Twelve Years
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2014

Today is Clouds and Clocks' twelfth birthday. Hooray!

It seems like yesterday that I decided to start this thingee, with absolutely no knowledge of what it took to make the thing fly. I received lotsa encouragement from Italy ("It's so easy, you don't even need to know how to deal with HTML code anymore"), while people from the United States offered more than a few practical suggestions, and a list of software programs that could be of help. Quite a dichotomy, which at first I didn't even notice, but which I came to ponder at great length in the following years.

I was really surprised by the amount of feedback I got from the States. There were those who didn't agree with my reviews, those who sent invitations to concerts ("Can you come to Austin? We'll leave your name at the door") and even conferences in L.A. ("Hi, Beppe! Next week I'll be in Los Angeles, as one of the featured speakers at a conference about audio and recording. Tell the guys at your magazine to buy you a plane ticket, we can meet after the conference.").

Messages from the States accounted for about 90% of the total. While for a long time - with the obvious exception of a few close friends - I got almost nothing from Italy. And for reasons that remain totally mysterious to me, traffic from Italy in the first five or six years was also quite scarce.

In those days (the "" era) the panorama of Internet magazines was richly populated. Already a subscriber to Salon - a U.S. magazine talking about politics and culture that had no paper edition - I read about the Napster trial on such magazines as Billboard (which under the guidance of Timothy White had a strong presence on the Web, besides having a first-class staff), CNET, Slashdot, Inside, and Rolling Stone.

Today the Web offers a lot more, and a lot less. The Babel of voices is overwhelming - it would be impossible for a tiny English-speaking webzine such as this one to get noticed today - but quality has suffered. The reason is obvious: those who are professionally equipped to report on something like the Napster case must possess a knowledge of the law, and be willing to work long hours, i.e., they must be paid accordingly. But the burst of the "" bubble, and the dynamics of the market - starting with the reluctance from large sections of the public to pay for something they think they can get for free elsewhere (more about it in a short while) - have made everything a lot more difficult.

Of course, today the Web offers so many opportunities that were obviously unthinkable just a few years ago. A Nobel prize such as Paul Krugman has a blog on the New York Times, which he updates more than a few times a day, with figures, charts and links. The Internet gives Krugman the chance to offer ideas and facts to a gigantic audience, which can easily access this great quantity of information from all over the world, with obvious practical implications.

But it's quite apparent that the increase of the amount of available information has proceeded hand-in-hand with a dramatic decrease in quality.

One's awareness of one's becoming poorer can be somewhat masked if said impoverishment is spread all over the strata one deals with in one's everyday existence: one's decision not to buy a new pair of shoes won't become a source of embarrassment if most subjects one meets everyday have also decided that "last year's pair will do".

The real problem starts when, say, a trip abroad makes one get in touch with a standard of living that is totally unattainable. This being true when it comes to clothing, transportation, cleanness, social organization, and all that can be seen by the naked eye, starting with the quality of available information.

Coherently with the process of infantilization of people that has been going on for quite a few years by now (something which I'll discuss in a short while), consumers have decided that "they don't care anymore" about where things come from - those things the consume (almost) for free. That it's not really necessary for them to buy a newspaper at the newsstand when "one can find anything one needs on the Web", that it's not strictly necessary for one to go and see a movie at a local theatre when after just a few months one can watch it on cable ("...and you know how much I have to pay each semester?").

Let's leave sophisticated debates - such as the difference between people watching the same thing at the same time, cultural debates in the media included in the picture, and watching the same thing, each on one's own, at different times - for another occasion, and let's go to the heart of the matter.

How do you get to know about the Ebola epidemic? From newspapers and magazines. And where newspapers and magazines get their news? From their own correspondents (provided they have any), or from news agencies. And where do news agencies get their earnings? From newspapers and magazines.

So, even if it's to be expected that there are those who, at the moment of buying a newspaper, have in mind their children's dental braces - but it's all relative, of course: when confronted with the choice of buying a new pair of shoes or renewing my subscription to the New York Times, I'd have no doubt, given the fact that I'm quite convinced that it's the lack of knowledge and awareness that makes human beings become dangerously close to animals - I'm quite surprised when affluent professionals surf the Web getting their news for free on their portables. Sure, there are reasons of convenience and practicality involved. No problem: It's always possible to buy a few copies of one's favourite newspaper every day, leaving them on benches and elsewhere, for other people to read.

Sure, even if all newspapers, magazines, and news agencies closed shop somebody would surely get the news: the military, governments, and institutions. But are we really sure that we'd be told about those facts - truthfully?

Provided I remember correctly, Frank Zappa used to say: "I discovered that the most common element in the Universe is not hydrogen, but stupidity". So true. But I believe that even he would be amazed by the vast increase in the process of infantilization when it comes to consumers.

In fact, while noticing that the shoes one wears are significantly older than those our neighbors wear is quite easy, understanding how old and inadequate one's ideas are it's not as easy. For animals that graze on the grass all things that are above their heads - rain, snow, the sun - don't exist, unless they fall on their heads.

But while grazing on the grass is boring, living an active life as a consumer is not.

In so differently from a lot of people in my country, I never believed the notion that Berlusconi's fall from power would magically transport us back to our happy previous state. Instead, that period has made it possible for anything to be seen as something banal, serious problems have turned unto jokes, the idea of complexity has practically disappeared, every problem has been reduced to the notion of our accepting or refusing somebody. Our obsessive concentrating on personalities, not problems and issues, has brought us to a condition where by now change coincides with getting rid of somebody, to be replaced by somebody else. If the new boss is younger, there's a slogan ready: "scrapping", "getting rid of the old stuff".

Let's see a for instance. "Smaller hospitals spread all over the country are not financially viable, and there are too many of them, so by necessity they have to be closed. Larger hospitals offer a dimension of vertical integration that's economically convenient, and which will make for more rational expenditures." Which is true. "All other things being equal", of course. So, we assume that nobody will travel abroad, bringing back something like SARS. At the time of that scare, just a few years ago, it was seen that keeping that kind of contagious person in isolation was a highly complex, financially intensive process, from the type of air conditioning involved to the quantity of highly trained nurses. It was noticed that avoiding contagion through normal air conditioning systems implied a general redesign of air conditioning methods, and that maybe, all things considered, having a certain number of highly-specialized, smaller hospitals spread all over the country was not a bad idea in order to stop contagion. Of course, a lot of money is needed, and qualified personnel.

But all modern problems are "quite complex".

Should I summarize a "giant problem" in a short sentence, I'd choose "I don't care". Increasingly, today nobody "cares" about anything. "I don't care about reading a review, I'll listen to it and I'll make up my mind" is just a microcosm of a self-referential attitude that - it goes without saying - can't seem to trace causal links anymore. But in the end, consequences turn around, and bite us.

Beppe Colli 2014 | Nov. 26, 2014