I saw some trailer for a new movie about Emily Brontë. I think there was a new image every second. I couldn’t keep up.
Movie trailers cut between images so quickly these days, but they also seem to go on for too long. Too many images, too quick to decipher. It’s like when you flick upwards on your facebook feed looking for some post or some ad that you think you saw a minute ago. You never do find it again. But you kind of half-register or half-notice everything that is flying past you. That’s what a movie trailer is like.
I flick upwards over so many ads these days. But some of the guys are so damn beautiful. I slow down the scroll without even meaning to so I can get a better look at them. That’s when the algorithm notices my noticing. It can be for just half a second, you look a little too long at some guy’s damn beautiful face. But that’s enough to show your attentional weak spot. The algorithm figures out: this is what it takes to get your attention. So you know you’ll see him again, that particular model. He’s going to sell you everything from now on.
At least, until you get bored with him, and you speed back up again.
Please don’t stop reading this essay. It’s going to get interesting, I promise. Whatever keeps you interested, I will write about it, I promise. Imagine me murdering or fucking or saving the world, but don’t go.
So I saw this movie trailer. You should have seen her face, that actress. She was so beautiful. There was a new image of her, every second. But they kept changing frames, changing scenes, so you couldn’t get a solid good look at her. If you want to get a good look at her, I guess you have to buy a ticket to the feature film. And google her. And look at posts from strangers about her on facebook.
I’m pretty sure the movie won’t be shown in high frame rate because it’s cheap and literary, not a high budget fantasy. But I don’t care. I don’t like high frame rate movies. They’re too frictionless. I feel like I’m sliding on mud, about to fall.
I already had a headache before I’d walked into the cinema, and I’d popped two headache pills ten minutes prior, but the movie trailer, the one about Emily Brontë, was making it worse. I was getting angry there in my cinema seat. I hope I’m not making you angry with these short sentences.
Please don’t go.
We used to make jokes about speed reading. Never thought that when the future came that would just be called “reading.”
I’m always thinking about that comic book Watchmen where the villain, Ozymandias, sits in his palace and looks at a hundred screens at once. This trope was considered a shorthand for intelligence, to be consuming rapidfire information from multiple sources, and recognising patterns in it.
But we all tried it out.
It made us into fucking idiots, sitting on the lone and level sands, flicking through our smartphones, hoping that we could feel something before our shift at work started, trying to find out how to use a meme correctly.
Social media was supposed to be like a zoetrope or a flipbook, those old toys where you got the illusion of animation by passing a lot of images in front of your eyes at once. You’d spin or flip through the images and it no longer looked like a collection. It looked like a single image, moving, changing. Social media was supposed to give you this feeling like you were really getting somewhere, connected to other people at the speed of light.
I feel like I’ve read a lot of material on how social media rewards obsession, rewards distractibility, rewards entrenchment. We talk a lot about “dopamine.” We talk a lot about “addiction.” We talk a lot about how great it feels to be fully immersed in the social media world of moral simplicity, the illusion of status mobility, the possibility of new friends, new fucks, new family. We think of social media like a kind of casino environment, engulfing us.
But social media punishes you, too. It punishes you for not going fast enough, not looking long enough. If the social media experience needs a high frame rate, that is because a slow frame rate results in a complete incoherence of experience. The sequence becomes fragmented, repetitive, thousands of almost identical frames. When we think about the frictionlessness of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, moving, moving, moving, we have to admit to ourselves that we accelerate to this speed so we can avoid the agony of friction, of getting stuck on an image, on a post, on a thought, on a person.
Social media is changing. I’m noticing a lot more videos these days, fewer words and pictures. The videos are getting shorter and there are a lot more of them. People are watching videos everywhere they go now. The woman in front of me at the cinema clicked on a Reel (or was it a Story? Or a TikTok?) during the before-show previews and advertisements. I guess she was in her seventies. I don’t even know if she meant to start watching a video – the tripwires are everywhere – but she certainly finished it. There was a giant advertisement on the cinema screen in front of us all, showing some slow motion ski field in ultra high definition, but this woman was watching some low-res video about a laborador on her private little phone screen.
I felt annoyed and planned a speech to use should she kept using her phone through the movie. But the movie only went for 12 seconds – no harm done. She folded her phone and put it in her bag, ready to watch the next advertisement. Coincidentally, the next ad on the cinema screen was for a flip phone, her phone. I wondered if I should buy one, if I would be happier with a Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 5G, “Your Galaxy, Your Way, Unfold Your Phone.” But that was the last ad before the Emily Brontë trailer, the one with so many images, the trailer that was so cluttered it looked like a movie on fast forward. I pinched the bridge of my nose and looked down at the darkness of my lap, like they tell you to do when you see a movie in 3D and you get dizzy.
A few years ago, there was something I noticed about the way Australian politicians talked to journalists. It didn’t have anything to do with the things they said or didn’t say, nor did it have anything to do with the human resource lexicon that had supplanted the more traditional utopianism of political language.
