Everything you access on this web page – from images and text to fonts and styles – is optimized to navigate a network of virtual connections for one purpose: speed. In fact, part of my job on the digital products team at MoMA is to make sure that our site’s content arrives as quickly as possible. To do this, I reduce and remove unused code, and rely on servers hosting content as close to you as possible.
Our digital obsession with speed, with anything instantly available, is nothing new. Since its launch in the 1990s, the World Wide Web has been marketed as an “information superhighway”. Perhaps this term has come true today more clearly than expected. Bitcoin mining now uses more energy than some small countries. (I doubt all these power sources are clean.) Internet traffic jams — when millions of visitors try to visit a website at once — blatantly stop the flow of data. This digital backlog often results in delays and inability to subscribe to essential services such as healthcare.
Our society has always been obsessed with optimization and speed, regardless of the negative effects. All of our tools and devices are designed for instant gratification. The Internet today is a place where you can consume any content you want at any moment. It’s become a regular place where one click follows the next, and you almost always know what to expect — except, perhaps, in the occasional Rickroll.
Instead of racing to load the next page as quickly as possible, what would happen if we took some time to breathe? What if we don’t always know where the next click might lead us? What if we could clear the congestion with this super-fast information? Maybe we can look to art for an answer.
I came across Vito Acconci’s after a piece In the most recent artist’s choice exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, organized by artist Eto Barrada. In the fall of 1969, Acconci randomly followed strangers into New York, marking the paths they took; Somehow, he gave his agency to chance encounters and decisions made by the outsiders who followed them. The result is a collage of all walks of Acconci across the city.
Vito Aconchi. after a piece. 1969
Another work I keep coming back to is “Untitled” by Felix Gonzalez Torres (Perfect Lovers). A sad piece of poetry about the AIDS crisis and how it affects partners, it includes two identical battery-powered clocks set simultaneously. Of course, the clocks will eventually go out of sync or stop altogether. Seeing the work always makes me pause and reflect on the nature of our relationship with time, its formal simplicity never ceases to amaze me. Gonzalez-Torres was able to create this thought-provoking artwork using a familiar object found in nearly every classroom, office, or home: the wall clock. Perhaps the creative abuse of this everyday thing is part of the workforce.
Felix Gonzalez Torres. Untitled (Perfect Lovers). 1991
Art and artists provide the basis for a new way of thinking about our relationship to the Internet. I wonder what it would be like to wander around a website. What if, instead of speeding from page to page, download after download, we instead treated the Internet as a garden of ideas and visual things, waiting to be explored? rocks to be turned over?
Projects like Creative Independent’s How do you use the internet mind’s eye? , a collection of articles that explore this topic in greater depth; Laurel Schulst The life and death of the Internet onion, which can only be accessed for a few weeks a year; OR-G’s ongoing collection of mind-bending screensavers, and examples of ambient software taking advantage of our computers’ idle moments, has advanced our understanding of how we interact with the Internet and our digital devices differently.
However, what amazes me the most is the portal to the Internet: your web browser. It’s the tool we use to look into the vast depths of cyberspace (maybe aptly listen to Kraftwerk highway as we do it). When you open a browser on a new tab or window, a page appears. It invites you to dive into a search query, assuming you’re there for a reason. These interface elements are such a ubiquitous piece of furniture in our daily web browsing that they fade into the background.
Here’s an exercise: Imagine that when you go to your browser, the furniture and interface elements that greet you aren’t there to speed you to your next destination on the web. Instead, they offer a momentary pause. The usual combination of buttons and search bars is nowhere to be seen. Alternatively, there is a reflection canvas. There is no longer a blinking indicator waiting for your input – you may encounter a blank screen or space to jot down surrounding thoughts. What if it was filled with random artwork? Time slows down, and you may for a moment forget where you were headed and pause, enjoying the sights, before diving back into the ever-flowing river of information. It’s like walking. Perhaps, like driving, it is not the most direct way, but the most pleasant. A breath of air.
Take a look at the accompanying are.na board.