I recently caught up with a former Cambridge University lecturer of mine, David Trotter. As well as being an extremely inspiring teacher, David is an expert on literature and cinema between the world wars, and has a particular interest in the social effects of communication technology. It was fascinating chatting to David – we're looking at the same thing through different lenses and there's clearly so much to be gained, on both sides, from these kind of exchanges. Read on for the surprising origins of social media, what really happens when tech goes head-to-head with nature, and more.
LJ> David, you research and teach the history of literature, film, and other media at the University of Cambridge. What light does your work throw on the dramatic changes in communications technologies in recent years? In particular, how should we understand the shift of emphasis in new social media from elite and aspirational to ubiquitous, disposable?
DT> Here's the headline statistic: 60 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. Google so badly want you to show how revolutionary this is that they've created a minisite to help you do the maths.
We also know that YouTube streams 4 billion online videos every day, a 25 percent increase over the past eight months. But the really interesting bit is where the stuff comes from: that 60 hours of video uploaded very minute. It comes from everywhere: from (almost) anyone. And that is new, or new-ish.
Hollywood, a communications industry so successful that between 1930 and 1960 it more or less remade the world in its own image, systematically withheld or regulated the release of creative content in order to increase its commercial and cultural value. Scarcity was the industry's founding principle. Now it's possible to identify creative content all over the place - wherever there's a smartphone with a cute creature or a celebrity gaffe in front of it.
YouTube's problem is what to do about, or what to do with, abundance. And they're not alone. All our futures depend on the transition from an entertainment culture to an information culture: from a universe in which Quality is king to a universe in which Quantity rules (democratically?). Has such a shift of emphasis from elite-aspirational to ubiquitous-disposable ever happened before? Not on a comparable scale. Has something like it ever happened before? Yes, of course.
LJ> Is there a sense in which this democratisation of content is reducing humans to something less like people, and more like signals -- things to be understood in terms of their efficacy in certain situations? When you came to our office we were particularly interested in the way you described travellers as message-like: packages of data that are 'checked in' at one end of a journey and 'checked out' at the other, as though people already teleport all the time. Is this a product of the movement towards digital, or is there a precedent of this sort of dehumanisation, in history? And does 'naturalism' present the counterpoint to this phenomenon?
DT> As always, Leila, the only answer you'll get from me is 'yes and no'! Something like what we're experiencing now has happened before; just not on the same scale. The idea of social media is an old one.
I've contrasted YouTube's overabundance with the scarcity engineered by studio era Hollywood. But cinema began, in 1895, as a social medium. Its most popular product, in the very early years, was the short 'actuality' or chunk of everyday life. In those days, the camera was also a projector. In the UK, film companies toured the industrial regions, setting up outside factory-gates and letting the cameras roll as workers poured out at the end of a shift. The participants, who miss no opportunity to smile, wave, and generally gurn at the camera, could be relied upon to turn up the next day to watch themselves and their families and friends projected onto the screen in a music-hall or a fairground booth. Crowds leaving church were almost as popular among film-makers as crowds leaving factories, and for the same reason: they constituted both subject and audience.
The closest equivalent today is perhaps flash mobbing, with the smartphone as camera-projector. The flash mob is a crowd summoned by text-message to perform in public (which could mean making a call) for the benefit of a battery of cameras. Like those crowds leaving factories and churches, it is of course by now a phenomenon thoroughly commercialized.
So there was democracy of content in cinema, for a while, Quantity not Quality, the ubiquitous-disposable: and then came Hollywood. Media take the shape of the uses we discover for them. But you're right, all the same, to think that there might be dehumanizing consequences to the sheer scale of the democratization brought about by digital revolution.
One way to measure this would be to assess the extent to which activities we always supposed to be concrete (too concrete!) have been reconfigured as virtual. Activities like transit. For centuries, the term 'communication' referred equally to the movement of people and goods and to the movement of information. The second meaning has increasingly supervened on the first.
John Ruskin said that railway travel had turned people into parcels. Now we're no longer even parcels; we're packages of data. Airlines no longer merely transport us from place to place. They signal us, as well, by means of passenger tracking and e-Borders systems. It always amuses me that the UK e-Borders pilot scheme was named 'Project Semaphore', in honour of a pre-electronic telecommunications network. All this started to happen some time ago. Has it de-humanized us? People now increasingly fill transit's 'dead time' by sending and receiving messages of one kind or another. In the process, they create new techno-social spaces and protocols.
And it's not just behaviour that changes, but our sense of what we owe, morally and emotionally, to ourselves and to other people. For example, it's no longer possible to 'be late' for an appointment or rendezvous, in so far as being late involves keeping someone else in ignorance, and therefore, perhaps, in anxiety. We cancel the moral and emotional burden of lateness by phoning or texting ahead.
So there may be kinds of counterpoint, as well as compliance, built into the new spaces and protocols. Human beings have become messages which send and receive messages. And that's not all bad. But what will give shape, and colour, and effectiveness, to the counterpoint? It's not by accident, I think, that flash mobs ('authentic' or not) have targeted railway stations and airports. Introduce a little random physical disturbance into the routine flow of people and goods, and you might just upset global capitalism's Project Semaphore. For a moment.
