#140: Glass Museum

Earlier this year, Rob Horning wrote an essay about the Uncut Gems meme that depicts Eric Bogosian trapped in the jewelry store’s glass vestibule, wearily staring toward the camera (at Adam Sandler, who is about to win his massive bet on a Celtics-Sixers playoff game). Horning sees this meme as a metaphor for the “attention trap” of social media, where we force our enthusiasms upon a semi-captive audience, oblivious to their interest as we hijack their attention. Moments later, we’ll find our own attention similarly captured by someone else’s content, and while this process is not truly coercive—we’ve voluntarily logged on, regardless of what Tristan Harris says—it also doesn’t feel like we’ve truly consented to it. Horning writes, “This never happens when my attention is captured by something that is not on a screen, in part because there is no system in place for measuring it…When I am trapped by the screen, my attention takes material form, it matters, it circulates, it counts; when I look away, it seems less like ‘attention’ and more like an unmediated flow of ‘real’ experience.”

Horning’s point is that our increasingly constant immersion in the digital simulacrum means we only experience the “real” in momentary oases of disconnection—when we manage to log off, put our phones away, have coffee with a friend, go for a hike, or sleep. But that attitude already feels archaic and as Horning suggests, the reverse is arguably more true now: Recording something for digital transmission is what finally makes it real—something that can circulate, something measurable or even fungible. The unposted tree that falls in the forest doesn’t just make no sound; it didn’t even fall. Pics or it didn’t happen. This perspective becomes easier to embrace as our visual documentation of the world approaches completeness: With ubiquitous phone cameras constantly at hand, the amount of video generated in the past decade (most of which will never be viewed by a human even once) dwarfs that of all prior history by many orders of magnitude. Someday soon, the total hours filmed daily will converge upon (or even surpass) the total hours we’re collectively awake. A complete visual record of human existence is being constructed for posterity; we pursue this mission with such intensity that it feels like our epoch’s version of building the pyramids (and really, it’s more impressive).

In January I wrote, “Mobile devices massively increased the amount of time we could spend online, and this transformed the internet into a robust universe of its own that finally came to rival meatspace as a real place we could continuously inhabit and consider primary. Digital and physical reality flipped, in other words, and the latter has increasingly become a support system for the former.” That reversal is largely the story of video, which—not so long ago—was very clearly a mere representation of something that actually happened in the physical world. Now, as TikTok and Instagram in particular attest, video is no longer a representation of anything, but instead a medium where things happen first—and there is no way to “represent” that, we can only share it. Earlier this decade, news outlets began reporting on events that happened purely online, such as Twitter feuds and viral memes, and although that seemed absurd at first, it’s so common now we barely notice it, fully accepting the internet as a primary reality worth covering. But the texture of this space is obviously different: Horning observes how social media implies “an enforced distance at which we can watch others watching and consume their attention without experiencing it directly, where its effects can be unpredictable.” As in the Uncut Gems image, a layer of protective glass shields us from whatever happens. The tiger never escapes from its cage. During a pandemic, this safe distance has been especially welcome, and this raises a question: If crossing that screen threshold is so risky, will we continue to find it worthwhile?

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