I’ve been thinking a lot recently about escalation effects, by which I mean the tendency of some courses of action to escalate beyond our initial expectations or capacity to control. My favourite examples involve information overload. An active reader will often follow up references from books they are reading, with an interesting book usually yielding at least a few more books to read. Thus reading one book will lead to a desire to read a cluster of books, each of which will in turn likely prompt a similar escalation in your intended reading. Escalation effects are interesting because they exist in an ontological gray zone, reflecting our capacities as agents while underscoring our limitations. They are not strictly speaking structural constraints, as much as they are unintended consequences of reflexive project formation.
This expression used by Alain de Botton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life (pg 42) stood out to me. He uses it in relation to the morning news, reflecting on how reporting inevitably strips away from the reality of what is reported on. This is an example of a broader tendency for human experience to “be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance”. To use the language of Andrew Sayer, factual reporting strips away what matters to people about what is being reported on. The distillation involved in reporting on the facts of a case unavoidably subtract how those state of affairs move people and motivate them, leaving us with an arid picture susceptible to wide circulation when so many other accounts compete for our attention. The abbreviation of human experience is a practical necessity which detracts from our understanding of others and the world around us, even as it contributes to our knowledge of those conditions.
It might be argued that social media highlights human experience in a new way, though I would suggest it is demotic in the sense of reality television rather than democratic in the sense of participatory. It foregrounds human experience through templates and incentivised interaction, increasing the flow of human experience in public consciousness but at the cost of its integrity. Abbreviation is intensified rather than attenuated, with so many shards of experience flying around that radically truncating our attention is the only way to cope. What gets through is what is spectacular, jarring or enraging. It is not a return to human experience but its last gasp, with meaning and mattering mangled by the machinery of abbreviation. Under these conditions, what de Botton calls the finger placing ability becomes important:
The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own, yet could not have formulated on our own. (pg 28)
I’ve always been fascinated by these depths. The struggle within us to articulate something and the relief that comes when we find a way to say it. Often though we change in the process of saying it, as we suddenly recognise a state of affairs within us by virtue of being able to express it. The opposite of what de Botton calls abbreviation is what Charles Taylor calls articulation. Resources we can draw on in articulation are invaluable in an age of radical abbreviation, helping us become “newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness” such that we are “drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about” (pg 29). Articulacy we develop expands outwards, sensitising us to the abbreviation we encounter around us and leaving us more adept at recovering the reality subsumed by its thin expression. This is not a call for slowness, as much as for elaboration. There’s a value in being long winded, even if it’s unlikely to get you read.
This is Jaron Lanier’s memorable description of social media in his new book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Social media is a technology for asshole amplification. To be clearly seen in the fact that “since social media took off, assholes are having more of a say in the world” (pg 43). His point is not that social media is a haven for trolls because it’s “not helpful to think of the world as being divided into assholes and non-assholes or if you prefer trolls and victims”. On pg 44 he cautions that each of us has our own inner troll:
It’s like an ugly alien living inside you that you long ago forgot about. Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens when you’re in a particular situation, avoid that situation! It doesn’t matter if it’s an online platform, a relationship, or a job. Your character is like your health, more valuable than anything you can buy. Don’t throw it away. But why, why is the inner troll there at all? It’s such a common problem that it must be a deep, primal business, a tragedy of our inheritance, a stupid flaw at the heart of the human condition. But saying that doesn’t get us anywhere. What exactly is the inner troll? Sometimes the inner troll takes charge, sometimes it doesn’t. My working hypothesis has long been that there’s a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. We’re like wolves. We can either be solitary or members of a pack of wolves. I call this switch the Solitary/ Pack switch. When we’re solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance. When we’re in a pack, interactions with others become the most important thing in the world. I don’t know how far that goes with wolves, but it’s dramatic in people. When people are locked in a competitive, hierarchical power structure, as in a corporation, they can lose sight of the reality of what they’re doing because the immediate power struggle looms larger than reality itself.
The evolutionary language here can seem off-putting to a sociologist. But it can be recast in terms of internal and external goods. Sometimes we are driven by the rewards internal to what we are doing while at other times we are driven by rewards external to what we are doing. What makes social media platforms so insidious is their tendency to, as Lanier puts it, make “social status and intrigues become more than immediate than the larger reality” (pg 49). I don’t agree with his account of why this is so but I think the underlying direction of his argument is correct. Social media is asshole amplification technology because it lends such force and vivacity to external goods, particularly recognition and reputation, leaving internal goods hard to sustain.
