Ten thoughts on that, below:
1: algorithmic engines and AI have replaced humans in media search and recommendation
Industry, not the state, is the engine of capitalist production. And industry, not the state, is the seat of power. So, corporations, not the state, are the sites of capital and power. As such, they lead the pursuit for data collection, not necessarily (or primarily) for social control, but for the ignorant pursuit and growth of wealth. The largest media and technology corporations have been watching and listening to us, the watchers, the listeners. And they have noticed certain patterns in our behaviours. Patterns that can be repeated and turned into capital — “if you like this”; “listeners also bought”. For better or worse, we have built and trained algorithmic recommendation through our consumption habits. Apple and Spotify, Amazon and Google silently survey us. Social networks encourage us to “share” everything. We have allowed and even participated in a serious erosion of privacy, and the potential privatisation of everything we make public.
2: streaming has replaced MP3s in the second great digital switcheroo
Remember when iTunes first opened, and artists complained that they only received nine cents for every 99-cent download? Those numbers, which significantly undercut CD royalties at the time, now seem lavish. On average, one would have to stream a song on Spotify between 20 and 30 times in order to equal the value of one iTunes-circa-2010 download. Where did the money go? The value of music has seemingly evaporated, but it is the tech companies and platforms that are rapidly reconstituting all that melts into air back into solid capital. Just as CDs artificially inflated the recorded music marketplace in the 1980s and ‘90s, streaming is artificially solving the problem of digital reproduction in the 2010s and ‘20s. Tech companies are like the mafia: they create a problem (“it would be a shame if someone ruined your nice business”), and then they offer up their own proprietary solutions, for a price (“You’re with us now, but we may call upon you for a favour…”)
3: streaming is still artificially buoyed by the major labels and their back-catalogues
The most-streamed artists and genres are not the obscure artists or genres. They are still label creations like Drake and Adele, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. After that, it is the Fleetwood Macs and Pink Floyds, the Madonnas and Princes, the legacy artists that we listen to. The legacy is the leverage. The more we mythologise, the greater the legacy’s value to capital and power. It is possible for independent artists to upload their music directly to streaming services, and also to trade their wares through platforms like Bandcamp. But hyper-specific currents and trends are more easily ignored on the major streaming platforms, and just as often absorbed — scaled up incrementally — by the corporate colossi.
4: increasingly more individualised self-identification and taste has destroyed consensus, and further subdivided communal affinities
Postmodernism and the omnilegent critical regard have levelled all cultural manifestations. There is no high nor low art now, neither hot nor cool medium. Everything is of equal importance: film, TV, music, fashion, visual art, text, talk, even politics and commerce. (Especially politics and commerce have come to replace art.) It is in the corporate interest to make us believe that if we don’t attend to everything, we haven’t heard anything. Through curation of cultural production, we cultivate the idea of ourselves. Yet the Left is divided further against itself by the very technologies and platforms (Twitter) that seem to unite and solidify the Right. The cost of our plurality is a lack of unity. The hope is that this is only temporary.
5: increasingly fragmentary temporality online has de-historicised the narrative(s)
In his 2010 book Retromania, Simon Reynolds was already documenting the effects of YouTube and the long historical tail on cultural production, arguing that the ability to plumb media’s historical depths made it easier to ignore the present, much less to orient toward an unwritten future. His was a voice in a growing chorus including Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), Sherry Turkle (Alone Together), Jaron Lanier (You Are Not A Gadget) and others attempting to conceive of the future and warn us of it at once. The sheer volume of simultaneous historical media disorients a sense of context and causality. In Reynolds’ end-of-the-2010s round-up for The Guardian, he writes: “While the clock and the calendar continue to plod forward in their steadfast and remorseless way, what you could call ‘culture-time’ feels like it’s become unmoored and meandering.” Writing for The Wire in 2012, Terre Thamlitz observed: “today’s widely embraced model of the ‘internet as context’ is a sign of new heights of refinement in selling the Western humanist model of a ‘shared human experience’ to a diversely destitute world — albeit only at the expense of denying every material circumstance facilitating one’s entry into cyberspace, ranging from the realities of our crap little rooms in which we sit with our personal computers to the massive social and ecological destruction caused by server facilities and power plants…” To date, I’ve never heard it said better.
