The death of depth

Speed is for machines, not for humans

Marta Di Francesco
11 min readDec 15, 2016

First published as a shorter article on July 2013, extended in December 2016.

  1. Simplicity as unknowledgeable FAST information = Superficiality.

Simplicity has a virtue over complexity: it’s quick, understood by the masses and it’s usually hailed as the closest to the idea of truth. As Walt Whitman once said “simplicity is the glory of expression”.

But ‘good’ simplicity is hard to produce: synthesizing a complex thought in a few words is a delicate, chemistry-like, process.

In digital media and on social networks, this simplicity — rather than an expression — has become a way, a conduit to process everything from information to experience; meaning that misused and decontextualized simplicity is becoming superficiality; simplicity replaces complexity to respond to the constant relentless demands of fast information consumption and flow of the spectacle.

At stake is the disintegration of critical thinking.

Information on social media sees the perpetuation of a double mirroring effect, that allows constant opinion reinforcements and stereotypes, augmenting people’s beliefs and falsely confirming their prejudices, in a process where the subject gets mirrored in itself, diluting its meaning ad infinitum.

In the words of Pierpaolo Pasolini “Being Dead is not being unable to communicate, but being misunderstood”.

Quick and loud soundbites prevail over complex and constructed thoughts that require research and context. The confusion that comes from the plethora of sounds and images, is partially to blame for the recent rise in fake news.

Facebook is one of the biggest news distributors on the planet, deciding what 1.5 billion see every day: its modus operandi was deemed responsible for the spread of fake news and influenced voters in the American election.

Context and research are important for acquiring information.

This continuous quick scrolling and scanning of headlines, and the lack of regulations and accountability by media sources and platforms, are responsible for this, as well as the lack of time to research and dig into the source.

“2016: The Disinformation Highway.” (William Gibson, 2016)

2. From Simplicity to Images: Thumbnails rule.

The prevailing presence of images and thumbnails over words is part of the problem. This one-click thumbnail, a quick off glance. All the infinite space this information, these articles, posters, messages, pop ups have means that there is less space for each one of them, fighting for traffic and social attention.

There are books of course, but books cannot replace live journalism or editorials. We are moving too quickly to analyse in depth and with measure. Our words and mostly images — in the society of spectacle — need to fight catatonically and exasperatedly against each other to emerge, stay afloat, shouting and gasping for air.

Images prevail over words for speed and efficiency. Images are easier to absorb and do not require the extra imagination and thinking that comes from reading words. Images are more direct, but they are also more passive than words. Words require effort of abstraction and imagination.

Visual domination resonates with passivity, ambiguity and lack of critical engagement.

Even in politics, this is becoming quite evident. In the run up to the Brexit referendum, Farage’s poster of a queue of refugees with the tagline Breaking Point, was arguably a lot simpler, louder and stronger than any opposition tagline. A great article on Hyperallergic illustrates how a strong visual message can be so deceptive and attention grabbing. Recently there was also an article on The Guardian, talking about this phenomenon in social media is shaping politics, and vice versa.

Soundbites are stronger than elaborate thoughts, which carry nuances and subtleties — and exceptions — and right-wing politicians are making great use of these soundbites; they simplify in a disturbing way that reminds of dictatorship propaganda, such as used by the Nazis.

We all now accept that selfishness and competition is at the basis of what we do, as human species and as economic system: this is the Anthropocene era.

The awareness of it should not lead to an absolute endorsement of it; prioritising the end over the meaning, the message. The message is now always the one that needs to be the loudest, the smartest, the quickest. And this often comes at the cost of it being incomplete, untested and superficial.

3. Loss of literacy.

We build our knowledge and experience of the world through meaning and context. The meaning is now becoming diluted by the lack of context and clouded by the information and misinformation overflow.

Algorithms can perform quick, smart operations. Tweet bots can efficiently cover a story. What they can’t do is to use human values of judgement and critical analysis.

Algorithms also do not deal with thinking, and its mix of emotional complexities. Moreover, algorithms are not neutral, I will explain a little more of that, later.

