Saturday, January 18, 2014

The perpetual now and the authority of everyone

A while back on the blog I came up with, or at least thought I came up with, the term instant nostalgia, in an attempt to describe the phenomenon of the more than 10,000 versions of cover songs uploaded daily to YouTube, most of which are contemporary hit songs. Remember when cover songs used to equal oldies, or classic rock? Remember when we thought of time as marching forward, with a generally common understanding that history meant something that had happened at least, say, five years ago? Well apparently no more. History now equals five minutes ago, if not five seconds ago. It's partly the technologies, but it's partly us. Yes, there are billions of camera-equipped mobile phones on the planet. And applications such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat, the latter which erases history almost as quickly as it ordains it, making photos available for a matter of seconds before disappearing forever (security breaches notwithstanding, of course). This perpetual now, it turns out, is more appealing to us than any past or future. Probably because it is the mediated equivalent of crack cocaine, spurring the release of feel good brain chemicals and keeping us encsonced in the loop of the action itself. Interruptions take the place of sequence. Interruptions become the flow.

Earlier this week my friend and research colleague Elizabeth Watkins sent around an email announcing the publication of her article on 'hyperhistory'. It's the idea that in our current environment of digital, networked, ubiquitous information, concepts such as 'narrative', 'history', 'memory', and 'authority' get a serious shake up. Using YouTube as an example Elizabeth concludes that " entirely new now is made possible through billions of individual view counts, [opening] the doorway for innovative shapes of history to be drawn." She continues: "Without a structure of regulation, chaos would render this tidal wave tough to navigate. Who decides how YouTube people read and sift through YouTube videos?...In broadcast media, editorial control is concentrated among editors, producers, and stakeholders...These authorities use popular stories to create a narrative arc, embedded with ideology and the concerns of capital, and then distribute them through products like periodicals and broadcast news...Online, however, the process of editorial influence and audience is decentralized and dispersed back to the community of users."

Aaron Smith, another friend and research colleague (I know what you're thinking....these people are really not spending enough time watching reality TV) sent me some of his thoughts on Elizabeth's piece. I thought to myself, why not take one person's musings and throw them up on the blog, as a kind of on-ramp for a discussion of these points. With his permission I'm sharing those comments here, and hope that you, the interested and interesting reader, will pipe up with some comments and opinions as well.

Aaron wrote:

"Everything today is about the right now to the point where even our history is created in the now. That was the major point from your piece I hadn't thought about. History is being written without the space to reflect, to process, to contextualize. But I believe that space is important - that space between "memory and history" Why? Because equally important to what is remembered is what is forgotten. And even with "distributed authorship", structures of power and control shape collective memory (and collective forgetting) in ways that seem like the democratized voice of the people but in reality are not.

Without a voice of authority to filter the material of memory into a vehicle of shared cultural identity, then to whom does the task of organization fall? The users. Yes and no, right? Most users aren't scouring YouTube for content (I don't think) - they're finding videos from content aggregators or from their friends. Those content aggregators have their own ideologies - i.e. Huffington Post vs. Daily Beast - and those in turn shape who views them.

Likewise, I think users generally hold a bias towards videos that are more shareable than others - i.e. things that will be popular with their friends. And often times YouTube messages get spread based on an existing infrastructure. Invisible Children had a massive built-in network of social activists to distribute the Kony 2012 video, making it much easier for the campaign to go viral. So I would argue this is not a fully democratic process where every YouTube video has an equal chance to join our collective memory. The process of constructing hyperhistory is contingent upon the conditions for certain videos to spread and unlike television and broadcast media, those conditions vary immensely.

That's where your work in the economics of attention comes in. Also, how does Reddit compare with YouTube in terms of hyperhistory? I would say it's more democratic in terms of what popular content is shown, but harder to search through the archives and find things no longer relevant. At one point, you liken Wikipedia to YouTube. This is an interesting comparison. I think Wikipedia is designed with the goal of creating a collective memory, a written hyperhistory. YouTube doesn't feel the same way to me. There is not much care about getting things right or about accuracy or about deciding what's in and what's out on a debate page. Instead, everything gets to be included but not everything gets to be important. There is no public debate about what is worthy of YouTube's front page or what should be featured in YouTube's algorithm. That is decided for us. Should we have a place that handles such matters? A place where users can even discuss what videos should be representative of our history?

In addition to not having a say in shaping YouTube's filtering process, here's another issue: when the act of participation is a function of "viewing" a video, the credentials of the person viewing are rendered useless. The "vote" has no substance to it. Views - even at aggregate scale -- grant something popular, not something important. YouTube seems to be "self-regulating" towards music videos, ironic videos, and cute cats - that's what is most popular. What happens to “alternative” histories now - pieces of histories that may not be popular enough to be viewed a million times? Are the videos that receive the most views and "likes" representative of our history? What say do oppressed people -- people without access to the Internet or without the literacy to produce videos -- have in the production of hyperhistory?

I think there are still boundaries on YouTube, as with other places on the web, defined by "geography, ideology, and capital." Arguably they matter more than ever, since countries have different sensitivities, governments different regulations, and YouTube has an incentive to personalize based on your location. Given these boundaries, can we trust these privatized tools alone to pave the way for new models of historiography or should the public develop platforms where the very process of inclusion and exclusion is under constant debate, just like the production of our cultural history and memory has been for thousands of years."

Ed. Note: If you're interested in further pondering the concept of 'now-ism', here's a 2013 interview on the topic with Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock.


  1. bill m (via Facebook) I read stuff like Aaron Smith and am reminded of my belief that in terms of information, we're in an emergency situation right now and have been for decades. Not emergency as in WE'RE-ALL-GONNA-DIE, but more along the lines of, stuff is happening so fast, there is no stability. Or any stable ground you do find is illusive. You get comfortable and suddenly you realize you're on a tiny, isolated island and the zeitgeist is miles away. But this is hardly a new situation. It's what Marshall McLuhan and all were on about as far back as the early 60s. At some point, if you want to remain remotely relevant, you have to embrace the confusion and figure out how to trust your instincts and (most important) the instincts of your network -- their training and their skills of perception. I mean, I have 200 odd Facebook friends. We can't ALL be wrong, can we?

  2. This makes me wonder about the limits and use(fulness) of the word "contemporary" within "contemporary art."

    1. good point; something needed to replace 'modern' when it became too old to be modern (don't you hate it when that happens) so perhaps now you need to come up with something to replace contemporary, thus carving out your place in art history. tks for the read and the comment!