Cover art for the Jay Z's Grey Album

A sophisticated mess?

Across technology, science, society and the arts, boundaries are blurring like never before. E&T asks, is life becoming one big mash-up? And what exactly is a mash-up, anyway?

Whatever your religious persuasion, you can't deny that the writers of the Bible had a nose for a candid insight. They may not have been first to declare the love of money the root of all evil (1 Timothy), or a living dog better than a dead lion (Ecclesiastes), but they were doubtless first to turn such wisdom into memorable catchphrases. Likewise, that perennial favourite 'there is nothing new under the sun' (Ecclesiastes again), which while being spectacularly off-target on one level - the atomic bomb was kind of novel - is generally on the money: the idea that originality is little more than reinvention holds true across much of human culture, art and science. Or to put it the 21st-century way, life is one big mash-up.

This appears to be more true today than ever. 'There is a definite trend towards mash-up in all areas of life,' says Frans Johansson, an expert on business innovation and author of 'The Medici Effect'. The Internet, global trade, the international media and mass migration of people and knowledge have blurred our cultural and genetic boundaries like never before. The effect of this, says social psychologist Sheena Iyengar in her new book 'The Art of Choosing', is that 'an increasing number of people now assemble their life stories from narratives so disparate that the mind reels from trying to contain all that contradiction.' Such hybridisation would have been bewildering to someone living a century ago. But is it leading us somewhere really new? Are we re-inventing ourselves into another space - cultural, technological or psychological? Are we now, metaphorically, living under another sun?

A good area in which to start looking at this question is computer technology, where the term 'mash-up' originated. It was first used in the early 2000s to describe music tracks created by blending parts of songs from different genres - for example, taking the vocals from a rock song and laying them over a hip-hop beat. Though bastardization is far from a new concept in music, digital mixing technologies allowed DJs and producers to take it to bizarre new levels, leading to improbable creations such as DJ Dangermouse's 'The Grey Album', made up of samples from The Beatles's 'White Album' and rapper Jay-Z's 'The Black Album', or a video mash-up of Por Vos Muero, a modern ballet routine by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, set to Beyonce's R&B hit 'Halo'.

'Mash-up' has become more commonly associated with the merging of software, in particular websites or applications built using content from more than one source to create a new service. Typical examples include Nightfeed (www.nightfeed.com), which combines social networking sites such as Facebook with Google maps to help you find the most popular nightlife in your area; Twittervision (www.twittervision.com), which displays Twitter posts on a global map in real time; and SoupSoup (www.soup-soup.net), a news mash-up that complements stories from the BBC, CNN and other sources with articles from Wikipedia and pictures from Flickr. Since you don't need a degree in computer science to build a mash-up and the tools to do so are readily available, there are already thousands of such applications on the Web, covering everything from shopping to real estate (see 'Mashing up the Web', p20).

Web mash-ups hardly represent a technological revolution, but they are likely to play a big role in shaping the future of the Web. Today's Web is all about participation and the collective experience - applications that can be easily adapted to allow users to manipulate data will be key to how it evolves. Take the Google Mobile Application for the iPhone, which uses speech recognition technology to allow you to search the Web. Suddenly you're interacting with the Internet by talking to it, which makes a keyboard interface seem a little old-fashioned.

'The smartphone revolution has moved the Web from our desks to our pockets,' says Tim O'Reilly, software guru and founder of the computer book publisher O'Reilly Media. 'Our phones and cameras are being turned into eyes and ears for applications.

'Motion and location sensors tell where we are, what we're looking at and how fast we're moving. The scale of participation has increased by orders of magnitude. As a result, the Web opportunity is no longer growing arithmetically, it's growing exponentially.'

Others predict that this kind of human-software interactivity will transform our technological future. The inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil maintains that within two decades humans will be merging with technology 'by sending intelligent nanobots (blood-cell-sized computerized robots) into our brains through the capillaries to intimately interact with our biological neurons'. There's nothing particularly futuristic about this scenario, he says, since we have always used technology to extend our physical and mental reach.

Complex truths

All of this sounds impressive, yet not impressive enough, one suspects, to undermine the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. It's still all about re-invention. Perhaps that's the point. If we are on the cusp of a technological or cultural revolution, then it's a revolution not in creativity but in understanding: the true nature of things is in hybridisation and the traditional idea that something is authentic only if it is unadulterated is misplaced. As Oscar Wilde observed: 'The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.'

There are plenty of examples of how modern knowledge is bringing us to this new understanding, one of the most compelling of which is the revelation in psychology that people's character and personality are not as unchanging and easily defined as is traditionally thought. The common perception is that we all have a particular set of character traits - as measured by psychometric tests such as the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator - that have remained consistent since childhood and can be used to predict our behaviour in any situation.

