A long, long time ago, the only people using computer networks were hackers. Some of them would type their messages using a slang known as Leet Speak — an elite code in which the letters of words are replaced with numbers and other characters. This shibboleth served not only to separate the authors from the network’s hoi polloi, it also helped them subvert the filters used by a variety of automatic censors. Leet looks m0Я3 0Я 1355 l1k3 7h15. And while this style of writing is now more likely to be associated with teenagers than “cyberspace cowboys”, it is the latter who inspired the title of this edition of our column. Hackers, after all, are the ones with the odd habit of counting from zero instead of one.
Let’s treat the replacement of “O” with “0” as a symbol of the transformation that bestowed a digital lining onto our hitherto analogue world. We’ve written about the replacement of analogue media with digital technology (most recently in the previous installment), but it’s not just media that are becoming digital: it’s the world around us. The concept of “ubiquitous computing”, prophesied since the late 1980s, has yet to be implemented. According to the “ubicomp” model, information processing, once the sole domain of computers, will be distributed throughout the world. Twenty years on, we are witnessing a shift from desktops to laptops and netbooks to the latest generations of cellular phones — smartphones — as the soon-to-be most popular method of accessing the internet.
Computing is already spreading beyond the field of electronic gadgets — just try finding something in your house that doesn’t have a microprocessor. Within the upcoming decade, the internet is predicted to transform from a network of computers into a web linking billions of interconnected objects. This isn’t the raving of some mad visionary: it’s the prognosis of the European Commission. The vision is not one of talking toasters and self-aware vacuum cleaners, it’s about objects with unique identities, thanks to technology that enables us to register their state and their location in time and space. We’re not talking about a world overrun by cyborgs, but a world filled with information about everything around us. Mobile devices will allow us to peek into the digital dimension of reality; it’s actually quite probable that these devices will take the form of eyeglasses. I might find out, for instance, who sewed my shirt, how many chemical additives there are in my apple, or where the president’s suit, and the president inside it, have been recently. It is obviously difficult to predict the consequences of such ubiquitous digitisation, which may produce increased amounts of information, but could also lead to the ramping up of control and surveillance as well as the loss of privacy.
It’s much easier to describe the effect computers have on our thoughts, a process taking place before our very eyes. Our identities are changing, and along with them our ways of thinking and our habits. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich states that in today’s world, the database is the key form of culture, one that rivals linear narration. This is about more than the recent flood of non-linear media. No longer mere timelines linking birth and death, the stories of our lives are becoming increasingly like databases. A personal life story based on a collection of pictures could be a narrative if it contained only a few dozen or hundred images. But when a single vacation can mean taking thousands of photos, we have no choice but to navigate our materialised memory as we would a database. Our interpersonal relationships are undergoing a similar transformation: we collect, categorise, move, and manage “friends” and “contacts” on social networks with the same ease as one would queue up a song on a Winamp playlist or copy files between directories.
Digital tools are obviously more than just source of new metaphors: they have become prostheses and extensions without which our lives would be much more difficult. “Being deprived of my blog right now would be akin to suffering extensive brain-damage,” wrote the famous blogger and sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow a few years ago, likening his blog to an “outboard brain”. While attending a conference in Japan last year, one of us noticed how our normally well-knit team disintegrated without cell phone roaming service. Everyone had lost the ability to schedule a meeting the old-fashioned way: by simply choosing a place and time.
The critics say that what we now regard as the new version of culture is actually “zero culture”: an internet dustbin and cesspit, the demise of journalism standards, and the tabloidisation and vulgarisation of the media. One of the more articulate (albeit not quite subtle) critiques was put forth by Andrew Keen in his book, The Cult of the Amateur. In it, Keen states that the amateur production of content enabled by the internet is destroying professional production and the institutions responsible for it, while causing a sharp decline in quality and standards, which he claims will lead to the demise and death of culture. Similar fears have been expressed in Poland, most notably by Stanisław Lem, who referred to the internet as “one big garbage can”.
We do not share Keen’s fears. While existing institutions of culture or the media that transmit it may disappear, culture itself is here to stay. The change we mean when we talk about the 2.0 version of culture is the creation of new cultural institutions and new models of participation, perhaps even on the ruins of the old institutions. As Bruce Sterling points out, the composting, renewal, and recycling of content and form is a much more common part of culture than death is.
Culture continues to exist even when faced with the crisis of its own institutions. Some of them will undoubtedly disappear: such is the nature of the media revolution. Some will adapt and survive. Keen is mistaken in his demand that we cling to old, proven institutions. When dealing with technological changes, the only place to run is forward.
The world of bits, ones, and ZEROS is more than just a world of information that determines a growing number of our personal relationships. It is also more than just the underpinning of the physical world — a Matrix-like sequence of numbers hidden beneath the surfaces of objects. There is no need to seek out eccentric theories which claim that modern culture mainly “happens” in integrated circuits filled with millions of digital gates switching between two states: 0 and 1.
Zero also plays a different role in today’s culture. While the number of productions continues its relentless climb toward infinity, the only price that growing number of people are willing to pay for access to them is zero. While this certainly flies in the face of what many economists believe to be true, it’s hard not to notice that that’s precisely what’s happening. There may not be such a thing as a free lunch, but free feasts of a different kind are quite common. As the cost of production and distribution approaches zero, alternative models of disseminating culture (and even making a profit) are becoming feasible. The only condition is that we accept the fact that “zero is the best price” (and that just happens to be the price of Biweekly).
When alternative models of disseminating culture fail to appear, they leave room for piracy, which can be defined — in its online form — as a system of redistributing content while levying a fee of zero for intermediation. Piracy, however, is a topic for another installment.