We often do sustain our relationship with these goods, as can be seen in the continued existence of thoughtful and intelligent exchange online. But we do so in spite of rather than because of the asshole amplification architecture of social media. It’s grasping the bivalent nature of this relationship, as internal and external goods co-mingle within platform architectures which are continually modulating in response to our (ambivalent) actions, which is crucial if we want to understand and perhaps even overcome the asshole amplification propensities of social media.
I’ve never completely understood my attraction to kitsch. As much as part of me would like to suggest otherwise, it’s not a knowing embrace of excessive sentimentality and contrived garishness, as much as these things genuinely appealing to me in a way that can prompt knowingness when I reflect upon it. For instance, I saw these gnomes and immediately imagined them populating my garden (alongside the ceramic pug, the metal cat, the Buddha, the snail etc).
I find the infinite reproducibility of objects like this weirdly relaxing to be around, as if they can diffuse the anxieties of commodification by reminding us none of this really matters. Yet somehow they do matter. It made me sad when I discovered that the leg had fallen off my ceramic pug (as well as baffled by the fact I couldn’t find this leg anywhere). Not upset, just a little sad. These objects invite participation in a tamed emotional register, provoking trivial joys and fleeting feelings of loss. But they also repudiate established ideas of ‘good taste’ and provoke internal alienation in those who feel the need to aggressively enforce them.
These kitsch objects are individualising in the sense of relativising our individual responses, leading us further into our own involvement with mass produced objects while also problematising the generic character of that involvement. They lead us to care, vaguely, while making care of that sort more visible to us than it would be in relation to more refined and distinctive commodities. Meanwhile they trouble the care of others, interrupting an evaluative order of good taste that for much of the time gets reproduced seamlessly. I find kitsch (vaguely) consoling and I feel a (fleeting) commitment to continuing to (occasionally) collect it.
I knew curation had a root in ‘look after’ but I’d framed this in terms of organise or sustain. The role of care in it makes the notion take on a completely different intonation.
On pg 57 of George Packer’s Unwinding, he describes how Oprah Winfrey’s rhetoric of authenticity and openness co-exist with a pronounced tendency to exercise control over representations of herself:
She exalted openness and authenticity, but she could afford them on her own terms. Anyone allowed into her presence had to sign away freedom of speech for life. She bought the rights to every photograph of herself and threatened to sue anyone who infringed the inviolability of her image. She withdrew her autobiography just weeks before publication after friends warned that it revealed too much about some parts of her life even as it falsified others. Her face underwent drastic alterations year by year.
At risk of stating the obvious, the capacity to make this demands is unevenly distributed. But so was the impulse to do so, at least pre-digitalisation. Only celebrities incited a sufficient proliferation of representations to make such a demand coherent. However once digitalisation becomes ubiquitous, the predicament of the celebrity begins to generalise throughout society for two reasons:
- More representations of individuals will tend to be produced
- Past representations are progressively less likely to decay
What might have been purely the prerogative of the celebrity under past conditions becomes a predicament faced by increasingly numbers of people, still with wildly different capacities to exercise control over representations of themselves. The capacity to exercise such control is going to become ever more important with each passing year, as well as ever more unequally distributed.
Digital Infrastructures: Poetics, Politics and Personhood – AAA San Jose 14-18 November 2018
Lorraine Weekes (Stanford University)
Gertjan Plets (Utrecht University)
Government databases, digital archives, online voting systems, and e-portals enabling the submission of everything from insurance claims to income tax returns increasingly define mundane engagements between citizen-users and a suite of public and private institutions across social arenas. Because of efficiency and transparency digital technologies are seen as affording, reliance on digital infrastructures has become widely supported on the ground. At the same time, sociopolitical structures and assumptions encoded in many of these infrastructures—and the entanglements they produce—have received little attention. The tendency of infrastructure to remain invisible until something goes wrong is perhaps especially acute in digital and high-tech contexts where the scale, technological complexity, and physical diffusion encourages black boxing. By putting the politics and poetics of digital infrastructure into the limelight, this panel will consider the historical and ethnographic dimensions of digital infrastructures and how they produce individual subjectivities, mediate power relationships and further existing reifications of the social across the globe. By bringing the theoretical insights of the burgeoning anthropology of infrastructure and bureaucracy to bear on the digital networks and assemblages, the papers in this panel endeavor to make the materiality, social-embeddedness, and historical contingency of digital infrastructure visible.
