Protest as Perspective:
Do We Want a Revolution
or a Renaissance?
So often we hear people using the word “revolution” to describe the
current overwhelming cultural shift fostered by technology and new media.
However overwhelming it might be, can we really describe the current
transition as a revolution? For me, the word “revolution” evokes images of a
violent upheaval and guillotined heads. There’s certainly very little
progress implied by revolution; it’s simply someone spinning around in
Digital culture may be marginally revolutionary in the sense that it is
characterized by what so many companies and institutions have called
“thinking outside the box”–a willingness to challenge conventions and
consider meta-narratives. But, this notion of thinking outside the box and
gaining perspective is not simply moving in a circle. We are coming to a new
understanding of what had always been considered literal reality; we
are seeing it instead as a picture of reality. Our new tools are also
leading us to feel empowered enough to adjust the frame around that picture.
Such an upscaling of perception, intention, and design is better described
Renaissance literally means the rebirth of old ideas in a
new context. It is a reconfiguring of the constructed ways we experience the
world in order to reconnect with it, and the adaptation our of cultural
lenses to conform to our changing vision. In the original Renaissance, a
number of discoveries and inventions changed our most basic experience of
the real. Perspective painting allowed us to create representations of
reality that simulated dimensionality. The discovery that the world was
round and the ability to circumnavigate it radically redefined our notion of
space and our sense of agency. Furthermore, the development of calculus
allowed us to relate planes to spheres and spheres to four-dimensional
fictional objects, performing conceptual calculations never before possible.
The printing press allowed the widespread distribution of ideas and data,
connecting people in expanded social and political communities. Within the
next century, coffee imported from Morocco encouraged people to stay up late
at night and talk, giving rise to a “bohemian” culture and an Enlightenment
dedicated to challenging conventional models of reality through new
The late 20th century brought discoveries and inventions
whose collective impact could be considered a renaissance of at least equal
magnitude. While perspective painting allowed Renaissance artists to create
two-dimensional images, the holograph now allows us to create
three-dimensional representations that approximate our vision even more
closely. By manipulating the laws of perspective, some Renaissance painters
created deliberately skewed or “trick” representations of reality,
challenging the reliability of our vision and suggesting the possibility
that illusion exists in reality as well. The mechanics of the holograph
offer a similar challenge because when a holographic plate is shattered into
many pieces, the image is not fragmented. Each shard of the plate will
contain a smaller image of the entire original, suggesting that fractal
relationships may underlie much of our illusions as well as our reality. The
underlying technology of holographs further extends our understanding of
dimensionality and has been used to understand everything from society to
While Renaissance explorers discovered that the world was
round, modern scientists discovered atomic energy and took us to the moon.
Having already mastered the globe through exploration, we were now able to
explore beyond it, to see it as an object from another position in space,
and even to destroy it. Meanwhile, chaos math and systems theory opened
complex conceptual possibilities in much the same way calculus had for
The computer and the Internet changed communication,
publication, and the idea of community to a degree comparable with the
printing press. LSD and psychedelics, like the coffee beans of the
Renaissance, had people staying up late together and experimenting with the
A renaissance is a shift in perspective, the shift from living within a
model to moving outside of it. Or, as video gamers might express it, from
game to “meta-game.” Young people who spend a lot of time immersed in video
game environments understand this phenomenon, well. There are two ways one
can learn to play a game. The first is to read the rules, practice, and use
old-fashioned trial and error. The second is to find the
magazines and websites that will share secret codes to
avoid traps, win levels, and gain special advantages in the game. Are the
people using these “cheat sheets” really playing the game? Certainly, but
the game they’re playing is the meta-game. Finally, the gamer learns how the
game is actually put together. He learns to create his own new levels of the
game, or entirely new versions. He moves from game player, to meta-game
player, to game designer.
