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Orwell, Huxley, Banksy

Published on
24 May 2014

Last month two new Banksy installations emerged, and they have something important to say about what we choose to fear in the age of the Internet.

In the first piece, a stone-wall mural near the headquarters of GCHQ (Britain’s equivalent of the NSA), three special agents in trench coats and fedoras attempt to surveil a derelict phone booth. In the second, on a wood panel screwed into a stone wall in Bristol, a man and woman embrace in darkness, each halfway breaking their hug to check a glowing smartphone held behind the other’s head.

Neither piece was, in itself, very notable. In fact, there was something a bit too cliché about each of them: the retro-ness of the secret agents, the banality of the observation that, yes, we spend too much time using our phones.

But if we take the paintings as a pair, it becomes clear that they reflect one of the central dichotomies in the way we currently conceive of the Internet.

It’s a dichotomy represented well by the work of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. As Neil Postman noted in the 1980’s, Orwell worried that what we fear could ultimately come to control us: the “boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Huxley, on the other hand, felt that what we love was more likely to control us — by seducing us and engineering our compliance from within — and was therefore more deserving of a wary eye.

In the age of the Internet, this dichotomy is reflected in the interplay between information and attention. From one perspective, the Internet’s big story has been the increase in the abundance and availability of information, and the antagonists have been those who would seek to manage it in undesirable ways. But from another perspective, the bigger story is about the way information abundance has resulted in a scarcity of attention. And as more digital products and services become part of the “attention economy”—where, as it’s often remarked, “the user is the product”—they increasingly exploit our psychological biases to move us toward goals that may or may not align with our own. In this view, you could say that the core challenge of the Internet is that it optimizes more for our impulses than our intentions.

The threats to freedom on both sides—informational and attentional—are important and formidable. But right now, and this is what I think Banksy’s two new installations are getting at, we significantly overemphasize informational challenges to the neglect of attentional ones. Attention is important not just because distractions make it harder to do the things you want to do in a given moment, but because on the scale of life distractions aggregate, making it harder to live the life you want to live.

Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited that the defenders of freedom in his time had “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In the digital era, we are making the same mistake.

So how do we fix the situation? The solution will require several concurrent efforts. In the near term, we need better principles and processes to help designers make products more respectful of users’ attention. Longer-term, we need to get much better at measuring user attention, wellbeing, and goals, as well as incorporating those metrics into the incentive structures of the broader online ecosystem. In the absence of such measurement efforts, distraction can only remain an “externality” for which no one can be held accountable, much like environmental pollution was before we started measuring it. Broadly speaking, a societal response akin to the environmental movement may be the necessary counterweight to the challenge of technological distractions — only this time, a movement concerned with the inner environment, helping us to see, measure, and manage these “internal externalities,” if you will, of attention and wellbeing.

But back to Banksy. There’s a deeper sense in which I’ve felt his work mirrors this fundamental distinction between information and attention, and I think it’s this: even though his installations materialize on alley walls and phone booths, they’ve always struck me as decoys for the real art, which I suspect is happening somewhere else—namely, on the plane of societal reactions. In other words, I wonder if Banksy’s real canvas is human attention and action itself. (If so, this might be why cliché helps, rather than hurts, him—it’s a means to an end, no more an artistic sin than painting with a familiar brush, or playing a note with the middle-C key on a piano.)

In other words, Banksy is not a graffiti artist at all—he’s a magician. Magic is the art of directing attention to where you want it to go, and Banksy does this on a societal scale.

As an example, let’s go back to the second new Banksy piece — the one about the hugging smartphone lovers. Why was it installed on wood, and in a public-ish place, where it could be — and ultimately was — easily removed by whoever happened to come along? Because getting it stolen was the whole point. In the same way that our attention is easily crowbarred away from the rock wall of our plans and intentions by whatever technological distraction happens to come along and claim it, Banksy created a painting about technological distractions that distracted from its own message by tempting someone—in this case the head of a struggling nearby youth center—to come along and claim it.

The master stroke (which may have been only a stroke of luck, though we will probably never know) came when the cavalier youth-center boss decided to closet the painting and demand “donations” from potential viewers. That a painting about digital distraction, a symptom of the broader monetization of human attention, should be put to work monetizing human attention within twenty-four hours of its appearance in an arguably public space, is artistic genius.

Distraction from distraction itself, even when we are staring it right in the face: I think even Huxley would have paid attention to that.