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time By Mihaela Brebenel When addressing the issue of modes of attention, there are two major aspects one cannot surpass, as they have a constitutive role in what is now largely considered a process, not solely a gaze, a turn toward an object. These two aspects are technologies and subjectivity. The aim of this essay is to discuss them not as separate concepts, but as complementary elements that shape our modes of attention. I intend to bring into focus Jaron Larnier's concept of “lock-in technology”1 and Sean Cubitt's reference to “the age of mechanical perception”2 in order to discuss Crary's argument on modern attention. Focusing my analysis on social networks, particularly Facebook, I will attempt to show that it shapes our attention as a fluctuation between a “loss of self” and an “incorporation into myriad assemblages of work, communication and consumption.”3 The Problem of the Gaze and Subjectivity Reviewing the variations in modes of attention throughout the last three centuries, Jonathan Crary argues that attention was examined using frameworks that stem mainly from aesthetics, psychology and philosophy. While in the eighteenth century, Crary states, the problem of attention was looked at mostly through the aesthetic field, as a gaze directed to the object, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century shifted the focus on psychological theories, revealing the problem of attention under the new emerging theories of perception.4 The works of Henri Bergson and William James are quoted by Crary as being highly influential for this shift that proposed seeing attention as “a continuum of variation, a temporal modulation, and it was repeatedly described as having a rhythmic or wavelike character”5 Revisiting the concept of attention from these vitalist perspectives reveals its nature more as a process than a fixed mould, the result of experience and a subject-object dialectics where all senses are involved. This new paradigm challenges two significant issues: firstly, the perceiving subject and the perceived object are no longer in relation only if the subject turns a beam-like gaze towards it and secondly, visuality is not only a question of optics, but rather an embodied experience that engages all of the subject's senses.
1 Jaron Larnier, You Are Not a Gadget. A Manifesto (Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2010). 2 Sean Cubitt, Digital Aesthetics (London, Sage Publications, 1998). 3 Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999), 46-47. 4 ibid, 370. 5 ibid, 64-65.
In this view, technologies become closely linked to subjectivity; the body's natural and technological means of perception are brought into discussion in relation to the perceived environment. This new paradigm underlines that attention is not necessarily 'directed' towards a part of the world at a time, rather it is a continuous process in which assemblages are formed. I will argue that these assemblages are in fact the entangled and new modes of perception formed at the meeting point of subjects and technologies. The two major propositions contained in this approach challenge the way we think about perception and technology and their roles in the process of attention. Firstly, attention is shaped by our sensorial apparatus in its entirety and secondly, media technologies should be understood as forming assemblages, rather than wholes just as “an apparatus is never necessarily taken as the composite or the sum of all the programs that compose it.”6 However, upon exploring these assemblages, some of the intrinsic characteristics of these plateaus can offer insights on what led practitioners in the field of technology and media theorists to state that we are now in a stage where technologies are “locked-in”, transforming our time into the “age of mechanical perception.” As it is now common that our list of technologies we have accessed at the end of a single day to be an array of technological plateaus (mobile phone screen, card readers, emails, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, touch screens, projection screens, video installations etc), modernization becomes, in Crary's terms “an ongoing and perpetually modulating process that would never pause for individual subjectivity to accommodate and 'catch up' with it.7” Nevertheless, if we consider speed and perpetual modulation being an intrinsic characteristic of these technological tools, we have to remember that they are still the product of human design and it is the subjects' role and responsibility to pause and reflect, not technology's duty to await. In this sense, the greatest merit of Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget is that it urges its readers to question the abilities, legitimacy and effects technological designs have on the their practices8. At first sight, this question may seem a reiteration of similar issues that have produced a great amount of literature on the impact of technology and the Internet culture. Although the coiner of the term virtual reality and one of the leading practitioners in computer science does not provide a fully-developed argument, his examples of “lock-in” technologies bring forward the problem of the loss of reflexivity and eventually, the loss of self in these assemblages. His example of the MIDI digital format used to compress sound being now so widely spread (from MP3 files to mobile phone ringtones) that it would make its replacement or even improvement a costly utopian project, could be compared to the reduction of the self to a series of data in a social networking profile. Lanier's
6 Mathew Fuller, Media Ecologies. Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge&London: MIT Press, 2005), 57. 7 Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999), 30. 8 Jaron Larnier, You Are Not a Gadget. A Manifesto (Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2010).
