As any regular reader of this blog will know, I’ve been working on The Distracted People of Digital Capitalism for over three years. I’ve made little progress in that time and my reliable line “I’m working on a book about distraction but I keep getting distracted” has begun to be depressing. But for the last year, the argument of the book has seemed fully worked out to me.

I’ve written about 20,000 words of long form writing for the book and I’ve posted 1721 blog posts in the various categories associated with the project. Even allowing for a high rate of cross-categorisation, suggesting 500 blog posts across the multiple categories, it’s still 250,000 words at an estimated average of 500 words per posts. Obviously there are some large block quotes amongst that but it still means I’ve written upwards of 150,000 words for a book which by this point I expect will only be 150-200 pages.

Finishing it will be as much condensing what I have written as writing new material. Perhaps this is the problem. I am literally carrying this book around inside my mind and at this point I’m desperate to get it out.

A slogan more frequently encountered on pro-police demos has been repeatedly daubed inside the Facebook headquarters, creating embarrassment for a corporation whose staff are overwhelmingly white and male:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has reprimanded employees following several incidents in which the slogan “black lives matter” was crossed out and replaced with “all lives matter” on the walls of the company’s Menlo Park headquarters.

“‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t – it’s simply asking that the black community also achieves the justice they deserve,” Zuckerberg wrote in an internal Facebook post obtained by Gizmodo.

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/25/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-defacing-black-lives-matter-signs

Will such attitudes inevitably thrive under the conditions of meritocratic elitism which characterise much of the technology world?

One of the crucial ideas for my new book are the temporal implications of the escalation dynamics which characterise social media platforms. In his Social Media in Academia, George Veletsianos identifies precisely the dynamic that interests me. From loc 834:

[R]emaining visible on a social networking and fast-moving platform such as Twitter means that one has to share often and frequently, or else one’s voice and presence are diluted in the sea of information that is already present.

The problem is that efforts to resist dilution of voice and presence, the eternal struggle to be ‘heard above the din’ as Dave Beer puts it, leads to an escalation of the activity necessary for others to achieve the same objective. My suggestion is that seeking to be visible, if not necessarily a function of using the platform itself, will always tend to lead to an increase in the activity required to ensure visibility.

The temporal commitment involved in this activity might be individually trivial but it can prove to be aggregatively consequential, particularly if the same dynamic obtains across participation in multiple platforms. The result might be a straight-forward time squeeze, it might be rushing to finish other activities, it might be multi-tasking and it might be a diffuse state of perpetual distraction. But it has consequences for our experience of time.

In this extremely important paper, Alistair Mutch offers a realist critique of sociomateriality which I hope to further develop in my own work in the not too distant future. In it he argues that sociomaterial “approaches tend towards a perverse (given the promise of the concept) neglect of the specificity of the systems involved and an inability to deal adequately with the broader context of practice” (28). He calls instead for a “non-conflationary approach, in which the social and the material are held apart for the purpose of exploring their interplay” (29). His point, drawing on Margaret Archer’s work, concerns the necessity of analytically distinguishing between domains (in this case the social and the material) in order to explain the sequencing of their interaction over time. Failing to draw this analytical distinction, correctly affirming reciprocal interaction on a philosophical level without offering conceptual instruments to untangle this empirically, means that “an approach which is advocated in order to bring matter to the centre pushes it to the margins, producing what is a human-centred account underneath the superficial rhetoric” (31).

This is an enormously important point which is hard to convey adequately in the space of a paper, let alone in a blog post. Theorising co-constitution entails a slide into denying the properties and powers of the co-constituting elements: entities and their interactions are subsumed into pure process. Elsewhere Mutch contrasts strong and weak process theory: realists reject the former but accept the latter. The problem with strong process theory is that it fails to account for the variable sequencing of processes. Not all processes are equal… there are periods of flux and periods of relative stability, periods where one entity is more influential than the other, as well as periods of something akin to the ceaseless dance of co-constitution implicit within strong process theory. The problem with co-constitution is that it obscures this variability. It doesn’t make it impossible to theorise but it means that any such substantive theorising proceeds in spite of, rather than because of, the more general concepts in play. In this case, socio-materialism most frequently ends up being a matter of interpreting the material through the social such that little attention is paid to the independent properties and powers of specific material structures, problematic because these are ultimately what are activated in a particular social context. But the specificity of the social can often also be lost because the conceptual framework inclines analysts to immediately look towards the material, rather than pausing to consider the specific social properties and powers in relation to and interaction with which material structures are bringing about observable effects. I’m not sure how clear this explanation is, probably less so than in Mutch’s paper, but the point feels very clear in my own head. It just needs further elaboration.

