Highways are infrastructure. They are constructions that connect things, and they serve no purpose unless there are people with places to go or goods that need to be transported. SUPER highways are massive, cross-country, concrete networks that offer that most sought-after desire (or need, as Tom Cruise might say) of anything that must get from here to there: SPEED. It is no accident that the Internet was likened to a highway network instead of, let’s say, an “Information Super Hiking Trail.” Both bespeak connection, grid and mobility, but only one is primarily characterized by SPEED.
And this is crucial to the metaphor’s success. The Internet was not created to be a landscape for scenic tours, leisurely strolls or recreational jogging. From its beginning, and even still, the Internet’s primary purpose has been for the speedy transportation and dissemination of information (the “cargo” of the interstate highway system), as well as the linkage between people and places. Pack up the station-wagon; go to the gas station—“Filler Up!” We’re off to Grandmother’s house … Or, turn on the computer, wiggle those fingers, “email@example.com.” Click “send” and we’re off … In the latter case we’re not interested in going over any rivers or through any woods; only that we get there. Fast.
But just as the highway needs cars to fill its millions of miles, so the digital superhighway is desperately in need of content to fill its vast, seemingly unlimited space. But here’s the difference: whereas it was easy to find content for the highways (people and goods are constantly in need of going from one physical space to another), the Internet must create destinations for its traffic. Physical highways are mere infrastructure that connect preexisting destinations. Digital networks are meaningless unless there are digital places to go. How do we fill an unlimited network of space with content that will attract travelers who otherwise have no reason to “surf the net” (to use the language of that second great early-Internet metaphor)?
In a word: users. “User-generated” uploaded content is the perfect solution for filling the wide-open spaces of the e-frontier. It is the genius of the Internet, and is only now being realized as such (see Time magazine’s “You are the person of the year,” etc …). Where else can a lonely girl in her bedroom upload blasé video diary entries and gain a massive following? Where else can any wannabe artist exhibit their portfolio, outside of the bureaucratic hegemony of “the art world”? The user-generated Internet is a world without gatekeepers, a flattened playing field of cultural production, a utopia of democratized interactivity where dreams can come true … Right?
Maybe. I’m not so sure this user-generated “revolution” will be, in the end, all that revolutionary. The fact that more and more people are now uploading content (videos, blogs, art, music, pictures, articles) to the Internet, freely and easier than ever, is a good thing. Everyone deserves their digital 40 acres. But I wonder what the impact will be when the numbers of people uploading content starts to eclipse the numbers who aredownloading (consuming) the content. That is, what becomes of the content (or rather, what is our motivation for generating content) if there is no audience for it?
There is so much more space on the Internet than there is useful discourse or original content. When everything is accessible, everything you could possibly think of, does it not cheapen the content itself? Additionally, since anyone can upload or publish anything, there is way more competition for the holy grail: audience. More content producers=less content consumers. Content is thus becoming little more that digital dead space. Uploaded filler.
Let’s revisit the highway metaphor. We all know that highways are a great thing in theory, but anyone who has ever commuted in a big city knows that when traffic is bad, any purpose highways might serve (letting us go faster from place to place) seems utterly futile. That is, when everyone starts to choose the highway, it starts to lose its value. In a similar (sort of) way, the Internet “superhighway” of uploaded information is great when there is a finite flow of quality, reliable information and content. But when everyone becomes an uploader or self-publisher, we are suddenly in a traffic jam of idle ideas. Nowhere to go, no one who cares. Just one car amid thousands of others, honking amid the rat race, pointlessly fighting to get through the pack.
And yet here I am, writing and uploading a piece about digital dead weight that will in all likelihood join fellow user-generated specters in the auto-archived elephant graveyard. Sure, this article will be forever accessible, just one Google search away (which is more than can be said for the scroll discourses of previous millennia—99 percent of which have dissolved into dust and lost to history), but alas, “accessibility” means little in our hyper-connected world. That we can see video clips of anything that has happened anywhere on earth (where someone had a camera) whenever the whim arises, is not at all exciting to us anymore; it’s just a fact of life. That we can read any poem, classic novel or see any immortalized painting at the click of the mouse, would thrill us in a former era. Today it’s just ho-hum. “We live in a world,” notes French intellectual, Jean Baudrillard, “where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
Still, as depressingly self-negating as this article is becoming (why don’t I just stop now?), I can’t stop writing without offering some glimpse of hope. The Internet is quickly becoming a traffic jam of epic proportions, and I sometimes wish I could just get off at the nearest exit and try my lot on some different route. But the fact is, there are no better routes. The Internet is the means of our time. For ideas, for art, for political and social change, for anything of value … As crowded and uncomfortable and humbling as it is, we have to get on the bus.
Even as uploading overtakes downloading and (perhaps) devalues the whole process, I find hope in a term I don’t know that exists but I will offer up anyway: sideloading. This is where we should take courage. This is where articles like this have the potential to go from filler to front page.
But what is sideloading? If in YouTube, the video is the product of an upload and watching it is an act of download, then emailing it to a friend is the phenomenon of sideloading. It is the viral, grassroots, buzz-creating process by which some piece of user-produced content is plucked from pixilated oblivion and suddenly known by the whole world. This is where the power is; this is where the infrastructure for high frequency commodity trade pays off for the little guy, on rare and unpredictable occasions.
I’m not saying you should email this article to everyone you know (I realize, from experience, that heady, verbose, maddeningly self-conscious prose rarely hits it big on the e-Hollywood A list). I’m just offering a bit of advice to all of you fellow content-generating users out there: Realize that it’s a big digital world out there and chances are your contributions to it go unnoticed. But whatever you create, upload, or offer to the online world—even if it is never downloaded (read, seen, listened to) or even sideloaded (emailed, linked, copied)—is first and foremost for you. Create and produce because that is who you are. You are more than mere filler.