The Creator of Network Effect Reveals Why Attention Means Everything
PSFK speaks with artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris on the paradoxical characters of data and how to live a fulfilled life
If an alien species came to earth and were to observe the human species, what would it see? It’s not unlikely that what would stand out is our obsession with constant scrolling, clicking and typing through the Internet: the frantic nature of our contemporary online existence. Network Effect, an art project created by Jonathan Harris, is a snapshot of the human condition as presented on the Internet.
The project exaggerates the feeling of browsing through the voyeuristic window of the Web and explores the psychological effect of Internet use on humanity. It is about information overload, data worship, online self-promotion and beyond. It is a reflection on our online culture. But most importantly, it is smelling salts that help people realize that human attention ultimately is just like any other natural resource: finite.
PSFK spoke with Jonathan Harris on the paradoxical nature of data and how we might live a better life with Internet’s drug-like hold on us.
PSFK: It’s a brilliant twist to use a huge amount of data to reveal the very emptiness of that data. What is the message behind the contradiction? How does data affect our life?
Jonathan Harris: Data is good at describing the superficial qualities of the ways things are currently. However, it is really limited. Many of the important and illuminating dimensions of human experience cannot be quantified or measured.
The trap of data is that when we start to see our whole reality through the lens of data, almost as a new kind of religion, then we suddenly see our reality as devoid. Things like mystery, magic, wonder, the ineffable, intuition, embodied experience and feeling something in your stomach, all those human qualities are beyond the reach of data. The danger of believing in data completely is that you’re starting to marginalize those wonderful human capacities. And I think those capacities have gotten less attention lately because of the our current obsession with it.
PSFK: If Network Effect points out the limitation of data and shows how we can get trapped in it, then what suggestions would you give to people who want to break out of the trap?
The best way for individuals to understand the limits of data is not to read about the limitations of data, but rather to have a direct personal experience of something that feels strange, new and not yet understood.
Having had that direct experience also makes you aware that that is the thing that data has nothing to say about. And therefore, there seems to be a place beyond data, which may be more interesting or deeper or mysterious or strange. What is that place and how can we explore that place?
PSFK: The story of how you start the project is very intriguing. You hope to find beauty in our common humanity, but instead you end up with a portrait of human delusion. What do you think that says about us?
Humans attempt to look outside of oneself for answers. And ultimately that process will always leave you empty.
As the quote from Carl Jung says, “your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Any mechanism that looks out there for answers will ultimately not give you what you’re searching for.
PSFK: Network Effect shows us that Internet can easily exaggerate human mind’s natural capacity for distraction. Should we then limit our Internet use? How can we better utilize and live with this tool that has such a deep impact on us?
It takes self-knowledge and sensitivity to know how to skillfully choose your tools. It comes back to individuals’ curiosity to ask those questions and try to have a direct experience and response rather than just reading about it in a book.
Once that curiosity is ignited in an individual’s mind, all of life starts to become a teacher. Everything starts to talk to you and then life becomes really interesting. Then distinctions between Internet and not-the-Internet, begin to fall away. And then you start to realize that it is all an installation to help you learn.
PSFK: Network Effect creates this intense experience for people to reflect upon the Internet’s psychological effect on us. What do you think leads to the current social media reality we are facing?
We have the current social media reality largely because of the realization by a small number of companies that human attention is a finite natural resource, the realization that a lot of money can be made by monopolizing a finite natural resource, which is the same logic that lead to the creation of the early fortunes of Robber Barons in the early 1900s. Because they realized the value of it first, they’re able to hold it and monopolize the market before other people. And huge fortunes are made that way.
PSFK: What kind of impact do you want to make through Network Effect?
My hope with projects like this is to be a small component of the awakening.
Attention is life. And to give away your life mindlessly so that money can be made out of it is a great tragedy. It’s unnecessarily a tragedy. It requires nothing else but individual awakening. It doesn’t need anything more than that. Everybody has that capacity.
This project is really about trying to exaggerate the archetypical experience of Internet use so that people can recognize, in that exaggeration, their own Internet use and see it in a new light.
And with that recognition, maybe ask themselves the question of whether their relationship with that use is how they want it to be or maybe they should think about changing it in some way, so that they can open up to a new understanding of attention and time.
PSFK: What might be your next step after Network Effect?
One project that is in development has a lot to do with rituals. It’s about using rituals as a way to transform the energetic qualities of a space, a situation and different relationships. It will be a very different project, certainly less about data and technology.