Contrary to belief, the historic Red Telephone which linked Washington and Moscow was never a telephone, nor was it red. Communications were conducted via Teletype, before shifting to fax machines in 1986. Messages travelling from the U.S. to Russia were sent in English, and Russia-U.S. communications were sent in Russian. Both were decoded and translated upon reception. While these messages were usually urgent, speed could not be compromised for the sake of integrity, lest any kind of misinterpretation spark an international incident. In writing, translators were afforded the time to examine all indeterminacies in communications, and the opportunity to preserve nuances that might have been otherwise overlooked. The rapidity of a phone call is too prone to errors in translation. Immediate and direct communications, despite their alleged efficiency, will only produce half-digested and unreliable messages.
Now, we read more than we ever have. There is also more content now than there ever has been before. We are confronted, now, with more information than it would ever be possible to read, never mind absorb. Digital publishing has had the unintended consequence of forcing those who engage with it to spread thin their attention, to combat the incessant proliferation of text.
As our reading practices speed up, so too do the transmission modes of cultural capital change to compensate. Many readers rely on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks to capture and/or disperse information. The ‘endless scroll’ requires the broadcasters of cultural capital to use attention-seeking tactics (among them: targeted advertising, clickbait, inflammatory headlining) to ensure their content is privileged above other sources, but also enforces a system that both creates and perpetuates anxious reading, a feeling that to choose one is to sever all other possibilities.
An attention economy works on the principle of scarcity.
New platforms such as Hyperallergic or #500words attempt to bridge the gap with small, easily consumable texts, in response to the growing realisation that many readers are reduced to scanning or skimming text out of sheer helplessness in the face of overwhelming, endless content. Other websites like Buzzfeed, Clickhole, Gawker, Stuff, the Daily Mail, distil content even further, catering to short attention spans. Anticipating distracted reading, they also provide mazes of hyperlinks—escape points out of texts. The immediacy of content is also its obscenity. Hence the state of criticism today: combative, linear, unimodal, and motivated to present a singular, necessarily limited reading.
As the temporality is collapsed between concept and thought, communication and reception, query and answer, call and response, so do spaces for contemplation become fewer and shorter. The faster an object moves, the simpler it becomes, until it is stripped of extraneous detail, nuance, non-essential data. Speed removes both detail and dissent. The information we seek becomes pornographic: things are there immediately, without distance and without charm—and without genuine pleasure. Convenience has subsumed and suffocated many avenues of transmission.
Boris Groys says he is often asked by colleagues, “Should I look at this exhibition, or should I skip it?” Perhaps this is indicative of the oversaturation of information that we must contend with now, with the immediacy of the Internet providing us with gateways to innumerable fields—shows, exhibitions, endless content—of which, ten years ago, we would have only received limited, if any, access. Looking at art becomes about choosing one thing to look at, at the expense of endless options. The natural tendency is to try to compensate for this wealth of matter by engaging with more of, it in order to avoid appearing uninformed. Aspects travel faster than the whole: we are playing an endless game of whisper down the lane.
The velocity of information is an unavoidable feature of communicating today. With an irrevocably distracted audience, we can no longer be sure that our transmissions are received. The porosity of critical writing is both its downfall and its strength: the proliferation of half-digested ideas undermines the integrity of conversation, while also promoting interesting alternatives and resisting hegemonies.