Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Struck by the incongruous vintage aesthetics of the dude who invented tumblr in this New York Times profile:

I don't like screens very much very much,” says David Karp, founder and chief executive officer of Tumblr, the popular microblogging platform. “Big bright monitors drive me nuts”; screens in the bedroom are “gross.” He takes his rule seriously, for in Karp’s newly renovated loft, in south Williamsburg, Brooklyn, screens are scarce, as is, for that matter, anything particularly shiny or smooth. It is, instead, a dedication to all that is aged, rough or both: ancient bricks, weathered concrete, blackened steel and reclaimed oak. While Karp designs the future, his personal aesthetic is worlds apart from the Star Trek flight deck or the Google campus that form our usual idea of what is to come. Karp doesn’t believe, he says, that the next century is necessarily about “more screens covering more surface area.

"He is an apparent paradox: a high-tech design leader with a home and possessions that display little affection for anything postwar; frankly, most of the 20th century seems suspect to him. Nothing in his home looks particularly futuristic, or technological, at least as we’ve usually understood those terms. A house may be a machine for living, but Karp says, “I don’t want our house doing very much.” It’s a quiet space, with few distractions; one feels that stone tablets might not be entirely out of place. The newest-looking machine in the house is the metal carcass of a classic 1969 Honda CB160 motorcycle, apparently in the midst of a living-room repair job.

"The apartment is built with “analog technology,” says John Gachot, the principal designer, who worked with Karp on the renovation.... “It’s mildly steampunk,” he adds, pointing out a few of the details, like tin ceilings and brass screws, at least “in the sense of looking backward.” The materials and methods are genuinely old: the reclaimed oak that dominates the living room comes from an old dairy farm in Pennsylvania, and the brick and concrete have aged with the building.... Karp’s home is about as different as it is possible to be, style-wise, from the tech palaces of the West, or the smart homes of the 1990s that were once supposed to be the future.

"In the popular imagination, tech leaders don’t live this way. They inhabit some kind of indistinct place, defined less geographically than temporally, for the technologist is meant to live slightly ahead of the rest of us. One imagines Google’s Sergey Brin spending his days encased in advanced wearable technology, orbiting the earth in a driverless spaceship, landing only to introduce humanity to new products from the mother ship. On the West Coast, the credible technologist simply must use devices and materials more advanced than the masses use. One wouldn’t want to be caught lugging around an old Dell laptop, or, God forbid, a BlackBerry.

"Karp’s style may not fit the public’s idea of homo futurus, but it is perfectly consistent with the image of New York’s tech industry. "

Changing the subject slightly, I must say I don't understand the cult of tumblr, why it is that some people seem to rate it so much  more highly than Blogger.  Anything I'd ever want to do with a tumblr, I could do just as easily on a blog, it seems to me.  What are the other benefits? You can have a long string of sycophantic sign-ons trailing at the end of your piece, positive reinforcement a la Facebook likes? It's easier to quote other tumblr posts?  As far as I can see, that just encourages a sort of pointless  recirculation of opinions.  At best, annotation becomes the primary mode. I suppose the idea is that it is sociable, collegial, egalitarian in some way; participating in a conversation, a polylogue, rather than stating your case, essayist style.  But you can do all that with blogs too, link and answer back, or extend another's argument. Blog neighbourhoods are more like constellations of monads, of one-person magazines. There is a distance between each blog and its neighbour, one's that's easy to cross, but wide enough to encourage a certain aura of enclosure that recalls the singular-vision fanzine and that subtly encourages bigger and more definitive statements. You say your piece. Whereas the porousness of tumblrs, the mutual interpenetration of text-flows, seems to work against developed arguments and in favor of quickfire comebacks and "yes but" type responses.

These textual nibbles are unsatisfying, I find. I dislike also the way tumblr posts look: the layered / staggered comment upon comment within quote within quote  effect. Unpleasing to the eye, hard to follow (not as bad as trying to follow an argument on twitter, granted). The tumblrs that do look good, revealingly, are the ones devoid of any kind of commentary:  the purely image-based ones (in some cases not even having captions to identify the illustrations or photographs). But these too often seem to fall into a mode of reposting cool old images (of mid-century architecture, or space age sixties fashion, or synthesiser porn, or vintage s.f. book covers...) that other tumblrs have posted. Often dozens or scores of other tumblrs reposting the same image!  Where is the curatorial added-on surplus value in this activity, when you haven't even sourced or scanned the image yourself, gone digging in the crates or the thrift stores?

Either ironically or appropriately, given Karp's taste, much of the content circulating in tumblrs  consists of  analogue-era stuff, from the age of print magazines, pre-e-books, images recorded on film and celluloid, albums with cardboard covers and artwork.  (Which is the core of Retromania's argument of course: "we live in the digital future, but we're mesmerised by our analogue past", as the blurb from the compact edition of the UK paperback puts it, the edition with a cassette on the front).

Something about the tumblr format seems to discourage substantive and sustained commentary.  Blogger can do the fragmentary, the quippy quick comment, but it also lends itself to essays, or even books (Phil Knight's "blook" on the Stranglers for instance). But tumblr seems to be closer to twitter:  it's a data-snacking model of textual consumption, a wisecrack / rapid-retort mode of textual production.  There are exceptions of course:  Eric Harvey and Tom Ewing will now and again stretch to several paragraphs. But I have far fewer favorite tumblrs  than I do blogs;  I can barely recall any tumblr posts, whereas there's plenty of blogposts that are engraved on the memory.  Like twitter, like Facebook, tumblr emissions seem to evacuate themselves from your consciousness with extraordinary speed. The dea(r)th of the "event post" is part of a general, insidious pulverisation of time that occurs under the digital regime; a ceaseless flow of discourse-dust, eddies and whorls of inconsequential prattle.

However there must be something going for tumblr, judging by the devotion of its users (reminiscent of Apple product line patriots).  So I thought I should at least have a go using one, if only to complain from a more informed, first-hand, experiential viewpoint *.  However I got turned off big time during the initial start-up process and went off to do something else. Will probably return when I'm less busy and see if I glean what the advantages are to what I suspect is just the same-old-shit-in-a-shinier-can. 

*  Although in a sense I already have a Tumblr in that my "posting cool old shit with minimal annotation" impulses are catered for at Hardly Baked.

1 comment:

  1. It is said one of tmblrs strenghts is its deficient searching capacities so parents cant snoop on children