Sunday, October 18, 2020

Our Digital Life as a River

"Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground"
1847, George Caleb Bingham
30"x36", oil/canvas - Collection of The White House

When the land shifts, rivers dry up and disappear.  They leave behind canyons and buttes, painted pink, beige and ochre, all gracefully sculpted by the flow of water.

Our digital life is a river of electrically charged bits, rushing from our laptops and smartphones.  For awhile, it was a pleasant idyll:  floating on our digital rafts, watching the scenery glide by as we steered clear of the occasional sandbar or log. 

But now, mightier than the Mississippi, the river has jumped the levee, flipped our rafts, and is hauling us downstream.  We can barely keep our noses above the torrent.  Or at least, that's what it feels like some days.

In some distant decade, this digital river may dry up and disappear, too.  Most of us today can't imagine that ever happening, but who can predict the future?

And if it does dry up, what will be left? Certainly not our e-mail or blog posts.  Nor our storehouse of millions of images.  The “cloud” will vanish like a puff of steam in a dry wind, taking all of that with it.

We artists, however, can hope.  Canvas can rot, but our museums have paintings on canvas that are a half-millenium old.  Wood panels can break, but we have paintings on panel that are twice that old, and more.  Pottery and sculpture can shatter, but we have examples of these dating from the very dawn of humanity.

Once the digital river is gone, these physical artifacts will remain as our canyons, our buttes.

But then I'm reminded of the poem, "Ozymandias," by Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


artistinthewild said...

These days seem to be built for deep philosophy. From Sam Harris and Elon Musk, I have learned about the Future of Life Institute. Check out what they are contemplating.

Barbara McEvoy said...

Michael, you've outdone yourself, you and Shelly. How incomparably appropriate this is to these unimaginable times. Thanks for all...and I will be back to take another workshop...

Bill Johnson said...

This blog post remains me of this quotes by Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
Thank you for your wisdom. Michael.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

From the mailbag:
"I am totally amazed by this post – you make my mind race and consider all things. Thanks, Michael, for opening up a mind-space that I needed to consider. I am on that digital river with you!"
"Just beautifully and well said! Thanks for sharing"