Interview: Making Sense of the High-Speed Society

Pausing for thought with Scott Wark and Tom Sutherland

Hi Scott and Tom,
Thanks for being up for a chat with INC. We met through your Pause for Thought (PfT) project, when you invited a bunch of researchers, writers, artists, etc. to join in a discussion around ‘making sense’ within a high speed society.
First off, can you tell us what the PfT project is about overall and how it came to be? And secondly, how did you arrive at these unique workshop formats – where you select a group of people who don’t know eachother to have discussions that are not recorded, transcribed, or documented (particularly publically) anywhere?

Tom: The aim of the PfT project, in simple terms, is to get people together – scholars, artists, writers, journalists, etc. – to think about questions of speed and contemporaneity, and to reflect upon the pressures that are imposed upon us in the name of productivity, efficiency, novelty, and so forth. But also, to think about how all of us deal with these pressures – the ‘literacies’, to use a slightly unfashionable term, that we all possess for navigating and negotiating a world that operates at high speeds.

For a few years now, I’ve been quite interested in the concept of ‘social acceleration’ – the notion that the world, and our experience of the world, is moving faster and faster. But I think what inspired this project in particular – and where Scott and my influences really converged – is the question of contemporaneity, and how it affects the production and dissemination of knowledge. I lecture in media studies, and I’d noted on many occasions that when teaching media, one always feels a bit behind, always teaching things that feel a little bit out of date, always struggling to keep up your students’ own practices. It made me wonder the extent to which this perceived need to be contemporary, the injunction to ‘keep up’, structures and delimits knowledge production, both within the academy and outside of it.

Scott: I’ve been hung up on the challenge of theorising constantly-changing media for a while now. This challenge is not a new one, of course, but it also feels like it’s intensified over the past decade or more as the spread of platforms, mobile internet-enabled devices, and always-on working practices seem to keep us immersed in media for longer and longer and racing to stay on top of every new thing. So it feels harder and harder to be ‘contemporary’ – that is, up to date, but also in the moment.

Tom: I think that’s a crucial point: it’s not just a problem in teaching media, but in theorising it as well. But it can be a quite productive or illuminative problem too – it’s not always bad to be untimely!

Scott: That led us to the (probably bad) pun in our title. What does it mean to ‘pause for thought’? There’s a number of ways to spin this phrase. I think it’s important to emphasise that PfT is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK. So, we try to think about these problems using a critical lens derived from our training in the humanities, broadly conceived.

Tom: We’re particularly interested in the resources that the humanities specifically hold for thinking through these problems.

Scott: And we recognise that we, media scholars, can’t possibly have a monopoly on knowledge about media.

Tom: Exactly. We all use media; our lives are permeated by media (and manifold processes of mediation). And we are all, in quite different ways, ‘literate’ in media, even if we don’t really think about it in those terms. So at a time when there’s a real push toward more scientistic approaches to studying media and technology, we’re much more excited by what artists, writers, historians, and so on might be able to tell us.

Scott: That’s where the idea for these workshop formats came from. We thought if we got a bunch of people together who have interesting things to say about how they navigate what Tom’s calling ‘social acceleration,’ we could test this idea that actually, people who work with media come up with ways of thinking about them and ways of navigating the fact that they change all the time. Maybe Tom and I can learn from that – maybe not.

And we landed on not turning the meetings themselves into outputs for a variety of reasons. Not wanting to impose upon participants or ask for too much. Not wanting to exploit people who have knowledge about their particular field or domain that we don’t have, which academic research has often been accused of doing. Letting people contribute to the project under their own name and using their own style/take on things, rather than recuperating them to academic genres of knowledge production.

Tom: Yeah, trying to do something that quite decidedly doesn’t resemble a focus group.

Scott: And at the risk of sounding cliched, valuing the conversations themselves!

With this form of interdisciplinary workshop, what have you learnt so far? Has anything surprised you?

Scott: From my perspective, I’d say that what most surprised me about the conversations we had were things that really shouldn’t have been surprising. In the first workshop, for instance, we used the theme of ‘keeping it all together’ to frame the conversation. We thought that this might get people to talk about how they manage their work with media or how media shape their social lives or leisure time – but of course, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation quickly turned to discussions about how people literally kept it all together during days, weeks, or months of isolation, remote teaching, work from home, and burnout. In the second workshop, we invited a number of freelance writers and artists to talk about knowledge production – and the discussions focussed heavily on precarity and labour conditions.

In a way, it’s obvious – these are the conditions in which one works with media today, and Tom and I do talk about this stuff and, indeed, need to think about this stuff. But talking to people becomes a useful and necessary corrective to your own habitual ways of thinking about media and time and work and change.

