This report on the ICA’s ‘Fear of Missing Out’ conference, was published in Art Monthly, 388, July 2015.
Confident introductory speeches for ‘Fear of Missing Out’, or FOMO in the web-speak acronym also used, set an auspicious if formal tone for the ICA’s three day event convened to explore post-digital anxieties and their attendant socio-cultural phenomena. From the lectern, director Gregor Muir riffed on the thin drizzle greying London’s cityscape by quipping ‘say goodbye to the summer’, while a presenter-like two hander from curators Rosalie Doubal and Steven Cairns lent proceedings an odd made-for-TV feel. Given all public talks are now also staged for in-house recording and perpetual replay online, this wasn’t too wide of the mark. Still, Doubal’s hope that ‘some of our post-digital anxiety will be put behind us’ felt weirdly like an address to a notional televisual audience and not really to those present.
Day one kicked off with Peter Sunde Kolmisoppi, Swedish co-founder of illegal file sharing site The Pirate Bay. Kolmisoppi’s talk was a fairly conventional slide and survey affair; various hacker pranks and projects were covered with surprisingly little attention paid to his recent incarceration in a Swedish jail. He did, however, open up during Q&As with an unguarded and realistically bleak pessimism about the future of the internet. ‘You’re not going to solve social issues with technology,’ he stated. In addition to the crushing – for activists and those hoping for some resistance – user apathy that followed Edward Snowden’s disclosure of NSA and GCHQ spying activities, online functionality itself has altered radically. For Kolmisoppi, the internet may be decentralised by design but anyone who believes it is not centralised in function is delusional – courtesy of the spaces we use for our lion’s share of online life sharing, research and grass-roots organisation (Facebook, Google, Amazon etc). ‘Technology is secondary,’ he said, ‘it’s the mindset of the people.’ But which people and what is the necessary mindset for change?
Later that afternoon Judy Wajcman, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics – the quintessential neoliberal institute of higher education, according to recent student occupiers (Artnotes AM386) – worked through a talk debunking the myth that time, life and cognition have all accelerated. Wajcman’s underwhelming thesis was that we should all stop worrying about how little time we seemingly have because of digital technologies and the internet, as new technologies always birth a certain hysteria when they emerge. Our current anxiety is just a repetition of this predictable socio-cultural response. But again, who was the public being addressed, spoken for and about?
What gradually became clear during Wajcman’s talk was that a rather vague and stereotypical middle class (nuclear family, heteronormative, western) comprised the ‘we’, the collective subject her argument was in relation to. This is no surprise. It is predominantly those in economically comfortable positions who have the time to worry about how technology is changing their lives – consider William Morris and John Ruskin’s attitude towards industrial technology, or the modern family which, in one of Wajcman’s examples, deposits their tech gadgets at the entrance of a national park in order to enjoy a family day out sans technology. I would, however, argue that this phenomenon of timelessness due to technology is not dominating the minds of middle or any other homogenising class assignations here in the UK (especially with five more years of austerity measures ahead of us). Furthermore, the general public is now quite capable of regulating and monitoring their own engagement with technology. The only place where this subject still seemingly dominates is in the glut of books, exhibitions, art projects and symposia (like FOMO itself) that engage in, comprise and profit from the internet anxiety industry – that field in which actors and institutions feed into, maintain and glean economic, social and cultural capital from reflecting on how technology is altering culture and society … not necessarily for the better.
In the Q&A that followed, artist Olia Lialina rightfully cautioned against Wajcman’s assertion that technological determinism is essentially a myth, stating ‘we can’t be relaxed’ about how interfaces and products are designed to force us to behave and act in predictable ways. Artist-theorist Hito Steyerl moderated other questions from the floor and reflected on the need for different temporal rhythms in life. It was her first appearance in various guises as either chair, respondent or speaker for the entire three days of FOMO. I thought about that as I left the building and passed a Steyerl fanzine, replete with photos and fun facts about her, written and designed by ICA staff, for sale at £3 in the bookshop. Can you have too much of one theorist?
Day two of FOMO: the sun shone on The Mall and hot halogens burned in ICA’s black box. Arriving at the tail end of a presentation of Women Inc – a collective of female artists, writers, curators and academics – a three-strong panel consisting of US curator Karen Archey, Goldsmiths-based PhD candidate Linda Stupardt and Goldsmiths-based artist Jamie Sterns explained their current language-based project. The Lexicon (no dates given) is a collection of neologisms, compressions and acronyms that the group invented as webspeak-style shorthand to identify and call out exploitative, sexist behaviours that stage the oppressive strategies of white supremacist patriarchy in the art world; intentions were good, but the thinking foggy. The problem was and is exclusivity. That is to say, The Lexicon seemed more about creating an insular clique than launching a targeted and effective institutional critique. For example, marginal lexicons from hobo signs (the collection of ideograms used in the US by hobos) to polari (slang previously used predominantly in the UK by gay men in the late 1960s) and cant (a form of criminal slang) were all used as a way to protect in-group communication from outsiders seeking to crack down on their supposedly deviant, transgressive or criminal activities. They had to be insular. But if the purpose of The Lexicon is institutional critique, what use is a language that can only be understood by those accepted into Women Inc? And, for that matter, who gets to decide on membership and what are the criteria for acceptance? The control of access creates power dynamics (group members have it, non-members don’t) and it seemed disingenuous of the group not to acknowledge this. In the context of FOMO, the digital art world and the internet anxiety industry, Karen Archey (who also appeared every day at FOMO) and other Women Inc members like Steyerl, Jennifer Chan and Anne Hirsch are also covered, employed and supported by institutions, journals, blogs and magazines – they are at the centre, they are the establishment. By creating and then controlling access to Women Inc are they not just consolidating those positions? Is it possible that The Lexicon simply performs criticality without any of the actual risk – especially if the objects of criticism and the wider public are not aware a critique has been launched? Perhaps this is all beside the point and Women Inc is a tongue-in-cheek, acronym-heavy satire for art-world insiders. And we all need more of that, right?
That was where I took my leave of the ICA. Slightly more homogeneous than the ‘diverse array of practices and practitioners’ promised, FOMO, at least for the period of time I was in attendance, seemed to cover territory familiar in the environs of the internet anxiety industry, with a familiar selection of reccurring participants (Steyerl, Archey). Granted, mine is absolutely a partial view, but the good news is that you will be able to see for yourself by watching it all online once the ICA has uploaded each talk. If you believe the denigrators of so-called digital dualism, there is no difference between watching them all online or off. Well, maybe one small one: you won’t have to pay upwards of £60 to do it.