Epistemic status: Wrote this in mid-2016 but I don’t think I posted it anywhere. It appears to be a semi-hasty first draft (These are a few of my…). At the point where I mention the Great Depression, I found a note from my 2016-self: ‘TK THIS GRAF IN PROGRESS; CONSIDER CUTTING NEXT GRAF OR 2 AND REDOING APPROACH TO THE ENDING ALTOGETHER, MORE IN KEEPING W/THEME OF THE PIECE.’ I’ve disregarded that note for the moment, because revising and rewriting this essay would mean sinking back into these feelings, and right now that thought turns my stomach. Maybe someday. –wgh.
I recently wrote a book about my favourite band, and found myself reliving — and longing for — the early days of my fandom. The band’s reputation rests on their improvisatory live performances, and for their first 20 years fans eagerly traded amateur concert recordings on audiocassette, with the band’s blessing. Walking into an acquaintance’s house and finding a shelf full of Maxell XL-II tapes, each with a handwritten ‘j-card’ listing tracks, segues, guest appearances, and improvisations of note, meant you’d found a fellow obsessive, and probably a friend.
That’s over now. My tapes gather dust in our attic, and I listen exclusively through iTunes and streaming sites. ‘In my day’ you’d arrange a trade with a stranger online — I’ll send you a 1st-generation tape of Amsterdam July 1997 for a clean copy of those two classic Red Rocks shows on your tapelist — and send the tapes bubble mailers, then post a Good Trader Alert to the newsgroup. We shared physical objects which resided in our homes, and our relationship to the music was artifactual, sacramental. You could be ‘in the presence’ of the music in a literal way.
Now, when you want the show, any show the band has ever played, you find the link in a single handy spreadsheet and download it from ‘the cloud.’ This has reduced but not quite eliminated audience taping, but it’s entirely done away with the fan trading network which was the backbone of our community. Once I shared the music with you; now a computer somewhere on Earth shares the music with our computers.
Everything is always available. There’s no need for us to share. There is no one to thank.
Free public wi-fi, streaming HD video, same-day book delivery, timeshifted TV, effectively unlimited free email: the benefits of these technocommercial advancements are so obvious that we needn’t talk about them, and so never bother thinking about them, and so tend to assume that these glorious advances and their glorious advantages are the Way of Things, steps already taken and so either fully accounted for or simply beyond counting. They can have no cost, this non-reasoning goes, because honestly why talk about cost when we finally have nice things?
But of course there are costs. There always are.
They manifest subtly at first.
In recent years the words ‘own’ and ‘ownership’ have acquired new senses: to ‘take ownership of your trauma’ means to acknowledge and make peace with the fact of a bad thing having scarred you emotionally, and to ‘own your privilege’ means to recognize the ways in which you benefit from your social class, and then pantomime remorse. ‘Ownership’ here means something like ‘reckoning,’ usually melodramatic.
And of course there was President G.W. Bush’s ‘ownership society,’ an idea which combined deficit spending (instead of ownership) and further atomization (instead of society).
When I was a kid in the 80s, ‘ownership’ seemed to me much less complicated: owning a thing meant being able to hold it, touch it, and — within reason — do what you wanted with it. If you owned a Nintendo game, for instance, you had a plastic cartridge full of subtle electronics which you inserted into a plastic and metal console in order to play. To share the game meant walking it down to Scott’s house and playing it over there; at the end of the day you brought it home. It was ‘yours’ the way your sneakers were yours. If it broke, it was lost to you, but you usually knew why.
Sharing music meant lending a compact disc or dubbing a cassette tape, and woe betide the would-be pirate who wanted music that didn’t fit cleanly on either side of the tape. Sharing a drawing meant sending it by mail; sharing movies meant inviting Jimmy and Craig over to watch them at your house on a weekend.
This was, I don’t need to tell you, a pain in the ass; and I’m assured that things are Better Now. To ‘share’ a movie with a friend in 2016, you simply point her to where you got it. Same with music and games. Easy breezy: your precious objects never actually leave our hands, and you can share without giving. ‘Generosity’ doesn’t come into it; when your neighbour asks to borrow your copy of the Game of Thrones finale, you either divide it by mitosis (copying the file) and pass along a copy, or maybe email her a .torrent file so she can grab it directly from the 16-year-old who pirated the episode in the first place.
Failing that, of course, you can just give your friend your Netflix or hbogo.com password — both companies have accounted for such ‘violation’ in their business models. The miracle is that she gains while you appear to lose nothing at all.
To borrow terms from computer science, this is ‘sharing’ as reference-passing1 rather than object-passing. The shift is meaningful, its benefits are clear, and we will be paying its hidden costs for a long time.
