Discussion Points: 11-10-10

1. Boorstin says that we, “live in a world where fantasy is more real than reality,” (37), that we create simulations of experiences because we can’t experience them ourselves, then we have the audacity to believe that our simulations are superior to the actual experiences. How would Boorstin approach the advent of the internet? Can the internet, in some way, serve as a tool to “disillusion ourselves,” (6) by gaining access to the knowledge that original experiences are superior to the simulations of them that we create?

2. Is there a way to reconcile the difference between “man-made and God-made events,” (11) or, “celebrities” and “heroes” (61)? In other words, can we remove the artificial fervor that people add to events and people (which make them pseudo-events or celebrities) and understand them on the basis of their actual weight? For instance, can we construct a scale that accurately places Alexander the Great, John Milton, Lady Gaga, and LonelyGirl15 in order of their actual impact on the world? Or has the internet (and other media) already broken the scale, such that “actual impact” has become a completely relative term?

3. Setting aside the distinction between authenticity and fabrication, Boorstin claims that, “the celebrity is created by the media,” (61). Yet, on Youtube, millions of people have viewed web-cam videos made by some guy/girl in his/her room, and on Twitter, we can see topics that are trending based on what users think is newsworthy. To what extent have new media taken the mechanisms of “old” media (journalists, news-anchors, advertisers, writers, producers, etc.) out of this equation for making a celebrity? To what extent are these mechanisms still present/necessary to elevate news and people to fame?

4. Laurel talks about how–through computers–we can interact within, “worlds in which we can extent, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act,” (113). In what ways has the internet become an extension of our imagination as, “laboratory of the spirit,” (112)?

5. How can we reconcile Laurel’s world-view with Boorstin’s?


Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, recently posted an article that briefly touches on the phenomenon of a “manicured life” in the vast, chaotic frontier of social media (he focuses specifically Twitter, though I believe his thesis rings more true for YouTube–more later). Backed by a convincing vignette by an author at Gizmodo and a psychological study conducted at the University of California-Berkeley, Lehrer attests that social media services like Twitter present us with such a glut of information that we tend to fall into a dangerous animal-reaction lockstep: we interact with the service akin to the eighth grader who went to a new high school with one other friend, and latch on to comfort zones. We follow our friends, Shaq, and maybe Isaiah Mustafa for hip points; we utilize or exploit none of the essentially unlimited opportunities to meet new people.

Lehrer’s argument is actually about creativity vs. uninspired redundance, so I lied a little bit. He wants us to follow strangers on Twitter so that we don’t become hipstarr-drones and have access to perspectives on “God, Detroit and the Kardashians” that we would not normally consider.

The UC-Berkeley study is the crux of his argument: a psychologist put a bunch of people in a room and showed them a Powerpoint of solid colors, asking the subjects to identify the color presented. Later, she asked them to do free-association with the color words (e.g. “blue”-”sky,” “green”-”grass”).  The control group presented totally banal responses, akin to the examples I just gave. They relied on the hardwired, comfortable associations that pretty much everyone has. The experiment group, though, was pretty great: she planted a research assistant in the group and told her to intentionally misidentify one of the colors. The experiment group’s association was much more complex; some subjects responded to “blue” with “Miles Davis,” among other nontraditional color associations.

Lehrer interprets these findings as evidence that injecting the unknown and strange into a gray life forces us to tap into the storied human ability to adapt; this adaptation makes stretches our imaginative capabilities and makes the neuron network in our brains look like steel wool on fire. It seems like a miniscule leap of faith to apply these ideas to social media and fame; a service like YouTube allows us to envision fame in unconventional channels, changing the very definition of the word and allowing us nearly unfettered creativity.

YouTube allows users to redefine fame by sheer alteration or interjection: Bear Vasquez attained his shining viral moment by playing the role of breathless documentarian; in reality, he was simply staring at rainbows in his backyard. The child in David After Dentist (and his father) achieved fame simply through a humorous display of the effects of anesthetics. While some chase fame through traditional channels using Youtube– examples of acoustic crooners and sports phenom-prodigies abound– others sit dutifully in the digital room with no walls, looking at a Powerpoint of blues and seeing radiant shades of gold.


Twitter can’t handle World Cup fever.

Today, Landon Donovan shot the game-winning, tournament-advancing, heart-stopping goal in the 91st minute of USA’s final game of phase one of the World Cup against Algeria. Within seconds, twitter’s 20 million+ users were met with the increasingly common “fail whale,” the site’s safeguarding response to the onslaught of “GOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL” and “YOU CAN PUT IT ON THE BOAAAAAARD” and “#USA #USA #USA #USA” outbursts. On June 14, when Japan scored against Cameroon to break a seemingly endless stalemate, twitter reached its all-time highest “tweets-per-second” rate (which they shorten to TPS) at 2,940. How many tweets-per-second do you think Donovan’s goal notched?

As I sat and stared at the whale, I wondered what the purpose of “livetweeting” really is. Why would anyone want constant status updates on a specific event that can be followed with such ease and efficiency on espn.com, fifa.com, or any one of the millions (billions?) of sports sites out there? Why would someone constantly refresh the same page, over and over again, just to read someone’s second-hand account of a specific incident, when they could just watch the game on ESPN3?

I quickly realized how naive I was being. Of course—these mad twitterers were already watching the game online. They not only wanted to witness the twitter-shattering goal, but they wanted to experience it secondhand, through its various retellings and re-formations told by thousands of twitterers-per-second.

In his pivotal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin writes:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.

Do you think that “livetweeting” lacks “presence in time in space”? Or does it create the digital space in which it exists, spinning pages upon pages filled with reproductions of a specific event? Do these various reproductions enhance the event which they evolve from, or do they undermine it (watch this)?