What is it about Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that’s got nearly 2,000 viewers tuned into an HD-quality live stream of its town square?
There is not much going on: The pretty intersection, illuminated by an unpretentious sun, is lined with leafy trees waving against majestic blue mountains. Cars drive slowly by, and people stroll past. There is no story arc, narrative structure, or even dialogue to be discerned. But as YouTube’s viewership analytics can attest, something about it has us utterly engrossed.
The Town Square stream — along with Jackson Hole’s other live feeds, offering views of the Hoback River and the interior of a general store — is reminiscent of Norway’s Slow TV programming scheme, which broadcasts live feeds of boat and train rides that run for hours or even days at a time. The show’s unexpected success has been chalked up to our attraction to voyeurism, which refers to our general interest in watching — and experiencing — what happens to people, places, and things. Just like when we watch movies, watching a series of events unfold in a live stream involves a certain level of commitment to the experience — but, crucially, neither threatens any consequence nor requires anything of us, other than to watch.
When we watch the cars in Jackson Hole’s town square crawl past, we enter into a state University of Lethbridge neuroscientist Javid Sadr, Ph.D. describes as “watchfulness.” We are utterly engrossed by the sheer lack of narrative, and this allows our brains to stop performing in a high-performance state, letting our conscious minds take a time-out.
“What’s common to them is that you’ve decided for these few minutes, you’re not talking, you’re not walking anywhere, you’re not doing anything,” Sadr told Inverse previously, speaking about the Slow TV episodes. “You’re not going to respond to the things you’re looking at, and you’re just going to directly perceive all of this stuff.”
Where are these vehicles headed? Is the boy meeting a friend? Will the cyclist speed up or slow down? Somehow, in this Town Square feed, everything and nothing is happening at once, and our brains could not ask for anything more.