nO TIME TO WASTE
The current pandemic has caught us unprepared in many ways, starting with the intellectual one. For those of us who, like me, deal with theory on a daily basis, the toolbox immediately seemed rather unprovided, inadequate to describe the current emergency situation and to guarantee evaluations and solutions useful for everyone. And yet an effort and some considerations have to be made in order to ensure an understanding of it. Taking notes on what we thought we knew and what we are living in the present is perhaps the first step in attempting to make an assessment of the situation, denouncing problematic issues and formulating hypotheses.
If I close my eyes and think about these days in seclusion, a crowd of digital images come to my mind. The screens dominate my daily life, the horizon of my perception. So far nothing new, it seems. Digital screens are the media devices of our time par excellence. Operational surfaces which the researcher Galit Wellner proposes to consider at the same time as walls and windows (Wellner 2011). To tell the truth, the idea that we perceive the world through a window has imposed itself in Western culture at least since the modern age, with the Renaissance laws of perspective representation. It is a theory that has its roots in the widely held belief, already widespread in antiquity, which states that the eye is the first window through which we look out onto objects separated from us (Carbone 2016). The screens of the television, of the computer, of the mobile phone or of any smart device inhabit the everyday life space, they are an ubiquitous, portable and sometimes wearable presence. Today the digital screen experience is pervasive, the screens are much more than even windows. In this case we are not only dealing with a metaphor used for heuristic purposes: it is actually a way to access a context of different materiality compared to the physical, yet real world (Wellner 2011). According to Wellner, in fact, computers and smartphones share the tendency to distract user’s attention from his surroundings, directing it towards other virtual spaces. In this sense they are able to separate us from our environments and at the same time provide access to remote, private or shared spaces.
The catalyzation of our attention, or rather, the distraction from where we physically are, is certainly not exclusive to digital technologies and can be considered a feature shared by all technological media. Currently, however, digital technologies are so widespread that they are able to guarantee a constant interconnection of places and people: every day we are simultaneously where our body is and where the screens take us. To say it with Don Ihde, we are thus involved in a “quasi-illusion” (Wellner 2011).
The meaning of the term “screen” refers to something that hides from sight, both in the sense of providing protection and involving an impediment: it is a surface that highlights something and that, for this very reason, simultaneously excludes something else (Carbone 2016). What it makes visible is the result of a selection, it shows in its own way portions of space, time and information, educating the needs and desires of the user together with his perceptive habits. The screens in our daily life collect images, videos, texts, allow you to talk to other people and now almost all of them work with the touch of your fingers. Omnipresent and interconnected, they watch us while we look at them, changing the way we interpret the world and how we behave.
As Mauro Carbone recalls, for all these reasons both Vivian Sobchack and Lev Manovich have insisted on their quasi-subjective nature, since they impose, sometimes aggressively, their own choices. Their content is by no means neutral. While it is true that today’s control systems have reached unimaginable levels of capillarity, this does not mean that screens show anything to anyone in a transparent and objective way. This circumstance can certainly be summed up in a regime of exposure and reachability, but not total visibility: the screens elicit a historically determined and partial perception and desire, like any other medium. Digital windows serve not only to frame the object of contemplation, but to suggest possible directions and relationships, to be practiced concretely. They are windows only because they are openings that can be crossed and overcome. Through the screens, in fact, we not only observe, but interact with the other in general, we enter into an operational relationship with the outside world. They don’t just return a complete recording of a series of events, real or imagined, they also allow us to act at the very moment when things happen.
So over the last twenty years we have learned to live and use them for a wide range of uses. Screens are part of our reality and, contrary to what we often hear in apocalyptic tones, they have not sucked us into them, making us irremediably stupid. With all the due respect of the detractors of digital, changing our relationship with the environment of new technologies have increased some of our potential, atrophying others, as happens in general in the relationship with technical objects. By changing the way we interact with the world, we alter ourselves.
The mediation of digital objects constantly affects the perception of the world, but it is usually accompanied by other types of mediations. What in Covid-19’s time imposes itself as a problematic novelty is the drastic contraction of experience beyond the use of a digital device. For a few months now, a large part of the world’s population has been crushed on the two dimensions of the screen, which leave out our body and its needs. Conviviality, love relationships, work, education have become bi-dimensional. With the exception of the eyes, voice and few fingers of the hand, the body has been abruptly cut off, tired and confused. As Manyu Jiyang notes in a BBC article, quoting scholars Gianpiero Petriglieri and Marissa Shuffler, minds are connected, but bodies are not. Bodies tirelessly search for information that does not correspond to expectations. Having to entrust to the computer or mobile phone the totality of communication with the outside world, we find ourselves observed in the face by a multitude, often not very clear. While we talk or listen, the audio jumps, jams, the figures remain blocked, during the performance that we put on in front of a group of more or less known people, our image freezes in an embarrassing pose. Seamlessly, public and private space collapsed on top of each other, forced within only four walls. Our houses are on a permanent display, we are always the center of attention, we have to work harder than usual to build a representation of our person and our private life that can be satisfactory.
