Kenneth Goldsmith: I don’t really have anything planned to say. I was told I was not able to read, because that would be too boring. Or to give a PowerPoint because too many PowerPoints have already been given. So instead I’m going to just speak briefly, really impromptu. And I think what I want to do, being the last person on the panel, or on the festival, is to kind of make remarks a little bit to try to bring together at the end of the panel some of things that I heard, and then kind of spit them back out.
Now, I really just got here last night so I only heard Heather’s talk, and Zach’s talk, and saw the flea market. But the one thing that I wanted to kind of talk about tonight very briefly is that the DNA, to use Heather’s term, of the Internet is Modernism, I believe. And it comes up a bunch of different ways. For example, in Zach’s masks they’re Cubist. And the problems of Modernism arrive with the problems of biometrics. For example people are critiquing modernism through aspects of colonialism.
So in fact that the Cubistic structure of the data mask also comes through must be— And I believe it’s unconscious, because the other strain of Modernism that I’m very interested in in the Internet is Surrealism—perhaps even unconsciously Cubism drifting into Zach’s work. I don’t know if Zach would say if that is Cubism on your mind? Is that something that you…?
He says not particularly, right. So there’s the unconsciousness of Modernism arising in algorithmic practices. The same thing that he was also saying about how he took everybody’s face and put them together into a—I believe he said a mix. And that’s the exact term that Heather used just now, talking about mixing together. Of course the aesthetics of Postmodernism, of remixing, are embedded in 21st century practices and critique in the digital age. We just can’t seem to get away from any of these.
And I know there’s great problems with modernism. And rightfully so. And much of my own career has been— I’ve tried to deconstruct aspects of Modernism and reimagine it as something that’s not patriarchal and that’s not militaristic, but instead recognizing how influential Modernism is to the entire world.
There’s a great, weird quote that I want to read you from the US Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts. He commented on the central role our devices play in the contemporary world. And he said, “They are such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude that they were an important feature of the human anatomy.”
I mean, absolutely, I think what you guys are getting at also, and I think William’s talk last night as well as the sort of sense that that we’re nothing more than kind of organic producers of data trails that can be used nefariously, they can be used playfully. To me, when I look out on the people walking around like this [walks a few steps as if looking at a cell phone] what I see is I see a collective unconscious, a new collective unconscious. I see sleepwalkers. I think Zach used the word in his lecture, zombies, which I think is again a postmodern idea, and even slightly modernist, that just keeps coming up again and again as we use to describe our digital culture.
Now, zombies are generally used to speak about our digital experience pejoratively. “You’re a fucking zombie! That fuckin’ zombie almost walked into me with his phone. Armies of fucking zombies.” And I can I think that I see sleepwalkers. People say that the phones and the devices are making us less connected, less human. But in fact when I see people using those devices, most the time what they’re doing is being hyperconnected, hyper-human, although in ways that aren’t recognized. So we have a lot of books that people are writing that say we no longer know how to have face-to-face conversation.
Now, I have a face. Again, Zach is all over this, my ideas. I have a face. You guys have faces. This is some sort of a face-to-face conversation, is it not? Don’t we go to conferences, and all we do is look at faces? Some of you are looking at screens. But chances are on those screens that you’re looking at faces. In what way is a Skype conversation not a face-to-face conversation?
And beyond that, our face-to-face conversations continue as they always have. My therapy session has continued with my shrink, in a room bereft of devices, the same way as it has for decades. My 17 year-old son who is awash in electronic media, as am I, still insists every night before he goes to bed that we speak face-to-face, the way that we have since he’s a child. As much as we love our devices, neither of us are willing to forsake that situation.
So I think that what I want to say is that the polemics around the discourse of the Web are too binary. I think that one of the problems that we have in theorizing the Web is that we tend to moralize it in binaries. I get it. It’s bad. The Web is bad for you. Or the sort of free culture is always like, “It’s really good. It’s great. Free culture is great.”
It’s neither. My feeling about the Web is that it’s mixed. I don’t think anything is really lost. I think it’s just something else happens alongside of other things happening, which continue to happen. For example we lose one thing, we get another. The cry for for the book, the loss of the book, you know. Well, the fact is that that because of the Internet, because we are so sick of ebooks, we’re so sick of shitty PDFs, we’ve begun to crave beautifully-designed objects again.
