This is a cross-post from an English grad course I’m currently taking, titled Writing in the Digital Age. You can view my classmate’s posts on our class blog, located here.
Is the internet a meaningless void of data or a window into our deeper voyeuristic tendencies? A simulation/art project by Jonathan Harris and Greg Hochmuth, Network Effect seeks to address this question while producing a digital experience that can be best described as an anxiety-inducing mess: combining video, sound, brands, keywords, all onscreen at once and ever-updating.
Using a catalogue of common human behaviours, which includes actions like bite, dance, smoke, knit, sleep, and float, among 94 others, the interactive project gives users an information dump about their selected behaviour. Selecting float, for example, bombards a user visually with one-second clips of people and things from all over the world floating, while separate, unrelated audio loops endless sound bytes from people speaking about floating. Text across the bottom of the screen constantly refreshes, like high-speed ticker-tape on television news, revealing data about who says they’re participating in the floating, tweets about the floating, and recent news headlines containing the concept.
The entire intimacy of the project could easily be destroyed by the sheer mass of information being presented, if not for the timed, anxiety-inducing aspect of this interactive piece. The timer gives users a small window for exploring, based on the average lifespan from the country where the user’s I.P. address originates. I was granted something like 8.2 minutes, since the average lifespan in Canada is 82 years old. After this 8.2 minutes, I was locked out of the page for 24 hours. What this means is that each user can only see a very little piece of the huge project: its corpus contains about 10,000 video clips, 10,000 audio clips, and millions more data points, which continue to be collected. I am reminded of Abi’s blog post re: queers in love at the end of the world, but this time, instead of just reading being pushed to an impossible timed limit, we see all digital mediums, text included, bombarding the user while the clock ticks down; Abi writes that the timed aspect of qilateotw enriches the prose, while my experience of Network Effect is that timing the experience only further adds to the meaningless absurdity of the work. Network Effect presents the internet for what it truly may be: a mirage. Full of potential, yet devoid of life, the project presents a bleak outlook for the age of the internet.
But wait, what does this have to do with authorship?
The authorship of this interactive piece is notable in its system of crediting authors. Each video clip is credited by title and author, and viewers can access the underlying videos on YouTube through the Credits section of the website. Workers from Amazon were actually paid by the piece for each relevant, already existing video they could collect containing one of the 100 specific behaviours. Drawing on Hammond, this empowerment of authorship in the work challenges the existing model of individual creation through collaborative composition and credit (153). The project engages many levels of authorship, from those who manually found video and audio clips, to the algorithms that collected data from Twitter, to the creators who managed all of the pieces and built a space for them to live in, all are dependant on one another, embodying a sort of symbiotic notion of authorship. He writes that digital production produces “wonderful, monstrous hybrids” (153), of which I would include Network Effect, for it too, like BodyWorld (the work that Hammond is writing on), engages in a “pointed ambivalent analysis of individuality and group consciousness in the digital age” (153).
The internet, like digital production, is a miraculous tool, which often affects us like a drug might. Designed to addict and distract, the internet harvests our attention like the valuable resource it is. Hammond mirrors this sentiment, writing that digital production is “a powerful drug, and we have all taken a toke” (153).
Is digital addiction paving the way for digital enlightenment, in regards to the internet, authorship, and beyond?