Law in the Internet Society

John Henry, The Internet, and the New Autonomy


John Henry driving on the right side
That steam drill driving on the left
Says, "Before I'll let your steam drill beat me down
I'm gonna hammer myself to death, Lord, Lord
I'll hammer my fool self to death"
-- John Henry, Traditional

The American folk song John Henry tells the story of a man who wins a railroad spike driving contest against a steam powered drill. However, despite John Henry's best efforts, we now depend on mechanization to produce our railroads. Since then, mass production has poured into our culture - from railroads to automobiles, household goods, clothing, music, and books. This essay will discuss the implications of mechanization on our ability to shape who we are and the society surrounding us, and how the internet presents a way for us to reassert our autonomy, enhancing our capacity for self fulfillment.

"A man ain't nothin' but a man"

Human beings are made of culture. In many ways, each of us is a product of what we are exposed to. What we want, like, and believe varies depending on where we are born and who our parents are. Due to each of our particular experiences growing up, we express different preferences. Holmes loves granite rocks and barberry bushes, while I prefer tree-lined side streets with cracks filled in with tar.

A corollary to this observation is that what we choose to do affects the choices that others make. We react to what we experience in others - manners, gestures, clothing, and goods. What others wear influences our idea of fashion, what we make influences how others make things, and when you read my last sentence it interacted with your mental picture, producing some new state, perhaps not the one I intended. This concept can be modeled by imagining that what we do ripples out around us to those able to observe us, shaping their world view. In turn, their actions create observational ripples back to us. These ripples influence our choices, shaping who we are out of the dynamic system called culture.

"The Captain said to John Henry, I'm gonna bring that steam drill 'round'"

The mechanized production of goods, services, and artistic works in this system affects the way that culture is produced too. Instead of the democratic paradigm - with each of us producing the same amplitude of ripples throughout the system when we act - mechanized production and delivery has the ability to create shockwaves through the culture system. Those with control over production and distribution have their decisions observed by more people, which influences more behavior resulting in an asynchronous capability to shape culture and who we are.

This expanded capability has wide ranging effects into each and every portion of our lives. Television producers influence how we laugh with our friends, operating system designers influence, and in some cases dictate, how how we use computers, textbook makers influence how we learn to think, fashion designers influence what label (or lack thereof) fits 'us' the best, magazine editors influence what constitutes a 'normal' relationship, body type, or frame of mind, and mechanized production of crafts influences our sense of quality, practicality, and usefulness. In this sense, the designers of the mass produced goods influence what we want, how we work, and who we are.

This does not imply that an average person is powerless to shape themselves against these forces. Quite the opposite, this model describes a situation where we choose our actions in response to these forces; and through these choices we shape ourselves out of the culture that surrounds us. The implication is, however, that the control over this mass production affects the building blocks out of which we make ourselves, yielding a great deal of influence concerning who we are to those in control of the mechanization.

"That ain't no storm, Captain, that's just my hammer in the air"

The internet gives those with access the means to touch as wide a range of people as those whose decisions can be amplified by mechanized production and distribution. Creating and posting writings, audio, and video that can be accessed by any interested party is quick and simple. Further, this ability does not just extend to traditional media. For example, sites like etsy serve as a marketplace where people can buy and sell handmade goods, allowing people to reach people across the globe with their own creations. There are also communities that share design plans in formats that allow people to replicate the designed goods using a fabrication machine. Other tools allow people to comment and collaborate on top of other people's content, such as dispute finder and shift space. Finally, sites like reddit and digg replace the traditional role of editor with a community that votes upon articles which they find interesting or valuable.

The implication of the internet, as seen through these examples, is that an average person increasingly has the power to reach others with the same amplification effect as those in control of mechanized production. This tendency is towards the democratic ideal of culture - each of us with an equal opportunity to influence each other, and thus a better chance at determining our own destiny. John Henry hammered against the steam drill in order to preserve the humanity of his profession in an ever more mechanized world. The internet is our tool to do the same - to participate in and develop the cultural forces out of which we are made.

The argument presented in your paper does not respond to one of the most common arguments lobbed at those who talk about the of the power of the Internet to democratize communications: the Internet has no filter. The ability of individuals to influence culture is determined by more than their ability to transmit their creations to a mass audience. Transmission means nothing if no one is tuning in. When people are confronted with too many transmissions, people tune out because it is difficult to find interesting material amid all the noise. Forty percent of the American population tuned in when the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. The performance was a watershed moment in American pop culture the likes of which may never happen again. During the 1960s, there were three television channels and most homes contained only one television set. No filter will ever be as restrictive as the absence of television outlets once was. My question is what filters will people rely on in years to come? Will they promote democratic communication?

-- StephenClarke - 30 Mar 2010



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r17 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:43:59 - IanSullivan
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