How the Web Has Rewritten the Rules of Society, History, and the Self
The proliferation over the last decade or so of ever-more sophisticated search engines, and the widespread dissemination and embracement of social media outlets has fundamentally altered the ways in which we engage with creative material. We have become prisoners to it, a chaingang of supplicants. It is a complex social system in which power relations appear warped to the user. Herbert Marcuse, who was extremely wary of falling into familiar, easy cultural practice notes in One Dimensional Man that “the power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness.” He implicates a structure which breeds complacent ignorance. The governing society’s “supreme promise is an ever-more-comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action, for the capacity to contain and manipulate subversive imagination and effort is an integral part of the given society.”
It would certainly seem as if no one desires a radical change in the trend: the internet’s presence has become ubiquitous through widespread dissemination of, and clamor for, powerful gadgetry which allows users to incorporate digital portals into all aspects of everyday life. Paper is out–the fiendish dedication with which the users of these technologies check their email, read the news, update themselves on the “statuses” and on-line social happenings cannot be supported by physical media any longer. It seems unthinkable that there won’t be a place for the paper novel, the birthday card, the holiday family photo–but these forms will become progressively more outmoded and quaint. It seems there is no other alternative: the disintegration of the print newspaper is inevitable, the social media giant Facebook recently passed the 500 million user mark, and CD sales have plummeted astronomically while YouTube videos boast over 600 million views. These all represent basic changes which are occurring–namely the celebration of sharing, of group taste and hyperbolic consumption. In Donna Haraway’s seminal “Cyborg Manifesto” of 1985, she asserted that by the “mythic time” of "the late twentieth century... we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism." It certainly seems as if Haraway was on to something. Users of the web sink large amounts of time feeding this machine–the more you dedicate yourself through sharing to this social industry, the more you receive in return.
Tech companies love this change. Their products and services allow us to connect and share at all hours, and with incredible ease. But yet this seemingly friendly offer has subtle thorns: the means of production have been laid into the hands of the masses, yet those producers have no ownership or rights to their creative efforts. The vast predominance of user-generated content has no economic benefit for it’s creators–yet this free labor is channeled by a small number of entrepreneurial arbiters who use user-donated content to effectively determine the deployment of adspace, who herd us to more content generating hubs, who hold the keys to economic opportunity on the web. But if it’s such an exploitive system, why do we busy ourselves with the frantic sharing? For one, the social syndicates like facebook and twitter, and to a lesser extent, sites like tumblr, YouTube, and blogspot, are so pervasive that a rejection of them seems commensurate to a rejection of society itself. But even more so, the sites implicitly restructure our social life and identity in the manner of our online transactions of self: we become self-conscious of our identity as a purposed construct, while continually being offered more effective ways to manage our online emblem. We are allowed certain manifestations of “expression;” our favorite bands, movies, websites comprise our character; the “profile picture” becomes our static placard, an online avatar of our physical selves. Add-ons encourage users to display their music listening statistics, their rank among all other users in games, challenges, mini-competitions. We are allowed–encouraged, even–to engage with each other as brands, mere objects of taste. It seems tempting to trumpet Haraway’s grim sentiment, that “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”
Yet the users of the internet are not inert. Not in the way one might describe a TV watcher–the users provide the material in this system. Videos flood sites like YouTube which are comprised of simply one person, speaking into their computer’s webcam (disturbingly attached as a cyclopean eye), describing everyday minutia, voicing their opinion, reviewing a game–always bathed in the pearly cerulean blue glow which their laptop emits. The resulting video has no physical properties, it exists simply as code which corresponds to a specific arrangement of light particles, accessible from anywhere. All around the world, other users are able to view this video, they themselves awash in the same light, the screen serving as a virtual valence, a vacuous portal through which users are able to summon any various setting. The experience of sifting through the internet can be described as interacting with a planar web. The virtual world is just that–virtual, existing only in abstract terms until we decide to interact with it. It doesn’t live on our computers, it floats above in static potential. When we are faced with a ‘page,’ it appears to us as a unique plane which has been brought before our eyes and dominates the monitor; within this plane live ‘links,’ pathways to other pages which exist only as abstract concepts until we click on the link, and our monitor swiftly replaces our current plane with a new one. Fundamentally, the web cannot exist in its totality for the user, but only as individual, unique planes which are woven into the web’s spanning fabric.
