You Are Not a Gadget and Rappers Are Not Ringtones: The Relationship Between Hip Hop and Web 2.0

Jaron Lanier, the man credited with inventing the term “virtual reality,” has just written a book about the digital moment we find ourselves in…

You Are Not a Gadget is a self-proclaimed manifesto that strongly critiques certain aspects of the way we have come to engage with ideas, art, each other, and ourselves through the internet–particularly through Web 2.0.   Lanier argues that through the rise of user generated content–which becomes amalgamations of content generated by other users–we are confusing ourselves/each other with the technology we are using.  Information and cultural creations can become entirely decontextualized and, in the process, we (the creators) become dehumanized.

Lanier describes himself as a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author.  When it comes to music, his areas of expertise include classical, chamber and orchestral music.  But apparently, when it comes to metaphors for the web, he thinks about Hip-Hop.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from an FAQ section on his website:

Q:  Aren’t appropriation and reuse central to culture?  What’s wrong with doing those things on the Internet?

A:  Appropriation and reuse are central to culture, of course.  I have had a few questions at talks about Hip Hop culture, and I always say I wish Web 2.0 was more like Hip Hop.  Imagine if you usually didn’t get to know who was rapping, or if you could only know a name, but not the person’s story?  Would that be culture?  Hip Hop is about people – some vastly more talented or ethical than others – but the actors are humans with character and history, not information fragments.

This comparison between Hip-Hop and the current state of the web illustrates an important point.  Unfortunately, I fear the Hip-Hop that Lanier is celebrating is a Hip-Hop of the past–before music downloading, ringtones, and playlists.  In the eighties and early nineties, if you listened to rap music, you probably listened to whole albums and followed artists’ whole careers.  There was less music available, so you had time to get to know the artists whose music you were bumping.  Hip-Hop culture also wasn’t as mainstream, so it was less common for it to be appropriated with limited attribution or explanation.  If you were a rap fan, you’d await a new release, hang on every word, read every article, argue with other fans (and/or detractors)…  And you couldn’t hear the newest, hottest ishh, without experiencing some proximity to urban communities of color, which is the context that the music and culture was coming from.

All that has changed.  There has been a democratization of the means to produce and access music, which is in many ways a beautiful thing, but has also led to some problems.  For fans who want to find more music, know more about the music they listen to, and even try their hand at creating their own music, this is a beautiful thing.  But others are able to build playlists of songs that they know little about.  With a few clicks of a button I can be listening to any of dozens of rappers spitting over the “A Milli” beat.  I won’t necessarily know who they are, who rapped on the beat first, who made the beat, where the vocal sample came from (a remix of A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”), or anything else about the song.  I probably won’t even remember how or why I ended up downloading it.  Someday, my digital music program will be on shuffle and I’ll hear the beat drop and if I like it, or my friends think it’s cool, I might even make it my ringtone.  Until it gets replaced with another piece of decontextualized disposable culture.

“I am not saying you shouldn’t ever use any of the tools I criticize” Lanier writes, “Instead I am trying to make you aware of ways these tools can be used badly that can sneak up on you gradually.  I am not attempting to invalidate good experiences anyone is having with any particular tool since, after all, they are only tools.  Your experience is ultimately up to you, not the tools.”

Word up.  Let’s take control of the digital tools at our fingertips and use them for the forces of cultural good.  Let’s listen to whole albums.  Let’s communicate with each other and with the creators of our favorite music to learn more and go deeper into the songs.  Let’s hold each other accountable for contextualizing the culture we consume.  Rappers are not ringtones and we are not gadgets.

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