Staring at Empty Aquariums: the ethereal nature of life in the 21st Century


Upon leaving work one evening on a winter evening (meaning it was already dark) I walked past a basement level house with their curtains open. The image I saw stood out strongly, in this particular room which I hadn’t noticed before was an aquarium. It was quite large, I guess around a metre long. I could see the back of a person’s head looking at it (so I assume, facing the aquarium) but there appeared to be nothing in the aquarium. Admittedly my eyesight isn’t fantastic, but it certainly looked as though it was completely empty other than water and lights. Was it waiting for its inhabitants, or maybe they had died? Was the owner sitting forlornly mourning the deceased sea life, or maybe they weren’t even looking at it and were asleep on the couch?

Immediately I thought of the title of this piece, not really sure at first what the concept would be. The inspiration for anything I do does seem to work oddly, things will come from nowhere and a simple idea could become an album, a new band, a book or article by one very simple and often absurd idea growing. This growth may be fast or slow, and may change significantly over time. I had previously thought about writing an article on the subject of digital art, the balance between real object you can own and ethereal thing made of code and pixels, which is in part the subject here.

The empty aquarium felt like a metaphor to me, for this very ethereal nature. An aquarium, full of water and with lights on is an odd and beautiful thing in itself but completely contrary to its purpose to not have anything alive in it, it is there to preserve life for our enjoyment.

The idea that we should want to own animals to look at them is odd and simply watching a video of fish swimming about should do. Animal rights activists and many vegans would be quite happy for aquariums to be abolished, along with zoos and farms and anything else that keeps animals captive. I think aquariums are beautiful, watching fish and other curious sea life is fascinating, but equally I would feel a bit weird having one in my house, it’s very different to having a cat or dog that you interact with. At least with those animals there is a relationship of sorts. I don’t want to get into the debate about what sea life feel and understand, not here or anywhere, face the fact that animals are alive and we make a conscious choice to kill and eat them. I am a carnivore, but I accept that animals are sentient beings. That issue is important in this context because it is about what we can distance ourselves from:

How many of you can kill an animal?

How many of you can watch a video of an animal getting killed?

Both may be unpleasant but many more of you will agree to the latter before the former, the internet allows us to follow reality with significant detachment from it, but this is changing.

Why not just watch The Blue Planet?[1] Or in fact an empty aquarium? With the online world we can watch almost anything we want, whenever we want. Maybe fish, maybe cats…often cats. I completely accept the difference, but weighing up the value being able to experience a film versus something behind glass, it doesn’t feel like I should have the fish tank.

As the internet is relatively new in terms of people using it every day we are still developing how we interact with it and our online experiences are becoming more real and more important to us every day, you’re probably reading this online, me, speaking to you. But maybe this takes us away from reality, maybe the fish in the tank is some connection to nature? Is a film good enough? You reading my article is a connection between the two of us, maybe between me and many others that wouldn’t have happened without the internet, this is an argument that we are more connected with people even if not physically.  The internet is now normal for most people, everyday use is not something people question. The questions now revolve around what we do with our everyday use of the internet.

Compared to the internet the written word is relatively old but is still a constant and rapidly evolving form of art and communication, arguably the greatest form of communication until the internet came along. Writing and then printing and duplicating words was one of the first ways to get information across to people who weren’t in your immediate vicinity, smoke signals and log drums can only carry so far. Writing has evolved with the internet significantly, now to the point where you can have a conversation entirely in typed symbols.

I use symbols every day at work, we learned in the world of social care that to counteract the fact that many people struggle with reading that a simple image would communicate much more, the fact that symbols have over taken writing in the communication of people doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t see it as the death of language as some do, just another part of its evolution. I remember some years ago when mobile phones were becoming normal for teenagers to use and a school teacher translated Shakespeare into text speak and there was a massive uproar by linguists around the world. In the end that teacher was smart, he was saying that the language of Shakespeare is no longer relevant to kids, we need to admit that. Language and life in general change over time in line with technology and the rapid ways that technology has changed our lives in the last few decades in particular.  What is interesting to me is the fleeting nature of so much communication, it’s instantaneous, it’s throw-away, flippant and not thought through. Email has certainly made my life personally and professionally both easier and more complex at the same time, the expectation for me to balance communication at speed with many different people is very high, even ten years ago people would expect to wait days for a response and were OK with that. The care of writing a letter is certainly a thing of the past, long distance conversations which would have taken months in the past now happen in minutes.

