January 9, 2008

Personal essay: Like a planet full of people getting back from the drugstore.

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

1001 screenshot

For those who don't know, as a heavy user of Flickr I'm also a habitual user of Adriaan Tijsseling's delightful little application 1001, and in fact am constantly surprised by how little press the application gets from the Flickr community. It's essentially a feed reader but just for Flickr photostreams, where instead of being optimized for displaying shortish text articles gathered as blog entries, it's optimized for showing images and their associated meta information; you basically tell it which of your contacts and groups you'd like it to follow, and how often it should check in with those streams, and it will basically go ping all these streams every 15 minutes or so for you (if that's the time period you choose), instantly delivering to your desktop all the new images that have been uploaded by those people in those last 15 minutes. In effect it allows me to easily keep track of the 200 contacts I have at Flickr and the 90 groups I now belong to; and it does so precisely by going and checking all these accounts for me, very quietly in the background on a regular basis without disrupting what I'm doing, instead of me having to remember to manually stop by 290 web pages on my own at least once every 24 hours. That'd be redonkulous, after all; and behold the power of RSS and feeds, that it makes the redonkulous possible, which is why your little nerd friends are always going so crazy about RSS in a way you simply don't understand.

Ah, but it's not just weirdo artistic photos that are delivered to my home computer every hour throughout a 24-hour period; in fact, over half of these thousands of images I browse each week are simple candid ones, simple snapshots of people celebrating birthdays and goofing around with their friends. It reminds me a lot, to tell you the truth, of my childhood in the 1970s and '80s, and of the minor excitement of running into a friend or family member who had just gotten back from the corner drugstore with a new package of photos. For, you see, where I grew up in those years (the American Midwest), it was at the corner drugstore where most people had their photos processed and printed, a process by which a person would drop off film and pick up finished prints a day or two later; it's a very similar situation to how most people in Europe, Canada, Australia and a lot of other places dealt with photos in those years, which is why I'm pretty sure most CCLaP readers will immediately understand what I'm talking about.

Ah, the excitement of the new photos being here! That's certainly a sensation from our childhoods that many of us miss in these days of digital cameras and instant gratification; that sensation of the paper envelope coming out of the plastic shopping bag, the holy sanitized negatives in their crinkly sleeves (Do Not Touch! Unclean!), the pile of glossy 4 x 6s or 3 x 5s or whatever the standard was where you lived, instantly transporting you to that specific time and place where those images were originally captured. It's as true today as it was in the early 1840s when photography first became a well-used medium; that there's something almost magical about the way photos can profoundly transport you to a different time and place, a way that if you were there yourself can instantly trigger all the other memories you have stored concerning your other four senses as well. A great set of casual photos is much more than a simple document of a fun get-together; it's a catalyst for a full-sense memory, a way to complexly describe the people and air and circumstances behind what you're seeing. And when a person hands you a paper envelope full of such images, it's not just a sharing of these photos but an invitation to actually participate with a piece of their past.

I've talked about this at my personal website before, of how this newfound exposure to just so many more casual photos in my life, and this time from scattered locations all over the world, really is changing the very way I perceive reality itself as I understand it; that it makes me aware and educated of certain places around the world not exactly in the deep way of a true local, but certainly in a much deeper way than a tourist could ever understand a place, and also a deeper way than simply viewing artistic projects set in those places. When you see a hundred candid photos a day taken in London (which I often do), endless snapshots of cafes and footballers and neighborhood landmarks day after day after day, under a variety of weather settings and daylight conditions, it makes you not exactly educated like a local but not exactly ignorant like a tourist; it makes you something new, something we as humans have never really had before, something closer to the fabled new-age term of "global citizen" than anything else, really.

