Making The Internet Bad/Better/Good

Jeremy Ettinghausen, Innovation Director, BBH Labs and London

We’ve carried a torch for Jonathan Harris for years. He is *blush* our No1 internet crush. The fact that our copy of We Feel Fine disappears from the Labs’ office on an almost weekly basis suggests that we’re not the only fans in the building. His richly crafted online storytelling combined with the intelligence and self-awareness displayed whenever he talks about his work make him a fine and rare exemplar of a thinker and maker. Obviously, we were gutted when he wrote honestly and sensitively about his creative block and waited eagerly for happier news.

Image from We Feel Fine

So you can imagine our excitement when an email announcing a new project hit our inbox late on Tuesday night. This piece, a collaboration with Greg Hochmuth, was inspired by a poem called What the Living Do. Working with the idea of ‘simultaneity’, Harris and Hochmuth sourced 10,000 two second video clips covering the gamut of human behaviour, and tried to arrange these moments into something beautiful. And then, after four months of work, they decided to abandon the project.

We had set out to make a project about our common humanity, but we felt less human than ever. And then we realized: maybe our project is not a celebration of human beauty, but a portrait of human delusion — an exploration of the Internet’s psychological effect on humanity.
From Network Effect, courtesy of the artist

So, the collaborators ‘pivoted’, layering the video with soundscapes created from 10,000 tweets read aloud over cellphones by Mechanical Turk workers, data visualizations created from Google Books, Google News headlines and much more to create Network Effect, ‘a scientifically accurate yet basically absurd’ snapshot of the human condition. A snapshot of the human condition as presented on the internet and worshiped ‘by the cult of big data’, that is.

In his email discussing the project Harris writes;

The Internet is a miraculous tool, but all too often, it affects us like a drug. Many of its popular apps, news websites, and social networks have been carefully designed to addict and distract, so they can harvest human attention like the natural resource it is. “Keep searching and you will discover,” these services seem to proclaim, but the deepest truths cannot be found by searching — and you will not find them in data, in videos, or in images of other people’s lives.

And to reinforce this message, Networks Effect is only viewable for each user for short time each day, proportional to the life expectancy in their country. With this curiously satisfying restriction Harris is saying that to spend any more attention on vicarious human experience, rather than actually L-I-V-I-N’, might well be a waste of the short time on earth we have.

From Network Effect, courtesy of the artist

Network Effect, in conjunction with Harris’ thinking about his piece, is a profound and inspiring statement. Considering it, I was reminded of something a friend, a digital creative at another agency, once said to me: ‘Every day when I come into work I try to make the internet a little better.’ She has since admitted something we all probably feel— that this isn’t easy. Clients and creative agencies are not invested in a better internet — work that creates fame and impact and makes a difference and meets KPIs and fulfills campaign goals and raises brand metrics and helps businesses grow is, after all, the business we’re in.

From Network Effect, courtesy of the artist

But we talk often about ‘creativity for good’ and we know that work which makes the world better delivers on both client and consumer agendas. So why not work that makes the internet better? Maybe great work and a better internet are not always incompatible. And maybe, every now and again, perhaps over a round of drinks, or in the heady early days of a pitch, or in the wee small hours of the morning, we can ask ourselves ‘How can I make the internet better today?’.

After spending my daily allocation of eight minutes and one second with Network Effect, this is the question that comes to mind.