As the society becomes more virtual and digital, the world of forms begins to converge. Since all transactions can now be achieved via the smart phone, those transactions, be they shopping for underwear, booking an apartment, finding a date, buying a stock, reading a book or watching a movie have all become essentially the same procedure: Start typing until an algorithm recognizes what you’re after, make your choice from what’s offered, then tap to purchase. Many people’s jobs have become that way as well. Receive an assignment through a team app, make a few decisions in some software and click to deliver your choices, watch while the money appears in your account.
While achieving miracles of efficiency for the commerce model, this is a problematic narrowing of experience. With COVID providing additional pressure toward virtualism, like the soviet machine gunners that prevented the retreat of conscripts in the battles of WWII, virtualism is accelerated under de facto enforcement, and live experience is being waterboarded into acquiescence.
Getting paid for anything is in essence virtualizing the experience; conversion of a real life labor to cash is actually a sublimation into the world of ideas, since money is a mutual fiction; an abstract placeholder of value. But now that the “information superhighway” ( How quaint that sounds now) connects all interactions, value seeks its lowest possible level. Along with shopping for the usual goods, services have fallen under the same “click to compare” interrogation, fine for business, but it now applies as well to every aspect of culture.
Services like Spotify, Amazon Prime, Getty Images, YouTube, Yelp, and countless others create a race to the bottom of value for artists and businesses alike. I was even browsing some 18th century paintings on Ebay, and I should not have been surprised to see, sprinkled in among the offerings at very low prices, new hand-painted (and very good quality, from what I could tell) replicas of 18th century works, painted in oils in old master techniques- from what must be factory operations in China. Two clicks away.
So how then is effort to be valued in a value-dissolving technocracy? The seductive tentacles of virtualization caress the edges of all creative activity, as everything from animation studios, to music production, to design work on Fiverr swoons to the promise of virtual attention- the hope of payment.
I’m afraid the result of this mutation is a return to a more feudalized culture, in which the handful of biggest players skim value from the oceans of effort produced lower down in the hierarchy. While an artist or musician (Now a “content provider”) appears on the menu, they can expect pennies from Spotify, Amazon, YouTube or Adobe Stock, etc., because like medieval barons, the companies that own the pipelines amass all the value for themselves, and go to great lengths to shift the property and privileges of ownership from artist to pipeline.
After all, the traffic goes to the largest aggregators of content, and they want to keep it that way. Unfortunately, this means that they invariably exercise editorial control to make sure that the content always directs the user back to the pipeline. Economy of scale turns into curation by scale. In this way, the editorial authority of our age has abdicated in favor of the algorithm. Uniqueness has become a liability in the absence of human valuation.