Pioneers: The Hostess With The Mostest


Pioneers is a column that focuses on discussions surrounding digital culture, including  news, reviews and features of games and other webby things that are going on that are interesting. If you have something you’d like featured or think is worth exploring get in contact –, or sound off in the comments below.

The biggest news story from the last week or so in the gadget world – and from the buzz some prominent online communities – was the end and death of  Twinkies. That's right, Hostess is to close; the company responsible for not only the twinky (not sure of the singular of twinkies) but also other equally sexually repressed names that your gran would be accustomed to including Ding Dongs, Sno Balls and Ho Hos. RIP, Hostess.

The fact that this has become such staggering news, particularly online, can be accounted by a number of factors. First up, by far the most prevalent strata of the population who find themselves online are geeks and stoners – almost exactly twinkies' main audience. The second reason that it has become mainstream news, is that it emerges within a wider economic and political narrative that can suit both ends of the political spectrum.

The background to the closure of Hostess is bankruptcy – but reasons for the baker conglomerates demise still remain contested. For those on the right, the force of worker unions have been suggested as pushing the company to breaking point, with demands leading to strikes ending in the loss of 18000 US jobs as the company has to close its doors. For those on the left, the process of bankruptcy has focused attention on other economically dubious practices with an unhealthy culture of mismanagement seeing bonuses and compensation reaching near astronomical levels. Frankly, if a business can't afford to pay it's staff a living wage, then it should not be considered as an economically viable business. But this is neither here nor there for a discussion on pioneers.

The reasons for spending a week to discuss the biggest news in tech are various. The reaction to the news has been one of horror. People have thrown themselves into shops to stock up on the baked goods, for fear of their complete destruction. Many have opined that the brand has such value that this, along with other asserts, will be bought up in the vulturous capital practices that follow the end of such a business – this despite Twinkies already existing in a business that industrialised the production to its limits, streamlining costs to such the extent of not actually being commercially viable. I'm sure some other company will take – but will they ever be able to

This is a meme of a man who has filled his office cubicle with twinkies

This man is either a fucking idiot or a fucking genius. Either we ask “Where is he supposed to work?” or he asks his boss “Now where am I supposed to work” and gets sectioned, with full pay, and his future guaranteed with an investment in Twinkies

On ebay, twinkies have already been auctioned off at extortionate prices – with one lot of a ten pack including a Wii-U, the recently launched nintendo games console, thrown in for free to sweeten the deal selling for a cool $4,499.99  – with many desperately hoping that they can bag a supply to last them beyond their desires. Worse than this – these lots are selling. People are willing to fork over money for some cheaply made, snacks. The people of America have articulated in huge volumes, an hysterical devotion that goes beyond our wildest imaginings.

And yet despite this no one, as far as I have seen, has mentioned that twinkies are just golden sponge-cake with a creamy filling – the hysteria has consistently revolved around the apocalyptic sign of destruction and death. But you can make them themselves. Not only can they be made, by human hand, but they can be made fucking easily. In Wal-marts and shopping malls across America you probably wouldn't even need to venture that far from the Twinkies' aisle to pick up a sponge-cake mix and a Twinkie cream mix. You could even, dare I say it, bake them from scratch using eggs and the like.

“But no!”, people will respond, “it's not the same… It doesn't equate – baking your own will never match the god like quality of Hostess' delicacy”.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the twinkies' factories are not magical workshops run by elves, but mechanized arms of capital that barely employed people, real flesh and blood, to keep the machines oiled. It makes them convenient, sure – it's a hell of a lot easier to pop along to a shop. It may even be cheaper too. A company that is built around the manufacture of these goods has probably worked out the perfect cost-efficient recipe (not necessarily the tastiest mind) that makes the production as profitable as possible. But don't let yourself  confuse convenience, efficiency and cost with prestige.

Walter Benjamin wrote about mechanical reproduction in his seminal text “The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility”  in 1936. He was referring to the work of art moving away, say from the painted to the photographed, from the stage to the screen. Although the reality depicted is expressed precisely with more size, speed, and clarity, this move towards the mechanical reproduction lost something of the presence that made art, in some sense, magical. Something happened which meant artwork moved from being of the cult (a religious object) to being an exhibit (in a museum or cinema) – losing it's presence and “aura” to become something “authentic”, an idea of aesthetic quality that emerged as part of the move to these technologies. As techniques modernise and grow in efficiency, something is lost of the personal, the spiritual, the magic of the artist as opposed to the accuracy of the scientist.

