The Digital Deluge

We are drowning in a sea of information. Because of this blog, I am among those at fault. The internet will ultimately destroy history.

This has been said before. It will be said again. And each and every instance will be granted immortality on the internet. By allowing information to exist while only consuming microscopic amounts of space, the internet has essentially removed the selective processes of history. We no longer need to pick and choose what’s important and what’s worth a place in limited number of lines that constitute our history books. Not that written history is a flawless beast, but in the Age of the Internet we’ve replaced the selectively biased accounts of handwritten history with the watered down excess that comes with chronicling every minute event that happens. People and events no longer have to earn their way into history books for records of their existence to be kept; instead, that remembrance is limited only by their degree of willingness to shamelessly self-promote their blog or website. This is, of course, hideously embodied by Twitter, where brilliant musings such as “OMG Hangover was so funy. making a sandwich. txt me!” will live on in the virtual sphere until their untimely demise at the assimilating hands of SkyNet (unless maybe that was John Connor’s tweet, but I digress). In a world where all things are remembered, all things are painfully equal. (Just ask Funes: when every aspect of every experience is remembered in exact detail, how do you think abstractly? When everything is unique, how does one make the generalizations that we, as humans, need?)

Aside from a sweeping concern about history and cultural memory in general, I am more specifically interested in the history and cultural memory of art. As someone who hopes to find a future in the field, I am deeply concerned by art – past and present – and how history holds it. We are able to look back at past civilizations and gain some kind of insight to their societies by means of the tried and true “what the hell survived this long?” test. The answers have always been works that were great in scale (ex. The “Visible From Space” Great Wall of China) or, as is more often the case with art, depth (ex. The Republic). If something survived it was due to some virtue that warranted remembrance. The Great Wall is an enormous monument to a turbulent and dedicated time in one region’s history; it’s physical size alone ensured that it would be remembered. The Republic was one of the most brilliant pieces of political philosophy ever written and because enough people were interested in its subject matter, the work was well-discussed and relied upon by great thinkers throughout the years. What’s going to have been discussed enough during our time on Earth to survive in the distant future? Well, I feel secure in asserting that it won’t be Between the Heart and the Synapse or A Canticle for Leibowitz (a book about historical remembrance, no less) but rather Twilight and ‘…Baby One More Time.’ Great. But this is a product of the ClearChannel-led commercialization of the mass-media rather than the complete degradation of society, right? Well, even if that’s true (and it may not be – more on this in a bit), it doesn’t solve our archaeological quandary.

There are quality works coming into existence today. This, I hope, is a statement for which I don’t have to vehemently argue. Modern technology (read: the internet) has allowed an unprecedented number of artists to release works of brilliance to the public without the support of greedy marketing corporations who would rather pump the Jonas Brothers down 12-year old throats than worry about that most dreaded of three-letter words: art. But while self-production and publication is a growing means of communicating valuable artistic vision (see The Dear Hunter, Thrice, Radiohead) it is also a means for communicating horrific artistic failure because for every one artist that uses this freedom to give the public access to a work of genius and integrity, about 12,000 use it to promote something created hastily and haphazardly in a basement in the hopes of snagging fifteen minutes of ill-advised fame. This isn’t a condemnation of those artists (as you may be aware, I am, in some respects, one of them), in fact, I fully support the ability of anyone to make and share art, but there are repercussions. When looking back on how the internet has affected art, which category – the few visionaries or the millions of hacks – do you think will survive in the memories of our progeny? Hell, forget the people of the future, when you think of art on the internet, which do you think of? I’m guessing that what you’re thinking of is closer to this than to this.

So, what we’re dealing with here is a world where two scenarios can unfold: A) Due to physical remnants (i.e. the huge number of copies of N’Sync albums and Stephanie Meyer books that exist), future generations will assume that we were incompetent fools that bathed in boy bands and pop starlets whilst devouring the mind-shatteringly awful world of sparkling vampires, or B) Due to the overflow of self-published books and self-produced music in the virtual world, future generations will think that art – as a means of social commentary or a dialogue on the human condition – has died and that the term has taken on new meaning as a DIY project that every single person partakes in, leaving a flood of material, none of which is worth remembrance in the least.

I was going to make a joke here about how Western culture has fallen so far that, in the end, works like Twilight and the Jonas Brothers 3-D Concert Experience would actually serve as accurate historical records of our time, but – after some reflection – I couldn’t find any humor in it. Because it’s true. That’s what will be remembered of us, because, for the most part, that’s who we – as members of this culture – have become. Childlike narratives, sugar-coated over-produced melodies, and flashing lights are all that it really takes (and, really, you only need one of those) to enrapture us. As a culture, we lack the ability (or more likely, desire) to hold anything in our mind for more than a few moments; we want everything that we touch – art most certainly included – to be easily digestible and ultimately disposable. We don’t just want instant gratification, we want repeated instant gratification. Any entertainment that demands more of us is frustrating and uncomfortable and, as such, we abandon it as soon as possible in favor of the sweeter and smoother tastes with which we are familiar. I could probably keep going on and on about this cultural psyche and how it will inevitably affect how we as a people are remembered (and I’d sound increasingly jaded and cynical all the while), but no one wins if I do that (and no one enjoys it either), so I’ll try to wrap this thing up.

Art may be marginalized, but it will never die – there’s a reason that horrible cliches like that have always been around. (Though, I have to admit, it seems strange to cite a repetitious cliche as the salvation of individual thought; it invites discussion on all manner of paradoxes concerning what actually has cultural staying power: the vast plains of unquantifiable creative thought, or an easily memorable aphorism, as it is unclear whether that aphorism is serving as a representation of or a substitute for that very vague notion with which we began. Are these two definitions inherently mutually exclusive? Is there a possibility that…I’m sorry, what was I talking about? I seem to have forgotten.)

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