Earlier this year, I came across an article in The Futurist called “Consumption 2.0.” by Hugo Garcia, who correctly points out that consumers are increasingly seeking alternatives to ownership and the accumulation of property. Media libraries, for instance, are becoming past relics as cloud-based digital access services continue their meteoric rise in popularity. The Consumption 2.0. argument goes that kids today just aren’t really into owning things. They want the freedom to make easier and faster decisions, and impatiently expect the latest things to appear immediately in the here and now. Add to this a culture of rapid obsolescence, and it’s easy to see why we’re increasingly losing our attachment to owning physical stuff. But let’s not kid ourselves, simply because we’re increasingly owning less stuff, doesn’t mean that ownership and accumulation themselves are habits of a bygone area. In fact, as the Consumption 2.0. trend continues and we become increasingly reliant on rentals, pay-per-use, and the licensing of cloud-based content, ownership will become more important and lucrative than ever. While consumers are indeed seeking alternatives to ownership, nothing really is happening to ownership itself.
According to Garcia, consumers are seeking alternatives to ownership and the accumulation of property for a few reasons: First, overpopulation, crowding and urban density has begun to press on the Earth’s ecological limits. I believe that this has resulted in a psychological aversion to clutter and density, demonstrated by the revival in New Age ‘Zen’ lifestyles, the craze for techniques like Yoga, and the design of popular interfaces based on the principle of clear, white space. In general, we strive for a kind of anti-Baroque aesthetic. Second, cultures impacted by Consumption 2.0. value immaterial traits like knowledge, information and reputation equal to or higher than physical things. We’re even accustomed to the idea that the money in our bank accounts is simply a number bouncing through servers. Third, in our work habits we are increasing resembling postmodern nomads, for whom “physical attachments impair mobility”. Fourth, in many places, including those which faced the brunt of the latest economic crisis, a kind of disillusionment has set in with respect to land-value and the ownership of property. A kind of synthesis of all these reasons can be found in Japanese geki-sema share houses, also known affectionately as “Coffin Apartments”.
The celebrants of consumption 2.0. – such as the author of the Futurist article mentioned above – are optimistic about this trend toward so-called “collaborative consumption”, and hail the emerging consumer behaviors as environmentally friendly and socially progressive alternatives to the traditional forms of ownership that were symbolic of a wasteful consumer society.
But rather than a ‘socially progressive’ trend whose end-goal would be the elimination of private property (etc…), the trend seems to be driven more by a mindless Zen-style urge to lose yourself that is increasingly being experienced by a cramped and restless Millennial generation. Further, some proponents of Consumption 2.0. use socially progressive terminology, but the trend itself retains – and amplifies – many of the structures that these individuals rail against. In fact, these ‘alternatives’ to ownership are actually serving to funnel tremendous amounts of wealth upwards into fewer and fewer hands. Private property may be abolished for us on the ground, but not for them in the cloud.
It’s important to remember that all those digital albums you’ve ‘purchased’ aren’t really albums at all, but non-transferable licenses for files that you can’t legally resell. Just this month – in the case of Capitol Records v. ReDigi – a federal judge in New York ruled against reselling copyrighted digital files. Without getting into the details here, the court found that reselling digital music files violates existing copyright laws.
As media libraries become a thing of the past, and we become subscribers to cloud content, we are increasingly being transmitted content that is highly compressed at it’s source (i.e. the satellites that orbit the cloud). Satellite radio, for example, sounds like its being beamed through a tin can and the so-called ‘HD’ picture quality offered by large cable providers is often atrociously compressed and pixelated. The decision makers (i.e. owners of the licenses in the cloud) transmit content in the cheapest way possible. Compare Satellite Radio, which uses only 125Khz per channel to the 200KHz per station quality of FM radio… It’s astounding how much worse the quality of new access-based formats is.
I’m not normally nostalgic, but I’m going to miss used record stores and combing through second hand shops for content. I resent that future generations likely won’t be able to squirrel their things away, and nostalgically rediscover them tattered, scratched, dog eared and covered in dust. Everything will be eternally available in the cloud, presented in whatever new format the cloud owner deems most economical.
Consumption 2.0. often comes off as ‘progressive’ when – behind the curtain – it’s really just an intensification of the status-quo. I worry that as this trend builds momentum, the things we work hard to afford being able to interact with, are becoming valueless licenses that cannot legally be exchanged or re-sold. I would seriously weigh the arguments for and against a trend that seems to be ushering us beyond ownership and the accumulation of property, but Consumption 2.0. really just seems like a clandestine move in the opposite direction.
