Saturday, September 26, 2009

Creative Commons, Crowdsourcing, and Animation through Collaboration

Most of the clips I took from the Intel Developer Forum in late September have been used for business blogs, but this panel I attended Sept. 23 was of more general interest, and raised some interesting questions regarding crowdsourcing and the antithesis to the so-called "wisdom of crowds," what Chris Weingarten of Rolling Stone called the "stupidity of crowdsourcing" at the recent 140 Character Conference.

Before filming excerpts from this panel, I asked Yair Landau, founder and president of the Mass Animation project that developed the short animated film, about Weingarten's observations. Landau said he was raised in a kibbutz, and was predisposed to believe in collaboration. Besides, he said, he did not want a single person claiming to have a superior opinion.

If you're not up to watching the clip, here's the backstory. Landau, formerly of Sony, decided he wanted to see what quality of animation he could garner from a collaborative project initiated worldwide through Facebook. He created Mass Animation, got together with ReelFX (Kyle Clark on the panel is COO), and Intel (John Cooney at the left end of the panel is Intel's online programs manager), and they launched an effort to collaboratively develop an animated short called "Live Music," which will be seen in theaters and online beginning Nov. 20. (In respect of their wishes, I am not including video clips of the draft, but am including a couple still shots below.)

As Landau mentioned, there was some general guidance from the Mass Animation crew on the story board, but animators could include new story elements. The story line and animation itself flows as well as anything I have seen from Pixar and DreamWorks. Panel moderator Jeremiah Owyang pointed out how much this is like journalism in the 21st century: Journalism sponsored by major media companies is on its death bed, so can collaborative efforts from Indymedia or blog collectives replace it? Landau made the very relevant point that there still needs to be a central source of coordination and funding that is strong enough to overcome the messiness of consensus-building over global dimensions. (And this is the missing link for journalism in the 21st century - who pays for the vetting and coordination function if all underwriters are dead?)

I'm a believer in collaborative creativity through social networking, but I also think Weingarten was on to something in his dismissal of crowdsourcing. Here's how both might be true: Landau is talking about collaboration among creators of content, which constitute an artistic elite of sorts to begin with. Weingarten was talking about the majority voting of observers and users of content (I hesitate to use the word "consumers," because too many people are using that word to replace the more critical word, "citizens"). If we listen to crowdsources of critiques, we find our musical choices come from the world of American Idol. More often than not, it's the eclectic and iconoclastic critic of art, literature, music, that finds the good stuff. I like to see artists themselves collaborate as they create. But when it comes to artistic criticism, I come down on the side of Weingarten: If most people like it, chances are, it sucks.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Atttention Robert Gibbs: Desperately Seeking Coherent White House Press Strategy

In April, when the independent right began holding their local tea-party affairs to a news furor across the nation, Robert Gibbs asked, "What's a tea party?"

On Sept. 12, when the Tea Party Express hit Washington, the White House press office tried to pretend it didn't know where these protesters were coming from or what they represented. I find the tea-partiers insufferably annoying due to their lack of knowledge of history and their tendency to use the Glenn Beck definition of words, but at least they are colorful characters in the right-wing nut-o-sphere. The Democrats have been hyper-analyzing the potential turnout, as witnessed by the furor over the "millions" document. Thus, the White House response can only be interpreted two ways:

1. Ignorance. Due to a bevy of media micro-analyzers in the White House Press Office and a daily national intelligence briefing, we can dismiss this option as ridiculous.

2. Belief that they can sound tempered and cool and logical by feigning ignorance. Oh, please. With daily media coverage of the Tea Party Express, Fox News, Glenn Beck, etc., this dog doesn't hunt, this stance is asinine. Gibbs could take his lead from blogger Ryan Witt, who points out that grassroots political expression is fine, but Fox News' role as sponsor and cheerleader is a clear conflict of interest. Mr. Gibbs, such a position takes the high road, without making the White House look like it's trying to play the ignorance game, and playing it very badly indeed. Are you listening?

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Culture of "No We Can't"

It took less than 48 hours after the president's health-care speech for even the liberal media outlets like NPR and The New York Times to point out the obvious problems of White House numbers for health-care options that were simply unworkable, and the additional problems faced in planning for a surge in Afghanistan that the Democratic Party is loath to approve. It's not just that Obama is being shot by both sides, with the left now taking the place of Joe Wilson. It's that Obama still longs for the days of a 1962 Camelot, and those days ain't comin' back.

