Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Authorship of the Now

Today I have been reading Sarah Wanenchak's insightful post, 'Digital Poets, Scribes & Time-travellers' at the Cyborgology blog.

In her piece, she picks up on a thread of thought which emanates from Nathan Jurgenson's thesis on faux-vintage photography and its meanings. Wanenchak's aim is to expose the tension between reality and the proliferation of media which seem to mythologise, playfully misrepresent or fictionalise events.

From Instagram photographs to memes appearing on Reddit, I would have to agree with Wanenchak that these signifiers have enabled us to take on a new identity. As she puts it;

"Now we're all at once poets and scribes - and we're also time-travellers, not moving along a stationary linear timeline but pulling all of our experience of time into ourselves like temporal black holes"

But while Wanenchak unveils representative tension, there is an equal degree of tension to be seen between the public proliferation of these images and those images published and distributed by established media, whether online or through more traditional formats such as newsprint and television.

I think it's essential to point out that what we might call institutional media (organisations, broadcasters, state services) and civilian media (individuals via tweets, blogs, status updates) share certain changing characteristics - but not necessarily in the same way.

Hipstamatic is not the preserve of civilian media, for example. Yet while hipstaprint has graced the front-pages of established newspapers, it is widely understood as a civilian medium since it has been popularised and shared predominantly by members of the public. Furthermore, it is precisely because of that public popularity that it has, like other comparable formats (Twitter, YouTube channels, etc.), been "formally" adopted by media brands.

The result is that many digital culture watchers are now embraced in a weekly battle to delineate institutional media stories from civilian media stories. Where did the news originate? Was social media responsible? How did the news unfold? What online repercussions occurred? Was Obama's Reddit appearance "pure" or a conspiracy?

It is easy to see that we have "all" become poets and scribes, but we share with institutional media the ability to "time-travel", as Wanenchak puts it. That is, in our ability to atemporalise what we insistently refer to as the present.

In Open Sky (1997), Paul Virilio engaged a discussion of established media and their effects on temporality without explicitly considering the same effects being distributed by individuals in their free time. I think that at least some of Virilio's prose has stood the test of time less well than Mashall McLuhan's or even Jean Baudrillard's.

Indeed, I haven't read enough Virilio to comment on his work as a whole, but in the first few chapters of Open Sky, for example, it is certainly clear that his assertions are a little limited by his focus on the age of cybersurfers and the real-virtual dualism with which many contemporary theorists are now straining for us to dispense. What I mean is that, sometimes, Virilio writes sentences which sound like predictions but which are better understood as descriptions of his own context.

In any case, Virilio is relevant here when he extrapolates a discussion of telepresence into what he calls tele-existence:

The direct lighting of the day star that breaks up the activity of our years into distinct days is now supplemented by indirect lighting, the 'light' of a technology that promotes a sort of personality split in time between the real time of our immediate activities - in which we act both here and now - and the real time of a - media interactivity that privileges the 'now' of the time slot of the televised broadcast to the detriment of the 'here', that is to say, of the space of the meeting place. In the manner of a teleconference that takes place thanks to a satellite, but which does so, paradoxically, nowhere in the world.

"How can we really live if there is no more here and if everything is now?" asks Virilio, in a characteristic attempt to declare one of the ways in which an abundance of new media will overturn the hitherto - or "natural" - methods by which we have engaged with the world.

But Virilio's thesis was penned long before anyone thought of inventing Instagram. He failed to imagine that soon culture might be provoked into styling its endless records of the now - again, paradoxically - as though they had been captured by a photographer from 50 or 100 years ago.

Perhaps this helps to elaborate on reasons for the public, or civilian, obsession with faux-vintage. In addition, institutional media are now caught in a fantastically absurd space within which they remain responsible for the publication of news stories in real-time but are also at the mercy of the "democratic storytelling" so prized by Western societies. There is clearly a top-down, bottom-up clash occurring wherein one side permits the other to continue but only because they intermittently trade information which has been broadcasted in each other's aesthetic language.

So, for institutional media, tweets are the reaction to a news story, or the place a news story began (although it was not, yet, a news story). While for civilian media, institutional media is a dinosaur playing with digital interfaces and it is now judged almost entirely on its ability to navigate well those interfaces towards the public who wait, supposedly, beyond.

Into this situation I would like to draw McLuhan; specifically his comments on the photograph. In Understanding Media (1964), he wrote, "The photo and visual worlds are secure areas of anesthesia." One could certainly see in Jurgenson's comments on faux-vintage, or Wanenchak's on Bokeh blurring the truth of that statement. There is clearly a contemporary obsession with authoring the photograph as a complete document but in a familiar mode; a document which is artful in the sense that it is composed, however quickly or "derivatively", as a single signifier which references others of its type or style. That is a language which the popularisation of cheap, digital camera units within smartphones has encouraged us to become fluent in while programs such as Hipstamatic and Instagram have added new, engrossing dialects which provide the style.

Like Virilio, McLuhan's discussion of new visual trends was inextricably linked to his description of the changing pace of modern life. He wrote:

In 1961, TWA began to provide new movies for its trans-Atlantic flights so that you could visit Portugal, California, or anywhere else, while en route to Holland, for example. Thus the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that have been encountered before in some other medium. [...] the tourist who arrives at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the Grand Canyon of Arizona, can now merely check his reactions to something with which he has long been familiar, and take his own pictures of the same.

McLuhan is less alarmist than Virilio. He is astute in essentially predicting a world where millions of tourists will stand in front of the Mona Lisa every year (a painting they have already seen a thousand times), take pictures of it on their iPhones, and share the result with further millions via social media. The exponential proliferation of digital reproductions of the Mona Lisa is a subject which, in its own right, deserves thorough investigation.

It is not just that we may encounter the Mona Lisa before we see the "real" painting (through inches of bulletproof glass) and then share the pictures we take of it with our friends, as our friends may already have done; it is that we clearly possess some innate motivation to do so and also to see this activity as authoritative and original, rather than subservient and unoriginal which it may, upon investigation, be quickly found out to be.

Perhaps Virilio would allow me to ascribe to this behaviour the following description from Open Sky: "A pyknoleptic fixedness, infinitesimal lack of duration without which the spectacle of the visible would quite simply not take place."

And also, Wanenchak's comment, "Our technologically-mediated storytelling is every bit as world-destroying as it is world-creating [...]."

I think it would be ludicrous to argue that there is anything more fractured or dispossessed about society in 2012 than there has been at any previous moment in human history. I don't think our world is necessarily more or less confusing. It doesn't really matter anyway, we have no control over the economy or global events. Yet interestingly there are more things over which we do, however trivially, have control. And sometimes we are wrong to feel in control at all, because there are also occasions when we are really just doing what someone else has told us to do.

We all participate in this strange authorship of the now. Consequently there are ever more blog articles, more photographs, more profiles, more identities. And yes, more stories. That is why the hyperreal is such an addictive drug. That is why we "Like" and share.

The visual, secure world of anesthesia has never looked better - has never been more abundant or so inextricable from the real.


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