The art of observation for a hyper-digital generation

Attention is a commodity for all providers of service. Where restaurants rely on customers buying their food, and where musicians rely on listeners buying albums, tickets to gigs, and subscriptions to music streaming sites, social media providers rely on consumers giving their attention to their platforms to generate custom. Unlike other services, immediate attention is an integral commodity to social media. Once you’ve bought a meal at a restaurant, it’s not going against their commercial interests if a customer decides to leave a plate of food on their table.

Social media is different, because it loses custom as soon as the customer does anything other than use it. It is designed to lure and lock attention in a web that is difficult to escape from. The infinite scroll technique was introduced in the 2010s and became a design practice standard. Almost all social media platforms have designed algorithms enabling their users to never be bored of their product by never interrupting their flow of constant personalized content. Customers give their immediate attention to social media providers, and social media providers ensure their immediate attentions are always gratified.

Appreciation of art requires a consumer to spend time with it. Paintings, photographs, and other visual arts that do not move when you command them to, are not in a constant flux. They do not dance to a new beat when you get bored of the old one. Rather than changing themselves to fit into whatever you want to see, they demand you change to understand them. They defy your boredom, they reward your patience, they discipline your creativity, and liberate you from the need to scroll endlessly to be entertained. Most importantly, they teach you how to produce a flux of internal content so you can enjoy, even when not looking at them.

There have been many masterpieces I wouldn’t have known were so, had I not invested my patience in them. If I saw Friedrich’s Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog on Instagram, I’d have probably smiled at how absurd it looked and scrolled passed, perhaps thinking to myself how angsty that print would look on a shirt, wondering whether Etsy sells them and how much my 12-year-old emo self would have loved it. I’d have missed how it would help me conceive the sublime in preparation for when I first felt it in my own experience, to what it means to feel empty and overwhelmed simultaneously.

Visual art has a power to produce an inexhaustible number of perspectives. My problem with social media, in short, is that it is designed to discourage us to not exhaust ourselves, to not bother with patience. It is the junk food of attention.

This all being said, I do believe there is a way for social media platforms and the art of patient observation to exist in tandem. Taking steps to reduce the time spent looking outside ourselves for constant shallow entertainment would be a great start. I would like us to not have to rely on infinite scrolling to keep from being bored when we ourselves are infinite sources of beauty. We must rewire ourselves away from a culture of giving up on things which don’t immediately satisfy us, or we’ll never be satisfied at all. 

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Jim Gell

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May 2022
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