In his superb From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner vividly describes The Whole Earth Catalog and the horizon it opened up for many of its readers. From loc 1212:
For many, the Catalog provided a first, and sometimes overwhelming, glimpse of the New Communalists’ intellectual world. Gareth Branwyn, for instance, a journalist who later wrote for Wired magazine, zine, recalled the day in 1971 when he saw his first copy of the Catalog: “I was instantly enthralled. I’d never seen anything like it. We lived in a small redneck neck town in Virginia-people didn’t think about such things as `whole systems’ and `nomadics’ and `Zen Buddhism.’… The Whole Earth Catalog changed my life. It was my doorway to Bucky Fuller, Gregory Bateson, whole systems, communes, and lots of other things that formed a foundation tion to a world model I’ve been building ever since.
This is a conduit to variety (where to go, what to do and who to be) which had an enormous direct and indirect cultural impact. What interests me is the reception of this variety by individuals: how did it change lives? How did it lead people to conceive of their present differently? How did it lead them to imagine different futures?
These are subtle questions which resist capture through quantitative measures, representing personal transformations which the individual themselves might not always narrativize in a straightforward manner. But conduits for variety is a concept I’m using to conceive of how media forms contribute to change in individual lives, including the social change ensuing from their aggregated actions as well as any subsequent participation in collective change.
What does it mean to be immersed? I’ve been thinking about this question since having an interesting conversation yesterday with Tyler Shores about what constitutes meaningful engagement with cultural items e.g. books, articles, films, tv, graphic novels. This is a surprisingly difficult notion to pin down, once you start examining it:
- Is engagement a matter of successfully moving from ‘start’ to ‘finish’?
- Is engagement a matter of how quickly one moves from ‘start’ to ‘finish’?
- Is engagement a matter of avoiding external interruptions?
- Is engagement a matter of avoiding internal interruptions?
- Is engagement a matter of caring about the cultural item?
- Is engagement a matter of retaining knowledge about the cultural item?
- Is engagement a combination of all these factors? Or something else all together?
My inevitable starting point for addressing this question is my own experience of the phenomenology of cultural engagement. My experiences of what feel like ‘higher’ forms of engagement always involve some sense of being gripped by the cultural object. My mind turns to it involuntarily during the day. I project forward to the moment when I can return to the cultural object. I find it hard to back away once I’m immersed in it, even when there are other things I need to or want to do.
In the case of non-fiction or academic writing, it generates a spiralling array of paths for me to follow, prompting a powerful urge to write in order to clarify my thoughts. With fiction or television, it straight forwardly produces an urge to binge. In the case of fiction, I’ve never felt guilty about staying up for hours reading a novel. There are a few occasions when I’ve involuntarily ruined the next day by staying up all night because I simply couldn’t put what I was reading down. But it never felt like a problem. In contrast, binge watching feels like a distraction: a depletion, a retreat, a compulsion. Is this fair? I strongly feel this judgement but I’m increasingly convinced it mischaracterises binge watching.
Binge watching is engagement without external or internal interruptions. Binge watching is sustained immersion. Far from distraction, binge watching involves expansive attention directed at a cultural item, drawing the viewer into the fictional world they have come to care deeply about. I’m arguing that binge watching in this sense is a practical activity, akin to how Margaret Archer characterises spectating in her Being Human. From pg 214:
Spectating is far from being a passive activity, as is evident at football matches, but is equally the case at music concerts, art exhibitions and chess tournaments. It demands its own tacit knowledge (often vocally shared with all and sundry), and its own emotional involvement. Spectating is itself a skilled achievement, involving an appreciation of what the task requires in terms of competence. The spectator reverberates, as does the play, to the emotional commentary on performative success or failure (together with gradations between them). Audiences display bodily tension, alongside players and conductors, as they anticipate crucial movements or moments and express their emotional satisfaction/dissatisfaction in applause and booing. In the same way too, dissatisfaction is related to cessation (either by walking out after the ‘first half’ or by progressively declining attendance) and satisfaction is related to increasing competence (through appreciation classes, buying specialist magazines, private practice with CDs, videos, and the Internet, as well as through increasing attendance itself).
