Over the past few days, I’ve watched technology journalist Mat Honan stare at some cows in California, writer Casey Johnston bike over the Brooklyn Bridge, and newsletter proprietor Rusty Foster stare at his computer in a blank room somewhere in the northern United States, all thanks to Meerkat. Meerkat is a recently popular (as in, last week) app that allows users to stream live video taken from their phones to their Twitter followers, like a portable webcam linked to a thousand other webcams. The branded announcement that’s taking over Twitter, “LIVE NOW! #Meerkat” is an immediate invitation to voyeurism.
The eponymous animals have become a curiously relevant symbol. From 2005 to 2008, Animal Planet aired Meerkat Manor, a reality TV show that weaved a decidedly exaggerated narrative of courage, betrayal, birth, and infanticide amongst a mob (that’s the official term) of meerkats in a vast, uncaring world, narrated by Bill Nighy. Is this intersection a coincidence? I think not. Hear me out: On the Internet, we are the meerkats, starring in the billion reality shows of our tiny meerkat lives. It is as if, when the meerkats of Meerkat Manor would burrow into their dens at night to rest, they would then watch episodes of other Meerkat Manors broadcast live on tiny glowing screens.
This voyeuristic urge to be in the moment seems to have been prompted in part by our digital technology, though is by no means limited to it. You see it in our books, our paintings, our television shows: we’re suffering from a kind of meerkat addiction to the present, a twitchy, spastic pursuit of Now, like so many meerkats poking their heads out of dusty dens to spy on their immediate surroundings. We’re pushing as close to real-time as we possibly can without actually participating in it. Our zeitgeist has become pure zeit.
# # # On Technology # # #
Streaming videos of ourselves is nothing new; consider, say, the extensive recorded history of 1990s camgirls. But Meerkat makes it mobile. It pushes the all-seeing eye of the camera into the real world, where we can use it to present a glimpse into reality if not as it exists in this very moment then bare milliseconds after the present.
That the service piggybacks off an existing social platform is no surprise, our feeds—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr—having already conditioned us to expect that something is always happening just on the other side of the next refresh. With Meerkat, or its competitor Periscope, which Twitter just acquired, we now not only know that there is something happening, but exactly what it is—because we can see it.
Someone is always riding their bike over a bridge. Someone is always at their computer. Someone is always navigating a foreign landscape. And even though we’re not there, we can experience it with them. We have access to a pure, unfiltered now that platforms such as Vine and Instagram previously hinted at—but those platforms can only alter, color, or perfect a moment that’s already passed, rather than present the present in all its urgency.
# # # On Diaries # # #
Written language itself has adapted to this need for presentness. With the Web browser plugin Draftback, which The Awl’s John Herrman memorably compared to the animated dots that let you know someone is in the process of writing an SMS, you could even watch me write these words as I think them. Seeing a Draftback unfurl is filled with the vicarious thrill of spying into another person’s brain as synapses fire, which is what we’re ultimately after, isn’t it? To have more eyes, to do many things, to live many lives, all at the same time? “Livestreaming” is a metaphor as much as it is a contemporary technological act, jumping into the flow of time and letting others follow behind you.
The Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s semi-fictionalized autobiographical epic My Struggle is a life-stream, after all—a kind of Draftback of his entire existence thus far, replayed for the benefit of the reader as well as the writer, who might learn something about his own decisions in the process, the way Chadwick Matlin did in a Draftback experiment for 538. Knausgaard’s fourth book in the series debuts in English this April; in it, he recounts, or more appropriately relives, a period spent teaching in northern Norway. The book has little forward momentum save Knausgaard’s fraught attempts to lose his virginity. There is less plot than there is eternal aimlessness, the author narrating his own confusion from moment to moment. The lack of artifice in the novel is pointed. “Just the thought of fiction,” he writes in book two, “just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous.”
Maybe we live as close as we can to the present so as not to be so afraid of the future—that infinite expanse of time beyond now that holds the frightening deaths of our parents, our selves, our ambitions, the setting of the sun, the hot or cold extinction of the universe.
We seem to be living in an anti-plot moment. “In the past few years I’ve become a little tired of things that call themselves ‘memoir,’” the British novelist Rachel Cusk recently told Vanity Fair, bemoaning the dominance of easy narrative and falsified epiphany. “I’ve evolved, as I’ve gotten older, toward a much less conventional grasp of form altogether.”
Cusk’s most recent book, the memoiristic Outline, is similarly driven by a sense of aimless time. The book’s main character, a writer like its author, recalls conversations with the various dramatis personae around her at a writing workshop in Greece. She narrates chats with her neighbor on a plane, a fellow novelist, a student, a playwright, and so on, in a quotation mark-less he-said-she-said format. Thus the character is limned by her world, depicted as a silhouette, the negative space created by the conversations happening around her, redefined moment-to-moment like a satellite that locates itself by bouncing its signal off the planet it orbits.