In the modern world however, it would appear that something else has changed. As the production of things have become industrialised, the gap of “aura” and authenticity has still emerged, but we have grown to become more alienated from the processes of production in may sphere

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s of life – from the food we eat, the clothes we where and even the work that we do. In this gap where “aura” might be said to have used to be – objects created by these mechanized, and now digitized, processes have found a different mana been created which mystifies these objects.

One of my favourite films of all time is Wall-E. I will argue to the end that it is the finest film that Pixar has created, and potentially the finest film that will ever be made (and yes, I even find a certain charm with the last half hour that most seem not to enjoy). It constantly explores the dissonance between the mechanical and the natural, between the artifice and life. I bring this up here for a number of reasons – as if I need any at all. In Wall-E's world, nothing is used as it should. In his trailer, he keeps an archive of interesting things – without knowing much about what they do. Rubik's Cubes and Lighters are stored in lots, unknown to Wall-E as having purpose beyond mere curiosities. He even keeps a VHS in a toaster, and plays it through an ipod, shelved in an abandoned fridge – then magnifies that image to the size of a television to watch back kitsch musicals that themselves explore the manufacture of love, and longs for this human touch. It is not only mis-use that is explored, but finding charm in the mundane – in one moment, he finds a spork, and does not know whether to put it with his collection of spoons, or collection of folks, so places it safetly in the middle.

On that wall display, there is the Twinkie – or the Buy N' Large equivalent “Kremies” –  which Wall-E takes down and places for the sustenance of his hapless friend, a nameless cockroach. This is both a hilarious reference to the myth that the twinkie and the cockroach will both survive in a post-apocalyptic situation, but also touching as the robot seems to care and have bonded with something that even we have no connection. The cockroach itself is often considered to be of nature, but appears to be programmed to respond to conditions of warmth, light, and dampness – and even programmable with science – that confuses our notion of the natural.

Wall-E Twinkies/Kremies

I refuse to leave a funny caption below these stills of Wall-E, and apologise to the film-makers for manipulating the colours to make things clearer.

Within the film itself, film makers made efforts to replicate cinematic techniques that are often lost in modern digital production. The opening sequence, an homage to the silent cinema of Chaplin in particular, struck everyone as being fresh and original despite clearly being borrowed – an idea overtly referenced by the film-makers. Similarly, much of the cinematography was aided by Roger Deakins, with digital animators hoping to replicate the use of lens that is no longer required, manufacturing poor quality digital reproduction to use effects like lens focus and so on. This attempt to mirror the analogue over the digital is an attempt to locate the film as part of a canon of film – throughout harking back to so many other films of science-fiction that it would be foolish to try and name them all.

All this ties in heavily with Benjamin's notion of aura despite trying to emulate an older, inefficient form of mechanical process. To what extent that . But we hold dear a notion of nostalgia attached to past technologies. Think about Instagram for a second. The app uses modern technology, cameras in smartphones, and renders them through filters to appear to be of a different age. Through algorhythms, Instagram pulls at the heart strings, and manipulates an image to become something which could have been made in years gone by – but only on the surface. These new images appeal to our sentimentality, even for those who did not have any original, authentic or personal attachment to the technology itself. That the aesthetics of an image can be changed is one thing, but the method, and even the subject matter, the dispensability by which we take photos without analogue restrictions

Understanding the difference between what a thing is and what a thing is worth is now an important, and even radical, process for many. Hidden beneath layers of processes to create the appearance of something lies a reality that has to be remembered and known. Unlike the material world of capitalism however, much of the digital world does not hide its processes in the same way. Vast swathes of the internet are given over to teaching how to produce and create websites, how to programme and code, and much of the internet is open and accessible to all to simply view what is working behind the scenes at the click of a button (for those of you who've never bothered, right-click this page and “view source”).

Hello, you are seeing something that isn't in the text because I've hidden it in the page, well done for clicking view source!

To what extent the aura of production is still present in this world of software – even if seen through the basic technology itself, in the sense that companies can almost animate grains of sand to dance and perform marvels in processing and computation – but the concept of openess, that puts the rational and irrefutable logic of construction at the centre of the internet is an important one that if employed correctly, radically alters the way the world works. And this logic needs to be applied elsewhere.

It is thus remarkable that when these two words collide – the wild consumerism of hostess and the undeniably intelligent and informed culture of informatics, whose own central thread must be the role of the invisible, of the power of intellect above the surface – that the wood can't be seen for the trees. There is nothing special about the twinkie, and I'm sure many knew and discussed this element in sharing this news. But even so, we must protect against the alienation of capital, regardless of where it appears – and know there are soft spots where even intellectuals and professionals lose their rational sense if you press the right buttons.

*I apologise for the rather lax use of Benjamin here. You should definitely have a go at reading him if you get a chance.


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