FOMO at the ICA, 29 May 2015 – 31 May 2015 – 02

FOMO: Judy Wajcman, Olia Lialina and Karen Archey, FOMO Panel chaired by Hito Steyerl

 Judy Wajcman

This promised to be a very useful session about the problem of time and the internet. I bought her book, so can go through her thesis in much more detail, but she outlined the main thrust of it in her talk.

Her book is about the growing body of literature about the sense that life is speeding up and that we are becoming overwhelmed by technology’s demands on our time. From accelerationism and onwards, there is a lot of theory suggesting that we are entering a new temporality. Industrial time was linear, and was measured by the clock; contemporary time is simultaneous, instantaneous. Speed is the condition of these times. Much of this body of theory is technologically determinist.

There are a few paradoxes in this theory of time: if technology saves time, why do we feel so busy and stressed out? We blame technology, and then turn to it to solve the problem for us. Or, we decide to go off-grid to reclaim our IRL life. She used the example of the New Forest Tech Creche, a place you can lock your phone into so you aren’t disturbed in a national park. This is obviously a duff solution: the problem is a cultural one not a technical one. In sociology, and in science & tech studies, technology is seen as crystallised social relations.

It’s worth remembering that people said the same kind of things about older technologies, such as the railways, telegraph etc. What’s different about now? Remember too that newer technologies are embedded in older technologies: phones, electricity etc.

People FEEL more rushed, more hectic, but there is data that suggests that the demands on our time are no more insidious than they were during the twentieth century. Leisure time is mostly consistent over the last 50 years. Therefore the feeling of being rushed is about the character of time – it’s subjective. The narrative of acceleration is too one sided and too technologically determinist: daily life is about multiple temporalities. For example, “quality time”: parents are actually spending more quality time with their kids than ever before (no data offered on this, hope it’s in the book!).

Why are smartphones so ubiquitous? They fit into a deroutinised society. In post-Fordist work patterns, we need to synchronise our own meetings etc; scheduling is the problem, as this takes time. Taking the example of email as a touchstone of the feeling of being overwhelmed: email is asynchronous, and the pile-up of items while we’re doing other things makes it feel overwhelming even if the workload is comparatively small. Business policies, like ‘out of office = deletion” messages have been used, aren’t that good a solution.

We need to be more discriminating about what technologies we have. We need to actively engage in processes of innovation and technological change. (No ideas on how though.) We need to question the cultural association that connects speed and value. Fast currently means good: should speed be the rationale for innovation? Algorithms reflect the values and assumptions of the culture creating them.

Innovation should mean the challenging of prevailing discourses. This is an issue with big data at the moment: we gather the data, then figure out what we can use it for. This is a political act. We should do it the other way round.

Social media companies are engineering companies, and have limited diversity in their workforces. They reproduce assumptions of that particular cultural group (a theme picked up in a later discussion about the feminised labour carried out by Siri/Cortana). These companies have very conservative views of the future. They are not progressive and usually solidify and confirm the status quo. Judy concluded by broadly advocating progressive politics by private tech companies.

The Q&A opened up some further points for discussion. The rhythms of daily life were mentioned in the discussion, as well as their gendering. The overall impression was that wider sociology seems to have quite a 20th C perspective on things.

Olia Lialina in conversation with Karen Archey

Karen had pulled together a PPT that allowed Olia to talk through some of the major themes in her work. Olia’s work in the 1990s was about mixing cyber-ideologies and net.language. was in part about revealing material infrastructure, something that I feel persists in a lot of contemporary work. This was quite an informally structured session, and some of the bullet point themes emerging from it are to do with speed and slowness. Lialina chokes the bandwidth on her server so that works from 1996 are downloaded at 1996-like speeds. She also spoke of how screenshots of the work seem “more alive” to her now than the works themselves.

Her more recent projects have been about the preservation of digital folklore, specifically the user culture of Geocities. These websites were built “before the internet became a mass medium”, although I take issue with this in relation to Toffler’s idea of “demassification”.

One of the more interesting slides of hers described a paradigm of user interface design from the 1990s that was designed to make the computer invisible. In UX design terms,

Computer => Technology

Interface => Experience

Users => People

By not using the word “users”, social media companies began a process of creating frictionless experiences that obscure the infrastructure of the internet. When computers become invisible, the political paradigms that they are constructed around become embedded, non-contestable, invisible too.

Panel Discussion

Hito Steyerl chaired this session, and framed the discussion firstly around the history that ran parallel to the developments under discussion: the fragmentation of the USSR and Yugoslavia, the Gulf war, 9/11, the second Gulf War, Snowden. She also prompted the panel to discuss the issue of latency.

In Bitnik’s work, latency is in the latent potential of the black box, in the Assange piece. In Lialina’s, it’s in the websites that were never completed.

Wajcman described latency as to do with the speed that data moves at. She used the example of high-speed financial trading, where data moves faster than humans can perceive, and therefore algorithms are now doing the trading.

There was a discussion then about labour conditions, a theme that kept returning throughout the conference. HS described being an artist as a specific example of labour, one that is mostly freelanced and where units of work are parcelled out in identifiable bunches. She also began to talk about territorialisation: where objects are sited is one of their most problematic properties. This is of interest to Bitnik. Are immaterial artworks deterritorialised? What’s the legal ownership status of digital resources?

There was then a question about what FOMO meant to each of the panel. After some charming confusion they all gave their answer. Karen Archey’s answer was most compelling: fear of not having your voice heard.