So I watched the Social Dilemma.
That was probably enough, but it wasn't just that. It had been a long time coming.
Sacha Baron Cohen's beautifully constructed speech to the Anti-Defamation League last year. Also the Cambridge Analytica grift. And knobs like Pete Evans and worse using facebook and instagram to spread stupid claims and conspiracy theories about vaccines, 5G, chemtrails, flat earths, etc, etc.
It's partly because facebook is still largely controlled by one man who refuses to take responsibility for the damage his platform has wreaked on civil debate, using the very American right of 'free speech' as a smokescreen. By 'very American' I mean the concept of individuals' 'Rights' as free-floating concepts, untethered to concomitant 'Responsibilities'.*
I could go on about the way social media platforms have been designed to hack our attention and create not just 'engagement' but dependencies. How as users, it is not just our attention that is the commodity being sold, but, as Jaron Lanier puts it, the ongoing and imperceptible adjustment of our behaviour. As a father of teenagers, I realise that they have never known a world without social media and this frightens me, because for them the result of the constant connection to social media is that the silence of their own mind is something to be avoided.
Yet even with the generational privilege of being raised before social media I have been caught up by it. As an artist it was Instagram that appealed to me, based as it is on sharing original content with an interface that is lighter and less ugly than Facebook. Instagram feels cooler and more purposeful. I connected with some amazing artists around the world. I saw how you could invest your time and effort into it as a platform for building your career. And yes I got a dopamine hit every time someone liked a new work that I posted. It was a great antidote to the loneliness of the studio and the big distances between exhibitions.
I convinced myself that posting on Instagram was agile and flexible: that I could fit in a quick post into the 'gaps' in my time that existed while I was waiting to do other things.
But this is the thing. There are no such 'gaps'. They are an illusion, a by-product of the time pressure created by social media engagement. Let me explain.
As users of technology we have become conditioned to manage the small amounts of time that processes take. Like the wait in a lift where nothing happens. Or the time it takes for traffic lights to change, or a software update to reboot. While we wait, we get out our phones (well hopefully not in the car at least). I'll just check my likes ('the new smoking' someone called it). I'll just post that new #wip (work in progress).
And then I realised it was actually technology, and largely my social media usage, that was creating the 'gaps'. In other words, it was fragmenting my attention and my time so that I thought I had no time except the 'gaps' within which the only thing I had time for was to be on my phone, the thing that created the 'gaps' in the first place. A self-reinforcing loop.
The emotion created by the fragmentation of time is anxiety.
Quickly. Everything has to be quick. 'Let me do this real quick,' is a US-English idiom that expresses exactly this time pressure. 'Wait, what?' is another used by nearly everyone under the age of 30. It takes the place of a simple, 'what?', 'excuse me?', or 'can you repeat that?' Split-awareness. I'm busy doing this but I just became aware of another thing that needs my attention. I need to stop that thing getting away so I can shift attention from one to the other and make sure I don't miss it or miss out. 'Wait.' Then I make the shift. 'What?' That little two-step is repeated over and over. Attention is constantly being split so it's never really anywhere.
So I deleted Instagram from my phone. I put a message on my profile linking to this article, and left a way for people to contact me if they wanted to. This was part of the experiment, to see if any of my followers were interested enough in my work to pursue a connection outside the app.
Almost straight away I became aware of having more time. Chunks of it. I could almost feel the shape of the time that I wasn't on Instagram. Yes there was some dopamine withdrawal but not as much as I thought. The sensation of having time given back to me was almost exhilarating.
It is a function of what I earlier called my 'generational privilege' that I don't have my life entwined any more deeply with social media. It is not the main way that I communicate with friends. It is not the source of my income. Others, mainly those younger than me, are not so lucky. Teenagers are not only using social media for all their communication, but it is fast becoming the sole source and site for friendship itself; meeting and relating purely via social media and never in person. Being released from 100 days of hard lockdown might lead to a reversal of this trend. I live in hope...
My practice hasn't suffered as I thought it might without the insta-audience. I'm still in the studio regularly, some days good, some less so. If anything, it has given me back the time and the energy to pursue real world interaction between an audience and my work. I'm improving my website, developing a business plan and identifying potential future exhibition sites. I have the time and the headspace to start applying for grants and awards again. It has prompted me to be more targeted, purposeful and local in how I create an online-presence. I am promoting my work to people who could possibly come and see it in person one day, not just experience it via a small, digital interface. I'm writing more.
Certainly I've lost some interesting and daily connections to people both locally and overseas who showed real interest in what I'm doing, and whose work I found inspiring. I'm OK with that. It is what it is: the consequence of my decision. By the way none of those people have been in touch since I left their feed. They probably haven't even noticed that I'm not posting any more, and that's a good indicator of how real the connection is on social media.
*In this sense the responsibility should be that speech, while being free, must also be aware of the position from which it speaks: the assumptions, privileges and biases that naturally inhabit it, and to speak from a position of respect for the Other always.