Wednesday, May 15, 2013

So I entered the Tumblr ecosystem

So I now have an active Tumblr account (rather than the TWO I was never using, having variously signed up for them and then never signed in again). This means I've started engaging with the Tumblr ecosystem, as prompted by certain interesting Tumblr feeds I've run across (Discover Games and Notational being the ones that jump to mind). It's another step down the road that Digital Media in general are guiding us along: lots of content being created, recycled, passed along, an endless stream of fleeting observations draining into an ocean of obsolescent data.

I have public, cultivated accounts in tons of social networks -- here in Blogger, plus Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr... plus ones I've let slip a bit in Google+, Vimeo, DeviantArt, MUBI, Reddit, and 500px... plus totally outdated ones in the junkyard of social networks: MySpace, OKCupid, and Friendster. Of all these, none makes me feel like the whole world of culture is collapsing, quite so much as Tumblr.

I don't mean collapsing like dying a rotten death (only YouTube comments make me feel like that). I mean collapsing, like, all texts are running together, all boundaries and structures are vanishing. Every opinion immediately elicits its own counter-opinion, arguments evolve past recognition before they even begin, meaning doesn't even pass through a filter of authenticity before it's subsumed by irony. Every person is a consumer, and a curator, and finally a creator, of every form of media, and there are no valuable criteria for categorizing or assessing any cognitive artifact. The whole universe of ideas has become the half-formed subject of one giant text, articulated by an amateur, and read briefly and passed over by the universe.

One aspect of this is that certain privileged processing modules are now at the mercy of the whole world (or at least, the whole world of Western consumers, which is the privileged position I'm allowing myself to inhabit, for the moment). Everybody is a writer, and everybody is a photographer, and everybody is a curator. The "curation" part is kind of understandable, I guess... it was only in the 60's that curators of content started seeing their task as an art in itself. And it's long been the dream of photography to become a completely democratized, ubiquitous technology -- from the very first discussion of the topic, the engineers of the process have talked about the day when every person would have a camera and the ability to print and archive images of their lives.

Writing? Well, writing has always been sort of a democratizing force, literacy being the baseline for a society to reach full participatory capitalist actualization. The democratization of that technology has been going on since Gutenberg.

At any rate, it seems that these technologies are the most fully affected by the collapse of our cultural hierarchy. Accepted cultural standards for judging writing have all but dissolved, leaving an orgy of subjective speculation and unsubstantiated pointing and shouting: the critical hegemony toppling under the stampede of frivolous public recognition. Something similar has happened for photography... anyone with a camera has the chance to be noticed, based on an indecipherable tangle of differentiating factors. There are so many excellent amateurs, so many outlets, so many opportunities for discovery of new work, that the highest rewards seem to be a matter of the lottery of circumstance... the right person noticing the right picture at the right time, and uploading it to the right social network.

Of course, it's possible that this is the fairest way to process all these texts: as long as everyone is a writer and a photographer, it's inevitable that everyone is also a curator and a critic.

It doesn't seem to have touched the older arts, though, the arts that require a deeper intervention of craft. Not everyone is a painter, or sculptor, or dancer, or even musician (although practitioners of popular music are bordering on it). Those statuses are still reserved for people who have put in the sweat to master their physical connection to the medium: their gestures, their ability to see in two dimensions, or to move gracefully in three. It seems like these arts of the eye and body and mind will certainly last.

What's that, me? Are you saying you think the reproducible arts -- the imprinting art of photography, the repeatable, reprintable, abstract art of writing -- may vanish, collapsing into an undifferentiated digital singularity? I hope not, cause I'm not much of a painter or dancer. Still, it sometimes seems like Tumblr, these curatorial white-water rapids that shake and upset our creations as they rush to the ocean, can't help but blur the dignity of these most recent textual forms.

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