I’m probably not the first person to point out that we have invented the most powerful mechanism for human interaction and cooperation ever conceived, yet use it to share pictures of kittens. In the spirit of Buzzfeed, Upworthy et al, I will give this article a ridiculously over-egged headline and a picture of a sloth doing something cute, but if you want to understand my drift, you might have to actually be bothered to read a few hundred words. Sorry about that.
I awoke this morning to a Buzzfeed article about an artist called Lindsay Bottos. To cut a long story short, Lindsay found herself at the brunt of cyberbullying for no other reason than being a relatively attractive woman with a Tumblr. I’m sure that many commentators’ angle on this story will be the failure of feminism: “The male gaze”, that sort of thing. However, there is an underlying tendency behind this whole issue which is, if anything, far more disturbing/interesting in my eyes. When people watched TV, it was called the ‘three-second zapping culture’.
Now we’re in the digital age, it’s this same zapping culture which draws us to Buzzfeed, Tumblr and the rest. If this new century can be characterised by anything, it is the way that visual culture has replaced the written word, and that information is becoming ever more bite-sized. Why watch a 2-hour film when you can watch a one-hour episode of Breaking Bad? Why read an essay about the meaning of art when you can see the idea expressed on canvas? Why read a cookery book when you can watch a youtube video instead? There is no doubt that, for good and for bad, all the information in the universe is slowly being condensed and filtered into manageable chunks. These bitesize pieces are easier to digest and help us to achieve more as human beings. But the flipside of all this is that we are becoming really sucky at thinking for ourselves, of holding complicated ideas in our heads and of seeing things in ways other than black and white.
To take an arbitrary example, let’s look at internet memes. They are funny because they are able to sum up a ‘type of person’ or a ‘familiar situation’ so well. They play into the same human weakness; the need to stereotype, to condense information, to create a shorthand, to distill a thought to its essence. They are also incredibly cruel for the person who’s been memed: They have had their individuality erased and whatever intentions they had in striking that pose have been completely airbrushed from history. They have become nothing more than a hideous caricature, a shorthand for an idea. Sucks to be them. But what is a selfie, but the creation of one’s own meme about oneself? Every selfie is in all circumstances the same meme: I think I’m hot. Just as College Liberal might not even hold liberal views, you might not think you’re hot. But you don’t control your message. The public controls it. They think that all selfies are the “I think I’m hot” meme. Any reaction to your selfie is a reaction to “I think I’m hot” not to you as a person. Don’t take it personally.
In a digital-visual world, there is no room for ambiguity, the marginal, the esoteric. The children of tomorrow will not memorise Shakespeare’s sonnets or Sanskrit grammar. They will not follow trains of argument with logical rigour. They won’t understand the irony of Buzzfeed – the website that specialises in short lists – decrying people who judge artists based on shallow first impressions.
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