For a piece of art to be popular on the internet today, a spark of novelty injected into the hopelessly derivative and easily recognizable is a prerequisite. The recursive “meta” wink and nudge, an unusual (especially ephemeral) medium, or a clever pun playing on the day’s top story are all bonuses. I was excited to hear Macaulay Culkin’s band, Pizza Underground, playing parodies of the Velvet Underground interlaced with references to Papa John’s and Pizza Hut, but behind the pizza masks and amateur covers, there’s desperation. There is an overabundance of content. From strained Maoist analyses of the Saiyan homeworld in Dragon Ball Z to Our God is an Awesome God (dubstep remix), there has never been quite so much banality.
In Cory Doctorow’s Makers this aesthetic event is played out not on Reddit or Twitter, but in a fictional 3d-printing boom. The short-lived economic surge it triggers, dubbed New Work, causes high levels of employment where the little guys creating this stuff make tons of money. Ultimately, this tide of derivative 3d printed junk recedes into a marginal nostalgia ride curated by users. Then the ride becomes very popular, only to be sabotaged and brutalized by a crazed Disney executive, desperate to keep his job. This is dangerous fiction, a place where friendly corporate entities battle mean old monopolists. Here, the tangible is as easily reproducible as the digital, so it stands in for it. The theme ride that takes users through an ever-changing algorithmic arrangement of 3d printed relics is like the front page of Reddit, or YouTube, but in the book it is a loosely organized not-for-profit collective run by a bunch of lovable guys where the upvoting and downvoting mechanisms bring out subtle narratives instead of sex, lies, and fatal epic fails. At times it is an absurd caricature of the conflict between rising internet entertainment powerhouses and aging entertainment industries given over entirely to depicting the likes of Google as a ragtag band of subversive and incidental freedom fighters. In the real world, it’s hard to see Google’s monopolistic, opaque advertisement partnership scams as a possible career path for millions — they cut this infallible publication off without giving any reason or recourse for appeal. Even the marginal utopia in Makers seems derivative, so full of brand names and buzzwords I wonder if Doctorow is getting product placement checks along with the income he gets for advising cryptography salesman, even as he suggests children aren’t “digital natives” unless they learn to use crypto. I suppose science fiction has never been the most lucrative industry, but one can at least hope for the kind of world depicted in Makers, one where infinitesimally cheap reproduction would benefit the creators of original content rather than those with a monopoly on the means of reproduction.
A photograph of a vacation bungalow in an exotic location showed off its glass floors — pristine windows into a perfectly lit pond full of gorgeous fish. This was one of the most upvoted images of the day, the perfect photography as much as the interesting architecture inspiring tens of thousands of happy clicks. However, in the comment section for this photograph, users upvoted less flattering images of the same ramshackle hut where there were no fish or glowing lights in the water. The artistry of the photographer, in the eyes of many commenters, was not even a possibility — the image was obviously doctored in photoshop (and that’s not an art to appreciate, either).
This is a milieu of snark. Nickelodeon WebHeads has children pressing buzzers in a game show, rewarding the kid who nails the precise moment some poor sap is maimed for life in a hilarious video. Best to be just another mark in the daily parade of glyphs referencing a set of popular characters, arranged in every permutation and medium imaginable. Each novel click is another grain of sand on a pile of ennui too big to fit in the Death Star, the Tardis, King’s Landing, or…