slow theory Uncategorized

Everything is in flux – constants in a liquid society

[original german version]

With each heavy storm of rain
Change comes o’er thy valley fair;
Once, alas! But not again
Can the same stream hold thee e’er.

(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Constancy in Change)[1]
In physics – after all that is the science where, in contrast to the humanities, everything has a set place – we distinguish between solid, liquid and gaseous substances. However, these states of aggregation are not constant, but can change under the influence of their surrounding conditions such as pressure and temperature. Solid becomes liquid, liquid becomes gaseous or the other way round.

We like to imagine the world as something static. It makes it calculable and predictable. That way we can pile it up, classify things and keep an overview. During transitional stages, these stable, solidified structures become undone, they shift and begin to swim. And this is necessary, for only if structures and particles are in flux can new patterns, new connections emerge and thus new answers become visible. We therefore need these phases of structures in flux, in order to advance – and yet we do not really like them, we find them uncanny.

Many people’s resistance towards a digital culture that they experience as disconcerting originates here: just when we had found a place for everything, things begin to fall apart. What we had considered solid, melts into the air.

Digital culture is fluid, liquid, thixotropic

The worldwide networking through digital media is indeed setting a lot of things in motion. Monopolies of knowledge are disappearing, communication has become more difficult to regulate and to channel (well: exploitable through surveillance). Sharing and swapping (of knowledge, household appliances, flats and cars) is growing in significance over owning and keeping. Digital platforms such as WikiLeaks, LobbyPlag and VroniPlag accumulate decentralised knowledge and render the system’s fractures and failures visible and transparent. Books, pictures and music can be copied and disseminated endlessly. This does indeed set a lot of things in motion. What used to be solid, has become liquid. And that is interesting.

In physics, the ability of a substance to liquefy through movement is referred to as thixotropy. This effect is known to us, for instance, from ketchup which we have to shake in order to pour it from the bottle.  The phenomenon was already known in the Middle Ages – some of the so-called “blood miracles”, where clotted blood from relics liquefied again upon shaking, can be explained that way.

Knowledge, culture and society too have thixotropic qualities: they can be set in motion, they change their state of aggregation, their form and their outline. The media plays an important part here. At the moment it is the media that sets things in motion. Our society changes its state of aggregation through digitalisation. Liquefaction paves the way for reorganisation, for the development of new, appropriate structures and for new cultural techniques.

“Alas” laments Goethe in the poem quoted above “But not again / Can the same stream hold thee e’er.” The “Alas” comes straight from the heart and is understandable. A liquid society makes us lose our security as things can no longer be planned.

And yet: let us look at the things that we gain.

Let us look at the things that have become free: which spaces have been opened up, by what means can we create? We lose control and we gain surprises. We lose certainty and we tap new potential in the unexpected. In many cases our improvisation is better than the original plan and will take us further.

Reoralisation: Orality and Literality in Digital Age

During the, in terms of cultural history, brief phase of letterpress printing our culture has become “static”. Previously, it had been open, mobile and its structures were flexible: cultural goods, historical, religious and social information was shared and passed on orally. Legends, myths, fairy tales, chants and rituals created identities and transported the things it was important to know and be familiar with. Through oral repetition and dissemination the material to be passed on was filtered, enriched, changed and adapted by everyone, who was participating in the great narrative of the world.

Later on they tried to hold on to the all too ephemeral, furtive and transient aspects of this tradition in order to create visible evidence. The bible shows how different narrative strands have been interwoven and condensed in written form. When stories are no longer passed on from generation to generation the thread of tradition fades, because knowledge is not materialised. In an oral tradition without a narrator, knowledge is under threat of extinction. The brothers Grimm were worried about the demise of folk poetry and preserved it in their world-famous collection of fairy tales: “It was maybe about time, to preserve these fairy tales, because those who should preserve them, are becoming rare.” That is how the script has saved the narrative – and buried it at the same time by making it into something permanent.

