There's a great scene in the first episode of House of Cards where the ambitious young journalist Zoe Barnes is sitting on the floor of her rented apartment's living room scanning the half-shredded documents of an education bill that was forwarded to her by her source/lover Frank Underwood, the Majority Whip. She's drinking wine, taking notes on her laptop, and scanning on her small all-in-one desktop printer/scanner. The next day she shows up at the office of the newspaper where she works with a 3000-word text and the 300-page document scanned, prompting her editors that "We should get this online right away."
Barnes's character is young and ambitious. Later in the season she moves on to work for a site called "Slugline," an early-Politico-like newswire, where "journalists post news directly from their phones." Her obsession with technology is used as a narrative device in the series to set her apart from her older, more conservative editors at the newspaper. And her ambition to upload information to the newspaper's site as soon as possible, to give the public the raw data before it can be filtered or analyzed, stands for her idealism.
The romanticized image of the scanner is based on the assumption that by scanning and uploading we make information available, and that that is somehow an invariably democratic act. Scanning has become synonymous with transparency and access. But does the document dump generate meaningful analysis, or make it seem insignificant? Does the internet enable widespread distribution, or does it more commonly facilitate centralized access? And does the scanner make things transparent, or does it transform them? The contemporary political imaginary links the scanner with democracy, and so we should explore further the political possibilities, values, and limitations associated with the process of scanning documents to be uploaded to the internet.
What are the political possibilities of making information available? A thing that is scanned was already downloaded, in a sense. It circulated on paper, as widely as newspapers or as little as classified documents. And interfering with its further circulation is a time-honored method of keeping a population in check. Documents are kept private; printing presses shut down. Scanning printed material for internet circulation has the potential to circumvent some of these issues. Scanning means turning the document into an image, one that is marked by glitches and bearing the traces of editorial choices on the part of the scanner. Although certain services remain centralized and vulnerable to political manipulation, such as the DNS addressing system, and government monitoring of online behavior is commonplace, there is still political possibility in the aggregate, geographically dispersed nature of the internet. If the same document is scanned, uploaded, and then shared across a number of different hosts, it becomes much more difficult to suppress. And it gains traction by circulation.
Kenneth Goldsmith at Labor Gallery, Mexico City, 2013. Posted on Printingtheinternet.tumblr.com with the caption, "We printed the fucking internet."
"Printing the internet is not creative nor art. It is a waste of time and resources. Please, find something more creative to do."
So reads a comment on a petition on change.org. Directed at Kenneth Goldsmith, the petition was published in 2013 in response to a project the poet organized at LABOR gallery in Mexico City, where Goldsmith invited people from all over the world to print out the internet and send the pages to the gallery.
E-cig store in Les Sables, France
Last fall, I spent a month in Arles, a small town in southern France, which has a population of 50,000. This being France, a large number of the residents smoke, and the town has three cafés-tabacs, where you can buy cigarettes. It also sports two different e-cigarette stores, both on the same street, the main drag in the town. It's clear that the stores are not there to sell the cigarettes, but rather, to showcase them.
I presume both these stores will not exist in five years (that may be a generous estimate). Whether or not e-cigarettes replace real cigarettes, as many e-cig providers claim, the needs that the vape stores answer will change as our relationships with these objects shift. They are designed for a particular moment in the history of the e-cigarette, when it's still a little out of the ordinary, when we're still not totally sure what to do with it, how to normalize it, and whether or not it's actually here to stay. There is an immediacy, a consistency, to our associations with smoking and cigarettes (good and bad, the Humphrey Bogarts and the health threats); trading them in for an electronic object is a mental leap that's hard to ignore. These stores exist to help consumers make the leap.
Thomas Struth, Hermitage 3, St. Petersburg (2005).
Amazon used to have literary ambitions. In the late '90s, the company hired professional editors who commissioned and wrote thousands of reviews a week, as well as features, interviews, and previews of forthcoming books. Later on, when the retailer began to intersperse the paid reviews with user-generated content, it retained this vision, thinking of user reviews as submissions to a literary magazine that would give the site the aura of an independent bookshop, populated by an erudite staff and clientele. Rick Ayre, then Vice President and Executive Editor of Amazon, described the tone and use of the content on Amazon.com to the New York Times in 1999: "If you spend a lot of time on the site, I hope you get a sense of the quirky, independent, literate voice, and that behind it all you're interacting with people, and that it's people who care about these things, not people who are trying to sell you these things. My mantra has always been 'the perfect context for a purchase decision.'"1
Laylah Ali, John Brown Song! (2013). Cropped screenshot of website with Quicktime videos.
Laylah Ali’s project, John Brown Song!, was launched in June as part of Dia Art Foundation’s artist web projects. It includes the videos of a number of people singing the song "John Brown’s Body," a Civil War–era marching song about a radical abolitionist who was executed in Virginia in 1859. The videos are arranged in twos, but a viewer could also choose to view all, in a grid of videos that can be played together, generating a multitude of voices, all singing different versions of the somewhat gruesome song ("John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave…")