There’s an interesting extract on pg 52-53 of Infinite Distraction, by Dominic Pettman, discussing the seductions of abundance under conditions of scarcity:
Those readers old enough to remember what it was like to live before the Internet will recall the strange phenomenon where the general noosphere seduced us by its sheer beckoning presence. Thus, we would find ourselves listening to terrible songs or talk shows on the radio in the car rather than listening to our perfectly sequenced mixtape or intriguing audiobook. Or we would end up flicking from channel to channel on the TV, preferring this cathodic wasteland to the stack of quality VHS videos that sat neglected in the corner of the living room. Such perverse behavior exhibits a profound and tenacious will-to-synchronize. Indeed, this is the source and continuing energy supply for everything we call “media” (or what Stiegler calls, following Derrida, our “grammaticization”). This crucial characteristic shapes the general desire to connect with the signals and traces of other monads, no matter how tedious or embarrassing these signals and traces may be. (Just take a look at the top ten movies, TV shows, and albums right now, for ample evidence of this claim.)
It immediately brought me back to being a seven or eight-year-old, fascinated by the Sky TV that our neighbours had, in contrast to what was now experienced as the tedium of four channels. They had Simpsons! They had Wrestling! They had endless cartoons! In reality, the abundance that gripped me so much was a profound scarcity in terms of what was produced and circulating at that time, let alone what is available to me now through the iMac and broadband connection with which I am throwing this blog post out into the world.
But it leaves me vividly recalling an earlier time, in which I was growing up within a cultural ecology profoundly different to the one I now inhabit. I remember the first time I visited an internet cafe, at a point where the idea of having the internet at home hadn’t occurred to me, being gripped by the information I could find on the computer. I used it to look up character backgrounds for Marvel comics, filling in the blanks that the comics I read had left me with. The affectivity of abundance seems interesting in retrospect: I was gripped by the possibility that gaps in my knowledge could be filled, however trivial those gaps now seem in retrospect. Has this lure of abundance now been comprehensively lost?
The term ‘curation’ has got a bad press in recent years. Or rather the use of the term beyond the art world has. To a certain extent I understand this but I nonetheless always feel the need to defend the term. There are a few reasons for this:
- In a context of cultural abundance, selection from variety becomes important within a whole range of contexts. Inevitably, it is something most people within these contexts will do most of the times. But ‘curation’ is becoming a specialised activity, even if detached from a specific social role.
- I’m prone to thinking of what I do, at least some of the time, as curation. I spend quite a lot of time each week sorting through mailing lists, newsletters, websites, blogs and social media to identify relevant content for The Sociological Review’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. This is 46 social media posts per day. I’ve also shared something on Sociological Imagination daily for almost seven years. I don’t particularly care what anyone else calls it but, as far as I’m concerned, doing it effectively is a skilled activity and ‘curation’ is the term I’ve taken to using.
- The modern sense of the word ‘curation’ rests on a specific set of institutional arrangements which are themselves relatively recent. The word has a longer history, emerging from the Latin curator (“overseer, manager, guardian“) and what many construe as a misapplication could just as easily be taken as a further shift in its use. Language is dynamic and the anti-‘curation’ rhetoric is an attempt to police its change, albeit not a particularly significant or pernicious one.
Ultimately, I don’t care if people reject this use of the term ‘curation’. I do care if people reject what the term ‘curation’ comes to designate. I don’t dispute it is often used in a vacuous way, but it is not always used this way. It is nebulous and modish but the terms which emerge in relation to socio-cultural transformations often are.
It’s the socio-cultural changes which interest me, the abundance digitalisation is giving rise to and the epistemic fog which emerges as a result. To talk of ‘curation’ is a facet of that conversation and if people want to reject its use, I hope they’ll offer an alternative language for talking about selection from abundance as an institutionalised function within digital capitalism.
From The Revenge of the Monsters of Educational Technology, by Audrey Watters, loc 1187:
Many of us in education technology talk about this being a moment of great abundance—information abundance—thanks to digital technologies. But I think we are actually/ also at a moment of great austerity. And when we talk about the future of education, we should question if we are serving a world of abundance or if we are serving a world of austerity. I believe that automation and algorithms, these utterly fundamental features of much of ed-tech, do serve austerity. And it isn’t simply that “robot tutors” (or robot keynote speakers) are coming to take our jobs; it’s that they could limit the possibilities for, the necessities of care and curiosity.
Understanding this relationship between austerity and abundance strikes me as a crucial question of political theory. One which we evade if we reduce the former to the latter or vice versa, seeing abundance as negating austerity (as Tyler Cowen does, for instance) or austerity as negating abundance (by robbing it off its social significance as a cultural change).
This is a really nice account in Damon Young’s Distraction of what Margaret Archer calls the necessity of selection. From pg 2:
Psychological blockages are part of a much larger set of limitations: those of mortal life itself. There are only so many professions, sexual partners, houses, entertainments and amusements available; and we only have so many days to invest in each. To commit to this job, this spouse, this leisure, this gadget is to withdraw time, energy and wherewithal from another possibility. This economy extends from the most obvious and pointed life choices to the inestimable, inarticulate decisions we make each and every hour. Put simply, to be human is to be finite –“born to a limited situation’, as Goethe put it. Because of this, the good life warrants an ongoing struggle to be clear about what’s important, and to seek it with lucidity and passion; not to be distracted by false ambitions, or waylaid by dissipated consciousness.