In effect, all these things I'm talking about today are really fueling a lot of the arguments and discussions that are going on in the arts and entertainment industries these days, which is why I bring it up in the first place; that is, of the growing rise of amateur entertainment being consumed by other amateurs, of the growing amount of one's daily entertainment that so many people are now getting by watching YouTube, reading blogs, browsing Flickr and listening to podcasts. It's easy to understand why the big multinational corporations are threatened by this development, because they're literally losing money every time a person chooses to spend a half-hour of their day listening to free peer-produced entertainment than another dinner-time repeat of Seinfeld; but there are a growing amount of intellectual Chicken Littles jumping on the bandwagon out there as well, it seems, crazy Luddite mopes who insistently argue that videos of histrionic teenage Britney-Spears fans are somehow going to directly lead to a Second Dark Age, yet another black time for humanity when once again only the monks of the world will retain the ability to read and write.

What these cultural alarmists don't seem to understand (or purposely ignore sometimes, in that they're the traditional gatekeepers set to lose all the power and control they once had by admitting the following), is that the line itself between "high" and "low" culture is becoming more and more blurred by the day; like I said before, just look at my Flickr feeds for a good example, the way that so many of the best images there are ones accidentally caught by amateurs in candid situations, how even the ones taken by professionals to be deliberately "artsy" are still delivered in the same simple way all the others are, mixed in among all the candid photos also on display. And this is nothing new, after all, just something that the big corporations want you to forget about; that before the days of "mass media," of nationally-capable formats like radio and television which is what led to the corporations in the first place, a lot of society used to entertain itself through amateur projects, things like family singing and the reading-out-loud of the newspaper, things like community plays and fairs and hootenannies. Before the days where NBC could pipe the voice of a single performer into 50 million homes at once, there were still 50 million households facing a boring Thursday evening with nothing to do; before the age of broadcasting, these evenings were often filled with the exact kind of peer-based entertainment that current intellectuals claim are a sign of the collapse of intelligent society as we know it.

Lighten up, ya xenophobes! Or better yet, sign up for a Flickr account (or a YouTube one, or a deviantART one, or a MySpace one, or whatever), and start understanding why people are getting so hooked to this new wave of peer-produced entertainment; that far from it being the silly waste of time its detractors posit, this accumulation of fun short creative product is in fact rewiring the brains of its most high-end users, is making daily habituaes of podcasts and the like truly see reality in a more global way, in a way so that they're not actually living in a dozen cities at once but at least have a local's understanding of those dozen cities, a deep empathy for what's going on locally in those dozen cities. To millions of people, this can be just as entertaining if not more so than any ol' dinner-time repeat of Seinfeld; it may not seem like much at first, but like I said, starts adding up to billions of dollars of shifted revenue before long, once you start adding together all those dinner-time half-hours suddenly spent listening to commercial-free podcasts instead of commercial-laced reruns. It's an aspect of the entire topic that I think is missed so completely by so many of these terrified corporate executives and intellectual Luddites; that most people don't need a lavishly budgeted high-end Hollywood production to be entertained every minute of the day, even as most people do want to retain a certain amount of lavish big-budget projects in their lives.

Despite what the Chicken Littles claim, such a thing doesn't mean the death of culture, or the death of intelligence, or the death of pleasure reading, or the death of anything else; simply that the giant corporate structures that have risen out of Hollywood in the last half-century have started taking their customers too much for granted lately, have started charging them too much for stuff that's less and less entertaining, basically rule number one of "not what to do when you run a business." It's a market readjusting itself, basically, to a point it was at before the rise of broadcasting; a public basically saying that they would rather go back to modest low-budget ways of entertaining themselves a lot of the time, if the alternative is to be more and more expensive projects that are crappier and crappier in quality with each passing year. It doesn't mean that people are going to stop going to movies all of a sudden, or stop watching television; just that a lot more of them in the future are going to skip that dinner-time rerun of Seinfeld, for a half-hour of browsing 1001 instead. This is profound and culture-changing enough on its own; we don't need silly alarmist conspiracy theories muddying things up even more.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:39 PM, January 9, 2008. Filed under: Photography | Reviews |