Instagram Theory

March 13, 2013

Documentary photography invites and needs participation by amateurs as well as by professionals. Only through the interested work of amateurs who choose themes and follow them can documentation by the camera of our age and our complex society be intimate, pervasive, and adequate.

-Dorothea Lange, 1940

This quotation takes on a bit more insidious cast when it’s transposed from theorizing a New Deal initiative to remarking upon Instagram’s apparent world-historical mission…

the neverfuture

February 20, 2011

The contemporary crisis exhibits a number of unfamiliar characteristics stemming from the inability of advanced capitalist societies to bear the costs of a new socio-technical infrastructure, to supersede the existing fixed-capital grid. The latter currently entrenches a 60-year-old complex of productive forces at the core of the world economy. The structural impasse that this has created has not been fully grasped, leading to difficulties in historicizing the last quarter-century of capitalism. Fredric Jameson’s conception of postmodernism as the cultural logic of the period is arguably the great benchmark of contemporary epochalism. In the early 80s, Jameson originally conceived of this new order of things as a prefiguration of groundbreaking new technologies and energy sources of capitalism. In order to understand the subsequent trajectory of capitalist society, it is important to recognize that this great leap forward, what Ernest Mandel called the Third Technological Revolution, never really materialized. Even a more modestly conceived ‘post-Fordism’ failed to release a productivity revolution that would reduce costs and free up income for an all-round expansion.

Instead, the latest phase of capitalism got an ersatz form of growth primarily through credit-card consumerism and asset bubbles. Jameson’s explanation for contemporary society’s inability to experience and represent the totality of the world system initially attributed it to some immeasurable disproportion between human agency and newly unleashed nuclear and cybernetic productive forces. But in later accounts, the locus of the problem silently shifted to mapping an opaque, pseudo-dynamic world of financial markets. Initial anticipations of an exhilarating new cultural condition gave way to totalizations of a more closed and derivative situation. Capitalism’s culture became an organized semblance of world-historic dynamism concealing and counteracting a secular deceleration in ‘the real economy’.

But what about information technology and containerization—the two signature technological breakthroughs of the period? These have undoubtedly powered a huge increase in world trade, over and above the growth of the world economy itself. Computerization and ‘just in time’ modes of organizing supply chains made it easier than ever before to bring manufactured goods to the world market, and relocate production. These cost-reducing technological and organizational changes countered the potentially inflationary consequences of the growing supply of various forms of money. Alongside American deficits, these trade-promoting changes were responsible for accelerating East Asian and especially Chinese growth. But unlike a ‘nuclear-cybernetic industrial revolution’, or the shift to some alternative energy source, technological change in this form has, by and large, brought vast quantities of goods from countries with lower labour costs into world markets already weighed down by overproduction of their higher-cost equivalents, instead of fuelling growth through the creation of whole new lines of production.

In the 90s it seemed plausible that containerization, post-Fordist production and supply chains and information technology in the new office place were the driving forces of a transition to a New Economy, one more productive, and in different ways, than anything that had come before it. But this great transformation somehow failed to show up statistically and, in due course, the stock-market crash of 2001 brought an end to the decade of cyber-hype. Altogether less plausible was the subsequent expectation that technologically retrograde real-estate bubbles, providing markets for exporters of consumer durables and raw materials, could be a sustainable basis for economic growth. Rather than leading to any ‘New Economy’ in the productive base, the innovations of this period of capitalism have powered transformations in the Lebenswelt of diversion and sociability, an expansion of discount and luxury shopping, but above all a heroic age of what was until recently called ‘financial technology’. Internet and mobile phones, Walmart and Prada, Black–Scholes and subprime—such are the technological landmarks of the period.

–Gopal Balakrishnan, “Speculations on the Stationary State”

Cyberpunk dreamers and postmodern fantasists were wrong. The same old mode of production was merely dressed up in debt-financed wrapping paper. The future literally never happened.

me and lorenzo…

January 6, 2011

…rolling in a benzo

Against the Brave New Streaming Future

December 4, 2009

So these guys aren’t the only technological determinists to say this, nor is the streaming future limited to music (see “cloud computing” hype). But they are emblematic of a line of thought that needs some strong tempering.

JS: It’s a streaming future.
EVB: Yes. I believe downloading music for free will eventually be seen as a waste of time and disk space.
JS: Music fans who can just grab it elsewhere are losing interest in P2P. The RIAA had very little to do with it.
EVB: And as fraught as the whole “bundling with service providers” thing is (will I have to subscribe to multiple ISPs if I want both ESPN and Spotify?), bundling is a promising option for getting people to pay.

These guys predict that the future of music is not in downloading files like mp3s, but in streaming services. Like cloud computing, the idea is that instead of containing files and programs on your hard drive, they are instead web apps hosted on a remote server that you access with a device connected to the internet. The real advantage to this scheme is that small devices with tiny hard drives, like phones, can have all the capabilities of a computer.

But there are some serious disadvantages to cloud computing that smart people are raising as well. They center around control — a company, such as Google, will hold your data and you have to access it remotely. You don’t have to be a huge privacy advocate to worry about hacking or internet outages keeping you from your stuff.

A “streaming future” shares some of these problems, as well as containing their own issues. What immediately leaped to my mind is how streaming-only would destroy a big part of what interests me in contemporary music production — the border-crossing remixing, mashing up, sampladelic world of global internet pop. Streamed music is fundamentally out of your control. You do not have access to the file, and therefore you cannot re-edit it, remix it, sample it, or incorporate it into a DJ mix — Goodbye Web 2.0, hello Web 1.0. You cannot play songs unless you are connected to the internet (so pony up that $4.95 when you’re at Starbucks or the airport for wireless access) and have a subscription to the streaming service. The streaming future effectively re-installs record labels (with their tech company allies) as gatekeepers between artists and listeners, with the added bonus of a frictionless data mining operation.

This is the pernicious aspect of the streaming future hype — it’s a ploy to get listeners to go back to the old model with corporations controlling distribution. Where legal action and threats failed in stopping P2P filesharing, technology promises to succeed through convenience (aided on the other side by significant victories against the major bit-torrent sites). The implications are huge — in a streaming future, music will need to obtain access to whatever services control access to devices (phones). You can imagine the cartelization that could ensue — just as telecoms allied with phone manufacturers, labels might align with particular streamers and ISPs to the exclusion of others, as the above quotation points out. If music samples or remixes unlawfully, it will be kicked off the streaming service (if it’s allowed on in the first place), just as YouTube repeatedly pulls videos for copyright infringement. And when it’s gone, it’s gone — you don’t have a file on your hard drive, so you can’t listen to it any more.

I’m not opposed to streaming out of hand — I “listen” to a lot of YouTube uploads as part of my steady diet of music. My concern is that it will replace P2P filesharing, in essence a far more radical threat to music as private property, as the primary way of distributing music online. If you care about at all about the incredible leveling effect the internet has had on music, and the unique creative forms it has inspired, you should oppose the streaming future. P2P filesharing will always have a significant following, but if it ceases to be the dominant form of obtaining songs, corporations will have re-asserted dominance over music.