Special issue – Community Informatics and Data Literacy Journal of Community Informatics (http://ci-journal.net)

Call for Submission v2 – Important: deadline extended to the 18th of December 2015

A special issue of the international Journal of Community Informatics (http://ci-journal.net) will be devoted to Data Literacy. Community Informatics (CI) is the study and the practice of enabling communities with Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). This special issue will focus on the role of data literacy and its possible applications, such as Data Journalism, Smart Cities, E-Government, Data-Based Services, Data Intermediaries, Data Visualization, Statistics for Data Interpretation and Data Collaboration to empower and enable communities. The issue is expected to be published in June 2016. The Journal of Community Informatics is a focal point for the communication of research of interest to a global network of academics, community informatics practitioners and national and multi-lateral policy makers.

Call for papers

The field of CI seeks to explore the potential of information and communication technologies and their applications for social and economic development efforts at the community level. It particularly seeks to ensure that marginalized individuals and communities can benefit from the opportunities that ICTs can provide. Increasingly, data literacy has been identified as a requirement to make effective use of these opportunities. However, very little attention has been paid to defining what data literacy means, how it can be achieved and which are the impact of its applications.

Data literacy refers to the skills, knowledge and context needed to make effective use of data on the web. It includes the ICT skills to find, access and manipulate data; the statistical and subject matter skills to interpret and use the data; and also the context needed to provide the opportunity and motivation to use the data. It can be seen as a characteristic of an individual or a community. Recently there have been calls for greater data literacy from communities as diverse as the open data movement (who see it as essential if open data is to fulfil its promise of greater transparency and engagement) and the citizen science movement (who see it as required for citizens to understand, engage in, and support science). This raises fundamental concerns in CI such as the power of those who are data literate relative to those who are not, and the right of experts to demand skills of the population as a whole. However, these debates need to be underpinned with a clearer and more detailed description of what data literacy is, why it is needed, and concrete examples of success (and fail) cases. Work on data literacy has remained the domain of educationalists and librarians, but the increased use of data in many areas has created a pressing need for a more multi-disciplinary view.

For this special issue of the Journal on Data Literacy, we are inviting submissions of original, unpublished articles. Potential topics include (but are not limited to):

*       What do we mean by data literacy?
*       Why do we need data literacy?
*       How should data literacy be achieved?
*       What are the broader political, social and philosophical implications of data literacy?
*       What are the practical implications of data literacy?
*       What is the role of data intermediaries or facilitators? Is Data literacy for everybody, or will we always have the need for intermediaries between the creators/providers of the data and the consumers in order to provide insight on the context and meaning of the data?
*       Using Data Literacy for:

*       Enabling data journalism
*       Making research more sustainable and reproducible over time
*       Enabling smart cities for all
*       Enhancing efficiency of e-Government
*       Enabling data-based services
*       Creating and understanding data visualization
*       Data collaboration and crowsourced data
*       Understading control/surveilance/access limitation over the Internet

*       The role of statistics for data interpretation

We welcome research articles, along with case studies and notes from the field. All research articles will be double blind peer-reviewed. Insights and analytical perspectives from practitioners and policy makers in the form of notes from the field or case studies are also encouraged – these will be reviewed by the editors.

Closing date for submission of full papers: 30 September 2015 18th December 2015

Submission Process & Guidelines

Authors need to register <http://ci-journal.net/index.php/ciej/user/register>  with the Journal prior to submitting or, if already registered, can simply log in <http://ci-journal.net/index.php/ciej/user/register>  and begin the five-step <http://pkp.sfu.ca/ojs/docs/userguide/2.3.3/journalManagementSetup.html>  process. Please indicate that you are submiting to the Data Literacy Special Issue.

Guest editors:

Alan Tygel, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Mark Frank, Web Science Centre for Doctoral Training, University of Southampton

Johanna Walker, Web Science Centre for Doctoral Training, University of Southampton

Judie Attard, University of Bonn, Germany

One of the most interesting aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is her interest in how people sometimes seek to ‘blot out’ their experience. Her overarching concern is with the variability of reflexivity, something which I think is hugely important against an intellectual background in which most   thinkers impute a uniform deliberative capacity to subjects, assuming they do recognise this capacity at all. 

For instance while some people, at least some of the time, reason autonomously in a confident and detached way, addressing the question “what should I do?” quickly and effectively, others find that attempts to deliberate intensify affect rather than provide answers. These are perhaps the people most likely to seek to ‘blot out’ experience, to evade reflexivity through deliberate distraction. But I’ve argued elsewhere that the competitive busyness of the self-striving utility maximiser can represent a comparable form of ‘blotting out’, avoiding difficult questions of what really matters to them by throwing themselves into the events of the day.

