Michiko Kakutani's New York Times article, "Texts Without Context," attempts to pull together a number of loose strands about contemporary culture and technology. Her basic premise is that culture is feeding on its own tail; without creating anything new, we are depending heavily on the materials of the past, using new technologies to copy, paste, and mash together anything and everything for our creative or intellectual purposes.
She also emphasizes that a culture based on "immediacy and real-time responses" means that people are less interested in reading entire books or articles, and more interested in "cutting to the chase." We want the summary, the anecdote, the biased review that appeals to our emotions but pays little attention to context and nuance. Personalized media feeds you the content that matters to you, but this emphasis on the subjective also contributes to the polarization of political views on the web. Everyone is reading what they want to hear.
Kakutani quotes the scholar Susan Jacoby:
Reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet. What we are engaged in--like birds of prey looking for their next meal--is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information.If readers have become birds of prey, media outlets have become even worse by pandering to the whims of impulse-driven audiences. In an effort to get more clicks, websites dole out mindless cat videos to their millions of viewers, or "gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes." Editors, writers, and artists have the benefit of mass feedback provided by interactive media, polls, and fan bulletin boards, and are therefore more likely to give their audiences what they "want or expect."
Cyberculture has a decidedly adolescent character in Kakutani's view, perpetuating "a Peter Pan fantasy of being an entitled child forever, without the responsibilities of adulthood."
Her main attack, however, deals with what she sees as vapid cultural production in the form of "parodies, homages, variations, pastiches, collages and others forms of appropriation art." The vast majority of this user-created media, according to Kakutani, is lazy, mediocre, and suffering from what Jaron Lanier, author of the book, You Are Not a Gadget, calls "nostalgic malaise."
Online culture is dominated by trivial mash-ups of the culture that existed before the onset of mash-ups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action . . . Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.In essence, the mash-ups, remixes, parodies, and re-appropriations are more valued than the original sources, and so we face a culture of texts without contexts, a sort of floating, pseudo-world, where beliefs are privileged over facts, subjective reactions over objective research, and online collectivisim over measured criticism.
I'm summarizing these viewpoints because I believe they are valid and persuasive. The metrics of the web are the second and the minute, and not the hour and the half hour, as it once was for television. The majority of content on the web, unfortunately, reflects this new metric. The superabundance of content, along with the many non-linear pathways to accessing content, removes the notion of the passive subject in relation to culture. Now we must actively forage for our reading material, design the ways in which we want to receive our content, and even respond to the news that is served. We are all filters to the hundreds of webpages that are put in front of our faces every day.
On the one hand, it may be argued (as Kakutani argues), that the democratization of cultural production leads to a diminishment in quality. The mass section of the web that Kakutani criticizes is much like the majority of television programming: it appeals to the lowest common denominator. This is only to be expected when websites and media outlets are trying to raise advertising dollars by higher and higher numbers.
Similarly, it may be argued, that where more people are creating content, as on the web, a vast amount of that content will naively reflect trends in popular culture, appear superficial or juvenile, and lack critical or artistic merit.
I believe that Lanier and Kakutani are focused on a certain part of the vast topography of the web. If they were immersed in the content production side of the web, they would see it from a different angle entirely. As Clay Shirky notes in his book, Here Comes Everybody, users play different roles in online culture. Some users read blog posts and don't comment on them, some users comment on blogs but don't have blogs themselves, and yet others actively maintain blogs and produce content.
There is not only re-action on the web. In truth, the web is driven by the very opposite. Internet startups, online publishing hubs, and countless websites are all actively architecting the virtual world. Every person who creates a blog and publishes their own content is actively creating something on the web.
In my view, the proliferation of mashups and re-appropriated art is culture's response to superabundance. While it's true that many pop-culture mashups re-use materials from only a decade ago, the bigger picture is that our culture is swimming in the materials of over 2000 years of history.
This is not merely a case of "nostalgic malaise." Digital culture inundates us with what is essentially our past, and not only the past, but many versions of the past, stretching from yesterday's news, to the beginning of time.
Technology also puts us in the paradoxical position of looking forward, anticipating what's next, while we are faced with a flood of what came before. The cultural production that arises from this unique combination is forever at the helm of re-interpretation. All you will find now are "translations," without the original source, or perhaps a slim, watered-down version of the original source.
Self-publishing heralds a culture of active culture-producers. Everyone can produce culture, and that implies that each of us must interpret, and actively understand the world around us. The world is no longer a fixed place, held up by the artificial supports of newspapers and magazines. We are actively cobbling together the world now, from endless fragments, webpages, points of view, and utterances.
In one month, I am exposed to more aspects of culture on the web than I was exposed to in four years of college. The confluence of social networking and exchange, active content production, and research using search engines, makes what I learned in college look parochial.
I'm the editor of an online journal. I'm constantly reading articles that discuss wide-ranging aspects of art and culture, and then I make editorial judgments about the material, and prepare it for a large readership. In short, I'm doing something with the information on the web, and so is nearly everyone else, for the first time in history. We are not just "readers" anymore. We must act, interpret, judge, and discriminate.
Art has always relied on inter-textuality, but in our era we see something else, something more extreme. The individual is primarily relating to texts by showing ownership of them. User-generated media facilitates this process of ownership. By taking images that seem beautiful or funny, passages from books that stimulate the mind, or holding discussions about the issues that matter to a person, each individual is actively working to produce his or her own cultural landscape.
If the result of this kind of cultural production seems to only involve the self as it relates to the world, rather than the other way around, then I see this new culture as a boon, even with all of the drawbacks associated.