Living Without Dead Time

Disconnecting is not an option, proclaims Kenneth Goldsmith. His new book Wasting Time on the Internet is a polemical defence of the screen as a social interface.

Still from Wasting Time on the Internet class taught by Kenneth Goldsmith, University of Pennsylvania, 2014. Photo: Kenneth Goldsmith.
Still from Wasting Time on the Internet class taught by Kenneth Goldsmith, University of Pennsylvania, 2014. Photo: Kenneth Goldsmith.

Besides being the man behind the indispensible online archive UbuWeb, Kenneth Goldsmith, the post-internet poet who releases books more often than most people update their Facebook status, is known for writing texts that are allegedly not meant to be read: a transcription of an issue of the New York Times (Day, 2003), of a year of weather forecasts on the radio (The Weather, 2005), every word he said for a week (Soliloquy, 2001). These works are commonly referred to as conceptual literature. His recent Wasting Time on the Internet, however, is an ordinary collection of articles – a book that is obviously meant to be read, and here, as in his literary work, he takes a particular interest in the relationship between new media and new modes of time experience. But whereas his previous collection (Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, 2011) addressed the conditions of literature after the emergence of the Internet, his new book – aimed at a wider audience – is about the kinds of everyday use of the Internet most of us engage in, and about the fantasies new media technologies get entangled in.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Wasting Time on the Internet, 2016.
Kenneth Goldsmith, Wasting Time on the Internet, 2016.

Goldsmith’s agenda in this book is to challenge any notions we may harbour about the Internet as a cultural and social wasteland. He attacks the widespread views that the time spent googling and clicking, skimming and lurking, liking and following is a time wasted, a pure distraction from potentially more meaningful, productive and social activities. Against critics who prescribe digital detoxing and logging off in order to regain focus and concentration, intimacy and human contact, Goldsmith proclaims that disconnecting is not an option; the underlying premise being: there is nothing outside of the network. According to him, the problem instead resides in our incomplete understanding of the time we spend online: it is “poorly” theorized. Goldsmith aims to remedy this with a polemical campaign to recuperate wasted time and rehabilitate it as a complex and contradictory experience.

Although many might find that Goldsmith is kicking in open doors, the Internet and new media sceptics he refers to throughout his book still appear as representatives of widely held beliefs. Whether one finds the polemical tone aggravating or stimulating, it certainly serves to foreground what for many of us will be less obvious qualities of net-based living. Readers seeking stringent theorizing and clear-cut analyses of the complexities Goldsmith points to might want to look elsewhere, though (for instance to media scholar Wendy H.K. Chun’s brilliant Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media, published earlier this year); his own approach is rhetorical and anecdotal, but also hands-on and experimental. The title of the book is identical to that of a course he organized for creative writing students at the University of Pennsylvania, with the “alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature” as its express objective. The class, however, only became a success when ambitions were restricted to aimless surfing as the students, possibly in response to the intuition that wasting time online is already a social experiment, discovered the potential in wasting time on the Internet together.

From Kenneth Goldsmith’s exhibition Printing Out the Internet at Labor, Mexico City, 2013. Photo: Labor.
From Kenneth Goldsmith’s exhibition Printing Out the Internet at Labor, Mexico City, 2013. Photo: Labor.

Among the book’s “101 Ways to Waste Time on the Internet” are descriptions of experiments with checking Facebook via a big screen in front of a group of strangers (remarkably, the test persons report a feeling of shame about exposing their friends), sharing passwords with strangers, digging out the oldest Facebook message you never responded to and writing a long and detailed answer back – without apology or explanation for the delay. Banal and trifling, gut-wrenching and deadly serious. One of Goldsmith’s contentions is that the Internet does not make us antisocial; on the contrary, it “amplif[ies] our sociability.” A similar lesson can be found in the way the experiments intensify the complex social dynamics we inevitably become subject to when we waste time online, in potential contact with everyone: insecure connections contingent on extreme exposedness, the human equivalent of the machine’s “promiscuous mode” (a network setting that allows a device to receive all information transferred over the network, including information “addressed” to other devices).

Goldsmith compares the Futurists’ painted depictions of movement to our present-day animated GIFs. Shown here is Umberto Boccioni, Dinamismo di un ciclista, 1913.
Goldsmith compares the Futurists’ painted depictions of movement to our present-day animated GIFs. Shown here is Umberto Boccioni, Dinamismo di un ciclista, 1913.

While an interesting feature of Goldsmith’s literary practice is that it seems to break with the established modernist notions of medium specificity (still highly current in the world of literature), it is curiously enough to modernist art and literature he turns to find “clues” on how to approach today’s media culture. It is the various efforts of the avant-gardes to “reclaim” and “recuperate” time that particularly interests him here, and that he suggests can give us a better view of the “mixed time” of the digital: a time of short-lived memes and traces forever captured; a contradictory experience of boredom and interest, curiosity and distraction, hopeful anticipation and tense nervousness. Goldsmith’s approach consists in drawing connections between digital and “pre-digital” techniques, strategies and forms, with varying degrees of success: His propositions that cubism offers the tools to “theorize the shattered surfaces of our interfaces,” or that “it’s not a far cry” from the futurists’ painted depictions of motion to “today’s animated GIFs” seem to border on the vapid; more suggestive, though, is for instance the link he makes between the surrealists’ public sleeping and our own somnambulistic interaction with our smartphones, devices whose the tracking of everything we do could amount to an updated form of automatic writing.  

Can the smartphone’s tracking of everything we do be regarded as an updated kind of automatic writing? A Surrealist automatic writing session, circa 1924. Photo: Man Ray.
Can the smartphone’s tracking of everything we do be regarded as an updated kind of automatic writing? A Surrealist automatic writing session, circa 1924. Photo: Man Ray.

In what appears as the overarching statement of the book, Goldsmith proposes we view our network-based existence as the realization of the situationists’ program for “living without dead time – “if only we had the lens through which to see it that way.” However, it would hardly be bold to surmise that the digital revolution, with its speeding up of capital’s control and capture mechanisms, would not have been to the satisfaction of the situationists. But here as in all of Goldsmith’s historical analogies (which should perhaps not be taken as analogies but more as connections on the model of hyperlinks) the digitally recycled avant-gardist strategies appear as emptied of their once potent critical force. And as he makes clear, politics in this culture “is another matter,” one we should associate with the information activism of Aaron Schwartz, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. For according to Goldsmith, it is the remains from modernism’s “smoldering wreckage” that today get recuperated online, no longer as elements in some critical, artistic or literary project, but in what he portrays as a new folk culture. His appropriation of the situationist slogan should hardly be taken to suggest that this culture should be celebrated for having abolished boredom and dead time, but that the time we waste on the Internet is anything but inactive or unproductive. And indeed, that a technology originally developed with no specific purpose beyond “information management” (“vague, but exciting” was the telling response Tim Berners Lee got on his first proposal for the web) has given rise to an entire culture, is something we should be able to see as deeply remarkable and fascinating – whether through Goldsmith’s lens or not.

Goldsmith suggests that our web-based life represents the final realisation of the situationist ambition to “live without dead time”. Graffiti from Paris, May 1968.
Goldsmith suggests that our web-based life represents the final realisation of the situationist ambition to “live without dead time”. Graffiti from Paris, May 1968.

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