Hooked: Addiction on Screen at The Science Gallery
Hooked: Addiction on Screen at The Science Gallery

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Hooked: Addiction on Screen at The Science Gallery

Emerging from a gallery, London Bridge’s latest opening, I notice with a pang of alarm that my phone battery has descended into the sub 20% zone. Panic: my entire Friday evening may now fall apart, at the mercy of a blinking red light.

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HOOKED, Science Gallery London (Entering the Machine Zone II by Katriona Beales) © Alex Lloyd

We depend on that little screen to get from A to B, to find our friends in a bar heaving with post-work revellers, to share an Instagram story at regular intervals to be re-played the following morning over coffee. Each time we receive a love-heart red notification, our sense of self-worth temporarily swells a little. You may try to resist, but it is undeniably flattering. Translated: your friends, family, onlookers find you and your life interesting, desirable even. Ping! WhatsApp hiccups with its announcement of news. YOU have attention. Our ever-present smart phones are conduits to the external validation we snowflakey millennials (and everyone else besides) crave. In a standard 24-hour period, segueing from real-word socializing to its virtual twin, social media’s role is irrefutable.

Ping! WhatsApp hiccups with its announcement of news.

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HOOKED, Science Gallery London (AGAIN by Lawrence Epps) © Alex Lloyd

When was the last time you stopped to consider if you could get through your day without a smart phone? Or that you did a sort of social-media-Monzo and totted up the daily number of minutes you spend on connectivity apps? Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to roll out ‘time well spent’ features on Facebook and Instagram speaks volumes, although critics doubt this monitoring capacity will beget any real deterrent effect. It’s down to us not to scroll our lives away.

Think about the lexis for a second. ‘I Whatsapped you. Facebook me when you get home. I’ll Google it.’ Meanwhile, ‘insta-ready’ implies that the quality of an experience is measured by how much real-world effort we need to apply to shift that experience up a gear and into the ever-more important digital realm. Silicon Valley’s tech-giants have somewhat insidiously slithered into our everyday vocabulary. Decoded, this means we hang our lives, albeit subconsciously, around the functionalities that technology permits. In 2014, the Chinese city of Chongqing went so far as divide their pavement into two: one lane for smart phone users, the other for regular pedestrians. While the endeavour was largely met with domestic and international ridicule, it signals that technology’s virtual presence is shaping not only how humans think, but how we physically move – usually the preserve of evolution.

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HOOKED, Science Gallery London (Sisyphus by Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos) © Alex Lloyd

Technology, specifically smart phones, represent a psycho-social phenomenon that has radically altered social interaction, how our brains work and our human potential. Are we aware of the full-scale impact such technology has on our lives? And how we will we interact with technology in the future? Cue Hooked, an exhibition about addiction. Drugs. Alcohol. Gambling. Sugar. The usual suspects are considered. But it is the 21st century addiction – technology – where boundaries are most blurred. Who can define when pleasure becomes reliance and when reliance plummets into full-blown addiction? In an unlikely but highly successful pairing, the exactitude of science, gathered by researchers at King’s College London, jumps into bed with abstract art.

A bank of monitors pulsate with more than twenty ‘low power’ warning signs: this is Sisyphus, by Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos. Each uncalibrated television screen skips between green, orange and an angry red, their battery logos flickering agitatedly like short-circuited traffic lights. The bleeping screens scream at me to act – urgently. Life support needed, plug me in or I’ll DIE! I consider a heart-shaped battery symbol whose pixelated blood is speedily draining from its electronic ventricles; an emergency ward, where the irregular beep of a cardiac monitor indicates a patient’s critical condition. The exhibit is anxiety-inducing, and my instinct is to leave – quite rightly so, it seems. Power anxiety is a real thing. It even has a name: nomophobia – short for no-mobile-phone-phobia, the state of being beyond mobile contact. This worryingly short journey, from inanimate object to affective influencer, begs the question: are we controlled by our devices? Does the energy status displayed on our screens really dictate a parasympathetic reaction? While No Power Panic might be rooted in something rational (a missed social arrangement, practical difficulties of travelling home, the boredom of a Spotify-free journey), anxious fretting is a sure-fire sign of dependence rather than a response to inconvenience. It’s all starting to look a bit pathological.

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Me. You. Limbo. © Yole Quintero (2018)

‘I am talking to you. I am doing what you asked me to do.’ A disembodied voice comes from a hypnotic, blue-tinged screen, speaking in artificial intelligence’s jarring tones (think Spy Kids robot, not upbeat Alexa). Just as Spike Jonze considered the possibility of real-life romance with an AI robot in his film ‘Her’, artist Yole Quintero creates a rom-tech narrative: a smart-phone user is in love with her device. The dependence/rejection relationship her user experiences (the double entendre of user is glaring here) is akin to the stormy love-hate relationship of an unstable couple. The user’s emotional schizophrenia plays out across the split screen while Quintero’s choice of title ‘Me, You, Limbo’ points to a darker side of addiction, lows which follow the highs an addict chases.

Make no mistake, I am no luddite. I’m distracted by my smart phone, tapping away as obsessively as the next person. But the personification of technology in Hooked places the start of dependency’s slippery slope much closer to home than I’d considered. Imbuing technology with identity, as in artificial intelligence, underscores a dependence we don’t normally humanise. Inflected with emotion, Hooked throws our collective relationship with technology into sharp, uncomfortable relief.

The Children’s Society reports that the score of self-reported happiness for girls aged 11-15 dropped from 8.2 in 2010 to 7.8 in 2016.

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Feed Me (2015), © Rachel Maclean

Maybe we had an inkling all along. A recent spike in the wellness industry saw it valued at $3.72 trillion dollars in 2016 and still soaring. Data detox, digital detox, hotels that operate a mandatory phone amnesty upon arrival – the need for adults to (literally) switch off is so overwhelming that a whole branch of industry is booming. But what about children? Their malleable brains adapt with alacrity to a world accessed through smart phones. In her film ‘Feed me’ Rachel Maclean invites us to take a long hard look at teens and screens. Maclean’s dystopian world of frilly-frocked, closely-monitored girls only permits access to fun and friendship via all-seeing, smiley faced emoticons. Thematically disquieting and visually discordant, the rhubarb and custard coloured baby-dolls speak only in broken, text language that revolves around the words ‘cute, true and happy.’ Maclean’s film exposes social media’s paradox: broadcasting Happiness and Satisfaction through sunny filters only breeds unhappiness; dissatisfaction. Counterintuitively, social media tends to breed loneliness. The Children’s Society reports that the score of self-reported happiness for girls aged 11-15 dropped from 8.2 in 2010 to 7.8 in 2016. Already the absorption of smart phones into teenagers’ lives has the potential to shatter self-esteem, body image and companionship. Meanwhile, society continues to condone and feed the addiction at the crux of the issue. Maclean satirises how, as with any drug, technology’s ups – instant gratification and hyper-connectivity – have their corresponding pitfalls.

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Please Don't Like This © Jonah Brucker-Cohen

Down come the walls defining our perceptions of addiction. Hooked provokes self-assessment anew: you are as much the subject of one exhibit as someone needing their baggie of heroin is another. If we pause long enough to think carefully about where our boundaries for technology ought to lie – where dopamine pathways begin to encroach on the pain brain – there’s an infinite amount of entertainment and information to be revelled in and grateful for. The first step, as they say, is admitting you have a problem.

By Claire McQue.


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