The Internet is totally Mexcio, but in a bum way. This is how Nathan Barley, the "self-facilitating media node" and eponymous protagonist of Channel 4's 2005 sitcom would describe the net today. The show was famously ahead of its time, in how it portrayed Shoreditch hipster culture, but one thing it didn't predict was how the internet went from a place of amusement to the location of information warfare between nations and the most powerful tool for empowering the far right. All of this would be much too serious of Barley.
For those who haven’t seen the show, it focuses on the hyper-cool, hyper-annoying Nathan Barley who runs the "urban culture dispatch" TrashBack.co.ck (registered in the Cook Islands). He spends every second of his existence promoting his website which, as far as we can tell, hosts monkey animations, endorsements from celebrities and pranks on Barley’s long-suffering techy Pingo. So far all very YouTube, but it captured the innocence and pointlessness of the net in the early to mid-2000s.
If you were to remake Nathan Barley today, it would be a horror show, more like Black Mirror than a surreal comedy. The Internet had gone from a place of idle fun to something that could be quite dangerous. Concerns about its effects go beyond worries about how easy it is to find porn or far-right content. Many criticisms of the net are focused on the design of the platforms that make up the modern Internet.
In the time since Barley has been on our TV, the Internet has come to be dominated by what former Google employee and author James Williams calls the "attention economy". We often refer to the current structure of the Internet as the information economy, but as Williams points out, when data is as abundant as it is online, it is attention that scarce. Thus platforms from iPhones to Facebook and Twitter are designed to capture as much attention as possible. This is the nature of the attention economy, something that is new since Barley's day.
The negative effects of the attention economy are becoming very clear. News has spread that even the people who work for net’s big tech companies, who described them in utopian ways in the past, are limiting their own exposure to the platforms of the attention economy and are preventing their children from using them. Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee, said to the Guardian last year that “our minds can be hijacked.”
One of the key problems from these platforms is how they distract us from what is important by monopolising our attention. Williams described how this happens on a political level in his book Stand Out Of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. In his book, Williams argues how the platforms that make up the attention economy are obscuring the light of our attention. The distraction caused by the attention economy is more than just push notifications and the allure of the red dot above the Facebook icon meaning we can’t concentrate for long enough to write a blog post. It’s much deeper than that.
In this book, Williams describes two, more insidious, ways that that platforms distract us from what is important. The first is that we focus our attention on the metrics of the platforms themselves, instead of our higher goals and values. For example, we all want to connect with our friends and family, which these platforms are supposed to help us achieve, but instead of spending our time on these platforms doing this, a focus on likes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has taken the place of meaningful interactions. Likes are our goal when using these platforms, not the intangible, empirical connection with other human beings. This is because likes can be measured by the platforms and genuine moments of human connection cannot. So the platform's design pushes us towards what it can measure. Our goal has changed from what is important to us to what is important to the platform.
The other way these platforms distract us, identified by Williams, is that by continuing hold our attention they don’t give us time to reflect on what our goals really should be. Is it our intention to connect with the people who follow us on Facebook and Twitter? Or would we be more fulfilled if we spent more like with people off these platforms? Maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t, but it’s impossible to grapple with these questions while we are being constantly distracted by more likes and updates.
This is a very brief summary of one aspect of Williams's analysis of what is wrong with the attention economy and the whole book is really worth reading. For our purposes here, what is important is that these platforms distract us from our personal goals (and from knowing what our goals should be) and give power to those who are best at grabbing our attention. The design of the platforms give power these people through the design choices the platforms’ engineers made as their goal is to hold our attention (and then, usually, show us advertising). This is where Nathan Barley comes in.
Some of the people on these platforms are able to grab our attention by being really shocking. Donald Trump is the king of this, but vile creatures like Milo Yiannopoulos and others of his ilk use the same approach. Some people are good at grabbing attention through comedy, such as the rise of Twitter comedians like Cluedont or whoever is behind Mum’s Net Madness. Some captured our attention through a combination of hyperactivity and easy answers to complicated questions. An example of this is the travel vlogger Nas Daily who grabs people’s attention with footage his amazing travels and inability to keep his arms still while talking to camera.
