I had just returned from a trip to Cubbon Park with a close friend of over ten years. We were meeting for the first time after the third wave receded. She looked radiant, dressed in a green frock that had tiny white floral prints. I complimented the dress and wondered whether she had gotten it on Myntra. She nodded. The conversation moved to me asking where I could find a some jeans for a low price and she named a few brands I could check out. When I got home, lonely with the void of our separation, I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, when — unsurprisingly, I found anad of the very same brand showing her green dress, pants and jumpsuits. Initially, I was filled with a certain kind of joy, imagining this a sign of the internet filling my friendship void. And then lessons I carried in narratives of aesthetics, longing and the politics of capitalism appeared. I was filled with a cold dread. The internet knows I am missing her. Has even listened in on our conversations. How do I make sense of this? Is there an end to it? Perhaps this essay is just a path of such a reckoning.
Olivia Laing, in The Lonely City, describes the technological art projects that Josh Harris, a techie from New York’s Silicon Alley designed to study the effects of surveillance and the world of plenty that the future of the internet would provide to human beings who find themselves caught in the nexus of isolation and loneliness. Much of her research is shockingly foretelling of the dystopic pandemic world we exhibit. In a world starved of tangible human connection, we ( like the members of Josh Harris’ experiment), replace real, interpersonal experiences with virtual, simulated ones. Most often, we are unaware of this replacement, oblivious to how it controls our actions, feelings and thoughts. Laing’s research offers a possibility – something we seldom consider in the whorls of everyday existence – the foretelling power of Art and its histories.
Today, we are aware of the possibilities of science fiction and speculative fiction. But the world is moving away from the days of scripted information on the surface of books. Our world is increasingly driven by visual cues that contain information and extract them, based on our interaction with these formats, only to perpetuate the cycle. In extraction, lies surveillance. In extraction also lies the promise and perpetuation of “possession” – while consumers are engaged in this cyclical process, the capitalists continue to generate excessive wealth and “possess” the attention of consumers. The documentary The Social Dilemma captures the dangers of such possession – of our minds, of our abilities to socialise and form intimate meaningful relationships.
What makes possession so alluring? What perpetuates the mystifying power it has upon the psyche of the human mind? Perhaps, as Laing attempts in her research to explore the layers of human loneliness through art forms, we can find answers in the history of art itself. For starters, this would be the role of visual cues in our society. In his four-part documentary series Ways of Seeing, John Berger describes the role of “oil paintings” in European society. Oil paintings were an indication of possession – of wealth and property. The form of art was exclusively employed to record the lives of landed gentry and nobility. The lives of the poor went undocumented. Images of food – rich meats, exotic fruits and platters of delicacies; of domestic creatures – fine horses, bovine creatures and pedigree dogs, of the tangible elements in the portrait paintings; and the properties themselves – fine arches and sturdy housing structures, only sought to sharpen the divide between the rich and the poor. They were statements of wealth and “fine-breeding”. And what kept this tradition alive? The practice of mystifying works of art, so they may be available and understood only by the elite few. What substitutes this process in the modern world? The form of advertisements, the mystification of publicity to global consumers. In sending me an avalanche of products to buy from, in recording our conversations, the corporate world of the internet was simply alluring me to possession. It became easier still as I substituted meaning to this find, with the friendship I was temporarily separated from. The mystification and the promise of glamour, for a moment, offered a possible refuge from my loneliness brought about by our separation. Even worse, our interaction with virtual objects and images now controls our emotional responses to people and not the other way around.
In the earliest debates on aesthetics and politics, Bertolt Brecht and writers of pre-fascist Germany would echo an idea born of Marxist theory . I shall repeat it here, because the knowledge of this neatly sliding under your skin reminds us of how much capitalism manipulates our biggest fears, our most private emotions. Brecht states that, in a competitive world, developing capitalism individuates people – starving us of meaningful relationships, or using the bait of them to further our separations. This intensifies our loneliness and has us craving for interactions (Brecht 94). In the technological age, social media platforms provide a surplus of such interactions. If you’ll remember, I sought Instagram because I was separated from my friend. Perhaps we seek various social media platforms, for personal reasons. Very often, we return to them, driven by feelings of intense loneliness.
The internet is a space that allows anyone entry – free of cost. But it comes with its own terms and conditions: an increasing surrender of your privacies to the virtual public. The only difference is that there aren’t visible markers of your journeys across the web. And, caught in the mystification offered by visual information, it is all too easy to get lost within this process. Many years ago, this would be just a product we saw advertised. It was Gramsci who pointed out how capitalism allures us to a presentation of differences through its countless individual choices, a flavour for everyone. All while a single entity reaps all the profit, so conveniently hiding this from the consumers. Now, it has slipped into human experience – they steal our preferences, they influence our moods and they slowly change our psyche. Looking back at the months of the pandemic induced loneliness, how many of us sought retail therapy – an exchange of money for goods, hoping to fill the human voids in us? Research by Oxfam shows that the global rich increased their profits double-fold, while the inequality gap has widened. With the addition of user information gathered by these corporates, how much more of us do they control? The poisonous tendrils of what is called Surveillance Capitalism, described by Shoshana Zuboff, has become our normal.
This essay isn’t a whistleblower episode or a moralising tale. In our current stage, it is nearly impossible to reverse the effects of capitalism and its far-reaching influence through the internet. This essay is an attempt to understand how art history and specific visual and conceptual experiments foretell these technological, post-human experiences. Josh Harris’ project attempted to study how masses of people under constant surveillance, with the allure of free food and no public restrictions, would cope. Even today, art attempts to chronicle the experience of human loneliness, preyed upon by capitalist surveillance. Ironically, some of the more popular forms, like memes or comic art, evolve on social media platforms – the very spaces that offer explanations, even as they perpetuate the cycle.
However, just as our social realities in India are heavily dependent on caste, class and religious distinctions, so are our access to these art histories, even the kinds of experiences we have across social media platforms. Surveillance capitalism furthers this divide – creating bubbles of comfort around our respective social and economic positions.
Art becomes a medium to question and challenge those distinctions. Art informed by experience, shaped by the masses have always sought to break down facets of elitism and “high culture”. Some examples of these are the many community-run art projects around India: the Gender-Bender festival organised by Sandbox Collective, The Lonely Hearts Club show, Aravani Art Project, the Truth Dream photo exhibition, even the opening of Namma Katte — a community-run art and culture space, by Indu Antony, an artist based in Bangalore.
The history of colonial Indian art forms had similar notions of grandeur and mystification, in furthering social inequalities. Now, as it is finding a shift in practice and vision, the reclamation of art history must be made available for everyone to engage with and understand. In a fraught world, this can perhaps change the way we respond to the gatekeeping ways of mystification, and how surveillance capitalism so cleverly manipulates this to prey on human loneliness.
Anna Lynn is a research scholar of comparative literature at EFL University. Her areas of interest include women's writing, art and cinema. The anxieties of a queer heart are a constant muse and as the Woolfian stream passes, she presses watered images into writing. You can find her writing on The Chakkar, The Sunflower Collective, Gulmohur Quarterly and other online platforms.
Anna is on Instagram: @lettersinthemargins and @seagirlstories.