The following is a speculative piece, or screed or manifesto perhaps, that purports neither to be true nor to be real-time.
Part One: Just Take Those “Old” Records Off the Shelf
I wanted to begin with the suggestion that, in “2015,” something deep and fundamental changed in our world. I wanted to write, also, for the first time in history — it’s such a rare opportunity that one gets to use those words in that order — so I wanted to write, for the first time in history, old music outsold new music (Pugsley). But qualifications are always in order. “History” here means the time period during which relevant sales records were kept, extending presumably back to the first time “music,” by which we must mean recorded music, was first packaged for sale in the United States. These sales figures exclude streaming music, paid or otherwise, which would probably not change the results anyway. As it is, it’s an amazing anomalistic “fact,” and “true,” though we will have to keep qualifying quotes around those words for “now,” by which I mean the duration of this narrative. So yes, I wanted to present that significant “fact,” i.e., the comparative statistic that people in the United States bought more old music than new music for the first “time” ever in “2015,” and I thought it would be useful to develop what such a historical occurrence might mean from a social change perspective.
So pursuing this line, I would go on to say, for one thing, that this soundscan inversion means in “fact” that, in “2015,” and I’ll explain those quotes later, our collective ontological base shifted as we pushed past the point where music as physical object, and thus physical constraint, had anything to do with physical consumption, because it’s almost fully digital “now,” of course, “bits” in our terminology here, and thus no longer embodied or constrained in “atoms” that must be “produced” or “shipped” rather than “copied” or “downloaded.” Now, the music industry, such as it is, may wring its collective hands over what it may think this old-music-outsold-new-music “fact” says about the quality of the new music available, as if there’s some talent shortage, among performers or consumers, one’s not sure exactly which, if not both, but even if there were universal shortages of talent, which from other evidence seems quite possible, that’s not what’s happening to music sales. Something very different explains the transactional triumph of back catalogs over, well, front catalogs.
Here it is, then, and it’s obvious — back in the previous analog world, when recorded music was a physical good embodied in atoms of vinyl, or later polycarbonate plastic, and distributed through physical stores, only so much music could be economically produced and distributed in significant quantities. And well, the people wanted “new” music, and the music industry wanted “new” music, which was inherently riskier but more exciting for all parties concerned. There was a systemic bias toward “new” music, in other words, when it was embodied in atoms. You could find “old” music then, but it was not as easy as finding “new” music; you had to commit to searching for “old” music in the delightfully crepuscular world of bargain bins and used record stores. “Now,” however, the systemic paradigm has shifted fully with the nature of the recorded music object itself, from atoms to bits. In the post-atomic ontological paradigm, in which all media is digital, and thus wholly intangible, and the distribution channels themselves are digital, again, nothing material needs to be produced, and thus there is zero marginal cost to every piece of music sold, “new” or “old,” high-demand or low. Plus, all that “old” music is actually “new” music to all the people who have never heard it before, suggesting that the power to define or decree what is worth listening to has shifted, or distributed, from a centralized authority to a decentralized everyone and anyone, with interesting broader relativistic implications we can’t pull this essay over to inspect just yet. Anyway, in the digital paradigm, all music is “now” available for consumption at all “times,” free or paid, and because there is more “old” music than “new” music, and this is more “true” every year, it will not stop, and nothing like it will stop, because the entire ontological context of cultural production, and thus the largely digital-mediated reality in which the vast majority of human beings currently exist, is shifting from atoms to bits right before our eyes, with everything that implies, and the repercussions are enormous and everywhere.
Part 2: The Black Cat Crosses Our Path All Over Again
Well, I had meant to write all that stuff in Part One, and more in the same vein, to tease out those enormous, everywhere social-change implications of how we interact with digital media “now,” but then I looked at this “old”-music-outsold-“new”-music “fact” again and saw the black cat from The Matrix. Let me explain the metaphor. In the Wachowski Brothers’ “1999” film, the main characters inhabit a large-scale computer simulation, called The Matrix, which masks the reality that they are essentially enslaved by intelligent machines. At one point, the characters see a black cat twice, a déjà vu glitch that occurs when the computer code behind the simulation is updated or changed, usually to further some nefarious objective of the code’s architects. The “old” music sales “fact” is the same as seeing a black cat twice in The Matrix: it’s a small thing after all, not a big thing, but it coincides with and thus signals something else that is itself large-scale and profound. In foresight, we might call it a “weak signal,” I suppose. On one hand, the “old” music sales “fact” indicates that, as atoms shift to bits, as we’ve noted, all music that has ever been produced will be available to everyone everywhere all at once. On the other hand, as we haven’t yet noted explicitly, it means there are plenty of people who feel no reservations about consuming old music, people for whom old music is cool, which is in itself a social trend worth analyzing.