But this cannot be the sum total of the effect of social media and other web 2.0 fundaments have on our lives–certainly there is massive potential unleashed by these services. The dynamic and explosive life of the hive mind, a reinvention of social relations at a previously undreamt level of connectedness, ads targeted specifically for our interests, the ability to connect and structure disparate cultures and ideas: these are effects too. For our contribution of content, we are not compensated monetarily: rather, we are bolstered with a more concrete conception of self, one which is measurable in how many friends you have, how many times your content has been shared, how many photos you have, how many likes, thumbs-ups, stars, +1’s your submissions receive. But this sense of self is fragmented, and grounded in unsubstantial measures. These sites are social scaffolding, foisting the cultural composition upon users as a method to establish a digital identity–yet our constant offerings to the surfeit confound a coherent sense of ourselves. We evaporate time away, sifting through forgettable chunks of ephemera, surrounded by thoughts and opinions drained of true purpose, and we fail to perform any useful synthesis. In this informational deluge, there is no impetus for synthesis: users are allowed to perpetually digest new, but inherently empty, content. Consumerism has reached its apogee in this age. Though perhaps this is not the only age charged with making sense of pervading content: Aldous Huxley writes in 1934 “in all the arts the output of trash is both absolutely and relatively greater than it was in the past; and that it must remain greater for just so long as the world continues to consume the present inordinate quantities of reading-matter, seeing-matter, and hearing-matter.”
Indeed, members of a consumerist society need class demarcations for a positive conception of self, and the internet has provided a public way to distinguish yourself from others through taste. Obviously taste has existed for some time–fine taste correlates to your level of sophistication within a society. In the past, simple markers of taste were sufficient: do you enjoy Rothko’s works? Really terrific bouquet on this Malbec. I do love a good summer suit. These are traditional markers of socio-economic status, displaying an operating level of enjoyment commensurate with the amount of money you have to indulge in objects of taste. Yet, on the internet, you cannot see other users, you have no traditional social interactions, and highbrow culture is widely scoffed at. So, a new system of taste has developed, and in a wild, frantic measure.
As the internet allows innumerable opportunities for the amateur to consume, so does it allow those users to share their collectively consumed material in the manner of critique. Vast tastemaking bodies have risen from this impetus: RottenTomatoes allows you to sort reviews between professional critics, and amateur critics, always ranked in percentage points; the music review site Pitchfork has become famous for the gravity which its ten-point-scale rankings have on record sales and the steadfast opinions its acolytes form in accordance with these rankings; entertainment magazines dedicate inordinate amounts of digital space to the discussion of fashions, and almost always feature seen-on-the-street fashion trends, promoting the acceptance of these fashions not in Milan, but in consumers’ everyday lives. The list could truly go on and on. Yet it is certainly not only the prevalence and massive sway these tastemakers can boast which has led to a taste-based online community. Taste is not based on wealth, as it has been traditionally, because wealth is illusory online. Taste is populist, as the fashion photographs represent, geared towards users to absorb into their self-images as numerical values delivers a ready opinion at-a-glance towards the artistic object’s worth. It seems to be the mantra of all social media sites that you are what you consume. Some sites ask you to share what music you’re listening to when you comment on posts, others simply display it passively for all other users to judge you with. When you make a profile, you’re now always asked to show what your favorite types of media are, and your rankings of various products within the medias. Top X lists are often the “most commented” posts on these sites, and usually have the most shares from the site’s disciples. Our self images are intrinsically wrapped up in what we consume, as it’s the abridged version of ourselves which we digitally transmute to other users in a social interaction.
The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life.
