Sunday, January 17, 2010

I Want To Be A Maker: Nostalgia (Part 1 of 3)

This is the first in a series of three posts in response to Cory Doctorow's new novel, "Makers," available online for free, for hard copy purchase, or as an audiobook.

I finally got a chance to read Cory Doctorow's "Makers," and it is a spectacular book opening up a dialogue about extremely important contemporary issues. While sometimes goofy in that sci-fi literature kind of way, the book is a sign of the times like no other. Exploring peer production, intellectual property laws, modding, bioengineering, proprietary vs. volunteer production, surveillance culture, free economics, opennes vs. secrecy, "Makers" is a sprawling narrative that articulates the essence of today and a lucid projection of the future. The cycle of innovation, antiquity, death, and innovation will continue. You're either with it-- a savvy "change-surfer," as Tjan, a progressive businessman puts it-- or you're against it. And even with all of progress' dangers and destabilization, you will be a better person living as the latter.


Yet one particular theme bubbling under the surface of Makers struck me as indicative of postmodernity, a microcosm for our hyper-changing times. Emerging from both Perry and Lester's underground, crowdsourced wiki-style ride and Sammy's Disney Fantasyland is the idea of Nostalgia-- appealing to viewers by celebrating what was rather than what could be; boring deep into collective memory and extracting a pipeline of sentimentality that audiences cannot resist; a drug that keeps people addicted to re-consuming the past.

"The nostalgia's thick enough to cut with a knife," (p. 141) Perry exclaims as he describes how the geeks and the "civilians" are flocking to their ride which is a slow-moving, time capsule that people drive through on electric wheelchairs and vote on the objects they see. The ride automatically adjusts itself to the desires of its audience, later incorporating the ability for anyone to add objects that are 3-dimensionally printed in other rides all over the world.

Simultaneously, Sammy is trying to recapture his fledgling audience by exploiting the same desire at his Fantasyland park, a subset of Disney World that is overrun by goth teens and made-up troublemakers. "It's hard to say without research," Sammy says to the other Disney execs in describing how to re-brand the park to "fatkins," genetically modified people who have to eat a ton to stay skinny, "but I'm willing to bet that these guys will respond strongly to nostalgia" (p.197). While taking two totally different approaches to audience theory-- Perry and Lester embracing distributed production and an open protocol, Sammy exploiting a top-down, proprietary model-- both attractions are vying for the same audience: those who desire to escape the "now" by re-experiencing a recreated past.

Another novel that explores the postmodern human's irreconcilable longing for a dying past is Alan Moore's "Watchmen." During chapter IX entitled "The Darkness of Mere Being," Dr. Manhattan brings Laurie to Mars to discuss the fate of humanity and his allegiance to it. While the non-human Dr. Manhattan lives in all time at once, the chapter juxtaposes ubiquitousubiquitous time with the exploration of Laurie's past. It is interspersed with panels featuring a perfume bottle flying through space with a capitol "N" on it standing for "Nostalgia," Adrian Veidt's famous line of designer products. During one flashback, Laurie recalls a snow globe from her childhood that she was enamored with and accidentally broke. As she recalls the snow globe, Laurie tells a story:
"And there was this toy, this snowstorm ball, with a tiny castle inside, except it was like a whole world, a world inside the ball... it was like a little glass bubble of somewhere else. I lifted it, starting a blizzard. I knew it wasn't real snow, but I couldn't understand how it fell so slowly. I figured inside the ball was some different sort of time. Slow time. And inside was only water."
The snow globe represents past as she sees it through her memory, a utopia of yesterday with augmented time and beautiful scenery that is and should be longed for. Yet when she accidentally drops the globe, she exposes the truth in glass shards: that the object was only water and synthetic materials, a fragile, phony illusion of impossibility. At the end of the chapter, Laurie throws the Nostalgia bottle as she discovers the truth about her father and it shatters against Dr. Manhattan's Mars structure, spilling the fragrant memories inside. By exposing a false narrative about her past, Laurie is painfully enlightened by the jarring truth. By the destruction of Dr. Manhattan's falsely constructed narrative about humanity, he is enlightened to care.

In "Watchmen," the future is illuminated as a malleable inevitability by the destruction of nostalgia. (Rorschach cannot handle this realization which leads to his destruction as he insists on keeping good and evil as binary oppositions). Yet the characters in Makers take a much more ambivalent stance towards nostalgia. All are stuck in it in some way, wading through the thick muck of sentimentality threatening to hold them back from progressing forwardly through time. Yet the characters deal with the muck in different ways.

While Perry and Lester "go with the flow," if you will, making artifacts and rides that exploit the notion of nostalgia by means that are entirely progressive (crowdsourcing, open sourcing, etc.), Sammy tries to control it. Both are exploiting peoples' longing for the past in some way by appealing to this notion, but Perry and Lester paradoxically bring nostalgia into the future, creating conditions for new manifestations of human consciousness and existence. Putting "ethics before greed" (p. 310), Perry and Lester innovate and allow users to become "citizens" of their ride. Sammy conversely tries to monetize, viewing users as commoditized customers who can be manipulated.

Yet in the end, neither approaches to the exploitation of nostalgia are sustainable. As Suzanne says to Perry, his "superior technology can not make inferior laws irrelevant" (p. 286). Still, Sammy's Disney franchise was threatened by Perry and Lester hacking the DiaBs and unofficially empowering their users. Not until Sammy re-experiences the park with Suzanne-- re-immersing himself in human nostalgia-- does he realize what he has to do: leave behind Disney's standard operating procedure and consume Perry and Sammy's innovation, creating a whole new being. He doesn't even want their ride, he says. He just wants their brains, their essence of creativity, on his side. Thus, Sammy re-starts the cycle that New Work went through: peaceful comfort, innovation, resistance, chaotic death of the past, rebirth of the future, back to comfort again. It's inescapable and we are all part of it. We just need to decide which part we're in and operate accordingly.

Part 1: Nostalgia (this post)
Part 2: Stories
Part 3: Ambivalence

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