Therefore I want to argue that binge watching is a flow state. It’s entering into a sustained engagement with an object, in a way that leads to the experienced overcoming of the subject/object distinction. In an interesting way, it’s a skilled achievement. We can still sustain distinctions between the relative worth of cultural items because entering into flow with higher items (more complex, more subtle, more opaque) requires more skill than with lower items (more simple, more obvious, more transparent).
Far from cultural bingeing being an engine of distraction, it’s a reflection of our continued capacity to overcome distraction. It follows from this that when we’re talking about engagement, we should treat it as a skilled activity (a relation between an acting subject and a material artefact) that engages with culture at the level of form and content. When we seriously engage, even when we ‘binge’, we are doing something and I fear we often don’t treat it as such.
An interesting snippet on pg 164 of Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things suggests a metric of content density which could be extremely interesting to explore:
Digiday looked at the race for what some are calling peak content. What it found was that in 2010 the New York Times, with 1,100 people employed in the newsroom, created 350 pieces of original content per day and attracted 17.4 million page views per day. By contrast, the Huffington Post, with 532 people employed, posted 1,200 pieces of content per day (most of it created by third-party sites) and 400 blog entries (mostly unpaid), receiving 43.4 million page views per day. One can understand why the future of original journalism is threatened.
This quantitative metric raises questions which invite qualitative analysis e.g. to what extent does an increase in content density (less staff producing more content) correlate with content being shorter, derivative and shallow? Are there cultural producers where this isn’t the case? What are the conditions which counteract this seemingly inevitable consequence of asking people to produce more with less?
In the last few years, I’ve become a little obsessed with speed. It seems this often leaves me coming across like an accelerationist. I occasionally flirt with the idea that I’m a slightly peculiar form of left-accelerationist, but it’s more for rhetorical amusement than genuine conviction. In fact I find much of what’s written about the politics of speed inadequate, with my interest instead being in a political sociology of speed. By the former, I mean a valorisation or condemnation of speed, exploring the emancipatory potential in speed or seeking salvation through slowdown. By the latter, I mean an analysis of how speed is a vector through which power operates in social life. The concerns of the former often obstruct the analytical imperatives of the latter, though of course accelerationists inevitably address these questions as well.
What made me reflect on this was an interesting example I stumbled across in The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi. On pg 127-128 he describes the enforced slowness which results from data-driven policing inspired by a ‘broken windows’ philosophy of crime:
If you’re charged with a crime, and you get notice of a court appearance, you have to show up to a packed room at an appointed time that in reality is only an approximate time. If it says 10: 30 a.m. on the notice, you may end up waiting three, four hours for your case to come before the judge. During that time you are permitted to do exactly one thing: sit in court and watch the action. There is no talking, sleeping, eating, or reading in any of the courtrooms like the one on Schermerhorn Street. You must pay attention to the judge at all times. Some of the judges are insanely touchy about these rules, too. Judge Charles Troia, a glowering dark-haired man who runs a courtroom on the eighth floor, has a particular mania for talkers and readers. He has his court officer bark out instructions on the matter repeatedly throughout the morning. “In case you missed the sign,” the officer yells out, “there’s no reading, eating, or sleeping. Listen up! It’s going to be a long night.” The ban on reading is particularly odd, given that some of the judges have literary ambitions. Judge John Wilson, who by the time this book is published will have moved from the Brooklyn courts to the Bronx, is notorious in this courtroom for having authored a children’s book called Hot House Flowers.
This looks like hyperactive activity when considered at the level of the police, with 22,000 people arrested for loitering in a typical year in New York City. But from the perspective of those regularly subject to such nuisance arrests, it’s profoundly decelerative, with one interviewee describing how “you come to court and you’ll sit there all day waiting for your name to be called” and how he had “probably sat ten hours in the three times” he had come to court (pg 125). This is an example of the chronopolitics of speed, something which manifests itself relationally within an institutional context. It’s hard to theorise if we remain on the level of treating speed as what Filip Vostal calls a ‘mega force’. For this reason our starting point needs to be the political sociology of speed rather than the politics of speed.
