I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.

The Promise and Price of Living at the Mall.

Posted: July 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Valley River Center, Eugene OR

I have been participating in a long-running discusion of Clay Shirky’s concept of Cognitive Surplus over at Alan Jacob’s Text Patterns blog.

I find Shirky’s concept both attractive and repulsive in almost equal measure. Adopting and mastering technology has been such a powerful, positive force in my life, it’s hard for me not to be optimistic about it. But at the same time, I have growing suspicion of how it’s being pitched — from powerful and useful tool, to consumer product, and now finally, almost as a religion, with questions about technology’s promise treated almost like heresy in some quarters.

Today, on a long car ride today with my fangirl wife we spend a lot of time hashing our mutual histories with tech, and speculating on where things are going.

She can pretty much re-tell Alan’s story, but Brooklyn instead of Alabama, and with IT instead of books giving her her big break from an intellectually unrealized life to being the multimedia superstar she is today (deep skills in information design/internet stuff, published author, award winning filmmaker, blah blah blah.)

Further more, she can rattle off the names of about a dozen women who have gone from fanfic to professional writers; including one who’s had her work optioned by Peter Jackson; and another half-dozen women who parleyed their involvement in the fanfic community into learning computer programing which now pays them cash money.

And although I can’t do the humble origins thing (doctor’s son, grew up in La Jolla CA), IT has been instrumental in my life too.


We were at IKEA today. Both of us really like IKEA. But the more time you spend shopping there, the more you realized the #1 design consideration for *everything* IKEA sells is how much space it takes up in storage and transit. Everything else flows from this consideration, and as wide a variety of stylish, good value proposition goods as you can purchase at IKEA, every last one of them is shape by this one overriding consideration.

That’s sort of how I feel about the internet. Like IKEA, there’s a lot of stuff about it that’s a good value proposition, but there’s also this one overriding design consideration that everything else has to bend to. Yes, search is part it, but it’s just one part of it. And like when I’m shopping at IKEA, when I’m socializing, being “productive” and generally living my life on the internet, I’m (more or less at various times) aware of the way things are bent to the needs of the internet.


For all the ways my wife and I have benefited from the internet (including meeting and beginning our courtship online) I’m aware that there somethings have been massively disrupted; the topic of the moment seems to be Journalism, and where the money is going to come from for The Fourth Estate to keep doing what we need it to do in our society.

But in the last few weeks I’ve caught a wiff of something that I think bears watching.

First there was that “Who are you?” video with the congressman.

Then a financial newsletter author was convicted of fraud, despite his claim that of first amendment protection.

Then a court forced a blogger to reveal her sources, despite her claims of journalist’s privilege.

And yesterday I read the Ninth Circuit allowed a lawsuit to go forward over internet criticism of competitor. The court ruled that because the critic had a financial interest, their criticism was “commercial speech” and was not entitled to the same degree of protection afforded non-commercial expression.

I’ve no doubt that some of what Clay Shirky predicts will come true. More people playing, creating, thinking, interacting is liable to bear fruit we call can enjoy.

But my own feeling is that our traditional understanding of the First Amendment cannot possibly survive the explosion of information being created. We cannot possibly extend journalistic privilege to every person carrying a handicam, every person publishing a blog or a newsletter. Nor can we burden the courts with every claim of such privilege (Read Jenkins v Georgia, then ask yourself why what is permitted in sexually explicit speech has so vastly overrun what the court made fairly explicitly clear was protected and unprotected.)

Some twenty years ago I got arrested in a mail for not leaving a Prop 9 petition table. Reflecting on it a couple of years ago, I wrote the following:

It turns out that at the same time I was having my little adventure in Eugene there were some interesting court cases trying to figure out what can and can’t get you kicked out of a mall. Stealing will definitely get you kicked out. Wearing a “Dick Cheney is a War Criminal” t-shirt might get you kicked out in some places (probably not Eugene), but you’d probably have a case if you decided sue.

Politely disrupting someone’s mall-sanctioned policitical activities? Well I don’t know if that ever got settled. Mostly what happened is malls stopped giving anyone permission to anyone to do anything in the mall except spend money. There’s a lesson in that, or at least I think there is, even if I don’t know quite what it is.

More and more I think the lesson is this: as we move our lives and culture online, we are moving from living in public spaces to living in corporate
spaces. We’re doing it because it’s convinient, fun, inevitable, whatever. But corporate spaces are governed very different agendas that public spaces. We are transforming citizenship in to consumership; and what constitutes being a good consumers is not the same thing as what constitutes being a good citizens.

Some people will thrive in this new order, others will be marginalized. Will it be better, more prosperous, more fun? Who knows. I hope so! I do know it will be different.

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