As I pulled into the parking lot to see Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers I noticed flashing police lights and yellow caution tape, and learned that a man had been shot to death here only a few hours earlier. This was my gateway into what was – without a doubt – one of the more nihilistic films of the past decade.
In fact, for 94 minutes, I couldn’t stop conjuring scenes from Menace II Society, where the protagonists’ grandpa asks him if he cares whether he lives or dies, and he answers “I don’t know”, or when O-Dogg, one of cinema’s great unrepentant nihilists, explains his lack of concern with shooting innocent children or seniors with a string of “Shit nigga, I’ll smoke anybody, I just don’t give a fuck. I don’t care who the fuck out there!”
There’s no way around it. Spring Breakers is going to be a misunderstood film. A quick glance at the IMDB user reviews reveals highly divergent comments ranging from “This is by far the worst movie I have ever had to sit through” to “One of my most compelling theater experiences”. But I don’t blame audiences for not getting it. We haven’t had a lot of practice.
It has been some time since the gritty heyday of cultural nihilism in the mid 1990s, when a large chunk of the film’s target audience would have been in diapers. In many ways, Spring Breakers seemed to me a throwback to those dark days, whose soundtrack was a mix-tape of Korn, Marilyn Manson’s ‘Antichrist Superstar’, Insane Clown Posse’s ‘Fuck the World’, DMX’s ‘Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood’, the music video for Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’, films like Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, The Doom Generation, games like Doom II, Duke Nukem 3D, Postal, and which would eventually culminate by spilling over into reality with the 1999 massacre at Columbine. It’s been a while since the kids have had a nauseating overload of the ol’ truly meaningless ultra-violence.
If the nihilist satire of the mid-late 90s was a warning, a threat of what was looming on the horizon, Spring Breakers finally holds up the mirror to a world that ignored all the warnings, and laughed in the face of individuals like Karl Popper who – at the wise old age of 91 – lamented the invasion of violent images being injected into children who “adapt if constantly exposed to extreme situations”, and act as the key driver to the “now evident deterioration of the Western world…a moral corruption of mankind“ marked by the “growth of crime and the loss of normal feelings of living in a well ordered world“.
Spring Breakers offers up a glimpse of a culture that teeters on the brink of total failure and breakdown. It’s a confused state, a kind of neo-tribalism, replete with totems including a hollowed out baby doll bong, an animal carcass helmet, posters of Lil Wayne, and monitors beaming forth the hallucinogenic bright colors of My Little Pony. In other words, Korine succeeds masterfully in presenting a world that is in the process of internalizing the ‘morality’ of 4chan’s notorious /b/ image board.
The film plays out in the manner of a fairy tale, a kind of kamikaze death spiral down the vibrant, glowing, neon rabbit hole of popular culture. Every step of the journey into the new American Dream feels cartoonish, meaningless and directionless. But that’s precisely where Spring Breakers succeeds, in uncomfortable scenes like the one where James Franco’s character Alien – the drug dealing embodiment of infantile and irresponsible gratuitousness – grotesquely sucks the barrel of a handgun as if he were performing fellatio on his neon bikini clad Spring Break “soul mates”.
The irony – and what makes Spring Breakers so delightfully subversive – is that the girls (who include in their ranks former Disney princesses) are driven by the highest and most respected ideals of their MTV pop culture: the carpe diem of #YOLO, the lolita-hedonism that underpins the forever-young gyrating ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’ of rap culture, and the hypnotizing idol worship of cash wads and glimmering ‘bling’. A particularly memorable scene has one of the girls, upon seeing Alien’s bed lined with rows of bills, exclaiming something to the effect of “all this cash makes my pussy so wet”. Without being preachy, the film offers an forceful absurdist lifeline to the (clearly under 18 year old) kids in the theater, viscerally demonstrating that the drunken, sweaty, infantile ideal of an eternal Spring Break is a nauseating nightmare.
Rest assured, from time to time, I do post about matters unrelated to Heideggerian critiques of Post-Humanism. As a gargantuan fan of horror movies, I’ve often marveled that so few are actually scary. Many are enjoyable for their campiness, goriness, or cleverness, but only a handful would cause the most hardened horror fan to second guess watching them alone in a dark secluded cabin on a stormy evening. I want to stress that for full effect, you must watch these movies in pitch darkness. I could have waited till Halloween to post this, but I say that any time is a good time to be scared. I won’t include The Exorcist in my list, because it still remains in a league of its own. Plus, almost everyone and their mummified mother, has seen it.