point of view addresses the urgency of self-reflexivity at a stage when change is still possible, thus avoiding a lock-in. Stemming from self-reflexivity is the question of the nature and quality of knowledge produced and to what extend are we limited by the lock-ins already at work? Firstly, I would have to note the view of Jen Webb and Tony Schirato, following Crary in arguing that “Technology and the knowledge used to produce it, or generated by it, are thus part of the sociocultural field.9” By the same token, we can ask what is the knowledge produced by Web 2.0 and do its users pause to reflect on this technology itself? In an online review of Lanier's book, Evgeny Morozov states that There has never been more “criticism” of technology: but the “critical thinking” at work consists mostly of giving the thumbs-up (or thumbs-down) to the flood of new phones, netbooks, tablets and web services unveiled every single day.10 Spellbound by the novelty of technological designs, just as Freud found himself in Piazza Colonna, we wonder around the Web, clicking like buttons under statuses on Facebook then shifting into the platform of a blog, reading an article that we can bookmark or share. The above quoted article, for example, has Facebook, MySpace, Google, Twitter, Digg and Delicious as interlinking possibilities along other choices. However, when creating our marks in this myriad assemblages, what is the knowledge we leave behind? In the next part of my essay, I will look at the content produced in social networks, particularly Facebook and the relation between this content and changing modes of attention as they are being shaped by technology. Opening the Production Lines of Self In the introduction of his book Suspensions of Perception, Crary states that in the nineteenth century, attention was thought to be “an inevitable ingredient of a subjective conception of vision”11, therefore becoming a double functional tool: allowing the observer to “make perception its own”12 and leaving him “open to control and annexation by external agencies.”13 We tend to consider that perception is somehow 'ours' but while this would imply that our perception is directed to technologies, the aim of this essay is to argue that now, technologies have
9 Jen Webb, Tony Schirato, Communication Technology and Cultural Politics, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 2006, 12, 256. 10 Evgeny Morozov is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University. http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100311/REVIEW/703119990/1008 11 Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999), 4-5. 12 ibid, 5. 13 ibid, 6.
shaped our perception thus far as they have become a mode of perception incorporated in our subjectivity. Hence, the issue of attention increasingly becomes a survey of the intertwined problems of technologies and subjectivity. In addition, the question is even more complex if we take into account that the objects which require our attention themselves escape what art historian W. J. T. Mitchell named the “sensory hygiene”14 of vision and are all, in fact, mixed media. If that is the case, the theorist adds, then the issue of media specificity should be posed differently, not as an intrinsic feature, but as “a question of specific sensory ratios that are embedded in practice, experience, tradition and technical inventions.”15 Taking into account that the twenty first century witnessed the rise of the Internet and particularly Web 2.0, these “sensory ratios” fluctuate more in the new mediatic experiences, also given the fact that the borders between producers and consumers in these experiences have been blurred, creating what Henry Jenkins and Mark Deuze saw as the emergence of two new categories, of "produsers", respectively "prosumers.”16 In other words, we direct our subjectivity towards technologies but, at the same time we perceive with the aid of the same technologies. Moreover, we use these mixed modes of perception to 'look at' mixed media that we, in part, have contributed in creating in our new roles as “produsers” and “prosumers”. It seems almost incredible how Max Nordau had the intuition, in 1892 to make the following prediction: the end of the twentieth century, therefore, will probably see a generation to whom it will not be injurious to read a dozen square yards of newspapers daily, to be constantly called to the telephone, to be thinking simultaneously of the five continents of the world, to live half their time in a railway carriage or in a flying machine and (...) know how to find its ease in the midst of a city inhabited by millions.17 His statement captures a vast array of technologies that we have now 'incorporated' into our attention without pausing to reflect on their nature and the changes they imply. It seems almost obvious that the “dozen square yards of newspapers” are the endless number of web pages one can access daily to 'feed' on news, not to mention the millions of blogs or video content. It would appear even more visible that finding your way in “the midst of a city inhabited by millions” is a reading of the now common Google Maps and associated applications on our phones. We are now living in
14 W.J.T. Mitchell, There Are No Visual Media, Journal of Visual Culture, 2005, Vol. 4, 259. 15 ibid, 261. 16 Vilde Schanke and Espen Ytreberg, Working Notions of Active Audiences: Further Research on the Active Participant in Convergent Media Industries in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol 15(4), 2009, pp. 383-390. 17 Max Nordau, Degeneration (1892) quoted by Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999), p.30