The speed with which we are required to publish, respond, follow and read images and words, is not in tune with the time we require as individuals to analyse the message, and critically look and research its context and meaning.

A recent great article on Bloomberg talks extensively about this, defining Trump, as the first president of our Post literate Age:

…In his most famous work, “Orality and Literacy,” Ong examined how the invention of reading and writing fundamentally changed human consciousness. He argued that the written word wasn’t just an extension of the spoken word, but something that opened up new ways of thinking — something that created a whole new world… Evan Spiegel, the chief executive officer of Snap Inc., grasped the new oral dynamics of social media when he told the Wall Street Journal: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realise is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”

Writing and reading is harder than producing and consuming images.

We are sacrificing literacy on order to be as fast as an upload or a scroll, preferring images to words, and therefore entering a new era of thinking, communicating and consuming information.

In a 2013 interview, computing pioneer Alan Kay explains that ‘perspective is worth 80 IQ points’.

What he means is that intelligence is nothing without reflection, that knowledge is worthless without context. We need time in our lives to understand what the things we read and hear mean to us. We need to create space for our brain to put them in context.

The biggest changes in our society have been changes in our context: reading and writing, the change in modern science, philosophy.

These have changed the way we look at the world.

Inventions are great. However, they are not moral but they can have moral consequences. Learning context and awareness is key to change and progress.

4. Death of depth

Speed is for machines, not for humans.

We need time to read a lengthy article, and time to cast an informed opinion, before judging and sharing our bold statement across the social space, where other people can immediately react to it after a shallow a quick glance at the headline.

Everyone has a voice and it should be heard — seamlessly that voice should be ideally factual, informed and mindful, as much as possible. The effort nowadays, seems to have gone lost, replaced by the need to replay as quickly and as loudly as possible to emerge above the many.

Acquiring a right, balanced and in depth knowledge, in today’s politically and commercially led media and skewed editorials is hard and one requires an investigative and critical mind to filter and decode the facts from one-sided opinions.

Time is key to this critical ability.

I was talking with a friend recently, who told me how they missed the time when the news would be on every 3 hours or so — and you had to wait for updates. Time does indeed allow for space, and space for thoughts. The impact on journalism is unforgiving.

5. Time

Time is central to Capital.

Social networks and digital information is atemporal, whilst finance is temporal. Information flow is restless and atemporal, which means that it becomes de-contextualised and difficult to be analysed.

As human beings, we should be using technology to take care of what we can not do: complex mathematical models. Instead we are trying to emulate technology by trying to be fast, efficient, infallible and precise.

But as human beings we are fallible, slow, fuzzy, fluid. And we can change our mind.

We should use technology for what it really is: a tool. As a tool, it should be used to carry complex calculations and mathematical calculus, as opposed to permeate our cultural exchange for example.

Computers and machines should be working for us — liberating us with free time, that we can use to become better, enlightened human beings. Dedicating time to spend it with people we love and to express ourselves, our humanity, compassion and creativity, through science, philosophy, arts. Time to break free from the rising inequality and deliberate concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a select few.

Instead, companies and corporations are selling us technologies to supposedly help us managing and saving time. In reality they appropriate themselves of our time and create a loop of void where alienation comes from the inability to distance ourselves from the relentless digital rhythm and the spectacle of living.

A critical spirit is needed and more than ever, it is threatened at the convenience of a digital capitalistic system, where machines helps the system running us and not the other way around.

Someone may argue this article is another example of shallow information— but this article does not want to be a claim, but rather a speculation. We need to stay away and be aware, in my opinion, of those who use technology to have claims of truth.

We should not leave depth to technology. Algorithms are not Neutral.

This speed with which we become part of the digital assembly line of the social network, where we, as data and the information we produce and consume is capital, is the fast pulse of the digital capitalism.

“We are the fodder, the resource from which value is extracted.” (Beverly Skeggs, 2016)

The digital speed provides a continuous distraction from thinking, from taking the time, from critically stopping to think and taking action, as opposed to be a passive clicking spectator.

