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Remix and Remixability

25 octobre 2005

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By Lev Manovich

The dramatic increase in quantity of information greatly speeded up by Internet has been
accompanied by another fundamental development. Imagine water running down a mountain. If
the quantity of water keeps continuously increasing, it will find numerous new paths and
these paths will keep getting wider. Something similar is happening as the amount of
information keeps growing - except these paths are also all connected to each other and
they go in all directions; up, down, sideways. Here are some of these new paths which
facilitate movement of information between people, listed in no particular order: SMS,
forward and redirect function in email clients, mailing lists, Web links, RSS, blogs,
social bookmarking, tagging, publishing (as in publishing one=B9s playlist on a web
site), peer-to-peer networks, Web services, Firewire, Bluetooth. These paths stimulate
people to draw information from all kinds of sources into their own space, remix and make
it available to others, as well as to collaborate or at least play on a common
information platform (Wikipedia, Flickr). Barb Dybwad introduces a nice term
"collaborative remixability=B9" to talk about this process: "I think the most
interesting aspects of Web 2.0 are new tools that explore the continuum between the
personal and the social, and tools that are endowed with a certain flexibility and
modularity which enables collaborative remixability =8B a transformative process in which
the information and media we=B9ve organized and shared can be recombined and built on to
create new forms, concepts, ideas, mashups and services." [1]

If a traditional twentieth century model of cultural communication described movement of
information in one direction from a source to a receiver, now the reception point is just
a temporary station on information=B9s path. If we compare information or media object
with a train, then each receiver can be compared to a train station. Information arrives,
gets remixed with other information, and then the new package travels to other
destination where the process is repeated.

We can find precedents for this "remixability" -- for instance in modern electronic
music where remix has become the key method since the 1980s. More generally, most human
cultures developed by borrowing and reworking forms and styles from other cultures; the
resulting "remixes" were to be incorporated into other cultures. Ancient Rome remixed
Ancient Greece; Renaissance remixed antiquity; nineteenth century European architecture
remixed many historical periods including the Renaissance; and today graphic and
fashion designers remix together numerous historical and local cultural forms, from
Japanese Manga to traditional Indian clothing. At first glance it may seem that this
traditional cultural remixability is quite different from "vernacular" remixability
made possible by the computer-based techniques described above. Clearly, a professional
designer working on a poster or a professional musician working on a new mix is different
from somebody who is writing a blog entry or publishing her bookmarks.

But this is a wrong view. The two kinds of remixability are part of the same continuum.
For the designer and musician (to continue with the sample example) are equally affected
by the same computer technologies. Design software and music composition software make
the technical operation of remixing very easy; the Internet greatly increases the ease of
locating and reusing material from other periods, artists, designers, and so on. Even
more importantly, since every company and freelance professionals in all cultural fields,
from motion graphics to architecture to fine art, publish documentation of their projects
on their Web sites, everybody can keep up with what everybody else is doing. Therefore,
although the speed with which a new original architectural solution starts showing up in
projects of other architects and architectural students is much slower than the speed
with which an interesting blog entry gets referenced in other blogs, the difference is
quantitative than qualitative. Similarly, when H&M or Gap can "reverse engineer" the
latest fashion collection by a high-end design label in only a few weeks, this is part of
the same new logic of speeded up cultural remixability enabled by computers. In short, a
person simply copying parts of a message into the new email she is writing, and the
largest media and consumer company recycling designs of other companies are doing the
same thing -- they practice remixability.

