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. 

Further Reference

The Influencers 2016 pro­gram, and Kenneth Goldsmith profile

Creative Commons-licensed pho­tos of this ses­sion on Flickr