Books, immortality and ‘snack culture’

October 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

There was a time when I was convinced I could and should become a vlogger. I’d been a regular watcher of several YouTube-based vlogs for a while, and one day after watching my upteenth one was hit with the idea that I could do that. I could create videos and upload them to YouTube. Why on earth not? Everyone else doing it seemed to be about my age, and hell, they were making a living from it! Surely, my thoughts and experiences were interesting enough to broadcast to a myriad of faceless strangers!

I think this idea stemmed from a deep-seated desire – no, need – in me to create something lasting. It’s probably the same reason why I’ve always wanted to write a book. I want to create something that means something to people. I want to preserve my ideas and existence in a more permanent form than the fragile human body. Essentially, I wanted to become immortal.

I know I’m not alone in this. Everybody wants to matter, to have their life be distinct from the millions taking place simultaneously. Everyone wants to leave their mark. Even people who are introverted and often content to fly under the radar crave some kind of acknowledgement and recognition. I don’t want to die and be forgotten, and I don’t know if it’s enough to be remembered by my family and friends because they too will die. We all will. Our online footprint will remain: the Facebook page converted to an online memorial, the teenage angst-ridden blog, the long forgotten Flickr account, but that’s not enough.

I decided against beginning a (no doubt) moderately successful vlogging career because I didn’t know whether I could maintain the level of commitment required (I have a nasty habit of initially attacking a task with fervour then letting it peter out). And I had an inkling that YouTube had probably far exceeded its quota of opinionated young people. I’d only be adding noise. Did I want to put out content no one watched or responded to?

About the same time I was grappling with my imagined online celebrity, I came across this quote by Brian Williams in the opening pages of Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube, a book I’d received from a lecturer, assumingly because he’d contributed a chapter to it, received an excessive number of the things and was trying to get rid of them:

If we’re all watching cats flushing toilets, what aren’t we reading? What great writer are we missing? What great story are we ignoring? This is societal, it’s cultural, I can’t change it. Like everybody else, I can burn an hour on YouTube or Perez Hilton without breaking a sweat. And what have I not paid attention to that 10 years ago I would’ve just consumed?

As a passionate book lover and reader, Brian Williams’ words were just what I needed to pierce the almost impenetrable YouTube fantasy I’d been indulging. I was in the midst of a research project, and had long forgotten the joys of reading for pleasure over necessity. Choosing to spend my downtime trawling the dark recesses of YouTube instead of reading a novel had become the norm. I was suddenly overwhelmed with guilt at what I’d become.

This year, I’ve tried to be better. I semi-regularly write book reviews for ArtsHub, I keep a record of the books I’m reading, and I sporadically blog. And yet, I’m still preoccupied with the idea of mortality; an idea that fails to leave me alone.

Sloan_Penumbra_rgbNot too long ago, I finished Robin Sloan’s debut novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (my review), which focuses on, amongst other things, a quest to unearth the secret to immortality.

Kat works for Google and is preoccupied with the idea of living forever. She predicts that once “the hypothetical point in the future where technology’s growth curve goes vertical and civilisation just…reboots itself” immortality will be achieved. However, she soon learns, to her indignation, that the “key to immortality” right now is leaving behind the best of ourselves, whether that be our work or something else. Needless to say, this prompted me to reflect on how much of my desire to write was a genuine attempt at sharing stories, and how much was veiled self-interest. And then, if I was already blogging – which I was – who was I to stick my nose up at the possibility of vlogging, which I’d always considered far more self-indulgent? Probably because it’s hard to see the humility in someone happy to spend hours editing footage of themself. Something about that has never sat quite right with me.

In his book, Wait: The Useful Art of Procrastination (my review), Frank Partnoy reports on PhD student, Stanford DeVoe’s hypothesis that the “environmental cues from fast food, which we see every day, have speeded up the pace of life”.

DeVoe sees the effects of fast food as a metaphor for the potential downsides of gaining speed and saving time. Fast food is a magnificent time-saving device , but in speeding up as well as saving us time it can also make us less happy…People today read less, take fewer museum trips, and attend fewer concerts…The decline in the number and quality of our cultural experiences can be traced, at least in part, to unconscious stimuli that make us live faster.

The internet can be considered similarly to fast food in this instance. While it has undoubtedly made our lives easier in innumberable ways, it may be at a frightful cost: negatively affecting other aspects of our lives. Watching quick videos, contributing one-liners to forums and otherwise partaking in “snack culture” apparently affects the enjoyment we get from cultural pursuits like reading. I remember finding it hard to get back into the headspace required to read a novel. Occasionally, I still do, opting for a quick spin around the interwebs instead. But I almost always shut down the computer afterwards feeling frustrated with myself for giving in. It’s an addiction.

The idea of contributing to the kind of culture where we save time only to waste it, and having my voice lost within that, was and is nigh too appealing. I know that there’s a place for entertainment and that the internet is the great enabler of expression – without it, I wouldn’t have a post to write! – but it still leaves me a little sad to think of all the other cultural experiences we’re missing out on.

Thus, I don’t vlog. I’ll just have to realise my immortality another way…

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