“France in XXI Century. School” by Jean Marc Cote (if 1901) or Villemard (if 1910)
Pageviews are the Bitcoin of the realm. Enmeshed in an ostensibly utopian vision promising that newer technologies are ipso facto passports to liberation, the compulsion to monetize that which is generated under the rubric of “content” outstrips all other imperatives in the increasingly digital vestibules of culture.
In days past, the worst of an industry like the newspapers saw yellow journalism built on a foundation of hearsay, half-truths, and sensationalism—all in the service of daily sales—which, at the very least, required the construction of some sort of quarter-baked, likely mendacious, narrative in order to fulfill the implicit contract with the reader and ensure his return the next day. Today, the best of an industry like the newspapers is primarily concerned with brokering a deal that promises the constant supply of the partially glimmering embers of the just-occurred in return for the reader’s commitment to return—and “share”—multiple times a day.
But this rush to generate content is not limited to the newspapers who, in any case, under compulsion have already, like Richard II, abdicated their formerly decadent reigns in order to transform into something else far more mean and meager. And the creation of content under these circumstances primarily leads to a situation in which the creator is assembling a series of rapidly chosen selections in the interests of advancing the treadmill upon which the reader marks time in one domain over another, and so temporarily validates one monetization gimmick over another.
The fetishizations of informality, truncated video loops, and the hyperlink are all part and parcel of the constraints under which digital content is created as it seeks to optimize its potential for monetization. In turn, the creator’s role is transformed from one of investigator and arbiter of meaning to one of administrator and aggregator of the pre-existing, ephemeral, and inconsequent. (“Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!”)
Consider a specious practice now in wide circulation among online writers wherein a hyperlink to another text stands in for a summary of a term used, description of an event, historical contextualization, or detailing of a current debate. When an author in a digital text links to source material instead of finding the words himself, he relegates himself to aggregator and assembler of the pre-fabricated.
This passive gathering laced with commentary does violence to the very notion that the reader should have come to the author for edification in the first place. This is nakedly an advent of the logic of digital writing under the pressures of commercial culture: Why summarize another essay when your audience can go read it for themselves? And anyway, isn’t one author doing another a favor by “driving traffic” to the other’s site?
But now an interruption has been scripted into the reader’s experience as the sheer amount of ideas and text involved in completing the author’s line of thinking (such as it is) has multiplied. And unlike the tangents in prose practiced by authors in print, this digital extension of the text (such as it is) foists more cognitive, logistical, and forensic work upon the reader while demanding far less from the author.
This practice also reveals the rather deplorable, amateur-research process for much digital writing, thrown together as it may be with quickly executed Google searches, in a furious attempt to keep up the flow of content and stay relevant in evanescent discourse focused on ephemera. This practice might be defended by comparing it to the academic’s citation, but this fails to understand that the academic utilizes the citation as a way to back up a point that has to some extent already been proffered in the text at hand. The citation is more a way to substantiate a claim than it is a way to leave it to the reader to construct your point for you.
The ideology of the “social,” with its stress on sharing, self-expression, and identity construction within a format that simultaneously makes chronology an obsession and wholly discounts the past, captures this practice perfectly and has normalized a device otherwise fundamentally alien to the intentions of a print author.
As digital culture under commercial pressures swallows more and more of print culture, and inflects more and more of culture writ large, it is worth considering the way in which it undermines the work that has traditionally been associated with culture. As one of the co-authors of this text has written on these pages:
The richness of the Self is a reflection of the richness of its cultural context. Very generally it is assumed that culture perennially refreshes and replenishes itself and will inform creativity in its denizens. This is an error that the modern finance-based paradigm of innovation-engineering is unconsciously and tortuously making patent.
The finance-based paradigm of culture is not entirely new, but the technical sophistication with which it is paired with the modeling away of risk has provided this paradigm with a power it could not so much as imagine back in the days of rudimentary audience surveys at Hollywood test screenings and measurements of audience size through the Nielsen ratings system.
The evaluation of audience desires, and the creation of content to meet those desires, has increasingly been ceded to machines and their algorithms. This has been done in an attempt to sand down some of the rough, unpredictable edges that in the past would nonetheless appear under the regime of commercial culture. Few cultural projects are now undertaken without seeking to model away all of the risk involved using the tools afforded by algorithms and the ability to quickly survey a large audience. Amazon.com famously sought feedback from it expansive customer base on single episode instances of fourteen candidates for production as online series. According to the Los Angeles Times, Amazon measured this feedback according to “number of streams, how many people watched the entire episode and audience ratings and reviews.” Two shows were chosen for production based on this rapid response, while the remaining twelve were left to pick up the pieces as algorithmic also-rans. One entry known as Zombieland fell short by averaging just “3.7 out of 5 stars based on over 5,000 reviews,” and the show’s co-creator afterwards took to a social media platform to decry the failure of would-be enthusiasts to get behind what should have been the surest of sure things (an online series about zombies based on a commercially successful film of the same name): “I’ll never understand the vehement hate the pilot received from die-hard Zombieland fans. You guys successfully hated it out of existence.” While it may be difficult to muster much sympathy for this particular expression of self pity, it is worth noting that past initial instances of eventually wildly commercially successful pulp (or worse) television series did not garner responses that matched the peaks they would go on to realize (one thinks of Miami Vice in the 1980s and Seinfeld in the 1990s).
