The Machine is Us/ing Us

The The Machine is Us/ing Us is a video uploaded in 2007 by Kansas State professor Michael Wesch.  The video presents an overview of the internet & Web 2.0 but perhaps the most interesting part of the entire video is the ending.  Wesch puts the recent advances of technology into perspective, raising important thoughts that are just as relevant as ever.

Despite reaching over 11 million views the Cultural Anthropology professor did not intend to make such a popular video that the blogosphere would quickly take by storm.  In fact Wesch originally created the video for his Digital Ethnography class and sent it only to his colleagues to gather feedback.  From there it spread and the video was being mentioned in blogs & used as a discussion piece in courses.

With the SOPA & PIPA controversy at barely two-weeks old it breathes a new life into the videos declarations of rethinking; copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, governance, privacy, and ourselves.  The truth is that we can never fully be done addressing these issues, because just like technology itself they will continue to evolve as time goes on.  I believe this cause for reevaluation is healthy.  It has been easy to become indifferent to certain issues such as copyrights that have manipulated by companies such as Disney, despite their ironic recent misstep.

Through all of this it has become clear that those who do not understand the internet technology change are naturally fearful of it.

-Colin Musselman (me)

The internet & Web 2.0 has had it’s fair share of criticism; from the MPAA & RIAA lobbying against ‘online piracy’ to the fear of over-personalization.  Even the title of the ‘Machine is Us/ing Us’ implies a negative & fearful expectation for the audience.  But the constant bashing of personalization & cautions of ‘the computer learning too much’ is something I do not agree with.  In fact, I feel that this is something that we should very well embrace.  Yes, the computer does learn from us.  This is great.  What is the worst thing that has happened to someone from this?  Receiving ads that are relevant to your latest google search?

A scary computer that recommends you watch The Mighty Ducks 2 because you rated Toy Story 3 four out of five stars on Netflix


Also the idea of ‘us’ being the machine is something that can be easily construed into a straight-to-DVD horror story.  Human computation is in my opinion one of the greatest and sophisticated concepts today.  Just ask Luis von Ahn, a Professor at Carnige Mellon who has taken the human computation concept to the next level.  First by integrating it into his invention of captchas (those funny looking human-checks) by helping digitize books & his latest project Duolingo having users translate the web while simultaneously learning a new language.  For more in-depth info you can watch this TEDxTalk of his I was able to see in person.

Seen this before? Every time you enter one of these you help digitize a book. MIND = BLOWN

The most important part of all of this is the emphasis on discussion and I believe this is what Wesch was getting at.  His video seemed to not have the message to be timid/afraid about the future of technology but instead be aware of it.  Instead of reacting to the evolution of technology with caution we should discuss it, test it, push it to its limits, see what happens, learn from it, and continue to do great things that change the world.


6 Replies to “The Machine is Us/ing Us”

  1. I agree with you that one of the most relevant ideas that we will never be done rethinking thinks like ethics and copyright laws in the rapidly changing world of technology. As you pointed out, copyright is an issue that is being heavily debated right now. After originally watching this video I explored a number of Professor Wesch’s other videos, including a 55 minute long anthropological talk about youtube:

    If you skip to the 46th minute of this video (or in that general area) you will find Wesch discussing how much of what is on youtube is criminal. He follows this up with an extremely interesting quote from Lawrence Lessig, who essentially points out that the government and its laws have failed to change appropriately, and now most young people are breaking the law, and are aware of it. It seems to be that this whole issue is resulting in somewhat of a generation gap in how people view the law and government that may lead to (or perhaps already has in the form of the occupy movement?) a conflict largely based on generational lines.

  2. I agree that Wesch’s title, “The Machine is Us/ing Us,” promotes fear of the computer and I am reminded of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” where computer HAL briefly controls a space ship against the will of the human astronauts (see clip at I also like your interpretation, Colin, of the video’s message not so much promoting fear, but suggesting caution. Wesch approaches the rise of technology with an anthropological eye and he is concerned with how technology is changing the way people live, act, and socialize. I agree with Colin and Nathan that this is certainly prevalent given the current debate of SOPA and copyright laws.

    However, I would like to add one more area we need to rethink: history. Technology is revolutionizing not only the way people will engage with history, but also with how the present will be preserved for the future. People socialize more and more on the internet and as Wesch points out we will soon need to rethink identity and love. This socialization on the web also has consequences for future historians. In this environment of living on the internet, how will people’s lives be preserved for future historians to study?

    The September 11 Digital Archive ( is a great example of a way stories can be preserved for future generations. People from around the world can easily contribute to this archive and as a result, future generations will have access to an abundance of narratives and experiences of 9/11.

    However, even though this website preserves an extraordinary amount of stories, will the website itself be accessible in the future? Will historians be able to access these stories if technology continues to change and evolve? How can we better preserve stories recorded on the web? I echo Colin’s conclusion that we should not be cautious of changing technology, but should openly discuss, debate, and consider these changes. In the realm of history, historians need to better understand these technologies to plan for a future where the web can be a tool to collect and preserve lived experiences. If historians ignore the rise and evolution of technology, then we should fear computers. Without fully understanding new technology, changes will occur too fast, and history could be lost for future generations.

