Tech tops the pop charts

Music-video paean to Web 2.0 burns up YouTube, puts machines at the center of personal expression

Remember the adrenaline rush when you first saw MTV in 1981? When they played “She Blinded Me With Science” in ’83? Well, if you want a fresh, geeky, thought-provoking video experience that gets your heart pumping, check out “Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us,” one of the top-viewed videos on YouTube. It’ll appeal to the coder in you, as well as the futurist.

Caveat: This video should be rated X -- for lots of XML. Instead of showing sex, it shows lots of raw, naked, pulsating code! And while it seems at first to be a video describing the transition from HTML to XML, and the fast evolution of Web 2.0 technologies, it ends up being a larger commentary on technology and where humans are headed (“we are teaching the machine”).

When I learned the video was created by an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, I had to call him. Michael Wesch answered his phone directly. Forty days after releasing it, he seems to be in a state of shock that his little video traveled so powerfully around the world.

“I was ecstatic,” Wesch told me, “when I realized that 100 people had watched it. Now that almost 2 million people have seen it, it’s all just surreal. I’m geeky, so I’m into this stuff. I thought there couldn’t be that many other people” who would be into it, too.

But there are. Apparently, Wesch’s video topped even the Super Bowl ad videos and Britney Spears’ shaved head as the most blogged-about video last month. And he’s not a pro videographer. He used CamStudio to capture the screen shots and Sony Vegas+DVD to edit the video. And for the soundtrack, he used a cut from an Ivory Coast musician named Deus, released through the creative commons license via a music download site called Jamendo.

In other words, the whole thing cost close to zippo, compared with the millions that Hollywood spends on media productions that often never see the light of day. And the impact has been high. “I made this to reach out to other anthropologists, to show what the mediascape looks like right now,” Wesch explained. “But librarians started talking about it, how to organize information, and then people in English literature started talking about new ways of writing, beyond paper.”

Not to mention that corporations have been calling, business conferences have been showing the video, and the blogosphere has gone crazy about it. “It takes a lot of ideas that people have had for a while now and puts them all in a five-minute video form,” Wesch added. “It mimics your own experience online -- or somebody’s. It’s sort of first-person.”

But, I asked Wesch, is it relevant to IT professionals? “The message is that the decisions they make, like the people who run the W3 Consortium, are really important,” he said. “They shape the way we communicate as human beings; it’s amazing how much impact those decisions can have.”

Now, I’m no anthropologist, and I’m not sure whether there’s a super-deep message about the future of the human race in this video. What I do know is that creativity, impact, and the ability to get people fired up is no longer bounded by your title, your institution, your budget -- nothing. It’s just you and your computer, the people you work with, and the code out there on those other computers. And some open source electronica doesn’t hurt, either.