Then there’s the impact of the digital revolution on publishing and, by extension, on politics. “Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred years,” says Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Journalism School.23 Digital technology, she warns, has actually put the future of publishing “into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many.”24 Social media, Bell says, have “swallowed journalism” with what she dubs—with a medieval symbolism that might have amused Erasmus of Rotterdam—the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, engaged in a “prolonged and torrid war” for our attention. These private superpowers are thus becoming our “new speech governors,” usurping the traditional role of government in determining what can and can’t be published.25 Meanwhile, online publishers—the actual creators of content and, one would assume, economic value—remain mired in crisis, with 85 percent of all online advertising revenue going in the first quarter of 2016 to just two of Tim Berners-Lee’s centralized data silos: Facebook and Google.26 The monopolization of media isn’t just a problem for publishers. With Facebook as our new front page on the world, we are simply being refed our own biases by networked software owned by a $350 billion data company that resolutely refuses to acknowledge itself as a media company because that would require it to employ armies of real people as curators. It would also make Facebook legally liable for the advertising that appears on its network. So what we see and read on social media, therefore, is what we want to see and read. No wonder everything now seems so inevitable to so many people. This echo chamber effect, the so-called filter bubble,27 has created a hall of mirrors, a “post-truth” media landscape dominated by fake news and other forms of online propaganda. Thus the disturbing success of Trump, Brexit, and the alt-right movement; thus the virulence of Putin’s troll factories, networked ISIS recruiters, and the other mostly anonymous racists, misogynists, and bullies sowing digital hatred and violence.
Recounting the actual history of curating and exhibitions can help us steer clear of a related confusion: that the curator herself or himself is an artist. It is true that the exhibition format has become more recognizable and popular, and exhibition-makers have come to be identified as individual makers of meaning. As artists themselves have moved beyond the simple production of art objects, and towards assembling or arranging installations that galvanize an entire exhibition space, their activity has in many cases become more consonant with the older idea of the curator as someone who arranges objects into a display. These developments have given rise to an impression that curators are competing with artists for primacy in the production of meaning or aesthetic value. Some theorists argue that curators are now secularized artists in all but name, but I think this goes too far. My belief is that curators follow artists, not the other way around. The role of the artist changed greatly over the last century. The artist Tino Sehgal has said that the notion of art generated by sculptors and painters in the early nineteenth century, and fully articulated and established by the 1960s, is detaching itself from its material origins and venturing into other realms in the twenty-first century. The exhibition-maker’s role has expanded in turn. Curating changes with the change in art.
But the internet revolution, which was supposed to empower us, is increasingly enslaving us. The web’s decentralized architecture has become intensely centralized. What was created to enrich democracy is enabling a tyranny of virulent trolls and other antidemocratic forces. “The internet is broken”: thus conclude digital pioneers such as Twitter cofounder Evan Williams and Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales. Like Williams and Wales, more and more technologists are recognizing that today’s networked transformation is writing us out of our own story. The internet might have been described as the “people’s platform,” these critics say, but in fact it has a people problem. Jaron Lanier, the inventor of virtual reality and Silicon Valley’s most poignant thinker, even admits to a nostalgia for that halcyon time in the last century when technology did, indeed, put people first. “I miss the future,” Lanier confesses.
To make a collection is to find, acquire, organize and store items, whether in a room, a house, a library, a museum or a warehouse. It is also, inevitably, a way of thinking about the world – the connections and principles that produce a collection contain assumptions, juxtapositions, findings, experimental possibilities and associations. Collection-making, you could say, is a method of producing knowledge.
As we go on, Mystery becomes more important, too, because it helps us deal with things we can’t understand. It is fueled by faith: belief in ourselves, our friends, “the system,” humanity in general, and whatever else it is we need to believe in. There’s a reason we don’t want great magic tricks explained. Mystery is also valuable as a coping mechanism—the things that are all too clear are piling up, too: Life is short. Love can’t be taken for granted. Everything has a cost. Just holding on to something doesn’t mean it won’t go away. You can try to solve everything, but if you can’t, that’s okay. As long as you’ve tried your best.
As I was working on this speech, it became clear to me how agencies form their own antibodies against a president’s desire to move in a particular direction. A practice of having the intelligence community review speech drafts had been put in place after George W. Bush overhyped Saddam Hussein’s efforts to acquire nuclear material in his 2003 State of the Union address. Now Obama wanted to assert that tactics like waterboarding amounted to torture; the intelligence community struck that formulation, preferring the more antiseptic “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Obama wanted to call Gitmo a danger to American national security; the intelligence community wanted to strike that. Obama wanted to say that the 240 Muslim detainees in Gitmo had spent years “in a legal black hole”—a relatively noncontroversial statement, since no one at Gitmo had been convicted of a crime; the intelligence community wanted to delete that sentence as well, offering instead this justification: “The detainees at Guantanamo have more legal representation and have been afforded more process than any enemy combatants in the history of the world.” Sitting in my windowless office and reading those comments, I felt the gap between working on a campaign and working in the White House. The person I was working for was president of the United States, and a figure uniquely revered by people around the world; but his views did not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.
