July 22, 2004


Check out this article I found at Salon.com

Just how inventive can an anonymous group of people be? Could an online mob produce a poem, a novel, or a painting? We like to believe that the blue bolt of artistic inspiration strikes only the individual. "[The] group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man," John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden. Hollywood scriptwriters constantly moan over how their brilliant ideas were mutilated by studio "editing by committee."

Sounds good.

But collaboration has a long history in art. Plays are frequently infected with ideas that came from actors or even sound engineers. Some Shakespeare scholars wonder whether some of the Bard's lines came from onstage improvisations by actors. And though many of today's writers and creators would never admit it, editing by committee can rescue an overindulgent work. Collaboration is old hat.

Yea, few collaborative experiences have that charm. People are like chemistry, most mixtures are bland, some are explosive and some are sweet.

Still, until now it's been limited to a small handful of people, usually face to face. The Internet lets thousands of total strangers collaborate to produce a truly hivelike result. One intriguing example is "Typophile: The Smaller Picture," a project that let an anonymous crowd design a font. Kevan Davis, a British Web developer, created grids of pixels, 20 by 20 in size, one for each letter of the alphabet. He randomly dispersed black-and-white pixels in each. Then he put them online and let people vote on whether a particular pixel should be white or black. As thousands of people voted on each one, letters emerged, forming a democratic consensus of what the alphabet should look like.

Sounds great, huh? I tried the links, but nothing worked.

Davis created animations that show each letter taking shape, and they're mesmerizing, a time-lapse movie of a collective mind at work. Another designer took the results and produced crisper-edged versions of each letter. The final result looks like a mildly punk version of Helvetica, with occasional flashes of creative weirdness, such as the jaunty serif on the foot of the letter "J."

Yet the process has its flaws. When the mob tried to draw a few simple pictures, it couldn't. Davis told it to draw a television, but the image never congealed. The group agreed that the tube should be represented by empty space, but it couldn't generate any other details. An attempt at drawing a face produced an even more shapeless mess. The only partially successful picture was a goat: At around 4,000 votes, it looked pretty goatlike, and at 5,000 votes the mob revised it to make the horns curvier. But after 7,000 votes the picture decayed into a random jumble of pixels, as if the group could no longer agree on what a goat should look like. Mobs, it seems, can't draw.

Quick! Draw a television. Take a victory lap for the individual!

Why did letters work, but not pictures? Probably because the second experiment was too free-form. Ask a group of people to draw the letter "E," and most of them will envision something pretty similar. Ask them to draw a face, and they'll have a much broader array of opinions, and thus more disagreement. Truly huge artistic collaboration on the Internet seems to work only if the gang has a well-defined objective.

Kind of like our art world today, huh?

The Wikipedia people have been discovering this themselves, after launching a project to have people collaboratively write textbooks: Wikibooks. When I spoke to Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, he noted that while some textbooks are evolving nicely, most aren't experiencing the wild success of the Wikipedia. A textbook requires a consistent sense of style and a linear structure, hallmarks of a single authorial presence. An encyclopedia doesn't.

In a sense, the world of online collaboration is discovering what artists have always known: Rigid conventions are often crucial to producing art. Novels, poems, and oil paintings are really just structural devices that take an artist's zillion competing ideas?an internal, self-contradicting mob?and focus them into a coherent work.

I'm not sure this is a key concept in our artworld. certainly, when I was in grad school (yes, a long time ago, '91, but our artworld is substantially no different conceptually from the end of the eighties... same hoary concepts, different packaging. Oh, one key un-hoary idea? That there might be a ironizing twist that produces an unlimited set from a limited one.

Posted by Dennis at July 22, 2004 4:58 PM

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