Later in the book he recounts the analogous experience of a welfare office. From pg 333-334:
On the morning of October 15, 2011, she shows up at the Seventy-Third Street office at 8: 30 a.m. It’s a giant hall with linoleum floors and plastic chairs—exactly what you’d expect, like a DMV, only even more depressing. There’s already a huge line of people. “People were standing up against the walls, there was people everywhere, all over, it was crazy,” she says. The drill is, you show up, take a number, and wait—and wait. Markisha takes her number and sits down. An hour passes, two hours. She has no idea when anyone is going to see her, and all the people in the packed room are in the same boat. Mothers with children are in the office, and by late morning the children are starting to get antsy because they haven’t eaten, but you can’t leave the place or you lose your spot in line.
A chill goes through the room in the middle of the day when a woman steps outside the building to get a smoke and returns to find that her number has been called. She has to leave and come back another day. More hours pass. Markisha is squirming in her seat. By the late afternoon the crowd, which not only hasn’t subsided over the course of the day but has just gotten bigger, is turning hostile. At around three in the afternoon there’s a screaming match somewhere in the recesses of the office. Markisha can hear a man yelling at a welfare worker because a glitch in the system has cost him his benefits; something about a wrong address, which they’re telling him they can’t fix. He storms out of the office to oohs and aahs.
By then the place is a zoo. “The kids is running around, because they hungry,” she says. “They’re running around, snatching stuff off the walls, drinking water, screaming.” The scene gets so intense, Markisha ends up pulling out her cell phone and taking a video panorama of the chaos. Nobody even blinks when they see her standing up filming the nightmare. You see all kinds of stuff in here: Who cares about some girl filming something? More hours pass. It’s after five now. A young Latin man just ahead of Markisha goes in and just as quickly is dragged out by security when he explodes at a worker after finding out he can’t get his food stamp card—Markisha doesn’t know why. “I’ve been here since eight o’clock in the morning and I’m still here after five o’clock!” he shouts. “I’m just coming for my EBT card! I need my EBT card!” Security drags him past Markisha, chucks him out the door. “I was like, dang,” she says. “I didn’t know what to think.” Finally, at 5: 30, after nine hours, Markisha is shown into an office where a bored-looking older black woman stares blankly at her from behind a mass of papers.
From pg 335:
But the kicker is, if you get all the way through the process, and actually get your meeting, and you get approved, they then tell you to go home and sit tight for your P100 search. And they don’t tell you when that will be, except to say that it’s generally within a week and a half. You then have to be at home at all times until they show up—it’s like sitting shivah, except you have to do it for more than a week. “If the investigator shows up and no one’s there,” says Halpern, “they shove a card under your door that says, ‘We could not verify your eligibility,’ and you don’t get your benefits.”
From pg 344:
Two is that there’s an explosion of errors that are infinitely more difficult and more expensive to sort out than they would be if someone with personal knowledge of the case was involved from the jump. Now there’s an endless parade of Annas and Diegos and Markishas filing formal appeals with the state, explaining their whole life stories from the start in each meeting, instead of just calling a caseworker on the phone, reminding them of a fact or two, and having them change a number on a screen. The system therefore clearly doesn’t really work for the state, either. It’s like opening a hospital where no doctor could ever see the same patient twice—the bureaucratic version of Memento, where the characters have to go back in time to re-create a whole universe of facts from the beginning in each new scene.
While many see the term ‘curation’ as modish and vague, I see it as an important concept to make sense of how we can orientate ourselves within a changing cultural landscape. However I can sympathise with the thrust of these objections, in so far as they take issue with a sense of curation tied in with the worship of the new. Such a use of the term is possibly dominant, framing the curatorial imperative (selecting from available variety through filtering, commentary and evaluation) as a specialisation which emerges to cope with the late modern world. If we frame curation in this way, we miss out on the opportunity to explore how it has changed over time. See for example Nick Couldry’s Media, Self, World loc 1732:
Some literary cultures have been distinguished by the richness of their practices of commentary: the Jewish tradition of cabbala is frequently cited, but the ancient world’s general scarcity of textual objects meant that written manuscripts often reached people with the commentary of previous readers’ (so-called ‘scholiasts’) embedded within them, a tradition which reaches us now via the comments written in medieval versions of Greek texts.
