Media, Steam, and Our Vast Flat Culture


Months ago, I started a new post on mourning culture springing up from the deaths of the likes of David Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood, et al; it was to be a somewhat self-righteous, but I think ultimately valid piece about how it symbolised the way our current culture ingests it’s media and it’s, if you will, Neon Idols. I could never move past a certain point each time a new death occurred, and I think it’s because it felt needlessly judgmental and went against my more libertarian side of live and letting live, even if it’s dumb. I like and think plenty of dumb things after all. Now though, I was thinking again about the writing blockage I have been suffering which extended to my comedy writing and art and I think it’s because I haven’t been able to put this article in to words as opposed to a sort of cotton wool disturbance in my head. I was thinking about another part of the article, and I realised that the celebrity death cottage industry is just a small part of our whole culture which, as Alan Moore says, is turning to steam.

As Alan Moore says in his psychedelic philosodoc, The Mindscape of Alan Moore:

“As I understand the theory of period information doubling, this states that if we take one period of human information as being the time between the invention of the first hand axe, say around 50,000 BC and 1 AD, then this is one period of human information and we can measure it by how many human inventions we came up with during that time. Then we see how long it takes for us to have twice as many inventions. This means that human information has doubled. As it turns out, after the first 50,000-year period, the second period is about 1500 years, say around the time of the Renaissance. By then we have twice as much information. To double again, human information took a couple of hundred years. The period speeds up—between 1960 and 1970, human information doubled. As I understand it, at the last count human information was doubling around every 18 months. Further to this, there is a point sometime around 2015 where human information is doubling every thousandth of a second. This means that in each thousandth of a second we will have accumulated more information than we have in the entire previous history of the world. At this point I believe that all bets are off. I cannot imagine the kind of culture that might exist after such a flashpoint of knowledge. I believe that our culture would probably move into a completely different state, would move past the boiling point, from a fluid culture to a culture of steam… I think the world is purely a construction of ideas, and not just the physical structures, but the mental structures, the ideologies that we’ve erected, that is what I would call the world. Our political structures, philosophical structures, ideological frameworks, economies. These are actually imaginary things, and yet that is the framework that we have built our entire world upon. It strikes me that a strong enough wave of information could completely overturn and destroy all of that. A sudden realization that would change our entire perspective upon who we are and how we exist. History is a heat, it is the heat of accumulated information and accumulated complexity. As our culture progresses, we find that we gather more and more information and that we slowly start to move almost from a fluid to a vaporous state, as we approach the ultimate complexity of a social boiling point. I believe that our culture is turning to steam.”

It’s long but it’s worth quoting in it’s entirety. The History as heat + fluid culture = steam is a bit of a laboured metaphor in some ways, but it has always struck me as disturbingly accurate. The only alteration I would make, which is important to this article is that the heat of the metaphor doesn’t just come from our history of accumulated experience, but also the sheer pervasiveness of our media outlets – ‘outlets’ not being restricted to the mainstream media, but any outlet for a person to broadcast to the world. The egalité of how people can make and produce media (as I am right now, of course) is of course a great progression for personal expression, but the consequences for our culture are serious.

Steam Pepper

Probably the most iconic album cover of all time. How many current album covers can you picture? Credit: The Beatles

The internet is perhaps out greatest invention and far from being a Luddite, I love it and the possibilities it offers. But for our culture, it is like a comfortable bed we lie in for so long that we can’t stand properly any more. I mentioned having some Libertarian views earlier, and that’s true, though the whole ‘free market’ idea has struck me as fatally flawed (I’ll see you later for the Libertarian post); saying that, while the root of it seems dreadful to me, I do have something of a longing for the way the pre-internet free market helped define our culture. As a self-proclaimed music nerd during my teens, I would sometimes think to myself that music was terrible ‘these days’ and would never produce icons like The Beatles, Rolling Stones etc again – meaning artists that were undoubtedly the biggest in the world and unavoidable in popular culture at all levels. It turns out, I believe, that I was right about that, but not for the reason I thought at the time. As a teen, I thought it was because the music of the time was just shit, but now I realise it’s something else – it’s that with the onset of the internet, there is a place for everything to thrive, and what is mainstream is easier to completely ignore. Where previously, the charts dictated what was popular, like a giant pyramid with only a few vaunted icons at it’s peak, music now exists in a much more level, near infinite plane where anything can exist or even thrive in it’s own area, but nothing will truly stand out as representing our culture. Where music used to at least loosely shift in stylistic periods, reflective of our culture, now all music exists at once – there are dozens of genres of music and countless sub-genres of each, and each with it’s own specialised realms online. Artists like Taylor Swift and One Direction are still incredibly popular, but their longevity is stilted by the fact that the music industry supports endless artists and types of music, and there are a great many people who totally ignore them in place of their own musical interest. That, again, is great, people can find what they like and an in-built community is waiting to embrace them, each little sub-genre as extensive as the entire music business at any given time in the 20th Century. The only problem is, when there is no truly dominant culture, there is nothing to define us, nothing to react to, and nothing to rebel against. Punk was a rebellion, grunge was a rebellion, but if The Sex Pistols or Nirvana were to appear these days, they would find a following on the internet, they would tour and do well, but they wouldn’t challenge anything, even if they wanted to – they would just merge with the rest of the steam.

