The Culture of Curation

Apologies, all, for the long gap between posts. I was felled by illness, as folks often are this time of year. Laying in bed, coughing, got me thinking about the nature of epidemics, viruses, and the spread of ideas. 

I came by the following quote in a roundabout way -- a footnote in Matthew Crawford's Shopclass as Soulcraft. Josie Appleton, in reviewing Benjamin Barber's book Consumed , writes"It is not so much that we have an ethic of consumption, but that – by default – it remains as one of the few meaningful experiences in our lives. There is a tangibility and satisfaction to buying – to picking out a new shirt or a new album and taking it home – that means that shopping remains for individuals a confirmation of their power to make things happen in the world.

The power of consumption has been usefully theorised by the Marxist sociologist Georg Simmel. In The Philosophy of Money, he looks at how buying an object is an act of individual subjectivity, the person stamping himself on a thing and claiming his right to its exclusive enjoyment. Simmel cited the example of a friend he knew who would buy beautiful things, not to use them, but to ‘give an active expression to his liking of the things, to let them pass through his hands and, in so doing, to set the stamp of his personality upon them’.

Shopping remains a way in which our choices have a tangible effect, in which we can make something in our lives new and different. It also becomes the primary way in which people can enjoy the creativity and efforts of others, even if this is done unconsciously, without knowing who made something or how.


Dead shopping cart, courtesy of Schmegs' photostream.

The rise of Pinterest and Tumblr has brought these questions newly to the fore, as they amount, in many ways, to little more than virtual shopping.  Certain critics are uneasy with this "curation culture", finding it to be nothing but content recycling and unfiltered opinion vomit.  Certain design Tumblrs that I enjoy, like Cabin Porn, are troubling in just this way: single photos captioned by one link, no text, magnets for re-posts, pins, and tweets while offering no commentary other than the fact they were chosen to be in a particular canon of images. Mere selection, it seems, bestows a certain glimmer of glamour upon these projects, while offering an escapist fantasy to armchair woodsmen -- the same sort of fantasy and self-mythologizing available at the local mall.  


Photo by Stephanie Schuster, via Cabin Porn.

Cabin Porn, is in fact fundamentally pornographic: a procession of images that hit the same sensory pleasure points -- snowy forests, spirals of blue-grey chimney smoke, weathered clapboards -- over and over to the point of dull, self-obsessed saturation.  It is the same with celebrity gossip magazines, Playboys, or the endless parade of selfsame movie stars pretending to be someone else in each new film -- another set of hyper-inflated breasts, tousled blonde hair, and artificial tan attempting to be something new while only sinking deeper into a morass of sameness, reflecting our own narcissism in our eagerness to become them.  

Curation, part of the next wave of the internet, by some accounts, is an interesting phenomenon.  The darlings of this next wave include one of the founders of Pinterest, Evan Sharp, who has a master's degree in architecture.  He has spoken about his decision to leave the field -- part of a greater, recession-driven trend -- as an "opportunity to build things that would be used by hundreds of millions of people immediately."  But has he built anything, really?  Tumblr, at least, is a platform for making websites; Instagram is based on folks taking their own pictures; Facebook and Twitter facilitate communication; Pinterest has become a copyright-free graveyard of wedding gownsunattributed photographsFrench braidspuppies, and boys in underwear.  I find scrolling through Pinterest a little weird, like paging through a massive catalog of unrequited desire pulled directly out of people's memories.

Even my favorite soapbox topic -- making -- gets infected with all this sometimes. I can justify my making all my own furniture with the usual reasons -- expediency, economy, sustainability, joy -- but there is some truth in the idea that I want furniture that no one else has. I want to be surrounded by things I made, that I can tell the story of, that tell the story of me

The best design, be it graphic, architectural, or industrial, communicates a narrative. But the narrative is running away. The stuff has become the story. 

It's a new year. Set some goals. Stop curating. Startcreating.