The endless scroll and why we should embrace it
(5th July 2018)
Watching an episode of the BBC’s Panorama programme on smartphone addiction prompted me consider the not-so-hidden dangers of devices we have come to depend on so much. In the programme, app developers and former employees of social media giants such as Facebook openly admitted (and confessed their guilt about) the techniques used to keep us interacting with our devices. Practices such as the ‘endless scroll’, where there is no need to click onto a new page, means that we are trapped in a kind of Sisyphean task in which we can see no end. The only response, it seems, is to keep on scrolling. Aside from the physical health risks that smartphone addiction might present, the psychological damage that is being caused is perhaps more profound, something that particularly affects anyone born in the digital age. It is concerning for future, yet to be born generations, who will likely become almost cyborg in their use of technology. As smartphones become more of a prosthesis than a tool external to the body, I wonder how long it will be before we are implanted with electronic chips, literally using our bloodstreams as a form of data.
The dangers inherent in smartphone addiction are closely connected to the socially accelerated culture which dominates the Western, and increasingly Eastern, worlds. It is a given that the use of social media, smartphones and technology will grow exponentially; there is simply nothing that will prevent this from happening as the world economy depends on it and technology becomes the opium of the people. Despite these obvious dangers, perhaps we should learn how to embrace technology rather than find ways of escaping it. In his essay on technology, Heidegger suggests that what “is dangerous is not technology. Technology is not demonic; but its essence is mysterious. The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing, is the danger” (2008, p. 232). We should continue to embrace technology, despite Heidegger’s warning that it hides an abandonment of being, that we are “cloaked in the increasing authority of … speed” (Heidegger, 2012, p. 95). Heidegger attributed a loss of a sense of being to the accelerating pace of life, hypothesizing that technology hides the abandonment of being, that it is “cloaked in the increasing authority of calculation, speed, and the claim of the massive” (Heidegger, 2012, p. 95). Calculation, for Heidegger, is found in the machination of society. By machination, Heidegger is not referring to the deceitful workings one might, for example, associate with Machiavellian behaviour, but to the dominance of machines, which – he suggests – has become like God, as machination is no longer questioned by many. The claim of the massive, according to Heidegger, refers to “what is accessible to everyone in the same way” (2012, p. 96). Thus, massiveness is a common identity that is accessible to all, something that generations of the immediate future feel more than anyone who has gone before, because of the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets and apps.
The liveness and immediacy intrinsic to the ephemeral ‘moment’ of performance found in forms such as theatre, music, dance or other performing arts is replicated by the smartphone’s ability to keep us in the ‘now’ of the endless scrolling, although it simultaneously extricates us from the present moment. This paradox raises a further paradox of how we embrace technology whilst simultaneously being emancipated from it. Perhaps we should examine the notion of freedom and what it truly means to be free. In Sartre’s The Age of Reason, the central character, Mathieu struggles with finding a sense of freedom and concludes that, in order to be free, one must become part of the manacles of society. Mathieu concludes that the unassailability of freedom is only in the imagination and thus it is not a failure if one conforms.
Man, according to Rousseau’s famous statement, is born free but everywhere he is in chains. The chains of today, however, are “[n]o longer … factory machines, but … in the form of laptops and phones” (Noys, 2014, p. 11) and, indeed, it would be futile to ignore the grip that this technology has on our lives. Unless one wishes to spend life as an anchorite; reclusive and ascetic, there is little choice but to conform. Like Sartre’s protagonist Mathieu, there is comfort to be found in the claim of the massive. Perhaps there will be no end to the leviathan-like growth of smartphone technology and the tight hold it has over our lives. Rather than attempting to emancipate ourselves from this hold, we should embrace it like a frightened child gripping her mother’s hand. As every frightened child knows, it is always better and safer to be connected.
When moments collide: The importance of now
(4th July 2018)
Three moments in the past week have coincided to have a collective resonance, echoing in my thoughts. Normally, I deliberately seek out connections and try to make some kind of sense of them so, when connections appear organically, I cannot ignore them. Early last week, I was writing about The Band and its effect on memory and generation of nostalgia. In doing so, I was reminded of hauntology and of Mark Fisher, the cultural theorist who, as I recently discovered, took his own life in early 2017. Eighteen months after his death, this news came as a shock to me, as I began to explore some of his online work k-punk blog, for instance) to illustrate the concept of hauntology. Having read his books Ghosts of My Life and Capitalist Realism, I began following Mark Fisher’s Haunt (@k_punk_unlife) on Twitter and had erroneously assumed his tweets were not (to use Fisher’s own words), ‘ghosts from the past’, but ‘live’ tweets, actioned by the author. Discovering the sad fact that Fisher had taken his own life at the age of 48 was a powerful moment and one that set the emerging theme for my nascent thinking and this subsequent writing.
