We all got upset when Instagram’s small print changed yesterday because the pictures and stories we keep there are important to us. Emotionally. If Instagram had been trashy and ephemeral no one would have been upset at all. But Instagram is about memory and stories.
So it’s the opposite of ephemeral (even if you only photograph sandwiches). And this, of course, is all obvious, if you think about it for more than about a minute. We’re practically twenty years into this thing, and about five years into its social phase, during which we share everything.
We’ve all spent a reasonable fraction of our lives stacking up pictures and life fragments and jokes and links in these big, public databases. So, if you’re going to even hint that my precious memories aren’t actually mine, then you’re going to have to accept that I’ll get upset about it.
Right now, it looks like the whole thing was actually just a misunderstanding and Instagram are busy adjusting the wording of the contract. But I think this would probably be a good time for Instagram to launch that Creative Commons option anyway.
The Player Piano was the Tupac Hologram of its day.
The most thrilling of our inventions are the ones that return to us a person we’ve lost or that recall a scene from the past that we couldn’t have experienced or a place we couldn’t have known. There’s a rush, a kind of zipwire effect. WOOSH. BANG. You’re there. And sometimes these experiences are so vivid they cross over into the uncanny and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. A list of these moments would be a long one, but try this ultra-vivid portrait of the Carusos in 1920. The rush here is a compound effect of a fabulous technology, as-yet unmatched in the digital era – a large, glass negative – plus the amazing light on that New York terrace and those eyes (those eyes are what Barthes would have called this photograph’s ‘punctum’). Or this: the first view of the earth from the moon. Tell me you didn’t shiver (and note, also, that in order to qualify as ‘uncanny’ it doesn’t need to be a hyper-real simulation of a human).
The player piano is another piece of nineteenth century tech that’s highly productive of the uncanny. The knowledge that the sound you’re hearing, when the paper roll begins to turn, reproduces with truth the actual playing of a long-dead musician – not the acoustic effect but an actual mechanical trace, punched into a paper tape by the actual force of the player’s fingers – changes the effect startlingly.
The fact that sometimes that musician was the composer – Gershwin or Rachmaninov or Stravinsky – makes it more uncanny still. I was lucky enough to be standing next to one of these player pianos – a kind of half human-mechanical hybrid steampunk cyborg – ten days ago in a Broadcasting House studio. Its owner Rex Lawson rolled it up to the studio Steinway and attached it like a grabbing symbiont to the keyboard and then brought to life one of Stravinsky’s amazing piano rolls. It was a remarkable experience: Stravinsky was very much in the room. Here’s a video I made of that strange encounter of machine, memory and music:
And, as if in confirmation that we live in strange times, a few days later, Tupac ‘appeared’ at Coachella, turning the uncanny dial up a few notches but instantly reminding me of that Stravinsky experience. I wish I’d been there, of course. Everyone who was says that it was amazing – and some were so freaked out by Tupac’s ‘appearance’ they declared that they disapproved, that it was somehow disrespectful. And the Tupac hologram, which was a synthesis of historic appearances and some mindblowing 3D simulation, is from the same family of technologies – a direct descendent, in fact, of Rex Lawson’s rattling, mechanical time machine. Spooky.
Bloggers will love ‘The Museum of the Mind’, a new exhibition in The Great Court at the British Museum: odds and sods assembled to support a larger purpose – a sort of physical semantic web. The show is a clever window onto the museum’s vast collections focused on memory in all its aspects. Materials from just about every collection in the building are gathered together, in a well-organised single-room show.
There’s a gorgeous (and specially made) Mexican Day of the Dead shrine to the museum’s founder Sir Hans Sloane, an amazing twig-and-shell mnemonic device used by Pacific navigators, ancient Roman and Greek memorial statuary and a Ghanaian coffin carved in the shape of a Cadillac.
The paradoxical thing about clever, information-rich shows like this is that they can only undermine the case for retaining the huge Western hordes of looted artefacts. Once you wrap the object in its human context – making connections – its status actually declines. It may be a beautiful, haunting object but here it’s just part of the information mix – a plaster cast would work just as well. Retaining the originals just seems like more indefensible Imperial greed.
There’s also an instructive comparison to be made between the ancient artefacts, most of which were looted, and the more recent items, most of which were probably bought on the open market or commissioned from their makers: the expropriatory economics of empire vs. the consensual economics of trade.
The accompanying book, by the museum’s top ethnographer, John Mack, is also pretty good.