6: In oral societies, freedom is conformity to communal standards. In the culture of print, to be free is to choose for oneself. In digital culture, freedom is relief from the obligation to choose.
This piece by Katherine Miller on (a)temporality in the age of the algorithm has been doing the rounds, and with some justification; it’s a strong piece of writing, and it’s grasping toward something important. I’d be lying if I didn’t find its implicit attempt to situate Trump as a sort of synecdoche for the state of the States somewhat wearying, but it’s eminently understandable, not least because life under 45 for anyone on the lefthand side of the fence is clearly very wearying also. (Furthermore, I imagine that anyone outside of the UK who reads UK-written essays of a similar thrust is pretty sick of everything magically boiling down to Brexit. Hell knows I am… and still I keep writing the fucking things.)
But ignore my carping, which is more in the nature of a stylistic note-to-self than a dig at Miller. It’s a good piece — though there’s a further irony in its being hosted at Buzzfeed, and accompanied by the sort of busy-but-pretending-not-to-be web design which sample-and-holds the very same temporal (gl)itchyness that the article describes.
The touch and taste of the 2010s was nonlinear acceleration: always moving, always faster, but torn this way and that way, pushed forward, and pulled back under.
The 2000s were a bad decade, full of terrorism, financial ruin, and war. The 2010s were different, somehow more disorienting, full of molten anxiety, racism, and moral horror shows. Maybe this is a reason for the disorientation: Life had run on a certain rhythm of time and logic, and then at a hundred different entry points, that rhythm and that logic shifted a little, sped up, slowed down, or disappeared, until you could barely remember what time it was.
I feel like the missing word in this piece is delamination: time hasn’t shattered so much as peeled apart, the shear layers shearing off of one another under the centrifugal force…
I guess we can chalk up another point for Chairman Bruce on the prolepsis leaderboard. When did he first start talking about atemporality? It seems like a lifetime ago, but at the same time just yesterday…
One of our great errors in thinking — another aspect of that unfortunate idea of human exceptionalism that makes it so hard for us to be at home in this world — is that the natural and the man-made are distinct entities. Like all other parts of the branching experiment, we make and are made by the living environment, and we have done so since before we were us. Without the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, there would be no Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley will make or unmake the forests of the future. No nature story, no account of environmental struggle would be complete without bringing on-stage all the human technologies that are to us what the invention of flowers and nuts and chlorophyll and mycorrhizal networks are to the forest superorganism.
Just as the emergence of tree intelligence forever changed the planet, so the emergence of consciousness (which long predated humans) forever changed the nature of evolution. Cultural transmission is orders of magnitude faster than genetic transmission, and digital transmission has accelerated the speed of culture a hundredfold or more. We may soon seem, to our artificial intelligence offspring, as motionless and insentient as trees seem to us. And here we live, trying to make a home between our predecessors and our descendants.
Will we double down on the great migration into symbol space, our decampment into Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and World of Warcraft, the road that we have already traveled so far down? Or will Big Data and Deep Learning allow us to grasp and rejoin the staggeringly complex processes of the living world? The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they’re inseparable aspects of the new ecology of digital life.
It’s surprising to realize that the rise of ecological and environmental consciousness was made possible by the advent of the Information Age. Life is simply too complex and interdependent for us to wrap our heads around without the help of our machine prosthetics. And now those prosthetics allow us to assemble, generate, contemplate, and interpret the hockey-stick graphs that prophesy our future. We came into being by the grace of trees. Now the fate of trees, and of the whole world forest, is squarely in our machine-amplified hands.
The question is what those machines are doing to our hearts, because without the heart and mind, the hands will get up to all kinds of things.
From a LARB interview with the novelist Richard Powers [via the still-reliable MeFi], who I’d never heard of previously, but will henceforth be seeking out assiduously. Any novelist who refutes the social/natural dichotomy is almost certainly gonna be my jam; that he name-checks Le Guin and KSR merely confirms it. (More than a whiff of Haraway in there, too, though she doesn’t get a mention.)
Anyone out there familiar with his stuff?
Surfacing briefly to note with pride that Now Then is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
I stumbled across Now Then during my first weeks in Sheffield, way back in the autumn of 2012, when I was desperate to make some connections to the local cultural scene, and to find a new venue to write music reviews for. Now Then is basically an ad-funded arts-scene free-sheet, and generally I don’t write for such publications on principle; as a rule they’re awful, full of shamelessly fawning promo passing itself off as commentary, with tawdry production values and even lower editorial standards. Now Then stood out immediately: its print edition (which doesn’t run during the summer, so as to save money) is always a gorgeous piece of printed product, fronted with original art commissioned to purpose; its reviews are written with genuine passion, and are permitted to be critical; it carries poetry, short fiction and humour, and it carries editorial and local-political content that puts both of the local “newspapers” to shame by comparison.
My PhD and other work has meant I’ve not been a very regular contributor to Now Then, but of all the free-to-air venues I’ve ever reviewed music for, it’s the one I’m proudest not only to tell people about, but to show them a physical copy. Perhaps the most solid endorsement I can offer is that I pick up a copy every month, whether my words are in there or not.
Sheffield’s a city with a fair few problems and difficulties, most of which are political in origin. But it teems with people working hard to make a difference, not just for themselves, but for everyone else. Sam and the gang at Opus are solidly in the latter category, and Now Then is product and platform all at once. I’m reyt proud to have contributed to it, in however minor a manner.
(You can read my latest review in this month’s online edition.)
Here, then, is what makes all members of the species Homo sapiens cultural animals. They come into the world quite incomplete, and pick up what they need to know, and more, by learning from life, and in very large part from one another. As at the same time social animals (and for them the social and the cultural go together, inseparably), they deal with life and with each other in large part by way of interpreting and making signs, managing meaning. And this is what culture is about: meanings and meaningful forms, more or less organized into wider complexes. In an oft-cited passage, Clifford Geertz […] concluded that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” The abstraction of that formulation, however, risks making it a bit misleading. There is not just a single, solitary spider in that web, but a great many—by current estimates, over seven billion of them.
From Hannerz, U. (2016). “Reporting from the Future.” In Writing Future Worlds (pp. 113-133). Springer International Publishing.