If you imagine pre-internet culture as a pyramid, unfair but clearly definable in a roughly controlled space, then our current culture is that of a vast, flat surface – more is there, but it can’t be truly grasped at once. Everything has it’s place, but it’s impact will always be temporary and vaporous. Some things will go ‘viral’ and will catch people’s attention in a way where it will be arbitrarily related to life in various ways, fading quickly and surviving only and at most as memes, the meanings of which will ultimately be lost eventually. It is egalité to it’s a-logical end where everything has a place but the place is the same for everyone and everything. It is from this realization that I started writing about celebrity deaths. There are so many online column inches and so many hours of dead TV time that whenever anyone dies it’s always an unqualified tragedy, because that is how we talk about death and there is space to be filled. Memories are cleansed, #RIP’s are typed, and the essence of the person is lost either in simplified degradation or ill-deserved plaudits. All deaths are the same and are discussed the same way, whitewashing dark histories or recent irrelevance and overestimating importance for those that didn’t earn it in life, simultaneously, as the ever-expanding arena of the internet and 24-hour news media invites reactions. That sounds callous, but it’s true that some lives had more impact than others, and as meaningless as mourning is, I struggle with the reality that whenever a celebrity dies, they are mourned almost by protocol – a tweet, a blog, some time on the news, maybe, depending on the cycle, and then on to the next death. This new mourning is just another framework we have created, and though doubtlessly sincere in the main, it has become an evolved routine demanded by the way we consume and regurgitate information.

Steam Pray

All we have are hashtags, and why do they ask us to pray? Credit:

Never before has it been so quick and easy to access news and the fallout of news. Within hours of people’s last breaths there are reams of speculation, tributes (short, easy to read tributes) and in some cases, leaks of emergency recordings of the morbid discoveries. Imagine then, the (still well intentioned) almost necessary levels of uniformity in the aftermath of a disaster or terrorist attack, when the victim’s aren’t famous and there’s little to be said about them individually. Understandably, reactions are of shock and sorrow as well as the ever present ‘Pray for…’ hashtag. #PrayForParis, #PrayForBrussels, #PrayForNice. We pray for victims, or cities, or countries, or at least say we do, after the attacks, as if it is useful. We hashtag as if satisfying a check-mark, maybe alter profile pictures with national flags, until we update it with another cause or tragedy. People are sincere in their fear and sadness, but the prevailing ways to express that are very limiting, in terms of space, and expectations. The news is 24/7, available in all formats, and something must be said. News outlets ponder why such attacks happen, and then broadcast politicians explaining that those responsible hate x’s way of life. Prayers, sadness and fear, again and again. As with everything else, it is vast, pervasive, and without depth, millions of people doing a bare minimum. Steam is a routine of massacre and counter massacre, and the thoughtful, meaningful reactions to them just suffer from numbed diminishing returns, swept up by the gutter press for clicks and influence simply because that is what their medium, and their business, has evolved to demand.

Arguments used to happen in physical arenas – marches, stages, pubs, parliament, etc., and still do. The difference now is, for better or worse, that no argument prevails. Whether you’re point of view is moral, mainstream, radical, or dangerous, there is a place for you to have and share your opinion without true critique. If you’re a socialist, a feminist, a meninist, a fascist, a pacifist, a Eurosceptic, a racist, a libertarian, a conservative, a liberal, or a moderate, there is a selection of websites, hashtags and movements, some more taboo than others, for you to share your beliefs and have them supported with confirmation bias. Everyone is a silent majority, typing very loudly somewhere in our vast, flat culture but rarely penetrating consensus. For every action or event there is a flacid routine of action, reaction, reaction to the reaction, and ultimately a meme that will soon be forgotten in the next cycle. While this sounds critical – and I am certainly lamenting it to a degree – I reiterate that it’s neither good or bad, it’s an amoral part of human evolution that has affected our culture. While I lament how part of that affect is making our culture more of an indistinct vapour, it is absolutely great that people have more ways to express themselves.

Our culture encourages and celebrates routine and labels, but renders them near meaningless in practice by ruthlessly partitioning to the n’th degree creating more frameworks that are simply imagined constructs which represent us exhaustively; so exhaustively that the representation serves to highlight our differences as much as our variety. I preface this section by saying that I neither judge anyone or expect anything of anyone’s sexuality; it’s not my business, and frankly, I don’t care. I say that because again, this will sound like a criticism when that isn’t intended, it is merely a recognition of another way our identity has been spread as wide and thin as the spaces and opportunities for us to express ourselves have. It is generally seen, and understandably so, as progressive that people can define their sexuality however they want – people identify themselves in a multitude of ways from heterosexual, to homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, demisexual, polyamorous, and several more distinctions beyond. It is fantastic that people can identify themselves more clearly an comfortably than ever before, and as with political identities, there are more and more places to find people with similar identities, thanks to the various places people can present themselves. There is however something about all of these labels that seems strange to me. Sexuality seems to be more outwardly fluid than ever before, but it also appears that there is something of a burden for people whose sexuality is more fluid to identify themselves. It is this fluidity that has created so many more sexual labels, while trying to label something like sexuality seems increasingly to be restrictive folly. Complex sexualities are nothing new, but the labelling of them is, relatively speaking. I speak purely for myself here and certainly from a point of privilege, but my view of identity, tolerance, and harmony has always been that the labels, and the consequential expectations that come along with it, are confining, no matter how exhaustively they are tailored and created. You should be able to desire someone, and express that desire without having to justify it to a sexuality based on the other person’s various identities. That’s just my view though, and people like to – and should, if they so wish – label themselves, so it will likely never happen, and there will always be a place, in our ever vaporous culture to express yourself.

