I t was a long winter last year and, finding myself sitting in front of the fire a lot, I got into a frame of mind where I began to consider increasing my cultural input.
Part of the solution was to actually get out of the house and make a trip to Miami for Art Basel with my cousin Lanny MacDowell (which we documented in this newspaper) and another part was to make trips deep into cyberspace on my computer — browsing widely to find culture in the ether.
The result of all that was more thought — specifically about the changes that cyberspace has wrought on my (and maybe your) world. And all that thinking and cogitating has produced a two-part opinion piece that will be published, due to the indulgence of editor Julia Wells, in consecutive editions of the Gazette beginning now with my screed on what I call “input.”
During the last few decades or so, much of our cultural input has been monopolized by media giants such as Clear Channel which controls a huge number of radio stations and Viacom, Disney, and Time Warner which control 75 per cent of our cable and broadcast venues. A lot of our newspapers are owned by mammoth corporations such as Gannett, Knight Ridder, and the T ribune Company. The result is that factual reporting is diminished in favor of information tailored to sell advertising and designed for a mass — as opposed to local — market.
As media scholars Bill Ivey and Steven Tepper write: “Consolidated ownership, centralized control of content, and bottom-line pressures in public companies . . . are leading us toward less diversity, less risk, and fewer opportunities for new or emerging artists or art forms to find audiences.
“Such trends are crowding out local and independent voices. Citizens are increasingly confronting a homogenized culture that does not speak to their unique expressive needs. Thus critics see a growing cultural deficit, not cultural democracy, in the United States.”
This trend, in my opinion, is being reversed by the increase in alternative sources of input offered by the Internet. Television, magazines and newspapers give us what editors think we ought to know or what the marketing department wants us to know.
But the Internet allows us to pursue what we ourselves consider important. If you are intrigued by, say, a particular question of constitutional history, or environmental law or even the kind of car to buy — you can Google until you have received an avalanche of opinions from all quarters.
I recently became an avid browser of a site called Flickr — a way for photographers to share photographs and comment on each others work. The cyber audience votes for the pictures they like and the winners are posted in various select Flickr galleries. In an average hour some 2,000 photographs are uploaded to this site. From Flickr I took away a lot of useful technical information but also an enhanced aesthetic born of many hours — yes, hours — poring over online photographs posted there, most of them by amateurs. The experience was better than a trip to New York to prowl the galleries — well, almost.
Web logs, or blogs, have blossomed in recent years: alternative voices to those of the mass media. Artknowledgenews, for example, tells me what’s on the walls at MOMA, the MFA and the Guggenheim and other museums all over the world as well as providing critical reviews and articles that help me sort out new movements in contemporary art. Especially important to me as a photographer are Web sites which provide tutorials that help me learn the latest Photoshop techniques or about the newest photo gizmos to hit the market, among them Shutterbug, Flickr, Photoblog 2.0, Adobe and Dan Burkholder’s Tiny Tutorials.
For alternative news about Iraq I might go to Dahr Jamail’s Web log which gives the views of an independent U.S. journalist, the author of Beyond the Green Zone. To fact check stories both mainline and alternative, I often use Truthout which bills itself as presenting “reader-supported news instead of advertiser-supported news.”
The Internet allows us to tap into a new creative world and imbibe new ideas. We can peruse almost any newspaper in the world on line and browse our way to the best in established and new art by creators — amateur and professional — from all over the planet.
The increase of all these Web-based opportunities has led to what Ivey and Tepper call the curatorial me — each of us picking from a wide array of inputs to become the curator of our own cultural experiences.
“Handed the capacity to reorganize cultural offerings at will through new devices like the iPod or TiVo,” they write, “citizens are increasingly capable of curating their own cultural experiences — exploring new types of culture; choosing when and how they want to experience art and entertainment; searching out communities of like-minded fans with whom to dig deeper into the substance of what they see and hear.
“The ‘curatorial me’ is another emerging form of active engagement with art and culture. Although not producing art themselves, citizens have developed the skills and expertise to be connoisseurs and mavens — seeking out new experiences, learning about them, and sharing that knowledge with friends.”
My neighbor, David Dutton, is just such a curator of his own cultural experiences. I have often encountered him at the Trade Winds Airport park with earphones perched on his head leading by tiny wires to an iPod which contains various editions of National Public Radio programs that he has downloaded for listening to each day on his dog walk.
Similarly, I have taken control of my music library through iTunes, where I browse widely among many categories of music and choose only those pieces that I want to download to my computer — paying about a dollar for each one of them. I then organize the selections and record them onto compact disks which I listen to at home or on the road and trade with others. ITunes savants have created their own lists of favorites on the iTunes Web site and, finding someone who likes the same kind of music I enjoy, I can peruse their list to discover new songs to download.
Personally, I love Netflix — the Internet film rental outfit. On the Vineyard we have one of the best movie rental shops in the world — Island Entertainment — but Netflix offers more movies than any rental store possibly can, and it maintains an on-line data base of critical reviews so I can choose wisely.
You place your order on the company Web site and the movie comes in the mail, usually within 48 hours. Netflix has an expansive list of documentaries from which I program my own home-based film series on the arts — films about Alfred Steiglitz, Chuck Close, David Hockney, Jackson Pollock, Edward Burtynsky and Pablo Picasso — to name just a few of the painters and photographers I chose this year.
The net allows us to not only choose the subjects that interest us but also the locale. The Vineyard, for example, is well represented in the ether. As many of my fellow Vineyarders do, I rent my Island home during the summer and in addition to local realtors I use a Web-based firm called CyberRentals. I often find that renters have chosen my home after searching the Web for information about the neighborhood in which it’s located.
Many of them find harthavencommunity.com, a local Web site sponsored by the Harthaven Community Association with pictures and a history of our community. They might also find farmpondassociation.com — which features news about our adjoining great pond and efforts to improve its water quality.
Both these sites — I am happy to say — were created by my neighbor, Heather Goff, who runs her Web design company from her home in Harthaven. Island artists and galleries sponsor a wide array of personal Web sites. Among the more well known are the Dragonfly gallery at mvdragonfly.com, photographer Janet Woodcock at janetwoodcock.com, and Island artists Rez Williams (rezwilliamspaintings.com), Ovid Ward (ovidward.com) and Andrew Moore, another neighbor, at agmoore.com.
Vineyard football addicts will find mvfootball.com indispensable and those interested in Island history might consult a wonderful collection of Tisbury historical records at history.vineyard.net or at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum Web site marthasvineyardhistory.org. The original inhabitants of the Vineyard, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), have their own Web site — wampanoagtribe.net. Our two newspapers are both online at mvgazette.com and mvtimes.com.
When I want to find out about the weather I go to weatherunderground.com, where I can also find online personal weather stations such as the one at Flying Skunk Farm in West Tisbury which tell me what is going on around the Island in real time. And when, for the purposes of fishing, I need to know the tides I go to boatma.com/tides/tides_islands.html and choose the area I am interested in — usually Wasque.
The Internet is revolutionizing our access to a wide array of cultural and informational inputs — thus overcoming the potential stranglehold of massive corporations which today control most of the traditional media. But the revolution challenges us to become more involved in actively searching and selecting these inputs rather than passively allowing them to select us.
The effort, in my opinion, is well worth it. And, on a long night in the midst of winter — it provides a welcome diversion from the dreary scenery outside our windows.
Sam Low, a photographer and writer and frequent contributor to the Gazette, lives in Oak Bluffs. His Web site is samlow.com.