Before writing, information was communicated through storytelling, verbally between talker and listener and in a way this form is more ethereal than posting things onto the internet, your story or message is out there somewhere to be read, your story told verbally only exists as long as people keep telling it. But great importance was given to the storyteller, the communicator, sage and articulate who could teach others. With the speed and flippancy with which we can and do communicate mean that the message is devalued or diluted in some way? I send dozens of emails and texts in a day for work but these are very important. However, as we have seen by the rise of social media many people will communicate the most banal aspects of their lives which offer no help to anyone. Does the time and interaction of stopping and listening to someone speak give the message more importance? Or is that just old fashioned, our brains certainly work differently due to the use of technology over the last 50 years, we interact with screens and buttons more than ever and this has to affect our neurological processing.


Reality is the greatest sociological experiment, this is beautifully rendered right before our eyes by social media in some sort of real life blow by blow graph. In any experiment, or piece of research you would be looking for information. The point is to learn something, collecting data, watching for cause and effect to prove a theory, making calculations, analysing time, place, environment or anything else, ultimately you want to learn something.

Research and experimentation are actually very natural. You may think of white coated scientists pouring over petri dishes of indescribable goo or teenagers showing up at your door with a clip board and an ill-fitting suit, but we research from birth. We experiment and collect data and analyse it, it’s called learning.

As we grow and develop we taste, touch, hear and crawl our way through the mud of life, this is how we learn. Our learning is social, sensory, emotional and practical, this never stops whether you realise or not, I think ignorance is a sign of people refusing to accept what they learn, rather than not learning. People with bigoted viewpoints have them not because they don’t necessarily know things, but because they fear what they know and don’t understand or they simply refuse to accept another perspective.

Sociology ultimately is looking at real life and how we create our lives, the social rules the interactions and reactions. Why do these things happen? What’s the cause and effect between crime rates and drug addiction? What the world has most recently witnessed is the election of a President of the USA via social media, the whole world has watched and we have seen one of the greatest analyses of how people behave in this process. It may be virtual, ethereal but it represents what is really happening in the world which makes it very much important and grounded, this is about actual humans, you and me. We may be viewing this bizarre spectacle in the fish tank and that may make us feel disconnected but it’s not.

I do feel that this particular election and likely many to come are going to play out mostly on the web as much as a great deal of news is we are both more and less connected with the rest of the world. As with Trump we have seen the utterly grotesque campaign in its unfortunately distasteful glory play out in full, but this has also done huge favours for him, he used the media to sell himself, he manipulated it by being brash and unapologetic and many people watched this like it was a TV show, like he was about to drop another new catchphrase then suddenly it all became real, did we forget it was real, has “reality TV” and actual life finally crashed into one cybernetic mess?

As media has given us the Donald Trumps of the world it will probably also be media that destroys him and this can happen to any of us. The story of the woman who made a joke about getting aids in Africa was instantly shamed and lost her job because of one bad joke on Twitter. Be careful what you say…

Social media is fascinating as a forum for thought, more ideas are bounced around in a minute than probably entire years in history, this is a magnificent thing but it also means that many great ideas get ignored. We can pick and choose what we read by the act of scrolling further. You could argue about whether this is good or bad, that you can choose quite consciously to ignore or miss something by scrolling past unwittingly. It’s also good because I can access vast amounts of information by simply scrolling, the fact I don’t have enough time in the day to read and absorb it all does offer a problem, what good is information that I can’t access, it’s talking to yourself if no one reads it. Communication is inherently two way, otherwise its noise, without a listener it’s an internal and out loud monologue rather than a conversation. The internet offers us an incredible array of ways to communicate with each other and ignore each other, you may not even notice that the aquarium has no fish.

“We have the world at our finger tips”

We do, but it is a virtual world or more accurately a facsimile of the real world, and parts of it are invention and parts documentary. Personally I love the access I have to information now, a question can be answered immediately but answers are only as good as their source and how am I to know the source isn’t lying, or wrong? But the same goes for a book, if I read something written by a renowned reporter I’ll assume it’s true, this is no different with the internet and there is so much information it’s easy to be sceptical and say “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet” and you shouldn’t but you should like always, employ your sense to judge the validity of information.

You may choose with your time on the internet to look at cats doing cute things, reading the news, watching music videos, playing games, reading books or even more interactive things, chatting with friends, making music, art projects or some of any of those, I don’t care what you choose. The internet can provide endless activities for all of us but it’s up to you to decide whether the aquarium is empty or full, or even whether the aquarium is worth looking at either way.

Get Ricks book here Being a Support Worker

[1] Well known oceanic documentary series by the BBC


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