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Mind Openers: The Secret War


By David Ulin

Published Apr 1, 2011 8:00 AM

Peter Lunenfeld , professor in UCLA's design | media arts program and a digital theorist and critic, has a radical idea: Think before you click.


Illustration by Phil Wheeler.

In his new book, The Secret War Between Downloading & Uploading: Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine, he argues that the key to engaging with our hyperconnected culture is not accessibility as much as selectivity.

Lunenfeld Ph.D. '94 is an enthusiast, a thinker who believes we are living in a new golden age of information and transmission — but only if we pay attention to how we operate within the digital world.

"We have to be worthy of what we're inheriting," he says. "The computer is our culture machine. And we will be judged by the culture that we use it to create."

For Lunenfeld, this means staking out a critically nuanced point of view. "Until now," he notes, "there have been two ways of thinking about digital culture: celebrations of the new or forebodings of apocalypse. But what both perspectives overlook is that everything now bears the stamp of the digital. Even if you see a movie in a theater or read a print book, it's all produced digitally."

In The Secret War, Lunenfeld posits a simple mantra: Download mindfully and upload meaningfully. This, he stresses, is not a prescription, but rather a goal.

"Think about it," he suggests. "That's all I'm saying. The issue with digital plenitude is that there's an infinitude of material out there, but there is also a finite limit to our days."

It's a two-way street, he continues, because interactivity means we can't help but contribute to our own overload.

"If you comment on websites," Lunenfeld notes, "think about the kinds of commentary you're putting out there. Think about how to organize your Facebook page. We need a new way to engage, a strategy I call 'infotriage,' to create a space for reflection, so we're not in a constantly reactive mode."

In many ways, all of this is common sense, which, Lunenfeld acknowledges, is part of the point.

"Now," he says, "is a really good time to invent a more rigorous electronic culture, to make the culture in which we want to live. It's a time of nascent possibilities. That's one of the things I'm trying to express."