Friday, September 9, 2016

Against content

Containerization is one of the forgotten obvious aspects of modern life. Containers are everywhere, and many modern cities have huge areas dedicated to their loading and unloading. Containers move hither and dither, but unless you are actively working with logistics, you are not likely to think about them other than as something that has always been there. Indeed, it would be very strange and disconcerting if they weren't there - the rhythm and ambiance of daily city life would be perturbed without them at the periphery of perception. Containers are as staple as the goods they contain, as it were.

Like malls, if you've seen one, you've seen them all. One container is identical to any other container, except for eventual external markings of corporate ownership. They are all the same size, weigh the same and handle the same. Which is the point. No matter where you are, you can pack things in containers and transport them anywhere else in the world. Wherever you go, there will be infrastructure ready to accept and process your container - since they are all identical.

The point of this standardization is to make it easier to move things around. Since the containers are all the same, it doesn't matter what happens to be inside them. Writ large, this means that the various trucks, trains and airplanes used to move things can be designed to move a certain number of containers, and set in motion once they have loaded the desired number. Moving any one container is the same as moving any other, and large amounts of content can be moved efficiently as it can all be processed through the same system, rather than in parallel systems that all move differently. One size fits all.

It might be surprising to find out that the process of containerization began rather recently, and that harbors, airports and train stations used to have trained crews on hand to load and unload different cargoes in the manners that suited them. Furniture had to be handled in a different manner than, say, foodstuffs, and each category of things had to have specialized infrastructure and institutionalized knowledge sets in place in order to be processed properly and efficiently. Which, as you might imagine, is more resource and labor intensive than having an all-encompassing system being able to process all the things.

This before-time is still in living memory, and there are plenty of stories of logistical mishaps to be told from those days. You have but to know whom to ask.

The reason for this text coming to being is not, however, the fascinating global process of logistical standardization in and of itself. Rather, it's how this same process has begun to happen in a more metaphorical way in the present. It can all be summed up in one singular word, and you will understand the significance of the above paragraphs once you see it:


The notion of content is problematic, to say the least. It assumes that all mediated things are, in some fashion, identical, and that the particulars of any given media artifact does not matter. Writing, movies, computer games, music - it's all content. In the standardized world of content delivery, it's all the same. All of human culture has been reduced to one singular ubiquitous gray goo, and the point of it all is not to distinguish one artifact from another, but to keep consumers busy with enough content to maintain a satisfactory profit margin.

This is a rather nihilistic view of culture, and if you spend too much time with it you end up thinking of your creative processes as content creation. You're not writing to express ideas or influence people; you're writing to give readers enough content to keep reading. You're not making music that will move souls and provide katharsis for a new age; you're filling out the minutes until you have enough content. You're not creating anything in particular, but rather a sustained generalized discursive noise that will keep your audience content - if you'll pardon the pun.

This is not to say that there isn't uses for such lines of thinking. Some things become easier to do once you realize that most of it is content - for example functional writing such as journalism or graduate theses.  These things become less cumbersome to do once you realize that it's not about you, and that the main thing is getting words on a page. But it shouldn't be your only line of thinking about your creative processes, or even the main one. You're not doing what you do because you have to, but because you want to.

Content can be created by pressing record and screaming into a microphone for three hours. If we follow the logic of containerization of culture and ideas, we end up in a place where there really is no point to go those extra miles in order to say something in particular. When the aim is to fill out empty containers with content, anything goes. And it goes with expedient efficiency.

You're not a content creator. You're a writer, artist, game maker, musician - you're doing things in order to express something that wouldn't be expressed if it weren't for you. You're contributing to this world. You're a context creator.

What you do matters.

Keep at it.

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