Not half way through December Spotify asked me to do the year end number crunching. I happily obliged, despite my misgivings about excluding stats from late December. Apparently I had listened to over 7000% more minutes of music in 2018 than in 2017. I verified the data. I’m not sure I had Spotify in 2017. And as folk began publishing their numbers online, assessing the yields and deciding what it said about their year, I noted the clutches of artists or albums that defined everyone’s 2018. Their pet loves.
Our own little sonic bubbles occasionally overlapped with others. Was Spotify an impartial distributor of statistics, or was it an active participant in generating this data? Streaming software – the new gatekeepers to the zeitgeist of sound – is not just benignly feeding our stats back at us. They have a very active hand in generating those stats, and they are watching the long term trends with great interest. Getting on the latest playlist can make or break an artist. And in some cases it is changing the way that music is written, just as dreams of a radio hit did so at the dawn of pop music.
But as with anything that happens these days, there are twenty sides to this story. Looking back, the panic over file sharing sites seems almost quaint. Gone the way of home taping and video piracy. Using the internet to get art for free always stood on contradictory moral ground. On the one hand file sharing sites were the hub of the maverick, undercutting evil record companies desperate to maintain their control over access to the end product (and pissing off Lars Ulrich in the process, always a plus in my book). On the other hand the maverick was acting at the expense of the artist. The end product would ultimately suffer as a result.
In reality neither has happened. Art is now easier to produce, record, distribute, consume, promote, discover, and forget about than ever before. (I leave it to the court of public opinion to decide if music is objectively worse than it was twenty years ago, tedious question anyway.) Artists no longer need to ‘make it’ to reach a global audience. They have direct contact with their fans.
But the fact remains that this access is still controlled by a few private companies. They hold all the keys to how cultural distribution works. They generate the infrastructure that brings it into our lives. And in doing so they shape the nature of artistic products. This, by contrast, gives grassroots music scenes, like their political equivalents, an authentic community feel. A comforting antidote to an inauthentic world. The catch being that no matter how ‘grassroots’ the movement is, the products of the same three or four large companies are too convenient and user friendly to be ignored. Movements of any size are all gently coerced into operating through them. The mechanics of profit have now seeped into culture in new and subversive ways we are barely aware of.
But participation in social media need not equal open ended consent to their ultimately capitalist framework. Or as Lewis Mumford put it in 1964:
The bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus they may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalised, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires.
In explicitly consenting to some of the tenants of a system, we implicitly consent to them all. The principles of online networking, social media, direct access to each other through handheld devices and their apps, all could be benign means of bringing people closer together. Like the letter, the telephone, the email. They could be a blank canvas for humanity to clumsily stamp its soul onto, cat memes and all. But in accepting these more benign features of digital connectedness, we are taken to be complicit in the darker side to all this.
We were so excited about the possibilities that the internet offered us at the dawn of a new millennium. But we forgot that it grew up in capitalism. And capitalism’s ability to monetise the world should never have been underestimated. On the internet we made and discovered alternative worlds for ourselves. And then companies studied the ways in which we interacted with these worlds, and they used their superior resources and time to create superior platforms for world building.
Perhaps their smartest move was charging us nothing for the privilege. We bought it because it cost us nothing. Because we were the products. Our data. Our buying habits. Our interests. All sold on to companies looking to sell us stuff. Does it matter? Companies have been advertising to us for decades anyway. Why not make the adverts more bespoke?
Whatever sinister undertones are evoked by the idea that companies are harvesting large swathes of personal data, this is not a problem with the technology itself, this is a problem with capitalism. Just as whatever annoying social media habits people often bemoan, such as facebook like politics, hashtags, phoney attendance lists for events, banal content, these are not problems with the technology, these are problems with people. Technology promised a lot of things, eliminating our mild, base level irritation with each other was not one of them.
Monetising the habits of the internet age was predictable. What was not quite so predictable was the compartmentalisation of culture. In 2016 we learned about echo chambers. In 2018 we bitterly argued about what values we were willing to give up to escape them. Endlessly shouting at each other, embroiled in arguments without agreed upon premises. Anomie reigns. We scream into the internet, society’s self-parody in the clouds, and in return it rains down affirmations and refutations on us in equal measure. When we are not guilty that our newsfeeds simply reflect our own views back at us, we worry that large swathes of society are living in an alternative reality of ignorance and hate.
Whatever trust we had in the written word as a source of authority is dissolving. This is because anyone can write down an idea and disseminate it in a way they never could before. Of course a select few at the top are still able to reach wider audiences. But word of mouth, rumour and hearsay, these are now published online, they go viral, and before we know it there’s an epidemic of fake news. Articles explaining well vetted ideas, backed up by the requisite research, edited professionally, these stand alongside the garbled rantings of the village idiot, dangerously indistinguishable to the casual reader.
In a sense our grip on reality is returning to an older and more permanent state. Civilised society has just passed through a five hundred year anomaly in which the written word carried special authority over word of mouth. This period started with the printing press, which ushered in a new dawn for human thought. Research and ideas in every disciplinary field could be printed and distributed at speed, and this carried a stamp of authority that trumped the ravings of fringe individuals who lacked access to these new resources.
That authority has now been completely undermined by the internet. Everything we now read is treated with suspicion. We all have a different notion of what makes a source trusted. Giving people a voice is generally regarded as a positive step. And this is participation culture. But never has participation been so easy, and therefore so cheap.
Music, like any content, is reaching new levels of saturation. And the more competitors there are, the harder it is to be heard, to break through to a more traditional notion of universal renown. This simple fact is having new and unexpected effects on culture. Some positive, some negative, some TBC. Nothing has changed, but also everything has changed. Many of the common grievances caused by interacting with each other on the internet are ancient human habits. Virtue signalling, snowflake, gammon, performative, fake news. These are new words for old phenomena. The reason new words became necessary is because through the prism of the internet there exists a parody of normal human conduct. An unreality, where everything is just a little bit…..off.
At the heart of this is anomie. The lack of a centralised set of values and ideas that are generally accepted by the majority. One tends to roll one’s eyes at talk of values. But without a shared set of them, society’s cease to function. It is generally accepted that 2016 was a watershed year for the rise of anomie. But the causes go back much further, to before the internet arrived in every home. The internet is merely amplifying our discord. Smothering any new narrative that might provide unity with yet more competing ideas.
I suppose the antidote, however utopian it may sound, may be to re-instil the idea that participation is more difficult and therefore more valuable than the mechanics of Twitter and Facebook. However much we don’t want to admit it, the battles fought, won, and lost on the internet follow different rules. For every successful movement run through social media there are hundreds of artificial battles that simply don’t make sense by more traditional standards. Solidarity is just a click away. Or an obscure rant on a meaningless blog. The more the internet in its current state becomes our reality, the more our reality will disintegrate.
Participation in the so-called values of democratic societies is not only the Facebook like, the hashtag, or the sharing of yet another one-line affirmation. It needs to be supplemented by the nitty-gritty, nuts and bolts, meat and two veg of democratic organisation from the grassroots up. This is strengthened by means of the instant communication that the internet offers certainly. But no matter how authentic a movement is when it starts out, once it is sucked up into the mechanics of Google and Facebook, it will start to play by their rules. Spotify is not telling us about our year, it’s telling us how our year was shaped by Spotify.
Lewis Mumford: Authoritarian and Democratic Technics, in Technology and Culture Vol. 5 1964, page 6