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Running on empty

The lack of innovation in pop music suggests that we are experiencing an energy crisis in culture at

In 2006, James Kirby, the man behind the V/Vm record label and The Caretaker, began a download project called The Death of Rave. The tracks have a thin, almost translucent quality, as if they are figments or phantoms of the original, exhilarating sound of rave. When I interviewed Kirby recently, he explained that the project had been initiated to commemorate a certain energy that he believes has disappeared from dance music. (Energy Flash was, of course, the title the critic Simon Reynolds gave to his compendious study of rave music and its progeny.) The question is: were rave and its offshoots jungle and garage just that – a sudden flash of energy that has since dissipated? More worryingly, is the death of rave only one symptom of an overall energy crisis in culture? Are cultural resources running out in the same way as natural resources are?

Those of us who grew up in the decades between the 1960s and the 1990s became accustomed to rapid changes in popular culture. Theorists of future shock such as Alvin Toffler and Marshall McLuhan plausibly claimed that our nervous systems were themselves sped up by these developments, which were driven by the development and proliferation of technologies. Popular artefacts were marked with a technological signature that dated them quite precisely: new technology was clearly audible and visible, so that it would be practically impossible, say, to confuse a film or a record from the early 1960s with one from even half a decade later.

The current decade, however, has been characterised by an abrupt sense of deceleration. A thought experiment makes the point. Imagine going back 15 years in time to play records from the latest dance genres – dubstep, or funky, for example – to a fan of jungle. One can only conclude that they would have been stunned – not by how much things had changed, but by how little things have moved on. Something like jungle was scarcely imaginable in 1989, but dubstep or funky, while by no means pastiches, sound like extrapolations from the matrix of sounds established a decade and a half ago.

Needless to say, it is not that technology has ceased developing. What has happened, however, is that technology has been decalibrated from cultural form. The present moment might in fact be best haracterised by a discrepancy between the onward march of technology and the stalling, stagnation and retardation of culture. We can’t hear technology any more. There has been a gradual disappearance of the sound of technological rupture – such as the irruption of Brian Eno’s analogue synth in the middle of Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain”, or the cut-and-paste angular alienness of early rave – that pop music once taught us to expect. We still see technology, perhaps, in cinema CGI, but CGI’s role is somewhat paradoxical: its aim is precisely to make itself invisible, and it has been used to finesse an already established model of reality. High-definition television is another example of the same syndrome: we see the same old things, but brighter and glossier.

The principal way in which technology now makes itself felt in culture is of course in the areas of distribution and consumption. Downloading and Web 2.0 have famously led to new ways of accessing culture. But these have tended to be parasitic on old media. The law of Web 2.0 is that everything comes back, whether it be adverts, public information films or long-forgotten TV serials: history happens first as tragedy, then as YouTube. The pop artists who supposedly became successful because of web clamour (Sandi Thom, Arctic Monkeys) turned out to be quaintly archaic in form; in any case, they were pushed through the familiar promotional machinery of big record companies and PR firms. There is peer-to-peer distribution of culture, but little sign of peer-to-peer production.

The best blogs are one exception; they have bypassed the mainstream media, which, for the reasons described by Nick Davies in last year’s Flat Earth News, has become increasingly conservative, dominated by press releases and PR. In general, however, Web 2.0 encourages us to behave like spectators. This is not only because of the endless temptations to look back offered by burgeoning online archives, it is also because, thanks to the ubiquity of recording devices, we find ourselves becoming archivists of our own lives: we never experience live events, because we are too busy recording them.

Yet instantaneous exposure deprives cultures of the time and space in which they can grow. There is as yet no Web 2.0 equivalent of the circuit that sustained UK dance music in the 1990s: the assemblage of dubplates, pirate radio and the dance floor which acted as a laboratory for the development of new sounds. This circuit was still punctuated by particular moments (the club night, the radio broadcast), but, because anything in Web 2.0 can be replayed at any time, its temporality is more diffuse. The tendency seems to be for a kind of networked solipsism, a global system of individuals consuming an increasingly homogeneous culture alone in front of the computer screen or plugged in to iPod headphones.

All of this makes Fredric Jameson’s theories about postmodern culture’s inability to image the present more compelling than ever. As the gap between cultural breaks becomes ever longer and the breaks themselves become ever more modest and slight, it is beginning to look as if the situation might be terminal. Alex Williams, who runs the Splintering Bone Ashes blog, goes so far as to claim that “what we have experienced is merely a blip, perhaps never to be again repeated – 150 or so years of extreme resource bingeing, the equivalent of an epic amphetamine session. What we are already experiencing is little more than the undoubtedly grim ‘comedown’ of the great deceleration.” This might be too bleak. What is certainly clear, however, is that technology will not deliver new forms of culture all on its own.

To read Mark Fisher's blog click here

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.