Sunday, April 27, 2014

Welcome to the Age of Meta-

The financial crash of 2008 would, in a sane world, have been the last time that reality would have been obscured by the smoke and mirrors of an antique religion - in this case late capitalism. All those AAA rated securities had behind them something "real", a mortgage, a promise, however tenuous this was. Yet our addiction, it seems is not any Maslow hierarchy of real needs, but a complex patterning of systems that are, at best, signifiers of the real, and at worst, nonsensical replacements for it.

The information age is already dead, so welcome to the age of Meta-, where it is the descriptive signifier, rather than the thing itself that matters. Yes, we always knew a note or a coin was a "promise" rather than an actual thing; yet we are sophisticated enough to take that - as long as its not a forgery - as the best way of exchanging value. For most of us, the money in our pocket - in our accounts - is as real as the things we can buy with it.

Yet the world has long gone beyond even tenuous links between the signifier and the signified. When the NSA collects our phone conversations, it is not what we say that is inherently value, but who we say it to and when - the metadata. "The Wire" looks positively quaint now, with its pagers and mobile phones, and long range cameras providing a "proof" of drug exchange; even "virtual real estate" like that we had in "Second Life" seems reassuringly solid compared to the mathematical extrapolation of  "currency mining" in Bitcoin. This week we heard that the Gherkin, London's new skyline centrepiece has gone into administration. It won't affect the building or its tenants or even the desire of architects and property developers to redraw London's skyline with many less impressive towers, yet it's a perfect example of the age of Meta-. Here's a building built specifically for its anchor tenant, the previously anonymous Swiss/Re insurance company, that was then sold on at a profit to a number of speculators, who, because their debt was priced in Swiss Francs, which have now gone astronomical, have found their "asset" unaffordable. The normal world - you build something, you inhabit it, you own it - that's not enough in the age of meta-.

But it wasn't the only example this week. David Moyes was sacked as Manchester United manager. "Football manager gets sacked" is hardly news. Yet it was the 24 hours leading up to this sacking that even the BBC, still supposedly a news station, where the news took hold after several Sunday papers lead on it. Here's a thing; if the Man United board hadn't been about to sack Moyes on Monday (and maybe they did hope to keep him till the end of the season), in the age of meta- it was already more "real" than the reality itself - a man doing a professional job in a game that always has, whichever you cut it, exactly the same numbers of winners and losers each season. So, just as it had been for the  politician Maria Miller a few weeks before, the speculation was showcased as news, and then the news itself - the sacking, the resignation - comes afterwards. What is "real" about any of this? An amply rewarded Moyes wakes up on whichever morning it was, and he doesn't go into work, he sits at home, his bank account several million pounds richer, his reputation (surely the original currency of the age of meta-) worth far less. All around the country you'll find people in jobs or applying for benefits also spending all their energies dealing with the exigencies of the age of meta-, where the "disability" that a person has, for instance, doesn't change, merely the coding of it. In the public sector, the coalition's cuts are still going on - arts organisations and councils continually spending time when they should be doing something, instead dealing with the meta- age.

And it gets worse. Is there anything more meta- in 2014 than the awarding of Sainthood to two dead Popes? What strange rituals have survived the enlightenment to such an extent that a flesh and blood man, who died within recent memory, is canonised as a result of "verified" miracles. If all awards are essentially a layer of meta- recognition, Sainthood, must be the most meta- of all.

Our house prices earn more whilst we go out to work than we earn whilst at work - our daily lives are now punctuated by Buzzfeed quizzes and "15 best" lists - and even an exaltation of the physical, the buying of vinyl on record store day, can seem another triumph of the meta- for these artefacts are not for playing, so much as possessing, the songs may as well be unplayable in those grooves as long as the cellophane that wraps them is unbroken.

I've often read about the distinction between the "real" world and the "virtual" world, but now we have this "meta-" world that is, to all intents and purposes, more real than either. The old philosopher's problem of a tree crashing in the forest - ("does it make a sound?") - has become our new normal. It would have surely been enough for me to not write these few hundred words, but simply to talk about it, as if I had done so.

For in the age of meta- nothing exists unless it is tagged, linked, reflected on. Like a never-played b-side on an old 45, it exists, for it was written and recorded, but it hardly exists at all.