There was a new minimalism that arrived with the digital revolution in the late 2000s. I noticed it in a certain stripped back / unvarnished / undemanding look that we would come to know as hipster decor. The exposed beams and cables. The unadorned and blocky furniture. The thick, simple sans serif fonts with wide kerning. Very few colours – preferably only off-white, wood, and black. A pot plant here or there – preferably a plant with broad, uncomplicated leaves like a philodendron or a monstera.
This decor became the necessary backdrop for our instagrammable lives, the images with which we would populate the already overstuffed internet, providing visual rest and calm between advertisements.
We understood intuitively that we had already been exposed to too many images, too often, in too many places, with almost no visual rest except for when we were sleeping or when we were posing for images themselves. We wanted simple, restful, undistracting environments in which we could binge on images until it made us feel sick.
The internet seemed to be maximalist by default.
Sure, it adorned itself with images of minimalism, but then ironically made us look at tens of thousands of them. It made minimalist songs available, but then encouraged you to listen to sprawling incomprehensible playlists of them. It promoted quiet and reflective movies and then showbagged them into streaming services for strictly limited time only. Culture itself seemed to be burying us relentlessly like a game of Tetris.
It all felt so inevitable, that culture would form something as mercilessly encyclopedic as this.
It was in this era that webpages disappeared and feeds took over, chronological feeds with infinite scrolling. I did my best to keep up with the avalanche of images on Tumblr; I certainly felt like I owed it to my Tumblr friends to look at all of their posts and react to as many of them as I could. But I already knew that my attention span was finite.
I devoted years on social media feeds trying to catch up to the present, but even when I did catch up, I only fell behind faster and faster. The present started to seem unattainable, but it was where we all needed to be in order to know that we were included in the world. Logging off and taking a screen holiday – even for a moment – was like turning your back on the ocean. Culture became a site of hypervigilance.
I was really conscientious in these years, looking at social media on my desktop PC. During the book era I had been assessed as being erudite and smart. I was determined to export this status to the digital world. So I worked hard to absorb as much new information as I could.
I tried to become knowledgeable through bingeing.
It was also around this time that I became aware of the concept of “Maximizers” and “Satisficers” from Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz looked at the ways people made choices when faced with plenitude: some evaluated all the available options and selected the best one relative to the others (Maximizers) while others started with set criteria in mind and selected the first option that satisfied those criteria (Satisficers). Schwartz revealed that Satisficers were not only less tormented and exhausted during decision making, but they also tended to be happier with their choices subsequently.
I’m glad I read the book, and I’m glad I took its advice to heart when it came to most of my life decisions. But knowing the theory of Maximizers and Satisficers couldn’t protect me against the relentless plenitude of images that was about to flood my retinas every day from my screenworld.
In theory, I could have articulated my desires in advance of looking at the screen, and then limited my looktime strictly until those desires were fulfilled. But the curious thing was that I was increasingly looking at the screen to find out what my desires were – or what they should be.
I never really knew what I wanted from the internet until I got it – or didn’t get it.
I still don’t know.
My ability to make decisions was enfeebled in another way. Flooded with a spectacle that renewed itself in realtime, I could never seem to stay conscious of my options for more than a second or two without being interrupted. Every single thought I had was interrupted by some new trivial image, some ephemeral hashtag, some urgent discourse. I started to experience the internet as an irresistible interruptor of thoughts and feelings.
Of course, like anyone from the analogue era, I remember a time before notifications, before interruption, before infinite scrolling. The quietness of paper. The preciousness of images.
I must remain alert to my historical situation though, and remember that this nostalgia is itself a digital artifact. I am minimising and simplifying my memories so they can act as a refuge from the unattainable maximalism of the present.
I’m especially implicated in the visual regime of the internet because I’m a visual artist myself. Most of my work is black and white ink drawings of fauna, especially Australian birds, but I’ve dabbled in drawing erotica, architecture, fantasy. I go through phases of using photoshop to paint, but most of my work is on pieces of paper, painstakingly rendered over many hours.
This past year I found myself trying to change my art to fit in with an Instagram ecology. I understood implicitly that there was a trade off here: Instagram would give me exposure if I would assist Instagram with its imperial ambition to conquer and colonise the entire globe’s attention span. I started making images that were quick to produce, quick to consume, and arresting. When I say “arresting,” I mean interrupting. My most successful pictures were the ones that interrupted the viewer, thus attaining noticeability, that first step towards virality.
I uploaded a new picture each day.
Even though that may seem like a trifling addition to the 95 million new pictures and videos that are uploaded to Instagram every day, it still represented a prodigious spike in output for me. I could only keep it up for so long before I burned out, needlessly. It only took a year.
After I deleted my Instagram account, abandoning the attempt to achieve viral fame, I got pretty down on myself about the failure. I rebuked myself for not trying hard enough, for giving up too soon. In my most depressed moments, I told myself that Instagram was meritocratic, and that if I hadn’t gone viral it was only because I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t have what it takes as an artist.
This is part of internet ideology: the things you look at deserve to be looked at. The people you look at deserve to be looked at.
Over the past couple of months, I have read a few discussions about the impact of Artificial Intelligence on images. This is not in regard to the Artificial Intelligence systems that already curate images, microtarget us with them, repeat them, refine them, ask us to classify them in Captchas. That is invisible but important work, analogous to the management of an art gallery: concerned with images, but attentive to economics, demography, and ideology.
