IT’S A RECURRING DREAM of modern culture: a post-text world. This goes back at least to 1902, when Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote “The Lord Chandos Letter,” in which a fictional Lord Chandos complains to Francis Bacon that he has come down with a sickness. “My case, in short,” Chandos confesses, “is this: I have lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently.” Life, for Chandos, has become a Bing commercial—speech and writing seem like automated gibberish. Unable to finish writing his books, his only solace is a fantasy of communication beyond language: “And the whole thing is a kind of feverish thinking,” he explains, “but thinking in a medium more immediate, more liquid, more glowing than words.”
Chandos’s dream migrated to cinema, and later, television, which literally glowed from the inside. Of these, I’d argue that TV was the medium that came closest to realizing the ambition of being more “liquid” than words. As Raymond Williams wrote in his 1974 Television: Technology and Cultural Form, it had long been a project of television to achieve “flow.” “In all developed broadcasting systems the characteristic organization . . . is one of sequence or flow,” he wrote, describing a programmatic experience wherein advertisements merge seamlessly with the “content” to form an experiential unit. To extend this to our time—and to stick with the “liquid” and “flowing” metaphors—it’s subscription “streaming” that has achieved the smoothest flow, often (ironically) by removing advertisements altogether.
Still, the dream is spreading. Last week, the New York Times caught the fever in a package of miniature pieces headed by GIFS of models with temporary tattoos. The introduction to “Welcome to the Post-Text Future,” written by Farhad Manjoo, issues its point in the first line. “I’ll make this short,” Manjoo writes. “The thing you’re doing now, reading prose on a screen, is going out of fashion.” My first thought was this state of affairs is bad for the New York Times, a newspaper (or website) composed almost entirely in written language. This hardly matters to Manjoo because the transition away from writing has hardened into a fact. “The defining narrative of our online moment,” he continues, “concerns the decline of text, and the exploding reach and power of audio and video.” My second thought: why do so many outlets conspire in their own decline?
And yes, a printed version of this futurism was delivered to home subscribers, with minor alterations. The “Special Report” was billed “Into the Eye of the Internet.” And Manjoo’s headline for newspaper readers was “The Post-Text Future is Here (You Read That Right).” Oddly, a trimmed version of his opening has elided the “thing you are doing now” and stayed with the online experience: “I’ll make this short,” he writes. “Reading prose on a screen is going out of fashion.”
The not-so-hidden aim of “Welcome to the Post-Text Future” is to make an offering to the gods of digital advertising.
The rest of “Welcome to the Post-Text Future” inspires less confidence in the coming obsolescence of words—but not because it’s a collection of convincing writing. A piece by Nellie Bowles, “The Mainstreaming of Political Memes Online,” reports that political groups, liberal and right-wing, are funding memes. “Still,” the piece shrugs, “the shift toward a meme-based political discourse is in its early days.” More confusingly, two short essays about Twitter—“The Ratio Establishes Itself on Twitter” and “How Social Media Gives Women a Voice”—ignore that content on the platform is mostly text. Absurdly, too, the Times package relies on two lexicons, one about the language of the alt-right (“redpilled” and “cucked”) and another defining newish cryptocurrencies, like Bananacoin. Maybe they should have added “lexicon” to the lexicons.
But newspapers are more prayer than prophecy, which is to say that the not-so-hidden aim of “Welcome to the Post-Text Future” is to make an offering to the gods of digital advertising—not to read the palm of culture. The Times is semi-enthusiastically cheerleading the large-scale turn to video domineered by Facebook and Google, who, in all likelihood, stand to gain the most from this “online moment.” Of course, the growing number of companies participating in this turn, the unheard-of consolidation and investment, make it seem inevitable, and it is—at least in the short-term. But, we might ask, what will happen if the post-text internet thoroughly blows?
Here’s an example: imagine a streaming service with content selected by Mark Zuckerberg and his employees. If you’re familiar with Zuckerberg’s other curatorial efforts, like his book club, you’ll know that the prospects for an audience enjoying such an enterprise are not good. And, yet, it exists. Facebook Watch, which seems to de-scab its content from the sorer abscesses of the internet—try “What If the Sun Disappeared?” or “Raccoon Grows Up Thinking She’s a Dog”—does possess a public-accessish charm, but it’s hard to imagine its competing with Netflix or Disney for “eyeballs.” Instead, Facebook is openly contending with YouTube, whose CEO recently told Zuckerberg to “get back to baby pictures” instead of video content, and whose YouTube Red is among the internet’s more bemusing video channels. A day ago, Digiday reported that “YouTube’s CEO and creators can’t agree on what YouTube Red is.” The same article pointed out that while Facebook Watch is spending upwards of $750,000 per episode on its show “Ball in the Family”—“starring famous basketball dad LaVar Ball”—it nonetheless is not “a TV network of the future.”
And yet, the article promises, Facebook doesn’t want to be a TV network but “a product test to get people to spend more time on Facebook.” In other words, Facebook and Google (owner of YouTube) still have no idea how this will play out, or even whether it will play out. The inexorable and even imminent post-text future promised by the New York Times is still very much in its testing phase—meanwhile, the Times lays off its copy editors, and struggles to get its advertisers excited about its “next-level journalism” by way of the online experience.
The shift to a thoroughly video-driven internet is indeed on its way, and it will be terrible. To the extent that it attempts to cash in on original content, it will necessarily be terrible, in the conventional sense, because there is not enough talent to go around—ever wonder why British television (and film) relies on the same five actors and actresses? On the other hand, American art has a long history of inspirational terribleness, of sublime trashiness and no-budget artistry that far surpasses, in quality, critically sanctioned prestige. I have no confidence that Google or Facebook will recognize such non-talent for what it is or could be. I can, on the other hand, imagine them pivoting to something else after they over-invest in content that no one cares about. And I can conceive of a post-text internet “watched” by user-viewers even if it’s bad and uninteresting—the other options are dwindling.
To the extent that we’re led by Google and Facebook, we’re not living in a post-text world but a pre-text culture. Like Buddha, Jesus, or even Socrates—none of whom wrote anything down—Google and Facebook simply announce some cosmo-algorithmic shift, and we all transcribe it for posterity, as if it were a koan or parable or ingenious dialectical maneuver, in the language of capital. The problem, I think, is not video. It’s just that we’ve come to believe capital is a medium more immediate and more liquid and more glowing than words.