Friday, April 22, 2011

Wash, Rinse, Repeat: When Everything is In

Have you also sometimes felt that western culture has been on a wash, rinse and repeat cycle ever since Sade, Sonic Youth and Spandau Ballet ruled the charts. A quarter of a century later, we have nifty new smartphones that can do a gazillion different amazing things, but western culture itself, has been on hold since the Reagan/Thatcher era.

In fact, it would not shock me if a thousand years from now historians framed the entire period from 1980 to 2080 as 'The Eighties'.

Maybe 'on hold' is not the right phrase, because we aren't frozen in time. Rather, with the advent of the Internet combined with nostalgia for the receding century, what's happening now is that the entire past, if it has been recorded in some manner, is suddenly present, and not only accessibly, but  demanding equal space/attention/value with everything else in the media universe.

Whereas once we lived serial lives and our connections limited by channels, now we have access to all channels that ever were resulting in a weird moment when all fashions co-exist, if only on the screen of your mobile phone.

But here's the thing, they don't simply exist on our screens – the screen is a portal, and not only for users seeking information, but for information seeking users.

So what does it feel like to be alive in 2011? It feels like every color is color of the year; every hemline is in; every hit song in the last fifty years is current, and everyone is doing and wearing and tapped into everything.

As my friend Hal Cragin also once observed, "It's like everything is happening at once."

Coincidentally, then Sun Microsystems Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Gregory Papadopoulos has written on his own blog a 2006 entry that's actually titled, 'Everything is Happening at Once'. In that article, he notes: "…the technology constants change rapidly (faster, smaller, cheaper), but the rate of change for organizing principles and architectures are glacial."

These are not competing observations, and in fact, together they identify one reason why we may feel stuck. Information is swirling around us but we haven't actually been sucked into the whirlpool yet, maybe because we don't know where we're going yet. Is that why, with all this new technology, we're not doing much more with it than remixing the past?

Suffice to say, today, everyone has eclectic tastes, if not an original idea.

Trends, as they go, don't necessarily signal the ascent of something new anymore, but rather only something popular, and often even ever more accurately, something returning to popularity.

That's an interesting distinction.

The way we experience trends has changed, too. We don't actually experience them alone, in our bedrooms, isolated from the world; we link to them from the other side of the planet and then share our finds with our friends, wherever they may be, and who may or may not actually be, y'know, actually real friends.

This kind of activity is practical if our main point is research, or if we want to tap in to, or become a hub for a perpetual feed of self identified crowd sourced, niche-defined mass entertainment, and to that extent, we've certainly succeeded. This has been boon times for porn, for instance, and the stuff we call content now has never been in greater demand, but I'm not sure that it's healthy for Art with a capital 'A', though.

Not yet, anyway. We have in our hands new tools. The relative connected few that have access to them have really only wielded them for a few years, not even a decade in most cases. iPhones have only been around since 2007. Professional photographers are still learning how to use Adobe Photoshop with any real aesthetic; professional musicians are often too busy weighing the pros and cons of one digital workstation over another to actually ever master the arts of composing, recording mixing or performing. It doesn't matter if you're fifty with a shelf full of industry awards – we've all been turned into beginners, and that's why twelve year olds represent real competition – because, dammit, give them a bit of HTML or Object Oriented Programming, and they absolutely are (cue nervous laughter and a tall alcoholic beverage here).

So, if the current spate of new technology represents anything, it may be conceived as a networked series of incendiary devices, like a mine field, that once ignited, blows up virtuosos in serial succession by shredding their once giant talents into small, common childlike curiosities for one brand new object after another.


 The image of the cat in the car is from

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