Likewise, there are moments when we, as society, as a
culture, or even as individuals, shift from simply playing the game by the
rules to playing the meta-game and changing the rules. These are renaissance
moments. Renaissance moments happen when we experience a shift in
perspective so that the stories, models, and languages that we have been
using to understand our reality are suddenly up for grabs. But these
renaissance moments are transitory, because almost as soon as our
perspectives are shifted, we settle into new conventions. Alas, the
possibilities opened by our new perspective close up, and we once again
mistake the map for the territory. We forget that the new stories and
metaphors we have developed are just that, and we mistake them for literal
But, before things have been locked down, ideas compete
for consensus. The challenge (and the opportunity) during these moments is
to make a positive impact in that struggle. For me, this means preserving
the notion that the ideas that win consensus approval may be useful, but
they are still arbitrary. This is the true “hack”: to move outside the frame
of the picture, and to show others how this is possible.
I would argue that we are currently in a period of
renaissance–still in the process of assimilating the results of a shift in
perspective caused by remarkable technological progress. We are still aware
that the shift is going on, and hoping to preserve some aspect of our
newfound sensitivity into the next phase of human society. It’s akin to the
realization many people have in the heightened state of awareness caused by
a mystical or psychedelic experience: the person on his vision quest wonders
how he will be able to remember that state of awe or insight once the
experience is over. He wonders how he can plant a seed, or landmark of some
kind that he will remember when he returns to waking state consciousness.
Likewise, those of us aware of an unleashing of cognitive liberty by the
current renaissance, are attempting to preserve and extend the notion that
much of reality itself is open source, and that the “codes” by which we
organize our experiences are more accessible than we generally assume. For
artists, cultural producers, and, of course, activists, there is an
imperative to influence what will become the new consensus, and to mark it
with sense of possibility that will help us maintain a sense of agency over
our own collective and individual perspectives.
A lucky beneficiary of the digital renaissance, I have been encouraged to
believe that our reality is, indeed, open source—or at least that much of
what we have been regarding as permanent “hardware” is, indeed, only
“software,” and subject to change. For me, the most important insight of
cyberculture is that we all have access to its codes; we are all potential
Media is the realm in which our reality is negotiated. I
used to stay up nights wondering: what is media? It was a perplexing
question. A zipper is media; open, it means one thing and closed, another. A
face is media; we read people’s appearance and expressions for information
about them. Even our DNA is media—arguably, the best
media nature has developed, capable of sending codes
through the millennia.
Ultimately, the only thing that isn’t media is a person’s
most essential consciousness—one’s agency, will, and intention. As
consciousnesses swimming in media, we create and control narratives to
negotiate reality and our places within it. Through competing stories we can
negotiate over “what” is going on. But by making up rules and creating tools
through which those stories will be told, we negotiate about the “how,” the
Renaissances are, in part, the moments when we pull out
of a particular story for long enough to consider the way in which it is
being told. The game and the meta-game, the stories and the way stories are
told, have largely been regulated and controlled for the last few centuries.
As Aristotle well understood, stories work by creating a character that the
audience likes and having that character make a series of decisions that put
him in terrible danger. This brings the audience into a heightened state of
tension about this poor character who has made all these wrong decisions.
Then, once the audience can’t take it anymore, the storyteller invents a
solution. In a Greek play that solution might have been Athena coming down
to save the day.
This same storytelling technique has been honed for
centuries, and perhaps perfected by the advertising industry, which has
exploited the mainstream media space for its ability to tell very
influential little stories called commercials. In twenty-eight seconds, we
identify with, say, an aggravated executive, follow him into his hellish
day, up the incline plane of tension. Because we are a captive audience,
with no access to the tools of storytelling, we must take that pain
relieving pill with him at the end of the commercial to relieve our anxiety.
The storyteller chooses what pill the listener has to swallow at the end of
the story—whether it is a new president or an old religion.
Cyber culture, based on an ethic of interactivity,
releases the captive audience from the spell of the story and offers them
the opportunity for active participation, instead.
