When we talk about the expressions of the mainstream and the movements and ideas that stand to counter them, we are talking about people; thinking, feeling expressive people in an ongoing dialogue between generations, industries, and schools of thought. But in this always connected world, run by faceless codes and nameless recommendation algorithms, we have reached a point where machines are making up our minds for us. That is as long as we let them. With everyone from State’s Attorney Generals to the FTC looking to breakup systems and regulate behaviors paired with an endless cycle of accusations, leaks, hacks, and breaches, the general malaise of the tech industry is out and about. Everyone is addicted, overwhelmed, angry, and honestly just a little bit bored with the flatness of all things #, the two-dimensionality of screen life, and the sensation-less tapping of glass. We went full speed ahead without thinking beyond the here and now and just accepted to the idea of move fast and break things or that everyone should drop out of university and move to Palo Alto to myopically pursue the power of if/then. But the culture of tech itself is broken and some truly deep thinkers are really starting to question themselves, an introspection that could not be needed more or happen fast enough. In other words, what that world needs now is what society always needs when things come to a head—Tech, an industry ironically founded by the mother of all counterculture movements, now itself needs a strong counterculture.
Watching, listening, and understanding society is simply about understanding people and their behaviors, seeing how it all plays out depending on time and space and place. Today, we as a society are going where no man has gone before and our cultural expressions are easily misunderstood and manipulated in the global structures we have built. Whether in real world manufacturing and supply chain economics of the 1980’s, or in our new virtual existences, its easy to forget that human expressions, or what we call cultures, are inherently not global. They are local. So although we can define local in many ways and varying degrees, until we reach warp speed there is no such thing as global culture no matter how many brands try to claim themselves as such. It is in these differences, these awkward juxtapositions of things that are not the same we find rich histories, creative breakthroughs, original thought, profound beauty and what we once even called fashion. It’s in all the stuff that makes us human in the first place; different tastes, sounds, smells, and points of view are the ingredients for a rich and evolving humankind. Yet they are all the things that suffer in the globalist world we have built on and offline. The globalist world is anti-humanist by design, because it’s the only way to make the spreadsheets work.
And the news from within tech itself is alarming, as many are aware of the quicksand they created and are shouting from the rooftops, conferences, and Ted Talks about how we have got to change things, and how in the end, tech or no tech, we are human after all. The Betaworks Studios Render Conference of the same name seemed like a good place to think about things like, ok what is this new reality? What are the questions we should be asking next? And generally, where on earth do we go from here? An array of talks and demos from frontier tech thought leaders, the Human After All conference was a rich combination of confessions, disdains, and predictions that painted a darker picture than we previously had considered. Rather than leaving with a sense of triumph and a host of new ideas, the collections of people, ideas, shared experiences, new products, and meditations felt more like an elegy for what once was, for a home brewed counterculture movement that failed to build the bicycles for our minds and instead was left to those who put their faith in code and data alone as a path to a better world. It was a bit more Joni Mitchell’s version of Woodstock than Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young's.
As Betaworks founder John Borthwick began by discussing his role in leading the charge for #teamhuman, referring to a piece he wrote describing the mixed up state of our technological union, saying “We have 2.5 billion smartphone users today — each of whom has access to all the knowledge of the world — yet these devices often aren’t working for them nor consistently making their lives better. And rather than a flourishing of creativity and cultural energy, we are seeing people drift in a haze of information overload, likes/social anxiety, and sometimes depression. Rather than technology spreading the freedom we enjoy, we are seeing technology weaken our democracy. The tools we have built are used by enemies of our way of life and culture to sow seeds of fear and chaos. The future, today, has a hole in it.” And Douglas Rushkoff, theorist, technologist, and author of Team Human, talked about the way human activity itself has been turned into markets, about how we are now the commodity/product and the bad actors of the surveillance advertising platforms are reaping the rewards of our attention and their ability to extract value from our manipulated actions. He also pointed to our dehumanizing way of accepting computer language to describe ourselves, and that words matter. We clearly are not downloading, or just processing anything—we are not computers. And finally, he made the point that the global platforms need exponential growth in order to exist, while exponential growth is what actually kills living organisms.
Nir Eyal, author of both Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, talked about action versus distraction and let the platforms off the hook for a second, claiming that distraction starts from within and asks us to exercise some control and stop blaming our apps and phones for our human crushing predicament. And Tristan Harris, ex-Google design ethicist, co-founder of both the Time Well Spent Movement and the Center for Humane Technology did some explaining on what we already unfortunately know; that all of the algorithms (being written by humans) are designed to work best with all of the aspects of humanity’s worst. Our worst impulses—hate, outrage, fear, loneliness, disgust—are the magic ingredients that bake the perfect fluffy yet moist layer cake of engagement, its virality just the poisonous icing on that same cake. And to really scare the pants off everyone, vc’s discussed the notion that the global economy is being held together by these automated systems of surveillance and targeting, and that any attempt to dismantle these systems will inevitably lead to total economic collapse.