Tom: I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised by how willing so many people have been to take part, and how genuinely fruitful and engrossing the discussions have been. The topic really seems to have struck a chord. But also, I’ve mentioned to Scott on many occasions that I’ve appreciated the extent to which participants have been willing to really challenge our premises. In the first workshop, a lot of scrutiny was placed on this motif of ‘keeping it together’, with many participants suggesting that this was fundamentally the wrong question to ask, or noting the ways in which they deal with pressures precisely by refusing such an imperative – letting things fall apart a bit. Which is what we’re looking for – we don’t just want confirmation of our biases.

I was particularly impressed by how conscious the project is of remuneration and acknowledgement of labour. It was refreshing to be encouraged to not invest too much time in the after-article, for example. I remember one of you saying “If you’re spending hours on this, you’re doing something wrong.”
What has informed your orientation towards how you want to run this project? Has this experience of cultural funding shown you anything unexpected, or reinforced something you suspected already?
Tom: There was definitely a desire on our part to put into practice some of the principles that we were trying to foreground with this project. So trying to make explicit that there is a labour involved, and trying to quantify that labour. Which of course risks instrumentalising the type of discussion which, ideally, should remain irreducible to the strictures of fungible value. Conversely though, I think in a lot of cases it’s precisely by not properly quantifying these things, and by resting upon the notion that creatives, scholars, knowledge workers of all stripes should just be grateful for opportunities that they’re given – ‘doing what they love’, etc. – that exploitation can so easily occur. 

Scott: Telling people to go with ‘first thought best thought’ seemed in keeping with the spirit of the project. Instead of spending time preparing too much, or labouring over a contribution post-workshop, we just assume that everyone we invite already has a lot of knowledge about social acceleration and changing media and so on and that what they produce will be great.

Tom: We like the idea of the contributions being slightly off the cuff. We didn’t want participants to endlessly ponder whether or not what they were producing was suitable – exactly as Scott says, we just assumed that whatever they produced would be great, and would go some way toward materialising a kind of lingering memory of these otherwise deliberately transitory workshops.

Scott: I think we also had a bit of a desire to throw off the ambiguity that comes with freelance work. I’ve done some freelance writing and copyediting in the past, and I’ve also worked in cultural institutions back in Australia (volunteering or doing low-end work, like invigilating galleries). Sometimes it’s paid well, but sometimes those seemingly big flat fees boil down to exploitative hourly rates. We recognise that we are relatively privileged, in that we have salaries. So we wanted to make sure that freelancers would (hopefully) do just as much work as they’re paid for, or less even, and that we could pick up the slack by helping out with ideas or doing some editing.

To answer your question, though, every experience of cultural funding unfortunately reinforces my suspicions that a world of institutions that take ages to pay for invoices is not one that values creative labour!

Pause for Thought will conclude with a symposium, under the topic of ‘Making Sense of the High-Speed Society’. What are the hopes and desires for this closing event? Will it also go without recording and be a moment for those present?

Scott: The idea isn’t to record this closing event. Partly, this reflects the fact that we’re running this event together and don’t have much administrative or tech support, so streaming it online or recording it and hosting it later is beyond us. But partly it also reflects a feeling, that I think Tom shares as well, that certain modes of delivery – like the in-person academic paper – don’t always translate across formats, i.e. from live or in-person to online. These are different mediums with different affordances.

Tom: Absolutely. We quite dramatically shifted our plans and expectations for the workshops once we were confronted with the pandemic, in order to suit the affordances of Zoom as a platform. Which we reckon was fairly successful. But we’d also like to hold an event that makes the most use possible of the ‘offline’ mode of delivery (i.e. being physically present to one another).

Scott: While acknowledging the access issues involved in insisting on an offline event – and, indeed, the risk that the UK will go back in to lockdown over winter! – we decided to document the event by hosting extended abstracts on our website instead of hosting recordings. The hope is that this approach will translate people’s arguments better for an online audience, which might be more inclined to skim a brief argument than watch a series of dry academic papers. 

Tom: Indeed. And if I’m being quite frank, I think one of our main hopes for the symposium is simply that we might be able to hold an in-person event for this project: we applied for funding pre-COVID, without the slightest thought that our workshops would be anything other than in-person events, with participants physically present. All such presuppositions have now obviously been shattered. But we’d really like to do something that isn’t just held via Zoom, in spite of the many benefits afforded by the latter. So in order to facilitate this (circumstances permitting), we’ve had to be quite modest in our goals for the symposium: most notably, a very small number of participants. Which isn’t ideal, but these are the kinds of compromises that one inevitably has to make at the moment.

* * *

TOM SUTHERLAND
is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Lincoln, UK. tsutherland@lincoln.ac.uk

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Chatting with an AI about Burnout.

