Five hours and seven minutes. On average, that is now the amount of time we spend in front of screens every day in France. According to a study by the National Public Health Agency, that’s two hours more than ten years ago. One statistic amongst many others which illustrates the increasing amount of time we give to digital tools – and especially to smartphones.
But it is time well spent? Since they first appeared in the early 2000s, computers, tablets and multifunctional telephones have proved themselves to be veritable Swiss army knives. We even ask ourselves sometimes, when lost in the Japanese countryside looking up the bus timetable, or on a video chat with a loved one on the other side of the world, how we ever managed before.
The temptation to abandon the very idea of a private life
— These days, however, when we find out that the latest slow cooker can be voice activated and that 1.7 million French people use virtual assistants, we’re tempted to ask: have we welcomed a Trojan horse into our home? One against whom we are now powerless?
— This was the question asked by the American-Bangladeshi artist Hasan Elahi in 2002. One year after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and at the moment when ADSL connections were becoming widespread, he was mistakenly named on a list of potential terrorists and suspected of transporting explosives. Arrested by the FBI at Detroit airport when returning from a trip, he was subjected to six months of questioning and nine consecutive lie detector tests. When he was finally cleared he decided, anticipating future accusations, to log the entirety of his life on the Internet, in other words to share, completely transparently, photos of his activities and his GPS position in real time.
— Seven years before the apparition of Instagram, when voluntarily sharing details of one’s private life became commonplace, Hasan Elahi developed the project Tracking Transience. In 2014, after ten years of this experiment, he was still insisting that the best way of protecting your private life was to abandon it. “When I began this project and my friends discovered what I was doing…some of them banned me from coming over to their houses. Today, they hardly realise that their smartphones are spying on them much better than I could have imagined.” (Wired, 2017)
In our attempts to prevent anyone getting a grip on us, to remove all possibility of intrusion into our personal life – or of blackmailing us even - are we destined to make public our entire personalities, warts and all? Will we allow ourselves to be dragged through the digital looking glass in the manner of the characters in Antoine Geiger’s photographic series Sur-Fake, anonymous passersby sucked into the screen of their telephones?
In search of symbiosis
— When we ask the American artist Jonathan Monaghan this question, the answer is categorical: “We will never be able to escape technology, but we can learn to live with it in a more symbiotic way. One part of the problem of digital technologies is that they develop so quickly and are invading our world so fast that we don’t have the time to create a healthy and peaceful relationship with them. Conversely, the mythological stories of antiquity, for example, have always helped us to establish links with the world that surrounds us, allowing us to face our fears and our desires by connecting us to our psyche.”
— At 32 years of age, Monaghan is part of the generation which has grown up with more and more intimate, even intrusive, technologies. His installation Disco Beast, which was exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo in 2018, promises to “provide a new mythology for the digital era.” The video shows a proteiform unicorn moving around in an attractive, aesthetically pleasing, cyclical décor. It’s an allusion to medieval iconography, in particular The Hunt of the Unicorn, a 16th-century tapestry which depicts a unicorn being hunted and trapped in an enclosure. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the work, suggests that the unicorn can escape if she wants to, but she seems happy and comfortable in her confinement. Jonathan Monaghan deems this work in particular to constitute a “very appropriate metaphor for describing contemporary society’s relationship with the digital world. We willingly sign up for these technologies and surveillance systems. If we really wanted to, we could deactivate our social networks and our telephones, but they’re too addictive and too appealing. Like the unicorn, we’re seduced and we’re trapped. Disco Beast, like all my video installations, is a continual loop. The story isn’t finished; it never stops repeating itself. These mythical animals are confined in a virtual world which I create, condemned to repeating the same actions. The whole thing evokes Dante’s Inferno, but shiny, colourful and alluring.”
— Although he evokes the peaceful relationship of his dreams, such a symbiosis seems, in fact, a long way off - at least as long as we haven’t found the means to escape from the circle of dependency.
Can we still resist the digital guru?
— Far from Dante’s circles of hell, resistance to the digital yoke may well develop in the heart of Silicon Valley, the very place where the most addictive digital services have come into being and found success. The stars of tech are increasingly limiting their children’s digital access, following the example of former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, who justified the banning of social networks from the family home with ease: “The short term feedback loops we have created are elevating our dopamine levels and impairing the functioning of society. No more civil discourse, no more cooperation, too much misinformation, not enough truth…I can control my decision as I don’t use [social networks]. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use [them]”. (The Guardian, 2017)
— Whilst many of us check our phone every 30 seconds on average - so a mere 2600 times per day, according to a recent study by the US company dscout – is this new Silicon Valley trend going to bring us back to reason?
— Nothing is less sure, as developers and specialists in man-machine interface and user experience continue demonstrating abundant imagination when it comes to keeping us captive and ensuring we spend as much time as possible on digital platforms. Justin Rosenstein, the inventor of the “Like” button on Facebook, has spoken of his regrets in the Guardian: “Everyone is distracted. All of the time. One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before.”
— But maybe it’s already too late. Although the digital is not one of his main preoccupations, the artist Ugo Schiavi is nonetheless concerned with the fundamental question of the anachronistic gap between its contemporary use and ancient history. In 2018, in his exhibition, Rudus, Ruderis, at the Double V Gallery in Marseille, he fixed the gesture of the selfie in eternity. “I wanted to create a fragment of an arm which you might think had come from an ancient stone statue,” he explains, “but my intention was to add an anachronistic gap, through a gesture, associated with an object, which would bring us back to our daily life, violently. The smartphone and the selfie gesture were the obvious choice.”
— While the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orléans is giving him carte-blanche this year and while we discuss with him the possibility of a peaceful relationship with technology, Ugo Schiavi remains emphatic. “In my opinion, man is too fascinated by progress and too attached to the comfort he has acquired to ever renounce it. The various digital industries are too powerful and the economic stakes too high for everyone concerned to just stop. I don’t see why, therefore, we would stop progress and this too will keep growing whatever the cost.” And, he adds, “We’re all heading for a brick wall, our eyes glued to our phones.”
Translated into English by Sara & Emma Bielecki.