What Can The Internet Teach Us?

In the last decade of dialogue about technology in the arts classroom, there have emerged two primary approaches.  On one hand, say those interested in direct experience, software and hardware are the new materials of art making, and learners should be able to explore how to make new forms of art out of  ones and zeros.  On the other hand, say the tool-toters, technology is not the subject of learning, but a tool to help enable the real learning that still takes place in the analog world of pen on paper.  Lost in this reductive binary arrangement is another emerging idea about engagement with the web (and all the myriad technologies that sustain its infrastructure) as a new kind of art form that creates the kinds of emotional and intellectual responses that all great art does in one way or another.  We can call this approach the conceptual approach.

This idea is the basic premise of a new book by artist, writer, and teacher Kenneth Goldsmith, entitled ‘Wasting Time On the Internet.’  The title refers to a class that the author taught at University of Pennsylvania that gave students permission to create assignments for each other exploring the fun, danger and rigor embedded in the 21st century’s relationship with devices and web-based information. But that class is just the starting point for Mr. Goldsmith’s agenda to envision the Internet and all its attendant devices as a new frontier for art-making of the highest order.

The majority of the book is devoted to the kinds of conceptual examinations of art history that suit Mr. Goldsmith’s background as an experimental poet and founder of Ubu Web, one of the internet’s premiere locations of archival materials from countless art movements of the 20th century.  Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Pop Art and many other movements are ripe for examination as precursors and predictors of our current culture’s engagement with the world through our devices and the web of data and information we call the Internet.  Goldsmith’s written exploration of these ideas in ‘Wasting Time…’ posits blogs as a new kind of memoir, mp3’s as extensions of reproduction-based art, and the browser window as a surrealist object akin to a Joseph Cornell assemblage box.  For students of art history, these assertions make thrilling links to how art has deeply impacted on our everyday lives.

Returning to the lens of education, the most eye-opening thesis of this book is that learners and teachers should embrace devices and the Internet as a means to achieve the flow of emotional and intellectual development that is a hallmark of all true learning.  Gently brushing aside the concerns about technology as distracting from real learning or dangerous to the health of our society, Goldsmith uses his perspective to argue the fractured, multi-tasking, non-narrative experiences of engagement with the Internet are good for us.

Two concepts from the book stick out as important for artists and educators to reflect on.  The first is the idea that Goldsmith calls ‘affect,’ or the “powerful but often invisible emotional temperature in any given social situation.”  This feeling of energy or tension among a group of web surfers, Goldsmith asserts, “goes a long way to explain how hyperemotional social networking is,” and accounts for “why things go viral on the networks.”  In the name of ‘affect,’  Goldsmith’s students generated a fantastic list of ways to ‘waste time on the internet’ by tapping into the drive behind sharing, disrupting, and watching the activity of others online.  Affect is a huge part of what makes classroom environments or small group collaboration work when it does.  Learning is often more powerful when it takes place within a social setting.

The second, related concept that Goldsmith explores at some length is the idea of ‘infrathin,’ a “state within states” minted by the artist Marcel Duchamp.  Duchamp hesitated to define ‘infrathin,’ instead described “the warmth of a seat (which has just been left),” or as Goldsmith asserts “the lingering warmth of a piece of paper just after it emerges from the laser printer or the chiming start-up sound the computer makes, signifying its transition from death to life.”  ‘Infrathin’ is connected to the notion of affect, in that it contains in its meaning an emotional and sensory hum that one needs to stop and reflect on in order to recognize its significance.  It is a whispered realization that the world we live in and interact with is quietly wavering from moment to moment between the real and the virtual, the present and the future/past.

The idea that, as arts educators, we should be responsible for teaching toward a greater understanding of this wavering and reflect on it through our art-making is a welcome and radical departure from the current obsession with gizmos, apps and data collection.  Goldsmith’s book, while at times tangential to learning through technology, nonetheless helps to frame the conversation about the power of our technologized world through an aesthetic lens that embraces the core experience of the internet as revealing, important and not going away.  Our engagement with the web, Goldsmith asserts, is social, phenomenological, and transformative. He makes a strong case that the internet itself is a work of art that we all help to shape. I would be interested to see what a full engagement with this approach looked like in our arts classrooms.