Saturday, November 2, 2019

broken time / brain strain

an article about how the 2010s played havoc with our sense of temporality and strained our brains to breaking point, by Katherine Miller

"This long and wearying decade is coming to a close, though, even if there’s no sense of an ending. People are always saying stuff like: Time has melted; my brain has melted; Donald Trump has melted my brain; I can’t remember if that was two weeks ago or two months ago or two years ago; what a year this week has been. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again. Your Facebook feed won’t stop showing you a post from four days ago, about someone you haven’t seen in three years. The Office, six years after it ended, might be the most popular show in the United States. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again....

"The touch and taste of the 2010s was nonlinear acceleration: always moving, always faster, but torn this way and that way, pushed forward, and pulled back under.... 

"In the 20 months between Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement and Trump’s inauguration, everything from Apple Music to HBO Now to Apple News launched or relaunched; the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple Watch hit the full market; publishers established the current form and tone of the news push alerts that you receive; Facebook launched a livestreaming function and then deprioritized the function when people aired violence; Instagram launched the ephemeral, inexhaustive stories, so you can share — as they put it — “everything in between” the moments you care about; Twitter introduced the quote-tweet option, which formalized and democratized a function from the earlier days of Twitter, and transformed every Trump tweet into an opportunity for commentary.

"And, within a few months in 2016, both the primary catalog for millions of lives (Instagram) and the primary channel for news and culture (Twitter) switched from chronological to algorithmic timelines...."

As well as political churn, Miller also inspects popular culture:

"We’re living through an incredible boom of great shows. Often described, with a weary irony, as the era of Peak TV, this wealth of programming followed tech and traditional premium broadcasters finally figuring out how to commercialize streaming platforms in the 2010s. As a result, you the viewer can move in any sort of direction, watching in bulk something that aired last year, or on Sunday, or one scene again and again, freed from the now-or-never quality that TV once had. For decades, TV either made or ran parallel to the rhythms of American life: morning shows, daytime soaps, the 6 o’clock news, the playoffs, Johnny Carson. In between, the broadcast networks aired 22 half-hour episodes, weekly from September to May, at a fixed time, winding away in sequential order at a mass scale."

Yup, it's not so much that we've lost the monoculture, it's that we've lost monotemporality

Miller quotes Emily Nussbaum on how "time itself has been bent", with one factor being the pause button, which  “helped turn television from a flow into text, to be frozen and meditated upon.”

Certainly because it's  possible to stop the flow of televisual (or filmic) time, it becomes irresistible to do it at any and every excuse - watching a program or film becomes a stop-start experience with interruptions for urination, rehydration, snacks, unrelated conversational digressions, and then also rewinds to catch dialogue or plot nuances or repeat particularly enjoyable sequences.

Yet it's also likely to be subject to acceleration, with Netflix planning to introduce a 1.5 speed function (and YouTube already allows you to alter the speed of viewing) - which will make watching TV even more fitful and spasmodic.

Long before TV though, I noticed this disruption to the flow of experiential time when I got my first compact disc player in 1989 - with a remote control with pause and skip etc. Music became a frangible, interruptible thing.


  1. Phil Knight sez:

    There's an intriguing essay here by James Poulos in which he makes a distinction between what he calls digital technology (e.g. the internet, streaming) and "electric" technology (e.g. film, television, radio etc.):

    He argues that it is a category error to view digital technology as a continuation of electric technology - it is in fact a completely different medium that acts very much in a reverse direction, to the great benefit of the political right. In many ways digital reverses the panopticon, so that if electric is structural, then digital is anti-structural.

    Be aware though that Poulos is very much a right winger, and so is very pleased about this new dispensation.

  2. interesting

    i think it makes the Panopticon reversible, in the sense that we can display ourselves, present publicly in ways we carefully choose and edit

    but we are also subject to monitoring, in terms of consumption habits, consumer choices, where we go on the internet, things we respond to in our feed or opinions we 'like' - that's a kind of Panopticonic surveillance

    but i shall read the essay to see what dude says

  3. I’m glad to have read Poulos’ essay. It’s a fascinating mix of traditional conservatism with one or two interesting strands of media theory. I understood him to be identifying a need to examine the digital as a major transformation in its own right, prior to politics; the real warning is not that the digital favors any particular political tendency, right or left, but rather that the way the digital overthrows “the authority of the imagination” will lead us to the abyss of nihilism. Bernard Stiegler and others have reached similar conclusions (without Poulos’ traditionally conservative interest in preserving the American regime). If the events of the 2010s appear to favor the right it’s simply because the digital is destroying the dominant social order, which for us happens to be liberal democracy.

    I think what’s interesting here is the way the 2010s are encountered by older people as broken time, disorientation, disruption, “brain strain”. What must this era seem like to people born in this century? That this is simply the way things are and always have been…?

  4. Phil Knight sez:

    Yes, I think that appreciation of what Poulos is saying is more accurate than how I initially described it. I don't see the dominant social order as merely being liberal democracy, but rather progressivism in general, which can be found in various flavours across the political spectrum, only being absent in the more atavistic parts of the far right.

    I think that digital is one of the components of the underlying process of our time, which is the end of rationalism. A cultural phenomenon like Wokeism is very much akin to a religion that has yet to find its deity. Oswald Spengler posited that as the Age of Reason failed the West would experience what he called The Second Religiousness, and Poulos' essay suggests to me that we are on the brink of this now, as all coherent secular narratives crumble.

    1. Your account seems as reasonable as any other. But I think the influence of new technologies is still primary. Leaving aside the question of whether or not "Wokeism" is a religion, it's certainly possible to look to the digital revolution to understand how a quasi-religious/mythical sensibility is returning on a massive scale. Vilem Flusser's work is illuminating in this regard. He details how the move into "the universe of technical images" is accomplished at the expense of historical consciousness (reading and writing). The digital fucks with the sense of forward-moving, linear time which has been the basis of Western consciousness since the invention of the alphabet. Simon's general concern with atemporality (or multiple temporalities, as stated above) could perhaps be related to the replacement of unidirectional time by the return of cyclical, pagan-religious time-- as in the "seasons" of fashion, for example, which he touched on in "Retromania" if I'm remembering correctly. Except much worse, because our new calendar would be determined by a machine, of course, and therefore revolving at inhuman algorithmic speeds. Anyway, y'know, I think the giant slice of doom-cake on our plates has been made from digital technology-- frost it with Right or Left icing as you wish.

    2. Phil Knight sez:

      I agree, although I would point out that not everybody is a digital native, and I would suspect that the majority of people are unaware, or only dimly aware, of the various manias that are generated by digital culture. e.g. I suspect that the % of people who know what a groyper is, is very small.

      It may be the case that digital has a particularly weirding or destructive effect on what Arnold Toynbee called the Creative Minority, and comparatively little effect on everybody else. So we may see a ruling caste that frequently wigs out in bizarre and barely comprehensible enthusiasms (think Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion), while the Normies look on in disbelief. Thus the political effect of digital is that it distracts the Creative Minority from performing their vital function of providing a cohesive vision or project for society as a whole, thereby undercutting their political legitimacy.

      Which, I suppose, is exactly what is happening now.

  5. The late Harold Bloom thought the Age of Democracy was about to the eclipsed by a new Age of Theocracy, and he would have agreed with Phil that Wokeism was religious. Certainly it could be seen as a modern incarnation of all those Protestant activist movements like abolitionism and temperance, but with no God or Good Book to back up its ideas of virtue and unrighteousness. There's that same confidence that the soul can be cleaned up and the world fixed.