But, on another other hand, and here’s the big scary picture, this “fact” also suggests that sequential time may be breaking down, for all intents and purposes, and if so, this “fact” should be additional “evidence,” as if, after the various events of “2016,” one needs any more “evidence,” that, in “2015,” the technological singularity or something as pervasive and bizarre happened, yanking the ontological rug out from under humans on earth, and we are now living, as Elon Musk and other ostensibly reasonable people have suggested, in something like a sophisticated computer simulation (Anderson), specifically one in which all cultural artifacts exist, and are at the same time produced and reproduced, in the present all at once, with merely an illusion of sequential time that is in the end indistinguishable from variations in aesthetic style; and that we live in a simulation, or something indistinguishable from a simulation, in which all cultural artifacts are being slowly and permanently detached from any relationship to authoritative “reality,” “history,” or “facts.” In this indistinguishable-from-simulation “reality,” in other words, time-and-space flattens further with each computing cycle, or “year,” as everything gets edited and remixed and thus rendered continually anew, streaming timelessly in the present; temporal constructs hold less and less meaning; and perceptual time accelerates in some fashion similar to Terence McKenna’s time-wave-zero (Eden), collapsing all probability waves into an increasingly information-dense, inescapable and eventually eternal-present-moment. This is why, for one thing, I’m putting dubiousness quotes around “2015” and similar temporal concepts. But more on this Big Scary Picture later.
On yet another other but related hand, and this is the point we need to stop and inspect here in this section, what’s happening with music, and thus all cultural artifacts, signifies that history and derivationally also a certain sense of “truth,” as well as certain aspects of perceived “time,” are no longer what they were. Of course, we always knew that “history” and “truth” to a certain extent could be shaped by authority to support its ideological objectives, in the same way the music industry shaped the production and distribution system of music to suit its economic objectives, back in the days of atom-based musical artifacts. But in those “old” paradigms, there was an authority, a central and hegemonic body with a narrative that could be referenced and inevitably contested/resisted. What’s happened since in the code of “the Matrix,” both figuratively and literally speaking at once, is that authority may have finally and completely collapsed, and the transcendental signifier of authority and any associated dominant narrative may have fragmented completely, and long may it rest in peace. “Now” and going “forward,” then, “history” (and “truth” and perceived “time”) will likely no longer depend upon the atomic integrity of cultural artifacts, arranged in sequential narrative strata that both produce and reproduce cultural meaning; these concepts, rather, will continue to exist only in limited and provisional usages, essentially for the temporary fulfillment of human needs.
How so? When everything — music, books, movies, images, ideas, expressions, maps, relationships, conversations, and infinitely more — is digitized into bits, everything is curate-able, editable, re-mixable, spinnable, re-sequenceable, and when there is no authority, explicit or implicit, legal or normative, to preserve an ontological model of “what is real” and an epistemological model of “what is true,” ideological or otherwise, and everyone has access to the raw material of culture and the tools to curate, edit, and reinterpret, express anew, we’ve crossed a threshold of which “social change” seems like a modest, even quaint description. This is the hidden meaning behind the seemingly banal and circuitous title, “Tomorrow’s Yesterday is Today” — in crossing this threshold into this post-temporal future (tomorrow), we have rendered history (yesterday) fully and finally a product of our present activity (today). We are free to say anything happened, whenever we want to say it happened, in whatever way we want to say it, and the evaluative criteria for the validity or legitimacy of any production, reproduction, or consumption of a cultural artifact, by which we mean everything humans express or do, is not veracity, but will be rather other criteria, such as agreement, emotional content, aesthetics, originality, or whatever. Whether something “is” “true” or “really” “happened” is rapidly becoming irrelevant, and in blunt terms, it’s the “true” death of “history” as we knew it, or even deeper, the death of the supporting ontological and epistemological structures that made history what it was, both time- and score-keeper in an all-pervasive culturally constructed narrative context. The social impact is just beginning to express itself more broadly in what has been labelled the “post-information” or “post-fact” or “post-truth” era in which we “now” are presumed to live.
Illustrative Interlude: The Curious Case of Boilerplate
In the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word boilerplate has three definitions:
- syndicated material supplied especially to weekly newspapers in matrix or plate form
- a: standardized text
b: formulaic or hackneyed language <bureaucratic boilerplate>
- tightly packed icy snow (Merriam-Webster)
If you click the link labeled “See boilerplate defined for English-language learners,” you get this very much more-to-the point definition: “phrases or sentences that are a standard way of saying something and are often used” (Merriam-Webster). Forgetting snow for now, let’s think of boilerplate as standardized language, often used in legal contexts, for the express purpose of saving time; boilerplate texts are shortcuts, linguistic organisms, if you will, bred to be widely reproduced through judicious cutting and pasting, but they’re often so successful at reproducing that they have apparently overwhelmed some linguistic contexts, stimulating the slightly pejorative definition 2b: “formulaic or hackneyed language.”
