have we gone too far to ever switch off?
Somerset House’s landmark new exhibition examines the real forces keeping us logged on.
Photography Douglas Coupland via Somerset House
The first thing visitors to Somerset House’s major new winter exhibition, 24/7: a wake up call for our non-stop world, will experience is momentary blindness. The loss of vision is thanks to an array of flashing lightbulbs positioned by the entrance. At first the bulbs blink slowly and individually. But within seconds the flares have become frantic, flickering at lightning speed until finally, they come together in one blinding climax before burning out altogether. Then the nightmarish cycle begins again.
According to curators of 24/7, which is inspired by art critic Jonathan Crary’s 2013 book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, the lights are a visual representation of the industrial advances that have led us to a crisis of modernity: the inability to switch off. The bulbs represent new developments from the late 19th century onwards that have encouraged ever more intense cycles of consumption and production under capitalism: artificial light, the punch in clock that measures working hours, the world wide web, social media and even state surveillance.
It sets the stage for what follows; 50 multi-disciplinary works billed as ‘creative responses’ to the widespread malaise incurred by a world that increasingly offers little reason to rest, or places such pressure on individuals to optimise the downtime they do have, that it doesn’t even feel like a breather.
Divided into five distinct zones -- Day and Night, Activity and Rest, the Human and the Machine, Work and Leisure, and The Individual and the Collective -- 24/7’s main aim is to both provoke reflection in visitors, and provide a brief window of time in which they can suffuse themselves in stimuli not delivered via screens. But underpinning all the works -- from 18th century paintings of factories operating well into the wee hours, to animatronic birds re-enacting the concept of random reward that drives our social media algorithms -- is a frightening question: have we gone too far to ever switch off again?
Those yet to visit the exhibition might be tempted to answer “yes”. Prevailing discourse around 24/7 culture tends to place blame for the inability to disconnect on the individual rather than the powerful capitalist machinery pushing us to consume and produce at higher rates and for longer hours. Soundbites about smartphone usage (apparently we check our phones an average of every 12 minutes in the UK) and urgings by everyone from influencers to Ofcom to “just log off” for a “digital detox” imply that it’s easy to disentangle yourself from these forces by just stowing your phone for a few hours. The implication is that we can dip in and out of 24/7 culture; just refrain from checking Twitter for a couple of days or take a break from Instagram.
Yet as 24/7 demonstrates through its curation of works, it’s not that simple. The tech we use is just the symptom of 24/7 culture; what’s driving it is capitalism and capitalism needs us to keep engaging, keep feeding the machine. It is very, very loathe to let us go. One video installation by American artist Benjamin Grosser splices together every clip captured between 2004 to 2018 in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg mentions the word ‘grow’, ‘more’ or a large number. It explicitly links tech products like Facebook, which are developed to feel like ‘behavioural cocaine’ to users, with growth and profit.
Capitalism needs us hooked, argues 24/7. And with our entire social infrastructure geared towards the effort of making us consume more -- or profiting from our fatigue at that consumption, as one tongue-in-cheek installation that tells the futuristic story of a ‘proxy sleeper’ for the rich pokes fun at -- it is not as easy as simply switching your phone to airplane mood for a few hours. What we face now is mass behavioural addiction, courtesy of capitalism. It is The Matrix horribly realised, minus the cool leather trench coats.
What’s more is that we’ve been persuaded that our adherence to 24/7 culture -- which multiple studies show is making us more anxious, depressed and generally miserable -- is our own fault. The greatest trick capitalism ever pulled was convincing us that our addiction to the instruments of 24/7 culture is the result of individual failure.
Collectively, we haven't been very good at dealing with addiction of any kind, but when it comes to technology, we turn even more of a blind eye. As business psychologist Adam Alter points out within the first five pages of Irresistible -- his 2017 book examining the depth of our attachment to technology -- we’re encouraged to view addiction as “something inherent in certain people” and a failure of personal willpower. We file those who fall victim to a dependency away into the separate category of “addicts”.
In reality, addictions are caused by circumstances and surroundings. “We’re all one product or experience away from developing our own addictions,” observes Adam, who goes on to point out that the majority of us are now technically nursing a behavioural addiction to our smartphones, our laptops, the internet at large, specific apps, the list goes on. But these behaviours are so normalised and the concept of ‘addiction’ viewed as so ‘separate’ that we refuse to recognise it within ourselves. And there’s certainly no rush to tackle it — not when it proves so profitable to so many, in a vast number of ways. Just watching Zuckerberg’s curiously featureless face (no wonder that deep-fake seemed so real) as he recites the gospel of mass expansion over and over is a potent reminder of that.
Profiteering from 24/7 culture goes further than simply the financial too, says the exhibition. An entire section dedicated to surveillance culture highlights how the data we log with corporations can be used; how information we view as trash is treasure to the arms of state oppression. Consequences are much more far-reaching than the annoyance of Instagram ads reflecting your recent Google search for “wide leg culottes”.
In 2018, Durham Police Force were heavily criticised after an investigation by human rights group Big Brother Watch found they had paid consumer credit checking company Experian to build “postcode stereotypes,” based on the data Experian had scraped from people. The demographics created by Experian’s coding resulted in a mass database of individuals, households and geographic locations being grouped into categories. These had names such as ‘Asian Heritage’, which characterised members as belonging to ‘extended families’ living in ‘inexpensive, close-packed Victorian terraces’, and advised that ‘when people do have jobs, they are generally in low paid routine occupations in transport or food service’.
These were then fed into an artificial intelligence system, used by Durham Police to make custody decisions. Three weeks after their use of the database was revealed, the force quietly decided to drop it, while Experian rebranded the names of profiling categories within the tool.
24/7 doesn’t ignore examples like this; Jeremy Benthem’s infamous designs for the Panopticon -- a building that effectively allowed the monitoring of prisoners at all times, later becoming a metaphor for systems of social control -- are on display, as are a decade’s worth of pictures showing every move of American artist Hasan Elahi.
After being mistakenly placed on a no-fly list following 9/11, Elahi created databases that tracked his every move to share with the FBI, which he’s now turned into an artwork. Visitors are invited to examine a giant collage of images that show every meal he’s eaten, every airport he’s flown from, every bathroom he’s taken a shit in and every bed he’s rested his weary body upon. In 2019, this terrifying breadth of data is also available for each and every one of us -- but it’s not part of a deliberate collection made for an art project. Just check the location history on your phone and prepared to be terrified.
24/7 culture swaddles us and 24/7 the exhibition succeeds in showing just how tight the straitjacket has been fastened. While fascinating, it’s also roundly petrifying to see how deep into the Minotaur’s lair we have gone, and without any immediately obvious form of Ariadne’s string to help us claw our way out. But the exhibition does offer one glimmer of hope at the end, courtesy of Montreal design studio Daily Tous Des Jours.
To exit, visitors pull aside a heavy curtain and find themselves in a warmly lit room, with dozens of microphones suspended from the ceiling like industrial bulbs. From hidden speakers comes the sound of hundreds of voices humming Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, while a counter tracks how many people across the world are listening to the song in real time. The effect is utterly disarming. It feels like the essence of what separates us from the machines and systems that wish to keep us plugged in; a dawn chorus singing, collectively, of what it means to be human. I stood in the room and thought that maybe, just maybe, we might still have the ability to log off for good. But probably not.
24/7: a wake up call for our non-stop world is at Somerset House, London from 31 October 2019 - 23 February 2020. Tickets here.