Now we are entering an age of commentary for the opposite reason: because of the almost infinite proliferation of things to read and look at, we need to send signals to help each other select from the flux. At the same time, and for related reasons, our ability to send comments and signals has been massively extended by digital media: we take it for granted that by emailing or uploading a link we can point at something interesting we have just read and so alert someone on the other side of the world. The scope of commentary as a practice has been massively enlarged.
It is important that we can address problems and opportunities created by specific technologies without circumscribing our accounts in a way that limits them to these technologies. If we do so, we fail to recognise the continuities and we are inevitably left with anaemic conceptions of the human and the social which tend to be exhausted by the social-technical. From loc 1534 of Couldry’s book:
From searching, other practices quickly develop: practices of exchanging information by forwarding weblinks to family, friends or work colleagues, warehousing sites that collect recommendations from users so other users can narrow down their search practice (Digg, etc.), and tools for pre-ordered searches (RSS feeds and other alerts). These various search-enabling practices are increasingly prominent in everyday life as people seek to optimize their access to the vastly expanded flow of potentially relevant information. Their dispersed agency (anyone can forward a link or signal that they ‘like’ a post) contrasts with earlier centuries’ ways of disseminating interesting material: for example, the ancient and medieval world’s florilegia produced by groups of scholars, often in monasteries, who collected interesting quotes from otherwise obscure books into new volumes. Now not only do individuals (from their computers or phones, wherever they are) make the recommendations, but system interfaces, such as Digg and reddit, enable them to recommend cumulatively. Some commentators hope that ‘collaborative filtering’ and other collective forms of information sorting can challenge the dominance of Google and even create new forms of social bond.
How do we ensure we recognise these contrasts? How can we explore them in a way which allows us to productively theorise continuities and differences? There’s a fascinating meta-theoretical challenge here which I’d like to engage with seriously in future.
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 Merchants of Culture, by John Thompson, pg 238. In the United States:
The number of new books published in the US each year prior to 1980 was probably under 50,000. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the number of new books published greatly increased, reaching nearly 200,000 by 1998. By 2004 the number had risen to over 275,000 (see table 9 ). 2 After falling off in 2005, the total climbed to over 284,000 in 2007 and continued to rise in the following years, reaching an estimated 316,000 by 2010.
And this has been supplemented greatly by non-traditional outputs. From pg 239-241:
The data from Bowker suggest that the number of non-traditional outputs rose from 21,936 in 2006 to a staggering 2,776,260 in 2010, which, if added to the traditional books published in 2010, would give a total output of more than 3 million titles. The non-traditional outputs include books released by companies specializing in self-publishing, like Lulu and Xlibris, but the vast majority of these non-traditional outputs are scanned versions of public domain works that are being marketed on the web and made available through print-on-demand vendors.
A similar pattern can be seen in the UK. From pg 241:
Prior to 1980 there were probably fewer than 50,000 new books published each year in the UK. By 1995 this number had doubled to more than 100,000, and by 2003 it had increased to nearly 130,000.The total number fell off slightly after that, though by 2009 the number of new books that were published in the UK had risen to more than 157,000 (see table 10 ), spurred on by the growth of print-on-demand, digital and self-publishing.
In John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, there’s an interesting remark about the structural position of first time authors which I think has wider purchase. From pg 200:
Ironically, in a world preoccupied by numbers, the author with no track is in some ways in a strong position, considerably stronger than the author who has published one or two books with modest success and muted acclaim, simply because there are no hard data to constrain the imagination, no disappointing sales figures to dampen hopes and temper expectations. The absence of sales figures sets the imagination free. The first-time author is the true tabula rasa of trade publishing, because his or her creation is the book for which it is still possible to imagine anything and everything.
A world where metrics are ubiquitous is a world where imagination has died. When everyone has a track record, the space to imagine someone’s future as radically different from their past collapses.
From Work’s Intimacy, by Melissa Gregg, loc 3594-3609:
Describing the impact of the BlackBerry in 2006 –just before the iPhone changed mobile computing for keeps –Research in Motion’s John Balsillie explained his bestselling devices as “latency eliminators.” According to this logic, Balsillie argued, “successful companies have hearts … and intrinsic force that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. BlackBerries … allow those hearts to beat faster” (in Connors 2006). At a time when the most profitable companies were preparing to hand out multi-million dollar handshakes to CEOs who left a trail of retrenched workers in their wake, one could be forgiven for being skeptical about Balsillie’s choice of imagery.
