The Machine is Us/Ing Us

A YouTube video has changed my view of the world. And no, this time it didn't involve a monkey or a grievous injury captured on camera.

Around a month ago, I had a transformative YouTube experience. No, it didn't involve snuff or celebrities or the fusion of carbonated beverages with chewy sweets, but rather a video rumination on the nature of Web 2.0.

The four-and-a-half minute video, titled "The Machine is Us/ing Us", was created by Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University.

Using a combination of screen captures, still images and live action, the video examines the impacts of online technology on human interaction, providing a fascinating summary of how the Web has evolved to reach its current state.

It is remarkable for several reasons -- not just because it provides proof that YouTube is more than a repository for lip-synching attention whores angsting out on their bedroom Web cams.

In me, the video evoked a curious emotional bouillabaisse of nostalgia, tingly excitement and comfort, and even lead to rather more epic Ruminations on The Human Condition. The issues it raised -- the changing relationship between form and content, the organisation of data, "teaching" the Web about how we live -- represented a lovely assessment of technology from an anthropological, how-all-this-is-changing-us-as-people perspective.

The great tech-related terror, as exposited in such cinema classics as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is that a Technological Singularity will give rise to a race of robotic overlords who will enslave and/or eradicate humanity. In other words, we will be the creators of our own tech-enabled demise -- the result of having tinkered so much with machines that the mechanical creations eventually achieve a superior level of sentience and become Evil.

Fear of machines and emerging technology is nothing new. (See Edison and his ultimately unsuccessful "Alternating Current, Mr. Tesla? Think of the CHILDREN!" smackdown.) But the Internet, and its lack of geographical boundaries, has given rise to new kinds of fear. Online predators. Privacy concerns. Cyberporn addiction, Internet suicide cults, social reclusiveness; it's a pretty different approach to "That electricity outlet might give you a nasty zap, Timmy".

The term "Web 2.0" has become a bit of a joke, with the focus shifting from the development of innovative applications to the already-clichéd attributes of start-ups. The formula seems to be easy: decide on a service to provide, pimp out your site with a whole lotta AJAX, choose a company name consisting of two conjoined words with a vowel or two removed, and draw up a logo that's all curvy edges and pastel hues. Then sit back and watch the egocentric kiddies flock to expose the minutest details of their lives online.

Amid all this moral panic and cynical entrepreneurship, it was a delight to discover a video devoted to the humanity-enriching aspects of Web 2.0. Sure, it got a little shmaltzy toward the end ("We'll need to rethink love"?), but for those who have grown up in a Web-enabled world, it's a surprisingly touching summation of where we've come from and where we're headed.

Did The Machine is Us/ing Us bring a tear to your eye, or leave you wishing for those four minutes of your life back? I'd be interested to hear your reactions to the video, and whether you agree with the sentiments expressed.