The second event was Hit the Ground Dance Theatre Company’s production of Macho, a high-energy, emotionally charged and visceral dissection of men’s mental health. In Macho (performed at Dance City, Newcastle), the four performers, each embodying the experience of a young male struggling with life and its effect on their mental well-being, communicate something about the nature of contemporary living and, that to sit comfortably in this world, is to battle against a socially accelerated and thus problematic pace of life. I am not entirely convinced the characters in Macho knew they were struggling with this socially accelerated existence; I make only a tacit assumption that this was the case. What is clear, however, is that we are all part of this socially accelerated culture, in which to do more in less time is celebrated and that, perhaps for some, it seems easier to cut an existence short rather than attempt to encompass the experience of many lives into a single lifetime.
The final connection occurred today, listening to an iPlayer broadcast of a local London radio show, in which Jorge Lopez Ramos and Persis Jade Maravala – artistic directors of ZU-UK –mentioned Mark Fisher and the effect his suicide had in formulating their forthcoming project Pick Me Up and Hold Me Tight. This project – is it performance, live art, or mass-coordinated technological participation? – aims to make all of the UK’s 34,000 public telephone boxes ring simultaneously on 1stJanuary 2020. This date, chosen for its significance to the day and time of the year when there is a spike in suicide rates, will utilize the almost antediluvian technology of the landline phone with the socially accelerated world of the twenty-first century. There is a kind of comfort to be found in the almost quaintness of an old red phone box. Visiting faraway British outposts like Gibraltar, where the Britishness of the police uniforms and the welcoming familiarity of post and phone boxes illustrates this quaintness and pseudo-nostalgia perfectly. We feel at home, comforted and cossetted from the present, a present in which the future casts an omnipresent and oppressive shadow over the now. The now is a moment that could and should be savoured; perhaps then, the pressures of living today might dissipate, which could literally be a lifesaver.
In Search of Maximum Jeff: Time, Memory and Nostalgia in The Band
“I felt myself still reliving a past which was no longer anything more than the history of another person.” (Proust, In Search of Lost Time)
As I enter the Theatre Royal, Newcastle on a Saturday evening in April 2018, I see a giant image of a television replicating the screen from a 1993 Ceefax page. As I read the headlines: Bill Clinton elected as President of the USA, the Bosnian war, the IRA bombing of Warrington, and the charts for that year (featuring Take That’s Pray at number one), I am already flooded with memories of twenty-five years ago. This very obvious (but not unwelcome) strategy – of reminding the (very obviously middle-aged) audience of their formative teenage years – places me in a flux between then and now, although not one that actually makes me think of the Clinton presidency or other world events, but a flux that stimulates and generates a flood of involuntary memories.
Before I continue, there are two things to confess. Firstly, I am not a particularly big fan of musical theatre and, secondly, I am not a fan of Take That in any of their iterations. So, settling down to watch a musical based on the music of Take That was not an altogether exciting prospect. As I watched the show, however, I found myself becoming increasingly interested in the emerging themes and motifs used in the production. Extrinsically, The Band– written by Tim Firth – is about a group of women reliving their teenage years and the heady excitement of following their teen idols, through an unexpected trip to Prague. Intrinsically, however, The Band is about memory, time, nostalgia, friendship and dreams. There is a hauntological quality about The Band– of a “nostalgia for lost futures” (Gallix, 2011); the friends attempting to rekindle their past, perhaps a past that did not really exist. The band themselves – five young men styled to replicate Gary et al – had seemingly not aged since 1993 and, in 2018, when the story is set, they appeared like ghosts of the past floating around in the present. This hauntology gave an oneiric quality to the production and, in some ways, made me feel as if the central characters were somewhat delusional. Trapped in an idyllic past where the future was full of promise and potential, these characters were shaken when confronted with their pasts in a present that, for them, had not quite lived up to their expectations. The reality of their pasts – which, for them is hidden by the nostalgia of an idyllic and carefully constructed mechanical set of memories – is maladjusted by the experience of this unexpected trip to Prague.
What makes this possible is the flood of unexpected involuntary memories that return to the present moment and, somehow, shape the future. This cascading of the past, travelling down the upside-down cone of memory described by Bergson in his 1896 book Matter and Memory, is a powerful tool in changing the perspective of each of the characters. This is most acute in the experience of the central protagonist – Rachel (played by Rachel Lumberg) – who longs to find her Gary, Mark, Howard, Robbie, or Jason, but is left with Jeff, a middle-aged anorak wearing Czech beer enthusiast (played by Martin Miller) who, when hearing about the trip to Prague, cannot wait to work his way through the various brews on offer in the post-Communist city of stags and hens.
The story of Rachel and Jeff was the most powerful of all in The Band. Having conceded that Rachel should take her old schoolfriends to Prague to see the boys rather than the trip becoming a beer tour from Branik to Staropraman, Jeff waits loyally at home for Rachel’s return. It is Jeff’s welcome at the airport that fully exemplifies the power of the imagined, hauntological past bearing on the present. As Jeff reads Take That lyrics from his cue cards, poorly concealed in his anorak pocket, Rachel realises that the idyllic past (a past that never really existed anyway) is something that cannot be recaptured and that she is finally happy with Jeff. In a touching scene, where Rachel admits that her life had felt only eight out of ten and that perhaps she might have found the remaining two on her trip to Prague, Jeff remonstrates that ‘this IS Maximum Jeff’, hoping this will be good enough for Rachel. This moment surely must have resonated with many of the audience members in the Theatre Royal that evening, as they too held a hope that the two out of ten – perhaps existing somewhere in 1993 – might somehow be found. In fact, this two out of ten may be the hauntological reality of the past, a past that never really existed anyway. While the sublime past may now have been exposed as a fraud, as a ghost that is somehow lingering in the present to fix something about its past as a way of making its future more satisfactory, the hauntological acts as a conduit to reality.
