ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

“We Can’t Have Nice Things.” —

There are a number of pithy, quickly cliche’d statements that nest in various weblogs. Some are dead on arrival, annoying the living crap out of me in milliseconds, while others are, for a shining moment, insightful and funny before being blurred and beat down into meaninglessness.

Responding to events of spam, hacking attempts and commercialization with a variant of “This is why we can’t have nice things.” falls under the latter, until probably later this afternoon. I’m already in the red zone bringing it up myself.

Sometimes the statement is used to describe a dog, child or other entity ruining an actual nice thing you own; I’m not speaking to that. I’m mostly talking about where someone responds to an online community or entity taking it in the shorts. “I checked in last night and found the server had been hacked and vandalized. This is why we can’t have nice things.”

I like this line specifically because it belies, in itself, a number of implications.

First, that we are all in this together; that the experience of being online and transferring data bonds us in ways that, finally, all that hype from the 1980s was trying to promise us. You can now stand outside in a lot of towns, hold up a little handheld device, and send a near-instant message to someone halfway across the world. You can type in a fragment of a song you heard on the radio and get, usually, the entire lyrics of the song and who made it. And you can discover, a thousand times over, what people generally look like when they’re naked. Right now.

The downside, of course, is that this abundance of “stuff” is also accompanied by an abundance of “shit”. But not just a case of there being piles of stuff and piles of shit; no, no. In fact, we tend to combine the stuff and shit together, marbling it like a good cut of steak. You read someone’s informative page, and they’ve striped it up and down with google ads. You do a search for something you’re trying to track down, and you find it… or at least pieces of it, sitting on a spam weblog that is trying to lure you in to buy crap. Or kill you, I’m not sure.

The implication with “we can’t have nice things” is also that there are nice things to have. This is the positive statement inside the negative one; that people constantly add new and nice things, and everyone gets a shot at the new thing, for a while anyway. And we have a huge collection of new and nice things, 24 hours a day, joining our lives assuming we don’t mind the medium of the computer screen and keyboard/mouse to interact with them, as opposed to taking a walk.

So why is this at all interesting? Good question.

This weblog functions, among other things, as a collection of stop-frames in a continuum of ideas I have fermenting in a pile; things I’ve learned or think will become more and more critical over time. I was struck, during the BBS Documentary, from my interview with Phil Becker, who had done work for NASA, was involved with TBBS, Fidonet, Boardwatch/ONEBBS CON, and the IPAD (the IPAD deserves a bunch of history in itself). Phil, you see, has a gift for seeing the next thing to aim his skills at. He’s done very well with that so far. He thinks the current critical area is in digital id, a non-exploitable (to whatever level possible) identity that allows you to take it consistently between various locations and still be verifiable. I think that’s a pretty accurate way of looking at things.

So I think, personally, that the aspects of online life are now collapsing on each other, and that issues are arising that even Nicholas Negroponte in his most cranked-out Wired back page articles could not have imagined. There was once a time, after all, when people were starving, just absolutely famished, for constant incoming information that they could access easily. That’s hardly the problem now, isn’t it? The storm of crankiness about Google Maps putting up street photos (which was preceded by many other cases of sites like Microsoft, Amazon/A9 and Yahoo putting up street photos) outlines the dual problems of issues arising and obvious lack of preparation for those issues.

So this situation of us not being able to have nice things is going to get even more intense, and we’re going to have even more situations of getting nice things, and maybe we should get on that.

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