Producers of devices for the reading of so-called “e-books,” like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, have also begun measuring aspects of reading process (such as the amount of time readers take with a text, the passages they highlight, how quickly they return to a book after putting it down) in order to glean insight into how authors can optimize the process of creation to better serve the perceived immediate desires of their customer base. In 2012, Barnes and Noble’s Vice President of eBooks, Jim Hilt, told the Wall Street Journal, “If we can help authors create even better books than they create today, it’s a win for everybody.”
One even thinks of so-called “crowdfunding,” the darling of putatively “independent” projects, which seeks to “crowd-source” a sort of pre-approval process into the development of a project before its creators expose themselves to risk. “The worst we can do is break even” becomes the baseline of risk, whereas in the past breaking even on cultural innovation would have often been regarded as an incredible victory. But innovation is not what these independents seek. Instead, they are after ratification as overlooked comers—affirmation that their version of more of the same can be financially viable too.
But all art results in loss. In the economic sense, calculation of risk is anathema to the very essence of the creative act. Perhaps this is one of its singular differences with entertainment. So the algorithmic pre-regulation of cultural output has for the most part registered most notably among popular media as shown above. However, highly trained artists, who long ago abandoned the notion of studio-based, medium-specific, skilled existences, are increasingly drawn to the free market of public opinion. If this hasn’t yet fully manifested itself in forms of patronage, very often artists who work with digital media ape the confines of their commercial equivalents. Much of the so-called Post-Internet discourse hinges on this very revelation: that artists pay attention to the reception of the work at its initial birth into digital media, as opposed to the outdated legacy network which it used to travel: from studio, to gallery audience, to collector (private or institutional), with nodes of discourse attaching to one or more of these stops along the way. The artist’s inspiration, or their contributions to the “imaginative life”—which for Roger Fry was characterized by being controlled from within, defined by its “freedom from necessary external conditions”—is denuded of its former agency. However, this process is not initiated by some autonomous progressive enhancement or liberation, but by the increasing degree to which profit-seeking algorithmic platforms become the intermediaries in everyday reception of aesthetic appraisals. Fry contrasted his Imaginative Life with the Actual Life, wherein our vision was highly pre-determined—“the person only reads the labels as it were on the objects around him and troubles no further.” For Fry, a crucial aspect of aesthetics occurred “only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen.” More than just updated Kantian notions of aesthetics, Fry’s framework serves to ground our current state of “filter bubble” wherein each work is born directly into a logical flow dictated by the proprietors of digital networks, now the masters of discourse, patronage, and publication.
The Postwar academic anabasis against Modernist conceptions of authorship finds (ironic) common cause with the above technologically facilitated market-driven impulses: in one rendition, primacy of the singular author is deemed tantamount to endorsement of dictatorship. “Great Man” theories are rebuked. ”Great Works,” an increasingly nettlesome category, are deemed manifestations of social energies and material realities (for example, Shakespeare was born in the right place at the right time). So “things made by groups” (or immediately ratified by groups) are inherently better (an inversion just as fatuous as “things made by one person” are inherently good).
Our era’s finely tuned, Netflixed melange of disembodied artists and consumers promises nothing more so much as less. It is not difficult to imagine a final stage organized according to a risk-averse platform that negates everything that Roger Fry spoke of when he outlined the “imaginative life.” Creative and intellectual chimeras form and petrify with bodies that are monstrously boring, callow, puerile, and stultifying. Similarly, as Theodor Adorno noted about “regressive listening” in music, apparently innovative techniques are “not so much developed…as conformistically dulled.”
The complicity of the consumer in his own debasement is wholly on display in this state of affairs. New cultural mechanics simultaneously promise to reward our participation (“because you wanted it, we made it!”) and threaten us if we opt out (“we don’t want to make things that you don’t want to do, but how do we know what you want if you don’t participate?”). In the end, consumers are enjoined to do more work to create less substantial works that profit concentrations of capital in which they have no stake. What is noteworthy is how gladly this is done. Modern individuals in their newly forming cultural milieu have become less participants in a world-historical consideration of life’s meanings and more perpetual contestants on a nonexistent game show whose winners receive no actual prizes.
Michael Pepi writes about aesthetics, theory, and criticism, with a special interest in cultural criticism, big data, and ideologies surrounding digital technology. His work has appeared in frieze magazine, Flash Art, The New Inquiry, Artwrit, Art in America, this is tomorrow, The Muse Room (the blog of Apollo Magazine), Big Red & Shiny, The Brooklyn Rail, Rhizome, and The New Criterion. His essay “Digital Proletariat: The Spectacle of the ‘Internet’ and Labor’s Dispossession” appeared in our summer2013 issue.
William O’Hara is a writer living in Los Angeles. His essay “The War on Contingency or The Outsourcing of Commerce to the Consumer”appeared in our fall2011 issue. Another essay, “Insistent Replay,” appeared in our fall2008 issue. His poetry appeared in our spring2008 issue.