Last year I bought the poster pictured above on Fulton Street in Clinton Hill for $10. It’s a Warhol, sure, a poster he licensed to a French printing company in his later years that in (much) better condition might fetch around $1,000 tops today. I love it’s ragged imperfections though; a long succession of people obviously neglected it for years before it was pulled out and sat in the daylight of Fulton Street as an afterthought, where I found it.
Ever since I hung it up on the wall I have been meditating on the cold industrial core of the can emerging from underneath Andy’s deconstructed pop art. The can’s starkness lays in its standardization – the ugly grey and black core of the metal tells one story, and despite that we impose upon that our emotional attachment and meaning on it’s outer label, we judge product by its marketing.
This can lead to short cuts in how we learn and recognize quality, sure, but what standardizing actually means is to reduce, to conform, and to arrange by class. As far as people on social media and their social relationships go, that’s the furthest thing from a healthy human community. This is where the stark nature of the industrial part of social media becomes apparent: when people’s attention spans are sold in direct correlation to their value as a consumer and that information is based on knowing almost everything about a person’s private information and product intake.
As far as advertiser-based technology, which powers social media, is concerned, a brilliant William S. Burroughs quote is in order: “The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.”
Welcome to the advertising industry’s long held motto. Objectifying our individual subjectivity through social media takes this tradition a step further and creates a product out of our self. Having the goal of objectivity or predictability in information may be useful for somethings, like democracy and disease, but it can also be a scary prospect if it becomes inescapable or inhibits our free expression. We each express and derive meaning subjectively and impose our own meaning and experience on external sources of information, so who gets to decide what meaning is now, or what is standard?
When it comes to distributing meaning, and monetizing information through media, to standardize or to scale to maximize pageviews is to enforce a standard measurement of engagement. This reduces the scope of information, conforms content to consensus, and arranges our information in a hierarchy of class based assumptions – just like Wall Street has done with the rest of our economy, bundling and reselling our eyeballs over and over.
For the advertising industry, the central question it is not how shall we best live as a whole community, but how shall we best sell each of you a lifestyle?
You may know the phrase, ‘art uses lies to tell truth.’ I’d suggest also that, ‘advertising uses truth to tell lies.’
All of the innovation online being done to make the internet financially sustainable for Wall Street shareholders is merely a means of standardization and classification of people and information. Some have mentioned the word resegregation to me. Whatever you want to call it, the only goal with it is to create content that scales numerically and quantifiably to make as much money as possible, like our other consumption patterns. For instance, Apple products.
A lot of people ask me what I think of the This American Life scandal that broke around this time in 2012, when the playwright and performer Mike Daisey was revealed to have been untruthful in the reworked for radio representation of his one man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at The Public Theater in New York City. Daisey had traveled to the factory cities of China to research and interview workers at Apple’s manufacturing contractor Foxconn and wrote a fictional tale of his journey through China for the stage. It was riveting. I saw the show and never thought for a minute that everything Daisey said was objectively true, though certainly he did not act in his own best interest in communicating how the story was crafted after the fact.
However, Daisey took artistic license and it was brilliantly performed. At one point he comes to a pinnacle of intensity with the story of a worker who, meeting with Daisey, purportedly sees an iPad turn on for the first time, proclaiming it to be MAGIC. It was a subjective and fictional tale based on his experience and imagination, and written for the stage, not the news. One could easily imagine the scene sitting in the dark theater with Daisey facing his audience directly seated at a stark desk with folded hands. Many workers manufacturing Apple products on the line are probably not going to be able to afford to own, and therefore turn on, an Apple product. The philosopher Hakim Bey once wrote, “Art tells gorgeous lies that come true.”
When This American Life host Ira Glass first brought it to his audience he prefaced the piece by saying that Daisey had reworked it to be some other version of his original theatrical piece, implying that it had shed the muck of theatrical subjectivity. I was skeptical from the beginning that it was even possible to cram one’s art into such a box, and I wasn’t surprised to find out in Ira’s intensely reported mea culpa, that objectively speaking, Daisey did not meet a man who had never seen an iPad actually turned on before, among other discrepancies.
The story of the plight of the worker in this huge system that turns our ideas into objects in the information age – the whole point of Daisey’s research and the universal truths at the core of his story – was lost in this media blitz. Ira was the boy who cried objectivity. In this case his objectivity – his attempt at scientific precision of information in reporting truth – also missed the point that maybe, even if partially untrue, the story should push us to reconsider how we make the digital devices that enable us to listen to our favorite liberal podcasts and essentially, consume his ideas with an object made by people far away with whom we have no connection.
Daisey said an interesting thing in the aftermath.
I learned … the value and the importance of understanding the terms of how you talk to an audience, because it’s really important to understand how culturally — moving from one idiom to another, how something we say in one context, brought into another if you’re not careful about how you translate it can feel untrue, even if the essential truth of it is. And it’s a very dangerous thing.
That does not mean to confuse disinformation with the fiction of art. The process by which art, in this case theater, uses frameworks to tell truth about our lives is crucial to how that art is rooted and received. Same for the frameworks of journalism. Last October, Glenn Greenwald wrote in conversation with the New York Times Bill Keller, piquing my attention and hope that journalists might make a similar recognition.
Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?
The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.
Universality exists in our subjective perception to benefit and challenge the subjective perceptions of others and between us all emerges truth, sometimes. When we see humanity as a super-organism of thought that can be understood as a whole, to seek the subjective objective, a group aching to understand itself can form the physical connection to one and other organically.
