In The Quirks of Digital Culture, David Beer provides a patchwork of quirky vignettes that together create a representative picture of the cultural environment in which we now live, showing how digital culture offers a means of access, insight and possibility while also bringing the payoff of surveillance, manipulation and a sense of inescapability. Ignas Kalpokas highly recommends this accessible take on the intricacies and complexities of contemporary culture.
The Quirks of Digital Culture. David Beer. Emerald Publishing. 2019.
In The Quirks of Digital Culture, David Beer accomplishes a true intellectual feat: accounting for a complex stage of cultural development without producing a monumentally lengthy volume that would crumble any shelf under its weight. The method enabling this achievement is, in fact, in the book’s title: Beer provides a set of quirky vignettes that, fitting together as a patchwork, nevertheless offers a representative picture of the cultural environment in which we now live, and does so in less than 100 pages. What is even more astonishing is that this compression of content does not come at the expense of accessibility and ease of reading.
The premise is fairly standard, but one that is simply impossible to run away from: the centrality of algorithms as forces that order and curate the world, ‘giving us the bits that they, according to their coding models, think that we are most likely to react to’, so that users ‘end up with a reductive and smoothed-out version of the deafening noise of content that is out there’ (2). Indeed, this function of algorithms in turning disorder into (a certain kind of) order is subsequently seen as the paramount organisational principle that underlies cultural processes. Moreover, algorithms are rightly seen as gatekeepers that, even when not managing visibility directly, create the conditions under which it is managed and negotiated, awarding presence to ‘those who manage to get heard over the rumbling noise of all that content’. This brings forth, under the cloak of ‘glossy visibility’, an array of new cultural phenomena, ‘from social media influencers to YouTubers, to celebrities’ social media profiles through to algorithmically defined news feeds and recommendations’ (2). The net result is, then, a surprising combination of excess, dizzying and unpredictable change and (a semblance of) order.
Nevertheless, algorithms and the cultural spaces of today (social media, streaming platforms, etc) do not arise out of nowhere. These are produced by a new breed of capitalist. Opposing their demeanour and methods to the previous white-collar company bosses, Beer labels them ‘crew-neck capitalists’ after the ubiquitous Silicon Valley T-shirt. A key feature here is the invisibility of ‘crew-neck capitalism’ – instead of some distant money-maker, this type of capitalist appears casual and human (perhaps even humane), and that these figures are running largely immaterial platforms rather than giant factories certainly contributes to the appeal. To put it simply, the sense of power is eroded, and the different style of clothing is certainly a good metaphor for that.
A further element that Beer stresses is the façade of benevolence that characterises crew-neck capitalist operations (providing a service) and corporate messages (connecting everybody for the purpose of creating a better world), apparently without anyone being exploited. However, exploitation certainly does take place as the essence of this new type of capitalism is to turn users’ entire lives, including cultural production and consumption, into economic value. As a result, then, the autonomy of digital culture is significantly decreased.
Of course, digital culture is by no means a monolithic phenomenon. In fact, quite the opposite is true: contemporary culture is defined by a fragmentation of tastes and content, which Beer mainly discusses by analysing changes in the music scene. In this case, such fragmentation is mainly explained as the outcome of vastly increased accessibility courtesy of the rise of streaming platforms. As the relationship between the artist and the listener is now primarily negotiated by algorithms instead of label bosses and record shop-owners, opportunities for discovery (both of new artists/genres and new audiences) are vastly increased, which means that it now makes sense to diversify content as well as to try out new things (after all, listeners no longer need to pay for an entire album). This trend can be seen as cultural content’s answer to personalisation, but it is also due to the demise of the taste-forming influence of previously central venues that had limited supply (record shops had only a limited range of artists; the music press had a limited number of pages to cover what’s worthwhile; and there was limited time on popular TV shows). Instead, streaming platforms offer a seemingly endless array. Hence, fragmentation is the result of a shift from the curation of tastes to the algorithmic prediction of personal preferences.
Beer also provides a welcome counternarrative to the idea that due to the pace of the change we are forced to grapple with, our life is defined as a constant present. Instead, he argues, digital culture is also visibly coloured by nostalgia, which is particularly notable in the phenomenon of the comeback or reunion (and, to some extent, the return of vinyl or cassettes). Semi-forgotten performers return to the stage, music groups of decades past are revived, sequels of films and TV shows are introduced (at the time of writing this review, a one-off comeback show of the cult TV series Friends was announced).
While this can be explained by the simple human desire to revisit past stages of one’s life, coupled with the contemporary economy’s drive to monetise whatever possible, Beer also offers additional explanations. One is to view this as a reaction to the political and social uncertainties of recent years, while the second is a social media-centric explanation. For Beer, social media acts not only as a means to transmit ourselves and our presence to the world, but also as biographical archives where content can be stored and re-accessed. The fact that social media is by nature nostalgic is illustrated by the fact that even platforms which had previously distinguished themselves by the ephemerality of their content, such as Snapchat, are now offering a content-saving function as well. Hence, a desire to remember and revisit might also be built into contemporary digital culture.
On a related note, Beer demonstrates how real attention-attracting power is seen to belong to those who make the best use of social media’s logic of circulation, particularly by visual means, leading to the rise of Instagram and other image-first platforms as well as the ever-present prominence of memes that allow for the rapid and intuitive distribution of a message and the recognition of in- and out-groups. In fact, visibility and group membership are themselves at the heart of digital processes as notable content and personalities are always bound to polarise, while it is in the nature of the algorithmic structuration of the digital to herd users in accordance with their likes and dislikes (the infamous ‘filter bubble’ effect).
Here it is important to note that even a rejection of the excesses of digital culture, such as the primacy of celebrities and influencers, can be co-opted, as this is used for creating algorithmic commonality among those who refute the same ‘bad object’. But ultimately, if we are inundated with calls for attention, and the calls that are louder and have a higher chance of being heard are the ones that enjoy algorithmic proximity, the source of the algorithmic determination of proximity becomes paramount. It is at this point that we finally approach the issue of surveillance, which is at the root of content personalisation. Relevance, including of cultural artefacts, comes at the expense of constantly being watched, followed and listened to, with smart home devices and assistants being the new growth area. In this way, culture becomes fundamentally intertwined with the material realities of everyday life.
Beer himself offers perhaps the best possible summary of the landscape he has painted: for him, digital culture provides ‘the means for access, eclecticism, insight and possibility, whilst also bringing the payoff of surveillance, manipulation and a disconcerting sense of inescapability’ (86). By revealing the intricacies and complexities of contemporary culture, this book opens up new ways to understand and interpret everyday experiences and does so in a way that is accessible even in today’s attention-poor environment. In a nutshell, this is a highly recommended book.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.