I am definitely feeling huge discomfort in the announcement of Google’s Truth Algorithm. Algorithms are programmed by human beings, and in this case, by human beings working for a one of the biggest corporations on the planet. Artificial intelligence is the will and the intelligence of the programmers behind it.

AI is not neutral.

And seeing all the major corporations like Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft getting together to fund an AI Partnership to benefit people and society, makes me scared and worried. Leaving to the technology the ownership of facts and truth is a scary dystopian reality.

If lack of depth in information results in the easy reinforcement of a shallow information distributed by a digital technocracy at the service of a capitalistic system where we are not longer thinking individuals but information and data — dividuals — and where we are no longer able to use our critical mind, we become illiterate and intellectually dependent, and our ability to elaborate deep cultural exchanges is essentially neutralised.

“Companies have many objectives that have nothing to do with truth and beauty”. (Alan Kay 2013)

The speed with which technology is taking over our privacy, our data and our lives is incremental. It is important to be aware of it and to regain a healthy distance an independence from it. Technology‘s biggest promise is to save us time, but the time that is saved is time that is engaged with tending to the big constructed desire of material happiness portrayed and reinforced by the spectacle loop.

“In its most advanced sector, concentrated capitalism orients itself towards the sale of “completely equipped” blocks of time, each one constituting a single unified commodity which integrates a number of diverse commodities….

Consumable pseudo-cyclical time is spectacular time, both as the time of consumption of images in the narrow sense, and as the image of consumption of time in the broad sense. The time of image-consumption, the medium of all commodities, is inseparably the field where the instruments of the spectacle exert themselves fully, and also their goal, the location and main form of all specific consumption: it is known that the time-saving constantly sought by modern society, whether in the speed of vehicles or in the use of dried soups, is concretely translated for the population of the United States in the fact that the mere contemplation of television occupies it for an average of three to six hours a day. The social image of the consumption of time, in turn, is exclusively dominated by moments of leisure and vacation, moments presented at a distance and desirable by definition, like every spectacular commodity. Here this commodity is explicitly presented as the moment of real life, and the point is to wait for its cyclical return. But even in those very moments reserved for living, it is still the spectacle that is to be seen and reproduced, becoming ever more intense. What was represented as genuine life reveals itself simply as more genuinely spectacular life.

And it continues..

The spectacle, as the present social organization of the paralysis of history and memory, of the abandonment of history built on the foundation of historical time, is the false consciousness of time. The preliminary condition required for propelling workers to the status of “free” producers and consumers of commodity time was the violent expropriation of their own time. The spectacular return of time became possible only after this first dispossession of the producer.

(Society of the Spectacle, 1967 Guy Debord)

The above paragraph is particularly future facing, if we notice how social networks and digital media recreate this idea of new consumable time made up by images that counter oppose reality.

Time is needed to educate ourselves and understand the context. And not to be continually distracted, where the distraction is synonym with images consumption and loss of time consciousness.

There’s a lot of discussion around algorithms and deep learning and I feel there should be equally a lot of discussion around the loss of written literacy and the fact that, as humans experiencing this new speed and mode of exchanging information, in the effort of keeping up with every post, update, snapchat, we are becoming more vulnerable.

This speed also affects our work practice, our lifestyle, our consciousness. I don’t think it’s possible to deny also a link between mental illnesses and technology.

We are witnessing an increasing spread of ignorance and loss of literacy. Whilst machines are deepening the vertical knowledge, we are systematically learning less and less by keeping up with every piece of quick, superficial, horizontal knowledge.

As human beings we should reclaim our right to be slow, our right — yes! to deep human learning and our right to regain our TIME.

Finally, what defines us most as human beings, is our mortality. Time is our most precious gift.

Only by regaining time, can we have enough room and space for critical thinking, for taking action, for progress and real change; and not be reduced to hamsters on the wheel of spectacle, flicked by the fingers of digital capitalism.