John is a classical and jazz violinist.
Too much stuff
‘... the monstrous machine of civilization, its screws having worked loose, has turned into a mechanical milker of the Muses. Thus it fills the libraries to bursting, inundates the bookstores and magazine stands, numbs the television screens, piling itself high with a superabundance of which the numerical magnitude alone is a deathblow. If finding forty grains of sand in the Sahara meant saving the world, they would not be found, any more than would the forty messianic books that have already long since been written but were lost beneath strata of trash. And these books have unquestionably been written.’
So speaks the fictional reviewer of a fictional work entitled Pericalypsis in a 1971 collection of similarly fabricated literary criticism, A Perfect Vacuum, by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Nearly fifty years on, these prophetic words, delivered with light-hearted irony, ring truer than ever before. Perhaps not even Lem himself could have envisioned the bloated likes of Amazon and Spotify, spewing forth novelty with scarcely a thought for the material and spiritual wreckage left in their heaving wake.
We live in an age of stuff. In multiple aspects of our modern lives, we are confronted with an oftentimes overwhelming abundance, and an insidious demand for our attention: the colossal archives of services such as Spotify and Netflix offer more entertainment than could be ingested in several lifetimes, and this with only a superficial appreciation of the material; superstores and online merchants stock a consistently shifting and seemingly bottomless assortment of products, most of which you don’t know you need until personalised advertising hits you; out-of-sight technology graveyards overflow with discarded smart- phones and tablets, considered obsolete before a lightbulb has run its course; social media platforms open a window onto others’ lives, making a soap opera of the world around us, whispering promises of absolution and fulfilment with just a little more scrolling. The message is clear: more is better. That spiritual hole which yawns inside so many of us can only be satisfied by more stuff.
As the glamour of the post-industrial emphasis on material gain begins to lose its thrall, the damage of decades of growth-driven politics and economics is now impossible to ignore. Too much stuff has altered our climate catastrophically; life itself has been commodified; and we are witnessing the effects of spiritual desertification.
The public library, a concept with roots stretching back thousands of years, is a social model developed to nurture intellectual and cultural growth. One or more experts carefully curate a collection of books (and other media), filling the limited space according to strict criteria, aiming above all for a balanced selection of genuine quality. Visitors make suggestions, ask questions, and benefit from the knowledge of expert librarians, creating a perpetually shifting wealth of information driven by active engagement with the available material. In much the same way, record collectors and other aficionados build their own collections with similar diligence, in the constant pursuit of discovery and refinement of ideas. On a more abstract level, artists are always seeking new avenues of self-expression, assimilating attitudes and approaches from other people and cultures, discarding outdated ideas along the way.
On the other hand, modern streaming services and social media rely on capital gain for their existence, and therefore aim to maximise ‘traffic’. There is little to no curation with a music provider such as Spotify or Apple Music, and indeed anyone can upload and distribute their music digitally. This has led to a monstrously saturated media market, potentially paralysing for those who might not know exactly what they are looking for. Algorithms provide the online equivalent of curation (with the exception of certain playlists), pointing you in a certain direction according to big data and your own intricately harvested profile. This is a passive form of engagement, as opposed to the more active engagement necessary when visiting a library. Although AI-powered suggestions can be enormously useful, leading down unexpected paths, they should not be considered a replacement for the hard-won wisdom of trusted human sources. Furthermore, the algorithmic nature of our online world can be harnessed in more pernicious ways: those with a greater understanding of the processes involved can ‘play the algorithm’ to their benefit, an extreme example of which is the widescale and effective dissemination of disinformation.
Technology can be a great leveller. As I alluded to earlier, as a musician it has never been easier to release your own material. The recording studio was once a kind of Mecca, but with the exponential improvement in studio technology, and the inverse decrease in cost, musicians can now produce and distribute their own records from home. Similarly, fans are no longer limited to the content of their nearest record store: the discographies of artists across the globe, stadium headliners or bedroom singer-songwriters, are available at the touch of a button. There is no doubt that the dissolution of certain barriers to creativity has given us art of real excellence and originality. Unfortunately, the same shift has also created a suffocating superabundance. As Lem writes in his fictional review, ‘when more and more people howl, employing more and more powerful amplifiers, one’s eardrums will burst before the soul learns anything.’ .
From an artistic perspective, this abundance can be crippling. Take, for example, jazz musicians of the mid-twentieth century: they developed their iconoclastic voices because of, not despite, the relatively limited, yet astonishingly unique, sources of inspiration around them. The unparalleled global connectivity which we now take for granted is miraculous in many ways, but threatens to stifle the development of artists of real individuality. Life is short, and therefore the very act of choosing where to invest your time and spiritual energy is crucial: modern day media take this initiative away from us, reducing us to pools of data to be sucked dry, leaving behind a morass of mediocrity.
How do you, as an individual, reassert your role in contemporary art and culture, and escape the fatigue of saturation? Most importantly, be mindful of your choices. Don’t simply accept what is thrust upon you, but take an active interest in art which genuinely touches you. Engage directly with an artist: visit their website; purchase something from Bandcamp (a positive and fair model of music distribution); share your enthusiasm with those around you. Question where you get your media from, and the functioning and ethos behind such providers. Consider taking some time to visit a local library or independent record store, where the passion and wisdom of the individuals who work, and congregate there can help focus your curiosity. Find a journal, blog, radio station which you trust to deliver quality suggestions and inspiration, thereby establishing reliable, and manageably sized, avenues of discovery, founded upon human (not AI) affinities. Active engagement is the cure for the commodification of art.
Lem’s fictional author of Pericalypsis suggests a lifetime stipend for all ‘creators’ to produce nothing, as well as the destruction of a monstrous body of work, as ’what has so far been created in the twentieth century, though it may contain great pearls of wisdom, is worth nothing when tallied up in its entirety, because you will not find those pearls in the ocean of garbage.’ . Of course, nothing so extreme is necessary to reestablish a sense of space, control, and perspective. Through learning how to nurture our artistic interests, taking an active role and allowing ourselves to be guided by people and sources we trust, we can also learn much about giving greater focus to our lives as a whole.
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