The remixability does not require modularity - but it greatly benefits from it. Although
precedents of remixing in music can be found earlier, it was the introduction of
multi-track mixers that made remixing a standard practice. With each element of a song
-- vocals, drums, etc. -- available for separate manipulation, it became possible to
=8Cre-mix=B9 the song: change the volume of some tracks or substitute new tracks for the
old ounces. According to the book DJ Culture by Ulf Poscardt, first disco remixes were
made in 1972 by DJ Tom Moulton. As Poscard points out, they "Moulton sought above all a
different weighting of the various soundtracks, and worked the rhythmic elements of the
disco songs even more clearly and powerfully=8AMoulton used the various elements of the
sixteen or twenty-four track master tapes and remixed them."[2]

In most cultural fields today we have a clear-cut separation between libraries of
elements designed to be sampled -- stock photos, graphic backgrounds, music, software
libraries -- and the cultural objects that incorporate these elements. For instance, a
graphic design may use photographs that the designer bought from a photo stock house. But
this fact is not advertised; similarly, the fact that this design (if it is successful)
will be inevitably copied and sampled by other designers is not openly acknowledged by
the design field. The only fields where sampling and remixing are done openly are music
and computer programming, where developers rely on software libraries in writing new
software.

Will the separation between libraries of samples and "authentic" cultural works blur
in the future? Will the future cultural forms be deliberately made from discrete samples
designed to be copied and incorporated into other projects? It is interesting to
imagine a cultural ecology where all kinds of cultural objects regardless of the medium
or material are made from Lego-like building blocks. The blocks come with complete
information necessary to easily copy and paste them in a new object -- either by a human
or machine. A block knows how to couple with other blocks -- and it even can modify
itself to enable such coupling. The block can also tell the designer and the user about
its cultural history -- the sequence of historical borrowings which led to the present
form. And if original Lego (or a typical twentieth century housing project) contains
only a few kinds of blocks that make all objects one can design with Lego rather similar
in appearance, computers can keep track of unlimited number of different blocks. At
least, they can already keep track of all the possible samples we can pick from all
cultural objects available today.

The standard twentieth century notion of cultural modularity involved artists, designers
or architects making finished works from the small vocabulary of elemental shapes, or
other modules. The scenario I am entertaining proposes a very different kind of
modularity that may appear like a contradiction in terms.  It is modularity without a
priori defined vocabulary.  In this scenario, any well-defined part of any finished
cultural object can automatically become a building block for new objects in the same
medium.  Parts can even =8Cpublish=B9 themselves and other cultural objects can
"subscribe" to them the way you subscribe now to RSS feeds or podcasts.

When we think of modularity today, we assume that a number of objects that can be created
in a modular system is limited. Indeed, if we are building these objects from a very
small set of blocks, there are a limited number of ways in which these blocks can go
together. (Although as the relative physical size of the blocks in relation to the
finished object get smaller, the number of different objects which can be built
increases: think IKEA modular bookcase versus a Lego set.) However, in my scenario
modularity does not involve any reduction in the number of forms that can be created.
On the contrary, if the blocks themselves are created using one of many already
developed computer designed methods (such as parametric design), every time they are used
again they can modify themselves automatically to assure that they look different. In
other words, if pre-computer modularity leads to repetition and reduction, post-computer
modularity can produce unlimited diversity.

I think that such "real-time" or "on-demand" modularity can only be imagined
today after online stores such as Amazon, blog indexing services such as Technorati, and
architectural projects such as Yokohama International Port Terminal by Foreign Office
Architects and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles by Frank Gehry visibly
demonstrated that we can develop hardware and software to coordinate massive numbers of
cultural objects and their building blocks: books, bog entries, construction parts. But
whether we will ever have such a cultural ecology is not important. We often look at
the present by placing it within long historical trajectories.  But I believe that we can
also productively use a different, complementary method. We can imagine what will happen
if the contemporary techno-cultural conditions which are already firmly established are
pushed to their logical limit. In other words, rather than placing the present in the
context of the past, we can look at it in the context of a logically possible future.
This "look from the future" approach may illuminate the present in a way not possible
if we only "look from the past." The sketch of logically possible cultural ecology I
just made is a little experiment in this method: futurology or science fiction as a
method of contemporary cultural analysis.

