THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING DIGITAL

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING DIGITAL

By Patrick Mulford

Patrick Mulford is the Executive Creative Director of theAudience in West Hollywood. One of the world's largest publishers of social content, theAudience works with the world's biggest brands, celebrities and entertainment properties, reaching up to a billion people every month, with 6,000 individual pieces of content. 

 

At the corner of Fairfax and Melrose in West Hollywood, there’s a dusty old record store that I often pass on Sunday afternoons. If I have the time I’ll stick my head in the doorway as I go by - not to browse the thousands of vintage vinyl records that line the shelves, but simply to breathe in the smell. 

 

Record collectors get very emotional when talking about the ‘warmth and familiarity’ of vinyl; how it feels in your hands, and how every scratch tells a story. But they hardly ever mention the smell. For me the oily musk of old records in faded paper sleeves is one of the most intoxicating aromas in the world. It takes me straight back to my childhood; to the songs and memories that shaped my past.

 

"IN SOCIAL WE ARE ALL PHOTOJOURNALISTS, SOCIAL COMMENTATORS, AUTHORS AND CRITICS, WITH THE POWER TO AGGREGATE CONTENT, SO THAT THE MOST MEANINGFUL ART BUBBLES TO THE SURFACE.”

 

My own record collection was a casualty of progress – replaced first by cassettes, then by CDs. Like much of my life, my music is now a line of code on a hard drive somewhere. Two decades ago, if you were a creative person you most likely expressed yourself in ink, paint and film – committing your ideas to paper, canvas and celluloid; physical media that made tangible art. Today you are more likely to use a computer. 

 

For those of us who work in the ‘digital industry’, this poses a particularly unsettling existential problem. Nothing we create, including this article, will ever exist. It has no substance. You can’t touch it, you can’t taste it, and you can’t smell it. It is nothing more than a fleeting array of pixels on a screen, a transient alignment of chips and diodes. It’s a ghost – a specter. It’s not really there.

 

The dilemma is further compounded if you work in advertising; selling stuff that nobody really wants, and nobody really needs, and trying to convince people that their lives are meaningless without it. The campaign that consumes your life today will have passed like a ship in a storm by the time the next brief arrives on your desk. 

 

It is a cold, hard fact that, unlike a vinyl record or a leather-bound book, the ultimate, tangible fruits of our creative labor amount to absolutely and irrevocably… nothing

 

IN SEARCH OF SUBSTANCE

I find it fascinating that the hip districts of every major city, the very places where digital natives tend to hang out, have also become havens for handmade goods and vintage products, made with conviction. A short walk around Silverlake, Williamsburg or Shoreditch will uncover any number of stores selling locally produced, ethically-made garments and leather goods, amongst the craft breweries and coffee roasters. The last few years have seen a renaissance in hand-built bicycles and old Japanese café racers, scented candles and screen prints, along with a rising demand for custom tattoo art. 

 

I myself am obsessed with the social history of tattooing. It’s a passion that’s taken me all over the world. As an art form, tattoos are the antithesis of what I do for a living. Tattooing is an acutely physical experience - a profoundly personal and ancient form of self-expression. Every mark a tattoo artist makes is definitive, as the ink under your skin will exist for as long as you do. 

 

Collecting vintage products might seem nostalgic, but even my digitally native teenage son shoots black and white film, to supplement his reliance on a cloud. I cannot help but think that this yearning for authenticity, for patina and soul, is a backlash against our oh-so-consumable and ethereal lives.

 

THE GLOBAL IMPACT OF THE IMPALABLE

The supreme irony is that none of these arts district provisions are essential to modern living. Most are superfluous decoration and adornment, which have created a booming consumer marketplace as opportunistic as any other. This thin veneer of substance is also stuff that nobody really needs, but right now people’s lives seem meaningless without it. 

 

Conversely it is the impalpable world we’ve created online that’s having the most profound impact on culture. In the past decade the Internet has enriched the English language with hundreds of new words. Physical detachment has forced us to develop innovative forms of self-expression, such as emojis, hashtags and selfies, and given everyone the tools to become credible storytellers. In social we are all photojournalists, social commentators, authors and critics, with the power to aggregate content, so that the most meaningful art bubbles to the surface. 

 

The Internet transcends geographical boundaries, religious dogma, and advertising rhetoric, and what begins online tends to permeate reality. As a proving ground for ideas, it’s sparking cultural movements and political revolutions. The Arab Spring was largely captured by cellphone, and the Occupy protests were started by a tweet. Digital content is by no means as refined as its physical counterpart – but it’s vital, uncensored and free. Even a cynical old creative director, who has spent the majority of his digital career promoting violent video games and sugar-laden snacks, has to believe that he’s made some positive contribution to the zeitgeist, however incremental. 

 

Everything moves so fast these days it can sometimes make your head spin. It’s important to steady yourself against the things in your life that feel that little bit more substantial. If nothing else tangible things like books, records and motorcycles help shape your identity. But ultimately all art is transient, and all we leave behind is our legacy. It may never have the gristle of a tattoo, but rest assured my virtual friends, the reality you are handcrafting online is changing the very fabric of our world.//