Honestly, you never think when clicking a link: “I’m definitely going to spend the next half hour of my life watching a beautiful, wordless video of a man making a violin.” But this is the internet, and if it does nothing else good in this world, it has the power to make the minutiae of skilled woodworking utterly engrossing.
But let’s rewind a bit first. I was thinking about this last night after watching the first episode of new season of Black Mirror. Here, we’re presented with a world quite like our own but for two new features: first, there’s a ubiquitous social app that lets you rate your fellow human beings with a score between one and five; and, second, everyone wears pastel colors, with pale pink slacks and cardigans apparently the dystopian aesthetic du jour.
There are a few different technological concepts that underpin the horrors of this episode, but the most important is that of the network. Every time someone rates a fellow human being that rating influences the rest of the person's existence, affecting everything from their job prospects to their social life. This means each aspect of living is stretched in tension against everything else, and people can never let their guard down. They have to project an image of success and happiness at all times in order to keep up their rating. They can't escape the network.
This concept often defines the power of internet, and is frequently part of horror stories about technology. Something inescapable and ubiquitous. However, after watching this episode I stumbled across said violin wood working video and was reminded that — for me at least — the defining attribute of the internet is not the ability to participate in a social network, but just the opposite: it’s the chance to cleave yourself off and burrow into something small, distinct, and separate. To enjoy an activity or object for its unique attributes and then feel — ironically — reconnected to the world.
The violin-making video is emblematic of this: it’s full of attention being paid to small and otherwise unnoticed parts of the world. There are the wood shavings like parmesan, gathering in tight curls on the workbench; the snick of the blade peeling the F-holes out of the body of the violin; or the slow smoothing of the instrument’s concave exterior, like the construction of the breastplate for a tiny suit of armor.
And of course, woodworking videos are just a singular manifestation of this sort of close observation. You might find it in the crisp audio of ASMR videos, or a forgotten documentary on American bootleggers, or videos of automatic cake-icing machines, or a YouTube channel about life on an Irish farm, or a half-million other obscure and interesting corners of experience that have been recorded and uploaded. To me, it’s all an antidote to that Black Mirror network effect — a chance to unplug from the rest of the web, and just pay attention to something small instead. It’s still the internet, I know, but the internet is unavoidable, so you might as well experience the best parts of it instead.
It reminds me of the novels of one of my favorite writers, Nicholson Baker, who’s known for spending pages describing overlooked aspects of the physical world — the superiority of plastic to paper straws, for example, of the provenance of staplers. One critic described him as "the Columbus of the near at hand" for his ability to find new worlds at your elbow. It turns out you can also find them online.
Five stories to start your day
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Satire of satire of the day
new season of BLACK MIRROR is wild— matt; lubchansky (@Lubchansky) October 14, 2016
S3E01: Oi! I Done Put a Phone in Me Bum
S3E02: Internet-Connected Loo
S3E03: Me Mum is On Social Media