No. It had to do with the breath. Australian politicians simply didn’t breathe at the ends of sentences, but instead they accelerated their speech and quickly commenced the next sentence. They took their breath in the middle of the next sentence, usually at a moment of suspense, but always at a point where courtesy demanded that they not be interrupted, as if to say: You have let me start my sentence. Now you must let me finish it. After a few years of this, politicians would literally start saying “Let me finish,” or even more insolently, “With the greatest of respect, let me finish.”
This was nothing less than a weaponisation of etiquette itself, but then, perhaps etiquette has always been a weapon that powerful people have used to paralyse and stun their prey.
The greatest practitioner of this breathing technique was a man named Mathias Cormann. Nobody jumped faster over the abyss between sentences than Cormann. It was as if his answers were somehow unstoppable. He took the same number of breaths as a regular person, but only in the middle of sentences, never at the end. In this way, he was able to join vast numbers of sentences together into time-sucking meaningless paragraphs that depleted the finite minutes of the interview.
Politicians still talk this way – in crammed, busy paragraphs that contain too much information and too many concepts to comprehend let alone critique. It’s as if there’s a kind of a war between journalists trying to capture our attention, and politicians trying to prevent them from drawing our attention to anything at all. It’s strange to see politicians accuse journalists of disrespect, when politicians are so blatlantly disrespectful themselves.
The reason I mention this breathing technique – the one that Australian politicians use to silence journalists – is because most of us are raised to wait for a gap before we speak. This is etiquette, a conversational rule.
We have carried this decorum into the digital revolution, and now we show chivalrous deference to programs and algorithms and the corporations who rent them. When something starts, we let it finish. We don’t go.
I think a lot of us are sitting silent but attentive in this chattering world. We’re sure that if we can just pay close enough attention to whatever is speaking, then it will surely give us a turn out of courtesy, and when our gap finally comes we will be ready to take it.
Sometimes I think that gap is never going to come. We have achieved flicker fusion, the illusion of coherence.
At other times, I think the gap comes a million times a day, every day, in between every message and every post and every comment and every video, and that’s why we’re exhausted because we’re always jumping into it desperately, calling out “Wait! Don’t Go! I have something to say!”
Our experience of the audience is of an audience departing. Whether the show is cancelled or acclaimed, nonetheless the audience is departing.
“…It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”– Edith Wharton “The Age of Innocence”
I noticed in the 2010s something about the ways that YouTube videos were cut together. The gaps between sentences had been edited out. There were no silent moments to invite or permit thought – or to permit the exodus of attention. It felt like there was something desperate and needy about this, the way a child will breathlessly tell an anecdote with eyes bulging, words crammed together in a jumble, voice replete with urgency. Rapid fire YouTube reviews, essays, comedic bits, and day-in-the-“life” videos were all condensed into chattering rocket fuel to prevent you from closing the app, or double screening the content.
I realised at the time that this was not a new phenomenon within my lifetime. Since the 1990s, televisions had started cramming the time space with information. I remember when they started partitioning the screen into chyrons and live feeds and updates and logos and time stamps and coming up next icons. The clutter of a newspaper or a magazine page could be translated into a temporal, audiovisual clutter. Commercial television stations started to get needy and manipulative with the ways they stopped you from touching the remote.
Long before the digital revolution, our experience of the audience was of an audience departing – or threatening to depart.
That precious, finite resource: attention.
And I realised that I had started to shape my personality, my dreams and aspirations, my self image and my style of speaking, my artistic voice and my romantic expectations based around both a fear of the abandoning audience, and an expectation of being abandoned.
I started to see my mission in life to be someone who could hold the interest of others. I read widely. I cultivated esoteric opinions. I overshared, over-asked, and over-invested. And all this before I had even logged onto the internet. By the time Web 2.0 had burgeoned, I was ready to go supernova.
Unfortunately, so were another billion people at the same time.
We responded to this shocking advent of ubiquitous intimacy with a proportionate fear of abandonment. And since we were all suddenly performers whose thoughts and feelings were publications, we started to experience relationships as the audience departing, or threatening to depart.
There are so many dragonflies in my garden this year. When I walk outside, into the calligraphed shadows of a jacaranda tree, I see them shimmer and flicker like little jewels. I smell the dampness rising from the soft grass, and the perfume of blinding flowers. I take slow steps.
I think I should try to photograph a dragonfly so I can upload it to facebook. I think about facebook. There are still two messages I haven’t responded to yet. And it has been a few days since I heard from a few friends. Maybe that’s because of Christmas. Or maybe they’re bored with me. I hope they’re not bored with me. I wouldn’t blame them. I could try and take a video of a dragonfly and upload it to facebook stories. What’s a song I could put as the soundtrack to a dragonfly video that would make me seem cool and interesting?
And just like that, right there, it’s like I don’t even see the garden anymore.
Even though it’s all there for me to see, in its stillness, its persistence, its slowness, its grace.