what Sean Cubitt called the “mechanical age of perception”18 and this phrase requires our attention more than as a modern reference to Walter Benjamin's famous essay, but as a prefiguration of the increasing connection between perception and production. One year after Cubitt's Digital Aesthetics, Crary's reference to the changing modes of production, throughout which “attention has continued to be a disciplinary immobilization as well as an accommodation of the subject to change and novelty” could be seen as a prefiguration of Web 2.0 and the new relationships created between attention, production and consumption. The empowered user can now create various types of content using technologies at hand, content that is available to millions of other users just like him, who, in turn, have the same capacity to produce. However, in these milieux of production and consumption brought to us by technological development, have we become like the mythological creature Ouroboros (serpent or dragon depicted eating its own tail), only skimmed of its essential trait of self-reflexivity? On social networking platforms like Facebook, we can say that we are essentially the consumers of our own content, because of the attention, effort and time we dedicate updating our statuses, profiles and photo albums. One can argue that these actions are in themselves a form of self-reflexivity, a new mode of attention directed towards the self; that we are now more aware than ever of ourselves, our images and we are the sole managers of our 'profiles'. To this argument I would reply with what can be named as the 'Next >> Next >> Finish' mode of attention. In my opinion, our attention to an increasing number of processes is becoming more and more similar to the way we follow the steps of an installation wizard for a software. Clicking “Next” to skip to the next stage without paying to much attention to the information and the settings you agree with, is similar to how, for example, you do not pay attention to what a Facebook application requires to use from your personal information. Therefore, you are not focusing your attention on the fact that, by agreeing to upload your photographs on Facebook, you offer the platform rights over their usage, nor are you asking yourself what role do these photographs play in the creation of your online self or persona; you are focusing your attention on the result, the last stage of the process. When accessing Facebook's homepage you are asked “What's on your mind?”, you have a section dedicated to your profile and a list of your friends, your messages, status updates and events, an array of photos and videos of you. Nevertheless, your attention when on Facebook is not on these tools, but on how to use them in a process to produce content about, surprisingly enough yourself. This is however, exactly the fluctuating terrain of modern attention with its “numbing incorporation into myriad assemblages of work, communication and consumption”19 that Facebook, among other online tools and technologies embodies as a framework. This continuous drive towards
18 Sean Cubitt, Digital Aesthetics (London, Sage Publications, 1998), 39. 19 Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999), 370.
an end, the urge to click the 'Finish' button leaves the content we produce and then ourselves bare, almost like a dusty trace we leave behind. Yet the new content emerging still drives our attention, determining us to come back to the networking platform and by our presence, making it valuable to other agencies than ourselves and our friends. 'Paying' Attention The agencies that I mentioned above are the marketing and advertising companies, willing to pay for our attention, or more likely, our distraction. In the first part of my essay, I have focused on Crary's view on attention as a process, a “continuum of variation” in the modulation of intensities, as opposed to a given set of patterns we channel upon. Moreover, as he proceeds in his analysis of the late twentieth century, Crary observes that the focus shifts on the management of attention, a task dependant on “the capacity of an observer to adjust to continual repatternings of the ways in which a sensory world can be consumed.”20 As the continuum of experiences increases its flow in the late twentieth century, the question posed is how to render these experiences manageable, how to assign intensities to certain aspects that attempt to 'catch' our attention. In the second decade of the twenty first century, upon accessing Facebook, the above mentioned continuum of variation could be seen as a juxtaposition of at least two realms: the continuous variation of attention to reality and to the virtual world of the Internet. Moreover, within the social network itself, we are constantly managing repatternings by making selections, clicking, reading, typing. It is, in fact a staging of a virtual spectacle in which we take on alternative roles as viewers, friends, consumers, producers, users, without clearly knowing were one status ends and another begins. Crary reads Debord's notion of the spectacle as concerned with “the construction of conditions that individuate, immobilize, and separate subjects, even within a world in which mobility and circulation are ubiquitous 21”, resonating with the early theories on the Internet as a platform of alienation and control. The 'digital society of the spectacle' that can be found on Facebook could, in this line of thought be read as offering the illusion of mobility in a confined space of control. Developing on the relation between spectacle and technology, Mathew Fuller asks the rhetorical question: Does anyone know exactly who is originally culpable of the idea of the leisure society? This persistent whimsy that labor-saving technology will of itself release people into a helter20 Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999), 33. 21 ibid, 74.