Yet this is a false picture, as evidence that has been accumulating for several decades demonstrates. No one is always aggressive, or always honest, or always courageous. Rather we possess a multiplicity of tendencies that play out according to the environment we're in. We are what Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, calls 'a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another'. Human nature, in other words, is something of a mash-up too.

One of the first studies to demonstrate this compellingly was carried out in 1973 by social psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson, who set up a modern take on the parable of the Good Samaritan to test people's helping behaviours. They recruited a group of E F students from a theological seminary, had them fill in a personality questionnaire and asked them to prepare a short talk about one of two topics: employment prospects for theological students or the parable of the Good Samaritan. The students were then told to walk to another room where they would give their talk. Unbeknownst to them, on the way they would encounter their own Good Samaritan test: a colleague of the researchers lying in a doorway in apparent distress. But before they set off for the other room, Darley and Batson introduced another variable: they told some of the students that they were late, others that they were on schedule and the rest that they had plenty of time.

The researchers found that overall just 40 per cent of the seminary students stopped to help the distressed man - which makes you wonder if they'd chosen the right vocation. But whether or not they stopped depended strongly both on what they were thinking about at the time - the topic they were preparing to talk about - and the degree to which they were hurrying. Only 29 per cent of those who had been asked to talk about careers bothered to stop, compared with 53 per cent of those preparing to talk about the Good Samaritan. Likewise, while 90 per cent of those in a hurry passed by on the other side, 63 per cent of those who had plenty of time stopped to help. Of those on schedule, 45 per cent stopped. What this suggests is that people's willingness to help strangers, which is generally thought of as strongly indicative of character, is in fact highly dependent on the situation they are in. Significantly, the students' personality traits as measured by the questionnaire at the start of the experiment - including how religious they were - had little bearing on how they acted.

Unfortunately, the understanding that personality is a box of variables and often a poor predictor of behaviour has not made much impact beyond academia. Ivan Frederick, the staff sergeant who admitted carrying out several acts of abuse against Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, was sentenced to eight years in jail, given a dishonourable discharge from the army and stripped of his salary and pension despite expert evidence from psychologists that his actions were partly triggered by the highly stressful conditions he was working in and poor management. Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford University psychologist who acted as an expert witness on Frederick's defence team, carried out extensive tests on him before the trial and found no sadistic tendencies, describing him as 'an American icon: a good husband, father and worker, patriotic, religious, with many friends and a history of having lived a most normal, moral small town life'.

Group think

How would society look different if we took account of what researchers are telling us about our 'mash-up' psychology? If personality is a patchwork of conflicting tendencies and behaviour is dictated more by social forces than character, should people be held less accountable for decisions they make under certain circumstances? Judges consider situations when sentencing minors or those under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but they rarely account for group psychology. Deciding whether or not that should change will take careful thought, says Clark McCauley, a social psychologist at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. 'Setting aside moral judgment, the question is whether society would get more or less of a given type of crime by increasing allowance for situational pressures.' Giving due weight to 'situationist' forces could also affect the way institutions and companies recruit employees. 'We might put a lot more stock in CVs and resumes that summarise a lot of past behaviour and give less attention to interviews,' says McCauley. 'Even those academics, who study the unreliability of interviews as brief samples of behaviour, cannot resist interviewing prospective graduate students.'

Psychologists are not the only academics to play with the notion that truth is more likely found as a blend than a homogenous whole. Researchers from many areas, having long eschewed interdisciplinary collaboration, are beginning to embrace it. As a result, over the past few years entire new academic fields have sprung up, including neuro-economics (how people make decisions), neuro-architecture (how buildings affect behaviour), complexity science (when the whole is more than the sum of the parts) and astro-biology (looking for aliens).

Some scientists are happy to lend their ideas to projects that are conceptually far beyond anything they'd attempt in their labs, leading to bizarre ventures such as a transgenic rabbit that glows green in ultra-violet light created by Chicago-based artist Eduardo Kac as a statement about the ethics of genetic engineering; or 'Dark Matter', a book of poems inspired by discussions with space scientists.

The convergence of academic fields is one reason why the mash-up trend is spreading so quickly, says Frans Johansson. But perhaps the strongest driver, he maintains, is the growing need for innovation. 'Industries are born and die faster than ever. If you wish to be successful, whether you're an artist, programmer, fashion designer, entrepreneur, scientist or business developer, you have to innovate - and the best chance to innovate lies at the intersection of different fields, industries or cultures.'

Are we heading for a mash-up society? We could be there already. There may be nothing new under the Sun, but - to mash-up an old (non-Biblical) saying - not everything that sparkles is an uncut diamond. Tall skinny genetically-engineered cinnamon chocolate latte, anyone? 

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