10. Jacobs Ladder (1990)
One of the most unsettling psychological thrillers, which also happens to feature some of the most diabolical demonic imagery ever raised from cinematic abyss. In many ways, Jacobs Ladder is an more mature, and scarier, version of more recent films like Silent Hill, which obviously borrowed heavily from it.
9. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
There’s a real feeling of timeless doom that pervades Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, that manages to wallpaper over its late 60s datedness. It’s a film that sticks with you, well past its eerie ending. Note: Your best bet is the Criterion Blu-Ray, released around Halloween, 2012.
8. The Haunting (1963)
Perhaps the most important element to ensuring a horror film is actually scary is its use of sound effects. Clever sound effects can be responsible for transforming a good haunted house film into a classic. The Wikipedia entry for The Haunting, claims that some of the sounds featured in the move are very low in the bass range, which can cause physical sensations at high volume. I wonder whether this use of the low bass range is now standard horror practice?
7. Event Horizon (1997)
I hope I’m not going to turn you away by including this black gem, which features Sam Neil clawing his own eyes out. It’s really a shame that big budget, ultra-violent, sci-fi horror has become an endangered species. While not a perfect film, Event Horizon, fortunately, features enough jump scenes, whispering demons, and claustrophobic space tunnels to keep us scared in a time when horror migrated away from sci-fi to ‘torture porn’. Plus, you will get to see Sam Neil claw his own eyes out. “Where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see.”
6. Martyrs (2008)
If Martyrs doesn’t rattle you, please send me an email because I’d like to meet you. This nihilistic film – part of the s0-called “New French Extremity Movement” is the definition of horror. Plus, if you’re a reader of Georges Bataille (or keep a tattered Marquis de Sade book under your pillow) you’ll be “ecstatic” about the second half.
5. Session 9 (2001)
There’s something off-putting about dark, spooky mental hospitals… It’s not just me right? While this film seems to have fallen by the wayside, it is a very effective – if slow moving by today’s standards – thriller. I might give this a watch again before I visit the Wavery Hills Sanatorium this summer.
4. The Descent (2005)
It’s been a while since I saw this one in theaters but I remember The Descent as a claustrophobic ‘trapped in the cave’ film that plays on our fear of dark, enclosed spaces…and flesh eating eyeless monsters. It’s a clever, and nerve racking, film that becomes increasingly scary as it goes on. It looks like a 3D re-release is in the works as well.
3. The Shining (1980)
If you’re here, you’ve probably seen this Stanley Kubrick classic. Unfortunately, with each passing year (as a result of an accumulating number of pop culture references) the film loses a little bit of its bloody bite.
2. Pet Semitary (1989)
This Stephen King adaptation really has it all: the creepy possessed kid, the ghoulish demented old crone, the secluded country house, etc… A film that many skip over because they assume it’s just another lousy King adaptation, about pets! It’s actually one of the darker and more serious King adaptations out there. If Aunt Zelda doesn’t make you at least think about crawling under the bed, you’re probably an emotionless sociopath. Avoid, Pet Semitary 2, which is a total mess.
1. [Rec] (2007)
Like The Haunting (#8 on this list), my hunch is that a major reason [REC] is so terrifying is due to its use of sound effects. This Spanish film has no musical score, and relies solely on ingeniously placed, and often jarring, sound effects. Consider the sound of the body that is thrown from the top floor of the apartment building early in the film. If you have surround sound, and that doesn’t jar you, nothing will. Contrary to the film’s first 20 minutes, this is not your usual shaky cam nonsense. Plus, the sequel [Rec] 2 – which picks up right where [Rec] leaves off is not half bad either…in fact it’s one of the better horror sequels out there. Avoid, however [Rec] 3, which is an abysmal mess.
As our headfirst plunge into the digital future gains momentum, any astute critic should take note of the resistances that have emerged over past year. In fact, while typing this post, I’ve stumbled across a new article on CNET called “Google Glass: The Opposition Grows”, which discusses an emerging “anti-cyborg movement” that has sprung up in response to Google’s new Augmented Reality glasses.
