/The Speed (and Stillness) of Being Online

The Speed (and Stillness) of Being Online

Video: The Speed (and Stillness) of Being Online


Over the past 10 years, as the speed and influence of digital media has increased so has the writing expressing a concern for its effects, particularly that it's eroding our capacity for silence, solitude and slowness. The attention economy – everyone's writing about it, it's the thing that currently has our attention. And, so, while brevity might be the soul of wit it seems we're increasingly worried that it's also the soul of that which is frivolous and disposable – that the incessant flow of information that has become the undercurrent to many of our lives is disorienting to the point of catastrophe. And sure whenever twitter asks me 'what's happening?' I interpret the intonation as: [audio: Poltergeist (1982)] “What's happening?!?” But it's no revelation to say that this trend, both of speed and the concern around it, isn't so recent.

As that ancient proverb of Billy Joel declares: we didn't start the fire! Certainly, since the invention of the railroad every century has been defined by speed, just with each one we feel more fast and more furious. "And here we are in the 21st", as Steven Poole writes in the Spectator "in another culture that both worships and deplores its ostensibly unprecedented speed." So, ever the contrarians, it's not surprising that we might start to become equally fascinated by the opposite – to believe that, in a culture of speed, maybe slow is the new radical, our tool of resistance. But now, with the "coming renaissance of long-form journalism," and in 'the age of the hour-long YouTube video' – is slow media in opposition to contemporary demands, or submissive to them? In considering why things are the length they are, the most immediate answer is that the duration of media has long been the dominion of capital.

And capital remains the dominant influence on… everything. Even the great tomes of novels like War and Peace or Les Misérables have been accused of padding for profit. As Susan R. Gannon suggests of 19th century writing: "In an age when writers were paid by the page, long windedness was profitable…" Then, in the age of digital media, this pressure for length turned to pressure for brevity. And while, say, YouTube no longer enforces the 10 minute limit that was in place until 2010, to some extent brevity is baked into its form: hyper-narration, jump cuts, every frame of silence removed – as author and youtuber John Green explained in this vlog from 2014: "Quiet is an interesting thing to talk about on YouTube because attention has become so fractured on the internet that there is no longer room in YouTube videos for any silence.

I think I go back and I watch our videos from 2007 with the jump cuts that are really really slow, and the space between the jump cuts is just absolutely unbearable." And that's a pressure I know I feel making videos on YouTube. Are these sentences brief enough? Are these ideas relevant enough? And with my own videos slowing down and getting longer, it can feel like going against the idea of what a YouTube video should be – but, is it? It's no secret that YouTube has adapted it's algorithm to favour watch time, incentivising those creating videos to increase their length. The more minutes you watch the more ads you can be served, and the longer you spend on a platform the bigger role that platform plays in our culture. And so, once again, short is out and long is in. But more than just the renewed profitability of long-windedness, in 2013 the editors of Politico claimed that 'long-form' journalism: “is a genre that is even more essential in today’s hyperkinetic news environment." Even the title 'long-form' implies that its value lies simply in its long-ness – following an established association between 'long' and 'important'.

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Author Peter Wayner wrote about being asked to expand a book from 20,000 words to at least 80,000, explaining that: "readers wanted to feel like they got some heft, both physical and intellectual, for their money, … Big thoughts were heavy and thick tomes telegraphed just how much work went into writing a book—and reading it." And this highlights a cultural fetishisation, not only of length in media, but in process – the idea that something is more worthy if it took a long time, when something is valued, first, for the dedication of its own production, over its intrinsic form or quality – garnering praise in the vein of: "wow, that must have taken a really long time." Unless, of course, the pursuit is deemed unworthy – in which case comments will likely take the form of: "don't you have anything better to do?” As if this kind of dedication can threaten the conception of labour we rely on to define worth.

Because, you know… rude. But this is what writer and curator David Campany believes is the 'radical appeal of photography': [voice: David Campany] "that there was no correspondance between labour and artistic merit. You could have 15 people working to produce a photograph or a kid could go out in the street and just do something extraordinary with a single frame and there's something very liberating but unsettling about that." Here, rather than conforming to cultural expectations, it's speed that's disruptive. This isn't to say that the notion of deceleration isn't a radical one, which is something that's demonstrated in Douglas Gordon's film installation '24 Hour Psycho', slowing down Hitchcock's original to 2 frames a second which, as the title suggests, would require 24 hours to view in its entirety. As a character in Don DeLillo's 'Point Omega' observes, this reconstruction encourages us: "To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.

" But while this slowness provides an all too infrequent relief from what another character calls "the nausea of News and Traffic", there's an equally disruptive potential in embracing speed and brevity which I think is, at least right now, more frequently overlooked. Like how the short film or story have always been considered lesser mediums compared to their longer counterparts, "something you played around with", as short story writer Alice Munro complained, "until you got a novel". But author Steven Millhauser identifies the revolutionary promise of the short story, explaining that it: "apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story…" And it's in this manner that artist Hito Steyerl approaches 'the poor image', the low resolution image – its deterioration evidence of its acceleration: "It transforms quality into accessibility… images that can be made and seen by the many.

" This offers an alternative understanding of value – one based, not on capital, but on access – the outsider appeal of non-commercial images. And its replicated in the excitement around TikTok's 3-60 second loops in opposition to the increasing commercialisation of YouTube. Though, unfortunately, a lack of monetisation has previously led to the life of a platform being as short as its videos. There's a kind of neo-dadaist expression that has come to define the meme's fast-paced absurdist response to contemporary life. As composer Edgard Varese declared in 1922: "Speed and synthesis are characteristics of our own epoch, we need 20th century instruments to help us realise them in music." And now nearly 100 years later, maybe memes are that instrument for visual culture. But Steyerl's essay was written 10 years ago, and while the joyful intensity of low resolution is still present, it doesn't dominate the internet like it used to.