And I remember twenty years ago most books, particularly from small presses, were ugly because nobody had any money. But now every book is almost overdesigned to the point of cliché. Even magazines now. I get so many magazines that look like art catalogues. In order for them to survive— I recently bought—we have a magazine in the US that’s old and famous called Newsweek, and it’s one of the two… You know. I’m sure everybody has them. They decided not to go in that direction. So you pay €8 for the same thing that you did before the Internet happened.
And it’s horrible. It’s this flimsy, disappointing thing that you don’t— And you go ugh. And the news of course is two weeks out of date. So of course the producers of these publications, the smart ones realize that in order to maintain their readership they actually have to say that content takes a second place to context. And I think that begins to happen all over the Web. I think that the abundance of cultural artifacts has inverted our notion of content. It’s a mistake to mistake content for content.
So let me give you an example, and I’m sure everybody in this room can agree with me. I have more MP3s on my hard drive than I will ever be able to listen to in the next ten lifetimes. And yet I keep downloading more, to the point where I keep filling up external hard drives. More and more. And in this way, my management of those artifacts is so much more pressing than what those artifacts actually are. The time it takes me to tag and file and back up and download and upload, and share, far outweighs the time I actually listen to these things. I never listen to them. Most the time I’m actually doing my filing in silence. Which is the big irony, because I’ve got five terabytes of music.
And this by the way reminds us of why radio is so wonderful. Why do we still love to listen to radio? Because there’s somebody there making sense of this mess, for you, so you don’t have to do it. Because you can’t do it. My wife, who— I backed up my five terabyte hard drive and gave it to her. I thought I was giving her a great gift. But what I was giving her was a great burden. And a great obligation.
And instead what did she do? She subscribed to Apple Music. Which makes it even worse because everything is on Apple Music. And again, what is Apple Music? They put radio stations in. But they’re radio stations that are automated—they’re not very good. For example I love the music of Caetano Veloso, right. And I go on Apple Music and there are hundreds of Caetano Veloso records, I don’t know which one to listen to.
So I click on Caetano Veloso Radio, which is just an algorithm that’s piggybacking Caetano’s music. And it goes on forever and ever. It’s lacking the curatorial. So the idea of being a curator becomes interesting again, too. In the art world there’s a whole notion that the curator has become more important than the artist. And in a sense that’s because we’ve all become curators of our own collections. We’ve all become archivists.
The alt librarian who’s based in San Francisco, his name is Rick Prelinger, has a great idea. His idea is that archiving is the new folk art. And you go huh, how is that possible? I mean, isn’t folk art quilting? Or scrapbooking and making collections. And then of course you realize that that’s what we’re all doing digitally. Every time you run your Time Machine program, that’s an algorithm that becomes an archivist for you. Every time we’re writing, we’re not just writing. There was a great essay written I believe in the late 90s by the digital theorist called Matthew Fuller. And the title of the paper says it all, “Microsoft Word: It looks like you’re writing a letter.”
But of course you’re not just writing a letter. What you’re doing is making copies and replicating, which is why again Heather’s work with DNA is so important. Because in the future, and in the present I believe, in the very soon future, all of our hard drive space in fact will be DNA-based. Infinitely bigger than anything circuitry or any other type of hard drive that we have right now.
And so that kind of notion of folk art is something that Walter Benjamin says that is instinctive to children. Kids collect, kids organize. Benjamin says that this in fact is a basic human necessity, to archive. So in a sense we’ve all become archivists of our own collections, downloading more than we can ever consume. There’s too much to read. There’s too many movies to see. There’s too much music to listen to. Abundance is our problem. But abundance is a lovely problem to have. And so in this way I kind of feel like celebrating. I kind of feel like oh my God, this is absolutely amazing. On the other hand I’m at a bit of a loss what to do up with it all.
I love this image of the cell phone tree. I love the idea of making the invisible visible. This is again what much of Zach was talking about. Those incredible masks…he’s making those invisible things visible. I wish there was a way that I could visualize all the information in this room right now. I’m breathing data, my whole body’s filled with your data, in this kind of collective body that’s happening here. I wish there was a way.
And I think this brings us back to the idea Marcel Duchamp had. And it was a very beautiful idea. His idea was called the infrathin. And my favorite one—he gave all these weird examples of what the infrathin is, but my favorite definition is the heat of a seat that’s left when somebody gets up from it. If you sit down on it a crowded train and you sit down, the seat is still warm, and you think, “Ah.” This is such a beautiful notion of Duchamp’s, but again I believe that that’s what the Web is. The Web is infrathin. It’s invisible and hyperpresent at every moment.