In this historical moment, a new conception of urban life was birthed. Suddenly people were grouped together in tremendous numbers, within which the individual became the primary deterministic unit rather than interdependent groups which in the past had been prized for their support structure. As Simmel points out, the development of an individual identity within the metropolis is a lifelong task. The dissemination of new forms of media–photography and film were the primary objects of discussion–caused widespread cultural angst: their effects would go unnoticed by the masses, though significant changes were taking place. The staunch progression of cultural tradition was rent awry in this moment, as Benjamin argues in his eternally applicable The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In simple terms, he opines that reproduction erases authenticity, the uniqueness of a work of art. It is through this process of reproduction, and the propagation of wholly new art forms became the means to avoid becoming “a tool of the ruling classes.” Benjamin succinctly formulates this necessary drive: “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” The traditional, oppressive power structures must be subverted through new applications of technical forms as a means to artistic and informational dispersion. It appears that a parallel can be drawn between the revolutionary forms which developed fully at the turn of the last century and the explosion of the digital technologies which have already begun to structure the 21st century in a radical recasting of popular forms of consumption.
Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus of various moments of history. But no state of affairs is, as a cause, already a historical one. It becomes this, posthumously, through eventualities which may be separated from it by millennia. The historian who starts from this, ceases to permit the consequences of eventualities to run through the fingers like the beads of a rosary. He records the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one. He thereby establishes a concept of the present as that of the here-and-now, in which splinters of messianic time are shot through
Benjamin’s “constellation” of history is the model of universal history. And in the modern paradigm shift occurring, we find our model in the development of earlier forms of mass culture.
But it is not simply that our epoch mirrors that earlier one on merely a phenomenological level; each epochal change is fundamentally imbricated within an awakening conception of history. With the advent of photography and film, visual history was unleashed. At once, reproductive methods were able to record moments happening live-action in time, like early photographs of the American Civil War; film began to offer alternate representations of historical events, exaggerated accounts and falsified visual histories which became the real histories in the minds of the masses; widespread dissemination of films democratized both art and history–a cultural history began which not only fully engaged with, but comprised of, films designed for mass audiences. The scope of history was exploded at that moment in an onslaught of entertainment-fueled media, its acceptance and cultural demand acting as the impetus for it’s further propagation and recording. Marcuser argues in accordance, positing that technological change brought with it a “flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture.” Cultural history, as we conceive of the term now, was born in the breadth of these technologies.
Thusly did our modern age emerge from the shadow of these technologies, this age. The emergence of mass culture breathed life into the forms which have become commonplace in our society, the stock and trade of coded messages. Consider the work of Cindy Sherman (pictured below), a photographer now canonized in the defining age of postmodern artwork, who constructed a series of photographs in which she herself was always the subject, but always dressed to match some instantly recognizable scene from film. All the various interpretations of her image were drastically different–one often needs to tell a first time viewer that it is indeed Sherman who is the model in all of them. She turned kitsch upon itself, confounding the bevy of cultural-historical knowledge and assumptions any person familiar with popular culture brings, even unwittingly, to bear on any coded piece of information. But now, if you showed a member of the young generation one of Sherman’s stills, its quite probable they wouldn’t recognize any referential element in the picture–it would appear to them simply a dramatic, nicely framed black and white photograph. Emerging generations are gone from those touchstones of cultural history–culture have evolved into a new history which is not dependent on older forms, a self standing culture. Past generations perpetuated a cultural tradition by passing down the history to their children. But today, the internet has spawned for itself a massive, self-contained culture which many young people have accepted in substitution of traditional culture. How can this be possible, that a break such as this would occur in a mere fifteen years or so? The answer is not simple, but it can be phrased as such: the historical mapping of the internet is a task which involves a sensibility divorced from traditional methods, and it has done so intentionally.
We are the users, the producers, the rudiments of this new technological construct which stretches over all reaches of urban society. We are no longer monads, but moieties split between physical self and the digital avatar of self which informs and warps our biological selves. Our membership in this virtual metropolis imbricates us within its planar web, component pieces taking participation in a hyperhistoricism. Time has become a totalizing constant state–we experience the past as husky breathy whispers fogging the lens through which we perceive our current moment. The internet’s limitless fabric comprises the mythic time in which we jostle, darkly bundled within the curls of its cloak.