#196: I Care Because You Do - by Drew Austin - Kneeling Bus:
Decontextualization—the temporary or permanent removal of an individual or object from its familiar environment—is frequently blamed for misinformation and fake news, but more broadly, it is an opportunity for other parties to fill the void with their own context. Victor Gruen, who is only indirectly responsible for the Transfer, invented the shopping mall as we know it in the 1950s in a utopian effort to recreate the pedestrian-friendly shopping districts that were vanishing from urban downtown areas due to the transformative impact of the automobile. The existing environment’s flaws, in other words, demanded the creation of self-contained bubbles where the pernicious external forces would not impinge. More than sixty years later, we constantly inhabit the proverbial mall—physical and digital environments that furnish their own all-enveloping context in place of whatever context we arrived with (if any). In his 1996 book Ladders, Albert Pope wrote, “Today, the single overriding ambition of each closed development (meaning the single overriding ambition of urbanism today) is to enhance and refine our ability to simulate the world.” The equally utopian digital version of this constitutes the realm where our minds, if not yet our bodies, spend more and more time; as this partitioned interior becomes increasingly comprehensive, we lose the ability to point to any external reality that might ground us.
The clearest indication of this condition is suddenly caring about something that you wouldn’t have cared about at a safe distance—the Gruen Transfer at work. “Who cares?” is a question we don’t ask ourselves enough as we trawl the contemporary information landscape, a truth that is painfully clear upon cursory examination of so many cultural phenomena. Digital media is haunted by the idea of quality and its measurability (via engagement stats) or at least knowability (by recommendation algorithms), but “quality” is a red herring. Something can be good and still not matter; we should focus more on the latter and less on the former.
I am always telling my kids that “Who cares?” is never an appropriate response to anything, I have to admit that I think we need to ask this question a lot more often about stuff on the internet.