How wired is your art history? I've found some interesting blogs (here and here) that debate the way the internet and cyberspace is making us more wired in the sense of not only being connected to the web, but also distracted by computer technology that competes for our attention. It got me thinking about such conditions as multi-tasking and to give it another name, continuous partial attention, is for better or worse, affecting our productivity as art historians, both educators and students.
I'm getting more and more into a wired state. I have 3 computers, one for writing, archiving, etc, a netbook linked to a large monitor, always tuned to the internet, and a laptop downstairs by the T.V. When I get up in the morning, just like my coffee, I have to get my fix of Artdaily, the aptly named Artfix and all the various art info sites; watching TV at night, I cannot resist checking mails, Twitter, Facebook, art blogs, to see what is happening in the field. Who's published what? What exhibitions are coming up? In what direction is the art market heading? Any interesting conference opportunities on the horizon? And so on…. I know I should scale this virtual dependency down, but I like it because it reinforces the impression that art history is in flux, ceaselessly mutating, morphing from one shape to another- exploding with ideas and energy. It think it's a reaction to a time before the internet when information moved slower, not shooting packets down the superhighway, but gridlocked in publication schedules, slow turnaround times and similar. I know that world still exists- I have a number of publications that will eventually emerge as result of this process- but on-line publishing, for better or worse, has meant that ideas spread and are debated faster.
Despite this, web based technology is taking a long time to be absorbed into the traditional structures of assessment and teaching, especially art history. Our discipline hasn't exactly made things easy; it has a history, if not exactly of Luddism, then certainly distrust of new technologies and their applications. This is most evident in connoisseurship which, we know from recent events, still hasn't really come to terms with X rays, inflectography or the cutting edge of scientific method in general. Incidentally, I do use image software to zoom in on details in classes on connoisseurship and visual methodology, but I don't see much evidence of this in universities.
Now in 2010, I must confess disappointment that the windows revolution has made little impact on the teaching of art history. Why, given the discipline's visual emphasis, hasn't there been such a push for it from leaders of the field, especially as it's omniscient in our culture? One of the books that diagnoses our predicament for me is the late Anne Friedberg's marvelous book on visuality and the windows phenomenon. Friedberg uses a mixed metaphor- window and desktop to describe the interface between computer and user.
"Each window is in essence a variable- size virtual screen that reflects the progress of some activity. The general effect is of looking at a small desk with papers of varying size lying partially on top of one another. The "window" here refers to a "variable size virtual screen" but is also a component of a mixed metaphor: a window and a desk. The desktop metaphor of a stack of papers, in overlapping array, implies a view from above. The window metaphor implies looking into or out of an aperture, a "perspective" position facing an upright perpendicular surface. Stacking windows on top of each other, piling documents in layers, meant that the user could minimize the limited "real estate" of the relatively small screen. The space mapped onto the computer screen was both deep and flat. It implied a new haptics in the position of its user: in front of and above."
I think Friedberg has unwittingly provided a metaphor for the failure of art history to engage with the computer proactively: most art historians see the computer as a virtual desk, an extension of the research archive or database, but not a window in the sense of perspective that opens upon onto the wired world; although some like me have cottoned onto the potential of that. Friedberg drew on Walter Benjamin's ideas on reception and distraction to explore the phenomenon of multi-tasking in relation to the way windows are split on one computer as well as the fractured experienced caused by working between different computers. As Friedberg says, computer multi-tasking made it possible to "combine work with leisure", running an academic or financial doc while shopping on Amazon or other outlets. With the windows revolution, productivity should be equated with "a fractured subjectivity." Linda Stone, an expert on attention issues, goes further in order to make an interesting distinction between multi-tasking and what she calls continuous partial attention.
"In the case of continuous partial attention, we're motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We're engaged in two activities that both demand cognition. We're talking on the phone and driving. We're writing an email and participating in a conference call. We're carrying on a conversation at dinner and texting under the table on the Blackberry or iPhone.
Continuous partial attention also describes a state in which attention is on a priority or primary task, while, at the same time, scanning for other people, activities, or opportunities, and replacing the primary task with something that seems, in this next moment, more important. When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel. Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially.
Continuous partial attention involves a kind of vigilance that is not characteristic of multi-tasking. With cpa, we feel most alive when we're connected, plugged in, and in the know. We constantly SCAN for opportunities – activities or people – in any given moment. With every opportunity we ask, "What can I gain here?"
It's difficult to monitor how technologically determined distraction will evolve where the individual work habits of art historians are concerned, but we can analyses one area- the use of gadgets like audio guides in museums, and their effect on the contemplation of the pictures. As Artworld Salon rightly points out, the disadvantages of applications on devices like IPhones- and audio guides resemble them more these days-greatly outweigh their benefits:
"So what's not to love? Quite a bit, I think. For museums especially, such apps come loaded with subtle butterfly effects that techno-evangelists ignore at their peril.
First, they represent to an incursion of technology into a refreshingly gadget-free domain heretofore devoted to physical objects and direct collective experience. There is a case to be made, perhaps, for exempting some areas of life from the relentless digitization and intermediation of everything. Of course it's easier to find the great blue whale by letting your PDA guide you. But what about the joy of aimless browsing and discovery? Here as elsewhere, technology has a way of taking the mystery and the surprise – not to mention the unpremeditated educational encounter – out of cultural experiences. What's more, it subtly transforms a group dynamic into a bespoke, private pursuit. Analogies with newspapers abound."
A few weeks ago at the Renaissance drawings exhibition at the British Museum, I got an idea of how the museum was becoming more wired in the sense discussed here. I was amazed to see visitors not only listening to audio commentary through headphones, but simultaneously holding IPhone-like screens on which the drawing they were looking at was digitally displayed. There are implications here for public museology and connoisseurship issues, but I'll leave that for another post.
For myself, I think I need to reach a balance between the contemplation of art and the use of the technology that undoubtedly distracts me. Is it possible to obtain the serene meditation of the Buddha whilst being bombarded by information overload, over-stimulation and the assault of the wired world in general? Well, at least I don't own an IPad.
Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway, 1995.
Mr PC and the windows revolution.
The Virtual Window
The Fractured Experience
Nam June Paik, T.V. Buddha, 1974.