Steam news 24

The news cycle both on TV and off, is endless and all-pervasive while barely telling us anything credit:

On the surface, this expanded capacity for expression would be good for our consumption of news, but in reality, the overload of information we suffer from has led to a neutering of the news cycle. A consistent theme of 2016 has been that it’s been ‘crazy’ with the amount of celebrity deaths, disasters and tragedies, and it’s appeared as if every day brings another earth-shattering headline. Whether the stories behind them are particularly new or unusual – I imagine that at least to some extent, they are not – is an issue for another article, but what I personally believe is that the space with which to present news has actually made it less nuanced. News and current affairs has become just another cottage industry, presenting ‘content’ as quickly as it can – all news is breaking news, and all breaking news must be reacted to; if not, the other providers will win. But when the news cycle has to stay so fresh, where people expect the pundits who help shape their insight, the news becomes a limp, background propaganda which serves only those at the top of media and political empires. What’s embarrassing is that it’s probably not part of some great plan, it’s just the free marketeers and career politicians doing their job, doing very well out it, regardless of how it affects the populous.

The last month or so has brought with it huge sea-changes to British and international politics – just naming the more significant ones, the UK voted to leave the European Union, the government and opposition have held simultaneous leadership contests, there is a new Prime Minister, an official report has found that an entire war was undertaken on a false premise and the former Prime Minister behind it was at least somewhat complicit in manipulating the country to action, there have been two well reported terrorist attacks in Europe, there is a small-scale but significant race war occurring in the United States as it chooses a new President (who may turn out to be a crazy racist businessman who has starred in a marquee match at a WrestleMania), there was failed coup attempt in Turkey, and the UK committed to a multi-multi-billion pound nuclear weapons programme. Many of these have occurred on the same or consecutive days, and while they have been treated with due reverence, there is another feeling of routine to the news cycle. Report-Opinions-Counterpoints-Repeat. There’s nothing wrong with that of course except for, again, the sheer amount of space both with 24-hour news and 24-hour alternative media and social media for that cycle to take place in. Everything is examined from every possible angle, but only for a short time; dominant reactions emerge and are reported too by every mainstream news source which more or less falls in line with the other. There is no time to properly react, and endless reactions to be had, and so before the impact of one event can be digested, another event has taken place, and so on, and so on, ad nauseum. Reactions are presented from across the political spectrum, often featuring extreme minority views as strongly as any other, to the point where even the most straight-laced reporting struggles to present a cohesive story. The reaction is as important as the event, the reactions are often vastly inconsistent, and no one really knows what to make of it all.

The recent reporting of ‘Brexit’ is a good example of this. The nuts and bolts of the story are incredibly complicated and multi-faceted and neither the mainstream media with it’s attention defecit nor the social media reaction with it’s lack of credible, unbiased knowledge were equipped to consume and pull together a purposeful understanding of the story. What is easy to consume and readily available though are the opinions of specialist sects and interested parties, and so complicated an issue is it that there were near endless opinions offered related to trade, immigration, the economy, Scottish independence, the UK’s relationship with America, the downfall of  a swathe of political leaders, including the sitting Prime Minister, that no one really knew what Brexit meant – all that was left was shock. Brexit is an especially complicated issue, but it is a microcosm of the whole news cycle – complicated issues being analysed to the n’th degree but without satisfaction until the story becomes quite literally senseless. Many people say they have become numb to the news as they have been swept away with significant and often tragic news, and as the information – and opinion as information – is churned out, always with a place to be churned out to, it becomes impossible to process. Adam Curtis refers to this phenomena from a different angle as ‘oh dearism’ – we pray for Paris, we wonder what Brexit will mean, we witness a new Prime Minister with little fan fare, we say ‘oh dear’ and we move on because something else has happened and has been reported and reacted to already. There is more news, but it’s less distinct. The news cycle churns and the steam builds.

To be belligerent with the keyword, the steam we live in is not morally good or morally bad, it is just a side effect of our evolution creating and storing more information, and there is no practical way to stop or slow it. Our culture is spread thin and indistinct, and as the population and sources of information expand, it will only get worse. That sounds scary and defeatist, but remember that life can be as simple as doing what you enjoy, and there is meaning in that. Watch TV, play sports, write about wrestling – most of it will get lost in the steam once you’re gone, but who cares if it makes you happy, even just for a while? To quote George Carlin, when you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show, but it’s up to you how much you engage with it all.