Before we have a fully developed sociology of reflexivity, we need a sociology of ‘blotting out’ experience: a systematic understanding of the different ways in which people can seek to evade reflexivity and why they might pursue them. I was thinking about this today after encountering the description of the ‘machine zone’ at the start of the stunning book Addiction By Design, by Natasha Dow Schüll, pg 2:

Mollie recounts how her play began, and how it escalated. It started soon after she moved to Las Vegas with her third husband in the 1980s, when he taught her to play video poker on a miniature, handheld machine. “I became hooked on that amazing little machine. And then I graduated to the real thing.” Short stints at video poker on weekend visits to casinos turned into sessions of hours and then days. Her financial expenditure grew in step with her play, to a point where she was spending entire paychecks over two- day binges at machines. “I even cashed in my life insurance for more money to play,” she tells me. When I ask Mollie if she is hoping for a big win, she gives a short laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand. “In the beginning there was excitement about winning,” she says, “but the more I gambled, the wiser I got about my chances. Wiser, but also weaker, less able to stop. Today when I win— and I do win, from time to time— I just put it back in the machines. The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win .” Why, then, does she play? “To keep playing— to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.” I ask Mollie to describe the machine zone. She looks out the window at the colorful movement of lights, her fingers playing on the tabletop between us. “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there— you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”

When placed in this context, we can see how a concern with the experience of ‘blotting out’ takes us beyond psychology by placing this evasion, in which people seek the embrace of a zone in ‘which nothing else matters’, within the broader development of digital capitalism and the declining capacity of non-elite collective agency to shape long-term political and economic trends.

To celebrate their 10th birthday, Life Hacker have compiled the ten most popular posts to have featured on their site, as measured by unique visits. They’re actually much more practical and much less obscure than some of the stuff that I’ve seen on there over the years: http://lifehacker.com/top-10-lifehacker-posts-of-all-time-1682801558/1733843249

I sometimes overstate my case about life hacking. It’s important to remember that much of it is about how to do things rather than how to scrutinise minute aspects of your behaviour in order to make tiny gains in how quickly you do things.

Notes for the talk I’m doing a couple of times next month. First at the Political Agency in the Digital World conference in Denmark then at the Global Cultures of Contestation workshop in Amsterdam. Given I’m going to these places without funding to get feedback, I can’t stress enough how keen for pointers & ideas I am about this project. I basically know what I’m doing with the distracted people stuff (i.e. I spent 6 years doing a PhD on individual reflexivity & years working on digital sociology in various capacities) but I’m completely out of my intellectual comfort zone with the social movements stuff. I’m also totally intimidated by the size of the social movement studies literature. 

My route into this topic has been a slightly surprising one to me. Last December I found myeslf working on a book chapter that had balooned to 17,000 words. I realised at that point that my book chapter was in fact a book in embyronic 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 succeptible to manipulation, in some cases in a manner we willfully 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 conisdering 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 perhaps seed 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.

Any thoughts much appreciated!

I’ve been interested in Upworthy for a long time. It was founded by Eli Pariser, author of the Filter Bubble and key figure in MoveOn.org, in order to leverage the dynamics of viral media to promote ‘meaningful’ and progressive content. But a few years on, with a change in Facebook’s algorithms having brought about a 48% drop in traffic within two months, the company is struggling badly. Hence their stance that, though they support the right of their staff to unionise, they shouldn’t because it would be bad for the company. This was a sentiment echoed by BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti:

“I think unions have had a positive impact on a lot of places, like if you’re working on an assembly line, and if you’re negotiating with management it can make a huge difference, particularly when labor is more replaceable. And I think I don’t think a union is right for BuzzFeed for two reasons. 

One, I think the way we pattern BuzzFeed is after companies like Google and Facebook, and the tech startups are very, very competitive for talent. They’re all trying to get the very best talent. That’s how I see BuzzFeed as well. We need to provide amazing benefits, we need to provide as much incentive for people to pick BuzzFeed over any other company.

A lot of the best new-economy companies are environments where there’s an alliance between managers and employees. People have shared goals. Benefits and perks and compensation are very competitive, and I feel like that’s the kind of market we’re in. A lot of times when you look at companies that have unionized, the relationship is very different. The relationship is much more adversarial, and you have lawyers negotiating for comp and looking at comparable companies and trying to keep compensation matched with other companies.

I think that actually wouldn’t be very good for employees at BuzzFeed — particularly people who are writers and reporters — because the comps for writers and reporters are much less favorable than comps for startup companies and tech companies. In general, I don’t think it’s the right idea for us. The only thing about BuzzFeed is that we’re global, most unions are national. We have people who move between different roles and in general unions do a lot of defining clearly what individual roles, and what the job function is. So for a flexible, dynamic company, it isn’t something I think would be great for the company.”

http://www.buzzfeed.com/coralewis/buzzfeed-founder-jonah-peretti-i-dont-think-a-union-is-right#.mhQJDDNKm

I’m very interested in how a self-congratulatory corporate culture (“we’re disrupting the world, solving wicked problems, making it a better and more exciting place!”) interacts with the accumulation of vast wealth. Or in this case, how the avowedly moral stance of someone like Pariser falls by the wayside when his company falls on difficult times.