So what else can we see today if we will look at it from this logically possible future
of complete remixability and universal modularity? If my scenario sketched above looks
like a "cultural science fiction," consider the process that is already happening on
the one end of remixability continuum. Although strictly speaking it does not involve
increasing modularity to help remixability, ultimately its logic is the same: helping
cultural bits move around more easily. I am talking about a move in Internet culture
today from intricately packaged and highly designed "information objects" which are
hard to take apart -- such as web sites made in Flash -- to "strait" information:
ASCII text files, feeds of RSS feeds, blog entries, SMS messages. As Richard MacManus and
Joshua Porter put it, "Enter Web 2.0, a vision of the Web in which information is
broken up into "microcontent" units that can be distributed over dozens of domains. 
The Web of documents has morphed into a Web of data. We are no longer just looking to the
same old sources for information. Now we=B9re looking to a new set of tools to aggregate
and remix microcontent in new and useful ways."[3] And it is much easier to
"aggregate and remix microcontent" if it is not locked by a design. Strait ASCII
file, a JPEG, a map, a sound or video file can move around the Web and enter into
user-defined remixes such as a set of RSS feeds; cultural objects where the parts are
locked together (such as Flash interface) cant. In short, in the era of Web 2.0,
"information wants to be ASCII."[4]

If we approach the present from the perspective of a potential future of "ultimate
modularity / remixability," we can see other incremental steps towards this future
which are already occurring. For instance, Orange <orange.blender.org> (an animation
studio n Amsterdam) has setup a team of artists and developers around the world to
collaborate on an animated short film; the studio plans to release all of their
production files, 3D models, textures, and animation as Creative Commons open content on
a extended edition DVD.

Creative Commons offers a special set of Sampling Licenses which "let artists and
authors invite other people to use a part of their work and make it new."[5] Flickr
offers multiple tools to combine multiple photos (not broken into parts -- at least so
far) together: tags, sets, groups, Organizr. Flickr interface thus position each photo
within multiple "mixes." Flickr also offers "notes" which allows the users to
assign short notes to individual parts of a photograph. To add a note to a photo posted
on Flickr, you draw a rectangle on any part of the phone and then attach some text to
it. A number of notes can be attached to the same photo. I read this feature as another
a sign of modularity/remixability mentality, as it encourages users to mentally break a
photo into separate parts. In other words, "notes" break a single media object --
a photograph -- into blocks.

In a similar fashion, the common interface of DVDs breaks a film into chapters. Media
players such as iPod and online media stores such as iTunes break music CDs into separate
tracks -- making a track into a new basic unit of musical culture. In all these
examples, what was previously a single coherent cultural object is broken into separate
blocks that can be accessed individually. In other words, if "information wants to be
ASCII," "contents wants to be granular." And culture as a whole? Culture has always
been about remixability -- but now this remixability s available to all participants
of Internet culture. 

Since the introduction of first Kodak camera, "users" had tools to create massive
amounts of vernacular media. Later they were given amateur film cameras, tape recorders,
video recorders...But the fact that people had access to "tools of media production" for
as long as the professional media creators until recently did not seem to play a big
role: the amateur=B9 and professional=B9 media pools did not mix. Professional
photographs traveled between photographer=B9s darkroom and newspaper editor; private
pictures of a wedding traveled between members of the family. But the emergence of
multiple and interlinked paths which encourage media objects to easily travel between web
sites, recording and display devices, hard drives, and people changes things.
Remixability becomes practically a built-in feature of digital networked media universe.
In a nutshell, what maybe more important than the introduction of a video iPod, a
consumer HD camera, Flickr, or yet another exiting new device or service is how easy it
is for media objects to travel between all these devices and services - which now all
become just temporary stations in media=B9s Brownian motion.

October 2005

NOTES

[1] Approaching a definition of Web 2.0," The Social Software Weblog
<socialsoftware.weblogsinc.com>, accessed October 28, 2005.

[2] Ulf Poschardt, DJ Culture, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Quartet Books Ltd,
1998), 123.

[3] "Web 2.0 Design: Bootstrapping the Social Web," Digital Web Magazine <
http://www.digital-web.com/types/web_2_design/>, accessed October 28, 2005.

[4] Modern information environment is characterized by a constant tension between the
desires to "package" information (Flash design for instance) an= d strip it from all
packaging so it can travel easier between different media and sites.

[5] http://creativecommons.org/about/sampling, accessed October 31, 2005.

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