The internet is made of mundane things. Be it the obsessive recording of who ate what and what they look like on our social media streams or the continuous transaction of data and money that powers the e-commerce of our click-and-buy times. If anything, the digital streams are a testimony to the absolute banality of our everyday lives. We seem to become counters who track, collect, store, share, and forget the minutiae of our humdrum days, only to start the process all over again. Once in a while, this prosaic production of our life gets punctuated by the appearance of an opinion, an idea, an encounter that shakes us out of our scroll-a-day practices and shakes us into excitement. But this state of excited interest is rare, and often triggered by clickbait headlines and messages crafted with the promise of titillation but the reality of a damp squib.
And yet, when it comes to our imagination of the internet, it seems to be filled with nothing but spectacular moments of heroic proportions. It feels like every piece of information that comes to us is screaming, shouting, clamouring for attention and demanding that we give it our eyeballs. This has often been characterised as the “attention economy” where our attention to information is being commodified, produced, and circulated, emphasising that in the digital times, time is our key currency.
While attention economy is a good description of this phenomenon, I am not sure if it is also an explanation of why this happens or what are the consequences of being in an endless stream of consuming information that is simultaneously spectacular and mundane. Part of this is because of the black-mirrored state of our interfaces: The screen, so rich and vibrant in its design and so seductive in its aesthetics of flashing joy, renders almost everything that we see into visuals.
We don’t just receive information, the screen packages it into beautiful renderings that elevate the content and make it into clickable material that grabs attention, leads to engagement and makes profits for those who harvest us for our clicks. Part of this is also because of the speed of information: Computational time is not human time. As more and more information hits us from all sides, our capacity to engage with it gets reduced to consuming it as a spectacle. Our entire lives are being turned into photo galleries, where a quick scan and swipe defines everything we do, from sharing political news to selecting profiles we want to date.
This production of the mundane as the spectacular is centrally responsible for the current nature of our internet interactions. A deep visual of a work of art, or an image that captures a historic moment carries so much richness with it, that understanding and comprehending it is a fulfilling sensory and aesthetic experience. Engagement with spectacles of the mundane, on the other hand, need an immense amount of human experience, emotion, and affect to be invested in. Or in other words, the shallower our information stream, the more emotional investment it needs from us. And the more emotionally invested we become in that spectacle, the more we are drawn into having polarised views and defensive conversations when our investment gets questioned.
This is why we seem to fight equally on Twitter about the Ayodhya verdict and whether a contestant on Big Brother looks like Aishwarya Rai. This might explain why, the tone of conversation responding to the imminent climate crisis that turned New Delhi into a gas chamber seemed to equal the perceived crisis of the decline of hits from Bollywood. The aesthetic production of the mundane as the spectacular belies the flatness of the digital realms — the content is not important, the only thing that matters is its circulation and its packaging. It also helps understand why people who share fake news are not quite aware of the fact that they might be participating in disinformation, because they are unable to aesthetically distinguish between two different kinds of information streams.
The overproduction of the mundane as our new default ensures that we are constantly consuming those aspects of our life which should have been relegated to the realms of habits — of unthinking, repetitive, mechanical, and pedestrian practices that allow us to concentrate on the more significant questions of our times. Instead, we spend most of our digital lives investing meaning into flat surfaces, and then defending the shallowness with heightened emotion, which, in fact, makes the mundane become the spectacular.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Scroll,Troll’.
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