Here we can begin to see the weaknesses in these algorithmic systems—their reliance on low quality ingredients, hoarded value and destroyed trust. Whereas, a humane system actually derives its strength through superior quality, regenerative value (timelessness) and deep trust. And don't those qualities deserve a chance too? So, then, where do we go from here? Well, first of all, we should focus on the false promises of an open and connected global society and instead ask, what is society? And especially, who is society? Oh right, it’s us again, in all of our messy, personal and unsophisticated ways of trying to wrestle with all the techno toys we have at our disposal. The tools we build and the platforms we inhabit can allow us to act, express, and exchange modes of thought and visualizations in incredible ways. But just as easily, they can act as an antidote to culture, can flatten everything out and force us to use their basic template, liking and following (and purchasing) blindly while the world around us falls into ever more chaos. While its good to know that the movements have indeed begun to counter this culture, it's also important to remember that it's up to all of us, everyday, to insist on defending our humanity in any way we can before we really do become nothing more than a collection of ones and zeros.
To be truly human is to be multidimensional. And that’s why, of all the platforms, Tumblr always felt so special—it’s a place to put all of your strange, creative, dark, weird, moody mess of a life, in whatever format or aspect ratio you choose. You learned new things, read bizarre fan fiction and met others who read it too. While Facebook, Google, and Twitter continue to sell user’s data, radicalize populations, assist in genocide and promote arguments, anxiety, addiction and bullying, Tumblr has remained a charmingly weird, a little less algorithmic inviting black hole to get visually lost in.
Created in 2007 by David Karp and Marco Arment, Tumblr was the first home to a new generation who couldn’t yet get on Facebook without a college email address and others who felt Myspace too confining and music oriented. And although it was founded at the dawn of the social media boom, it’s always had a sort of countercultural feel to it. It was a place where you could express yourself, share your thoughts, and get a sense of who someone truly was, what their ideal aesthetic world looked like outside of their own heads. It was always a place for the weirdos, the misunderstood, the artists, the stereotypically uncool. But it also allowed non-creative types to share what they liked and see new things, songs, quotes, videos, poetry. It was a place where illustrations were shared by moody teens as well as accomplished artists. Most importantly, it created communities before “communities” became cash-cowed. Fuck yeah.
Although it still very much exists, and was just saved from the scrapheap by Automatic’s Matt Mullenweg, talking about Tumblr now brings a sense of nostalgia, like tech 2.0's version of vinyl records. Looking through Tumblr feels like traveling back to a more humanistic time, when you could actually personalize your social media and not have it personalized for you by Big Brother, whose taste may not be the same. Sure, there were dark corners of it. Thinspo and pro-ana and plenty of NSFW content, but those communities do exist in our not so perfect world and those communities were able to share in the privacy of the platform. That was mostly until 2018, when Tumblr’s telecom overlords banned all adult content, spurring both pro and con takes and making the Tumblr experience slightly less unique for certain communities.
But, and especially in today’s techie social media content farming world, the best thing hands down about Tumblr is the most Tumblr feature of them all, reblogging. It also reveals everything in reverse chronological order, meaning the posts get older as you scroll—a simple idea yet something the tech overlords don’t seem to care about anymore. Tumblr also has native photo hosting, which allows users to keep their writing, photos, and other art on one platform, which leads to creating communities that are more centralized.
Tumblr does also have a messaging feature where you can “ask anything” and remain anonymous, which of course leads to trolling in some cases, but the easiest way to talk to another Tumblr user is by its original system of reblogging, sharing from blog to blog. You can reblog another user’s post and add a comment or not. The original post and the comment then appear on the reblogger’s Tumblr and in the feeds of anyone following the user who reblogged the post—leading to the discovery of new things for different users. This sounds a lot like retweeting, and in some ways it is, but the Tumblr experience is unique because no other platform allows you to integrate videos, GIFs, still images, text, and links in a single post.
In a time when tech has taken over, many people write Tumblr off as not keeping up with the times. But maybe the fact that it hasn’t is the best thing about it. The fact that it hasn’t enforced an algorithm, or suggests posts, or acts as a faux forced shopping experience, or curates your feed for you is what continues to make it the counter culture of the web, and it’s at least nice to know there is still a counterculture platform out there. Long live Tumblr.