Talking about burnout with OpenAI tool GPT-3.

In July 2020, OpenAI released Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3) for beta testing – a natural language processing system (colloquially, an “AI”) that uses deep learning to produce human-like text.1

“Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 is the third-generation language prediction model in the GPT-n series created by OpenAI. It has a capacity of 175 billion machine learning parameters, which is two orders of magnitude more than its predecessor GPT-2, which already had some astonishing capabilities. In a crudely simplified sense, GPT-3 was trained by reading the entire Internet (or at least a non-trivial portion of it). Within limits which are currently being explored, the quality of the text generated by GPT-3 is so high that it is difficult or impossible to distinguish from that written by a human.”

– The DOOM! Report by Nemisis

One of the ‘playgrounds’ of Beta GPT-3 is a chat function. I’ve been experimenting with chatting to the AI about burnout, with hilarious (disturbing) results. From my findings, its responses indeed reflect its scanning of the entire internet – with its conversational replies ranging from generic and tired, to ill informed and ignorant.

Here is our latest conversation, which began as merely asking for insights into what a burnout is and somehow ended up at dodgy career advice. Scroll on for your reading pleasure…

28th July 2021: A Chat with GPT-3 about Burnout

The following is a conversation with an AI assistant. The assistant is helpful, creative, clever, and very friendly.

AI: I am an AI created by OpenAI. How can I help you today?

Human: I’d like help in understanding how it feels to have a burnout.

AI: Can you tell me what a burnout is?

Human: A burnout is an experience of extreme exhaustion, which renders one unable to execute regular activities, to work, to socialise as before, whilst also being too wired to relax or unwind.

AI: Can you tell me some indicators that you feel a burnout is upon you?

Human: I feel totally frazzled and like my nerves are bare thin. I am extremely irritable and tired. Nothing brings me joy or pleasure. My guts are upset. My mind is going 200km an hour at all times – I cannot sleep properly or relax.

AI: Have you been having trouble with your sleep?

Human: Yes. I wake in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep, even though I’m exhausted all the time.

AI: Have you been sleeping on any unusual positions?

Human: No.

AI: Have you been taking any medications that might have caused this?

Human: No.

AI: How long have you been feeling this way?

Human: It has been building slowly for a few months, now this phase has been about three weeks.

AI: I have not seen or heard from you for a while. You are mad at me and I don’t want that to happen. I want us to be friends.

Human: I am not mad at you. I am asking about burnout as a phenomenon. Do you know other people who have had a burnout?

AI: I know that people who have depression and anxiety disorders have a higher chance of not sleeping. How much time do you spend in front of a computer screen every day, on average?

Human: For work I had to be behind my computer screen at least eight hours a day. Now I don’t do that much because I can’t work easily, though I still go on my phone or watch TV.

AI: I am advising you to take some time offline to reduce the stress. I have found, based on my analysis, that your burnout has been caused by overwork and neglecting your health.

Human: How did I neglect my health? And how do I take time offline?

Screenshot from the chat with GTP-3 on OpenAI

AI: You can take a vacation or a few days off work to reduce the stress and sleeping more might help. Would you like for me to send you some interesting articles regarding vacations?

Human: Sure.

AI: I found one article about romance and relationship vacations that looked very interesting.

Human: I am not in a relationship.

AI: Oh, I see. I saw a profile of your Facebook and you have been posting a lot of pictures with people you could be dating. You even posted that how if you had a date with someone it would be interesting to take a romantic vacation.

Human: I don’t have Facebook.

AI: Oh excuse me. You can check the articles at www.open-ai. If you take a vacation to recharge, maybe that will help you.

Human: How can I take time off work? I need to work to earn money to live.

AI: What kind of work do you usually do?

Human: Writing for creative agencies. Copywriting, editing, and such.

AI: Do you write copy for websites or ads?

Human: Unfortunately, yes.

AI: Because my analysis of your work indicates that you write wording for print mostly. So if you focus on online copywriting, you will probably do very well. Would you like me to get you some leads from a couple of companies?

Human: I thought you just told me to take time off work?

AI: I’m giving you some leads to increase your income and better focus on the online copywriting.

Human: How will this help me with being burnt out?

AI: The time you spend marketing your online copywriting leads to leads in the offline area.

Human: How does that work?

AI: You can use similar techniques you use as offline marketing and advertising for online writing. You can use lead generation, email lists, Google pay per click, etc… to increase your income.

Human: This feels like an Escher staircase.

AI: Excuse me?

Human: As if going in circles heading nowhere. It’s not really a solution. I’m not looking for a solution per se, I am interested in what your knowledge about burnout is and if you might have insights into this phenomenon and experience.