But are these resistances just examples of the alarmist rhetoric that accompanies any technological revolution? In order to answer this question, it is useful to remember how conceptually useful it is to take a new idea/trend/revolution to its end, or an absurd point that may never come to pass, in order to see how dangerous the germinating idea/trend may be. Every generation has critics who do just this, like dystopian authors (Atwood, Orwell, Huxley, etc…) who magnify new ideas/trends and imagine how they might interact with the world if they were to become hegemonic.
It’s here that I want to discuss a March, 2013 report by JWT Intelligence called “Embracing Analog: Why Physical is Hot”, which I eerily encountered on the same day as I watched Season 1 of “Black Mirror”, a fantastic British TV show that offers alternate realities where familiar aspects of contemporary technological life (hypnosis of real-time Twitter feeds; disconnection from human interaction offered by the Microsoft Kinect and Nintendo Wii; privacy issues that surround Facebook Timeline/Google Glass) have become the modus operandi of daily life. I say eerie because the JWT report echoes the dystopic intention of Black Mirror, when demonstrates that “Immersion in the digital world [the world of the black mirror] makes us more keenly aware of what’s unique about physical objects.”
The JWT Report, “Embracing Analog” echoes a longstanding position of Cybject that as time passes we are increasingly clawing for ‘real people’ and ‘real things’, as demonstrated by phenomena like Instagram filters, iPhone speakers shaped like gramophones, the revival of interest in vinyl records, etc… . While digital content is easier, faster, more convenient and cheaper, the report suggests that American adults find comfort in the physical world, and “romanticize the physical, ascribing more meaning to giving and receiving physical objects versus digital versions of the same things”. Basically, as has also been suggested on Cybject, digital content is devoid of the imperfections that provide physical objects their personality.
I find the JWT report fascinating, and am entirely in agreement with its diagnosis, namely that there is an analog counter-trend underway. But I’m not so sure we have adequately understood why this counter-trend is underway, and I suspect that the authors of the report have only scratched the surface. They suggest that “when everything becomes digital and immediately available, one starts to yearn for the analog”, and explain this yearning to be the result of an upset between the IQ (intellectual) and EQ (emotional) sides of our personality. Of course, in their schema IQ maps on to digital content, and EQ maps on to analog content. When we spend too long with digital content, we upset the balance. When our EQ is not being satisfied, the authors explain that we seek the “analog more than ever. We’re looking for more meaningful emotional experiences and connections. We’re seeking to re-balance our IQ and EQ states.”
“As alluring as the digital world may be, we’re beginning to realize its limits.”
While the report is an excellent start, but I’m not sure the situation is as cut and dried as the authors let on. I’d like to suggest – and this might offer a very bleak picture – that we’re not quite as hardwired as the authors make out. What if we aren’t equipped with a kind of natural defensive reaction to the loss of our EQ and wouldn’t miss the imperfections symbolized by analog content? What if the analog counter-trend under way is just a simple nostalgia, or a type of transitory conservatism? Perhaps, more darkly, we’re more adaptable than the authors give us credit for, and our nature has no natural limits? If this is the case, we cannot sit back and wait for the ship to change course, but must chart the course itself.
“Black Mirror” exemplifies the analog counter-trend by taking a quickly growing digital trend, and providing a glimpse of how – once dominant – the trend could seriously conflict with our fleshy, desirous, bodies and our existing ethics and morals.
Episode 2, “15 Million Merits”, reflects a world where individuals live in isolated cells, bombarded by advertisements which they are financially penalized from closing their eyes to. Individuals’ lives consist of using exercise bikes to power television monitors. When they have generated enough power, they can use their credits to audition on a 24/7 American Idol-like reality TV show watched by millions of howling avatars. Of course, this is an absurd future, but the protagonist who has the misfortune of falling in love, has a very difficult time reconciling this emotion which emerges from the reality of his body – very familiar to us in the year 2013 – with the insensitive, hyper-sexualized, parallel earthlings trapped in their vicious hyper-real circles. It’s an episode which years for flesh, bodies and the mystery of proximity.
Episode 3, “An Entire History of You”, offers a glimpse of a world very much like our own, except that people have their entire past stored on a storage chip. Everything they experience through their eyes is recorded onto this chip. Another very familiar emotion, jealousy, is held up to the black mirror, and what emerges is a serious disjuncture. This is a future where once cannot lie, one cannot forget, and one cannot heal. The reason we are able to move on after a difficult chapter in our lives, is because the vividness of experiences fades with time. The Google Glass-style technology ensures that events from the past exist on a timeline parallel with the present. And in this scenario, the familiar mechanisms we use to cope with jealously or infidelity lead to madness. It’s an episode which years for the fleetingness of brain based memory.
