Reflexivity and the Social Production of Distraction

I just cut this from my chapter for the upcoming CSO book. I don’t think it’s very good but I’m still trying to develop the underlying point so any thoughts are much appreciated:

To talk of ‘interruption events’ not be construed as a narrow issue of decreased performance, such that this putative fracturing of focus amounts to a generalised tendency towards decreasing efficiency in practical activity. The psychological literature on task interruption is inconsistent to this end, finding evidence both for interruptions leading to an increase in the time taken to perform a task but also at times to a decrease which has been attributed to the increase arousal that variably results from interruption or to strategic responses to multiple interruptions (Altmann and Trafton 2007: 1079). In fact this latter point is crucial for an analysis that foregrounds reflexivity: the awareness subjects have of their environmental propensity for interruption and its implications for what matters to them can and does feed into reflexive calibration of that environment or to more extended projects seeking to transform self and/or circumstances (not all of which will manifest empirically in terms of the limited variables which are the focus in the cognitive psychology of attention control). The concern of the present paper is not with the duration of interruptions or with the resumption lag (the time between the interruption and the first subsequent task related action) but rather with the social production of those interruption which these rather fine-grained instruments seek to measure the cognitive consequences of in an experimental setting[1]. This entails generalizing about categories of interruption events (e.g. receiving a notification of an e-mail via a smart phone) as tending to be of certain durations and involving a likely range within which the resumption lag falls. The ensuing cognitive lag, encompassing reacquaintance with the task at hand and/or one’s place within it (Ratwani and Trafton 2008: 679), will be individually trivial but might nonetheless be aggregatively significant if such events occupy increasing portions of a subject’s waking life.

However the exercise of reflexivity is an activity unlike many others. Whereas resumption of practical activities often depends upon environmental cues, for instance the arrangements of material within a workspace, these are absent for the resumption of reflexivity. Furthermore, reflexivity may not be categorized as a task by subjects (represented at best in terms such as ‘clearing my head’ or ‘working out what to do about X’) entailing a different dynamic of resumption lag to other forms of practical activity. For instance Wilson et al (2014) sought to better understand time use survey data recording that 95% of American adults had undertaken at least leisure activity in the past 24 hours but 83% reported having spent no time at all ‘thinking or relaxing’ While we should not conflate the exercise of reflexivity with deliberately pursuing its exercise as an activity (conceptualizing it as such and making time available for it) this finding is suggestive of a tendency for sustained time for reflection as being something which is neither pursued nor in many cases experienced as something generally possible.

Such interruption events are clearly not new. In fact the possibility of an interruption in this sense is intrinsic to the faculty of reflexivity: interruption events begin to be possible once there is something to be interrupted. The specific claim being made here concerns the escalation of such events and the implications thereof for personal reflexivity. Both the former and the latter are variable. Different social contexts (particularly, though not exclusively, in relation to their socio-technical dimensions) involve different propensities towards interruption with differential implications for modes of personal reflexivity. The present paper focuses upon digital devices and their attendant socio-technical infrastructure as encountered in everyday life (conceived schematically in terms of a transition from web 1.0 to web 2.0 and an, as yet incomplete, web 3.0) but this is for the sake of brevity and the notion of the interruption events should not be restricted to digital technology. The proposal being made is that any history of reflexivity implies a corresponding history of interruption events, with our understanding of the former being enriched by a greater understanding of the latter. Many resolutely non-digital factors would enter into a history of interruption events and these have in fact been studied in depth, just not under the rubric being proposed here: for instance historical work on the pervasive lack of solitude prior to the 18th century[2] (Taylor 1989, p. 291) and Simmel’s reflections on the “essentially intellectualistic character of the mental life of the metropolis” that emerges from the preponderance of novelty within the urban environment (Simmel 1905).

In fact Simmel’s famous essay illustrates the important point that will be developed later in this section: the relationship between interruption events and reflexivity should not be construed in a linear away, such that people in general are seen to become decreasingly unable to sustain deliberations with the multiplication of interruption events. For Simmel the urban environment, particularly the “the calculating exactness of practical life” in which the “money economy” has “filled the daily life of so many people with weighing, calculating, enumerating and the reduction of qualitative values to quantitative terms”, contributes to the intensification of reflexivity in one dimension (instrumentality), while tending towards its diminution in another (normative evaluation) as studied indifference serves to protect against the “disturbances and inner upheavals” which would otherwise be provoked by the “the shifts and contradictions in events” that characterise life in the metropolis (Simmel 1905, p. 12). So while the focus of this paper is necessarily limited for practical purposes, the scope of the proposed concepts is not: interruption events are produced with varying degree of frequency in different socio-technical environments and exercise a tendential power to curtail the scope of reflexivity by serving to interrupt extended internal conversation. Any particular interruption event is trivial, potentially serving to interrupt a single extended deliberation; it is rather their (patterned) multiplication over time which exercises a conditioning influence upon personal reflexivity[3]. The notion of a socio-technical environment invoked here is intended to reflect the involuntariness with which technology impacts upon our lives: changes in our environment occur because of other people’s uses of technologies and the behaviours facilitated by them, even if a given individual is not engaged in this way (Weller 2012, p. 126). The propensity of a socio-technical environment to multiply interruption events is in this sense non-voluntary: one can seek to evade the interruptions, incurring varying degrees of costs through doing so, but the tendency for interruption events to increase is a function of the distribution of technology throughout the environment and its embedding within social processes.

[1] An important question concerns the differences between interruptions in an experimental setting and those in everyday life. For instance, it seems plausible that lay normativity plays a role in intensifying or diminishing the cognitive costs of interruption events (e.g. the extent to which the task matters to the subjects concerned) in a way almost entirely excluded by the games constructed for purposes of experimental work.

[2] The widespread practice of the ‘second sleep’, leaving a period of wakefulness between two stretches of sleep, could be seen as a response to this pervasive lack of solitude, with Williams (2005) reporting that “Some, apparently, lay quietly and simply reflected on events of the preceding day or contemplated the day to come” or used the opportunity for prayer. The point can be overstated though, with others using the time for conversation or ‘intimate relations’.

[3] Often, as will be discussed, reflexively provoking responses to these recurrent interruptions to reflexivity.

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