One black night G.K. Chesterton knocked his head against a wooden post. The experience led to a reflection upon what distinguished his approach to the world from that of those he called “our contemporary mystics”…
Now what I found finally about our contemporary mystics was this. When they said that a wooden post was wonderful (a point on which we are all agreed, I hope) they meant that they could make something wonderful out of it by thinking about it. “Dream; there is no truth,” said Mr. Yeats, “but in your own heart.” The modern mystic looked for the post, not outside in the garden, but inside, in the mirror of his mind. But the mind of the modern mystic, like a dandy’s dressing-room, was entirely made of mirrors. Thus glass repeated glass like doors opening inwards for ever; till one could hardly see that inmost chamber of unreality where the post made its last appearance. And as the mirrors of the modern mystic’s mind are most of them curved and many of them cracked, the post in its ultimate reflection looked like all sorts of things; a waterspout, the tree of knowledge, the sea-serpent standing upright, a twisted column of the new natural architecture, and so on.
And so on…until we arrive at the new business venture of Christopher Poole, the 23-year-old founder of an enormously popular website (12 million viewers per month) called 4chan, which, according to the New York Times, is “one of the largest forums on the Internet and widely considered to be one of the darkest corners of the Web.” What is so dark about 4chan? The Times reports that 4chan is “rife with pornography.” But this is only a symptom. The real reason why 4chan is dangerous is the black and solipsistic “mysticism” in which it trades.
4chan was started by the then-15-year-old Poole (at that time known anonymously as “moot”) as a site on which to discuss the Japanese comic forms of anime and magna. Thus 4chan was a Wiki, a site that enables group creation and editing of any number of different pages or digital entities. 4chan eventually morphed into a site where anonymous users can pursue the creation of various “memes,” units or threads of social “information” passed through cyberspace, which on 4chan include threads both pornographic and inane. Here are a couple of examples taken from the Wikipedia page devoted to 4chan:
In 2005, a meme known as the “duckroll” began, after moot used a word filter to change “egg” to “duck” across 4chan. Thus, words such as “eggroll” were changed to “duckroll.” This led to a bait-and-switch in which external links disguised as relevant to a discussion instead led to a picture of a duck on wheels.
In March 2007, the trailer for the video game Grand Theft Auto IV was released. Its immense popularity caused publisher Rockstar Games’ website to crash. An unidentified 4chan user applied the concept of the duckroll to what appeared to be a link to the trailer on YouTube, but instead showed the music video for Rick Astley's 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Thus, the "rickroll" was born. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Astley said he found the meme “bizarre and funny.”
So what’s Christopher Poole’s new venture? A site called Canvas, recently revealed at the South by Southwest technology showcase in Austin. Says the New York Times, “[Canvas] allows people to upload images and watch as other members on the site add to and remix the content.”
A recent popular thread on Canvas featured a cute brown dog covered with snow. Each subsequent image added to the original. One introduced characters from “Star Wars” to the photo, then someone joked about calling in Charlie Sheen to help the dog clear away the snow, a thinly veiled reference to Mr. Sheen’s widely-publicized struggles with drugs.
And so on. “It’s a shared experience,” observes Poole, “knowing that you and several other people are experiencing this and participating in helping something unfold in this moment….That ephemeral nature of that moment is special and will never be repeated in the same way.”
But such digital doodling is much like Chesterton’s description of the dandy’s dressing room: entirely made of mirrors, cracked mirrors, in which real things assume weird and grotesque shapes which amuse for a moment but which are ultimately pointless.
Every art transmutes reality to one extent or another—but if the point of the transmutation is not to go deeper into reality, than what the artist creates is simply a funhouse reflecting the triviality of his own mind rather than things themselves. How sad that Canvas is being backed by several prominent investors and venture capital firms, including Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley investor who was one of the earliest backers of Google. How sadder still that when the 15-year-old Poole created 4chan, he ran it from the secrecy of his bedroom with his parents totally oblivious as to what he was up to.
Ours is a culture created by the minds of 15-year-olds run amuck.
“But I was never interested in mirrors,” continues Chesterton.
that is, I was never primarily interested in my own reflection—or reflections. I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles. I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door, to hit me over the head, like a giant's club in a fairy tale. All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect: strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood: it is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.