Jun 16, 2008 0
In the early days of photography, many people claimed that photographs could never be art. In response, early photographers both consciously and unconsciously imitated Renaissance painting and sculpture—sometimes even going as far as dressing their models in togas. After all, that is what was considered art. It wasn’t for fifty years after the fixed image that photographers began to take full advantage of the medium and create a distinct aesthetic.
If you’ve ever watched the Honeymooners, a show from the mid 1950s starring Jackie Gleason, you see the same phenomenon. Television was relatively new, and people had yet to unlock its full potential. The can lighting, simple sets, fixed audience perspective, and exaggerated physical expressions had more in common with theatre and vaudeville than later television shows that the Honeymooners inspired.
It’s not that all of early photography or the Honeymooners was bad art—quite the contrary—but they show that it takes time to figure out what to do with new media technology. It should be no surprise then that people are still struggling to wrap their minds around the internet.
On Friday, I attended the 6th annual Chinese Internet Conference hosted by the University of Hong Kong, which explored different understandings and uses of the internet in China. The conference included business advisors, journalists, famous bloggers, and academics, and at times, people were just throwing out ideas to see what stuck. In some ways, the Conference was in the Honeymooners stage; there were some great ideas and insights, but people—bloggers excluded—stuck in the language of the past.
There was one presentation in particular that brought to mind early photography and the Honeymooners. Lokman Tsui, a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that the term “the Great Firewall”—the regime of internet censorship in China—was actually a continuation of Cold War ideology, a sort of “Iron Curtain 2.0.” Tsui pointed to proposed American laws aimed against against the “Great Firewall” that tried to prevent internet “jamming.” “Jamming,” of course, is a radio metaphor; one cannot “jam” the internet. The words, Tsui argued, politicize the American understanding of the internet.
So why does it matter that American understanding of the internet in China is informed by the Cold War? If early photos can sell for millions and the Honeymooners can be ranked the #3 greatest TV show, perhaps a Cold War radio analogy can be useful for understanding and implementing internet policy—especially for our less tech savvy members of Congress. Our notion of the internet is already moving away from Cold War radio analogies. Young people today may never even listen to an AM/FM radio ever again. They may only understand the influence of Cold War era Voice of America in terms of internet analogies. Surely, we’ll develop a new language for the internet and internet regulation. It just takes time.
Also, if not the “Great Firewall” then what term is better? Tsui’s response was hardly satisfying: “As an academic, I’m good at putting up problems.” That’s akin to noticing a photograph of person in a toga standing on marble pedestal has something in common with Renaissance sculpture. It’s nice that someone noticed, but it doesn’t push us any closer to developing a new language of the internet.
Other possibilities to use in lieu of “the Great Firewall”? Gamers in China apparently compare internet regulation to controlling the supply of “digital opium,” but my personal favorite was put forward by Jeremy Goldkorn of danwei, calling internet censorship in China a “net nanny.” It’s a cute moniker that better reflects the feelings of many using the internet in China. Here’s hoping that the term sticks.