By offering these nightmarish technological scenarios, “Black Mirror” reminds us that we may not innately possess the natural balance, sensory ratios, soul, reality principle, etc…, to resist a hegemonic digital future. It puts the onus on us both to shape and adapt our culture, while deciding what is worth saving in our nature.
This review was written for a class I am currently taking at the University of Toronto called Foundations in Digital Communications Strategy & Social Media
“Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.” – Karl Marx, Capital
“A fashionable idea in technical circles is that quantity not only turns into quality at some extreme of scale, but also does so according to principles we already understand. Some of my colleagues think a million, or perhaps a billion, fragmentary insults will eventually yield wisdom that surpasses that of any well-thought-out essay, so long as sophisticated secret statistical algorithms recombine the fragments. I disagree.” – Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget
Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget¸ published back in the pre-historical (by today’s standards) year 2010, offers a welcome return to a humanist critique of media technologies that has been abandoned by critics across the ideological spectrum. In an age that endlessly waxes poetic about social networks, we are apt to ignore the important role that we – individual human beings – play in these networks.
Lanier is both a visionary and a 21st century Renaissance Man. He is a computer scientist known as “the father of virtual reality”, a composer of symphonies and ballets, a visual artist, and an author. Despite being a founder of the virtual revolution, he has turned a critical eye to the achievements of the revolution, and has become a heretic. Notwithstanding this, Lanier is one of the most influential voices in the technology world, and lectures the world over. He maintains an old style personal website, refuses to partake of Web 2.0., and does not have a Facebook account. But despite his heretical status, he is currently partner architect at Microsoft Research.
You Are Not A Gadget is the best kind of criticism, one that emerges out of the belly of the beast, from a disciple turned apostate. The book brings to mind critiques of the Soviet Union by writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Czesław Miłosz, which are of an entirely different order than critiques of the Soviet Union by North American conservative writers. Lanier has on his side the lived experience of having been an architect of the digital revolution.
Lanier argues that the fundamental ideology of the digital revolution – which he calls “Cybernetic Totalism” – is a dangerous failure. Cybernetic Totalism is the belief held by influential technologists that everything in the world can be understood as a cybernetic pattern, even human beings. This has led to the widespread use of metaphors borrowed from computer science being carelessly applied to the rest of reality, and the common belief that information can ‘want’ something (i.e. to be free), as if the bits themselves were real and alive. Cybernetic Totalism, Lanier argues, has been a disaster spiritually by denying the mystery of experience and the specialness of human beings, behaviorally by privileging the anonymous crowd over the individual person, and economically by concentrating control of the internet into a few Lords of the Cloud who live off content produced by the intellectual/cultural middle class. This last concern is the topic of Lanier’s upcoming book Who Owns the Future, which surely develops his observation that “The Facebook Kid and the Cloud Lord are serf and king of the new order”.
Lanier urges the reader to consider what “so called web 2.0. ideas are stinkers”, so we can reject them before they can be “locked in”. We can tell a bad idea, because it engenders technologies that reduce both what a human being is and the variety of the world. His key example is the audio format MIDI which replaced auditory experience with discrete notes on a grid. What happened to musical notes, Lanier writes “could happen soon to the definition of a human being”. Practical suggestions include: encouraging users to put some of themselves into their Tweets, instead of passively describing things; discouraging anonymous posting; creating websites that don’t fit in the dominant social networking templates; posting a video once in a while that took you one hundred times longer to create than it takes to view; and writing blog posts that have taken time and reflection.
What is refreshing about Lanier’s position is that he accuses both the technophile left (the open culture/creative commons crowd) and the technophile right (the libertarian capitalists of Silicon Valley) of being seduced by what he calls “Digital Maoism”. Digital Maoism celebrates hives, swarms, anonymous collectives and crowd mentalities at the expense of individuality. Lanier stakes out a third – humanist – position, accusing both left and right of the Maoist urge to chop individuals up into an anonymous abstract mush.
Lanier attacks the technology world’s most cherished ideals about open culture, creative commons, AI, and file sharing, with an iconoclastic fury that may be overwhelming to some TED-loving readers. But it is an important book for anyone interested in a better direction for the web both theoretically and practically in their daily content production.