by Shumon Basar
A present-day anthropologist would surely glean a great deal from the kinds of media that hundreds of millions of us consume in the West–and, increasingly, in the endearingly titled ‘rest of the world’. By this I am of course referring to the giddy glut of celebrity and body-image-obsessed magazines and books, and make-over shows that transform a decrepit specimen of the human race into The Swan, much like Xzibit and his ‘boyz’ sex-up a forlorn piece of car-junk in MTV’s Pimp My Ride.
Capitalism can only chug merrily forward when there’s something to sell and someone to sell to. It’s no accident that self-help books are one of the biggest growth sectors in the book publishing industry. We are not only more aware of our deficiencies, we don’t feel like real subjects without them. As Jean-Paul Sartre presciently pointed out half a century ago, the price we pay for our existential freedom is that we’re banished to its consequences. Freedom plus democracy opens up
a massive, seemingly unimpeded plain of pure potential before us. This alone can make us a little queasy. Freedom’s vastness is also its very captivity. This paradox silently defines our morally hazardous and gluttonous times.
We can only conclude that today we are too fat and too thin, too poor and too rich, too young and too old, too middle class and not middle class enough. At the same time. Or in sequence. The crisis always comes at us from both ends of the spectrum.
Something similar can be said about ‘content’ today. The sheer inundation of platforms and devices through which we can access information about ourselves, each other and the world around us brings with it a peculiar form of what I’d like to call ‘content crisis’. We live in an age of too much and too little content, with more savvy and more witless managers of this content than ever before.
As China and India (total combined population: 2.5 billion) create a new mega-mass of hungry, middle-class consumers, the axis of content generation is shifting eastwards, threatening Hollywood and other bastions of Old World content providers. When Condé Nast launched Portfolio magazine last year, New York called it ‘the last big magazine launch ever’. Why? Because it is increasingly impossible to generate a focused, loyal and lucrative readership in a market so over-saturated and threatened by everything from Web 2.0 to Attention Deficit Disorder. The world is now atomized, compartmentalized, localized and yet utterly globalized and everywhere at once. This is how we, the consumers, consume content and there’s no going back.
Here’s a sampler of today’s cultural hot-spots of the content-crisis.
The newsstand’s walls are crammed from floor to ceiling with a bestiary of magazine titles, each one clamoring for your attention and cash. ‘384 Ways to Orgasm Your Man!’; ‘How Black is Obama?’; ‘Britney’s Bald Breakdown!’. These racks promise you the emancipatory dimensions of limitless choice. Yet the choice has exceeded the potential for reflective pleasure. It just gives you a headache.
The Google Image Search
Never has it been so easy to quickly call up images we have once seen or want to see for the very first time. Google Image Search offers an empire of pictorial matches (and mismatches) to word probes. Yet for all its licentious extensiveness, the vast majority of images come as tiny, low resolution files. Quantity is intimately and indexically linked to inverse quality. Thomas Ruff’s blow-ups of pornographic thumbnails summarize the physical finitude of an apparently infinite archive.
The Web’s Encyclopedia 2.0
Wikipedia gave user-generated content a much needed boost in prestige. For those who champion the Web’s new standard reference drop-in, the argument is that it is updateable and inclusive in a way that the old bound versions could never be. For those who believe in the superiority of Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, Wikipedia peddles the particularities of knowledge as though they are objective facts. Once again, breathtaking breadth is coupled with supposed content shallowness.
The Endless Broadcast
Many of us may remember when TV channels used to cease broadcasting late at night. In Britain the BBC network would close to the rousing music of the national anthem only to be followed by a test-card image that denoted ‘the world is now asleep’. Rolling news such as CNN, 24-hour continuous transmission and satellite broadcasts from all over the world mean there are literally thousands of years’ worth of air-space that need to be filled every day. The answer? Eternal re-runs of Friends,
Frasier and Dallas or dirt-cheap ‘reality TV’ where the cast is YOU (i.e. the general public). It all makes Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 sarcastic complaint that there were ‘57 channels and nothin’ feel a little quaint.
The Daily Relic
A few months ago, the editor of the Daily Telegraph (one of Britain’s ‘quality’ newspapers) confessed that newspapers were having a ‘dark night of the soul’ moment. Since up-to-the-minute information is literally at one’s fingertips via the internet, newspapers have to redefine what makes them indispensable or else face imminent extinction. Ian MacGregor believes that newspapers must now offer identifiable, robust, accountable and therefore valued opinions (in the form of columns
or op-eds) thus shifting emphasis away from mere information delivery to the delivery of interpretation. Content as information, he reminds us, is free and ambient. Content as interpretation will still cost you.
The Pavilion Impulse
In 2006, on the occasion of the opening of the Serpentine Gallery Summer Pavilion he co-designed with Cecil Balmond, Rem Koolhaas declared, ‘A pavilion without content is not a pavilion at all’. This clarion call (from the heart of Modernism?) seems to go against the majority trend we find in the feverish phenomena of pavilions today. Although small in size, their very afunctional nature liberates pavilions from social necessity and permits unabashed formal reverie (and fun). Pavilions are content-shy and form-forward. This summer in London, pavilions by both artists and architects have sprouted like a cultured virus across the city. They’re architecture with out the controversy, without the threat. Enough content (signature) but not too much.
The Empty Museums
Last July The New York Times ran a story entitled ‘China’s Legacy: Let a Million Museums Bloom’. Journalist Holland Cotter rummaged through several new museums, all of which are now free to enter in a government-led initiative to enculturate the non-museum going masses. More museums are planned all over the country at a hard-to-comprehend rate that mirrors China’s startling urbanization. Abu Dhabi’s Sadiyaat Island is already famous, although there is nothing yet to see. In a just a few years time the world’s largest Guggenheim will open there and Gehry’s desert jewel will be joined by Hadid, Ando and Nouvel icons. Norman Foster and Partners are responsible for the $700 billion USD National Museum of Abu Dhabi. But all these new and planned museums share one missing characteristic: content. While the external envelopes are tantalizingly tangible, what is to go inside them remains, worryingly vague at best. Here architecture is strangely ‘fast’, while content lags way behind, like the turtle to the hare.
‘In the effort to manage crisis, it has become apparent that growth has ended and we have entered a field whose consequences are unpredictable. We are no longer in a state of growth; we are in a state of excess…meaning, that which incessantly develops without being measurable against its own objectives.’
So wrote Jean Baudrillard in his essay The Anorexic Ruins. Content today is like an instant anorexic – or obese – ruin. Content-crisis is a symptom of our age of over-production and over-consumption. It is the malnutrition induced by the corpulent excess of meaning and meaninglessness we call our daily lives.
But worry not. I can hear the sound of a self-help book in the making: How to Beat the Content-Crisis and Become the Real You.
Jean Baudrillard in Looking Back on the End of the World
(Semiotext(e), 1989). P.29