The interview is taken from the recently published book Are We All Addicts Now? Digital Dependence edited by Vanessa Bartlett and Henrietta Bowden-Jones, Liverpool University Press, 2017, and published with permission from the publisher. Available from the LUP website here – the interview is published in parallel with the exhibition Are We All Addicts Now? at the Furtherfield Gallery, London 16 September – 12 November 2017.
Ruth Catlow: In your exhibition Are We All Addicts Now? That opens at Furtherfield, Autumn 2017. You will be presenting a number of works and installations made in response to your research into online addictions. What prompted your interest in this matter?
Katriona Beales: I have insomnia on and off — like a lot of precarious workers. And to deal with being awake for long-stretches at night I go online, parse hundreds of hyperlinks, images, videos. It’s like an out of body experience: I detach, temporarily, from anxieties, pressure, claustrophobia via total preoccupation. Reflecting on these experiences caused me to question whether there was something inherently ‘addictive’ about the conditions of the digital. My research has developed to look at the burgeoning field of neuromarketing and how much online content is ‘designed for addiction’ (to borrow the title of Natasha Dow Schüll’s scorching analysis of machine gambling in Las Vegas).1 Gamification strategies and various psychological techniques such as variable reward (originally employed in the casino) are now utilised to mass effect on social media platforms, search engines, email accounts, and news sites.
RC: Can you give us an example of digital content, an interface or a device that you personally experience as addictive?
KB: I find the infinite scroll function on sites like Instagram and Twitter very compulsive. It removes the natural breaks that are built into technologies like the book, with chapters starting and ending. Then again, I used to be a compulsive reader and now I am a compulsive scroller… But I keep circling back round to think about the specific qualities of the conditions of the digital. The infinite, hyperlinked and networked nature of online content means scrolling, scrolling, scrolling never needs to end. There is also a correlation between these repetitive physical actions and meditative type states.
RC: Yes, this connects with theories of flow employed in game design. The idea is to design activities that produce the fulfilling feelings of focus, and to minimise a questioning of the context or frame of play. And there is very little critical discussion in mainstream culture about the gamification of everything, which replaces individual agency with a kind of soft coercion. It’s problematic because the less we notice how our attention and experiences are being harnessed by external forces (commercial or state based), the harder it is to connect and collaborate with others outside the given frames.
KB: Totally. I like your phrase ‘soft coercion’ because I think that sums up nicely what I’ve found troubling. Take this quote from Nir Eyal: “Variable schedules of reward are one of the most powerful tools that companies use to hook users… levels of dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a frenzied hunting state… When Barbra lands on Pinterest, not only does she see the image she intended to find, but she’s also served a multitude of other glittering objects… Before she knows it, she’s spent 45 minutes scrolling.”2
RC: We initially had reservations about applying the concept of addiction to internet usage, partly because the addiction label is usually used to attach blame to individuals. However, after conversation it became clear that you are exploring a political question. Why is the concept of addiction important to you?
KB: Too much discussion about addiction is focused on the responsibility of people to help themselves. The fact that many can’t is often seen as a kind of moral failure. There’s also the disputed status of internet addiction in itself as documented by Mark D. Griffiths and his colleagues in their contribution to this book. We can’t pretend that there aren’t lots of people out there experiencing unhealthy and compulsive relationships to their technologies. But what kind of language is most appropriate to define this? What I am interested in is the phenomenon of what could be understood as addictive behaviours (including my own) being normalised in relation to digital devices. Kazys Varnelis 3 describes network culture as demanding connectedness, with power concentrated in nodes of hyper-connectivity. The more views, the more likes, the more power is accrued. Addictive behaviour is both normalised and valorised in late capitalism as it is associated with the public performance of productivity. Whilst these actions appear to be the choice of individuals, how much is due to the influence of mechanisms and systems of control? Ultimately, I am interested in the idea of the addict as a perfect capitalist subject. However, can we/I be both active-users and critical participants? I am concerned about how many of these platforms function as closed systems in which we contribute (without remuneration) our creative and emotional labour and yet can’t shape the conditions in which it is displayed, performed and monetised.
RC: You have collaborated with scientists as well as other artists and curators. How has this worked and what have these collaborations produced?
KB: The space of art offers an opportunity to tap into diverse fields of research, as a kind of (un)informed amateur. I find a Rancièrian strategy of ‘deliberate ignorance’ liberating. As an artist, I find myself in a position where I can turn my lack ofspecialist knowledge in fields like neuroscience into a kind of asset. I’m not answerable to a canon so can make unorthodox connections. In 2012, I started a conversation with clinical psychiatrist Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones. Henrietta is fascinating as she started the first NHS clinic for problem online gambling and is now one of the leading experts in the field of online behavioural addictions. My collaboration with Henrietta has flourished, I think, because there is a recognition that there is a mutual benefit from the conversation but not an ownership or entitlement to each other’s outcomes.
RC: How does your work deal with the relation between physical and virtual presence?
KB: I am a tactile person, the sort who goes into a shop and strokes things with their face. I am fascinated by how digital devices act as portals into virtual worlds but often their own physicality isn’t dwelt on. Yet these devices connect us in a very tangible way to a globalised workforce and unethical labour practices. My iPhone has parts in it that were constructed by hand in an environment that resembles the Victorian workhouse more than the shiny aesthetics of the Apple store. These deeply dystopian factories create objects that seem so sleek, so smooth, so modern, as if they’ve arrived whole from outer-space. But they were created by workers who do compulsory over-time, sleep in triple bunk beds in small dorm rooms and aren’t even allowed to kill themselves. (I’m specifically referencing the suicide prevention netting that Foxconn put up around their buildings after a spate of mass suicides.)4 I’m emphasising physicality to connect my body lying in my bed to the body of someone bent over a production line; it is far too easy to dismiss the impact of our insatiable appetite for electronic goods.
RC: Your exhibition at Furtherfield is to be sited in the heart of a public park. How are you thinking about the relationship of digital devices to the natural environment?
KB: I continue using my smartphone when I step inside the park gates, in a continuum of ongoing augmented experiences where my physical environments are overlaid with digital content. The park acts as a fulcrum for changing understandings of leisure as labour, labour as leisure, and is the perfect site for encouraging reflection on this relationship. As part of this, Fiona MacDonald, who has been working with me on Are We All Addicts Now? as both a curator and an artist, is developing a mycorrhizal meditation piece, looking at network culture from an organic non-human perspective.
RC: I’d like to end with a description of some of the artworks and installations you are making, the materials you are using, and, in the context of the un-ideal strategies used by designers of mobile interfaces, what condition do you aspire to cultivate in visitors to your exhibition?
KB: I’m making a sunken plunge pool of a networked nest-bed, with glowing screens on which moths flutter embedded in glass orbs. Bed hangings embroidered with dichroic screens stripped from smartphones shimmer overhead, iridescent in the reflected light. I’m trying to communicate how seductive I find the screen in that dark, warm space – in those moments when I am more intimate with my device than my partner. There will be some participatory sculptures referencing pachinko and prayer beads, rhythmic movement, trance-like repetition, lulled into endless hypermobility in the closed systems of ‘communicative capitalism’.5 I’m also working on some moving image works in which makeup is used as a tool to undermine eye tracking software, which I am hoping will incorporate some specialist hardware generating a live-feed of eye-tracking data from audience members. A series of table-top glass sculptures and embedded screens will explore interfaces that are ‘designed for addiction’ and the way notifications, for instance, are neuromarketing strategies seeking to ‘awaken stress — the mother of all emotions.’6 I’d like the audience to share in my disquiet, and hopefully leave encouraged to engage more critically with shaping their online worlds.