the destroyer > the vent > Doug Rice


This morning, I came across a link to the article “28 Gorgeous Wind Tunnels That Will Blow You Away.” For some reason, I paused to take that title in, and of all the little thoughts of delight and horror that flickered by, the scariest was that thousands of people were, at that moment, writing articles with much more ridiculous titles. Most of these poor people work for content farms, and they have been reduced to acting like tired magpies, spitting trash into piles so that advertisements can be placed next to “Five Unexpected Uses for Eggs.” These people are generally paid around three dollars an article, and the real pros can write five an hour. Some are lucky enough to be contracted by the more trusted aggregators of news and knowledge like the Huffington Post, whose front page today includes the article “6 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Yawning.”

All of this is to be expected, of course, and no one involved in the writing, editing, or posting of this nonsense actually thinks of it as content. They understand that it is the rickety platform thrown together for the huckster to stand on while he does his thing. And if readers somehow miss this and think that they hear some sort of actual message in the noise, it probably doesn’t hurt them much. If it does, it’s certainly not the website’s fault. They really couldn’t make it any more obvious that they are providing nothing but silliness.

Any time there is an increase in the ease of expression, there is bound to be a swell in the flood of vapid crap. Pope, in The Dunciad, lamented the effect that cheap paper and the increase in printers had on 18th century publishing, pointing out that “a deluge of authors cover'd the land: Whereby not only the peace of the honest unwriting subject was daily molested, but unmerciful demands were made of his applause.” He would not have been surprised to hear that our current environment, in which the economic and cultural restrictions to publishing have been nearly entirely removed, has given us “11 Reasons Fluffy Cows Are The New Micropigs.”

What worries me is not this fluff in itself (I’m as curious to see a Fluffy Cow as the next guy), but I am concerned about the way that this empty content, the meaningless lists and lazy regurgitations, is being embraced as an actual form of creation. Feeling that there is a chance to begin to correct their imbalance of consumption and creation, many people have begun to cultivate a public presence for themselves through a body of . . . things. Not creations, really. Not even the second-order, recombinant creations of remix culture, but collections, bits and pieces of the existing landscape that, when strung together, lock into the shape of their collector. Many Pinterest and Tumblr users have come to call this sort of thing curation. Not necessarily the curation of the museum or gallery, which involves a different sort of discovery and exclusivity, but something more akin to the carefully arranged stage of the bowerbird, with its petals, insect wings, and bits of plastic and glass collected and piled to catch a peer’s eye.

The best analogy, at first glance, might be the cabinets of curiosities of the late renaissance, in which the amateur natural philosopher arranged his rarities and objects of sublimity in order to inspire his visitor’s awe. There was, undeniably, an art to it, with shifting fashions in organizing the curios. In one account from 1674, we find an armadillo next to an ostrich egg, a cocoa nut beside a sculpture of a swan, and a stuffed bird of paradise next to a remora. If one was on hand, a place of prominence was given to the unicorn’s horn or the rare cross-breed of sheep and plant, the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.

But the objects in the cabinet of curiosity were, in fact, curious. They were unknown, mysterious, and rare, whereas the digital objects being pulled into personal collections are a Google search away. What’s more, the more they are collected, the more easily collectible these digital items become. Imagine a cabinet of natural wonders in a world where everyone has a unicorn horn and an ostrich egg in their back cupboard, they just haven’t been bothered to go look for them. Imagine that the enterprising gentleman-naturalist needs only touch his friend’s armadillo and one pops up in his own collection. The meaning is quickly stripped away, and wonder becomes clutter, the whole hobby a popular bore.

And digital curators are not, for the most part, searching out rarities (there are exceptions, of course). In fact, they’re often collecting advertisements, the most ubiquitous, infuriatingly unavoidable litter of the web. We’re being invited into our friend’s home to stare at a cabinet of empty food wrappers, ripped pages from clothing catalogs, and a pile of burnt CDs. And there are a hundred other cabinets in the surrounding homes that look nearly the same. It would be rude, we suppose, to point out that most of our friends’ walls or blogs or pinboards are bloodless and dreary. The renaissance collectors were not so polite. Included in the catalog of one 17th century cabinet was a warning that should be at the top of every web page: “Don’t admire things that aren’t particularly rare—you’ll make yourself ridiculous.”

What if we threw out all this borrowed trash and made our own? We’ve been reduced, at this point, to listing lists. We’re picking away at the crust of something, handing each other little pieces of a shell while whatever it was the shell of is falling away at the core. Maybe. To be honest, it is hard to tell what is happening at the center, where creation might be alive and well; the surface is so hard to wade through. Why are we so afraid of saying something, making something? Sometimes our creations are terrible, but they’re ours. I would rather read through a web page of a teenager’s own awful science fiction than hear why Prometheus was worse than Alien. To the guy who put together the list of Most Overlooked Psych-Rock Bands of the Sixties: I would honestly rather you post the tracks that I know you record with your friend from work while your kids are asleep. Whose judgment are we afraid of? Why are we being so cowardly? Enough with lists, with the cabinets of banal products and ads. I want shoddy, precarious cabinets we built ourselves, full of the unexpected, inexplicable, wonderful stuff that could only come from us. Daydreams, strange songs we made up in the shower. Let’s make Alexander Pope groan from his grave at our molestations while we demand for his applause.

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