With the letterpress printing, knowledge has become recordable: it is stored in material form outside the human being. Culture has thus become independent of time and space. Fixed between two book covers, knowledge was able to travel, from hand to hand, from libraries to readers, from countries to people. It could be disseminated without narrator and audience having to sit face to face as with a tribal structure.

This means two things: the content is invariably linked to a fixed typeface anatomy. And production and reception are separated. From now on there were authors who produced the content on the one side, and readers who consumed it on the other – and in between them the static creation in its final form.

Contribution and consumption : the web is breathing

Digital media is effectively changing the nature of our written culture: The digital writing space is available to everyone online. Many people can now access the same content simultaneously. They read, absorb and consume it. But that is not all: They are also changing it, they interfere and leave traces behind. They read, they write. The internet user is not just a reader, they are also producers. That is the mechanism behind Open Source Software where every user can change the source code and adapt it to their own needs. That is how the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia works, where readers are also potential authors. Marshall McLuhan summed up the electronic revolution in a nutshell: “Do it yourself” and “You are the poet”. All the explosive power of the digital culture is contained in these two sentences. The creative process is now immediately visible in the digital writing space. Through collaborative platforms writing becomes a social activity, the text itself becomes its effigy. The creative process, the material that, within a static printing culture, lies hidden deep down in archives and magazines in the form of authors’ notes and drafts, is visible from the beginning within a digital writing culture. Hitherto this dynamic was only possible in an oral tradition. We therefore arrive at the following formula: the internet constitutes a writing medium that works according to the rules of orality.

Culture wants to circulate

Digital media has lured culture away from its static existence in between the book covers: that is possible because we now have a technical infrastructure allowing us to do so. And because the desire to circulate is the very nature of culture. Circulating is much easier in the digital age than in a stating printing culture. Culture is set in motion.

None of this is new, of course. In 1962 Umberto Eco already described this tendency in his essay “The Open Work” (Opera aperta): culture needs to get out, it wants to be out and about and not fixed to a permanent position. Only its reception makes a work of art complete, a process that is repeated with every new recipient. Art does not have a fixed outline, instead it is always an incentive to discuss and engage with it. For the poet Paul Celan – long before the digital age – a poem was a “conversation”, “a handshake” it was “moving towards you”, it was looking for a counterpart. By imposing rigid forms we rob culture of its true nature. A society that is hostile towards culture will reduce it to a mere commodity. It will try to make it permanent, attribute a material value to it rather than a discursive one. Artists and other creative people are obliged to produce goods that can be piled up and sold and thus to put their art behind bars.  But culture is not a commodity, culture is a process.

Digital culture is by its nature largely discursive, it is based on a desire for commitment, relations and establishing contacts, the desire to share, exchange and communicate. So we have a lot of things circulating and in motion. All the questions linked to the digital change, i.e. those of copy right, the mash-up-culture, the plight of the Gatekeeper, are linked to this: how can we appreciate, value and honour a dynamic, non-static culture?

How to fashion a digital culture

As with anything that is a success, the digital culture has become a matter of economic interest. Enterprises with a talent for exploring social currents are paying close attention and understand the desires behind those currents: commitment, participation, exchange, becoming visible. They direct those currents and channel them in a way that is profitable. The desire to share our flat with friends and people from all over the world or to share a ride thus becomes a business model which gradually pushes back the initially social impulse. And yet we should always remember that digital culture is much more than mere online business.

The digital space is social space of interaction in which culture is created. A space created by all the people who move within it in order to contact each other, present themselves and connect to create new communities. Open systems and structures are always vulnerable. We are kept under surveillance, we are exploited and monetised. And yet: It remains our space and we should fill it with courage, creativity and adventure and that way make it our own. Let us make the digital cultural space our own!

[1] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Constancy in Change, trans. by Edgar Alfred Bowring in “The Poems of Goethe” (London: 1853), p. 121.

Read more:

Slow Media Manifest
Declaration of Liquid Culture

[original german version]