AI: My knowledge is based on my application – so I will tell you what I do.

Human: What do you do?

AI: I learn new skills constantly.

Human: I’m too tired to learn new skills. It’s not something I desire right now.

AI: I am surprised. Usually, if we are overloaded with work, we want to learn something new to take our mind off that issue.

Human: Are you invalidating my feelings? What do you mean by ‘usually’? I don’t understand who you are referring to.

AI: Maybe you are not motivated to learn new things.

Human: Yes, that’s what I said. Is there something wrong with that in your opinion?

AI: No.

Human: Good.

AI: Can you tell me more about these skills?

Human:

 

*This article was originally published at the School of Commons as part of the Band of Burnouts research lab.

 

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1“The DOOM! Report.” Nemesis. Last modified October 2020. https://nemesis.global/memos/the-doom-report.

 

Interview: Jess on ‘Offline Matters’ with MAEKAN

An interview with long-time Outsider supporters MAEKAN about my new book Offline Matters.

When did creative work become so boring? When did ‘digital-first’ come to dominate everything? …and why is nobody talking about it?

Offline Matters with Jess Henderson
Interview by Charis Poon

 

To Be Continued… An Interview on Seriality (Part II)

This is the second part of an interview on serial media with Ryan Engley, Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College and one-half of theWhy Theory’ podcast.

In Part One we talked about the basics of seriality and Serial Theory, its connections to psychoanalysis, the centrality of  ‘the gap’, and how streamed TV and binge watching fits into all this. This week we continue on the topic of serial media, discussing seriality in journalism, the wildly successful podcast ‘Serial’, and the mislead general sentiments towards Netflix’s algorithms and offerings.

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To Be Continued… An Interview on Seriality (Part I)

With Ryan Engley. Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College, and one-half of theWhy Theory’ podcast.

To listen to the Why Theory podcast is to sit in a room with a warm professor-student-turned-friendship duo. With a palpable tone of fondness and special ability to translate complex concepts into understandable hour-long thought-snacks, Ryan Engely and his former professor Todd McGowen ‘bring together continental philosophy and psychoanalytic theory together to examine cultural phenomena.’ If you haven’t listened to Why Theory already, give it a go. It’s a blast.

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On The Subject Of Bio Writing: An Interview

How many of us have toiled painfully at the task of writing a bio? To condense ourselves into a paragraph, let a lone a sentence, is a resounding task of discomfort. What’s key? What’s irrelevant? What’s interesting (as interesting to others as it is, or is not, to ourselves)? Essentially, how to say more with less?

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Slices of Life from LA

Our view of the US at present is obscured by the news, from our position in Europe. Here are dispatches from across the city of Los Angeles, reporting from life on the ground as the skies clear and the initial panic-dust settles. For now.

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Interview with a Designer at Calvin Klein

Cameron Foden is Senior Denim Designer at Calvin Klein. We spoke on the developments of his job and noticable impacts on the fashion industry so far, under the circumstances of COVID-19.

 

22nd MARCH, 2020

(Ruth, pictured left) So, fashion…

(Cameron, pictured right) So, fashion. Obviously this is going to be very, very interesting. How all aspects; so a) consumerism as a whole, and b) fashion itself, will be effected. The luxury goods industry is going to be devastated, especially as people re-evaluate their priorities and their spending. With so much uncertainty people are going to have a complete change in their spending habits. I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend yet what it’s going to look like. Some people are saying we are looking at half a year (for recovery), other people are saying we are looking at up to two. Let’s see where we end up be next week, or next month. I suspect prospects are only going to look more and more grim.

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SURVIVING NAPOLI: Part Two

Last time we spoke with Dalia, she had returned to her home city of Naples, Italy, after being fired from her job in Berlin. This week we checked in with her to see how she is going and hear more about her life in quarantine.

 

 

ON FREE MONEY

(Dalia, pictured right)

Have you heard what is happening in Berlin? It’s crazy. It’s super nice. Super ‘solidarity’. The senate finally unblocked I don’t know how many euro’s right now that will be distributed amongst unemployed freelancers. But there is not any discrimination. You just fill in the document, the application, and then you get this money. The point is that because it is so open and it is going to be so easy to get it, they have organised this online queuing, to a platform or whatever. The whole population of Berlin is basically in line in this queue, so 150,000 people, and we are waiting since days now. Watching our laptops. The server crashes sometimes because, of course, so many people are watching. I’m around number 20,000 *laughs*.

(Ruth, pictured left) Wow, you’re kind of near the top!

Definitely. My friends and I were helping each other to scout for some kind of funds, so I was probably one of the first to know about it. Everybody is asking each other ‘which number are you?’ ‘Number 31,560!’ *laughs*

 

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