The language of love may help to explain the market triumph of his product, but this book enables us to identify some of the real-life “latencies” that smartphones help to eliminate. These include time spent with children, grocery shopping, leaving the house, even sleep. The hearts of employees may be beating faster in the wake of mobile technologies, but it is questionable whether this is with care, affection, or friendship. In many cases, it is in anticipation of the next work-related demand and the next productivity innovation imposed by management.
From How The World Changed Social Media, by Danny Miller et al, loc 1203
The stand-out figure here is from industrial China. This is probably the site where people’s working day involves the most unremitting labour in factories. It is therefore not all that surprising to note that they use gaming as a means to relax and to separate themselves from work. In fact this reflects a wider emphasis upon the use of smartphones for entertainment more generally, a feature that clearly emerges in this additional survey conducted by Wang7 on smartphone usage among 200 handset-owning respondents in her field site. These workers usually do not have the spare time, money or energy for extra social life after long hours of heavy labour. At the same time, in addition to the relaxation that such games provide, gaming is also viewed as a major way of hanging out with friends online, especially among the young men.
Online gaming is also a very important aspect of social media (especially Facebook) in southeast Turkey. The most common games were Candy Crush Saga, Ok and Taula. Gaming is a way to socialise with new and old friends. People play these online games not only with known friends but also with strangers. There are possibilities that these strangers might also become new friends through gaming. Online gaming is also used to flirt discreetly with people of the opposite sex. For the very young (i.e. children in primary school, aged 8–11 years) gaming is probably one of the main reasons for using social media.
What can we learn about a social order from the forms of leisure that thrive within it? The rhythms of Candy Crush, reward punctuated by denial, look extremely interesting from this point of view.
The authors go on to suggest on loc 1296 that games can also provide status consolations, at least as evidenced in their Chinese field site: “This may be especially appealing among factory workers since even the status of having achieved a higher level in games can become important when one’s status is so low in the offline world.”
This documentary is worth watching for many reasons but there’s a particularly fascinating section in which the presenter goes undercover at a digital activism training course. The facilitator describes how he spends half an hour a day finding liberal books on Amazon and giving one star reviews, before explaining how this practice needs to be extended across other platforms in order to counteract the influence of liberal culture on young people. I knew this occurred but I’d never heard someone advocate the practice, let alone so enthusiastically. It brings me back to a question I’ve thought about a lot recently: how much of ‘trolling’ is self-understood as digital activism of this sort?
I like this contrast drawn by Arlie Hochschild on loc 2780-2795 of Strangers In Their Own Land:
Not only her values, but even the kind of self she proudly exhibited—an endurance self—seemed to need defending, because it too seemed to be going out of fashion along with all the blue-collar jobs. “They used to brag on my dad at the plant that he was so reliable and steady.” Janice tells me proudly. But what did that count for anymore? Like her father and uncle, Harold Areno, Janice feels proud to have a rooted self, a self based in a busy, dense, stable community of relatives, co-parishioners, and friends. A newer cosmopolitan self, one that seemed uprooted, loosely attached to an immediate community, prepared to know a lot of people just a little bit, a mobile, even migratory self—this seemed to be coming into vogue. Such a self took pride in exposure to a diverse set of moral codes, but did a person with that kind of self end up thinking “anything goes”? It was frightening. It was wrong. And Janice was having none of it.
However I think it’s important to recognise how social media could buttress the endurance self, facilitating the experience of that embedding in the absence of face-to-face reality, something likely to become more important as the social conditions liable to generate such an experience of continuity erode yet further. How would/does this mediated endurance self differ from the situated endurance self?
An excellent footnote in The Global Minotour. From loc 3865:
Once all your music, films, applications, addresses, etc. are on iTunes and readily accessible by any Apple product (iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc.), the opportunity cost of buying a Nokia or a Sony device is huge (even if these companies bring a better device to market) –you need to spend literally hours setting the new gadget up. Thus, iTunes gave Apple immense monopoly power, of the same type that Edison and Westinghouse were trying to create for themselves.