In the transition of cultural production and reproduction from atoms to bits, boilerplate language and things like boilerplate language, such as clichés and other overwhelmingly useful expressions, can be thought of as an analog to genetic, or better yet, memetic, material. They get spread around because they are useful and transmittable. Copy-paste. Similar cultural genetic/memetic material includes rhythms or beats, which get infinitely sampled and re-combined, iconic imagery, pleasing visual compositions, compelling conversations, commonplace situations. In short, in this new age in which ontology and epistemology as we knew them have collapsed into something entirely new, any cultural ingredient that can be edited, copied, and transmitted — the current apotheosis of which is now the internet “meme,” a picture with a little bit of text that hieroglyphically communicates a widely shareable idea, and which, when combined together, form a kind of metalanguage that has never existed before — any cultural ingredient, then, that can be copied is subject to continual redefinition and has thus lost any pretension to fixed or permanent meaning.
But now, meet another boilerplate, Boilerplate the Robot. Here’s a photo of Boilerplate with President Teddy Roosevelt after the battle of San Juan Hill, in “1898:”
And here’s Boilerplate sizing up boxer Jack Johnson, sometime around “1910:”
The product of Paul Guinan and Anita Bennett and their Adobe Photoshop license, Boilerplate the Robot appears in dozens of historical photographs, the robot itself a piece of cultural genetic/memetic material spliced right into the artifacts of history, artifacts now translated from atoms to bits, re-mixed with new time- and truth-independent content, and sent out into the digital distribution network that is the internet. Needless to say, Boilerplate has become a “steampunk” sensation, with an elaborate backstory developed in books and the potential of a film by none other than uber-geek director JJ Abrams (Zutter). Steampunk, incidentally, is a science fiction genre, general aesthetic, and subculture that imagines a fusion of advanced technology and the 19th century. It is a revisionist history, to most sensibilities, created in a crowd-sourced fashion for the entertainment of a devoted subculture; the steampunk narrative exists in parallel with the base historical narrative and projects both forward and backward in imagined “time,” an act which I call collapsing history, and creates a charming time dislocation, as we see in the photographs of Boilerplate.
So let’s get to the brass tacks of Boilerplate and things like Boilerplate, where cultural genetic/memetic material spills outside of the nicely organized sequential strata of the prevailing parallel historical narrative. These photos. Boilerplate. It’s not history, is it? Not “real” history? Not “true?” Or is it? For my part, I can hold the thought that it’s fiction in my mind; I know my way around Photoshop and know what it can do; yet I have never seen a photo of Teddy Roosevelt standing on San Juan Hill without Boilerplate standing there with him. I have never seen a photo of boxer Jack Johnson without Boilerplate clowning with him. Which is not to say such artifacts don’t exist, I will admit that possibility, but now that I’ve seen Boilerplate there, I can’t erase him. This new cultural artifact exists, contextualized among other cultural artifacts; it can’t be denied. It’s like old music and new music, coalescing and collapsing in the mix. What’s “true” doesn’t matter, and is rather a separate question, no? In Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology, futurist Brian David Johnson says Boilerplate is “better history than most ‘real’ history [co-author James H. Carrott] has seen — and that’s saying something” (Carrott and Johnson, 95).
So there’s a thing called “better history” that is distinct from “real history,” and is generally preferable to it. Let that sink in. And tell me if this looks familiar:
Part 3 and Final: A User’s Guide to the Post-Information Age,
or the Infinite SimCity
Now, let’s get back to looking more directly at the significant social change field radiating out from the atoms-to-bits singularity. In an only-slightly-hysterical “2014” piece in The Guardian, media commentator Bob Garfield writes, “Facts are over, replaced by feelings and free-floating certainty … for everything that matters, as of now, we are smack in the post-information age” (Garfield). The piece is representative of many that have been written in a similar vein over the past two years. After citing several statistics that illustrate the power of self-serving beliefs triumphing in the face of what Garfield considers “facts,” he sums up the stakes from his point of view, “What makes this all so dangerous is that it not only corrupts policy debates, it undermines serious journalism – and science and history and all other rational disciplines – by rendering their output mere arguments, no more or less credible than someone’s dogma, superstition or gut hunch” (Garfield). The loss of respect for, or relevance of, or deference to, serious journalism, science, history, etc. — in other words, authority — is what Garfield and people like Garfield have confronted.
