Social media

When I was twelve, I already lived in the world of Web 2.0 – of user-generated content. I used basic social networks, video sharing websites, and spent time on online forums meeting other people who liked hacking Club Penguin. Later, I joined Facebook. By then, the social network had been growing for some time. But it was not yet an all-purpose platform to ‘connect’ everyone, collecting copious quantities of personal data, to process through obscure algorithms, ostensibly for their benefit, with the objective of securing advertising revenue by nurturing compulsive habits. Like most people, I gravitated towards these big social networks. They did and do consume most of the time and energy I spend online.

Over the past decade I have seen the Internet’s potential as a vehicle for meaningful interaction diminish, as digital networks were reworked by developers advancing commercial interests. Instead of fostering specialised and integrated communities, the most used social networks developed highly individuated user profiles and a feedback mechanism which encouraged people into uncomfortably close contact with their constellation of self-representing acquaintances. These features inevitably rendered digital sociality a theatre of vanity and cynicism, and in turn nurtured an industry to produces endless, banal streams of third-party content. As these platforms grew, popular attention focussed on echo-chambers and orchestrated data scouring for targeted political campaigning. I mourn for the time wasted over the last few years scrolling through feeds of misunderstanding strangers, dubious politics, advertising, and click-bait. Dopamine on tap. How to render digital media fit for a desirable social purpose can perhaps only be discovered by the germinating field of Internet studies, should a solution arise which can viably be implemented. Until then, we depend on social media, and are stuck in a purgatory of our own making.

Summer 2019

History horror

The historian’s ultimate sybaritic nightmare has always been the annihilation of memoranda. And thus a twisted allegory was realised. An American military jet travelling to an RAF base in England suffered a catastrophic engine failure, stalled, and violently crashed – detonating, exploding, and fulminating directly upon the National Archives building near Kew Gardens. In the initial eruption, the plane’s fuel tank burst its noxious inferno into the surrounding environ, plexiglass discharge searing shrapnel into concrete, bodies, and paper. Hundreds of tonnes of parchment fanned their own flames and mutinied against the indulgent artifices of their preservation – the air-conditioned, tenebrous antechambers designed to preserve them for posterity. The archive staff and readers who survived were hounded by tabloid journalists as they lived out their existences as shellshocked memorialists, victims of a circumstance so catastrophically unlikely, that it could only ever be categorised as a diabolic aberration.

The brutalist edifice itself was destroyed, not in the instant, but gradually, over the ensuing hours, as residual jet fuel sept into every metal-shredded crevice, smothering, engulfing, and setting aflame all interior furnishing, framing, and cladding. The remaining concrete pile, desiccated and spalled, was afterwards allowed to stand as a piteous cenotaph, the only relic of any significance left standing. The event came to be remembered symbolically. Over time, it stopped commemorating the unthinkable human suffering once endured upon that site. As if to reiterate the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the engine failure stood in bleak testimony to a past which had been lost and, through a titanium chain of consequences, burnt its own vestiges. Until finally – with popular support – it was decided, that the archive had to be rebuilt.

America

As a teenager, Larry Clark and Grand Theft Auto sparked my curiosity about the star-spangled capitalist metropole of Apollo and Hollywood, the king-pin of the post-war west. I developed a vague impression, accumulated from these and other haphazard encounters with mass media, of the entanglement of power, money, and violence that prevailed in the self-proclaimed Land of the Free; closed my eyes, and saw a dream of subtly interwoven images: the immense, glistening towers of its skyline, the hunky-dory Texans who lived for rodeos and gasoline, emceeing Bronx teens, imperialism in the Middle East. American history is taught in higher education through weightier concepts: rivalrous mercantilist empires, borderlands, the puritan ethic, the language of civic republicanism and rights, the Enlightenment and the problem of virtue in a commercial republic, slavery, the developing categories of scientific racism, manifest destiny, civil war, reconstruction, prohibition, the political economy of coal, immigration, segregation, Brown v. Board, and oil wars. Then there’s Wall Street, strip malls, Ellen DeGeneres, Silicon Valley, Kanye West, and Donald Trump. Everything else too. America is the infinite accumulation of a porous yet confined spatial domain, of a baffling array of distributed processes, networks, and structures of authority, control, exchange, and co-operation, and their various institutional expressions of fiscal-military, geo-spatial, techno-imperial, and discursive power, as they have developed through antagonising forces – in a dialectical process over time. It is baffling. And yet it is necessary for the thinking individual to reconcile their formative impressions with what they learn and experience over their adult life. I hope it conveys more humility than hubris to say that I am still working out how to work out America.

(more…)

Warsaw, December 2018