Nas Daily reminds me of Barley, as he’s basically harmless but really annoying. Nathan Barley (the show, not the character who once thought it was cool put paint caps in his hair because he saw someone else do it) predicted a lot about culture (as well as casting actors like Ben Whishaw, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Ayoade and the members of the Mighty Boosh before they were famous). However, where the show was most ahead of its time was in its predictions about how powerful the ability to get attention will be in the future.
Everyone in Nathan Barley is constantly competing to get attention. From shock merchants like 15Peter20 with his art depicting celebrities urinating, to the staff of Vice-esq magazine Sugar Ape who are constantly loud, brash and irreverent, to the man at one of Barley’s Shoreditch club nights constantly pointing to a photo of himself and shouting “this is me!” That man seems especially prescient.
There are other characters who predict modern online dynamics, such as Sugar Ape’s editor Jonathon Yeah? (he had the question mark was added by deed poll). Yeah? seems to know how stupid all this is but is making a killing out of it all taking place on his platform. Would he rather be editing the Guardian, but this pays better? Does he just want to burn the world to the ground to see what happens next? Hard to tell, but it reminds me of a lot of the people behind the net’s platforms.
There is cynical Dan Ashcroft, who sees that the world has gone mad but is too self-absorbed to do anything about it. There’s also his sister Claire Ashcroft, whose serious documentary about drug addiction and homelessness in London is ignored amongst everyone else’s aggressive, but ultimately empty, self-promotion.
Barley himself is a constant disruptive presence. His goal is to maximise his own exposure and that of his website by getting as much attention as possible; he doesn’t want to achieve any higher goals for himself or anyone else. In the show, no one reflects about this or whether this is the world they want to live in. They’re all distracted by Barley’s latest antics.
In one way, Barley and his world is better than the world we have built for ourselves. Barley doesn’t have any negative intentions. He is very annoying, stupid and disruptive, but he does what he does out pure love for it. Barley is not motivated by a desire to enrich himself or cause harm. Online today, many people are using the platforms of the attention economy to enrich themselves and cause harm to others. Trump and Yiannopoulos are notable examples.
This shows how the net has changed since Barley’s time. From people messing around for pure anarchic fun, to very serious business. Now the usage of the Internet in certain ways is considered an act of war. Barley and people like him (Nas Daily seems like a good modern analogue for Barley, with his attention-grabbing videos and lightweight politics) aren’t seeking to do harm. Even if they are eroding our attention faculties.
The problem is not the Nathan Barley’s of the world, but the companies that own the platforms Barley and his ilk use to grab our attention. They are the ones whose design and business decisions brought us to this point. It is they who are making money out of attacks on our attention and the spread of far-right politics. They are like Jonathon Yeah? who might not agree with all this madness but are willing to make money out of it. Maybe the real villain of Nathan Barley is the long-suffering Pingu, who gives Barley the platform to do what he does.
The fact that money can be made from attacking our attention, to giving a platform to extreme right agent-provocateurs, is why we need better regulation of these platforms. There are certain design aspects of these products that should be restricted, just as we decide that there should be restrictions on products with tobacco in them.
We need to have a conversation about whether we want all our politics to flow through platforms that reward attention monopolising behaviour. We need genuine space free from distraction, to reflect on what our goals from these platforms should be and how we can achieve them, rather than allowing their metrics to dominate and dictate our lives. As James Williams says, we need to think rethink advertising, which is how Barley gets the money to do what he does.
Nathan Barley may be the one standing in the light of our attention (shouting about two people jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11 and fucking on the way down) and distracting us from what is important, but the real problem are the platforms that give him his power. The future doesn’t have to belong to Nathan Barley, if we are willing and able to reflect on what we want it to be.