I’m so interested— Today at the flea market here there were the most wonderful things here. There’s whole movement to handpaint the Web. There’s all these people that are actually making beautiful watercolors of Google image searches. There was one guy that was standing right here, and he was printing out all these copies of a browser window and then slightly offsetting them to make a meatspace glitch. And so the sort of artifacts, those strange artifacts—and of course we know that all of this notion of that stuff out there materializing here goes under the name of The New Aesthetic, remember that? You probably didn’t pay much attention but it stuck with me.
In 2011, this British designer James Bridle came up with this idea that all of those things that were out there and were invisible were going to be invading our space. And so you have things like memes showing up on t-shirts. Everything on Zazzle, for example. Some of my favorite ones are when people— Now, it’s used in advertising but I’ve seen artists do it, where they take those big red Google Map pins and drop them in physical space. Digicam, which is the—remember how camouflage from the military used to be sinuous and analog, and now it’s all that digital stuff?
So this whole notion of collapsing—and I think I’m just going to conclude with this idea—this notion of collapsing what both of these artists were working with very closely, the notion of collapsing all of that with all of this has become something new. See, ten years ago this talk wouldn’t have made any sense because when I was online, I was behind a desk, attached to a desktop. And when I left that space and took a walk around the neighborhood, I was clearly offline. But the devices have really begun to blur those things. And in a sense they’ve given us our bodies back. They’ve given us our neighborhoods back. They’ve given us our relations back. They’ve made possible locavore food.
You know what’s so interesting? What’s so interesting is what the Web still can’t do, okay. Like pottery. You can buy pottery on the Web but the Web can’t make pottery. Textiles. Fashion. Food, and wine. The Web can’t fucking do that. And 3D printing was a failure. Because what did you get? You got a pile of shitty plastic. It sounded so great that they were going to be able to 3D print your car, or 3D print cocaine or something marvelous. But you got a whole pile of shitty little pieces of plastic that you threw out. It’ll happen. But it’s not there yet.
So in a sense I think that listen, these guys, William and Heather and Zach have shown us the dark side of all this stuff. And I love that they do that, because it’s so important to know how bad and how wrong this can go.
On the other hand, I wanted to ask William last night like, we know what the government is doing with our data. After Snowden there’s not a single person that doesn’t know what they’re doing with our data. Snowden says if you don’t want the government to get your data, stay off of Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, etc. But nobody’s leaving. How many people have done that? It’s too good, in a way. And there was that horrible Jaron Lanier notion that they should pay us for our data. That we should—you know, we’re working for them, I get it. But it’s not true. They give us such good toys.
I came from Paris yesterday and I left my cell phone in an Uber. My mobile. I’m absolutely paralyzed. I even wanted to show you, remember when I was doing this? [walks around as if with cell phone again] But I didn’t have my phone. So I’m using my hand. It’s like my kids when they were little. The idea that a lot of parents don’t let kids play with their guns? Bad to play with guns. We tried that for about a month. And what did the kids do? They bit bread into the shape of guns and shot each other. Or take a stick and did that same thing.
So the idea that— I don’t have a solution. I think William wants to fix it all. And I think that’s awesome. I think he’s got great ideas to fix it. But it’s going to take some complete reverse engineering because of those tools. I mean, Foursquare was a bummer but Facebook Live is really interesting. Politically it’s really interesting. The police shootings that have been caught on Periscope or Facebook Live are really interesting. Are we really willing to forego the capturing of injustices, as William would like us to do? I’m not so sure about that.
I mean, the idea that we walk away from our social media… A detox sounds like an extremely privileged thing to do. All those articles say “put your cell phone down; you’re going to be much better.” Who in the fuck can do that? Who can afford to do that? What comes through these things—jobs, lovers, appointments, dinner dates, government communications. People without these devices are not able to register for certain essential services.
And finally, in the end, and the last point I’m going to make, is that these devices which so many people just say we’re just wasting our time… It’s true we’re wasting our time, but that cell phone that’s sitting there wasting time playing Candy Crush Saga or on Facebook one minute will capture an injustice the next minute. It’s not all one way or the other. These are essential, and I want to just discourage polemical notions of it. It’s completely Promethean. It’s really bad, and it’s really great. Thank you.
Creative Commons-licensed photos of this session on Flickr