Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Twitularity Is Near


It’s not just me. I’ve noticed several of my blogger-type acquaintances worrying that the whole culture, even seemingly quick-and-easy blog entries, is on the verge of being supplanted by Twitter dispatches — a mere 140 characters per thought and thus perhaps the death knell of linear, sustained thought, not to mention solitary contemplation (since Twitter inevitably becomes a sort of hive-mind group activity, often leading to the amorphous formation of a consensus group-opinion about some event while it’s still going on). It’s not quite the “Singularity” — humanity becoming Borg, in essence — that writers like Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge have envisioned. More like culture becoming confetti rather than integrated circuitry. A pseudo-singularity, occurring halfway between the releases of Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, that may just be the latest step on our seemingly irreversible road to fast-paced stupidity.

I’ll see Tyler Cowen speak to the Junto libertarian discussion group tonight, and his latest book, Create Your Own Economy, is partly aimed at convincing me — as he usually does — that all this is OK and a natural, culturally beneficial outgrowth of market forces. Maybe it’s even something I should be applauding like the decentralized pirate radio broadcasts I blogged about yesterday. Yet I find myself sympathizing with Kyle Smith’s recent column about how ephemeral blogs are and with Daniel Radosh’s recently-expressed qualms about blogging degenerating into Twittering. Combine that with Julian Sanchez’s meta-worries about nobody knowing when to admit “I don’t know” in online debates or opinion journalism (with insightful response from me in the comments thread).

Next, mix in my longstanding worry that civilization is going to end in some sort of ugly uprising involving “flashmobs.” Then consider that I’ve been around the fast-talking twentysomething pals of my lovely girlfriend, Helen Rittelmeyer. Compound all this with my annoyance at talk of an impending Twitter-sponsored reality show about regular people competing to track celebrities and gossip about them (an idea that combines about six different already-annoying components). And I’m left feeling, as James Taranto would put it, that everything is seemingly spinning out of control. Or just that I’m old and about to slip completely out of touch.


Of course, none of this means I sympathize with still-authoritarian and nominally-communist China, which is combating remembrances of Tiananmen Square (and the potential for a more easily-organized repeat of such an event) by trying to shut down Twitter use in China today, as Tiananmen’s twentieth anniversary arrives. That in itself should be enough to get me to see the increasing speed and Twitterization of culture as subversive in a good way (it can also be used to surmount mainstream media bias, obviously — like if you wanted to make sure news of two soldiers being shot in Little Rock by an antiwar Muslim assassin got as much attention as that murder of an abortionist). But it all still makes me nervous.

Speaking of China and things from two decades past, Guns N’ Roses’ recent Chinese Democracy album was nothing so great as to be worth the seventeen-year wait since their last original-material studio album, but it was nice to hear that the title song was not just some randomly-chosen phrase — it really was an audacious warning to the tyrants in Beijing that they can’t hold onto power forever, or so says Axl. Former bandmate Duff McKagan is doing his own part to combat socialism, by the way, writing a column on the basics of economics for (I’m told).

All in all, this would be a sweet time to be someone who’d been in a coma for two decades but wanted to be able to wake up and hit the ground running culturally-speaking: Not only did a new G N’ R album just come out and China threaten Tiananmen-related crackdown measures but the comic book X-Men Forever is literally picking up where Chris Claremont left off writing X-Men in the summer of 1991, as it would have been had he just kept on writing. Add to this the fact that a Terminator sequel just came out and 90210 is on the air, and it’s like a member of the Class of ’91 could just as easily have slept from graduation until now — as I sometimes feel is the case anyway. But perhaps it’s time to leap into the future — time to rock n’ roll. Sigh. I’ll write about the Bangles or something tomorrow.


Todd Seavey said...

In other Asia-and-Western-pop-culture news: David Carradine has committed suicide in Bangkok:

Gerard said...

Coincidentally-or perhaps not so coincidentally-ethnic studies professor Ronald Takaki has also taken his life, although probably because of different motivations.

Ronald Takaki

Speaking of Twitter, I’m now following your colleague, Jeff Stier, and vice-versa. He’s representing your organization rather well from what I’ve been able to glean over the past few weeks I’ve been a Twitterer.

David said...

It is said that there are college age people in China completely unaware that Tienanmen Square ever happened due to govt suppression, which is awful and creepy, like something out of fiction.

Todd Seavey said...

Some ambiguity, apparently, about whether Carradine was suicide, I should note.

Gerard said...

I think the number of people inside of mainland China who don’t know it happened isn’t as large as the number who don’t know what happened, which isn’t surprising when you consider the lengths the PRC has gone to to suppress information about their political pogrom. Hopefully, Zhao Ziyang’s posthumously released memoir will rattle some souls.

Jr Deputy Accountant said...

Found you through WC Varones, BTW…

I live with a 24 year old from Shanghai who assures me that though China may THINK their people are clueless sheep marching towards the slaughter, they know better. They understand what is going on – SORT OF. We often have discussion about monetary policy at night – the Fed, the People’s Bank of China, blah blah blah… she gets it and says they KNOW.

The Chinese are smarter than you realize.

Her famous line?

“In China, they censor our news and tell us they do it ‘for our own good.’ But here in America, they censor YOUR news but don’t admit to it.”

Sadly, she’s right.


Todd Seavey said...

On a related note, one of my October Book Selections (because long-term planning is how I roll) will be _”Socialism Is Great!”_ by Lijia Zhang.

Todd Seavey said...

And finally some Tiananmen observations from Bretigne Shaffer, who eight years after those events lived in Hong Kong (where Dan Greenberg and I paid her a visit) during its own return to rule by Beijing and wrote for the _Asian Wall Street Journal_:

Gerard said...

I loved that autobiography-and the classic Maoist cover art is a nice touch.

I wish there were more memoirs written by participants in the Tiananmen Square protests, especially by the dissidents who coordinated the mass demonstration.