#187: A Rainbow in Curved Air
Although the classical 20th-century music snob still endures vestigially, the species peaked with Gen X before breathing its dying gasps through Elder Millennials and ‘00s hipsterdom, at which point poptimism and the internet’s democratizing forces finally crushed the phenomenon for good (Pitchfork not only helped euthanize it but provided the movement’s palliative care during its twilight years). The archetypal snobs were deeply flawed characters like the High Fidelity record store clerks and the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons (always retail employees, seemingly, whose empowerment as gatekeepers shared the same trajectory as brick-and-mortar media distribution). The snobs’ core competency, which also dates the onset of their extinction, was the act of codifying and internalizing canonical taste—a vocation that ultimately amounted to an act of memorization. At the height of their prowess, pre-internet cultural elitists tapped into veins of esoteric knowledge via subcultural infrastructure that the mainstream could not or would not access, and then imprinted that knowledge upon themselves thoroughly enough that they could reliably transmit it to others. In this milieu, where good taste itself was always being formalized and even centralized (and thus not always open to interpretation), you distinguished yourself from the masses not by deciding what was good, but by having better access to the sources of taste and then merging them into your own identity, thereby becoming a beacon for others to follow.
Like the printing press in the 15th century, the internet would rapidly devalue a variety of hard-won skills, and analog snobs would suffer the same fate that monastic scribes once did. As the ‘00s progressed, it became clear that internalizing information—memorizing, cataloging, recognizing—was precisely what we would no longer need to do. Memory was outsourced to the cloud as taste became the individual’s burden: We all found ourselves adrift on an unbounded sea of content, suddenly responsible for doing our own canonization. The task was so overwhelming that one could hardly be blamed for poptimistically clinging to Justin Timberlake and Kelly Clarkson as life rafts. At the same time, the work of actively remembering the past began to attentuate. Marshall McLuhan wrote that every new technology was an extension of the human body but also an amputation of the same function from the body itself, and computers’ ability to furnish us with a second brain implies that our first brains have correspondingly atrophied. The recent resurgence of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” sparked by its placement in Stranger Things, should not have been too surprising (and maybe it wasn’t) but its particular resonance probably derives from the song’s status as “a shibboleth of good taste in music,” as Foster Kamer wrote. Kate Bush is a bridge connecting the old world—where shibboleths of good taste mattered—to the new world where we wake up as clean slates each morning, primed for algorithmic feeds and streaming platforms’ curation to reprogram us anew. Amnesiac TikTokers have no choice but to proclaim everything a trend because the past is more of a mystery than the future. Who cares if you knew about Kate Bush before someone else did? The clock just reset to zero again. We are all constantly starting from scratch now, and if you actually remember the past, your curse is to get annoyed when others naively unearth it.
Time is the new space. The digital annihilation of physical distance means that culture must be organized temporally. Social media feeds’ transition from chronological to algorithmic sorting was a manipulation of time comparable to the railroad’s manipulation of space—relevance, as determined by someone else, now outweighs recency as a criterion for occupying valuable real estate in your attention field. But recency is still one of the variables in the formula and if two posts are equally “relevant” the freshest one will get priority. The corollary here is that all information, however significant, must eventually be pushed aside to make room for the new, although it may stick around slightly longer. Without the monkish music elitists preserving our memories of what they deem canonical, Kate Bush must disappear until some extrinsic force like Netflix resurrects her. Formerly, space fulfilled a similar role, as Robin Sloan illustrates by describing social media as an orthographic projection: Before electronic media, Sloan writes, news was filtered by spatial distance. “When it arrived on your doorstep, a report of a far-off event had an ‘amplitude’ that helped you judge whether or not it mattered to you and/or the world…That’s not the case with social media, where even tiny, distant events are reproduced ‘at full size’ on your screen.” Such news may be full size but it fades quickly; without the spatial filtering of culture, time is the only source of amplitude. Counterintuitively, this ensures that the past keeps recirculating, always presenting itself as new.
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