Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Numbers Game

Maybe primitive cultures had the right idea when it came to counting: one, two, more, a whole lot.  For one thing it made things like “credit default swaps” impossible.  But the evolution of civilization eventually drove us forward to those banes of school kids everywhere – long division and “making change”, social diseases almost completely eradicated by the invention of the calculator, and now unknown in the civilized world since the calculator app has come to the smartphone.

Still, I remember when numbers had the power to both shock and surprise us:  “Hundreds of cars were involved in a pile-up on icy I-95 just south of the nation’s capitol.” “20,000 Fans Crammed into the RBC on Saturday to See the Wolfpack take on the Tarheels!”  Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands – big numbers, but numbers close enough to our own lives to have meaning, to be understood, to be confronted. 

Studying and teaching about digital culture brings me into regular contact with a class of numbers that need a new name.  I vaguely remember a math professor talking, during my freshman year [back when one was allowed to call it that], about “imaginary numbers” – a number with a negative square, hence, a number that could be defined but did not exist.  When I read about the Internet I find myself constantly running into a different kind of number - a number that exists but is really beyond our imagination.  Perhaps we could call them whelms: "numbers, the implications of which capsize us, overrunning our understanding.” [And that, “to capsize, to over run” is, according to the OED, the meaning of “whelm.” “Overwhelm”, strangely, means the same thing – but if I’m going to make a noun from a verb – whelm seems the better choice.]

So what are some whelms currently in play? 

700 million: the estimated population of Facebook Nation.
1.5 – 2 billion:  searches performed by Google every day.
200 – 400 billion: the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which is but one of approximately 500 billion galaxies in the visible universe, which is only 4% of the entire universe.

The thing about whelms is that they encourage us to go for a walk, or make a sandwich, or watch TV, go shopping, head for the bar, anything - because there is just no way we are ever going to get our heads around numbers of such magnitude.  .  .  .  except sometimes they sneak up on us, and we are startled into considering the actual implications of a whelm.  It happened to me yesterday.  As some of you know, because you are them, I spend a good deal of time browsing the wonderful world of digital information looking for fascinating stories to pass along to my students.  Yesterday PC World provided us with this whelm:

“Facebook estimates its users' photo archives will reach 100 billion images by the end of the summer.”

Here is the context that allowed me to consider the whelm.  One of the hats I occasionally wear is that of an “artist.”  I claim the hat not solely to justify the amount of time I spend creating images and constructions, but more pragmatically, because people have actually spent money to acquire said works.  Still, one of the places where I would least like to wear the artist hat is at a place like Artsplosure – a large arts festival held annually here in Raleigh.  It ended just a few days ago.  It is your standard art fair.  Hundreds of artists set up their booths and people wander through, gazing at the wares and pawing through the bins.  There are far more shoppers than buyers.  I have never bought anything at Artsplosure.  It is certainly not because there is nothing worth buying.  On the contrary, there is always some very nice work on display – but buying art is, well, it's complicated.  And it was within that complicated context that I considered the whelm of images on Facebook, and how it might inform the world of art.

In the complicated mix of art buyers, you have folks for whom art is an investment – like LinkedIn stock or pork bellies.  You buy low and hope to sell high.  That has nothing to do with art – that is business.  Then you have folks who buy art with their ears – they have heard of the artist.  “Oh, my! Is that a High Falutin, there above the sofa?” “Yes, one of her early works.  .  .”  But I hope that for most people buying a piece of art is a personal and important decision.  Think about it.  How much wall or display space do you have in your home?  How often do you change the objects on your walls or on your counters?  This is the environment you have created in which to live – hopefully it defines you and gives you pleasure.  We ought to fill it with great care.

An artist at an art fair is working at the very edges of the art world.  Most people are there with their kids for the street vendors and the music.  High school and college kids cruise the booths and the bars nearby.  Not many attendees are really there to spend real money to bring home a major purchase to put in their homes.  Oh, certainly, sometimes one stumbles across just the right piece, something grabs you, you love it and whip out the plastic.  And that outside chance is precisely why all those artists are sitting there in their director’s chairs with smiles on their faces, despite the heat and humidity.  But, ordinarily, the art we allow to share our homes is chosen with far more care.  We go back to the gallery, or the artist’s website several times.  We agonize.  We decide, and “un-decide” and decide again.  And finally we make the purchase and move in together.

“Facebook estimates its users' photo archives will reach 100 billion images by the end of the summer.” Flickr, a more tony image site, hit 4 billion images a few years ago.  Other sites like Picasa and various social networks also contribute to the growing pictorial whelm. Hmmm.

Now, it is true that most of those images are personal and trivial – they have meaning only for those people who posted them, or for whom they were posted.  But ask for a moment where, today, can we encounter the works of “real artists”?  It is true that there are still galleries where one can view the works of artists whose “significance” is to some extent vetted by the reputation of the gallery.  But the gallery, no doubt, also has a website and an email list, as do the major museums of the world.  The point is that the Internet has blended fine art into one huge art fair and the number of fine art images available for our consideration has become, like Facebook’s billions, a whelm.

It makes me wonder how Michelangelo would have done on Facebook?  Would the Hudson River School page on Fickr be seen as quaint, but minor? Mary Cassatt, a Picasa wannabe?  Warhol – just a point-and-click, copy-and-paste, make-a-photobook kind of guy?  Isn’t there an app for that?  More importantly, would we have even seen their work if it had had to fight for attention in the swirl of the whelm?  It was hard enough to compete for attention among a few hundred, maybe a thousand, important artists of their day – how does one surface among the billions?

Does a whelm of art define an awesome increase in options and opportunity for artists, or does it herald an age of almost certain anonymity where savvy Internet marketing will determine what art our era bequeaths to the ages?

My apologies, but this is one of those times when the question ends the essay.

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