Perception, time, social acceleration and visual storytelling

How social and technological acceleration is changing the way we are, and how it changes the way we conceive content creation and storytelling.

This article is an adaptation of a keynote recently held at MIB School of Management. Here you can check the slides

As a visual storyteller, I research on new ways of conveying human emotions in different media, specially in the digital one. My job is to create content, which is nothing but mental representations through images and sounds, to make you either remember something or learn something new. I combine art, strategy and technology in order to do that.
For a while, this was enough. But nowadays there’s an extra problem: the reduction of attention span in hands of technological acceleration.
Regardless of the content, here’s no way of conveying a message without the receiver’s attention. So how do we solve this problem? In order to do that, we need to go to the basics: What is attention and what happens with it in our times of social and technological acceleration?

Off the ground

Last year I was in Portugal, in the Evora region. I was on a balloon, shooting a campaign for Carrera .
The shooting was very complex due to the nature of a balloon ride. There were many things happening at the same time that needed to be covered in a very short span of time.
I was so concentrated on what i was doing that I only realized I was in the air well into the flight. In my mind, I got there almost automagically.
It was then that I thought that this was happening very often, and it wasn’t a good thing. I also realized I wasn’t the only one, the other participants were shooting videos and photos too.

I grew a sort of fascination by that feeling, and the idea kept bouncing in my head, until I stumbled upon the works of Donald Hoffman and Marc Wittman.

Hoffman is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, and he passed the last three decades studying perception.
He came to an incredible yet scientifically accurate conclusion: our perceptions are not an accurate portrayal of reality, but instead an interpretation based on fitness functions.


That leaves us with the question: What does he mean with fitness functions?
To explain what it is he gives the example of the Desktop interface. We see an icon on a screen, let’s say of a document. We see it square, blue, with a bend, and it’s in the top left corner. These categories are only available for us, but none of them are true about the file itself, or anything in the computer. The desktop is useful, but hides a complex reality that we don’t need to know.

In other words, our perception was shaped by evolution. We see a tiger, we run. If we see all the complexities behind and think about them, we get eaten. We see a snake, and what we are actually seeing is a visual representation of one, and not the snake. The concept of a snake is a mental representation of it. But it’s not all that a snake is.

In media strategy and visual storytelling this is the hardest concept for people and specially clients to understand, because in order to tell a story we need to convey a useful perception in a short time. We work with “icons”, and clients panic because they would rather tell complex realities that the audience doesn’t really have to know. That’s what user experience is about as well, and that’s what the phrase “less is more” means.

There’s no spoon

Until now, this concept belonged almost exclusively to new age and science fiction. But today it’s actually a fact closer to hard physics (broadly supported by quantum physics).

Right now, if you haven’t lost your patience, you might be asking. “Ok, you are talking about perception, but what any of this has to do with attention?” Well, this is where Wittmann’s gets in the big picture..

Wittman is a german psycologist who specializes in the perception of the fourth dimension: time.
In “Felt time: The psycology of how we perceive time”, Wittmann explores how also time is subjective, and our perception of it defines many of our main characteristics as a being.

He starts from a simple concept: Presence.

What is presence? It’s being aware of a physical and psychic self that is temporally extended. It’s recognizing oneself in time and context.

Wittman then gets technical and explains how self-consciousness emerges from the practice of presence that is tied of neural activity in the brain’s insular lobe.

This is just a scientific demonstration of something that was already stated by Heidegger and Hannah Arendt in phenomenological philosophy. Self and time are one. My perceptions contain me.
Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality. I experience myself on a body over time.

And this is when we get back to the balloon.

The consequence of our productivity-centered culture and the chronic busyness in which we live, are a direct threat against ourselves.

If one has no time, one has also lost oneself.

Nowadays everything is done all at once, faster and faster, yet no personal balance or meaning can be found. And our identity gets eroded.

Wittmann remarks another discovery in time perception: time seems to slow down when we recollect more memories, and events are subject to more frequent and detailed recollection when they are connected with feelings.

“The episodes in our lives that we remember depend of the feelings we associate with them”

Our set of memories makes us who we are. And this happens because each memory is in a way a mental representation of a kind of knowledge. Combining and building them up we become who we are, and we become more or less able to perceive more or less reality.

That points out another big question: What happens if we outsource our memory recollection to our digital memory?

Sociotechnological acceleration is driving us to a sort of temporal myopia: attention spans get shorter and shorter, and life feels faster than it actually is. We get bombarded by stimuli, in a very short span of time.

This is another challenge for visual storytellers, specially with medium and small accounts, because people is used to think about content in a linear way, with a beginning and an end, instead of a neverending story. Actually, the new digital media resembles life in that matter. Today we need to create content strategically, in a way that can be fragmented, recycled and specially intertwined. And we must do this emotionally, to avoid oblivion.

The media community already reacted to this, with the phenomenon of “serialization”. The boom of webseries, series and their transmedia declination are a direct answer to the way we consume content today.

Even films are serialized now, just think of sagas like LOTR, and the work in phases being done by the mayors with DC and Marvel.

Yet for small and medium companies this concept, when explained, might not be understood, or even interpreted as a an attempt to grow the scope of a project, when in reality it is just the way things must be done in order to get some ROI.

So why technological acceleration becomes a problem? Well, because to create new meanings we need time. To strike the emotional chord we need attention. And if we don’t we can’t create new knowledge, alas, we can’t grow.

Back in the balloon, why did I feel this was a problem? Well because I get hired not only because I’m good at using a camera, or editing, or telling a story. I get hired because I manage to empathize, I get to relate with my context and translate what I see (visual representation) into mental representations. So if I lose the feeling of presence, I lose myself.

With a brand the same thing happens. I see tons of clients every week coming up “adviced” to do this, or that. Make a video, make a podcast, make an Instagram campaign. Make a long video, make a short video. Use a drone. Use slow motion. Make it 4k. Everybody is desperate to tackle the problem of attention with the “next best thing”, but nobody focus on the core problem.

And here I must quote Joshua Topolsky, who wrote:

Video will not save your media business. Nor will bots, newsletters, a “morning briefing” app, a “lean back” iPad experience, Slack integration, a Snapchat channel, or a great partnership with Twitter. All of these things together might help, but even then, you will not be saved by the magical New Thing that everyone else in the media community is convinced will be the answer to The Problem.

Your problem is that you make shit. A lot of shit. Cheap shit. And no one cares about you or your cheap shit. And an increasingly aware, connected, and mutable audience is onto your cheap shit. They don’t want your cheap shit. They want the good shit. And they will go to find it somewhere. Hell, they’ll even pay for it.

Advisors tell to make this or that campaign, to take this or that road. But non of them are advice them to be themselves.

Being yourself means being aware and proud of your identity, and the shifts in it. It means not being afraid to show who you are.
Being yourself means to open up. And specially embrace your present, and share it in a conveying and creative way. Not trying to sell, but trying to be understood. The selling will happen on its own.

So that is my question. Are you still yourself?
Do you take time to see where you are? What are you doing? Are you really sharing it with someone? If not, do it now. It will payoff.

You can read the articles that inspired this one in my recommended readings on Pocket

This keynote will become a video: If you want to be notified leave your email below!

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