As Richard Stallman and his cohort have been pointing out for decades, our ‘possessions’ are increasingly rentals — beyond the simple fact that we’re not permitted ‘inside’ the digital tools we rely on, the ongoing shift from local (desktop) computational resources to online services, invisible server-side processing, and remote storage means that it’s typically ‘more convenient’ in the short term to have easy access to digital resources we don’t control than to actually ‘possess’ them. It’s nice not to need to synchronize multiple copies of your email archive, isn’t it? Easier, certainly, to let Google have it, and simply view your messages on a webpage (‘in the cloud’). All you have to do to get access to your most intimate thoughts is this: when the Alphabet corporation of Mountain View CA asks for the magic word, you type it — and it would be helpful if you handed over your phone number too, just in case.
This isn’t about Ludditism, mind you. We’re doomed, yes, and it’s our absolute dependence on biologically incompatible industrial infrastructure that’s doomed us, but: Cloud computing really does make modern life easier; accessing your entire music collection from your phone really is a miracle; not having to worry about server maintenance makes running a website not only easy but possible in the first place. I like being able to stream every Phish show to my phone. No, that’s not strong enough: 18-year-old me would have murdered his friends to get access to the digital tools which 37-year-old me, taking them for granted, finds insufficiently convenient.
And yet when we consider whether to buy gadgets or embrace hip new software service, the alternative to Gadget A or Online Service B is always Functionally Equivalent Gadget X or Interchangeable But Less Snazzily Branded Service Y — the alternative is never Doing Without — and the sole reason for this state of affairs is that if you and I Do Without, the companies which sell us things will make a touch less money.
Retail businesses can be divided cleanly into two camps: those that produce truly useful, essential goods, and those that benefit from consumer anxiety.
With a smartphone and earbuds, you can now talk to Aunt May in far-off Osbaldeston anytime, in realtime — but since everyone else is wearing earbuds too, you can’t talk to a stranger on your street. Your teenage kid doesn’t think twice about listening to music across cultural borders, but has also never even heard of ‘social music,’ and probably knows none of the music that kept your parents and grandparents alive. Turn-by-turn GPS directions make navigation trivial, and the only cost is that relying on that technology means you never form a mental map of your city; but then, why would you need that? Why would you need to talk to a stranger, or learn your grandparents’ emotional language? What’s so great about being able to imagine a city without looking at a cartoon map of its streets?
If you’ve ever looked at your year-old iPhone and felt, deep in your bones, that it was time to pay a couple hundred bucks for an upgrade, then the people selling you pills are the ones who made you sick.
The redefinition of ‘sharing’ from transferring to copying is an inevitable knock-on effect of ubiquitous digital networking. When copying is cheaper than transferring, you copy; that’s why every Harvard freshman cheats. (And the faculty blame the kids and their parents, never themselves or the institution.)
But that redefinition, plus the creeping status anxiety and ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) engendered by a gadget/tech culture that’s easy to enter but difficult to leave, plus the ubiquity and pace of ‘social’ media, creates a toxic dependence on corporate media — meaning not only Sony, NBC, and HBO but Google and Apple and Twitter too. There’s social pressure to pay constant attention, and most of what there is to pay attention to is advertising. And while corporations carefully pressure their marks (us) to ‘create,’ to feel ’empowered’ (or else!), they also beam out the false but convincing message that the path to empowerment is consumption, and creativity outside the corporate-media envelope is somehow suspect. Fulfillment can’t be sold, only shared, so marketers forcibly and falsely equate fulfillment with satisfaction — the palliative, the rush of sensation — and ‘sharing’ is reduced to word-of-mouth advertising.
The late Prince famously said that his enormous back catalogue was the result of a kind of odd pragmatism: when he got the urge to hear a certain kind of music, his tastes were specific enough and his process refined to the point where he was better off just heading into his studio and making the music himself. We are told that in the Digital Future of Today it’s that easy for all of us. But when was the last time you recorded a song, actually edited a home video or article (‘sharing’ increasingly also means ‘sharing your first draft’), or built a Lego project from scratch instead of buying a kit? The instant sugar hit of recognition and pseudoconnection that comes from engaging with a brand, a franchise, a ‘magical revolutionary device,’ will almost always overpower the more complex, delicate experience of doing it yourself — and the conscious choice to DIY is short-circuited by the saturated colours, beveled edges, high framerates, and deep bass frequencies of the mediasphere.
This is a new spin on old news: the American public’s tendency toward absolute passivity before the screen has been a problem since the first television beamed out the first time-killing inanity, if not before. (During the Depression, 65% of the American population went to the movies each week.) Never mind that sitting for hours in front of a screen is bad for you, a fact everyone has known and seen firsthand for decades; thinking for hours through a screen is bad for you too. It fundamentally changes how you see, how you want, how you experience Others.