Like Knausgaard’s work, the book purposefully ignores narrative in favor of moments that are “so intense that in a way we will be living them always,” as one of the characters in Outline describes. “There is no particular story attached to them… [the moment] is part of no sequence of events, it is only itself.” Perhaps we’ve gotten impatient with plot precisely because we desire that essence of life—not the easy narratives, but the “the texture of time as it passed, life’s white machine,” as Ben Lerner writes in the equally semi-autobiographical Leaving the Atocha Station, presaging Cusk’s manifesto.
I would argue that this desire is implicated in our technology as well. The Meerkat app does not create narrative, nor do Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, except in aggregate. They create non-narrative moments that are full of the texture Lerner and Cusk reference. In the presence of such digital platforms, we have learned to enjoy the absence of story, the rushing noise of the Feed, the sense of time alone.
Other diaristic projects reflect this desire, too. Sarah Manguso’s recent book on the keeping of a diary, Ongoingness, pinpoints our need to, at once, both be and know: “I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience itself wasn’t enough,” she writes. Perhaps it’s this sense of attention that draws us, a text’s aliveness to the present. When I read Cusk, or Knausgaard, or Lerner, as when I refresh Twitter, I feel I am missing nothing, caught up in the live-stream of real time. This is a feeling I often think I now seek above all else in art.
One notably successful work in this vein is Barnacle Island, a presently updating diary and photo journal kept by the photographer Patrick Tsai of his life on a small Japanese island, where he has adopted a dog with his girlfriend and confronted ghosts that may or may not haunt his house by means of small dishes of salt—a traditional local practice for exorcism. Tsai’s own epiphanies are small, ephemeral, and comprehensible; they arrive as he processes them in his writing. This closeness of verbalization and understanding, as in Knausgaard, is palpable. These realizations are also, like life itself, incomplete and in progress. Ongoing, in a word.
Outline, Cusk has said, will soon have a sequel. I wonder how any of these projects could truly be said to end.
# # # On the Image # # #
As the digital feed of information about our collective social lives has become increasingly overwhelming, the title of the British artist Damien Hirst’s 2008 book, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now seems rather quaint. We’re already achieving that on the Internet, so now what? What do we do with our omnipresence in the present? Hirst’s formless urge was also accomplished long before he started preserving animal carcasses in tanks of formaldehyde, and indeed, long before the advent of Facebook.
At the Guggenheim in New York, the museum’s curved walls are currently hung with paintings emblazoned only with the dates of specific days, traced on monochrome canvases. Each painting was made on the day it is dated, then stored away. This is the work of On Kawara, a Japanese artist whose work chiefly consisted of documenting his own existence and nothing but. He would send postcards to his gallery dealers and friends inscribed only with the date and time and the words, “I am still alive,” allowing the viewer to follow along with him. What more can we ask of our art beyond reminding us that we exist in the moment?
What On Kawara did over years, the “slow television” movement is doing over hours. The medium evolved in Norway (coincidence?) as the Norwegian Broadcasting Channel broadcast live the view from the seven-hour train ride on the nation’s Bergen line in 2009, to great acclaim. It followed that feat up with a broadcast of the 134-hour voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes by ship. Watching a video of the train footage on YouTube today, it brings to mind an extremely long Meerkat.
# # # On Meerkats # # #
In wandering through these different media, it becomes clear that the presentness of Meerkat, or Knausgaard, or reality TV is part of a larger phenomenon. But then again, perhaps our obsession with now is not particularly new.
I often think about a diaristic quote from the 17th-century crackpot philosopher Athanasius Kircher (I first saw it on a Twitter account of his writing run by a contemporary scholar). “Here we found ourselves driven anew into a fresh crisis,” Kircher writes. The line describes a particular point on his journey from Marseilles to the Port of Cassis on the way to Rome in 1633, but I think the message is universal. The passivity of “found ourselves,” the repetition of “driven anew” and “fresh crisis”—this is a man, suddenly on the brink of time and catastrophe, acknowledging that his momentary plight was not a one-time phenomenon. It happens eternally.
Technology has enabled us to dwell on this brink. What the art of now accepts is that each step we take forward isn’t so much a gradual teleological improvement in a preconstructed plot, but rather a rush into the serial crises of the present tense. Instead of rebelling away from that barrier and retreating into narrative, however, we now nest in strands of the passing seconds in the form of tweets or videos, snuggling ever closer, meerkats in our Meerkat Mansions, eyes glued to our Meerkat screens, because how else can we perceive it all at once? Maybe we live as close as we can to the present so as not to be so afraid of the future—that infinite expanse of time beyond now that holds the frightening deaths of our parents, our selves, our ambitions, the setting of the sun, the hot or cold extinction of the universe. Denying the existence of the future supports our sense that there is only ever right now, forever.
Like Kircher’s quote, you can read Meerkat’s tweeted slogan, “LIVE NOW!”, which may be a human manifesto for all times and not just our own, in several different ways. Live Now, like the neon sign outside a strip club advertising nude girls. Live Now, like an exhortation to be at peace in the moment and not constantly angsting over the past and future. Or, possibly, Live Now, like get off your ass and back away from the screen and actually do something—just don’t forget to turn on Meerkat first and let us all watch.