6: the internet’s pliability and ephemerality distort history
The ability to write, rewrite, amend, redact, and delete things on the internet weakens its textual authenticity and authority. Note the rise in prominence of Twitter “watchdogs”, like the accounts that track and document edits made to Wikipedia and The New York Times. The restless revision of history — reissues, reboots, lists, commemorations — has become the most reliably profitable productive form. (See #1) An artist no one had ever heard of becomes the forgotten pioneer. The contested terrain of history becomes the archeological site for ever-new discoveries. And these exist beyond criticism’s reach. The lack of consensus means that evaluative critical distinctions like “good” or “bad” are rendered meaningless. Truth no longer requires permission.
7: affect rather than (or in addition to) the subconscious-subliminal is how capital-power constructs and enforces the Real
In Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary series Century of the Self, he argued that Freud and the subconscious characterised the 20th century’s cultural zeitgeist. Advertising appealed subliminally to our hopes and fears. And we felt mediated interactions as if they were real. Power and capital deploy arcane, resonant symbolism to communicate with us and amongst themselves through a sprawling and increasingly dreamlike media constellation. Jung more than Freud gives meaning and shape to media in the early 21st century. The sensorial immediacy and illusion of media’s endless availability guide — and misguide — us online. Every stimulus is effectively an interrupt request.
8: the internet is about appearance and experience — about media and its mediation, not about objects
As vast as it is, and as obvious as this sounds, the internet only houses an extremely limited number of things — obviously, it cannot transmit “things”. Thus, it masks its own materiality. The “thing”, the object of capital and power online, is attention. The ability to command and scatter it at will is currency. Michael Tausig, in a recent Critical Inquiry essay entitled “Unpacking My Library: An Experiment in the Technique of Awakening”, describes what he terms “Erlebnis”, a new “genre” of understanding: “a rapid-fire mode of experiencing in which an experience, so long as it is not extreme, burns out as soon as it is born. And it is scattered — [a] perfect reflection of our neoliberal age of tweet consciousness …” It is therefore understood and expected to regard and disregard in near simultaneity.
9: premediation (not remediation [the transubstantiation of old into new media] nor premeditation [the accurate prediction of future events]) is the cultural logic that governs our relationships between what could be and what is, the virtual and the actual
In his 2010 book of the same name, Richard Grusin defines premediation as “proliferating multiple remediations of the future both to maintain a low level of fear in the present and to prevent a recurrence of the kind of tremendous media shock that the United States and much of the networked world experienced on 9/11.” I would extend the logic of premediation to the cultural sphere: we are constantly braced for the next publication to cease operations, for the next cynical branding exercise, for the untimely deaths of artists and thinkers, for the planet’s general devastation. Cultural premediation is born of the critic’s impossible desire to stay one step ahead of the imminent future, while existing in the present, of observing without altering. (See #5)
10: shock is the ambient texture of experience
Control, as Burroughs or Deleuze or Galloway knew it, exists after decentralisation precisely because of the premediated shock-doctrine; rather than imagine ways out, we are too busy reacting, like cornered soldiers, firing off in all directions. For evidence, see the rise in prominence of the phrase “the new normal”. The New Normal implicitly means the shock, the lack of an anchor on bumpy seas, that we are now expected to simply live with. Is it possible to shock ourselves out of this? Through Acid Communism? Communist Surrealism? The thinkers I keep returning to — Water Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Mark Fisher — all took their own lives. Self-sacrifice certainly suits power and capital just fine. Another job they don’t have to do. But it’s clearly not the answer. Is there somewhere a shock that is not yet death, the useful shock of a new kind of consciousness?