Today’s webby world is one unconflicted about commercialization and remarkably unsqueamish about blunt salesmanship—a place where authors blithely tweet their favorable reviews, and acerbic ironists and stand-up comics turn unflinchingly to self-promotion. The closest to “underground” that the new web gets may be Kickstarter, whose funding projects have raked in a collective $354 million since 2009 (all without the taint of crass commercialism). If you draw in thousands of dollars on Kickstarter, you’re an artist with supporters; if you had tried doing the same by contacting your friends directly, just a few years ago, you’d be a mooch and creep. This is the age of privatized sociality—a moment when social life is actually shaped by one’s own market interests.
In the drive to flatten the production of media, to make everyone a publisher, we’ve ended up destabilizing the system we have for surfacing bits of truth. All pictures are the same on Facebook (or other social networks). Fake photo from 2004. Stock photo from 2009. AP photo from last night. Your mom’s friend’s cousin’s flight attendant sister’s friend’s photo. They’re all in the stream, just as likeable. And if one turns out to be fake, well, no one’s career is on the line. No one is responsible for amplifying bad information, and more often than not, it’s impossible to figure out who the original source of it was.
In our mostly correct and psychologically satisfying desire to criticize the mainstream media’s flaws, we sometimes forget how many techniques and procedures they developed over the 20th century that were good.
I have a vision for what happens to us when we carve out the hard human parts of our stories’ subjects. Attached to our scalpel is a bar that connects to a smaller scalpel poised against our own flesh. Like one of Kafka’s machines, every time we slice someone, it slices us in the same place but not quite as deep and so quickly you hardly feel it. This may just be the nature of the journalism mechanism, but I worry most of us don’t even know when we’re bleeding.
To make meaning, especially in literature, requires a bit of rub between the elements. No rub, no friction. No friction, no heat. No heat, no light. No light, no illumination, no seeing, no understanding, no meaning.
It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again.
By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.
The conflation of these different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief.
I’d argue there’s real opportunity in our affinity for nostalgia. Think of Instagram: I’d argue it’s taken off partly because its filters lend an artificial veneer of nostalgia to those in-the-moment digital photos; they instantly make a moment seem more distant or unrecoverable.
It is obvious from our test so far, which spanned a 48-hour period, that there may be an unintended phenomenon of the infusion of social signals into all Google searches: the reduction in visibility in search results of the original article that generated all the discussion in the first place. This may have a counter-balancing effect on the popularity of any article, if in fact it can be demonstrated that the effect is not peculiar to Jon’s situation.
The past several years have seen a gradual awakening on the part of the public that someone, somewhere is always watching them. The choice is to either submit to this control or abandon all forms of communications technology.