The Internet has no mechanism

Ever have that feeling that despite taking more photos, “having” more music, being more “connected” to people than ever before, that it’s all just a smoke screen?  That the things you “have” and are “connected” to, the “communities” of which you are apart online, could all up and disappear in a heart-beat?  And do you ever feel the gnawing anxiety that comes along with that realisation?

I think that feeling comes down to one thing – the internet has no mechanism.  There’s nothing that rubs up against another thing.  There’s nothing physical that sits in your room and just is.  Look at the language of today’s internet – “the cloud”  “seamless integration” – and it conjures up smooth as silk, unencumbered access to everything that’s important to you.  So why do many people feel more lonely and isolated than ever?

Mechanisms are important:  on a simple level, it’s a reason why vinyl has seen a massive resurgance in popularity in recent years.  But on a deeper level, every method by which we, as humans, truly connect with each other has been mechanical up to now – language itself is a mechanical shaping of air from our lungs – our tongue, teeth and lips are the machine. The language of linguistics – “bi-labial fricatives” “dental plosives” – describe mechanical processes.  Writing, the performance of music, sculpture – they all involve the scraping of one material on another.

There’s a very good reason why we’d feel compelled to move away from mechanisms – why the internet’s myriad offers of “seamlessness” and “connection” are so attractive.  Mechanisms wear down.  Mechanism break.  Mechanisms are inherently imperfect.  And mechanisms eventually have to be replaced.  The internet offers something that will exist almost permanently, that need never be lost, precisely because it has no mechanical parts that will break and insofar as it does, those parts can be easily replaced without any interruption to service.

But some part of us knows that anything of real value comes from friction – from rubbing up against life, from scraping and trying and losing and not being selfie-perfect. Yeah, we’ll always try and secure the future – life insurance, mortgages, savings funds for our kids.  We’re easily seduced by the idea that we can go through life far enough under the radar in some sort of stealth-mode, if we just keep telling the world that everything’s fine, that life will pass us by and we’ll be spared any suffering.  This is something the no-mechanism internet offers.

Maybe the key to getting rid of that gnawing anxiety is this:  the relationships and things that live and exist in your life are better off because they are part of mechanisms.  They will wear down, they will scrape and tear at each other, there will be long periods where the friction caused by being alive will have no resolution, where pain and uncertainty are simply part of life.  But in the end, those worn, scraped and damaged things will have existed.  They will have occupied that spot on your wall, on your shelf, in your life, even after they’re gone. There’s a real comfort in that transcience – and here’s a part of us that just knows that’s a better outcome than a seamless eternity.

The Internet has no mechanism

Podcasts TNG

I’ve been meaning to write about podcasts for a while now, stirred on by two of my favourite podcasts of the last 12 months, Serial and Startup.  Serial was the first podcast I’ve listened to that’s truly as compelling as anything TV or movies have to offer.  Startup is the most beautifully honest, raw and interesting narrative I’ve ever heard about starting a business – part entrepreneur-guide, part catharsis for anyone who’s ever run their own gig.

And don’t get me wrong – Serial, Startup, Radiolab and This American Life are demonstrations of some of the finest audio broadcasting I’ve ever heard – but I’ve been trying to dig a little deeper for shows that can make a loyal listener out of me.  I’ve listed some of the “Next Generation” podcasts I’ve fallen in love with below, in no particular order.  But I’m dying for more – I’d love to hear what you’re listening to that’s not so NPR-centric.  Any suggestions?  Here’re mine:

BBC Radio 3’s The Verb – One of the most consistently interesting podcasts on literature, poetry, theatre and the written word.  I’ve never listened to an episode that I didn’t follow up on afterward and I’ve discovered amazing work by Helen Mort, Zaffar Kunial and surprisingly Suzanne Vega from listening to this show.

Meet the Composer – OK, possibly a bit of cheat as I heard about this show via Radiolab.  But Nadia Sirota’s discussions with modern composers is not just for classical music officiandos – I don’t know the first thing about music history or much about music theory.  But like the best podcasts, these are human stories about musicians exploring sound and the world around them in amazing ways.  And that’s always compelling.

The Tobolowsky Files – I don’t have words to describe the monologues of actor Stephen Tobolowsky.  Suffice to say it only took one show to be hooked on his irreverent stories about life, acting, history and generally being alive in a crazy world.  And at it’s best, it makes me feel less alone in the world.

Sound Opinions – I love the sideways slant of this podcast.  Sure, Jim and Greg review the “newest” releases for the Pitchfork crowd, but it’s the meat of their podcasts that are fascinating and informative.  I mean, an entire podcast devoted to Run The Jewels?  Yes please.  Titles like “20 Years of Bloodshot Records”, deep dives into albums like “James Brown Live at the Apollo” and “80s New Wave” are fascinating retrospectives or blood-pumping introductions to “new music”, depending on your perspective.  And none of it is taken too seriously.

The Bugle – John Oliver & Andy Saltzman deliver penis-shaped piles of bullshit while skewering Vladimir Putin and ridiculous ideas that claim to be political policy from around the globe.  If you’re looking to be kept informed about current affairs, look elsewhere.  Have an interest in Crimea’s fleet of computer controlled dolphins?  Look no further.

Podcasts TNG