Y and Z: the end of the alphabet. All that’s left for us to do is clean up, square everything away, shut the lights off on our way out, and announce: game over.
But before we do that, we’d like to consider the very idea of the end in digital culture. As John Seely Brown i Paul Duguid write, numerous studies of the impact of digital technology on culture have professed a sort of “endism”. Authors have predicted the demise of everything from books, television, the press, middlemen, and professional artists to politics, government, nation states, and even entire regions. New technology was also claimed to herald the end of time, history, distance, the ability to concentrate, readership, and so on, leaving nothing but individuals stripped of their social and cultural institutions and equipped with nothing but an all-encompassing computer network.
We share Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s doubts about whether the mass extinction of culture is an actual phenomenon. The end of culture as we know it, the end of a golden age, the end of all that is good — all of these are effective rhetorical tricks and tropes that easily stoke the flames of moral panic over new culture. But they’re also the easy way out: any theories about the immanent collapse of one culture and its subsequent replacement with another fails to shed light on other, much more subtle processes that can be better examined as a sort of shuffling of the elements, a kind of layering not unlike that seen in rock strata or compost heaps.
In other words, we need to take seriously the lesson found in the everyday experience of using the keyboard shortcut CTRL+Z followed by CTRL+Y — the experience of undoing and redoing changes. Text, once written, can be rewritten from scratch any number of times, and a string of URLs can be revisited from the beginning, leading us to a completely different end point. Culture 2.0, which is based on such tenets as the openness of the work and its availability for remixing, replaces the end with a vision of constant change.
But even “traditional” works — those with more clearly defined boundaries and often distinct endings — do not have a pre-determined period of cultural relevance. Pieces have their premieres, but they don’t have funerals. They may be relevant for longer or shorter stretches of time, depending on trends, fashions, and audience’s reception. (Media, on the other hand, do have funerals: devices are taken off the market, manufacturers discontinue support for legacy software, and analogue television transmitters will one day be shut off. And yet some devices have a way of returning from beyond the grave — more on that in a moment.)
This trend has become even more conspicuous with the dawn of Culture 2.0, which is making the bottomless archives of culture heritage increasingly accessible to those looking for interesting or relevant content. Thus, there is no set canon composed of content with proven cultural relevance. The issue remains open and often depends on our individual choices. If you were given access to the complete archives of public radio, what shows would you listen to, and what decades would you go back to?
Surplus is the hallmark of every culture, but Culture 2.0 has made it an all-encompassing experience. The output of contemporary cultural production coupled with the increasingly exhaustive archives of our heritage have made our culture endless. One way to limit and, at once, harness culture is to self-impose certain limits in the form of lists, catalogues, and alphabets of culture.
We‘ve already written about websites that exist in a permanent state of incompleteness. There are many articles on Wikipedia that will never be completed because their content requires constant updates. Or they exist in a permanent state of flux as a result of the irreconcilable differences in opinion on a given person or topic. Blogs seem endless by their very design (although in reality, most are about as short-lived as flies). Scheduling an end date for a blog — as the musician and cultural theoretician Momus recently did — can almost be seen as an artistic gesture.
No change is final in Culture 2.0 as long as there are backup copies in the archives, modifications are registered, and files that you only thought were deleted linger somewhere on your hard drive. Niche cultures on the margins of the main cultural canon offer ample space in which to rehash any number of trends from the past.
The new opportunities offered by the world of high-tech DIY have also made it possible for niche groups to salvage physical objects. Members of the community/company The Impossible Project have restarted an old Dutch film factory, releasing their own Polaroid film stock two years after Polaroid and Fujifilm ceased production of the photographic material. Unexpected returns of this type, both major and minor, happen all the time.
We’d gladly go back in time to add A as in anonymity and point out that the version is just as important a building block of new culture as the remix and the sample. But since we’ve already decided to combine the non-linearity of culture with the linear convention of the alphabet, there’s no use in undoing and editing our work.
Instead, we’ll use the title of this instalment to squirm our way out of putting a definite end to the series. CTRL+Y, CTRL+Z. CTRL+Y, CTRL+Z. Redo, undo. Version 1.0, version 2.0. You choose.
translated by Arthur Barys