My route into this topic has been a slightly surprising one to me. Last December I found myself working on a book chapter that had ballooned to 17,000 words. I realised at that point that my book chapter was in fact a book in embryonic form, one which I’ve recently begun to work on. My interest was in how digital capitalism is changing the conditions of existence for people within it: how phenomena such as the pluralisation of communication channels, constant connectivity and the destructuring of careers were radically intensifying the social production of distraction that has always been a feature of modernity itself. I’m interested in how the escalation of demands, something which is of course not evenly distributed, renders triaging necessary for ever greater segments of lived experience: attending to the urgent rather than the important, thinking about the day and the week, rather than the month and the year.
I want to develop a philosophical anthropology of triaging, concerned with its implications for evaluation and temporality, connected in turn to an empirical and theoretical account of the social and cultural changes which are generating this uneven proclivity towards triaging. I’m particularly interested in the second-order effects of triaging strategies: how phenomena such as information diets, life hacking, the quantified self, extremely early retirement, lifestyle minimalism and others can be seen as regimes for coping with distraction that also in turn intensify the underlying change in the self. Agency is partially recovered but at the cost of a narrowing of horizons.
I’m also concerned with how many of the factors which lead to the necessity of triaging in turn leave us enmeshed within the filter bubble: being tracked, scrutinised and modelled by a mobile army of opaque overseers, leaving us susceptible to manipulation, in some cases in a manner we wilfully embrace for the convenience it affords. Again, I’m interested in the second-order effects: we can escape the filter bubble but there are cognitive costs entailed by it. Total escape can prove all consuming, going off the grid could easily come to constitute a life defining obsession. Continuing to live meaningfully under digital capitalism entails compromise, but the nature of that compromise is something which in itself entails cognitive costs, necessitating that we reflect upon our own information ecology, keep ourselves up to date with current developments and spend time considering how to best orientate ourselves towards this rapidly changing edifice.
Considering these issues in terms of individual lives has led me rather inevitably to thinking about them in collective terms. If I’m right about distracted people then what are their implications for collective life? The relationship between the individual and the collective is an issue that I’ve always been fascinated by and that I’ve written about in the past: some collectives we enter into involuntary but later leave, others are ones we discover as we make our way through the world and many exist between these two extremes. I’m interested in understanding collectives as relationally constituted, made and remade through the engaging of individual biographies, unfolding in concrete spaces of interaction but with a collective reality that extends beyond them.
In this approach I’m heavily influenced by the relational realism of Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati. On this view, relations are not just patterns of interaction but an emergent reality which is produced and reproduced through interactions. Their analysis hinges on how such relational goods (shared projects and commitments, features of our relationships that we value) constitute collectivities: the co-ordinated actions of individuals become something genuinely collective through their shared orientation towards relation goods & the actions which these generate.
The same factors which I’m arguing constraint individual reflexivity (clarifying what matters to someone and trying to develop projects which enact those concerns) also constrain collective reflexivity. Developing collective projects requires sustained engagement of a sort which personal distraction by no means prohibits but does inhibit: it leads to a multiplication of obstacles at the individual level which, though individually trivial, manifest themselves through their aggregative consequences. In essence, my approach to understanding the politics of digital distraction is through trying to systematically think through the possible consequences they have for how fragmented individuals might attempt, or fail to attempt, to exercise some collective influence over social and political life.
I’m trying to understand how individual distraction manifests itself aggregatively in the characteristics of collectives (or the failure of those collectives to form). But I think the same socio-technical factors contributing to bringing this about at the level of individuals are having autonomous effects at the level of collectives: the ease of assembly using social media, the affordances which make it possible for a small number of people to lead many to congregate, make it unlikely that collectives constituted in this way will develop the organisational capacities to sustain themselves through change. I entirely credit Zeynep Tufekci with this insight, though I think I understand the point somewhat differently to her. The mundane effort of mobilisation, so easily dispensed with if it’s no longer necessary, served a consolidating function which allowed a nascent collective to develop capacities which allowed it to respond to changing terrain, adapt tactically and develop strategically as other conflictual collectives responded to its emergence and actions.
This is further compounded by what Nick Couldry refers to as the ‘myth of us’: which I understand as the conviction that social media has liberated a natural sociality, allowing individuals to take action as individuals. Here comes everybody! Watch those seemingly intractable problems disappear in their wake. Who needs organisations? In this sense, I think it’s a particular contemporary articulation of a much long-standing myth of self-organisation, with a naive view of social media and liberal individualism jointly engendering a belief in homeostasis. Now people have social media, everything will take care of itself. It is of course a myth which the social media platforms have a commercial interest in promoting, having corralled the ‘us’ and built a business upon monetising it.
Now it follows from a stratified ontology of collectives, in which collectives are constituted by individuals over time (i.e. biographically) but are irreducible to them, that individuals will in turn be changed by their participation in such fragile movements. In this sense, I’m extremely interested in the biographical consequences of social movements. I’d like to better understand these in other eras in order to develop my hunch that the distinctive characteristics of distracted people and fragile movements generate very specific trajectories of engagement with collectives. I’ve been playing with the concept of ‘seeding’ here: do engagements in fragile movements perhapsseed the social world with emancipatory potential by generating a proclivity towards future movements on the part of distinct individuals? But these are ultimately empirical questions and I’m not entirely sure of how to explore them without making this study into something much bigger than it already is. It’s already a bit too big.
In parallel to this, I’m interested in how distracted people constitute an environment to which collectives (fragile or otherwise) find themselves forced to respond. I’d like to analyse professionalisation of communications in these terms, as well as the kind of messaging that can be found more broadly. What kind of strategies thrive? If attention is effectively finite but divided between an ever greater number of claims upon it, what sort of strategies emerge to ensure competitive advantage? More broadly, how do collective engage with their members? In some cases, I think professionalised relationship management approaches could thrive in these circumstances (e.g. how to keep track of distracted people & keep them engaged) but these in turn undercut the collectivity upon which relational goods depend by setting up a hierarchical relationship between professional staff and managed participants.