Informational Hygiene

January 21st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

‘Informational Hygiene’ is a concept dreamt up by Neal Stephenson in his classic cyberpunk novel ‘Snow Crash’. Stephenson riffs on the idea of memes as mind viruses; his conceit is that memes exist with the power not only to propagate themselves and convey ideology as a side-effect, but to destroy the minds which play host to them. Ancient cultures, plagued by these mind viruses, developed forms of cultural protection against them:

Monocultures, like a field of corn, are susceptible to infections, but genetically diverse cultures, like a prairie, are extremely robust. After a few thousand years, one new language developed – Hebrew – that possessed exceptional flexibility and power. The deuteronomists, a group of radical monotheists in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C., were the first to take advantage of it. They lived in a time of extreme nationalism and xenophobia, which made it easier for them to reject foreign ideas like Asherah worship. They formalized their old stories into the Torah and implanted within it a law that insured its propagation throughout history – a law that said, in effect, ‘make an exact copy of me and read it every day.’ And they encouraged a sort of informational hygiene, a belief in copying things strictly and taking great care with information, which as they understood, is potentially dangerous. They made data a controlled substance.

Information hygiene has developed a life beyond the pages of this book. [it’s not the only concept to do so — Snow Crash is also the book that inspired Google Earth]. It has a slighty creepy feel, but the principle is sound. The processes inside your head depend on what you put into it. So you should be careful about what you read, for example — an idea, even one you consciously disagree with, will have mental side-effects.

You could take informational hygiene as an injunction not to read, say, racist or sexist rants. I’m not so bothered about that side of things; I believe you can reject such ideas more-or-less consciously.

Informational hygiene is more interesting to me in the context of the attention economy. Political, social and cultural developments are dictated not just by what people believe, but by how much time they spend talking and thinking about it.

If a European spends all her time reading about politics in America, for example, she’ll end up feeling alienated and disempowered. She has few levers with which to change policy in another country, so learning in detail about it is a waste of intellectual and emotional effort. Better to learn about a topic she can affect, and the ways she can affect it.

Nostalgia, atemporality and music blogging

January 21st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Simon Reynolds: how do you write about music when the volume of creation is unmanageably large? You give up on criticism, give up on finding something Significant. Instead, you just churn out excited brief notes on whatever track has dropped into your feed in the last 5 minutes.

That’s what Pitchfork are doing with their offshoot Altered Zones. 15 bloggers post prolifically “with a sensibility that could be fairly described as post-critical“. Because, says Reynolds, “there’s just too much [music], and that filtering doesn’t seem to be quite the thing to do with it

So far, so typically net/ADHD/affect-driven. More interesting is the implied link between this cultural surplus and a culture of nostalgia.

“Everybody knows” that we’re drowning in nostalgia. But our nostalgia has two distinct patterns, one transitional, the other here to stay. The first is our parent’s nostalgia — the mainstream, modernist-nationalist TV nostalgia of “remember the 80s” shows. This variant functions as a stand-in for the mass culture of the past, a nicotine patch for modernism. It conjures up a feeling of experiencing the same media alongside your neighbours, friends and enemies. Since that shared culture no longer exists in the present, it’s transposed into the past.

So that form of mass-culture nostalgia is a transition phenomenon: it’ll vanish as there are no longer generations growing up with mass-culture upbringing. “Remember the 90s” is already strugging; “Remember the noughties” perhaps won’t function at all.

But the ‘nostalgia’ currently riding high in music is something else entirely. It’s “ahistorical omnivorousness”:

I don’t think [it] really has much to do with all the ’80s ghosts haunting this music. From YouTube to sharity blogs, the Internet is an ever-expanding data sea, and these young musicians are really explorers, voyaging into the past and diving for pearls.

Bruce Sterling covered this last year in a speech at the Transmediale digital art festival in Berlin:

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists?

Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the ‘Frankenstein Mashup.’ Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The “Frankenstein mashup” is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.”

tw: yes

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