  3. I agree with Meghan in asking if historians will be able to access people’s stories if technologies continue to change and evolve. I think the answer is yes, to an extent, historians just have to make sure they are up to date with the latest technologies. We would not study earlier periods without familiarizing ourselves with the technologies used at the time and how they impacted human lives, why should preparation for the future be any different?

    I think using technology to share, create and discuss history with the public is a great resource and avenue for historians to connect with a large portion of the population they will never actually meet. However, I think historians, and other professions engaging with the public must not become completely reliant on it, it should be used as a supplement to a variety of practices.

    That may have been too much of a tangent so I’ll bring it back to the video which I think makes a good point of explaining how it is people who are the machine. Computers will not do anything until a human being programs it to do so. With technology becoming more accessible and user-friendly to society, it is important to recognize the hazards that come with such opportunity and freedom. The processes for publishing information online are vastly different from the processes for academic publishing (print or online), therefore it is important that people are educated as to what information or characteristics to look for when they are using the internet for historical purposes.

  4. Really enjoyed this post. Nice work. In particular, I liked how you weaved the story of the video in with current political issues. Also, kudos for weaving in relevant links and images and consideration of CAPTACHA is spot on as well.

    The question of fear of change vs. embrace is good, I like that you and Wesch are pushing all of us to step back and explore the details and think about exactly what is changing and what those changes mean.

    I was thrilled to see the anthropological approach to YouTube show up in this discussion. It is a great place to see how he takes these ideas further. In that vein, the Lessig points become critical. Some other digital history courses I have seen spend a week on some of these copyright issues. If only there were more weeks! That said, if anyone wants another point to think about some of these rights issues and youtube I would suggest looking into some of the discussion of Kutiman’s amazing “Thru-You” music project. For example see:

    The idea of “rethink:history” is intriguing. It has the same power that each of those powerful things he ends with has. (Doesn’t everyone want to know what he things is going on with “rethink:love”??) With that said, what exactly do we think we would be rethinking in history? Here are a few potential candidates: linearity, narrative, storytelling, power, authority, control, coherence, evidence… That is all I have for the moment. Would be interested to hear what parts of history folks think we need to rethink and what exactly that would mean. To what extent is the format of this video itself a call to rethink the medium in which we communicate?

    I for one enjoy the provocative value of this particular video but find myself hungry for much more. Where exactly do we go from here?

  5. Nathan, thanks for linking to that video. I especially like the quote you pointed out from Lessig. It has become clear that the government’s reactive approach to the internet & new technologies in general has led to the way a new generation consumes media. I’m not sure if I would necessarily connect this generational gap to the Occupy Movement per se but your point does bring a very interesting perspective.

    Meghan, I was on the fence of mentioning HAL as another fun example so I’m glad you brought it up. I also really like your point of rethinking history; something I obviously left out, perhaps because of my interests/background, but I’m really glad you did because that is what seems to be most applicable to this course. I really hope to explore this topic tonight during our discussion.

    Kelly, I really like your point about how this technology should be used by historians but it should definitely not be the only practice. With all likes, the answer is always a little bit of everything. I’m looking forward to exploring the idea of how we will capture history in the future with this new technology: will it just be the same but online, a totally different process of collaboration will emerge, or both (probably)?

    TJ, thanks for the link to that WaPo article. The discussion on copyrights is something that will probably never go away, and rightfully so. The video that is mentioned in the article reminds me of two things:

    1 – Any artist, but as an example Girl Talk, whose music is heavily relied on samples. Obviously he will sample choruses & riffs but at times he will sample a single drum-hit or very short bytes of sound. Where is the line that we draw for this? Does a single cymbal crash on a song belong to the original artist? Are they entitled to royalties.

    2 – Another fun example is the recent Star Wars video Star Wars Uncut. To summarize, the original Stars Wars film was reenacted, 15 seconds per scene, by crowdsourcing. So what the creators of the project did was separate the film into 15 second segments and let anyone claim a scene to reenact anyway they wanted (physical acting, animation, etc.). Is this legal? I don’t know. Is it really interesting? Definitely.

  6. Blog post theme music: E-Musik by Neu!

    On the subject of machine learning, let’s talk about the greatest online historical database ever to exist: Facebook.

    In addition to the well-known features like facial recognition, live status updating and an onslaught of (mobile) media authoring features, Facebook recently launched a redesigned profile page called Timeline.

    Timeline restructures user-contributed data into a time-organized list. Posts, media and automatic updates appear as boxes on the Timeline, compared to the past linear ‘wall‘ of personal updates. It’s easy to understand, but it’s tedious to use.

    Totally intentional.

    Facebook is leveraging the Timeline — and with it, everyone’s personal histories — to show more ads. The comparatively difficult UX of Timeline means that people spend more time on the site generating and curating content. Like Meghan said:

    Technology is revolutionizing not only the way people will engage with history, but also with how the present will be preserved for the future … This socialization on the web also has consequences for future historians. In this environment of living on the internet, how will people’s lives be preserved for future historians to study?

    People’s entire lives will be conveniently preserved on Facebook. Right on there, 70 years of status updates, covered in ads. We argued about the longevity of digital in last week’s class, but just because one can’t touch a copy of their Facebook data doesn’t mean it can’t (or won’t) exist forever.

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