The exhibition used Utopia merely as a catalyst to fuel other ideas. Consequently, it left any comprehensive definition of Utopia to others. Our aim was simply to pool our efforts, motivated by a need to change the landscape inside and outside, a need to integrate the work of many artists so that we might be integrated into a larger kind of community, a bigger conversation, another state of being. Each present and future contributor was asked to create a poster for use in the next Station and beyond; wherever it can hang, it can go. In this way Utopia Station evolves images, even if it does not start with one. Each person who created a poster was also asked to make a statement of between one and two hundred words. The statements mounted up. Stuart Hall and Zeigam Azizov elaborated on a proposition: the world has to be made to mean. ‘The bittersweet baked into hope,’ wrote Nancy Spero. Raqs Media Collective called Utopia a hearing aid. ‘This probably will not work,’ goes the Cherokee saying cited by Jimmie Durham, who added that the ‘probably’ is what keeps people alive. There were hundreds of statements like these in the end. They were all available to read anywhere via the website e-flux, an artist-run initiative founded by the artist Anton Vidokle, which has become a central information clearinghouse for the art world. Inevitably, certain figures began to be repeated: ships and songs and flags, potatoes, Sisyphus, figures familiar from the history of discussions of Utopia. Utopia Station became an archive of experimentation.
Reactionaries, mostly Luddites and romantic conservatives, wanted to destroy this new technological world and return to what appeared to them, at least, to be a more halcyon era. Idealists—including, ironically enough, both uncompromisingly free market capitalists and revolutionary communists—believed that the industrial technology would, if left to unfold according to its own logic, eventually create a utopian economy of infinite abundancy. And then there were the reformers and the realists—a broad combination of society, including responsible politicians on both the left and the right, businesspeople, workers, philanthropists, civil servants, trade unionists, and ordinary citizens—who focused on using human agency to fix the many problems created by this new technology. Today we can see similar responses of yes, no, or maybe to the question of whether the dramatic change swirling all around us is to our benefit. Romantics and xenophobes reject this globalizing technology as somehow offending the laws of nature, even of “humanity” itself (an overused and under-defined word in our digital age). Both Silicon Valley techno-utopians and some critics of neoliberalism insist that the digital revolution will, once and for all, solve all of society’s perennial problems and create a cornucopian postcapitalist future. For them, much of this change is inevitable—”The Inevitable”, according to one particularly evangelical determinist. And then there are the maybes, like myself—realists and reformers rather than utopians or dystopians—who recognize that today’s great challenge is to try to fix the problems of our great transformation without either demonizing or lionizing technology.
Four months earlier, I’d come back to my cubicle at the Times to find a sticky note affixed to my desktop. “Jill came by. Wants to see you,” it read. My stomach sank. The air was sticky and Midtown had started to empty out by noon ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. I’d been at Bryant Park eating a salad chopped so thoroughly it might as well have been pureed. I was wearing a pair of torn Levi’s at least a decade old with scraggy seams and holes so wide my knees jutted out. When you reach a certain stature at the Times, you can dress like the Unabomber, but I was a media reporter who’d been at the paper less than two years. I couldn’t meet with the boss in those jeans. I sprinted through Times Square, past the throngs of tourists and Elmo characters, to the Gap to buy a pair of white pants. They were high-waisted and fell a couple of inches too short around my ankles, but they were on sale, and I could keep the tags on and return them at the end of the day.
Over the course of 2012, I also saw my name pop up with increasing frequency in right-wing media, cast as Obama’s political hack on the NSC. Early in the administration, I’d become a target for occasional right-wing ridicule for a few reasons: (1) I worked for Barack Obama; (2) I wrote the Cairo speech; (3) I received a master’s degree in fiction writing from New York University when I was twenty-four years old. The MFA alone was enough to make me a minor villain: “Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Failed Fiction Writer…” One time, in 2009, I was surprised to find a colleague of mine—a kind, soft-spoken young woman named Cindy Chang—sobbing at her desk because she was so upset by one of these pieces. “How can they say these things about you?” she cried. I told her not to worry, I was proud of my enemies. Then I went into my office, closed the door, and felt a fluttering in my stomach—reading the piece, unsettled by how unhinged it was, by how much the person who wrote it seemed to hate me.