It might be easy to dismiss such frustrations as Garfield’s if they weren’t so widespread. Dismissing them would be, again, missing the signal. It’s also tempting to blame people who don’t accept “facts,” say they’re intellectually deficient, point out the “dumbing-down” of society and failure of public education. But that’s missing the point too. It’s not the players; it’s the game. Like it or not, my argument here implies, there has indeed been a significant social change, and human beings are doing what they have always done — live according to the values that work for them in the situations in which they find themselves. I’ve articulated it already here, but to sum up: as part of our ontological shift from atoms to bits, a corresponding epistemological shift is occurring (and perhaps even metaphysical, but we can’t get into that here). As human beings, our ontological being is built upon the objects we encode with meaning, and how we interact with those objects. Because digital artifacts are editable and easily duplicated, not fixed or distinctive, so too will everything that depends upon digital artifacts be editable and easily duplicated, and I am suggesting that these things are big fundamental, interrelated things like “history,” “time,” and “truth.” As virtual and augmented realities develop and become pervasive, digital objects will be everywhere and increasingly every thing we interact with. Pokemon Go was just a weak shot across the bow from the new paradigm. If we are honest with ourselves, concepts such as “history,” “time,” and “truth” are not ancient and eternal; they arose within the context of human evolution and human cultural development. In Western culture, when “rationality” replaced a largely religious/superstitious worldview during the Enlightenment period, we experienced an ontological and epistemological shift from a somewhat animistic/spiritual experience of existence to the materialistic world with which we are familiar “now.” If you believe in progress and/or evolution, you would most likely at least entertain the idea that this post-information age is something we’ve arrived at because it’s better in some way, but to be clear, there’s no necessary reason to believe in such things (unless it suits the objective of your narrative “now”).
How this new paradigm might be better is what’s eating at everyone, what everyone is trying to parse. The post-information age to which Garfield and others have referred has also been called the “post-truth” and “post-fact” age. The Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” the “2016” word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford). Here, as in Garfield, the concept is positioned within an existing rationalist framework: objective fact vs. emotion and personal belief. To be clear, I’m not denying the existence of either facts or beliefs as concepts; my point is that what matters is rather the actions one takes, and that a society collectively takes, in this new reality, where the ontological and epistemological paradigms have possibly shifted beyond immediate recognition. While there are certainly people in the world with a medieval animistic worldview, they do not define the larger global culture, and it does no good to stomp your feet and protest change. Yet, that is an open option. However, most of us will choose to deal with this post-truth reality “going forward.” The questions to ask are, what does the change mean, how will it manifest itself in the future? How will we live in this post-information age?
The answer to these questions may require another essay to fully explain, but here’s the short of it, and it derives from the Big Scary Picture already described: we can’t prove we’re not in a computer simulation; you “now” have the power to fabricate and edit your reality; let’s collectively and individually make it work for us. Whether or not we “really” crossed some strange time-and-space singularity where we fully entered an eternal computer simulation, there’s no reason not to live as though we did. An infinite SimCity. The cyberpunk future is here: you can hack your own reality. It’s now made of hackable bits, not atoms. If one embraces the new reality, which again might as well be a simulation, we have to face the possibility of unprecedented freedom and power at the individual level, which is both thrilling and frightening. Individuals “now” have the power to create their own complete realities. You are free, no matter how much that bothers the people who have in the past depended on controlling you. And it’s weird. And new. All this retreat from “facts” and “truth” is nothing short of a new paradigm, and the potential liberation of over 7 billion creators, free to write the endless futures of humanity.
Anderson, Mark Robert. “Elon Musk Says We’re Probably Living in a Computer Simulation — Here’s the Science.” The Sinularity Hub. June 23, 2016. http://singularityhub.com/2016/06/23/elon-musk-says-were-probably-living-in-a-computer-simulation-heres-the-science/
Carrott, James H. and Johnson, Brian David. Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey through Steampunk into the Future of Technology. Sebastapol, CA, O’Reilly, 2013.
Eden, Dan. “Terence McKenna’s Time Wave Theory.” Viewzone.com. n.d. http://www.mondovista.com/timewavex.html
Garfield, Bob. “Who needs facts? We appear to be in the Post-Information Age now.” The Guardian. January 3, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/03/post-information-age-benghazi-gop
Pugsley, Adam. “Old Music is Outselling New Music for the First Time in History.”
Merriam-Webster. “Definition of boilerplate.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/boilerplate
Oxford English Dictionary. “Word of the Year: Post-Truth.” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016