Wednesday, August 13, 2008

the singer not the song

The New York Times columnist David Brooks recently posited that "on or about June 29, 2007, human character changed." Why that particular date? Mr. Brooks tells us, "That, of course, was the release date of the first iPhone." The iPhone, he goes on to explain, puts the medium in front of the message: content doesn't matter any more. How you get that content is much more important: the Kindle is more revolutionary than any book that might be read on it, Ptichfork more cutting-edge than any actual music found on it, the mobile device flashier than any substantive use of it. The focus on technology, Mr. Brooks suggests, shifts the cultural hierarchy from connoisseurship to "one-upsmanship." This anxiety about the media shaping the message to deleterious effect is nothing new, but it's still hard not to feel that, somewhere, somehow, Mr. Brooks has a valid point.The focus on technological frameworks does seem to overwhelm any potentially interesting content; even the most interesting content on the internet tends to bend back to the technology itself. Ahem.

Rob Walker offers a slightly less excited appraisal of the column:
I’m thinking (hoping?) that what Brooks is talking about isn’t a tectonic shift, but a phase. I think we’re having a little trouble sometimes figuring out the relationship between technology and culture — which shapes which, and how. But at some point the focus will shift from “imagine the potential” to “here is the new cultural expression that has emerged that is exciting on its own, because of its message, not because of the medium.”

This eventual sorting out of the problem and settling back into a focus on content seems inevitable. But, as was the case with hipsters, history seems to suggest that this confusion has almost always occurred. The publication of Addison and Steele's first issue of The Spectator could just as easily be marked as the date that "human character changed."* Of course, in that case, the focus wasn't on the technology per se. Still, it undoubtedly "revealed" just as much "about mankind’s narcissistic tendencies and the vital importance of human connection" as the iPhone did.

*In fact, it has, according to Wikipedia: "Jurgen Habermas sees The Spectator as instrumental in the 'structural transformation of the public sphere' which England saw in the eighteenth century."

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