Nanostories and the Hyper-massification of Culture
There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred. There is no culture where economic relations are not subject to a regulating principle to protect interests involved. There is no culture where aesthetic controversy does not recognize the necessity of justifying the work of art. When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. –Ortega y Gasset
For a while now, I’ve been wondering about the consequences of our the Internet’s sheer multiplication of narratives and the radical democratization of cultural production that the web, along with powerful and ever-cheaper technology, has engendered. What are the consequences for culture if everyone, potentially, can produce it? I can record high-quality music on my computer at home, just like millions of other would-be musicians, then distribute it around the globe through MySpace or a host of other sites–or distribute it on my own website, like the amazing band Deep Sea Summit. I can produce videos and send them to YouTube and, with a great deal of self-promotion and luck, reach an audience of millions. I can blog forever, alongside the legions of fellow bloggers. Yet the curmudgeon in me wonders whether the millions of bloggers in the world working on millions of laptops will ever produce a Hamlet. Or if a Citizen Kane could appear from the ashes of so many YouTube shorts. Or if a Goldberg Variations could be assembled from the collective effort of MySpace bands. Or if Wikipedia could ever be as all-encompassing as St. Isidore’s Etymologies or Pliny the Elder’s Natural History–it’s certainly as flawed.
Early in the 20th century, Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher, took a critical look at what termed the “revolt of the masses,” whose new-found access to culture and political influence he saw as a threat. His words from 1930 strike me as particularly prescient today, although he had no way of seeing the full extent of the massification of culture or politics:
The command over the public life exercised today by the intellectually vulgar is perhaps the factor of the present situation which is most novel, least assimilable to anything in the past. At least in European history up to the present, the vulgar had never believed itself to have “ideas” on things. It had beliefs, traditions, experiences, proverbs, mental habits, but it never imagine itself in possession of theoretical opinions on what things are or ought to be. To-day, on the other hand, the average man has the most mathematical “ideas” on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence he has lost the use of his hearing. Why should he listen if he has within him all that is necessary? There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which he does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing his “opinions.”
Reading this now, I’m reminded of all of the Election 2008 rumors that spread in blatant disregard to facts. There was this sense that truth and fact-checking didn’t matter and and that people would always find a way to doubt. Moreover, the sheer amount of miniature stories (Hillary’s six-shooter comment, Palin’s bridge to nowhere, Obama’s birth certificate, Jon Edwards’ $200 haircut, ad nauseam) demonstrates well the natural progression of the massification of culture and politics Ortega decried and the internet’s effect on them. While there was some honest debate over real issues like healthcare and the economy, I remember Election 2008 as a media blitzkrieg of miniature “stories” whose frenetic pace was fueled by 24-hour news networks, frantic blogging, and freakish journalism. These narratives have found a particularly apt analyst in Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s, whose book, And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, was published recently.
Wasik defines these mini-narratives or catchy cultural phenomena as “nanostories,” which represent “miniature spikes, these vertiginous rises and falls” on a graph of their interest. Think of viral YouTube successes of the past: lonelygrl, Chocolate Rain, Nuba Nuba boy, Tronguy, etc. A nanostory “cannot bear the weight of what he have heaped upon it” and “dies as suddenly as it was born.” Wasik rightfully disagrees with the term “fads” as this suggests “the media-unsavvy consumer of an earlier era, while underestimating the extent to which our enthusiasms today are entirely knowing, postironic, aware.” In contrast to consumers of the past, today consumers “are so acutely aware of how media narratives themselves operate, and of how their own behavior fits into these narratives, that their awareness feeds back almost immediately into their consumption itself.” What this means is that now, to an even greater extent than before, we are conscious and create our own culture to a point that its half life can be measured in days, if not hours. We have learned to market our own creations, become our own salespeople. “Rather than destroying the idols of mass culture,” Wasik notes, “we are merely melting them down to forge a million pocket-sized replicas.” How would a latter-day Shakespeare begin his career today? Some well-worded Tweets or choice Facebook status updates? WordPress? One wonders.
While the short life of nanostories can be liberating, in a sense, Wasik sees the funereal consequences for culture as well:
When herded together, the extent to which [nanostories] have overrun our culture becomes clear. We love our nanostories, their birth and death thrill us, and yet we know that they are devouring us. We want reason in our politics, greatness in our art, and we see that these are incompatible with our feckless, churning conversation. We must learn how to neuter our nanostories, or at least to cut off their food supply…As our online culture is built, more and more, on short-lived sensations, this in turn changes how we make culture…Together we are engineering a meme-making machine, which hour by hour entertains and even enriches us as its ultimate effects on our culture remain unclear.
So are there any solutions to the rampant rise of nanostories as cultural expression extraordinaire? Wasik envisions a model of sustainable culture, just as others have done with industry and farming:
We can no longer believe that our informational context is an infinite, incorruptible resource, a wellspring we can take for granted, an ecosystem we can never permanently pollute. But neither can we stop living within our data streams, shaping them and using them in our daily lives. So we must discover more sustainable approaches to information, to novelty, to storytelling. We cannot unplug the machine, nor would we want to; but we must rewire it to serve us, rather than the other way around. And for that, we must learn how to partially unplug ourselves.
Wasik may not be as much of a curmudgeon as Ortega y Gasset, but they share some key similarities: concern over the (hyper-)massification of culture and interest in the media’s effect on politics and consciousness. At a recent orchestra concert, I realized that Ortega y Gasset’s nightmare had come true: the program had one new piece–essentially a treacly piece of film music called “Rainbow Body”–and some orchestral “standards”: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Mozart, and a healthy, patriotic dose of Sousa. The audience was even able to text votes in for the Sousa piece to be played as the encore–as if the audience had not already determined the kind of music that was going to be performed. This was “high” culture catering sedulously to the masses in the grossest fashion, in a sense playing the “greatest hits” of classical music–or should I say muzak?
Wasik’s book is a useful read for anyone wondering about the current state of internet culture, but I’m interested even more in the future–if the speed of nanostories were to accelerate, for example, what would happen? Would news happen by the hour? Minute? In this sense, Twitter’s “trending topics,” which are updated in real time, might give us one clue. But I also wonder if “turning ourselves off” for a few hours a day might lead to a backlash against nanostories–refusing to read the latest Britney Spears expose or healthcare reform protester lunacy. Have we wrought our own cultural doom with the Internet, or is it our salvation?
What do you think?