This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

January 1, 2012

The Day the Earth Stood Still

A recent New York Times article critiquing of popular music for 2011 came away with the view that “2011 may well be remembered as the most numbing year for mainstream rock music in history. The genre didn’t produce a single great album, and the best of the middling walked blindly in footprints laid out years, even decades, earlier.”

The same could be said for the genre over much of the recent past.  And could be said for music in general, art in general, and culture in general. And for the basic structure of our lives in general, as well. A teenager today thinking back to the 1960 is peering into a past as removed in time as when I as a teenager looked back from the 1960s to the world of the 1910s. For me this was a distant and remote world shrouded behind World War II, the depression, and World War I, a world with which I shared little. Not so for today's teenager looking back to the 1960's, still listening to the Beatles and familiar with the epochs of James Bond movies running from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig. The conveniences of daily life were much changed from the 1910s and the 1960s, but not so from my teenage years to today. We had a refrigerator, TV, telephone and dishwasher. I drove my friend's Mustang. The refrigerator didn't have an ice maker, the phone was rotary, but then again, living in Nevada at the time, where the speed limit on the highway was whatever "is safe and sane" meant  I could drive the Mustang a lot faster then than we do today.

Given the amount of time we spend on-line and the ubiquity of computer chips in mediating our lives, you would think that we would have less connection with the fifty-year past. One reason we maintain this connection is that we have recordings and movies, while all we have from the 1910’s are books and grainy photographs. But there is another reason. Think of what we are really getting from the Cloud that might differentiate us from the past. For all the 4-G networks and iPads, what we have produced are differences in quantity, speed, and access, not differences in kind. Through on-line search we basically have a faster and more extensive encyclopedia, through on-line shopping we always have the latest catalog at our fingertips with operators always standing by, through e-mail we have a cheap personal telegraph.

Jaron Lanier makes this point: “Suppose that back in the 1980s I had said, ‘In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX!’ It would have sounded utterly pathetic.”

What these new, improved modes of telegraph, encyclopedia, and retail have done for overall efficiency is a popular topic of debate. But the debate doesn’t end there. The effect that this has had on our lives is not only one of economics and productivity, but of culture.

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman looks at the changes for our culture and our mode of thinking as we moved from relying on the written word to the instantaneous connection of the telegraph, then to the sound-bite laden, visual medium of television. Among many desultory effects one stands out: we became preoccupied with “news”, with knowing what is happened even when those things had not even the most remote value to us, and when, in any case, the speed of receiving that information was inconsequential. Postman asserts that the news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is literally a media event.

This preoccupation actually started even before television. Television just leveraged the effect of the telegraph, which already had unleashed the demand for immediate reporting of irrelevant information from distant locations, by making it more entertaining and accessible.

Now we can add the internet, social networking, and email to the telegraph and television. We are getting better and better at keeping the serious at bay while wrapping ourselves in the absurd. Postman, perhaps reflecting on the founding of USAToday, considered the emergence of paragraph length news reports as "an astonishing tribute to the resonance of television’s epistemology". Now we have Twitter. Look at what are we seeing in a recent commercial from AT&T: Two tailgate heroes, eyes glued to their cell phones, turn such "breaking news" as a player's sprained ankle and a stolen mascot into something “so 42 seconds ago”, not to mention posting videos to Facebook with blazing speed.

News becomes a guiltless form of entertainment because we view news as weighty and worthy of attention. We get to have our chocolaty treat while arguing it is actually nutritious. But the ubiquity of the Cloud extends this beyond the six O’clock news. While the leading edge in the old media was entertainment masquerading as news, now we have entertainment masquerading as just about every component of our waking lives. Entertainment masquerading as social lives as we keep on top of what our friends (including all of our celebrities friends) are thinking about and doing at the moment. Entertainment masquerading as work as we e-mail colleagues incessantly and check out anything on the web that is even remotely related to work.

There is only so much that is really happening in the world at any moment, so to have sufficient content to fill our demand, we recycle and remix. We can see the same news in dozens of different venues, second hand links to a few original news items and thoughts. Or forgo the notion of news or thought altogether and simply follow someone as they go about their daily lives (which ultimately could become self-referential if they are going about their daily lives doing the same thing).

It seems that we are awash in information, but the actual information has hardly changed, it is just repackaged in many forms. Lanier also points this out: "It is astonishing how much of the chatter online is driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media and that is now being destroyed by the net. Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock".

So for all the apparent newness we have become a culture of the remix. We think that we are in a technological revolution, but what we really have is more of the same, just faster, ever-present, and in color. We are mistaking high resolution and portability as an advancement of culture.