I give Obama endless credit for being frank about global warming, the financial meltdown, etc. at times when few in either party (almost none in the Republican) show such ability for forthrightness. The problem is, massive Keynesianism is unlikely to be paid down in an era of declining resources.

Let's face it: the United States is a declining global empire at a time when most capitalist goods-and-service flows will be moving to Asia, but when all nations will face limits to market expansion they have never faced in past decades. U.S. citizens need to start thinking of themselves as UK post-1956 or Germany post-1945. Is there anyone in the political leadership willing to steer citizens in such directions? Are citizens themselves capable of associating American exceptionalism with something other than continuous territorial expansion? I doubt it.

I'm usually bashing exceptionalism as a philosophy, particularly when tied to that "city on a hill" crap. But we can indeed be exceptionalist in an era of decline. In culture, for example, the world is likely to continue to look to the U.S. for most arts ideas and capitalist innovation, unless China manages to make great leaps forward in making Asian consciousness cool. As the Brits discovered in the early 1990s, the UK could still be considered "coolest country in the world" long after its empire collapsed. (Of course, it had to work its way through dark 70s and Thatcherist 80s to get there.) But to come to terms with that, U.S. citizens need to start accepting concepts of financial limits, territorial limits, even consciousness limits (What's that? We can't afford another trip to the moon, let alone Mars?) that politicians will avoid like a Bill O'Reilly appearance.

The Republicans show no tendencies to drop the caveman clubs and the attitude that we can keep our imperial position through might and fight. The Democrats show no willingness to admit that deficits incurred now may be impossible to pay down by mid-century. An effective president might have to be the kind of school marm that preaches austerity and humble spirit to a public that is not going to listen. The leaders we need right about now are the ones we'll never get.

I'm glad Obama infused optimism in a jaded public in 2008, but I'm worried that his supporters don't recognize that Camelot will never be resurrected. (And truth be told, the Kennedy brothers engaged in some pretty nasty covert foreign business behind the scenes during those years.) Does Obama work on health care for six months, re-work the numbers, and say, Hillary-style, "Oh, never mind"? Does he reject a troop surge and approve an exponential increase in armed UAV flights over Afghanistan, thereby limiting body bags but buying into a moral argument that says standoff warfare with massive collateral damage is OK?

I empathize with Obama for the tough choices he will have to make over the next three years. But I feel even more sorrow for the American people, who live by many fairy tales and few facts. They are totally unwilling to recognize the reality that the superpower they grew up with has reached its limits, and that the next 50 years will represent an inevitable decline in political influence and purchasing power.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Why Head-Over-Heart, Head-Over-Hormone, Head-Over-Heaven?

When I explain to some folks the basics of being a "Militant Enlightenmentist," a few always wonder if I'm putting the scientific method on a pedestal. Does inductive reasoning itself become a religion, if you're trying to advance the Enlightenment by all means necessary?

Let's clear up a few issues here. I think that faith-based ways of knowing are entirely legitimate, and that some resonances deserve supernatural explanations. I think that sometimes, the best way to comprehend something is in love or anger or joy or fear, not in logic. I think there are times when horniness conquers all.

But there is a special reason why science, mathematics, and logic deserve a special place, besides the fact that they work the best to sort out what certainly appears to be an independent physical world out there. We live in a multicultural world. Faith-based ways of knowing like to boast of a "universal truth," but you can say "Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light" until you're blue in the face to a Buddhist, and it won't mean a damned thing. You can insist others respond in anger to some outrage, but if the person you are talking to does not consider honor a trait worth honoring, your appeals will go nowhere. You can insist the time for pheromones is now, but sometimes no means no.

However, scientific and mathematical laws operate across all cultures at all times. Logic in both Boolean and abstract forms simply is. We may not agree that the eight-legged creature on the wall is called a "spider," but we agree about the characteristics we have learned through observation and experimentation. And that's why science, math, and logic hold the trump cards. Call upon authorities like God or the president or daddy all you want, get angry or funny and expect others to share your emotions, let yourself be ruled by the times you're in heat, but none of those factors operates across cultures. The Enlightenment is a trump card that holds certain truths common across all sentient beings, and that trump card beats out holy books and limbic systems and hormones.