The television remote control represented the first in a
series of liberating interactive technologies. Imagine a man sitting in his
LaZyBoy chair in 1958, with popcorn on his lap, watching a painful
commercial. The TV programmer is dead-set on throwing this poor man into a
terrible state of anxiety. If the viewer wants to get out of that imposed
state of tension, he’s got to move the popcorn off his lap, lift himself out
of his chair, walk up to the TV, and turn the channel–which is, perhaps,
fifty calories of human labor. If he sits through to the end of the
commercial, however, it may only use up ten calories of anxiety. The brain
is lazy; it makes the lazy decision. It will take the ten calories and
submit to the programming.
After all, the material on TV is called “programming” for a reason; it's
designed to program us as we sit passively in our seat. But the remote
control changes the equation. Imagine a fourteen year old today, watching a
commercial, and feeling the first signs that he’s being put into an imposed
state of tension. With the .0001 calories that it takes to press a button,
he’s out of tension and out of the arc of that story. Kids with a remote
control watch TV in a new way, following ten stations at once, surfing back
and forth through different stories. When they experience TV like this
they’re not watching
television at all, but watching the television,
deconstructing it as television.
The second liberating interactive device was the
videogame joystick. For most of you, your inaugurating video game experience
was Pong. And, perhaps amazingly, you probably still remember that first
moment you played. Pong was a simple game based on ping-pong, with two white
squares on either side of the screen that would move up and down along with
your movements on a control knob. People remember their first time playing
Pong the way they remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. This isn’t
because Americans loved table tennis so much and were so happy to have the
convenience of practicing it on TV. It wasn’t about the literal meaning of
the metaphor; it was about experiencing something on the television as
metaphor. It was a thrill just to move the little white square up and down
on the screen, to control the pixel. We had never had control of the pixel
before. The TV screen was the holy and inaccessible realm of newscasters and
movie stars, a magical place where things just appeared. But, just as the
remote control deconstructed television’s stories, the joystick demystified
its technology—making it an accessible medium, and rendering it safe.
Finally, the computer mouse and the keyboard turned the
receive-only monitor into a portal through which we could express ourselves.
The mouse and keyboard spawned a do-it-yourself or “DIY” Internet culture in
which people created, uploaded, and shared their own content. In a sense,
people were the content; we used technology to connect with other
The resulting cyberpunk culture was a renaissance
culture. It was a chaotic space, where new ideas could spring up from almost
anywhere. It was a gift economy where new programs were created and shared,
for free. It was a community, where new members were introduced and escorted
around as if they had just bought a home in a fantasy suburb. Best of all,
Internet users came to understand that the mainstream media space no longer
represented their reality. From now on, users would represent their own.
But almost no one was making money on the Internet—not
that this bothered any of the Internet’s actual users, but families with
Internet connections were watching three or four hours less TV a week,
seeing fewer commercials, and buying less TV-advertised products. Further,
people who are having fun and feeling connected to other people are less
easily coerced into purchases. So the effects of the remote control, the
mouse and the joystick had to be undone. In the interests of the investment
community, the Internet was restyled as an online mall.
First, the media space deconstructed by the remote control had to be put
back together. Companies developed concepts such as “stickiness,” “attention
economy,” and “eyeball hours” in an effort to keep people glued to websites
as they were once glued to TV stations. In response to panicked articles
from the mainstream media about a channel-surfing culture and decreasing
attention spans, attention deficit disorder diagnoses and Ritalin
prescriptions went up over 100%. Children’s ability to enact renaissance was
curtailed through drugs.
In order to regain control of the pixel, first liberated by the joystick,
professional designers re-mystified the computer’s interface so that it was
no longer two-way.
Users were forced to rely on the “wizards” built into
their software programs to work magic they didn't understand. Consider the
increasing opacity from DOS to the Macintosh, and Macintosh to Windows 2000.