Americans’ democratic rhetoric has never quite hidden our desperate yearning for a strong hand, ideally an invisible one, guiding our choices. Consumerism, conformism, identitarian narcissism — these are such longstanding concerns you can watch expensive cable dramas about them. Madison Avenue didn’t invent the insane notion that happiness means inactivity (‘kick back and relax’), slaves did. And yet Being Able to Accomplish More is the core sales pitch in modern life: enhancing your productivity, being a ‘more effective you,’ decreasing your footprint while ‘increasing your impact’… Accomplishing more while doing less is the essence of the American Dream, which is one reason Silicon Valley’s rapacious technophilia has so thoroughly colonized the contemporary American imagination.
Yet it bears repeating: our tools also constrain our ability to create, coarsely (you can’t do calligraphy with a hammer, or drive nails with a watercolour brush) and more subtly. Tools come with ideas attached, with cultures of practice, social histories, private associations…and many of the ideas attached to our modern digital tools are poisonous to our long-term health. The idea that sharing means referring to Something Neat rather than making something of our own and passing it along. The idea that your urge to hear music is best satisfied by turning on the radio-equivalent rather than picking up a guitar (or even an iPad drum machine). The idea that, because pseudostate corporations can provide essential social services more efficiently in the short term than the actual state, they should do so. The idea that the best of you is what you can broadcast to the world right this instant. The idea that a company that inserts advertisements into your email while pretending not to care about their contents is, in any way at all, ‘on your side.’ The idea that ‘self-sufficiency’ is corrupt and valueless simply because it’s a myth.
The idea that it’s important to find out what other people think about your new favourite show before you ‘support’ it by watching.
The idea that it’s better to let the machine remember for you.
The idea that you can form a human connection with a username.
The idea that ‘curation’ is ‘creation,’ rather than ‘acquisition and accumulation with better branding.’
Blah, blah, blah.
We began with ‘sharing’ but have ended up on ‘creating’ and ‘curating,’ which makes sense: in the jungle of the ‘social’ Web, your taste is your identity and everything is a remix, and pointing out that these are deranged wrong ideas — pure ideology, good for business and bad for everything else — is uncool, i.e. irrelevant. The redefinition of ‘sharing,’ the weird felt obligation to point out that we don’t agree 100% with everything we retweet, our gadget anxieties, our self-satisfied consumerism, our literally childish equation of fulfillment with momentary satisfaction, our march toward an imagistic attention-deficit politics divorced from actual economic or cultural or indeed climatic reality…these are contemporary manifestations of our century-long movement toward absolute dependence on a corporate-cultural complex, and if that sounds creepily like ‘military-industrial complex’ then give yourself a gold star.
Our technological dependency makes us dependent in turn on the corporations who sell the technology, and those corporations spend billions to make sure we not only depend on them but feel sympathy for them, expend emotional energy caring about their wellbeing — think of how many hours supposed adults spend arguing with each other about Google’s ‘rebranding’ as Alphabet or Apple’s choice of default system font or whether the repulsive multibillion-dollar oligarchy called the NBA should sully the ‘purity’ of its player uniforms with advertisements that already blanket every unused square inch of every NBA arena. So far, so distracting…but when we treat corporate interests as emotionally equivalent to human interest, we silently accept encroachments on our inner lives, steep cuts to our imaginative autonomy, which we’d never countenance if our acquiescence hadn’t been bought. We learn not to mind Google reading our email, which means the NSA reading our email (and Google providing tools for them to do so), etc., etc., etc.
We’ve outsourced our taste to record labels, our imaginations to movie studios, our memories to email providers, and our creative urges to whatever shiny thing crossed our field of vision most recently; what’s onscreen is real — ‘friending’ a user account is making friends, ‘liking’ something is liking it, a selfie is a memory, the show’s better than the book — so what’s real is onscreen. Who has time for anything else?
And outside the window, just offscreen, the seas rise and the world dies.
We’ve lost (ourselves) and the timing couldn’t be worse.
But surely I don’t need to tell you that. Everything is a remix, after all; you’ve heard all this before.
- It’s no coincidence that our art reflects this ideological shift with an aesthetic shift toward relentless referentiality — the bored cynic who first got rich painting soup cans wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised by a cash-in like Captain America: Civil War, which (like dozens of comic book crossover (non)events before it) exists primarily to answer the question ‘What if Spider-Man fought Cap and made a weirdly specific Star Wars joke and we saw Crossbones in an early scene for some reason and The Vision wore a sweater and Stan Lee called Tony Stark “Tony Stank”‘ with a resounding KA-CHING!! From Lost and Family Guy to every Dreamworks movie ever made, from TV-Game of Thrones‘s inept citations of its bestselling source novels to the torrent of swill that is Disney’s ‘secret origins of fairy tale characters’ sequence, from the cloddish point-missing of Sopranos ‘death pools’ to the tiresome pedants who ‘fact checked’ Mad Men by craftily googling every date that appeared on what ended up being nothing more than a (brilliant) work of fiction, the demeaning game of spot-the-reference has become a staple of what credulous academics call ‘active media consumption.’ We could go on, but shouldn’t. ↩