Times of famine: Lost in search of privacy and reflection

Ms Lorraine Thornquist, Director of Creative Arts

Shifting paradigms of time and privacy in recent years are overturning our assumptions about place and space in our lives. Is our personal privacy no longer a ‘social norm’ as founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg (2010), has been reported saying? Nobody is going to dispute that in the developed world we live in a pressure cooker of relentless and tangled claims on our time and attention with a level of exposure to personal scrutiny through social media and surveillance such as we might not have imagined twenty years ago.

The dissolution of privacy is a significant and potentially troubling outcome of our fast digital age where filters have all but disappeared. In an article featured in the June 2014 issue of The Monthly entitled ‘The End of Secrets’, Linda Jaivan (2014) postulated that the boundaries of privacy have ‘radically shifted’. She discusses the overwhelming presence of online and bureaucratic surveillance as evidence that we have lost our access and indeed our rights to private lives — private thoughts, even. Frank Pasquale (2015) wrote of the algorithms that disturbingly invade our lives behind the online scenes to produce profiles on us which could be used in many ways unknown to and unforeseen by us. He titled his recent article (rather ominously) ‘Digital star chamber’.

Not only has privacy lost its long-held meaning, but we also face the incessant call from the crowded and ever-changing digital world invading our time. Barry Schwartz (2014), Professor of Psychology at the prestigious Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, believes we live in an age of ‘attention deficit’ and speaks of ‘diminished attention’ as the ailment of our era. Schwartz believes we are complicit and compliant in allowing this to develop and we are creating a culture of acceptance of the glib and the superficial, ignoring the rich complexity of our world and our lives.

In the view of Schwartz, accepting this trend is a mistake of the first order since we risk losing the strength of our ‘attention muscle’ which, like any muscle, loses tone when neglected and unused. We are losing the experience of the ‘long and complex’. When facing the demanding issues of this century we will need all the strength of the attention muscle, not just in those who will be making the ultimate decisions at a national and international level, but in the wider population — those of us that must accept and accommodate complex decisions as they deeply affect our lives.

Acclaimed senior Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (2013) knows only too well the loss of privacy in his times of imprisonment and house arrest when he has endured constant and multiple instances of surveillance. His despair at the loss of privacy is also a cultural despair which he believes has profound cultural implications. In an article he wrote for The Guardian in 2013, he contended: ‘that is why China is far behind the world in important respects: even though it has become so rich, it trails behind in terms of passion, imagination and creativity’.

Passion, imagination and creativity. Individual and cultural identity, our wellbeing as individuals and as a culture are nourished and sustained by these qualities that reside in us but are often marginalised by the superficial and quotidian that crowd the centre stage in our working and personal lives and, importantly, in our minds.

Just what is happening in our minds, in our brains, in a 24/7 open world is now being explored in the realm of neuroscience. Brain imaging has given neuroscientists a powerful tool to go ‘live’ in researching what happens in our brains, to map and investigate the physical, social and intellectual capacities and changes in the brain as we navigate the fast and furious highway of contemporary living. Learning relies on the mindfulness of stillness and of privacy and these have profound effects on thought, emotion and cognition. Studies in neuroscience show evidence that the expressive, affective and cognitive skills and capacities in students develop through their engagement in learning in the arts. Against the onslaught of ‘hurry sickness’ and amid the sometime chaos of multi-tasking and 140-character tweets, we should look no further than the arts as a means of countering these trends of ‘diminished attention’ and the erosion of privacy.

Reflectiveness is embodied in the arts, and complements the rich sensory nature of the arts where sustained focus and attention, bringing us into the moment, are inherent qualities and capacities. The arts compel diligence and persistence, the discipline of contemplation and private moments and help to cultivate patience to work through repetition as well as areas of uncertainty and shifting parameters, to resolve contradictions in complexity. The realm of thoughtfulness can be harnessed to foster social skills including vital capacities in a complex world such as conflict resolution and empathy that promote a wider and more philosophical and ethical view of the world. The arts communicate out of the ideas and forms that have their origins in private reflection.

‘Unitasking’ is what we should aim for, according to neuroscientist and author Daniel Levitin (2014), with sustained focus as a more efficient, effective, productive and rewarding approach. Being in the moment, having the capacity to touch and care for our inner self, to encourage that stillness and focus within us, is the means to building that ‘attention muscle’ that Schwartz speaks of. If the mind is wandering, it is wandering in the moment of passion, imagination and creativity, those elements of humanity that Ai Weiwei mourns as lost in his culture. For the individual, it is a private moment. For the group, it is their shared privacy that builds trust.

The role of the arts in the cognitive, social and emotional development of students has become something of a priority field for scientific research that is still young and open-ended, whether it be neuroscience or neuroaesthetics. Such deep questions and propositions concerning the arts and our brain and who we are in the world may not be definitively answered in the short term but each piece of the puzzle, fitted in, adds weight to the argument for a substantial arts education.

In the meantime, while the arts equal passion, engagement, hard work, and often serve to shock us into the present, they can at the same time be about powering down in a hyper-connected world, a moment to untangle, a victory over attention deficit, a place to recover our privacy, a space to enrich and appreciate and grow our human experience, our intellect and our humanity.


Jaivan, L. (2014, June). The end of secrets. The Monthly. Retrieved from https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/june/1401544800/linda-jaivin/end-secrets?utm_source=Friends+of+the+Monthly&utm_campaign=4103df725d-FOTM_Highlights_June_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fa67724caf-4103df725d-302729373

Levitin, D. (2015, January). Thinking straight in the age of information overload.
Retrieved from http://daniellevitin.com/publicpage/videos/all-videos/

Pasquale, F. (2015, August). Digital star chamber. Aeon. Retrieved from http://aeon.co/magazine/

Schwartz, B. (2013, November 1). Attention deficit. Australian Financial Review. Retrieved from http://www.afr.com/business/health/students-need-to-learn-the-skill-of-paying-attention-20131031-j0748

Weiwei, A. (2013, June 11). NSA surveillance: the US is behaving like China. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/11/nsa-surveillance-us-behaving-like-china

Zuckerberg, M. (2010, January 11). Privacy no longer a social norm, says Facebook founder. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/jan/11/facebook-privacy