LJ> Cinema as initially social, with an audience/subject equivalence, is fascinating and of course makes me think of Twitter, which has the same appeal. As soon as a medium's theatrical boundaries are established, people seem to be excited by the idea of doing without them.
The increasingly commonplace and ethereal character of technology allows it to fill every gap – as you say, behaviours are inevitably changed by the equipment that intercepts the face-to-face (even voice-to-voice) rawness.
There are two related gaps referenced in your reply, I think, to do with time and space. The social spaces generated by our devices excuse or displace waiting, and assuage the implications of silence we had to have endure in the past. Then there's the negative space that transport abandons us to: the non-machine space, rejected by machines but not humanised – time on trains or sitting in traffic. Time spent standing, waiting on platforms because that's literally the only option.
Public transport understands humans in terms of their physical aspect: form, likely movements, etc – and human messiness sprawls through this formalism like weeds out of pavement cracks. The phone booth detritus that you write about is part of this resistance, and I think the mobile technology that gives us cameras and games in our pocket all the time forms part of it, too: we mobilise tech, it doesn't mobilise us. Now everything around us is a personalisable 'phone booth' – with wireless devices on our person, we never have to be where we are.
So is mobile technology saving us from the reductive forces of transportation? It seems to me that mobile is topping and tailing the experience. Maybe we are trapped in phone booths of our own making! We can return the wit and unpredictability of human behaviour back into dead time through theatre, but in the end, we'll still want to film and share it (and play with the distinction between performer and audience). It's hard to imagine making without sharing now, and it's difficult to think what sharing might mean without pouring our work through a digital interface.
DT> It's not possible to overestimate capitalism's ambition to fill every gap in transit and other systems technologically. Tesco Homeplus noticed that lots of South Koreans commute, and that lots of them own smartphones. So they built virtual grocery stores on the walls of subway platforms in Seoul. The image of each product on each 'shelf' has a unique barcode which you scan with your smartphone in order to create a virtual shopping-basket. The actual groceries are delivered when you get home.
This is the digital interface at work. The Tesco app has become the no. 1 shopping app in South Korea, with over 900,000 downloads since it was launched last April. The app converts waiting time seamlessly into shopping time.
But transit is never in fact seamless. What we experience during it, as you point out, is negative space, negative time. Or, to put it differently, hostile space, hostile time. Transit systems reduce people to objects or messages in order to get them from one place to another as rapidly as possible, with a minimum of interruption. But they have not yet managed to expel the human (that is, 'nature', the pavement weeds you mention) completely.
The raw nature, human or otherwise, which takes shape in the relatively little time and space the machine has not yet cooked, may well strike us as altogether too natural (too humanly natural) for comfort. It may provoke fear, or nausea. Who doesn't remember wandering down a subway platform to kill time, only suddenly to enter into the pocket of stench, in a recess or behind a bench, in which a homeless person has spent the day, killing time on a grander scale? In theory, tech (or policing) could sort that, too. In practice, it won't. There's too much nature left over, in a raw state, even when and where the digital interface has been most busily at work.
But there are ways to understand that remnant, and the fear and loathing it will continue to provoke. Naturalism, for example, which you mentioned in an earlier question. Naturalism, a movement in literature and the arts, arose in the 1870s out of industrialization's triumph in the West. Industrialization was the most significant world event ever, bar none. It represented, as we've often been told, the triumph of machine over man, of Culture over Nature. Any Nature surviving Culture's triumph will itself have been shaped by that triumph. That is, Nature was traditionally understood to come first, and Culture second. From the middle of the nineteenth century, however, Nature has come second. The raw is now only ever an effect of cooking. Naturalism is a way to think about the Nature which remains after Culture: the pavement weeds, the pocket of stench. It deals with the inextinguishable nauseous remnant. It wants to know the human, again, and yet more vividly, as that which the machine hasn't quite managed to get rid of.
We (that is, increasing numbers of us) now exist in a hyper-Culture immeasurably enhanced by electronic technologies whose main product is the virtual realm. The same process applies. The hyper-Nature lurking in the recesses which information systems have not yet flushed out properly turns out to have its own, even more nauseous stench. Naturalism, again, is our canary down the mine.
The great Naturalist work of the last ten years or so is The Wire. Season Two is set in the Baltimore docks: a highly mechanized operation dependent on the use (and, as it happens, widespread abuse) of information technology. The story concerns bodies found in a container. This is transit with a vengeance. 'Canful of dead girls sent to nowhere, from nowhere.' The girls are commodities - messages, even - despatched from one point in a globalised criminal system to another. Seamless, you might think. Except that this particular can is indeed a can of worms. The story begins with the stench of decomposing flesh. And there's a 'floater', too, a body dumped while in transit, in the harbour, and now coming back up out of nature, as that which no amount of mechanism, no amount of tech, will ever fully suppress.