Do Not Delete: Eternally Vintage, The Digital Dream
For the last six months or so Nathan Jurgenson's definition of digital dualism has been spinning about in my head. I've waited quite a while to say anything in response, mainly because I was nothing other than massively impressed with his cogent delineation of our cultural reaction to what he periodically refers to as "the rise of digital".
What more was there, really, to say? Those who fetishize the offline, revel in faux-vintage and who reserve for analogue that prize moniker "the real" have never had it so good. From Instagram to offlining projects, the power of saying "no" to an online world, ironically, from within it, is seen by Jurgenson as society's farcical inability to accept the fluidity of a new paradigm. A paradigm represented by technologies it is constantly told are disruptive and fractious. So, clinging to outmoded tropes and styles, mankind in fear of the age of the screen looks desperately back to transistor radios and photographic darkrooms.
"We may never fully log off, but this in no way implies the loss of the face-to-face, the slow, the analog, the deep introspection, the long walks, or the subtle appreciation of life sans screen. We enjoy all of this more than ever before. Let's not pretend we are in some special, elite group with access to the pure offline, turning the real into a fetish and regarding everyone else as a little less real and a little less human."
It is important to understand Nathan's point correctly - online and offline are not (indeed, cannot be) mutually exclusive. They are concomitant elements in our contemporary worldview. They dictate actions that take place within one another and are in turn bonded, inextricably, to our notion of ourselves.
"The smartphone has come to be "the perfect symbol" of leaving the here and now for something digital, some other, cyber, space."
Nathan has said that faux-vintage photography achieved the overwhelming popularity it currently enjoys because the originals mimicked by smartphone photographs "stood the test of time, they described a world past, and, as such, they earned a sense of importance."
I couldn't agree more. Indeed, a while ago in an email discussion with Nathan I concurred, "Faux vintage seems to capture stability. Something fallible, peeling at the edges, cracked, stained, split, yet somehow still cherished and saved - something that will, against the odds, last - and not be deleted." It is that counter-intuitive long-lasting decay that is replicated with such attention to detail in Instagram pictures, ruin porn and the models created by the special effects teams behind the original Star Wars trilogy.
"Faux vintage seems to capture something fallible, peeling at the edges, cracked, stained, split, yet somehow still cherished and saved"
Here, I would like to add one thought that has spun out of an interview I did with Isak Gerson of the Swedish file-sharing religion "Kopimism". As with so much (historical or current) human culture, the end goal for Kopimists is the destruction of human mortality. Transferral to an eternal existence within a machine, a classic kind of singularity, is sought after by those Kopimists who, according to Gerson, reject their fleshy individuality in favour of assimilation into an amorphous online mass. The same sentiment is clearly present in memes and rhetoric associated with the online group Anonymous.
For a while I was thinking that those saturated in faux-vintage photography had little in common with Kopimists and hacker cults. In fact, they seemed to proclaim that they were the polar opposite. In a way, they are. But they share two very important characteristics: a perspective which is overtly dualist and the desire to obtain eternal life.
As I mentioned above, the need to escape erasure is a potential driver behind the popularity of the analogue. People are falsely told that an option lies before them - the offline and the online. Red and blue pill. Faced with that dualism, the choice becomes fundamental. Whichever option one chooses supposedly speaks volumes about a person's values and ideals. Consequently, coating a digital photograph in a layer of image-altering code which makes it imitate a 40-year-old Polaroid is an attempt to pin that photograph down. To achieve the hubris that accompanied the invention of all representative media; that it would speak to posterity; that it would achieve transcendence, not transience.
Despite the fact that it is exceptionally difficult to actually erase any data from a hard-drive so that it cannot be retrieved (even forensically), the prominence of hardware failure and the persistent notion that digital somehow equates to trivial has contributed to the great malaise of our time: how do we make stuff stick? Blog it. Tweet it. Get an online article commissioned. Start a group.
None of it - for many - is enough. We are engaged in an endless search for permanence. One must keep contributing to the mill of data, streams of self, broadcasts which redistribute identities as part of so-called 'alternative' styles. And it is the moment at which this feverishness slides into fetishes and the non-authentic that Jurgenson has targetted so doggedly.
I'm not sure what right we have to be surprised by it though - if, that is, we are surprised by it. It seems to me that the current state of affairs has been brought on partly by the shrouded limitations of aspiring technologies, partly by our media's desire for sensationalism and partly by humanity's instinctive aptitude for producing self-referential artefacts.
We live vicariously, as we always have. And our chief reason for doing so, the only reason why that could conceivably be part of our over-developed psyches, is the wish that we might live longer and bigger than we actually do. It is a key component in our natural survival mechanism. It's not simply that we want to document, that we want to prove that something happened. We want to prove that WE happened and, by extension, we want to prove that, in some form at least, we will never die.
The secret, unspoken terror for us now is that we are threatened by the backwards-facing arrow of the delete button. In response we say, ‘Do Not Delete', in fact, you can't delete. The archive footage and old Polaroids which we periodically 'rediscover' play a new role in affirming our culture's durability. We ape that durability daily because it encapsulates the most noble, if outrageous, ideal that has ever gripped the mind of man. Yet from the pyramids to hipstaprint, our only demand remains unmet.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
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- And so another week begins. Machine Starts coverage of technology news and the inner workings of my mind will, as always, be with you.
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