Look at the colorful and confusing interfaces used on the World Wide Web
compared with the text-only bulletin boards of the early Internet. The only
way to participate on the web is through the mouse; the only opportunity to
use the keyboard is to enter one’s credit card information. The increasing
and deliberate opacity of new interfaces is designed to keep us out.
Finally, in order to undo the DIY culture that had grown
out of the keyboard and the mouse, commerce replaced community, and content
replaced people as the soul of the net. It was announced that we were in an
“Information Age” rather than a communication age because information
is data that can be bought and sold.
No longer able to deconstruct, demystify, or do our own media, we ended up
succumbing to an entirely new story about the promise of new media: money.
The new story competing for consensus approval was based on the idea of a
pyramid. Some young person comes up with an idea—a business plan. Then a
pyramid with different levels of investors fills in beneath him. Angel
investors take the top position, then, lower down, a few rounds of
“qualified” investors, investment banks and, finally, at the very bottom, an
Initial Price Offering (IPO) on NASDAQ. This final ground level is called
“going public.” Of course, by the time the general public was buying shares
online, the people at the top of the pyramid had executed an “exit strategy”
and disappeared—taking away their money as the pyramid collapsed beneath
In the flux generated by our technological renaissance,
e-commerce and the dot-com speculative market were reduced to a business
fantasy: NASDAQ’s claim to the meta-narrative. The pyramid schemes
eventually failed, because all pyramid schemes eventually run out of money.
Its collapse was aided, in part, by the Internet’s own structure and
function. It is so organic and interactive in its makeup that it shrugs off
interventionist government controls and, with a bit more effort, the
corporate attacks that have followed.
So, now that the dot.com pyramid scheme has failed to
establish itself as the overarching metaphor of the digital age, digital
reality—and perhaps our social reality—is once again up for grabs.
As long as we can maintain our renaissance sensibility
and our awareness of the implications of the open source reality in which we
live, we have access to enormous opportunities for cultural progress. These
opportunities suggest profound implications for any of us who have become
conscious of how to hack the borders of reality.
People who have been exposed to the Internet and to
interactive and virtual systems are more aware of how any system is designed
and constructed. We understand that our world is made up of intentionally
designed interfaces. Spending so much time in virtual space, we are more
aware of real space, political space, and ideological space, and the way it
shapes interaction. We are more sensitive to power, and the way it is
Right now, as a result of our renaissance sensibility, the definitions and
conventions of our reality are becoming the component parts of a new
language. Nothing is just itself, because its identifying characteristics
become a self-conscious manifestation of its underlying essence. An ironic
distance. A self-conscious reframing of almost everything.
It’s a form of self-protection, really. A defense. We are
trying to focus on the mediated feeling of things. We want to stay awake in
renaissance awareness as long as possible before the next reality template
concretizes and the self-conscious similes become tight metaphors. We now
see that “this is like that,” sort of like that—it is, as
if. But we know that eventually “it is like” and “it is as if”
will collapse into “it is.” The world is that. Reality’s
transparency and accessibility are lost yet again.
At the same time, however, there is great longing to let
go, to trust that the world is not trying to do something to us—to engage in
an experience without fear and suspicion. Artists and writers have been
working on this problem for centuries. Shakespeare often wrote prologues for
his plays in which a character allows the audience in on the metaphor: “oh
pardon gentles all, that we would presume that the stage would represent…”
It’s a modesty and honesty that gives your audience permission to relax.
They are not going to be fucked with. If we can communicate this sort of
goodwill in ritualized contexts, we should be able to do it in the real
world of communication, as well.
It is the responsibility of programmers and designers, in particular, to
realize that genuine social engagement and genuine discourse is what will
keep people out of the traps and trances they are now at pains to avoid. If
we can create online and mediated experiences that foster this kind of
interaction and discourse—experiences that facilitate people as people,
rather than subjugating them to other intentions—it will prolong our sense
of freedom, as well as our ability to hack even more of the world’s