The importance of time – past, present, and future – and memory was foregrounded in The Band early on. In the first scene between Rachel and Jeff, in which we learn that she has won a trip to Prague, Jeff – in a tacit acknowledgment to the audience that he (or the actor Martin Miller) is waiting for the laughter to subside and thus deliver the next line – glances at his watch to check the time. This moment – referencing the diegetic world of Jeff who is anxious to leave the house for his lift to work as well as the non-diegetic world of Miller – is much more than simply a comedic checking of the wristwatch. It is a direct reference to the fact that time is a powerful force on our everyday lives, and that memory – as the real force of time – is a means of finding the past self in the present self as a channel through which to shape a future.
Even if you were not (or claimed to not be a fan of Take That’s music), The Band will resonate with anyone who has ever dreamed of being something or doing something and, when given an opportunity to recapture that dream, perhaps realises that the true reality of dreams is found in the involuntary memories brought into the present. These memories become like dreams through which we may feel cannot be logical although they are truly capable of logic as they make sense of our present lives. In a hauntological sense, “[w]hen the present has given up on the future, we must listen for the relics of the future in the unactivated potentials of the past” (Fisher, 2013, p. 53), The Band does just that; it converts the lost real memories into a future that holds more promise than the past.
1896: The Year of Memory (January 2018)
In 1896, Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya was first performed in Moscow. The play, in which the lives of some the characters are lived out in an endless succession of boredom, is an important comment on time and its passage. Thus, Vanya and his niece Sonya are trapped in the present, looking forward to death in the future when they can ‘live’ whilst, all the while, being plagued by involuntary memories from the past. At the end of the play, Vanya and Sonya ruminate on the departure of the Professor and Astrov, concluding that their place is to remain on the estate and keep the accounts in good order. For Sonya, this sacrifice of dreams and aspirations is fair exchange for a glorious afterlife, in which they will be rewarded for their hard work on earth. In the same year, French philosopher Henri Bergson published Matter and Memory, in which he offers an exposition on involuntary memory, illustrated in his cone of memory. Bergson illustrates memory using an upside-down cone:
Bergson’s cone of memory. (From Bergson, 1896/1910, p. 211)
In Bergson’s diagram, the square P represents the plane of existence (i.e. where we happen to be) and S the present (or sensori-motor mechanisms that we experience in the present moment), S being the point at which memory is closest to action. The cone grows at each successive moment but the present always remains the same. Because the cone is upside down, we see point AB (joined by a curved line) “in the measure that we detach ourselves from our sensory and motor state to live in the life of dreams” (Bergson, 1896/1910, p. 211). Points A’’B’’ and A’B’ (both joined by a curved line) represent memory gaining depth as it moves from the plane of existence. Point AB is the furthest point from S and is thus richer in memories as we carry a heavier and heavier load with us; it is, as Rudolf Bernet (2005) notes, “the evanescence of the present is ballasted by the weight of the past that not only saves the present from foundering in nothingness but that also gives it a dimension of depth” (p. 70). Point AB, being the richest in memory, is also the most “dilated level thus represent[ing] a dream-plane, the most languid and expansive of all memories, where memories can elaborate themselves for their own sake instead of being subordinated to a current interest” (Grosz, 2004, p. 181).
For Bergson, memory was either habit memory or memory proper. Habit memory is action-oriented and future seeking, appearing as action rather than representation, as a combination of sensation and idea. Memory proper, or pure memory represents and recalls the past, just as perception reconstructs the material image; spontaneous, it is concentrated in the past. This kind of memory is similar to what happens when we dream. When pure memory and action found in habit memory are at their closest point, the process of recognition occurs and pure memory is displaced by habit memory. Habit memory “appears through conscious effort, through repeated learning; [pure memory] occurs spontaneously and often unbeckoned” (Grosz, 2004, p. 171).
For Vanya and his niece, time is a cruel master. They must live out their lives, completing the necessary tasks to keep themselves and others alive. Because Sonya recognizes the drudgery of her existence and how this will be played out long into the future, she is prepared to live in this way, in the hope that her afterlife will be better. She can cope with the daily routines, the predictability of the changing seasons and her aging reflection in the mirror; these are things she expects and can therefore accept them as part of her existence. What she cannot control, however, is the pure memory described by Bergson and illustrated by his cone. Sonya will be hit repeatedly by a succession of involuntary memories that act as the force of time itself. It is this uncontrollable reality of the past invading the present that gives each one of us a glimpse of our futures.