Friday, July 29, 2011

Nanostories, etc. (31 Aug 2009)

Harper's editor Bill Wasik, the inventor of the purposely pointless internet-driven media event known as a flash mob, has expanded on what that experiment taught him in a book, And Then There's This. Fittingly enough, I finished reading it while I was down the shore, in the land that the internet seems to have forgot. (When they hear wi-fi, many in Wildwood would probably think you are talking about WIFI 92, the top 40 station in Philly circa 1978.) The book is primarily about how the internet encourages the acceleration of our cultural consumption by prompting us -- now no longer passive consumers but media operatives ourselves, fascinated by our own impact and keen to play at being an insider -- to refashion news as "nanostories," microstories whose popularity (measured by internet metrics) peaks quickly and then rapidly dissipates. Whatever real underlying fundamental trends there might be get lost in the noise. Culture accelerates, becomes quicker in its payouts, and becomes more compulsive and addictive. This, as Wasik notes, makes the internet just like a slot machine, whose quick-hitting but apparently random rewards are engineered to make players addicted: "games of chance seem to be more addictive in direct proportion to the rapidity and continuity of their 'action' -- how quickly, that is, a gambler is able to learn the outcome of his wager and then make another." Online, the action is the tracing of trends and our own statistically determined significance. Twittering, and then seeing what sort of response it provokes, etc. We are never at a loss for an opportunity to try to garner attention, and these efforts are archived, deepening our potential self, even if it is all noise. The internet's archiving capacity means there is an excess of the narratives from which we shape our sense of self. "With the Long Tail of Truth, telling ourselves new stories about ourselves has never been easier: abundant, cheap distribution of facts means an abundant, cheap and unlimited variety of narratives, on demand, all the time."

But the internet is not only a machine for generating memes, but also for manufacturing spurious hermeneutics. Wasik contends that we have all become conscious analysts of how media narratives operate (we have the "media mind," as he puts it); the presence of so many independent operators in the media space compresses those narratives, turns them over quickly as we all experiment to see which framing techniques attract the most attention. (Popularity tends to snowball, since popularity is factored in to what choices are given prominence.) The internet has given us means to sell ourselves the way products have long been sold to us, and we've embraced them, adopting advertising measuring tools (the data on popularity the internet makes available to use for our personal pages) as markers of moral value. The potential scope of our reach invalidates previous mores:
When your words or actions or art are available not only to your friends but to potentially thousands or even millions of strangers, it changes what you say, how you act, how you see yourself. You become aware of yourself as a character on a stage, as a public figure with a meaning.
As a result, we manage our public meaning like a brand manager, and perfect the art of culture monitoring -- meta consumption of media. We begin to consume the buzz about buzz, or pure buzz, with no concern with what it's about, only whether we can exploit it for self-promotion.

What's lost in the focus on the meta-story of something's popularity and usefulness for our own carefully monitored identity is obviously the thing itself, which becomes difficult to recognize and consume in traditional ways. Artists are seen as the "instantiation of a trend," and their work is assessed in that regard -- the mythical organic reading is even harder to achieve or even simulate. "Call it the age of the model" Wasik writes. "Our metaanalyses of culture (tipping points, long tails, crossing chasms, ideaviruses) have come to seem mroe relevant and vital than the content of culture itself.... The real vigorish is in learning not about what is cool than learning about how cool works." When all that resonates about a meme or idea is its viral potential, all ideas are ideas about marketing.

This concern with only the momentary impact of any story and its metasignificance decontextualizes them, allows ideas to function as commodities: "The meme vision of culture -- where ideas compete for brain space, unburdened by history or context -- really resembles nothing so much as an economist's dream of the free market. We are asked to admire the marvelous theoretical efficiencies (no barriers to entry, unfettered competition, persistence of the fittest) but to ignore the factual inequalities." In other words, nanostories, not surprisingly, preserve the status quo, reinforcing our own vanity and self-centeredness along with the market as timeless, unquestionable norm.

Wasik takes a look at the decisive role of boredom. We are not inherently disposed to be bored -- Wasik cites research that suggests boredom is a defense mechanism that we invoke when we are confronted with too many choices. But those choices are what capitalism offers us as proof of our purchasing power as consumers. So we experience boredom as proof of our centrality in the consumerist cosmos, and this boredom is a deliberate achievement of the existing social order -- it fixates us on novelty as a value, and drives us to consume habitually, for ideological rather than material fulfillment. It's pretty self-evident, I guess -- boredom is a product of awareness of choice, and the advertising infrastructure does nothing but make us aware of choices. Wasik argues that the ubiquitous boredom helps drives the acceleration of media consumption by fostering backlashes on schedule; I would only add that the boredom is market-driven -- the oversupply of ideas and goods are stimulating the demand adequate to them, changing the attitudes and self-concepts of consumers in the process.

So the market imposes the possibility of novelty on everyday life, which engenders boredom, the feeling of being hopelessly overwhelmed by choice and the drift into aimless lassitude. In this state we are unwilling to commit to anything deeply -- it might grow boring -- so we invest our time and effort on into shallow things that are quickly disposed of, or the most convenient experiences, things which are by their nature not very satisfying. So we become temperamentally insatiable.

In the final chapter, Wasik suggests strategies for fighting the acceleration and compression of cultural consumption: one is rationing our information supply and adopting a renunciative attitude toward the internet. Just say no. Another is time-shifting -- "delaying one's experience of a cultural product long enough that any hype or buzz surrounding it has dissipated." That is something I wholeheartedly endorse and practice: I am currently watching the second season of Dallas -- and loving it. I don't know that it helps anything though. I needed there to be buzz before to even think of watching it now. Ultimately Wasik has no answers -- we must strike a balance, he suggests in Aristotalian fashion, but gives no sense of what that might be. We must choose "judiciously" what information we consume, but offers no criteria for this. He advocates "sustainable approaches to information" but little sense of what that would entail. Like Žižek argues, it is easier to imagine the end of the world -- the destruction of the internet by some super virus or something -- than to imagine a way to consume it temperately.

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