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YouTube has become the home of high production value. And though TikTok's videos might embrace the amateurish values YouTube is abandoning, it hardly compares to the grainy footage of 2009. Even the source of one of our most loved memes, [audio: All Star by Smash Mouth] "someBODY" having languished in the resolution of the unworthy for 20 years, is finally available in all 1080ps. As internet speeds increase, and access to those speeds increase, we no longer rely on compression. And now these HD, 4k, 8k images are not a mark of slow, exclusive media but rather speeds of the kind we can no longer see – images that can travel so fast they've lost the aesthetic of speed. Of course, the sayings we have around time attest to the fact that objective and subjective speed have never exactly seen eye to eye. But this demonstrates another condition of the attention economy that access allows for. Not only speed, but volume.

Not just fast, but more. Which is where 'longform' might break down as an antithesis to current dynamics of speed, in offering exactly what our culture demands – not slow, just more. It could be said that the 21st century has become increasingly defined by a kind of cultural white noise – visually depicted here by the twitter account @GlitchTVBot which provides a constant context-less stream of images from live news channels, reintroducing that aesthetic of speed via the glitch and resulting in possibly one of the most accurate representations of how it feels to exist under a tide of incessantly breaking news. heh…The news cycle, more like… the noise cy…[cuts off]! And white noise is closely associated with speed, with immediacy – those constant demands – live, premiering, ring the bell – whatever it is it's now! But it also creates its own kind of stillness. In offering maximum information, every frequency, it provides minimum information, no frequency.

Like photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto's long exposures of movie theatres which, in being shot over the entire duration of the film, result only in vacant screens. An image that, as art critic Erika Balsom writes: "is at once the totality of the projected film and its negation.” There's an alluring passion in this kind of self-destruction, though still not unique to the current epoch since it's characterised in Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem First Fig: "My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night; but ah my foes and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light." This poem was published in 1920 and reflects the way we culturally remember that decade but as we approach the 2020s, this desire for all consuming destruction has taken a new form. In the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes about the recent trend of 'begging for celebrities to kill you', potentially stemming from a need to express extreme physicality in response to the comfortable numbing of digital media- creating the desire for "a sensation strong enough to silence itself".

The fact that this is as much a definition of white noise as it is an opposing response to it is likely a testament to its dominance over our cultural moment – but also to how it strangely provides its own relief. The overwhelming enormity of its destructive force even mirroring the decelerated effects of a film like '24 Hour Psycho', considering how, as art historian Claire Daigle writes: "The actions of human beings cease to matter when great swathes of time are unfurled. Mortals are overtaken by brute materiality." White noise can act as a liberation from our own noise – problems, worries, decisions – while it is all consuming, it overwhelms the sounds of the things that might overwhelm us. In an episode of the podcast Reasonably Sound titled 'Peace and White Noise', host Mike Rugnetta describes a comfort in being able to lose yourself in the sight and sound of the ocean: [voice: Mike Rugnetta] "If you’re at the right beach you can stand in front of something that not only fills the entirety of your periphery, but also doesn’t give a damn about you one bit." And, outside of the inherent eroticism of the sea, for better or worse we're frequently invited to lose ourselves in a sea of people.

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Even the meme, our instrument of 21st century speed, relies on the assimilation of the individual into an essentially oceanic mass. This, perhaps, gives new meaning to the title of 'YouTube', originally derived from a founding principle of unrestricted individual expression – one they've been trying to walk back ever since – which is that, according to music professor Justin Patch: "one of the most delicious ambiguities in the English language is the word you – it encompasses both the singular and the plural with no clear grammatical distinction." So rather than an acknowledgement of the individual, we're united here, foes and friends, powerless under the disquieting monolith of content. So this brave new world might not be unique in its defining quality of speed, but the new channels it takes leads to a persistent sense of being overwhelmed, where we can read accounts from 20, 50, 150 years ago that seem as though they could simply be describing our current experience and think only: 'oh honey, you have no idea'. But if the age of steam and the age of meme (yes I went there) are so emotionally similar, it indicates that as speed increases so does our tolerance for it.

Maybe speed has been the focus of cultural catastrophe because it's difficult to separate the idea of speed from the idea of crashing but slowness has its own kind of insidious influence. Like the fabled frog slowly boiling alive, humans can get used to just about anything, as long as it's a slow process. It's good to question the trajectories we find ourselves on, especially if you can't quite remember how you got… wait, why am I on twitter? and that involves being aware of how platforms change what we value, how we experience, what we think we want. But shortness isn't necessarily a submission to the dominant culture – its resistance to monetisation translating to a resistance towards traditional ideas of value. Of course, that hinders its longevity, but if shortness embraces brevity it follows that the short itself should be ephemeral, maybe even exhibiting an unsettlingly enthusiastic acceptance of its own inevitable demise. This is an era increasingly defined, not by speed or stillness, but the constant tension between the two.

Where speed is emotionally loved but intellectually despised, and slowness is intellectually admired but emotionally feared. Both acceleration and deceleration can be nonconformist desires, but while extreme slowness reminds us of our insignificance against the vast expanse of time, intense shortness implies an insignificance in each passing second – already falling away, already obsolete. It's a form that encompasses change, and therefore the essence of every historical moment, both despite and because of its brevity, but its most unsettling quality is that it also contains all the promise and threat of the change yet to come. [music: We Didn't Start The Fire by Billy Joel (instrumental)] [music: We Didn't Start The Fire (vocals only)] "We didn't start the fire…".