While there’s no doubt that it’s only thanks to the screens that we’ve been able to maintain many of our daily activities, the way we’re using them is trying to wear us out.
There are many who praise the present situation because, it is believed, it would have freed us from the anxieties of before, bringing with it a rediscovered time to be dedicated to one’s own care, art and reading. Culture can easily be translated and produced in streaming video format, it can be thus reached in a more democratic way. “The world was too much” writes Olga Tokarczuk, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, in an article published by Corriere della Sera. She wonders if the virus has not perhaps removed us from the excesses of the contemporary world, restoring us to a pace of life on a human scale and to our home refuge. Tokarczuk declares that the confinement doesn’t weigh on her, nor does the closing of cinemas and shopping centres (moreover, making a juxtaposition between a place of consumption and one of culture diffusion that seems to me completely unjustified). In addition, the writer addresses a thought to all those who have lost their jobs and envisages a dystopian future following the quarantine period.
The suspicion is that reasoning of this kind relies on the economic tranquility of the writer, confined yes, but with a computer, in a nice house, in pleasant company, in the condition of being able to afford to silence everything and everyone. The others, the majority probably, have to adapt to the changes imposed by the needs of the screen: either you are cut off or you work at a constant pace. In fact, if we don’t want to go so far as to consider also those who don’t have a computer, a mobile phone or don’t have a wi-fi network, which are perhaps more than we imagine, just think of an ordinary family with working adults, maybe more than a child who goes to school. Not many people can have a personal computer, the organization is complex, and it becomes necessary to give up something. Those who are unable to participate because they are unable to connect end up being the only one responsible and guilty of their own failings. Since the confrontation with the virus will take us for the next few months, it is necessary to become aware of what and how many are the implications of our renewed relationship with the screens, tools on which we will inevitably leverage to continue our lives. From now on, it is quite clear that there is a dangerous social discrimination, which imposes a series of questions for the future. For example – as Carbone has already pointed out in an article on Fata Morgana Web – since many of the cultural and working activities have been transferred to telematic platforms, there is the possibility that this mode will be widely used also in the long term: why organize expensive international conferences when researchers can participate from their apartments, comfortably seated in an armchair? Why not replace in-presence training meetings? What about lessons at school or university?
Above all, it seems to me that, exactly contrary to what the easy, and uncritical, enthusiastic people of the hour claim, the world of art and culture is among those who will suffer the most serious injuries. AWI (Art Workers Italia) movement, a group born from the spontaneous association of women and men working for contemporary art in foundations and museums, both public and private, has highlighted that those employed in the culture sector in Italy are frequently forced to work irregular, in discontinuous and underpaid jobs, finding themselves in emergency situations to be excluded from forms of state protection and social security. The AWI manifesto, significantly dated May 1st 2020, calls for the workers in the sector to join the demands of all precarious workers on the national territory and to make proposals, also based on the study of good practices already tested abroad. AWI points out that the extraordinary situation due to Covid-19 has highlighted an entirely ordinary malpractice: the belief that those who dedicate themselves to art can live in glory and are not therefore to be considered workers like others. The discouraging result is that contemporary art is one of the contexts that stand out for the production of precariousness in Italy.
The tele-culture of these days has not brought with it a rediscovered and cultured time, rather it has chopped off the legs of already fragile workers. AWI insists on highlighting how public and private bodies have in fact requested the free production of material to share on the web: the resulting visibility should represent a fair compensation. The crisis has highlighted a sick system, the Italian art workers have joined forces to find solutions. The case of AWI is a virtuous example of how we can use the Internet and screens in times of crisis. In fact adopting a critical approach towards screens does not mean indicating them as the problem of the moment. Thanks to them it has been possible to set up a network of horizontal discussion and collaboration, to gather proposals from everyone, make concrete requests and make changes that are valid both in immediate and long terms.
Of course there’s been a change in our lived time. Those who have kept their work have seen their commitments distributed throughout the day, are more easily reachable (and reached) and have very little to devote, in terms of time and energy, to leisure activities of various kinds. The time of those who have lost their work or cannot find it will be empty, but certainly not free, veined with the anguish of their own precariousness. In general, we are all bombarded by non-stop entertainment content driven by an obsessive vocation for constant production, certainly also an understandable response to the anxiety dictated by the virus.
Ultimately, I think time is exactly what we missed the most. A time that is really free, that leaves room for reflection without constraints, for creativity, for the unexpected. A healthy waste of time.
Carbone, M 2016, Filosofia-schermi. Dal cinema alla rivoluzione digitale, Raffaello Cortina, Milano.
Wellner, G 2011, “Wall-Window-Screen: How the Cell Phone Mediates a Worldview for Us”, Humanities and Technology Review, vol. 30, pp. 87-103.