Image: Jonathan McIntosh
Image: Jonathan McIntosh

Without altogether opting out of the digital revolution, some of us have developed a baroque attitude toward the media we consume. Our smartphones and iPods are packed with MP3s, but we also own records. We’ve bought e-readers, but sometimes still prefer pulp-and-glue books. We stream movies over several internet services, but make occasional pilgrimages to art house theaters to watch 35-year-old movies in 35mm prints.

It’s a cultural divide that has given commentators some pause. On one side stand those who are willing, at least implicitly, to embrace the digitization of all art forms; on the other, those who are, to varying degrees, reluctant to give everything over to anything so nebulous as a “cloud.” Just what is going on here?

Consider a hypothetical society distinguished by its conception of personal identity. It is the fashion in this society for each of its members to wear a harness that suspends over their heads a signpost. On each sign is painted a symbol signifying something about its wearer. More than a mere affectation, the wearers have discovered that the signs can function as a kind of tool, not only for shaping social interactions but for reshaping their own personalities.

I cheated a little there—that society may not be so much hypothetical as allegorical. Another way to understand the baroque approach to digital media is as a cleavage within our own culture. There are those of us who have, for one reason or another, learned to exhibit our favorite books, albums, movies and pictures as an external manifestation of our identities. It has become second nature, so much so in fact that we do not always recognize that not everyone in our society views personal identity in quite the same way.

That point was driven home to me recently by a brief encounter at a local street festival. A couple was walking in the opposite direction, and as we approached, the man said, “I like your shirt.” I no longer own quite so many band t-shirts as I once did, but I happened to be wearing one that day, which added some complexity and texture to the exchange. It wasn’t just that the stranger happened to like the cut or color of my shirt. He was signaling a shared interest, and on the basis of our mutual fondness for the band—a band I liked enough to endorse on a t-shirt, and that he liked enough to talk to a total stranger about—signaling also the possibility of simpatico personalities or similar values.

At the other end of the spectrum is someone like Howard Jacobson, the Man Booker Prize-winning author. Last month, he told Elizabeth Day of The Guardian, “I’ve never owned a T-shirt.” That’s a sartorial choice with some philosophy behind it, as well. “Things with words on!” he continued. “Can you imagine? On grown-ups! Words are to make books with.”

Few in our culture would go quite so far as that, but even among those who wear printed t-shirts, deliberate signification is often an afterthought. There has long been a vogue in print tees that are virtually dadaist in their lack of signification—or, at least, would be if we could feel reasonably confident in supposing that their wearers were truly intent on flummoxing interpretation. Chances are, they have other reasons for their choice of shirt, like comfort or color. For those of us in the ad hoc secret society that uses cultural signifiers to manifest and manipulate identity, the general printed tee-wearing public serves as cover.

The history of this society remains to be written, but its modern phase can be traced to the Baby Boom of the post-War period. The growing financial importance of the teenager, coupled with their continued dependence on traditional cultural institutions like family and school, sent many looking for ways to assert their own agency. The classical expression is Rebel Without a Cause, but whereas Rebel enacted the conflict as melodrama, the more enduring strategy centered on the assimilation and reform of pop culture.

The last six decades have furnished moments when it was possible to recognize the growth of a subculture centered on the symbolic externalization of identity—in the pop art movement, for example, or Vietnam helmet art—but until recently it has been easy to mistake those controversies as failures of the critical establishment to keep abreast of radical changes in art and expression. Now the cultural division is being forced by changes in technology to articulate itself.

For those who work on identity this way, the display of media can serve as a significant reminders of personae that we have constructed for ourselves, practically rituals for rehearsing those personae. But what happens when those signifiers are made intangible? That, when it comes down to it, is one of the major functions of digital media. For people who manifest their identities in other ways, or not at all, that discretion is one of the major recommendations of the technology. All of that clutter can be swept away without giving up the associated activities. You might go so far as to describe it as occultation.

For those of us accustomed to putting our media affiliations on display, we get a vague sense that there’s something uncanny going on any time we’re invited into a living space without at least one well-packed shelf. We admire the sleek design of a smartphone or laptop, but cannot bring ourselves to hide away quite every expression of the cultural world we’ve identified as our own. As digital media continues to hold increasing sway over the mode of distribution, expect the society of signifiers to become less secret.

It is as though the world were suddenly populated by button-down types like Howard Jacobson. Our cover is disappearing.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.