Are we becoming lazier and dumbing ourselves down with silly content on the internet? Should we be scared that most of us look like sleepwalking zombies when walking while staring at our smartphones? Many believe it, and countless articles are written around that narrative. Not much room for optimism. Kenneth Goldsmith, a poet and artist from New York City, believes that more good than bad stems from our increased connectedness – and he wrote a book about it: “Wasting Time On The Internet.”
A couple of years ago at UWF I read this book called “The Dumbest Generation” in which the author states that we lose our focus, our memory, our empathy in this hyperconnected world where much of human activity happens online. I found the read interesting, but wasn’t sure how much of his theory was right. A lot of us have seen this one, no?
It puts into perspective the primary thought that we may have when looking around us – if we’re not looking at screens – in subways or buses or train stations (a counterpoint here). Is it fair to say that we’re paying less attention today than before? Is it right to say that we stop communicating with each other? Should we be pessimistic about mankind in a world where everyone is deeply engaged in a digital activity of any kind? One could say YES – Kenneth Goldsmith says NO:
“I keep reading that in the age of screens we’ve lost our ability to concentrate, that we’ve become distracted, unable to focus. But when I look around me and see people riveted to their devices, I’ve never seen such a great wealth of concentration, focus and engagement. […] I find it equally ironic that most of the places I read about how addicted we are to the web is on the web itself, scattered across numerous websites, blog posts, tweets and Facebook pages.”
Kenneth Goldsmith is a conceptual artist and the first poet laureate of the MoMa. He also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught a course brilliantly called “Wasting Time on the Internet,” which caused quite a stir when he first tweeted about it. The end of the book lists 101 ways to waste time on the internet, all of which were suggested by his students.
Each of these ideas are worth reflecting and thinking about, as they trigger interaction, they generate emotions and test peoples’ ability to trust in deeply intriguing ways. Here are four examples that are destabilizing, meditative, awkward or scary:
3 – “Sit in a circle and pass your laptop to the person next to you. For one minute, they can open anything on your computer. Once something is opened, it must be left opened. You may not alter or delete anything, just expose. At the end of one minute, you pass that laptop to the person on your left and they get one minute with it. By the time it arrives back to you, everyone will have had their turn with your laptop. Everything that people have opened will remain open on your screen for you to see.”
13 – “In a group, sit in a circle with laptops. Plug your headphones into the laptop of the person to your left and play music for your partner. Let the vibes of the music your partner plays determine the next song you play for your partner. Try to get the circle to reach an equilibrium.”
80 – “Look through your Facebook messages and go back as far as you can. Find the oldest message to which you never responded. Write back. Make the responses really long and detailed. Make it super awkward. Don’t explain why you’re writing back now or apologize for not writing back earlier.”
98 – “For fifteen minutes, see who can tally the largest dollar amount by putting things in their Amazon shopping cart. The one with the most at the end of the time wins. Delete everything in your cart. Or don’t.”
Sounds fun? Goldsmith has done many similar experiments with his class and other groups, and each trigger different emotions among the audiences. From laughter to distrust or anger, it is fascinating to see how he hacks the intended or common uses of the web to make us reflect on ourselves. Goldsmith has an optimistic, humanistic view of the web, seeing it as a new way for people to create, share and consume content that is exponentially more fascinating than what the pre-internet world would have allowed.
“The web is not monolithic, but instead is multiple, diverse, fractured, contradictory, high, and low, all at the same time in ways that television rarely was,” he writes. He also sees it as “the greatest collective autobiography that a culture has ever produced” (referring to Facebook), which is true as long as it remains accessible to all, present and future generations.
Initiatives like “Museum of Me” by Intel use this self-representative theme to create personalized galleries based on content uploaded by ourselves and our friends on the social network. A good friend of mine captures a one-second video every day, and archives it for future compilation (or just for the sake of archiving?). Facebook itself has recognized the value of personal memories by displaying past personal events on our feeds; which is a way to keep us both engaged and feeding the site with content.
Google started the same type of effort recently, by showing photos that have been taken by our Android devices in the last years. Some of these photos are automatically combined into GIFs and videos, helped by artificial intelligence like Google’s Deepmind algorithm.
We unconsciously give away our memories to them, and they find elegant ways to repurpose it. They know that we won’t contribute in the long term if we don’t benefit from our stuff (encompassing everything from data to media) like the advertisers do.
In an attempt to materialize this content that is collectively created by all of us, Goldsmith famously called upon the internet to “print out the internet” in 2010, and send it to Mexico City where he promised to exhibit it in LABOR gallery. Tens of thousands participated:
Another cool project is Eric Oglander’s Craigslistmirrors, in which the artist picks out reflections of mirrors put up for sale on the listing website:
And what about Ben Kinsley and Robin Hewlett’s Street With A View, staged events designed to enchant Google Street View?
Or Benjamin Shaykin’s Google Hands project, which highlights the weird and unexpected of book digitization, showing everything from turning pages to stamps, stains, notes or the hands of “ScanOps” who operate the scanning process:
The most fascinating is probably that we unconsciously recognize ourselves – Google’s users who feed the system every day – in these Google Hands. We seek the materiality in the digitized, the humanity in the anonymized, the exceptional in the commoditized. Some of it must be nostalgia, this natural tendency to idealize the past and overlook the value of the present. We tend to oversee how much value we get from all these internet-based services, and Goldsmith’s book outlines many projects, led by conceptual artists from across the globe, who remind us of the web’s complex nature.
“The internet, with its swift proliferation of memes, is producing more extreme forms of modernism than modernism ever dreamed of,” Goldsmith writes about this proliferation of forums, memes, interactive art, GIFs, videos and other new forms of human creativity. It is naïve to think that the internet can only produce good – but it is similarly naïve to believe that it can only lead us to decadence. We deserve more admiration than self-criticism.
Mankind needs procrastination, because creativity is fed by wasted time, because imagination is based on wandering minds. The book outlines the usefulness of wasted time on the internet and the value of non-productive communication. Think about it next time. It’s not because the web empowers us that we need to start revolutions, or increase productivity, or communicate to its full potential. Akin to the creative process, while 90% may be wasted time, the remaining 10% can be incredibly useful.
“A return to solitude and introspection, quiet places far removed from the noises of our devices [are] starting to remind me of gated communities: highly patrolled spaces where discourse is circumscribed and vetted. […] I read that our devices are removing us from life, but when a device records an injustice, it is an indicator of presence, not absence” Goldsmith writes in his final pages.
“The smartphone that captured the police shooting death of Walter Scott might have been, just a moment before, playing Candy Crush Saga.”