Commodification of media is the process of industrializing the group’s cultural subjective – imposing the physical process of production upon the production of thoughts, language and action and dissemination of them towards the inevitable goal of persuading other minds en mass for money. Gawker Media’s Nick Denton refers to ‘industrializing gossip’ in a recent issue of Playboy magazine.
If you can industrialize gossip, if you can make it truly scale, you can expose all the mediocrity and incompetence.
Surely I also want to expose mediocrity and incompetence and be rid of it, but I don’t see any way in which the new media underdogs have done this and not become the thing they disparaged at their birth. The reductionist concept that content’s virtue is synonymous with high pageviews is disingenuous; basing your whole business model on it is worse. Denton did say something brilliant recently though, “the journalistic pursuit of the truth is not compatible with outside investment. It’s impossible because of venture funds’ sensitivity to criticism, short time horizons and attachment to conventional wisdom.”
I agree, and I would extend that from covering venture capital investors to the pageview impression seeking advertisers who fund operations with this kind of bottomline. Surely you need an audience to have the conversation, but there are plenty of ways to build them other than scaling up an alienated audience. Some conversations are meant to be smaller, some pages are built for true engagement, and ultimately, we have to figure out how to maximize the value of the pages we create for the people who are reading them, not the advertisers who seek to pay for them (we don’t have those here). Important conversations take time and happen over many platforms before they converge into a larger discussion. Much of what you find on the top information platforms are generally regurgitations of more complex or underground conversations happening on the internet’s edges with purpose, not for page views. The mainstream merely fishes around to exploit the bits they can for shock and awe click bait content.
Right now, most of us remain within the bounds of very few digital spaces in our daily internet routines. We are not breaking out of the mainstream news cycle that encompasses television, computer, mobile device trifecta. It’s hard, I know, rooting around for new things, trusting them, remembering them. Sites like Gawker have moved up to being the big dogs driving the innovation of the mainstream, and also giving into it’s professional consensus around page view content. Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan had a brilliant moment of self-awareness last year when news broke that News Corp had invested in Vice.
The cool kids, the angry kids, and everyone who feels the need to rage against the machine should simply be aware that all of their rage and anger and anomie is being happily packaged and sold. The revolution won’t be televised on HBO, nor funded by Rupert Murdoch. The revolution is the next generation of upstarts that begin with nothing and gradually rise up to eat Vice, and Gawker, and which are eventually eaten themselves by the next generation. None of us should get too comfortable.
Turns out, social media is people! The more you express your freedom of speech in a place that provides freemium services, the more the establishment is perpetuated and consolidated in its strength. People are the engine running this thing, not snarky bloggers who try to grab their attention. This is at the core of the alienation that is driving people away from Facebook and other social media communities that are fueled by clickbait content, which are beginning to feel like unpaid work in itself. While there has not been a viable alternative to social connection on the internet as of yet, there are viable localized sources for community connection springing up (like this site) that seek to build free media and free culture, geared towards personal freedom through expression rather than confusing that with providing free services that sell your expression in bulk. That’s free as in speech, not free as in beer, as my friend Boone says.
For now, the mainstream stranglehold on our information diet is still there – to an extent. The big asterisk to this statement is, that it is true unless a trusted person directs you to quality information. This is what Facebook loves to exploit about our friendships. Gawker’s Kinja network is a clever hierarchical/horizontal media hybrid structure to stem the tide of their contributors realizing they can just do all that by themselves cheaply, make a lot more money and have a lot more fun (more on this later in the series).
For a long time America’s trusted source was the mainstream media, or more recently these snarky underdogs, that could be identified as having some level of integrity and objectivity. But with the discourse increasingly focused on unproductive binaries and few solutions, what is mainstream media objectivity when we benefit more from our own informed subjective and universal truth?
After World War II, the publicity industry was established alongside advertising culture to take advantage of the trusted information status of supposedly objective mass media for the purposes of sending advertorial messages to grease the wheels of consumption patterns. This was a brainchild of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays who emigrated to America. The production needs of mid-century U.S.A. required an information system to quickly disseminate the latest products much like now.
Injecting advertiser messages beyond the pre-paid square boxes and 30 second spots was the logical next step for Bernays and he literally wrote the book(s) on it. His strategies pioneered the binding of the lifestyle – our self-identification, our passionate and emotive sensibilities – to a product’s marketing prowess. Now that has been bound to our social connections as they are increasingly used as avatars to sell products on social media.
The purchasing process is now mired in the subjective, tied to filling the holes of our innermost insecurities and fears, rather than the recognition of the objective, external qualities of that physical product. Bernays is the man who convinced feminists that smoking a certain brand of cigarettes would identify them as sexually liberated rebels.
It follows that the publicity and advertising industries, given advertising technology today, went on to delve deep into our inner psyche via the internet to understand us by our search terms, our movements and our contributions to this unique new space to understand our innermost passions to better commodify our lifestyle choices around them, and segregate us once again by these standards.
Right now we live in the Industrial Age’s interpretation of the Digital Age – the professional consensus of what Industrial Age monied Baby Boomers think the Digital Age should be. Consider what Thomas Frank wrote in Salon last October.
The theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.” Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.
All of a sudden, social media feels like the label on that Campbell’s Soup can; our creativity, our relationships, merely a layer to be shed by the stark industrial nature of the can.