Lauren Henkin

Lauren Henkin, Visual Artist

The Reading List: The Shallows

Over the last year I've noticed a shift in what I'm reading. I'm less inclined now to be reading books on photography and more likely to be reading about building trust in yourself, the importance of architecture, the dangers of consumption, and lots of poetry. I'm not sure what spawned this shift, but it is these books, on topics that are outside the visual arts, that have encouraged a heightened sensitivity to the world around me, and my ability to communicate, both in words and images.

I thought it might be useful to start a new feature on the blog called A Photographer's Alternative Reading List. The list is meant to share what I've been reading that has broadened my perspective on being a better communicator, artist, and person. I hope, that if you choose to read any of these books, that you will take as much away from them as I have.

The first book I wanted to share is titled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. If you've been reading this blog, you know that of late, I've been very concerned with how images are being digested when presented online, and whether to alter the presentation of my own work because of it. In a previous post titled Casual Consumption, I wrote simply about what I'm experiencing as a result of showing my work online, and my fears about where we are heading with this onslaught of visual imagery. I had no factual evidence for what I was feeling, simply a gut reaction to my own experiences. The Shallows has further deepened that sense of dread.

The book opens with a quote from John Keats:

"And in the midst of this wide quietness A rosy sanctuary will I dress With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain..."

The fundamental premise of the book is that the internet, is at it's core, is a medium of distraction and that the more we engage it, the more it disassembles our ability to focus, digest information, remember, and possibly most important to us artists, engage in the creative process with the deep meaning that comes from quiet contemplation.

The book is not a diatribe. It methodically presents how information has been communicated and digested throughout history, from oral communication to scrolls to the origination of the first printing press and codex to the birth of all that is digital. The increasing ability to study neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain and nervous system to change structurally as a result of input from the environment is also presented in depth. The loss of our capacity to memorize and focus are main themes and a case is made that the internet actually encourages us not to focus, but procrastinate. Procrastinate what exactly? I can guess that it was the work and mental energy needed to delve into something meaningful whether that is a long piece of writing, or, as I fear, worthy imagery as well.

One fascinating passage talks about the role that long-term memory plays in our ability to process complex ideas or thoughts. In this paragraph, Carr is quoting John Sweller, an Australian education psychologist who has spent three decades studying how our minds process information.

"In order for us to think about something we've previously learned or experienced, our brain has to transfer the memory from long-term memory back into working memory. "We are only aware that something was stored in long-term memory when it is brought down into working memory," explains Sweller. It was once assumed that long-term memory served merely as a big warehouse of facts, impressions, and events, that it "played little part in complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem-solving." But brain scientists have come to realize that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding. It stores not just fact but complex concepts, or "schemas." By organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge, schemas give depth and richness to our thinking. "Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from schemas we have acquired over long periods of time," says Sweller.

Another interesting point was made when describing the research that Jakob Nielson, a consultant on the design of web pages who has been studying online reading since the 1990s, has been done on how we actually read text on a monitor:

"Fast. That's how users read your precious content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at amazing speeds across your website's words in a pattern that's very different from what you learned in school.' ...most Web pages are viewed for ten seconds or less. Fewer than one in ten page views extend beyond two minutes, and a significant portion of those seem to involve 'unattended browser windows left open in the background of the desktop.'"

While this research was conducted with an emphasis on how we read text on the web, I cannot help but believe that images, in their visually accessible nature, garner even less time.

Undoubtedly, the internet has made my work available to a much wider international audience. But... if that new audience isn't really processing the work in any kind of meaningful or lasting way; if that new audience is using my images in the same way that we are using all internet content—as another method of distraction—then what's the point of gaining that wider audience?

Another interesting passage was a discussion of how we interact with the tools we use and how we adapt to them. Carr writes:

"Whenever we use a tool to exert greater control over the outside world, we change our relationship with that world. Control can be wielded only from a psychological distance. In some cases, alienation is precisely what gives a tool its value. We build houses and sew Gore-Tex jackets because we want to be alienated from the wind and the rain and the cold. We build public sewers because we want to maintain a healthy distance from our own filth. Nature isn't our enemy, but neither is it our friend. ...an honest appraisal of any new technology, of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what's lost as well as what's gained. We shouldn't allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we've numbed an essential part of our self."

I just took down probably the largest show I will have in quite a while. With each show I am lucky enough to secure, I am reminded of what gives me the most joy in creating art—the ability for those very few people who do take the time and make some deep connection with it, to understand me and how I see the world. That connection is why I do what I do. It's worth the frustration, the rejection, and the financial strain.

I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking, Ok, so you're not making those connections online. But still, what is the harm, why prevent a potential connection by keeping the images offline?

This is the tougher question to grapple with. But again, in my gut, I feel that by further populating this infinitely large cyber repository of imagery, that I will, in some way, be participating in the perpetuation of this medium of distraction—that in my small way, I will be procreating even more noise, not art, not shared human experiences.

The last thing I want, thirty years from now, when looking back on my life's work, is to conclude that my small contribution to this world has been the numbing of anything—but especially the minds I had hoped to connect with, excite, and inspire.