building an architecture that unleashes 60 percent of the brain [and] a legal system that closes down that part of the brain."
We're building a technology that takes the magic of Kodak, mixes moving images and sound, and adds a space for commentary and an opportunity to spread that creativity everywhere. But we're building the law to close down that technology.
"No way to run a culture," as Brewster Kahle, whom we'll meet in chapter 9, quipped to me in a rare moment of despondence.
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