No, the current discussion isn’t about the way that AI is changing the infrastructure of seeing itself. Rather, the discussions probe the way that Artificial Intelligence is for the first time producing images of its own, remixing and finessing images by mapping textual data onto image stock. This is the world of Midjourney, Dall-e, and Lensa AI.
Suddenly Artificial Intelligence has a face, something we can look at. Something we can judge.
For now, most of the images produced by AI have a certain taste and texture that betrays their artificiality. These tells are temporary. We can conjecture that we have probably already seen and accepted plenty of artificial images as genuine. We know from the history of artistic production that every new medium brings with it opportunity for counterfeit, imposture, for infiltration, for copying. Technologies of copying and reproduction are not new: they are the very essence of human art.
Like many artists, I have wondered whether the cultural advent of AI-produced art casts me in the role of obsolete artisan, replaced by automation. I’ve certainly stopped doing portraits altogether. It’s hard not to get depressed when I see the kinds of instantaneous fantasy portraiture that Lensa AI can generate from facebook data, especially how culturally “sexy” these images are – the way they can take ordinary facebook photos and apply digital prosthetics, digital make-up, and digital constume to turn those photos into glamour shots, full of erotic cultural promise. I wonder why I ought to bother striving for that perfect blend of flattering fantasy and technical verisimilitude that people seek in portraiture when there’s a machine that does it in a matter of clicks.
But then, I remember that AI is also colonising the world of text, and that whole convincing blog posts and Academic essays can now be generated from a textual prompt. I can tell you that I wrote this essay myself, but I can’t prove it to you. So if I’m doomed as a visual artist, I’m doubly doomed as writer. The very credibility of my voice and my handiwork is under threat from “copia” – a term meaning both reproduction and copiousness. Never before has my art been less distinguishable from simulacra that somehow pre-exist my labour before I’ve even done it.
I find myself wondering: is there still power in images? Is there still power in text? Is there any point in saying things or showing things when each word, each picture, is just a single drop in a wave of content that is itself part of a tsunami that won’t just continue for the rest of our lives, but will grow in speed and magnitude?
This is the new mode of censorship: relentless interrupting plenitude. It prevents a complete thought from forming. It prevents a complete emotion from taking control. And as our screens intrude closer and closer upon the perimeter of our bodies, attaching themselves to our skin and our eyes, these interruptions will become a part of our experience of embodiment itself.
Bingeing on images, our modern condition of overdisplay and hyperspectatorship is not lying, but it might as well be lying.
But we can take a strange consolation from the fact that censorship is still happening.
For all the advances in creating fantasy images, there is still intensive and well-funded censorship when it comes to the depiction of the real world.
I have seen more images of mining operations on the planet Pandora than I have of mining operations of my own region, the Hunter Valley. I have seen more images of aliens being killed than I have of lambs, cows, chickens, or fish being killed. In fact, I am a veritable expert on the killing of aliens, but I can’t say I know what an abattoir looks like. The images are simply not in front of me. I don’t know what factories look like. I don’t know where my garbage goes. I don’t know where my water comes from. I don’t know where my fish was caught. I know more about what Hogwarts looks like than I know about what a stock exchange looks like. I know more about the court of King Viserys than I do about China, where almost everything I own was made.
The infinite – and increasingly curated – plenitude of our screen lives is so far from a comprehensive or proportionate visual depiction of how we really live.
I am not trying to encourage conspiracist thinking here. If anything, conspiracism is the purest expression of our visual fantasia, the idea that there is enough information in front of us to form something like a paradigm. All of the conspiracists I know have been profoundly trusting of their charismatic teachers, the one who will tell the truth while the others lie. And they use the same techniques of distraction through overwhelm and censorship through interruption. Conspiracism may be information rich, but it is context averse.
Rather, what I’m trying to underscore is that the current visual regime isn’t just epistemologically limited.
It’s epistemologically limiting.
And I suspect that arguing with the visual regime on its own terms is not an effective strategy. I suspect this because I tried. I don’t think we’re going to upload our way out of this interrupting plenitude; we’re not going to catch up to the present. Not ever.
And I wonder if maybe it isn’t better to stop trying to catch up to this ransomed present, and to move instead straight to afterwards, to the future. After all, the future isn’t out of reach. We create it all the time. If you think about it, that’s all we do.
On this page, I write about digital horror, and share my struggle in coming to terms with digitised reality. I have witnessed in the last twenty years an explosion in the field of representation enabled by networked hand-held computers, now practically grafted onto our bodies, penetrating our minds with interrupting notifications.
The internet has become a kind of affective overseer, a corporate informant, a psychological technician. And it has garbed itself in a never ending exhibition of interrupting images. The message of this exhibition is clear: you must keep your eyes glazed onto the screen if you are to achieve liberation.
But the internet has not delivered on this promise of liberation. ushered in utopia. It hasn’t ushered in any kind of utopia, but it has confused us into mistaking conflict for progress. I am aware that for all the progressive efflorescence of discourse and image on the internet, there has been no commensurate change in the way that money, land, nutrition, security, or healthcare are allocated to the people looking at their screens. Visual richness is just another part of poverty now.
I feel that for all the time and attention we have paid to our feeds, there should have already been some kind of lasting benefit to offset the exhaustion. But from my perspective, I can hardly remember what I was even looking at on my phone this morning, last week, last month, last year. I can’t remember if it was important. Was I looking at flashcards as an important mode of revision, or was I just flipping through a magazine because my mind needed a rest?
A rest from what?