skelter world of self-determined fun is less a theory than a suburban myth.22 In Fuller's view, this utopia of the saving technology has been de-mystified already by science fiction narratives depicting the danger of over-controlling future worlds. His note reminded me of a famous Apple television commercial, entitled 1984. Inspired by George Orwell's novel, this commercial depicts endless rows of docile bodies, all their gazes pointing to a screen, listening to a dictator's speech. From a tunnel, a runner with a sledgehammer is approaching the screen and violently crashes it. On the background of the literally jaw-dropping reactions of the public, the caption reads “On January 24th , Apple Computers will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984'.” Indeed, the immense success of Apple can be seen as a technological revolution as now, sixteen years after this commercial was released, we can walk on the streets or in a cafe to see the same spellbound attitude, not towards a big screen, rather to individual smaller screens in the form of laptops, iPhones, iPads, iPods. The difference is that we can give this product a 'thumbs up' on Facebook or pause for a moment to reflect on how it locks us into specific modes of attention and behaviour. Crary's Foulcauldian framework developed in Suspensions of Perception is, as the author himself states, used “to demonstrate how within modernity vision is only one layer of a body that could be captured, shaped, or controlled by a range of external techniques23” In a period where our attention seems to be directed to individual technological mediated experiences mostly through vision (we are constantly looking at personal computer screens, mobile phone screens), the truth of the matter is that our entire bodies are engaged in those experiences, opened to being affected and 'locked-in' these modes of attention. However, as Crary continues his argument, “at the same time, vision is only one part of a body capable of evading institutional capture and of inventing new forms, affects, and intensities.24” leaving it to a continuously shaping and transforming subjectivity responsibility to question and escape these 'lock-ins'. Without ascribing to technology a deterministic power over our bodies and the knowledge we produce using it, the aim of this essay was to examine the attention-distraction dialectics in social networks and their effects in the intertwined process of production and consumption of content. As David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins highlight: The introduction of a new technology always seems to provoke thoughtfulness, reflection, and self-examination in a culture seeking to absorb it. (…) What is felt to be endangered and
22 Mathew Fuller, Media Ecologies. Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge&London: MIT Press, 2005), 55. 23 Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999), 3. 24 ibid., 3
precarious becomes more visible and more highly valuated.25 My critical reading of Facebook as a platform of digital spectacle aiming at our attention in a process that dilutes the self into confusing assemblages aims to review the list of knowledge producing and constructive interaction pitfalls one can easily be distracted into. Nonetheless, by this approach, it is also meant to reveal the potentialities that this tool enables for knowledge sharing and interaction. Becoming aware of the 'Next >> Next >> Finish' mode of attention could therefore act as a tool of self-reflexivity within the process and not only as a means of observing the effects after the 'Finish,' 'Send,' 'Publish,' or 'Like' button has been clicked on.
25 David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, Introduction: toward an aesthetic of transition, in Thorburn and Jenkins (eds.), Rethinking Media Change: the Aesthetics of Transition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 4.
References Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of perception: attention, spectacle, and modern culture (Cambridge, MA :MIT Press, 1999). Cubitt, Sean. Digital Aesthetics, (London: Sage Publications, 1998). Fuller, Mathew. Media Ecologies. Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2005). Lanier. Jaron. You are not a Gadget. A Manifesto (Allen Lane: Penguin Books, 2010). Mitchell, W. J. T. “There Are No Visual Media”, Journal of Visual Culture, Sage Publications, Vol. 4(2), 2005, pp. 257-266. Malpas, Jeff. “On the Non-autonomy of the Virtual,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Sage Publications, Vol. 15(2), 2009, pp.135-139. Schanke, Vilde, Ytreberg, Espen. “Working Notions of Active Audiences: Further Research on the Active Participant in Convergent Media Industries,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Sage Publications, Vol 15(4), 2009, pp. 383-390. Thorburn, David, Jenkins, Henry (eds.). Rethinking Media Change: the Aesthetics of Transition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003). Webb, Jen, Schirato, Tony. “Communication Technology and Cultural Politics,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Sage Publications, Vol. 12(3), 2006, pp. 255- 261.
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