Arming its audience with binaural headphones, Wet Picnic’s I’d Be Lost Without It focuses on contemporary addiction to smartphones and the inverse relationship between ‘connection’ – on a virtual level – and ‘disconnect’ – on a human one. The piece lacks focus though, and if one can extract a point-of-view, everything feels more than a little well-worn.
I’d Be Lost Without It is bold, perhaps, in its endeavour to shed new light on a topic that feels somewhat extensively explored already. Wet Picnic’s promenade and quasi-interactive piece builds on the canon of work that’s emerged since the early 2010’s (The Nether debuted five years ago for instance – almost to the day), again taking the inverse relationship between virtual connection and ‘human’ (to use a somewhat loaded word) disconnection as its starting point.
The piece exhibits relatively high production values – arming the audience with the fun and increasingly popular binaural headphones that allow for different individuals to be relayed different information and instructions, and illuminating the six-strong cast with a notably assured and impressive lighting design from Jonathan Samuels. The conceit’s promising enough too, facilitating plenty of opportunities for light-hearted interactivity. We’re greeted as if attending a ‘seminar’, where we’ll learn exactly how to prosper and achieve ‘fulfillment’ in the digital age.
I’d Be Lost Without It ironically gets a bit lost, though, in its failure to pick a focused and achievable aspect of ‘cyberpsychology’ to home in on. In its mission to cover off so many (albeit intersectional) themes – addiction to tech, hunger for virtual appreciation, anxiety deriving from social media, dangers of the content accessible to us, benefits of the wealth of information at our fingertips and the virtual space’s potential to exploit the vulnerable, to name just a few – nothing’s really afforded ample room for reflection or thought. As a result of this, the piece ends up feeling notably slight – lacking the far more specific points of focus that made plenty of work within this vein (Teh Internet is Serious Business, The Nether, wonder.land, The Brothers Are But Believers, even very low-key fringe offerings like AI Love You) far more effectual.
Wet Picnic definitely touches on some interesting and even under-explored points within the 60-minute work: I was particularly drawn to the thread, for instance, interested in the ways the internet can exploit, or prey, on the vulnerable. We’re briefly introduced to Jenny, a working-class single parent wooed into the online gambling world for the entirely innocent reason of wanting to be able to appease her young daughter on her birthday. The problem is Jenny disappears into darkness almost as soon as this information is relayed – and the cumulation of all these fleeting moments often leave the piece feeling as transient, and even trivial, as the internet memes that occasionally ‘interrupt’ the action.
A large amount of I’d Be Lost Without It feels like well-worn territory; the act of swiping through eligible bachelors is physicalised for example in a scene that gets a cheap laugh but most won’t help but feel they’ve seen it before. The reasoning, or even thesis – considering the show’s occupation with the academia underpinning it, behind moments like these also strike me as a little surface-level. Although I assume the ‘swiping’ sequence intends to draw attention to the fickleness of online dating behaviour, wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to actually point out that the way we used to narrow down our matches (prior to Tinder) really wasn’t much different. We still made split-second decisions about who to approach, who to reject, in bars and clubs based on little more than appearance anyway. So if anything, doesn’t Tinder just acknowledge that we are, by nature, fickle – rather than being the root cause of it?
To this end, the piece also feels somewhat lacking in an overall point-of-view – and if you can extract one, it’s not exactly something you haven’t heard before. I do wonder if we need to be told, any more, that it’s possible to become addicted to technology. We’re provided with supporting notes from an academic explaining her findings in more detail, but I doubt they’ll surprise or provoke many – particularly the predominantly millennial audience in attendance. (Side-point, but unless I heard wrong, there’s a slightly baffling stat used in the show that we check our phones 4500 times a day…I completely understand it can be a lot, but just have no faith in that number being realistic. That’d mean, for each of the 24 hours of the day, we’d all need to be looking at it 3.125 times per minute. What about sleep?)
Having said all this, there’s undeniably some powerful stage pictures in I’d Be Lost Without It. One gets the impression the director may have landed on these impressive visual setpieces early in the process, and then constructed the rest of the action around them. Although they’re slightly overworked, the use of the LED-lit frames is effective – with the one-way vision they afford serving as an interesting analogy for the only ever partially transparent (and partially reflective) nature of the internet.
Performances are assured and committed (although the form and content don’t really allow anyone to stand out, or win over your hearts). The movement sequences get better and more focused as the piece progresses, and – although I’d question, to be honest, if the company should be describing the piece as ‘interactive’ when there aren’t really any moments when we’re invited to influence the course of the action (it’s more just getting us to copy various movements and follow simple instructions) – there’s a couple of enjoyable moments of awkward audience dancing, competitive balloon-blowing and being split up from your friends. For those who’s never seen performances of this type before, it’ll admittedly be an amusing and novel experience.
For a show aiming to draw attention to our reliance on our smartphones – how, with every iOS update, the increase in features is making them all-consuming and the fountain of almost all the information we garner – and for a show that plays with interactivity, it’s interesting Wet Picnic make the decision to not incorporate people’s phones into the proceedings, though. If the point is that we should be spending less time on them and reacquainting ourselves with human connection, perhaps the company feel that conducting part of the night’s proceedings over Whatsapp/Snapchat/etc. would be counter-productive. But the binaural headphone technology used feels ever so slightly incongruous with the topic, and also somewhat underused in its potential to trick and mislead. Macondo, recently part of Rich Mix’s We Are Now festival programme, used the same brand of headphones to achieve frequent betrayals of audience trust.
The fact you can feed people different information, and somewhat trick them into assuming everyone’s hearing the same, seems like it could be really thematically relevant for I’d Be Lost Without It. One could make some interesting points around the fact we’re all existing in mini ‘echo chambers’, thanks to our social channels (and the likelihood that our ‘friends’ will have the same beliefs as us) conning us into thinking everyone feels the same way. Something, of course, which got a lot of critical attention in the aftermath of Brexit. Another strand of ‘cyberpsychology’, of course, but one that may have really justified the use of the binaural headphone technology – and again given that piece focus and something different to say.