In a recent paper I tried to explore how the cultural abundance provided by digitalisation complicates this process. There are many potential strategies for seeking the clarity Young describes but they necessarily involve filtering, be that personal, social, technological and/or social: delimiting the pool of logically possible options to render choice manageable.
This filtering becomes harder because of the immediacy with which we grasp (paradoxically mediated) possibilities which filtering forecloses. My core claim is that there’s a general tendency for it to become experienced as more difficult to “to commit to this job, this spouse, this leisure” etc.
An interesting snippet from Digital Methods, by Richard Rogers, loc 1883:
To an “Internet cataloger” writing a well-known essay in 1998, Yahoo! was making a significant contribution to newfangled online library science, not only by its classification scheme but also by the means of content “navigation” it developed. Yahoo!’s system differed from that of a library, where each book would be shelved by necessity in one location. At yahoo.com the resource could be placed in multiple categories, and linked to (and located from) each.
This small shift has important implications for what I’ve written about recently as the problem of abundance: singular categorisation minimises opportunities for encountering cultural items by confining them to the most relevant category, as opposed to maximising opportunities for encounter by multiple categorisation of them on the basis of any relevance.
This multiple categorisation reflects the distance character of informational goods. Physical resource are singly categorised because they can only have one location. In contrast, informational goods are non-rivalrous, as this extract from Luciano Floridi quoted in Rob Kitchin’s The Data Revolution makes clear. From loc 455:
Floridi (2010) notes that given that information adds meaning to data, it gains currency as a commodity. It is, however, a particular kind of commodity, possessing three main properties (which data also share): Non-rivalrous: more than one entity can possess the same information (unlike material goods) Non-excludable: it is easily shared and it takes effort to seek to limit such sharing (such as enforcing intellectual property rights agreements or inserting pay walls) Zero marginal cost: once information is available, the cost of reproduction is often negligible.
This passage from Shadow Work, by Craig Lambert, conveys what I’ve written about in two recent papers as the challenge of cultural abundance. From loc 1395:
To be sure, posting creations does not guarantee them an audience. Far from it. Take the songs that anyone can now publish online and sell as downloads. In 2011, eight million different songs sold at least one copy. “But people don’t realize that about one-third of these songs sold exactly one copy,” says Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse, author of the 2013 book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment. “There is an enormous amount of content that gets no demand at all.” With some noteworthy exceptions, the global audience is just not queuing up for homemade movies, self-published e-books, and garage recordings.
Nonetheless, the fading power of professional gatekeepers leaves Internet users unprotected by their screening. If you read The New Yorker or watch CBS, you have their editors and producers working as your filtering agents, separating wheat from chaff. But on Google outlets like YouTube or Blogger.com, you’re on your own. Sifting through the haystacks of web material for silver needles worthy of attention creates more shadow work in the barn lofts of the Internet.
I’m interested in the cognitive and temporal costs of the labour this entails, described provocatively by Lamert as a form of ‘shadow work’. But I’m also interest in the second-order consequences as people develop and habitualise strategies for dealing with it: this in turn shapes how they orientate themselves towards abundance and contribute to its growth or diminuation.
I love this essay (HT Su Oman) – I recently presented a paper The Challenge of Flourishing Amidst Variety and it was a very different approach to precisely the same questions. Read it in full here.
LIVING with a sense of overwhelming choice means exerting an insane amount of emotional energy in making the most banal decisions. What should you watch on Hulu tonight? Make a Facebook status asking for recommendations. Tweet the question to your followers. After perusing for an hour, settle comfortably into Seinfeld, which you’ve seen a million times before. Wonder whether you made the wrong choice. Do it again anyway. There is some comfort in sameness.
When the mundane act of choosing a television show to watch is emotionally taxing, relationships are next-level shit. But millennials have a solution: Tinderize it. Tinderize it all.
In an increasingly networked society where people are always ready to connect, the pacing of emotional intimacy has to be constantly tweaked. Dating apps facilitate rapid connection and constant communication, but trusting someone still takes as long as it ever did. So Tinder demands a certain amount of emotional dissociation — to distance oneself from emotions by treating connecting to others as a game. The only criteria is to choose and choose fast, choose as many as you want, choose so many you’re not even making a choice. This simplicity can provide sweet relief.
But Tinder is more than a dating app — it is a metaphor for speeding up and mechanizing decision-making, turning us into binary creatures who can bypass underlying questions and emotions and instead go with whatever feels really good in the moment. Its mechanisms perfect the similar either-or options other social media platforms have offered, the yes/no, like/ignore, retweet/pass dichotomy that leaves no room for maybe. Within Tinder, we sort each other into ones and zeroes, flattening away any human complexity, becoming efficient robots. Where a best friend might engage with you about the true motivations behind your choices, Tinder serves as Robot Bestie, there to make complex decisions seem easy, shorn of emotional entanglements.
Tinder offers a model for streamlining virtually any kind of decision making, but the streamlining exacts its price. Swipe right and match, then match again, and then see you’ve received 15 matches in five minutes and could continue on this way indefinitely. It is too much.
At the point of maximum social and techno-sexual stimulation, a total withdrawal — total disconnection amid default connectivity — begins to feel like the only way to actually say no. This coy form of avoidance is not about “playing hard to get”; it’s about preserving one’s sanity in the face of so much connectivity and emotional energy. But this refusal feels not only like a shutdown of others but also of yourself.